Photo by Michael Polito
Billy Rattner is in love. The wine director of Xaviars Restaurant Group just bought an iPhone and is in the early stages of infatuation with his new tech toy. “One of the great things about these phones is how easy it is to go online,” he says. “If I’m table-side and a guest has a question about the wine, I can just show them the winery’s website.” And it works both ways. Recently, Rattner, 45, of Tappan, New York, texted a picture of one of his customers with a bottle on the table to the winemaker friend whose wine it was. “He got a kick out of that.”
Rattner’s enthusiasm, for his iPhone and for wine, particularly Hudson Valley wine, is infectious. Spend five minutes with him and it’s easy to see why he’s made such an indelible mark on the local dining scene. For starters, he has to be the least pompous wine expert around, refreshing in a world where pretentious wine-speak is the rule. Talk to him about his favorite subject and you are not going to hear any mention of Brix or Brettanomyces. “Wine has three natural enemies,” Rattner says. “Air, heat, and snobbishness. I feel like my job is to knock wine snobbery off its pedestal and teach people to enjoy wine for what it is.”
His lack of attitude is due in large part to his grounded upbringing in Rockland County. “No one in my family was in the restaurant business,” he says, “although one of my aunts told me she thought my great grandfather might have been a maître d’ in Poland.” Rattner’s dad was a builder (he built the house Rattner grew up in), and he instilled in his son an entrepreneurial spirit. “I’m lucky. He gave me the gift of knowing how to work hard.”
Wine was the furthest thing from Rattner’s mind when he graduated high school. He enrolled at Connecticut College in New London and majored in economics and theater. “Okay, I was kind of a confused eighteen-year-old,” he concedes, “but I wanted to be an actor.” And that’s exactly what he did, moving to Chicago after he graduated and studying with the Improv Olympic Theater, where Mike Myers, Chris Farley, and Tina Fey all received their comedic training. He moved back to New York 10 years later with his girlfriend at the time and took classes at The Second City, eventually becoming a member of their “BizCo” troupe, which performed improv sketches for corporate training programs. “I still have my first paycheck from Second City on my wall to prove I worked in the troupe,” he says.
It was breaking up with his girlfriend that led him to his current career. “I wanted to move back to Chicago, but I was a struggling actor, so I needed to make some money.” Like generations of starving actors before him, he decided to get a job waiting tables. He headed off to a bar he knew in Piermont, New York (“The only one that would let us drink when my friends and I were underage,” he admits), and, on the way there, passed Freelance Café & Wine Bar, part of the Xaviars Restaurant Group. “I was curious, so I popped my head in and asked if they were hiring.” They were, and 22 years later, Rattner is still working for the group. “I’m so glad I didn’t make it to the original bar,” he says with a laugh.
It was at Freelance Café that he met the man he calls his mentor: award-winning chef Peter X. Kelly, the driving force behind the restaurant group. “The Freelance Café was very small, so I was a waiter and a bartender,” he says. “When wine distributors came in to see Peter, I would just listen. I got to sample some of the greatest wines in the world that way.”
“Peter is a natural teacher,” he continues. “I never had to ask if I could try a wine when the distributors came; a glass was poured and pushed toward me. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! There’s a whole world of wine I know nothing about.’”
Describing himself as “ridiculously curious,” Rattner began reading about wine, starting with Kevin Zraly’s influential Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. After that, Rattner’s career grew organically. Within two years, he was in charge of seeing wine distributors and started traveling to the world’s great wine regions. In the early ’90s, he completed the Sommelier Society of America’s Certificate Course.
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“Realizing my strong passion for wine and developing my expertise was a slow transition,” he says. “For a while, I was still auditioning and acting, but, eventually, I moved all my energy to the restaurants. Now I’m fully committed.” That commitment has helped the group and its restaurants garner a number of accolades, including the New York Times’s highest rating, the Mobil Travel Guide Four-Star Award, the DiRoNA Award, and Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence.”
Even so, he brings an artist’s sensibilities to the wine programs he has developed for the group’s four restaurants. “My approach to wine is hedonistic and sensual,” he says. “What’s important is how it tastes and feels. When guests order wine at our restaurants, I want it to relate to what’s going on, not just in their mouths but also in their hearts and minds.”
What’s going on in Rattner’s heart and mind these days is his new wine label, Hudson Wine Farms, which he started a couple of years ago to bring together talented Hudson Valley winemakers and grape growers. At the moment, about half the grapes come from local growers, with the remainder sourced from Long Island and the Finger Lakes region, but his goal is to eventually get to 100-percent Hudson Valley grapes.
Rattner likens the wines to those of France’s Loire Valley: crisp and fruity and made from varietals that thrive in a cooler climate. “To my mind, there are some delightful Hudson Valley wines, particularly reds made from Cabernet Franc and whites made from Traminette and Chardonnay. Plus, there are some tremendous Pinot Noirs.”
Still, despite our region’s long winemaking history—French Huguenot immigrants planted vines here in the late 17th century—Hudson Valley growers and vintners don’t have an easy time of it. “It’s not like California,” he says. “A bad vintage here can devastate a farmer; in Napa, it just knocks a few points off the Wine Spectator score.”
Rattner, who has been a judge at the Hudson Valley Wine Competition for the past several years, is excited by the emerging quality of the region’s wines. “I feel I was given a gift to be able to participate in the continued evolution and elevation of the industry here,” he says.
What’s next for Rattner? If things go the way he’s planning, he’ll have his own small vineyard soon, a goal inspired by his 8-year-old daughter, Lucy. “She was with me when I harvested the first grapes for Hudson Wine Farms,” he says. “I showed her how to hold the secateurs, but she was more interested in picking and eating the grapes. Seeing her happiness made me think, ‘I have to do this.’”
And he’s dipping his toes into the spirits world as well. He and Peter Kelly have joined forces with a team of industry experts to launch a brand of vodka this summer. Named Slovenia Vodka after the central European country where it is distilled, the vodka is made from winter wheat and buckwheat. Kelly discovered it when he was in Slovenia recently, checking out the country’s wines. “We fell in love with the wines and the vodka,” Rattner says.
Ah, love. That brings us back to his brand-new passion, his iPhone. Will he start putting the restaurants’ wine lists on iPads, like some restaurants are doing? “How the information is delivered doesn’t really matter,” he says. “But some people love the interaction of turning the page in a wine list; that’s part of the whole experience for them.” He pauses, and then sums up his whole approach: “I’m not a traditionalist, but I appreciate tradition.”
Billy Rattner’s Top Hudson Valley Wines
While Rattner is a fan of most of the wines coming out of the region, here are a few of his current favorites. For more information, he recommends checking out the New York Cork Report at newyorkcorkreport.com.
â– Whitecliff Vineyards “Awosting White” (along with their Pinot Noir, “Sky Island Red,” Traminette, and more)
â– Brotherhood “Grand Monarque” sparkling wine (as well as Ice Wine, Pinot Noir, and Riesling)
â– Millbrook Vineyards & Winery Cabernet Franc “Block Three East” (as well as their Tocai Friulano, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay)
â– Bashakill Vineyards “Black Bear” Cabernet Franc
â– Clinton Vineyards Seyval Naturel sparkling wine and Seyval Blanc
â– Hudson-Chatham, Baco Noir
â– Benmarl Winery “Slate Hill White”