The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A View of Life in Camogli

The first, edenic step in a discovery of Italy

As I write this post, the last rays of the sunset over the Ligurian Sea are fading, turning the sea a rich indigo blue. I’ve been living in Camogli, a small vacation village nestled into the hills that run along the Italian Riviera, for five days. It is an extraordinary place, though to be honest, my point of comparison is fairly slim.

I had never been to Europe before I boarded the plane last Saturday. The only times I had been outside of the United States were when I went to Canada or the Caribbean. Despite an advanced degree and a world-weary skepticism, I had little actual global experience. Therefore, you might like to take it with a grain of salt when I say that Camogli is extraordinary. Or you might just want to trust me on it—or, if not me, IWM Founder Sergio Esposito, who moved his family here last September.

Camogli, a town of about 6,000 people during the year, looks like a film set. The buildings are all tromp l’oeil stone in the sun-warmed hues of marshmallow Peeps left outside to fade. The streets are stone, and the buildings set so close together that some walkways are smaller than the reach your arms. The town, and everything around it, is built into a steep hill, so staircases punctuate the streets like an Escher drawing brought to life. There is no rhyme nor reason to the layout of the town; streets, alleyways, staircases run higgledy-piggledy into each other making a crazy quilt of commuting. And yet it’s manageable, small enough to negotiate with confidince, to duck through Wile E. Coyote tunnels and find yourself, improbably, scooting past the salumeria you’d meant to find all along.

The air holds a joyfully cacophonous scent, which is, I believe, because everything grows here. Olive trees, citrus trees, roses, palm trees, magnolias, cacti, pine trees, fruit trees, and moss, oh my, the moss—there seems to be nothing whose growth this Ligurian earth cannot support. Everything is an assertive shade of verdant green, at least everything up to about one-third from the top of the hills that ring the towns. There you see the brown of bare trees, but a few weeks those too will turn green. The hills are all terraced with plants and trees, as if some giant is going to use it as a staircase. Someone explained to me that this extraordinary microclimate is both the farthest south that northern plants will grow and the farthest north that southern plants will grow. It makes you feel like you’re inhaling the breath of a Dyad.

For the past four days, we suffered unrelenting rain. Rain dropping gently, rain falling heavily, rain lashing like disembodied whips, and rain shooting sideways so that the palm trees swayed like drunk old men. Today, the sky cleared, and the sun came out, cascading light everywhere. The town filled with people walking in the warmth, smoking on benches, and drinking espresso at tables, looking out at the sea. Even the Italians took their jackets off, though it was mostly the Germans who walked about in their shirtsleeves.

It may be a cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s nonetheless true: life moves differently here. Cafés and shops have their own, individual rhythms. In America, where commerce is king, stores would never close on Tuesdays and Thursdays or between the hours of 1:00 and 2:30, or simply at noon. Humans, I believe, like limits. When you know that you will not be able to get food after 2:00, you appreciate it when you make it to the grocery by 1:35. It says a lot about the Italian culture that merchants put their own quality of life before their need to serve their customers. It may be infuriating when you really, really need that focaccia and the store is closed, but you have to hand it to the shop owners who decide that a leisurely lunch with one another is more important than making sure you’ve got bread.

The truth is this: the food is that good. The light is that amazing. The people are that captivating. The wine is that exceptional. The language is that mellifluous. The land is that beautiful. No, wait. It’s yet more beautiful. It’s a fairyland with gorgeous wine and strong coffee and fast cars and heart-breaking ham.

Clearly, I need a Vespa.

A Hong Kong Perspective on the 2006 Brunellos

A vintage deserving of multiple perspectives

With the 2006 Brunello season upon us, it’s always a good litmus test to see where Italian wines stand among Hong Kong’s collectors.  There is no doubt whatsoever that these 2006s are a special class of Brunellos, and of course I feel that the right ones belong in the cellar of any passionate collector.  I also understand that Brunello hasn’t been actively collected in Hong Kong for very long, and so I always have to find new ways to start that relationship between Brunello and wine-lover.  The great part is that I always look much smarter than I am for being the guy who’s brought the beauty of Brunello di Montalcino into a wine-lover’s life.  It’s kind of like setting your friends up on a date and watching them fall in love right away–actually, it’s much less complicated.

To my thinking, Brunello is incredibly personal, for it’s the first wine I truly fell in love with.  This has been no brief affair, as I thought it might be.  Years ago, my first Brunello was Casanova di Neri, which was introduced to me by Giacomo Neri himself on a visit to the estate; that’s where I caught the Brunello bug.  Later that day, my friends and I visited Altesino and Poggio Antico, and before long, I had also experienced my first Super Tuscans: a flight of Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Solaia at the Enoteca La Fortezza at the top of Montalcino.  I know that my girlfriend at the time was a bit jealous, as lovers often are when a true threat arises.

Here in Hong Kong, there’s still less competition for collectors to acquire these wines than in New York where Brunello release days are nothing short of a bloodbath. For those HK collectors, new and experienced, who may read this – first, thank you – I truly look forward to sharing and discovering Italy’s best with you in the coming months.  I know many people who are new to Brunello di Montalcino will be choosing to buy it solely on trust, and I eagerly anticipate the day when they open a delicious Canalicchio di Sopra or Valdicava that they’ve cellared and think, “Hey that guy wasn’t kidding after all.”

One word to all the experienced Brunello collectors in Hong Kong: enjoy the minimal competition for these incredible wines while it lasts.  We’re still distant from the annual bloodbaths that people in New York see, but that Brunello bug catches us all sooner or later.

The Skinny on the 2006 Brunello

Why it’s more important to look at the producer than the vintage

Tuscany has been fortunate enough to be blessed with a  string of great vintages this past decade.  ’01, ’04, ’06 and ’07 have all been truly impressive and should be a part of any balanced collection. If you are deciding which Brunellos to stock up on, I wouldn’t exclusively rely on one vintage.  There has been a lot of hype about the recent ’06 Brunello release and for good reason.  It was a long growing season that allowed the Sangiovese to ripen perfectly. The strong fluctuation between day and night time temperatures extended the growing season and also helped to maintain perfect vine health. The ’06 is a vintage where ripeness meets structure without the loss of aromaticity or freshness.

However, judging from the conversations I’m having with my clients, I feel that many people are getting fed up with all this hype about the “next great vintage” or “vintage of the century.”  Take a look back at 2005 Bordeaux, for example; prices skyrocketed, demand was high, and many producers claimed that this was the best vintage that they had ever seen.  People went crazy, bought heavily, and lo and behold, four years later the next vintage of the century came along in 2009, which ushered in new record highs and dropped the value of the 2005 Bordeaux.

Unless you are a wine investor and regularly buy cases of first-growth Bordeaux that are rated the highest and only from the top vintages, there is no reason to buy into this vintage hype.  In my mind every vintage is great. Every vintage has its own character and only the best winemakers will know how to exploit that vintage creating a very characterful wine.  No matter what cards are dealt great winemakers will always win their hand.

The Brunellos from 2006 look like they’re going to be absolutely super, and it seems as if the 2007 will also be great.  I think that it is always best to stock up on your favorite producers from each vintage.  Whether  you are looking for the elegance and freshness of 2004, or something a little leaner and approachable in 2005, or the massively structured and ripe qualities of 2006, you’ll find that the best collection is a balanced one.

We take pride that our wine selection is one of the strictest in the retail business, and since there was a lot of great Brunello in 2006, out selection is even more discerning.  Producers like Gaja, Valdicava and Canalicchio di Sopra consistently produce top wines in every year and have been our first selections of the 2006 Brunello.

One of my favorites has to be Valdicava.  Maybe I am a little biased because I met the producer, Vincenzo Abbruzzese, at IWM.  The thing that I remember most about our conversation was when he said, “If I do not make a wine that is delicious upon release, I have failed at my job.”  His wines are so gorgeously balanced that they are hard to resist when young, but don’t get me wrong: these wines have enough stuffing to last decades.  If you have never experienced a wine from Valdicava–notice how I said “experienced” and not tasted–don’t stand in your own way. No matter the vintage, you’re in for a treat.

Go-To-Wine Tuesday

La Querciola Chicchivello Langhe Rosso 2007

Originally from California, I found that even nine years of living on the East coast didn’t prepare me for the frigid assault of the past couple months, but times like these make me especially grateful to work where I work.  I love wine: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t, and when I’m in our showroom looking at our fantastic selection, I get a smile on my face.

Earlier today, I was in search of a wine that would prove a good paring to some leftover chicken noodle soup, possibly some popcorn, but more importantly, a pair of sweatpants and a DVR full of my favorite shows.

Secure that all of IWM’s wines are quality, I chose a bottle because of its interesting label: a man in a bowler hat with a dog jumping up on his leg vying for his attention. I saw it, thought “Awww,” and made my decision to get the La Querciola Chicchivello Langhe Rosso 2007, a Piemonte blend of Barbera and Dolcetto, with a splash of Merlot.  At $22.00 for the bottle, my wallet was pretty happy as well.

I will spare you the details of my rush-hour commute home, but I will say there is no amount of frustration that can’t be cured by a great glass of wine. This one had handfuls of rich, mixed berry fruit, fresh acidity, slightly sweet but well integrated oak, and a dry, mouthwatering finish that led me to the next sip.

That warm feeling you get after drinking a half of a glass makes everything all right, and this comfort wine was a perfect complement to my comfort food. I still have many programs left on my DVR and some wine in the bottle.  Things are looking up for tonight—warmer weather, delicious wine, and maybe some take-out to celebrate.

Meet Serge Hochar

A wine producer of historical proportions

As part of our ongoing series of dinners with winemakers, IWM is pleased to introduce you to winemaking legend Serge Hochar, owner-operator of the historical Lebanese estate Chateau Musar. Dinners will be on February 12 at our location in Aspen, and February 16 at our location in New York City.

The seafaring Phoenicians, ancestors of the modern Lebanese, have been carrying wine throughout the Mediterranean beginning around 4500BC.  In fact, the Phoenicians created the alphabet in part to keep track of various transactions of the early wine trade. By the twelfth Century, the Hochar family (pronounced Hoshar), French in origin, arrived in Lebanon as crusading “Preux Chevaliers,” and in the early twentieth century, the Hochar family started producing Chateau Musar wine.

Since 1959 Serge Hochar, who took over for his father, has been involved in every vintage Chateau Musar has produced.  This iconic winemaker makes very unique Bordeaux-inspired red wines from the Bekaa Valley, along with age-worthy whites.  Located 1000 meters above sea level, the estate has calcaereous, gravel, and stone soils, which encourage the growth of high quality grapes.  These incredibly well-made wines possess intentional–and beautiful–imperfections. They’re not alone in this quest for interesting, arresting beauty; Soldera, Quintarelli, Gravner, among others, also produce wines of purposeful imperfections, if also genius. Whether it be volatile acidity, barnyard earthiness, or a delicious funkiness, the wines of these makers often overlooked by the “point givers” of the wine industry, but they are all the more highly prized by experienced palates and cultish enthusiasts.

The aged reds of Chateau Musar tend to be reminiscent of older wines from Burgandy, Bordeaux, and even Rioja, but each one has a distinct signature flavor of its own.  The prized whites are reminiscent of an aged Lopez de Heredia white with a slight oxidation, while the rare Chateau Musar White 1972 has a beautiful rich amber color and a bewitching palate to match.  These are gorgeous, unusual wines with an unmistakable pedigree. We feel lucky to be rubbing elbows with their maker.

« go backkeep looking »