(New York Jewish Week) — Imagine an Upper West Side seder like any other: adults praying, haggadahs dappled with brisket juice, matzah ball soup a little too salty. Only that’s not a Manischewitz bottle on the table. That’s a magnum of Cru Beaujolais.
For this type of epicurean refinement, it helps to have someone in your family like Dean Fuerth, better known to his Instagram followers as the “Grand Cru Jew.” Though his nickname, derived from the highest designation for Burgundy wines, conjures up images of a “Seinfeld”-ian C-plot, Fuerth, 35, is a serious sommelier with extensive training in French fine dining. Since 2017, he has served as the beverage director for the Sushi Nakazawa empire, helming one of the most robust rare sake lists in the city, if not the world.
Fuerth’s handle comes from his time working as a young wine trainee at the Manhattan restaurant Bouley, where a senior sommelier set up challenges to sell unconventional bottles. One night, Fuerth ended up overselling his goal by about $4,000. “He’s arrived, the Grand Cru Jew,” Fuerth says the sommelier enthused — and the nickname stuck.
“It comes up in public,” Fuerth said of his moniker, with pride. “Especially in the wine community.”
Fuerth describes his family as falling into the “liberal Jew category” from the Upper West Side, attending synagogue on the High Holidays. “I have a very strong sense of family identity, personal identity,” he told the New York Jewish Week.
Fuerth was not predestined to become a sommelier — his family hardly consists of wine snobs. Via a phone interview, he tells the story of his grandmother, who, at a seder in 2009, opened a bottle of Cupcake Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. The following year, Fuerth noticed she was pouring the same vintage — she had re-corked last year’s bottle. Fuerth could only laugh.
“I’m now the culinary director for the family,” said Fuerth, half-joking.
In a family of lawyers, pursuing a fine dining career was unheard of; what’s more, sommelier isn’t a traditional Jewish profession. As wine writer Alice Feiring said last year: “It’s hard to tell your parents ‘I’m not going to medical school or law school, I’m going to be a wine waiter.’”
In the mid-aughts, Fuerth was pursuing a degree in film at Hunter College, but he dropped out after a year to become a production assistant on shows like “Law and Order” and “30 Rock.” To pay his bills, he took a job as a barback and busboy at the Upper East Side restaurant Bella Blu, a job he readily admits — with typical service industry candor — he wasn’t particularly good at. But he was able to handle bottles, a skill that gave him some currency in the wine world.
In 2010, he was off to a higher-paying gig as a server at Bar Boulud, the Burgundy wine bar at Lincoln Center run by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud. Under the auspices of the beverage director Michael Madrigale, Fuerth opened new bottles every night, giving him a crash course in the catalog of French wines. Fuerth still has an encyclopedic knowledge of this time: He recounts the exact bottle — a 1999 Cornas August Clape from the Rhone Valley — that kickstarted his ambitions.
“I was having my mind blown by how complex and deep and soulful wine can be,” he said. “Having a curiosity and a passion opened up this whole world.”
That understanding of terroir, how microclimates can impart flavor, intoxicated him. He closed out his film industry chapter for good and embarked upon what he called “French military” fine dining training. The culture privileges conformity over creativity — but Fuerth didn’t conform.
“Dean had that pirate mentality,” said Madrigale. “He’s like a New Yorker, straight up. When he gets it in his mind he wants to do something, he does it.”
Madrigale remembers a time when Fuerth, as a server, had sold enough wine to entitle him to a free meal at the upscale restaurant. He chose the decadent duck confit. “He was going to sit down and eat in the dining room, while other people are waiting for him to serve them,” Madrigale said, still astounded by Fuerth’s chutzpah. “I think even Daniel [Boulud] said, ‘Well he’s doing really well, let him do it.”’
Madrigale became a mentor to Fuerth, who began his formal wine training and accompanied Madrigale on a trip to Bordeaux. After Bar Boulud, Fuerth traversed through a Zagat list of the city’s Michelin-starred French fine dining outposts as a self-described wine “mercenary.” He landed one of his first sommelier gigs in 2014 at Bouley, the now-closed French joint from Chef David Bouley in Tribeca. His first beverage director gig came the following year at Betony, in Midtown.
“I was able to open up some of the craziest, most expensive bottles,” he said of his time at Bouley. “And I got my butt kicked.”
He arrived at Sushi Nakazawa first as a fan-boy diner. Nakazawa opened in the West Village in 2013 as a 10-seat omakase spot that was immediately lauded as one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city. Pete Wells, in his initial 4-star review for the New York Times, heralded Daisuke Nakazawa’s cookery: “The moment-to-moment joys of eating one mouthful of sushi after another can merge into a blur of fish bliss.”
He approached them for a job, and in 2017, became their beverage director. Fuerth was thrown into a new role: sake expert. “It’s a completely different animal,” Fuerth said of the rice alcohol; his French wine training proved non-transferrable.
How did the Grand Cru Jew fare? “It was a steep and harsh learning curve,” he admits. Fuerth began looking for low acid, richer grapes like Viognier to compare with sake.
Buying sakes also proved opaque. The echelon of sake producers Fuerth was working with required a certain level of trust among buyers due to their microscopic scale. Take, for example, Dassai’s “Beyond the Beyond” Junmai Daiginjō. A known producer of high-end sake, Dassai started a contest in 2019 among Japanese farmers cultivating the very specific Yamada-Nishiki grain. After machine analysis and DNA testing, the company chose to buy just one plot of land for this sake. They made 23 bottles and sent just four to America. Nakazawa is selling their bottle for $19,000.
“Sake should be consumed at the right environment, at the right temperature and tell the story of what makes it special,” he said.
Fuerth has certaintly caught up: Just last week, World of Fine Wine selected Sushi Nakazawa as the best sake list in North America.
Now six years in, Fuerth’s conception of wine pairings has evolved, too. He matches high-ticket Burgundy and Champagne with new age bottles from places like Hungary and Quebec, all with a Japanese palate in mind. He has overseen Nakazawa’s expansion to Washington, D.C., as well as a pop-up in Aspen, Colorado, and will be continuing onto a new location in Los Angeles.
It’s not unusual for diners at Nakazawa to spend four figures on a bottle. Is it mind-blowing to regularly sell bottles the price of a used car? “I’m a little numb to it at this point,” Fuerth said.
It’s all a far cry from the Cupcake wine Fuerth’s grandmother served at the seder years ago (although Fuerth admits to drinking Manischewitz at synagogue).
The day after our conversation, Fuerth was set to depart New York for Bordeaux, as part of a trip organized by a wine distributor to some of the most storied, cloistered chateaus of the region. There they would open decades-old bottles that had never left the vineyard.
“It never gets old,” Fuerth said. “I feel like a kid again.”
This article has been updated on Aug. 4, 2023 to correct details of Fuerth’s family and career that he clarified after publication.