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Narciso Rodriguez. Rioja, Barolo and the wine that inspired a dress
 

Carter Berg for The Wall Street Journal

WINE BY DESIGN | Narciso Rodriguez at New York's Maialino

 

The fashion world is a veritable paradise of adjectives. Descriptors like "chic" and "fabulous" abound, although there's one adjective I haven't heard applied very often: nice. Yet that was the word that came to mind first upon meeting fashion and fragrance designer Narciso Rodriguez.

At age 51, Mr. Rodriguez has been a top clothing designer for decades. His best-selling fragrance, For Her, debuted in 2003. His clothes, sleek and streamlined, are celebrity favorites, though he's probably best known for Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's 1996 wedding gown, which brought him instant and lasting renown.

It was only a few weeks before New York Fashion Week when Mr. Rodriguez and I met for lunch at Maialino restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel. I was concerned about the timing, but Mr. Rodriguez seemed calm. Had he finished his collection? Was he ready? He was not. "It's always right up to the wire—the fittings, the lineup, the production," he said. However, he was happy to stop for lunch, accompanied by a glass of wine. "I rarely drink wine at lunch," he said. "But I love red wine."

It was a love nurtured over long Sunday lunches in Newark, N.J., where Mr. Rodriguez grew up. "There was lots of red wine—always Spanish—and lots of roast pork at the table," said the designer, who has since become an expert at roasting pork. "I'm Cuban, after all."

On his family's table when he was growing up in Newark, N.J.: Marqués de Cáceres Rioja
A favorite splurge: 2004 Château Beychevelle St. Julien
A recent wine present: Vilmart Grand Cellier Rubis Rosé Champagne (magnum)
Maialino's wine director, Liz Nicholson, appeared. Did we want to start with a glass of sparkling wine? She had some sparkling wines from Lombardy that she particularly liked. Mr. Rodriguez deferred the decision to me. Later I learned that he didn't much like sparkling wine, but he had thought a refusal would be impolite.

Ms. Nicholson brought Mr. Rodriguez a glass of Rainoldi Brut Rosé and a glass of creamy Ca' del Bosco for me, along with the bottle, sheathed in an orange-gold plastic wrap that was clearly intended to mimic Cristal. I thought it was a bit cheesy-looking; Mr. Rodriguez said only that he preferred bottles unwrapped. "I like to look at the label, pick up the bottle and hold it," he said, and did just that.

The restaurant's namesake, maialino (suckling pork), is a favorite dish of Mr. Rodriguez, a New Yorker who dines at Maialino fairly often, but it wasn't offered at lunch, so he chose chicken instead. Should we have a glass of something red? "Of course," he responded instantly. We asked Ms. Nicolson for a list of wines by the glass.

 

"His love of red wine was nurtured over long Sunday lunches in Newark, N.J., where he grew up."

 

  

 

Carter Berg for The Wall Street Journal

'I rarely drink wine at lunch," Mr. Rodriguez said. 'But I love red wine.'

 

Awaiting its delivery, I asked Mr. Rodriguez about his second-most-famous creation, the black-and-red dress that Michelle Obama wore on Election Night in 2008. Some people loved it, others hated it (a few commenters referred to it as "a Halloween costume"). "It had a whole second life on the Internet," noted Mr. Rodriguez.

"It was just a dress she saw in our spring collection that she liked. She chooses her own clothes," Mr. Rodriguez said. The first lady has been a client for years.

 

Ms. Nicholson returned with the list. "I want to taste all of them," exclaimed Mr. Rodriguez, looking over the long sheet. He loves Italian wine, Barolo especially, and Spanish wine, too. "Muga Rioja is our house wine," he said. We settled on small tastes of four wines: 2005 Poggio di Sotto Rosso di Montalcino; 2007 Carema Produttori di Carema; Fiume di Lava, a Sicilian Petit Verdot; and the 2003 Brunello di Montalcino from Il Palazzone.


The Petit Verdot turned out to be big and tannic, a dark, dense, unsubtle wine, while the Brunello and the Carema were a bit light, a little washed-out. "I don't like their color," said Mr. Rodriguez decisively. Color was as important in a wine as in a dress. He has actually designed a dress around a particular wine. "It was a Spanish wine called Portal—I was kind of obsessed with it for a while. It was such a beautiful color, I had to put it into a dress. It was a kind of garnet, which wasn't an easy color for spring."

Happily, we both loved the Poggio Rosso. It had bright acidity and beguiling aromas of red and dark fruit. It was also a beautiful color, a shimmering red. It was "considered," said Mr. Rodriguez—his highest praise. "Considered" is what he looks for in his creations. It's an architectural notion—Mr. Rodriguez had once thought he would be an architect. What did the term mean? "Something that is usable, that is functional and that will last," he said. Considered, in short, is something that will endure.  

 

 

Carter Berg for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Rodriguez was happy to stop for lunch, accompanied by a glass of wine.

We called for a second taste of the Poggio and I felt emboldened to ask Mr. Rodriguez what he was wearing. What were the labels a famous fashion designer might wear? "You want to talk about fashion and I want to talk about wine," replied Mr. Rodriguez in mock despair, but complied. He was wearing Naked & Famous jeans and a Jil Sander shirt, he said. And the zip-front sweater? He didn't know; he'd bought it on Bluefly.

 

 

 

Perhaps I could look at the label? Mr. Rodriguez nodded assent; I reached across the table and pulled out the tag: "Ned Cullen." Suddenly I remembered that a friend had once chastised me for plucking the tag on someone else's clothing to see the maker—and now I had done it to a famous designer. "I'm so sorry—that was rude," I said. "Not all," Mr. Rodriguez said with a smile. "I do that all the time to my friends." 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 







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