Like many, Ellie Bufkin came to wine through the restaurant industry—she was a college student looking to make extra money. Originally from Baltimore, she got her start at a restaurant there called Pazo where she discovered her real passion for hospitality and wine. Thus, she decided to pursue a career in restaurants by moving to NYC. For two years, Bufkin worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se where she was exposed to one of the best wine cellars in the city, and some of the top wine professionals in the country. After she left, she spent a few years traveling around the country, learning from top sommeliers, only to conclude that while she loves wine from all over the world, she’s particularly fond of the wines of Italy.  


What wines are you drinking these days and why?


I am always open to trying new things, but when I open the wine cooler, I almost always reach for Champagne. There are so many different styles, and with the boom of grower producers and smaller producers over the last decade, there are so many terroir-driven Champagnes available that don’t break the bank. There is literally a champagne for every occasion. When I do drink red, I typically stock up on Etna Rosso. I am so excited to see this region develop the way that it has, so many of these wines are made by young producers who have a real passion for the volcano they are made on, and the expression of the wines is so unique. It really is a wine that you can taste, close your eyes, and imagine being right there on Mt. Etna.


How do you balance the wine selections at Maialino between consumer-demanded classics and fresh ideas?


At Maialino, we are very fortunate because we have such a dynamic range of guests coming in to drink wine. We really stand behind the fact that our whole list is hand selected, and truly represents the best of Italy. We celebrate the classics by offering deep libraries of vintages, particularly in Barolo and Barbaresco, and we also represent new, sometimes very small producers. Wines are selected because we find them to be one of the best representations of their style and region, and provide an excellent value to our guests at all price points.


What do you think is the role of the modern-day sommelier and where does service at Maialino fit into that paradigm?


I believe that the sommelier should be the expert in service on the floor at any given time. True, they should also be an expert on the wine list they are representing, but it is so much more than that. Too often, I see young somms go for high level wine certificates without putting much time in on the floor at a restaurant, and they subsequently are not prepared to be true titans of service. They have a lot of facts, but the warmth and instinct for hospitality and anticipating guests’ individual needs is equally as important as being able to rattle off the original four villages of Chianti Classico, and the different altitudes of the crus of the Valtellina. At Maialino, we have a specific focus on the wine team of being the most service savvy members of the staff. Hospitality is paramount in every decision we make.


What’s your dream wine destination?


Not to sound like too much of a fan girl, but Mt. Etna, and Sicily in general. I am so excited for these wines and what is going on there right now.

 

What’s your go-to bottle for under $25?


Vignetti Massa, Petit Derthona Terra, 2015, $20. It’s a delicious, crispy Timorasso with lots aromatics and plenty of complexity. Punches way above its weight. Timorasso is a grape that is native to the town of Tortona in the Piemontese DOC of Colli Tortonesi, about an hour west of Barolo. Until the 1980's, Timorasso had mostly gone extinct, until revitalized by Walter Massa. Today this thick-skinned white grape produces elegant wines with lots of character and minerality. Only about 20 producers within Colli Tortonesi are currently in production.


What's your celebration day splurge?  


My splurge, or "Dream Bottle," is a 1990 Lamy-Pillot Montrachet. I had a taste once, back in the beginning of my somm days, and it opened my eyes to the romance and soul of white Burgundy. I haven't seen many bottles since then, but I would love to revisit that first experience.