Not all dynamic wine programs live in major cities and cover dozens of pages. Daniel Pernice, 33, left a vaunted Manhattan establishment when he got the opportunity to create a wine list of his own back in his hometown of Roswell, Ga., a vibrant suburb of Atlanta. He earned Osteria Mattone a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its 130-selection list of handpicked, largely Italian quality leaders and up-and-comers.
In 2009, Pernice was about to pursue grad school while working as a server at the Modern, Danny Meyer's Best of Award of Excellence–winning restaurant adjoining New York's Museum of Modern Art. "Eventually I came to the realization that I don’t want to go to school for another two more years, take out more loans from the bank, and postpone my career any longer," says Pernice, who had been attending wine tastings and classes. "I could get started with this right now, and I love it, so why not?" He was promoted to sommelier.
Meanwhile back in Roswell, Pernice's brother Ryan had successfully opened Table & Main, for which Daniel helped put together the wine list. In 2013, Pernice left the big city behind, returning home to open a new venture with Ryan: an Italian restaurant on historic Canton Street. Pernice recently talked to Wine Spectator assistant tasting coordinator Emma Balter about turning diners on to unfamiliar Italian wines, how to pair red wine with fish like a true Roman, and an unnerving story involving three bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Wine Spectator: Do you remember a specific wine that made you want to pursue wine as a career?
Daniel Pernice: It was a 10-year-old Oddero La Morra Barolo that made me realize just how wildly complex and fragrant and evocative a wine can be as a beverage. It was a 10-year-old Raveneau Blanchot Chablis that made me see white wine in a whole different light, and truly appreciate [that] it can, in every way, match the depth and complexity of any red wine.
WS: What do you like to turn your guests on to at Osteria Mattone?
DP: Being an Italian restaurant, with a wine list that is predominantly Italian, offers a lot of opportunity to get off the beaten path. We have a lot of success with Valpolicella, ripasso especially. It offers the concentration and the mouthfeel and the overall character that I think a lot of American wine drinkers are looking for, and an easy bridging gap into Italian wines from New World wines.
WS: What was it like to open Osteria Mattone and create a wine list from scratch?
DP: Exhilarating. I am eternally grateful to my brother because, for a young sommelier, the dream of course is to have your own wine list and curate it. I was a little apprehensive about having a wine list in Roswell, Ga., this extensive, at an Italian restaurant with this level of authenticity. But I’m pleased to say that after two and a half years, the people of Roswell have really embraced our Italian-heavy wine list.
WS: What is your favorite food-and-wine pairing at the moment?
DP: Right now one of our best dishes is a tagliolini di mare, [which] has a pomodoro sauce integrated with a shellfish broth. It makes pairing wine a little tricky, because there is seafood in the dish, usually calling for a white wine, but the tomato sauce and the heartiness of the dish can benefit from a red.
Fortunately, Italians have no problem pairing red wine with seafood if it merits it. So with this I recommend a Nero d’Avola—a Sicilian wine, strictly medium-bodied, not too much to overpower the dish, and the acidity matches up well with the shellfish, and the more savory nature of the wine matches well with the red sauce in the dish.
WS: What was your most surprising moment on the job?
DP: One day, a server came down to let me know that a guest had ordered a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 2004. We had three bottles of the stuff listed for $3,400 a bottle. I grabbed one and headed upstairs to find two men sitting at one of the small round tables in the bar area. I presented the bottle and after inspecting it the men asked me how much we had in stock. They proceeded to order the other two bottles and let me know they wanted to pay for them now, [which they did] and display them on the table for the rest of their party to see when they arrive.
Something just wasn't right. I went around to the server's station, and when I emerged, the first man was walking towards the front door carrying a bag with the wine, and the second man was getting up and starting to follow! A manager near the front door tried to track them down outside, but they were soon lost in the midtown Manhattan crowds. Technically what they did was illegal, but the real issue for the team and me was how dirty the whole ordeal felt. A wine like that is a beautiful thing to offer at your restaurant. To part with it in such an underhanded and deceitful way felt horrible. The cold truth is that they most definitely could have sold that wine for a profit somewhere else.
WS: Who would you consider to be a personal mentor? What have they taught you?
DP: Ehren Ashkenazi, [former wine director at the Modern]. Lessons I got from him were most definitely patience—and that is patience with unruly guests, patience with unruly staff, and also the ability to deal with just about anything a restaurant can throw at you with absolute grace and poise.