Jane Lopes is the current beverage director at The Catbird Seat—one the most exciting restaurants in Nashville, TN. She studied Renaissance literature at the University of Chicago and fell in love with wine while working at a wine shop after college. "I liked how academic and intellectual wine could be," she says. "But it was also much more social than, say, going to grad school and spending the next five years of my life in the library."
During that time, she also began bartending at The Violet Hour, one of Chicago's best craft cocktail bars. She was there for two and a half years before the owners, who also have a hand in The Patterson House in Nashville, tapped her to run the beverage program for their new restaurant, The Catbird Seat. There she's garnered attention for her boundary-pushing pairings, which draw on her experiences with both cocktails and wine. In the following interview, Lopes talks about the challenges of creating a progressive wine program in Nashville, how she uses her knowledge of craft cocktails to circumvent those challenges, why she doesn't include Bordeaux in her pairing menu, and her favorite wine lists across the country.
Coming to Nashville from Chicago, which has a more developed wine scene, must have been tough. What was that like?
It was an adjustment. In terms of running a beverage program, it's a very different market. Distribution isn't as wide, so you're not seeing many of the wines that come through Chicago, San Francisco, or New York. So, it was a challenge to create a cool beverage program in a city that doesn't quite have the access. I've brought about a half dozen brands into the market here. But it's still hard to special order, because 95% of beverage sales are pairings and I am beholden to the menu.
So, let's talk about those pairings. You have a background in craft cocktails and I hear you're applying that to wine in a unique way. What's up?
I am doing things like, for a dessert pairing, a Hungarian Tokaj in a Bourbon-rinsed glass and I'm combining things like a sour red ale with rosé wine for a pairing with pickled vegetables. I have also done Madeira and Sherry with stout. I am just trying to make the most of not having a ton of choices in the market by making my own concoctions. So I am using both my wine and cocktail background and combining things with the idea of creating the best possible pairing for a dish.
I don't think anyone else is working with wine in pairings in this way anywhere in the US, possibly beyond. How have they been received?
You know there's still this idea that you can't mess with wine. Some people have asked me if I've asked the winery if it's okay to do it and it's like, "No, of course I haven't asked the winery. Do you ask Buffalo Trace if you can make a Manhattan with their bourbon?" It's the same sort of thing to me; the idea is to preserve the integrity of the wine but alter it in a way that makes it pair well with the dish. People are surprised by it, but most support it. I find that some of these pairings engage them as much as the food does; they aren't just quiet backdrops.
Some people are turned off of wine because it's presented like it should be worshipped. This seems like a unique way to bring it down to earth a bit. Is that the aim, in some way?
Yes. And that's the whole idea of the restaurant, and the approach to food. Yeah, we are cooking at a high level, but it's in an informal atmosphere where you can talk to the chefs and you don't have to worry about whether you're going to put your fork down wrong or laugh too loud. That's the same way I approach wine; it should be easy and it should be fun.
Your list would be progressive in the context of New York or Chicago, let alone Nashville. Are you alone in the market there when it comes to embracing unique pairings and off-the-beaten path regions?
It's funny, the retail is scene is actually pretty good in Nashville. You see a lot of cool, smaller wine shops doing interesting things, but in terms of restaurants it seems like people are still playing it safe. I don't really get it. There are very few places in town I feel like I can go get an interesting glass of wine. For example, a new place just opened called Etch. The chef is this beloved Nashville chef and their wine program is good, but you can see the fight within the program. I know the wine director and he wants to put as many different, interesting things on the list but some of the management and the owners are like, "We have to have this Napa cabernet and this oaky chardonnay." So I think there's still this mentality of not fully committing to exposing people to new things.
Is there anything you actively choose not to have on the list or use as a pairing?
I definitely have biases against certain things. For example, I've never used a Napa cabernet in the pairings. I do have one on the bottle list, though. Same with red Bordeaux, I have never use it for pairings. It's not necessarily that I think they can't pair with food, but there are just better things or more interesting things. If there was a great lamb dish that would go well with Bordeaux, I'd probably go with Bandol rouge or I'd use Chateau Musar instead. As for Napa cab I think a lot of it is going to overwhelm Josh and Erik's food. And it's not like all the food is delicate but you're just getting so much alcohol and tannin and extract from those wines that it's going to kill your taste buds.
So no big red wine?
Right, that's what I'm generally a little biased against. Not that Bandol is light, but it's not as high in alcohol and not as extracted and has higher acidity than a lot of these New World wines. So my pairings tend to gravitate toward old world wines, but not exclusively. I am always open to being surprised.
A common argument is that beverage pairings generally aren't a very good deal. It's the core of your beverage program and it sounds like when you eat out you often opt for pairings. Why would you encourage a diner to choose pairings?
I think our pairings are a better deal than than buying by the glass or bottle. Because I'm not just pouring wine straight out of a bottle for every course—there are concoctions involving spirits, beer, etc.—you're paying in part for that experience.
In your experience, are pairings generally a good deal?
I think it is a case by case basis thing. I almost always opt for pairings if it's an option because I am professionally curious what others are doing. Plus, when pairings are great, they enhance the meal tremendously, in my opinion. I guess what it comes down to is whether or not you trust the establishment/sommelier to deliver on the pairings. You're paying for their expertise in part.
Some of your favorite wine lists in the country?
Frasca in Boulder, CO; I think Bobby Stuckey is fantastic. Oceana in NYC; they have a fun, Italian-dominated list. In Chicago, Jeremy Quinn, who runs Webster's and Telegraph, does a great job. I went to Quince not that long ago and had fantastic pairings. I've always loved the pairings at Next and Alinea. Blackberry Farms in Eastern Tennessee also has a spectacular list. It's most famous for Bordeaux and Burgundy verticals, but they also have unique, interesting stuff as well.
Regions, producers, etc. that you are into right now?
I've been interested in the renaissance of unique, small production wines being made in California. Producers are now using grapes like gruner veltliner, ribolla gialla, trousseau, and gamay—grapes we haven't seen before in the state—to fascinating, and often delicious, results. I visited the Finger Lakes this summer and I think it's the best source of domestic dry riesling, hands down. I've also been exploring the drier styles of Alsatian wine.