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The Interview: Daniele Drago, Sommelier, La Luna

Published:  23 July, 2008

Most of your wine knowledge is self-taught; has this been difficult?
Not really. I started learning about the different Italian labels and grape varieties when I was in Sicily. The turning point came when I moved over here and had a look at the brochure for Enotria Winecellars. There were so many wines, it was just incredible: 25 or 30 different kinds of Barolo. So I started reading books about the whole subject - not just the labels but about the people behind the wines, the regions, the different grapes and so on. Since opening the restaurant, I have also started to visit the vineyards. Although, unfortunately, I don't have much time to travel around Italy; otherwise I'd be over there a lot more. I'm very lucky because I have good wine friends and they bring their wines over to me.

Italian wines are notoriously confusing. How do you decide on the wine list?

When we first opened the restaurant we had about 250 bins, but this was just too much, the customers were completely lost. Now we have more like 80-100 wines listed by price, with a further 50 or so in our special collection of reds. The difference with some of the wines on my list - even the expensive ones - is that they're often not very well known, and so it's a pleasure for me to introduce people to them. It's important to build relationships with producers, and there are a lot of small guys in Italy, especially Sicily, who really deserve to be known over here.

Do you find that people are keen to learn?

This is interesting, because there are a few people who will never ask anything, ever. They refuse to believe that I would be able to offer them anything better than they can choose themselves, and that's when we sell the Chiantis and Barolos. Then there are other people who are shy, so I will try, in a nice way, to point them in the right direction. And at the other end, there are those who have no problem at all with asking questions. They open up the wine list, smile and call us over with a shout of Help!' There are a lot of words on our list, and customers often don't know where to start. I do think they're keen to learn - I will frequently sit down with a customer for ages and talk to them about grape varieties and so on before they pick a bottle.

And are they willing to shell out for an expensive Italian wine in the same way as they might for a French?

In the past two years I've sold maybe 20 bottles for more than 200 and 100 bottles for 100-200. When you go over 100, you tend to be dealing with people who are real wine lovers, and they know what they're buying. Under the 100 mark, you're able to sell a lot more bottles, and on a good Saturday night, the majority of tables will buy something for over 50. It's hard to compare expensive Italian wines to the top French wines; in restaurants, you can find French wines for 1,000, whereas this sort of price doesn't really exist for Italian wines. I have no interest in selling a quality wine to people who don't understand what they're paying for. We have some very special wines on the list, but, at the same time, I have also included some excellent bottles for 30.

So you don't try to encourage people to spend more?

I won't try to push the really expensive bottles, but I will often try to persuade people to pay say 10-15 more than they might have had in mind. Generally, I'll open a bottle and get them to try it. Then if they don't like it, no problem - I'm quite happy to drink it myself! And I really want people to give me an honest opinion, rather than keep quiet and go away feeling disappointed with the wine. At the end of the evening, if I've introduced maybe three or four tables to something new - and they've liked it - I'm a happy man. You always get people who simply aren't interested, and there's not much you can do there. My wife is a perfect example: when we go out to a restaurant, she's happy if the wine's red, but she doesn't really care beyond that. So it's no problem choosing a wine for her!

Do you work with the chef to produce wine-friendly menus?

Certainly. We change the menu seasonally and try to balance it with different options of red meat, fish, pasta and risotto, so there are plenty of different wine options. In terms of very precise food-and-wine matching, we used to have a lot of different wines by the glass, but this often resulted in open bottles lying around for longer than they should, and people weren't always getting the wine at its best. So now I only offer four wines by the glass but support this with a good selection of half-bottles. Sometimes, however, the customer just wants to have an Amarone, regardless of the food. I can go home in this case!

La Luna, 10 Wharf Street, Godalming, Surrey GU7 1NN, Tel: 01483 414155

Daniele Drago was born in the seaside city of Catania, Sicily. He entered into the catering industry at the age of 15, helping out his father - a hotel director - in the summer holidays. It was here that his initial interest in food and drink was developed, particularly his growing appreciation of

the wines of Sicily.

Drago came to England in 1997 and worked in Cantinetta Venegazzu restaurant in Battersea Square, London, before taking on the role of assistant manager at a friend's restaurant in Epsom. At this point, his self-taught wine education went up a gear, and in 2001 he joined forces with three friends to open up La Luna in Surrey.

With the exception of one Englishman who is a silent partner, it is a Sicilian team of three, with Daniele taking on the role of sommelier. Since then, La Luna has graced the pages of The Good Food Guide and The Time Out Eating and Drinking Guide, as well as obtaining an AA Rosette. The restaurant also holds wine-tasting evenings, which are hosted by Daniele.

With the exception of Champagne, the wine list at La Luna is entirely Italian.