Find your cullinary voice

Interview with John Ragan

John Ragan shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.December 2013

It’s no secret among aspiring restaurant professionals that the restaurants within Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) are great places to share their talents with guests, enjoy food and wine, learn and grow. Much like at ICE, USHG demonstrates its commitment to teaching through robust internal education programs on topics ranging from cheese, to craft beer, spirits, and of course, wine. USHG’s Wine Director and certified Master Sommelier, John Ragan, helps to develop and support the dynamic wine programs throughout USHG, each of which is characterized by thoughtful and interesting choices, exceptional value, and helpful service—whether in the dining room at The Modern or pairing wine with barbecue at Blue Smoke. In fact, many of Ragan’s colleagues at USHG are ICE graduates and have relished the opportunity to turn their learning into teaching through mentoring their teams.

Ragan also leads a ten-week internal wine class, which until now, has been offered to USHG staff only. For the first time ever, in spring 2014, ICE has partnered with Ragan and the USHG team and added their proven educational experience and resources in order to launch a groundbreaking collaborative wine class taught from a restaurant perspective. Along with a team of guest instructors from USHG restaurants as well as ICE’s Director of Wine Studies, Richard Vayda, Ragan will introduce a ten-week curriculum that combines ICE’s renowned educational expertise and resources with USHG’s signature warm hospitality and uncommon excellence. Through dynamic tastings, multimedia presentations, and access to USHG and ICE’s team of beverage professionals, students will gain a rich knowledge of the world of wines and insight into award-winning wine programs.

We asked Ragan a few questions about this exciting new partnership with ICE, and what to drink and gift this season:

How did you get interested in wine?
Throughout high school and college I always worked in restaurants and probably got the wine bug when I was about seventeen. Wine has taken me around the world and I have been lucky to work in great restaurants in Napa Valley, San Francisco, and New York. The one thing which has always rung true is that wine is only truly fascinating when multiplied by people. For me, teaching about wine and sharing my enthusiasm with others is the most powerful.

Speaking of sharing your passions—what are some of your favorite wines for holiday gatherings?
Never underestimate the power of bubbles! Just about everyone loves Champagne and it always keeps things festive. Especially here in New York, there are so many great small producers being imported now, so there are plenty of opportunities to sneak in a new favorite. Also, never be afraid to bring a big bottle. It doesn’t need to be fancy—certain producers are bottling perfect wines for the holidays in magnums and beyond. Alain Graillot in Crozes-Hermitage always bottles magnums, and quite a few of the greats in Cru Beaujolais make big bottles as well. This is great because although the wines aren’t too expensive, it really feels like something special.

How did this partnership with ICE come about?
For many years we have offered internal wine training for our restaurant staff. It has become incredibly popular and something that my colleagues and I all look forward to. Danny posed the question: “if our staff loves this class so much, why don’t we share it with our guests, too?” ICE offered the unique combination of expertise and culture needed to offer this new perspective on wine education to the public. We have always had a great friendship with ICE, and admired what they do, so we are very excited about this partnership.

Describe the typical class.
Over the ten sessions we will taste through all of the major wine regions of the world. We’ll get a firsthand account of the grape growing and winemaking process through interviews with growers and winemakers, and famed tasters and critics will weigh in during tastings as well. For each week’s tastings, I’ve chosen wines that truly embody the characteristics of the place and culture in which they were made—so they become a delicious guidebook to what we’re learning in a given session. Along with the lessons and tastings, we’ll integrate restaurant-centric concepts such as food and wine pairing, and getting the most out of a wine list. Most importantly, each class will be dynamic and fun, and will include many different approaches and points of view thanks to our guest instructors and multimedia presentations.

Who is the class for?
The class is intended for those who already have a love for wine and want to dive deeper into the great regions and wines of the world. The class will go beyond just the basics and give the same education we offer our teams. As a result, students will take away a much deeper understanding and gain the ability to share their learning with enthusiasm and joy – and learn everything from starting their own cellar, decanting an old red wine, blind tasting, possibly even a career in wine!

Any gift recommendations for wine lovers this holiday season?
While giving wine is always great, especially if you know the recipient’s tastes, I really love to think of accessories that they might not normally treat themselves to—like a great decanter, a beautiful corkscrew, special glassware—all things that might help them get more out of their favorite bottles. Another way to get more enjoyment out of wine is through a bit of enjoyable education—classes, books, even website memberships—these are all great treats that wine lovers may not splurge for themselves.

About John Ragan, MS: As Wine Director of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, John Ragan works with each of the group’s restaurants, wine directors, and sommeliers to ensure exceptional and distinctive wine programs as well as employee education. Previously, John spent five years as Wine Director of Eleven Madison Park, where he earned a Grand Award from Wine Spectator. He is one of three individuals in the world to have been awarded both a James Beard Award for “Outstanding Wine Service” as well as the title of Master Sommelier from the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers. In 2012, he spearheaded a quarter-million dollar charity wine auction to benefit hurricane victims in New York.