Jonny Cigar, one part performer to two parts wine geek, is the self-appointed master sommelier behind the city’s coolest underground wine salon, The Noble Rot.
Cigar’s impact on the New York City wine scene has been palpable; he was recently proclaimed one of the city’s new wine prophets by Time Out New York. He says it is crucial to point out that he has no official wine education – but he has studied performance and theater.
“I went to school for performance. What the hell am I doing?” Cigar said of his initial thoughts on receiving the news that he’d been named a “wine prophet.”
Cigar’s flair for the dramatic extends from his name (he was born Jonathan Cristaldi), to his bespoke three-piece suits and penchant for bow ties. At Noble Rot events, Cigar is known for his habit of introducing the evening’s theme and wines through dramatic readings, soliloquys and even the stray Frank Sinatra impersonation.
Meeting over tea on a chilly fall afternoon in the West Village, Cigar was in one of his signature three-piece suits with matching tie and pocket square – folded just so. Cigar has an easy grin and a mixture of sophisticated confidence – emphasized, perhaps, by his sense of style – and an endearingly goofy sense of humor that makes it easy to believe he’s a theater kid at heart.
“I should be a drama dork somewhere researching history for some big Broadway production getting paid big money to do that and instead I’m drinking and drinking professionally!”
The Noble Rot has come a long way since its first event. A few years ago, armed with not much more than a budding interest in wine and a mailing list from his performance art residencies at various downtown theaters, Jonny Cigar set out to hold a tasting of the best wines available for $10 or under. He found a
rooftop, got together some friends to play music and make food and voila! The Noble Rot was born.
Cigar’s budding interest in wine sprouted, Cigar said, when he started drinking wine with the man who would become his father-in-law.
“My wife’s father is a serious collector of Burgundy and Bordeaux and old Italian wines – Brunellos and Barolos. So he would open up all this crazy stuff, I mean he doesn’t like to drink anything that’s not at least 20 years old, and so I’m dinking these wines and I didn’t know anything about them but I know there’s something special.”
His future father-in-law gave him a copy of a book called The Billionaire’s Vinegar about a wine fraud scandal that tore through the fine-wine collecting circle of the 80s and 90s. Cigar devoured the book in a single plane ride and found himself fascinated by the whole world and especially by the stories of extravagant vertical and horizontal tastings of first growth Bordeaux.
“I just thought, ‘This is very cool!’ I was really involved in the supper club scene and I thought, ‘I’m gonna start a supper club about wine so I can learn while doing it with a group of fun interesting people,’” Cigar said. “And it was sort of enlightening – we had a bunch of food and had a blast and we sort of took off from there.”
Time Out New York’s proclamation came just days before Cigar returned to New York City from a five-month trip to Napa that he’d taken in the wake of a professional break with his previous Noble Rot business partner.
“We tried really hard to hash out a business plan and in doing so we realized we had a lot of differences so we split ways,” Cigar said. “It came at a good time.”
Cigar seized the opportunity to get out of town and regroup.
“So I thought I will go west and look for gold!” Cigar riffed before taking a serious note. “The whole idea was to get an education, to completely immerse myself, and to get in from the ground up.”
Preparing for his move to Napa, Cigar set out to find work in a tasting room or a cellar and convinced himself he’d be spending most of his time knocking on doors and looking for work. Cigar caught a lucky break, however, when a new Sonoma winery called Ram’s Gate hired him to help launch their brand.
The Napa Valley, for all of the wine-fueled romanticism that surrounds it, is still very much farmer’s country and Cigar soon found his sartorial inclinations out of step with the community.
“I was the only guy in the whole valley wearing three piece suits,” he said. “I’d walk into the bank and people would get nervous because they didn’t know what to think, it was like ‘Oh god, whats this guy?! Whats he doing?’”
However, Cigar had no intention of trading in his custom-tailored jackets for overalls and, eventually, his sleek suiting helped to land him another job.
Near the end of his two-month gig with Ram’s Gate, Cigar was invited to an event at a little known but beloved boutique winery owned by the Swanson family (yes, the Swanson family of frozen TV Dinners fortune). The Swanson Vineyards & Winery hosts three by-appointment-only tastings a day in their tasting room, which they call the Salon, styled after the swanky Parisian salons of the 18th century, with intellectual discourse over good food and wine.
Cigar met the Swanson family patriarch, Clarke Swanson, decked out in a double-breasted suit at one of these events, and they hit it off immediately. Soon after, Cigar began hosting appointments in the Salon at the winery. When he wasn’t reciting passages of The Great Gatsby or serenading wine tasters, Cigar was doing grueling but, he said, fulfilling cellar work for another winery, Alpha Omega.
Having returned to New York City with a whole new appreciation of the winemaking process, and enlightened by his experiences in Napa Valley, Cigar has big plans for The Noble Rot.
“I’ve realized that I like a smaller more intimate group. I want our events to become a place for people to really come and learn about wine, and not only learn but experience something new,” Cigar said. “And also to be a conduit for people [who are] looking for hard-to-find awesome boutique wines – I want to be the place for that.”
Cigar’s first Noble Rot event since he returned to New York, a 2011 Harvest Party to “celebrate this year’s harvest from set to crush,” was an opportunity for Cigar to share his favorite stories and insights from working in Napa.
He greeted all of his guests that night with a glass of Cava – saying that the Spanish sparkling wine was a tribute to the Mexican workers who did much of the harvest’s work. Coming from anyone except the endearingly sincere Cigar, this could have been a gaffe but bravely wearing two paisley patterns that somehow meshed, Cigar pulled the whole thing off with charm to spare.
Once the small group assembled, Cigar regaled the small crowd with his favorite harvest stories while pouring wines from the wineries he worked for in Napa (Swanson Family Vineyards & Alpha Omega). When it was time to eat, he’d brought in The Brothers Green, a fraternal duo who run the same supper club circuit as Cigar, for a feast of tacos – another homage to the migrant workers and the end-of-day meals he ate with them.
Cigar plans to keep hosting events for The Noble Rot but is thinking of retooling The Noble Rot so that it’s membership only. He went on to say that he wanted to work his way into making The Noble Rot into a tiered membership, like a wine club.
“But the greatest wine club on the face of the earth,” Cigar said with confidence and a not a hint of histrionics.
Jonny Cigar’s Wine Picks:
I had to ask, what is he drinking these days?
“I’m big into Syrah right now – I just feel like it’s starting to turn crisp and cold and I love a good robust Syrah from California,” said Cigar.
I also asked Cigar, in honor of his recent trip to Napa to give me his five favorite California wines of the moment. Here’s what he had to say:
Robert Foley Vineyards: “A wine I could drink all the time anytime is The Griffin. It is such a heartwarming delicious wine that’s got these subtle chocolate notes that are just outrageous.”
Covenant Wines: “A really outrageously delicious wine. Jeff Morgan is the winemaker and not only does he make a kosher wine, but it’s the best kosher wine on planet earth (according to Robert Parker).”
Ram’s Gate: “They are producing elegant wines with superb structure, aromas and will age beautifully”
Gemstone: “ I had the opportunity to taste this wine right before leaving and I would say that its one of my favorite wines now. So good.”