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How Do Sommeliers BYOB in Chinatown? Epically

How Do Sommeliers BYOB in Chinatown? Epically

The patina of Chinatown’s storefronts might be a world apart from the glittering bar tops, award-winning cellars and pressed linens of the City’s most lauded restaurants. But in the hours when New York’s sceneiest, buzziest and most renowned restaurants sleep, off-duty sommeliers gather here—wine in hand— around tables cluttered with wonton soup bowls, roast duck and sesame noodles. Open late and BYOB, these Chinatown standbys have long played host to groups of wine professionals to convene and commiserate after glassware has been cleaned and polished, inventory reconciled and wine lists tucked away for the night.

Photography by Laura June Kirsch

Four of the City’s most accomplished wine professionals shake off the late winter chill to gather for dinner at Wu’s Wonton King on East Broadway, where Chinatown rubs against the Lower Side. “Chinese food is so much fun to pair with wine. But, being able to bring wine is the most important aspect of these restaurants, especially for the younger generations, like when we were coming up. As wine professionals, we really would rather drink from our own collections—not just for economic reasons. Back in the day, we needed places to put together tasting groups and be with our community when we weren’t working or studying,” says Joe Campanale (sommelier, Italian wine expert, author and co-owner of LaLou, Fausto and Bar Vinazo restaurants in Brooklyn). “Wu’s is one of those places.”

Joe is joined by fellow luminaries of New York’s beverage scene Victoria James (sommelier, author, and partner and beverage director for Cote Korean Steakhouse and Coqodaq restaurants), Jhonel Faelnar (sommelier and corporate beverage director of NA:EUN Hospitality, which includes Atomix, Atoboy, Naro and Seoul Salon) and Katja Scharnagl (sommelier and beverage director at Koloman restaurant). Each has brought a bottle of wine that represents a meaningful moment to them.

With its institutional lighting, metal chairs lining tables set for large groups and an extensive menu of classics, Wu’s has become a reliable haunt for gatherings of the wine cognoscenti and hardworking beverage professionals alike. On this occasion, conversation is not about blowing off steam after a long service shift, but a chance for four of the most successful in business to connect, reminiscence about New York and share a few personal stories.

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As rattling bowls of a delicate wonton soup are dropped on the table, Jhonel opens a white Portuguese wine from the Douro River valley. “I moved to NYC in 2013. In those early years here, I had limited funds. I was so hungry for travel, and in 2016 I finagled my way onto a wine trip to Portugal. That’s where I met this producer, Luis Seabra, and tried his first-ever vintage. It was so unique— a blend of the indigenous Gouveio and Rabigato grapes. These are grapes I hadn’t heard of,” he recounts, pouring Luis Seabra’s zesty, floral, spontaneously fermented 2021 Xisto Cru. “I was studying so much wine, trying to explore things outside Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Living in Forest Hills, Queens, my daily rhythm during that time was mostly just work, and I was very impatient—studying during the day and working service at night until 1 or 2 a.m.—trying to pass my sommelier exams and get experience. So, going to Portugal and meeting this winemaker was really so exciting.”

“If sommeliers get this rap as party animals … really, we were just nerds. We studied and worked all the time,” Victoria chimes.

Group of Somm's toasting with wine at Wu's Wonton King
Photography by Laura June Kirsch

“Fast forward to me opening Atomix,” Jhonel continues. “I used the current vintage of the wine and paired it with one of the courses. I then met Luis here in New York, and we developed a friendship.” Jhonel says he looks forward to tasting Seabra’s wines every year: “His wine has gotten more focused since I first tasted it 10 years ago. In the beginning the wines would change a bit from vintage to vintage. Now, I am seeing a good happy consistency with them. They are getting more and more chiseled.”

“You first tasted this wine when the winemaker was starting out, and you were, too. So, it’s almost like there’s some parallel between your careers, like you grew up together,” Victoria says. “Over the years, with the addition of travel, we get more in touch with producers and their wines. It’s impossible not to feel the most connected with those wines on your list.”

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Most wine lists put palate and guest expectations above all else. And while presenting the wine that pairs perfectly with the fish dish might get the job done, bottles featured on a wine list may also open people’s eyes to something different, while representing the personal experiences and the personalities of the experts who put the beverage program together.

“I started in New York as an intern, which was very unusual for a front-of-house restaurant,” Katja says of her start at Le Bernandin, maybe the city’s most recognized fine dining restaurant, as she presents her bottle of 2014 Domaine Roulot Bourgogne Aligot. “On Mondays, the somms would ask me where I went for the weekend, like I was supposed to say the Hamptons or something, but I had just taken the train to Coney Island to get a hot dog— that’s what I could afford to do,” she says with a laugh.

Close up on a bottle of wine at Wu's Wonton King
Photography by Laura June Kirsch

“We would get cases of Bourgogne Blanc at LB [Le Bernadin], as a less expensive, everyday bread and butter wine—a window into the fancier Burgundies—and I just loved them. These baby Burgs [have gotten] expensive … Sure, the allocations got less and less, but now all Burgundy is crazy expensive and so these Bourgogne Blancs become expensive, too.” She’s keenly aware of the trickle-down economics of Burgundian wine trends after years working for Aldo Sohm and, before that, a five-star hotel in Austria.

The post-pandemic, online wine market is certainly a major consideration now. “Online retail and auction markets these days, compared to pre-pandemic times, are just so easy. It’s easier for most people to find rare wines out in the wild versus in a restaurant setting. Atomix opened in 2018, and we attracted a lot of collectors to the restaurant because we had a small but dedicated cellar where we sourced things on the rare side of the fence. Now those same people are sourcing those wines themselves,” Jhonel says, noting one of the major shifts in hospitality culture since we all become more accustomed to ordering things from home.

“Obviously, today’s collector is going to come to the restaurant to drink a nice wine, look at a list and say, ‘I have these wines at home. Why would I pay more here?’ So, the restaurant experience has to be about much more than the wine,” Katja continues as a waiter drops a platter of crispy skin duck and bowl of Wu’s signature noodles served inside a Dungeness crab shell.

Overhead shot of a spread of food at Wu's Wonton King
Photography by Laura June Kirsch

“My career has been about a progression of white Burgundy in some ways. It’s really stayed with me throughout my career from Aureole to Marea to all the restaurants we have now,” Victoria says, uncorking a bottle of 2020 Henri Germain Meursault Limozin. “This is one of those producers who’s maybe still a little under the radar but has a special place in my heart. When I was 21 years old, I won the Sud de France Competition, and I was able to go to France. I went to a bistro and ordered a bottle of Germain’s white Burgundy for something like 40 euros. But, it was my first ever trip to France—I grew up in New Jersey without a lot of money—and there I was in a bistro in France buying myself my own bottle of Burgundy. It just felt like I had landed.”

Joe brought the only red wine of the night, a 1989 “Montebuono” by Lino Maga from Oltrepo Pavese in Lombardy. His love for wines comes from a deep appreciation for the winemakers and the paths they take to make their wines—Lino Maga is one such producer. His blend of the local Croatina, Uva Rara, Ughetta (aka Vespolina) and Barbera grapes is made carefully and with minimal intervention. “This winemaker is uncompromising in his old-school way of winemaking. He seems to be making this for something much more than its commercial value. Maybe it’s about a dedication to traditions. It’s made like and tastes like wine from 100 years ago,” Joe says. “It’s a 1989 and it’s still a touch effervescent out of bottle.” Grapes are organically farmed and spontaneously fermented then aged in very old oak casks without any temperature control.

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“My first job in the wine industry was at Italian Wine Merchants—I was 20 years old. I really didn’t know much about wine when I walked in there. I had just gotten back from studying abroad in Florence, where I had taken one wine class and visited my first vineyard. But I was really drawn to stories of winemakers, especially the idiosyncratic ones, and that’s how it all started for me.” If anyone has spent time with Joe at his restaurants, or read his book, they are quick to recognize his passion for Italian wines comes from a real reverence for winemakers and their stories. “Many years later, in 2007, when I opened my first restaurant, Dell’anima, I focused on indigenous Italian grapes. I was trying to present wines that I wanted to tell a story about. When I would talk to my guests about the best vineyard site in Barolo because of the best exposure or the soil, sometimes their eyes would glaze over. But if I could tell them stories about the winemakers, I found they would light up and connect to those wines. No matter how special the terroir is, you still need a winemaker to interpret it.”

Group of Somm's enjoying food and wine at Wu's Wonton King
Photography by Laura June Kirsch

If every bottle of wine and every winemaker tells a story, then New York City holds a massive compendium of tales. There isn’t another city with such a large and sprawling wine and sommelier culture. “What differentiates New York from everywhere else is you can basically get any wine here. There is a way for us to get almost any bottle,” Katja remarks. “And New York is a very curious place. People are open to trying a lot of things here.”

Somms get this rap as party animals. We were just nerds. We studied and worked.

Victoria James (sommelier, author, and partner and beverage director for Cote Korean Steakhouse and Coqodaq restaurants)

Jhonel tells us how this generation of sommeliers have graduated to the wine buyers making the decisions for their restaurants now. “We communicate with each other and respect each other’s opinions about what is worth exploring.”

“New York is pulling in people who were on the outskirts or in the margins before because they couldn’t afford to be in the industry or work in wine growing up, or they weren’t the right gender or color,” Victoria adds. “As a result, we now have many different opinions from many different walks of life, and New York is at the forefront for those voices, more than anywhere else in the world. That’s what makes this city so dynamic and magical.”

Wu's Wonton King Exterior
Photography by Laura June Kirsch

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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