The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Soft Shell Crab, Crispy Sweetbreads and Lobster Crema with Champagne Salon 1999 Blanc de Blancs?

A sophisticated twist on the classics

A traditional British lunch of battered haddock and chips is not my first impulse to pair with the ever-elegant Champagne Salon.  A few weeks ago in London’s Notting Hill the icon of sophisticated bubbles did just that for the launch of the highly anticipated 1999 vintage of Salon Champagne.

The fish and chips pairing in hindsight, makes perfect sense. While a young, vibrant sparkler does amazing things with anything fried, if you add a little age to the bubbly, its mature earthy notes are a prime candidate for a concoction of popcorn with truffle oil and salt.  Simplicity is at its best here, and these two pairings are among the great food and wine pairings of the world we sometimes overlook.  However, Champagne can work with caviar, oysters, lobsters, foie gras, sushi, smoked fish, Chinese food, and turkey, which begs the question, is Champagne the most versatile wine on the planet?  We will certainly test the statement as we do an American take on fish and chips — Soft Shell Crab, Crispy Sweetbread and Lobster Crema, all paired with Champagne Salon 1999 Blanc de Blancs.

IWM couldn’t be more pleased to announce our June winemaker series with Champagne Salon and Delamotte that will be held in both New York and Aspen.  Building on the versatility of these estates’ great Champagnes, Chef Kevin and I plan to put a twist on some classic pairings to celebrate a first taste of the 1999 Champagne Salon, along with some aged gems that date back to 1983.  Hope you can join us or explore your own pairing from the menu below with these great houses of Champagne.   Cheers!

Vintage Champagne Salon and Delamotte Dinner
Featuring fine Champagnes from the Historic Houses of Salon and Delamotte

When: Wednesday, June 15th
Reception: 6:30-7:15 pm (Oysters and Seafood)
Dinner: 7:30-9:30 pm (Four Courses)
Italian Wine Merchants
Price: Inquire

Menu and Wine List:

Reception:  Seafood Bar and Beyond: Oysters, Crudo, Iberico Jamon
Champagne Delamotte Non-Vintage Blanc de Blancs (from Magnum)

Course 1:  Soft Shell Crab, Crispy Sweetbread and Lobster Crema
Champagne Salon 1999 Blanc de Blancs

Course 2:  Bucatini with Sardinian Bottarga, Ciabatta and Italian Caviar
Champagne Salon 1997 Blanc de Blancs

Course 3:  Roasted Veal, Chicken Liver, Pancetta, and Morels

Champagne Salon 1988 Blanc de Blancs

Dessert Course: Bread Pudding
Champagne Salon 1983 Blanc de Blancs


Called the ultimate cult Champagne and the diamant jonquille of sparkling wines, Champagne Salon is for IWM simply where sophistication in Champagne begins.  This is the original Blanc de Blancs created from a single grape variety, Chardonnay, from a single source, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.  In just over one century, these exclusive bubbles have only been created in only 41 vintages.  IWM sees it as only fitting to launch our Vintage Winemaker Series in both New York and Aspen with the rare and iconic Champagne Salon, along with their sister house Champagne Delamotte, the fifth-oldest in the region.

Jean-Baptiste Cristini of Champagne Salon-Champagne Delamotte and IWM will lead this five-course dinner and tasting where guests will be among the first in the country to experience the highly anticipated release from the 1999 vintage, alongside vintage gems that date back to 1983. The menu, prepared by IWM’s own Chef Kevin Sippel, will feature small plate cuisine from around the world to accent the versatility, ageability and depth of Champagne Salon.  Eat, drink, converse and enjoy the ineffable sophistication and indisputable beauty of Champagne Salon and Champagne Delamotte with IWM.

For more information and reservations, please contact Chris Deas at 212.473.2323 x101 or via email Reservations are on first-come, first-served basis. Due to the rarity of the wines and the limited seating, advance payment is required upon confirmation. Payments are non-refundable.


In Praise of Aperitivi

Or a subtle argument about why cocktail culture should come with nibbles

As I write this post, it may be only 11 a.m. in New York City, but it’s almost 5:00 here on the Italian Riviera. It’s not quite time to knock off work, but it’s getting close to that magic moment when we can, in good conscience and with the blessings of the culture, walk away from the computer, go outside, meet up with friends and enjoy an aperitivo.

Italian aperitivo culture is far more civilized than American cocktail culture—and I say this as a woman who very much loves the pomp and circumstance of New York City bar life. My heart goes a bit pittypat over any adult beverage that is hand-muddled, infused, artisanal or deeply designer, and therefore I am much enamored of all that is cocktail in Gotham. I love infused vodkas, heirloom bourbons and ancient absinthes. Throw in some hand-cracked ice, and I’m just about bouncing on my barstool. That said, there is one major reason why Italian aperitivo culture reigns supreme and that reason boils down to one word: food.

To drink something alcoholic without food is anathema to Italian culture—the one lone exception being the digestif, those cordials, infusions and alcoholic beverages Italians consume with an almost medicinal intent (and with, to this American palate, an accompanying medicinal flavor). You simply do not do it. Italian wine is so intrinsically tied to Italian food that it is unthinkable that you would drink wine as Americans do: by itself, a free-floating liquid signifier removed from its food signifier aperitivo in Italy is essentially the same, and really, I have to give the Italians props on this point.

Go out for aperitivo with friends and the barkeep brings you a plate of adorable little foods—focaccia topped with luscious bites of prosciutto crudo, delicious olives, or cunning little squares of bruschetta topped with regional food. In Toscana, for example, you get tiny toasts with dabs of cinghiale or liver paté. Here in Liguria, you get your bread topped with pesto, anchovy-and-tomato ragu, or tuna mixed with something tasty. You sit in the organe of the setting sun, you chat with your friends, you people watch, you drink your spritz or your negroni, and you nibble your little finger foods. It’s a remarkably sane way to end a day and to prepare for dinner.

Which is, actually, the point that makes the Italian aperitivo really special. In the US, we tend to think of cocktails as an end in and of themselves, not as an essential step that readies you for dinner. Italy is so consumed with food—the buying, the preparation, the eating and, above all, the enjoyment of it—that the cocktail hour is less about stress relief and more about getting you ready for the big event of the night, which is, of course, dinner. What else could it be?

In about three weeks, I’ll be back in New York, and there are many things I’m looking forward to seeing again. (A really decent bourbon is near the top of the list.) But I hope to keep this sense of the aperitivo alive and well. Cocktails are great. I love them. Nothing, however, is quite like the aperitivo. After all, it comes with cheese and ham. And those make just about everything better.


On Birthdays, Celebrations and Vintage Wines

There’s no time like the future to celebrate the past

Deep down I suppose I’m a sentimentalist.  I am often moved to tears by genuine familial affection, and I cherish mementos from particular moments in my life.  Whether it is art or music or just a rock off the ground from a particular place and time, I collect memories, and my home is an eclectic display of  meaningful trophies.  The concept of having a superlative wine that’s capable of extreme age and which was presented to me by a parent or grandparent to mark the most important moments of my life quite frankly makes me quiver with emotional pride.

Wine, after all, touches at least four of the five senses, omitting only sound (though you could argue that Champagne covers even that base), and it has been proven that smell and taste are perhaps the two senses most linked to our memory.  To be able to offer a visceral experience, a profound taste, and a thoughtful evocation to celebrate the glory of life’s accomplishments – it’s really a rather remarkable thing.

Of course as a practical matter, proper storage of a wine bought to enjoy in the future is paramount.  One must either have a cellar in your home or have access one of the many available storage facilities built for the purpose of wine storage. The celebration vintage concept is not one for the short-sighted.  But that aside, there are a few types of wines with proven track records of being absolutely stunning drinking experiences lasting 50 years or more; Barolo and Brunello in particular stand out.  Think about it: milestone birthdays, graduations, successes on the job, a wedding, the birth of children, special anniversaries  . . . a wine that will improve with age, a taste to remind your loved ones of the most important moments in their lives, to be meted out in loving accolades.

A few examples:

For 21st birthdays this year there is the Bruno Giacosa Barbarseco Santo Stefano Riserva 1990, an incredible and top-rated Nebbiolo that’s still categorized as “young” – released at the price of $60 per bottle and now retailing for $600 plus!

Last month I sold a bottle of 1961 Giacomo Conterno Barolo to a client who was attending a dear friend’s 50th birthday party.  The Barolo was perhaps the most memorable taste of the evening, and the sentiment behind it was a testament to the friendship between these two people.  Suffice it to say the cost of a ’61 these days is nothing to sneeze at, but a case bought in the late ’60s couldn’t have run more than a few hundred bucks.

There have been so many good vintages this past decade . . . ’97, ’99, ’01, ’04, ’06, and ’07 all offer stunning choices for wines that will last the ages.  So with foresight and good planning, not to mention the advice of your IWM Portfolio Manager, the phenomenon of birth-year wines can be enjoyed, passed on, and cherished as tastes and memories by yourself, your children, your friends throughout the shared lifetimes to come.

Out with the Old and in with the new? Or maybe not…

An insider’s take on the American palate and Italian wine debate

It is clear that American palates go through phases in terms of the wines that they enjoy; it’s only natural, my own included.  When I first got into wine, I enjoyed the blockbuster wines coming out of Napa and I still do to this day.  Thanks to Napa and Italian producers who make “Super Tuscans,” my entry into the wine world was spurred from these wines geared for American palates.  A recent Decanter piece describes a little bit how Italian wines have catered to American palates:

Even though an increased focus on food and wine pairing is a major force behind Italian wine sales in America, some experts attribute the sustained success of Italian wine here to a tailor-made style that caters specifically to the ’American Palate‘, a term which has become synonymous with highly oaked, overly dense, sweet and powerful wines.

I think there are two sides to the story: a business side and an egotistical side.  Winemaking is a business, pure and simple.  People have to buy your wine if you want to make more.  If consumers want highly extracted, oaked models, I say go ahead and make them.  This will at least get more people to drink wine and in turn create a bigger market to introduce “other” styles of wine.  I would actually like to thank these bigger brands because with out them, Americans would not have had the exposure as they do now to Italian grapes and wines.  Also, I believe the wine world would be in a totally different place if it wasn’t for Americans.  After all, we buy a lot European wine.  How many people do you think drink Monfortino, Ornellaia and Quintarelli in Italy?  Not that many.

Are these large, branded producers making wine geared for American palates breaking tradition?  Well, really, that’s a matter of opinion. What was considered modern thirty years ago is now traditional. People automatically assume that using French barriques is a modern practice, but meanwhile the French have been using these for over 100 years, so we can throw that out the door.  I myself hate labeling a producer as being modern or traditional, and we should never base these assumptions on the type of wood they use.

Of course there are producers out there who couldn’t care less about the masses and solely produce wine they way want to make it.  Yes, they have guts, but their product is topnotch; otherwise they wouldn’t be in business. I’m speaking here about iconoclasts like Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Antonio Mastroberardino and Gianfranco Soldera.  These guys are not traditional because they use Slovonian oak; rather, they define tradition because they respect how wine was made by the people before them.  It is their passion and dedication that define their tradition, not the type of wood or what color their wine is.

Finally, who is to say that American wines don’t pair nicely with food?  Can you really beat a Shafer Hillside Select with a grilled piece of aged ribeye?  I don’t think so.  But take that same wine and pair it with a spaghetti alla pomodoro and you have some issues.  American wines pair just as well with food; don’t let anyone fool you.  On the other hand, you do have to hand it to Italian wine and its ability to complement food. Sassicaia and pizza? Heck, why not!  I can guarantee that will be the best slice you ever tasted. Trust me I’ve tried it.


Go-To-Wine Tuesday (one day late)

Bruna Pigato U Baccan 2009

As the seasons change and the temperatures start to rise here in New York, I thought I would take a look through the IWM inventory for something refreshing, earthy and clean.  Even though my fiscal mindedness takes over when trying to find great value in my drink, I still want to ensure that I’m getting a thought provoking balance on the nose and in the glass, whether I’m sitting on the balcony enjoying an evening sunset over Manhattan or sipping through dinner.  My search was over after finding the perfect combination of these qualities in Bruna Pigato U Baccan 2009.

The name “U Baccan” comes from a term meaning “the boss” or rather the most charismatic person in the family.  A lovely light green label on the bottle features a figure I can only place as being a cave drawing of a character with an axe and some document, most likely the boss (and not Tony Danza).  I can easily see why the wine master Riccardo Bruna chose this name, for the wine is not only highly sought after, with only 180 cases produced, but he and his daughters refuse to mask the true character of this fruit with fancy technological processes. They prefer to showcase the grape and the terroir through the wine limiting the inputs in the vinification and aging phases.  Bruno began producing this particular label in 1999, and never makes wine in off years.  This dry white is birthed from late harvest Pigato grapes cultivated on old vines in the Russeghine vineyard.  I can see the inspiration found in the native Ligurian varietal and the land consisting of steep terraces rising above the Mediterranean giving Bruna’s discovery a spirit thriving on our palate.

After pouring the first glass, my wife and I enjoyed the evening as the sun is doused by the concrete skyline.  The moisture in the air transports us to the edge of the sea and U Baccan adds to the imagination.  An aromatic floral bouquet dances on the nose.  There’s saltiness and citrus blending of flavors that opens into a highly complex, very structured and well defined succulent medley.  Once the tangy array of herbs and tropical fruits envelop your senses, the finish brings a hue of almonds.  Quite an impression made by this one.

Complementing this wine even further are various culinary delights.  Since this is a coastal wine, it works well with seafood.  Next, we paired this up to a lobster pot pie.  It was prepared in a New England style, but I can’t take credit for the recipe – you’ll have to find it at your local Fresh Direct.  The rather mellowness of lobster and the “bossiness” of the vino brings out a sophistication from fathoms deep.  This definitely lends U Baccan to being a wonderful bargain whether enjoyed now or in years to come.


« go backkeep looking »