The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

My Summer Pasta Love

Eating well whatever the weather

This summer has been brutal—there have been waves of heat and rain and occasional weird drops in temperature. This past summer’s weather means days when I don’t know what to eat, whether I should eat something light or something heavy, whether I should eat something cold or something hot. My body doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants, so this summer I took it upon myself to create the perfect summer pasta. It can be served either hot or cold; thus no matter the weather, it’s a perfect dish.


1 box of pasta (I prefer farfalle)

1 bunch of asparagus

1 lemon, zested

A few basil leaves, about 4 big ones

2 tablespoons of olive oil

Red pepper flakes (choose amount based on how spicy you like your pasta)

1 pint container of crumbled feta cheese

¼ cup of pine nuts


Cook pasta according to the package—I like it al dente. Once the pasta is cooked, I rinse it and then put it back in the pot. I drizzle the pasta with olive oil, and let it sit. As the pasta sits, I steam the asparagus and then chop the stalks into pieces about 1 inch long.  I coarsely chop the basil and zest my lemon. I toss the asparagus in with the pasta, and then add the basil, lemon zest, red pepper flakes and mix it all up.  Then if I’m serving the dish cold, I refrigerate it.  When I am ready to serve the pasta either as a cold pasta salad or a hot pasta dish, I add in pine nuts and feta cheese.

Rare is the dish that is equally excellent hot or cold, no matter the weather. I’m proud of myself for coming up with this one, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do—rain, shine, or days in between.

Corked Wine

How to Pick Up on the Wine Culprit

Nothing hurts more than opening a bottle and finding that it’s undrinkable. Most of the time, the culprit can be found in one simple phrase: cork taint. Cork taint is fairly self-explanatory; it’s a cork that has been tainted with TCA or Trichloroanisole, which usually spoils the entire bottle of wine and can derive from the barrels or other cooperage. Nevertheless, it’s a really rare occurrence. Cork taint is also why any good server or sommelier will ceremoniously hand you the cork before tasting—you can smell the potential taint in a dry cork long before you taste the wine.

If, when you swirl and sniff, you smell more cork than fruit or other components in the wine, you’re smelling a bad sign. Some folks can tell if a wine is corked by scent alone; however, a sip is usually the next step, and it’s usually foolproof. The wine will smell like wet newspaper or dog, mold, or old sneakers and will usually overpower any natural fruit, spice and other aromas in your wine and shorten the finish of the wine.

Sipping, or even drinking, a corked wine is not the end of the world; it won’t kill you. It won’t even make you sick. One could even argue that tasting a corked wine is part of learning about wine. It’s a taste you won’t forget, however unpleasant, and having tasted it once, you’ll know what to look for in the future.

If you’re not sure know how to spot, or smell, a contaminated bottle, you aren’t alone. Most of the time, corked bottles are never returned to the store or restaurant; they’re simply remembered as a really bad bottle of wine. Whatever you do, never try to return a bottle that is half or nearly empty—if you’ve drunk that much, you need to accept your loss and move on, as hard as it may be to throw away a favorite wine. If, however, you’ve noticed the wine is corked upon opening, you have every right to return it, whether at a restaurant or a shop.

The good news is that cork taint really isn’t very prevalent. With any luck you’ll never have to experience it in all your wine tasting, though if you do, you’ll survive to drink another day.

A Tale of Two Sisters and Several Rieslings

when drinking well is (almost) better than being right

I come from a family of opinionated control freaks, and I mean that in the nicest of ways. I’d be putting it lightly if I described every one of them as stubborn and set in their ways, which often makes for spirited debates and passionate opinions that stay with us long after the arguments end.  The seven of us couldn’t have more varied wine preferences, so dinners out always result in at least one compromise in ordering wine, and it comes with gritted teeth and crossed arms. Because of our tendency to fight over wines, we’ve become great fans of wine bars, thanks to their ability to nullify the debate by giving each of us our own way. We order wines by the glass, no compromise needed.

Thus, our family celebrates our twenty-first birthdays by going to a wine bar and each ordering what we know we like, or should I say think we like. This past week, two of my sisters and I went to Terroir Tribeca for a belated twenty-first birthday celebration for one of them. It was a fairly warm August day, and I arrived to discover them both drinking red wine.

My sisters both shot me looks of irritation and disgust. One exclaimed, “You didn’t tell us they only have Riesling right now. I HATE Riesling,” while the other groaned, “Ugh, it’s like drinking Welch’s. How could you?” Terroir, I discovered, was serving only one kind of white wine–Riesling–but they were pouring many types of it. Clearly, my sisters needed to be stopped.

I assured them that they needed to listen to me, that in my professional opinion they did not hate Riesling, and that they were merely inexperienced. With a slightly haughty air, I asked the very knowledgeable bartender for the driest Riesling on offer, one with loads of minerality and aromatics. He poured two tastes of Alsatian Rieslings, and both were exactly what I was looking for.  I savored both tastes, and in describing the wines to my sisters, I was sure to lay it on thick. The more wine I enjoyed, I noticed that the longer their glances lingered on my cool, refreshing glass of Riesling. They finally caved, just as they emptied their glasses of red.

The wine guru behind the bar suggested they go with a moderately dry Riesling and maybe try a pair, a younger one next to one with a little more age, and one from Alsace with one from Germany. Knowing from years of experience that the less I urged them to love it the more likely they would, I kept my mouth shut as they sipped. Much to their surprise, and my delight, both stubborn young women developed a taste for Riesling that night. I enjoyed my Rieslings, but I enjoyed being right more.

A Product of Its Environment

Pinot Noir

Pinot fruit from Chehalem, WA. Notice the tightly packed bunch, this prevents air circulation around the berries which can cause mold and rot.

Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to grow perfectly. It’s vulnerable to extreme weathers, possesses thin skin that  makes the berries susceptible to all sorts of diseases and often experiences problems in the cellar during fermentation—and these are just a few of Pinot’s issues.

These problematic situations exist no matter where  Pinot is grown, be it Burgundy, Australia, New Zealand or California. The main difference in Pinot is not the difficulty; it’s the terroir. Grapes are products of their environment, just as we all are. The soil, sun, rain, air  and exposure all help to determine a grape’s character, as does the grape grower. When one or more of these factors change, the product is different; hence, you have differences in styles between countries, regions, and producer.

Two specific models of how environment affects Pinot Noir are the terroirs of Burgundy and Australia.

The risk of growing Pinot in Burgundy is very high compared to other places, but the reward is commensurate to the risk. The climate is continental and marked by cold winters, which can damage or even kill young vines.  Burgundy  is so far north that the summer is just barely long enough to bring grapes to full ripeness, and there is constantly a threat of hail and under-ripe fruit. Some years have too much rain and too much cold, which can hurt production and quality. However, the long and cool growing season also allow the berries to produce all of those complexities and nuances that we love. Pinot does not live an easy life, but this why some say the best wines in world come from Burgundy.

Here's a look at a vineyard in Burgundy. The trees in the background are important in blocking strong and cold winds that can damge thw vines. You can also get a good look at the soil in this one.

The soil is extremely varied in Burgundy. Limestone, marl, sand and gravel coexist throughout the region and within single vineyards. Pinot tends to be planted on soils richer in marl, while Chardonnay is planted on limestone. These soils provide drainage and warmth, helping the grapes to ripen. The bottom line is that these conditions allow the Pinot Noir grape to flourish and produce their best wines. Aromatically complex and elegant, Burgundy’s Pinot Noir are an enchanting light ruby red, and the flavors are earth-driven, rather than fruit-forward. The wine delicately caresses your mouth with a focused intensity backed by a symphony of nuances and pure elegance.

Contrary to Burgundy’s chilliness, Australia is way too hot in most places. Most Pinots from Australia feel  over-extracted, almost like fruit bombs, due to the heat that makes sugar levels skyrocket and acids take the back seat. The grapes are picked in an over-ripe state resulting in jammy fruitiness with a high alcohol content that detracts from the elegant nature of the grape. However, Yarra Valley and Geelong in South Victoria  have particularly cool climates, and these areas produce the better Pinots. They’re worth looking for.

Perhaps more than any other grape, producer and vintage are vitally important when choosing a Pinot. When buying, look for producers who have a known reputation for producing quality grapes, then look for the vintage. Rare is the grape that has inspired a movie—and Sideways‘ Miles Raymond might have put it best when he said, “Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”

Swirl, Sip, Love

The never-ending journey of wine discovery

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert needed a break. In the middle of a divorce, she wanted to find new direction in her life and decided to travel the world. Trekking through Italy she ate, journeying to India she prayed, and jaunting to Indonesia she found love—not a bad plan if you have enough in savings (or a hefty enough advance on a book deal) to take off. The end result is Gilbert’s bestselling book, “Eat, Pray, Love,” and now movie starring Julia Roberts. I love to travel. I plan to eat, drink and fall in love with some new Bordeaux next month while visiting the southwest of France. And yet, while it’s fun to get new stamps on your passport, sometimes all you need to eat, pray and love—or experience new wine—is an open mind. There’s something to discover everywhere. I’m continuously discovering some new wine—new varieties, new regions. Wine from unexpected locales has become commonplace. Wine from the Pacific Northwest, and wine from Argentina were once considered weird and untrustworthy, but no longer. So how about wine from Uruguay? Less known than wine from Chile, Uruguay is actually the fourth largest wine producer in South America, though not much Uruguayan wine is imported to the States. Part of the fun of trying an unknown region’s wine is exploring a terroir from the comfort of your dining chair. It may be good, bad, terrible, or outstanding, but it’s always an adventure.

Working at IWM helps me discover the terroir of Italian wine. I’ve sampled a multitude of wines in only a short few months, and my taste for Italy has been quickly piqued. I’m constantly amazed by the incredible wine selections IWM has accumulated—it’s the most comprehensive group that I’ve ever seen under one cellar. There’s Soldera, Giacosa and smaller producers like Hilberg, San Giustiniani—the list goes on and on. I’m realizing that Italy has so much to discover. It’s going to take some time, but it’ll be fun tasting each region. I want to visit. I will visit.

Travel is therapeutic. It’s good to break away from it all and recharge. Wine and travel together are even better. You can eat, pray and love anywhere you want, and if those activities require you to travel across the world, all the better. But whether I’m home in New York or I’m journeying through several time zones, there’s always something to discover, and I’m far from done searching.

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