by April Lisante
In the restaurant world, it is one of the highest honors, right up there with a James Beard Award or the infamous Michelin Stars.
To win a Wine Spectator award is a really big deal, and last month a hometown native scored this ultimate honor.
On July 1, the foodie magazine announced that Joel Gordon, the Paris Bistro and Jazz Café general manager, is this year’s recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for an inexpensive wine list.
It is the restaurant’s first Wine Spectator Award, and a tribute to all Gordon, 49, has done since joining the Germantown Ave. mainstay in March of 2018. The magazine, which doles out 3,000 awards to only the top 3% of restaurants throughout the country and worldwide each year, recognized Paris for its wine list, which Gordon has worked to make more affordable and geographically diverse.
I sat down with Gordon this week to talk about food, wine, and his award.
“When I first got here, the wine list was predominantly French,” said Gordon. “I wanted to create a wine list that reflected both old world and new world wines.”
What does he think of winning the Wine Spectator award?
“The award, it makes you sit back and think ‘What are we going to do now? How are we going to make a marriage of this wine with food?’” he said.
The award represents a journey around the world for Gordon that has spanned more than two decades and brought him full circle from his roots in Mount Airy right back to Mount Airy. When he left Philadelphia to explore the world, he had no idea that one day, he would return to his old stomping grounds, bringing his experience as a restaurateur with him.
Gordon first fell in love with the food service industry as a boy, when he would help his uncle cater events from a storefront on North Broad Street.
“I started catering at temples, homes,” he said. “It was one of those feed everyone then break it down events. I liked it.”
But Gordon soon joined the Air Force, which took him on a whirlwind of tours to Korea and all over Europe for nearly 10 years. It was in Europe that he discovered a genuine respect for food. He learned how it was prepared, the freshness of the ingredients, the leisurely way it was enjoyed.
“I realized how small European refrigerators were,” he said. “People shop every day for fresh food.”
When he finished his duties with the Air Force, he visited friends in the Napa Valley of California and was immediately hooked on the lifestyle and the region.
“I went out there on a vacation and I came back and said ‘That’s it. I’m moving there,’” Gordon said. “It is similar to Europe in its lifestyle. It teaches you to enjoy life.”
But it was here, in wine country, where he began his tutelage. After landing a job at the world-famous Calistoga Ranch in Upper Napa Valley, Calif., Gordon quickly became its food and beverage director, and was thrust into an upscale resort-style position where he was overseeing multi-million-dollar weddings and creating the resort’s first vineyard of its own.
But he did all this without ever having taken a course of study to be a sommelier, or even a course on wines. Instead, he learned from local vintners, who imparted their wisdom to him. And with local gurus like French Laundry’s Thomas Keller and John Ash, author of “From the Earth to the Table” to influence him, Gordon became a food and wine pro in his own right.
“I just became a sponge – I just soaked it all up,” Gordon said. “Food and wine to me embraces life, longevity and love. They influenced me. I got into being a foodie, of using the right utensils to cook. Food became a passion. Wine became a passion. It became my passion to pair a wine with food for the perfect meal.”
Gordon decided to return to the Philadelphia area in 2017, to be closer to his parents. When an opportunity to head Paris presented itself in 2018, he embraced the challenge.
When he arrived at Paris, most wines on the wine list were French. He has seen to it that Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Napa are also represented. And he’s worked diligently to take the restaurant from offering a “placemat,” or everyday menu, to one that changes at least eight times a year, seasonally, to pair fresh foods with his wines.
“Joel did a really good job of committing to bringing up the wine program,” said Paris owner and chef Al Paris. “Joel’s experiences he brought with him (from Calistoga) really shored up our wine program.”
Gordon sees the award as an honor, but also as a continued challenge to up his game.
“The servers have learned a lot as well” during this time, he said. “We will continue to evolve. Ask us in 10 years what we have done. I’m trying to change everyone’s mindset on wine.”