Set on a tiny speck of land off Cape Cod, Topper’s at The Wauwinet puts Nantucket on the map with precious bottles, bountiful seafood and gleaming sunsets, writes Lawrence Ulrich
Nantucket comes dressed in grays – ubiquitous Quaker-shingle houses, the fog you can almost taste – but also Nantucket Red. The brick-like hue, introduced in the 1950s on sailcloth pants from local institution Murray’s Toggery Shop, is an insider’s code to proper, preppy island retreats, fading to a sunset-y pink as seasons pass.
Topper’s, the restaurant in the island’s exclusive The Wauwinet hotel and resort, is also known for vintage hues that soften and grow gracious with time: notably the great Grand Cru Burgundies, red or white, and enough Champagne to fuel an endless summer. They flutter atop a flagship list of about 2,100 labels and a below-decks hoard of 25,000 bottles, overseen by Jason Irving, the sommelier and beverage manager who exchanged a budding career in Boston finance 20 years ago for a richer life in wine.
Irving moved to this billionaire’s playground in 2017, and promptly inherited a list at the Relais & Châteaux property that had been overseen by cellar master Craig Hanna for 27 years. Where some owners of flashy new restaurants “drop a million bucks and just buy a wine list,” Irving says, Topper’s has been piling up annual Wine Spectator Grand Awards since 1996, including storing personal wines for regular customers. “They were looking at me as a gatekeeper,” Irving says. “And I want that legacy to stay for as long as I’m here.”
That’s not to say that Irving isn’t tinkering around the edges, even as he re-ups, say, some 1962 Conterno Barolo he managed to track down. A few Bordeaux on hand are as old as the island’s Whaling Museum, opened in 1930. The list is bursting with well-aged warhorses. But there are dark horses as well: a Tannat from Bodegas Garzon in Uruguay, or Rudi Pichler’s plump Grüner Veltliner from Austria.
“And I’m obsessed with Rhône,” Irving says, including the tongue-trilling “La La” wines from the Côte-Rôtie AOC: La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne. “It’s OK to have your own personality, likes and loves, but what’s most important is to reflect the cuisine, the clientele and the location.” That cinematic location overlooks Nantucket’s Head of the Harbor bay, on a pinkie finger of land that curls toward the landmark Great Point Lighthouse at the island’s northern tip.
“It’s special to be here, and hard to get here,” Irving says of the island, whose year-round population of around 14,255 now swells to roughly 80,000 on peak days in July and August. Most visitors arrive via a 26-mile ferry crossing from Hyannis, Mass.
Perhaps this remoteness is why Herman Meville wrote Moby Dick without ever having visited (though he still nailed the facts and salty milieu). “Be it distinctly recorded here, that the Nantucketers were the first among mankind to harpoon with civilized steel the great Sperm Whale,” Melville wrote. “And that for half a century they were the only people of the whole globe who so harpooned him.”
The whaling action is mercifully retired, but guests don’t need a spyglass to spot another bountiful harvest: floating oyster cages, just 300 yards from Topper’s awning-covered outdoor deck, where Retsyo oysters (“oyster” spelled backwards) are hauled ashore to be shucked and slurped. Chef Kyle Zachary says the oysters, first harvested by a local couple in 2013, are a lot like wine, their distinctive flavor a true expression of Nantucket’s briny terroir.
The Montrachets and Meursaults and Chablis that pair so ably with Topper’s seafood-centric fare may hail from landlocked regions, yet those French terroirs are also rich with limestone and fossilized seashells that reveal their former underwater status.
“It’s such an amazing concept,” Irving enthuses. “The soil is pulling all those nutrients into the the grapes, so the wines are ocean-esque, with all that salinity.”
On this day, Irving is readying his sommeliers and bartenders for another season of (seemingly) effortless pairings with Zachary’s elegant New England cuisine, heavy on native seafood and produce. There’s butter-poached lobster with Vialone Nano rice, uni (sea urchin roe), tomato and basil. For landlubbers, veal with gnocchi, chanterelles and winter truffle. Local honey is drizzled on Mission figs and cheese. And full applause for Topper’s enormous half-bottle list, those increasingly hard-to-find bottlings that make it easy to engage with a variety of vintages and marry them to dishes and degustations alike.
In high season, Topper’s main dining room exudes casual ease, from crisp double tablecloths to Riedel glassware and Georg Jensen’s Bernadotte china. Plenty of guests head to the aforementioned, informal deck to grab a Wagyu burger, or lobster-and-crab cakes with roasted corn relish and mustard crème fraîche.
Each day, the staff is made keenly aware of precise sunset time, when the summer crowd reliably marches outside to snap photos. The sudden exodus demands some adept kitchen scrambling to time orders as the sun dips into the drink. But Irving wouldn’t have it any other way: “It’s gorgeous, so take that Burgundy out there with you and enjoy a great glass of wine.”
Alternative places to try: The Nautilus and Sister Ship
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