The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Diving into Passion, Part 4

Posted on | March 24, 2010 | Written by Kerry-Jo Rizzo | No Comments

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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