What wine would you pair with frog legs, capers, and a brioche crouton, a gorgeous platter of Florida’s winter finest heirloom tomatoes and homemade stracciatella, a pizza with tender short rib meat, cave aged gruyere, caramelized onions, and arugula, and also a pan roasted half poulet rouge chicken alongside farro, peppers, and roasted corn?

OK, nobody has to choose one wine for all those dishes. However, piecing together strong wine lists for an already prominent, small restaurant group with dining rooms that feature extensive and quite differing menus isn’t going to be just about building a cellar of Napa and France’s greatest hits.

Eric Larkee

Eric Larkee.Photo: Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group.

For the Miami-based The Genuine Hospitality Group, that task belongs to Eric Larkee, the talented and ever affable wine director overseeing what many South Florida restaurant industry members and locals consider South Florida’s premier wine program.

Having cooked in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, Michael Schwartz opened Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in 2007 at a location in Miami’s Design District that was far from the glitz and prestige of Miami Beach across Biscayne Bay. Schwartz proved that fresh, pure American bistro cooking with just the right creative edges will bring discerning diners to the Design District. Yes, he was quite right with that prediction.

In not even a decade, the group’s success has soared, mirroring the emergence of the Design District and Downtown Miami itself on the region’s cultural and economic scene. While the original Michael’s Genuine remains the flagship and is probably Miami’s most celebrated restaurant still seven years later, Schwartz opened a branch of Michael’s Genuine in Grand Cayman, followed by Harry’s Pizzeria in his flagship’s neighborhood stateside.

Last year, Schwartz unveiled The Cypress Room, a throwback to elegant American dining with distinct traditional French influences and a classic bar a couple blocks south from Michael’s Genuine, while also returning to Miami Beach where he first settled in the mid-nineties with Restaurant Michael Schwartz in the historic Raleigh Hotel. Not just on land, the group also runs 150 Central Park by Chef Michael Schwartz aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas cruise liners.

So, Las Vegas or New York have to be next, right? We’ll see about that later.

One very effective business choice Schwartz made early on was surrounding himself with a strong team. This portfolio isn’t just about the head chef. The Genuine staff includes Hedy Goldsmith whose dessert creations have earned a place as a James Beard pastry chef finalist the past two years and New York and South Florida industry veteran Charles Bell running the operations side (Food writer’s plea: almost every restaurant nationwide should study each of the group’s restaurant websites for a quick lesson on how to format and what information to include!).

A recent meal at the flagship Michael’s Genuine presented a parade of distinct, thoughtful plates like the pristine stracciatella that would be among Italy’s finest and those superb sweet heirloom tomatoes in January (!). A sweet and spicy pork belly creation with kimchee and crushed peanuts made this jaded pork belly eater realize what made the concept so captivating to the country four years later. Nothing was overwrought or forced anywhere on the menu. Yet nothing is boring by any stretch. A crispy rice cake won’t make you swoon by the sound of it but is a pitch-perfect starter with chorizo and Florida rock shrimp in the cake, crowned by a robust Lake Meadow farm egg, and given a jolt from a chili aioli (think Sriracha profile). If there’s one signature, it’s the pan roasted half “poulet rouge” chicken. Even then, it comes with shaved kumquats, sourced from nearby Homestead and in season of course.

Larkee blending with Au Bon Climat for their Lua Rossa Wine. Courtesy Michael's Genuine Food & Drink.

Larkee blending with Au Bon Climat for their Lua Rossa Wine. Photo: Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group.

It’s genuine. No molecular gastronomy or fusion. Nobody needs to launch intense debates and Congressional hearings about what is “authentic.” Genuine food you can feel. Authentic food is more of an opinion.

Larkee’s wine roster reflects the genuine concept. At the flagship, the far above the norm quality of by the glass selections first stood out to me. Usually by the glass options are overpriced afterthoughts. That’s far from the case here. As a whole this is an honest list for both choice and pricing. For a restaurant of its caliber and popularity, the mark-ups are remarkably gentle.

Unheralded grapes like Callet and Traminer appear. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fans have no fear, the better known grapes and regions aren’t hiding either.

Single variety whites like the Viosinho Blend from Portugal’s Quinta Nova for $40/bottle and single variety reds including a 2008 Zweigelt from Leth in Austrai’s Wagram at $68/bottle are particular strengths. Mencía even earns its own category on the list. Should you desire a 1995 Chateau Palmer Margaux, that is here for you as well.

Larkee himself is a Badger, a native of the decidedly not wine but beer and dairy-centric state of Wisconsin. After attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he moved to New York City, worked his way up to beverage director and maître d’ at the acclaimed Wallsé, the one Michelin starred Austrian restaurant from chef Kurt Gutenbrunner. Miami was the next stop in 2009, though Larkee arrived with no job in place. He connected with Schwartz through mutual business contacts.

And in the four plus years since, Larkee has become a distinct voice on the national wine scene. He’s one of the first sommeliers anywhere to pour with a Coravin (an Argon gas wine preserver that keeps open bottles fresh for months). He’s a major advocate for the annual “Summer of Riesling” (his Riesling-strong list is headlined by New Zealand’s gorgeous True & Daring) truth and daring. Most of all, he’s making wine educational, approachable, and even…fun and casual.

Photo: Trevor Felch

Photo: ©2014 Trevor Felch

Yes, you need to be casual and try Michael’s Genuine Home Brew when in Miami. It’s a crisp refreshing American Ale that isn’t going to gain a Pliny the Younger-cult following, but beautifully compliments and cuts the aforementioned powerful notes of kimchee and pork belly.

Whether it’s with the chicken at a Michael’s Genuine, a pizza at Harry’s or frog legs at The Cypress Room, Larkee’s wine list truly captivates. Follow along and you’ll learn from Larkee about his dream wine to sample (spoiler alert: from a country better known for pints in pubs…), when/if you’ll be sampling Florida wine soon, and what  two regions to keep an eye on for Sauvignon Blanc in the wake of recent Loire Valley bad weather vintages(you may be surprised). Cheers!

Vino247: First off, there has to be a great story of how you became interested in the profession and became a wine director. Let’s hear about how you became so excited about wine (or despised it and then fell in love with it?)!  

Eric Larkee: Well, there is the story, the long story and the really long, “going to need a couple bottles of wine” story. The briefest version is that I became interested in food and wine during a summer spent in Geneva, Switzerland after my sophomore year of college. A touch cliché but there is a reason why clichés exist.

Let’s think big for a moment. What’s a “genuine” wine in your opinion?  A genuine wine is one that doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. The winery spends more on grapes than on marketing and the ingredients list pretty much begins and ends with “grapes.”  A genuine wine also has personality beyond striving for a score or other critical approval. Genuine wines are made by genuine people. They are wines that transcend the fact that making wine is actually an agricultural manufacturing process. They are wines that convey a soul, a personality, or something else beyond just being an alcoholic beverage produced from grapes. They often have a story.

Tomato Season at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. Photo: Trevor Felch

Tomato Season at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink. Photo: ©2014 Trevor Felch

What’s “genuine” wine service?  

Genuine wine service starts with the greeting, beginning with a smile, and continues in the way that is best for each guest. While it is crucial to know proper rules and service it’s not always appropriate to circle the table clockwise pouring all women and then repeating for the men with the host served last. That said, it’s not sloppy. Old bottles should be treated with respect, properly decanted, and glassware should be perfect. Genuine service is about reading the guest and varying the style of service to the comfort level of individual tables.

With four restaurants in Miami and an outpost in the Grand Cayman Islands, can you talk us through the creation of your lists? How are they different/similar? There seems to be very little overlap.

The starkest difference is between the two Michael’s Genuine. A couple of factors come into play; we always have a Sommelier on the floor during service in Miami while there isn’t even one on staff in Grand Cayman. Florida is neck and neck with New York as the number two wine consuming state (http://www.fmi.org/docs/gr-state/fmi_wine_study.pdf?sfvrsn=2; stats are from 2008-09 but the trend is steady, just cant find anything else to link to right now) while the Cayman Island population maxes out just north of 100K during the peak of season, the supply and distribution channels are entirely different, and the majority of guests come from another background. Three and a half years ago the lists were very similar but sales and staff drive the list so the Cayman program has gone in different direction.

Royal Red Shrimp with cucumber, Coconut, Lime, and Puffed Rice at The Cypress Room. Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group

Royal Red Shrimp with cucumber, Coconut, Lime, and Puffed Rice at The Cypress Room. Photo: Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group

The Miami list probably feels the most love during the weeks of Art Basel, the Wine & Food Festival. Harry’s is a pizzeria with everything $9 or under by the glass for those always looking for value. With Restaurant Michael Schwartz we skew a bit more towards familiar brands because again, like in Cayman, we don’t have a sommelier running around on the floor. That said, some of the best values on the list are the wine geeky wines (the same holds true in Cayman).

The list at The Cypress Room has a bit of an old school kick to it. That list kind of started when I was doing research on a concept that we didn’t end up doing at the Raleigh. I was looking at post-prohibition lists in New Orleans and New York. Every list needs to work for the time, place, and people (and people is both the guests and the staff).  If we opened a steak house (Ha!), it wouldn’t have the same list as MG Miami but would probably have some serious Malbecs, a solid dose of California Cabernet Sauvignon, with killer Bordeaux and Sangiovese-based wines.

The top two goals of a list have to be profitability for the company and enjoyment for the guest, if I fail on delivering those two things I fail.

On or off any of your lists, what are some wines you’ve had recently we should keep an eye on (or off)?

The Loire Valley is going to be a tough place for the next two vintages. Hail damage has been horrific and vintages and the production from some great producers is almost non-existent. This could be a great opportunity for high-quality South African Chenin Blanc producers ($20-$35 retail) to make some in-roads as in-kind substitutions. There are also Austrian and Slovenian wineries that are making Sauvignon Blanc, which can be mentioned with Sancerre.

Crispy Rice Cake with Chorizo, Egg Yolk, and Florida Rock Shrimp

Crispy Rice Cake with Chorizo, Egg Yolk, and Florida Rock Shrimp. Photo: Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group

Let’s choose a few dishes from the menu and a few wines from the list to mix and match…(a signature dish at each spot, perhaps?)

MG: Double Yolk Farm Egg – Nebbiolo. Ceviche – skip wine, have a Mezcal Paloma with the Del Maguey Chichicapa. Oysters – Piuze Cremant. Octopus – Elk Cove Pinot Noir. 1/2 Chicken – Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict vineyard. Duck – Gamay. Rice Cake – Chenin Blanc.

HP: Rock Shrimp Pizza with Sauvignon Blanc.

TCR: Nebbiolo with meat off the rotisserie. Foxen Chenin Blanc with the Rock Shrimp dish.

At the Design District flagship, what wines on the list are you most excited about? 

The whites not called Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Anything, or Cabernet Something.  I could work the floor with just the white and red Single Variety sections. Yes, love, love, love Riesling, but a Riesling drinker can be pleased with Kerner. It’s great to open a Petite Sirah for that Cabernet Sauvignon drinker that just wants something BIGGER.

It’s a really fascinating list…lots of unique whites (especially the Rieslings), then ranging all the way to the likes of Screaming Eagle and Ridge Montebello. 

There’s also a couple Cru Beaujolais, that’s what I’d drink…we look for whites that work with the food and seek to have a selection of reds that hit that full range of body intensity and tannin levels at various price points. I think it’s important to have benchmarks like Montebello, Grgich, or Ramey Chardonnay on the list. My biggest fight with myself at Michael’s is to make sure that we have enough “known” brands on there so that people are familiar. Not everyone wants to talk to the Sommelier, some just want to pick a wine.

Godello, Rafael Palacios, Louro do Bolo, Valdeorras, Spain 2010. Photo: Trevor Felch

Godello, Rafael Palacios, Louro do Bolo, Valdeorras, Spain 2010. Photo: ©2014 Trevor Felch

Oregon Pinot Noir seems to have a prominent place on the lists, for sure.

Yes. The region is one of the most European in the New World. I intentionally didn’t call the wines Old World, because they aren’t, but the region has some of the same pitfalls and charms of European regions. The climate is liminal. Some vintages the winemakers have to work really hard. I love the acidity in the wines. The wines also seem to be a bit more cowboy than a lot of the California Pinot Noir. There is more individuality. Oh, and they go great with food.

How about great pizza wine at Harry’s?

White: crisp and fresh without oak. We try to have a range of body weights. Sparkling; Prosecco, Moscato and dry Lambrusco. Moscato may be the most perfect dessert wine. With the reds we don’t want much tannin since it conflicts with tomato sauce. The hardest wine for that list is always the rich red. Finding ones that can be sold at $9 is difficult.

Pesto Pizza with Homemade Ricotta, Mozzarella, Pecorino, and Fresh Tomato at Harry's Pizzeria

Pesto Pizza with Homemade Ricotta, Mozzarella, Pecorino, and Fresh Tomato at Harry’s Pizzeria. Photo: Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group

Your by the glass programs doesn’t seem like afterthoughts at any of the restaurants…

Nor should they be. Every person that sits in the restaurant gets a copy of the by the glass program on the back of the menu. Usually only one person at each table gets the full wine list. With the range of small and medium plate offerings we have there needs to be a full tool belt of options. The program is at a point where there really are slots, or positions for the wines. I.e. rich but un-oaked white, odd-ball Old World-style red, dry Riesling, aromatic white with residual sugar, red Burgundy, etc…Having this outlook gives us focus and actually helps the people sell us wine so that they can come to us with direction and be more efficient with their time.

Are there a few labels by the glass and by the bottle you notice that seem to catch the attention of diners more often?

When the California Cabernet has a catchy name like “The Treat”, “Taken,” “Petite Batard.”  “Bla Bla Bla Family Winery” just doesn’t stick with people. Yeah, and it’s the big Cab that appeals to those most influenced by snazzy branding.

How do you think wine can have that “renaissance” of sorts like craft cocktails and craft beer (though Miami actually just opened their first commercial craft brewery, Wynwood Brewing Co.) have experienced nationwide recently? In other words, how do we defeat that “snobbish” image so much of the young drinking generations seems to think of with wine and convince them that not every bottle is a first growth Bordeaux?

I think we’re already there. I think this snobbish wall came down before the days of social media so it went less noticed. Gen X & Y drinkers are open and experimental. Even my non-wine industry friends have wine on the table and see it as a grocery, not a luxury (#yobetts). The biggest snobbish attitude is actually from the Boomers, especially ones who think that a wine which was boutique in the 1980s still is, even though it has been purchased by an enormous conglomerate which increased production exponentially, kept price the same, while quality has gone in the inverse direction.

Riesling, Truth and Daring, Nelson, New Zealand 2011. Photo: Trevor Felch

Riesling, True and Daring, Nelson, New Zealand 2011. span class=”photo”>Photo: ©2014 Trevor Felch

Any preferences or pet- peeves when it comes to wine glassware and serving temperature? Is it wrong to have chilled red? A fan of stemless glasses?  

Thin crystal. Crystal’s porosity helps the wine to open and the clean edge allows for an even delivery. I like smaller glasses with a small amount of wine. Maybe because I like to pour wine, but I feel like I get a better nose in a Riesling glass even if the wine is a red. Temperature is huge. We do our best to control it but sometimes we just don’t have the space or facility to have everything optimal. I love chilled reds. We totally rocked it this last summer at Harry’s with a Malbec that had been made with carbonic maceration served at white wine temperature.  It all depends on tannin. Stemless glasses are fine when the setting is less formal, like at Harry’s. I used to like them more.

What are your audiences like? Experienced? Young? Tourists? Fans going to Heat games? Partying night-clubbers?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, not really. MG is really a restaurant that can be many things to many people. We can have a Beard Award winning Chef who is in town for an event at a table next to four twenty-something women celebrating a birthday flanked by some food bloggers with the newest Canon SLR camera.

What are your thoughts on tasting notes? Helpful and insightful? Or a nuisance and a hurdle for drinkers who want to give wine a chance but can’t understand why they don’t taste what the notes say?  

There is such a huge range in the genre of tasting notes that it’s a difficult question to answer. I find that the non-professional notes on Cellar Tracker, which are usually based on the consumption of a whole bottle rather than a sip or two, are more enlightening. Yes, they need to be taken with a major grain of salt but if you don’t have a decent bullshit meter, wine will be a difficult subject. We try not to talk like tasting notes, I don’t want Sommeliers or servers talking about ripe quince or attempting to decipher whether a wine is showing Anjou or Asian pears. I think it’s far more relevant to discuss acidity, body weight, relative fruit to earth flavors and colors of fruit; i.e. red, black, yellow, green. If you haven’t tasted a gooseberry, how much help is it going to be if I tell you that a wine tastes like gooseberries?

Michael's Genuine's Patio. Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group.

Michael’s Genuine’s Patio. Photo: Courtesy The Genuine Hospitality Group

Any regions you’re particularly excited about right now?  

I would like to try English Sparkling wine.

What wine are you drinking tonight? What wine are you drinking when the Heat win the NBA Finals?  

I’ll probably pop open a bottle of Scholium Project La Severita di Bruto tonight but when they win the third title (ed: The Heat won both the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals. Yes, they’re a dynasty.) I think we should be popping Krug from one of the big three’s (ed: Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James) birth years. It’ll have to be Wade’s ’82 since Krug didn’t declare a vintage in Bosh and James’ ’84.

Last but certainly not least…when will I be seeing a Florida wine on your list?! Or, should I stick to a Michael’s Genuine Home Brew if I’m offered a Florida wine?  Never. There is no Vitis Vinifera (the species of grape which makes the best wines) grown in Florida. (ed: He’s correct! There are “wineries” in the state but none can grow these grape species because of disease and climate. Per Larkee: wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-region/Florida.html

Visit Eric at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink
130 NE 40th St., Miami, FL. 33137
(305) 573-5550
Michaelsgenuine.com

Open for Lunch and Dinner Daily

About Author

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Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Trevor is the chief content officer for the social neighborhood mapping program Urbane, a restaurants writer for SF Weekly and San Francisco Examiner. He’s doing his best to be a world traveling meets joie de vivre combination of Hemingway, Bourdain, and Cary Grant. If you really want to charm him, serve a full, earthy Oregon Pinot Noir or a slick Sauternes, and pair them with 80 % or above dark chocolate.

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