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An Interview With Wine Visionary Tony Terlato

If one were to select handful of individuals in the wine industry who could be considered a national treasure" in the United States, certainly Tony Terlato would be at the top of any such list. While he is somewhat of an unknown in the New York restaurant industry, his wines, and his influence over the past five decades, has gradually woven into the fabric of the luxury wine market across America.

Terlato is founder and CEO of Paterno Wine Group, a Chicago-based company that represents 41 brands from 24 producers, and owns or co-owns a host of wineries in California and Australia. At 71, Terlato is not showing signs of slowing down as he oversees, with his two sons, a 130-person U.S. sales force, and continues to add powerful, enduring quality brands to their portfolio, including the addition of Bollinger in the past few months.

While Tony has certainly utilized his considerable charisma and salesmanship to build his company, his passion for quality wine has been what drives and motivates him. He almost single-handedly introduced Pinot Grigio to American palates in 1979, and his Santa Margherita Pinot is the most popular luxury wine in the country today. After continuing his leadership of bringing fine Italian wines to America, in 1984 he was honored by the president of Italy with the decoration of Cavaliere Ufficiale (official knight) Motu Proprio, the first American to win this prestigious decoration. The awards for Mr. Terlato have been rolling in over the past few years. In 2003, Wine Enthusiast honored him as their "Man of the Year", and in 2004 he received the "Distinguished Service Award" from Wine Spectator magazine.

Tony likes to point out that one out of every 8 bottles of wine $15 and up sold in America come from the Paterno portfolio, an amazing achievement for anyone, even given his 50 years in this competitive business.

Tony, you're known as a connoisseur when it comes to pairing food with wine. How would you explain to someone who has never done that just how you do it? What kinds of things go through your mind when you are trying to match wine and a particular type of food?

Tony: Well, I think you have to start with some fundamentals. There are 73,000 wines in the United States so you have to have a fundamental method of thinking. It's the same as in the morning when you dress; how do you choose your shirt, your tie, your shoes and your suit color. How does a woman choose her purse or her shoes, her scarf and her blouse everyday? And why do people always look good and some other people don't? Some people have the knack of always looking well dressed and others don't, and expensive is not the reason. Having good taste is the reason. What I start with is a base. There is a harmony that exists between food and wine that is really fundamental and that harmony exists in the land where the animals graze and the vegetables grow and the vines are planted. The vine is the pump that is fed by the nutrients that are in the soil for the vegetables and the animals. So it stands to reason that there's a synergy that exists between them. So you start with this concept that when God made the world he did it in a very serious way. He put the white wines where the rivers are and he put the animals in Piedmont where there are no rivers. They don't make very much white wine because there is no river. If you start with the concept that there is an organization so you are not starting from ground zero. So if you really want to begin to learn how to put things together, if you are in an Italian restaurant you drink Italian, if you are in a German restaurant you drink German wines, if you are in a Portuguese restaurant drink Portuguese wines, and so forth. At least you have a head start, you have a beginning. White Zinfandel, no matter how much you might like, would not be a good choice in a Spanish restaurant. So it is much easier than people try to make it if they start with some basic formula. It's like a golf swing, you know, you've got to start somewhere; you can't be really good at it unless you go to the initial part of putting food from certain countries together with wines from that country.

Do you think that when wine is paired correctly with food, they both enhance the flavor in the other?

Tony: When you are in a restaurant, the chef is the tenor and the wine is the chorus. The wine is supposed to support the dish. If you are in a wine tasting or if you are in a winery, the wine is the tenor and the food is the chorus. The wines are already in the bottle, they are already made. So what we do is we cook dishes that become the chorus for the wine. We don't use spinach, we don't use ginger, we don't use curry; we avoid all of those things because they aren't wine friendly. When you are in a restaurant the wine is the chorus. It is not supposed to overpower it, but maybe it can be on a par. But the really marvelous wines are those that are seamless with your meal, not where they take the upper position in a restaurant. Unless you say I am going to drink a 1961 Chateau Lafitte or a 1970 Chateau Blanc, you are going to complement the wine with the proper dish. You are not going to order mashed potatoes or shrimp salad. So you know, in other words, it just becomes a matter of how much you like this and that. Do you like lyric poetry or prose poetry, do you like big old wines or do you like young, vibrant red wines with a lot of power and a lot of staying power for the future. That then becomes you. That's when the part of what you like starts to come into play. But to start with, if you are going to dress you have to have shoes, stockings, pants and a shirt. You've got to start someplace.

What can a restaurateur do improve their wine sales?

Tony: I remember a journalist once telling me that when he goes into a restaurant the first thing he asks for is the wine list because he wants to see how the owner of that restaurant is thinking. He wants to see what the wine is by the glass. I mean, why should somebody that wants to drink a glass because he can't drink a bottle be subjected to something that's below the quality of the restaurant? There is not a good reason for it. Somebody can make an excuse for it but nobody has made one that I think is a good one. Your wine should reflect how you feel about your food, and if somebody has that in his mind I guarantee a lot of by the glass wines will be of better quality.

I am a traditionalist and I know that your magazine gets sent to a lot of restaurants. I respectfully suggest to the restaurant owners to have respect for their customers, to have a wine list that is the same quality as the quality of their food. If you improve the quality of your meat purveyor and vegetable and seafood, do the same to the wine list. Don't embarrass yourself with necessarily inexpensive or poor wines and give your customer the benefit of the doubt. Treat them as a wine expert the same as you treat them as a food expert and I think you'll keep them coming back. Sometimes I am appalled by the glassed wine that I find in restaurants. If I was a restaurant owner I would have a lot more respect for my customer's tastes. You can't say well, they don't know better or they don't know anymore or they don't want to spend the money. I don't buy that. I don't believe that that's true at all, I just think that's an excuse. So my suggestion is upgrade everything in the restaurant and perhaps maybe even the clientele changes.

What are some of a restaurant's "must-have" wines?

Tony: I think Pinot Grigio is one of the musts on anybody's wine list. From what I understand it is the largest growing variety in the United States today. It is not an imposter that tries to emulate California chardonnay. It is what it is. It's a clean, crisp, well-balanced wine, good acidity, nice mouth feel without heavy doses of oak. It is a wine that is meant to be the chorus to the meal, not the tenor. I think Cabernet is still the king, and of course I have good reason to believe this based on history. It is certainly one of the kings, maybe the king of kings. Merlot is the prince. I believe there are wonderful Merlots. There are a lot of inexpensive ones around, but there are a lot of good ones too. Pinot Noir has been rediscovered and certainly the standard has benefited from that. The one that I feel really good about is the Shiraz, which is about to really be discovered by the Cabernet Sauvignon drinker because it has a taste profile which is very similar, a spicy, complex, earthy taste to it.

Do you think that the market for luxury wines in restaurants will continue to grow as steadily as it has in the recent past?

Tony: Absolutely. We are an upwardly mobile society looking for things that are better and we are willing to pay for them whether it's cars or homes or clothes or boats or jewelry, food and wine as well. If it's better we want to own it. The concept that cheaper is better is false in our society. I like to say that quality is a way of life and there is nowhere in the world this is more true than in America. We want the best, we want to drink the best, wear the best, eat the best, live in the best place, and buy our wives the best looking coat, all those things.

Wwhat if you are a restaurant owner and you know everything there is to know about food, but you don't sell much wine?

Tony: I would be very suspect of my wine list. What am I selling and what am I not selling? Restaurants sometimes say, "I only sell $14 bottles of wine." So what they do is they keep putting $14 bottles of wine out, and of course they are going to sell more $14 bottles of wine. I called on Walgreens once and I was trying to sell them a wine in the 1960's that was only $6 a bottle and they said, "The only wines we sell here are $3.98." And I went in the store and 80 percent of the store was $3.98 so of course that's what they sold. But when you put in the $6 bottle of wine you found out that there were people willing to pay for it, and their business got a little bit better. But if a person is not selling wine it is one or two things, the quality or the price. If the wine list is good and you think your prices are good and you're not selling wine, then you need a sommelier because it might be your selection.

Because the sommelier will give the customer an educated recommendation based on their knowledge, almost like a sales person.

Tony: A sommelier should certainly be in a position to do that, and if it is the sommelier that is doing it that's fine, but if it is because the restaurant owner bought 20 cases and needs to push it out that becomes a different issue. If it is a sommelier, or a master sommelier, of which there are very few of them, I would trust their judgment because they are not influenced by the number of cases they have in stock, hopefully. I have a great respect for a master sommelier because that's a test that very few people can pass. You have to have an exceptional palate. In the end you have to be able to pick a wine blind, the vintage, the grade and the country it comes from. That's a test and you know, it takes you ten years to get your palate into a position to do something like that. But if the sommelier was a waiter last week then I am not saying he can't make a good recommendation but it might be something that they just bought ten cases of this Shiraz, so no matter what they're eating tonight they are drinking Shiraz.

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