While studying history at the University of Minnesota, Daniel McCullough took a summer trip to Umbria and the Marche. His wine journey started there and has run through Italy ever since. Eating at Italian trattorias between visits to cathedrals and Roman ruins, McCullough "learned about wine, not as a vehicle to get drunk but as part of a lifestyle."
McCullough, 39, brought this newfound appreciation back to the United States, where he pursued wine as a hobby while studying at the Culinary Institute of America. There, his passion for Italian culture endured, and he soon took front-of-house restaurant work with Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning Aureole in New York, followed by stints at Grand Award–winning Italian wine mecca Del Posto and Best of Award of Excellence–winning Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In 2007, he committed fully to the wine business, moving to Napa and landing at Best of Award of Excellence winner Oenotri, where he now operates the wine program. Assistant editor Christine Dalton sat down with McCullough to talk about catching the wine bug, pairing with pizza, and turning people on to Italy in the heart of California wine country.
Wine Spectator: When did wine go from a hobby to a serious career prospect?
Daniel McCullough: Waiting tables at Aureole, I found myself working closely with their sommelier, Justin Lorenz, and thought, " I didn't know you could do that for a living. That's what I want to do!" I was really getting into wine while living in New York, and Sherry-Lehmann [wine shop] was in between the restaurant and my subway stop, so I was spending all my server money on trying new wines. I studied even more and learned so much working in such a wine-focused establishment. I was also helping Lorenz out as a runner, constantly going to the cellar to grab bottles. That was my first real hands-on wine experience. I realized that this was going to be my career.
It's important to have those jobs buffing glassware. I sweated through so many uniforms and shirts and ties and vests, and now I get to wear t-shirts.
WS: What drew you to Italian wine?
DM: I love Italian wine's approachability on the palate. It's very food friendly, obviously, but there's also such a spectrum of it. I also clicked with the Italian culture before wine was even on my radar, since I was studying Italian history. It wasn't really a choice; my love for the country's wines just developed.
WS: Now you're a sommelier at an Italian restaurant in the heart of California wine country. How do you balance the two categories in your program?
DM: The split in our list is a third to a quarter California wine and the rest is Italian. I get many requests for California wine, especially from European tourists. Our by-the-glass program always has a California Chardonnay and a California Cabernet to keep those people happy. But Italian wine works well for us, first and foremost, because of the cuisine. A lot of people who come out here are wine connoisseurs and are very enthusiastic about trying the approachable Italian bottlings we're known for. A lot of the local winemakers come in wanting to drink Barolo. My philosophy is that people get to taste some of the best Cabernets in the world all day down in the Valley. When they come back here, they have a chance to try something that's a bit more restrained.
WS: Do you have any unique relationships with your guests?
DM: I have a guest who hasn't picked up a wine list in years. Somebody gave him one once and he said, "What am I supposed to do with this? Where's Daniel?" I get to pick something out every time he comes in. I haven't repeated anything and it's always a challenge. It's fun to develop clientele you can do that with.
WS: What's your approach to pairing wine with pizza?
DM: Pizza's tough because it's so diverse, from your light, tomato-based Margherita to your rich, cream-based sauces. Our Margherita is quite simple, with San Marzano tomatoes and Mozzarella di Bufala, so I'd go with white wine from Campania. I'd suggest Falanghina because it's the most approachable, fun and easy wine from the region. If you want to go red, I'd choose a nice, light Sangiovese.
But we do so many different styles of pizza as well. A lot of people want to do red wine with pizza. Barbera and Dolcetto are easy and delicious, but you can get more adventurous too. Vernaccia Nera is one I really enjoy from the Marche.
WS: What are some of your personal favorite pairings?
DM: With cream-based pizzas, you want a rounder white wine. We have a pizza called Intenso. It's crust and cream with Parmesan, pistachios and shaved red onion. That with a Pieropan Soave is really, really good. I always return to richness and the weight of the wine. For me, pairing is mostly about texture.
We also put this wine on our by-the-glass menu: Marisa Cuomo Ravello Bianco. It's a Falanghina and Biancolella blend [and] it's great. It's from a little bit of a lower elevation, it's approachable and a bit more plump. It has stone fruit and underripe passion fruit; white peach comes through. It works with crudo, it works with Margherita pizza, shellfish, a good portion of our food. And you can probably find it on a shelf for less than $40.
WS: Are you partial to any specific Italian grape?
DM: Sangiovese is probably one of my most favorite grapes, as far as its versatility and what it can handle. It can be really extracted and big when it's used in the super Tuscans. It can stand up to a lot of French oak and a splash of Merlot or Cabernet. Those are great, but I prefer the pure expression. I love the stainless-steel styles, really bright, fresh styles of Sangiovese. Recently, I've also seen Sangiovese done as a white wine, Sangiovese Bianco. It has the tiniest little pink hue to it, but it's really a dry white wine. It's superhigh in acid because of the nature of the grape, but it has some nice fruit characteristics going on and it blows my mind. I think it's really exciting and really something unique.
WS: Which regions should we be keeping an eye on in Italy?
DM: I think Campania is a great example of what Italian wine can offer. From the diversity of the whites to extraordinary reds like Aglianico, these wines can be very pleasing to many people's palates.
Personally, I love Umbria and the Marche. It's harder to find wines from these regions, but it's definitely possible. Sagrantino from Umbria is fantastic, so if someone wanted to make the effort, I'd certainly recommend it.
WS: What deserves more attention in Italian wine?
DM: I think Italy has a lot to offer in white wine that people don't know about. Reds tend to get the spotlight, your Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese. But the country's white wines are very exciting and worth discovering.