Today in The Cellar: the Loire Valley, half carafes, and chopping bottle tops with Kai Gagnon, wine director of Bergamot and BISq.
Imagine a wine cellar, gradually filling with treasures. Year after year new cases are brought in—curiosities from small producers, rarities from boutique importers, the personal favorites individually selected from a hundred private tastings—only to be tucked away in a corner, marked as separate from the rest, and left to await their place on a wine list that has not been written, for a restaurant that does not yet exist.
Now imagine that cellar belongs to Bergamot—and those cases are the collected treasures of Kai Gagnon, its wine director and author of one of the most admired wine lists in the city—and you will have some idea of the anticipation felt by wine lovers looking forward to the day this fall when those cases make their way to Bergamot's upcoming sister restaurant, BISq.
An anticipation only increased by a conversation we recently had with the very busy Gagnon (who will not only oversee both wine programs but also serve as general manager at BISq) on a Friday afternoon at Bergamot as preparations for dinner service take place in the background, and the bottles destined to open up countless conversations at BISq wait unopened in the cellar below.
To start with, how would you introduce the makeup of the wine list at BISq?
It is going to be all Northern France—as a way of visualizing it, think north of the 45th parallel, which goes through Bordeaux—as well as Austria and Germany. That'll be the makeup of the wine list, entirely. Because we're starting with such a foundation of charcuterie and curing, the wines of the Loire Valley, and the Riesling and Grüner Veltliners in Austria, those are just such wonderful partners with that kind of food. It's also where my personal passion lies, so in a lot of ways BISq is like my little wine tome, my tribute to the wines I love.
"In the sense that it will offer a full menu it's a little tough to call it a wine bar. But as far as the wine goes, I am approaching it like a wine bar."
Does that mean you're thinking of it as a wine bar?
I mean, in the sense that it will offer a full menu it's a little tough to call it a wine bar. But as far as the wine goes, I am approaching it like a wine bar. So we're going to be able to hit an in-between area, making it sort of like a hybrid because of what I'm going to offer in terms of your options for drinking.
I've actually been piloting a little thing here at Bergamot where—[he stops, places both hands on table, and with a seriousness of tone perhaps only understood by those who have inventoried wine cellars, states] I hate buying half bottles. I don't buy half bottles. We don't have any half bottles in our inventory. The only thing I ever buy is champagne, and then only if I can get something different.
So what we've been doing here, and what we're going to do to an even greater degree at BISq, is we'll have a pretty large selection of bottles that will change all the time, on a daily basis, things that will be available by the bottle, by the glass, and also by a 375 ml decanter. And we have special ones made. So that's what we'll decant them into, and right up to the bottle of the logo is where 375ml is, so you can taste it before you commit to it. We usually do four or five here; it'll probably be more like 10 there. Just a wide variety of things, things I think work particularly well with what's going on the menu at that moment, or just wine that I'm really excited about. It's also a great way to get the staff exposed to the array of what we're doing. And one of the things we do here, and will do there to the same degree, is very aggressive education of the staff. We'll have a sommelier over there, which will be myself but also my assistant manager. So there will always be a person on the floor that you can talk to.
In terms of the lists, how much do you intend to carry over from Bergamot?
That same sense of adventure and curiosity we've built here with the wine will carry over. But I changed the wine list here so that it will not overlap at all with BISq, so you can get a completely different wine experience at both restaurants. We used to do a lot of that Northern French, Austrian, and German stuff here. I took it all off. And I sort of shifted the wine here more toward the Mediterranean and Adriatic, and opened it up to domestic, which traditionally at Bergamot we haven't had much domestic wine at all. And, honestly, that wine works better with the food here, which is a little more eclectic. It actually works out really well. And that allows me to indulge all of my little curiosities.
"Because it's something that is very important to me, philosophically and aesthetically, that I'm serving people something that is wholesome and that was made with integrity, and made with conscience."
As someone who has been in Boston restaurants over the last decade, how would you describe either the state of- or development of- Boston wine drinking tastes?
When I moved here in 2005, I moved from San Francisco. And it was really exciting to see, just in the juxtaposition, how much more Old World-centric the wine world here is. Especially with Cat Silirie, who has done so much to evolve the wine culture here, and continues to. So I think Boston's always had a stronger connection to the Old World of wine, and that was refreshing for me to come here.
And now with the help of a few select importers, it's also really nice to see how much natural wine has taken off here. Because it's something that is very important to me, philosophically and aesthetically, that I'm serving people something that is wholesome and that was made with integrity, and made with conscience. So it's really great to see all of this great, natural wine culture going on here. And it's growing even more, to now to the point where Boston, New York, and San Francisco are the centers of natural wine in the United States.
This will be your second time opening the sister restaurant from a successful first venture, having been with Craigie Street and then helping to open Craigie on Main. Has that experience helped you at all in how you're approaching BISq?
Definitely. I mean more so in that now I've had the experience of opening two pretty well-know, well-regarded, anticipated restaurants. So it's one of those things where the fundamentals of something—once you have them down, once you're comfortable with them—it makes everything else a lot more fun. More enjoyable. So the stress goes away [hesitates a beat], a little bit. And you just get to do what you know you're good at and what will make the place exciting and interesting. I mean [laughs] Craigie on Main was a beast to open because the restaurant basically doubled in size, so we had to hire a lot of new staff. We're downsizing here.
"I don't like serving people wine in a tie and jacket; I don't even like drinking wine in a tie and jacket."
I haven't seen the space yet, but it is going to be smaller then Bergamot?
It's about half the size of this dining room. We'll have just about 50 seats. And it's a completely different format of menu. We're not going to be accepting reservations; it's going to be in a lot of ways more casual service. The style of service will be similar, but the servers aren't going to be wearing uniforms. They'll be wearing t-shirts. I'm going to be wearing a t-shirt. I don't like serving people wine in a tie and jacket; I don't even like drinking wine in a tie and jacket. It's just going to be a different experience.
You mentioned BISq being a tribute to the wines you love. Is there a particular region or wine you would like to see get a bit more recognition, that you feel is underappreciated?
I'm a big champion of the Loire Valley. I think it presents the best value, and also the largest spectrum of wine stylistically. And that's going to make up a huge portion of our wine list at BISq. You can drink anything from the Loire Valley—they make everything. They were making sparkling wine there before they were in Champagne. And a lot of the growers represent that group that has conscience and integrity; it's a huge hotbed of natural wine. So, personally, I hope people pay even more attention to the Loire Valley.
One of the things that a lot of us always talk about is, why won't people drink champagne? Why won't people think about champagne the same way they think of a bottle of wine? One of the problems is it's obviously expensive. But the champagne we serve here and that you'll get at other really good restaurants is going to be some of the best champagne out there, for some of the best prices out there. It can be a great value. Plus it's probably the most versatile wine out there for food.
And I have a plan for BISq to try to get people to drink more champagne. Every day, shortly after we open—in the restaurant, so that people can watch—I'm going to saber a couple bottles of sparkling wine. It will usually be champagne, but it might be something else, from the Loire Valley or something else I'm really excited about. And so those two bottles will be available by the glass, or by two-ounces, until they're gone, and that's it. So every day you can come in and try something different. Even if it's just two ounces of something really special that I chopped the top off of. That way we can share our enthusiasm.
It has to be getting exciting at this point.
What's exciting to me about it is that it's going to be a little bit of a window into the way I think about wine, and what gets me excited about wine, and that's why we're going to have so many options. Whether you want to have two-ounces of a $25-a-glass champagne that we have open, or you want to have a 375ml decanter of great, young, fresh Beaujolais to drink with your boudin noir. It's a celebration of what's exciting about food and wine. Some of the things I've had in Europe, or in California, that have been some of the most exciting eating and drinking experiences of my life have been the simplest. And that's what we're going to go for here.
And lastly, a couple of words on wine. Is there a wine descriptor you particularly dislike?
‘Good juice.' Just for aesthetic reasons.
And one you particularly enjoy.