Inside the Wine Cellar at New York's Babbo
In this round of "Anatomy of a Wine Cellar," we go behind the scenes at Babbo, the restaurant that effectively invented the regional Italian wine list as we know it today.
September 11, 2017 | story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN | photography: Daniel Krieger
The history of Italian wine in New York, which has struggled in France’s shadows ever since the dark ages of straw-bottle Chianti, can be divided into two distinct eras: “B.B.” and “A.B.”—or, before and after Babbo.
To grasp the full extent of Babbo’s legacy, it’s necessary to imagine a time before Italian wine “happened” in the United States—at least, in any meaningful sense. Back in 1998, when Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich opened the pioneering restaurant, Prosecco was still struggling to gain market share. Barolo and Barbaresco were considered “under-the-radar” bargains. Most importantly, wine service in the fine-dining context remained almost entirely synonymous with French staples like Burgundy and Bordeaux.
If any restaurant can take credit for changing that, it’s Babbo. In the words of David Lynch—one of the restaurant’s first wine directors, who played a formative role in defining the list’s vision—its mission was “to be a destination for Italian wine” at a time when most New Yorkers still considered that a contradiction in terms.
“Joe [Bastianich] and Mario [Batali] were in the process of legitimizing Italian cuisine as something beyond simple and cheap, and we wanted to do the same thing for the wine,” Lynch explains. “We wanted to be a reference point wine list that represented every region of Italy, and told their stories.”
In doing so, Babbo effectively invented the regional Italian wine list—a formula that has since inspired an endless wave of successors (among them, Danny Meyers’ Maialino and Michael White’s Ai Fiori). Today, nearly 20 years and several wine directors later, it’s still one of the most comprehensive examples of its kind, hovering at close to 1,700 selections.
According to Jeff Porter, who has helmed the program since 2013, the continued challenge is adapting that longstanding vision to Italy’s rapidly evolving wine scene, which has splintered beyond the familiar classics into a complex matrix of regional expressions from all corners of the country. And encompassing the complete spectrum of Italian wine—“the past, present, and future,” as he puts it—has become exponentially more difficult as that spectrum expands.
“We’re constantly seeking the emerging producers in every region,” he says, “both in the classic areas and the areas that haven’t yet hit the mainstream.”
If this sense of exploration has kept Babbo’s wine program relevant, then what has always elevated it to “classic” status is the remarkable depth of its cellar. Historically blessed with the rare foresight (and capital) necessary to invest in wine for the future, the restaurant boasts a robust collection of back-vintages from Italy’s most iconic regions and producers, accumulated over nearly two decades—to which new classics are constantly being added.
On the one hand, this makes it one of the few places where you can order 1999 Aldo Conterno by the glass ($74 for a six-ounce pour of his “Bussia” Barolo). But it isn’t all fine and rare. In addition to ogling verticals of Quintarelli and Mascarello, one of the list’s great pleasures is rummaging through the odd mix of offbeat bargains that can be experienced with a touch of age. Take, for instance, the mini-vertical of mid-2000s Gini Soave, wines that have acquired unexpected complexity in recent years.
Arguably, then, time itself has played the most meaningful role in shaping the contours of Babbo’s list. Rather than the vision of a single individual, it reflects the cumulative legacy of tastes and influences that formed it along the way. In an era when wine programs have become fashionably idiosyncratic, chasing the latest trends, it manages to be more than just a “snapshot” of the present, but a treatise on the timelessness of Italian wine.
“I never considered it my job to put my personal stamp on the list,” Porter says. “We can still pull wine from the cellar that David Lynch bought in the early 2000s. More than anything, that’s what makes us special.”
BABBO IN FIVE BOTTLES
Bucci "Villa Bucci" Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva
The iconic Bucci estate, locate in the Marche region of Italy’s Adriatic coast, is renowned for its elegant, age-worthy expressions of the verdicchio grape. “I know it’s not that old,” Porter says, “but it goes to show that Babbo buys in bulk and holds wine back.” With a long life still ahead of it, the 2010 Riserva, the estate’s flagship wine, will reward diners for years to come.
Filippi "Turbiana" Trebbiano di Soave Veronese IGT
Typical of the odd, unexpected bargains scattered throughout the list, this overlooked old-vines gem from the Veneto “sums up Babbo well,” according to Porter, and is just starting to flirt with maturity. It’s “delicious, terrior-driven, unique and a killer value.”
Bruno Giacosa "Gallina" Barbaresco
Simply put, this nearly twenty-year-old bottle from Nebbiolo-master Bruno Giocosa is precisely why old-school wine lovers keep returning to Babbo. Dating back to the restaurant’s birth year, it’s an “OG purchase,” Porter says, offered at a sub-$400 price-tag that, while not exactly cheap, “is not unattainable for well-aged classic wine.”
G.B. Burlotto Barolo
Babbo has always bought the wines before they became cool,” Porter explains, and this Burlotto offers incontestable proof. Now a bona fide wine-geek favorite, the Burlotto estate’s bottlings have “been a stable on the wine list at Babbo for a long time,” demonstrating the foresight that has defined the restaurant’s approach to the cellar.
Tenuta San Guido “Sassicaia”
“It is 2017,” Porter says of this selection, “and [along with the 2004 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Ornellaia” and the Antinori “Solaia” of the same vintage] these are three of the most successful, important Super Tuscans, which we’ve had since the day they were released.” More than that, their presence speaks to Babbo’s inclusive, non-dogmatic attitude. While the big Super Tuscans might no longer be at the height of wine fashion, they still attract a large audience, and the list honors their vital place in modern Italian wine history.