Almost a decade ago, Scott Zoccolillo was working at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware. Once a month, a regular guest would bring in a wine from his personal cellar and ask the chef to create a dinner around the bottle. On one occasion it was a 1942 Chevel Blanc.
“I remember not really enjoying the wine since I did not have an understanding of what an older wine should taste like,” recalls Zoccolillo. “[The guest] told me to think back to what was happening in France in 1942. German armies were invading, war was everywhere, vineyards and bottles were being destroyed or confiscated. For this wine to survive 60-plus years to end up on the table before us was extraordinary. He finished his story by saying, ‘Imagine that everyone who made that wine has now passed on — as you pull the cork, it’s like they are taking their last breath all over again.'”
The next day, Zoccolillo bought his first wine book and started studying. Less than a year later, he sat for his first sommelier exam. Now, he heads up the massive 1,500-bottle wine program at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Philadelphia and is also the force behind the PA Sommelier Judgment Day, a yearly showcase for Pennsylvania wines. Zoccolillo wasn’t always an advocate for local wines, but that changed during his time at Hotel du Pont when a wedding guest — who happened to own Va La Vineyards in Chester County — gifted him a bottle of Silk, their dry Rosato.
“I put it on my wine shelf at home, thinking nothing of it,” he recalls. “Like many, I thought that Pennsylvania wine was fruity and sweet and not really a wine to take seriously. Fast forward a few months and it was the only bottle I had. I opened it with low expectations and was taken aback by the quality and complexity of the wine. It really opened my eyes to what the local wineries had to offer.”
Not long after, he left Hotel du Pont to join the team at Nectar in Berwyn, a restaurant where the focus was on all things local, from produce to cheese to beer.
“I felt this was a great opportunity to showcase and really dive into the Pennsylvania wine scene and offer some local options,” he recalls. “I started traveling around the southeastern part of the state in search for great wines to offer.”
Zoccolillo added eight-to-ten PA wines to Nectar’s list but noticed some hesitation from guests, who often came in with preconceived notions — like those he once harbored. He needed to find a way to open their minds.
In 2014, he organized “Judgment of Pennsylvania,” a wine event modeled after the famous Judgment of Paris tasting from 1976 that helped put California wines on the map. For his tasting, Zoccolillo gathered sommeliers, wine writers, and qualified wine professionals to blind taste and grade Pennsylvania and California wines.
“We used California as a competing region since most of our guests had a comfort level with California wines, and it was a standard for domestic quality wine production,” he recalls. “If Pennsylvania could win even one or two awards (out of eight), that would show that the state was offering quality as well. The wines from Pennsylvania ended up taking half of the awards, far surpassing our expectations.”
Sommelier Judgment Day is an evolution of that contest. At an April blind tasting, a panel of sommeliers tasted wines submitted by wineries from across the state, and created a detailed report on each, including tasting notes, rating how well it showcases its varietal character, and evaluating value for the price. The panel’s ten highest rated wines will be poured at the event, and Best Red, Best White, and Best in State will be announced. The goal is to offer feedback to wineries so they can better market their wines and earn placement in wine programs.
When Zoccolillo isn’t organizing events or recommending bottles off of Del Frisco’s massive wine list, he’s at home with his wife and four kids. With six mouths to feed, grocery shopping is no small feat.
“I love to cook,” he says. “Growing up in a Polish-Italian household, food was comfort and dinner was time for family. When I chose hospitality as a career, my cooking skills increased dramatically.”
Fall might just be his favorite season for eating at home.
“I do much more grilling, barbecuing, and smoking of meats come fall,” he explains, crediting the weather. “Smoked pork butt and grilled steaks are fall favorites, and I have really started to enjoy grilling vegetables as well — corn on the cob still in the husk comes out great, and peppers and mushrooms [are excellent] alongside the steaks.”
Autumn is also a great time to drink wine. Those last few warm weeks are perfect for finishing off your summer stash of white, while nights are finally cool enough to spark a craving for a bold red. Zoccolillo is constantly tasting wines from all over the world, and some of his favorite varietals include Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc.
“Lucky for me, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc grow really well in Pennsylvania, as well as many other crisp whites,” he says. “Local wineries that I really enjoy include Penns Woods Winery, Galen Glen Vineyard & Winery, and Vynecrest Vineyards & Winery. There are so many that I like. I could go on and on.”
Scott Zoccolillo’s Grocery List
Apples (“The kids devour fruit.”)
Nice cheeses (“Especially Brie since my wife doesn’t prefer it and I can eat it all myself! Or something local from The Farm at Doe Run or Yellow Springs Farm.”)
Pork for the smoker
Hot dogs (“For the kids — and me!”)
Potatoes (“We put potatoes on the grill for a slightly smokey baked potato.”)
Coffee (“A great cup of coffee keeps me going throughout the day, and not just as a pick me up. I really enjoy a cup as a way to relax.”)
Galen Glen Gruner Veltliner (pair it with the Brussels Sprouts)
Vynecrest’s Lemberger (pair it with meat off the grill)