Gianpaolo Paterlini is wine director of Acquerello, one of the finest Italian restaurants in America. I recently had a chance to discuss what makes he and his wine program tick.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: What was the first hint that you were developing a fascination with wine?
Gianpaolo Paterlini: With an Italian father, I was exposed to small tastes of Moscato d’Asti at a young age, so I was always somewhat interested in wine. I first realized I might want to take wine more seriously when I was 16 and working as a busser at Acquerello. One of our regular guests offered me a taste (actually a large glass) of one of the wines he was enjoying that night. It was 1945 Petrus. I didn’t know much about wine, so the nuance and complexity were lost on me, but I was struck by how such an old wine could taste so young. It was dark and full of fruit, and just utterly delicious. When I got home that night I looked the wine up online and saw how expensive it was, and started to think about the possibility of a career involved in wine…
STTG: Since you are clearly also very food-focused, was your interest in wine driven by your love for food or the reverse?
GP: My interest in food was definitely driven by my interest in wine. I worked in a number of restaurants before turning 21 (Acquerello, A-16, Blue Ginger), so my interest for food was definitely there. But at that time in my life work was driven more by financial desires than passion. I still didn’t realize how realistic a job working directly with wine could be…
STTG: Where did you get your start in the wine industry?
GP: I turned 21 in December of 2006, and within one month I started working as a sommelier at Michael Mina in SF. It was supposed to be a 6 month internship for the second semester of my junior year at Boston University, but I never went back. I ended up working at MM full time (and at Acquerello part time as a server) until October of 2007, when Rajat Parr set me up with an opportunity to work harvest in Lompoc with Sashi Moorman (Stolpman, Piedrasassi, Evening Land Vineyards).
STTG: What is your history with Acquarello and when did you take over the wine program?
GP: After harvest, I returned to Acquerello to start working as a sommelier. In the past, the servers sold wine themselves, and Giancarlo was always there to provide extra help, but Acquerello never had a sommelier. We had a great wine list, but it was just a list, and there was no ‘wine program’. So I just gradually started buying wines for the restaurant, and eventually got an intern to help me on the floor during service. We realized quickly how much of a difference it made having multiple sommeliers on the floor. The list has kept growing, from roughly 700 selections when I started to 1950 selections today. And the program grew as well. We now have two full time somms, in addition to myself. The level of collaboration between the wine team and the kitchen is ideal, so we are able to spend lots of time working on wine pairings. So my takeover of the list was gradual, but I think we started calling my job ‘wine director’ in 2009.
STTG: What would you say is the most compelling thing about wine for you – that which inspires you or about which you are most passionate?
GP: For me, wine is always an experience, and that experience is best shared with others. Wine can evoke a wide range of emotions, and I think it’s pretty rare that people drink wine alone. Drinking with others provides an opportunity to bond and interact with other people. When I travel to visit wineries, it’s not so much to learn about what they do at the winery. That information is usually available online. But for me it’s more important to meet the winemaker, to walk together in the vineyards, and then share a meal and their wine. That human relationship is what makes wine so special.
STTG: Is there a country, category or region that you are currently excited about?
GP: Italy is certainly my favorite country, and Piemonte is my favorite wine region (I’m in the airport on my way there right now). The Nebbiolo grape is the most exciting varietal in the world. The aromatic complexity makes Nebbiolo-based wines intriguing enough alone. The texture combines high acidity and firm but silky tannins, which makes it perfect for drinking with food. But the diversity in styles might be what I like most about Nebbiolo in Piemonte. Wines range from light, bright and fresh expressions from vineyards in the north, to the more powerful and more widely-known wines of Barolo and Barbaresco.
STTG: How do you structure your list and your by the glass program?
GP: Our list is mostly (70%) Italian, but we also feature French Champagne, and domestic white and red wines. The list is organized geographically, starting in the north and moving south to finish in the islands. The focus is definitely Piemonte. We have a cellar below the restaurant filled with wines that aren’t yet on the wine list. We make sure the wines on the list are ready to drink, so until we think they are, we keep them in the cellar… to be continued
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!