When you learn to pull wines in the cellar of a legendary Cambridge restaurant at age five, go on to learn about the bar from Jackson Cannon and about taste from Tony Maws, and along the way learn wine both at the Boston University Wine Studies Program and on an archeological expedition to Honduras, it sort of makes sense that your managerial personality will have a rather unique educational lean to it.
When you are Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, general manager and wine director at Island Creek Oyster Bar, this means that managing becomes mostly about teaching, and that teaching becomes mostly about remaining a lifelong student.
It means that the wine list at Island Creek is able to continually evolve into a master class on the possibilities of white wine because he himself is continually exploring those possibilities—be they of aging, serving, or pairing. It means that his idea of a great wine series is to introduce the people who write about wines to people who like to read about wine, and have them all eat and drink and talk and learn, together. And it means that his highest praise is reserved for the knowledge displayed by his staff, who seem to have absorbed from him the essential lesson that knowing the right answers means first learning how to ask the right questions.
As Island Creek Oyster Bar celebrates its fourth anniversary, Eater spoke with the man who has been teaching that lesson from the beginning and discovered why at Island Creek the question is not, ‘What do you feel like drinking tonight?' but rather, ‘What do you feel like feeling tonight?'
To start at the beginning, what were the origins of the wine program like at Island Creek?
So I had nine months before we opened this restaurant where nobody knew what I was doing. We were searching for a wine director, and we had a couple of people in mind when I finally said, well, I've always been passionate about wine and I have a lot of time to work on all the different facets of the restaurant; why don't I spend six months trying to figure out how to write the white wine list for this restaurant? And I say the white wine list because at that time the goal was to have a grand white wine list that understood age without being 500-1,000 bottles. We celebrated our four-year anniversary this week, and I actually just pulled out a wine list from very close to opening, and it was something like 90 bottles, so a lot smaller than the list is now (at closer to 160 or 170).
I certainly didn't have a philosophy at that time that the list was going to change every day. I was just looking for cool, off-the-beaten-path stuff. I had some understanding of the classics, but even in my own sort of new-to-buying wine way, I hadn't yet explored what was truly great Burgundy, what was truly great champagne, so I didn't have a full perspective that we needed to respect the classics in the same way, and that has really developed over time and tasting.
You mean staff tastings?
For the staff, but also for myself. I keep a very active tasting schedule. The world of wine is so just big, and so vast, that if you stop learning you fall behind.
So did you go back to the relearn the classics and then branch out from there?
What I really wanted was to create a comprehensive white wine list that said to people: There are grape varietals that are white that have the same potential for age-ability as the best reds
I would say I was actually going the opposite direction. At some point in time I realized that what I really wanted was to create a comprehensive white wine list that said to people: There are grape varietals that are white that have the same potential for age-ability as the best reds. Well then, what are those grapes? To me there are three that are easy to say. Chardonnay, chenin [blanc], and riesling. I love those wines; but Smaragd-level grüner veltliner from the Wachau could age forever, and get better. I was into some of those wines, but early on I was only tasting them really fresh and really young, because that's what's in the marketplace. I realized I had to dig deeper. That there was a whole other level to explore.
You have quite a few half-bottles on your list. Is there a particular philosophy behind that?
Half-bottles do a couple of really cool things. In some instances the half-bottles offer a little bit of safety to guests. So if there's two of you, and that's one glass each, you can feel a little bit of comfort there. On the other hand, and particularly within the context of age-ability, half-bottles age twice as fast [oxygen ages wine; so half the wine vs. the same amount of oxygen = doubled aging]. And so being able to have something like a Jean-Marc Pillot Chassagne, that's '08, it's a six-year-old bottle, but it's essentially a 12-year-old wine in the context of how it tastes, how it's matured and developed.
You also have a rotating Coravin section.
It seemed like a natural extension of the program. What's happened is that the technology caught up with the ability to offer a by-the-glass program that is as dynamic as a by-the-bottle program. So we brought in the Coravin pretty early on but didn't put it on the list. Our wine team played around with it for—I want to say it took me six to nine months to figure it out—and it was all about whether or not I believed in the technology. If I didn't believe in the technology, then it wasn't going to do what we were hoping it would do. Now we're doing solely white wine out of Coravin. The range in pricing is I think $25-100, and we've sold everything in the range, really broad examples.
With so many options not only for what to drink but how to drink it, how do you organize the list? Or, what do want the guest experience to be when they sit down and look at the wine list?
So one of the objections that I have in the formal schools of wine education is—and I understand why it is this way—that it is hyper-technical. But wine is a beverage to be enjoyed with food, and a beverage to be enjoyed in a celebratory way. And there are wines that transport me emotionally to different places in the world, different experiences that I've had. That make you feel something. So the layout of the list is intended to present a lot of technicality in terms of being listed lightest to richest within any single section, and so on, but it is also intended to have emotion.
Wine is a beverage to be enjoyed with food, and a beverage to be enjoyed in a celebratory way.
Being where we are, I have to ask, what is the oyster pairing that you wished more people would try out?
[Instantly] Sherry. Manzanilla Sherry.
Could you sell me on it?
Well, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where Manzanilla specifically comes from, is a coastal town, super salt-washed characteristic, really high acidity—[he pauses; really studying wine means learning to be precise in your terminology]—well, fairly high acidity. Seemingly. Technical acidity is a little bit of a different issue. [See also: Sweetness, perceived.] But yes, Manzanilla sherry with oysters is a pairing in complete unison. Manzanillas tend to be really crisp, have just a touch of fruit to them, lemon zest, maybe a little green apple, but they always have a lot of that salty, oceanic air characteristic.
You know I was pointing out to our staff the other day that almost every single one of our wines right now from Spain is from a coastal region. [Then in an affectionate voice, as if speaking of favorite relatives] Godello, Rías Baixas, txakoli, Penedès.
With sherry, I've loved sherry for the last decade, originally from the bar side. But sherry is wine, and that's part of where it's misunderstood. It has a wine culture and is treated in Jerez as wine.
Speaking of sherry, you are kicking off your Vine Masters series [this Tuesday night] with Talia Baiocchi and her new book on sherry, which looks fantastic. How did the idea for that series come about?
For me, part of what I have enjoyed and what has fueled my passion for the wine industry has been meeting these really interesting characters, and learning from them.
It goes back to the whole ethos at Island Creek of bringing our guests closer to the farmer. For me, part of what I have enjoyed and what has fueled my passion for the wine industry has been meeting these really interesting characters, and learning from them. The first time I met Terry Theise [a wine character too large to summarize; look for him at a future Vine Masters talk], I was like, This is awesome. He's got such energy and he's describing the wines and you're learning and there is just so much passion. So I said how can we get more of the amazing wealth of characters in the world of wine introduced to the restaurant, to the staff, and especially to our guests. I was thinking about it and I said, Terry wrote a book, Neil [Rosenthal] wrote a book—I was actually reading Eric Asimov's newest wine book at the time—and I thought, why don't we see if we can try and link up some kind of grouping of authors, once every three months.
And from there, how did it ultimately come together as an event?
It will be a four-course seated dinner. It starts at 6:30 p.m., tickets are $125, and you get a signed copy of the book. And the dinner will actually start off with a sherry cocktail reception with passed hors d'oeuvres, including a raw bar, before we move into the full menu, which will be three courses of savory. Talia is going to be here to talk about the book and describe which sherries we chose to go with each course. And then our pastry chef Lauren [Kroesser] has come up with a Jerez-inspired selection for dessert.
So it's an opportunity for everybody to learn a little bit more. We picked sherry for the first one because the timing is perfect, the book looks amazing, and Talia is just such a smart, energetic mind that we felt she would be perfect to launch the series with. So we're pretty excited.
You mentioned earlier that you just passed the four-year mark. With where you've taken the wine list from its opening idea until now, and all the things you're working on for the future, what is it that is most exciting to you about the wine program at Island Creek right now?
I think we just have such an engaged staff, relative to the wine. The best compliment I ever get in this restaurant is, I can't believe how knowledgeable your servers are about wine. And they work really hard at it. It's a lot of information. As we've talked about, half-bottles, wine by the glass, Coravin, the bottle list, there's ten or twelve dessert wines, there's nine sherries. Plus champagne.
What I would most suggest to people when they come in is to come in with an open mind towards wine, and that they describe what they like. It goes back to thinking about what kind of experience you want to have, first, before we ever start talking about regions.