A look into the life and the cellar of one of Italy’s great winemakers
IWM recently offered a quartet of new Paolo Bea releases, which makes it the perfect time to revisit John Camacho Vidal’s visit to this iconic winemaker’s estate.
When I visited Italy in 2014, I planned on attending the 35 Enologica di Sagrantino in Montefalco, a tasting of Sagrantino. I love the wines of Umbria and, wanting to learn more about Sagrantino and the wonderful wines it produces, I took advantage that this tasting was being held during my time visiting to attend. I was also excited of the possibility of seeing the Paolo Bea Estate. Like many people I was introduced to the region and to Sagrantino through his wondrous biodynamic wines.
My friend Barbara, who runs a tour company based in Perugia, was able to call ahead of time for me and arrange a visit. Needles to say my visit to Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea was amazing and unforgettable. We were met by Sergio, who has been working at the winery for over a decade. He was very apologetic because it turned out that on that day the bottling machine, which goes from producer to producer, happened to be available and they were in the process of bottling and corking wine. We got a tour of the new winery, which was planned and designed by Giampiero, Paolo Bea’s son, who is in charge and, according to Paolo Bea, has taken the winery to the next level. All aspects of Giampiero’s design take the wine into consideration and the winery was constructed with materials from the surrounding area that provide natural ventilation, humidity and temperature.
As we went from room to room and stared in awe at the various barrels both wood and steel, we got an opportunity to taste the grapes that were being dried to make Bea’s famous Passito, and as we walked further down to the cellar we heard the clinking of the bottling machine. We were also able to witness the entire family busy reaching for bottles of wine from the assembly belt and quickly but diligently place them in crates where they will rest for another two years or so. When we walked down to the final level, Giampiero greeted us with his son and walked us through the rest of the cellar and the process.
After our tour of the cellar and watching the bottling process in action, we followed Sergio to a tasting room a few yards from the winery. There we sat down and I was able to taste through all of the Paolo Bea wines. All of them were spectacular.
Giampiero stopped in again and we chatted about the wine and his philosophy; after about 10 – 15 minutes Paolo Bea himself walked in. I’m not really the kind of guy that follows sports and I didn’t understand why people would freak out when they saw their favorite athlete, actor or artist, but when I saw Paolo Bea walk in to greet us I felt goosebumps. I stood up to shake his hand and everything I wanted to say to the man just went blank. I mumbled a few words and he gave me a hard handshake and a hug. I presented him with some coffee that I brought from Colombia just for this occasion.
We tasted the rest of his wines together. Both Paolo and Giampiero grabbed a bottle and signed the label for me and gifted it—it felt like getting a rock star’s autograph. When I returned to New York, I nestled these bottles in the back of our wine fridge, where they will stay until I celebrate a very special occasion. I always say that there is no better way to taste a wine than to taste it with the person behind the wine. Not only did I have the opportunity to taste these wines at the source but also I was able to taste them with the people responsible for what’s in the bottle. After our tour and tasting it took me a few hours to come down from the excitement.
Getting the most from your wine’s label
At one point or another while carousing through the local wine shop, we’ve all looked at a wine label and said, “What a cool label!” and purchased the wine. It’s human nature to like bright, shiny things. The label shows a lot about the wine producer and his or her personality, and sometimes it’s all we have to go on when deciding whether to buy a bottle or move on to the next one. However, as I become more and more passionate about wine, I’ve realized how important it is to look further than cool marketing. Labels can be very confusing and in some cases almost Da Vinci code-like, but they do contain information that helps make that buying decision. Depending on the country of origin, a wine’s label will hold various pertinent information like the country, vintage, producer, region, alcohol content and so on.
Some wineries give labels a lot of importance, while others do not. Some producers change their labels every vintage, while others have had the same label since they began bottling their precious juice. For example, Montevertine Le Pergole Torte is one of my favorite wines and labels. Sergio Manetti, the estate’s founder, hand selected each label, painted by artist Alberto Manfredi, an important figure of Italian painting and print-makers in Italy. There has been a new one each year since 1988, all of which features a woman’s face in a very attractive, Art Deco style. Manetti’s passion for his wine is evident in the labels he selects for that particular vintage.
When I’m looking for a new wine, I narrow my search by deciding what I’m in the mood for and when I’m going to drink it—for dinner, easy drinking, or for exploring. I look at a label for a wide variety of criteria: Modern, traditional, grape varietal, country or producer. Some labels even provide tasting notes and vinification methods. But no matter what I’m drinking or how I’m basing my search, I stick with the basics and a few rules of thumb.
When available I look for the following:
The wine name: This is usually displayed in the largest type-size and the most noticeable font. I still get a kick out of some of the fantasy names that come up. One of my recent favorites has been Pursued by Bear Cabernet Sauvignon from Columbia Valley California
The producer of the wine: There are more than 27,000 producers in Italy, so that’s not necessarily a help. However, you can always read our blog, our website and our eLetter offers for some guidance. If you’ve heard of them here, you know they’re good; of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like the wine. De gustibus non est disputandum, the Romans said, and they were right.
The wine region: This is important since I like to try to identify if the wine taste like it’s from that particular place. Italy we has 21 wine regions, and each of these has many sub-regions. For example, Piemonte is the larger region, and Barolo and Barbaresco are sub-regions. Sometimes you will see a label that combines the grapes with the region like Barbera D’ Alba, which tells you you’re drinking a Barbera from the Alba area of Piedmont. However, this information isn’t always helpful to Italian wine newbies. “Montepulciano” can be a grape or a place, but not the grape from the place (if it’s Montepulciano, the grape, it’s likely from Abruzzo, and if it’s Montepulicano the wine or the place, it’s likely Sangiovese).
Grape Varietals:Knowing what varietals and whether it’s a blend or single varietal can be very helpful in making a decision. Last I read Italy has approximately 2,700 indigenous grape varietals. Some of the most recognizable red grapes are Sangiovese, Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, just to name a few. My favorite is Sangiovese Grosso, which is the sole grape used in Brunello. But just because you’ve never heard of a grape doesn’t mean you won’t love it!
The vintage: The year of the wine is always important of cores. A minimum of 85% of the wine must be from grapes harvested in the vintage stated, according to Italian wine laws. Having a thumbnail concept of what years are banner, bust or sleeper can really aid you in deciding on a wine.
The wine’s denomination. In Italy we have three main designations (DOC, DOCG, IGT)—or none at all. DOC is the most common; DOCG is the most regulated; and IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) are less regulated wines that often refer to non-traditional wines such as Super Tuscans, so an IGT can be an extraordinary bottle. An additional designation such as Riserva means that the wine was aged longer than usual and made according to higher legal production standards.
Distributer/Importer:Maybe it’s because I’m in the industry but I find myself looking at the importer. I have found that if you like a few wines from an importer you like that palate and you can expect that name to introduce you to great wine
After these basic pieces of information, you can get more and more specific with points like whether the wine was bottled at the estate and/or if the grapes are from a cooperative and much more. The more you get into wine, the more there is to get into.
The only thing that I do not pay attention to is ratings. I like to discover on my own and stay away from the herd mentality. In today’s age, there are plenty of apps that you can use on your smart phone that gather all this information for you by just taking a picture. I find this useful and fun especially if I’m adding notes but nothing beats holding a bottle and deciphering it for yourself.
How there’s nothing like visiting yourself
Almost exactly five years ago, I visited Italy for the first time. I had never been to Europe. I didn’t speak Italian. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. And the time I spent there was probably the most rewarding four months I’ve ever spent anywhere.
Living in Italy was not without its challenges. I spent about forty minutes in a supermarket aisle trying to figure out what you call “dish soap” in Italian. I learned to cope without hot-and-cold running Internet, which is difficult when you work remotely. I found myself grasping at a language with a toddler’s grubby fists when I tried to ask for the simplest things. Separated from my friends, my family and my pets, I got pretty lonely. And let’s just say that the dollar was not as strong in 2011 as it is today, which added another layer of anxiety to life on the Euro.
But all that stress was worth it. I saw a lot of Italy, and I saw it intimately. I ate life-changing meals—not just at Michelin-starred restaurants on the Maremma Coast or at tiny chic places on Mt. Amiata, but also from street pizza joints in Rome and hole-in-the-wall Tuscan cafés at towns so small I’m not even sure if they have a name. I learned the fine art of buying produce on market day, and I picked up enough Italian that by the end of my stay people were asking me directions in Venezia, and I was able to answer. I took a lot of trains and I walked on a lot of cobblestones, and it was all worth it.
The thing about Italy is this: while reading books and watching movies makes you think you understand its beauty, you’re wrong. What you glean from books and movies—and even bottles of wine—is like the shadows on the cave walls of Italy’s beauty. The best that books, paintings, movies, and even wine can capture is a kind of chiaroscuro, a picture in brights and darks, and thus a limited, if dramatic, view of Italy.
There is nothing better than drinking a bottle of Italian wine in Italy, except for drinking a bottle of Italian wine in Italy with its maker, and I had the rare opportunity to do that many, many times. I’m not talking about standing in the cantina and barrel tasting, something that’s important and not necessarily lacking in poetry; rather, I’m talking about sitting down with the maker and some wine, and letting the conversation burble and flow with naturalness and without purpose.
I got the opportunity to drink amazing wine with the amazing people who made it. Ornella and Lionello Cousin opened up bottles of Cupano and their home to me. After showing me Castello dei Rampolla, Luca di Napoli shared a bottle of his estate’s wine with Eleanor Shannon and me. I broke bread and drank wine with Gianfranco Soldera, whose Italian I incomprehensibly understood, a rarity for me. Il Palazzone’s estate manager, Laura Gray, was like my sister across the Atlantic. I’ll probably die babbling about Brunello.
I’m lucky that my work has taken me some exceptional places, and in visiting and drinking and seeing and smelling the air around me, I’m better able to understand the wine I write about. Still, I know that however captivating my writing is, no matter how well I am able to convey the scent of Giacomo Conterno’s cantina, the sinuous undulation of Barbaresco’s hills, the feel of the lemon light of Chianti Classico hitting your face, my writing will always be lacking. The best I can do is to write well enough that it prompts you to go to Italy yourself. All roads lead to Rome, where, if you go, tell me: I know this amazing little pizza place.
A look back at the week that was
For Monday being a holiday, Inside IWM packed a lot into this week. Sean Collins told us how he wowed his friends with an unexpectedly delicious $19 bottle of Chianti Classico from La Maialina. We got an inside view of the IWM NYC showroom from John Camacho Vidal, who explained how what we do is different from every other wine shop. And we completed our series on Italian red wine grapes with a rousing post that details some of our favorites; from Refosco to Uva Rara, this exploration of red grapes expands your wine knowledge.
Our Experts were similarly intense. Crystal Edgar looks forward to summer with two fine Verdicchio wines from Sartarelli, one of our favorite Le Marche producers. Michael Adler looks at Meursault and “Meursault,” offering a pair of wines that will reward lovers of fine Chardonnay. And Will Di Nunzio picks a pair of under $35 quintessentially Italian wines, making sure that you can drink great wine any night of the week.
Here’s to making the most of your time–and enjoying it with terrific wine and even better people.
It’s more than just our wines
I’ve often walked into wine shops–sometimes out of curiosity and sometimes because I’m looking for something specific–and each time I walk out of one, I appreciate more and more the way our showroom is set up.
I can easily see how the average wine-drinker, someone who has been recently kissed by the wine bug, or even someone with some wine experience, can feel intimidated or confused when shopping for wine. With few exceptions, I walk into wine shops to find a labyrinth of bottles scattered all over the place in no particular order and lacking the knowledgeable staff to guide me. Now that I do know a bit about wine, I’ve realized that the experience gets worse; so often I see a nice bottle from a great producer and a great vintage just sitting on a shelf under bright florescent bulbs. It’s enough to make me run out in disappointment or just grab anything out of frustration just to have something for dinner.
For the most, part people walk into IWM with something already in mind, but not always, so the other floor staff and I try to guide them. Since we are Italian Wine Merchants, everything on display is Italian (we do sell global wines, but these bottles are only rarely on display), but what sets us apart from all other wine sellers is the fact that we have only one bottle of each producer displayed on the shelf. Well, this and our Vintage Tasting Room, whose brick walls are lined with killer bottles.
We don’t segregate between varietal or region; our organization is intuitive, simple and very friendly. The shelf is organized by price point, starting on the left with the lowest priced bottle increasing in price as you stroll to the right. Each bottle has a description of the region, varietal and tasting note next to it. We display only one bottle of each producer’s wine because everything from our delicious Per Linda Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (one of the best $11 bottles you’ll ever have) to the amazing six-liter bottle of 1999 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte (one of the best bottles you’ll ever have at 83 times that price) is kept in our temperature-controlled cellar. At any given time we have approximately 40-50,000 bottles in the cellar.
When people shop at IWM, chances are they will walk out with a smile. Maybe that’s why they keep coming back, though perhaps it’s the wine selection or our staff who’s eager to share their knowledge. I like to think it’s because of my charm, but in reality it’s a bit of all this combined.The other tool we have to better guide our clients is that we always have an open bottle so we can taste with them. This practice is extremely helpful, especially when we ask the clients if they are looking for anything in particular and they have no clue. Tasting with clients allows us firsthand to get a feel for clients’ palate and flavor profiles, what they like and dislike about the wine and point them in the direction of something they might enjoy at their particular price point. Once the client makes a selection, the bottle is sent up via dumbwaiter straight from the cellar at a cool 54°F to end up in the client’s warm hands. Everyone new to IWM always gets a kick out of watching the bottle pop up as if sent by the wine elves hidden in the cellar.keep looking »