How to Pick Better Wine, According to an Actual Expert
He never gave his parents problems—did well as a true-blue Atenean where he seems to have made friends with the entire student population. He didn't waste his Fordham education either; he graduated with a degree in Finance and did a stint in Wall Street. Raphael Santos—or Pepel as family and close friends, still call him—said his evening prayers, drank his vitamins, flossed, and had fluffy little bunnies as pets. He is, looking at it from all angles, one of the good guys.
This is probably why the gods smiled favorably at him and led him to a job which allowed him to work with and around one of his great passions, wine. It was as if he was conveniently ushered towards his current prestigious position as head sommelier of Acquerello, the two-Michelin-starred contemporary Italian restaurant in San Francisco—with a series of happy coincidences. The lanky and boyishly-charming (more than once, I caught those model/receptionists in Manahattan restaurant Serafina ogling him) 35-year-old was in town for a couple of weeks during the holidays to attend his sister's wedding, and shared, "it was a lot of luck, everything falling into place, and someone willing to give me a chance."
Acquerello was the first restaurant he ever worked with after getting his sommelier certification, and he credits the 27-year-old establishment, led by owners Giancarlo Paterlini and chef Suzette Gresham-Tognetti, for teaching him everything he knows. He calls Giancarlo's son and Acquerello's wine director Gianpaolo Paterlini his "biggest influence and mentor" and candidly imparts: "Technically he’s my boss, but he is also my brother and godfather to my firstborn, Viviana. He took a chance on me when nobody would. He instilled in me certain values and standards which I will bring with me anywhere I go. We’ve gone through a lot together and I couldn’t have been more fortunate to end up as the Pippen to his Jordan."
But, as all glamorous jobs go, it is never always about celebrity guests (though there are many) and rare bottles worth thousands of dollars each (more common than you could imagine). The hours are erratic and he works Saturdays, but Santos smiles his goofy grin and shrugs, "that's the restaurant industry for you."
However, blessed with bosses who understand the importance of family—being a close knit, family-run operation themselves—the father of two gets to spend a lot of quality time with his high school sweetheart-now-wife (yes, he got to marry the hot cheerleader, too) Patricia and their genetically gifted kids. Not that he minds being around the staff and bosses at the restaurant, which he seems to have only the deepest and sincerest love and respect. "We each hold ourselves to our own set of standards- all of which point towards making sure the guest has the best experience. The guest is number one. Like all families, we have great times, sometimes we have differences, but at the end of the day we are family."
And, yet, it is serious work. Being head sommelier means Santos is responsible for maintaining the high standard of wine service Acquerello is known for; it has consistently been awarded the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award since 2012. He does collaborate with the kitchen in menu development, "sometimes tasting components of incomplete dishes and making suggestions on which direction to go." There is a lot of working in the cellar, inventory management which calls for "the joy of putting away boxes of wine, stacking them up, breaking boxes down for recycling, changing wine list pages, ensuring inventory counts are correct, programming the POS system—all of the fun stuff you (don't) see in movies." And, of course, he needs to make time to help mold their sommlets (their term of endearment for somms in training), all while ensuring that daily operations run smoothly and seamlessly.
On days off, his love for drink extends to other variants, like "champagne, whiskey, or really cheap beer." He has been dabbling a bit on mezcal, chartreuse, and gin, but his affinity for coffee is bordering on obsession. "I own four espresso machines," he admits almost sheepishly, "as well as a french press, pour over, Aeropress, Bialetti, Hario Syphon pot, et cetera." Aside from the parallel similarities between wine and coffee appreciation, the daily ritual of coffee preparation has become a sort of bonding experience with his three-year-old son, Stephan, who seems to enjoy it. "He's my barista-in-training," announces the proud father.
Although mostly straight-laced and composed, he does have his cheeky side which almost only surfaces after several drams of single malt. At his sister's wedding reception, he danced, flailing his arms mostly while he stomped synchopated to '80s new wave, and let me in on a funny little ditty he plays on the WASP-y, moneyed types who frequent the restaurant. "When I approach the table, sometimes they would ask me to call the head sommelier," he says, with a cheeky glint in his eye, "so I do a little twirl (turns 360 degrees) and then say 'what's up?'"
Perhaps it's his youth, and I refuse to focus on his ethnicity, but Santos's achievement and status in his industry is remarkable and—from a traditional standpoint, it seems- quite the novelty. While luck did play a dominant role—bosses who groomed him like their own to thrive in the family business ("Gianpaolo already has grand plans of making Viviana intern for us at Acquerello in a few years") is quite the doozy—Santos's values make him the perfect man for the job—persistence and the willingness to learn, the humility to be molded into his mentor's ideals, and old-fashioned empathy.
His words explain it best: "To me, it’s not about blind tasting and being able to nail down the vintage and grape of a certain wine. It’s about learning to listen to your guest. It’s about being able to understand each of the situations you are faced with on the floor; it’s about picking up on certain body language, or cues from the guest; and being able to react accordingly to ensure they have the best experience." Santos does belong to that rare breed, and an even rarer class of good guys who win at life without compromising values, love, and family. Cheers to that.
TIPS FROM THE EXPERT
Store wines at a constant temperature, no direct sunlight, and, for the most part, lying down where the wine inside the bottle touches the cork. My tiny wine fridge is at 55°F all year round. Ideally though I would store white wines at 48° to 50°F and reds at 59° to 61°F.
Figure out what you like, then have an open mind and expand your palate. Drink as many different wines as you can, so you could form your own opinions. Trust your palate. Wine, like food and music and a lot of things, is very subjective.
I’m sure you have the bankroll to buy whatever collectible wine you want. But don’t forget to drink what’s inside the bottle. Do not get fixated on what’s on the label. Remember that wine is a beverage meant to be enjoyed with friends and family, it’s not a trophy. Oh and buy Champagne. Lots of it.
1952, 1958, 1961, 1964, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2002, 2008, 2010
Value is relative. But off the cuff, I would probably mention Grower-Producer Champagnes, “declassified" wines from select vintages (i.e. when Produttori del Barbaresco doesn’t release crus—and all of the cru wine just goes into the Barbaresco), and maybe wines from the Alto Piemonte (“other parts” of Piedmont). Now these wines that I mentioned aren’t necessarily cheap, but I find a lot of value for what you pay for.
Which wines are great for drinking now?
Whatever you want to drink tonight! Cheers!!