When Giancarlo Paterlini was preparing to open a high-end Italian restaurant with his business partner, the chef Suzette Gresham, he needed to compile a list of high-end Italian wines. Only it was 1989, and there weren’t many high-end Italian wines to be had.
At the time, Paterlini says, you couldn’t even get balsamic vinegar stateside. Where was he going to get a cellar’s worth of great Barolo?
A friend had given Paterlini a case of 1983 Mouton Rothschild — a Bordeaux first-growth from a celebrated vintage. It was meant as a gift, a nest egg for the new restaurant. But Paterlini had no use for French wine. He took the case of Mouton to Singer & Foy, a North Beach wine shop owned by Stephen Singer (who was married to Alice Waters), and proposed a trade.
“I gave him that case of Mouton,” Paterlini says, “and he gave me about 12 cases of Italian wines.” Not Barolo and Brunello, granted, but good, affordable bottles of Arneis and Barbera.
That trade formed the foundation of the original Acquerello wine list, which opened with about 70 selections. Twenty-nine years later, Paterlini’s son Gianpaolo is in charge of the wine program, and the restaurant has just under 2,000 wine selections, comprising what is undoubtedly one of the greatest Italian wine lists at any restaurant in the country.
While concise, shorter wine lists are trending at other restaurants (including the Paterlinis’ other spot, 1760), Acquerello has stayed true to being old school. The list is less an expression of the Paterlinis’ personal taste than it is a representation of the canon — not the bookstore’s staff picks but the Great Books. To drink here is to gain access to an exhaustive library of the greatest wines that Italy has ever produced. It doesn’t come cheap (nothing at Acquerello comes close to cheap) but it matters that it exists, as a keeper of the records.
In a way, the Acquerello wine list has recorded the evolution of Italian wine over the last three decades.
“Italy has always been a large producer of wine, but at a professional level, the history is brand new as of the 1980s,” says the younger Paterlini. At the time Acquerello opened, “you could count three or four producers who were really making great wine.” Giacomo Conterno, Angelo Gaja and Mastroberardino were outliers. Most wine, the Paterlinis say, was coming from humble family farms with little regard for modern technology.
Gianpaolo Paterlini was 4 years old when his father opened Acquerello. He grew up running around the kitchen after school and began working in it at age 14. He saw his father perform practically every role short of cooking the pasta: He was general manager, maître d, wine director, server. There were no dedicated wine stewards until the late aughts. Any ambitious sommelier preferred to work with a French wine list — to pour ’83 Mouton, not rustic Nebbiolo.
Acquerello happened to hit at an inflection point. “Italian wine was just starting to be recognized in 1989,” Giancarlo Paterlini says. In those early days, he bought wine from only a few merchants, including Draper & Esquin and a local wine importer called Jerold Jacoby. “Jacoby had beautiful wines,” says Giancarlo Paterlini. He sold Gaja, Gravner and Tenuta San Guido, whose most famous wine — the super Tuscan Sassicaia — was for several years available at Acquerello for $7 a glass. The 2011 Sassicaia is now listed at $475 a bottle.
What seems old-school today was disruptive in 1989. Decades before Shelley Lindgren debuted a Campania-focused wine list at A16, Acquerello was hosting legendary Campania winery Mastroberardino for wine dinners. Years before Massimiliano Conti began cooking Sardinian cuisine at La Ciccia, Gresham was creating dishes based on recipes from specific Italian villages, at a time when “Italian food” in the U.S. was regionally indistinct.
Acquerello’s wine list recorded the culture wars of Barolo in the mid-aughts, when a number of producers instated a new, modern style of winemaking, incorporating new French oak barrels to tame the harsh, unapproachable tannins of the Nebbiolo grape. A stark divide grew between these so-called modernists and Piedmont’s traditionalists, who preferred aging their Barolo in large Slovenian oak casks and disdained the more polished, opulent style that was coming into vogue.
For years, the Barolo section of the Acquerello wine list was divided into three categories: modernist, traditionalist and “somewhere in between.”
Those categories are gone now, just like the Barolo Wars. “Almost all are now dialing back the oak,” says Gianpaolo Paterlini of Piedmont’s winemakers. But both father and son enjoyed watching the movement play out. “It was a path that Barolo had to take in order to get back to where it came from,” the elder Paterlini says. The greatest gain, they believe, is that all wineries, traditionalist and modernist alike, reconsidered their sanitation practices, eliminating once-widespread faults like volatile acidity and brettanomyces.
And when Italian wine’s big moment finally arrived, Acquerello was there to seize it.
“Italian wine prices have shot through the roof in the last 10 years,” says Gianpaolo Paterlini. Serendipitously, the boom was just beginning in 2007, when he began working at Acquerello full time.
He was 21, and had come back to his father’s restaurant after working in fine dining in Boston during college and, “instead of studying abroad,” staging with sommelier Rajat Parr at Michael Mina. “That’s where I saw that it was really possible to make a career out of this,” the younger Paterlini says. Unlike his father, he wouldn’t have to do everything in the restaurant; he could just focus on being the wine guy.
Suddenly, for the first time, Acquerello had its first dedicated sommelier. “Wine sales went through the roof,” he says. The most prestigious Italian wines, especially from the Paterlinis’ pet region, Barolo — Giacosa, Rinaldi, Bartolo Mascarello — were becoming difficult to get, doled out in tiny allocations by distributors. The gray market, in which wines are sold by a third-party retailer that’s not the official importer, was just beginning to deal in Italian wines; today almost all top sommeliers, including the Paterlinis, rely on it.
As soon as Gianpaolo Paterlini came back to Acquerello, “one of the biggest changes I made was buying wine and not putting it on the list,” he says. “I had a sense of where prices were about to go.” By aging the wines in its own cellar rather than waiting and buying them years later, the restaurant was able to save a lot of money.
For example: When Gianpaolo Paterlini started, he could put 1996 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino, from what he believes is “the best winery in the world,” on the Acquerello wine list for $1,125. Today, because he bought the current bottles at a much higher price, the 1996 Monfortino is $2,235.
Those prices sound insane to most of us. But in the last few months, Acquerello has sold bottles of ’45, ’55 and ’61 Monfortino.
The Acquerello list has much more than just trophy Barolo, though, and has a callout section of high-value wines, which is a kindness at a restaurant where dinner runs more than $100 a person. These are wines like Sottimano’s Mate, a delicate and floral red wine from the Brachetto grape ($48/bottle) or the minerally, almond-laced Garofoli Podium Verdicchio ($55).
“I think the average quality in Italy is now way higher than in France,” Gianpaolo Paterlini says. “I can drink a good bottle of Bourgogne Rouge for $80, or I can get two amazing bottles of Barbaresco for the same price.”
A cellar this deep tends to make sense only at volume-driven restaurants, but Acquerello is small. On a busy Friday or Saturday, it might serve 60 people. This wine collection outsizes the scope of the restaurant many times. Which makes the Acquerello cellar something of an anachronism. The wine program is a personal calling, not a business necessity.
None of it would be possible, says the elder Paterlini, if he hadn’t started this cellar in 1989. “We have no investors,” he emphasizes. “We own all our own wine.” That’s extremely rare these days: Many restaurants with deep cellars have consignment agreements with wealthy collectors, who technically own the wine and get a cut when a bottle sells.
Old Nebbiolo is not for everyone. If Barolo and Barbaresco can be tough and tannic when young, the wines can be variable and confusing when old. “Sometimes you’re apprehensive to serve an old bottle because it may not be showing well,” Giancarlo Paterlini says. Or, worse: that the bottle might be showing perfectly well but still not be what a guest wants. For example, many Nebbiolos show a balsamic vinegar flavor when old. It’s a natural feature of the wine, but some people might associate it with oxidation or volatile acidity, signs that a wine has gone bad.
If you’re ordering a collectible bottle at Acquerello, chances are it’s the last one. “We have hundreds of one-off bottles,” Gianpaolo Paterlini says. When something precious sells — like one of those old Monfortinos — it feels a little sad, even though the restaurant obviously needs to sell those bottles eventually.
“I’m mostly sad because now I have to buy that wine again, and it will be more expensive,” Gianpaolo Paterlini says.
His father smiles. “We give him a monthly budget for wine. He never stays within it.”