Although Fabio Masi, chief sommelier at Four Seasons’ Restaurant Il Lago in Geneva was born and raised in Milano, Italy, his interest in Swiss wines is anything but neutral. He spoke to us about how the revolution in the country’s wines, his remarkable experiences in the dining room and his own path in developing a passion for wine.
When did you develop a taste for wine?
When I was four years old, my grandfather would dip a piece of bread in wine at dinner and let me taste it, so my passion for wine started early. My first real wine experience was in Ovada, Piedmont, when I was 16 and helped with the grape harvest. I tried so many different kinds of wine that fall—wonderful.
How did you get involved with wine professionally?
I enrolled in a hospitality school in Milano when I was 14 years old. For the first two years, I learned all I could about the kitchen, dining room and reception. In the third year, I focused on the bar. Then in the last two years, I specialized in sommelier courses, which included other drinks such as spirits and coffees as well as an internship. At 19, I began work professionally as a sommelier in a two-star Michelin restaurant in the U.K.
Describe how you handled an awkward situation with a guest.
One guest ordered a coveted bottle from the coveted Bordeaux château Lynch Bages. He wanted it poured in a cocktail glass, served with a twist of orange and ice.
Did you say anything?
Tell us about an unusual situation with customers.
Last year, the fire alarm sounded in the middle of dinner and we had to evacuate everyone from the dining room to a small, safe room on the resort. To keep the atmosphere positive, I organized a wine tasting for our guests as we waited for the firemen to finish their work.
Describe the most interesting story a customer has told you.
One guest told me how he made his fortune dealing in arms and weapons. It was very interesting but at the same time, I understood how lucky I am to do this job.
Ever serve a couple wine during which there was a marriage proposal?
I once organized a Rosé Champagne tasting dinner with candles and flowers in our wine cellar. It was really romantic. She said yes.
Tell me about your success in several sommelier competitions?
In 2012, I won the Best Sommelier in Switzerland held in Zurich and the Best Sommelier in Italy held in Umbria. In 2010, I was a semi-finalist for the Best Sommelier in the World contest held in Chile. For these competitions, we do blind wine tasting (you can’t see the wine labels but have to describe them and guess at their identity), wine service (taking orders from the guest judges who ask questions), a four-hour exam about vineyards, viticulture, products, cigars, chocolate, digestifs, teas, coffees, beers, sprits and so on.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a sommelier?
I would be a pilot. When I was young, I was very much impressed by the movie Top Gun with Tom Cruise, including when he was in the bar, enjoying the life. It gave me such an emotion that I could picture myself doing the same thing some day.
Tell me about your wine list and cellar at the restaurant?
We have 25,000 bottles in the cellar and a thousand labels on the list. There are 25 Swiss white wines and 25 reds. We have many modestly priced wines from all regions. The most expensive wine on our list is the 2009 Domaine Romanée-Conti 2009, a lovely pinot noir from Burgundy, France, for about US $20,000. The oldest bottle is the 1982 Château Lafite-Rothschild, a spectacular vintage for Bordeaux and it’s US $10,000.
I acquire my special bottles at Christies’ auctions, as well as through some private suppliers. Before the auction, I check the prices of the wines online and in wine magazines so that I know that I can bid up to a certain amount, but there is no need to surpass the market value of the bottle.
What’s your opinion of Swiss wines?
The overall quality of Swiss wines is getting better and better every year. The vines for Swiss wines grow in interesting, unique soils, especially in the Vaud and Valais regions of Switzerland. Valais produces interesting red and sweet wines, while the Vaud is more inclined toward the whites. The Dezaley white wine from Vaud was an wonderful surprise for me because I didn’t imagine that a Swiss white wine could age so well for thirty years. It tasted of honey and acacia flowers with a dry minerality through the core.
Name three of your favorite Swiss wines and what you’d pair with them from your menu?
Grilled scampi with white beans and onion consommé paired with the 2011 Sauvignon Les Curiades from Geneva. The wine has a brilliant, light yellow colour, the aroma is of tomato leaves, green apple, nettles and kiwi. In the mouth, it offers great freshness. It goes well with this dish as you’ll find those same flavours: very delicate and fresh as the scampi are.
Wild sea bass, roasted artichokes and lemon emulsion with the 2009 Dezaley Medinette l.Bovars from Vaud. On the nose, this wine reminds me of green apple and pear. It has a wonderful minerality from the limestone soil that’s typical of the region. Its full-body weight matches the richness of the white sea bass.
Cabri laqué aux Banyuls, chanterelles and black truffle with the 2009 Syrah Philippe Darioli Martigny from Valais. This spicy red wine has aromas of berries and dried figs. It’s quite complex and tannic, very long and powerful. The strong flavor of cabri (goat) needs a wine with lots of body and tannin that can also stand up to the bold flavours of the sauce.
What’s the strangest wine and food pairing you’ve tried?
Risotto and white truffle paired with an Italian sweet wine, Marsala Vergine De Bartoli offered a strange but an exceptional combination of flavors. The marsala has a wonderful taste of mushrooms and soil, so it went perfectly with the white truffle.
How do you pick a wine when he’s having steak and she’s having a delicate fish?
The woman is always the boss.
Are there any wine-related festivals in your area?
There is an “open house” (Cave Ouverte) in June and November every year during which all the regional wineries open their cellars and vineyards to guests so that they can taste their wines paired with small bites of regional specialty dishes. It’s a great outdoor event to attend.
Which wines and regions are popular with guests right now?
White Burgundy (chardonnay) is popular because when people think about a French wine they first think about this region as they have the best soil in the world for chardonnay. Bordeaux reds (cabernet blends) also remain popular because they age so well.
How many wines do you taste each day/year?
I taste about 20-30 wines per day, so around 10,000 wines a year.
Which iconic winery would you most like to visit in the world?
I want to visit the Mosel region in Germany, and to meet the best winemaker of riesling in the world, Egon Müller.
What is the toughest part of your job?
The most challenging aspect (and the best one) is that you never stop learning in this job. Every year is a different vintage with new wineries and new regions, like Alaska, producing wines.
What is your favourite wine-related character or moment in a movie?
In the movie Sideways when the actor is drinking the Bordeaux Cheval Blanc in a plastic glass in the fast food restaurant.
Who’s the most famous person who’s dined in your restaurant?
Sofia Loren is the most famous person who has dined in our restaurant. She enjoyed the Italian Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Sofia is always Sofia.
What’s your favourite wine cocktail?
Champagne Cocktail: 1 sugar cube, 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters, 30 ml Cognac. The sugar cube is placed at the bottom of the flute then add Angostura bitters until it dissolves. Add the brandy, then fill with the champagne.
When you get up in the middle of the night and dive into the fridge for that sinful indulgence everyone denies having, do you pair it with a bottle of Moscato d’Asti or similar wine?
In the middle of the night I prefer beer … sorry.
What are you passionate about aside from wine?
Biking, table tennis, soccer and music. I like to listen to funky bands like British group Jamiroquai as well as Coldplay and U2.
Who are your role models in the wine world?
My first wine teacher was Giuseppe Vaccarini, the Best Sommelier in the World 1978, and Enrico Bernardo, Best Sommelier in the World 2004. They taught me to be myself and to be humble with everyone.
What bottle would be in your dream cellar?
I would have the 1982 Château Lafite-Rothschild because I was born in that year and it is a spectacular vintage! Perhaps my general manager will give it to me for my birthday—kidding.
What special bottle is in your personal wine cellar at home right now?
A magnum of 1982 Barbaresco Sori San Lorenzo Gaja 1982. I will open it with my family and my best friends this year to celebrate becoming 30.
If you could share a great bottle of wine with anyone, who would it be?
With my ‘Trottolina’ of course (my girlfriend). We’d have the 2007 Tignanello, a super Tuscan, and we’d be in Hawaii.
Restaurant IL LAGO
Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues
33 Quai des Bergues 1201 Geneva
Phone +41 22 908 7110
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