In Vino Veritas
Harriet Baylis explores the mind and mouth of one half of London’s most passionate wine importers.
Interviewing various inspirational people across the food and drink world rarely leaves me walking out the door without silently cursing myself that I don’t get to spend my working life the way they do, none quite so much as the guys behind Tutto Wines. Chances are these guys pen their name to wine lists at some of your top restaurants across London and with a catalogue of some of the hottest names on the scene at the moment, they are more than likely the unbeknown silent partner in your excessive indulgence at Lyle’s, Naughty Piglets, The Clove Club, Sager + Wilde, Duck Soup, Brawn, The Manor… the list goes on.
Alex and Damiano hail from Australia and Italy, respectively. It reads like a hospitality love story – met in a bar, drank a lot of wine, talked a lot, attempted proper jobs and then decided to go to Italy discovering a tight knit community of small wine producers and embarking on a journey to bring these lesser known wines to London, to both supply and educate the industry and the public.
Aside from the success shown by their impressive catalogue of stockists, they are both passionate about the education side of the wines, bringing their rural Italian producers to regale stories of their wine to hungry Londoners and thus creating not only a better understanding for the wines we drink, but a personal connection to them.
Gone are the days where you simply choose a wine based on name recognition alone, go to the kind of restaurant where you are likely to find Tutto’s wines on the list and everyone from the host to your waiter will know the ins and outs about these wines, creating a comfortable environment to no longer shy away from wines we are unfamiliar with. Naturally we wanted to sit down with Alex Whyte of Tutto Wines to both shoulder for a place at his dinner table but also understand more about why Tutto is the understated hottest talent in London right now.
We are blessed to work with a group of hardworking, passionate and talented vignaioli. Rather than focusing on any one part of Italy, any grape or style, we almost do the opposite. Italy offers endless adventure for the wine drinker, with an unmatched diversity in terms of grapes and terrain
How did your passion for small artisan Italian wines come about? I fell in love with wine travelling around France a few years ago. I wasn’t particularly interested in it beforehand but after visiting small growers all over the country and experiencing one of Marcel Lapierre’s legendary parties in Beaujolais, I was hooked. Not just these kinds of wines, but the people who work the vines, the culture behind them and the community that drinks them. Growing up in the Veneto’s Colli Euganei, Damiano’s uncle was one of the first in the area to work organically, so he was introduced to these kinds of wines a lot earlier on. We both met working at the wine bar 121BC in Sydney, where our friend Giorgio di Maria had put together a remarkably detailed and deep collection of Italian wine and I suppose the rest is history.
Tell us about your suppliers and wine makers? We are blessed to work with a group of hardworking, passionate and talented vignaioli. Rather than focusing on any one part of Italy, any grape or style, we almost do the opposite. Italy offers endless adventure for the wine drinker, with an unmatched diversity in terms of grapes and terrain. We work with the family behind Ar.Pe.Pe, who have been growing Nebbiolo for over 100 years in the alpine Valtellina, so far north you are practically in Switzerland. Another guy, Gabrio Bini, makes Zibibbo in terracotta amphorae on the island of Pantelleria in the middle of the Mediterranean about 100 kilometers southwest of Sicily, not so far from Tunisia. They are extreme examples, but between the rest of the growers we work with, there is just about everything in between.
They work with local grape varieties, a respect for the land and a gentle hand in the cellar. Because of this each of the wines taste unique, they speak of where they are from, which is what gets us really excited about wine. This sense of somewhereness is amazing. When you can open a bottle and be taken to a certain place, to feel like you are there in the vineyard, that’s pretty cool. It’s easy to just get caught up in the romance when we are drinking the wines at a nice restaurant here in London, but the other thing to remember is how incredibly hard they work. They don’t pay someone else to farm the land or hire an enologist to make sure everything is okay in the cellar, they live this every day. They are farmers who work for an entire year in the vines to get to the harvest and then they have one chance per year to make a wine and have to draw on everything they have learned to make sure they don’t screw it up. It’s incredibly stressful and I think it’s such a noble job, we have so much respect for what they do.
How important is it to educate all front of house staff on your wine as opposed to just the sommelier? This is extremely important for us. Many smaller restaurants may not have a sommelier around every service, if at all. When exploring wines that might be a little different to what a guest is used to drinking, it’s vital that they have the right information to approach a wine in an open minded way, to have a better understanding of why a wine is what it is. The people working front of house day in, day out are usually the ones dealing with the guests and if we can help them out by giving them an understanding of where the wine comes from, who made it and how, that will translate to whoever has just ordered a glass, which can only be a good thing. Our job isn’t to tell people what a wine smells or tastes like, everyone can make their mind up on that and everyone’s senses will give them something different. We focus on what we find interesting about wine, the story behind it. The who, where, what and why.
People tend to be a little scared of wines they don’t recognise, has this ever been a problem and how do you broaden people’s horizons? They do, though we don’t see this as a problem, but the most important part of our job. There are always some people who will dismiss something that is different as being wrong or inferior, whether we are talking about music, art, food or whatever. Despite being the oldest market for wine in the world, we have found that by really taking the time to try and explain the wine, painting a picture of where it is from and the person who made it, even the most sceptical will at least give the wine a try. When people get an understanding that wine is a truly agricultural product, an artisan product, made by a particular person and from a particular place, they become more receptive to the idea that they don’t all need to taste the same.
How do you go about selecting wines for your tastings to the public? We try to focus on a single theme that might be a grower, a part of Italy, or a winemaking style. It’s a nice way to learn because you can come along to a tasting for an hour or so, try some wines and leave with a nice, basic understanding of a winemaker, region or style. I think that’s nice way to learn, to get a good understanding of one thing at a time and then build on that.
What has the reaction been like both from the industry and the public? At the beginning it was quite scary; there wasn’t really a reaction at all. Wine is a huge market in London and as neither of us are natives it took a while for anyone to notice us. So we tried to really focus on decreasing the divide between the grower and the drinker here in London and to be an importer that really interacts with the public as much as possible, to put ourselves out there. We focused on bringing each of the growers to London every year and try to introduce them to as many people as possible by organising dinners and tastings for anyone who wants to come. We’ll ask friends who are great cooks, like James from Lyle’s, Ed from Brawn, Robin from The Dairy or Tim from The Clove Club to do the food and then we will pour the grower’s wines alongside, so people can see first-hand that despite seeming a little unusual, the wines have a natural affinity with good food.
It sounds an obvious thing to do, but it becomes hard when you have a bigger roster of growers and that is something we are very conscious of. I think that’s the single most important thing we have done, to have these events where everyone gets to meet the growers, drink their wines with some good food on the table and hear their stories first hand. Other than taking everyone to Italy, it is the best way we can think of to introduce people to the wines and once we have some awareness, in general the reaction has been good. In the right context most people are up for trying something new.
You have a seriously cool repertoire of restaurants selling your wines, how did you go about growing your network? It grew organically, it had to. We learned very quickly that cold calling or popping into restaurants to drop off a wine list gets you nowhere. There are an awful lot of people importing good wine in London, so why would people want to work with us? We had to take a step back and focus on building a good relationship with the people we were already working with, who thankfully were real wine lovers, people with bars or shops where sommeliers from bigger or fancier restaurants would go to grab a bottle on their day off. I think if we started importing wines from the usual suspects we would have struggled, but by promoting smaller growers, by championing Italy’s nooks and crannies, we were able to offer something different, which perhaps made working with us seem more worthwhile.
With the recent increase in interest in food and its supply chain and background do you see a similar trend for the small time wine producers? For years I wondered how the same people carrying home an organic chicken, some heritage carrots and a nice, ripe hunk of unpasteurised cheese from the farmers market would pop into the off licence and buy a bottle of chemical slop from the other side of the world to wash it all down. But I can see things are changing slowly, that people are beginning to care about what they drink, where it is from and how it is made and that make sense, it’s a good thing.
Are there plans to take Tutto further than London? We already have a few customers outside London who we have a lot of respect for because it is difficult with transport costs and the like to get our wines there. We love to share the wines of our growers with people from all over the UK and should really focus more on getting their wines outside London, but at the same time London is such a big market that with just the two of us working, we have our work cut out even scratching the surface here.
Who inspires you in the industry? Eric Narioo from Les Caves de Pyrène because he opened the doors for companies like us in London and still gets really excited when he tastes a great wine. Ed Wilson of Brawn, because he’s a great chef that drinks better than 99% of sommeliers in London and has an unrivalled passion and respect for artisans and their products. Also, our friend Raef of 40 Maltby Street & Gergovie Wines, for managing to juggle running an amazing bar, importing great wine and throwing the best parties when the growers come to town.
This could make or break some of your friendships, but favourite restaurant in London? Hmmmmm. Let’s play it safe and go for a restaurant which is no longer open and while it was, never bought a single bottle of wine from us, Koya. It specialised in Udon but was so much more that a noodle bar. Junya, the chef, did amazing things with British ingredients and his food made so much sense with the kind of wines we love to drink. He recently became obsessed with Sicily and we used to love going in to have lunch and chat about our favourite island. It was the first place we would take our growers to eat when they got into town and they all loved it as much as we did. It will be sorely missed.
Lastly, next trip to Italy, can we come?! Sure thing. Bring paracetamol and plenty of water.
July 28th 2015