A World in a Cellar

Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence is home to an amazing array of wine
Feb 11, 2003
 
Giorgio Pinchiorri and his wife, Annie Féolde, have recently completed a six-month, $4 million renovation of Enoteca Pinchiorri, their shrine to great wines.
 

Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence is arguably Italy's top wine restaurant. And while the luxurious ambience, professional service and fine food will please any diner, for wine lovers the greatest pleasure comes from exploring a wine list the size of the Gutenberg Bible.

The list, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner since 1984, offers approximately 4,500 wines. There are super Tuscans such as Sassicaia, Solaia and Masseto, along with classics from France, including Pétrus, Latour, Mouton, Lafite, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Henri Jayer. Vintages for some of these great French wines go back to the first half of the 20th century. There are even single bottles of Château Mouton-Rothschild from 1889 and 1870. The list contains prestigious wines from practically every wine-producing region in the world, including a small selection of top California reds such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Dalla Valle Maya.

The victim of a devastating firebombing in 1992, Enoteca Pinchiorri has recently undergone a six-month, $4-million refurbishment and has reopened with state-of-the-art kitchen space, redecorated dining areas and a spectacular new wine cellar that shows off owner Giorgio Pinchiorri's 140,000-bottle collection to its best advantage.

The renovation period was a difficult time for Pinchiorri and his French wife, Annie Féolde. "Our original plan was just to revamp the kitchen area," says Féolde, "but then we decided to give the whole restaurant a face-lift at the same time." The final project included brand-new air-conditioning and electrical systems, along with generators to supplement the less-than-reliable national power-grid.

Restoration work on the 16th century pietra serena palazzo, which is located near the center of Florence, unearthed a number of surprises, including a long-forgotten 625-square-foot space under the cellar filled to the brim with rainwater. "The work cost twice as much as we budgeted and took double the time to finish," says Féolde. "We're just relieved to be open again."

Their customers are happy, too. The food here is fabulous: French precision cooking with an unmistakably Italian style and a heavy reliance on Tuscan ingredients. Set menus start at $184, without wine, for four courses plus cheese and dessert. (The cheese tray is a must, offering a panorama of young and aged cheeses from Italy and France.) If you take the à la carte option, you're likely to spend more than $200 on food alone.

As an antipasto, you might choose king prawns cooked three ways -- one stuffed with zucchini and thyme, another fried in an exquisitely light batter and the last served with caramelized onions and pancetta -- all set on a bed of lightly fried fresh vegetables dressed with horseradish sauce. This entrancing mixture of tastes was in perfect harmony with a bottle of 1999 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Vieilles Vignes ($144). A bottle of Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux 1990 ($1,093) accompanied the main course of pigeon -- the breast grilled and marinated with lightly pickled shallots and the leg cooked in goose fat. Jayer has reserved one barrel of the Cros Parantoux for Pinchiorri every year since 1983.

 
The classical design of the dining room provides the perfect setting in which to enjoy Enoteca Pinchiorri's Tuscan take on traditional French cuisine.
 

Giorgio Pinchiorri is clear about the raison d'être of his cellar. "I don't buy wines as a speculative investment," he explains, "but to open them for others. This is what I've always done."

In the early days, Pinchiorri took great pleasure in introducing his clientele to top French wines. But today he enthuses about the fact that diners are getting more and more interested in Italian wines. This is true even in the restaurant's Japanese outpost, Enoteca Pinchiorri in Tokyo (which opened in 1992), where approximately 70 percent of the wines served last year were Italian.

"It's an exciting time for Italian wine," he says, "and I'm always on the lookout for new, quality wines that I think might interest my customers." Recent newcomers to the cellar include Guidalberto, the new super Tuscan from Tenuta San Guido, maker of Sassicaia, and the new Tuscan wines from Angelo Gaja's Ca'Marcanda in the Bolgheri region.

Pinchiorri buys about 50,000 bottles a year to restock the Florence and Tokyo cellars. Every bottle is bought directly from its producer, many of whom Pinchiorri has worked with for years.

Almost every wine can be ordered by the glass, though at a price: a glass of Château Pétrus 1945, for example, will cost you $2,300. The extensive wine list also contains a series of popular tasting menus; they consist of three to seven wines, either by the glass or by the bottle -- top super Tuscans, first-growth Bordeaux or high-end Burgundy -- served with food to match. A four-glass, four-course tasting menu costs about $520.

 
While the prerenovation cellar was impressive, the new version provides a more orderly home for one of Italy's top wine collections.
 

Enoteca Pinchiorri opened in 1972 as a wine shop specializing in extensive tastings of Italian wines. It became a wine bar with food in 1973. In 1979, Pinchiorri and Féolde set about transforming a casual buffet into a first-class eating experience. Success came almost immediately. The restaurant received its first Michelin star in 1981, followed by two stars in 1982 and three stars in 1993.

The wine cellar downstairs quickly became a favorite meeting point for wine lovers, and Pinchiorri created a pleasant environment there. Important "collections within the collection" were arranged on the old, terra-cotta floor in pyramid or spiral forms. A spiral of Château Mouton-Rothschild, containing every vintage from 1945 to 1988, stood near an antique cabinet containing Armagnac and Cognac dating back to the 1820s. Another antique cabinet housed what Pinchiorri describes as "the jewel of the cellar" -- his collection of older vintages of white Burgundy.

"It was the perfect atmosphere for tasting great wines," says Pinchiorri, "or just for an informal aperitivo before supper."

But then, on Nov. 15, 1992, at 4 o'clock in the morning, an unidentified person threw a Molotov cocktail through one of the small windows that open onto the pavement level of Via Ghibellina.

The firebomb scored a direct hit on the Armagnac and Cognac cabinet. In the resulting devastation, everything nearby was lost: the Château Mouton-Rothschild spiral; the Burgundy whites; the bottles of Château Pétrus. The ensuing fire scorched labels and popped corks out of bottles that lay beyond the area of immediate impact, including the best of Pinchiorri's collection of Tuscan reds.

"I got a phone call from the guy, five minutes after the act, announcing what he'd done," says Pinchiorri, recalling that terrible morning. "The firemen arrived and did their job, but salvaging fine wine wasn't high on their list of priorities. In the immediate aftermath, the staff and I managed to get a lot of wine out that might otherwise have been ruined."

All told, the fire affected about 25,000 bottles, with damage ranging from total destruction to scorched labels. Friendly producers offered to replace the damaged labels, enabling Pinchiorri to recuperate about 10,000 bottles, samples of which were systematically tasted to check that the wine was presentable to his guests.

Damage was estimated at $2 million, half of which Pinchiorri's insurance eventually covered. But the consequences of that moment of violence dragged on until 1996, with the insurance company blocking further wine purchases and insisting that the whole setup and function of the cellar be reviewed.

"It was a time of shock and confusion," admits Pinchiorri, "a nightmare that lasted four years."

Today, the newly renovated cellar is a tidy, functional environment with no remaining traces of charred stone and wood. Each room is temperature- and humidity-controlled, with temperatures ranging from 54° F to 59° F. The whites are kept slightly cooler than the reds.

In deference to insurance company requirements, the cellar is no longer open to the general public. But it remains a magical place guaranteed to delight anyone privileged to gain access. Pinchiorri himself bubbles with enthusiasm as he wanders from room to room pulling out bottles that are often unique.

Take a Methuselah (the equivalent of eight 750ml bottles) of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1985 -- labeled No. 1. "That's our most expensive bottle, at $224,250," Pinchiori says. "But you'd pay a bit less for this one," he adds with a smile, referring to a Methuselah of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche 1985 -- again No. 1 ($97,750).

Move on to a cabinet containing imperials of Château d'Yquem dating back to 1983 ($5,750), then another cabinet with 37 vintages of Château Pétrus dating from 1924 ($8,625) to 1979 ($834). You spy a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 in passing. It's $8,625 on the wine list. There's Château Le Pin 1979, the first vintage ($3,450), Château Lafite 1900 ($17,250), and one priceless bottle each of Château Lafite Blanc 1959 and 1935 -- only two barrels were produced in both years. There are 3,500 bottles of Château Pétrus and 1,500 bottles of Château Le Pin in the cellar.

The inventory of super Tuscans is equally impressive, including, for example, about 7,000 bottles of Sassicaia. The stockroom for Italian reds contains 1,000 bottles of Antinori Solaia 1997 -- Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year for 2000.

These bottles are sent from their respective wineries in cardboard boxes, but Pinchiorri transfers them into specially made wooden cases for storage. He does the same with his stock of new vintages of Burgundians Henri Jayer and Domaine des Comtes Lafon, as well as the super Tuscans and Brunellos and reds from Piedmont. The producers are more than happy for him to do this, in some cases even granting him license to reproduce the winery's coat of arms on the case. This is something the diner upstairs may never see, but it is further proof of Pinchiorri's thorough commitment to quality and his acute sense of responsible stewardship.

Sitting in one of the dining rooms and enjoying a great bottle of wine and superb food, you have to wonder how Pinchiorri puts so much energy into maintaining the restaurant's great wine collection and fantastic level of service.

"It's more than a job," he explains. "What drives me is a mixture of passion and folly. But when people come to the enoteca who really understand and enjoy wine, the element of folly is transformed into an immense sense of pleasure."

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