The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Travels through Toscana

First stop, the Super Tuscans of Bolgheri

There is an unmistakable scent when wine ages. It’s a smell of ineffable purple, of life and wood and grapes and the alchemy of fruit becoming something else, something greater. I spent the past week touring wineries in Bolgheri—Super-Tuscan greats Grattamacco, Sassicaia, Le Macchiole and Tua Rita—and while each of these wineries had that certain aging wine odor, they were all unique unto themselves. The closest analogy I can think of, and this will only make sense to horse-lovers, is the scent of horse barns. Every horse barn smells the same, for each one is, after all, a mixture of the same elements. And yet, each barn is individual and, to a horse-lover, something beautiful. Such is the case with wineries.

As much as wineries have their own scents, they also have their own personalities, and their wines very much reflect the people who make them. Having written for IWM and Sergio Esposito for three years, I shouldn’t be so surprised by this correlation between people and wines, and yet I was. IWM bases its philosophy upon an inherent link between wine and people—both that wine brings people together and that the best wines come from people who have an unabashed passion for wine. People are at the center of our business model, and yet to witness this link four times over this past week was something of a pop-pop-pop-pop of four small epiphanies.

My first stop was at Grattamacco, one of the pioneers of Bolgheri and the Super-Tuscan movement. The second winery in Bolgheri—Sassicaia was the first, and these two estates have vineyards that abut one another—Grattamacco sits both literally and figuratively in the shadow of its more famous neighbor. But that seems to be a position that fits the unassuming Grattamacco. Their wines are anything but also-rans, and in their tasty minerality, they speak of the stony soil (in Etruscan, it’s the “macco” of Grattamacco) where their grapes grew.

Grattamacco sits on a windy plain 100m above sea level. Winemaker Luca Marrone explained that the estate gets 300 sunny days a year and a steady breeze, which helps their organically grown grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Vermentino—ripen without rot. The estate takes tender loving care of their grapes, even to the point of inventing Rube Goldberg looking machinery that gently tips the sorted grapes into the vats to keep their skins from bruising and thus releasing harsh tannins. The wines embody the estate’s personality, that of an A-level student whom you like as much for his brains as his sense of humor. It’s a gorgeous, geeky winery that makes joyfully intellectual wines.

Sassicaia, the neighbor of Grattamacco, owns every inch of its aristocratic heritage. In America, we tend to think of aristocrats as haughty and pretentious—and, certainly, some of them are—but Sassicaia has an intense comfort with itself. It needs to prove nothing to anyone, so it can be simple, beautiful, hi-tech, clean and quiet. It’s a winery of buffed wood or shiny glass and steel. The winery, begun as a gentleman farmer lark by Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, is serious business, and its seriousness imbues the wines, which are products of careful study, ceaseless experimentation, and an indefatiguable commitment to its grapes.

“Good grapes make good wines,” Sassicaia’s Director of Communications Sebastiano Rosa says. They do, indeed, but no matter how much the estate tries to play down its viniculture in favor of its viticulture, it’s still a place where wine moves from vat to barrique and barrique to bottle by forced nitrogen so that it isn’t harmed by pumping or mechanization. There’s a serene, spare confidence to Sassicaia, and it’s telling. It’s in the architecture of the buildings. It’s in the air of the tasting room. And it’s in the wines. You can taste the self-assuredness, and it’s comforting and starkly, unattainably beautiful.  These are fairytale wines.

Like Sassicaia, Le Macchiole has a love of technology. The vineyard’s reception area has the all the style and panache of an architecture firm, and I mean that as a compliment. And like Sassicaia, the estate grew out of an unassuming experimentation with viticulture in the region; however, Le Macchiole’s founder, Eugenio Campolmi, was born in the small town of Bolgheri. His aim was to create wines that could only be Bolgheri wines. They are, as Veronica Veltro, the estate’s sales manager, says, “What Merlot is in Bolgheri; what Cabernet Franc is in Bolgheri.” There is no denying that you can taste the sea, the rocks, the clay and the care that is Bolgheri in Le Macchiole’s wines.

Velto says the estate does “maniacal” work both in the vineyard and in the cellar, and the spotless, careful fermentation tanks embody this kind of studious passion. Le Macchiole’s passion for their grapes shows in all their wines, but especially in their monovarietal expressions. There’s a complexity of flavors and a stylish erudition that wafts from the wines. They evolve kaleidoscopically in glass. These wines have the fluid, almost unimaginable beauty of a mathematician’s mind, even as they have the passion of people’s hands.

If the first three wineries live in various cerebral places, Tua Rita is pure heart. There’s a cheery, open disposition to the winery, from the shambling gate of the estate’s old dog to the down-to-earth guide, Francesca, who didn’t proffer a business card. Like Le Macchiole’s Cinzia Campolmi who runs the estate after her husband Eugenio’s death, Tua Rita’s eponymous Rita runs the winery that she started with her late husband, Virgilio. The estate is the epitome of the cliché “labor of love.” Everything about the estate feels like a business run by a family who really enjoys what they do.

The day I visited, the grass had just been cut, and the air was filled with the green of grass tinged with the pointy scent of wild scallions that grow in and among the grass. The smell of the air seemed to match the relaxed, convivial visit that ended with Francesca’s expansive opening of the estate’s entire line of wines, and her drinking the Syrah. “It’s my favorite,” she said conspiratorially. “Don’t tell anyone.” But, really, how could I not? There’s a wink in her eye, and a wink in all that Tua Rita does. While the surface seems to be all fun and warm love, there’s also a steely resolve and a serious entrepreneurial work ethic here. The wines taste like the salt of the earth, and that only makes them sweeter and more engaging.

Next week, I’ll be continuing my travels through Toscana. It’s a beautiful time of year to be in Toscana. The spring is fairly humming in the air, and all things bright and beautiful, big and small, are stirring. I look forward to telling more of what I’ve seen, whom I’ve met, what I’ve tasted, and how it all fits together, like a hand wrapped around a well-worn trowel, or an old vine around a stake.


Our Dinner with Jacques Lardière

We love the fine wines of the world and the people who make them

Winemakers are fascinating people. They seem to exude this aura in the way they carry themselves, their gestures and style.  Jacques Lardière is one of these characters. The longtime winemaker for the Jadot estate, Lardière is the man we owe a debt of gratitude for elevating the quality of Burgundy wine over the past 25 years. On Monday, March 21st , IWM held a winemaker dinner helmed by Lardière, the first French winemaker dinner at Italian Wine Merchants.  This was pretty monumental for us and the event was a huge success thanks to Lardière and his soon-to-be successor, Frederic.

One thing that I remember most about Lardière was his conviction to make wine from the land, not from the hand.  “I do not make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I make Corton-Charlemagne and Gevrey-Chambertin,” said Lardière.  This was one of the most profound statements I have ever heard and I was really moved by it.  He also believes that many winemakers are getting selfish nowadays.  They are putting too much of themselves into the wine, and not enough of the land.  In the end.” Lardière said, “you will still have a great wine but not a wine that is evocative of the land.

My favorite pairing of the night was with the braised Waygu short ribs.  The rich succulent beef perfectly balanced the invigorating acidity and elegance of the Beaune Les Suchots and the Vosne-Romanée. I’m almost loath to admit it, but Burgundy can claim some of the finest food pairings due to their fine structure, elegant tannins and freshness.

The other highlight of the night was the 2008 Musigny.  We decided to bust this out in honor of Lardière’s visiting IWM and as a big thank you to all of our attendees.  This wine clearly had something special going on.  Upon first smell, I immediately felt myself transported to a flower shop, it was extremely intense.  I don’t know about you, but I love a fistful of flowers in my wine.  It reminds me of the earth, and according to Lardière, this is what wine should speak from.  On the palate, this was like a diamond in the rough.  You could tell that this wine was going to go somewhere special in due time.

Great people, great wine, great food and lasting memories. What else could you ask for?

Our next winemaker dinner will be on Tuesday March 29, 2011, when we will host Barolo great Marta Rinaldi.

Go-To-Wine Tuesday (One Day Late)

De Forville Dolcetto 2009

I spend a significant portion of my paycheck on wine.  Call it a passion for my work, an occupational hazard, or perhaps just an irresistible urge to take advantage of a good deal – any way you look at it, as a Portfolio Manager at IWM, I have access to wines all over the world.  I am accustomed to the greatness of the old world masters, the brilliance of new world innovation, and the broad scope of everything in between.

To me the concept of a value wine is variable with only two major requirements:  it should be delicious and pleasing to your palate, obviously; and then it should be in a price point that you don’t even think about money when you open one, or three, in an evening. The 09 De Forville Dolcetto does both of these things with a casual, effortless style.  Mid-range tannins, a delicious black cherry and licorice flavor profile that’s typical of Dolcetto, and having decidedly low acidity, a well-balanced, round body make this wine a keeper, or a drinker.

Founded in 1860 in the heart of the Barbaresco and still run by the same family today, this estate defines itself by consistently producing exsquisite wines – Dolcetto, Barbera, and Barbaresco – that don’t break the bank.  Their top tier Barbarescos are usually released at around $45 a bottle, and at IWM, we offer the 09 Dolcetto at a mere $18.20.

At this price, guess how many I have tucked into my cellar at home? And, so sorry, but you don’t win one if you guess right.


Caveat Emptor, or In This Case, Empty

When a bottle is just a bottle

Is an empty bottle of wine really fetching $1500?  If the empty bottle is 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild, and it’s in Asia, then apparently yes.  How is that even possible?  I’ve had Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion at the actual châteaux in the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux.  Did they permanently change my wine perspective?  Absolutely.  Is it the best wine I have ever had?  Not necessarily.  Would I buy an empty bottle?  No chance, and certainly not at an offensive $1500 premium.  For $1500 I would happily acquire a case (or close to) of Italian icons like Fontodi Flaccianello or Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia.  I would feel even better about a decision like this, especially considering that the production levels of these much coveted Italian wines are significantly lower.

In a blog post about the current Lafite craze in Asia, Mark Steinberger writes, “On the back of Chinese buying, prices for Lafite have surged 500 percent in the last five years.  Even crazier, the Château’s second wine, Carruades de Lafite, has seen a 1,300 percent price increase during the same period and now often trades at a premium in China to the four other First Growths, Latour, Mouton, Margaux, and Haut-Brion.”  This baffles my mind, particularly because 70% of Lafite in the Asian market is counterfeit.  With wines as beautiful, pure, and ideal as Gaja, Biondi Santi, Tua Rita, Soldera, Quintarelli, among myriads of others, it is difficult to believe this bubble has formed in the Asian market around mainly just first growths.

Although I do agree with some of the author’s main points, I disagree with his stance and opinion on Asian wine buyers, which in characterizing them as avariciously nouveau riche seems a bit short-sighted.  I can, however, relate to the quest of buying the absolute best wine possible.  That specific market believes that Lafite is the best, so their pursuit of the best is relentless.  Moreover, I believe with time this consensus and eventually demand will greatly fluctuate.  As drinkers become educated, their palates will evolve, and they’ll make different choices.  Steinberger himself points out in the article, Americans are guilty of buying wine according to “cute critters” on the label.  One cannot deny that the Asian wine market is making a profound impact in the global wine market.  I am just glad that IWM has a satellite location in Hong Kong and is spreading the wealth, beauty, and value that is Italian wine.


Shiny, Happy Day on the Italian Riviera

A short guide of some favorite places

Today, after solid weeks of weather that was overcast at best and flat-out raining at worst, I woke to find that the clouds dispersed, the sun shining and the sky that sapphire blue of sever clear. In short, the full beauty of the Ligurian Sea seems buffed and burnished and big enough to make your heart burst. My windows are open, and I can hear the waves crash against the jetty as I write. The sound of aggressively happy birds chirping creates a staccato soundscape, punctuated periodically by the pointless lament of the gulls. The gulls are everywhere.

It’s hard to stay indoors on a day like this, so I didn’t. Italian life gives you a really excellent excuse to take walks. For one thing, unlike in New York where I’ve lived for the past couple of decades, in Italy you can’t get delivery. The first couple of weeks I lived here, all I wanted was a diner to deliver me a veggie burger. A veggie burger, it turns out, can bear a tremendous amount of emotional weight. I’ve since relinquished that keening need and have in its place embraced the local custom of ambling about on a morning to collect the food you’ll eat later that day. As a writer, I find it really helpful to find things that get me up off my chair, away from my computer and out into the world. In New York, that thing that would pry me away was my dog; here it is procuring food.

Usually my first stop is my bakery, Panificio Boldrini, where the women behind the counter are entirely patient and pleasant to me. They correct my Italian gently and wait indulgently as I fumble with my €1 and €2 coins. Their focaccia is sublime—its crisp, salty top contrasts its sweet, chewy center, and it’s fairly saturated with piquant olive oil. Their satisfyingly gooey pizza balances acidic tomatoes with velvety mozzarella. And they make these tiny, itsy-bitsy hazelnut shortbread cookies that sandwich dark chocolate. I love this place, and I don’t even like bread.

My usual vegetable and fruit place, whose name I’ve yet to discern, is directly across from the alley where Panificio Boldrini is located. The people at this little grocery aren’t as warm as the women from the panificio, but their blood oranges, broccoli rabe and strawberries are so good, I don’t care. They could be downright abusive, and I’d still patronize them. There are many things that are annoying, problematic or troublesome about Italy. The produce, however, is not one. I find that a solid blood orange, or arance tarocco in Italian, can work to absolve a world of petty sins.

The main drag in Camogli is home to the chilly vegetable stand, as well as my favorite macelleria, or butcher, and a few fish shops. I know it doesn’t reflect well on my status as a foodie, but while I like eating seafood, I don’t like cooking it. Therefore, I can’t give you the skinny on the local scampi. This street also holds my favorite wine shop, La Bottega dei Piacceri, which is owned by a woman named Maria Rosa Costa who also owns a partially eponymous restaurant called Rosa. It’s a shop quite well and quirkily stocked; for no reason that I can discern, many of the bottle of wine wear little paper neckties. It makes the shelves look like they’re populated with a line of Scarsdale commuters. They also have a Facebook page, cutting edge for a Camogli business.

My favorite recent discovery is the pasta shop, Fiorella. It’s located between a narrow alley and the esplanade that runs along the beach, so it’s incredibly busy on weekends. They make the most exquisite little tortellini and ravioli, as well as gnocchi that’s like eating little puffs of clouds. Their pesto is pointy with basil, gorgeously verdant, and velvety with pine nuts. Today, much to the apparent disapproval of the woman behind the counter, I got gnocchi and the salsa nocce, a Ligurian sauce of nuts, cream and parmesan that typically tops a short, thick, dense pasta called trofie. I don’t like trofie; I do like gnocchi. I’m also American, and thus I hope the lovely pasta woman will pardon what is clearly a grievous gustatory error.

The air today feels clean enough to scrub all the vestiges of Gotham from my lungs. And it’s hard to be anything but annoyingly optimistic with the birds chirping their arias to spring, fecundity and the joy of fat, tasty worms. I still can’t help but find this exuberantly perfect weather kind of personally insulting, because on Monday I’m leaving for two weeks of traveling all over Toscana and beyond. It’s like the Riviera has given me a taste of perfection so that I can see what I’ll be missing.

Which is interesting, the thought of being on the road in Italy, homesick for my second home.

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