Gianpaolo Paterini of SF’s Acquerello on Champagne, Top Sellers from Italy and a California Wine Crescendo - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Gianpaolo Paterini of SF’s Acquerello on Champagne, Top Sellers from Italy and a California Wine Crescendo

Gianpaolo Paterlini was four years old when his father, Giancarlo, opened Acquerello in a former chapel on San Francisco’s Sacramento Street. He grew up drinking nebbiolo, and when he joined the family business in 2010 after working in other restaurants, he massively expanded the restaurant’s Barolo and Barbaresco selections. Besides nebbiolo, his other love is Champagne, and he now lists 180 at Acquerello; he also keeps a significant collection of Champagnes on hand at 1760, his more casual restaurant just around the corner.

Twenty percent of Acquerello’s wines sales recently have been bubbles, and two Champagnes—Paul Bara Rosé and Mark Hébrart Blanc de Blancs—were your top by-the-glass wines. Is that normal, or has Champagne been on an upswing?

I think it’s been rising, I don’t think this year was outrageously more than previous years but it’s been a slow, gradual increase.

We do a lot of wine pairings. We don’t include those [by-the-glass] Champagnes in the wine pairings, but we often send out a few amuse-bouches and smaller dishes before the first dish that guests order, so that’s how we often sell Champagne—a glass with the first few plates that go out. And people who don’t do the pairings or a bottle often ask for a glass of Champagne, followed by a glass of red. People are really receptive to Champagne with a meal.

The 2011 Renato Ratti Marcanesco Barolo was your top-selling nebbiolo in the fourth quarter of 2016. What put that on top?

I think it was just the time of year. The 2011s are a great vintage for drinking now—although I think they will also age well—and Ratti makes a darker, richer style that is easily translated to a California pinot drinker, a Russian River pinot fan. It has that dark fruit. It’s still nebbiolo, though—it’s drier and has more structure.

We did a lot of other 2011 nebbiolos throughout the year, and some of those sold even better. It’s just the vintage being ripe and soft, and more geared toward a California wine drinker.

And the price is amazing. It used to be possible to find a lot of Barolo [that I could list] for under $100, and they’re getting harder and harder to find.

We often hear that high-end whites struggle—if they aren’t Burgundy or California chardonnay. Why did the Borgo del Tiglio Ronco della Chiesa, from Collio, do so well with you?

We really struggle, because we don’t have Burgundy, so what is a high-end white wine, other than domestic chardonnay? We really don’t have that many options for high-end whites in Italy, and the ones we do have, they’re often over-oaked and blowsy and not very good. But this is the opposite: mineral, high-acid, fresh and complex, but it has a lot of depth and richness as well.

What’s changed a lot is our clientele. The city is changing a lot. We used to sell a lower average price per bottle. Now we sell a higher average price per bottle, but we get more people who don’t drink at all. We get tables that go a lot harder, and tables that don’t drink anything. The average hasn’t changed, but the mix has changed. Before, selling a $140 bottle of white wine wouldn’t have been possible, but now it happens every night.

You mentioned that, at 1760, you’re selling a lot more US wine.

I think the influx of people from out of town is really changing the way people drink. California has always been a part of 1760, but it has really driven things even more than in the past. I’d be curious to see if other SF restaurants have seen a similar trend. 

Nine of the top-ten wines were domestic this year, despite our prices being ridiculously cheap for European wines. Pinot noir just blows everything away; it’s not even close. We got two barrels of that Failla pinot noir [a unique Acquerello cuvée from the Sonoma Coast] and it’s going to be gone in a year, between two pretty small restaurants. And we’re not even doing it by the glass, just by the bottle.

Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.