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Sommelier Talk: Austria-Born Katja Scharnagl’s New Canvas

Born and raised in the Wachau Valley—Austria’s most famous wine region, situated along the Danube River—Katja Scharnagl took her first sip of Grüner Veltliner before she can even remember. (“I was very, very little,” she says.) Growing up, she worked in her family’s winery and learned to cook from her grandmother, setting her on her future path.

After attending culinary school, Scharnagl worked restaurant jobs that pushed her in the direction of wine, culminating with a gig as head sommelier at the elite Burg Vital Hotel in Oberlech, a spectacular, five-star hotel in the Austrian Alps. (Its Griggeler Stuba restaurant has held a Wine Spectator Grand Award since 2019.

Yet the bright lights of New York City were beckoning. When the opportunity arose to apprentice under a world-renowned sommelier at one of Manhattan’s finest restaurants—Aldo Sohm at Le Bernardin—Scharnagl jumped at the chance.

A fellow Austrian native, Sohm broadened her understanding of the world of wine; Scharnagl spent over a decade honing her skills at the Grand Award–winning Le Bernardin and was eventually appointed head sommelier. “Aldo was the best mentor, always encouraging and pushing me,” she says. “He is now like family to me.”

Now at Koloman, the chic, European-inspired restaurant that chef Markus Glocker (yes, another Austrian!) opened in September 2022 in the NoMad district, Scharnagl has built a Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine program of her own design.

Located at the Ace Hotel, in the space formerly occupied by The Breslin gastropub, the restaurant takes its name from Koloman Moser, a leading artist in Vienna in the late 1800s and early 1900s; his striking designs played a major role in culture and aesthetics throughout Europe. The dining room features many of his original designs, while Scharnagl’s 500-selection wine list champions many top wineries from her native Alpine nation.

Wine Spectator: What did you take away from your time at Le Bernardin?

Growing up at a winery in the Wachau, I was surrounded by wine from birth, but my knowledge and understanding of the wine world really began after I started at Le Bernardin. Aldo took me to his favorite Thai restaurant in Queens, and we would open up very old German Rieslings with spicy pork dishes and I was just blown away. I knew nothing of Burgundy before I arrived. NYC is the best place to learn about all the wines in the world.

I also learned true discipline and hospitality. When Aldo hired me, he said, “You have to really work. It’s not just Sex and the City here.” Le Bernardin truly shaped my career and taught me how to be a thoughtful host by going the extra mile for my guests.

Koloman’s concept is described as “turn-of-the century European café culture with the energy of today’s New York.” How does that translate in terms of the cuisine and the wine program?

Chef Markus Glocker is classically trained in French cuisine and brings an Austrian twist to the table. It’s elegant, flavorful and comforting—but at a very high level. His style of cuisine works particularly well with Champagne and Burgundy, which are his two favorite wine regions. While France is the most heavily represented on the wine list at over 50 percent, we have a very large Austrian selection.

What are some of the most exciting trends in Austria’s wine scene?

Austrian wines have never been better. They are so versatile, and easily some of the most food-friendly wines made anywhere. A young federspiel Grüner Veltliner, full of mineral, spice and herbs, pairs so well with anything fried. An aged Grüner is perfect with some cheese. There is simply no better pairing than Grüner Veltliner and spargel [German for asparagus]. I recently served an asparagus dish alongside a Grüner Veltliner from Weingut Hirsch from the Kamptal.

There is so much experimentation with the new generation of vintners, so much more range in style for Grüner and Riesling, and then all the other varieties: some thrilling Sauvignon Blancs, Chablis-like Chardonnays and refreshingly fragrant Gelber Muskateller (in my opinion, the perfect summer wine). Serious wine consumers really do know about Austrian wine right now, which is exciting to see.

For value seekers, which region do you point them to?

I’m more and more in love with the wines from the Côte des Catalanes [in southern France’s Roussillon region]. I think they have great value for wines with aging potential from a great terroir. A couple of my favorite producers are Domaine de l’Horizon and Danjou-Banessy.

How about the most unusual, rarest bottle on your list?

I snagged a couple bottles of the Schloss Gobelsburg Cuvée Tradition 50 Years, from an historic monastery in Austria’s Kamptal region. It’s a jubilee cuvée made from vintages going back 50 years to 1970.

Having worked for many years on two continents, how would you compare the European wine drinker with the American wine drinker?

The NYC diner is way more open to trying new things. Here you get the question of “what is new and what are you excited about?” more than anywhere else. It’s fun! You can walk into any good wine bar in this city and you will see many grapes and regions you’ve never heard of—and American wine drinkers love it! Europeans are more supportive of the wines from their homeland.

When dining out at a restaurant, what’s your wine service pet peeve?

Not being told the price of a wine. It’s great that you were offered a special by-the-glass pour, but if no one told you how much the glass cost and then you get the check … it can ruin a great dinner.

Where will we find you when you’re not at work?

I have a 20-month-old daughter at home, so she is the boss when I’m off. I love cooking for friends and family, and my biggest joy is to have them over for dinner and have a full house filled with conversations and laughter. And I could spend hours in any book shop and walk out with too many of them.

After a long shift, what is your wind-down routine?

We recently moved to Bay Ridge [in Brooklyn] and just walking home from the subway helps me to relax, as it is quiet at night. At home, I check in on our daughter, and then I often watch cooking shows.

Seriously?

I know, I know! But it actually relaxes me to watch Top Chef.

Source : Winebusiness.com

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