From Italian paratrooper to sommelier, Villages wine club president has done it all

Growing up in a small hill town northwest of Pisa, Italy, during and after World War II, Giorgio Masini never dreamed that he would come to know international celebrities and royalty.

“It was a town of 5,000 people, and 4,000 of them were our relatives,” he says.

Left: Sommelier Giorgio Masini with his ‘tastevin’ – a wine-tasting cup. Right: Masini displays his paratrooper badge. At 18, he joined the Italian Army as a paratrooper, making 13 jumps during his tour.

The son of a policeman (later a collection agent for a bank), and a midwife mother, he joined the Italian Army at age 18 and volunteered to be a paratrooper.

“Few people in my hometown had ever even seen an airplane up close,” he recalls. “The excitement was incredible.”

After two-and-a-half years, Giorgio left for an opportunity to work on transatlantic liners, where he learned his true calling – wines!

That’s how most Villagers know Giorgio, as the leader of popular Wine Talk club, which meets at the Bacall Recreation Center on the second Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. Because of the room size, only 80 members can attend the meeting, although there are about 150 in the club.

“People bring wine – nothing too expensive – with snacks and share it with others,” Giorgio says. “Sometimes we have a speaker, such as a winemaker.”

He spent almost a decade as a waiter and wine waiter.

“Sommelier means ‘wine waiter,’” he notes. “You don’t have a certificate of merit. You have the chain around your neck with the cup, and a different jacket than everyone else, which sets you apart because you’ve earned it.”

Just after World War II, Villager Giorgio Masini spent two-and-a-half years in the Italian Army as a paratrooper.

The sommelier’s cup, known as a “tastevin,” dates back to winemakers tasting in dark cellars. Modern sommeliers sometimes pour a splash of wine in the cup and taste it before serving it to guests.

“The ripples and indentations in the cup help with airing the wine when it is swirled,” Giorgio says.

Giorgio’s interest in wines began with French vintages and expanded to other European wines as he worked on the ships.

In the 1960s, Giorgio Masini was the sommelier – and later part of management – at the exclusive El Morocco club in New York.

“The first-class dining room on the Holland America’s Rotterdam was equal to the best French restaurant in Paris,” he says. “In those days you didn’t study to become a sommelier – you learned it by working at it every day.” Just to prove his bona fides, Giorgio is a member of the Sommelier Society of America.

“European waiters are professionals,” Giorgio says. “They work their way up through the ranks and spots open up only when a person above them retires or dies. When they tell you about a dish, they know every spice that goes into it. They know wine because it is available, and they drink it.”

Wine and coffee were part of the tradition of daily life when he was growing up in Italy, he explains. “You’d go to a bar, and in the morning, you’d have espresso or cappuccino. After lunch espresso – no more cappuccino – later in the afternoon, you’d have wine. White, red or rose. Maybe 10 percent alcohol, not like the 14 or 15 percent now.”

After almost a decade at sea, Giorgio was invited to come ashore in the United States and he began a career as a sommelier, host and manager of elite private clubs on both coasts. Perhaps his most famous post was at the El Morocco (sometimes known as the Elmo) in New York, with its distinctive zebra-stripe décor.

Sommelier Giorgio Masini, center, serves celebrity guests at the elite El Morocco club in New York.

One of Giorgio’s prized mementos is a letter from the Duke of Windsor (the British king who abdicated to marry an American divorcee) accepting his invitation to become a member of the El Morocco. Giorgio helped host the first anniversary celebrations for Aristotle and Jackie Onassis at the club.

“It was a place where the elite came,” he says. “Although many of them had bodyguards, they didn’t bring them to the club. They were sitting next to people they knew. They felt secure.”

In time, with ownership changes, the clientele changed.

“People started coming in to see the celebrities,” Giorgio says.

By 1992, long after Giorgio and his sommelier tastevin had departed, the club became a topless bar. The site is now a condo building.

Following the Elmo, Giorgio moved to Los Angeles as general manager of the Regency Club, arguably the most exclusive club in the country. A story in the October 1981 issue of Los Angeles magazine noted that “Like the establishment he manages, Giorgio exudes a kind of subdued elegance.”

Now retired, Giorgio often blends his own wine at his home in the Chesterfield Villas.

“If I want to make a Bordeaux-style blend, I’ll buy the wines and pour the percentages, the measures, into 1.5-liter bottles to make the blend,” he says. “After adding each wine, I tilt the blend gently, add more, and so on.

You don’t shake wine,” he cautions with smile. “Wine is like food. You must be gentle.”

Sommelier Giorgio Masini, left, with West Coast wine writer Robert Belgium.

Giorgio is acquainted with a wine drinker (a member of Chaine des Rotisseurs food and wine gastronomic society) who, in a blind tasting, can tell the type of wine, where the grapes grew and the year it was made. But that is unusual. He says that various factors can affect how people taste wine, including age, and the other foods and drinks they consume.

Giorgio has one rule of wine.

“If you want to be a good golfer, you have to golf at least four hours a day,” he says. “If you’re going to be a good wine connoisseur, you have to drink wine every day.”

John W Prince is a Villager and writer. For more information please visit www.GoMyStory.com.