Master Restaurateur Piero Selvaggio, founder of Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica, on the evolution of Italian wine and what that means for your next meal

By Richard Foss

By Richard Foss

By Richard Foss

In 1972, the quality and variety of Italian food and wine in Los Angeles were far behind what was available in New York or in Italy itself. That started to change when a dapper Sicilian immigrant named Piero Selvaggio opened Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica. Selvaggio not only knew more than most of his peers, he knew there was even more for him to learn, and he instituted a policy of continuous improvement that has made Valentino’s both a classic and a center of innovation.

Since Selvaggio made a reputation of championing Italian wines long before they were well known here, we spoke about the history of wine before discussing how to get the best experience for your next restaurant meal.

I remember that in the 1970s there were very few Italian wines available, and one of them was in a novelty bottle shaped like a fish. How good were Italian wines when you started Valentino’s?

When I started Italian vineyards were very productive, but they were focused on quantity and the wines you could get here were not very good. At most restaurants they had Chianti in bottles wrapped with straw and maybe a bad, sweet Lambrusco. Today we would laugh at this. Even though some experts say Lambrusco is the best wine with prosciutto, people who seriously appreciate wine don’t drink these fizzy wines. The Italian white wine shaped like a fish — that was Verdicchio, and it was popular with tourists. It’s a wine from another era. I came into the business as a revolution was happening in Italy: people started making less wine that was much better. Now people in Italy want to make serious wines, and they are available from all over the country.

Is taste in wine dependent on what you grew up with, so that you as an Italian prefer Italian wines with everything?  

Remember that I am an Italian who has spent most of his life in California. I know about pinot noir and chardonnay just as well as I know about Barolo and Chianti. I think I have as open-minded a palate as anybody. Italian wines have so much to offer with any food because there are so many varieties, grown in a country with so many regions. How many types of grapes are grown in California? Most production of reds are pinot noir, cabernet, zinfandel and merlot, though there are now a lot of good Rhone wines coming up. And the whites — chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, mostly. They are grown very well, but it’s very little when you compare them to the whole gamut of Barolos, Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Nerello, Sangiovese, so many others. [Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture lists 350 grape varieties.] That heritage gives a winemaker so much more to work with.

There is also the idea that cuisines and wines develop together — in Venice you should eat Venetian food and drink wine from the region, in Sicily the same thing. Here in California almost always you have steak and cabernet. It’s a marriage! And here where there are interesting dishes based on modern tastes, you might drink pinot noir or a Riesling the way they are made here. The regional approach is almost always a good idea, but not the only idea. I don’t mind admitting that Argentina makes a fine Malbec — it’s a great varietal! I have a personal taste for that, and I’ve had great Shiraz from Australia. I’m curious to look at other things all the time.

Some people identify as white wine or red wine drinkers — they’ll order white wine with lamb, red with oysters.

They do a disservice to themselves. The wine will not make any sense. Some of the old rules about pairings are still valid — pairing oysters with chardonnay or a good sparkling California wine. Some are not valid — there are red wines that are soft and go very well with fish, though not shellfish. At the end it is your palate that dictates the rules, but there are some things that just don’t work. It’s like when someone has a beautiful pasta with clams and they ask, “Can I have cheese on top?” I want to say, “No, please don’t,” but they are the customer, and if they order a chardonnay with robust meat, I cannot say no.

How do Californians who know the names of only a few producers find the good ones?

Everybody now walks around with an iPad, and they can look things up. Don’t buy a wine because one reviewer likes it; look for the ones where there are many opinions. In restaurants, ask your server for a recommendation, and ask them why they suggest that one. Any decent restaurant today will have a wine professional, or at least among the servers there will be one who knows his stock best. In Valentino’s if you ask a server about a wine and they can’t explain enough to satisfy you, they will come get me and I will take care of it.

Wine knowledge is critical at the high end. Have your servers tasted the expensive bottles that you sell?

Restaurant owners have a choice. It costs a lot of money to educate the staff, but an educated staff sells better wine, keeps people coming back. At Valentino we are famous for our wine list — our wine program — and you can’t do this without people who can answer any question. You ask about how servers know about an $800 bottle of Barolo. At the right times we do open some of these for the staff, and there is also always the generous customer who shares with the server.

(When I expressed incredulity that customers would share wine that was that expensive, Selvaggio called over a server named Giuseppe and asked, “That table last week that spent $3,000 on wine — did they drink all of it?” Giuseppe replied, “They drank half of the first bottle that cost $1,300, and the rest he shared with the staff, including the kitchen. The second bottle was $1,500, and he shared it also with the staff, and with tables near him in the dining room.” When asked if that was one of the days he really liked his job, Giuseppe affirmed that it was — and they tipped well, too.)

At some restaurants only poor quality wines are available by the glass, so you have to order a bottle to get anything decent.

They don’t have any clue, and there is no reason they should stay in business. That is an old attitude, and you cannot play these games any more. People don’t drink like they used to — a bottle of white and a bottle of red, and charge it to the expense account. People want a good glass of wine, just that. My wife is pregnant right now and not drinking, and for the last eight months when I go out with her, I am drinking by myself. I tell the server to bring me a glass of white and a glass of red — but tell me the wines, and when those bottles were opened. Was it three days ago, two days ago, or are you going to open it for me right now? Because I have asked they know that I know, and they won’t serve me crap because I’ll send it right back. Whites last at most two days, big reds with a lot of structure perhaps as much as three. You have to ask. If a restaurant is foolish enough to put a very expensive bottle on the by-the-glass list, they will open it for someone who buys one glass. Then it might sit on the shelf for a week, and when someone orders another, it will be a pretty sad glass of wine.

Tell us about the mark-up in restaurants, and why it is higher than buying retail.

When you order a bottle of wine in a good restaurant, you pay for more than just that bottle — you pay for the sommelier who is in the restaurant to advise diners, for the wine buyer you never see who is upstairs right now researching what is going to be added to the list. You are paying for the expertise, and you are getting the service, the professional advice, the presentation, the ceremony. You have the feeling that these professionals are taking care of you, and they are.

Any final thoughts?

Be true to yourself. You don’t need to impress people with a glass of expensive wine; you need one that suits what you
are having.