At the end of this year, Valentino, one of L.A.’s most influential restaurants, will close, after 46 years in business. Piero Selvaggio, its co-creator, captain, and tireless engine of charm, will join the Orange County restaurateur Ron Salisbury to oversee the front of the house at Louie’s by the Bay in Newport Beach, California. The closing of Valentino brings to an end one of the largest, most idiosyncratic, eclectic, and ultimately personal wine programs ever assembled in the United States, and one of the most important. It is a wine program that deserves every superlative you can throw at it, and is worthy of a final look.
Selvaggio and his partner, Gianni Paoletti, opened their restaurant in 1972, naming it for Rudolph Valentino, the Hollywood matinee idol, because both wanted an Italian-sounding name that would be easy to remember. The nod to Hollywood should not be overlooked: This was an Italian restaurant best interpreted through a California lens—its menu built from California ingredients, its interior decorated in California pastels, its tables populated by Hollywood hoi polloi, and its front of house overseen by Selvaggio, with his movie-star good looks, his incandescent charm, and his sunny California disposition. “One could only hope to someday be a fraction of the consummate, elegant host that Piero is,” says David Rosoff, who has himself been a consummate host for several Los Angeles restaurants, including Michael’s, Campanile, Mozza, and now Hippo.
Piero Selvaggio was born in Modica, Sicily, and emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. He reached Los Angeles by the age of 17, and just seven years later, in 1972, he opened Valentino. He started the restaurant with the most rudimentary of wine programs. He himself had no practical knowledge of wine (well, perhaps a little—he was Italian, after all) and no conscious ambition to create something special. Through its first half decade, the wine program was an amalgam of clichés, a barren landscape of Lancers, Mateus, and Blue Nun, of cheap Lambrusco, fiaschi of Chianti, and fish-bottle Frascati. “It was one page,” says Selvaggio, “and our distributor [Schallert] did the list. If you wanted high end, you could offer Wente Brothers Chardonnay, Louis Martini Cabernet, and maybe a dessert wine from Christian Brothers. That was all there was to sell.”
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The restaurant grew popular, to the point where well-heeled patrons took Selvaggio aside to complain about its pedestrian wine selections. Then one night Selvaggio was introduced to Mike Robbins, a real estate developer who was doing a brisk business in nearby Century City and commuting from the Napa Valley, where he ran the Spring Mountain winery and, eventually, St. Clement winery.
Selvaggio and Robbins became friends, and before long, Robbins was introducing Selvaggio to his fellow Napa wine entrepreneurs, like Bob Travers, Joe Heitz, and Robert Mondavi. All of them made Valentino an obligatory destination whenever they were in Los Angeles, and all made their wine available at the restaurant. Selvaggio almost never said no to offers, and the wine list grew by leaps and bounds, right in step with the California wine industry’s great era of expansion and fueled by the extravagant per diems and expense accounts of Hollywood agents, executives, and stars.
By the late ’70s, the restaurant’s reputation had spread to Italy, where it drew the attention of an influential Milanese wine writer named Pino Khail, the founder of the wine journal Civiltà del Bere (the English version is known as the Italian Wine Chronicle). In 1980, Khail asked Selvaggio if he could bring in a few guests, winemakers on a tour of California. “On Mother’s Day 1980,” says Selvaggio, “I am standing by the door when the bus arrives and in comes Pino Khail, and I say, ‘How do you do?” and behind him there’s a line of gentlemen, and one by one they introduce themselves—
“‘Piacere. My name is Piero Antinori. How do you do?’
“‘Piacere. My name is Franco Biondi Santi. How do you do?’
“‘Piacere. My name is Michele Chiarlo. How do you do?’
“… and then Antonio Mastroberardino, Leonardo Frescobaldi, and on and on; I think, Oh shit, these are all the big guys in Italy!”
In all, 40 winemakers, restaurateurs, and writers walked through Valentino’s door that day. Selvaggio advised them on how to spend their time in California: where to go, whom to visit, where to dine, what to drink. Before the year was out, 30 of the winemakers were represented on the restaurant’s wine list; Selvaggio maintained decades-long relationships with all of them, buying their wine, making introductions, and hosting lavish wine dinners whenever they visited the States.
Relationships—this is how the Valentino wine list went from a provincial smattering of clichés to a powerhouse of reach and influence. “Whenever Piero looks at a bottle of wine, he no longer sees a grape variety,” says Paul Sherman*, a sommelier at the restaurant for nearly 20 years. “He sees the person who made it, and the place it came from.”
For patrons, the list was a repository of desire, in many ways more important than the food. “It was the first restaurant in Los Angeles where you came for the wine,” says George Caloyannidis, an area wine collector and longtime patron, “where you ordered your wine first and then you ordered your meal.”
“It was such a thoughtful wine program,” says Manfred Krankl, owner of Sine Qua Non Winery in Oak View, California, and a long-time Los Angeles restaurateur. “The way he treated wine with his guests, you could feel his respect—how important and central it was. It made wine more meaningful to the whole restaurant experience.”
Selvaggio’s wine program was great not because he was a formidable taster, or because he had exceptional sommelier skills or an especially keen nose for the next big thing—though these talents proved true in the long run. Rather, the greatness of the Valentino wine program was derived from the man himself, a man whose warmth, self-possession, and charisma create a gravitational pull, such that you’d want to do business with him just to be in his presence.
Selvaggio would go on to open Valentino satellites in Las Vegas and Houston, and two other restaurants in the L.A. area, Primi in West Los Angeles, and Posto, in Sherman Oaks. All had excellent wine programs, but none could compare to the mothership. By the early ’80s, patrons and wine sellers alike had started to refer to the wine program by a name that captured its singularity. They called it the altare, the altar—“an elevated place or structure where religious rights are performed,” a place, in other words, before which you genuflect.
Selvaggio shared one of his old lists with me, from the tail end of the restaurant’s heyday, in the mid-2000s. It ran to 120 pages and was preserved in a thick three-ring binder that smelled of equal parts attic and garlic. In it was documented the best selection of Italian red wine in California. It featured 180 Barolos, 85 Barbarescos, 75 Brunellos—wines from Altare, Batasiolo, Ceretto, Chiarlo, the three Conterno families, Giacosa, Manzone, Mascarello, Parusso, Pio Cesare, Ratti, Sandrone, Scavino, Voerzio, and Vietti. It had more than 40 SKUs of Gaja alone, 20 of Sassicaia, and multiple vintages of Ornellaia, Solaia, and Tignanello. It had, in a section called “Typical Italian Grapes,” selections of Sagrantino, Montepulciano, Teroldego and Schioppetino, years before such varieties were commonplace, and icon wines that ran the length of the boot, from Lageder and Caprai to Galardi and Mastroberardino.
But the collection wasn’t limited to Italian wines. Entire pages were given over to Grand Cru and Premier Cru Burgundy: Musigny (5 SKUs), Bonne Mares (15), Clos de Vougeot (15), Corton-Charlemagne (6), and Le Montrachet (15), and selections from Leflaive, Leroy, Dujac, Jayer, Rouget, Roumier, and Comte de Vogue. It had 80 SKUs—80 SKUs—of DRC, including La Tâche, Richebourg, Échezeaux, St. Vivant, Romanée-Conti. The list was also deep in Bordeaux, with more than 100 first-growth wines represented (20 selections of Pétrus alone).
American wine began at page 88—and went on for 24 pages. Twenty-plus vintages of Araujo, Colgin, Diamond Creek, Grace Family, Harlan, and Mondavi. Also Rudd, Screaming Eagle, Turley, and Opus One for days. An entire page was devoted to Sine Qua Non—outside of the winery, it may have been the largest collection of Sine Qua Non in the country.
In short, the list was massive and excessive, classical and eclectic, an artifact of an era in wine that is probably past. It attracted wine lovers and winemakers alike, a list where placement, to one degree or another, meant that you had arrived on the L.A. wine scene, where your wines were now available to an elite fraternity of collectors, cognoscenti, tradespeople, and connoisseurs.
And it punched your ticket for Fridays, the only day of the week that the restaurant served lunch. Friday lunch quickly became the destination for long, bacchanalian afternoons when restaurateurs and collectors mingled with winemakers and wine reps, who bought back some portion of what they’d sold, plus a few other bottles, while Selvaggio circulated like a maestro among the tables, pouring wine, decanting wine, accepting sips and tastes, glad-handing, bestowing amuse-bouches and complimentary cannoli, and doing it with the grace and aplomb he was known for. Who wouldn’t want to sell wine to Piero Selvaggio? Who wouldn’t want to position themselves closer to such an irresistible light source?
None of this was accomplished without setbacks, though, and in 46 years, Valentino and Selvaggio had their fair share. Valentino was graced with several outstanding chefs, including Angelo Auriana, Steve Samson, and Luciano Pellegrini. All of them moved on at one point or another to start their own ventures. Selvaggio lost his Malibu home to fire in 1993; the following year, the Northridge earthquake destroyed more than 25,000 bottles of the Valentino cellar. Financial hardship forced the sale of the building in which the restaurant is housed, and which Selvaggio has since leased. As the years passed his clientele got older, and it wasn’t often replaced by a younger crowd.
Finally, the economic crisis of 2008 nearly drove the restaurant out of business. “Check averages plummeted,” says Selvaggio, “and customers started to bring their own wine into the restaurant; this cut into the profits too. I was forced to dip into the biggest asset I had.” For the past 10 years, as the world of fine dining changed irrevocably, Selvaggio has been obliged to sell off portions of his precious wine inventory to collectors in order to cover operating costs. The strategy bought him another decade, until the decision this August to bring the Valentino’s era to a close; one hopes the restaurant’s legacy will extend beyond its shuttered doors.
“Seeing [Piero Selvaggio] at work with guests was one of the great pleasures of my life,” says Donato Poto, the co-owner of Providence and a protégé of Selvaggio’s at his second restaurant, Primi. “When it comes to how we read a guest and treat a guest, in making people feel special and comfortable—I have never met anyone better than him. I am very proud of being a part of his career.”
* Editor’s Note: Paul Sherman, a veteran sommelier at Valentino, is father to Aaron Sherman, publisher of SevenFifty Daily and CEO of SevenFifty
Patrick Comiskey is a senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits Magazine and is the chief wine writer for the Los Angeles Times. His book “American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink” was published in October 2016.