Sommelier Talk: Damien Graef of Jean-Georges Philadelphia

A man of two cities, sommelier Damien Graef shares the wine differences between Philadelphia and Brooklyn, where he runs retailer Bibber & Bell

Sommelier Talk: Damien Graef of Jean-Georges Philadelphia
Damien Graef is celebrating almost 10 years of running the wine shop Bibber & Bell in Brooklyn, while also running a dining room high above Philly. (Josh Pellegrini)

In a glass atrium 59 floors up, the Award of Excellence–winning Jean-Georges Philadelphia provides a stunning stage for sommelier Damien Graef’s storytelling, as he introduces guests to esoteric wine picks from around the globe.

The Philly outpost of chef-restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s global empire re-opened atop the Four Seasons Hotel in spring 2022, with Graef brought onto the team to help manage the wine list. Drawing on previous experience at prominent wine spots across New York City, such as Il Buco, Chanterelle and Aurora, he helps work out which wines will pair best with the tasting-menu creations from chef de cuisine Cornelia Sühr. That can be an imposing challenge when the dishes range from caviar “bubble tea” complemented with almond milk and dill to cubes of hamachi dressed with silky grapefruit mousseline and speckled with mushroom seasoning.

While Graef is now working the floor high in the sky, he is still showing his love of Brooklyn by continuing to own and operate the wine shop Bibber & Bell in Williamsburg, founded in 2013. The shop specializes in low-intervention, small-production wines from unsung producers, intended to be approachable, everyday wines. Living in the Philly area, Graef is able to easily move back and forth between his two workplaces, as well as work virtually, drawing inspiration from the different producers and consumers in each market.

Graef spoke to editorial assistant Julia Larson about the transition from Brooklyn to the City of Brotherly Love, the appeal of catering to both diners and retail customers, and how he workshops the perfect pairing.

WS: How did you get started in the wine industry?

I did not approach restaurants with the intent of being in wine. I really wanted to be a chef. I got a job as soon as I could, worked up the ranks. … A number of people really helped me along. The major lightbulb moment was while working with Roberto Paris [at Il Buco] in the early 2000s. He was really the person that made wine unpretentious to me and introduced me to a lot of winemakers. [They would] come through that restaurant and were just very normal, casual people joining us at pre-shift meetings and talking passionately about the places that they’re from. That just really appealed to me. I think it demystified it a lot. Wine can be so academic, and this was just more tangible.

With Roberto specifically, he was one of the first people to bring Sagrantino to the country. Then I worked at Chanterelle with Roger Dagorn, who was pouring Nicolas Joly [Savennières] by the glass, which is crazy. Being able to taste those wines regularly, over a few days or over a few weeks, helped me understand them a little bit better, and it definitely piqued my interest.

What are the biggest differences in working the floor in New York versus at Jean-Georges in Philadelphia? What has it been like to adjust?

We’d been in Brooklyn forever and ever. We outgrew our apartment and realized my wife and I could work remotely and that we could not buy a house in Brooklyn ever. Once we realized that we didn’t have to be tethered to being in the city every single day, we ended up in the Philly suburbs [in 2016], and it’s been great.

With Jean-Georges being in the Four Seasons in Philly, it is such an interesting stage that is different from my experiences with New York, just in terms of it being such a destination. It’s a jewel box; the room is really impressive, and it is in the tallest building in the city. It’s such a special-occasion place, there’s a gravity to what’s happening at the Four Seasons. With what the Jean-Georges staff is up to with their food, people show up looking for that main event. It’s not a “before” or “after” spot. How I can use these wine pairings on that main stage is really exciting for me, and the response has been amazing.

There’s a lot of red tape [in Philadelphia] that there isn’t in New York; it certainly makes me appreciate how much easier it is in New York. The New York system has its challenges, but Pennsylvania, certainly with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board system, makes it tough to bring in these really small-production wines and these wines that I’m passionate about. There’s limited availability, but there is also a core of really creative people in the city who are finding ways to get things in. Over the last couple of years, things have loosened up a bit and there are some gems. At the moment, I’m trying to find ways to get all of the wines that I love and that I’ve been following for the last decade onto the list and into the building. Working with some of these creative importers has been really great.

 The dining room Jean-George Philadelphia on top of the building, looking out onto the city.
Graef describes the dining room at Jean-George Philadelphia as a "jewel box in the sky," and we can see why. (Courtesy of Jean-Georges Philadelphia)

What has been your strategy for updating the wine list at Jean-Georges?

The wine list is always evolving. Working with Dawn Trabing [beverage director for the Four Seasons Hotel]—she’s such a wine genius—we’re gaming out where the weak spots in the list are, what are the left turns that we can make and get away with. She’s rooted in the classics, and we’re such a great team. We’re always talking stuff out, and she’s giving me such an open lane to really be playful with the pairings. I think that the food at Jean-Georges is so adventurous that it really opens up what can live on that list.

What are some of the left turns you are making on the tasting menu?

Different dishes change about every two weeks, so sometimes I’m just beginning to fall in love with a certain pairing and then something will change. But one of the wines I love at the moment is Els Jelipins from Penedès. Glòria Garriga [winemaker] is one of the masters of the grape Sumoll. We were able to get our hands on some 2011 Sumoll from her, and pairing that with fish with green curry and chanterelle mushrooms and littleneck clams worked amazingly for such a savory wine. It’s been great to see these affirming responses from people as the magic of a good pairing happens.

Why do you focus mostly on smaller-production and more esoteric wines?

They taste interesting and different. They’re unexpected. In my position, where I’m in front of people, I like to tell those stories and talk about these people. For me, meeting these winemakers gives a tangible understanding of wine that makes it feel less pretentious. That is what I’m shooting for when talking about these people that are so special and so passionate about these small little places that they come from. That’s where the fun is for me.

The food [at Jean-Georges] is so borderless that I just feel like a kid in a candy store. Something that Dawn and I have talked a lot about is making sure that we are diverse in our approach with the wine. So we’re not trying to lean heavily on French or Italian or New World, by making sure that we’re touching on all of those places. For us, the best pairing wins. We have an eye on structure, progression, making sure that people feel the value, and making sure that we’re appealing to a wide audience. It’s such a special-occasion place that we’re getting people that eat at a restaurant maybe once a year and some people that eat at places like that once a month. We’re trying to really make sure that the pairing program and the list appeals to everybody at all levels. It’s been a fun game.

So what is your process like for solidifying a new pairing?

The Jean-Georges food is so forward-thinking that sometimes we read the ingredient list and we’re stumped: “What are we going to do with this?” I think that the challenge of not being conventional really creates the opportunity for creativity. Some of these flavor combinations just send us down the rabbit hole of what we think might work. It’s such a collaborative process with myself and Dawn bouncing ideas back and forth, wondering what we have on the list that we can plug in—because, all of a sudden, this dish is going to debut Thursday. And the process to bring in new wines has a longer lead time than that. So we are trying to build the list with things that will work with the spectrum of flavors that Jean-Georges is working with.

We just got our ingredient lists for a couple of new additions, and one is like delicata squash with a banana and sour cherry mole. There is always a conceptual phase of this challenging basket of ingredients—what do we think is going to work? And then midweek, we’ll get to at least take some of those components, test them out, and kind of go back to the drawing board. It’s an editing process. That’s my favorite conversation to have. Talking with chef Cornelia—who knows a lot about wine, just has such an amazing palate—and going from the conceptual to what’s hitting the table is definitely a fun process.

What drove you to open Bibber & Bell?

It really started when my wife and I were doing our taxes and our accountant said, “Oh, I see that you’re doing some wine consulting! I have a client who actually owns a wine store in Williamsburg and wants to sell it. Are you interested?”

We decided to see what they had to say and take it one step at a time. It ended up not working out at that store in kind of a heartbreaking way. We managed to get all the way up to signing the papers and then, for a number of reasons, the deal fell apart. So we were left with this hole … We were emotionally committed to starting this business and personally pursuing it. And so we just started from scratch at that point and ended up finding space and finding a landlord that is just amazing. In New York, that is not always the common experience. We managed to raise the money to do it. We’re a little mom-and-pop shop, but the neighborhood has been so responsive to us. Here we are 10 years later!

Has owning an off-premises business affected the way that you run service?

There is such a difference between the off-premises and on-premises approach that, for me, where the Venn diagram crosses with that is food. It’s really just talking about what people are having for dinner and what they would like to drink with that. My approach in the retail world is thinking about how we bring that tableside conversation to the wine shelves.

[Both retail and restaurants] are about constantly editing and focusing that conversation to take it to the next level. I think it is just magical—trying to introduce people to new things regardless of their experience or knowledge level is really something that we strive for.

So what is it like to be doing both of these jobs at once?

Some weeks are busier than others, for sure; there’s a lot of juggling. I find that there’s a lot of overlap. A lot of times it’s like I’m putting together my order sheet for the store, and I’m thinking about what I’m going to do with banana, sour cherry and delicata squash mole. There’s a nice overlap of research; I think if a person runs a wine program—retail or restaurant—you have to love the research. Some people are great with sports and music and things like that. For me, researching wine and trying to figure out what’s gonna work for the slot that’s missing—to put together that jigsaw puzzle of what the wine selection is that we’re presenting to our customer, whether in the shop or on the floor in the restaurant—is the most fun thing for me.

People Red Wines White Wines Dining Out Sommelier Service Restaurant Awards

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