Bartender’s Notebook: Wine expert Jim Coley helps me choose my own wine adventure

Jim Coley could talk wine for days. That’s his job. He’s the wine director at Gomer’s Midtown — which means, he says, at least as many cardboard boxes as fancy tastings. Away from work, he’s no less focused on finding the right bottle.

That’s what he seems to be working on when I meet him on a Thursday night at the cozy bar inside Novel (which Bon Appétit recently named one of America’s best new restaurants). He has brought a bottle of Gamay to share with Novel’s manager and wine buyer, Richard Garcia, and as I arrive, the two of them are swirling their glasses and remarking on the bouquet rising from the wine.

This is the kind of thing that has led me to Coley. What exactly is he getting when he dips his nose into the glass? How can I get it, too? And how, when presented with a wine list as expansive as Novel’s, am I supposed to make an educated decision?

I sit down with Coley, and we look at the selection, which includes some 60 bottles. “This list tells me that Richard has an opinion, a vision, and wants to give people options,” he says. In this case, the options include varietals I’ve never seen. Which turns out to be fine.

“If I’m going to a restaurant and I’m not familiar with the list, I’ll try to pick something I’ve never heard of,” Coley tells me. It’s possible to surprise the master, then.

“There are different ways to handle a list like this,” he says. “If I’m going out to a restaurant, I’ll typically look at the food menu first. Here, at Novel, we have a food menu that’s going to be really wine-friendly and a wine list that’s going to be really food-friendly. What I’ll look for a lot of times in food is an ingredient that stands out — what is the most really intense flavor — and then I’ll go through the wine list and select the wine I think would best suit the dish.”

He looks at the menu and selects two appetizers: white quinoa with anchovy and curry, and beef tartare with crab and caviar. These will pair with glasses of white, he tells me. He selects an Italian for the tartare, the Masera Gavi by Massone ($9), and the Austrian Brunn Grüner Veltliner ($10) for the quinoa.

“Grüner is indigenous to Austria,” he explains. “It’s their most famous grape. It tends to be dry and has a little hint of light pepper and citrus notes. It’s very food-friendly because it’s relatively high in acid and relatively low in alcohol but has a lot of complexity.”

The Brunn that Coley has selected tastes exactly as he has described it, with flavors of tart green apple and melon. It’s refreshing and delicate, and the bright, crisp finish lends a bit of effervescence to the sip. When these flavors interact with the rich quinoa, though, the profile of the wine changes. The interplay between the aromatic curry and anchovy brings out a spice in the Grüner that was just a shadow before.

The Masera Gavi, too, holds up to Coley’s expectations of a fuller, complexly mineral wine. With wet stone on the nose and in the taste, it’s a midnight skinny dip on a moonlit lake. The reverie is shattered, though, when I try it with the tartare. The food’s texture is jarring — spongy beef and crab, with a peppery kick, and the pebblelike caviar. But the Gavi helps calm the temper tantrum that the dish seems to be throwing.

“It’s better to have what you enjoy than to have the perfect pair,” Coley says. “If the perfect pair is a wine you hate, then it’s really not the perfect pair. That said, when they work, there’s really nothing quite like it. You know you’ve got the pair right when the flavors fill every corner of your mouth, when there’s a moment when you take a bite and you take a sip and every line is harmonized.”

For entrees, Coley has ordered seared diver scallops and the pork chop, so he spends a few moments considering a bottle of red. He settles on the Domaine de la Réserve d’O Bilbo ($40), from the Languedoc region in France. It’s a newish, biodynamic wine — a bit of a risk, he says. He recounts an anecdote about trying a Bordeaux that was new to him, at a New York restaurant years ago.

“I ordered that, and the guy who was running the restaurant came running out of the back wanting to know who ordered that Bordeaux, all excited that someone finally had,” Coley says. “And one thing that I like to tell people is that a lot of times, the thing you’ve never heard of on the list, the guy running the wine program put that on there because he loves it and he wants you to try it.”

The Bilbo is opened, glasses poured, and entrees arrived. What happens next is kind of magical: Coley, swirling his glass between bites, poetically narrates the flavors he is experiencing, a new revelation and a new expression with each sip.

But for all of his obviously intense enjoyment, my greatest lesson tonight is a simple one.

“My advice to people is, let go and just enjoy it,” Coley tells me. “Be willing to take the adventure. At the end of the day, it’s just a bottle of wine, and if you can let someone guide you, if you’re willing to take a chance, you’ll be just fine.”

Categories: Dining, Food & Drink