One of the most memorable parts of the evening occurred during food critic Mimi Sheraton's speech when she lauded Lutèce and detailed Soltner's contributions to the culinary world. Soltner leaned into the microphone and reminded her that once she took away one of his stars. She replied, "Oh, I knew I wouldn't get through this night without you mentioning that!" It was a touching exchange between a chef and a critic, who, after decades of working for different parts of the same industry, have formed a unique friendship.
It was amazing. The sommeliers gathered around and we practically drooled over the pages. Not only is this an incredible piece of history, but this wine list is a look into the producers and vintages that were available in Manhattan 50 years ago. It's wild to think that you could drink these legendary bottles so easily, but it is also interesting to note the limited selection compared to today's availability.
Here are some highlights from this legendary piece of history:
Henry Behar, Vintage Wines
Michel Dreyfus, Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.
Robert Haas, Leeds Imports
Reginald M. Halpern, North America Wines
Herbert Kahn, Excelsior Wines and Spirits
Frank Schoonmaker, F. Schoonmaker Selections
Col. Frederick Wildman, Frederick Wildman Co.
Compare this with today's average number of suppliers: I work with 50-60 wine suppliers (of which there are sales representatives, winery representatives, and owners to meet with), 1 coffee supplier, 4 tea suppliers, and 20-25 spirit suppliers. The only way to keep it all in line is to have an organized spreadsheet.
I find it touching to see this relationship between restaurant wine buyer and wine merchant. Today, merchants are rarely given the credit they deserve for sourcing special bottles, and I've never seen merchants thanked on a modern wine list. Perhaps it would be nice if we could return to paying these sort of respectful homages to those who source the wine for our lists.
Then, they thank the author of "Wines of France," Alexis Lichine, for creating an "invaluable source for technical and background material." This nod highlights the access to information that we often take for granted today.
Flip to the first page and you are greeted with a mind-blowing vertical of Lafite Rothschild dating back to the 1890s.
Or you could choose some Haut Brion from the 1930s.
Pre-depression Mouton, anyone?
Here is a look into the French rose available in 1962 Manhattan.
Flip a page, and we come to a sampling of some of the red Burgundy offerings. Only once in a while does the list mention the producer name-- it seems that the producer is listed only when it is a monopole, or when they have released a special cuvee. It does highlight the vineyard, the vineyard's class (grand cru, premier cru, etc.), and the vineyard hectare size.
This way of writing the wine list is a look into how wine from Burgundy was (is?) perceived. Especially growing up in the US I've always had this ingrained notion that it is the producer who is paramount, and the land is second. I've wrestled with seeing this different ways, sometimes changing my mind about the importance of terroir, sometimes believing that, no, it really is the producer who is the most important. We all know that it really is a combination, but ultimately, it is hard for me to disregard the producer and think solely in terms of pieces of land because I was raised with constant subconscious messages that the producer is the most important (it's always the producer or brand on US labels that is bolded, front and center on the label, and sometimes the land source is not even mentioned).
But this causes confusion to the uninitiated. I remember -- years ago-- a woman in her late 70s complained that her glass of chardonnay cost $15. I smiled and said, "Well, it is from one of the most wonderful places that chardonnay can be grown, Puligny-Montrachet." She gasped and scolded me, "Why, that's not chardonnay, that's MONTRACHET," and she told me to correct the wine list.
As crazy as she sounded to a sommelier's ears, I undertand her confusion.
It is only compounded by the many global producers in the early-mid 1900s who pilfered the terms "Burgundy" and "Chablis" and used them to reference vast quantities of wine from anywhere.
All these things occurred to me as I marveled at how Soltner had organized the list.
Then I flipped to this page.
This page may have been the most important page on the entire list. Burgundy and Bordeaux would probably have still reached their zenith heights without being on Soltner's wine list.
This page-- to me-- seems like a labor of love. From today's eyes, three Alsatian wines seems like a measly amount, but in the 1960s, these wines were not readily available in Manhattan. Chef Soltner (who is an Alsatian native) helped arrange for these wines to be at his restaurant. He had them brought in because it wouldn't be right to have a wine cellar without them. This page, I believe, is the primary genesis of the Alsatian wine market in the US. With this page, this wine list made history.
Moet et Chandon
Pommery et Greno
Today we all think of these as the classics. But one of the reasons we consider many of these producers to be iconic is because Soltner put them on his wine list in 1962.
As I flipped through these fantastic pages I became more and more amazed. This is the grandfather of all our wine lists. Decades later, the ink on these pages continue to ripple through our industry...