An Italian native, Giovanni Ferlito grew up in the volcanic wine region of Etna on Sicily. Discovering mixology at an early age by watching the Tom Cruise film Cocktail, he began his career in the hospitality industry in 2002 as a bartender. Subsequently becoming bar manager for Italian hotel group Valtur, he travelled the world. Arriving in London in 2010, he chalked up stints at Michelin-starred Italian Locanda Locatelli, two-star fine-dining stalwart The Connaught and private members’ club Morton’s, before joining The Ritz in 2014 as its head sommelier. Having relaunched the wine list in 2017, Ferlito is now responsible for around 800 bins, 150 of which have been added during his tenure. He was promoted to his current position shortly after, and now oversees the drinks menu for the Michelin-starred Ritz restaurant, Palm Court, Rivoli Bar and series of private-dining events, managing a team of seven sommeliers. Here, he reveals the perils of maintaining an 800-bin wine list, what it was like to serve Madonna, and why London is simply the best city in the world to be a sommelier.
What or who inspired you to become a sommelier?
I did my first studies in wine with the AIS (Associazione Italiana Sommelier) when I was still based in Italy. I was so fascinated by our tutor Giuseppe Androne, who today is the wine director of the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea in Taormina, because of the way he was describing the glasses standing in front of us, and this was my first approach to the wine world. When I moved to London, in 2010, one of the first people that I met was Virgilio Gennaro, the wine director of the famous one Michelin star Italian restaurant, Locanda Locatelli in Marylebone. Luckily enough a position as junior sommelier was available and my journey started in one of the most interesting and dynamic venues in London. Giorgio Locatelli, the chef patron, has been a great inspiration and still today I believe he is the best Italian chef in UK, especially for the quality of the fresh seasonal ingredients. This was my first job as sommelier and during my time in Locanda, Virgilio has been a real mentor to me and I still remember all his teachings and funny stories about wine producers. Today we are very good friend and sometimes we go for a relaxed dinner together where each one of us brings a bottle of wine and taste them blind.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
Barolo Riserva Giacomo Borgogno 1958. This exceptional wine completely blew my mind. I was still a junior sommelier when I had the unique opportunity to open and serve this bottle and I still remember today the vibrant garnet colour of the wine and its incredibly complex and evolved nose. The evolution notes turned the fruit character into leather, tobacco leaves, coffee beans and the wine was still in good shape with a perfectly integrated acidity and very soft and elegant tannins. The after taste was unbelievable with a very long lasting finish. Sublime!
How did you arrive at the position you are in today?
I was born in Sicily, and have an Italian father and a French mother, and I spent my childhood between Catania and Paris, taking the best from each country’s rich cultures of food and wine. I think that this was already a good start however working in hospitality is not easy and to build a strong career it takes a lot of hard work, long hours and a huge amount of time spent on wine books. I always been very motivated and determined. One of the biggest changes in my career was when I joined the team in Hélène Darroze at The Connaught hotel in Mayfair. The head sommelier was one of the best sommeliers I have ever met in my life, Hugues Lepin. He is a French guy, trained at Alain Ducasse, super confident with a big heart. I learned everything from him and I built my confidence as a strong sommelier working in one of the best 2 Michelin Star establishments. I joined the team at The Ritz Hotel in London in 2014 as head sommelier and after two years I was promoted to head of wine and beverages. Today I am responsible for the content of all wine and beverage menus and I am the face of the hotel for all beverage suppliers and ambassadors.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
I love to travel and visit the beautiful wine regions around the globe and meet the producers behind each label. As I always say to my team “we are ambassadors of people, culture and tradition. Our job is not to sell wine, but to share stories, knowledge and experience”. This is why in 2017 I launched ‘César’s Wine Club’, a private club for wine aficionados aimed at those who share our passion. Throughout the year we host a series of private wine dinners and masterclasses in partnership with some of the most famous châteaux and domaines. The idea is to create unique experiences that money cannot buy. One of the greatest wine dinners that we hosted last year was with the super modern winemaker in Burgundy Philippe Pacalet. He brought a Jeroboam of Pommard 1er Cru 2005. I still keep the empty bottle as a trophy.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
From a customer point of view sometimes the sommelier can be seen as unapproachable, or like a walking wine encyclopaedia who wants to sell you expensive wines. In reality, a sommelier is a very simple guy who is in love with gastronomy and is just waiting for the right opportunity to share his passion with you and let you discover something new, and is trying to find the perfect wine pairing at the same time to enhance your dinner experience. From a colleague point of view, the sommelier is often seen as the one who works less than the waiters and just comes in the restaurant to fill wine glasses. Unfortunately, this is because most of our job is done behind the scenes and our colleagues do not see the time that we spend in the cellar organising the wines, dealing with the suppliers, receiving the deliveries, updating the wine list and most importantly the hours and the late nights that we spend studying about wine in books!
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
I believe that a wine list is how we present ourselves as sommeliers; it is our business card and it has our name on it. Therefore, the most challenging part of our job is always to keep it immaculate and perfectly updated. We have so many vintage changes, bin ends, wine replacements, new wines coming in and old wines coming out, that managing an 800 reference wine list takes a lot of effort, attention and work. We have to update and reprint some of the pages almost every day! This is something I learned the hard way as the most embarrassing front of house moment for me was few years ago when I was a junior sommelier. I remember a guest ordered a bottle of wine from the list with me and unfortunately after checking in the cellar I had to go back at the table few minutes after to inform him that the wine was not available. Then things went really wrong when he ordered a second bottle and still I had to go back to apologise as we did not have it either. It was the most difficult situation ever and I felt so horrible that I couldn’t keep the eye contact. From that day, keeping the wine list always up to date is my very first priority as I don’t want anyone from my team to be in the same position again.
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out as a somm, what would it be?
Find a head sommelier who can really inspire you as a mentor and also remember that whatever happens, even in the most challenging of situations – you should never give up. Stay focused and study, study, study! Travel, travel, travel!
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
I find really difficult to understand why a guest would turn the wine glass upside down on the table to let the sommelier know that he is doesn’t drink. It would be so much easier just to say “no wine for me, thanks”.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
In 2016 I was part of the team who won the UK final of the famous “Copa Jerez” competition together with one of my best friends in London who today is behind the kitchen at The Bath Priory, executive chef Michael Nizzero. I really love Sherry and I believe that it is one of the most versatile wines to play with for pairings. It could be very easy to put together a full tasting menu with five different styles of Sherry. One of my favourite match is: veal sweetbread, chestnut, black garlic puree, Madeira jus and black truffle with a Palo Cortado “Apóstoles”, González Byass 30 YO. The texture and the creaminess of the sweetbread together with the earthiness of the chestnut and the thickness of the Madeira jus work perfectly well with the round and sweet sensation of the Sherry. On the other hand the masculine structure and nutty character of the wine supports the intense black truffle sauce. Finally the combination with the garlic puree is an explosion of flavours on the palate and the oxidative notes of the Sherry, help to leave the mouth clean and ready for the next mouth.
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing and why?
I am passionate about anything that is liquid, in fact I started my career as a bartender inspired by the famous movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise! I think that if I wasn’t a sommelier I would love to be a cellar master in Champagne. Just recently I spent few days with Guillaume Lete who is the chef de cave at Champagne Barons de Rothschild and we did together one of the most interesting exercise that a winemaker could possibly do, the Vin Clair tasting. We were working on the next cuvée of the Reserve Ritz Brut and I suddenly realised that this is the most challenging work for a winemaker as you need to taste the single grapes coming form single vineyards to decide on the final blend (the cuvée). I think that it is pure art.
Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?
A few years ago, before my time at The Ritz London, I had the honour to serve one of my favourite singers, Madonna. I grow up in the 80s listening to her songs so it was like a dream for me to be next to her and speak about wine. I just loved the fact that she was so easy going and relaxed and I really appreciated the fact that she was asking me for recommendations. She likes Italian red wines and especially Barolo.
What makes you most proud to be a sommelier working in London?
I arrived in London in 2010 without speaking any English at all and with no money. My first job was actually polishing glasses in a pub. It was probably the hardest time in my career especially because I had just left my previous job in Italy where I was working as food and beverage manager for a chain of luxury resorts and I used to be in charge of a team of more than 40 people managing a budget of a few million euros per year. But I was strongly determined to build a new career starting from zero. Today I feel extremely lucky because this is not just my job, what I do every day is my passion. The big bonus is that London is the perfect town for a wine lover. It is the capital of the wine world. There are plenty of wine bars, private wine clubs, wine focused restaurants, wine shops and historic merchants. There is a wine tasting almost every day plus you have the unique opportunity to do networking and meet everyone from the industry such as producers, export managers, brand ambassadors, winemakers, importers, distributors, private collectors. It is simply the place to be for a sommelier.
Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
Scottish langoustine, broad bean puree and mint tips paired with an Etna Bianco, Benanti 2016, from the south-east slopes of Mt Etna in Sicily. The succulent glazed langoustine is light and delicate served on a bed of fresh broad beans puree, pea cress and mint tips finished with a lovely rich and creamy shellfish jus to add some extra dimension and a squid ink grissini which brings great texture. The Etna Bianco has a very appealing nose with notes of green apple, chamomile and a delicate smokiness, classic of volcanic wines; the perfect combination to balance the richness of the broad beans puree. On the palate the wine is vivid and crisp thanks to a good acidity and its savoury style which enhances the crustaceans giving the perfect balance to their natural sweetness.