Gianfranco Sorrentino is the owner of the southern Italian–focused Il Gattopardo and The Leopard at Des Artistes, as well as the recently opened Mozzarella & Vino. He hails originally from Naples, Italy, and he has spent more than 30 years in the restaurant business, having worked at some of the most prestigious venues in the world, including the Dorchester Hotel in London, the Four Seasons in Tokyo and the Quisisana Hotel in Capri. He will be hosting a seminar on wine selection as part of the Slow Wine U.S. Tour when it makes its final stop in New York City at the Metropolitan Pavilion on February 3. We caught up with him to have a chat about this hallowed drink.
EM: First of all, what does the Slow Wine movement mean to you?
GS: When we plan a wine list, for us it’s very important that the wines express the territory, that they tell us about the winemaker — what he wants to say with his wine, his culture, his tradition, his way of loving the land and the process. So, those are the same values that Slow Wine has, and we really share this view about wine.
EM: How would you describe the wine selection process for your restaurants?
GS: We know exactly what we want. Very rarely do we sit down with wine salespeople and [have them] show us wine. I travel two or three times a year to Italy because my family is still there. So when I go there, I always take the time to visit some wineries.
And because the concept [of these restaurants] is to serve food from the south of Italy, we pay more attention on our wine list to wines from the South, from Campania, Calabria, Basilicata, Sicily and Sardinia.
What is very important to me is to find the artisanal winemakers. Of course we have some of the big, well-known wines, but what we like to do is to find those small producers that still produce more with their heart than with their brain.
Then, when we change the menu — which happens twice a year — [per the chef’s propositions], we sit down, we taste and we pair [the dishes] with wine. And, of course, he has something to say, my management has something else to say, I say something else and then we have to come up with a kind of compromise. And if there is no compromise, of course, I am the one who decides. Very democratic. Chuckle.
EM: Chuckle. It’s democratic up to a point.
EM: In your opinion, when it comes to wine, how does the knowledge level of the average American consumer compare with that of the average European consumer, and how has it changed over time?
GS: I came here in 1986. And I remember, I was kind of amazed by American people eating a poached branzino and drinking Rob Roys and Manhattans and things like that…because [those are] big and heavy and kill the softness of the fish.
But from 1986 to today, I saw such a big change. I can see how [customers] have switched from heavy drinks to wine. And also, [now] they prefer to have a good glass of wine than two “low-end” [glasses]. And as a matter of fact, we always have a selection of wines by the glass from $10 to $30 to give the experience, the chance, to people to drink a good Brunello, a good Barolo by the glass. So, for me, it has been really amazing to see the change from heavy liquor to wine.
Another difference that I would like to point out is the fact that there is still a difference of culture [between] the big cities and the rest of America. You can see in New York that the customers are very knowledgeable about wine. They travel a lot, they go all over the world — they go to France, and they drink the best wine; they go to Italy, and they drink the best wine in the best restaurants. So, when they come back to New York, they would like to have the same experience, and they know what is good.
EM: What are some of the most common misconceptions Americans have when it comes to ordering wine?
GS: A good wine has to be big. Let’s say a white wine has to be very floral, very buttery, very oily, very fruity. All the red wines — big ones, like big cabs. But, I have to say that the trend is changing, even in California. You can see they are starting to make wines that accompany the food in a better way, that don’t overwhelm the taste of the food.
EM: How would you describe American consumers’ perceptions of Italian wine, and how have they changed over the past 20 years?
GS: Twenty years ago, I remember the wine lists in Italian restaurants were made up partly of Italian wines, partly of American wines, and partly of French wines. Nowadays Italian restaurants, they are composed mainly of Italian wines.
[And] there were those iconic wines: the Santa Margherita pinot grigio, Fontana Candida, Salaparuta Corvo. Then, some of the importers started to promote some new wines, and there was really a boom of Italian wines. We [Italians] went from the more industrial, commercial, to the more refined wines, and we have to say thank you to people like Gaja and even Antinori, when they made the “super Tuscan” wines, to show the American people that we don’t make only the low-end wines, but we can make very good, interesting wines that reflect the territory or the grape, and our tradition and culture in wine.
Now, today I think that we can match any other country in quality.
EM: What are you drinking these days?
GS: Lately, I’m getting interested in those wines that were lost or really unknown. I like a lot the pecorino [grape] from Marca — some of the producers there make really delicious wine.
And also from Friuli there are some winemakers that are making some blends like ribolla and picolit — they are incredible wines. And they were grapes that were almost lost 20 years ago, and nobody knew until a few years ago. That’s white wine.
Red wine — I’m getting very interested in aglianico. But also, there are some new grapes coming from Calabria like the gaglioppo, and they are really incredible wines.
And, of course I like to drink the big Italian wines — like the Gaja and the Amarone, especially the Amarone from Dal Forno, which is for me one of the most incredible wines — it’s really a wine experience.