“It’s one of the most iconic restaurants in New York. You could count on two hands how many restaurants have this history. And it hasn’t had a lot of wine directors in its time. You stand on the shoulders of giants.” Jason Wagner describes his initial thoughts when he stepped into the role of Wine Director at the re-imagined, relocated union Square café. In 1985, union Square café was the very first restaurant opened by Danny Meyer with a focus on “contemporary American cuisine,” fresh ingredients (many sourced down the street from the green market in union Square), and warm hospitality. Thirty years later, bumped up the street with a fresh new look, union Square café somehow still manages to exude this friendly warmth with attentive, yet relaxed service and dishes that are inventive without being trendy.
Jason grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta and moved to NYc in 2002 either “to become a sommelier or a Rockstar.”Rockstar didn’t work out (yet), although he does have the singing and musical chops – today used to serenade his four-year old son on the guitar. Jason’s first experience in the fine dining world was as a server at The Sea Fire Grill at Rockefeller center, where he learned everything he could about food and pursued credentials with the American Sommelier Association. (Small world: Jason studied and roomed with our other profiled sommelier, charles Puglia – i.e.,“C-Pugs”– of le coucou while taking his Advanced exam.) After leaving Sea Fire, Jason landed his first sommelier role at A Voce, followed by a three-year stint with Joël Robuchon at The Four Seasons. life then took Jason and his wife to chicago, where she was pursuing a PhD at Northwestern university in cognitive Neuroscience. Jason meanwhile worked in several restaurant positions, ranging from opening RM champagne Salon with an all grower list to managing the programs across two restaurants, The Gage and Henri on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park.
Back in New York, Jason opened Fung Tu, a chinese restaurant with an all-natural wine list on the lower East Side. He was then at Danny Meyer’s Maialino for about six months before the “holy sh*t” moment of getting tapped to shepherd the wine program at union Square café. Jason recalls two major directives in his initial meeting with Danny Meyer and the rest of the uSHG management team: first, Danny felt strongly about returning to the restaurant’s roots in Italy, France, and the u.S., where uSc has historically taken its culinary direction. Jason’s take: “It’s an iconic American restaurant, you should have a good number of American wines. And they basically said to me, are you OK with those boundaries? Those are pretty broad! I could be happy selling France, Italy, and U.S. the rest of my life.” All good there.
The second charge was about the DNA of union Square café, which is hospitality, first and foremost. “We need to be a restaurant that has something for everyone and always be warm. If we do that, the rest of the success will come. Danny calls it tomorrow dollars; invest in the guest by selling them the right thing at the right price so they come back and do it again.” The credo of having something for everyone has required that uSc greatly expands its wine program – what started as only by-the-glass offerings at Friends and Family Night has expanded to around 1,100 references with a 10,000+ bottle cellar.
Additionally, Jason has brought his own perspective and affability to the list…giving it a fresh face by bringing in old wines. “We’re trying to populate the list with some age that might surprise people. We’ve added a lot of old California, mostly Cabernet but also some old Pinot Noir. We can’t keep it in stock! Older stuff from the Loire…and I’m a big fan of old wines from the Haut-Médoc and Médoc.” The uSc list includes four wines from chasse-Spleen from the 1980s. And Jason’s favorite Bordeaux – “that’s SO easy – Clos du Marquis!” – also makes an appearance with vault vintages like 1990 and 2001, the latter for a reasonable $195.
Dining at union Square café today with Jason’s crack wine team feels like the warmth of home in all the best ways. An Elysian Fields lamb – roasted leg served with north African Mergeuz sausage and shell beans – paired with an Arnot Roberts Syrah hits all the marks. The New York Times agrees; one of Jason’s proudest accomplishments was receiving three stars in the restaurant’s first review, which of course was followed by a huge celebration with the entire union Square Hospitality Group family. Bringing it back to family, when asked what he spends his time doing outside of work, Jason immediately replies, referring to his own son, “I play trains. A lot of trains.”