Interview: James Mallios of Amali

Posted in Interviews on October 2, 2012

The kitchen at Amali on the Upper East Side is known for its modern take on Mediterranean fare, while the wine list is known for its extensive collection of little-known Greek wines, a passion project of sorts for co-owner James Mallios. We spoke to Mallios about how he developed his wine list, the emergence of Greek labels in the American market, and introducing the neighborhood to some nontraditional bottles.

What was the philosophy behind your wine list? What were you thinking when you designed it? 

When we were putting the list together, there were four values or principals that we wanted to achieve. First was to have a strong Mediterranean presence on the list, reflecting the cuisine of the restaurant and specifically in Greece, with a focus on Greek reds. Second, I wanted to showcase some biodynamic, natural wines. Third, we still wanted to have a certain breadth of regions, because we are in sort of a conservative neighborhood. I didn’t think we could thumb our noses and not have Burgundy or Bordeaux. I don’t think it’s right to do that—if you can offer breadth, you should. Fourth, we wanted to have some reasonably priced wines. This neighborhood is famous for gouging people, specifically on crappy wine, and we wanted to have value in certain higher-end and cult wines, and that desire is also reflected in our corkage policy. We don’t have a fee, we just ask that the wine be unique or exceptional and we can taste it.

What are some of your more unusual bottles? 

Assyrtiko is the one Greek grape that most people are familiar with, from Santorini. The more esoteric ones are things like Malagousia- it’s a very protean grape, the best analog is like, it has some stone fruit and weight to it, so some people analogize it to Viognier, but I’ve had it be very minty as well.

What has customer response been like? Is it ever a challenge for you to sell certain bottles? 

The challenge with the Greek stuff, is that Greek wine still battles a stigma that I think Chianti battled when they used to be in the casks. People come in assuming that Greek wine is bad, and they challenge you to give them a good Greek wine; or they say, I’ve heard about your Greek wine, can you pour me something.

 What are some of your favorite wines on the list? 

Recently there’s been a market adjustment and a lot of great Greek wines are getting better distribution here in the States. We have a wine right now ive been drinking a lot for fall, a lighter red, called Thymiopoulos, and he only makes two wines, from one grape, called Xinomavro. The one made with young vines is really bright and versatile, with flavors of light cherry, good acidity.

Have you noticed an increased interest in Greek wines here? 

Shortly after we brought on some of these Greek reds, le bern and per se started adding similar bottles.  They’re definitely becoming more widespread. Greek importers are seeing American market now as beyond just Greek restaurants. A gentleman named Dionysi Grevenitis basically went out and imported and entire book of Greek wines that had never seen the States before, a lot of native Greek varietals.

Out list is easily 60-75 bottles at any given time, several of which are from 80-140 dollars. But if they had the name Burgundy or Piedmont on them, they’d be double the price, no question. When we have that breadth of wine that we can offer and build around, it creates the market to a certain degree. And it allows us to really sell to customers and give them new experiences each time they come in.

Do you have any advice for other restaurants looking to broaden their wine list and offer more nontraditional bottles? 

I’d love to see more restaurants give their customers a far more exciting wine at a much better price point. The best way to do it is to really educate your staff on them and be dedicated to hand-selling those unusual bottles.

What’s your favorite after-work beverage that isn’t wine? 

My friend recently turned me on to a port-and-tonic, which they make in Portugal. It’s white port, tonic and lime. We’re adding it to our cocktail list soon. And Minette Tavern makes a great Blood & Sand.

Amali, 115 E 60th St; 212-339-8363;