The most influential person in the New York City world of wine is Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of the New York Times. This is according to our survey of industry elites, where Asimov was the lead vote-getter by a wide margin.
A graduate of Wesleyan University, and a nephew of Isaac Asimov, Eric Asimov has been at the Times since 1984 as both an editor and a columnist. In 1992, he created the “$25 and under” restaurant reviews and gained a wide following. He segued into wine writing toward the end of Frank Prial’s career, becoming the chief wine critic at the paper in 2004. His wine column alternates biweekly between wine reviews resulting from panel tastings and columns without recommendations per se that explore producers, regions, or aspects of wine culture. He writes in his 2012 book “How to Love Wine” that wine has become an “exercise in anxiety” for many and he seeks to ease that in the book that is a “memoir and a manifesto.” The book is nominated for an award from the James Beard Foundation for best wine and spirits book. Asimov will also be inducted into the “Who’s Who of American Food & Beverage” from the Foundation.
While his column generally moves wine, one shop owner told me that–consistent with the following of his erstwhile “$25 and Under” dining column–his annual “best wines under $20″ was the column that sent readers to the shop, printout in hand.
Congratulations to Eric Asimov on winning the poll’s top honor!
Paul Grieco is the second most influential person in wine in New York City according to our survey of industry elites.
Grieco is a partner at Restaurant Hearth in the East Village and in the Terroir wine bars that now have five locations in the city.
Grieco cut his wine chops at his family restaurant, La Scala in Toronto. He came to New York City in 1991 and by 1995 he joined Gramercy Tavern as a captain, marinating in the “enlightened hospitality” philosophy of Danny Meyer and the sauces of chef Tom Colicchio. He soon came to run the wine program to great acclaim.
But in recent years at Hearth and the Terroirs, he has become known for putting together the fearsomely independent wine lists that serve as part drinks list, part manifesto, and part education, complete with punchy, page-long essays. The wines of the Jura, the wines of Chateau Musar in Lebanon and other food-friendly wines from off-the-beaten path dominate his lists. He’s so convinced of the virtues of sherry that he gives away free glasses before 7 PM at the Terroir wine bars. He was a key early adapter of keg wine/wine on tap. Late last year he told me that he thinks Australian wines will be the next big thing.
Five years ago, his stridency was on display as he banned all white wines by the glass other than Riesling during the months of summer. It was so hilarious and so well received that the concept has now grown into a national phenomenon with restaurants across the country at least offering some Riesling selections by the glass, even if they don’t summarily dismiss other wines.
His good humor and strong views have made him a pied piper of sommeliers. So it is no surprise that industry elites voted him as the second place on our list.
Michael Skurnik is the third most influential person in wine in New York City according to our survey of industry elites.
Although he studied zoology as an undergrad, he got bitten by the wine bug while working at Windows to the World under Kevin Zraly. After a few other jobs in the wine world, he set up his own importing and distribution company in 1987. His brother, Harmon, joined the firm two years later.
Michael Skurnik Wines has an incredibly diverse portfolio of estate wines from around the world: the annual trade tasting is always packed. The portfolio includes many domestic wines as well as imported ones, including the those from Daniel Johnnes and Terry Theise (Skurnik is responsible too for distributing topless pictures of Theise). Over the years, top Skurnik sales reps such as Doug Polaner and David Bowler have gone off to found their own successful companies, further showing the importance of Skurnik as a training ground for top talent.
Daniel Johnnes is the fourth most influential person in wine in New York City according to our survey of industry elites.
Johnnes, who has been aptly called the dean of NYC sommeliers, wears many hats. He made a name for himself at Drew Nieporent’s Montrachet in the 1980s and 1990s, building it into a not just a wine destination, but a Burgundy destination. At that time Bordeaux wines were more popular, so New Yorkers can partially thank him for laying the foundation for the city’s current Burgundy obsession.
He feeds that obsession every two years through La Paulée de New York (which alternates years with La Paulée de SF), a multi-day Burgundy bacchanal, building it into the foremost collectors’ event on the calendar. As I discovered recently, sommeliers request to work the events months in advance, making it something of a “Burgundy University” for them.
He’s also the wine director for all the Daniel Boulud (Dinex) restaurants. And he has his own import label where, among other things, he imports some estate wines from. . .Bordeaux!
According to our survey of industry elites, polling for the fifth most influential person in NYC wine today was extremely close. But the award goes to Joe Dressner, the pioneering importer who died in 2011 after a battle with cancer whose influence continues to be felt.
Dressner started importing wine over twenty years ago. He scoured France and brought in wines from growers using minimal intervention in the vineyard and the cellar. He dubbed these “real” wines and pitted them against “spoofulated” wines that dominated the market at the time. He generated enthusiasm for his simply made wines on the internet (he was one of the first wine bloggers), with his gruff wit, with tours of America for a dozen or more vignerons (“the real wine attack!”), and through his relationships with key people in the trade, such as David Lillie of Chambers Street Wines. Dressner marched to the beat of his own drum and, in the process, rubbed some people the wrong way. But he also served as a model for many independent importers who came later and he won an outsized following while never spending a dime on advertising. His legacy, while multifaceted, contains many drinkable, joyous wines.
The portfolio continues to thrive under Denyse Louis, his widow, and Kevin McKenna, their longtime business partner.
A remembrance and image credit at Diner’s Journal
New York City is the best wine city on the planet. The shops are amazing–if you want a wine, it’s almost always possible to find it. The sommeliers are in the vanguard of the sparkling young sommeliers across the country, creating long wine lists and short lists, all-American lists and all-Spanish ones and everything in between. The importers have scoured foreign lands and share their plunder, educating and sating the thirsty masses back at home. It’s also a center of wine journalism, with scribes swirling and spitting.
So who shapes minds or moves cases in the city today? It may seem like inside baseball–a trade story in one city. But the most influential people in New York City shape trends today that will affect consumers either tonight in a restaurant in town, tomorrow in a store or via a column, or a year or so down the road if you’re not as plugged in. There are certainly other deserving wine hubs in the US; perhaps we’ll tackle those in the future.
Rather than reclining in a Barcalounger, uncorking some bubbly and holding forth on who I thought deserved to be on New York City’s power list of wine, I decided to actually ask some elites in the wine world. I emailed three dozen industry movers and shakers and received 29 responses. I contacted the heads of big stores, big distributors and corporate beverage directors as well as some sommeliers, small shop owners and a few well-placed journalists and a couple of PR people. With their permission, a complete list of respondents follows below. Participants were asked to name their top five most influential people–living or dead, residing in NYC or not–with a request not to nominate themselves or anyone at their firm.
So who are the top five on the power list in New York City? Stay tuned next week as we roll out the responses in reverse order. But don’t let the fun wait until next week–feel free to nominate the five most influential people in the wine world as you see it. Or take a stab at guessing who were the consensus choices among the respondents. Read more…
Chambers St Wines holds an annual tasting of Louis/Dressner wines to benefit Partners in Health. March 16; reservations required.
My next NYU wine class starts April 3 and runs six Wednesdays, 6:30 – 8:30. It will be fun-we will chew over some of the weightiest topics in the wine world and taste about six wines per session. Register online (best with IE or safari) or call (212) 998-7150.
La Paulée de New York is coming next week. It has spread to include some pretty incredible events from Wednesday to Saturday, ranging from $75 – $4,750. Daniel Johnnes described it to me as an “uncontrolled, unplugged, unleashed expression of Burgundy.” I wrote a detailed piece about it over on Wine-Searcher.
One part that couldn’t make it into the story was a comment Johnnes made regarding whether Burgundy Burgundy as the wine of the moment. He said that sommeliers love Burgundy and that the wines are really on a tear. “There’s more great Burgundy being made today than ever before,” he said.
“I Kind of worry about trends. If thing are trends, then trends end. It’s important to promote with young sommeliers and keep it really healthy and strong. I want to do my best to keep it that way and fight hard to dispel an elitist image. If it develops that image, it will go the way of Bordeaux. That’s the perception of Bordeaux. I would hate for people to start talking that way about Burgundy–never visiting the region or not even wanting to or thinking that it’s for rich people. Burgundians make the human connection easier: they’re in the vineyards, on the tractors and in the cellars.”
Check out my story on wine-searcher.