Underground Cellar Discusses the Process of Finding Quality Wines
Here’s our interview with John P. DeBenedetti, Chief Sommelier of Underground Cellar.
CellarTracker: What is your personal interest in wine? Do you drink it every day, do you work with it all the time, or what?
John P. DeBenedetti: I was born and raised in France–my dad was the US Ambassador to Monaco in the ’60s, so we were there until I was 19. I grew up around great wine and became fascinated with it–not just the drinkability but the history and culture of it all.
CellarTracker: We know that you’re a “Chief Sommelier” for Underground Cellar, which means you’re overseeing all of the wine. Is that correct?
John P. DeBenedetti: Right, I’m in charge of buying and overseeing all of it, yes. Cheers!
CellarTracker: What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to finding wines for Underground Cellar? (What do you look for?)
John P. DeBenedetti: We (meaning the three owners) taste wines constantly. I meet with our business partner, Mario Zepponi, in Napa several times each year to go over his portfolio and find new wines for us.
CellarTracker: Do you use a tasting template, or is it more casual? What’s your process like?
John P. DeBenedetti: It’s very casual–we talk about the wines, taste them and discuss what we think works for different types of members. We’re also really clear with the wineries to let them know that our feedback will be honest. If they don’t want to hear it, well, then we have a problem.
CellarTracker: Is there a “typical” wine? In other words, if you had to characterize the kinds of grapes and types of wines that most members receive from Underground Cellar, what would they be?
John P. DeBenedetti: I don’t think there is a typical catalog offering these days–we have so many different kinds of wines, so many different levels of condition, etc. But I feel safe saying that most are great producers at the top of their class for what they do–winemakers are pretty predictable in that way—great wines by small but well-known (and often family) producers.
CellarTracker: Are there any favorite wineries that you work with?
John P. DeBenedetti: I have many favorites, but it’s always hard to pick because other people are often involved in the decision-making process. We also go through other “wine distributors” at times to help out–in other words, our partners are great!
CellarTracker: You’ve mentioned that “we” drink wine every day. Who are we? Are there other members of the Cellar Tracker community who also help with the selection process and taste wines with you?
John P. DeBenedetti: I’m speaking about myself and my business partners, Greg Allen and Brad Jordan . We all taste together all the time. We also have a great network of friends in the business who are always kind to us, and we’re fortunate enough to be able to meet with winemakers and taste wines from around the world.
CellarTracker: Are there any specific regions or countries that you favor when it comes to finding wine for Underground Cellar?
John P. DeBenedetti: Not really–we have so much demand on us for wines right now that I think the diversity has come more from the supply, which is still pretty high out there. Also, not to sound corny, but it’s hard to beat some of the “old world” producers who are making great wines each vintage.