Meet the Sommelier: Joe Robitaille of BAR BOULUD, BOULUD SUD and EPICERIE BOULUD in NYC
Raised in Buffalo and educated in Charleston, Joe Robitaille initially moved to New York City to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at Brooklyn College. When a friend secured him a job in a West Village wine shop, he never suspected it would become a passion. In fact, Joe continued to pursue a second masters in Education, believing a career teaching English would be his calling. It wasn't until he and his wife sought out a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) placement in Plumas County, California, that lightning finally struck.
"In Northern California, I experienced wine as agriculture for the first time," explains Joe. "Once I witnessed the magic of a southern exposed hill in a northern hemisphere or the smaller producers' knowledge of the land, it all began to click." Returning from the trip, Joe approached his role in wine buying and sales with intensified interest. All in, he had earned more than six years' experience - most notably at Montague Wine & Spirits in Brooklyn Heights - when he began considering a shift to a role as a sommelier. As luck would have it, a wine team position had opened at beloved Manhattan eatery Il Buco. With his background in education and poetry (and no fine dining experience) Joe was an unconventional choice for the role; nevertheless, Beverage Director Paul Lang saw potential. Over the next six years, Joe would explore the diverse wine and food traditions of Italy under both Lang and longtime Wine Director Roberto Paris.
Resurfacing from his deep dive into the Italian peninsula, Joe's desire to explore further wine regions began to grow. Joining the TheDinex Group in 2017, Joe has found the opportunity to both build on his deep knowledge of Mediterranean vintages at Boulud Sud, while intensifying his exposure to the legendary wine regions of France at Bar Boulud. As Head Sommelier, Joe most often seeks a sense of typicity, locating the best representation of a specific grape from a specific region. He also looks forward to highlighting iconic food and wine pairings - notably, the regional French bottles and dishes that have been carefully calibrated alongside each other for hundreds of years.
Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Robitaille about his background and career for our "Meet the Sommelier" feature.
What special personal qualities or talents have enhanced your career?
I spent a lot of time studying Poetry, completing a Masters of Fine Arts at Brooklyn College, and this led me to teaching as adjunct professor at CUNY. I loved teaching, and decided to take a second Masters Degree in Education, and became certified to teach English Language Arts for Grades 7-12 in New York State. I think my background in Education has helped me immensely, conducting staff trainings and creating a group of people in the restaurant who feel like they have their interest and talent in wine nurtured is very important. A great wine program has a lot to with creating a culture of wine, and I think teaching has helped me with this.
Who have been some of your professional mentors or individuals that have inspired your work?
Paul Lang hired me at il Buco, and taught me about Italian wine and food, and how restaurants worked. After that, I studied with Roberto Paris at il Buco, Roberto taught me about Italian and Iberian wine especially, but lots of other things too, and he really encouraged me to follow my curiosity and passion. Coming to work with Chef Daniel Boulud has been amazing. I remember when I began, and found myself tasting through a few of our by the glass wines with Daniel, and getting to hear with critique the wines, learning how he thinks about wine. Chef's restaurant group, Dinex, has an amazing team of sommeliers across the company led by Wine Director Daniel Johnnes, and Head Sommelier Raj Vaidya. Getting to chop it up with those two has been an amazing experience, they work with precision, and have some much experience to pull from.
Tell us a little about your travel experiences as a sommelier.
Travel is one of my favorite aspects of the job. I have been very lucky to visit great domaines all over the world. Some highlights for me were seeing the Tour de France in 2011 in the Alps and touring around Savoie wine country, also visiting Greece and seeing Santorini especially. I have been to the Canary Islands, the Rhone Valley, Burgundy, Jura, Champagne, Savoie, Provence, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, Verona, Liguria, Vallee d'Aoste, Santa Barbara County, Finger Lakes, Long Island, and I'm sure a few more. Just next week I'll be in Spain, visiting Sanlucar de Barrameda and the Sherry Triangle, then Catalunya and the Northern Rhone the following week where I'll spend some time in Cornas, Hermitage, Cote-Rotie and Saint-Joseph.
Travel is fun, but it is also really important to what we do. Travel won't make a bad sommelier good, but it can make a good sommelier great. It's important to see exactly how the wine is made, to ask questions about process and equipment, to walk the vineyards with the growers is always an illuminating experience.
Why do you find your career as a sommelier so rewarding?
There's always room to grow. You can always push yourself to learn more and be better than the day before. And the service element as well, getting to share your love of wine with others and make a small impact on their day is really rewarding. I also love being able to influence the market, being a voice pushing more growers to move towards organics is important to me.
What is one of your favorite meals and what wine would you select for it?
Poulet a Bresse. The best chicken in the world. I'd make in the Zuni Cafe style, meaning it is dry-brined and air-dried for a day or two before roasting it. Put it in the oven around 450-475 to really crisp the skin. This with a light, fresh style red, like Beaujolais or Trousseau is just fantastic, also really love Cote de Beaune reds with this dish.
Tell us a little about the restaurant or organization that you currently work with.
I run the wine programs for three restaurants, all on the corner of 64th and Broadway across the street from Lincoln Center. Boulud Sud is a upscale but comfortable Mediterranean Restaurant with an extensive wine list, Bar Boulud is Chef Daniel's nod to the food he grew up with in Lyon, having more of a bistro feel, and Epicerie Boulud is a very casual corner cafe and bar with coffee, some quick bites, and fun by the glass wine program.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dinex Group