The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Sun Shines at Ornellaia

It takes a community to make a wine this good

Last Thursday, I got to extend my travels through Toscana by taking a quick jaunt to Bolgheri and Ornellaia, the makers of the eponymous flagship Super-Tuscan wine as well as the legendary Merlot Super-Tuscan Masseto. One of the things I’ve been most blown away by in visiting all of these estates is how each one very much has its own personality–and how much that personality appears in the estate’s wines. While Ornellaia has a corporate owner in the form of the formidable Frescobaldi, and while the estate spans many well-coiffed acres of land, the feel of the place is very much one of community.

Part of this sense of community stems from the fact that the estate works with artists every year to commemorate every new vintage of Ornellaia. This conversion of art and wine makes for a very exuberant, eclectic atmosphere that very much negates the size, shininess and aggressive James Bond styling of the estate’s state-of-the-art winery.

But the art isn’t the only thing that makes Ornellaia feel warm and fuzzy with community is the nearly seamless way that the people interact with one another. It’s more than a well-oiled machine, though it clearly is that–watching the bottling operation was like watching a mechanized ballet–it’s that people seem to like each other, to like their jobs and to like the company. People make all the difference in companies, and the people who make Ornellaia run seem pretty happy doing it.

But if people are the great leveler in corporations, the vines are the great leveler in winemaking, and the vines at Ornellaia unfurl in neat little parcels every which way you look. The day I was there was just about the most picture perfect spring day in Toscana you could devise. The sun was shining. The bees were buzzing. The birds were twittering. And the vines, quietly, were growing.

There’s really very little on this wet blue planet that’s quite as pretty as lines of vines stretching off into the horizon, and Ornellaia has that in spades. Great swaths of earth under vine, all growing with a silent contentment, if I may be allowed to personify for a moment. The beauty of the vines appears in the wine, gets reflected in the art, and all comes into being in the work of the people who make Ornellaia what it is.

Even better, every tour ends not merely with a tasting but also with a surprise. I won’t spoil it for you, but should you ever go, I’d love to hear how you liked it. Then we can share the secret handshake and a quiet, sunny smile.

Earth Day and “Green” Wines

A Billion Acts of Green can start at your table

On 22, April 2011, all the peoples of the world will come together to celebrate Earth Day, a day to appreciate our planet’s natural environment and to raise awareness of how our choices impact the Earth. The theme of this year’s Earth Day celebration is “A Billion Acts of Green.” The goal is to have a billion choices to live sustainably before the Earth Summit in Rio 2012.

Choices to live sustainably, or acts of green, are actions you can take every day such as recycling, reducing energy output, and choosing organically grown food and wine.  In addition there are activities to get involved in to show your support such as “Earth Day in Time Square,” where a “runway show” of energy efficient cars will take place.  In thinking green, why not make it your “act” to drink green?

IWM offers various wines that are organic and biodynamic.  Several of the best producers believe in maintaining the naturalness of their terroir and the importance of pure earth, uninterrupted by the human hand.  Two of my favorite biodynamic wines are the Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir Rio Negro Barda and the Gravner Ribolla Gialla.  The Chacra estate is located in Patagonia, Argentina and is the work of Piero Incisa della Rocchetta of Sassicaia fame, while the Gravner Ribolla Gialla is the work of Josko Gravner in Friuli.  Josko believes in the essence of the earth and avers, “I am convinced that wine is a product of nature, not of man, whose role therefore is to accompany its maturation process while avoiding any artificial intervention.”

Both wines are a true expression of the earth.  So think outside the box and drink green in honor of Earth Day

Wines for Spring Veggies, Easter and Peeps

To every season…

In many religious traditions celebrations of spring afford us a chance to enjoy find rebirth and renewal in life. Thus is the story of Easter and its long lineage through human history that begins with its origins as a pagan holiday celebrating the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre through its current Christian celebrations of resurrection.  It’s really a fascinating journey to see how all of these traditions joined hands, created barriers and commingled over the centuries, but too much to discuss in one blog post alone.

In the Christina faith, Easter follows 40 days of Lenten sacrifice, and given the privation that precedes it, Easter’s celebration would be incomplete without opening up the senses to delicacies.  After a period of abstaining from those luxuries, our senses are heightened and attuned to those subtle nuances that we might normally miss in our day-to-day consumption of creature comforts. Two of the classic Easter foods that may seem far apart on the culinary spectrum are nonetheless united by being springtime treats — to be specific, veggies and peeps.

As every mom tells you, first you must eat your veggies. Maybe you’re planning to dine on some spring vegetables this weekend in the form of greens, asparagus, or artichoke.  The freshness of spring vegetables means simple preparation; you can always sauté, simmer or mix any of these with a salad.  The refreshing flavors, bright colors and nutritional content of these foods lend themselves to be paired with an exuberant wine.  Try the semi-sweet taste of an Italian Riesling.  The Frecciarossa Riesling Gli Orti 2008 is still dry white from Lombardia that will provide the perfect amount of light flavors to lend a helping hand balancing out some of the stronger vegetables. Plus, what better way to honor the old pagan feasts than with a celebratory libation? Grog is so 1011.

Easter holiday wouldn’t be complete without the very American tradition of gorging on chocolate bunnies and, most importantly, Peeps. Peeps, those  cute little marshmallow chicks and bunnies of various colors, have joined the cornucopia in our Easter baskets since the 1950s.  I’m thinking a dessert wine is going to be your best bet.  Something from Toscana, like the Querciabella Orlando di Vin Santo 1990, which is a biodynamically produced sweet white with a mouth-watering streak of acidity, to help enhance your decadent experience.

So this weekend, if your family wishes to savor not only the food, but the experiences shared together as we enter a new season, try exploring and expanding the senses with complementary wines.  And remember to have a very “hoppy” Easter!


Go-To-Wine Tuesday

Campo Al Mare Bolgheri Rosso 2007

At IWM I help people choose wines for dinner parties all of the time, asking them what type of food they will be having, what styles of wine the people tend to like and other pertinent questions.  When those questions don’t turn up enough information to make an educated recommendation,  I always urge the customer to bring a wine that he or she would like to drink that evening.  When in doubt, take care of yourself.  If the bottle you bring goes unopened, your guilt will set in and you will most likely be sipping on your wine all night long, so you might as well make sure you like it.

This weekend I found myself having to supply a bottle of wine for a dinner party that I decided to host at the last minute. The food included cheese, fruit, and cured meats as well as a pasta dish for the main dish.  And my guests, though not wine nerdy like me, were still appreciators.

I decided on the Campo Al Mare 2007 Bolgheri Rosso, a great Bordeaux-style blend from the famed Tuscan region founded by the great winery of Sassicaia.  Italian wine is made for food, and seeing as we had an Italian-centric menu, Italian wine was a no-brainer.  But to guarantee that all my wine appreciating friends would like the wine, I knew I needed something that, while maintaining good acidity to accompany the food, would have a substantial amount of fruit.  The Bolgheri regions is a great place to go for this kind of wine.

The Rosso’s ripe dark fruits cut with some chocolate notes meant that this wine went over very well with my guests.  I very much enjoyed the herbal, and tobacco notes as well.  I am a sucker for earthy tones in wine.  The fresh acidity made this wine extremely drinkable and I am pretty sure the entire bottle was polished off in a matter of fifteen minutes.

Not that I wouldn’t have minded sipping on this bottle all night, but I was glad I made the right choice.  Kind of a win-win situation if you ask me.

On Visiting VinItaly

Discovering more than just really great wine

Imagine a beautiful day. It’s spring in the Veneto. The sun is beaming down. The air is mild with the scent of blooming flowers. Bees buzz in lazy circles near enough that you’re aware of nature’s bounty, but not so close as to raise alarm. Hundreds—no, thousands—of like-minded people stroll happily enjoying their one uniting passion: the tasting of wine.

For under those white tents and artfully decorated structures fabricated from corrugated steel and other high-tech materials there is wine. Miles and miles of wine, much of it from the best producers in Italy, poured for you in an endless river by knowledgeable winemakers. Row after row, row upon row, rows crisscrossing one another like a giant crossword puzzle, rows and rows and rows of hopeful producers pouring wine. Wine runs like water at VinItaly, and it should be something of a paradise to the oenophile.

The truth is that it is—and it isn’t.

I had read Passion on the Vine, the memoir by IWM Founder and my guide for VinItaly, Sergio Esposito. Sergio has some vexed feelings about the annual gigantic wine show. He describes his arrival at the fair one year in his book:

The first event, meant to be an industry affair, had taken place in 1967. By 1969, the organizers had attracted 130 producers of Italian wine, who introduced their products to the buyers and sellers attending ­lectures and meetings. Now, there were nearly four thousand producers—and, it seemed, at least ­one-­third of the global population.

I found an overflowing building, crowds pulsating in and out, English words tossed around. There were thousands of people, from New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Missouri; from Germany, Norway, Singapore, South Africa. The buildings—makeshift green metallic structures erected for just this purpose—sat upon a fairground, a sort of Las Vegas convention-hall affair. Wildly attractive women staffed the entrance, all of them in a ­standard-­issue uniform: a pine green cloak, tight black skirt, pressed white shirt, and red cap. Throngs of people were registering at the different doors, their notebooks and digital cameras in their hands, their faces plastered with that avid look most often spotted on rock music fans pushing to get into a venue for a Stones concert. Above it all rose a billboard, one hundred feet wide and thirty feet high, across which was sprawled in burgundy: Vinitaly.

When Sergio and I arrived the Friday before last, I found his description to be accurate. Although the outfits of the “wildly attractive” women had changed, it was very much the madhouse that Sergio depicts. Outside the venue, cars were parked with the chockablock inelegance of toddler’s toppled blocks. Inside, scrums of people glommed around any signage that could tell you how to find the booths you were looking for—likewise, people gathered with that ineffable herding instinct in front of popular booths. I suspect that you could cause any booth to become wildly popular just by placing a flash-mob on its doorstep, but that’s pure speculation.

While there was some semblance of order in that individual buildings (“roughly the size of airplane hangars,” Sergio’s book accurately reports) were dedicated to individual regions, there the organization broke down. Cheek-by-jowl, you could find producers from Umbria, Piemonte and Toscana—all located within the tent for Alto Adige. It’s kind of as if the logistical planner just gave up partway through his or her task, and it is a big task, no doubt about it. I can envision giving up myself.

I’ve never seen so much wine nor so many people ready to consume it. There was just so much wine. It’s almost defeating how much wine there is at VinItaly; if there has ever been an embodiment of too much of a good thing, it might very well be VinItaly. The only factor that checks the veracity of that statement is the simple fact that there was also too much of a mediocre thing (and probably too much of a bad thing too, though I didn’t taste much that was downright bad).

The excellence of VinItaly is the chance to taste a producer’s wine and find that it makes your hair stand up with excitement. In this respect, I was very fortunate to have Sergio as my guide. An experienced VinItaly hand, Sergio had mapped out groups of producers whose wine he wanted to check out, and while a few were damned with faint praise, several got a nod of genuine approval. He found wines that were really amazing—beautiful, complex, interesting, unexpected and nuanced. I don’t want to give too much away, but Sergio discovered some extraordinary wines from Alto Adige and Sicilia. Thinking about them makes my mouth water with anticipation.

And yet, at the end of the days I spent at VinItaly it wasn’t the size of the event, its glitziness that sometimes verged on Vegas levels, the sheer vertiginous number of its spittoons, or the various goofy ways that the different regions tried to distinguish themselves (“In Veritas Lazio!” read that region’s banner, while Sicilia paraded a partially clad girl painted green to represent…something), it was the fact that something like VinItaly happened at all. For indeed, not only did Sergio and I attend VinItaly that weekend, we also attended VeniVini, an exhibition of all organic and biodynamic wines that was much more manageable in scope. And, had we wanted to, we could have gone to yet another show of only biodynamic wines.

Wine is, of course, a huge export for Italy, but this cavalcade of events is bigger than just being a testament to the commercial success of Italy. It’s more than wine; it’s national pride. It’s regional pride. It’s something so deeply ingrained in Italian culture that I as an American have a hard time parsing it. For it wasn’t just industry people, though they were there in droves; everyone was there. People who like wine go to VinItaly, a trade-show. There is, in fact, nothing analogous that I can come up with in America, nothing that unites us and divides us with the same kind of messianic fervor that wine does  Italians.

And that for me was the truly amazing discovery of VinItaly. Yes, I tasted some truly remarkable wines, but what I really got a glimpse of was how Italians feel about wine, and it’s something so much more profound than mere passion.

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