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 Filed as : Wine TipsPeopleSommeliers

Young Somm Behind LAVO's Wine

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  • Publish Date: Aug 12, 2010

Young Somm Behind LAVO's Wine
The secrets of designing a world-class wine list.

Imagine being at the center of one of New York's biggest restaurant openings of the year--and it's up to you to create the wine list. Where do you begin?

That's the challenge facing Keith Nelson, 28, beverage manager for LAVO in Midtown Manhattan. If the LAVO name sounds familiar, that's because the original is a major Las Vegas hotspot, introduced by the creators of the world-famous restaurant/nightclub Tao. New York's LAVO, which has its soft launch this weekend, officially opens in September--and it's expected to be as big a hit as all the other jewels in the company's crown.

Nelson, who worked his way up from waiting tables here and there to sommelier at high-end Japanese restaurant Megu, shared details with The Daily Sip on what goes into building a wine list that people will like--but also find easy to understand and navigate. He also gave us tips for finding the best bargains.

Read on for our full interview with Nelson to learn what it takes to create a great wine list.

Bottlenotes: How did you first got interested in wine, and how did that lead to your job at LAVO?
Nelson: About 10 years ago, [I started] waiting tables in the city, and started to learn more about food in a serious way--then worked with a company that took wine seriously. I started to learn more about the beverage and started drinking it more, and learned more about it. As I moved up at different restaurants with nicer and nicer wine programs, the same thing compounded--more interest and more knowledge. Then I decided to take the Court of Master Sommeliers' introductory and certified level tests, which I passed. I got a job as an assistant sommelier at Megu Tribeca, working under Jim Clarke. Then after 18 months there I accepted a promotion to become wine director at Megu Midtown, and ran all beverage aspects there--wine, saké, beer and liquor. I was there for about a year and a half.

Talk about LAVO Vegas, why it's so popular, and how the NYC version will be different.
We originally opened Tao in NY ten years ago, then Tao in Vegas, then spinoffs of it including Tao nightclub and Tao Beach. Then [the company] wanted to create a similar concept--a young, hip, sexy kind of place, which is LAVO, an Italian restaurant, bathhouse and nightclub. [It has] pretty straightforward Italian food, a raw bar, pizza, pasta and steak. It's been really successful. It's just over the top in Vegas: 50-foot ceilings, water jugs on the walls, bathtubs with girls, flowers--the whole Vegas thing.

They wanted to bring the Vegas concept to New York, but have it be a little more of a legit, straight-ahead Italian restaurant rather than a Vegas playhouse. It won't be as over the top and dramatic in terms of atmosphere, but it'll be like a nice European bistro in the 1920s. An older feel, but with a young, hip crowd and good, solid Italian food, cocktails and wine.

Tell us about the wine list you created.
[It will have] about 180 selections on the list, including reds, whites and sparkling wines, and it's primarily an Italian list, but international varieties will be represented. Mostly Piedmont wines, Tuscan wines and wines from the south. Nothing too esoteric, something pretty approachable for the average diner. We want the selections to be comfortable from a service standpoint and a guest's dining standpoint. We're not going to deal with any vintage depth--no verticals.

Bottles will start in the mid to high $30s and go up sort of infinitely from there. The sweet spot or average will probably be between $60 and $85. In the next year we'll have several selections between $100 and $200, a few between $400 and $500, and a few over that. The plan is to open with a list, and then add in a reserve list, then have some four-digit wines later. We'll have Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Mascarello, Gaja, some big names both in Super Tuscans and Barolos. But we'll have smaller producers, too, like Schola Sarmenti Primitivo and Masi Amarone.

What would you say is the best bang-for-buck wine you put on your list?
It may be a little cliché, but Masi makes this beautiful white wine called Masianco, which is 70% Pinot Grigio and 30% Verduzzo, and it's one of the better Pinot Grigios out there. They do the Verduzzo grapes a little differently: They dry them out like in Amarone, which gives the wine some nice weight. I'll have that on the list for $35. It's a great wine made by a great producer.

There's an importer, Vinifera, that has an insane amount of back-vintage stuff of great quality and they keep the price really low. For instance, we're going to have a Chianti Classico from Felsina, 1994, and I'll have it on the list for right around $100. Really excellent producer, it's got quite a bit of development and age--and a very approachable price.

How long did it take you to conceive of what you wanted for the list, taste everything and order it? From start to finish, how long does it take to put together a 180-bottle wine list?
I'm still doing it right now. I got the bulk of the list finished in about a week and a half, but working all day every day, having reps come in and taste me on wines, probably tasting 30-40 wines a day, and making decisions from there and checking on availability. We're going to do a ton of volume, so when we're picking out selections that I know are going to be popular, supply is a concern. If I have a Chianti Classico Riserva that I know people are going to like, I need to make sure there are 100 cases available, because we're going to burn through it. But the list is still ongoing. Four weeks out from friends and family, we're not placing orders until the second week of August. I haven't started ordering, I just have a list, knowing that availability may change and prices may change, and we'll tweak it once it actually starts happening.

What're some of the things you'll do to help people who aren't as familiar with wine navigate a big, Italian wine list?
In terms of making it approachable, it'll be organized regionally, Northern Italian Reds, Central Italian Reds, Southern Italian Reds, American Reds--and within those categories we'll list in price order from low to high. American wines, it'll be primarily Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Merlot. I'll stick with the classics and the names for the American stuff since I want it to be easy. Company-wide they like to list the wine in price from low to high so people can figure out what kind of wine they want in a certain price range. That way we can recommend something they're comfortable with in terms of price, then we can ask them questions about what style of wine they want in their price range. We'll keep the staff tasted currently on everything we have so they can be familiar with the wines in the $30 range, $100 range and $300 range--whether it's a delicate yet powerful Barolo or some hot, high-alcohol, super-fruity Southern Italian red.

Do you have any consumer-friendly tricks? We've read a lot lately about how some sommeliers maybe hide one bottle on the list that's retail price. Will you do anything like that?
I haven't considered it yet, but it's not off the table.

There was the New York Times story recently about some diners being upset at sommeliers taking a sip of the wine to check the bottle. How do you feel about that?
As a sommelier, I'm very pro having the sommelier taste [the wine], partly because as a diner I don't want to be served a bad wine. But being in the business, I don't want to serve a bad wine. But [it's] also for my own education. It's my job to know what all the wines on the list taste like, and to be constantly reviewing those. If we taste every bottle we serve, that gives us that opportunity. As a diner, I want my sommelier to know his list better than anyone else, even if I'm a wine professional. He knows which labels are showing better, which vintages are better. Some restaurants taste in front of the guest, some taste out of sight, some taste in line of sight but don't make it obvious. I had lunch at Le Bernadin recently and they tasted right in front of me, and I loved that--I think it really heightens the experience. At LAVO, that's not going to be an issue unless it's a bottle I'm personally decanting. We're going to be a more hip, casual crowed, and a hip, casual experience. That's one part of service that can really define how "nice" a restaurant is, how stuffy the wine service is. We want to keep it nice and familiar.

Obviously, if a wine list is the size of a phone book that doesn't mean it's a good one that's well thought out. What's a quick way for the average Joe to tell if it's a good list with intelligent picks, or just a big list?
Two things. You'll go to some places and you'll see not too many selections but an insane amount of vintage depth--pages and pages of Barolo, maybe only from three or four producers, but they have every vintage between the '60s and now. That, to me is a totally different experience. It's something to pat yourself on the back that you've collected this--either bought along the line, or you just have a lot of money and bought it all at auction. It doesn't necessarily mean you know every year and every good year. It can also be a way to hide things. If you don't pay attention to vintages and what's good, you don't need to pick good vintages, just pick all of them--maybe no one will be the wiser.

For a diner to see a good list, I like to put on wines that are indicative of what's classic about where they come from, not just have all the selections. I want to have a dozen wines from Piedmont from a couple classic producers, some people that are excellent so you can get a feel for what Barolo may be, what Barbaresco may be, what Dolcetto may be. I don't need five Dolcettos, I just need one. Basically be representative of the world of wine without being completely comprehensive because there isn't space on our list or in our cellar--or money in our bank accounts--to have 40 pages of Barolo.

And then keeping up on the trends, what people are drinking in the young, hip crowd, like Gary Vaynerchuk--he's turning on a young, hip audience to wine. What these guys are paying attention to is what I need to pay attention to.

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