Preserving History at The Forge
Exploring the Wine Cellar with Gino Santangelo
Photo courtesy of The Forge
By many standards The Forge is a Miami institution. Owned and run by Shareef Malnik, The Forge restaurant has operated along a stretch of Arthur Godfrey Road since the 1920s, and is well-known for a clientele that includes celebrities.
The Forge has recently received attention for it’s appointment of it’s first female executive chef, Julia Doyne, a protégé of chef Christopher Lee. Since arriving, Doyne has updated the menu to include more seasonal items and modern takes on classic dishes, but has mostly honored the historical integrity of the restaurant intact.
Gino Santangelo, Wine Director at The Forge, does the same. An employee for over 41 years, he oversees the expansive wine program and the restaurant’s massive cellar. Though the restaurant leans on its icon status for notoriety, it’s the wine cellar – and the story of it – that deserves the attention.
Home to some of the rarest vintages in the world, the cellar is one of the few parts of the space to remain untouched by the restaurant’s $10 million dollar renovation in the mid-2000s. It holds approximately 30,000 bottles including an 1822 Chateau LaFite Rothschild from the Bordeaux region – part of the Malnik personal collection. At 194 years old, the bottle dates back to the era of Napoleon. And it is not the only one with an impressive past.
Santangelo worked his way up at the restaurant, after a friend got him an interview. When he started, working with the cellar was out of the question, because he was so young. Then, the cellar was focused on European wines. “French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and just a little bit of American wine,” he says.
He bought a book and taught himself the trade, finally getting the opportunity in 1981 to work with Al Malnik’s brother who oversaw the wine program at the time. Since then he has taken a few classes but remains mostly self-taught, “You are never finished learning about wine – every year there is something different. It keeps you on your toes, and it is never done. That’s the beauty of wine.”
Santangelo’s interest in wine came from his parents, who made their own at home in Italy. “We grew up with wine, of course it was a locker wine, not like The Forge where you are exposed to everything – different grapes, different flavors. For me, wine allows you to travel; you think about where it came from, who made it, what the land is like, how it’s growing.” He says now he wakes up and goes to bed thinking about wine.
The cellar at The Forge is tucked away in the back of the restaurant. Temperature controlled and made of dark wood, it is lined with bottles and spans three rooms. The first holds a selection of Shareef Malnik’s personal collection and is valued at $2.2 million dollars. Many of the bottles in this room are centuries-old and considered priceless.
The main cellar is arranged as a private dinning room with seating for up to 26 and is lined with double magnum, Imperial and Salamanzar bottles. Many are early vintages from American wineries.
As Santangelo was starting his career in wine at The Forge, California’s wine industry was blossoming. The restaurant started to focus on American wine, specifically California Reds. Today they account for a large percentage of 700 wines offered on The Forge’s menu.
The bulk of that collection of reds, thousands and thousands of bottles, is stored in a cellar that is also home to an antique church altar and old-timey ice cream bar – both relics prior to the restaurant’s renovation. Santangelo says it takes about 6 hours to count all the bottles. He knows because the restaurant sells approximately 50 to 60 bottles every day and up to hundreds on the weekend.
SIX FORGE FACTS
Opened Since | 1930s
Number bottles in the Wine Cellar | 29,000 +
Hours It Takes to Count the Cellar | About 6
Wines on the Menu | Over 700
Oldest Bottle of Wine | 1822 Chateau LaFite Rothschild
Most Affordable Bottle on the Menu | $35 Cote Du Rhone
His approach as a sommelier is relaxed, letting diners have a look before he takes over. In his career he has made wine suggestions for Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, Robert De Niro, Madonna, and the list goes on. For him, serving Francis Ford Coppola, led to a special moment.
“In the summer of 1994, Francis Ford Coppola came to the restaurant with Robert De Niro. I offered them a tour of the wine cellar. And I start giving the tour and he says to me, “You don’t have my wine.” Which, I said to him, “I didn’t know you had wine.” So he invited me to come to the winery in Napa.”
A few months later, when Santangelo was traveling to California, he made an appointment for a tour of Coppola’s winery. When he arrived, there was an open magnum bottle of wine with The Forge logo sandblasted onto the bottle. And a second bottle signed by Coppola to Santangelo.
He says he has never opened that bottle, and Coppola has since come back to The Forge and the two have become friendly.
With his years of knowledge and vast experience, his advice is to wine enthusiasts is put taste first. “When I go to the store – I always try to find something I have never tried. You can study or read about it all, but if you don’t taste it, you are never going to know."
432 W 41st Street | Miami Beach
Tours of the cellar are available upon request, Wine Director Gino Santangelo is available to diners on most nights, and reservations are recommended.