Jason Wagner is a jack of all trades and master of everything. These days, he spends most of his time at my favorite restaurant in the city, Fung Tu on Orchard Street where his wine list is a true work of art. His passion for wine began under the mentorship of Olivier Flosse while working at A Voce. He worked up to Wine Director of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in New York’s Four Seasons Hotel, and after that he spent two years in Chicago, where we worked together at RM Champagne Salon. – I give him credit for revolutionizing natural and biodynamic wines to the Midwest palate. His guidance and mentorship has nurtured several present day wine professionals and enthusiasts throughout the country. He has quite the following of groupies. Like a true gentleman, Jason is humble and will never admit it, but he has a lot of to be proud of. When not at Fung Tu Jason is playing Thomas the Train with his son Mason or bathing his fat cat Piggy.
Follow Jason and Fung Tu on Twitter and Instagram @FungTu @jasonewagner
E: Hello, Mr. Wagner. How are you?
JW: Hey! Me? I’m living the dream.
E: When did you first move to New York City?
JW: I first moved to NYC in January of 2003. I moved with a bunch of friends from Atlanta. It was really helpful to have a network already built-in moving here.
E: Can you elaborate your time with Olivier Flosse? What are the main elements of hospitality that you learned?
JW: What I learned in my time at A Voce was more about the back-of-the-house operations. It was all about the ins and outs of running a beverage program day to day, week to week, month to month. I learned a lot about how to be a better Somm on the floor, how to best run my station, how to make the most out of my sales (whether monetarily or simply the best wine for the guests). Though I didn’t get a lot of wine knowledge directly from him, I did learn how to be a sommelier. I learned strategies for understanding the flow of service that I still use today and try to pass on to my employees.
E: What is the difference between Natural and Biodynamic wine?
JW: Biodynamics is a method of farming that uses no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. In addition, it employs polyculture as well as many different treatments that utilize natural elements to combat problems you might encounter in the vineyard. Biodynamics approaches a vineyard as a complete organism that needs many different parts to work together. Natural Wine, can have many different definitions, depending on who you ask. Generally, Natural Wine is all about having no additions in the wine-making process. That means using indigenous yeasts, limited or no fining or filtering, and little or no sulphur being used.
E: Why should people be drinking Natural Wine?
JW: For one, Natural Wine, when made carefully and cleanly, is a very pure expression of terrior; the soil. Then there’s the fact that you’re not putting any weird chemicals in your body. I think one of the other really compelling reasons to drink Natural Wine is that they are often priced for everyday consumption.
E: What is your advice for the next generation of hospitality professionals?
JW: Do your time. Pay your dues. Find a place where you can go and learn from a mentor. Don’t move from place to place as soon as possible. If you find a mentor, stick with that person and really learn from them. Also, be humble and realize what it is you’re doing. At the end of the day, we’re just feeding people and finding wine for them to drink. Realise that the industry we’re in is Hospitality. Be hospitable, welcoming and humble. For most of the people we serve, the act of going out for dinner is very special. Recognize that. Make it special. It’s not about you.
E: What is your favorite activity in New York City?
JW: Eating. There’s nowhere in the world better to eat. Nowhere. After that. . . . wandering. NYC is a great place to just walk aimlessly.
E: Which wine on your list are you most excited about right now? And why?
JW: Aw man, that’s tough. I change the wine list probably twice a week, and there’s always something new I’m excited about. I’m like a goldfish; I have a short attention span. Right now, I’m really excited about Yann Bertrand’s wines coming out of Fleurie and Catherine Riss’s wine from Alsace. In each case, the wines are pure, clean and delicious. They are serious enough to sit and contemplate and easy enough to drink to just enjoy.
E: Aligote or Chablis?
JW: Chablis. Aligoté, no matter how well made, just will never arrive at the greatness that Chablis can.
E: How many glasses can you carry with your hands? – No tray?
JW: It depends on the glasses and the brand etc. . . . but I can generally do 20 or so wine glasses, but it’s not a sexy way to go through the dining room.
E: Do you believe in free will or destiny?
JW: I wish there was a choice. I feel like they’re one in the same. Destiny.
E: Milk Chocolate or Dark Chocolate?
JW: Milk Chocolate. I know it’s not as sophisticated. I just like it better. I’m a dumb American.
E: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from you son?
JW: Patience and joy. Most people just need those two things.
E: Do you have a favorite poem? What is your favorite line?
JW: I do. As you know, I am very interested and in love with poetry. The wine list at RM in Chicago had quotes from e. e. Cummings and the list at Henri had quotes on every page. My favorite quote comes not from a poem per se, but the introduction to a book of poems by e.e. Cummings “always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” That drives me. Always ask the more beautiful question.
E: To be or not to be?
JW: To be. No question.
E: What is the strangest word in the English language?
JW: I’ve always thought “silver” and “orange” are strange since there’s nothing that rhymes with them.
E: Who is one person living or dead would you love to have coffee with?
JW: Both of my grandfathers died before I was born. My paternal grandfather died in WWII when my dad was two years old. I would love to have coffee with both of them. Now that I’m older, I can see how much of who I am is where I’ve come from. It would be amazing to have coffee with my dad and his for the first time.
E: Thank you, Jason!