The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Diving into Passion

Posted on | March 10, 2010 | Written by Kerry-Jo Rizzo | No Comments

IWM founder Sergio Esposito’s acclaimed autobiography, Passion on the Vine, starts out quite simply—a present-day retelling of one of his many wine-buying trips to Italy.  Sal, Sergio’s brother and respected advisor, rides shotgun for the adventure.  Sixty wineries in seven days, eating on the run, sleeping a minimal amount of hours, driving all over the boot and enjoying one too many multicourse meals does sound glamorous, but Sergio makes sure we all understand how draining, if wonderful, the whole process can be.

However, this particular trip was different from all the others; it became one of the most important and nerve-wracking of Sergio’s life when he buys an entire collection of wine from a mysterious winemaker and walks away hoping the whole thing hadn’t been a massive, impulsive mistake.  The camaraderie and importance of the trip in the first chapter segues perfectly into Sergio’s childhood, where his love of food and wine first began.

In the second chapter called “Barra,” after his childhood hometown on the outskirts of Naples, Sergio describes his youth from a child’s point of view and paints an emotional picture of his childhood years in Italy.  He describes his flamboyant and creative family with an endearing eye, expressing how they always had each other to rely on and describing the warm feeling of support forged from having an entire extended Italian family by his side.  The description seems almost communal, a situation where the whole is much more important than each individual person.  They seem to share everything: food, secrets, dirty jokes or favorite blue sweaters.  Sergio’s most vivid memories seem to be of his mother in the kitchen or the marketplace, haggling over fresh products and cooking with seemingly no effort, and his descriptions of his daily cuisine would make anyone’s mouth water. He seemed to have everything a child could ask for.  A life based on instinct, sensuality, love, family and food.

However, a fairy tale always has its downside, and Barra wasn’t necessarily the picturesque ideal of Italy.  Sergio explains how his grandfather lost his fortune after World War II, how the economy was weak and how his father had a very hard time maintaining an income.  He explains how his hometown had been ravaged by the mafia in the late 1800’s and later by the effects of the war.  The poor condition of his home and the lack of available jobs forced his immediate family to pack up and head off to America.

As his family begrudgingly makes their move to the States, not only did they find they were some of the only Italians in Albany, New York, but they also discovered that there were no substitutes for the culture they had left behind.  America seemed cold and austere, compared to their former existence.  Over time, Sergio and his family adapt as much with the help of their aunt and uncle, Zia Rosetta and Zio Aldo.  As Sergio’s father was forced to work two jobs to make ends meet, Zio Aldo became Sergio’s most prominent influence.  He remembers enjoying wine with his uncle, and those cherished memories in time become the source of all his endeavors.

As Sergio gets older, after spending various summers venturing through Italy as a teenager and visiting many wineries, he decides to open a wine store with his father and brother Sal.  They find it’s extremely difficult to stock the store with quality products, since Americans wouldn’t purchase wines over $3.99 or try a label they didn’t recognize.  Sergio saves up to move to New York City, where all things seem possible.  He began working as a salesman for a company that sells Burgundian wine because French wines were the wines with status in those days.  Italian wines were considered wild, second rate or even downright disreputable.  In New York, Sergio begins working as a Captain and Sommelier for San Domenico’s, a famous traditional Italian restaurant.  He learns about maintaining tradition and how much precision and care it takes to do so.

He gains confidence and becomes an innovator, working for himself on the side, organizing clients’ cellars for a reduced price, which provides him access to tasting some of the best wines his clients owned.  Here and there he would sneak in an exquisite Italian wine into their collection, and he slowly but surely transformed his clients’ minds about the value and the beauty of Italian wine.  Sergio was determined to change the American mentality of puritanical restraint and food for nourishment only, and he was eager to show the world the emotional and philosophical ways in which the Italians view food and wine as an integral part of life, a way to enhance relationships, and energize the soul.

I too remember growing up in an Italian household, though mine didn’t have as many family members, and we too had a routine of extensive and enjoyable family dinners.  The connection of food and family is an important one; I think it’s more important than our society cares to acknowledge.  My family—like Sergio’s—made food and wine transcend their status as food and beverage and become something that neither science nor logic can express. I appreciate reading a book that mirrors the feeling, though not the exact experience, of my upbringing.

Moving forward in the book, we’ll see the growth of Sergio’s business ventures and encounter some very interesting wine characters.  Their enthusiasm and artistry can potentially change our ideas of wine and life as we know it.  I am excited to continue reviewing the book and sharing my experience as I read along with all of you!

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