Caitlin Doonan currently works for NoHo Hospitality as the Assistant Director of Food and Beverage at The William Vale Hotel, working with 7 venues including Westlight, Leuca, and Mister Dips. Before making the jump across the East River, She was on the opening team and spent four years at Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s Toro NYC as the Beverage Director and GM. Caitlin has previously worked for David Chang at Momofuku (Ma Peche), and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Market, Spice Market), and others.
Five Questions with Caitlin Doonan
Which wine (or wines) do you believe in that your colleagues in the industry disagree with you on?
I would imagine there are quite a few! Spanish Bubbles is definitely a category I love more than most of my peers who seem to vastly prefer Champagne. Now, of course, there are many Champagne producers I love and drink regularly, but I have a special place in my heart for the traditional method Sparkling wines from Penedes. When you taste fine examples of Spanish Sparkling, from producers like Recaredo, Gramona, Raventos i Blanc, Castellroig and more, there is a core of ripe fruit, provided by the bright Mediterranean sunshine, that doesn’t exist in most Champagne. To say Spanish Sparkling is good if it tastes more like Champagne is crazy. If you travel to both places, you know this would be very odd, but I hope that one day the excellent Sparkling wines from Spain will be a part of the same conversation regarding excellence, complexity, and quality as their counterparts in France.
Which trend or trends in wine (or spirits) do you wish would go away?
Pretty much everything! The only trend I’m truly supportive of is the drive to educate more – ourselves, our staff, our guests. But perhaps I’m dodging the question. The trend that probably annoys me the most is many wine lists starting to look the same. There’s too much “wine list as ego boost.” If a wine list says more about the Wine Director than anything else, it might be full of allocated gems, but it’s probably pretty boring.
And it must be said, the trend of many powerful men in the Restaurant industry turning out to be disgusting predators – yea, I’m ALL SET with that. Achieving excellence in this industry requires passion, vulnerability, dedication, and focus on the highest of levels – this is business and it’s art – the last thing anyone needs is their boss making their workplace toxic. People who need to make others feel small so they can feel big have no place in this industry. I am infuriated that so many people have had to put up with this kind of abuse to pursue something they love. I applaud the victims who’ve spoken out – their courage should be revered by all of us, and I find the response by those who enabled this behavior for decades to be craven, weak and lacking soul. We have so much work to do.
If you could ask one question of other wine directors in the city, what would it be?
How do you approach education? I view this part of my job as the most important, but it sure is a challenge finding the time! I’m always interested in how my peers approach educating their staffs, and themselves.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for beverage directors in the next five years?
One of the things I think about every day is how to make sure my team feels valued. The great thing about millennials is that they feel they have something to say, and they want to say it loudly. Point of view and a drive to share it are marks of an exciting generation! But they also have high expectations of their leaders. I try to meet those, and I’m sure many days I fall short, but it’s on my mind every day. Definitely a challenge. I also think one thing we’ll continue to see as the minimum wages rise (a great thing – living in NYC on $11/hr is a joke) is the consolidation of positions. Seeing the value of a beverage director to a business requires foresight and a bit of creativity – it’s not always as obvious as the value of a General Manager. I hope that will change. I hope the great beverage directors become business owners!
You wrote an important wine list for Spanish wine at Toro NYC with an impressive array of Sherry, Village, and Bodega Rioja, etc. –
What is the biggest barrier for Spanish wine today? And, what has the most promise?
Oof! What a question! First, I have to say that Toro was the best playground for my 4 years there. The wine list evolved considerably over time, and my staff were stars in their dedication to spreading the word about Spanish Wine – they weren’t intimidated by anything – single parcel Garnatxa Peluda from Montsant? Sure! They just got on board. I’m very proud of the successes of that program, big and small, and I recognize that they are 100% shared. Running a Spanish program is like being a Red Sox fan pre-2004. There are small victories along the way, and you love it, but you are championing an underdog. Quite honestly, the biggest barrier for Spanish wine today is $6 Albarino, $8.99 Cava (can we all make a pact to stop buying this?!), and marketing. There is NO better country than Spain in terms of value. For $20, you can buy an exceptional wine. But the US has been flooded with crap from Spain, so people associate Spain with “cheap” wine. The good stuff, even if inexpensive, does not make it out of major markets. My parents live in CT – it’s a train ride away but it might as well be across an ocean for how easy it is to get Spanish wine there. On a “global” wine list, there will be 3 Spanish selections, and one of them is probably the same Rioja that everyone else has on their list. There just aren’t a lot of wine professionals who spend a lot of time with Spain. Even in study guides, Spain gets the same amount of room as one region of France. So this is a multi-layered problem. It’s difficult to know where to begin in tackling it. At Toro, I tried to just get as many different things in peoples glasses as I could, and people were open to it. But I had the luxury(?!) of most people opening the list and not knowing most of it, so needing the guidance anyway! We live in a world driven by the social media “influencer” (call back to trends I hate!) and these excellent, small wines don’t have marketing budgets. Additionally, each region has it’s own marketing machine funded predominantly by the large bodegas so there’s not much incentive to promote the little guy who contributes less (wine, politics, it’s all depressingly the same). So, Spain needs champions!! I’m not sure there’s one region that shows more promise than others. I hope we figure out the Rioja puzzle at some point – a bit of a personal crusade of mine. Rioja should be classified by village, like Burgundy. I know we’re no longer living in a science-respecting country, but there’s plenty of objective evidence to show large terroir variance village to village. But unless some very large Bodegas want to admit they don’t have all the best vineyard sites, nothing will change because they pay the bills. This is getting a bit depressing, so on a positive note, I think the wines from Galicia are getting more good attention. Seaside Albarino from Rias Baixas, indigenous field blends from Monterrei and Ribeiro, and pristine Mencia from Ribera Sacra – it’s exciting to see. I’m hoping that Spain will be an easy entry point for young wine drinkers and wine professionals. It’s tough to go into a shop and buy a bottle of Bordeaux from the 1980s – who can afford that – but 1980s Rioja is much more accessible. Because of the built-in system of holding back wine (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva), even the new releases are older. And many Bodegas have a large stock of older vintages so they’re available on the market. Perhaps that will be a way for people to fall in love with the region and country!
“ On a "global" wine list, there will be 3 Spanish selections, and one of them is probably the same Rioja that everyone else has on their list. There just aren't a lot of wine professionals who spend a lot of time with Spain.
Our profession as sommeliers is more like an apprenticeship and an art that gets passed down each generation. Who mentored you along the way? What made them a great leader? How will you choose a mentee?
I think I view the profession a bit differently. I’m from a family of educators, and learning has always been highly valued. I have learned from a lot of incredible people, but not all Sommeliers. Theresa Paopao took a huge chance on me years ago at Momofuku, and she is still someone I look up to. She made wine fun and accessible and never took herself too seriously even though she was a BOSS!! But, while wine is the medium I love to work in, I’m more an educator and a cheerleader than anything else. I learned everything I know about pairing from working with Chef Paul Carmichael. Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette taught me the importance of professional agility – to be able to adjust and find solutions on the fly. Kyle Eakins and Lianne Raymond (Toro CDC and Events Director during my tenure) taught me the power of tempering my intensity and the importance of connecting to the human part of our staff not just the work part. And perhaps most far afield, my voice teacher at The Boston Conservatory while I pursued my masters, James Javore, taught me that you can only teach if you can listen. I tend towards the impatient. I want to get sh*t done – but stopping to truly listen, with no agenda, is the most important work I do. As for a mentee – I don’t think that’s up to me! I don’t believe that what I am able to teach is meant for one chosen person. I hope my team learns something from me as I do from them each day. Whether someone chooses wine as their lifelong career path, or merely a pitstop, I hope I can make a positive impact on their journey.
Follow Caitlin on Instagram @ccrosbiedoonan
Note: all answers above are posted without any cuts or edits.