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.
Sherryfest, a series of tastings and events lasting four days, is set to capture the attention of wine geeks in New York. I had fun writing a story about the festivities and the state of sherry in America today for the new magazine over at wine-searcher.com. Check it out! They haven’t enabled comments over there so if you have anything to add, hit the comments here. Are you a fan of sherry?
Here’s a link to the list of activities, including free tastings at 30 wine shops on Saturday.
So if a sleek wine shop opened in the arcade under the new Goldman Sachs building, you’d expect it to have oversized bottles of first growths and Napa cabs, right? Well, Vintry Wine and Spirits has plenty of trophy bottles, but it also has some reasonably priced and very drinkable ones.
Nestled among the magnums and imperials on the sleek shelves are the wines of Arianna Occhipinti from Sicily, Ar.Pe.Pe in Valtellina, and Chateau Thivin from Beaujolais among the shop’s 2,500 bottles. Clearly whoever assembled the selection thought about serving the area’s residents as well as the Masters of the Universe in the tower above. And that decision fell to Michael Martin, general manager, who told me that most of the purchases thus far have been between $20 and $40 a bottle–although one customer did buy a $2,000 bottle on whim on his way to the register. One of the store’s owners, Peter Poulakakos, comes from a fine wine background as his father owns Harry’s Steak, which has a lengthy wine list.
Customers who care to probe the shop’s inventory can talk to the staff or tap on one of the iPads mounted throughout the swanky shop. Mike told me that he’s most proud of the Champagne and Burgundy selections, and they are particularly deep, with many grower Champagnes (though the only Selosse is the Initiale!).
But there’s one wine that customers won’t find here: Yellow Tail chardonnay. Time for those who want it to get familiar with Chablis…
Just across the West Side Drive in Tribeca are three other stores that are also worth noting: Chambers Street Wines, a national leader; Frankly Wines, the most charming 300 sq. ft. wine shop in Manhattan; and New York Vintners, which has many events with winemakers among other charms. This area gives the locals plenty of choice and makes it wine destination neighborhood for the rest of us.