Viewers of Sweetbitter, the restaurant-set TV drama that premiered this month on Starz, might be surprised at the caliber of wine in 22-year-old protagonist Tess' otherwise topsy-turvy life. But the vinous details are lifted from author Stephanie Danler's own experiences. Danler, who wrote the 2016 novel of the same name and is a producer and screenwriter for the series it inspired, worked for a decade at wine shops and wine-centric New York restaurants like Danny Meyer's Union Square Cafe. She first fell for wine with a glass of Quintarelli Amarone, and hasn't stopped exploring wine's intricacies since.
Following the 2006 stint at Union Square that partially inspired Sweetbitter, Danler went on to earn a WSET certification, helped open an East Village specialty wine shop and eventually moved on to managerial roles before stepping back to get her MFA. The author spoke to Wine Spectator editorial assistant Brianne Garrett about her top wine-service pet peeve, how she kept the show’s script honest about wine, and the unfortunate origin of her onetime nickname, "Corky."
Wine Spectator: What did you do to ensure that the wine world was depicted as accurately as possible in the show?
Stephanie Danler: Wine was a huge component, in that every episode has a very specific wine or beverage featured, even though it’s never directly discussed. Episode 2 has the Albert Boxler Riesling, which is when [Tess' fellow server and mentor] Simone takes Tess to a table and asks her what she tastes; it’s her first wine lesson. Episode 5 has the Billecart Champagne, which is featured prominently throughout the whole series. In Episode 4, [there’s the] Marie-Noëlle Ledru biodynamic, female-made Champagne in Simone’s apartment, as well as the wines of Puffeney from the Jura in the background. Even though the name [of the wine] is never said out loud, it’s something that I thought people in the wine industry would really appreciate.
WS: What’s the hardest part about learning wine and working with it?
SD: I think that learning to trust your instincts is really difficult. I think that when you first start tasting wine, the people around you seem to be speaking in a foreign language, and they have such ease with it and so much certainty. I think that for so long, you’re faking it until you make it. When I was trained at the wine store, I remember the first time that I had an instinct that something was Chardonnay, but I had no confidence in that instinct and so said nothing. I think that building that confidence comes from doing it over and over and over again.
Also, it is such a male-dominated industry, [which] can add to the intimidation factor. But learning to trust your instincts and say, "No this is not Pinot Noir, it’s Tempranillo"… that takes a really long time.
WS: How has your journey with wine evolved?
SD: One of the sommeliers had a nickname for me called “Corky” because I could not tell a corked wine from a noncorked wine, and I would try to defend these wines. Which is funny to me now because I can smell a corked wine from a mile away, and I can smell a flawed wine. After so many years, you can do these things without tasting.
Also, I went through periods of time where I had an extensive wine collection, and I collected rare bottles and planned dinner parties … and took this all very seriously. I will say that ever since I went back to school, and that was when I was 30 and sort of wasn’t working directly in wine anymore, I take it a lot less seriously. I really am looking for that $20 to $30 bottle of wine that just hits it out of the park with quality. I don’t feel as precious about it, and I’m very lucky because I’ve tasted 1964 López de Heredia Riojas in their cellar.
WS: What do you like to drink these days?
SD: As soon as I walk into a wine store, no matter where I am, I go directly to the Loire Valley. What I’m really interested in, and I think what my moods can be tracked by, is either a Muscadet or a Chenin Blanc. A Muscadet [is] the lightest, easiest high-acid wine; it’s like almost daytime-drinking wine or I’ll make spritzers with it, and it goes beautifully with seafood. And then a Chenin Blanc is a white varietal with so much weightiness and texture, and it can be sweet, as it sometimes is in Vouvray, or it can be bone-dry and taste like chalk as it is in Savennières.
WS: What are some of the best wine-service experiences you’ve encountered?
SD: The less pretentious, the better. I think that the wine list at Union Square Cafe is still stunning—I love the new restaurant. I think of some place like Wildair, which is downtown in NYC, where the tables are tiny slivers and it’s always packed and people are brushing up against you. The wines are opened quickly but they’re all strange things that are really hard to find anywhere else.
WS: As a veteran of service, what’s the most common mistake you’ve seen in restaurant wine service?
SD: Wines being the wrong temperature. Reds being too warm, whites being too cold or vice versa. I think that a red being too warm is the number one sign that they are not taking their wine service seriously. Restaurants get really hot, and if you’re storing your wines, like, above the bar, they’re having so much temperature fluctuation and you can taste it. Temperature is the first clue.
WS: What messages do you want the show to convey to viewers about this world?
SD: The show is really an honest portrayal of an often overlooked or trivialized time of life, that of being 22 years old, which can be a time where you have all of your adult freedom but no adult concept of consequences.
I think that it’s also really honest about the restaurant industry and the highs and lows of it: that [Tess] can go from drinking Billecart as her shift drink to the bar taking shots of cheap whiskey and making herself so drunk that she’s sick. I think that when you’re new and when you’re young, there doesn’t appear to be a line between those two—you don’t really know the difference between drinking at a bar and enjoying a bottle of wine, which is why the lessons with Simone become so profound to Tess, because they teach her how to slow down and pay attention to taste differently. The word that keeps coming up as I’m hearing myself talk is "honest." It’s honest about how lonely New York is and it’s honest about the darker aspects of a very glamorous, sensual industry.