The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Brightside of Controversy

Authentic products on your table and in your glass

Italy isn’t exactly shy of controversy — and few people would have the doughtiness to classify Italy as a strict and rule-ridden country. However, when it comes to food and wine, controversy seems to arise, oddly enough, precisely from the strict geographical and production regulations.

A country supported and admired by epicureans, Italy doesn’t take their food and wine production with the proverbial grain of salt. The land of gourmands and winos, the proud home of the Slow Food movement, and the world’s best wine, Italy takes their food and wine seriously, but is the exclusivity and rigidness creating grounds for detrimental PR? Or, in other words, are scandals always bad for business?

Until recent years, the food and wine industry has managed to stay pretty clear from headlines. This all changed though in 2007 when the scandal known as “Brunellopoli” took the front page. (Selected Brunello producers were being investigated for allegedly adulterating their 2003 vintage by using grapes that fell outside the DOCG standards.) Then, in 2009 a new scandal arose—and created the need for an investigation into adulterating wine for Chianti production zones. While no particular producers were publicly cited guilty in either investigation, the controversies at the very least must create skepticism in consumers’ minds.

It doesn’t seem easy to find a silver lining of, say, a betting scandal, political corruption or organized crime, but when it comes to food and wine, I think that good can fall from these scandalous rainclouds. Much of the controversy affecting the wine industry arises from deviations of the strict appellation system (for information on one such appellation see Frank Sansotta’s post on Prosecco’s new DOCG). If the Italian Ministry of Agriculture weren’t so passionate about abiding by the system, and thus protecting their consumers, they would pay little attention to these sorts of adulterations and modifications. Brunellopoli incidents wouldn’t become world shaking controversies if the Ministry of Agriculture wasn’t so particular and regimented. It is, and that’s a good thing.

Similar standards are applied to the Italian food industry—the protected domination of origin ensures that Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in a specific stretch of land. Since taking office in 2008, Italian Minister of Agricultural Food and Forestry Policies Luca Zaia has spent his tenure fighting counterfeiting of Italian food products. Zaia and the Italian government are working to ensure the high quality reputation and authenticity of Italian products, and that when we buy Italian we are in fact getting “the real thing.”

So, sure, it may cause cognitive dissonance to try to wed the idea of Italy with that of stringent rule-keeping; however, when we give that idea the context of the food and wine, we can see how Italy can take the form of a strict disciplinarian. Scandals may erupt, but they also show that Italians are serious about what’s on their tables and in their glasses. And ultimately, these guarantee that we, the consumer, receive only the best.

The Wide World of Wine Blogs

Who are you reading?

The world of wine information was rather compact and sturdy until the Internet offered a medium that gave anyone with an opinion the opportunity to broadcast it into cyberspace through a blog. As with so much of social media, this vino-blog world is sometimes filled with mindless rhetoric, which can make it challenging to find the handful of individuals whose writing is consistently excellent. Whether they’re good, bad or indifferent, ideas have value, and I always recommend a sampling of conflicting ideas. Even if I have to sift through a bunch of writing I don’t necessarily care for, I’d still like to be aware of dissenting opinions. More importantly, these conflicting vantage points often help refine my thoughts.

While there is a lot of information to sift through, there has been help; for example, both mainstream media and current websites have offered quite a few good articles about great blog sites. In October 2005 Mickey Butts wrote an article in Food and Wine about the seven best wine bloggers and provided a concise article profiling several different bloggers who approached the blogosphere from varying perspectives. The writers were all intelligent individuals with thoughtful approaches to the wine industry. The article and the writers mentioned had a similar perspective to the publication, so there was a conceptual clarity to the piece.

Then in September 2009 Alawine produced a listing of the Top 100 wine blogs. This was very interesting roster. There were several top bloggers like Dr. Vino Tyler Colman, who has always been an IWM favorite, and Alder Yarrow’s Vinography, but there were also many other people I’d never heard about. The information on these sites is largely accurate, reliable and stimulating. The top rated blog was new to me: Tom Wark’s Fermentation.

Reading consistently over the past few months, I’ve discovered that I love Wark’s site, mostly because he waxes poetic on a number of different subjects. The articles are largely original, consistently amusing, and filled with a plethora of information that wine geeks love—he recently pondered how Gewürztraminer should be America’s favorite grape if it were not for the difficult name. I appreciate Wark’s sense of whimsy; it makes for interesting reading while still being informative. Furthermore, I never have the feeling that Wark is taking himself too seriously. While I love reading Decanter magazine and sincerely consider it to be among the finest wine publications in the industry, there are times I am overwhelmed by the overtly British self righteousness. After a healthy dose of Michael Broadbent and Steven Spurrier, I often turn to my favorite blogs—such as Fermentation—to cleanse my palate.

I am interested to know what blogs other people are enjoying. Please take a minute to share your favorites. Thanks!

The Travails and Tribulations of a Professional Taster

One bottle and many countries at a time

This morning, I tasted a Viognier from California that ignited my taste buds.  I was thrilled because it exceeded my expectations (and, admittedly, it also overcame my skepticism).  I like to taste blind so that I don’t develop expectations, but that’s not always possible, especially when faced with the prospects of trade tastings.  I’ve tasted a lot of wines in the last few weeks (as I do every week), and I’m disappointed to report my passion doesn’t ignite as often as I’d like.  Wines are cleaner and more often technically correct than ever before, but that doesn’t mean they are any more delicious; there’s still a lot of average juice out there.  The worst is when winery owners clearly put their hearts and souls into their production, use gorgeous corks and beautiful labels, ante up for the grand “sommelier” bottles, but the wine is simply unbalanced and plain not good.  My highly subjective pronouncement has nothing to do with style and everything to do with harmony and quality.

And yet I found some wines in the last few weeks that have really thrilled me.  Among the Italians I enjoyed were Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Le Volte 2007 (cassis, iron, tobacco leaf and no overt oak influence) and Roagna Barolo Chinato NV (bumper aromatics with a delicious, starting sweetness leading to a finishing dryness from the bittering herbs).  Wines I enjoyed from other parts of the world included Substance Chardonnay 2008 (a bit amylic on the nose with leesy-ness, elegance and great food pairing potential), Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling Spätlese Scharzhofberger 2007 (zesty minerality, Saar-induced leanness, filigree mouth-feel), Domaine Humbert Frères Fixin 2008 (popping- ripe blueberries, damp earth and deliciousness I’ve never, ever encountered in a Fixin) and Jackson-Triggs Vidal Ice Wine 2007 (an ice wine-true nose of volatile acidity and dried apricots akin to Riesling with a viscous, mouth-coating palate).

And, keeping in line with my resolution to share more sparkling sensations with you, and I must extol the brilliance of the Roederer Estate NV, Anderson Valley’s and California’s finest sparkling wine, regardless of whether you choose the NV or the vintage L’Ermitage.  I frequently taste it blind for my studies, and it’s incredibly hard to distinguish from Champagne.  The only difference, if you can catch it, is that Champagne “completely perfumes the mouth” (thanks, Michael Schuster, for this pointer).

And then, there were the 2007 wines of DRC, but I’m going to hold off for now and share those tasting notes with you next week.

There may be many pot holes in the landscape of wine deliciousness, even though the industry has dramatically cleaned-up its act.  At IWM, Sergio (who is tasting around “The Boot” this week) and I work hard to seek out and offer nothing but the best.  It’s a job that’s tough on the palate—and the enamel—but someone has to do it.

Jacopo Poli Grappas

Artisanal, delicious, complex and far from firewater

Last week, the staff of IWM was given a treat: a tasting of Grappas by famed Grappa-master Jacopo Poli who hails from the town of Bassano del Grappa in the heart of northern Veneto. One of the perks of working at IWM is receiving education from the winemakers themselves, but this tasting was different. Even among wine cognoscenti, Grappa still has the reputation of being “firewater”: low cost, low quality, high alcohol spirits made to get you drunk. We hate to admit that we too have carried these prejudices, and as we spent time with Poli, a man whose passion for Grappa is contagious, we saw that his Grappa are something special indeed—artisanal, delicious, complex and about the furthest thing from firewater.

We’ve chosen to give you reactions to the tasting from four of our staff: Kerry-Jo, a Sales Associate; Christy Canterbury, Wine Acquisitions Director; Tida Lenoel, Junior Wine Portfolio Manager; and Jane Nelson, also Junior Wine Portfolio Manager. Each one of these women brings her own perspective to the experience, but there’s no denying that each also came to understand Poli Grappas a bit better and to appreciate them more.


Kerry-Jo

I have never been a huge fan of Grappa, but I’ve always been curious, and recently the staff of IWM had the pleasure of meeting Jacopo Poli, the owner and producer of Poli Grappas.  I was extremely impressed with how intense and alcoholic these Grappas were, yet they were also so aromatic.  The Vespaiolo gave scents of peach, apple and white flowers, and the Arzente was super smooth, being aged in oak and smelling of vanilla.  My favorite was the Polo Miele honey liquor, which was made with 65% blended grape must and 35% acacia honey.  Its aromatics show distinct pine, lemon verbena, mint and juniper.  It caught me off-guard and reminded me of something like a sweet honey gin.  I am excited to get the firsthand Grappa experience so now I can help change our clients’ preconceived notions on this wonderful spirit!

Jacopo illustrates the discontinuous cycle, or the traditional method of grappa-making.

Christy

I am always impressed with quality-oriented family businesses.  These businesses show that it doesn’t take a lot of people, just a lot of heart and a fair amount of smarts to make something delicious, not only to share with others but to commercialize.  Jacopo Poli’s pride in his family’s business, which his grandfather began in 1898, is evident. (He only mentioned the founding year three times.)  Part of their story is transferring their craft from generation to generation, alternately named Giovanni then Giobatta as you travel down the family tree.  The Poli family story is one of so many similar ones in wine that make this industry so special, and the taste of Poli’s Grappas show why this specialness is so well-deserved.

Jacopo depicts the process of turning grapes into grappa.

Tida

Jacopo Poli’s presentation was very well balanced and provided us all with information not just on his products, but also on Grappa itself. I knew that Grappa was made from grape pomace (the solid remains after pressing), but I didn’t realize that it was the only spirit that was made from a solid and not a liquid. For example, brandy is distilled from wine, rum is distilled from sugar cane juice or molasses, and calvados is distilled from the juice of apples. To make grappa, you run steam through the pomace and distill the resulting liquid. In this way I think you really get the true essence of the grape with so many secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors—and a really tasty product.

Jacopo details how his family’s Modigliani painting inspired the design of his grappa bottles.

Jane

Packaging of wine is not necessarily the gospel on the quality of the contents, but it can certainly say a lot. A handful of Jacopo Poli’s distillates come in hand-blown glass bottles with unusually long necks—a design feature we learned was modeled after the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani, in which elegance and refinement in women were symbolized by long necks. Differentiating Grappa from Grappa is not always easy before tasting it; it all just looks like clear liquid kept in a small glass bottle and made in Italy.  However, Poli’s packaging sets his Grappas apart from the ubiquitous pack. These designs catch the eye and announce their elegance and refinement, hinting at what you will find inside. It may feel contradictory to say that Grappa was elegant, given its legend as a spirit first made by Roman soldiers, but Poli’s are elegant, mysterious and enchanting.

Some of the IWM staff who attended the Jacopo Poli grappa tasting.

Lessons Learned from The Godfather

An essay on wine, tomatoes and an orange

There’s a lot to love—and to hate—about Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. (I remember when it first aired on television in the ‘70s with a disclaimer written by Coppola himself; in light of shows like Jersey Shore, the disclaimer now seems almost quaint.) There’s no denying that—even despite its rather dismal third installment—this trilogy stands as one of film’s greatest triumphs. And for good reason: it might be that the Godfather Trilogy is the Great American Novel of cinema. I can’t think of another movie that so completely encapsulates what it means to be American, its messiness, its beauty, its melancholy, its joy, its achievements and its failures. These films are grand, sweeping epics in the best, most sepia-tinted, nostalgia-laden sense of the word.

And yet. In the glory, gore, pomp, and pop culture that the films have offered up, in all the beauty that is Michael’s thousand-yard stare, the horror of severed heads and exploding eyeballs, the funereal dirge and many rolling oranges, there is one extended scene that so stands apart from the rest of the films as to seem as if it came from some other, languorous movie. It’s Vito Corleone’s garden death scene.

It is, of course, a scene whose placement illustrates the genius of The Godfather. It comes just after Vito Corleone and Michael Corleone sit framed like two Janus faces, these backward and forward-looking sides of the same coin, just after Vito has dispensed halting, repetitive—and invaluable—advice to his son and his heir.  And it comes just before Vito’s funeral, and the moment when Michael discovers the weight of his father’s advice.

The garden scene—unscripted, unrehearsed, unplanned, and unbelievably gorgeous—sits like a siesta in the movie. It’s so simple, really, so real and so sweet. Vito is in the garden with his grandson. The lawn and the trees and the tomato plants glow verdant. The sun glints off a carafe of wine. Vito cuts an orange, and shares it with the child. He places a wedge in his mouth so that the rind glows like freaky orange teeth, and he growls. The child screams, Vito pops out the rind and laughs. The child understands it’s all a game, and they chase each other beneath the towering tomato plants, hung with diaphanous netting to shield them from the sun.The Garden Scene

It’s all so rich you can smell the acrid twang of the tomatoes, the zing of the citrus, the green bite of cut grass. Cicadas buzz in the background, giving the film’s omnipresent violins a well-deserved rest.

The interesting thing about this scene is that as much as it enacts what Vito has experienced every day of his gangster life, it also dispels it. The child runs after his grandfather with a homemade watering can in his hand. He pumps the can’s action, shooting streams of water at his grandfather’s back. He cackles, “Ah, ah, ah,” and Vito amiably runs before him, playing. Then he stops, he clutches his heart, he grabs for plants, he topples over, and he crashes to the ground. He is dead. Vito has not escaped the hordes who have chased him with guns, but yet he also has.

The anchor for this scene for me sits in the lines he shares with Michael in the scene that precedes it.

“I like to drink wine more than I used to,” he says. “Anyway, I’m drinking more.”

“It’s good for you, Pop,” Michael responds.

As Don, Vito couldn’t let his guard down. One imagines an abstemious lifestyle, all those cigars and occasional toasts aside. However, having given over his reins to Michael, his unlikely heir and yet the one of his three sons most like himself, Vito can relax; he can drink; he can sit in the sun and enjoy his grandson; and he can live and die on his own terms.

In these days of wretched if waning winter, I like to watch this summer scene. Its bittersweet glory reminds me of what’s important. There is work, but also there is also relaxation, love, family, fun and the enjoyment of drinking. After all, Michael is right: wine is good for you.

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