The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Charity, Hair and Wine

S`mall steps with big impact

Maya, before the cut!

A few years ago I was in Israel, and I went shopping with my cousin to look for a wig. She had been diagnosed with cancer, and she wanted to find a realistic looking wig. She had, and still has, thick, beautiful, curly, black hair—hair any woman would be envious of. The idea of losing all of her hair to chemotherapy wasn’t what bothered her; it was the idea of looking sick. After trying on numerous wigs, she decided she would just have to wear luxurious scarves until her hair grew back, which wasn’t a big deal because she’s gorgeous with or without hair.

While shopping, a wig maker told us about how people can donate or sell their hair to various organizations or wig makers so that people could wear a wig of real hair, rather than synthetic hair. He convinced me that my hair is ideal for wig making. I have a lot of hair that’s neither too thin nor too heavy. Having so much hair, I found the idea of cutting it all off incredibly tempting, and when I was 22, I did just that. I grew my hair as long as I could and cut off 10 inches.  Three years later (this past Saturday), I did it again, and I cut off almost 11 inches of hair and sent it all to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs from human hair for people with cancer and other diseases.

... and after

I try to help out as much as I can, whether it’s donating my hair, wearing Toms (which gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for everyone pair that is sold), recycling or purchasing specific things whose proceeds go to a good cause. For example, I like to support the Friuli estate, Fantinel, who donates one dollar to IIMSAM, the Initiatives of the Intergovernmental Institution for the Use of Micro-Algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition, for each bottle of their Celebrate Life Merlot sold. It’s incredible what people can do for the world by taking small steps, cutting hair, buying a bottle of wine, separating paper from plastic. It’s these small steps that make such a huge impact on the lives of people who live all over the world.

Talking Italian Wine

A thumbnail sketch to easy pronunciation

In my time here at Italian Wine Merchants, I’ve had plenty of people tell me that one of the biggest problems they have with Italian wines is saying their names. Being fluent in the Italian language and talking its wine on a daily basis, I thought I could help our readers learn some basics, because neither faulty pronunciation nor fear of the same should stand in the way of enjoying fine wine. I offer these quick rules on pronouncing and understanding Italian wines.


1.  The Italian language is phonetic, so all letters are pronounced when reading.

2.  Vowels and Letters are pronounced differently than in English, though unlike English, vowel pronunciation doesn’t change:

• “e” is not “ee” as in “tree” but “eh” as in “egg”

• “i” sounds like the “ee” in tree

• “a” is the “a” in “apple”

• “o” is the “o” in “pot”

• “z” is like the English “z” in “zebra,” but “zz” is like the sound in “cats

• “ss” is the “s” sound in “Sassicaia”: read it as it is,. However, the “s” on its own within a word is pronounced like our “z,” so “casa” (home) is pronounced “cah-zah”

• “s” at the beginning of a word is still “s” like Sam—or Sassicaia

• “qu” followed by a vowel is pronounced like the English “kwe” in ‘question’

3.  Exceptions to the rules stated above:

• “gn” is pronounced like the Spanish “ñ,” for example: Grignolino d’Asti (gree-ñee-oh-lee-noh dah-stee)

• “ch” is pronounced “k” as in “kin” and not “ch” as in “church,” for example: Fontodi Chianti Classico (fon-toh-dee Kee-ahn-tee kla-see-coh)

• “gli” or “glie” is pronounced much like the Spanish “ll” in “Me llamo” and followed by the ‘i’ (ee) sound—for example: Frecciarossa Riesling Gli Orti  is pronounced “Ll-ee ortee”

• “ci” and “ce” is pronounced like “ch” in “church” followed by the vowel sounds “i” or “e”—this only happens when combining “c” with “i” or “e,”  but not with other vowels. To give some examples: cisterna (chee-stehr’-nah), which means “cistern” and cervo (cher’-voh), which means “deer.”

• “gi” and “ge” are similar to the above rule with the letter “c.” The “g” here sounds like the “j” in “jacket” followed by the “I” or “e” sounds. So, Bruno Giacosa is “broo-noh jee-ah-coh-sah.”

4. What to do with double letters:

• Other than “ss” and “zz,” double letters indicate that the sound should be stressed more. For example, the double “ll”s in balloon are the same as in Ornellaia.

• Double letters also have an effect on intonation; the syllable before the double letters is the one to receive the most stress on it. For example: “Sassicaia” is pronounced “SAH-see-cah-ee-ah.”

5. More on stressed syllables: It’s safe to say that almost all Italian words, without double letters or accents, are stressed on the second-to-last syllable.

• Two syllable words: If a word has two syllables, the first one is normally stressed unless there is an accent on one of the vowels in the second syllable. For example: faro (fah’-roh), which means “lighthouse,” is stressed on the first syllable. By adding an accent, the stress changes and so becomes farò (fah-roh’), meaning “I will do.”

• Three-or-more-syllable words: Here you can see that the stress rests on the penultimate syllable, for example, riserva (ri-sèr-va), Grignolino (gree-ñeeoh-li-noh),

6. Now it’s your turn to practice. Read the following and use what you have learned:

• Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva Vigna del Sorbo

(Fohn-toh-dee kee-ahn’-tee klah-see-coh ree-zehr-vah vee’-ñah dehl


• Quintarelli Alzero

(kween-tah-reh-lee al-zeh-roh)

• Clerico Ciabot Mentin Ginestra

(kleh-ri-coh chee-ah-boht mehn-teen jee-neh-strah)

• Case Basse di Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

(kah-zeh bah-seh dee sol-deh-rah broo-neh-loh dee mohn-tahl-chee-noh ree-zehr-vah)


With these rules in mind, you can order your next bottle of Aglianico with ease. (Just say it this way: “ah-LYAH-nee-koe.”)

Wine, Music and Catfish in Nashville

How the three worlds collided

Stonebridge Farm, Franklin, Tenn.

Back in June, I had a chance to return to one of my favorite cities: Nashville. I’d first visited in 2002, and I’d been itching to get back down there for some time. Nashville is about the music—country, blues, rock—but for this particular trip, it was also about wine.

I was meeting a dear friend, and longtime collector, Mike Ennis. Over the years, we’ve shared wines, meals, laughs, music. Mike loves music, but he loves wine even more. Wine is something he’s continuously discovering, and I can’t blame him. I think two of my loves in life will always be great wine and great music.

When in Nashville, I think there are things that you absolutely need to do. See good music and have dinner with great food, friends and wine. I was lucky to have both in spades. Mike, along with his wife Carol, invited me, my wife Sue, and our sons James and Ben along with several other guests to their home on beautiful Stonebridge Farm in Franklin, Tenn., just south of Nashville.

The 20-pound catfish.

To make this trip really special, I brought a collection of wines for Mike to try, including a Case Basse di Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2002 and Pegasos 2005, Bruno Giacosa’s  Barolo Croera di La Morra 2004, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Le Serre Nuove 2007, Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir Rio Negro Treinta y Dos 2006 and a La Spinetta Barbaresco Gallina 2005. Mike also pulled several wines from his collection, including a Grattamacco and Gaja Contessa from 1998 and a Jacques Selosse among others, and together we had one hell of a dinner.

When it comes to wine, Mike likes everything; he’s one of those guys who can drink anything. Have French Champagne? He loves it! I even brought a fresh Roger Coulon Brut Rosé NV into the mix of mostly Italian vino. When we first met, he already knew the big players in Italian wine—Gaja, the Conternos. Through our conversations and tastings over the years, he now trusts me to pass along what he wants, or may like, and I deliver.

Mike, wife Carol and the evening's wines.

I couldn’t help but soak in those moments as Mike went on and on about how great Italian Wine Merchants was over dinner, or how we managed to get wine right. Believe me, this was not filling any ego—it was really something to hear people say IWM knows how to pick really great wines and knows how to bring this understanding and great wines to their clients. The people have spoken. Well, some of them, and they like us! They really like us!

The need for dinner with friends completely satiated, I next got my music fix next when I stopped over to visit friend John McBride, husband of country singer

Martina McBride, a big wine collector and owner of the Blackbird Studio, one of the premier recording spots in the country. We first met John and Martina when they stopped into IWM. We then hosted them at Ornellaia (one of their favorite producers along with Quintarelli) in Italy last year. John also has a huge guitar collection, and he let my 16-year-old son James, a budding guitarist, lay down a few tracks in the legendary studio.

I thought I was done. I had enjoyed my two favorite things in one of my favorite places. But Mike had something in store for me: fishing—catfishing to be exact. I could have been in a dark, bluesy bar or lounge, soaking in the tunes, but instead I was on shore, in the heat and fishing. It’s funny, because I told Mike that fishing was new to me, and he was telling me how Italian wine was a new experience to him way back when. I guess we’ve helped turn one another on to some new things. I thought to myself that this relationship is what can happen when clients become friends. It’s not forced. It just happens. We talk at least once or twice a month about—what else—wine.

Mike and James rocking out.

It’s important for me to keep these relationships strong. When a person loves wine and trusts me to deliver, it’s priceless. It’s those friendships that have led to some of the best referrals and even more friendships over the years. That’s what the IWM experience is all about. I look forward to sending Mike some new wines to experience soon, as I will do for anyone else that comes my way. In return, maybe they’ll turn me on to some new things as well. Music? Wine? Dinner with good friends? Catfishing? Isn’t that what life is about?

By the way, I caught a 20-pounder [catfish]—or was it 10?

Date Wines

Deciphering the list

Looking at a wine list can sometimes be daunting task, especially if you’re clueless about wine. So many regions, styles, varieties and prices stare you in the face. Red or white? Cheap or expensive? French or Italian? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Whether you’re a girl or a guy, choosing the right bottle can earn you a couple of notches of respect. If you’re going on a dinner date, lack much wine knowledge, and don’t want to look like a fool when ordering a bottle, you might want to do a little research first. See if you can check out the restaurant’s wine list online to gain some prior knowledge. Similarly, finding out what type of wine your date likes (fuller or lighter, fruity or earthy, oak or no oak) will make choosing much easier. The bottom line in choosing a “good” wine is taking the initiative—and knowing about what’s available, what your dining companion enjoys, and what all those names on a wine list mean. If you can’t access an online wine list, then you are going to have to wing it.

Step 1/Preferences: Ask your date his or her preference before you place the order. Never pick the cheapest or the most expensive wine; go for something in between.

Step 2/The Wines: I often like to start out with some Prosecco. It’s youthful, fresh and bubbly character is perfect match for conversation and appetizer, and its residual sugar makes it user-friendly; you really can’t go wrong. White wines offer lots of options for you and your date. For a fuller, low acid, creamy wine, look to California and Australia for some Chardonnay and Viognier. If you’re in the mood for an aromatic, expressive, lean wine with sassy acidiy and a natural affinity for food, head to France’s Loire Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc wines or to Germany for their dry Riesling. It’s expensive, but Burgundy’s take on Chardonnay is sexy, seductive, and elegant. Try Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Pinot Grigio from Italy for whites that fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. More expansive than whites are reds, and if you’re date favors wines from the ruby end of the spectrum, you might choose a full, warm and viscous, oak scented wine from California, Australia, or Spain. It’s tough to go wrong with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah or Pinot Noir. Out of these varietals, Pinot Noir would be the friendliest because of its gorgeous fruit, elegant stature and polished mouth feel. It’s definitely a great date wine, and it’s always a smart way to gauge the tastes of your partne,  because you can always hop up to a Merlot, a Cabernet, or Syrah—or dial it down with a Gamay from Beaujolais.

Spain’s Tempranillo, Grenache, Graciano and Mourvedre are full-bodied wines with higher alcohol and bolder fruit. The Provence and the Languedoc Roussillon region of south France give hearty, full wines with great value. Elegant reds require you to head to the Old World of France and Italy. Generally lighter in body, and higher in acidity and earthiness, these wines are great to pair with food. Italy’s Barbera and Dolcetto will satisfy your tastes for tart, berry fruit, a medium body and a low level of tannin, while the Cabernet Franc grape from the Loire Valley offers earthy fruit and fresh acidity. For optimal pairing with pasta, you don’t have to look any further than a nice, lean Chianti; its typical Sangiovese bite and dusty tannins make pasta sing.

Step 3/Confidence: No matter what you do, try to look confident when ordering wine, even if you are clueless. If lost, you can simply ask the waiter to choose a wine that would go nicely with your meal—there is no shame in asking for help. Above all, remember that drinking wine will help you learn and help you choose. Whether the date goes splendidly well or tanks epically well, you can always count on the wine to teach you something new and tasty.

Wine and Pizza

A match made in foodie heaven

It’s an Italian classic. Americans love it. You love it. I love it. Brick-oven, thin crust and showing that perfect ratio of tangy tomato sauce to gooey fresh mozzarella: everyone loves pizza.

You can have it anyway you want it, and I’ve tried them all: quattro formaggi, wild mushroom, meat lover’s, white pizza and vegetable. I search out variations of the doughy, crusty delight, but I never stray too far away from my regular slice—or pie—for too long. Thin crust, New York-style pizza remains my first choice—a classic!

Pizza is an American dietary staple, though its roots are in Neapolitan cuisine, and though their regional takes on the dish are part of the pizza excitement. There’s New York Style, sure, but there’s also deep-dish Chicago-style and Hawaiian (topped with pineapple and ham). There’s Cajun pizza and nouvelle pizza. There’s gluten-free pizza, and raw foodie pizza approximations. There seem to be infinite variations to the flat-bread-with-sauce-cheese-and-topping theme.

America boasts more than 69,000 pizzerias, and we consume nearly three billion pizza pies per year, according to research by marketing firm Blumenfeld and Associates. I’ve seen statistics state that we even eat 100 acres of pizza per day, and I could believe it. A “go-to” food, pizza’s easy, affordable and it satiates.

Somehow, in all my years of eating pizza, I never thought of pairing wine with it. Then I read an article by Wine Spectator’s Kim Marcus a few years ago on pairing pizza and wine (the article’s sadly not available online). I was astonished. Why didn’t I ever think of seeking out a wine to complement my pizza? The duo seemed like such a no-brainer that I felt like I’d had a small, but important, epiphany. Since then, I seem to go back to Pinot Noir, preferably an Oregonian one, but I know there’s more.

Once I started to consider the options, I felt stunned by their number. Tomato sauce is usually rich in flavor, and there are plenty of great wines to match. A Chianti Classico, a spicy Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and most Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux-blends (the herbaceous Cabernet Franc can match up to the oregano and other herbs in most pizza, while Merlot will complement the subtle fruitiness of the tomato) are all contenders.  Likewise, a rich, round Dolcetto that’s full of black cherries, earth, basil and supple tannins will make almost any style of pizza sing. If you prefer white, you may want a Trebbiano or crisper white from Veneto or Friuli. The choice is yours—and mine.

I can’t wait to find my next new pizza. I’m always happy with my classic, New York-style, but as with wine, you can’t always just stick to one.

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