What Makes a Great Sommelier?

At the New York restaurant Veritas, Tim Kopec exemplifies a new breed of vine expert—equal parts scholar, salesman, psychologist, and diplomat.

What the rock star was to the 1960s and the celebrity chef was to the 1990s, the sommelier is becoming in the first decade of the third millennium—the sexy creative professional everyone fantasizes about. Gone are the days of the haughty, tail-coated sommelier with a French accent, a silver tastevin chained around his neck, and a glint of disdain in his eye. Exploiting the insecurity of diners who sometimes knew little more than "red with meat, white with fish," those masters of intimidation were adept at coaxing well-heeled patrons into spending far more on wine than they had intended.

"The reason the public is embracing the idea of sommeliers today is that it's so not stuffy and traditional anymore," says Tim Kopec, the wine director of New York City's Veritas restaurant. Since its debut four years ago, Veritas has come to define the wine-destination restaurant, thanks not only to its fabled cellar of more than 3,000 individual selections, but also to Kopec's skill in managing it.

No one exemplifies the new breed of sommelier better than the 37-year-old Kopec. With his long, center-parted strawberry blond hair and friendly, unpretentious manner, he is about as far from the terrifyingly pompous sommeliers of old as you can get. Like the best of his peers, he's equal parts scholar and salesman, psychologist and diplomat. "You need to understand people and be versatile in dealing with different types," he says. "It's not just about drinking great wine."

Being a wine steward today is more demanding than ever, what with the extraordinary explosion of first-rate wines being produced around the world, plus the increasing expertise and expectations of a generation of connoisseurs who came of age during the late-20th-century wine revolution. "People realize there's a lot of high-quality wine being made," Kopec says, "and if a sommelier can make a strong case for why that wine goes well with that cuisine, maybe you should listen. If you try it the first time and it works, it's worth trying a second time. And then the relationship begins. Now, thirteen years after I started in the business, there are people who won't even open the wine list and will pay attention only to what I say."

Kopec has even advised Veritas regulars on building their own wine collections. "Some of them are quite successful and wealthy," he says, "and don't have time to micromanage every single passion and business in their life. So they ask me to help, which can be in the acquisition of cellars, or much more. It's quite easy to buy the wine, but are you getting good value at the right price, are you buying the right wines from the right source, have they been handled properly? It goes all the way to superstructure, putting it all on spreadsheets, and explaining to them, 'You've got a lot of good and a lot of pretty good. Maybe you should pare down on your pretty good and bulk up on your great."

Kopec's beginnings sound nothing like the generic how-I-became-a-big-time-sommelier saga—Mateus rosé in high school, backpacking across Europe during college with the epiphany in Tuscany or Provence, apprenticeship in Napa, and then, suddenly, stardom. His career, he admits, is no fluke. He grew up in New York's Westchester County, he says, "in a house with fine wine and fine food, which was very fortunate for me. Both my parents took cooking classes with James Beard himself, which was kind of cool."

With their encouragement, he studied hotel and restaurant management, took classes with New York wine doyenne Harriet Lembeck, and went on to the Culinary Institute of America. There, he says, "I realized that wine came easier to me than food, and decided to work in restaurants that devoted a lot of their energy to wine." In 1990, the 24-year-old's talents were recognized by the owners of Montrachet, still one of New York's best restaurants, and he landed that dream first job. "I was there right at the beginning of the decade, when it became fashionable to be a sommelier, and the learning opportunity was absolutely tremendous." Under his watch, Montrachet won Wine Spectator's prestigious Grand Award, as, more recently, did Veritas.

The hurtling momentum of the contemporary wine movement made the emergence of a place like Veritas inevitable. It was the brainchild of restaurateur Gino Diaferia and his chef and partner, Scott Bryan, who had previously teamed up at Luma in Chelsea. They joined forces with two formidable wine collectors (New York home-linen merchant Park B. Smith and New Jersey food-company entrepreneur Steve Verlin), who between them had amassed a staggering 100,000 bottles since the sixties. Realizing they could never possibly finish it all, they agreed to put their troves at the disposal of the restaurant, and thus the cellar attained critical mass on the day Veritas opened. The wines are stored in off-site warehouses and a warren of four jam-packed spaces in the basement beneath the restaurant (each with its own appropriate temperature).

This 20,000-bottle cellar is completely different from either the International Style perfectionism of The Four Seasons restaurant's glass-walled wine cases—like miniature skyscrapers within the larger one of the Seagram Building—or the old-world aura of the ancient stone cave beneath La Tour d'Argent in Paris. The Veritas cellar, painted battleship gray, lighted by fluorescent bulbs, and stacked two and three deep with utilitarian wood-and-wire racks that leave only a narrow one-person pathway, feels more like the lost-property storeroom of a New York police station than the multimillion-dollar treasure chest that it is.

As noteworthy as the staggering scale of the Veritas wine list is how fairly priced it is. The range extends from a 2000 Domaine de la Patience Cuvée St. Guilhem Merlot for $14 to a double magnum of 1947 Château Cheval Blanc for $35,000. ("What'll it be tonight, honey, the '47 Cheval Blanc or a new BMW?") Though there's a decadent frisson to be enjoyed from focusing on the cellar's many big-ticket items on the Reserve List, the Market List of more than a hundred bottles has only two for more than $100, with most under $50.

I was recently shocked at a trendy, casual SoHo spot—exposed-brick walls, hip-kid clientele, plastic-covered menus—where I had trouble finding a decent bottle for under 100 bucks after my first three cheaper choices were, um, unavailable. "That's really not acceptable," says Kopec. It's a problem even at some of New York's top-rated restaurants, where people can wind up drinking wine greatly inferior to the cuisine because of sticker shock.

We all know that restaurants make most of their profits from alcohol, not food, but I deeply resent places that do not make a concerted effort to offer some good wines at a low price. I'm not expecting them to subsidize a wine welfare system, but tossing in the odd sleeper for wine aficionados to discover wouldn't kill them. You do find those surprises at Veritas, where even the big guns provide good value. "That's why we sell so many expensive wines," says Kopec, "like '82 first-growths, which at most other places in town are $1,800 to $2,600. Here you can get them for $900 or $1,000."

Recently at Veritas (which is open only for dinner), my eyes widened when I saw a half-bottle of 1966 Château Lafite-Rothschild for $185. I hadn't drunk a Lafite in quite a while, and I knew I wouldn't get a chance to try that venerable vintage again for so little money, relatively speaking. Not only am I willing to bet you won't find halves of '66 Lafite on any other wine list, but with a full bottle now retailing for $395, Veritas hasn't really marked it up at all—in sharp contrast to the two-to-three-times-retail markup practiced by many restaurants.

My wife and I began that memorable meal with two seemingly divergent appetizers: she chose a gutsy, Asian-inflected tuna tartare, and I a luxurious Jerusalem artichoke velouté enriched with broad shavings of black truffle and studded with tiny cubes of ethereal foie gras. I'd never have determined what wine could complement both dishes, until Kopec suggested an astounding Alsatian Pinot Gris from Zind Humbrecht, so boldly structured that its inherent sweetness never dominated.

With the Lafite as the irresistible centerpiece of the evening, we chose our principal dishes accordingly—the classic Bordeaux pairing of roast saddle of lamb (with vegetables Provençale, flageolets, and rosemary jus) for myself, and a richly flavored roast organic chicken (with potato gnocchi, pancetta, Swiss chard, sage, and chanterelles) for my wife. The Lafite was delightful, like a slightly faded Watteau drawing with an elegance of line and nobility of spirit, ideally displayed against the backdrop of two resoundingly sympathetic main courses.

Reviewing Veritas in The New York Times shortly after it had opened, Ruth Reichl a bit unfairly called it "a wine cellar with a restaurant attached." Nevertheless, she was sufficiently impressed with chef Scott Bryan's New American cooking to award the place three out of a possible four stars. Ever since, oenomaniacs and fanatic foodies alike have been packing the 55-seat establishment. Many have become regulars, and on any given evening about three-quarters of the reservations will have been made by friends of the house, some of whom attend four times a week.

It's entirely possible to do so, for Bryan's deceptively simple approach to ultra-high-style cooking—which might be called stealth sybaritic—is the opposite of the spectacular but fatiguing fare at the city's grand celebration restaurants, where one would not want to dine more than half a dozen times a year. At Veritas you'll never come away staggering with excess, though you will be reeling with pleasure. The menu is comparatively short—eight starters, eight mains, and eight desserts—but varied enough to complement the wine list as broadly as possible. The straightforward menu nomenclature (no coulis, Chibousts, or panachés here) and attractive but unfussy presentations (no wheeled-in Towers of Babel) dispense with the nonsense and train your attention on what's most important: pure flavor.

Aside from a panoply of 18 dessert wines, there are relatively few wines by the glass at Veritas—a well-considered choice of three Champagnes, four whites, and four reds, all picked for maximum variety within each category. After all, this is a wine restaurant, not a wine bar. By limiting those options, Veritas is actually doing its clientele a favor. Its cache of more than 140 different half-bottles—the most impressive array I have ever encountered—enables even a table of two to make appropriate matches with all three courses on the prix-fixe menu. Furthermore, one of restaurateurs' well-kept secrets is that they mark up wine by the glass more than they do the same wine in a bottle. Thus, for anyone intending to drink more than a single glass, it's actually more economical to go for a bottle, and on the Veritas Market List you can do that without breaking the bank.

The 115-page, two-inch-thick Veritas wine list (which is updated daily and can be consulted online at www.veritas-nyc.com) is divided into two parts: the Market List, replete with tasting notes, and the Reserve List, which contains the restaurant's pricier selections. Sometimes irreverent but always informative, the breezy Market List commentaries let you know right off that this is no ordinary wine card.

"Ah! The true Californian red wine forgotten amid the hype over Cabernet," reads the note for Ridge Zinfandels. "Revive this behemoth of palate-staining black fruits, and sing the national anthem, for as a gentleman once said to me, 'Zinfandel is my God!' " Or take this energetic plea for reconsidering a long-discredited grape: "Unfortunately, schlock the likes of Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch has stigmatized Riesling for generations of Americans. Forgive these Germanic sins and get ready to rock!" The Market List can even be sly about its many esoteric oddities, calling a Basignani Lorenzino from Maryland, of all places, "an interesting obscurity from the land of Robert Parker."

As entertaining, inventive, and affordable as the Market List is—when was the last time you saw wines under $20 in a New York restaurant of this quality?—the Reserve List is simply jaw-dropping in its stately procession through Bordeaux and Burgundy. Diners can decide from among 32 Lafites, 27 Moutons, 32 Haut-Brions, 30 Margaux, and 41 Pétruses. There are 21 pages of red and white Burgundies, with incredible depth in the revered wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Italy and Spain are well represented with stupendous wines that will knock the socks off anyone who still associates those countries with straw-wrapped Chianti and supermarket Rioja. And where else will you ever again see a bottle of 1940 Massandra Pink Muscat, a Ukrainian dessert wine that was produced in Stalin's breadbasket in the last vintage before the USSR was invaded by Hitler? Talk about drinking history!

Yet the list is far from encyclopedic, and just as intriguing for what it omits as for what it includes. It is free of the cliché offerings found on too many fancy-restaurant lists, such as the innocuous Pouilly-Fumé de Ladoucette, still remembered on the Upper East Side as Babe Paley's favorite white wine. Interestingly, the list is longer on California reds than on whites. This parallels Kopec's own preference for what he calls "nervy" whites, drawing him eastward in the direction of crisp, flinty French Chablis rather than westward to the oaky, vanilla-redolent Chardonnays of the Napa Valley (though lately there has been a movement in California toward sleeker, leaner Chards).

The list has only two "Antipodean whites" (Australian Chardonnays in this case), despite the enthusiastic reception New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs have gotten around the world; but Kopec deems their kiwifruit notes too blatant. However, scores of Australian reds do appear. South Africa and Chile are missing in action, and there are no Long Island wines at all. "We have had them in the past," Kopec tactfully explains of the latter, "and we will have them in the future. But not today."

Thus this list asserts a strong individual point of view, unlike those around-the-world-in-eighty-bottle collections that pose as definitive surveys. And because Veritas is a commercial enterprise, there are some things on the list that in a perfect world might not be there. Like a modern art dealer who knows he can sell the Modigliani but privately prefers Morandi, Kopec, too, must cater to the marketplace.

One such compromise is in the area of the so-called California cult wines, a recent phenomenon in which boutique operations, most of them in the Napa Valley, produce high-quality vintages in extremely small quantities. Because of their scarcity, they are released at exceptionally high prices, pounced on by fanatics like 1990s dot-com IPOs, and then traded among rich collectors like commodity futures. Some think the phenomenon has more to do with speculation than connoisseurship.

Nonetheless, the Veritas list includes all the major cult players—among them Dalla Valle Vineyard, Grace Family, Harlan Estate, and Screaming Eagle—in all their four-figure glory. As Kopec ruefully confessed to New York Times wine critic Frank J. Prial, "We have to have these wines on our list. It's a question of prestige." A few months ago, an Ohio couple at the table next to ours decided on the cultish Joseph Phelps Insignia Meritage, but not a specific vintage. Kopec made no attempt to dissuade them, and gave informed, unbiased assessments of the 11 years on offer, reassuring them that "The only hiccup is the '98," which he didn't stock.

My favorite wines are burgundy, period," Kopec says. "To attempt to learn the delicacy, intricacies, finesse, and allure of Burgundy is very stimulating. The wines are not cumbersome. You can drink the whole bottle without becoming tired, whereas if you were to have a heady Shiraz from Australia, with its huge alcohol, you'd be drunk halfway through. By the same token, German Rieslings are extraordinary, well-versed wines for cuisine, in a range of styles from light, dry, and crisp all the way to luscious, sweet, and spiced. They're fun by themselves, they're fun with food. Those are the two regions I gravitate to most."

What turns him off is globalization—the production of wines that are divorced from any connection to their locales. "Because of technology, the world in general is making so much better wine today than it was ten or twenty years ago," he observes. "I think technology can help make better wine using traditional products from traditional grapes in traditional areas, not to make a wine of an international style, meaning gobs and gobs of fruit encased in boatloads of new oak, from Hawaii or California or Georgia or the mountains of Italy. People are making money on that, and are hiring fancy consultants to make these desirable-tasting wines, but they're wines that lack origin. And that, I think, is a shame.

"There's no right or wrong," Kopec continues. "If drinking a particular wine gives you pleasure, that's great wine. But if it stimulates you and you want to know why it stimulates you, now we're getting somewhere. Why are some people so willing to go eat chicken at KFC for six bucks, and others to come to Veritas and have chicken on a price-fixed menu for $68? People have different standards with their food, their wine, and the quality of their life."

Veritas, 43 East 20th Street, New York City; 212-353-3700. Open daily for dinner.

Our Favorite Dinner Companions

Over dinner at Veritas and at a tasting session, I particularly enjoyed the following wines—all of which are available at retail.

1995 DOMAINE ZIND HUMBRECHT PINOT GRIS GRAND CRU, CLOS SAINT URBAIN, RANGEN DE THANN The most famous and prestigious of a great Alsatian maker's wines, this complex late-harvest marvel flaunts a whiff of elder flower in the nose. It's finely balanced between intensity and acidity, and its concentration and deep golden color are compelling. $95.

2001 ROBERT WEIL RIESLING SPATLESE, KIEDRICH GRAFENBERG Many experts consider this vintage from the Rheingau region the greatest in three decades. This example from one of Germany's top producers is rich but refined, with an elusive hint of incense. By no means cloying, the sweetness of this Spätlese is counterbalanced by great intensity and acidity. $50.

2000 LAURENT TRIBUT CHABLIS PREMIER CRU, BEAUROY Not big, rich, and high in alcohol like some Chablis, this terse, mineral-rich version literally makes your mouth water. It doesn't need to be restricted to traditional pairings like oysters, and would be wonderful with poached chicken, a light veal dish, or goat-cheese-and-mesclun salad. $23.

2001 EDMOND VATAN SANCERRE, CLOS LA NEORE Well-balanced and citrusy with a honeysuckle note, one sip will make you understand why Veritas declares this "a benchmark by which all Sancerres should be measured." Sancerre can be dreadfully slack, but this subtle charmer upholds the honor of the appellation. $30.

1998 DOMAINE DE MARCOUX CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE This dark, substantial beauty from the southern Rhône's most famous appellation is preordained for rustic pâté or braised meat dishes. Black cherry gives way to a tangy raisin undercurrent. $38.

2000 DOMAINE DE L'ARLOT NUITS SAINT GEORGES PREMIER CRU, CLOS DES FORETS ST. GEORGES This elegant, silky Burgundy Pinot Noir would be ideal early in a multicourse meal before moving on to a heavier wine. Its amalgam of berry flavors with a slight smoky note works best not with beef or lamb but rather with duck or even grilled salmon. $60.

1978 BARBEITO SERCIAL MADEIRA Tim Kopec recommends this deep, luscious fortified wine not with dessert but with seared diver scallops, and the combination of the caramelized coquilles and the smooth, nutty Madeira is sensational. He rightly considers Madeiras to be scandalously underappreciated. $60.

Martin Filler's first Vines & Spirits column, about a longtime collector revising his holdings, appeared in the January/February issue.