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Choosing Great Bottles

F&W asked sommelier Eric Zillier about Italian wine and his suggestions for throwing a successful wine-tasting party at home.

What is the first great Italian wine you ever had?
An ’85 Granbussia Riserva from Aldo Conterno. When I was working at Veritas, Tim Kopec, the restaurant’s wine director, and I went out to Park Smith’s house—Smith is a collector and one of the owners of Veritas—to help serve a dinner. At the dinner he had people like Ann Colgin with her husband, Joe; the Krankls from Sine Qua Non; Don Bryant; Robert Parker... At one point we were told that we had some time and Park said, “Just pull something from the cellar and enjoy it. Whatever you want.” So Scott Bryan, the chef, went into the cellar, pulled a bottle and served it blind. And I was totally blown away by everything about this wine. It seemed Italian, but I’d never had an Italian wine that was quite like that. And ever since then it has been one of my trophy wines and one of my great, great wine memories.

Why do you like Italian wines particularly?
I believe that many Italian wines are some of the best food wines in the world—traditionally and historically, they weren’t wines you drank by themselves, but with food. And when you have them with food, it brings the experience to a whole new level. More than anywhere else there is a synergy in Italy between the two, where the whole is better than the parts.

What first piqued your interest in wine?
I was living in France, and one night my roommates and I ended up outside one of the fountains—I was in Aix-en-Provence—and there was a bet as to whether or not someone had the guts to jump into this fountain. We were a large group, and at the end of it we all ended up in the fountain, and we all owed each other a lot of money. So we decided, while we were in the fountain, “Well, why don’t we take all the money that we owe and all buy nice bottles of wine, and we’ll have a wine tasting.” And this wine tasting just blew my mind. We were all taking notes and discussing it, and it was really, kind of, my first eye-opening experience.

What would you consider a great-value Italian wine, best for the least amount of money?
You know, Alto Adige whites, from the north of Italy, are stunning and also very affordable, usually under $20—the Terlano Pinot Bianco is a good example. Also, there are wines like Bisson’s Pigato from Liguria—obscure grape, costs around $20 for a bottle, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better picnic white. For reds I like to stay more Tuscan. Certainly there are some Barberas and Dolcettos in Piedmont that are very good, but I think Tuscan reds are some of the best values. You go to little areas like Monte Cucco, just next to Chianti, and they produce some really delicious wines, also primarily made from Sangiovese; Ciacci is a producer to look for.

What is your favorite Italian wine region or grape variety at the moment?
No question: For the region it’s Piedmont, and then Nebbiolo, the principal grape of Piedmont, for the variety. Burgundy was one of my first passions—it’s kind of like my classical music—and Nebbiolo is the Italian grape that most closely resembles that. A good Nebbiolo reflects a very specific area of a very specific part of the land; it tastes of where it comes from. It’s a very truthful grape.

Do you have any tips for holding a successful wine-tasting party?
The most important thing is to find a wine seller or retailer that you trust and that you like. That’s key to your success. Then just communicate exactly what you’re looking for. Don’t use fancy wine terms, just tell them what you like—not what you think they want to hear, but just what you like. After that, any good wine person will be able to tell you what might be similar, and what might be different but that you’ll still enjoy, given what you’ve liked in the past.

What is your favorite wine to serve at home?
I like to say wine is like music. I don’t pop in the same CD every time I wan to listen to music. Sometimes I want to listen to rock, sometimes I want to listen to jazz. I love to drink Champagne. It’s probably my favorite. But Riesling is up there, too—German Riesling. It depends on my mood.

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