The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Power of Context

Context makes for enjoyable wine experiences

Last night, I took the advice of Inside IWM Editor, Janice Cable, and spent my evening with a gin gimlet and the endless information available on Alltop. While perusing Donald Greg’s account of refinishing his wood floors and his enjoying a glass of Chardonnay, I started to think about the notion of context. Not context like what you expect to read where, but what you should drink when, and this is an idea that I’ve found myself preoccupied with of late.

Traditional rules suggest that it makes sense to drink Italian wine when you eat Italian food, white wine with fish, beer with chicken wings and pizza. Similarly, common knowledge holds that refreshing whites and rosés are most appropriate during the summer, and hearty, warming reds better for winter. While I certainly crave a perfectly chilled glass of Vermentino with seafood in mid-July, my mood is just as easily lifted by that same glass mid-January while I watch the snow amassing outside my window. Almost always, I find that it’s not always about what is in your glass and on your plate, but who you’re sitting with and what’s going on around you. A handful of my most enjoyable wine experiences this past year have earned that recognition as a result of context.

Let me offer up some examples.

To commemorate my on-and-off eight-year stint at his restaurant in Lenox, MA, at the end of summer 2009, my boss gave me a bottle of white and a bottle of red from the 2001 vintage (also the year I started there). I took these bottles with me when I moved to New York, and I knew the perfect time to drink them would be with my four siblings, who suffered through sweltering summer days at the restaurant, peeling pounds of garlic in the kitchen, welcoming the same customers day after day, and scouring up anything we could for post-shift dinners at midnight. Although the two wines had been gifted to me, I accepted them on behalf of my siblings, and I knew that we would enjoy them as compensation for every stressful (and fruitful) hour we spent working in that restaurant. In mid-October, when the five of us were all miraculously gathered in New York, we drank the Zind-Humbrecht 2001 Muscat. Even my brother, who never drinks white wine, loved it, if only to make up for nearly slicing his finger off while prepping for the salade nicoise one summer.

My mother’s godmother, and a close friend of the family, loves Querciabella Camartina. At the end of our visit to her home in Easthampton this summer, she sent us each home with a bottle from the 2000 vintage. Only three of the five kids made it home for Thanksgiving this past year. We opened a bottle of Camartina 2000 with dinner, and our palates took us back to Easthampton, away from the cold and biting wind, to the first time we tasted Camartina. My two absent sisters were there with us in spirit, although they didn’t get to enjoy the stuffing or the wine.

One of my first weeks on the job here at IWM, I took home a bottle of Massolino 2003 Langhe Nebbiolo. I was making tacos for dinner – not a dish that typically calls for a bottle of Nebbiolo, but that’s what I was craving. I sipped a glass with the tail-end of Jeopardy, and it showed itself to be lively and balanced alongside the tacos.

Some of the greatest wine I have consumed has been lost in an unmemorable experience, or chasm of environment and meal. These three wines have all been ingrained in my memory through balance – of components and structure, of people and place and serve as a reminder of the power of context.

Does Anyone Read Wine Blogs?

Dispatches from the bloglines

Last week, self-proclaimed “unsuccessful political blogger” turned wine blogger Tom Johnson wrote a piece entitled “There’s a Reason No One Reads Wine Blogs.” It was, irony aside, published on Palate Press, an on-line wine magazine; Johnson also pens a wine blog, Louisville Juice, a name that Johnson mysteriously notes will soon be changing. The issue, Johnson contends, is this:

There’s no way to sugar coat this: wine blogging is failing its readers.

The evidence for that failure: with very few exceptions, wine blogs don’t even have readers.

Johnson looks at several blog analytics in order to support his claim that no one reads wine blogs, including Cellarer and Truth Laid Bear. Using a combination of Cellarer and Google page results, Johnson suggests that wine blogs are reaching less than 5% of the prospective 40 million wine drinkers in the United States. The problem is, as Cellarer observes in its own valuation disclaimer, that for a combination of reasons, it’s really difficult to figure out exactly how many readers follow wine blogs—even wicked popular wine blogs like Vinography and Dr. Vino, and one commentator takes Johnson to task over his approach. It’s an inexact science complicated by Google’s own corporate interests and its own programmers’ hobbyhorses.

And yet there’s no evidence like personal evidence, and personal evidence suggests that wine blogs, even a wine blog like this one that is attached to a trusted corporate entity like Italian Wine Merchants, have a hard time gathering readers.

In spite of what his article’s title suggests, Johnson argues that in fact there are two reasons why blogs don’t have readers. One reason is that too many blogs concentrate on providing wine reviews, and the other is that not enough wine blogs link to other wine blogs. (This last point glimmers with irony, an astute commentator notes, because Johnson foregoes adding a single link to any wine blogs in his piece.) To Johnson’s thinking, wine reviews are unhelpful because while everyone seems to want to be Robert Parker, only Robert Parker is Robert Parker, and because wine reviews are boring.

In these points I tend to agree with Johnson. Rarely am I provoked to want to drink a wine because I know it will taste of dark berries, roses, licorice, tar, and cat butt (or whatever descriptors are in vogue that season). I’m provoked to drink a wine because I’ve been given a lively description of the person who made the wine, because I’ve been provided with a beautiful evocation of the land where the wine was made, or, occasionally, because the wine has a really pretty label. (I am a girl and a design nerd, and at least I’m being honest.)

Johnson argues that people’s stories are what make wine conversation interesting—whether in person, in print, or on the web. If writing doesn’t make people connect, it’s not good writing, and I think this point may be at the bottom of Johnson’s screed. If sheep were writers, we’d have stories filled with really good grass and watch out for that coyote and oh god, oh god, where did my little lamb go? But we are not sheep, and so we like to read about good meals and bad romances and that time we scored a really good bottle of Champagne for a ridiculously low price. We like stories about people, and the wine is almost secondary. Almost.

Which brings me to Johnson’s second point—linking. In blogging, to link is to create conversation. The ability to link is, in fact, the thing that defines Web writing, and it is something that began with bloggers. Links do a few really important things: they provide a launching pad for the writer’s thoughts, they show the reader support for the writer’s claim, they create instant attribution, they give the reader a path for reading, and they create a sense of community. Without links, the Web is a great digital wasteland, an abyss dotted by invisible ones and zeros; with links, it’s a cocktail party.

As editor of this wine blog, I urge the writers of IWM to read other wine blogs, to respond to other wine writers, and to link to wine bloggers. As a reader myself, however, I must admit my own prejudices. I have a tight schedule not given to as much free-range roaming through the Web as I’d like. That’s one reason why I appreciate other blogger’s links and their blog rolls and why I really like thoughtful blog aggregates like Alltop. It’s pretty easy to find The Pour by myself, but it’s less easy to find In Absinthia, my new favorite blog name (though I remain fond of my own apocryphal Absinthe blog, Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder).

So I’m curious. What makes you read—and return to read again—wine bloggers? And where have you found your good bloggers? Whom should we have on our blog roll and whom should we read regularly?

The Flavors of (Some) Italian Varietals

Master basic flavor profiles of popular Italian grapes

It seems to me that when you buy wine in a wine shop, go to a wine bar for a 5 o’clock happy hour, or get a bottle while dining at your favorite restaurant, the very first thing that the sales associate, bartender, sommelier or waiter will talk about is the flavors—and the aromas—of the chosen wine.

Without a doubt, there is a connection between grape varietal and aroma. You can always expect to find specific scents in specific wines based on their varietals and their blends, but the truth of the matter is what you get from a wine is a very personal matter and changes from both individual person to individual person and estate to estate. As difficult as it is to get ten people to agree on a place to have dinner in New York City that they all like, it’s difficult to get those same people not only to agree on all liking the same wine, but liking the same thing about it. However, as much as it may be difficult for people to agree on how to describe wines, there are qualities we can generally attribute to specific grapes.

The fun thing about wine drinking in the 21st century is that the market understands the concept of individual experience, so you can express yourself any way you want. From saying “it tastes like shoe polish” to “there are notes of tar” is perfectly normal. It’s not that you take a spoon full of shoe polish with your morning coffee and then take a dive in a vat of tar every time you walk pass a “Road Work Ahead” sign, but as our own Christy Canterbury has pointed out, taste is smell so you’re not necessarily tasting but smelling.

In wine tasting as much as everything else, practice makes perfect. If to you a wine tastes like toasted maple leaf, perhaps it does, but maybe you really want to make sure. You might want to practice tasting wine at home with some dried fruit and nuts to help you taste the corresponding flavors of your favorite wines. It is easier to make comparisons if you have both things you’re comparing. Do it enough, and you’ll be able to do it by scent alone. It’s a lot of fun when you can recognize wines by their smell alone—practice at home, give it a shot, and impress your friends at parties.

While smell and taste are highly personal, you can expect some specific flavor profiles with specific varietals. To help you out in your quest to master your next favorite party trick, here are the basic flavors to look for in some popular Italian varietals:

Sangiovese (Toscana): Dried flowers, berries like blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, or strawberry. You’ll find a really nice example in the 2006 Fontodi Chianti Classico.

Nebbiolo (Piemonte): Cherry and other dark fruit (like dried cranberries) or tar and rose petal, but please do not have a wine, tar and rose petal tasting! I would try the De Forville Nebbiolo 2007 or Massolino’s 2004 Barolo for some great aroma and flavor representation.

Nero d’Avola (Sicilia): This is one of my personal favorites. You can find many flavors; look for black cherry, plum, vanilla, tobacco and licorice. My Nero d’Avola go-to since I started at IWM has been il Moro by Valle Dell’Acate. The 2006 is great.

Palagrello Bianco (Campania): Orange blossoms, pears and peaches—grab some juicy pears and peaches and open a bottle of Alois Caiati 2005 or Vestini Campagnano 2004. I’d thrown in a couple of pieces of Reggiano while you’re at it just to complete the experience.

Pigato (white, Liguria): I love this wine! Look for apricot, peach and herbs. Both the 2008 U Baccan by Bruna and the Bisson 2007 are exceptional wines and will help you to understand this varietal.

Cortese (white, Piemonte): This is your Gavi’s varietal. Look for white flowers, white fruit like peaches, pears and apples.  I would give the Ca’ dei Mandorli a shot, a wine that dips under the radar but really shows what Cortese is about.

And for those of you who have mastered the art of the nose, what are your favorite scentastic wines? What profiles can you detect and in conjunction with which varietals?

What Is An Off Year?

A Considered Approach to Vintages

Buying wine is tricky, or at least it can feel that way. There are different regions, styles, varietals, producers and methods to consider. These factors comprise the broad differences between wines. But what about wines made from the same producer but in different years? Or what about buying wines—any wines—from years that broad consensus considers to be difficult? This murky question of vintage is the topic of this post.

When we consider the differences in a wine from one vintage to another, we may find it very difficult to ascertain the actual quality of the wine.  We have already addressed in earlier blogs how inaccurate a critic’s perspective may be, and this issue certainly poses a considerable challenge to laypeople. To add to their confusion, there is the reality that wines continue to evolve after they are released. For years the collectible wines like Barolo, First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy were made with such developed tannic structure that they did not show their true majesty for years, particularly in the great vintages. Indeed in many cases, the vintages that were good to very good provided more immediate drinking satisfaction than those that would later show themselves to be great.

To add further to this confusion about drinkability, there are other external factors that can negatively affect the manner in which a wine is drinking. Delicate wines like Pinot Noir don’t like to travel. They will often go into a “dumb” or “silent” period, and they won’t show their full spectrum of components as they are adjusting to the bumping and jostling from being shipped. Then there are some people who contend that Burgundy and Barolo simply never taste as good as they do in their native land. But aside from all of these various quibbling points, the vintage variation continues to provide its own not inconsiderable challenge. Consumers are taught to look at specific vintages and typically follow that doctrine as though it were gospel. However, at IWM we hold a very different belief: we follow producers, absolutely and religiously.

We know that great winemakers will always make very good wine, even in off years. We also know that in extraordinary years there wines will provide a transcendental experience. We know that while it is helpful to be aware of vintages, it is more important to understand what role producers take in creating a wine. Because we really “get” producers, who they are, what they do, and why they do it, we are not afraid of “off” years. For one thing, we understand that wines from those vintages often provide more immediate satisfaction. We are more concerned with popular producers making consistently high alcohol, fruity, over-oaked wines. Because those are the ones we want to avoid.

To know a producer and to love his or her wine is to choose well—year in and year out.

Diving into Passion: Part 3

Eccentric and exciting masters of wine

The story of Passion on the Vine continues when Sergio decides to leave the restaurant business and begins to fully cultivate his vision and passion for Italian wine (please see part 1 and part 2 and of this series).  In his vision, the store would be a high-end boutique of wine with each bottle displayed with its own placard, like its own work of art.  The company would educate clients on Italian wine and culture as well as provide security for those who wanted to invest and make collecting high-end Italian wines a reality. By a twist of fate, Sergio runs into an acquaintance, Joseph Bastianich, who then owned a wine bar/restaurant called Becco and a high-end Italian restaurant called Babbo with Mario Batali.  Sergio makes the quick decision to become partners with these two men who had a much better understanding of his goals and ambitions, and in October of 1999, Italian Wine Merchants opened its doors to the public.

Of course, opening a wine store in New York City is no easy feat, and this task was made especially difficult due to Sergio’s commitment to stocking the store full of wines that weren’t the mainstream.  It was a very stressful period marked by Sergio’s flying back and forth to Italy fifteen times a year to continue scoping out the best possible producers to showcase in his store.  The narrative of the memoir now takes the opportunity to highlight some of the greatest producers of Italian wine that Sergio knows as friends, compatriots and, occasionally, adversaries.   In reading this portion of his journey, we are all able to experience and begin to understand some very eccentric and exciting masters of wine. I’m going to showcase a few of my favorite moments and producers below:

Paolo Scavino, whose estate is currently run by his son Enrico Scavino, is a pioneer in Piemonte for going against the grain and making Barolo into a modern, technological masterpiece.  He was one the first in the region to institute temperature-controlled winemaking and storage facilities, and has led the way with the use of new rotary fermenters and small barrels.  He made the biggest leap in 1993, when he decided to switch from Slovenian oak aging to 100% barrique.  He is a prime example of what a modern producer has done to make Barolo more accessible and attractive to our current market and shows that Barolo is capable of expressing itself with vigorous vineyard care and less age.

Josko Gravner, however, shows an opposite side of the wine story.  He was one of the first producers to experiment with technological advancements and became a mentor to producers who wanted to be skilled in modern winemaking techniques.  He rigorously taught himself each new machine and method until one day he realized he was losing something in his wine.  He began exploring ancient wine-making techniques and in time transformed his entire philosophy.  He is currently a pioneer in the biodynamic movement and produces wine in 4,000-year-old clay amphorae, dug into the ground for natural temperature control.  Gravner’s philosophy is expressed in a nutshell: “Wine and food have to be natural products.  In flying a plane, one needs technology, but it’s absurd to think that man can ever improve what is natural.  Wine and food we put in our stomachs.  How could I continue to do my work if I have the knowledge that what I make was slowly poisoning my children?”When asked to describe his wines he said, “I don’t have the words for that, how can you describe a soul? I can tell you only that these wines have real spirit.” These quotes are enough to make anyone want to drink Gravner’s wine; the man is as spectacular as his products.

Movia’s Ales Kristancic is another top biodynamic wine producer from Friuli, though his vineyards border Friuli and Slovenia.  He is quite a character, and Kristancic has talents that seem to burst at the seams; he’s a whirlwind of energy who can’t help but inspire the people he encounters.  He has very strong ideas about wine and life, showcased in how he describes his vineyard and wines.  Sergio recalls a moment where Ales metaphorically compares a newly planted vine with a growing young woman.  He also describes the vine as our closest counterpart in the plant kingdom:  “You must understand this—if any plant in the entire plant world were to rise up into the animal kingdom and become a human being, it would be the vine.”

Kristancic continues, “It is the plant closest in character to man.  If it has this comfortable life and this undemanding land, it is never challenged.  It’s like a spoiled socialite: healthy, beautiful and vapid. It’s a machine, not a thing of natural beauty- just eating and producing fruits. And yes, absolutely, you can make something from this fruit. You can mix it up in a barrel and get drunk from it — but this thing you make is not wine.” Kristancic is close to his land and what he creates—his energy is infections and you can’t help but catch his enthusiasm.

Sergio then brings us back to Barolo to the estate of Maurizio Anselma, a young man who leads Famiglia Anselma, an estate that has the goal to produce traditional Barolo reminiscent of his history.  Maurizio first met Sergio at IWM as an inexperienced, but eager young, producer.  His family had an advantage, having been purchasing vineyards since the late seventies. Established in 1993, the Anselmas went forward to produce some of the best traditional Barolo of today.  Maurizio avers, “We will only make Barolo because this is the history of our land.” Reading this section, I felt I grew to understand the connection between Barolo and history even better, and to understand Barolo’s history seems tantamount to understanding Barolo.

“No barriques, no Berlusconi, no California,” is the motto of Bartolo Mascarello, a humble, yet iconic Barolo producer.  Considered by many to be the master of the trade, Mascarello embodies his values and belief in his work in everything that he does.  Sergio claims that Mascarello belongs to “a rare sub-species of human, the members of which are entirely uninfluenced by external sources of energy.  His emotional state persisted despite those around him, as though he were surrounded by a force field of resolution that insulated him from all external anxiety, desire and chaos.”  This could very likely be the reason why his wines are so revered.  He sticks to his guns, making Barolo the way he believes he should make it, in the time it takes to make it.  Nothing seems to be able to penetrate his stability and sense of tradition.  He is the supreme example of what a Barolo can express.

Currently run by Franco Santi, Biondi Santi represents the discovery and creation of Brunello di Montalcino.   Tancredi  Santi, Franco’s father, discovered a replanted clone of Sangiovese during the phylloxera epidemic, a serendipitous moment that lead to the creation of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino.  Tancredi and Franco showed themselves to be expert entrepreneurs as well as wonderful winemakers, transforming a lonely, dusty spot in the road to one of the most important winemaking regions.  And the beauty that Sergio describes is trance-inducing.

If Biondi Santi founded Brunello di Montalcino, then Gianfranco Soldera mastered it.  Soldera was an industrial insurance broker from Milan before trying his hand at wine.  He appeared to be quite prescient; Sergio recalls that Soldera told his colleagues, “If I find a great piece of land in the next year, I’m making the best wine in the world.” Quite a statement for a former insurance broker! He bought the Case Basse estate in1972 and went on to fulfill his prophecy of becoming one of, if not the best, Brunello producers of today.

If  I had read Passion on the Vine a year ago, I would have been quite entertained by these unusual characters, but I might not have taken them very seriously.  For example, biodynamics in itself is a controversial idea, with many wine cognoscenti thinking it’s mystical and useless, and before my days at IWM, I probably would have agreed with these naysayers.  Now with my experience at IWM and the ability to taste wine every day, I think differently. I’ve enhanced my knowledge and palate, and I notice major differences between various styles and methods.  It’s like every single bottle has its own personality and character, with its own story to tell—and reading Passion on the Vine illustrates how that feeling came to be.  Each of these producers is a unique individual who makes his or her wines with private convictions and idiosyncratic philosophies. These bottles are like their children.

It’s what makes the wines of IWM so beautiful, and it’s what makes the book so good. We only have one more blog to finish this book club. I’m eager to know what you’ve been thinking. Who is your favorite producer? And why?

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