Sommelier of the Month - Luigi Buonanno
- Name: Luigi Buonanno
- Date of birth: 14th April 1981
- Place of birth: Aversa, Italy
- Eye colour: Green
- Nationality: Italian
I have been working in the catering industry since I was 15. I used to help my friend Danilo at his family owned restaurant. I initially worked over the weekends when they were busier. We used to work behind the bar together and I enjoyed tis very much. Danilo's father Silvano came to me one day and asked me to take a drink to a table. That was the very first time I had ever served a table and the following week I was working on the floor with him.
I really enjoyed working there and I returned the following summer. At the beginning it was only a way to be financially independent, but as time went by I started to enjoy the job more and more. I was 18 when I had my first serious work experience. I finished school and applied for University. During that summer I went to work in Sardinia at my mother's cousins' restaurant. They owned a Michelin starred restaurant, La Gritta, in Costa Smeralda, and it was my baptism into fine dining. I discovered job roles that I was not aware of before and the most intriguing one was definitely the role of Sommelier.
Once back in Rome after the summer I started university. To pay my studies I went to work in a local restaurant where I met a fantastic restaurateur called Germano. He inspired me to grow and from whom I have learned infinitely. At 23 I wanted to learn English but rather than go to London (as most people in Italy do) I decided to go to California, San Francisco, where I studied English. When I arrived there I did not even know numbers in English! After I had learnt English, I returned to Rome and kept working in restaurants, but I always felt that something was missing.
So I left University and joined a Sommelier school. After taking the Sommelier Diploma at the AIS (Italian Sommelier Association) I enrolled, at the same school, in the Sensorial analysis Master. It is the highest sommelier degree achievable in Italy and is a course focused on blind wine tasting and food pairings. At that time I was working at El Toula, one of the oldest restaurants in Rome. Located within walking distance from Parliament, the restaurant was frequented by politicians and wealthy people who gave me the possibility to experience wines that I could never have afforded to buy myself. It was a great experience and I learnt a lot about food as the Executive Chef, Fabrizio Leggiero, was one of the most talented Chefs in Rome. However it was still not enough for me and I decided to move forward.
In 2007 I finally moved to London where I joined Prism Restaurant, the City Restaurant of Harvey Nichols, with a role of Sommelier. After only six months I moved to Caravaggio Restaurant, one of the City restaurants of the Etrusca Group with the role of Head Sommelier. It took me three months to rewrite the wine list at Caravaggio. As a result of the director gave me the opportunity to rewrite the wine lists for all the other eight restaurants of the group. At 28 I was Group Sommelier and wine buyer for the Etrusca Group.
Caravaggio and Taberna Etrusca in the City
Etrusca Restaurants owns four restaurants. Caravaggio and Taberna Etrusca in the City, Il Convivio in Belgravia and Artigiano in Belsize Park. All the restaurants are Italian and the food is 100% Italian with a modern twist.
Our Chefs like to take the Italian cuisine to a different level making it more fashionable and more international without losing the Italian soul.
At Caravaggio, where I am based, the food is classic Italian with a modern twist and I believe that wines from any part of the world can be matched with Italian food. Black tagliolini with clams and samphire wonderfully match a Sauvignon Blanc from Wairarapa in New Zealand and the typical Veal Milanese matches a Chardonnay from Mornington Peninsula in Australia.
Of course on our menu we have a Scottish Rib Eye that goes extremely well with Italian wines such as Chianti but also a Rioja Gran Reserva. One of the latest matches that I found very intriguing is an asparagus and stracchino cheese risotto with tomato essence that pairs a great Bacchus from Dorset.
Please tell us some background about yourself. How did you first become interested in wine, and how did that interest evolve into a career?
My passion for wine grew when I started working in a fine dining Restaurant. My very first experience in Sardinia at La Gritta introduced me into this fantastic world. I remember I was a commis waiter at that time and I used to help the sommelier in restocking the fridges and in keeping the cellar tidy. When I came back to Rome I also had an experience in La Pergola at that time a two Michelin starred restaurant (now they have three stars) the Executive Chef is one of the greatest Chefs in the world - Heinz Beck. Having the opportunity to work alongside these professional people I felt I had to grow in my career in the most professional way and I found in wine what I really wanted to do in the future.
What do you think makes a great sommelier?
Passion is essential. I do not believe that anybody can succeed in a job if they are not passionate and love what they do. Amongst the many aspects that compose a Sommelier role I believe that geography is the most important asset to a Sommelier and should not be left out.
Describe your typical day at work.
I am based at Caravaggio, so every morning I go there early where I collect and check deliveries, organise meetings and tastings with suppliers. At lunch I work on the floor and after service I pop into the head office where I can reply to emails, organise customer wine tastings and any activities related to wines and spirits. In the evenings depending on how busy the other restaurants are and which customers are dining I will do a service in another restaurant depending on these factors. My days are long - usually a good 12 hours but I wouldn't have it any other way as I love what I do and think that it is important to devote as much time as you can to perfecting the role.
How does pricing affect the wine advice you give diners?
I must admit that lately customers are looking at counting their pennies. We are experiencing this especially in the City where most of our customers are from insurance firms or are bankers who recently saw their bonuses cut and they are not able to spend as much as they used to. But recession does not mean that people want to drink cheap wine, they are looking for the best value wines. When I rewrite the wine list I always put on the list a couple of gems that people are even happy to pay more for but at a reasonable price.
Have customers become more knowledgeable about wine?
Wine is something that is becoming more and more fashionable. More and more people know and are getting closer to new wines and wine regions. In my opinion though this does not mean that they know about wine! Sometimes you find customers that want to impress their guests and they start talking about wine without a clue. Fortunately for me a lot of our customers do know their wine and like to enquire and further their knowledge by asking questions and listening when I discuss the wine they are sampling.
Who has been most influential in your career?
I have been lucky to meet a lot of professionals in my life. I think that special thanks should go to Daniele Cernilli, founder of Gambero Rosso (the most influential Italian wine guide in the world) and one of the most remarkable wine journalists. He is my mentor and is a real wine connoisseur in all aspects.
Describe a good sommelier's introduction or presentation of their list at a table.
It is essential to read the customer. It is the psychological aspect of our job that makes the difference when approaching the table. A welcome with a smile is a good start and from that you can already understand whether a customer wants advice or already knows what they want to drink.
When pairing 'Chef's' dishes with wines, what defines the process for you?
Colour play which I think plays a significant role in the food and wine matching. I always teach my staff to let the colour guide them in choosing the wine to pair with food. This is the reason why I prefer good and structured white wine with white meat such as pork and veal. Then it always depends on how the food is cooked.
How often do you manage to touch base and re-taste your wines?
I do it quite frequently. It is important to taste the wines that we serve and especially when we get in a new vintage I always taste it with my staff.
Please describe your process for sourcing new wines.
I participate in a lot of wine tastings. I travel at least three or four times a year for wine trips and I am always trying to keep myself up to date by reading and talking with others in the industry.
Selling wines by the glass. Your thoughts please.
Wines by the glass should be very versatile and they need to be able to match all kinds of food any restaurant serves.
What are you really thinking when a customer sends a perfectly good wine back?
Not every day is a rainy day."
What trends have you noticed in the wine market recently?
Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc and Aussie Shiraz had had a big impact on the British market. As per the Italian wines I believe the trend is now moving towards indigenous grape variety.
You are on that deserted island. Which two varietals do you plant?
Nebbiolo and Chardonnay.
What's the key to developing staff to become well-trained to sell and serve wine?
If you are passionate, you are able to make your staff passionate, also wine tasting with the staff is the way to get them closer to the wine and understand it.
Do you have a favourite food and wine pairing?
Blanc de Blanc 2003 Nyetimber with scallops wrapped in Parma ham. Simply fabulous!
And a most unusual food and wine pairing?
Vanilla marinated lobster tail and Australian Shiraz. To die for...
How can customers get the best out of you? What should they be prepared to tell you and what questions should they ask?
When I call a plumber I tell him where the problem is and I wait till he repairs it, I do not usually teach him how to do his job. That should be the approach with any professional. Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what to drink.
Who is the one person you'd most like to share a bottle of wine with?
Daniele Cernilli is the one that can turn a simple drink in an experience because of his knowledge and his passion when it comes down to wine.
How can budding wine enthusiasts practice their tasting skills at home? Any games, tricks, or tips?
Try to drink what you don't know. I always tell my customers to experience something different. Does anybody go to the Cinema and watch the same film twice? With friends it is very funny to organise a blind tasting. So you first taste the wine acknowledging what you are drinking and then cover the bottles with kitchen foil and try to remember which wine is which, and don't forget to drink responsibly!!!
What's the one thing you love most about your job?
Where do you see your future career path?
I would like to continue doing some wine writing and I would like to be able to travel more exploring new wine regions.