Eleven Madison Park's Gabriel di Bella: "The most important rule is to slow down and listen"

Gabriel Di Bella and the Grand Prix Gold Star in the Eleven Madison Park wine cellar. Photo Star Wine List.
Sorrel Moseley-Williams
Published 20-June-2024
News / New York City

There are many ingredients that go into making the Eleven Madison Park hospitality recipe, from generating emotions to ensuring guests feel as if they are at the best dinner party ever. The Make It Nice group’s flagship restaurant has picked up a slew of accolades and awards over the years including three Michelin stars, being voted the World’s Best Restaurant by 50 Best in 2017.

And, its wine programme is just as exceptional as chef Daniel Humm’s food. At Star Wine List’s New York 2024 awards, the beverages team took home three gold star gongs: the Best Long List and California Wine List top spots as well as the coveted Grand Prix for the best wine list overall.

On June 24, Eleven Madison Park faces winners from around the world in the International Final of Star Wine List of the Year in Stockholm.

“We often say that knowledge doesn't sell wine because it’s about the story and people behind a specific wine and what they're trying to do with the winery,” says wine director Gabriel Di Bella of the beverage programme he leads.

The French-born transplant, who was born into a family of restaurateurs and studied at Tain-l’Hermitage wine school in the Rhône, leads a 10-strong team whose diverse backgrounds contribute to guests’ experiences.

“There are a lot of different perspectives and people from different backgrounds, so we always try to bring the emotional factor into play, more so than technicalities or knowledge,” he says.

Gabriel Di Bella (left) and the EMP team. Photo courtesy of EMP.

While the wine programme at EMP was driven forward by Dustin Wilson MS between 2011 and 2016, the emotional side is something that Di Bella understands well.

“When I was studying, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Franco Biondi Santi, owner of Biondi Santi in Brunello di Montalcino. He was almost 90 years old at the time and we had the most wonderful chat; he very generously wanted to gift me a Brunello 97 as he said it was one of the greatest vintages he’d ever made.”

“My father was in awe of this bottle when I got home with it, so I promised him that the day he retired, that we would open it, and we did so a few years ago: it was magnificent. We like to generate similar kinds of emotions at EMP.”

In its current format, the restaurant’s wine bible encompasses more than 200 pages and besides a strong California section, the list also focuses on Europe; of note is Corsica that boasts its own section.

Gabriel di Bella and Eleven Madison Park winning the Gold Star for Best California List in New York 2024, flanked by Krister Bengtsson and Jacqueline Coleman. Photo Gabi Porter.

"I've been following this list for a long time,” says Paz Levinson, one of the four expert jury members. “Even before Wilson became head sommelier, it was always impressive as it is a real collection of wine treasures from different parts of the world. I love the Rhône section, because such depth is rare to see, as well as the open-minded vision that includes beer, cider and sake.”

The Argentine sommelier was joined by fellow judges Christy Canterbury MW, Heidi Mäkinen MW and Rajat Parr, and their hard work choosing New York City’s finest lists was revealed at Star Wine List’s second New York awards, held at Jupiter Restaurant at the Rockefeller Center in March.

People are willing to enjoy themselves and really dive into the list

Given that EMP is a restaurant diners choose to frequent often with the idea of celebration, the wine list exists to help them curate an amazing occasion. Other beverages, however, also play their part in that special experience, adds Di Bella.

“People are willing to enjoy themselves and really dive into the list,” he says. Regardless, wine choices depend on the season or whether guests are returning. “Some will come and say ‘last time I had a Hermitage 1997, what should I have today?’ That opens the door to a lot of drinks, including the satellite programme such as sake and cider. The beer programme, for example, has always been really important. We have between 80 and 100 beers on the list depending on the time of the year, and they are always highly appreciated by beer lovers.”

Gabriel Di Bella. Photo courtesy of EMP.

With such a vast beverage programme to work with, it is near impossible that the entire team gets excited by exactly the same vintages. But, the Donnachadh Gamay from Santa Rita, California, is currently tickling their collective fancy.

“It’s aromatic with a lot of freshness and we've enjoyed pairing it with a soba noodle dish, which has dashi, pickled shiitake and wasabi, a little bit of spice with mushroom flavours,” he says.

Di Bella has been diving into white Bordeaux most recently, as he considers it to be an underrated category. “I'm trying to expand that part of the programme because there are fantastic world-class white Bordeaux. Plus, when we think of a plant-based menu or the spring and summer menus, it’s good to go fresher,” he says.

As for hospitality rules, part of EMP’s experience is trying to throw the best dinner party there is and while that might sound frivolous, it’s all part of the team’s job to figure out what guests want.

“I think the most important rule in the dining room is to slow down, listen to and look at our guests, and genuinely listen to them. We call it genuine hospitality, showing real warmth, because the most important interaction our team has with their guests at any given time takes precedence over anything else.”

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