The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Castello dei Rampolla’s Harmony with Nature

Why biodynamic agriculture doesn’t need to make sense to make great wines

Biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla

Biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla

Farmers who use biodynamic growing methods choose to plant, weed, treat, harvest and, if they’re winemakers, vinify in concert with the movement of the planets. The point of biodynamic growing, an agricultural movement that looks at organic farmers as folks who do something right if somewhat incompletely, is to look at the growth cycle of the entire field as one holistic unit. To those of us who bear an empirical mind and like to see cold, calculating and clear evidence to support assertions (and I do count myself among that number), biodynamic practices with their airy-fairy reliance on manure-filled and cow-horns that are buried and exhumed, water’s circular memory, and a vague tie between planetary movements and “energy” can make us roll our eyes.

Some people decry the ability of biodynamic agriculture to actually make a difference in winemaking. It’s too magical, too lacking in substance, too weird, and too unscientific, they argue. It is hard to understand exactly how or why water that has moved in one direction rather than another would affect a plant’s hydration, and it’s hard to see how burying a cow horn would do anything to affect a vineyard’s production. Being fairly empirically minded, I might accept these arguments had I not spent an afternoon with Luca di Napoli Rampolla at his biodynamically maintained Tuscan estate, Castello dei Rampolla. This afternoon changed my thinking about biodynamic methods, and even if I don’t understand them, I became a believer.

It might have been spending a couple of hours walking around the estate as Luca pulled up tufts of grass and named each plant in his hand. It might have been his patient explanation of the ways that his vines interact with the trees that surround them, with the soils that support them, and with the weather that touches them. It might have been the clear, unremitting commitment that Luca makes in every choice for his estate—from the solar panels on top of the vinification area to the placement of his chicken coop.

It might be all of that talking, walking and looking helped me grasp that choosing to prune according to how the alignment of the planets will affect the plants. Or it might be sitting on Luca’s terrace, drinking the wine that he made helped me believe. But on that Thursday afternoon, I became a biodynamic convert. I don’t really care how the science works. It’s clear to me that there’s something very special, very alive and very unique about this wine.

Italy, unlike the United States, is a place where people continue to believe in magic. I’ve never lived long enough in other areas of the world to make further comparisons, but while Americans might wistfully wish for magic, Italians feel it. It’s in the mountains and in the sea. It’s in the cities, like Venice and Rome, that shouldn’t exist, not as they do, not after all these centuries. It’s in the food and in the wine. And sometimes, I think, you just have to put science on hold, sit back, exhale, and enjoy the magic. It’s ephemeral, beautiful and vital. If it’s biodynamic, then it’s simply all the better.

IWM has the new 2011 Sammarco release coming from Castello dei Rampolla. Don’t miss this extraordinary biodynamic Super Tuscan!

Visiting Umbria’s Paolo Bea

A look into the life and the cellar of one of Italy’s great winemakers

unnamedIWM 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.

unnamed-3My 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.

unnamed-2As 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.

unnamed-5After 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.

unnamed-4Giampiero 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.

unnamed-6We 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.


Summer Wines, Shipping, and Bottles

Why IWM won’t ship when it’s warm and two reds for summer drinking

The Abbey at Sant'Antimo

The Abbey at Sant’Antimo

Drinking summer wines are fantastic. A chilled dry rosé can be magnificent on a hot summer day on the beach, and few things on earth are better than Champagne on a sailboat or a crisp, cold pilsner on the way back to the marina at the end of a successful fishing trip. However, sometimes you need a cooler weather wine fix. The problem is that getting wines delivered to your home is risky business since wine gets severely damaged by heat. Wine is a living, evolving, sensitive creation. Heat speeds up chemical processes, and it alters the delicate flavors of the wine.

The IWM temperature-controlled supply chain is expensive and time consuming, but all the efforts are worth it. From the moment a wine leaves the producer it stays at 55 degrees Fahrenheit until it reaches the IWM cellar so that it’s optimal when you get it. For these reasons, we discourage clients from shipping in warm weather. Sometimes we have 24-to-72-hour windows of 50-degree days in the Northeast, but all bets are off on transcontinental ground shipments. The IWM Shipping Department is constantly on the lookout for these slivers of appropriate weather, and we immediately set up local shipments whenever possible.

I wanted to share a couple of wines I really like, starting with the Galardi Terra di Lavoro 2011. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best wines from southern Italy. The grapes for this wine grow on the mineral-rich volcanic slopes of Campania among chestnut groves, and the whole wine-loving world has to fight for the scant 10,000 bottles per year made by Galardi, who only makes this one wine. A blend of Aglianico (80%), Piedirosso, and even some Cabernet Sauvignon, Terra di Lavoro is dark purple in the glass, and this bold, complex wine is as intense on the palate as it is on the nose. It’s gorgeous, powerful, and drinkable for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

From Italy’s South, I now take you to its upper middle, Montalcino in Toscana, to be precise. The Uccelliera winery over-delivers in its tasty Brunellos and Brunello Riservas—the Rossos are not to be overlooked, either. Uccelliera 2010 Brunello di Montalcino is a great example of what a young Brunello can be in its infancy. Though it will benefit from age, it’s delicious now. My wife and I visited this property at sunset and were pleased to find that 700 meters away from the winery is the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. When my wife and I were there, the abbey’s ancient building seemed to glow in the sunset, just as the monks came out to chant their end of the day prayers. Both the winery and abbey are incredible places and must-visit sites to put on your Montalcino travel list.

Making the Most of Your Winery Visits

A few tips from an IWM writer who really loves to visit wineries

The author with Paolo Bea in Umbria

The author with Paolo Bea in Umbria

Delving deep into your fascination with wine requires you to eventually visit a winery, preferably one that makes wines you love. I have been fortunate to visit and taste with some of my favorite producers, but in visiting unknown estates, I have also discovered new favorites. For me, visiting a winery was like connecting the dots. Not only are you able to see the source of that wonderful wine, but you also get to touch the soil and the leaves of the vine, taste the fruit off the vine, breathe in the air the vines breathe, and feel the sunshine that nourishes those vines. Experiencing these elements gives you an understanding of what people mean when they say that “a good wine transports you to its place of origin.”

Summertime is when most wine-lovers choose to visit wineries, and I wanted to offer a few tips that I’ve gleaned from my own trips to wine country. But do your research; there are so many things to take into consideration and so many choices to make that depend on your personality. You want to make sure you get the most from this often once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Plan Your Trip: When staying in wine country, it’s usually pretty easy to find a designated driver who will drive you, letting you stop to explore and to visit tasting rooms. But if you are planning a visit and want to go to a specific winery, call in advance. When I arrange a visit ahead of time, I find that the time flies and am content in staying pretty much the whole day. With summer coming I plan on visiting some local upstate vineyards as well as some down south, and I’m already making reservations.

The author with Quinto Chionetti in Piemonte

The author with Quinto Chionetti in Piemonte

Educate Yourself: Learn about the region you will be visiting. Learn which grape varietals grow there and what wines are the producers known for. For example Piemonte is known for Nebbiolo, which is used to make Barolo and Barbaresco, but producers craft a range of wines from these grapes in these sub-regions, and each one reflects the estate’s style and personality. The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy your experience; however, even if you know nothing, walking around a vineyard and drinking wine can be a lot of fun.

Take Care of Your Body: Take into consideration if you will be walking through the vineyards or just visiting a comfortable tasting room. Wear the appropriate clothing for outdoor activities. Have a nice, greasy breakfast—you will be tasting wine, after all. And bring water with you.

Moderation is Key: To further that thought, don’t overdo it (ie, don’t get drunk) Always be a good ambassador. Use the spittoon, and don’t drink what you don’t like. Pace yourself so you can enjoy the whole day.

Get Your GPS Ready: Research your destination carefully and make sure you’ve got it nailed. If you’re driving yourself, program your GPS before you head out to get your route straight. If you’re on vacation in a foreign country and you do not speak the language, you should have a guide or interpreter so you get the most from your visit. Agritourism is on the rise across the world, so you’re in a better position now than even a decade ago, regardless of where your vineyards may rest.

The author in a Montalcino vineyard

The author in a Montalcino vineyard

Think Like a Farmer: When you walk around the vineyard, make sure to look around—and ask questions. You will be able to see firsthand the soil the vines are planted in, the way the vines themselves are trained, how densely they grow, and what comprises the terroir. You’ll be able to smell the air and feel the direction of the sun. These elements help to connect the dots in creating a full, 360-degree understanding of the wine in your glass.

Planning is Winning (and Wining): If you plan your visit ahead of time, ask politely if you could meet the winemaker and if you can see the barrel room. Sometimes you can sample right from the barrel giving you the privilege to be among the first to taste a vintage before it’s even bottled. Winemakers like when you ask them questions, so ask away and learn all those little tidbits that make you appreciate the wine more.

Caveat Emptor: It’s really easy to spend money at winery visits. Once you start tasting, you start buying. I like to purchase something when I visit to show my support and appreciation for the winery, but it’s easy to get overly excited and buy up the whole vineyard. Remember: the wine will never taste as good as when you taste it at its source. That said, it still tastes pretty great.

The author in the barrel room of Canalicchio di Sopra in Montalcino

The author in the barrel room of Canalicchio di Sopra in Montalcino

Ask for Advice: Even if we ourselves don’t have any friends in the industry, we all know someone who has visited a winery, and these people are excellent sources of information because they have experienced a place first hand. If that’s not available, simply reach out to your friendly IWM portfolio manager for recommendations.

These are just a few points that you can expand on. Just remember: it’s not just about the wine—it’s about the whole experience. It’s about sharing your passions with passionate people. And it’s about adding to your body of wine knowledge, which only deepens your love of wine.

A Visit to Poderi Aldo Conterno

What you see when you visit the iconic Barolo estate

In 2013 my brother Justin, who also works at IWM, and I took our parents on a journey across France. It was such an incredible experience that we vowed to do our best to continue with a new adventure on every odd numbered year. Well, it’s 2015 and we work at Italian Wine Merchants, so where do you think we went this time? That’s right: Italy.

​Despite being a fraction of the size of the U.S., Italy has many incredibly diverse regions. In fact, you could easily argue that Italians are more loyal to their local traditions than they are to Italy as a whole. Our ​travels took us to four very distinct regions: Barolo (Piemonte), Cinque Terre (Liguria), Montalcino and Florence (both in Toscana) I hope to share a little bit of each of these wonderful places with you, and I’d like to start with Barolo. More specifically, I’d like to take you along on a visit with me to Poderi Aldo Conterno.

Since the 1960s Poderi Aldo Conterno (then “Il Favot”) has been making drop-dead gorgeous Barolos, as well as a selection of other wines. Originally, Aldo Conterno had inherited the Giacomo Conterno estate with his brother Giovanni, but he decided to strike out on his own. Sadly, Aldo passed in 2012, but his family carries on his memory by continuing to produce some of the finest wines in Italy. His son Giacomo was kind enough to open his doors to my family and me early on a Tuesday morning. Here is a little of what we saw—I’ll tell you more about the wines we drank in another post.


Aldo Entrance

Aldo Entrance – I wasn’t quick enough with the camera, but a large gate opens slowly and welcomes you to Poderi Aldo Conterno.

Aldo Flowers

Aldo Flowers – Spring flowers were in full bloom on the estate.

Aldo View

Aldo View – Perched on top of the hill, the estate has a grand view of a huge swath of Barolo.

Aldo House

Aldo House – A view from the outside before Giacomo guided us to the tasting room.

Aldo Conterno Wines

Conterno Wines – We sat for over two hours with Giacomo (son of Aldo) at the Aldo Conterno estate. He was generous with his time and his wines, trying us on all of the new releases.

Aldo Tunnel

Aldo Tunnel – After an intense tasting session we traveled through a few tunnels that brought us deeper into the hillside.


Aldo Giacomo Speech

Aldo Speech – These tunnels first lead you to the large barrel rooms where the estate keeps its Barbera and Langhe wines. Giacomo is lower right providing more knowledge than you could ever hope to take in.

Aldo Conterno Barrels

Conterno Barrels – Deep in the labyrinth that is Aldo Conterno’s cellars (I am not confident I could find my way out of there in less than an hour) is where the Barolo rests in much larger barrels made of Slavonian Oak.

Aldo Private Bottles

Aldo Private Bottles – Along the journey you might even find the family’s private stash of bottles going back 50 years.

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