Photo Credit: Martha Stewert

Six Questions for Sarah Tracey, Wine Director at Rouge Tomate

1. What wines are you drinking these days and why?

I’m feeling myself drawn to lighter-bodied, lively, zingy reds that can take a little chill: Schiava, Zweigelt, Fleurie. After months of endless crisp whites (and more rosé than I honestly care to admit), I love to move more into red territory in the fall and winter as my ‘sipping wine’. But, we have had an extremely warm early autumn here in NYC, so I’m not quite craving the deeper, richer reds just yet.  

2. You recently joined Rouge Tomate, following in the footsteps of Pascaline Lepeltier who built what some have deemed the best wine list in the world. What are your plans for the list: Will you trim it, add new components, largely keep it the same? Effectively, what will be Sarah’s stamp on the list?

Pascaline’s list at Rouge Tomate was truly a study in excellence and I understand why there’s so much curiosity around the future of the program under a new wine director; clearly these are large shoes to fill in a certain respect. Thankfully, I’ve been tasked with not so much taking over Pascaline’s program but rather creating something entirely new in conjunction with the talented Alan Wise, who reinventing the culinary direction as our new Chef, and with a new General Manager, Ricardo Morgan, as well. So, we are all coming in with a fresh energy and representing a new evolution of the restaurant.

My list is still very much a work in progress, but I have several guiding principles. First, the mandate from our owner is that my new list be much more concise; we are aiming to settle in at about 300 references down from over 1600 (as a 75-seat neighborhood restaurant on a small side street in Chelsea, we want the wine selection to feel accessible, intimate, and approachable for our neighbors). Secondly, the wine list must support the food; I strongly believe that’s one of the most important things for restaurant sommeliers to hold themselves to. At Rouge Tomate, we are governed by a food philosophy called SPE: it’s stands for the Latin phrase ‘Sanitas Per Escam’, literally ‘Health Through Food’. In the kitchen they are committed to sourcing seasonal, local, and sustainable ingredients; balancing plants, lean proteins, and healthy fats (we even have registered dieticians on our staff who consult with the Chef) and using cooking techniques that preserve the nutritional value of those ingredients; and maximizing the nutritional impact while minimizing the environmental impact. In short, SPE supports the total well-being of the individual and the planet. It’s an amazing company ethos to live every day! That relates to the wine program in that sustainability is the hallmark of our restaurant, so every wine on the list is at the very least sustainable–many are organic or biodynamic. Finally, in terms of my personal flair, I adore the wines of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, so you will probably see an influence that’s more global overall and not necessarily rooted in French wines. Although we will still have plenty of those!

3. What do you think is the role of the modern-day sommelier and where does service at Rouge Tomate fit into that paradigm?

I personally have a very democratic approach to wine: there’s room for everyone at my table. I’m there to try and find the ideal wine for each guest while still expressing my point of view and respecting the parameters of our restaurant philosophy. I believe the principal role of the modern-day sommelier is to provide hospitality that makes the guests feel both special and comfortable. To have a warm and welcoming presence on the floor that encourages exploration and making memories. And, as I mentioned, to support the chef! The best sommeliers today are incredible listeners, it’s important to pay attention to what your guests are telling you, what they are asking for, and where you can lead them. I always say great somms are one part detective–where we try to follow your verbal clues to assess what you might like; one part magician–where we magically produce the perfect wine for your occasion; and one part busboy. You have to be down to roll up your sleeves and do whatever is needed to provide flawless service.

4. What’s your dream wine destination?

I’m incredibly lucky in that I’ve gotten to travel widely, but one of my dreams is Piedmont in Italy, because those are some of my favorite wines and I’ve never visited. And, also, Switzerland. Since Swiss wines aren’t widely available in the US it would be a journey of palate discovery. Also, I know it’s stunningly beautiful there.

5. What’s your go-to bottle for under $25?

Most of the wines I buy for personal enjoyment are under $25! There’s a lot of great stuff out there at that level. I don’t necessarily have a go-to but I generally gravitate to Spanish and Portuguese reds when I’m going for value, whites from Italy or California’s Central Coast, and South Africa and Sicily in general.

6. What’s your celebration day splurge?  

Every year on my birthday I buy myself a bottle of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Champagne, and I have a glass for breakfast.