Monthly Archives: September 2013

Sommelier Yannick Benjamin Works the Floor on Wheels

Yannick Benjamin

If you missed my article on the Village Voice, here’s a second look…

A bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin saved Yannick Benjamin‘s career; wine saved his life.
On October 27, 2003, Benjamin had a car accident on the West Side Highway that left him a T-6 paraplegic for life. He wasn’t drinking, he didn’t break any laws, nobody else was injured. Benjamin instantly knew something was wrong: “I felt a pulling in my body, the way a magnet is drawn to a refrigerator.” That night was the first of many in a decade long journey to mend his body and spirit, and return to the career he almost left.
At the time of the accident, Benjamin, only 25, was hitting his stride in the sommelier world. Born and bred in Manhattan, Benjamin had been working his way through the ranks of New York’s finest restaurants. “Growing up, I dreamed about owning my version of Cheers,” he says. “I wanted a fun place with a good group of people, simple food, and wine. I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Benjamin’s accident left him in a wheelchair. At first, he was confident he’d return to work. “I was so naïve, thinking I was going to come out of the hospital and start working the floor,” he says. But the positivity ebbed and flowed. For Benjamin, the hardest part came when a nurse finally explained that certain activities, specifically catheterization to go to the bathroom, would be forever. “‘This is your life,’ she told me. The gravity of that hit me, and it was depressing.”

After the ICU, Benjamin spent several more months in rehab before returning home in January 2004. “I remember that night; my dad brought me home,” he says. “We opened a Joseph Roty Gevrey-Chambertin from 2000. This was the first wine I tasted after my accident, and it was my first sip of something that wasn’t water or juice. The wine just hit me in the way an orange bursts in your mouth and the flavors taste electric. All this nostalgia came back, memories of working on the floor, being with wine friends. That experience changed my life and cemented my decision to get back out there no matter what.”

Convincing restaurants to hire him proved enormously difficult. “I can’t even tell you how many places I applied to that first year,” he says. “But nobody knew who I was, and I came rolling into the interview in a wheelchair. Yes, of course, rejection can make you strong, but after a while, it was also discouraging.”

As time passed, Benjamin was introduced to Jean-Luc Le Dû, the former sommelier at Daniel. Le Dû, had just opened his eponymous wine shop in the West Village, and without a moment’s hesitation, hired him, allowing Benjamin to continue working in wine. The job gave him stability. He began adding to his list of achievements, finishing college and entering tasting competitions. His highest goal was to sit for the Court of Master Sommeliers exam.

MS candidates are required to simulate wine service by carrying, decanting, and serving. Benjamin spent hours online trying to find someone working a restaurant floor in a wheelchair. “I looked up ‘wheelchair sommelier,’ and absolutely nothing came up,” he says. “I guess I am the only one dumb enough to attempt it.” To take the exam, Benjamin needed a tray. After various models, Benjamin finally settled on a custom wooden tray he designed with Jean-Paul Viollet of Atelier Viollet.

Last spring, Benjamin passed the service portion of the MS exam in Aspen. But he still felt a deep emptiness: “I didn’t care if someone paid me five bucks or nothing, I just wanted to get on a restaurant floor. I needed it.” A week later, he heard about an opening for a sommelier at the University Club. He had previously participated in competitions there in which, unknown to him, general manager John Dorman had been a judge. “When I went in and applied, he said he knew who I was.”

Benjamin was hired fuss-free and has been working as a sommelier nearly five months now, using his custom tray. At first he was nervous, worrying that the staff and customers might not accept him, but instead found the opposite. “They have been unbelievably helpful and gracious,” he says. “I think they feed off my energy.”

Reflecting on the past 10 years, Benjamin acknowledged that wine served as a life jacket during his recovery: “Wine, for me, isn’t just about drinking it; it’s a bridge to many different things—people, places, stories. I don’t know that if I didn’t have wine in my life, I would’ve been able to get through these difficult years.” Benjamin hopes to visit Joseph Roty in Burgundy. “I thought about writing a letter,” he says, “but I want to tell them in person how much that bottle meant to me. How that bottle saved my life.”

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First Days in Sydney, September 13-14

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Where I am going: Australia

My Epic Monthlong Journey Down Under

Part 1: Sponsored by Wine Australia,

Part 2: Independent Adventure

PART 1:

Savour

Departing JFK on Qantas, Wednesday, September 11.

SydneyThe Darling, September 13-15

Adelaide, for Australia’s First Global Wine Forum: SAVOURIntercontinental Hotel, September 15-19

Cool-Climate Wine Regions of Victoria and Tasmania, sponsored by Wine Australia, September 19-25

End of Wine Australia Program.

PART 2:

MelbourneThe Art Series Hotel: The Olsen, September 26-27

Alice Springs/King’s CanyonKings Canyon Resort, September 27-28

Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock)Sails in the Desert, September 28-30

Great Ghan Train from Alice Springs to Darwin, September 30-October 1

DarwinH Hotel, October 1-2

Mary River Wetlands near KakaduWildman Wilderness Resort, October 2-4

DarwinMantra Pandanas Hotel, October 4-5

Melbourne, Fitzroy neighborhood Air BnB private home, October 5-7

Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley Wine Tastings, overnight in Dandenong Ranges A Loft in the Mill, October 7-9

MelbourneThe Art Series Hotel: The Cullen, October 9-10

Return flight home on Qantas, October 10.

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Perfect Fall Reds From Austria–and Where to Drink them in NYC

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Copied from my column Unscrewed in the Village Voice

It’s frightening that we are already one week deep into September and are marching towards shorter, cooler days. For many, the change in weather means a welcome return to red wine. But what do you drink when the humidity abates yet temps still hover in the shorts and t-shirt zone?

Reds from Austria.

Gruner Veltliner, Austria’s white wine darling, is almost a household name (maybe not in Iowa), but what about red grapes like Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt? About a third of Austria’s wine production is red, concentrated southeast of Vienna primarily in the Burgenland region on the border of Hungary. Warm winds flow off the Pannonian plain, making red wine production possible in an otherwise cool country. Many vineyards lie on the shores of the Neusiedlersee, one of central Europe’s largest lakes and also a source of warmth. But you needn’t worry about the geography in order to appreciate the grapes’ charms. Their lean, aromatic, and acidic profiles make them food friendly and easy to drink–and an ideal way to transition into fall.

Here’s a quick crash course:

Blaufränkisch: Although a fickle grape to grow, this is Austria’s oldest red, and some say it’s also the finest for its ability to loyally reflect the nuances of terroir. It’s generally medium bodied, bright, and spicy, showing a range of dark fruit flavors. It’s also known as Lemberger in Germany, Washington State, and the Finger Lakes.

St. Laurent: Satin-textured, sometimes lean, sometimes plump, this wine draws comparisons to a Pinot Noir with brawn (or a cross with Syrah), and it displays a wide expression of flavors from smoky-mocha-blueberry to meaty-wet earth-Morello cherry.

Zweigelt: Genetically a cross between the first two, this grape was created in 1922 by Austrian scientist Fritz Zweigelt. Generally lighter in body, it’s often juicy, cheerfully fruity, smooth, and quaffable, supplemented with notes of spice and floral aromatics like cinnamon sticks and violets.

Now that you know your grapes, hit these four spots in the city to get your Austrian fix. 

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Café Katja, 79 Orchard Street
Once a microscopic speck of a joint, this recently expanded restaurant offers authentic, homey fare at reasonable–and not just reasonable for New York City–prices. When the Austrian importers are in town, they come here. The homemade liverwurst is spectacularly good in its simplicity, as is the emmentaler sausage that oozes rich cheese from its cavity when sliced open. The wine-by-the-glass options are so affordable you can sample a few for the twenty in your pocket.

Edi and the Wolf, 102 Avenue C; The Third Man, 116 Avenue C
An instant hit when it opened, this East Village resto features a contemporary take on rustic, hearty fare in an equally rustic, woodland fantasy-like setting bedecked with overgrown plants and reclaimed wood. Executive chef/owners Eduard Frauender and Wolfgang Ban were inspired by Heuriger, the casual, neighborhood wine taverns prevalent in their native Austria. The wiener schnitzel with potato salad, creamy cucumbers and lingonberry is a classic, but less identifiably Austrian dishes like squid ink risotto with scallop are also skillfully prepared with soul. If you get stuck waiting for a table (the line can be outrageous) or are interested in lighter fare with your wine, head a few doors down to The Third Man, a Viennese-inspired cocktail bar from the same owners.

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Seäsonal, 132 West 58th Street 

Another Eduard and Wolfgang tribute to home, this midtown spot is on a re-design hiatus and will reopen in a few days, the interior refreshed by Brooklyn-based designer Florian Altenburg, who also contributed to the duo’s two downtown haunts. The menu will continue to honor their seasonal food agenda, but the renewed space departs from its former monochrome white with warmer elements including hand-made brass light fixtures, natural wooden tables, and forest-green leather banquettes. The revamped beverage program and addition of a raw seafood menu will make the bar a more prominent focus of the space.

Upholstery Store, 713 Washington Street 
One can’t talk about the steady proliferation of Austrian restaurants in the city without acknowledging Kurt Gutenbrunner’s influence. With four successful establishments, each offering a twist on the cuisine of his homeland, Gutenbrunner undeniably spearheaded NYC’s Austrian food campaign. Wallse, Blaue Gans, and Café Sabarsky are all good places to daydream about Viennese and Alps getaways, but the Upholstery Store is a straight-up bar in a no-nonsense setting for getting down to the business of drinking wine. Supplement your drinks with charcuterie, cheeses, and other gourmet snacks, all available for nibbling while you explore the depths of your three new vinous friends.

Wines to Find: 

Heinrich, Bläufrankisch 2011, $25. Medium-bodied, balanced wine with an attractive punch of fresh blueberry and blackberry fruit.

Paul Achs, St. Laurent 2009, $30. Spicy and earthy with cherry aromas, the delicate structure and fine tannins evoke Pinot Noir.

Umathum, Zweigelt Classic 2011, $20. Good complexity for the money, tastes like a bushel of black cherries stuffed in the bottle spiced up with fresh black pepper.

Where to Buy:
Sherry-Lehman, 505 Park Ave, 212-838-7500
Astor Wines and Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

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