Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Behind the Scenes with an NYC Somm

Eduardo Porto Carreiro of Union Square Hospitality Group, New York City, talks to Wine Enthusiast about what goes into running a high-profile wine program.
Illustration by Monica Simon

In this episode, we drop in on Eduardo Porto Carreiro, beverage director of Untitled restaurant at the Whitney Museum in New York City, to learn more about the roller coaster of running a high-profile wine program in one of the city’s hottest restaurants.

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Read the full transcript of “Behind the Scenes with an NYC Somm”:

Mike DeSimone: Mike DeSimone, Entertaining and Lifestyle Editor, Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Susan Kostrzewa: Susan Kostrzewa, Executive Editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Mike and I are huge art fans, and we’re at the Whitney Museum in New York City and one of the things that’s really cool about this is we can indulge our interest in art and wine. We just have taken a look at some of the great pieces of art of the Whitney and we’re going to check out Untitled, which is the restaurant in the Whitney where our friend, Eduardo works. Mike, I think it’s time for a glass of wine. What do you think?

MD: It is certainly time for a glass of wine.

SK: Okay. Let’s check it out. Eduardo’s going to let us sort of drop in on him and he’s going to take us through a little bit about what he does here, and talk to us about Untitled, the restaurant and his wine program.

Eduardo Porto Carreiro: Eduardo Porto Carreiro, Beverage Director at Untitled at the Whitney.

MD: So let me ask, how did you get here? I mean not here, you probably took the subway I’m going to guess, but how did you get into service and into wine and food? And what was your career path for you to get to the point that you’re working at one of the premiere dining destinations in New York City right now?

ECP: My first job outside of college, in terms of a survival job, because every actor needs to find a survival job first, was in a little wine store, making $8 an hour as a clerk. I can’t tell you how much that affected me and what an amazing experience it was to be ringing people up for these incredible Bordeaux’s, these wonderful Burgundy’s, these extraordinary wines that I’d only read about before. I kind of was a food and wine geek as well. I loved it. My parents always loved cooking. Wine was always a part of the dinner table and so, I thought to myself, “It would be neat to have a survival job that might incorporate another one of my passions,” which was food and wine.

SK: It’s kind of interesting when you’re talking about your background because I think in a lot of ways, somebody who’s in front of house and interacting with people is acting a little bit. I mean, you’re on, you’re sort of on stage and you kind of have to be on in addition to sort of all the other things that a beverage director or somm does, you kind of… You’re the face of the restaurant, along with the server. You’re certainly the face of the wine program or the spirits program. How do you think the training that you had in acting, or the interest you had in acting, how do you feel like that helps you in the job that you do here?

ECP: I think it’s immensely important and frankly one of the things that everyone talks about in terms of just art and creation of any tangible thing, it’s all about being present. I think that connecting with people and being present and having that outlook on life has really helped me to excel, enjoy and feel fulfilled with what I do today.

MD: I actually worked, one of my first jobs in food service I worked at a kosher deli-

ECP: Amazing!

MD: Yeah, when I was in high school and I actually used to cure the pastrami and cure the corned beef, but I’m just curious, just off the top … I mean, I write about wine, what would you pair with pastrami?

ECP: What I would pair with pastrami in 2002, when this was the case, is very different than what I would pair today, but I tell you what, if I have the means to get my hands on a great Cru Beaujolais, with an awesome pastrami sandwich with Thousand Island dressing on delicious white bread, I think I would be an extremely happy camper.

SK: Okay, I love that you just said, “White bread and Thousand Island dressing” with that and I totally want that.

ECP: It’s so delicious and completely gluttonous and I deserve it.

SK: Woo-hoo!

MD: I don’t know. I fell like some sin against the cannon of pastrami was just committed, putting it on white bread, because there is no other thing but pastrami on rye.

ECP: Pastrami on rye, it all depends. I do love pastrami on rye, but if you have really good toasted white, there’s something so wrong, that’s right about it, you know what I’m saying?

SK: What advice would you give a young person or college age person who’s interested in going into wine? What would be your first thing to tell them to do, and what would be your first thing to tell them to avoid and not to do?

ECP: Okay, so the most important part of learning about wine is reading. Read, read, read, read, read. Then taste, taste, taste, taste, taste. Then travel, get out there, see the vineyards, meet the winemakers. If you read a ton, taste a ton, and actually see and feel and experience the places, I think that is the way to really internalize, absorb, feel and excel in this business.

SK: You’ve had experiences in some of these regions, these wineries, these vineyards. I mean, that’s a huge sell I would imagine when you’re talking to people about wine.

ECP: I mean, oh gosh, in addition to wine just being an awesome beverage that gives you a buzz it’s a story. It’s a really amazing story and traditionally if you are able to store some of these exquisite bottles, these are stories that are only told once in a lifetime. You feel that. It affects you. It tastes good but it also leaves this impression that really you can’t find anywhere else.

MD: What’s a, I know for a writer in an emergency is when you’ve forgotten about a deadline or somebody needs something really quick or someone doesn’t get an asset to us. If I need a recipe from someone and it comes in the morning of the shoot, the photo shoot and it’s a disaster. I can’t even send it to a food stylist, that’s an emergency. What’s a work emergency in your world?

ECP: You’re giving me anxiety right now…

MD: I’m sorry about that. We should actually drink some wine and combat that.

ECP: No Mike, actually, I think all of us have had bad days and actually I’ve learned some great lessons from certain work emergencies I’ve had. With regards to gravity and really expensive white silk blouses and red wine, those are things that don’t really make for a lovely evening out. There is a little tool…

SK: What do you mean by that?

ECP: Well, yes.

SK: Be specific.

MD: Yeah, be specific.

SK: We want to hear about this.

ECP: Right now, I’m pulling something out of my pocket that I always carry with me. This is my trusty serviette. Some people call it liteau. Other people call it torchon. This is a sommelier’s best friend.

MD: Wait. That is a small black, it looks smaller than a regular napkin. It looks like a small black folded napkin. Looking at one unfinished hem, it might be a napkin you cut in half. Tell us about that.

ECP: This is a sommelier’s best friend. This little serviette allows for me to have a bit of insurance. If you are a young Sommelier out there and you’re listening to this, please, please, please don’t try to be a hero. Do not, do not serve red wine without your serviette.

A serviette, essentially what it is is a cloth, a paper towel, Kleenex, whatever it is that actually picks up the little drips that accumulate at the top of the bottle when you’re pouring wine. Even though you might think you have control of the wine, there’s always going to be one sneaky little guy of a drip of wine that’s going to come out and splash where you least want it. There, that’s my public service announcement.

MD: Okay, I’m picturing this. I’m figuring it out. For those watching at home, could you verbally demonstrate how. Tell us, what do you do with your little serviette?

ECP: Well firstly let me tell you what I did once without my serviette. The sad and thankfully successful event was me happily being a young sommelier. This was when I was in Las Angeles working at great little restaurant and I was pouring red wine to a big top. It was a three couples, six people, and I was pouring red around and was very comfortable without any aid of a serviette and there without even knowing, drip, drip. Two blotches, splats, of red wine on this beautiful, what I assume was a very expensive white silk blouse that this woman was wearing and I didn’t know it. I didn’t catch it. I didn’t notice.

MD: When was this brought to your attention?

ECP: Her husband that wasn’t terribly sweet noticed it moments later and proceeded to berate me. Proceeded to make me feel very small and sad. However, thankfully the woman who got dripped on ended up being one of the sweetest, nicest people I have ever met and berated her husband for berating me. I ended up looking like the good guy and it turned out all right because all we did was take care of the dry cleaning at that point and there was no stain left. But, I learned a lesson. My serviette.

MD: One of the things that I think is really important about the Court of Master Sommeliers is that there is actually that service aspect to it. That is the people who go for that certification are people who work in service and who serve wine and pour wine as opposed to the Master of Wine, the MW, which is more purely academic and doesn’t have that. I just find, not bashing anyone but I find if you hang out with the MS’s the Master Sommelier, those people, they can be kind of cooler, more fun and I think the people who work in service are more fun. Would you agree with that?

ECP: I would say that the term Sommelier has to do with someone who is working the floor and in the act of performing service of guests and taking care of them in that wine aspect. You don’t have to have a certification to be a Sommelier. There are beautiful programs to get certified in that field but if you are a wine steward in Singapore and have never taken an actual class but have an immense knowledge of wine and you’re taking care of a guest then you are a sommelier and I can guarantee you that the Sommeliers are having a lot of fun.

MD: I actually recently got back from India and what fascinated me there was that in the hotels everyone working, even your servers in a restaurant, everyone had at least a level two WSET certification and they were going on, which is the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and they were going on for their level three and people were interested. Because you have to go through that now in order to go on to the Quarter Masters Sommeliers or the MW and the level of service, the types of wine glasses, the breadth of knowledge of servers in India blew me away.

ECP: That’s one of the things I think is most important right now. We’re in 2017 folks. We’re living in the future but it’s the perfect time to see how wine has affected every corner of the world. We have people drinking wine, enjoying wine, learning about wine, everywhere and it’s so exciting. This is the best time for wine that there’s been since I started in this business.

SK: One of the things I want to say about Untitled as location is if you haven’t been here yet, beyond obviously the amazing connection to the Whitney and beyond the great amazing food and wine that you have here, this is awesome people watching. Visualize the space. It’s all glass. It’s basically, you’re sitting at tables, you’re looking out onto the street and New York is amazing people watching but I’m just like, as we’re hanging out here, just seeing all the people walking by.

It’s not only I would think really interesting to see who comes into the restaurant but it’s also, you can sit here, have a glass of wine, it kind of reminds me of the equivalent of in Paris. These cultures like Italy and France where you sit outside and all the tables and all the chairs are turned to the street. It kind of feels like that but you get the benefit of it being nice and warm in here because it’s winter right now. It’s just a really unique space in that way.

Eduardo’s taking us down to the cellar. We’re getting the insider tour here down a couple flights of… Hey, you know what’s great about this is you get your exercise in too. I bet you got up and down these stairs a lot.

ECP: I actually want to respond to that.

MD: This is a fancy staircase I have to tell you.

SK: All right. Oh yeah. You can probably hear the fan. There’s activity back here. All right, we’re in the red wine cellar.

ECP: This is where the magic happens. It’s not as pretty as a lot of cellars that you might see in your magazine for example. This is much more about function over form, but this is where we hold pretty much all of our wines that are on the list plus wines that aren’t on the list but are ready to come on as soon as we have room for them. We also have a storage facility off site where we hold onto wines that we’re aging and need some more time. For the purposes of working service, this is the place.

I would say that this is very much my zen place, my happy place. I’ll even find myself in the middle of a lot of office work taking a moment, coming in here to have a breather because it’s quiet, but for the hum of the compressor. It really is calming. When I first started in this business I ran a little wine program and it was just me and I spent a lot of time in the cellar reorganizing, opening boxes, breaking down and so on and so forth.

Now that I’ve been in this business for about ten years, ten plus years in terms of being a wine director, I have thankfully a fantastic team and I don’t spend as much time as I would like in the cellar because I’m spending more time in front of a computer these days. My team essentially takes it upon themselves to really keep this place as organized as I ask them to. Anyone come in here can find a wine. Everything is all labeled, dialed in and I’m actually very proud of the way that the cellar looks.

SK: There is something really relaxing about being, I think just in a cellar with the wine. If it’s the thing that you’re passionate about. It’s a happy place.

ECP: Yeah, no doubt. It’s calming, happy place and you’re surrounded by a lot of good friends proverbially speaking.

MD: If you could reach your arm out right now, what’s your current favorite rack or favorite section in here?

SK: That’s like asking you to choose a child I know but…

MD: I meant current. Obviously we go through phases, we go through styles. There’s things that we’re drinking that we really love at any given moment.

ECP: It’s cold out. It snowed last night. I’m in very much a Syrah state of mind. I instinctively gravitate towards the Northern Rhone. I would say something like this. I just pulled out a Cornas from a small producer named Marcel Juge, 2012 vintage. Not too much of this wine comes into the U.S. and every time that we pull the cork on one of these it’s special for me as well as for the guests.

This is one of the wines actually that we’re down to our last two bottles and I took it off the list so it’s not currently on the list. I save it for people that maybe have had it in the past here and request to see if we have any left or maybe for someone in the industry who has never had the opportunity to taste Juge and we have this conversation and maybe find our way to open this bottle for them and make a really special experience.

SK: What would you pair with that? Maybe what dish is on the menu right now that you would suggest that they drink that wine with?

ECP: This could be as easy as ordering our burger and enjoying a burger with this wine. A lot of people talk about high low pairings, like really special bottles of wine with dishes that are just super homey and comfy. A great cheeseburger with Northern Rhone Syrah for me is just sheer joy. We have had a terrific braised lamb pasta with that earthy gaminess of the lamb and the savory spice of this wine, it’s just extraordinary.

Susan:   Yum, that sounds delicious.

MD: I actually love the name of the producer, Juge because it’s like, “Hey, your burger needs a little Juge. Why don’t you try this?” I noticed actually because I looked at your by the glass list and if I’m correct, you don’t have a Cabernet by the glass on there. Am I right about that?

ECP: At the moment and our by the glass selections do change relatively often but you’re absolutely right. At the moment we have no Cabernet. That’s not to say we never have Cabernet. We are in the early winter stages and in terms of the more full bodied textured red wines we’ve opted for Syrah as well as for Nebbiolo and for Zinfandel.

MD: We all of those, I know having parties at home, we all have those problem friends. I have a friend who only drinks white wine. We can do a whole pairing dinner. We still have to have just white wine for her and everybody else is drinking around her. You get somebody who comes in whose that I only drink, they just want a glass, they’re not going to bottle, I only drink Cabernet. How do you try to make that person happy?

ECP: There is never discussing taste right? Someone loves what they love and oftentimes will be very adamant about specific wines. If I don’t have a wine that they’re looking for I’m going to try my darnedest to talk to them about the wines that I do have that I think will fit their pallet and specifically with something by the glass it’s pretty easy, I’m going to give them a taste of each of them and see if they like it.

Listen, if they don’t like it, I’m going to come down here, get a bottle of Cabernet and open a bottle for them because my real real goal is to ensure they had a great experience and they’re drinking a wine that they love. There’s nothing worse in the world than struggling through a glass of wine that’s not making you happy.

Published on January 18, 2017
Topics: Podcast



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