How to Design an Award-Winning Italian Wine List

San Francisco sommelier Gianpaolo Paterlini built the list at Acquerello, his father's restaurant
Jul 31, 2012

Gianpaolo Paterlini, wine director of San Francisco’s Acquerello, grew up around fine dining and Italian wine—his father, Giancarlo, founded the restaurant in 1989. But the younger Paterlini, 26, says the road to becoming a sommelier wasn’t an obvious choice: “I had never considered that wine could be a career.” A stint at Michael Mina’s flagship restaurant during college changed that. “There were multiple sommeliers on the floor all the time,” he says, recalling his time at the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant.

Paterlini decided to finish his studies in San Francisco while working at Mina’s under the guidance of sommelier Rajat Parr, who also sent him to work a harvest in the Central Coast with winemaker Sashi Moorman, now of Evening Land. Upon returning to Acquerello, Paterlini had a mission: to make a destination-worthy list, as Mina and Parr had done, but with a focus on Italian wines. Working off the solid list his father had built, Paterlini became Acquerello’s first official sommelier and ramped up the wine list from 600 selections to 2,000. This year, the restaurant won a Grand Award from Wine Spectator. Recently, Paterlini spoke to Wine Spectator about the similarities between Burgundy and Piedmont, his process for figuring out pairings and why he thinks Italian wines are exciting.

Wine Spectator: How did working at Michael Mina’s inspire your list?
Gianpaolo Paterlini: There wasn't really anyone making a list like Michael Mina's, at least with Italian wine. I saw a parallel between Burgundy and Barolo and Barbaresco—the wines are similar in terms of style as they have a lot of acidity—but more in the way the vineyards are laid out: In Burgundy, the vineyards are split up among a lot of growers, and Piemonte is the same way. There are a lot of great vineyards that have been around for hundreds of years and now they’re kind of split up. No one thinks about them that way and I thought it would be fun to play around with and expand on.

WS: How did you build your list?
GP: It’s grown really naturally, and it wasn’t our intention to get it to this size. We noticed a huge difference in wine sales once I began working as a sommelier there, just having someone on the floor talking about wine. It quickly grew to the point where I needed some help. It’s now myself and two paid sommeliers.

WS: How do you do pairings? Do you match regional Italian wines to regional dishes?
GP: The food is contemporary Italian. We don’t like to consider it classic or authentic. We interpret it our own way, and we work extensively to get our pairings. It’s usually about a two-week process. My two somms, the chef de cuisine and I all sit down with a new dish and taste until we get it right. There was one dish last fall that was a scallop dish served with pumpkin purée, brown butter and radicchio. It literally took us 15 wines before we found a Gewürztraminer from Alto Adige, which ended up being perfect because it has that fruit, that little sweetness, the texture and the bitterness on the finish.

WS: How knowledgeable are your customers about regional Italian wines?
GP: We’ve seen a big change in clientele’s knowledge over the past couple years. They’ve heard of esoteric wines. Before A16 came around, no one knew anything from the south of Italy. Now people say they like Greco di Tufo or Taurasi, which is really cool.

WS: Do you travel to Italy a lot?
GP: I go at least twice a year to Piemonte, and I usually tack on another region. For me, it’s about building relationships, seeing vineyards and tasting with the producers in their cellars. I feel like you get a different understanding when you do that. My last trip was up to Valle d’Aosta and Valtellina, the extreme mountain areas of the northwest. I knew it was going to be gorgeous, but wasn’t prepared for how gorgeous and different it is. I was shocked to find cactus growing in Valtellina. Apparently it is as dry as North Africa. They get no rain up there. So you’d think it’s the same climate as Piemonte, but it’s really different.

WS: Are you ever tempted to branch out beyond Italian?
GP: Honestly no, not at all. I was worried when I started because at Mina we had everything, even the southern hemisphere, but Italy just has so many wines out there. It’s shocking how many times we learn about a new varietal, and we’re tasting 50-plus wines a day and still I’m finding things I don’t know about. There’s a wine from Le Marche called Biancello from producer Claudio Morelli. Literally 5 cases came into Northern California and no one knows what it is: a mineral, salty, fresh wine grown right on the coast. There’s a plethora of wines to play around with.

WS: What’s it like to focus on Italian wines when you live in California wine country?
GP: We have California wines on the list because we are so close to wine country and we want to support them. Our clientele is interesting in that we don’t sell California wines, except to travelers. Europeans always want to drink California wines. It’s easy to take for granted what we have here. The vineyards are so close. We try to take field trips at the restaurant, pick a couple of wineries and go and taste at the vineyards.

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