Wine Talk: If he can make it there…

Israeli sommelier Orr Reches hits the big time in New York with a job at the Corton restaurant.

June 10, 2013 17:33
Israeli sommelier Orr Reches

Israeli sommelier Orr Reches 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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In the wine business, the viticulturist looks after the vineyards, the winemaker makes the wine at the winery, and it is the sommelier who looks after the wine outside the gates of the winery. These are the three main wine professions. In Israel, the word “sommelier” is usually used to describe a wine waiter, the person serving the wine.

Of course, a sommelier in the full meaning of the term is so much more than a wine waiter. The genuine article will have spent years learning the trade. They will be responsible for purchasing good value, unusual and high-quality wines from around the world. They will have to manage a cellar, containing perhaps thousands of wines, some of which will cost thousands of dollars, while ensuring that all are served at their peak. They will be responsible for compiling a wine list in an innovative, informative way and keeping it updated.

They have to take care of all the wine accessories, such as openers, glassware and decanters.

They will also be responsible for the sale and marketing of wine, the order taking and the service ritual, and the training of staff. A correctly trained sommel ier will have knowledge not only about wines but also spirits, liqueurs, cocktails, beers, sake, mineral water, soft drinks, cigars, and even coffee and tea. A sommelier will also need to have a passion for food and be intimate with all the dishes on the restaurant’s menu.

Whereas scores of young Israelis have traveled abroad to study, earn winemaking degrees and then gain work experience in the world’s most famous wine regions, few have gone through the sommelier route.

However, one who did has managed to reach the summit of his profession. Meet Orr Reches, age 29, the sommelier of the Corton restaurant in New York City.

Growing up in Tel Aviv, Reches was indoctrinated early into the ways of wine. He remembers his father drinking Margalit wines, and among the lad’s first words were, believe it or not, “Cabernet Sauvignon.”

After serving in the IDF, Reches took a bartender course and became a barman. A fairly standard beginning. His sister, who was studying in the US, encouraged him to go to New York, and in September 2005 he joined her. Of course, he fell in love with New York – the lights, the energy of the place and, most important, the earning potential.

Soon after arriving, Reches signed on as head bartender at the Maison restaurant, a 24-hour brasserie-style operation. There, he learned the workings of a busy restaurant and how to work under pressure. He was there three and a half years, apart from an enforced break when he returned to Israel to serve in the Second Lebanon War. Ultimately, his prime objective was to earn enough money to travel to South America.

Around that time there was an opportunity to do an advanced WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) course in New York, and he took it. It was a first step on the wine ladder. Like so many before him, the passion grabbed him. The more he knew, the more he wanted to know.

In 2009, Reches had a lucky break.

The sommelier was fired at Barbounia, a Mediterranean restaurant, and Reches was offered the position of beverage director, which included buying responsibility. It showed a great deal of trust in an inexperienced 25-year-old. They obviously spotted the potential. However, he remembers with a grimace that there were wines on the list he had never heard of, and he got shouted at a lot. It was a very steep learning curve.

At this stage, the wine student will either lose interest and go on to other things or become driven, and wine will become an obsession. Every spare moment when not working will be spent learning about wine.

Every book and journal will be read, no wine tastings will be missed, and leisure time will be spent with friends who have the same passion and the same obsession. Only those blessed with a hunger to learn, with an extra-good memory and a good palate, have a chance to progress. Reches had all this in abundance, but he also had the personal charm, unflappable professionalism and management skills to succeed on the floor, too.

He received his WSET diploma and moved on to A Voce Madison, a restaurant with one Michelin star. This was an introduction to truly fine dining.

His next post was at Veritas restaurant, where he managed a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine list with no fewer than 3,400 selections! Veritas is one of the world’s most famous wine venues. With the sheer size and variety of the wine list, it was an awesome place to work, with a heaven-sent opportunity to learn. The most expensive wine on this list was a magnum of 1990 Chateau Petrus, which cost $30,000. A 1992 bottle of Screaming Eagle, the Californian cult wine, was priced at $12,000.

Reches was then head-hunted for the top job, and in December 2011 he moved to Corton as head sommelier.

This is a French restaurant with two Michelin stars and three stars from The New York Times.

The wine list is all French, with 400 wines in total.

There, he is in control of the purchasing budget, buying wines costing hundreds, even thousands, of dollars at auction. The restaurant is owned by Drew Nieporent, one of the most famous restaurateurs in the world.

Previously, the same site housed Nieporent’s first restaurant, Montrachet, where the sommelier was the legendary Daniel Johnnes.

He was one of the first American sommeliers who, along with Larry Stone, elevated the sommelier profession to the importance of chefs in quality restaurants.

Orr Reches remains modest and quiet, and is the antithesis of a wine snob. He sees his role as being a servant to the customers’ needs. “I am there to provide a service and not to impose my opinion.

I look at the customer as a guest, not as a client,” he says.

I asked him what was new in the world of wine. He said sherry was coming back. He referred to the natural wine trend but expressed the opinion that it was better to make the wine well rather than “naturally.”

He said that Croatian and Georgian wines were on the radar for the first time. As for Israeli wines, he said he was proud to have poured the following wines on the Veritas wine list at different times: Carmel Appellation Carignan Old Vines; C Blanc du Castel & Castel Grand Vin; Clos de Gat Chanson White; Margalit Merlot; and Yatir Merlot Shiraz Cabernet.

He believes there should be more use of Mediterranean grape varieties instead of Bordeaux varieties in Israel. He also had something to say about Israeli boutique wineries: “A lot of them are not as good as they think.”

His pet peeves are people who look at the alcohol content all the time (“if the wine is in balance, it is OK,” he says) and at critics’ scores (“Forget the score. What does it taste like? Good or bad?”) He likes a laid-back approach, saying, “Don’t forget that wine is just fermented grape juice, which is on the table along with the bread and water.”

Finally I asked him what was that first great wine that turned his head to a career in wine.

He said it was a 1970 Chateau Latour, which he described as a wine with soul.

Israel has world-class chefs and winemakers making world-class wines. How good it is to see that an Israeli sommelier has now reached the pinnacle of his profession.

Yishar koah, Orr Reches!

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.

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