AND THE HOUSE THAT WINE BUILT
Valentino’s grew as its owner’s wine sensibility did. Now, the Santa Monica fixture is one of America’s best-known Italian restaurants.
By Sharon Boorstin
When Piero Selvaggio opened his own restaurant in 1972, the only thing he knew about wine was “red” and “white.” Yet today, the 165-page wine list at Valentino, the flagship of Selvaggio’s mini-restaurant empire, is considered among the best–many say it is the best–in the United States. Who would have thought?
Ask Selvaggio, and the charming Sicilian will shrug his shoulders and blame it on passion. It’s a passion that has motivated him to read practically everything ever written about wine and to continually explore new wine regions and labels. He admits it has also made it impossible for him to keep the number of bottles in his wine cellar to under 200,000. Selvaggio’s passion for wine has further inspired him to preach the gospel of wine and food pairing. Sit down to lunch with him in his subtly elegant restaurant, and Selvaggio will regale you with such poetic mantras as “Pasta and Chianti do a beautiful dance in the mouth.”
His attention to detail is one of the reasons Valentino’s won the 2001 Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence for best independent restaurant wine program. And he not only has acquired an enormous collection of great wines, he likes others to try them. Unlike many Italian restaurateurs, Selvaggio is more interested in encouraging his customers to try new wines than in making a killing with high wine prices. “Anything that costs me less than $10, I sell for around $25, around two and a half times the wholesale price,” he explains. “If the wine costs me more than $50, I sell it for $100, which is only twice the wholesale price.”
On Valentino’s lengthy wine list, the prices start at $21 a bottle and go up–way up. The check average at Valentino breaks out as 65% for food, 27% for wine, 5% liquor and the rest for beer. About 80% of the alcohol served at Valentino is wine.
“Guests come to Valentino knowing that they will find jewels that they can’t find elsewhere, and that they’ll get great wine service,” explains Selvaggio, “so they’re prepared to spend more on wine. They know that Valentino is the house that wine built.”
Out of the Way Wonder
Located in an unfashionable neighborhood of Santa Monica, the 30 year-old Valentino has defied all the rules of restaurant longevity in this trend-happy part of the world. In fact, Selvaggio is proud to have played a major role in the development of L.A. as a serious restaurant town. It is a history, he explains, that parallels the growth in production and popularity of California wines.
“When we opened in the early seventies,” he explains, “Good California wines were as few and far between as good Southern California restaurants.”
Valentino’s first wine list was what Selvaggio describes as the “usual two-pager” chosen by the local wine salesman. “I can remember the list by heart,” he says, rattling off labels that are a blast from the past: Asti Spumanti, Blue Nun, Lancer’s, Matteus, Wente Brothers Grey Riesling, Chianti in a raffia-wrapped flask, Paul Masson Claret and a Louis Martini Cabernet. Selvaggio admits that his early purchasing style was mediocre at best. He bought canned food instead of fresh, and whatever wines were on sale by the case. “We were on a shoestring,” he recalls. “It was a miracle we had a wine list at all.”
Soon after the restaurant opened, Selvaggio had a rude awakening when a good customer asked to speak to him at the end of dinner. “‘Piero,’ he said to me,” recounts Selvaggio, “‘I’m eating well at Valentino, but I’m drinking horribly. You’ve got to do something about your wine list!'”
Selvaggio, who moved to Los Angeles from Sicily when he was only 18, and worked his way through college by bussing tables at the L.A. institution, Chasen’s, decided to get serious about wine before it was too late. His first step was to travel to Napa Valley and familiarize himself with the wines and winemakers at such small producers as Heitz Cellers, Spring Mountain and Mayacamas, pioneers among California’s boutique wineries. “At first, I didn’t know how to taste wine,” Selvaggio admits. “I figured out how to bluff a little until I got comfortable. Once I began to understand wines, though, discovering and tasting became very exciting.”
A few years later, after his chef and partner, Gianni Paoletti, left to open his own restaurant, Selvaggio went to Italy in search of a new chef. It was a turning point in his career. “At the best restaurants in Milan, I discovered how much I didn’t know,” he recalls. “I was awed by well-constructed, beautifully presented dishes made with fresh ingredients. It was the first time I tasted fresh porcini and truffles–and great Italian wines. I was 29, and I vowed that someday my restaurant in L.A. would be as great as those in Italy.”
In the 1980s, Selvaggio became the first L.A. restaurateur to import such made-in-Italy products as extra-virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar and fresh raddichio. “I remember how hard it was to get fresh bufala mozzarella,” he recalls. “Today, they make it in the U.S., but in those days, I had to fly it in, and by the time it arrived, the cheese was already starting to go sour.” Selvaggio also began importing great Italian wines.
The Growth of Italian Wines
Just when American restaurants like Valentino began serving more refined Italian food, some equally ambitious Italian vintners began taking steps that would change the face of Italian wine, some focusing on getting more out of their grapes, others switching to small French oak barriques instead of the traditional large casks for aging. The results were world-class wines. Selvaggio attributes this development to two winemakers: Angelo Gaya, known as the “King of Barbaresco” and the driving force among the small vintners in the Piedmont; and Piero Antinori. Though Gaya was essentially a farmer-producer, Antinori came from a noble family that had been making wine in Tuscany for 600 years. “Antinori began creating better Chianti and no longer wanted it branded as a simple table wine,” explains Selvaggio, “and he was instrumental in developing the Super Tuscans that are so popular today.”
Get Selvaggio talking about Super Tuscans and he lights up, describing the depth and sophistication of these blends of traditional Tuscan sangiovese grapes with merlot and/or cabernet sauvignon grapes. “French merlot and cabernet grapes grow very well in Tuscany,” he points out, “and in the coastal area, they’re producing good syrah grapes as well, which leads to other good blend possibilities.”
Selvaggio predicts that the success of the Super Tuscans will lead to the development of what he calls Super Sicilians: “In Southern Italy and Sicily, young winemakers are abandoning traditional methods of making table wine, and instead blending their grapes and aging their wines for more elegance.”
Among the new Sicilian wines, he recommends Santa Cecilia, a blend of the ancient nero d’avola grape with syrah, which is produced by Planeta. In Campania, the area around Naples, the blends he likes come from the ancient aglianico with cabernet, syrah and/or merlot grapes. Selvaggio dubs Serpico by Feudi San Gregorio as a “gorgeous example of this new wave of creative wines.”
The Perfect Wine List
Ask a restaurateur with a 25-pound wine list how to build one, and he’s full of good advice. For an American restaurant, Selvaggio suggests a list that is 70% American wines–50% from California and 20% from Oregon and Washington–plus 5% French and 5%-10% Italian wines, followed by wines from Australia and Spain. Of the California wines, he advises that 30% come from well-known producers and the rest from small producers–both prestigious vineyards and unknowns he calls “underdogs.”
For an Italian restaurant, Selvaggio recommends that the wine list consist of 50% Italian wines, 25% California wines and 25% “everything else.” “It would be difficult to sell an American audience on an all-Italian wine list,” he admits.
As if on cue, Alessandro Sbrendola, Valentino’s master sommelier, who hails from Bologna, comes to Selvaggio’s table to report on a new Rutherford Hill California Merlot that is being added to Valentino’s wine list. He swirls the glass and holds it up to the light. “You can see the intense purple color of a wine in the first stage of maturity,” notes Sbrendola. “It will keep for seven to nine years, but guests can enjoy it well before then. The wine’s rich flavor will work beautifully with hearty dishes like pasta with meat sauce and rack of lamb with a brown sauce.”
Bringing New Wines to Old Palates
One way Selvaggio introduces new wines to guests at Valentino is by offering nearly 20 different wines-by-the-glass for prices ranging from $6 to $12. The daily-changing list usually includes three sparkling wines, seven whites, eight reds and one rosé. “Of course we always feature a California and an Italian chardonnay, California merlots, cabs and pinot noirs,” he explains, “along with a Chianti and some of the big Italian wines like Brunello and Barolo.”
Selvaggio also likes to offer what he calls “fun” wines–wines that nobody knows about, like the Marina Bianco produced at Colle Ticchone, just outside of Rome. “Paola Di Mauro is a marvelous cook who taught herself all about winemaking so that she could produce good wine to go with her food.”
Another way Selvaggio encourages guests to sample new wines is by offering a daily tasting menu, with a wine to match each course. In addition, the Valentino wine list offers over 100 wines by the half bottle. “Many people like to hear the sound of a ‘pop’ when a bottle is uncorked,” he claims, “so they might order a couple of different half-bottles to go with dinner, instead of wines by the glass. The good thing is that it is now getting easier to find good wines by the half bottle.”
Selvaggio urges restaurateurs to seek out wines from small producers, to become knowledgable about the wines that they serve and to educate their guests. “It’s unnecessary to have many high-end Bordeaux and Cabernets,” he advises, “and some of the cult California wines have small mailing lists and tiny outputs, so they can’t spare wines for small or new restaurants. That’s why it’s good to look for the potential stars of tomorrow from evolving producers, like we did at Valentino. If you buy a case or two from a small vintner one year, the next year they might sell you more. And the better known your restaurant becomes, the more they’ll want their wine to be on your list. They want their baby in a good home.”
Clearly, the best winemakers in the world have found a good home for their wines at Valentino.
Sharon Boorstin writes about food, wine and travel for many publications including Bon Appetit and the Los Angeles Times. Her new book, Let Us Eat Cake: Memories of Food and Friendship will be published in May by ReganBooks/HarperCollins.