It’s official: One of the world’s best wine stores — especially if you are a fan of Italian wines — is right here in Washington. And you may have overlooked it.
A. Litteri has been selling Italian foods to Washingtonians for 90 years. The store’s current location in the old warehouse district of Northeast D.C. is just a block from the uber-hip Union Market, but it’s a time capsule to those family-owned neighborhood stores where regular customers are greeted like friends as they sample an aged Gorgonzola or order a cold-cut sandwich that would make Sinatra sing with joy.
And there’s wine, of course. Enter A. Litteri through a door that could be easily overlooked if the wall around it were not painted with the colors of the Italian flag, and the first thing you encounter is the wine closeout section. These are cheap bottles, including a $5 pink Catawba from Indiana and several other inexpensive wines a vintage or three beyond their prime. You might find something cheap and interesting here, but turn right and head to the main wine section. There, among claustrophobic shelves reaching to the ceiling and seemingly on the verge of collapsing on you, is one amazing wine selection.
This is the domain of Ken Nankervis, who took over A. Litteri’s wine program in 2012 and gradually transformed a selection based on closeouts to one of the best — especially for Italian wines — in the city.
Or maybe the world. Last month, A. Litteri was awarded the Leccio d’Oro prize from the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany as the best wine store outside Italy. The Consorzio naturally favors stores that specialize in Italian wines in general, and Tuscany’s in particular, but the award was fitting recognition of Nankervis’s efforts to build A. Litteri’s wine selection into a world-class program.
“When I got here five years ago, all this space was dedicated to pinot grigio,” Nankervis told me on a recent visit to the store, as he waved at a space of shelving about the size of a hefty nightclub bouncer. “It took me two years to get rid of it all.”
Today, Nankervis’s selection of about 3,000 wines from around the world is crammed into a space the size of a bomb shelter. It includes more than 30 indigenous Italian white-wine grapes, with names such as pecorino, erbaluce, grechetto and falanghina. There are several esoteric red varieties as well. Two-thirds of his wines are Italian, but Nankervis also offers small but high-quality selections from other regions, including Spain, Portugal and South America. (The U.S. selection is perhaps a little weak.)
“People come in and ask for pinot grigio or chardonnay, and I just say, why?” Nankervis says. He champions the sheer variety available from Italy.
“One of the reasons Italy has so many categorized grape varieties is the Catholic Church,” he says. “They were so good at keeping tabs on people and what they were doing, that when people find some forgotten variety they can look in the church records to see who was growing it back then.”
There’s a reason the Brunello consorzio took notice. “I have 65 Brunellos from 2010 in stock, and 130 Brunellos overall,” he said. “I went to every store in Montalcino” — the quaint Tuscan hill town that is home to Brunello — “and none carry as many Brunellos as we do.”
Mike DeFrancisci, the third-generation owner of A. Litteri, credits Nankervis not only with boosting wine sales but also making the store attractive to younger consumers, including those who frequent Union Market nearby.
“With the area changing, our clientele has totally changed in the last seven or eight years, and Ken has been a big part of that,” DeFrancisci said. “We never had anyone here to sell wine and do wine and food pairings. Wine sales have increased dramatically since Ken joined us.”
Nankervis, 49, discovered his love of all foods Italian when working at Cafe Milano in Georgetown. He then worked several years with Winebow, an importer and distributor specializing in Italian wines, before moving to A. Litteri. While upgrading the store’s wine selection, he also rebuilt the shelves and put in new flooring. Every Saturday, he offers a tasting of 12 wines with 12 foods drawn from the store’s larder and his imagination.
A consultation with Nankervis can be gruff and to the point. He’ll ask how much you want to spend, and what recipe you’re cooking. He’ll throw out phrases such as “wicked minerality” to describe a wine, and “blue cheese and Amarone is a match made in heaven” for a favorite food-wine pairing. It’s impossible to talk to him and not get hungry.
As I interviewed Nankervis, we were interrupted frequently by Silvia Buch, a precocious 2 ½ -year-old in search of a breadstick, who was visiting the store with her parents, Ethan and Kristin, and her infant sister, Maria.
“This is the next generation for Litteri,” Nankervis said, lifting little Silvia into his arms.
“I grew up in Eastern Connecticut, and my mother was from a big Italian family,” Ethan Buch told me. “This store takes me back to my roots. I have become friends with most of the employees.”
So has Silvia. She easily scored some cheese and biscotti while her parents tried some delicious Chianti.