In September 2010, five years after Del Posto opened, New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton dubbed it “A Modern Italian Master” and awarded it four stars, the first Italian restaurant in more than thirty years to achieve that accolade; but according to Morgan Rich, Del Posto’s first wine director, the owners originally envisioned something less grandiose.
“When they [Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali] first sourced the space, they were considering it almost as a large Becco, a giant family-style restaurant,” says Rich. “Then Babbo [another Bastianich and Batali restaurant] got this glowing three-star review in 2004, and the review said it would have been four stars if they weren’t playing rock & roll music. I think that kind of gave Joe and Mario the idea that, okay, let’s do a four-star restaurant.”
Rich, now the Italian Portfolio Manager for Polaner Selections, spoke to me on the eve of an auction that will see some 30,000 bottles of Del Posto’s cellar sold off. He began assembling Del Posto’s wine list about a year before it opened and while he was still managing the beverage program at Otto. “The list was supposed to be the best of what Italy has to the offer currently and historically. It was kind of like collecting on someone else’s dime.”
When Rich handed the list off to Henry Davar in October of 2009, it had grown from around 1,200 selections at opening to over 2,000. Davar eventually expanded the inventory to 2,600 selections, including 144 bottles of Giacomo Conterno 2004 Barolo Cascina Francia. Davar says that acquisitions of wines like this always involved conversations with Bastianich, who would make the final decision. “I knew I was buying wines not for my own account but as a representative of the owners, that the restaurant would be around longer than I would, and that there was a mission to be the iconic wine cellar for Italian wine in New York.”
He emphasizes this long-term plan for the list, noting that only about 2,000 of the selections in inventory were actually listed; the rest were sitting in a New Jersey warehouse, waiting until they were ready to drink. “Joe and Mario had reserved $100,000 worth of wine that wasn’t even available for sale. So, when you start thinking about provenance of these wines, some of these lots that are coming up for sale may not have seen the light of day.”
Davar, a self-described “Italian wine fanboy,” who is now on the faculty of Vinitaly International Academy endeavored to make Del Posto a gathering place for Italian wine producers as a way to build relationships and educate his staff. His successor, Jeff Porter, took over in 2011 and continued this tradition, encouraging producers to consider Del Posto a sort of embassy for Italian winemakers.
Porter’s goal was to take a “dream list” and democratize it, covering more regions of Italy in greater depth. “One of the things I did early on was to add verticals of Soave, which people didn’t take seriously. I went to producers like Gini and Pieropan, got verticals of their wines, and showed people how a wine like Soave can develop over time.” Porter also introduced more regionalization of the list, breaking Barolo and Barbaresco down into communes rather than listing them alphabetically. “That was a big fight,” he recalls. “People didn’t like that it broke up the verticals, but I thought it was important to show regionality. We continued that with Montalcino and then Chianti Classico.”
Rich has mixed feelings about the auction, and recalls the attachment he developed to some of the wines he acquired: “Sometimes I wouldn’t want to let them go. I remember I had bought a bottle of 1945 Biondi Santi Brunello, as much for the historical and cultural value as much as the inherent quality of the wine. I came back from a day off and one of the sommeliers said, ‘Oh, we sold that 1945 Biondi Santi yesterday.’ I was happy for the restaurant, and for him that he got to try it, but a little upset also. I asked who bought it, and it was some 30-year-old kid with a Black Card who drank about half of it. So, I can’t choose who they go to, and I shouldn’t choose who they go to.”
Porter, who now hosts Sip Trip, an Italian wine travel show on YouTube, is also torn about the auction. “If you remember Indiana Jones, he would go around saying, ‘That belongs in a museum.’ That’s how I feel about some of these bottles. I want people to be able to experience them. I do know some restaurant groups that are going to buy in, so that makes me feel better that those wines will still be accessible to the public. But because of the democratic nature I have about wine, it’s bittersweet that much of this wine may never see the light of day.”
Porter notes that the auction represents only a portion of Del Posto’s wine cellar, and to date, no announcement has been made about the future of the restaurant. The auction will take place this weekend, on July 25 and 26. According to the auctioneer, Hart Davis Hart, the sale will include some 3,000 lots and over 30,000 bottles with an estimated value of up to $4.5 million.
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