Antonio Gardella’s eyes brim with joy as he tells me of his numerous passions and amazing experiences in life, not the least of which was cooking with Julia Child. Indeed, this passionate man seems to have done it all.
He studied mime, knows calligraphy, shelved books for Tecolote Bookstore in the 1970s (then scouted for rare book titles for numerous dealers), acted in more than 27 plays, worked as maître d’ at Piatti’s in Montecito when it first opened, and was the principal of Devereux School, where he discussed autism with Dustin Hoffman as the actor prepared for the film Rain Man. He’s also an avid mushroom hunter, who once got a bad case of poison oak when finding a bounty of his beloved chanterelles.
Most importantly, Antonio lives and breathes wine, which he fell in love with more than 30 years ago. He was instrumental in starting the Grape Harvest Festival in 1986, which morphed into the Santa Barbara Vintners Celebration of Harvest, and served as secretary for the American Institute of Wine and Food. He’s traveled the whole world learning and tasting while meeting and developing close friendships with winemakers. For many years, Antonio has worked as a fine wine specialist for The Henry Wine Group, which has awarded him salesperson of the year several times. In fact, after earning their Hall of Fame Award in 2000, the company named its top award after him.
When I ask him to tell me about his love for wine, his eyes get even more emotional, and he brings both hands to his temples. “Wine is magic,” he tells me. “Wherever fine wine is, you find fine art and great people.”
Gardella is a home winemaker as well, and his private Companeros label — made with Art Morel, Sid Ackert, and the late Luis Goena — has won numerous awards, even impressing critics like Robert Parker, who loved their 1991 Pinot Noir Sierra Madre.
“I care that I bring the best wine to my customers,” says Antonio proudly. When I ask him to name the best wine he’s ever tasted, he smiles and replies, “The next one I’m going to taste.”
This warm and multi-faceted man answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Everyone is always in such a hurry. Take time to listen to the bubbles effervesce in your glass of Champagne. Listen to your heart beat. Relish in the infinity of it all, and in the lessons of your past.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I have done what I have wanted to do. I have followed my passions: books, wine, food, wild mushrooms, photography, travel, friends, mime, juggling, art, music, theatre, and children.
What do you like most about your job?
Working for the Henry Wine Group as a fine wine specialist for over two decades has given me the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people in the food and wine world. I have been able to visit wineries in Washington, California, Australia, Chile, France, Spain, and Italy — to taste the wines and enjoy the cuisine.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness is being happy, healthy, outdoors in nature, hunting and finding chanterelle mushrooms after it rains, and bringing them home to share with loved ones with bottles of exciting well-made wine. Sharing the pleasures of the table with friends is where life comes together.
What is your greatest fear?
Fear! All negative emotions tear at one’s soul.
Who do you most admire?
The dreamer of the dream we wake up to each day and all the intricacies of the marvels of nature that we are part of.
What is your greatest extravagance?
My greatest extravagance is having the opportunity to make home wine with my friends at Companeros each year since 1985 using delicious Santa Barbara County grapes.
What is your current state of mind?
I am always inquisitive and so appreciative of this life we are given. I try to be the best I can be.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honesty and integrity. It is important that we all take part, get along, and be responsible. I once wrote the three keys to wisdom were patience, understanding, and desire.
What do you most value in friends?
What is your most marked characteristic?
Unbound joy for being alive!
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to have been a major league baseball player or an astronaut.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Have the body of Hercules.
Where would you most like to live?
I have been fortunate to have lived my entire adult life in Santa Barbara. It is home.
What is your most treasured possession?
My most treasured possession is my health and ability to listen to my heart. I am able to dig deep inside and fuse feelings into words that create meaningful toasts at celebrations.
Who makes you laugh the most?
I love laughing at the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, but I most love to laugh with my love.
What is your motto?
Something special will happen when you least expect it. The world is rich with magic. Let it be.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
All humankind. I stand atop all the shoulders that came before me along this path of human life on Earth. They all have valuable stories to tell.
On what occasion do you lie?
Honesty is always the best policy. I sometimes do say I ate less than I really did. Mindful eating is so important, but difficult at times to adhere to. Everything tastes so good!