"It's a blanc de blancs that's been given a little more care. You'll feel the weight. You'll feel the dryness. You'll feel that sort of slight bitterness at the end." This is what Kyle Ridington told me as he poured a wonderful glass of champagne (an NV Simon-Selosse, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru) at his restaurant, Piora. We've done this more than a few times and I'm grateful for it. What's impressive isn't that his descriptions are spot-on; it's that he's able to provide them without the least bit of pretension. He's just a friendly guide, helping you to discover what you like.
He tells me it all got started in Wicker Park, Chicago after he'd given up a career in business marketing. "It was the first restaurant I ever worked at and I was tasting wine with the wine reps because they were introducing our staff to all the new wines on the list. I was tasting and I was thinking, 'Man, is there a way I can make a career out of this without lugging around a fucking—can I curse?—a fifty-pound bag full of wine, going up to restaurants blind all day?' I didn't want to do that but I wanted to get into wine somehow.
"I discovered this whole sommelier career. It intrigued me. I read about it and what it encompasses and I bought a couple of books and I called my father. His advice to me was, 'Well at least if this whole sommelier thing doesn't work out, you'll have an expensive hobby.' So, that's when I knew."
Since making that decision and getting certified through both the International Sommelier Guild and the Court of Master Sommeliers, he's gone on to work at a bevy of Michelin-starred establishments, including L20, Sixteen, and his current home, Piora. Additionally, in 2014, he was a finalist for GQ's Best Dressed Sommelier, which isn't surprising because, c'mon, look at the guy. He's also launched a program at Piora called "Champagne Made me Do It." Each week, he features a different Champagne Cuvée, which he pours by the glass in the hopes of getting people more exposed to champagnes that they would normally have to pay bottle price to experience.
"I think all too often, when we find ourselves in situations where we are maybe a little bit uncomfortable or confused, we go to things that are very familiar to us," he explains. "For instance, if we go to a French restaurant in Paris, we don't speak French but we notice Croque Madame or Croque Monsieur. We'll probably order that or Steak Frites because that's recognizable. I don't think a lot of people would usually veer off the road and order something they had no idea about. I feel like people use champagne the same way. They go to the usual suspects. They go to the Veuves, they go to the Dom Ps from Moët, they go to the Heidsiecks, they might go to Laurent-Perrier. Typically, people tend to leap towards the bigger brands because the bigger brands have a larger output of wine, have a better media presence, and have higher marketing budgets.
"Champagne is usually seen as more of an expensive product, a celebratory vessel and I just wanted to pull the reins on that and say 'You know what? Champagne is an approachable beverage to consume daily as well as to purchase daily.' I wanted to really take the bubbles out of champagne and stress how it's a wine, just like a Burgundy or a Bordeaux or an Italian wine or something from California. There isn't wine and champagne; there's just wine. Champagne just happens to have bubbles in it."
Here's what he brought to show us:
THE STANDBY – wine by andré dominé
"I feel like a lot of people are finding wine books kind of old news due to the fact that the internet is so up to date. The wine world—regions and territories and laws—is always on the move, always being revised, being changed, new laws are being created. But what I like about this book is that it's got great pictures, it's got good maps, it highlights notable producers—kind of the go-to producers in a lot of the regions. It's very detailed and very consistent. I know it's becoming a little out of date but, still, a lot of the core parts of the region will never change and that's stuff that I can go to for a quick read or I can highlight these basics when I teach wine classes for the staff at Piora. I was kind of vibing with the book. I felt it, I liked it.
"I designed a whole syllabus so each month we have one class on the content of wine regions, or making wine, or vineyards and viticulture. The other wine class we have each month is a blind tasting class. I'll be honest, the content about the wine regions is fascinating and fun but it can be, y'know, a bit mundane and a little tough. But they really like the blind tasting part of the month. That's kind of the educational reward. It's the part that everyone looks forward to.
"We do blind tasting, we break down wine, I help the staff to decipher between different types of wines—to not be shy and really jump in and break apart a wine. Because it's tough. When you drink a wine, you might not think about it but if somebody's walking you through and touching on different aspects of each wine, it brings a little bit more clarity about what you're drinking.
"I love this book. I assigned a book, a Jancis Robinson book, to all of the people in the class but this book is like my own personal book. I'll copy some pages from this book and hand it out to the staff. It's kind of like my secret weapon."
THE SPECIALIST – rambro necktie by noble custom
"I got this from a website called Noble Custom. It's this gentleman—he sells ties, and pocket squares, and bracelets, and he does bespoke shoes. So, I bought this tie from him because I loved it. I thought it was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen. I think in the world of formality, you need to learn to be playful and have fun with it. I feel like a reason why a lot of people don't like wearing suits or getting dressed up is because they don't know how to dress up. This is one way to show that you're having fun. You can wear an article of clothing that's considered formal but you can do it in a playful way.
"We're in the West Village. I mean, a lot of our guests come in wearing plaid shirts. Sometimes, we're the only people wearing a suit or a jacket and trousers. So, you've gotta loosen it up and have fun with it. It's good because being a sommelier, to some people, is a very intimidating thing. It's a good conversation starter. It can break the ice fairly easily so you can get past the bullshit and get on to what's important: Getting them a wine that they want to drink.
THE SENTIMENTAL FAVORITE – 1976 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou st. julien bordeaux
It's funny because I really don't drink much Bordeaux. I have, but it's not really my wine of choice. My grandfather and grandmother were moving out of their house that they'd lived in for fifty-odd years and over the course of the years, he'd built a bit of a wine cellar through wine gifts that he would receive from people during the holidays. So, he had some old rieslings from the seventies, he had some old Bordeaux. He gave me about a case of wine and I had this '76 Ducru-Beaucaillou, which is one of my favorite estates in Bordeaux and I never opened it. I take it with me to every job that I work as a good luck charm.
It's been shaken around a lot. But the surface area from wine to cork, what they call the ullage, looks really good. Usually, when you have old bottles of wine, you lose a lot of wine to evaporation over time. But not a lot of wine has evaporated, meaning that not a lot of the oxygen has gotten in this bottle so it actually might be okay. Maybe I'll find out some day.