Levi Dalton, Sommelier, Wine Director, Boulud Sud, Southern French, Mediterranean, Upper West Side, Alto Restaurant, New York, Northern Italian, Midtown, Manhattan, Amaro, Chinato, Beer, Italian Wine, Northern Italian Wine, Piedmont, Piemonte, Convivio, Michael White, Chris Cannon, 10022


Boulud Sud - Upper West Side - New York, NY

After starting out at the Federalist in Boston, MA, Levi Dalton helped open Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, FL. He then moved to New York to work at both Daniel and Cafe Boulud and subsequently revamped the wine program at Masa. In 2008, he joined Chris Cannon at L’Impero (which became Convivio) to cultivate a 440 selection wine list focused on Southern Italy, as well as their all-Italian beer list and unique list of amaro and chinato. In January, 2010 he moved from a Southern Italian focus to Northern Italian by heading up the wine program at Alto.

Q & A with Sommelier Levi Dalton

Q & A

Q. You recently moved from Convivio to Alto, tell us about the difference in wine programs between the two sister restaurants.

A. Convivio was all about Southern Italy. From the peperoncino in the kitchen to the Nero d'Avola on the wine list, there was a bold emphasis on the flavors of the South. Alto looks to the North for inspiration, and draws from the alpine climate areas found there. Northern Italy encompasses some of the most fascinating wine regions of the world, with Piemonte, the Valle d'Aosta, the Alto Adige, and the Veneto. Appropriately, Alto has extensive cellar space dedicated to wine and a real emphasis on wine at the table.

Q. How do you hope to influence or change the existing Alto wine list?

A. It is a really exciting time to be working with Italian wine in the United States, because so many people are expressing fascination with the bottles behind the well-known and looking past the familiar names. There is a genuine interest in regionality amongst younger clientele, and they are looking for a deeper understanding of diverse wine regions. Folks are really opening up to what is going on wine -wise in Italy, what has been going on in Italy for years, and moving beyond the Brunello and Super Tuscan behemoths. To draw a parallel for a moment, it would be like working in a French restaurant 20 years ago and finding new interest in regions like the Loire Valley, like the Rhone, like Burgundy. Just as customers in French venues refocused their gaze past Bordeaux, you can also see patrons expanding their view of what Italy offers today.


Q. How much does chef Michael White’s vision of food influence the wines you choose to put on the list? Is there a collaboration there? What are some pairings that illustrate that collaboration?

A. I think that a lot of the program (maybe the whole thing?) that we designed at Convivio was based around the food. We wanted a great interplay. My exploration of orange wines, which I became a bit known for, grew out of pairings at the table. Chef White has an amazing sea urchin and crab gnochetti dish at Convivio. It is a standout dish, and a highlight for a lot of guests. What to pair with it? Honestly, not so many wines pair well with sea urchin. Wines made from white wines that have been macerated with the skins - orange wines - often do pair fantastically well with sea urchin.

Another great pairing with those kinds of wines are the balsamic glazed mushrooms Chef White sends out as small bites, or sfizi. In effect, we developed a whole new section of the wine list to accommodate what was coming out of the kitchen.

At Alto, we have taken up the habit of dining together at the end of the evening. The chef, the sous chef, myself and my assistant, we sit down and we open a bottle of wine and try some food. We talk about what we think. It's all so simple, but it is amazing at how few restaurants that something like this actually happens in. Some great pairings have already resulted.

Q. There’s a wide range of wine knowledge out there. How far will you go to please the customer? How do you please the spectrum or can you?

A. At the end of the day this is the service business. You try hard and then you think about situations and you have to try harder.

Q. You’ve got a reputation for enjoying orange wine - tell us about this.

A. At Convivio we had a very flexible menu format. It wasn't a set tasting menu. Each guest could design their own prix fixe. Frequently diners would try to balance their meal by having, for instance, a rich pork pasta and then a lighter fish entree, or something to that effect. How do you pair that kind of menu up with wine? How do you go in terms of a progression? Do you provide a full bodied Carignano red wine with the pasta and then a crisp white from Ischia with the next course, the fish? Well no, because if you serve the white after the red the white then tastes like nothing. So instead you serve something appropriate with the pasta and then you have the possibility to move to an orange wine - which contains the structure and tannin of a red, but with the crisp acidity of a white - with the fish, maybe thus picking up on the garnishes to that fish entree. Orange wines could be a life saver as a sommelier. A real get out of jail free card.

Q. At Convivio, you also built a reputation for the list of amari. What gets you excited about amari?

A. Amari are a link with history. This was how distilling came about; folks finding possible curatives and unique flavor combinations from the herbs and citrus peels with which the amaro is steeped. It is a fantastic link to something that we have almost now lost in the modern day.

Can you imagine what it must have meant once for something to be so  foreign? I mean before air travel and quick means of getting from one place to another. It is hard for me to even feel what it must have been like for someone to say once in Italy: "look we have something from Peru here for you to try in this liquid." I mean it is a whole other continent, such a far away place. And here was a chance for folks in Milan to have a fernet with the quinine from that place, Peru. Amari contains the flavor memory of distant vistas.

Q. Any particular favorites?  

A. As the summer heats up, I prefer a lighter style of amaro, like that offered by Nonino. During the winter, I tend more towards the bitter, like a fernet, or S. Maria al MonteCaffo's "del Capo" is a perennial favorite.

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Q. Within Italy, do you have a particular favorite regional / wine love? 

A. Can I take it all?  Well if not, let me have Piemonte.

Q. Outside Italy, what regions are you excited by?

A. There are so many amazing places contained within the world of wines right now.  When I first started in the wine trade, I never would have guessed that a Romorantin or an old vine Albarino might move me as much as they have. In general, I am more drawn to cool climate wines and traditional winemaking methods.

Q. White wine with fish, red wine with meat? What’s your perspective on pairings.

A. When in doubt, bring the orange!

Q. As the weather slowly starts to turn warmer, spring and summer thoughts start to enter into our heads, what are your thoughts on rose? Serious wine or just for slurping on a hot summer day? What are your current favorites?

A. Great rosé is for very serious slurping, I say. And I haven't wasted much time in drinking several bottles of Montenidoli Rosato from Toscana and Bernard Baudry Rose from the Loire.

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Q. Any wine that you keep at home as your go-to wine and why?

A. Wines at home don't seem to last very long. But my girlfriend enjoys champagne and also lighter ales.  So we tend to keep some of that on hand.  I think chenin blanc sparkling, such as that from Huet offers strong value in terms of a sparkling to keep in the fridge when I don't want to push the boat out too far. 

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Q. What’s your favorite pre-dinner drink / aperitif and why?

A. I've been saying sherry forever, and I'll probably keep saying it, because it just doesn't seem like the broader public is ever going to catch on to the amazing value represented by sherry today. The fact that you can get a great wine with tremendous complexity and character for a relative pittance from Jerez just doesn't seem to register with people.


Q. Favorite after dinner drink / digestif and why?

A. Well, I love amari, and I certainly have a lot of favorites among the distillates of the world, but I must say, I truly get psyched to have a well aged vin jaune after my dinner, preferably with a nice piece of Comté.

Q. Is there a wine or cocktail that you secretly love that would make a wine director or bartender laugh? i.e. your dirty little drink secret?

A. I would order Harvey Wallbanger's more often, simply and only because I like saying the name, but no one ever seems to have Galliano around or know how to make one.

Q. Who else in the wine world is doing interesting things that you think should deserve more praise?

A. What importer Joe Dressner has done for wine in this country, in terms of bringing in amazing wine after amazing wine, and sticking with his palate in the face of just massive disinterest at the beginning, well it is simply stunning. 

In terms of sommeliers, I have to tell you, I think Cat Silirie, of No. 9 Park in Boston, is one of the great, virtually unrecognized giants of the industry.  She is truly inspiring. She doesn't just put together a wine list, she creates a wine culture in a restaurant.  She is absolutely deserving of great praise, and to read the wine press, has gotten virtually none.

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Q. Is there a great “best bang for you buck” bottle of wine you could recommend?

A. Vio Giobatta Rossese di Albenga - get it, be happy. Lovely, lovely wine.

Q. What wine producers re-inspire you about wine?

A. I'll tell you, the way Equipo Navazos is turning out just colossal, world class selections in the face of a world's disinterest, it's amazing.  I wish I had that kind of plunk. De Bartoli in Sicilia is similar with his amazing and just really unrecognized giant of a wine, the 20 year Vecchio Samperi Marsala.

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Q. Favorite wine stores around the world to visit?

A. Well, in Manhattan we are spoiled to have Chambers Street Wines and Crush Wine & Spirits on the same island. There is a lot to love about both venues. 

David Lillie at Chambers Street is another tremendously inspiring figure in the wine world. He has great integrity and a genuine love for the small growers and their wines. It's reinvigorating to be around that.

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Q. Favorite wine bars (New York and anywhere in the world)?

Hmm. Lots of great candidates.

- The Ten Bells

- Terroir

- The Butcher Shop

The wine culture in America is now such that great places like this exist.  It's all very cool.

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Q. Favorite restaurant wine lists (New York and anywhere in the world)?

A. I like a wine list where it is all winners, and with no fluff.  I think the list at Trestle on Tenth in Manhattan does a great job in that way.

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Q. Favorite spots for Italian food (other than your own restaurant)?

A. Well, maybe the best meal of my life was at a little place in Liguria's Colli di Luni. Stunning, yet simple seafood preparations. Of course I can't remember the name of the restaurant, though.


Q. Restaurants that you’re willing to spend your own dime - anywhere, fancy or casual?

A. When I have my way I enjoy most to go to one of two places, oddly very close to each other. 

Russ & Daughters for a Super Hebe sandwich.

Katz's Deli for a pastrami. 

I also stop by Momofuku Ssam Bar pretty regularly.  Those are definitely on my favorites route.

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Details of Levi Dalton’s recommendations on where to eat and drink in New York.



Sommelier Levi Dalton’s recommendations on where to eat and drink in New York.

Photograph courtesy of Levi Dalton

Boulud Sud

Upper West Side

Mediterranean / Southern French

20 West 64th Street

New York, NY 10023

T: 212.595.1313 (make a reservation)



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