‘In-depth’ wine list for a ‘purely French’ menu – Wine List of the Month: La Cremaillere

‘In-depth’ wine list for a ‘purely French’ menu – Wine List of the Month: La Cremaillere – column

Paul Frumkin

BANKSVILLE, N.Y. — Guests at the 86-seat La Cremaillere won’t find any of the highly touted new Italian varietals on the 34-page wine list. Neither will they find any German, Spanish or Portuguese wines.

They will find a few American selections on the list–perhaps a dozen California wines in all–if they turn to the last page of the list. But these are only a concession to a few of the restaurant’s better customers.

Robert Meyzen, the second-generation proprietor of LaCremaillere, shrugs off these apparent limitations. “We’re a French house,” he says. “Even with the current values offered by Italian wines, we have no desire to go into them. Nor do we pretend to know anything about American wines, either.”

Clearly, what Meyzen does know about are French wines and, in particular, the big, long-lived varietals of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Of the estimated 14,000 bottles in LaCremaillere’s cellar, fully 60% are from Bordeaux while another 30% to 35% are Burgundies–worth nearly $500,000. The Bordeaux are well represented by nearly 5 chateaux, often with more than five listings, offered under each. There are 32 listings under the Burgundies, including five to the nine Beaujolais crus, or growths.

This kind of depth in great French wines exhibited by La Cremaillere is rarely seen in restaurants outside of France–a distinction that Meyzen emphasizes. “Our menu is purely French, and we feel that the wines should be as well. We try to offer a gamut so anyone who has any type of dish will have a wine to go with it,” he says. As a counterbalance to this battery of big wines, however, Meyzen has also included a few lighter selections from the Loire Valley–as well as Alsace, Champagne and California.

Meyzen is also aware that a list of such depth isn’t of interest to everyone. Consequently, he offers a very limited version containing easily recognized wines for those guests not inclined to drift uncomprehendingly through the restaurant’s 34-page book. The limited selections include a Beaujolais ($16), Sancerre ($16), Muscadet ($14), Pouilly-Fuisse ($28), Chablis ($16) and Vouvray ($12). Half-bottles are available.

He says that most of his customers have a good appreciation and knowledge of French wines, but for some “a wine list as large as ours can be mind-boggling. You have to know what you’re looking at.”

With such a Gallically oriented list, Meyzen could go to France to buy his wines if he chose to, but he prefers instead to buy from a negotiant in nearby New York City. “It doesn’t make that much sense to go to France,” he says. “We’re too small. We don’t do the kind of volume that would make it worthwhile.

“We’re really just a mom-and-pop kind of operation.”

“Pop,” at least, is accurate, Meyzen’s father, also named Robert, ran La Cremaillere for years before turning operations over to his son recently, although he continues to remain active in menu development and wine purchasing. After opening La Caravelle in New York City with Fred Decre in 1960, the pair also decided to purchase La Cremaillere two years later from its original owner, Antoine Gilly, who had moved the restaurant up to Westchester County from New York in 1948. “One would spend a week at La Caravelle while the other would be at La Cremaillere,” Meyzen recalls. “Then they would switch. That way they would get to spend time in the city and the country.” Meyzen Sr. did all of the wine buying for La Caravelle.

With La Cremaillere surrounded largely by horse farms and private estates, Meyzen Pere reasoned that the local populace could never support the restaurant by themselves, and so he deliberately began cultivating a New York City clientele, much of which still frequents the operation today. Most of the restaurant’s business is repeat–at least 75% to 80%, according to Meyzen–and the majority of new business is generated by word of mouth. “We don’t do much advertising,” he says, “and we don’t get a lot of people off the street here. The road we’re on is just not well traveled.”

Despite La Cremaillere’s out-of-the-way location, it still manages to do about 700 covers per week for both lunch and dinner. The per-person check average for both meal periods is approximately $50, and Meyzen estimates that 35% of that figure is generated by wine sales.

And, La Cremaillere’s reputation for red wine depth notwithstanding, white wine sales account for a sizable part of that figure. “I haven’t sat down to figure it out,” Meyzen says. “But the volume of white wine I go through is extensive.”

In addition to the Loire Valley and Alsatian wines already mentioned, Meyzen features a number of white Graves, including a 1979 Haut-Brion ($120), a 1979 Laville Haut-Brion ($51) and a 1981 La Blancheries ($12).

The best-selling category among the whites, however, is the Burgundies. For the most part Meyzen chooses white Burgundies that are already well known in the United States. They include a Batard-Montrachet ($60), Corton-Charlemagne ($65), Puligny-Montrachet ($35), Meursault ($48) and a few Chablis ($16-$36). Vintages are purposely omitted from the wine list because they are changed so often. “If someone wants to know what the vintages are, they have to ask one of the captains,” Meyzen says. “If I had to constantly rewrite the year on the wine list, I’d be wearing out the paper.”

The list also contains six Sauternes, offering both a 1977 Chateau Y and a 1967 Chateau d’Y quem. Meyzen, who admittedly isn’t too fond of the Y, points out the difference between the two. “The Chateau Y is a lighter wine,” he explains. “It’s not as voluptuous, and it can be drunk with dessert.

“On the other hand, the Chateau d’Y-quem is dessert. To drink it with something is too much. I’ve heard people say that it can be drunk with Roquefort cheese, but it’s not to my liking.”

Meyzen says that markup averages out to about 200%, but usually varies from wine to wine, depending on how much he thinks it will mature in the cellar.

Obviously, this is the case with many of the finer red Bordeaux–which are well represented on the list. It is in this area that the list shows its greatest horizontal and vertical depth. Of the great Medoc growths, La Cremaillere’s list contains Lafite-Rothschild, ’73-’76, ’78-’80 ($80-$220); Latour, ’52, ’70, ’71, ’73-’80 ($59-$280); Margaux, ’64, ’66, ’75, ’76, ’78-’80; Mouton-Rothschild, ’75, ’76, ’78-’80, and Haut-Brion, ’75, ’76, ’78, ’79 ($20-$270).

There are also a number of such great Saint-Emilions as l’Angelus, ’75, ’76 ($40 and $28, respectively; Ausone, ’76, ’77 ($132 and $75, respectively); Cheval Blanc, ’70, ’71, ’73-’76, ’78 ($85-$140) and Clos Fourtet, ’52, ’53, ’61, ’79 ($21-$195).

From the Pomerol region, Meyzen has cellared a number of case of Petrus from ’73-’80, and a superb ’66 for $325.

Other chateaux also featured on the list include Ducru-Beaucaillou, Figeac, Giscours, Mission Haut-Brion, Gruaud-Lorose, Forts de Latours, Montrose and Leoville-Las-Cases.

Although not cellared in as much depth, red Burgundies are fairly well represented by such chateaux as Aloxe-Corton, ’59, ’76, ’78, ’79; Clos de Vougeot, ’77, ’78, ’80; Chambolle-Musigny, ’76-’78; Chambertin, ’75, ’76; Gevrey-Chambertin, ’78, and Echezeaux, ’79.

For parties and large gatherings, Meyzen has also laid in a large stock of magnums, double magnums, jeroboams and imperiales in all categories. “I just did a party of 50 that took up more than half the restaurant,” Meyzen says. “The host simply picked the chateaux and vintages he wanted earlier, and we served the wine from jeroboams. People are often impressed.”

Prices for the larger bottles are priced proportionately to their smaller counterparts.

While the majority of the wines offered at the restaurant have vintages occurrring in the 1970’s, Meyzen also offers a special category of rare and older wines. The collection, which was started by La Cremaillere’s first owner, Antoine Gilly, features such classics as a 1913 Richebourg Crepeaux for $850; a 1923 Corton-Belin for $625; a 1938 Mouton d’Armailhacq for $625; a 1953 Haut-Brion for $450, and a 1952 Latour for $325. The most talked about wine on the list is a single bottle of Clos de Vougeot Champy from 1865, which Meyzen has whimisically priced at $1,865.

Although La Cremaillere’s seasonal menu is developed independently of the wine list, a certain slant toward the Bordeaux region and southwestern France is apparent in its dishes. This is hardly surprising, considering that Meyzen’s family hails from that area and the executive chef of two years, Waldy Malouf, studied in the southwest with Andre Daguin, who is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the dishes of that region.

When the weather turns colder, Meyzen says he will put some more traditional Southwestern dishes, such as cassoulet and pot au feu, on the a la carte menu. Meanwhile regional dishes from that area include aloyau poele a la pommade d’ail–steak cooked with a garlic jam–for $26.50; rognons de veau Bordelaise–veal kidneys prepared with a Bordeaux wine and marrow–$21.50, and confit de canard Toulousain aux navets–duckling confit with turnips–$22.75.

But while preparation of La Cremaillere’s dishes is traditional for the most part, Meyzen has adopted the plating techniques introduced into French dinny by nouvelle practitioners. “When the plating is done in the dining room,” he says, “the food is sometimes just plopped down on the plate. Besides, it’s at the mercy of several people. With the nouvelle plating, we can do something more natural, something decorative.”

Plating in the nouvelle style was the chef’s idea, but Meyzen says that he is interested in updating the restaurant generally. “Our chef is my age–32. So it’s a relatively young restaurant,” he remarks. “It’s young, but it’s eager in its classic form.”

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