Nicolas Quinones has been a fixture in Atlanta's dining scene for nearly 20 years. From stints at Chops and Murphy's to his time as co-owner of one of Atlanta's best restaurants, Woodfire Grill, before it closed. In July, Quinones stepped in as general manager of the Castellucci Hospitality Group's newest and most-lauded restaurant, Cooks & Soldiers, which recently was chosen as Eater's Atlanta Restaurant of the Year for 2015. We sat down recently to talk with Quinones about his life in wine, Atlanta's wine drinkers, and what it takes to put together award-winning wine lists.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in wine.
I've been involved in wine in Atlanta for more than 15 years now. The first wine list I wrote was at Soleil in Buckhead in 1998 or 1999. I moved on to become the wine steward at Murphy's in Virginia-Highland where I learned a lot about wine. I was the GM at Loca Luna for several years and wrote the wine lists there. Obviously when I owned Woodfire Grill for seven years I wrote the wine lists there. I just joined the Castellucci Hospital Group in July. Frederico knows my passion for wine and there was no doubt I'd be involved with the wine list at Cooks & Soldier when I took the GM job here.
I know you said you were teaching a class today. Do you also teach about wine?
I'm going to be teaching wine school here today at Sugo and I have a wine school going regularly at Cooks & Soldiers. If invited to teach wine school at any of the restaurants at any time, I'm happy to do it. One of my favorite ways to learn about wine is actually to teach about it. When I develop a wine school curriculum I dive in and research heavily about the region, history, and culture, which in turns builds my own knowledge.
Do you remember your "lightbulb" wine, the wine that made you first say, "wow"?
When I was working at Chops in the mid-1990s I saw what wine could do for a dining experience. I saw the status that wine had on the table and I realized the importance of wine and became increasingly curious. When I was working at Soleil I started drinking wine and tasting wine with food and seeing the interaction, that was really my aha moment. I started getting into Bordeaux and Beaujolais, which I initially I thought was a novice wine, and it certainly is not. Serious Beaujolais was one of the first wines where I realized how delicious wine could be and how it worked so well with salty meats and big cheeses. I realized then how incredibly well wine and food worked together.
Can you tell us your philosophy/approach to the wine list at Cooks & Soldiers?
We are certainly Basque-inspired which means we carry a good bit of Txakolina and Rioja. I list the entirety of Spain in the list as well, which means Godello and Mencia and Catalonian wine. We do cross over into France as well. Roussanne is so linked to Catalonia, so we have some southern French wines and a good bit of Bordeaux as well. We do some American wines as well, but we do want to be geographically-specific to Spain as I really want to teach about Spain. I also love Riesling, so we also will always have a nice selection of Rieslings.
What are a couple of your favorite budget-friendly bottles on the list now?
A couple nice well-priced wines are the 2014 Zudugarai Getariako Txakolina for $39. We are a Basque restaurant, so Basque wine that is fresh vibrant, and slightly effervescent. Also, the 2012 Bovale Bobal, Utiel-Requena for $38, a warmer climate wine that offers good fruit and weight
What about the best splurge bottles if I'm out celebrating?
The 2010 Remelluri Rioja Blanca for $150. Composed of nine white varieties organically farmed, and 18 months in French oak. It is rich and powerful, yet possesses all the finesse and mineral to create a uniquely Riojan drinking experience. We also have the 2005 Gran Callejo Gran Reserva for $175, a brilliant organically farmed Tempranillo that sees 24 months in French oak.
How do you feel about the natural wine movement in wine today?
Outside of our focus on Spanish wines, I'm also a big advocate for organic, biodynamic agriculture, and natural wines, if you will. I want my wines to be made in the vineyard, as naturally as possible. I'm a believer that the best wines in the world are made naturally. I advocate for that in all wines. Right now, the majority of our wine list is natural wine, and by mid-2016, our entire list will be composed of biodynamic, natural wines. I think natural wines are just better for pairing with food. Big, heavy, manipulated wines just don't work well with food.
What are your personal favorite wines for drinking at home?
Champagne, Cru Beaujolais, Riesling from the Mosel in Germany. I love Burgundy, but who doesn't? I adore the northern Rhone, Cote Rotie. In general, I like cool-climate, high-acid, low-extraction, low-alcohol wines with finesse and character. I like the natural wines, so I like a little funk and earth in my wine.
How have you gone about developing a relationship with your customers?
We certainly have some obscure wines that people might not be familiar with, but a good number of our guests are open to letting me steer the ship. A lot of our guests let me suggest the wines for them, though, we have an equal number of guests who have specific type of wine in mind and won't veer from their idea of what a wine should be.
You have been part of fine dining in Atlanta for more than 15 years now. What's different about Atlanta's wine drinkers today versus when you started out?
The breadth of knowledge that the Atlanta wine consumer possess today is much greater than it was 10 years ago. I think the average consumer today understands a lot more about different grape varieties and regions. Ten or 15 years ago, most people just wanted to drink a handful of grapes that were ubiquitous and familiar. Today, I'm seeing more people asking about unique grapes from all parts of the world. The Atlanta dining public is also more open to placing themselves in the hands of their favorite restaurants and letting sommeliers suggest what works best with each menu.
What are you drinking these days when not drinking wine?
Beer and whiskey. And I don't need the expensive stuff.