Interview with Ben Kephart

Last week we detailed the brand new approach to restaurant wine lists that the new Cucina urbana is bringing to the San Diego dining scene.  Today we’re lucky to nab an interview with Cucina urbana general manager and defacto sommelier Ben Kephart.  Ben crafted Laurel’s fantastic wine list and is now confronted with the challenge of building an entirely new wine list from scratch for Cucina urbana.

Cucina urbana emphasizes wine values, encouraging patrons to hang out, sip, taste, and enjoy a bottle or two of vino to go with Chef Joe’s new small-plate Italian creations.

We were lucky enough to try Cucina urbana during it's opening week and absolutely loved the concept, the food, and the wines.  We can't wait to go back upon our return to San Diego.

Ben, thank you for taking the time to talk with the Bruliam Brigade.  We’re grateful for your time and expertise. 

(Ben's answers are in red below each question).

First of all Ben, tell us a little about Cucina urbana and what you guys are aiming to create with this new vision.

Thanks for checking in on us, Bruliam Brigade!  Our concept was to create a complete transformation from a high-end, fine-dining establishment (Laurel) into a more rustic, comfort-driven experience with reasonable pricing.  Nothing on our dinner menu exceeds $20, and wines are sold at retail price in our wine shop from $14 - $50.

 Please tell our readers how you landed such a great gig?  We’ve known you with Laurel for some time now, and you’ve always been a fresh-faced youngin’ in a restaurant that carried somewhat of an old school reputation.

You’re so flattering!  I’ve been in the restaurant business since the age of 16, and most of it has fallen toward the fine-dining end of the spectrum.  The process of the reconcept has been the most exciting project I’ve ever been a part of professionally, and I am grateful to Tracy for including me in this process

What sparked your interest in wine.  I’m imagining a precocious 8-year old requesting Corton Charlemagne instead of Tree Top apple juice at birthday parties.

Ha!  That story sounds so much better than mine, can you just print that?  Interestingly enough, wine was not even around my home as a youngster (short of the bottle or two that my parents would receive as gifts and never open).  Toward the end of college, I began managing at a hotel and working at a small fine dining restaurant and discovered the endless world of wine.  I began picking up a bottle or two of something that I’d never tried before each week (mind you, slim pickings in Central Pennsylvania) and reading about wine as much as I could.  Again, your story sounds MUCH better than mine!

What wine experiences have informed your wine preferences?  Have particular regions, varietals, or wine makers influenced you more than others?

Building the list at Laurel was a wonderful experience in wine education.  While there was an absolute presence of some old-world big-hitters, nothing was really off-limits for that wine program.  We would sprinkle in selections from Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile and even a few oddballs from Lebanon, Greece and beyond.  Regarding specific experiences, there are so many great ones to recall – but a particularly fascinating one was a lunch with Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar in Lebanon.  Hochar’s wines usually create polarizing opinions, but are chocked full of personality and unique characteristics.  Tasting all the way back to the 1972 vintage, it seems as though his wines show off more ‘youthful’ characteristics as they age – peculiar?!  While he acknowledges this trait, he was not quick to offer any explanation as to why this may be, I guess we’ll all keep scratching our heads!

Tell me how you reconcile your personal tastes in wine with selecting restaurant wines.

While we all have our preferences in wine styles, it is not my job to create a wine program that highlights my favorites.  There are so many different expressions of every grape varietal that suit many different palates, so why try and push my palate onto others?  If a wine program was filled with just my preferences it may read something like this: Champagne and Burgundy!

Obviously the great perk of your job is drinking and tasting world class vino all day long.  But, I’ve got to ask, what’s the greatest perk of your job?

That is definitely among them!  It’s great to help select wines for the restaurant, then turn around and help a guest find their perfect bottle of wine.  As any lifer in the restaurant business will tell you, there are no two days alike in our crazy, crazy world!  I don’t think you’ll ever find me sitting behind a desk pushing paper.

How closely do you and Tracy collaborate on wine selections?  How about you and Chef Joe?

The wine program is absolutely a collaborative effort, and a marriage of food and wine.  Tracy chose the ‘Wines of the Americas and Italy’ concept for the program because it best suits the style of our cuisine, and our chef, Joe Magnanelli.  She is the most amazing business owner I’ve ever worked for, because she has genuine compassion for this industry and is so incredibly ‘hands-on’ in all areas of the restaurant.  While Joe’s primary responsibilities lie in the kitchen and mine in the front of house, we both take active interest and provide feedback on each other’s departments. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pose the “chicken and egg” question.  What comes first, the menu or the wines?  Will this equation differ with the new place, with emphasis on wine values?

I am a firm believer that while wine is important, it only becomes relevant with a great menu.  Joe’s cuisine has always been extremely wine-compatible and provides for both classic and interesting pairing opportunities.  Food always comes first in a restaurant, even when you can buy a bottle of wine for as little as $14 in our restaurant!

Please give our readers some tips to find recession friendly wines.

Ummmm, come to our wine shop at Cucina urbana?!  When the dollar needs to stretch, it’s always a good time to look at South America.  Altocedro Malbec ($17 in our wine shop) and Trivento Torrentes ($14) are wines that are far more serious than the low price tags they carry.  Spain and New Zealand are some other great bets for a good, reasonably priced summertime wine. 

How does one go about creating a wine list from scratch?  Do you have a big excel sheet breaking it down by region, varietal and brand or do you follow you gut?  Is it a clinical or romantic process?

It was a fun and challenging process, both clinical and romantic.  We tasted hundreds of wines during the month that Laurel was closed and created a massive spreadsheet with notes, likes/dislikes, and pricing.  The goal was to narrow the field to about 100 selections, and represent wines of the Americas (north and south) and Italy.  We chose to categorize wines in an unconventional way, rather than list them by varietal and region.  On our list you’ll see categories like ‘Feats of Strength’ or ‘Lighten Up’.  We’ve had a lot of fun playing around with what fits into these categories, and it’s certainly refreshing to break away from the mundane version of wine lists!  Once cuts were made, we went through about 20 versions of the list before it actually went to print and the doors opened!  Already, it looks quite different than the day we opened 2 months ago and will continue to evolve. 

Recant your most magical wine epiphany – the time the skies opened, a rainbow appeared and archangels with harps started to sing.

The first memorable bottle of wine that I enjoyed was from Gundlach-Bundschu (Zin) in college.  Most of my experience with wine until that point was (gasp) from a box!  The lush jammy fruit and spice of such a reasonably priced bottle was truly a moment that made me realize how wonderful wine can be.

Are you will to divulge some of your personal favorites?  Please tell us why you like them.

I tend to try something new rather than resort to an old favorite more often than not.  But since you asked, here are a few of my favorite producers (in no particular order): DuNah, Sea Smoke, Olivier LeFlaive, Owen Roe, Domaine de Vieux Telegraphe.  These producers have one thing in common – great wines regardless of vintage conditions, no easy feat!

 Our last question is a word association game:

  1. I say picnic wine and you say?   Malbec or Albarino
  2. A  wine to impress you boss:   My Boss?  A bottle of Rose :-D
  3. A wine to impress a new date:  How about the current date?  Champagne, champagne, and champagne.
  4. To celebrate a job promotion:   Sea Smoke ‘Ten’ Pinot Noir
  5. Toast a 25th wedding anniversary: Veuve Clicquot ‘La Grande Dame’ 1996
  6. Money no object white:  Chateau D’Yquem 1967
  7. Money no object red:   anything from Domaine de la Romanee Conti (I’m not buying, right?)

Ben, we’re so excited about Cucina urbana. We have so many wonderful food and wine memories from Laurel and we can’t wait to create new ones with you under the new flag.  Brigade - this is a place worth supporting in town.  If you haven't already, get out and try it!!

Editor's Note:  We revisited Cucina urbana this past Saturday night and the place was full.  The food and service were still excellent and apparently they are packing 'em in nightly.  Congrats to Ben, Tracy, and the whole Urban Kitchen crew!