In the Cellar with Nikki Cascone: First Sip

By Fabiana Santana

There’s a reason they are called wine snobs. Trying to decipher a wine list can sometimes prove as difficult as figuring out the nation’s bail out plan. Fear not female friends! Nikki Cascone, Top Chef alumni, certified sommelier and chef/partner at 24 Prince in New York City, is here to help you battle the bottle and glass list.

You can’t be afraid to ask. That’s the first rule, “ says Nikki, a certified sommelier who chopped it up with the best of them on season four of Top Chef. “ I purposely made the wine list [at 24 Prince] as approachable as possible.”

Broken up by red, pink and white, Nikki designed the wine list so that the grape varietals were listed first because those are the most recognizable details. “People know if they like Chardonnay or Shiraz. And,” she adds, “That is always how I pick my wine in a restaurant.  I think about what I feel like – red, rose or white.  Then consider if I want lighter or medium bodies, and then, of course, price point.”

Most wine lists, she explains, can be intimidating, but once you know what you are looking at, they are easier to navigate. Look for familiar words, like the type of grape. Usually nearby the grape will be the origin, which should also be a recognizable word.   The other entries, like producer, terroir, or vintage will become more familiar as you begin to learn more about wines. “I believe wine is a matter of personal taste.  Once you know what you like, you can start to experiment from there.”

The wine list at 24 Prince, her American bistro in Manhattan’s NoLita neighborhood, ranges in prince from $28 to $112 for bottles. And from $8-$12 by the glass. “Every one of my glass pours is a great wine. Not just some ‘house’ blend. I offer each one as a bottle option, that’s how good they are.”

These days, she is focusing on female wine producers and biodynamic wines, too.  “ Organic is the movement in food and wine for sure. For a vineyard to say they are producing organic wine is a huge accomplishment. It takes a lot between certifications, testing and approvals, so it is a difficult task and not all that common to see organic wines on a list. Eventually, it will be but right now, biodynamic wine producers are doing great things.”

Biodynamic wines are produced with the principles of biodynamic agriculture. That means combining methods of organic farming with a spiritual worldview and a complete balance of nature. For instance, biodynamic wine producers may grow their own grapes based on the alignment of the stars and planets and by using their own blend of organic compost made with seeds and herbs grown using the same principal.  The vineyard is considered a complete living thing and all of nature is taken into account when working with it – even the vegetation and insects already inhabiting the soil.  The use of artificial elements and chemicals is completely out of the question.

She also suggests that the unspoken rule about ordering one up from the cheapest is a rule deserving of being broken. Instead, she explains, consider origin.  “I like wines from the new world where they aren’t overproduced. “ Some of her favorites are from Chile, Greece, and even Uruguay. “New world wines are great for experimenting because the price point allows it. It’s hard to get value on a wine after they become en vogue.” She’s constantly on the hunt for a great find “I’m a certified sommelier and when I go to out to say a Greek restaurant, I can totally be confused by the wine list. So I ask what certain wines are, who are the producers. And if the restaurant is a reputable place, then it’s safe to trust them and go for it.  Learning about wine should be a fun process.”

Not that the classics should be shunned.  “The old world producers like France and Italy have some really great wines, but if you are new to wine, you will wind up spending a lot to experiment. With French and Italian wines, a cheap wine is a bad wine. When I go in to a restaurant, I will ask about wines I don’t know. I ask what’s the texture like, the mouth feel. A lot of times the new world wines are a great bargain and with a little experimenting you can find a diamond in the rough.”

She designed the wine menu at AvroKO designed hot spot Public famous for its daring and eclectic menu with dishes like Tasmania sea trout and New Zealand venison with that idea in mind. “That menu is 75 percent new world.  It’s a great wine list. It was fun to develop.” And it’s probably more fun to drink.

Here are some of Nikki’s tips for ordering and shopping for wine:

1. Ask questions.

Talk to the sommelier. Their job is customer service, so they are expecting to be asked questions.

2. When ordering with a group, consider what everyone is in the mood for.

Not necessarily what everyone is eating. For example, if the group consensus is to go for a red on a brisk night, look for something that will work well with both meat and light pasta.

3. Order based on palate not on plate. What kind of a restaurant are you in?

Is it rustic Italian or Asian fusion? Do you like spicy foods or citrus focused dishes? That will reveal if you should opt for lighter, medium or fuller bodies. Some full bodied whites are just as hearty as reds.

4. Seasonal, rotating menus are commonplace now, but rarely will a wine list change as often.

Ask what wine will compliment the seasonal produce best. The veggies, after all, are the most defining menu change when it comes to seasonal menus.

5. When shopping for wine, consider the source.

Don’t opt for a wine/liquor store combo if you can help it. Choose a wine store the way you would a restaurant. Do you trust the owner, do you like the selection? And learn to navigate it.

6. If you can’t read the label, don’t buy it.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

7.  Don’t experiment too much in a wine store.

Instead, read the reviews listed with the wines to see if they are recommended. That way you aren’t buying blind.

8.  Whether at home or in a restaurant, glasses don’t matter.

As long as it has a large enough bowl for the wine to breathe, stem or not, you’re all set.

9.  Taste taste taste.

Attend wine tasting events or talks to learn more about what wine should taste like. If you want to learn abut wine, tasting is the only way to do it. You have to develop your palate for wine, the same way a chef does with food. That way you can eventually understand what you like and why.

10. Save France for last, and Italy for second to last.

Not because they are too challenging, but simply for learning purposes. Jumping in to the regions where most of the world’s wines are produces headfirst can be overwhelming. Take time to experiment and learn first – without going broke.

Warm Quinoa Salad with Pan Seared Fish Filet (Serves 4)


  • 2 cups Quinoa (red or regular)
  • 1 large Shallot
  • 2 Oranges
  • ½ lb snow peas
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 2 lb Turbot or similar fish
  • Salt & pepper
  • ¼ cup canola oil (for sautéing)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  1. Cook Quinoa in boiling water (4 cups water to 1 cup Quinoa) strain and reserve warm, Season Quinoa with lemon, salt, pepper and olive oil.
  2. Cut Orange into segments and squeeze the remaining juice into a mixing bowl for vinaigrette.
  3. Drizzle in Olive oil, add sugar or honey, salt and pepper and whisk to emulsify vinaigrette.  Taste for balance Chop Shallot and add to Quinoa.
  4. Chop Cilantro add to Quinoa.
  5. Season Quinoa with lemon, salt, pepper and olive oil.
  6. Blanch snow peas for 1 minute making sure they remain crunchy.
  7. Mix the snow peas and the citrus segments in with the seasoned quinoa. Put some of the vinaigrette into the quinoa and reserve the remainder to garnish the finished plate.

For the Fish:

  1. Season Filets of fish with a drizzle of Olive Oil and a dash of Salt & Pepper.
  2. In a very hot pan with Canola oil, flash fry the fish making a nice brown crust on each side.
  3. If using a very thin fish like Turbot  you can cook completely in the pan and it only takes minutes.  Otherwise Finish in a 325 degree oven for 2-8 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish.
  4. Once the fish is opaque all the way through it is done.
  5. Fish is tough and rubbery when it is overcooked.

Place some of the Warm Quinoa Salad on a plate and top with seared fish filet.  To finish drizzle some vinaigrette around the plate.

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