Ask an Insider is an interview series that talks to the people that make, serve, shake, sip, pump, pour, crush, distill, and bring life to this industry. (For other interviews in the series, click the Ask an Insider tag at the bottom)
Carla Rzeszewski, Wine Director
The Spotted Pig, The Breslin & The John Dory Oyster Bar
How many beverage programs are you running?
I am the Wine Director for The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar, as well as Salvation Taco, Ken and April’s new spot in the POD Hotel.
What is it about wine and spirits that most excites you?
This is a cliched answer at this point, but if it’s true, what are you gonna do? I am thrilled when a wine or spirit speaks for itself. When this notion of terroir is on full, shining display. When you know without a shadow of a doubt that there is only one place on this planet that any said beverage could originate from. And if that is a hard idea to grasp, imagine a faceless, anonymous wine, one which could very well be from any wine-growing area, one without provenance, and what excited me if the polar opposite of that.
What part of your job do you love the most?
Teaching and learning. Teaching the staff (and occasionally tables), and learning every step of the way. Some days the learning is obvious in its attack: at a tasting with a wine or winemaker, with my chefs and the language of their food palates, with my staff, who are constantly pushing me to learn more in order to answer their questions, and from tables. The guests are the most quiet in their teaching, but if you can really listen to what they are asking for or sometimes what their lack of speaking says, what their body language tells you about their enjoyment, you learn to offer them what they couldn’t even articulate for themselves. So pretty much mind-reading is what I’m into.
What words of advice would you give to someone who is just starting to run a beverage program?
Ask for help! Do not think you need to have all of the answers! Ask around, see what everyone else is up to, what works well in their programs and what they think could use attention, what they wish they could change, what advice they may have on your program from the outside… It requires a swallowing of ego, and occasionally taking a hit. But I promise you will come out more balanced in the end. And put in the work; honor your kitchen by meeting their passion, and honor your staff by raising the bar, requesting more of them than they thought they could give. They will thank you for it.
Its no surprise that restaurant hours and long and can be quite stressful…how do you find balance between work and life?
I’ve been in this position for three years, and I am still trying to find the answer to that! I am the first to admit that I am consumed by love for this work, and that can result in an uneven spread of personal life/work. Occasionally it affects me and those surrounding me, but at the end of every day, I still come back to the fact that I love what I am doing. I truly believe that it’s not work if you love it; then it’s simply how you choose to spend your life.
Who has inspired you most in your career?
Hmmmmm….. I’d say the people who have chosen their own path. Some have had a classic career path, some have been rogue, but all have chosen what makes them move in the truest way. Jan Petterson of Fernando de Castilla, Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar, Paul Grieco, April Bloomfield, Richard Betts.
What wine region are you most intrigued by? Today?
California. There is a clear movement for California to prove to ‘fine wine’ connoisseurs that they can make wines with balance, an ear to the terroir and singular expression. The underdog is always an exciting choice for me.
Favorite recent find in the wine, beer, and spirits world?
Koshu, or aged sake. It is always listed on the dessert menu in Japanese restaurants, but its ability to pair with savory foods is very similar to older Madeira and oxidatively aged sherries, such as Oloroso. Cool stuff. Mushrooms, umami, tobacco.
You’ve become a huge advocate of Sherry. Why do you think the American general public is so unaware of its glory?
I’m sure its multilayered; because the Sherry industry let itself slide down the slippery slope of a lowered quality bar, because the public is uneducated in terms of pairing the wine with savory foods, because they simply are unaware of the wine, period. Fortified wines and sake in general are a tough sell, but my god can they excite the palate and the mind… they require a different vocabulary for understanding, and that step outside the comfort zone is titillating.