I met & actually worked for Nunzio Alioto back in 1977. He & his family had opened a restaurant in Honolulu on Makaloa Street across the street from the then named store–Holiday Mart. The restaurant was named Alioto’s & they featured foods from their family recipes which they served for 3 generations at their world renown, iconic, namesake restaurant on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Nunzio’s grandmother, Nonna Rose Alioto, is in fact credited in the cookbooks as the originator of the iconic crab ciopino dish.
Nunzio was groomed early on to take over the family business at some time, attending the Culinary School in San Francisco, the hotel & restaurant school in Laussanne, Switzerland & then staging at several notable restaurants including Pic, a highly revered Michelin 3 star culinary destination in France’s Rhone Valley.
In addition to all of that, Nunzio had a true love & passionate fascination of wine–yes, of course–Italy, as well as Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley & Germany just to name some. Because he was born & raised in San Francisco, though, he was also very well versed & knowledgeable in what was unfolding in California from the 1950’s on up & not just with the Napa Valley.
So, our paths crossed in 1977. He was in the middle of opening a restaurant on the top floor of a business building on the Ewa-Mauka corner of the Makaloa & Kaheka street intersection. I lived only a block away & just walked in to see how all of the construction was progressing & what it was starting to look like. I ended up applying for a job that very day before leaving.
One of the main reasons was because of the wine list. It featured ONLY California wines. Please keep in mind, 1977 was a time when “boutique”, quality driven (versus commercial grade) California wines were barely visible here in the Islands & were just gaining traction in the California restaurant scene. I was intrigued to say the least.
Notable white wines on the list included Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling, Chappellet Chenin Blanc, Wente Grey Riesling & a host of Chardonnays–1973 Chateau Montelena, 1976 Burgess Cellars, 1975 Cuvaison, just to name a few highlights. On the red side–1971 Robert Mondavi “Reserve”; 1973 & 1974 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 1974 Clos du Val, 1973 & 1974 Sterling “Reserve”, just to name a few.
I was totally fascinated & started trying to get to know everything I could about these wines & what was happening in California.
As the months went by, Nunzio would host many winetastings at the restaurant in an effort to share his knowledge & his stash of wines he had collected over the years. It wasn’t only for the staff, but also for the various “sommeliers”/avid wine lovers from around town. I remember one tasting, for instance featured a mini vertical of Beaulieu Vineyards “Private Reserve” Cabernets–1968, 1970, ’71, 73 & ’74. Or a horizontal tasting of 1968’s–Ridge “Monte Bello”‘ Beaulieu “Georges de Latour”, Mayacamas, Joseph Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard”, just to name a few. As time went on, I completely realized I was tasting historical treasures & was so very thankful for the opportunity. AND, it was NOT limited to just Californian wine either. I vividly remember the aha moment of trying, for instance, the 1971’s from Dr Thanisch Auslese “Bernkasteler Doktor”, JJ Prum Auslese”Wehlener Sonnenuhr” & the Staatsweingut Steinberger Auslese. Epic to say the least.
He was & is my older sibling, my biggest mentor AND a truly treasured life long friend. (I could thankfully say the same about his wife Joanne too. It was after all, she who convinced me to get off my ass & stop feeling sorry for myself AND go back to take the MS exam again).
Although he (they) soon moved back to California, we still remained friends & still very much in touch.
Imagine 4 decades of a friendship which started with merely 1 1/2 years working together in Hawaii & the rest long distance between San Francisco & Hawaii. Yes, there were the many trials & tribulations of life, work, children & family with each of our own lives, but there was also still the love of food, wine & most importantly our friendship.
Along the way, we both took the Master Sommelier examination (my invitation, most likely greatly influenced by Nunzio’s lobbying on my behalf). I would have never pursued the MS diploma or even had a chance to take &/or pass it if it weren’t for Nunzio & Joanne. I am forever grateful. The whole Master Sommelier chapter, as it turned out, was a big one & affected both of us greatly–not only because of the prestigious title but more so about being involved with the unfolding of this British ideal to America & its candidates.
Fast forward to 2020.
A group of Master Sommelier old timers attended Wine Speak this past January–including Fred Dame, Madeline Triffon, Emmanuel Kemiji & myself. Yup, real old timers. I hadn’t seen Madeline or Emmanuel for at least 20 to 25 years ago. It was great to see, hang out & talk story with them all. Imagine, Emmanuel was the latest to pass of the group, being the 12th American to pass the exam. We all worked together on projects & examinations totally hands on back then & therefore knew each other quite well.
The moment that made everyone’s eyes shine again in wonderment, just like the old days, was Nunzio again opening some wines he brought with him to share with us all. It was typical Nunzio MO. The wines were stellar, in fact some of the very best I have had in my life time.
The first wine was the 1995 Chave Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin”–a wine Chave produces in only certain vintages. I am not exactly clear on the whys, hows & whens, AND I have only had the 1990, 1995 & 2009 over the years. What I can say is Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin” is very different from their Hermitage bottling that’s for sure. In the case of this 1995, it is seemingly more masculine, somewhat more macho, guttural & more grand with more swag, while still being so aristocratic & majestic. It certainly is something to behold. Truly a most memorable wine for me!
The second wine Nunzio opened & shared on this night was the 1989 Gentaz Dervieux Côte-Rôtie. I have stated several times over the years, this wine is the most memorable I can remember ever having. (yes, of course there were some Burgundies over the years also surreal & bewitching, but this 1989 Gentaz I would say was very haunting for me & was therefore in my consciousness as well as my brain). I had the wine at the domaine in either 1990 or 1991 on a visit. Marius told he had just under 2 hectares of Côte-Rôtie–(50% “mauve” syrah originally from Hermitage–big berries, tightly packed; AND 50% traditional Petite Serine–small berries, more loosely packed). I loved its breathtaking & sincere purity, its innate majestic pedigree. Yes, it was earthy, masculine, wonderfully concentrated with lots of peppery, animal, raw meat/gamey, smoke/sandalwood nuances. But, all done with a finesseful, masterful touch. Nuance versus power. UN-heavy & ethereal versus thick & opulent. I was also quite taken by Marius himself–seemingly humble & down to earth, but certainly armed with so much knowledge & experience from his years of hands on work, both in the vineyard & the winery. Yes, this was game changing wine for me. It helped to imagine the possibilities of what can be! Interestingly, on the last day of that particular trip, while in Paris before flying home, we found a score of this same wine at a four story, very chic, upscale Chinese restaurant in Paris (which we bought as many as could to take home with us). It was certainly the most memorable wine of the trip for me & that is saying a lot considering we also visited Coche-Dury, Chave, Verset, Clape, Raveneau, Tempier, Vieux Telegraphe to name just a few along the way. I believe this was the last bottle Nunzio still had & I am so thankful & grateful for him sharing it with us on this night.
There were 2 other wines that Nunzio had brought to share which I should highlight, the first being the 1989 Trimbach Riesling “Clos Ste Hune”. This was an aged, SENSATIONAL, world-class Alsatian Riesling in all its monumental & majestic glory. Explosively perfumed with lots of bravado, mojo & swag on the palate intermixed with innate complexities/character, definitively noble from one of the world’s top & most historic sites. OMG.
The 4th wine which I feel deserves a real shout out for was the 1981 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. Yup, the word Hermitage was still part of this “tour de force” Australian red wine back then. What was once a big, thick, opulent, lavish, masculine red wine is today, much lighter on its feet, with still dark, masculine, grand nuances but with a more transparent, sheer curtain as opposed to what was once ultra-ripe fruit, hedonistic & devoutly oaky. It has finally had the chance to resolve itself to be something of beauty & class rather than just power & flamboyancy.
In each case, thank you Nunzio for your long time mentorship, friendship, brotherhood & your willingness to always share. I am eternally & deeply thankful….beyond words.