What is it like for you to move from Spago to a pair of all-Italian wine lists at Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza?
Working at Spago, the list was right down the middle. They brought in cult cabs and first growth Bordeaux and Burgundy, and it all works for them. At Mozza I would say the clientele is a little more heterogeneous and the list itself represents a patchwork of different approaches and regions, I mean there’s the trophy stuff and we’ve got that but then there’s all the other stuff…
What are the benefits—and challenges—of working with Italian wines?
France is all about this large selection of truly great wines and then a large selection of schlock. In the middle, there’s not that much that’s interesting. Whereas Italy is so strong in that middle range, that $50 to $120 range—there are just so many excellent wines in that range. Once you veer away from the trophy wines you can get something totally delicious for 90 bucks.
Working with Italian wines has meant working with smaller sales numbers – you’re doing so much translating the wines don’t sell themselves on the higher end. People who don’t mind spending $600 on a bottle of Scarecrow Cab will balk at a $100 Montepulciano, because they have no frame of reference. Of course that’s why I have a job, and why there are four somms on the floor—to put people at ease and get them back to a comfort zone.
How do you get them to their comfort zone?
We ask them, “What really moves you in wine?” We let them guide us toward what pleases them. It’s not as simplistic as equivalencies but a cab drinker will find the resonance with montepulciano d’Abruzzo. They’ll feel all ‘cabby,’ they’ll get the warmer climate in the wine, those things play well.
I’ve always said that the mark of a good sommelier is, when a customer asks for pinot noir a less talented sommelier will lead you to Burgundy, but a good somm will lead you to grenache. They won’t hear “pinot noir,” they’ll hear “Moderate acidity, low-tannin, red-fruited – where can I go?”
Are there signs that guests are more comfortable spending on wine in the current economy?
When I got here I raised the price ceiling in the Pizzeria. I felt that “under a hundred” was more space to play with than “under fifty.” And it’s gone without a hitch. What’s surprised me in the pizzeria is how people have vibed with unusual wines. There’s a schiava from the Sudtirol I bought, the last of 2007; it’s really gamey and funky, barnyardy, like Beaucastel without the stuffing, but it has this bright red, herbal intensity, a really funky-assed wine. And I swear, people come back for it, because it works great with pizza, sausage pizza. It was on the list for 65 bucks. That’s a lot of money to pay for a schiava with Brett, but people dug it.
What are some of the ways you’re making the list more one-of-a-kind?
We’re adding verticals to the list. I feel it gives the restaurant more credibility to have that commitment. People see the list of verticals and go, “What is that? Why is that there?” People are accustomed to seeing ten vintages of Raveneau or Chave but not La Gerla, or Biondi Etna Rosso going back to ’96.
Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.