The room moves fast at Clay, the restaurant in New York’s Harlem on the corner of Manhattan Avenue and 123 Street, yet the atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. Service is attentive, but diners are encouraged to enjoy conversations with their companions.
“If you’re going out to dinner you want to enjoy that moment with your friends rather than focusing on having an educational moment,” wine director Gabriela Davogustto says. “For that, you can go to wine classes or tastings.”
Raised in Venezuela, Davogustto entered the hospitality industry after moving to the U.S. in 2001. Her interest in wine began years later while working at Spanish tapas bar Boqueria in NYC. Later, after moving to Locanda Verde, she was encouraged by colleagues to further her wine education and enroll in the WSET program. She opened Clay along with bar director Andrea Needell Mattelliano and executive chef Gustavo Lopez in 2017.
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Currently studying for the WSET diploma, Davogustto juggles her education with her role at Clay. The restaurant’s wine list features producers who practice minimal-intervention winemaking and place more emphasis on what happens in the vineyard than in the cellar. (Davogustto stops short of describing these wines as “natural,” a term she believes is both too open and dogmatic.)
VinePair caught up with Davogustto to learn what ignited her love of wine, and talk about the best bottles in her fridge right now.
1. What’s the bottle that made you fall in love with wine?
I think the first wine that I came to love was Paolo Bea’s Pagliaro. The two other wines that completely changed my perception were Radikon Merlot and Gravner Ribolla Gialla. I had those at a lunch at Italian Wine Merchants in NYC many years ago and had never tried anything like those wines. I loved the complexity, the structure, and the balance. I then started to understand how impeccable managing of a vineyard and its winemaking can be translated into a glass.
2. FMK three varieties: Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Ummm, I don’t like to think of grapes like this, but F: Chardonnay (only unoaked, though), M: Pinot Noir — out of the three varieties, I love how Pinot Noir can be so expressive of terroir — and K: Cabernet. I prefer lighter reds as they are easier to pair with food and easier to drink.
3. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper wine?
I love the wines of Raúl Pérez and I would drink anything made by him as my last wine. I particularly love La Vitoriana. It’s one of his best parcels, a blend of Mencia and Bastardo.
4. You can only drink one wine for the rest of your life. What is it?
That would be pretty boring but I guess it would be a white wine. Jean Manciat’s Mâcon-Charnay Franclieu probably would be a good choice because it is flinty, floral, and balanced.
5. You can only drink at one bar for the rest of your life. What is it?
Definitely at Ruffian in NYC. It has one of the best wine lists in the city and exceptional service to match.
6. What’s the best and worst wine on your rack (or in your fridge) right now?
I have three wines at home right now and all three of them are equally delicious: Comando G El Hombre Bala, Schlossgut Diel, Diel de Diel, and Iuli Umberta.
7. If you could no longer drink wine, what would be your beverage of choice?
I love tequila and La Gritona Reposado is a superb one. It’s fresh and herbal with a pure expression of terroir. It is made by a female distiller, Melly Cardenas, who is very environmentally conscious. She’s careful not to overharvest the agave, uses native yeast for fermentation, and all of the bottles are hand-blown with recycled glass from Coca-Cola bottles.