Raphael Ginsburg grew up in Chicago and caught the wine bug while working at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse in Evanston. When he moved to New York, he landed at Felidia, and developed a deep appreciation for and knowledge of Italian wine. “I got a little pigeonholed as an Italian specialist after that,” he says, but admits it worked out well for him: “I was asked to join the team opening Ai Fiori because Hristo [Zisovski] and Emilie [Perrier] both have backgrounds in French wine,” he says. Ginsburg became wine director in 2014.
On French vs Italian whites
Ai Fiori was originally conceived as a Riviera theme, but [the focus] became broader and encompasses more regions of both France and Italy. I like Italy a lot, but their white wines are not on par with those of Burgundy, which is our largest and most important white section. White Burgundy is versatile, matches with lots of different dishes, and the quality is high. Having depth in that category helps us match wines with the early courses in a dinner.
On the top-seeling Italian reds
Brunello and Tuscany continue to dominate, especially Super Tuscans. The quality is high and consumers are very interested in those wines. A lot of Italian reds offer structure but not richness, and that’s where Super Tuscans come in. If people usually drink American reds, that’s where you can bridge the gap with something Italian.
Barolo is more of a somm wine than Tuscany. We carry a lot of Barolo selections, because, with the emphasis on single vineyards, there’s more to explore, more diversity and terroir expression that calls for more selections. Barolo is also more ageworthy than Brunello, so back vintages become more important.
Etna wines continue to be hot. They’ve only been in this market for about eight to ten years, but consumers know about them and ask for them. The wines offer qualities like restrained alcohol and fruit, elevated acidity and minerality, so the wines really resonate. It used to be just a handful of producers getting attention, but now a lot more producers are gaining visibility.