Jeff Porter of NYC’s Del Posto on an all Italian wine list

Most of your best-selling wines are Tuscan.
That’s comfort level. It’s a giant list—entirely Italian, which can be daunting for some guests. People can get overwhelmed, and the comfort is that everyone knows where Tuscany is, a lot of people have been there. Also, the “Super Tuscan” category provides a flavor profile area of comfort. That’s where the California wine drinkers go. Or the person who really likes malbec. Those profiles are more accessible in Tuscany than other places in Italy.

But the all-Italian list also opens the door to have a conversation with a sommelier. We have a sommelier in every section of the restaurant—anywhere from three to six on the floor at a given time. Every table will be touched by a sommelier unless the captain informs them that the guests won’t be drinking that night, which is rare.

You’ve noted that wine sales are on the rise—is that a function of quantity or are people spending more on a bottle?
The dollar amount per head has gone up. Prior to us getting the four-star review (in the NY Times), we changed our service style. We decreased cover counts to increase the service at the table. That’s driven guests to want to have a the best experience possible. Their idea of value has been Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and the Super Tuscan category—the “grandes marques,” the Ornellaias, the Solaias…all things that fetch higher price points within the Italian category.

Your best selling selections by the glass seem more off the beaten path, like this Oltrepo Pavese chardonnay. Are people are really going for Oltrepo Pavese…or do you think they just want a chardonnay?
They just want to drink a chardonnay. They aren’t looking at the region. I’m not under the illusion that it’s the appellation selling that wine. The by the glass section is the fun time for the sommeliers. We try to find the best wine with certain flavor profiles. That chardonnay was one of the best chardonnays I tasted last year for the money. I can’t knock it. It’s great wine.

Even though you have an exclusively Italian list, you still leave room for Champagne.
When you go to a lot of the great Italian restaurants, they offer Champagne. We carry those and Port, Sherry, Madeira…Those are historic wine categories, they provide a different flavor profile that people expect in high-end establishments. The Michelin two-star places in Italy have substantial Burgundy and Bordeaux lists. We don’t have those, but we do bookend the middle of your meal with Champagne and Port. That, and they’re good.

You do carry some great Ports—but do you also get folks asking for recioto or other Italian specialties?
Within our dessert wine category we actually sell more Italian dessert wine than Port, Madeira and Sherry. But we’re selling more by the glass dessert wine than we are bottles. Last night, a gentleman was here who likes Madeira and he wanted an old bottle. I sold him a 1968 Bual from d’Oliveira. The guests that buy a full bottle are really connoisseurs. Also, for special occasions, a lot of people want birth-year wines. Port and Madeira offer that possibility.

Working mainly with Italian wines, is there anything you miss?
I miss Burgundy. I miss the northern Rhône and German riesling. Loire whites…Austrian grüner… But at the end of the day, my passion leads me to Brunello and nebbiolo…and my desert island wine is Champagne. I really have my favorite toys around me all the time here.

What’s the most exciting bottle you’ve sold recently?
’82 Soldera. A transcendent wine. It was such an ethereal, religious experience. I can close my eyes and still taste it…and that was a month ago. The people that ordered it were doing our five-course menu, ending with veal. Smelling the flavors of the meat and the wine, I imagine they had as good a time as I did.

What’s the strangest question you’ve been asked by a guest?
The most absurd thing is when someone tries to order something off the index. They’ll say “Can I have this Alto Adige for $8?” I’ll say, “Let me take you to page 8.”

It’s happened more than once, and all of my sommeliers experience the same thing. In the guest’s defense, most of our list is in Italian except for the word “Index.” But still…

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