Hristo Zisovski of NY’s Ai Fiori on Building an Italian List - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Hristo Zisovski of NY’s Ai Fiori on Building an Italian List

Hristo Zisovski started his career at March in New York, before moving to Jean-Georges where he was mentored by sommelier Bernie Sun. Two years ago, he joined chef Michael White’s team in opening Ai Fiori in NY’s Setai Hotel, building a list of 1,200 labels. Then he ran out of cellar space and began to cut back. Now in charge of wine direction for several of White’s restaurants, including Osteria Morini, Due Mari and Nicoletta, Zisovski is eager to find more space to keep growing his list at Ai Fiori. Joshua Greene caught up with Zisovski after a recent W&S tasting to talk about how the list has changed.

This is the first restaurant I opened from scratch. It’s been such a great experience for me—my eyes have opened up to more of the market, now that I’m working in Italian wines. Italy is massive; I can see why it’s so intimidating. I need another five years to master it.

This year, I’m finally beginning to understand Italian whites. I used to think the whites [in general] were boring. Then I spent eight months of research and tried to put together the most balanced list. This year, I’ve swayed away from the big, rich, oaky Burgundies and viogniers. I use the Spinal Tap reference: Now I don’t need to put the volume up to 11—now the big, flashy wines seem so loud. For me, [learning the subtleties of Italian whites] was just repetition. I can now tell you the difference between the left side and right side of Liguria vs. the center of Liguria.

And in Italy, I’m beginning to understand modern vs. traditional styles. In France, you don’t have that so much. Nobody really does use Slovenian oak in Bordeaux or Burgundy. But when you taste Barolo…or taste Soldera vs. any modern producer… I’m finally beginning to understand what oak is doing to a wine.

I put a list together thinking of everybody who comes in. We had the geeky stuff and we had the modern stuff. But that list didn’t work here. People are coming in and drinking Kistler chardonnay and brunello. I wanted to put wines on the list that are unique and different, that I could teach people about. But restaurants don’t do that. Our customers were overwhelmed by a 1,200-wine list.

I had to cut back the geeky stuff. I had to beef up my Bordeaux list, my Burgundy and brunello list. I had a lot of Ligurian wines, but guests here want more of the grand wines.  At Osteria Morini, the wines between $40 and $80, that’s where those wines are doing better. All those weird varietals will work there.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.