Me: Your list is almost all Italian save a few Champagnes, what are some of the challenges you face with an all Italian wine list? Are people more or less willing to explore?
Ken: Yeah 4 Champagnes, other than that all Italian. Just about everything is a challenge, but in the best way. The main thing is that it’s all about the guest. How do we translate, convey, talk about the meanings of Italian wine to people who have no idea what that is? Don’t know grape varieties, don’t know places outside of Tuscany. Maybe Piedmont….they might have been to Sicily but still don’t know what Etna Rosso is. People when they go to Italy typically don’t experience much of the wine culture.
Me: It’s more travel….
Ken: Yeah, I would say 99% of our guests are unfamiliar with Italian wine, and I think part of that has to do with us being in Texas. Though I am glad to be in Austin. The restaurant scenes in Dallas and Houston haven’t done much to push Italy foreword from a beverage standpoint, and that’s really what we are trying to do at Italic, to be the flagship for Italian wine in Texas.
Me: I find that with Italian wine, people are often really willing to try things. The fact that it’s so complex and hard to understand kind of works to its advantage, particularly if the list is only Italian. Do you think that if you had a more international list, that people would still mostly order Italian wine, given the cuisine is Italian?
Me: You don’t?
Ken: I absolutely do not think so. I think tomorrow, if I wanted to change to an American wine list, I would sell more expensive bottles and I would sell more of them. The challenge that we are accepting, is something that is of our own volition. If we wanted to just make the most money possible that we could make, we would switch to more of a world wine list.
Me: So, for you it’s more about really representing Italy?
Ken: Absolutely. I mean with Craig (Master Sommelier and Beverage Director) falling in love with wine when he was in Italy and Drew (Executive Chef/Owner) falling in love with Italy and cooking in general while he was there, and me really discovering my love for wine with Italian wine. I think we all really have the heart and willingness to bear that burden. And I think someone needs to do that, because no one else is really doing it in this neck of the woods.
Me: No one is doing it as well that I’ve seen.
Ken: Yeah I mean you have like Barbutto in New York and some awesome restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, but no one really here in Texas that I know of.
Me: The service is always fantastic at Italic; how do you go about training your staff?
Ken: The key to talking about wine and making guests feel comfortable is informing your staff. The biggest piece of the puzzle we tried to conquer coming out of the gate, was how to get our staff excited and on board. Because they didn’t know what Italian wine is either, right? Teaching them flavor profiles and giving them things to talk about that are similar to what they are likely to be asked for. Talking about Cabernet and what that means in Italian wine, or what to recommend a guest asking for Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, hell Zinfandel even, these are the major wines of the world that people are familiar with and ask for. We educate on a daily basis. We’re always talking about how we talk about wine. For instance, our focus this week is salesmanship. Every server needs to know exactly what’s in the dish, if it’s a complex dish or a simple dish it’s important to know exactly what’s in the food. But if you go up to a table and explain exactly every element in a dish, it’s not going to sound that good. So how do we break that down, and how do we talk about it? Our servers know that Sangiovese is going to have notes of tart red fruit, leather and clay, and herbs….
Me: Because you guys list everything by Grape variety, first, right?
Ken: Right! Yes, and that’s back to the guest again. How do we make a menu legible to a guest? If we put COS 2013 Cerasuolo de Vittoria – $56. No one’s gonna buy that. They don’t know what that means, they don’t know where it’s from and they don’t know who’s making it, they might know it’s from 2013…. But…. other than that they don’t know much so we always list varietals first, and that gives people something to latch on to. If you look at our list we have Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon blanc, we actually have a section on our menu right now called “Familiar and Awesome” for people to easily recognize them. A lot of what we do for beverage demands a little bit of curiosity from the guest, and a lot of trust, and that’s something that we need to develop with the staff on our end.
Me: That’s one of my favorite things about Italic. My wife and I love to go there, we brought my Mother there when she was in town. There’s something for just about everyone, even if you don’t know much about Italian wine, it’s easy to navigate. If you’re a Chardonnay drinker, you’ve got Chardonnay, if you want a Pinot Grigio, you guys have great examples… But if you want to go off the beaten path, there are knowledgeable people there to help you get where you want to be, at a price that’s very attractive.
Me: What regions in Italy are you really excited about? Where’s your passion?
Ken: Well we do a featured producer every month on the wine list, and that might co-inside with a visit from a winemaker or grower. To provide a cool perspective on a style or provide historical context.
Me: Yeah because you guys did Vietti awhile back right?
Ken: Yeah! We did Vietti……Scavino…..but I have some really exciting plans to do Mastroberardino…..
Me: Ooh Taurasi!!
Ken: Taurasi, and some Pompeii ruin wine you’ve never had…. great white wine too though. Greco di Tufo, Falanghina, Campania is so important to the history and culture of Italian wine and not that many people touch it. Right now, though we are serving some wines from Meroi, a fantastic father and son team from Friuli.
Me: I remember you poured the Merlot for me blind, and I had no idea it was Merlot, but it had a distinctive Italian nose and palate, just a delicious wine.
Ken: That’s what’s great about that wine, it’s Italian first, and Merlot second.
Me: But great Merlot, and really high quality.
Ken: Exactly. Getting to put that together and establish events to market the restaurant is a very fun challenge for me. So, Friuli is always a big part of us, like if you go to our indigenous ancient white section we have around 20 selections from Friuli. Another region that I’m really excited about is Lessona from Alto Piemonte. Gattinara and Ghemme are historical ones we always learn about, but farther beyond that Lessona and these other subregions are making really beautiful wines. The cool thing about that region, is that everyone is going to be on the same page. Like we are all going to make throwback traditional styles of Nebbiolo and we are going to hold them for a long time before release. Like the current release is often 2008-2010, they are holding on to their wines longer than Brunello even.
Me: And often at a much better price point than Brunello, Barolo or Barbaresco.
Ken: Definitely and they are much more dynamic wines, I mean we’re talking high elevation Nebbiolo so you’re getting all of the tar and roses and tree bark and intense fruit, but in a Pinot Noir-style dress. They just have so much going on and they age so well.
Me: So, say I’m headed to Italic tonight, what is the best food and wine pairing on the menu currently?
Ken: So, I’ll say, we did develop a menu around Meroi when we got excited about them and we’ve kept some of those items from that menu and my favorite is the Duck dish. Parsnip puree, blackberry mostarda and cabbage that is sautéed in the duck fat. Paired with the Meroi Nestri, a cool blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Refosco. Highly tannic and highly acidic, with black pepper and rhubarb tones that really play well with the chocolatey-cocoa tones of the Merlot in that blend. That pairing with our duck is magic.
If I could also steal a second to talk about one more dish, we have a duck pappardelle on our menu right now which uses all the parts of the duck so like the kidney, liver and such with some Calabrian chile for a bit of heat, and fried casteveltrano olives. The red heat of the chiles combined with the richness of the duck pappardelle and the amazing smell of the fried casteveltrano olives aroma is one of the most challenging things I’ve come across in a long time. So, I think of Serra Della Contessa, Benanti’s single vineyard “cru” Etna Rosso made from Nerello Mascalese. That beautiful pure red fruit with that peppery quality, the soft green notes and flowers just excites you, and keeps making you want to go back for more.
Me: You are competing in TEXSOM again this year, what are you most worried about?
Ken: Third times a charm! (laughs) I did well at service for the advanced exam so I feel pretty good about that, and I’ve been tasting consistently. So honestly, I feel like theory would be what I’m most worried about. Just because there is so much to know, and that was the only part of my advanced exam I didn’t pass.
Me: Where do you see Italian wine heading in the next 20 years? What will people be drinking?
Ken: Sicily. I mean it’s kind of having its heyday, but I don’t think it’s topped out yet.
Me: Oh really? Why?
Ken: I don’t think so because I think we will see more people gravitate towards that as we continue to see interest in Burgundy increase. There are so many similarities based on the cru the site and the producer, as well as the weight and freshness for such a fair price, it’s hard to look the other way. I mean even if you come off Etna, you have a substantial number of producers from Occhipinti to Cos and they aren’t even on the mountain and they are making great wines as you know, whites and reds.
The other area is the Alto Piemonte. I think where Sicily is now, in the next ten years the Alto Piemonte will be getting there.
Me: And those wines are phenomenal.
Ken: Yeah, they’re unbelievable.
Me: But I don’t think that Valtellina is going to have the ability to garner such an enthusiastic and passionate following as something like Sicily, because it is so small and the wines and region are so specific. Whereas Sicily is really experimenting what they are going to hang their hat on, I mean they have numerous varieties that are intriguing and cerebral and delicious, and not really expensive. I mean Occhipinti’s Frappato is still coming in around $40-$50 retail.
Ken: Yeah and you are also purchasing like the top stuff, I mean $40 for the top wines? C’mon! That’s incredible value for money!
Me: Well thanks a lot I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and I guess I’ll see you at Texsom!
Ken: Yeah maybe we’ll talk again after! Cheers!