The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Learning to Dine and Wine, Hong Kong Style

Eating with a Mission

Finally after nearly twenty-two hours on a plane, I arrived in Hong Kong. I was slightly tired—and more than slightly hungry. I was hungry to the point of feeling that I would never feel full again. I was quickly proven wrong because the four members of IWM Hong Kong showed me what it is to eat as if there is no tomorrow.

Meals are communal here. Often one person orders a variety of dishes for the whole table, and everyone serves each other. Even when we order individual dishes, once the plates are set down on the table the first action is to offer and to serve a portion to your companions. I was accustomed to sharing my food with my large family at meals, but the ceremony of offering one’s food to others is new to me, and I’m growing to love it—and to fear it.

IWM Hong Kong has quickly adopted the Hong Kong tradition of Dim Sum lunches, and the group customarily orders at least two additional items for the table. At my first Dim Sum lunch with the team, I made the mistake of thinking that a bunch of small pieces would not fill me up as much as one large sandwich. However, by the time dish five of around thirteen was delivered, I was well past full. As each round passed, I was leaving more and more remnants on my plate. More disconcerting, however, was the contrast between my stamina and the stamina of the four other people at my table. They showed no sign of weakness and happily welcomed the suggestion of seconds. By the time the meal finally drew to a close, I was glad to walk back to the office and minimize some of the damage of the meal.

For the past week, I have grown increasingly anxious at meal times. I have to approach each meal with strategy, looking at my eating plan of attack, auguring what food there is to follow, and calculating at what point in the meal I’ll have to submit and call it quits. Moreover, I’ve had so much food to consume that I often can’t even consider adding wine to the agenda. However, last Friday night proved a successful campaign that included food, wine, and fortuitous planning.

At about 9:30pm we decided it was time to pack it in for the day and go grab some dinner. A cab ride across a very long bridge brought us to what is considered the best roast goose in Hong Kong. We brought our own wine to accompany: Fantinel Refosco and Tocai Friulano. As the dishes started to stream from the kitchen, I took a deep breath, bracing myself for impact. The first dish was none other than the whole roast goose. I was reminded of the scene in the perennial holiday movie classic A Christmas Story. Like the one brought to the table of the hapless Parker family, our goose too was brought to the table with beak intact. I couldn’t resist the temptation to quote the movie and say, “Fra-gi-le… Must be Italian.” Thank goodness for the fact that our wine was Italian, so the scene was brought full circle. The Tocai was classic and appropriate—a zippy white wine with Chinese food is a necessity. To my pleasant surprise, the biggest feat of the night was my ability to make it through the entire meal without begging “Uncle,” and how well the Refosco complemented the food.

I’m learning a lot here in Hong Kong. It’s exciting, vibrant and new. I also can’t help but miss my own bed and my customary midday sandwich. In the meantime, I’m off to another Dim Sum lunch, which I’ll enjoy with proper planning.

Oxidized? Or Aged to Perfection?

Exploring the fine line between aged and uh-oh…

No matter how little we know about wine, most of us know that there is a major difference between everyday drinking wines and wine that requires aging.  But how does one know when a wine is just right? Being a wine professional, I was taught how to recognize a wine that has been aged versus corked, maderized, or oxidized; this knowledge has come in handy.  However, it can be hard for clients who are beginners to learn all these concepts. Still, it’s a necessity.

The amount of age a wine needs in order to show its full complexity varies greatly from wine to wine.  The actual process of aging wine is most noticeable in the process of tannins in the wine reacting with other components until they are unable to stay in solution, where upon they become visible sediment.  As this happens, most of the aromas of the grape are replaced by the reductive aromas of the aged wine, which can include dried fruit notes, nuts, leather, oxidative flavors and more distinct minerality.  At the same time, the color in the wine either lightens if it is a red wine (the red pigments, called anthocyanins, bond to the sediment), or turns browner in white wine as it oxidizes.

Certain wines have obvious aging requirements.  Take Barolo, the king of Italian wine, for instance.  To open a Barolo early is an utter shame.  The amount of tannin and acidity present in this wine makes it almost undrinkable in its early years, and the Nebbiolo grape requires around 15-20+ years of age in bottle show its true potential.  Another example of an ageable wine is a Prädikatswein designated Riesling.  Some Rieslings can age up to 30 years, eventually reaching an golden amber color and showing notes of petrol, which are coveted by the experienced Riesling connoisseurs and completely off-putting to novices.

The Riesling divide suggests that age on a wine can be misunderstood. For example, this New York Magazine listing gives some common wine defects, but this helpful guide also explains that what is perceived as “bad” is not actually so, even for everyday drinking wines.  Aged wines, on the other hand, can be even harder for a novice to understand.

I believe that being able to differentiate a young bottle from a mature, or being able to tell if a wine is capable of growing with age, comes with practice and time.  Taste preferences also develop and adjust.  I remember my first time trying Fino and Amontillado sherries.  I thought they were some of the most bizarre liquids on the planet and would never have imagined myself to develop a love of them so impassioned that I can honestly say I am a sherry fanatic.  I am also in love with our Castello di Cacchiano 2001 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico.  These wines are vinified and developed in a much different process than dry reds and whites, yet they have some similar aromatics to well-aged wines.  The nuttiness and deep dried fruit notes are enticing and seemingly classic.

In the end, I think it’s safe to say that everyone can use a little more wine practice and knowledge.  We should all be well-informed of the wonderful taste experiences out there and be prepared to know what to expect when ordering more eclectic and vintage wines at favorite restaurants and your local wine shops. And we should understand that often our tastes—like wines themselves—can evolve with age.

Bad Soil, Good Grapes

How adversity makes beautiful wine

Here’s an interesting cocktail fact: grape vines used for the production of quality wine must be planted in infertile soils in order to generate high quality grapes.  In fact, grapevines cultivated for wine use soils that are not fertile enough to sustain other agricultural crops. This concept may seem contradictory at first, but as you will see shortly, it makes perfect sense.

The most important factor in making great wine is the quality of fruit, and the only way to get quality fruit is to choose an optimal vineyard site for the grapes that you want to grow.  Climate, position, and soil, (otherwise known as terroir) are the three factors in choosing this site.  Each one of these is important on its own merit, but this post will focus on soil—really, really poor soil.

When say I say “poor soil,” I mean just awful soil.  In some places, as in the Rhone Valley or some areas of Toscana, there is not even an ounce of dirt in sight, just rocks.  It’s hard to believe that a pile of rocks can produce such amazing wine. However, rocky soils provide excellent drainage for the vines as well as capture heat during the day to warm the vines at night.  Interestingly, to cultivate great grapes, it’s more important to regulate water supply than to have highly nutritive dirt. In short, bad dirt equals good wine.

Grapevines need to be stressed to produce quality fruit. The poor soil encourages the roots to dig deeper for water and other nutrients.  As they dig, the roots begin to ramify, and the surface area of the roots that eventually comes into contact with the soil increases.  In turn, more nutrients are delivered to the precious clusters of berries.  Also, more roots equal better regulation of water supply, which is very important during the veraison, or the ripening stages of grape.

The fertile and rich soils that are used to grow commercial crops would spoil the grapes—much as spoiling a child makes for a bad-tempered kid, spoiling grapevines makes for ill-flavored fruit. Fertile soils make it too easy for vines to produce grapes, and the vines take advantage and produce like crazy.  When this happens, the quality of fruit is sacrificed for quantity.    It’s like a child never having to work a day in his or her life.  The harder an entity has to work for something, the greater it will be rewarded in the end Grapes—and winegrowers—like it tough, and I have to love them for it These basic concepts are not universal, but they do provide a good background in understanding why growers make wine where they do, and how the soil influences the grapes. Consider it a grounding for your understanding of that delicious beverage we call wine. And feel free to show off by telling people not only does the name “Sassicaia” come from the word “stony,” but also that the wine grown in any other soil would hardly taste as sweet.

A Wine Lover’s Guide to Recycling

Wine trash turned eclectic art pieces

Wine is a delightful and mysterious liquid, and sharing it is one of the oldest traditions of humankind.  Wine is so magical that it seems to have a life of its own. Those who cultivate the vines and those who make the wines are like ring-bearers; they hold a mystical position and we drinkers wonder how lucky they are to do what they do and know what they know.

And yet, despite all of wine’s mystery, there’s still a trick to marketing it. These days beauty, style, and status are so important to consumers, elevating wine labels to a subset of art. Let’s face it: many people buy wine based on the label itself. Wine labels are so pretty that lots of people enjoy steaming the labels off the bottles and collecting them. Others collect the used bottles themselves and make them into new pieces of art.  This kind of wine-bottle crafting is starting to become popular. Therefore, many wine estates focus on the beauty of their wine bottles, labels and corks, giving birth to a new DIY craft industry.

More and more news articles and sites are arising with fun ideas on how to reuse wine materials. Titles like “How to Use Wine Labels as Art,” and “Wining, Dining and Creating Fun with Wine Corks” abound on the web. Some of the more interesting sites I have found have a green movement, recyclable feel.  One company called Green Wine Bottles creates tea-light lamps out of old Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne bottles.  They are also approved by Green America, so buying from them is a great way to recycle and find an interesting art piece at the same time.

Another addition to the Green Movement, and my favorite web find of all, is a small company called “The Flat Bottle Co.” They keep their process a secret, and they somehow figured out how to flatten bottles and to retain their colors and labels perfectly.  The company makes wine bottles into cheeseboards, clocks, spoon rests, candle holders, and dishes—you name it.

I have always been a fan of wine, and these interesting and creative ideas on how to reuse and recycle wine materials in this way excite me even more when purchasing each new bottle. Now I feel like I’m not just buying a wondrous beverage—I’m also making an investment in art.

Pursuing Wine with Joy in Our Hearts

The Communal Energy of Wine

Over the last month I made a point to visit many retailers in my local Chicago market. I was surprised by how many abrupt individuals I ran into. I was also surprised that my industry teems with people who are so quick to dismiss credible products altogether or are eager to tear down the success of another in an effort to make their own work seem better. My intention today is to implore all of us wine professionals to relinquish those unpleasant behaviors and to rediscover those passionate qualities that drew us to wine in the beginning.

For many of us, our love for wine, our joy in sharing it with old and new friends, and our appreciation for the craft of winemaking all worked together to draw us to the industry. Somewhere in some people’s professional journeys, however, many wine professionals seem to have lost their ways. Their thoughts are colored by conflict, their comments tainted with bitterness, and their posture shaped by contempt. They seem to have lost their sense of joy.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with many open-minded individuals who approach wine with a high degree of respect, a dose of humility and a passion for the experience. I call these people “soul friends.” I am proud to say that my colleagues at IWM all possess these qualities. On the other hand, I’ve also had the regrettable experience of coming in contact with individuals who can be abrasive, obtuse and argumentative. I call these people acquaintances.

I firmly believe that our lives pose enough challenges and enough conflict that I don’t need to bring this cantankerous behavior into the one area in my life that I look to for joy. Furthermore, I don’t care to share my wine experiences with people who act churlishly. Certainly, many of these people have a considerable amount of knowledge, many hold respectable positions in our industry, and some are even celebrated for their deportment. However, I decided remain pure to what made me pursue wine in the first place: the artistic and communal energy that it fosters.

The haters, those who feed off of the negative energy, have a product whose essence reflects their candor: vinegar.  I say, leave the wine to the lovers. We appreciate it.

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