The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

All A-twitter for Thanksgiving

On the Way to an Orphan’s Gathering, Discovery and Quintarelli

The fall: it’s my time of year. After the frivolity of Halloween and the folk tradition of Dia de los Muertos, Thanksgiving always stands out as a holiday for home cooks, serious foodies, homespun eaters and wine lovers of all persuasions to join together in celebration. What could be better than a riot of flavors, a house full of friends and family, and a few days of rest? Not a lot, to my thinking.

In the past, after settling on the finer details of basting methods (overnight, halve salt = moisture retention and crispy skin) and after resolving upon my stuffing options (chorizo + apple), I’d turn to what I enjoy most: selecting the various wines to meet the Thanksgiving meal. My selections aimed to complement, to uncover contrasts, or to unfold a surprise or two.

In 2006, I chose Zinfandel as the go-to varietal because of its affinity for the meal (not to mention its crowd-friendly personality) and its heritage in American viticulture (despite it Adriatic Coast provenance). Some great Zins from that feast included Robert Biale’s Black Chicken, Hartford Russian River Valley, and Saxon Brown’s Parmalee-Hill Vineyard. While ’06 featured a complementary all-Zin line-up, other years I was intrigued by contrast. Take Thanksgiving 2008, for example, a year that was all about white varietals, aromatics and acidity. That year I chose H. Lun’s Gewurztraminer; Qupe’s Marsanne, a St. Innocent Pinot Blanc from Washington State; and the charming, deliciously, offbeat Domaine des Huards Cour-Cheverny of the Loire Valley, a wine made exclusively of the rare varietal Romaratin.

These memories of past Thanksgivings seem to blend imperceptibly into each other, almost like the flavors of the table itself, but like all good things, they never drift too far from recollection. This year, I’m all a-twitter to partake in an orphan’s gathering at my dear friend Courtney’s. While I’d typically be orchestrating the entire mise-en-place, I’ll be leaving Thanksgiving 2009 in other, capable hands. I imagine this Thanksgiving will reveal new discoveries in food, wine and friendship—all the singularly significant parts of Thanksgiving. After all, isn’t Thanksgiving’s mythology equal parts discovery, togetherness and food?

Discovery is in the air, it seems to me. The spring and its holidays have the traditional connotation of rebirth and beginning, and yet my dear friend Lettie reminds me that in the world of wine new beginnings occur in the fall. I don’t see why this can’t be true for all of life. A new beginning this fall—and therefore something to be extra thankful for—it’s an idea that seems especially valid when I have good friends surrounding me, a delicious meal to look forward to, and a magnum of Giuseppe Quintarelli’s Primofiore in tow.

A Lucky Man

For the love of wine

Most people have a part of their job that they don’t like or, at the very least, find frustrating. Many people have something about their job that they like enough to keep on going back day after day. But not everybody has some part of their job that they love passionately. I’m a lucky man: I have job  that I love, and that’s talking to people about wine.  And what is even luckier is that it’s not very hard to find people to talk to, because it seems like everybody else also loves to talk about wine.

When I meet friends of friends, I often hear upon introduction, “Oh, you’re Rob, the wine guy!” as if I’m some kind of minor celebrity. If my reputation hasn’t preceded me, I announce my occupation and I hear, “You’re in the wine business?  That’s awesome!” And then I spend the majority of the evening spinning like Jeter and fielding questions about wine.  I certainly don’t mind, since I love talking about wine.  But I also love learning about people and would like to hear about their jobs as city planner, NFL coach, explosive demolition manager, CGI animator, or bank CEO. However, any questions about them are waved away, and the topic is steered back to wine.

Living in New York City, I cross paths with a multiplicity of people, but wine so often offers a meaningful connection between disparate individuals. I should stop being surprised. The skinny, grease-covered bike mechanic with dreadlocks down to the middle of his back laughs as he tells me how he broke his bike’s water bottle cage trying to fit one of his favorite Barolos in it.  The Chinese acupuncturist working on my back doesn’t speak much English, but she lights up when discussing the Chianti she brought to dinner with friends. The IT consultant takes a break from project work and speaks passionately about making wine in his Tribeca apartment and how it compares to the Cabernet Franc wines of Friuli.

There are plenty of mythological, mystical, and religious explanations that circulate like incense about how we are all interconnected. But I like to keep it simple, and just offer up a bottle of wine. Wine—or love of it—may be the universal language.

Pay It Forward

Rambunctious friend silenced by Quintarelli

When I joined IWM in New York a few years ago, I brought what I believed to be an above average knowledge of Italian wine.  I had just returned to New York after living in Rome for two years and felt motivated to promote the culture of Italian wine and to work with the producers who had inspired me in this new career path.  It took less than one week at IWM for me to realize that everything I thought I knew about great Italian wine was about to be irrevocably altered—in fact it only took one sip of Giuseppe Quintarelli 1995 Amarone Riserva.  It was that one defining wine moment that many of us have had when you know there’s just no turning back.

Last night at Tuscany by H, located in my newly adopted city of Hong Kong, I was able to pay it forward.  Chef Harlan blew away my group of dining companions with his Roasted Scallop in Porcini Mushroom Puree and a perfectly done Rib Eye with Barolo Sauce, which our rambunctious crew paired with Gravner 2003 Ribolla Anfora, Bodega Chacra 2007 Treinta y Dos and Farnese Edizione Cinque Autoctoni (a beautiful Montepulciano-based blend from Abruzzo and Puglia).  Yet all the while as we sat eating and drinking and laughing, a bottle of Quintarelli 1998 Amarone sat waiting, almost teasing, in the background.  When the Quintarelli finally made its way into our glasses, something rare happened at our table: silence.  First giddiness, then silence.  Sipping my wine, I watched the same expressions I’d made the first time I drank a Quintarelli Amarone; mirrored around me were my friends’ faces, all struck with that singular expression of trying to understand the astounding symphony that was playing loudly in their wineglasses.

That night, I saw that the rabid Quintarelli cult had a few new members, and I was proudly re-initiated myself. While a few others at the table emphatically chose the stunning Bodega Chacra as their Wine of the Night, for me it was—and will often be—Quintarelli. We wine drinkers are generous folks; all of us are eager to pay it forward and introduce our friends to these new favorites. I hope it won’t be long before we’re all back at that same table discovering new classics and laughing so hard that our faces hurt far more than our stomachs.

A Surprise Finish for Sassicaia

Drinking and rethinking the 2002 Vintage

A special week of Sassicaia came to a close as the gavel dropped for Lot #2729 at Saturday’s wine auction in Del Posto.  It was seconds earlier that my wingman lay frozen with paddle phobia in anticipation for the lot on hand: Sassicaia Magnums from the recent 2006 vintage.  What’s so significant about Magnums from a current vintage release? It’s pretty simple. This large format has already become obsolete in this highly sought year of the Super Tuscans. The one—and redundant—insider tip I can share to an aspiring collector is that magnums from cellar staples, like Sassicaia, will significantly out-appreciate standard bottles. For example, two magnums of the iconic 1985 fetched $10,200, not bad for the enthusiast who paid $120 per bottle two decades ago.  While the gunshot sound of the gavel signaled Sassicaia’s close at the podium, it also reaffirmed what IWM preached months ago. Not only does the wine rock on the palate, it excels as an investment.

However, it wasn’t the idea of 2006 Sassicaia showing signs of ‘85 glory that has left a lasting impression on me; in fact, it is quite the opposite. Earlier in the week Piero Incisa della Rocchetta and Monica Soldera joined Sergio Esposito along with twenty guests for a special evening of wines featuring Bodega Chacra, Sassicaia and Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.  For me, this line-up is as thrilling as a concert of Dylan and The Dead.  With 1982 (Sassicaia) and 1990 (Soldera Riserva) joining this unprecedented offering of Italian winemaking royalty, it would be difficult for any bottle to outshine these monuments to Italian wine.  And to no surprise the vintage bottle of Sassicaia drew raving comparisons to Mouton-Rothschild from some guests, while others were left speechless by Soldera’s wines of meditation.

But as the week came to a close, it wasn’t the 2006 Sassicaia auction lot or the historic 1982 that stuck with me; it was the Sassicaia and Soldera media sleepers of 2002 that were placed on the table beside the 1982 and 1990 vintage gems a few nights back.  Piero claims that the wines of this vintage were “a victim of the bastardization by the media,” and to miss these wines because the critics dismissed the 2002 vintage as a whole would be a serious injustice.  In fact, the 2002 Sassicaia in many ways is more representative of the house style that defines Tenuta San Guido, as opposed to the rich and concentrated version Mother Nature provided the media obsessed in 1985.  Sassicaia 2002 provides finesse and accessibility. I have to ask, why crack into the age-ability of 1999, 2001, 2004, or 2005, when 2002 is this good now?

No reason, really. It’s a Sassicaia celebration.

Pepper, Pork and Prose

Adventures in food and words

I have always loved to cook. As soon as I was tall enough to reach the stove, I would prepare French toast and fried eggs for my siblings every Saturday morning. I’m sure that the first few attempts produced eggs that were too runny and French toast that was too dry, but I got the hang of it with practice. I am more adventurous in the kitchen now. Having overcooked plenty of roast chickens and served many under-seasoned dishes, I take great pleasure in attempting new culinary creations, and I avoid using of recipes as often as possible. I feel comfortable pairing components and conceptualizing dishes with flavors that marry as naturally as salt and pepper, but in execution lies the need to practice and learn by trial and error. At the end of the day, I take pride in everything I make.

This past weekend I made a visit to the Greenmarket and Whole Foods for gastronomic inspiration. I embraced fall and undertook the preparation of a mustard and brown sugar glazed pork loin roasted with Braeburn apples and onions, to be served with mashed potatoes. Although the pork could have been pulled from the oven a little earlier and lacking a vegetable peeler I had to roast the potatoes rather than mash them, the meal tasted like fall to me, and I was able to hone my meat roasting skills in hope of future successes. As I sat to write my first blog post, I thought for a while without experiencing anything resembling an epiphany. After beginning a number of rants and odes, I finally realized writing (a passion of mine) is much like cooking to me—the first go is always simply that—a jumping off point, an opportunity to learn, requiring confidence and risk and always a time to hope for the best.

Here’s to runny eggs and potatoes with skins and the occasional sweet taste of success!

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