Should you find yourself in Manhattan's Meat Packing District around suppertime, and should you happen to stop by Colicchio & Sons for dinner and order a great bottle of wine, chances are Ryan Mills-Knapp will be the one to tell you all about the vintage and give you your first taste. And as the restaurant's beverage director with a solid decade of oenological experience, it's safe to say he knows his way around a wine cellar. Fortunately for all of us who could stand to know a little bit more about wine than we already do, he was kind enough to share a few tips. Which could come in very handy, hint, hint, on that next big dinner date.
EQ: For a guy who's just starting to learn about wine—which a lot of us are—what simple tips can you give?
RMK: Trust the experts and be experimental to find out what you like. Most of us in the wine trade have a simple goal, and that is to get the world to drink more wine, so set a budget and go to stores and restaurants and ask the sommeliers or the people at the store to recommend some wines in your budget that they like. As you begin to discover styles and grapes you enjoy, you can start to branch out from there.
EQ: What's the biggest difference between reds and whites?
RMK: The biggest difference between red and white wine is the style in which the wines are made. White wine is fermented grape juice and red wine is fermented grapes—often stems, seeds and all. The color in red wines comes from the skin of the grapes as a large majority of grape juice is white, no matter the color of the grape, which is why you can make white wine from red grapes. Blanc de Noir champagne is the best example of this.
EQ: How important is food pairing at dinner? What basics should a guy know?
RMK: When it comes to the basics of food and wine pairings, there are two rules that are good guides. You either want to go with either food and wines that are completely alike, such as barbecue and Zinfandel—both are flavorful, rich, and spicy—or completely the opposite like Szechuan food and sweet German Riesling, where the sweet component and the high acid provide a cooling component to the spiciness. These examples undoubtedly add to the experience with the food, and in this case, the food and wine pairings are important. But there is also something to be said about enjoying a great bottle of wine with whatever you are eating
EQ: What are some great, but moderately-priced wines we should know about?
RMK: I often like to look toward lesser know areas of classic wine regions to find my favorite wines of value. The Northern Rhône Valley is known for the famous appellations of Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Cornas, but wines from St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage can often have all the complexity and quality of their more famous neighbors at a fraction of the price. Also in Northern Piedmont in Italy, the areas of Gattinara, Ghemme, and Bramaterra are often great, age-worthy versions of their more famous cousins made from Nebbiolo, Barolo and Barbaresco.
EQ: What's the deal with tasting wine at a restaurant before it's served?
RMK: From the perspective of a sommelier, it is an important step of service. Not all guests in our restaurant have the experience with corked or flawed bottles of wine that we do, and we want to ensure that all guests of the restaurant, no matter the level of experience with wine, are able to enjoy the bottle that they ordered in its best condition. We also carry a large selection of older wines at the restaurant, and when bottles get to be 40 or 60 years old, there can be a lot of variation bottle to bottle, so we ensure that the bottle that we serve the guest is the best one we can present to them.
EQ: Under what conditions would you actually send back a bottle?
RMK: Only if the bottle was flawed in some way, or the sommelier steered you in the wrong direction. If I said I wanted a dry Riesling, and the wine that they recommended was sweet, for example. But that being said, if the bottle someone recommended to you in a restaurant is not to your liking, send it back. If you ordered it yourself though, drink up and chalk it up to a learning experience.
EQ: What are some great places/wine regions to visit to learn more about wine?
RMK: One of my favorite places in the world to go to eat and drink and visit vineyards is Piedmont in Italy. It is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on the planet, and if you go in the fall, you get the double dose of vineyards changing color and white truffle season. Closer to home, one of the more recent visits I had was to the Central Coast of California, where some of the most forward-thinking wine is being made in the country. Tremendous Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs are coming out of this part of California two hours North of Los Angeles.
EQ: How should we store wine, assuming we don't all have cellars?
RMK: Keep it in a cool dark place or in the fridge. Wine is resilient, though, if you plan on drinking it in the next year or so, put it in a place where you can lay it down on its side and where you can get it when you need it. I once was drinking at a restaurant attached to a winery in Italy, and they had a bottle from 1973 just sitting on a shelf collecting dust in the room temperature restaurant. We asked them how long had it been sitting there, they said, "Oh not long. We brought it up around five years ago." We said ok, drank it, and it was fantastic.
EQ: What are the best "date-night" wines? What should we look out for?
RMK: I think Champagne is the only way to go for date nights. It goes with everything. Some of the most exciting wines in the world are being made there right now, and nothing gets people going like a couple bottles of Champagne over dinner.
EQ: Is there ever a wrong time to drink champagne?
RMK: Behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.
Photography by Weston Wells