New York Wine & GrapeNews
Press Deck: Field Notes Interview with Miguel de Leon, Sommelier
Greetings from Geneva NY!
As we finish up our last NY Drinks NY trade and media trip for this phase in the Finger Lakes, I’m enjoying reflecting on the year’s activities in Riesling. We kicked off this phase as a part of the FLXcursion Riesling conference over the summer in the Finger Lakes, which welcomed the Riesling trade and beyond from all over the world to the region. Later in the summer, Sam Filler, myself, and members of our NY Drinks NY advisory committee set sail on “The Jewl,” on the East River in New York City for the Summer Of Riesling Boat Cruise – produced by Paul Grieco of Terroir Wine Bar -- in support of several of our member wineries’ Rieslings, and we’re thrilled that Mr. Grieco will be moderating our Riesling seminar at the Grand Tasting at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan, on March 31st.
To keep the conversation going on the subject of our state’s Rieslings, I spoke with the influential young sommelier Miguel de Leon, who is a passionate Riesling devotee. Miguel is the wine director of Pinch Chinese in New York City. He received his Advanced Certification with Merit from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in 2012 and Certification with the Sake Education Council in 2013. He has worked in various capacities at Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA), Momofuku (NYC), and Casa Mono (NYC) for beverage, and is a guest speaker at the Institute of Culinary Education. It was pleasure to converse with Miguel, and I hope you’ll follow the link to our web page where you can read the entire interview, into which Miguel really put some thought and time.
I look forward to welcoming so many of you to the Grand Tasting in March, where we can certainly all share a glass of Riesling together.
Miguel de Leon
- In the short time that we’ve known each other it’s become violently obvious to me that you have a genuine love of riesling. How do you view the identity of riesling today in the eyes of the trade circles that you’re a part of, as well as the consumers who come through your restaurant?
Riesling to me has always been the wine with a chip on its shoulder: if you’re a working somm, you probably have some sort of affinity to the grape; if you’re a consumer, you’re probably weary of its connotation as a sweet wine; for producers, it’s probably chasing the ideal of a perfect wine. Among my colleagues, at least, Riesling enjoys superhero status with regards to its versatility as well as its unmatched depth in terms of spectrum of style, comparing really only to Chenin Blanc. For consumers, it’s breaking the barrier of what they think Riesling is and showing them wines that can communicate not just place but also the future of these places. Personally, Riesling is what drove me to my path in wine. Germany was my laws of thermodynamics; Alsace was my theory of relativity; New York was the Higgs-Boson.
- It was nice to hear you talk a little bit about the various single vineyard rieslings from New York that you’ve experienced. There was a time not long ago when it was rare to come across a young sommelier with a detailed knowledge the topic. What was your initial exposure to New York wines, and how did you take it upon yourself to further that education?
One of my first beverage buying jobs was for (at the time) a small empire called Momofuku. I began early exploring wines from Long Island – we had been buying wines from Macari and Shinn then – and eventually partnering with Abe Schoener and Bob Foley with Red Hook Winery’s exclusive bottlings for the group. That started this bigger realization of the impact of locality: if we’re going to take to heart the notion of “what goes together grows together” then we absolutely must consider our wine products and our farmers to make sure that not only do we get the best versions of these wines but that we continually improve these wines so that people who are looking at the region as leaders in very other facet can count wine there as well. From there it was as simple as taking a train and seeing the bounty of what the land offered, from looking at vineyards at Paumanok over in the North Fork, to getting to know Kelby’s practice at Red Newt up in the Finger Lakes, and to making piquette at Wild Arc in the Hudson Valley. Sure, France and Germany are nice trips to take, but it’s nice to stay in the same time zone let alone know that these are much closer stories, more deeply rooted to the immediate space and with clearer answers regarding our impact to the land and to the products we’re selling.
- You attended two different conferences last summer on the subject of both riesling and New York wines at large, one in the Finger Lakes (FLXcursion); the other in the Hudson Valley/Catskills (Kaatskill Summit). The former dedicated to rieslings from around the world, and certainly a nice opportunity to see how New York fits in globally; the latter dedicated primarily to New York wineries who identify as being low intervention. What was your takeaway from the two?
FLXcursion gave a great overview of Riesling as the vehicle of terroir. Meeting Ernie Loosen and Johannes Selbach were valuable moments, especially with their first-hand accounts of the effects of climate change; seeing New York wines in context as well, such as Osmote, Wiemer, and Boundary Breaks in conversation with these Old World wines drove a point home that American winemaking isn’t just mature, it has its own exciting identity that pays homage to the Old World but not being reckless with the delicacy of the variety.
At Kaatskill, it was more about New York’s growing up into wine, and how the market and the producers might be more able to work in tandem to support newer voices. I’ve taken to heart what Todd Cavallo has said about the Hudson as New York City’s Loire Valley, and how New York City’s markets can drive more interest in local wines as well as the boon of domestic wines at large. Land kept coming up as the most important resource after labor, whether you’re preserving it in direct means like Floral Terranes, or honoring it in ways like Bloomer Creek; our agricultural future was just as much at stake.
- You’re currently halfway through a month of celebrating German rieslings specifically at your restaurant, which is awesome. Do you have a preference when it comes to dry, off-dry, or sweet styles with savory food?
Personally, I love off-dry and medium styles of Riesling especially with our cuisine at the restaurant, which is very traditionally Chinese. Don’t get me wrong though – I will never turn away a glass of bone dry Riesling with quite literally anything. Just the other night I was drinking some of Jochen Beurer’s Rieslings (his cuvées called Nothing and Kieselsandstein) with some fried chicken and French fries. Some things are just made for each other.
The rest of it falls on personal preference. I quite like spicy food, so I aim for higher acid, racier wines to boost the heat, and to send the chilli spice into a different, fruity and floral direction. For cheese, nothing beats auslese-style wines. The beauty of Riesling is that in all of these scenarios you can probably swap one style for another and still be very, very happy.
- Certainly we live in a competitive wine world when it comes to placements, especially in New York City. What advice might you have for New York wineries on the subject of marketing and selling their wines?
If you’re excited about your wine, I’m excited about your wine. You might be tempted to succumb to trend, but please, don’t let a movie ruin what you’re planting (though I doubt there’ll be a remake of Sideways where they talk about how they don’t want to drink Cab Franc). Embrace your experimental side as well as your traditional side.
New York is in such a good position to differentiate itself from other domestic wines because of its many strengths: first, we can consider that we are still in somewhat an exploratory phase when it comes to finding out what works where, but for those with established vineyards and sites, continue to wax rhapsodic about why we should be paying attention to your Riesling and your Cab Franc and your Merlot; second, we can celebrate our use of university and hybrid varieties (I’m looking at you, Traminette, Cayuga, Seyval Blanc, Delaware, et al!) by championing not just their responsible use but by continually improving these wine products as statements of the future of our terroir; third, your presence in the market drives curiosity for our region: if there is a Riesling from New York that I think can have a good conversation with the other Rieslings on my list, I will put it there, I will talk about it, I will tell guests from far-flung and near-flung places that these wines are worth your attention and your money, but please, it warrants your existing.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people about “sustainability” and what that means to them. It’s important to me that every move you make as a producer is something I can defend as a sommelier as well. Do you manage your land responsibly? Are you being thoughtful about how you spray, if you spray? Can you manage to pay your laborers a fair wage, or offer them healthcare? What is driving you to make wine? Responsibility comes in all sorts of philosophies, and somms usually have a good nose for those whose answers align with our values.
At the end of the day, if your wine is from New York and it is good and you believe in every step you’ve taken to make it, the somms of the city’s restaurants would love to see it and taste it and potentially tell its story. If it can make it here, it can make it anywhere.