Sommelier Interview: Jean K. Reilly from Morrell Wine Bar & Cafe

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 11-16-2011

This week’s featured sommelier / wine director is Jean K. Reilly, MW from Morrell Wine Bar & Café. The Morrell family is well-established in the wine industry and in New York City –  Morrell’s Wine Store has been a leading retailer of wine in New York for over 60 years and is next door to the Wine Bar & Café right on Rockefeller Plaza.

Jean tastes countless wines to find the best matches for the café’s American cuisine with Asian accents. I take that back; the wines tasted actually aren’t countless. Jean placed a conversation-piece, “counter” in the wine bar that displays the number of wines tasted and the number selected. For reference, a recent count was 536 tasted, 53 selected. She’s a busy lady.

Read more about Jean’s best efforts to stay out of the wine business, her wine program’s best values, and her most famous patrons (hint: morning TV personalities who LOVE wine) below.

When and how did you fall in love with wine?

I can’t remember not being in love with wine. I lived in Paris as a student and that was an experience that really sealed the deal; I was fascinated with the way the French see food and wine as inseparable.

How’d you end up a wine director?

I tried to stay out of the wine business, actually. But I eventually got to the point that I was spending all my free time reading about wine and tasting. Then a friend who owned a small French restaurant in the East Village asked me to work for him as a sommelier, and I couldn’t turn it down.

What type of training or experience prepared you to become a sommelier?

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time visiting wineries around the world; I think I’ve visited over 1,000 wineries. I think getting to know the people and the land is very important.

How did you end up at your current job?

I actually started at Morrell as the wine buyer for the retail store just about the time I was finishing up my studies for the Master of Wine title. Then the wine director of the restaurant left and I took over that job as well.

Tell us something interesting about your wine program.

I look under every rock and stone for high quality reds with no tannin. We have found that they are the most flattering for the food at the wine bar, where many of our dishes have Asian accents. We’ve been experimenting with some wines from different regions that we think are very flattering for the food. Some that I’ve put on recently include a Conca de Barbera made from the Trepat grape. Also a Rubis from Jura; Jura wines are really hot with the wine geek crowd right now. The rubis is a very light red made from the Trousseau and Poulsard grapes that I find complements a wide variety of food.

If you could only pick one bottle, what would you order off your own list — and why?

The 1983 Ried Loisberg Auslese Grüner Veltliner by Willi Brundlmayer. Older Gruner Veltliner is a life-changing experience.

What’s the best value on your list?

Possibly the above, at $115. Also the Roots Klee Pinot Noir from Willamette, Oregon. It’s from organically-grown grapes and I had it packaged in a cool-looking recycled bag-in-box packaging. In order to encourage the whole green thing, we keep the price on it pretty low, $32 for a carafe.

Forget about your wine list. What wines are you most excited about right now? And why?

I am pretty interested in the wines coming out of certain parts of Eastern Europe. I just tried some really well-made wines from Croatia. There was also a Slovenian winemaker in town the other day who showed me a killer Merlot.

Who is the most famous person you’ve ever served — and what did they order?

Hoda and Kathie Lee are regular lunch partrons at the wine bar; we’re right across from the NBC studios.

What do you like to drink?

I am a big fan of Riesling, from all parts of the winemaking world but especially Germany. A friend of mine commented recently that among the 500 or so bottles I have at home, almost none are Riesling. I told her that’s because I drank them all.

Do you enjoy beer?

I love beer; I am thrilled with the craft beer movement and how many Americans are embracing the concept of beer with flavor. We recently put several on at the wine bar and they’re very popular.

What is most rewarding about your job?

One thing I love about my job is the range of wines. Many restaurant buyers are focused on just one area of the world; I get to play in every part of the world where vines are grown; we just put two Greek wines by the glass and I’m looking at some Croatian wines next week. I also love buying for both a retail store and a wine bar; they’re really two different jobs; each with its positives and negatives and they kind of balance each other out. Morrell also does auctions and wine storage so I get a glimpse of those parts of the wine business as well.

What’s least rewarding about your job?

It’s very hard to keep everyone happy. Even with 100 wines by the glass, there’s always a customer who is disappointed that we don’t have this or that.That and all the state regulations around buying and selling wines; it’s like working in a police state.

If you weren’t a wine buyer, what would you be doing?

I’d be doing your job, a freelance wine journalist.

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