The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Double-Blinded, Open-Minded

Tasting without prejudice

Last week I was fortunate to attend a special double-blind tasting of prestigious wines from the 1998 vintage.  We tasted eighteen wines, in three rounds of six wines each, and were asked to identify our most and least favorite entry in each round. as well as to guess the origin of each wine. Only one wine was Italian, so this was an opportunity to broaden my horizons and discover new favorites without bias.  The event was well orchestrated by our hosts, though it was not without risk for some of us.

As the Italian wine aficionado in attendance, I felt some pressure to identify which wine was from Italy with just a one-in-eighteen chance.  Using a bit of deductive reasoning, I figured that the final flight of six wines would feature the five first growths and another non-Italian.  This meant I probably had a one-in-twelve chance to guess right in the first two flights.  I further assumed the wine would come from a popular Italian producer who was likely to appear at an auction. I also knew that most of the wines would be rather new to me, so simply choosing the most familiar terroir was my best bet; however, in our world of internationally styled wines, this determination becomes increasingly difficult every day.  In the end all my reasoning was for nothing; I mistakenly selected a Chateau Montelena Cabernet as the Italian. (I was thinking Gaja Sperss at first sniff, but after twenty minutes, I was quite certain it was Sassicaia.)  Much to the delight of my fellow guests, the next wine was an Ornellaia, and I had botched it by guessing it was from Napa.  I suffered little good-natured ribbing and we moved on.

There were other mysteries that swirled around first growths, in particular Chateau Lafite.  If a big Bordeaux collector were to identify Lafite as his least favorite, it might have caused a very uncomfortable scene for both guest and host.  What if a big auction buyer of Lafite would now identify this wine as his least favorite?  Would it matter?  Fortunately, Lafite placed a comfortable third in its round, showing quite nicely.  Neither selected as anyone’s favorite or least favorite, Lafite’s result was very politically correct, and I was somewhat relieved for everyone.

I was also concerned how the non-French wines would be perceived by the group, and the result was even better than I’d expected.  In fact, Ornellaia, Harlan, Penfolds Grange, and Kapscandy (the only 2006 vintage selection) all placed in the top three of their respective flights.  And outside of Haut Brion’s overall triumph, it was wines like Pichon Baron, Chateau Palmer and Chateau L’Elgise Clinet that showed exceedingly well on this night.

So what did I learn? Experiencing wines without brand bias truly breaks us all down and frees us to better connect with the wine part of the wine.  But we need the right atmosphere and company to comfortably throw away any worry of breaking social norms.  At this event I found some personal consistency in my own taste, a renewed desire to return to Napa, and also a need to devote more time understanding Bordeaux.  Finally, I wondered how I could be more effective in creating opportunities like this in Hong Kong for those wine-lovers looking to make their own unbiased personal connections.  Stay tuned to see what we come up with.

Grace in the Gravner

The magic of music meeting wine

Listening to music changes the way we perceive things—even, or perhaps especially, wine. I clearly remember last April when I met my friend at his rock studio here in Hong Kong. I got to the studio (equipped with a full stage, premium sound equipment and instruments for seven) and was shown the enormous wine cellar on the other side of the room, insulated from vibration and in perfect condition. I understood the way John Kinsella felt in Field of Dreams when he asked his son, “Is this heaven?” and was told, “No. It’s Iowa.” For one Sunday, I thought heaven was located in the Chai Wan district of Hong Kong.

As the house band started playing its repertoire of mostly Eagles ballads, we sat back and enjoyed a few finer Champagnes. The set list picked up, and the growing bass thrummed in sync with our move into a deeper Bordeaux. A well-timed guitar solo found me taking longer with each sip and blocking out everything but the Fender Stratocaster and Château Lascombes. The evening concluded, I returned to earth, and I filed this epiphany in the back of my mind; however, not long after, another music/wine synergy occurred.

“Lover You Should’ve Come Over,” the seventh track off of Jeff Buckley’s album Grace was playing in my apartment. I had a glass of Josko Gravner’s 2002 Ribolla Anfora in hand and was sipping. It felt as if the wine transformed into Buckley’s voice in amber, liquid form. Gravner’s wine has often struck me as artistic: fully alive, ever-evolving and somehow always striking the right chord. Like Gravner’s wine, Buckley’s voice is unfiltered and pure. I’ve never heard another singer pull off this song like Buckley, and I can’t help but note that there is only one Gravner.

Finding common threads in music and wines is easy if you think about your favorites. But having it occur spontaneously—and being perceptive enough to notice when it does—is an unexpected reward and an infinite pleasure. And if you do have a wine pairing for Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or Pearl Jam’s “Black,” I’d love to know.

Wrapping Up VinExpo

Highlights, challenges and triumphs

VinExpo Hong Kong ended a couple of weeks ago, but it was such a fast-paced gathering with so many lingering reverberations that I’m still feeling its effects. Certainly, no description of the event is complete without detailing the highly anticipated visit of Monica Soldera of the legendary Case Basse di Soldera in Montalcino.  When I first arrived in HK, I noticed that Soldera was relatively unknown among Hong Kong’s wine collectors. (The wines of Quintarelli, Gravner and Giacomo Conterno fall into this category as well.)

With no existing following in HK, my challenge became how to properly introduce an $1800 HKD wine like the 2002 Brunello Riserva.  Furthermore, the Soldera Brunellos don’t look like other Brunellos.  I was happy to discover the power of tastings, and HK has embraced the wines of Soldera. Monica’s first visit to Asia was a perfect opportunity for producer and wine-lovers to get to know one other properly, and over the past year, we’d built up enough intrigue and positive experiences that Monica’s visit to Hong Kong in May brought four consecutive sold-out events during VinExpo week.

The most notable aspect of Monica’s visit was her grace and her refreshing approach to introducing the wines of Case Basse.  While she is an encyclopedia of wine facts, Monica was casual and disarming—a perfect demeanor for VinExpo, because the week had overwhelmed everyone with a deluge of wine facts and bold statements. The Soldera dinners centered on spending time with each wine individually so that we could see how nature guided the family’s winemaking and gave each wine its own personality.  Monica was able to make each wine seem like a guest of honor, allowing us to refrain from feeling a need to make any immediate judgments about anything.  She took the competitive nature out of the tasting experience and created a light atmosphere to simply enjoy each other’s company and to get to know one other better.

Monica’s Hong Kong visit was so exciting that each event deserves its own description, which I’ve provided below.

Tuesday 25 May – Otto e Mezzo

This event was a no-brainer, because it matched Monica with HK’s celebrated Italian Chef Bombana, esteemed GM Danilo Nicoletti, a gorgeous private room for twenty, and a wonderful group.  The food and wine were out of this world.  I hardly had to work. I simply gave Danilo and Bombana the wine list, and they agonized over the proper menu, updating it just days before the dinner in order to perfect it.  Tajima Beef Tongue on Brunello and Mushroom Risotto paired with a 2003 Brunello Riserva Soldera thrilled us, but we still had the 2002 and 1983 Brunellos ahead of us. It was as if none of us could fathom better food or wine, yet we kept going.  Before the night had ended, the restaurant asked Monica to sign two remaining magnums of 1983 Brunello for their own collection; they’re now proudly part of a very impressive large format collection.  Overall, this evening was a perfect start to our week, and Monica knew where she could get incredible Italian food if she got homesick.

Wednesday 26 May – Crown Cellars

We held a small gathering in the Crown Library that was co-hosted by Hong Kong’s ultimate host, Greg De’eb.  It was a far cry from last year’s event with Movia’s Ales Kristancic, “Marvelous Night for a Moon-dance,” which featured bottles opened under a full moon, ballroom dancing and swordplay.  However different the events, our guests received the same experience in the end: an understanding of the wine through the personality of the producer.  Each wine was tasted together, side-by-side, throughout the meal.  This format allowed us to feel all the wines evolve simultaneously over the course of hours.  By this point in VinExpo, most attendees had been to two wine dinners already in the week, and the casual atmosphere—a Monica Soldera staple—and Soldera’s wines of finesse put some life back into our group as we all prepared for the rest of the week’s events.

Thursday 27 May – The China Club

When we host our producers in HK, we like to throw at least one event where we pair Italian wines with Asian cuisine.  I always rave about the quality of service at The China Club, and in my last post I’d noted that they’d hosted a staggering number of wine dinners during VinExpo.  Sadly, and I mean sadly, I couldn’t attend this dinner, but the feedback from attendees was consistently great. Soldera’s wines paired surprisingly very well with a number of local dishes and showed great versatility.  A number of guests reported that their bodies were wearing down from intense eating and drinking during the week, some reported that they should have taken a night off from the events, but those who were there said they couldn’t miss the Soldera night at The China Club.  Monica was very pleased to have the opportunity to host a dinner with Chinese cuisine, and she was delighted to pass the Chinese cuisine test, a prerequisite for success in the new Hong Kong market.

Friday 28 May – Don Alfonso

My colleague Christina escorted Monica by helicopter to Macau to start the day.  However, I, being more afraid of heights than any man should be, was happy to take the boat and sleep on the way to our last day of meetings and events.  Our evening at the stunning Don Alfonso in Grand Lisboa began with a very pleasant surprise—Chef Alfonso himself would be attending the dinner as a guest.  As with the staff of Otto e Mezzo, Chef Alfonso and his restaurant team hold Soldera wines with high regard and worked hard to create a truly special experience for all of us who were lucky enough to attend.  Don Alfonso’s perfect pairing of 1983 Brunello from magnum with Wagyu beef tenderloin and puffed spaghetti (it’s beyond description) was almost a shame to consume.  But we did anyway, and it was amazing.

To paraphrase Monica’s father, Gianfranco, a great wine is one that you miss immediately after you’ve finished it.  I missed the Soldera dinners the moment we left Don Alfonso. After an exhausting week and non-stop events, I take that to be a testament to Soldera.

VinExpo was a crazy blast of too much food, so much wine and an avalanche of new friends. Two weeks later, I’m only just beginning to recover. Naturally, I look forward to doing it all again next year.

Hong Kong VinExpo

Eating, drinking, connecting and loving every minute of it

Hong Kong is a quintessential networking town, and VinExpo is a perfect match for this predilection of our fair island. Since making the move to Hong Kong, I’ve felt that working here is enjoyable, because professionals from all industries seem to be especially keen to work together in order to help everyone succeed. Thus, I was delighted to notice upon entering VinExpo that excitement about Italian wines has really grown in this region. IWM Hong Kong’s primary focus remains on Italy’s best wines, and we love how our friends in the trade help us enhance the Italian wine scene in Hong Kong. Judging by what I saw at VinExpo, Italian wine might have seemed like a quiet storm just a year ago, but that storm may soon grow into a typhoon.

Given the number of other amazing offerings at VinExpo, we were delighted to sell out all of our Soldera wine dinners (more on these soon). This feat was a sincere compliment from our clients, because we were well aware of how many tempting options were available each night.  Events ranging from private dinners at the Great Wall of China to extravagant Grand Cru tastings set the tone for a lavish and competitive week in the city. By the time our Thursday dinner event arrived, attendees started to look a little bit fatigued. Complaints about the week’s lavish wining and dining might fall on deaf ears, but VinExpo’s three-day sensory overload led by the world’s greatest Type-A personalities is enough to wear out the best of us. Many of our media friends had worked so hard to report on VinExpo from unique angles that it understandably may have been difficult to enjoy even the most casual of events, let alone nightly launch parties. Seriously, the journalists seemed to need Matrix-like speed and endurance to be as many places as they needed to be.

They weren’t alone.

During the week of VinExpo, the legendary China Club hosted private wine functions in nearly every one of its stylish havens each evening—based on my periodic visits to the club throughout the week, I estimate between six to 10 wine dinners per night. When we met at The China Club’s Long March Bar on Thursday night, Sommelier Henry Chang (Hong Kong’s 2007 Best Sommelier Winner) looked like a man who had coordinated scores of intricate wine dinners. From seeing what they do when we host our wine dinners, I know that The China Club’s team provides outstanding service, and I admit that ours can be more demanding in service needs. Henry was the consummate, if incredibly busy, professional.

In meeting contacts ranging from global importers, to airline food and beverage execs, to esteemed producers and négociants, I found that the most common questions were these: What do we do about China? And what do we expect for 2009 Bordeaux En Primeur? I don’t believe anyone in the room truly had the answers, though speculation was rampant and imaginative. I’m sure there were a few exhibitors who’ll find the right answer and will reap major rewards.  So for now I hope we table those questions and get back to what we do so well in Hong Kong—getting to know each other’s interests and forging collaborative relationships.

And, of course, eating and drinking very well while we do it.

Refosco Fan Club

Secret handshake optional

Last night at our Fantinel wine dinner at Tuscany by H, we saw the birth of the Refosco Fan Club of Hong Kong.  On a night when more familiar wines such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Prosecco showed very well, it was the less familiar wines—Refosco and Ramandolo—that boldly announced themselves as wines to be taken very seriously.

Both of these wines came from Marco Fantinel’s boutique Friuli estate, La Roncaia, and both sparked discussion of the endless possibilities for local Friulano wines like these in Hong Kong, as well as their challenges. Watching this crowd grow excited over these more obscure wines was reminiscent for me of the first time I saw the superhuman Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt destroy world records at the Beijing Olympics. No one expected what they got, and what they got was awesome.

Make no mistake: Fantinel is shooting for the very top with his appassimento-style Refosco, one of three produced by his family’s estates.  The only wine comparable to this Refosco that comes to mind is Giuseppe Quintarelli’s Primofiore, though this comparison could evolve into something like Quintarelli’s Valpolicella.  La Roncaia was created in partnership with Tibor Gal, who was instrumental in the creation of Ornellaia and Masseto before heading to Friuli for this venture.

Our group simply could not stop talking about this Refosco—and then our dessert wine arrived. It was La Roncaia’s 2007 Ramandolo.  None of our guests had ever heard of Ramandolo before, but it didn’t matter after the first sip of this late-harvested Verduzzo beauty. One of our very experienced guests declared it to be one of the best dessert wines he’d ever tasted!

And just like that, the Ramandolo Fan Club was also born.  No handshake has been created yet—at least not one that I can tell you about.

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