Despite a humble upbringing in southern Italy, Geno Auriemma, 51, doesn't settle for second best. When he took over as head coach of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, it had at that point achieved only one winning season. But in the past 20 years, he's led the Huskies to five national titles. A couple years after the team's first NCAA championship in 1995, Auriemma became seriously interested in wine, starting with first-growth Bordeaux. While he aims to share his enthusiasm by opening an affordable restaurant in Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Casino in January, he's also considering an Italian steakhouse in Hartford and is working on ways to bring the food and wine of his birthplace to the United States.
Wine Spectator: When did you first become interested wine?
Geno Auriemma: When I was a kid in Italy, wine was made at home and a big part of your daily life. I didn't think much of it beyond that until maybe the mid-'90s. The first bottles of wine that I ended up purchasing happened to be '95 Lafite Rothschild. I got some of those and some Haut-Brion. It was kind of a crazy way to get started--at the high end.
WS: What are some of your favorite wines?
GA: I really have gravitated toward mostly Italian wines and California Cabernets. The California ones I've enjoyed the most have been the Joseph Phelps wines, especially Insignia. I make sure to have some of that in my cellar all the time.
WS: How many bottles are in your cellar?
GA: I'd say probably a thousand, give or take a couple. Someone asked, "Don't you think that's a lot?" I said, "Well, where I grew up, you open a bottle of wine every day with dinner. That's only gonna last you three years." It's really not that much wine.
WS: What kind of food and wine do you plan to serve at your new restaurant in Mohegan Sun?
GA: We're going to open up more of a food court to start off; it'll be a combination of things--Italian, American, some sushi, some Mexican probably. … [As for wine], anyone can go into a restaurant and get a wine list and have a $400 bottle. But the trick is to go in and be able to have a $25 or $30 wine, and have it taste better than any bottle you've had in that price range. That to me is doing the customers a real service. [The list] will contain some of the things I really enjoy--California Cabs, Chiantis and some wines from where I grew up in southern Italy.
WS: Do you aspire to make your own wine?
GA: Where I grew up, near Avellino, they make tremendous white wines. The southern Italian wines are still a little unknown, and there are still great opportunities there, as opposed to the Tuscan or Piedmont wines that have really taken off. We have started discussions about getting involved in a winery or two, and bringing the wine here to America. I think we can even include all the things I grew up with, like extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and some of the great pastas we had. In terms of the day-to-day operation, it'd probably be best left to the experts. I have a lot of relatives over there still, and I wouldn't want them to come over here and coach my basketball team.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions