Saffiotti to receive Epicurean’s sixth award
At 85, Tullio Saffiotti no longer calls on customers to sell fine wines, but his expertise is still valued by friends in the restaurant business.
Saffiotti will receive the sixth Grace “Mama” Marino Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented by the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society at a lavish, black-tie-optional dinner at 6 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4728 Constitution Ave.
The award is named for Grace “Mama” Marino, of Gino’s Restaurant, who received the initial award in 2007, and honors “a person from the Baton Rouge area who has dedicated their life to service in the Baton Rouge community.”
Saffiotti began his wine career in 1964 as a salesman for Bologna Bros., a wholesale liquor and wine distributor owned by his future wife’s family, and was a wine consultant for multistate distributor Glazer’s of Louisiana when he retired in 2009.
“Tullio, throughout all of his career, was the consummate wine aficionado not only for Baton Rouge but all of Louisiana,” said Juban’s Restaurant General Manager Scott Callais, the epicurean society’s founding president. “He not only introduced the fine wines of California, Italy, France and all regions of the world to young hospitality professionals like me as I was beginning my career, but also to this day he has been a mentor to us in the area of wine knowledge. He’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the world of enology. And, I have to say he has the best wine palate that I’ve ever met.”
The dinner kicks off the two-day Baton Rouge Food & Wine Fête, which includes the epicurean group’s Fête Rouge LA Chefs Competition from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 24.
Saffiotti, along with two of his four children, was having lunch at Gino’s Restaurant on Aug. 1 when he recalled his introduction to Baton Rouge’s fledging wine business. It began with meeting his future wife, Eleanora Bologna, of Baton Rouge, at her uncle’s home in Sicily in 1963.
Saffiotti was born Feb. 6, 1927, in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, the fourth of six children of Vincent Saffiotti, a pharmacist and banker, and Anna Dado, the first woman to graduate as a medical doctor from the University of Palermo. He was studying chemistry at the University of Palermo when a close friend whose family owned a tuna processing business offered him a job.
Eventually, he became a business coordinator for the company, which had facilities in Nigeria, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone and other countries in West Africa. He spent about 12 years in Africa, but also traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.
“Joe and Gene Bologna, founders of Bologna Bros., had a brother in Sicily, and his children were friends of mine,” Tullio Saffiotti said. “The two brothers took their families to Italy. Joe was Eleanora’s father. Our paths crossed at her uncle’s house. … I don’t know what happened.”
“They were eyeballing each other,” Tullio Saffiotti’s elder son, Joseph Saffiotti, interjected.
“After seven days, I proposed,” but she returned to Baton Rouge to make her decision, Tullio Saffiotti continued.
He went back to Africa but didn’t forget her. “I sent money to Heroman’s Flowers to send her seven red roses every week.”
She accepted his proposal 31/2 months after the original proposal. He flew to the United States on Jan. 31, 1964, and they married April 11, 1964. He became an American citizen four years later.
“I was a partner in Bologna Bros. when we married and he was a salesman,” Eleanora Bologna said. She resigned from her position as vice president shortly before he arrived in Baton Rouge, and he later became vice president.
He began working in the warehouse with his future brother-in-law Vincent Serio and helping bottle their own wine.
“It came by tank car from California, the Sun Gold line, mostly sherry and muscatel, and a white port was the best seller,” Joseph Saffiotti explained. “They did that for more than 30 years.”
Then, Tullio Saffiotti began riding with Frank Bologna, his other future brother-in-law, to meet customers. “After two weeks, they gave me an Oldsmobile and a list of accounts to go sell to,” he said.
There was another Frank Bologna in the family, a cousin whose family established Baton Rouge Wholesale Liquor Co. and who was a recipient of the Grace “Mama” Marino Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
When Tullio Saffiotti joined Bologna Bros., the company’s emphasis was on liquor, which accounted for 75 percent of sales, he said. Another 15 percent of sales was of the wine bottled in-house and the remainder was wine from other sources.
About 1970, “I saw an opportunity to sell a higher grade of wine and went to California to learn more,” Tullio Saffiotti said.
“At that time the (Baton Rouge area) public was not educated to wine. … But, soldiers who’d been in Europe (after World War II) had adjusted to the better wines of the world and they came back to Baton Rouge looking for good wine.”
He developed relationships with big California wineries such as Swiss Colony and Christian Brothers, then as the California wine business expanded, he met its pioneers from Mondavi, Chateau Montelena, Pine Ridge, Raymond, Beringer, Sutter Home, Sebastiani, Chateau St. Jean, Rodney Strong, Sterling and others.
Next he began traveling to France, Germany and Italy and bringing back wines. Bologna Bros. converted a part of the warehouse to air conditioned storage in 1974 to house the high-end wines he was bringing in.
Eventually, he also was meeting with wine makers in Oregon, Washington, New York, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
By the time the company merged with Baton Rouge Wholesale Liquor to form Bologna of Louisiana in 1986, 40 percent of sales were wine. Saffiotti remained in charge of fine wines, his wife said. When Bologna of Louisiana was sold to Glazer in 1999, Saffiotti became a wine consultant with Glazer.
“Going out to talk about wine and food, that was what he loved,” said son Joe Saffiotti.
“Dad doesn’t meet strangers,” added daughter Eleanor Saffiotti. “And even now, he reads wine magazine after wine magazine.”
“I enjoyed every moment of my career,” Tullio Saffiotti said. “I don’t know if I was good or bad … I had an opportunity and joined an established company.”
Today, he enjoys spending time with his family: his wife of 48 years; his four children, which in addition to Joseph and Eleanor include Anna Hingle and Vincent Saffiotti; and four grandchildren.
“We grew up with Sunday dinner and he cooked it,” Eleanor Saffiotti said. “We still do it.”
Her brother Joseph added, “We grew up with our parents saying, ‘family and faith.’ We still meet almost every Sunday. We have Champagne or a sparkling wine. It is very much a part of us.”