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Riding With the Limestone Cowboys

Mon, 03/13/2023 - 13:36
At a recent wine dinner, Chimene Visser Macnaughton spoke with Thomas Pastuszak, who guided guests through each of the pairings, shearing anecdotes about the producers, whom he has known for years.
Kelsey Roden Collection

When Honest Man Hospitality Group hired Chimene Visser Macnaughton as its beverage director in December 2021, it also gained a wine educator, but that's something she often keeps under wraps, preferring to let the wines provide the lesson.

Asked to define her job, while sitting at the bar of Nick and Toni's one recent afternoon, one of the establishments in the Honest Man portfolio -- the others are Coche Comedor, Rowdy Hall, Townline BBQ, and La Fondita -- she boiled it down to this, "I'm in charge of everything wet." 

But it's more than that. She also oversees the wine dinners she has begun offering at East Hampton's Nick and Toni's during the off-season and in June. For the next one, Tour de Terroir -- The Limestone Cowboys on March 30, guests "visit" France. The playful title is meant to diffuse the stuffiness often associated with such events and to welcome newcomers as well as those with more seasoned palates.

"It's based on the idea of kind of bringing the community together and having someone come and share their travels or their experiences." The wines are chosen to match the region being discussed and are paired with regional dishes that will enhance the taste of both. The wines featured will not likely be familiar to diners. "They're new producers or new regions," she said. "I want it to be about discovery, and I want it to be delicious."

Rather than having diners feel that they need to start taking notes, "We want it to be in the moment. The pairings offer up these moments in time you wouldn't have at home necessarily." 

The dinner template consists of a welcome "walk-around tasting kind of reception" for a half-hour with a "free pour of a regional spritz or bubbles, something super light and fun from the specific terroir that we'll be covering that night." For the French dinner it will be a sparkling chenin blanc served with tastes of mussels, local oysters, pate, ballotine of chicken, a traditional flatbread, and gougeres. 

Four seated courses will follow, including a dessert or cheese course (in this case cheese with some sweet treats at the end), each matched with a specific wine, priced at $150 for each diner.

She recognizes that with tax and tip, "it's still a big number so we want to make it this one-night-only experiential evening. . . . We're trying to offer so much in that price point." Not dealing with sponsorships also drives the price. She noted that the dinners are "not this bait-and-switch that wine events are the worst for, when you are sponsored by somebody, and you're going to show just one person's wines, and you're going to pair it with your food, whether it goes or not." Underwriters put people in the position of "convincing your guests to try something that doesn't have any substance behind it. And that's not what we're doing."

She is cognizant of value. The goal for the dinners is to offer wines that are fun and new paired with a dish "that is also kind of mind blowing." It's a way to connect with the community and also an effort to lead the way in guest satisfaction in general, across the whole restaurant group.

The evenings are based on "a tried and true template" from when she worked with Jacques Franey of Domaine Franey Wines in East Hampton. He is part of the evenings as well, offering insight and taking discounted orders for the wines served. The featured wine regions toggle between those in Italy, honoring Nick and Toni's focus on Italian cuisine, and those elsewhere to provide variety for diners and the restaurant's chefs as well.

When she's not planning dinners and supporting staff education efforts, she is buying for all of the restaurants. That includes the "quartino wines" Nick and Toni's uses as part of its winter two-course pizza dinner promotion, where a pizza and salad are $20.23 and four styles of Italian wine served in small carafes (about 6.25 ounces, a bit more than the restaurant's standard 5-ounce pour) are $10 on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Customers at any of the group's restaurants may not recognize the wines served, and that is intentional. "We're not buying industrially made wines really ever," she said. "That's something that I avoid like the plague." As the current steward of Nick and Toni's 35-year-old cellar, she wants "to help people not ingest mediocrity."

More than that, she wants them to "drink clean." According to Ms. Macnaughton, "the wine business is one of the dirtiest businesses on the planet." She singles out the United States, "where our soils are depleted and chock-full of glyphosate. There's not a governing body requiring wineries to list the ingredients" like a color corrector such as Mega Purple or stabilizers. Nor are "the level of herbicides and pesticides used in the vineyard anywhere on the bottle." 

It's the difference between industrially made beverages with a huge marketing budget and "grower produced." She wants to know: "Is there a bricks and mortar winery with a multigenerational farming family working their own estate -- growing the fruit, tending the vines, and are they indigenous varieties wherever that makes sense?" The ideal is "juice from grapes grown in soil that's never been sprayed in sometimes hundreds of years of production." She also avoids celebrity and luxury spirits brands, particularly tequila, which also has a notoriously "dirty" production process. 

She said clean wines are healthier, and they help the business's bottom line. When served by the glass, they can sit open in ways that a larger-scale wine cannot. "The wine will just get better with oxygen on it, versus falling completely apart after being open only one night."

"My goal in life is to buy only wines that are sound at whatever price point, that can stand up to kind of the rigors of restaurant life." That approach also allows her to highlight wine from small producers who have always farmed organically even though they don't pay for the certification or have a fancy label -- "things that cost less, but are way more delicious."

These are the things she has learned from decades in the business and that most people don't know unless they're in hospitality or are studying wine. "We want people to see the difference in their glass as they do on their plate" when they're served "micro-local" food from local farmers and fishermen. "There's a huge disconnect in how people eat versus how they drink: 'eating clean and drinking dirty' I call it."

She also wants to be unique in what she serves, rather than seeing her wines by the glass poured at another restaurant. A retail shop is fine -- "I want people to be able to buy things" -- but if it's served in another restaurant, she would rather choose something else. 

"That's how I've always bought . . . if somebody is drinking something for the first time, I want it to be because of Honest Man. I want it to be because of our beverage teams, at whatever restaurant." It could be a bourbon at Townline BBQ or an artisanal agave from Mexico at Coche, where they handmake the tortillas every day. "I feel like I have to uphold that."

Reservations and a full menu for the March 30 dinner are available on Resy.

This article has been edited from its prior version and the print edition to clarify that there are four, not five, types of wine offered in the pizza promotion, and the small carafes have about 6.25 ounces of wine in them, not 8.5 ounces.

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