Umami* of Nantucket | Craig Hanna
As the Cellar Master at Topper’s, Craig Hanna maintains a 23,000+ bottle collection spread out over three locations on the property. Craig makes wine decisions for the upcoming season as well as making long-term purchasing decision. “The owners (Steve & Jill Karp) have allowed us to invest in wine. I don’t buy wines just to sell. We maintain wines in our collection.” Many diners come to Topper’s specifically to drink a bottle of wine they have in their own collection, to see how it is showing.
The Entrance to Topper’s
Topper’s is the restaurant at The Wauwinet, Nantucket’s only Relais & Chateaux property. The Relais & Chateaux association is comprised of more than 500 properties in 60 different countries. Each property is awarded membership based on a combination of exceptional service, gourmet cuisine, and beautiful and exquisitely maintained property. Membership is a stamp of luxury approval and properties proudly display the brand. That has certainly held true for the properties I have visited in the US and France.
Craig’s wine education began in his teens. Growing up in Killington, VT, he attended an overcrowded high school where the kids went to school in two 3.5-hour shifts. “If we weren’t skiing, we were working.” He chuckled, “We all got jobs so we could have cars.” Craig started working in local restaurants. Job by job, he learned about the food industry: seating people, washing dishes, bussing tables. Unable to get a job after graduating from the University of Maine, even with his newly minted honors degree in Marketing, Craig returned to the restaurant industry. Soon he was managing a variety of restaurants and sommeliers and began to love restaurant work. In 1984, he moved to Nantucket to work with his high school friend, Peter Wallace, who was the Chef at The India House.
Craig, ready to pour you a glass of Chateau d’Yquem
(a Premier Cru Superieur Sauterrnes)
Having been at Topper’s for 23 years, Craig is a key member of the Food & Beverage team. “I have been blessed to work with only a few sommeliers through the years. Right now there are three of us. We spend a lot of time quizzing each other and through the years, we’ve travelled together too.” Many of the lead wait staff has been together for ten years. Knowing each other so well, there is often an intuitive flow to service at Topper’s.
A high level of organization and a deep familiarity is necessary to manage such a large collection. “Being in charge of a wine program is a little bit like being a librarian. You spend a lot of time in a dark area, putting things in order.” Craig says, “At this point, I can walk in the wine cellar after a night off and it would take me five minutes to identify what we sold the night before. I have also gotten really good at reading capsules.” Capsules are the protective coverings on the top of the wine bottle; they come in a variety of colors, can be personalized with a winery’s logo, and are usually made of tin. Craig’s organizational system is so effective that at year-end, they are only ever off by a bottle.
Craig, navigating a “cellar” at Topper’s. Note there are no labels on the capsules.
Topper’s has won the Wine Spectator Award every year since 1986. The wine list was recently downgraded from “Expensive” to “Moderate”, a fact Craig was eager to share. Topper’s has always been known as a destination place for a celebratory anniversary, event, or birthday. “You can come here and have a lot of caviar and fine wine, but at the same time, you can come here and have a reasonably priced meal.”
On any given night, more than 60% of the diners at Topper’s are returning customers. Many don’t want to see menus, but leave the food and wine recommendations in Craig’s hands.
The famed “Chateau d’Yquem” (a Premier Cru Sauternes wine), an indication of the quality of the wine cellar at Topper’s.
As a sign of the times, Craig often sees gentlemen deferring to the women’s wine knowledge. “Long gone are the days when the men order a less expensive bottle of white wine for the women while they indulge in a big, rich, expensive red wine.”
The wine list at Topper’s is designed to complement Chef Kyle Zachary’s menu, which has an emphasis on vegetables. “Nantucket’s cuisine is seafood based, lighter, fresh, so our wine list reflects that. If we were open in a winter ski resort, we would serve a lot of red, red, red. Here it is about 60% white.” In general, Craig points out that whites work with more flavors than reds.
Partly because of the guests’ interest and partly because of Craig’s personal passion, Topper’s wine list is heavily weighted toward wines from Burgundy, the Rhone, Piedmont, and Champagne. “People are drinking better quality, but generally less, than in the past. We have five pages of half bottles. They appeal for many reasons. You want red; I want white. You want seafood; I want red meat. We are known for our Tasting Menu, with appropriately paired wines.”
“One of the things I love about wine is it’s always changing and there is always more to learn.” Craig is passionate about wine and offers suggestions. “If you’re in a restaurant that has a Sommelier, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’m not saying there are not some snooty ones out there, but I haven’t seen that on Nantucket.” He offers a classic way to approach pairing. “If a dish has a regionality to it, the wines generally pair very well. If you don’t like red, then choose the white from that region. If you don’t like white, then choose the red from that region. Chances are, that technique works pretty well.”
Topper’s | www.Wauwinet.com | 120 Wauwinet Road | (508) 228-8768
This article originally appeared in the October 22, 2013 edition of Nantucket’s Mahon About Town. Mahon About Town’s Food, Wine, and Drink Editor, Sara Boyce has been working in the luxury market since she visited Nantucket for a “three-week” visit after 9/11. As an Art Dealer turned “Lady in Chief” at Grey Lady Wines, Sara indulges her passions of bringing people together over food, wine, beauty, and travel. Grey Lady Wines specializes in boutique wine recommendations and Private Collections, but Sara feels the best glass of wine is always that shared with friends, ideally before dancing. To share photographs or comments on Nantucket’s Food, Wine, and Social scene, email her at FoodWine@GreyLadyWines.com.
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