Matthew Orawski worked at restaurants in
, Ottawa Piedmont and
before moving to NYC’s Del Posto in 2015. On the eve of a move back to his native Canada, he took some time to answer questions about managing Del Posto’s 3,500-bottle wine list—all-Italian save for a Champagne list so extensive that it inspires envy in other restaurateurs.
Red wine sales are typically dominant in Italian-focused restaurants, yet your wine sales are almost evenly split among white, red and sparkling. What accounts for that?
The biggest reason is Champagne, the one exception to our all-Italian list. We sell a lot of Champagne. And we don’t offer Prosecco. It has a great market elsewhere, but not here. We just haven’t found a Prosecco that we think deserves to be on the list. And price point is not so important here, when we serve wines from $40 to $12,000. Some people ask for Prosecco, but often they really just mean “sparkling wine.” In that case we direct them to Champagne, or Franciacorta.
Price may not be so important, but your poll responses indicate that you’ve added more inexpensive wines to your list over the past year. Why is that?
That’s my fault, I guess. The previous wine director had removed a lot of the lower-end wines, felt they didn’t have a place here. I don’t think people should look so much at price, but rather at quality. Our guests range from investment bankers to the couple who saved up for months to dine here. There are a lot of interesting regions in Italy that aren’t that popular, and the prices reflect that. And guests are becoming more adventurous. We don’t have to just sell someone a Tuscan wine because they went there. People seem to be traveling to other regions of Italy now. If you tried to give someone a sagrantino a few years ago they might not have said no, but now they’ll try it.
And yet, your best-selling BTG white was the 2015 Isole e Olena Chardonnay. Is that because people are less comfortable with Italian white varieties?
I’ve realized from working here that not a lot of people know about Italian wine. And while people might be getting more adventurous, sometimes they just like comfortable things, like chardonnay. Isole e Olena did a great job of trying to recreate a white Burgundy, using Puligny-Montrachet clones, and guests really appreciate that because it’s comfortable and familiar. We don’t pour a pinot grigio by the glass, because it’s just too easy. One of our top-selling whites was Lambruschi’s 2015 Colli di Luni Vermentino, but no one comes in asking for a vermentino. It’s our job to listen, and when someone is looking for a clean, crisp white, this one is a very easy sell. It comes from Liguria’s eastern end, and the profile is more Chablis-like, that cool style that just tastes like “white wine,” but if you’re a wine nerd you’ll appreciate the complexity.
Another of your top-selling whites was from Sicily—Benanti’s 2010 Etna Bianco Pietramarina. Benanti’s 2012 Etna Rosso Serra della Contessa also made your top BTG list, and Donnafugata’s 2015 Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé was one of your best-selling dessert wines. What accounts for the movement of Sicilian wines at Del Posto?
For one thing, the staff is really excited to sell these wines. The quality of Sicilian wines has changed a lot. The beauty of Sicily is that they use native varieties like nerello mascalese and carricante, and they have lots of old vines. Nerello mascalese can be compared to Barolo with its cherry fruit, but the tannins are lighter and the prices are much easier to take. If people want French wines, this is a Burgundy replacement.
Four of your best-selling wines were Chianti Classicos. What makes that region so interesting for you, and helps sell those wines?
I want my guests to have something they really love, regardless of the cost, and they can get that from Chianti Classico. It’s an exciting region right now, with some great values, and I think it will be one of the most important regions in Italy in the coming years. Chianti Classico producers are finally talking to each other, and realizing they shouldn’t put cabernet sauvignon in the blend. The only producers in Chianti Classico now using international grapes are just trying to reach an international market; they’re not about driving quality. Chianti Classico offers great-quality sangiovese that can be just as complex as Brunello. A few weeks ago we had a guest who wanted a Brunello but wasn’t comfortable with price. Instead I offered her a Chianti Classico from Fèlsina, a producer in Castelnuovo Berardenga, which is in the southern part of the zone, near Montalcino. Fèlsina has a lot of south-facing hillside vineyards that give deep, complex wines. And Poggerino’s 2014 Chianti Classico Riserva Bugialla [the biggest success] is from Radda, my personal favorite part of Chianti. It’s from old vines—60 or 70 years—in one of Radda’s highest vineyards. It’s fermented in cement, with small amounts of canaiolo and colorino, and spends a little bit of time in oak to smooth out the tannins. It’s an elegant Chianti Classico, and a very good replacement for someone who wants pinot noir.