Eric Zillier, 35, joined Alto as wine director in January 2005, several months before the restaurant opened, traveling to Italy's Alto-Adige region and building its Italian-themed list to about 900 selections. The restaurant earned Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence in 2006 and 2007, and this year, Alto has earned a Grand Award, Wine Spectator's highest honor for a restaurant. In the three years the restaurant has been open, Zillier has grown the list to its current 2,350 selections, backed by an inventory of 37,000 bottles.
Zillier grew up in Wisconsin, attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned degrees in French and International Relations. Initially planning to work in the foreign service, Zillier spent a year abroad in southern France, where a budding passion for food and wine grew. Following college, Zillier worked at the Hudson River Club in New York during the late 1990s before moving on to Veritas, where he worked for five years, during which time the restaurant garnered the Grand Award.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Eric Zillier: After returning from France, I worked for L'Etoile in Madison, Wisc., which had the best wine list in town. Under the tutelage of wine director Michael Kwas and inspired by chef Odessa Piper's husband, [German wine importer] Terry Thiese, I got more serious about wine. I took a month off and worked a harvest in Vacqueyras at Domaine La Monardière. After that I traveled a little in Bordeaux and Champagne. That was 1996 and from then on I knew I wanted to make a career out of wine. … I realized that I could still travel, teach and learn if I somehow made a career out of my interest in wine … [Later] I went back to Vacqueyras to help with [another] harvest at Domaine La Monardière and after that I decided to move to New York to learn more about wine.
WS: As an American whose wine knowledge came by way of southern France (working at Monardière) and who had worked almost exclusively in French-influenced restaurants prior to Alto, what challenges did you face in being called upon to create an Italian-themed wine list for Alto?
EZ: That was one of the reasons I chose the position. It motivated me to learn Italian wines to a degree I never thought I would. I'm glad I did. The biggest challenge was to learn the stylistic differences between the producers in any given region. These regional differences are more dramatic than I've seen anywhere else in the world. To make this more challenging the style of many producers keeps evolving to find their place among the modern and traditional schools of winemaking.
WS: What were the most important things you learned about Italian wine and pairing it with Italian cuisine during your travels to Italy?
EZ: My first rule, which applies to many Old World wine regions, is that regional cuisine often works very well with the respective region's wines. This guide remained a good starting point when determining how to pair Italian cuisine and wine. Two of the more interesting revelations were the similarities in spice profile between the Lagrein varietal and speck [a cured ham from Alto-Adige] that allow for some potentially great pairings, so long as the speck has with it another element of fat to absorb the massive tannins of Lagrein. Also, how how well the high altitude and coastal whites of Campania work with seafood.
WS: What are your favorite wine regions?
EZ: My first love was the Southern Rhône, because working there allowed me to understand it best. Then came Burgundy. It is with Burgundy, both white and red, that I have had some of my most ethereal moments. Also, I would be happy to drink Riesling from Mosel and Nahe all day long, added to the fact that these wines go so well with food. Piedmont, specifically from the eastern part of Barolo, is definitely on the list. Last, but certainly not least, would have to be Champagne.
WS: What is the hardest dish to pair with wine on the dinner menu at Alto, and what do you pair with it?
EZ: The orata, or red sea bream, with pepper crema, broccoli rabe and Ligurian black olives is the most difficult to pair. The best solution is the La Courtade Côtes de Provence Rosé L'Alycastre, produced on a small island off the coast of southern France.
WS: What are your go-to wine-and-food pairings?
EZ: Currently the cold tomato soup with a Riesling from Karthäuserhof; the crudo with a Falanghina from Cantina del Taburno, or a light, fruit-driven Barbera with our signature Agnolotti del Plin.
WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Alto?
EZ: Anyone can spend a lot of money and get a good wine. The challenge is finding wines that I would want to drink if I were eating out that go well with food and that I can put on the list for $60 or less—Alto has well over 200 selections under $60. The whites of Alto-Adige—Kofererhof, Alois Lageder, Abbazia di Novacella—and Campania—Maffini, TerreDora, Mastroberardino—and many German Rieslings fall into this category. They are among the most well-structured and balanced wines in the world. There are great red wine values, but not nearly to the same extent as the whites.
WS: How many bottles do you have in your own cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
EZ: This is one area that I have woefully neglected. I have just over 100 bottles but they are all quite good. Some of my recent favorites have been Louis Carillon Puligny-Montrachet Les Perrières 1996 and Dujac Bonnes-Mares 1988.
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