Australian Restaurant – Australian Wine
By Tim Harris
“What makes it ‘Australian’?” This is the question I have been asked hundreds of times by friends, guests and media since I opened my Australian Bistro, Burke & Wills in New York City in 2013. The best and most succinct answer from a culinary standpoint still eludes me. Australia is a (relatively) young country and we do not have a particular dish or food that truly defines us. Rather, we have stolen and pillaged from the culinary world like modern day versions of the convicts many of us are descended from. We’ve utilized the bounty of fresh ingredients from our land of plenty to create modern, fresh styles of food befitting our temperate climate and reflective of the waves of immigration Australia has seen throughout its history. Trying to explain this in the context of the New York City restaurant scene can be difficult and convoluted. However, one thing is that is unequivocally Australian at Burke & Wills is our wine list: An all-Aussie lineup of 100+ examples of Australian wine attempting to showcase the length and breadth of the modern Australian wine industry.
Building An Australian Wine List
When I opened the restaurant, I started with a small Southern Hemisphere list. As time went on, I was approached by more and more importers and it became apparent that the quality and variety of Australian wine available in the US had increased rapidly since the dark days of mass-produced labels that flooded the market. I decided at that point to build a list that was exclusively Australian, one that could showcase what we really do as a winemaking country. Building the list was a careful process and understanding both the American palate and the limited knowledge of the consumer and staff that came into play. I wanted to showcase the new breed of Australian wines but not forget the stuff that made fine Australian wine famous in the first place. I started with a backbone of classic styles and slowly added more interesting bottles and vintages of iconic wines. In the colder months, I would add various styles of Shiraz and red blends. In the warmer months, I built a list of great dry whites that we do so well. The whole process was enjoyable and it still fills me with a great sense of pride as to what Australian wine can offer. Building the list was the easy part, however, selling it to fussy New Yorkers was going to be the challenge…
Open Minds: Open Palates
To this day, we still get the odd guest that snubs their nose at the fact our list is all-Aussie. My response is to cheekily remind them that if they were in an Italian, French or Japanese restaurant they would most likely encounter an entirely patriotic wine selection. So why is it strange that an Australian-inspired bistro should serve anything but the best Australian wine? New Yorkers are an adventurous bunch though, and for the most part, guests relish in the opportunity to try something new. The common belief is that Shiraz is the best Australian variety. This, coupled with an American’s palate that tends to favor bolder, fruit-forward wines, meant that selling a $50 bottle of the Barossa’s finest was never going to be an issue. Indeed, many of our guests come seeking these wines and I enjoy presenting them with examples they may not be familiar with. The tougher sells are the wines I consider to be some of our best. For example, convincing someone that a Clare Valley Riesling is bone-dry and would pair beautifully with their oysters, or that a Yarra Valley Chardonnay will not be oaky and cloying, can be a challenge. Nine times out of 10 though, guests are pleasantly surprised and will often thank me and inquire as to where they may purchase the wine. For me, an Australian that has worked with Australian wine for nearly 20 years, selling Aussie wine comes naturally. It is much more challenging for my team that consists of mostly global expats and American citizens.
Taste It, Love It, Sell It
Each afternoon around 5pm at Burke & Wills as we are enjoying the NYC restaurant ritual known as the ‘family meal’, we hold our daily briefing where the management team will pour the staff a taste of one of the twelve Australian wines we offer by the glass. We will discuss the wine’s individual merits, the region it comes from and the food we would recommend it is paired with along with any anecdotal points about the wine that help add to the story. This is the core of our education program, the point where we begin and continue the conversation about Australian wine. On busy evenings, we often select a premium bottle from the list to sell by the glass and use this as an opportunity to taste a wine not often experienced. This daily tasting coupled with formal presentations from importers, reps and winemakers helps keep our team excited about selling Australian wine.
The Australian Wine Renaissance In The U.S.
It has been wonderful to see the resurgence of Australian wine in the U.S. over the past few years. I think we still have a long way to go in regaining consumers’ trust and should be looking at showcasing regionality and varietals in the way that some other countries have managed to do successfully. I hope one day to be able to sell Australian wine purely on its own merits and not in how it compares to a great wine of the Old World or to a style produced in America. I do feel that Australian producers need to be realistic about their expectations in the U.S. market, but they should be buoyed by the work of the industry here and the gains that have been recently achieved. After 10 years in NYC I am still a proud Australian and am proud to serve Australian wine.
Tim Harris is the founder of Burke & Wills and The Manhattan Cricket Club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side