The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Drinking History

Adversity can breed excellent art, and wine

When I was a student, I was curious about history. It was less knowing the historical events in and of themselves—though places, names and dates do have a certain charm—it was more understanding the connection between what was happening in music  and in art and what was happening politically and economically. Certainly, when there was prosperity, the arts flourished. But when there was time of economic hardship, they took on a very different tone, and in many ways the arts grew more interesting during hard times than they were during times of comfort.

Adversity can breed excellent art. For example, it’s an accepted notion that artists need to suffer for their art. This is undeniably true for blues musicians. The pain of relationships often forces blues musicians experience raw feelings, and then they release those feelings in their music. This art-born-from-suffering concept can hold true for many artists working in multiple genres. Certainly the horrors of the Spanish Civil War inspired Picasso to tell the story of the bombing of the Basque town by German pilots in his painting Guernica. It vividly shows the horrors of war, in particular the suffering of civilians. But does this theory relate to wine?

I think it does.

In many ways, wine requires both peace and prosperity. For one thing, the land must be in a harmonious state to produce wine’s most basic and beautiful raw materials: the grapes. The vineyard owners must have a healthy cash flow in order to manage the considerable expenses of the operation. But what of the winemaker him or herself? Take for instance the historic Gaja Barbarescos from the 1970s. Gaja made these wines during a time when he was sharply criticized for reducing his yields, using small French oak barrels, even vinifying and bottling single vineyards separately.  And yet, these wines show the passion and the conviction of a young man who dared to defy his colleagues, even his father. They demonstrate the fortitude of a visionary who believed that his wines could rival the finest in the world. They are wines that changed the way people understood Barbaresco.

So what is an original piece of history worth? Is it tens of thousands, even millions of dollars? I would venture to say that to buy a piece of history for well under $500 is a true value. To experience a part of wine history that is still in perfect condition for this price is a remarkable value. Moreover, the fact that you or I can own, drink, enjoy, and imbibe history itself demonstrates the core values of IWM because in many ways Sergio’s mission is similar to Angelo Gaja’s—to show the world that Italy produces wines that are not merely enjoyable, not merely value-conscious, not merely beautiful, but can transcend being just a bottle of wine and become a bit of history itself.

CEO Sergio Esposito Talks about the Launch of IWM Cellars

A new tool to help customers live and evolve with their wine

When I co-founded Italian Wine Merchants in 1999, it was with a sincere belief that serious wine collectors and more casual enthusiasts alike would support a business offering absolute quality and personalized service. Fast-forward 10 years, and I’m proud to say we’ve proven our theory right. 2009 was a tough year for many industries, and the wine business at all levels has not been spared serious challenges to its bottom line.  However, it is precisely during such times when one’s chosen business model and strategy either proves its worth or exposes its weaknesses.  Now that we’ve closed our year, we’re proud to report that though it did not come without significant effort, IWM wine sales grew 21% in 2009.  People may not be spending as easily, but they continue to appreciate quality and service.

IWM remains focused on producers that can make quality wine no matter what.  For us, the response to the recession was not about reinventing what we do, but perfecting it, and so far it’s working.  The reserves and allocations we get from wineries have dramatically increased over time.  What used to be just a few bottles became cases, and cases became pallets and containers.

At IWM, we have always believed in continuous improvement, knowing that doing better every day for our clients is the best guarantee of success. As we go forth in 2010, what current and future IWM clients can count on from us is stability: in our unerring commitment to quality across the price spectrum; in our dedication to shaping long term customer relationships; and in our value-added services to deepen enjoyment of your wine.

Along with our unparalleled Portfolio Management team, IWM Cellars is our most dynamic and complimentary value-added service. IWM Cellars, our proprietary cellar management software, actively connects clients to all aspects of taking care of and engaging with their wine.  We continue to offer full, personal service to all clients and also host a robust online tool that users can enjoy as they live and evolve with their collections, whether 10 bottles or 10,000.  In these uncertain times, I see it as extremely important that IWM Cellars exists as a means for current and future IWM clients to maintain uninterrupted access to inventory, information and analysis. Over the next quarter, even more capabilities such as Current Market Valuation and Bar-coding will roll-out and underscore our commitment to regularly improve our offerings across all aspects of the business.

Finally, I want to thank our clients for their trust and their significant role in making IWM what it is today. I hope you’ll take advantage of our complimentary IWM Cellars and continue your great journey to enjoying the world’s best wines.

Just in Time for More Snow, Cooking Up Boeuf Bourguignon

Quality ingredients, including the wine

In addition to my love of wine, I also love cooking. And one of my favorite things is to marry both passions by cooking with a wine and then drinking that wine with dinner—for example, this time of year I love to make Boeuf Bourguignon. This meat-and-wine stew has gotten a lot of press lately with its star presence in the recent film Julie and Julia, but I assure you that I was cooking it long before the movie came out. There is something about it that reminds me of home and warms my soul. It’s quite a time consuming dish, but not complicated at all. The casserole cooks for around three hours to give all the flavors enough time to melt together and to make the beef so soft that it pulls apart. One trick I’ve learned is to transfer the mixture to a crock-pot to cook so that I don’t have to spend all day in the kitchen watching the oven.

I like to choose the freshest ingredients, preferably from the farmer’s market, and I choose a wine that I would actually drink. It doesn’t have to be an expensive Giacosa Barolo, so I choose something I would pop open for a movie night. My theory is if you don’t use quality ingredients from the start, you’re not going to end up with a quality dish. Even if I’m committed to using high-quality meat, I’m more flexible on the type of wine, and sometimes I even use wine left over from multiple bottles. Below is a Julia Child-inspired recipe you can use as a guideline, but don’t be afraid to modify it for your own purposes! I know I like mine with more carrots, and I add vegetables like celery and peas. I also like to pour mine over some delicious egg noodles.

Boeuf Bourguignon:

  • 6 ounces bacon
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil or cooking oil
  • 3 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into bite-sized cubes
  • 2 chopped carrots
  • 2 chopped celery
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup of peas, cooked
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 3 cups full-bodied wine like Chianti
  • 3 cups brown beef stock
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 4 cloves mashed garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 18 pearl onions, braised in stock
  • 1 pound quartered fresh mushrooms, sautéed in butter
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • egg noodles
  • parsley


Dice the bacon in small pieces and cook with oil in the casserole over medium heat until brown, about 3 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pan, drain it, and put bacon in a separate dish. Heat the oil and bacon fat until it gets really hot.

Make sure the beef is dry (to ensure a nice brown color), put it in the casserole and brown on all sides. Remove and combine with the bacon in the separate dish.

Lower the heat under the bacon fat, and then add the chopped carrots, celery, and onion to the oil and bacon fat and sauté until brown and slightly soft. Remove the excess fat.

Put the beef and bacon back into the casserole and add the salt and pepper. Sift in the flour and cook for a few minutes to reduce the starchy taste of the flour.

Add the wine and beef stock until it just barely covers the beef. Next put in the smashed garlic pieces, herbs and tomato paste. Turn up the heat and bring the entire mixture to a simmer.

Transfer the mixture to your crock-pot and cook on medium for three or more hours.

The meat should pull apart very easily when done.

While you wait for the beef, prepare the braised pearl onions, sautéed mushrooms, and peas—you’ll add all these at the end.

When the meat is done, strain the mixture over a saucepan and return the mixture to the casserole dish. Add the pearl onions, mushrooms, and peas to the casserole.

Bring the sauce to a simmer while skimming off the excess fat. Then—and I know this feels counter-intuitive-add the butter to the sauce mixture and cook until the sauce can coat the back of a spoon. If you prefer a thicker sauce, reduce it for longer, or if you like it thinner, add some beef broth.

While you do this, bring water to a boil in a pot and cook the egg noodles.

When the sauce is ready, pour it back over the meat and vegetables. Mix it all up and ladle over a bed of egg noodles. Sprinkle with some parsley. Delicious.

Pairing Wine and Chocolate

Not a Problem

Once you grew out of peanut butter and chocolate, you probably learned to love the combination of wine and chocolate (of course, there’s nothing wrong with still loving the former, even if you come to love the latter). The problem is that there are just so many variations of chocolate; there’s milk, dark, and white chocolate; there are chocolates with fillings, chocolates with nuts, chocolates with fruit, chocolate candies, chocolate truffles, chocolate cakes and pies and tortes and chocolate fondue—it’s pretty much a death-by-chocolate world. There are seemingly infinite chocolate selections and thus arises the question of how to best plan pairings with so many chocolaty variations.

Fortunately, this problem is one that other people have pondered, and it’s one that you needn’t answer by yourself. During one of her visits to Italy, a friend and client of mine out in California was blown away by the artisanal chocolates she found there and was determined to bring them back to the US, even if she had to make them herself. We often spoke of her plans to craft these chocolates, and soon my friend had made good on her promise and started her own business. Being the wine lover that she is, she asked me if I had any ideas on pairing. Not knowing her product, I naturally responded, “I’d have to taste them!”

Last week she sent me a box of her chocolates with four different flavors. Excited about the possibility of eating delicious chocolates, and wanting to help out my friend, I immediately wanted to get to tasting. I pulled aside my colleagues Tida and Jane. “I need your help” I said to them. “How do feel about tasting these chocolates with me and come up with some wine pairing ideas?” Of course they accepted. 0ne could say we have a tough job here at IWM, but someone has to do it!

The Chocolates

Chocolate with Orange: if you are a regular reader, you’ll remember that we recently had a Grappa tasting with Jacopo Poli. His Moscato, a beautiful Grappa for drinkers new to the spirit, has gorgeous citrus notes that would complement the orange in this truffle. In addition, the high alcohol would cut through the richness and make this particular chocolate come alive.

Chocolate with espresso beans: this is one of my favorite combinations of chocolate. I love when you get a little piece of chocolate after a well-made espresso in Italy—it’s so good. And yet, this truffle was challenging at first. However, after much diligent searching, I found that many heartier reds from France can have notes of coffee, which is a great baseline note to set a foundation for the espresso beans. Still, I felt compelled to find an Italian wine, and I struck upon a well-structured, traditional Barolo or Nebbiolo, like one from Mascarello and Giacosa (two of the top Barolo producers in Italy). Barbera has notes of chocolate as well, which could work, as could Frappato from Valle dell’Acate (a Sicilian varietal and producer), a lovely wine with chocolate and berry notes and some spice.

Gianduia: not to sound like a broken record, but hazelnut flavors abound in Barolo along with other great earth notes. I’d go with an aged wine on this one to bring out that wonderful nuttiness enrobed in this particular chocolate. If you wanted to go with a white, I’d suggest that Angelo Gaja’s Gaia & Rei 2006 would be awesome with Gianduia.

Dark Chocolate and walnuts: this combination simply screams for Chardonnay—especially Italian Chardonnay. Italian Chardonnays hold less oak than those from California and show a little drier. A nice crisp and clean Italian Chardonnay would balance out the voluptuousness of the chocolate and provide a complementary tartness to the walnuts. I’d suggest more specifically a Chardonnay from our biodynamic friend Ales Kristanchic’s Movia vineyards. Movia’s more organic than organic methods give their wines a sensuous earthiness that would make those walnuts sing.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

The 2007 Vintage Début

Every February, the gracious Aubert de Villaine visits New York to present the new vintage of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.  It’s always a special morning, enshrouded with an aura of solemnity, when I get to taste some of the world’s most impressive and most sought-after Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For the last four years, I have had the honor and the pleasure of attending this sit-down event.

The tasting was on my mind the moment I awoke.  I thought of the wines being carefully organized and decapsuled, the tasting mats and glasses being arranged, the vintage reports being aligned beside the glasses.  I envisioned the wines being poured just before the tasters arrived, each bottle carefully held by white-gloved hands.

This year, the eighteen attendees were a blend journalists and buyers (a second session was held for an additional eighteen members of the trade.)  Interestingly, aside from members of the importing team, I was one of only three women in the room.  While men often do outnumber women, this number seemed surprisingly askew.  As we finished priming our palates with 1997 Salon and began filtering into the tasting room, Aubert asked that I sit beside him and pulled out my chair.

Aubert began with a discussion of the vintage, which took me back to my visit to Burgundy in July 2007.  Expecting summer, I had packed a suitcase of sundresses and sandals, so I rushed straight to the Galleries Lafayette in Dijon to purchase jeans and several thick sweaters.  My week in Burgundy was marked by drizzly walks through the vineyards of the Côte de Beaune and many, many cups of steaming Earl Grey tea.  Aubert pointed out this weather was very unusual because it turned that out the famous Palm Sunday wind “lied for once.”  When it blows from the north, as it did in 2007, the wind promises a dry year.  However, 2007 wasn’t dry-yet luckily the rains were accompanied by chilly temperatures for a fair portion of the summer, and most of the diseases were kept at bay until the end of the season.  With the arrival of September, the winegrowers’ fortunes changed, and the 2007 harvest produced some very beautiful wines, especially at this exceptional domaine.

As one can imagine, a group of opinionated, if professional, tasters often challenge one another’s position on a wine.  Yet on this occasion, a surprisingly harmonious chorus rose from the group:  the wines were changing vastly throughout the two-hour tasting, but all in a positive manner.  Aubert thoughtfully nodded and said with a small, knowing smile, “Yes, the wines are now starting to understand they are in bottle for good and are starting to show their anger.  That is why their expressions are evolving so.”

As I read back through my notes today, I noticed that the recurring themes were “impressive mid-palate density” and “exceedingly long finish.”  I’ll spare you a summation of those notes and leave that task for other tasters. Instead, I’ll answer a fellow study partner’s frequent question post-tasting:  “What was your favorite wine?”  (Sometimes the clinical setting and professional mind-set of a tasting make us forget we’re in this business because we love great juice.)  The answer is complex.

I have to admit that while I am typically most fond of Romanée-Saint-Vivant in the younger years, I was rather more enticed by the initially effusive cranberry nose and iron-fist-in-velvet-glove tannins of the Échézeaux.  However, it was the Romanée-Conti’s enrapturing violet aromas, surprisingly pale color and integration of youthful fruit and spicy oak that made for the most delicious wine on the table-even so young.  I hope I have the chance to taste it several times as it evolves over the years because, even though drinking now, the wine is still somewhat restrained and will unfold many more layers of complexity.  Aubert claimed, “The 2006 vintage was hedonistic when we tasted it last year.  The 2007 is monastic.”

I look forward to that monkish order opening up, even if I have to wait for it.

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