If you’ve tried wine samples in a local store this month or ordered a glass of red wine in a restaurant, you might have tasted an unfamiliar grape variety: gamay.
Thank Max Kuller for that. Kuller, the engaging beverage director at Doi Moi and Estadio restaurants near Logan Circle, organized Ga May, a month-long promotion with stores, distributors and restaurants across the region participating. Aside from the obvious pun on the name of the month, Ga May promotes an underappreciated wine grape for a good cause: Participating stores and restaurants are contributing part of the proceeds of their gamay sales this month to the fight against pancreatic cancer.
“Gamay is an under-the-radar wine, and pancreatic cancer is an under-the-radar disease, because it’s too often discovered way too late,” says Kuller. Last October, pancreatic cancer claimed his father, Mark Kuller, a former tax lawyer turned restaurateur who founded Proof, Estadio and Doi Moi. Donated proceeds will benefit the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. The enthusiastic participation in Ga May is a testament to Mark Kuller’s popularity in the Washington region’s wine community.
Mark Kuller was also a big supporter of several charities, including the American Heart Association’s Heart’s Delight and the Culinary Career Advancement Program, which helps train high school students for careers in the restaurant industry. So a wine promotion to benefit a charity seemed a fitting honor for his dad, Kuller says.
Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, is a sommelier’s darling and a popular house red in bistros and cafes in France. That’s because it is a great value and pairs well with a wide variety of foods.
“They’re food darlings,” Kuller gushes about the wines. “We love gamay at Doi Moi because the fruit calms the intensity of the heat in Southeast Asian cuisine, with lower-than-average alcohol, good acidity and low tannins. And with their aromatic berry fruit, the wines are ideal for warm weather, especially when you serve them slightly chilled.”
American consumers may know gamay mostly because of Beaujolais nouveau, that grapey marketing gimmick that hits shelves every November as a celebration of the recent harvest. Nouveau can be fun and delicious, but it overshadows the quality and variety of Beaujolais in general.
“The connection of gamay with Beaujolais nouveau is a bit off, like people assuming all sherry is sweet,” Kuller says. “You can buy an amazing Beaujolais cru for about $15.”
Those crus would be the 10 specific appellations within Beaujolais, wines such as Morgon, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Brouilly and Moulin-a-Vent. Crus Beaujolais are featured this month at the two Unwined stores, in Alexandria and Belleview, including a tasting on May 30, says store owner Vanessa Moore, who is donating 10 percent of her May sales of gamay wines to the Lustgarten Foundation. Other stores participating in the Ga May promotion include Cordial Fine Wine & Spirits, Cork Market, MacArthur Beverages, Pearson’s, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill and Weygandt Wines in the District, and Finewine.com in Gaithersburg.
At Red Hen, co-owner and wine director Sebastian Zutant is featuring a rosé made with gamay from Château Cambon in Beaujolais in his by-the-glass lineup this month.
“We sell a ton of rosé, so I thought it would have the greatest impact,” Zutant says. He noted that pancreatic cancer claimed not only Mark Kuller but also the father of two employees at Red Hen. “It’s a tough disease, and we really appreciate the opportunity to raise awareness.”
At Buffalo & Bergen, cocktail maestra Gina Chersevani created a frozen gin-based drink with a gamay floater she dubbed “So They Call Me Big Poppa,” after Mark Kuller’s nickname. Other restaurants featuring gamay wines this month include Ripple, Charlie Palmer Steak, Le Diplomate, Plume at the Jefferson Hotel, Restaurant Eve, the Partisan, 1789, Vermilion and Iron Gate.
The gamay grape performs nicely in the United States as well, with a popular version from Chateau Grand Traverse on Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula. Kuller also features one from California’s Edmunds St. John winery called Bone Jolly, a somewhat tortured pun on Beaujolais. But gamay is a fun wine; it encourages puns.
Kuller has organized a gamay tasting for May 29 at Prequel, in the old Living Social space on F Street NW, where he hopes to introduce consumers to gamay wines while raising money for the fight against pancreatic cancer. Next year, he hopes to turn Ga May into a nationwide promotion.
“It’s such a sexy wine,” he says.