The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Blood, Frogs, and Lice, Oh My!

Ten Plagues and One Prophet

It’s that time of the year again when we open the door for Elijah the prophet and ask this question: why is this night different from all other nights?  The answer rests in yet more questions—the four questions—a Passover requirement. These four ask the Seder participants why is it that on this night do we eat Matzah, do we eat bitter herbs, do we dip them twice, and do we eat in a reclined position.  Anyone who has read a Haggadah can tell you that these seemingly inscrutable answers embody the moment of Jewish history when Moses and the Israelites fled Egypt for freedom.

History aside, the reason why this night is different for me is that I sit down with my whole family (or three loud Israeli families) and eat amazing food and drink wine! As with any Jewish holiday, the food is incredible, and as with every holiday there is always one specific food you can’t wait to eat. This holiday it’s Charoset, the chopped-up mixture of wine, nuts and fruits meant to represent the mortar that held together the stones of Egyptian temples.

Since I won’t be with my parents this Passover, I’ll be spending it with my cousins and close friends here in New York. In preparation for this holiday I called my mom and asked her for her recipe for Charoset, my favorite Passover treat; our conversation went something like this.

“Hi Ima (mom in Hebrew), can I have your recipe for your Charoset? I want to make it for seder”

“You want MY recipe or you just want a recipe?”

“I want your recipe, just like you make it”

Then she said something in a language I don’t speak, most likely in Hungarian, something that probably meant something like “Oh you.”

My mom’s recipe is very simple and very traditional: 2 cups of chopped red apples, ½ cup of pitted dates, ½ cup of walnuts, 1 tsp of cinnamon and some sweet red wine; this year I’ll be using Sentieri  Ebraici 2008 Del Vecchio Vino Rosso. Put all these ingredients in a food processor and chop it to your liking.  Although it’s an easy dish to prepare the flavors come together in a sweet way that always brings me home, if not physically then at least emotionally.

A very happy Passover to all of our Jewish friends, and may you all enjoy your families, your food, your wine and your traditions.

Around the World in Eleven Courses

From the esoteric to the iconic

One of the great pleasures in working in wine is meeting the enthusiasts and collectors whose passions are equal, or perhaps even greater, than my own. Their excitement for both the history and the experience of wine is both contagious and enlightening, and it’s sharing in these people’s enjoyment that keeps people like me creative and motivated.

For the second year in a row, Chef Kevin Sippel and I had the pleasure of creating a Valentine’s Day Wine list and menu for an IWM favorite, Omar and Leslie Khan.  Together we came up with “Around the World in Eleven Courses,” a light-hearted culinary journey across to the globe that traversed some of the world’s favorite wine regions, as well as some off-the-beaten-path destinations.  Each course invited our guests to experience a different grape, winemaker, dish and story that all worked together to highlight what makes each region so unique.  As Omar pointed out to me, each of the chosen eleven wines on a different evening could be a centerpiece in its own right.  Looking back on the night, I’d highlight the 1966 Chateau Musar from the Bekaa Valley, which offered layers of complexity and very much held its own against the 1966 Leoville Las Cases. Then there was the Weinert Malbec Estrella 1977, which challenges everything you thought you know about Argentinean Malbec (aged 19 years in oak cask).

This was truly an evening of the esoteric to the iconic, and to do it justice, I thought I would share the words and review from one of our special guests:

This entry was written by Omar Khan, posted on February 20, 2010 on his blog.

Well, we enjoy Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, so this year, as Valentine’s Day was falling on Sunday, we opted to have our amorous outing on the “eve.”

Many pooh-pooh this holiday calling it commercially contrived, historically dubious (as if our other holidays aren’t?) and more.

It’s irrelevant. It’s a day to focus on love, and you don’t have to succumb to an orgy of candy purchases to express one of our deepest sentiments. And you can be as extravagant, as imaginative, or as corny as you like. You have license. We are “excused.” After all, there’s an “official” day to blame!

We went back to our favorite spot for Valentine’s and much else: the Italian Wine Merchants, pioneers in Italian wine appreciation in the United States, and one of the primary conduits and channels for extraordinary wine of irreproachable provenance overall.

We had the lovely space to ourselves. We were surrounded by masterful chefs putting their show kitchen to the best possible use, and were “serenaded” (oenophilically) by Italian Wine Merchants’ Vice-President and a masterful commentator on the joys of the grape, Chris Deas.

Together he and Chef Kevin Sippel (a true culinary innovator), formerly of Alto, took us “Around the World in Eleven Courses.” Not quite around the world perhaps, but the circumnavigation was quite extensive. This could as easily have been called “Around the World in Eleven Wines.” But why quibble? Both are implied, and both were experienced.

Menu highlights included the palate puckering Paccheri Verdi, Braised Snails and Gorgonzola; one of the last orchestrations of Didier Dagueneau via his masterful Pouilly-Fume Silex 2006 enhanced and enchanted this remarkable dish.

Another menu highlight was the crispy sweetbread, manchego and toasted allioli, married exquisitely and tantalizingly with Descendientes de Jose Palacios Corullon La Faraona 2006. From one of the best vineyard sites in Bierzo Spain, La Faraona is the gem of Alvaro Palacios’ (of Priorat fame) art in this region. Only 65 cases are produced annually, and other than the Italian Wine Merchants, this exceptional wine isn’t available anywhere else in the United States.

Hot on the heels of this came another winner! A hen egg cooked slowly for two hours, and then lightly fried, with Serrano ham and baked sardine! Extraordinary!

A number of amazing wines, from Gaja Sperss 1998 to La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 1995, all could have been the centerpieces in a lesser dinner.

But for us the 1977 Bodega Malbec from Mendoza Argentina showed us a style of Malbec we almost can’t experience any more because of the unsettling “globalization” of wine tastes. The two “birth year” wines for my wife and I, the Leoville Las Cases (one of fifteen second growths in Bordeaux and one of our favorites) 1966 (a vintage that seems among the better Bordeaux to be drinking quite beautifully now) and the beyond rare 1966 Chateau Musar from Lebanon (slightly sweet herb-like aromas, elegant, a bit more Burgundian), were luscious, fitting and truly memorable.

We went home with a lovely Pinot to accompany artisanal chocolates, a dozen red roses (a “classic” rather than a “cliché,” though many people can’t tell the two apart), and memories we will savor and which will reverberate happily for years to come.

James Thurber once opined, “Love is what you’ve been through with someone.” Most people take that to mean what you’ve survived together. Well, partially that’s so. But it’s as much what you’ve experienced together, exulted in together, and celebrated together! Salute!


Selection of Raw Fish, Oysters and Caviar
Jacques Selosse Champagne Brut Initial NV

Paccheri Verdi, Braised Snails and Gorgonzola
Didier Dagnueneau Pouilly Fume Silex 2006

Grilled Sepia with Sea Urchin
Movia Lunar 2007

Crispy Sweetbread, Tomato, Manchego and Toasted Allioli
Descendientes de Jose Palacios Corrullon La Faraona 2006

Frog Leg Risotto with Veal Reduction and Leeks
Gaja Sperss 1998

Fried Egg, Serrano Ham and Poached Sardine
La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Riserva ‘890′ 1995

Crudo of Veal with Hot Bone Marrow, Pancetta and Pecorino Fondue
Fontodi Flaccianello 1995

Smoked Venison with White Polenta, Chorizo and Porcini Mushrooms
Bodega y Cavas de Weinert Malbec Estrella 1977

Foie Gras Tortellini in Black Truffle Consomme with Offal
Chateau Leoville-Las Cases Bordeaux 2nd Growth 1966

Rack of Lamb with Controne Bean, Pickled Eggplant and Lamb’s Tongue
Chateau Musar Rouge 1966

Chocolate Cake and Bombolini
Antonio Ferrari Solaria Jonica 1959

On Ignorance, Condescension and Playing Nice

In the world of wine, that is

I may be editor of Inside IWM, but strictly speaking, I’m not a wine person. I enjoy wine, and thanks to the beneficence of IWM’s Sergio Esposito, I’ve developed a wee palate that can differentiate the most obvious traits. But I recognize that I’m not much of an expert. I can talk long and pseudo-knowledgably about wine varieties, growing methods, bottling techniques and regions, but my knowledge is more or less limited to what I’ve written about and therefore researched. I’m a pretty poor excuse for a wine writer, really (but I’m a good writer in general and smart as a whip, so that gives me some great leniency).

Which is all to say that I’m delighted by Tom Wark’s March 22 post in his wine blog, Fermentation. The post, called “Responsibility of the Wine Experts,” uses as its basis the top ten questions about wine on Ask.Com. Wark writes,

The other day a representative from sent me the top ten wine questions asked at the site. Here they are:

1. How many calories are in a glass of wine?
2. How do I make wine?
3. What is port wine?
4. How many bottles of wine are in a case?
5. What is marsala wine?
6. What wine goes best with chicken?
7. Who is the god of wine?
8. How long does wine last once opened?
9. How do I remove red wine spills from carpet?
10. What is the best way to open a bottle of wine?

Eye these questions real closely. Are they not the exact questions you’d expect of a group of folks with little or no knowledge of wine but who drinks and uses wine?

Wark continues, “Perhaps the exception is question #7: Who is the God of Wine?” To which my answer is most assuredly not me. I’d go with Bacchus, but you might have your own answers.

Rather than using these questions as a springboard for smacking down people who have even less wine knowledge than I do, Wark uses them as a way to suggest that rather than be condescending, wine experts should be gentle with us who are still wine toddlers. Wark even acknowledges his own desire to be sarcastic when confronted with a question like, “How do you open a bottle of wine?” I can understand that knee-jerk impulse. I am sarcastic to the bone. I cherish irreverence and I {heart} flippancy. And yet, Wark makes a really good point about reining in the condescension.

“The point is,” Wark argues, “among the many things that those of us who work in and around wine should remember is that we can really help turn a person off to wine by the kind of responses we give to the simplest questions.” There’s nothing like a smart-mouth answer to a sincere question to make the questioner feel like a fool—and then slink away slowly in shame.

Wine is difficult enough as it is. Those who are fortunate enough to be experts need to bear that in mind and play nice with those of us who still ride the wine bike with our training wheels. And should my training wheels ever come off, and should I ever give a cutting answer to a simple question, I hope you’ll remind me I wrote this piece about my wine salad days, when I was green and inexperienced.

Perry Porricelli

Our Soulful Leader

For the last two weeks, we have been training the new members of our Wine Portfolio Management team, and yesterday they had an opportunity to listen to Perry Porricelli, IWM’s President. Perry hails from the Bronx, which may account for his very genuine quality that permeates everything he does. He is street smart, very savvy and fiercely passionate about the business he has helped to create, and he also champions our esoteric portfolio.

Perry often speaks in short, choppy sentences. He is to the point and direct. However, as he began to speak about IWM, his manner entirely changes. His sentences become longer, more elegant. His tone becomes warmer and softer. His passion swells as he describes the wines we represent, and in yesterday’s meeting, by the time he has talked about the nature of his relationships with his clients there was reverence in his voice. He—and the room—glowed with energy.

Perry explained to the team that we have not only taken the road less travelled, but we have blazed our own path. And yes, that has made all the difference.

“The economic strife in 2009 posed considerable challenges to all industries, especially ours,” he said, “Our partners decided to stay true to our core values.   Where others were swimming to the bottom, we would swim to the top.” Perry talked about the choices IWM had made in the past year: we hired more experienced Senior Wine Portfolio Managers, and we brought in Christy Canterbury, a Master of Wine candidate, to head our acquisition team.  With unfettered pride Perry shared that we had endured the challenges of our industry; we had bucked popular trends; and the business had thrived because of the dedication of our team.

Perry concluded the discussion by talking about his favorite moments. He said, “There are times I have recommended a wine that the client absolutely did not understand. Five years later they said, ‘I drank that bottle and it had become everything you said it would be.  It was spectacular.’” Perry smiled. It was the look of joy from knowing he had perfectly served his client.

And that look embodies why IWM is a very special place to work.

Diving into Passion, Part 4

The perplexing Prince and his haunting wines

This blog post is the fourth and final entry in my blogging of Passion on the Vine, the memoir of IWM founder Sergio Esposito. You can find the first three parts here: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

After an entertaining tour of Italian wine producers, Sergio continues his adventure of the Italian countryside and brings us to Chianciano Terme, a mineral water oasis where Italians go to relax and rejuvenate.  He shares with us secret days with his son Sal—chasing frogs, hunting for wild berries and stumbling across tiny self-sustaining farms and vineyards, as well as sharing Easter Monday fish feasts on the seashore filled with boisterous family and conversation.  Sergio never fails to enchant his readers and make them salivate with lengthy, descriptive paragraphs of his everyday cuisine.  But the most inspiring and unusual experience he shares with us is his encounter with the madman, the myth and the legend: the winemaking Prince.

Sergio was enjoying his last free week in Italy on the Amalfi Coast, in Positano to be exact.  All ready to take it easy and enjoy his free time, Sergio gets a call from his friend Andrea Carelli.  Andrea tells him that the legendary Luigi “Gino” Veronelli requests his presence at a very important lunch in Umbria where they would taste vintage Malvasia made by an eccentric, introverted Italian prince.  Umbria, being a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Positano, was certainly out of the question, Sergio objects, yet he lets Carelli’s argument prevail. Sergio agrees to take the day to visit and taste the wines (which he was almost 100% sure would taste like overly sour white-wine vinegar).

Prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince of Venosa, was a descendant of a 1000 year old line of Italian royalty, same bloodline as Popes Gregory XIII and Gregory XV.  He inherited his family estate, Fiorano, as a young man.  He was introverted when it came to his political duties as prince, but he was quite interested in his land and agriculture.  He would help harvest wheat and vegetables, and he made simple country wine that he would sell to his locals.

In time, he became quite the wine connoisseur and began collecting and amassing a plethora of vintage wines.  The one wine that changed the course of his life was a 1946 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino.  He became great friends with Tancredi of Biondi Santi, due to his interest and sheer enthusiasm for his brilliant wines.  Tancredi became a colleague and ally, helping the Prince plant French varietals and guiding him during the beginning of his wine journey.  In years to come, they continued to collaborate and schooled each other in very intricate and complex wine-making techniques.  For his own enjoyment, the Prince ultimately produced a red Bordeaux blend, a Semillion, and wines made from Malvasia di Candia, which was indigenous to his land.

By chance many years before, renowned wine critic Luigi Veronelli was perusing the countryside of Lazio and literally stumbled across the Fiorano estate.  He bonded with the Prince, and as he was facing his own mortality, Prince Ludovisi gave Veronelli the grand task of finding his precious wines a home with people who would fully appreciate them.  The Prince very rarely sold his wines and was very protective of them—protective to the point that most of his bottled wines had rarely been touched.  When Veronelli explored Prince Ludovisi’s stone cellar, he found not a couple hundred bottles as expected, but over 10,000 bottles, all covered in a thick, white mold.  Before his death, Prince Ludovisi destroyed his vineyards so that no one else could produce wines from his noble plantings.  These 11,000 bottles were all that remained of the Prince’s passion. Veronelli took seriously the Prince’s trust of his wines, and he hunted down Sergio knowing that he was one of the few people on the planet who would grasp the strange beauty of the Prince’s unusual white wines.

Sergio expresses his first taste of the Prince’s Malvasia: “I inhaled and felt it: a twitch in my arm, a tightness in my throat.  The wine was alive.  Everything faded from the room—the background noise, the glasses clinking, the tones of conversation, all color and movement.”  The rest of the Prince’s wines continued with the Malvasia, and each wine made a very distinct impression on Sergio that day. Like Fiorano’s whites that strangely get brighter in color as they age, so too does this anecdote gleam in brightness; it almost puts the rest of the book in high relief, as if all of Sergio’s experiences built to this one moment when he discovered something new, something strange and something gorgeous.

Sergio purchased 11,000 bottles of Fiorano, which are currently on sale here at IWM, purchasable by anyone truly interested and can appreciate the essence of these magnificent wines.

And with this story, I have reached the end of both the book and the writing about it! As someone who is intensely intrigued by the subject of wine, I’ve found that learning about all these producers has been an exceptional one.  Many people talk of the fact that traditional wines might someday fall out of interest due to the wine-market being so much geared for immediate consumption, but after reading this book and realizing how intimate and artistic the practice of winemaking can really be, I realize that nothing can replace a wine made by a master of his trade.  Everything has its place, whether it’s mainstream industrial winemaking that churns out reliable and consistent product or true artisans who express themselves through their lives’ work.  There is so much more to think of now when looking at a bottle of wine because I realize how much time and effort go into bottling this wonderful, ineffable thing that is alive and continues to grow over time.

I urge you to pick up your copy of Passion on the Vine and enjoy your own encounters with these fascinating characters and the unique happenings of a man devoted to life, love and wine, pretty much in that order.

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