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 second of a two-part feature)
STTG: How do you structure your list and your by the glass program?
GP: …So we are not just buying to turn inventory. Rather, we are cellaring wines as an investment for the future. Our BTG program is all about what works with our food. We work hard with the kitchen to make sure we have a pairing for every dish on the menu. Until we (myself, two somms, and chef de cuisine) all agree on which wine to pair with a dish, that dish doesn’t make it on the menu. We make sure our pairings work in practice, not just in theory. It’s actually pretty rare that we have a wine BTG that isn’t used as a pairing wine.
STTG: What are three or four of the key elements that define the wine director’s fundamental role?
GP: As wine director, my job covers a wide range of responsibilities. When adding new wines to the list, my somms have input, but ultimately I am the one who orders new wines and keeps current wines in stock by reordering, all while keeping a budget in mind. I feel my role is very much about education. My head somm had never worked in a restaurant before, so it’s been more than just teaching him about wine. Almost every day during lineup we present a bottle (usually a wine btg) to the staff so everyone can be on the same page about what we’re serving. Once per month we try to sit down and focus on one particular region or varietal, and I prepare an outline of what we will be talking about in-depth. Finally, my most important job is ensuring the guest experience at Acquerello is a great one. All the preparation before service gives us the tools we need to make sure diners have a memorable dinner.
STTG: If you sense that you or your list intimidate a guest how do you put them at ease?
GP: I’m pretty sure a vast majority of our diners are overwhelmed or intimidated by our list. It’s almost 100 pages, and heavy in Italian wines, so people have good reason to feel that way. At Acquerello, we have only 40 seats, but we almost always have at least two somms on the floor. On busy nights all three of us work. The servers don’t deal with wine at all, not even wines by the glass. Every wine is sold and served by a somm, so by interacting with every single diner, we are able to make sure the wine experience is fun and stress-free (and educational if the guest likes). By approaching the diner before he becomes overwhelmed, we usually avoid that situation. But should a guest be intimidated, it is our job to put them at ease. I like to break wine down and make it sound very simple. I ask what diners like, offering examples like “If you like red wine, do you prefer something light and bright like Pinot Noir, or something deeper and more powerful like Cabernet Sauvignon?”
Breaking it down to a level where everyone is comfortable talking about it is the first step towards putting a guest at ease.
STTG: What would you say is a particularly exciting food-and-wine pairing feature of your program currently?
GP: We have some fun pairings right now. We have a dish featuring pork (loin, pancetta, shoulder and belly) with flavors like fennel and prunes. So we use 2008 Damiano Ciolli Cesanese Olevano Romano ‘Silene’. Cesanese is a cool varietal from Lazio, grown just a half an hour southeast of Roma. It’s got a dark fruit profile, great acidity, and a very spicy/savory finish, so the fruit matches the prunes, the acidity helps with fat of the pork, and the savory notes brings out the fennel.
Our chef de cuisine Mark Pensa just made a dish called ‘Baked potato gnocchi’. He folds whipped potatoes into the gnocchi dough, giving it the texture of the inside of a baked potato. It’s garnished with chive creme fraiche, some crispy potato skins, and pancetta bits. It’s a good example of our cuisine right now, a style that’s playful and creative while delivering delicious flavor. We pair 2009 Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino with it. The dish is pretty light, and the wine’s medium body is perfect for the gnocchi. The freshness brings out the chive creme fraiche, and the subtle smokey flavor of the Fiano enhances the pancetta bits.
A classic of ours (and relevant with the July 1 ban coming soon) is Foie gras pasta with Marsala and black truffle. The foie is creamy in texture, and rich in savory flavor, so we use a sweet wine called 2007 Fausto Maculan ‘Torcolato’. It’s made from Vespaiola just a bit northwest of Venice in Veneto. Grapes are harvested late, then dried for four months before pressing. There is no noble rot, so the wine retains a freshness and great acidity that help cut through the creamy texture, while there’s just enough sweetness to counter the rich foie itself.
STTG: Your program showcases the richness and depth of Italy. Do you have a region that you have a particular weakness for?
GP: Piemonte is where my heart is. If I could drink from only one region for the rest of my life, no question Piemonte would be it.
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!