Gino Nardella, a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers and overseer of the atmospheric wine cellars at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Stafford London tells us about the British capital’s relationship with wine, explains why older isn’t necessarily better when it comes to finding a great bottle, and shares his top tips for refreshing summer drinking.
Tell us about the historic wine cellars at The Stafford, today home to over 650 different labels.
For the last 400 years, since the royal move into St. James’s Palace from the Tower of London, St. James’s has been one of the most important areas of London as far as the wine and spirit trade was concerned. This is the area where the wealthy people lived and consumed wine, as wine was an alien drink to the rest of the population.
The cellars are not under The Stafford but under our courtyard. The buildings above the cellars were originally the stables for the Godolphin family. They had their house here about 300 years ago, and one day they decided they needed stable facilities for horses and carriages and built this wonderful wine cellar just below.
You’ve been at The Stafford for over 35 years now. How did you first come to work at the hotel?
I finished college in Italy and had a contract to come and work in London here at The Stafford. I came over as a trainee and met with the then master sommelier here at the Stafford, and my life changed immediately. My passion was wine, and I’ve never looked back. I had a very strong viticultural background, as we had vineyards in the family and, like it or not, we would always be taken into vineyards to help out. By the time I was a teenager, I knew the vineyards very well, which then, later on, proved to be a very strong foundation when I started seriously studying wine.
How has the hotel changed over the nearly four decades you’ve worked there?
The cellar has changed; the hotel and the clientele not much. When I arrived here, the cellars were full of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Riesling from Rheingau — pretty much a French wine cellar with a sort of Germanic tinge. We had the odd Spanish and Italian wine, but we usually poured that as house wine.
Then we started adding to the collection. We were very forward thinking: Already by the late seventies we had wine from California, from South Africa, from Australia in our cellars. For an establishment like The Stafford, we were very avant-garde, really. We always look at the quality and not at the country of origin, and we felt already at that time that Australia, California and South Africa would provide us with some amazing wines.
How has London’s wine scene changed over that same period?
When I arrived here, there were hardly any wine bars in London; and having a glass of wine in a pub, you seriously messed up your palate for the next two weeks! Wine was still an alien drink to most of the population and those that appreciated wine were really the wealthy ones, those that historically had enjoyed fine claret [or] Burgundy and good Riesling. We had to wait for the middle classes to start taking their holidays abroad; in the seventies, there was this explosion of people crossing the English Channel and bringing back bottles and good food.
Do you have a favorite bottle at The Stafford?
I have so many. It’s like a father selecting which one of his children is his favorite. Very difficult. But I do have my favorites. I love pinot noir from Burgundy, for instance.
What’s the oldest bottle in the cellar?
We have wine going back to ’82, the great ‘82s, all the great vintages, the seventies, the ‘61, the ‘45. Naturally, vintage ports go much further than that. We have vintage port from 1927, 1928. If the wine needs to stay in the cellar for five years, it will be there for five years. If the wine needs 20 years, then we’re quite happy to keep the wine for 20 years.
But we are very careful in making sure that our cellars do not become a museum. I always tell our guests to be very careful, whether they have a cellar or a wine rack, never to turn [it] into a museum. Older wine does not necessarily mean better wine; when we feel that the wine is ready, then it will go onto the wine list and be enjoyed by our clients.
What’s your favorite aspect of your role at The Stafford?
I enjoy the contact with the guests, seeing [their] happiness [with] a great bottle of wine that I helped them choose. But also the industry on the other side. I’ve worked in vineyards in Bordeaux, Burgundy. So I have that experience on both sides of the industry, making wine and selecting and selling wine. I have to taste all the wines before anyone else does.
I am responsible for buying the wines — naturally, I involve my team with me; we taste the wines together, but it’s up to me to decide which wines to have at the wine cellar here at The Stafford. When my son was only five years old, outside the school with his best friend, he was asked by his mom about my profession and without hesitation he replied, “He drinks.” So that’s what I do! It’s a fascinating job.
What would you recommend to readers looking for the perfect refreshing beverage this summer?
I always say, “Why not sparkling wine?” and “Why not English?” I’m a real fan of sparkling English wine. Most of the events I do in the wine cellars, the aperitif I offer is usually an English sparkling wine. I never tell them what they’re having, I just introduce the wine as a blanc de blanc and give them the vintage. And, naturally, blanc de blanc sounds very French. It’s very surprising to see their reaction when I tell them that it actually was a West Sussex wine. It’s most probably the finest sparkling wine outside Champagne.