Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Starting Up in a Downturn

Andrea Fassone decided to start an Italian wine import business in the last quarter of 2008. Timing is everything. But unlike General Motors, he didn’t take 3 years and numerous trips to Italy to get rolling. He knew what he was looking for before he even got to America. The timing aspect has been a bit of a surprise, but in this short, end-of-year interview, I think you can feel Andrea’s sense of entrepreneurship and willingness to go boldly through the fog. Anyway, here he is in less than three months, up-and-running with his new baby, Enotria Imports. I caught up with him by phone as he was delivering wine through the holiday season. He sounded like he could use a little help, sales are brisk.

Read this interview; support this start-up (for now, selling in NY-Metro market) and remember : You heard it here, first.

Andrea came to NYC Aug'01-photo taken Oct '01 in front of the WTC site

Q. When and how did you get into the wine business?
A. I started in August 2001 here in the USA; before it was just a passion I inherited from my father. Then I had the opportunity to move here and work in the wine selling business thank to Sam Levitas and Eugenio Spinozzi, back then, partner-owners of Tricana imports.

Andrea with Eugenio Spinozzi and Fosco Amoroso

Q. When did you decide to start your own company?
A. I started to think about it in June and I decided in September. I wanted to be partner in Tricana but it wasn't possible, so I started to talk to a friend in Italy who called me several times with the will to start a new business with me.

Q. How did you manage to start your own company and get the wines in so soon?
A. The person I was in touch with has been in the business since ever and already had his contacts. We added some of mine and we started to get serious. I don't have to tell you if you want to achieve something you have to go and grab it.... Of course my partner’s experience (and my little experience) played a big role.

Q. Any particular surprises about starting a business in these economic times?
A. Not surprises, but often the same: Are you sure you want to start a business in this bad economy?
Anyway, people are still drinking wine, maybe less expensive, but still buying wine. So I focused on good wines at good prices to put together my portfolio.

Q. Do you have any wine regions or wines that you are particularly fond of or are focusing on?
A. Being from Piemonte and growing up with wines from that area I'm more for lean dry wines than big fruity wines. If you look at my portfolio you will see 3 Nebbiolo producers, from Roero, from Valtellina and Barolo area. (would you say I'm fond of Nebbiolo...?) .But the idea is to have wines from all over Italy able to represent the grape and the land where they are from.

Q. In your recent travels in Italy and America, what are some areas that really seem to have a lot of energy and excitement for you?
A. In Italy I really fell in love with wineries/vineyards in some extreme places. After a trip in Valle d'Aosta, Liguria, Valtellina and Alto Adige, I understood how wine has been part of the local culture, a need, a tradition, or it would not make sense to plant grapevines in such difficult-to-work areas. That is one reality I would like to show to the American people (I know I'm not the first...). On the other hand I see here in the States a growing attention to those realities. Italy is not only Chianti and Pinot Grigio and people are starting to appreciate the "culture" I mentioned above. This is a phenomenon that in NYC has been going on for years and spread through the country.

Energy in the USA? I like what I see in Austin and in Atlanta toward Italian wines.

Q. How do you feel about the oncoming New Year (2009)?
A. I think is going to be the survival of the fittest. Hard workers and passionate people will be fine and everybody else...we'll see.

Andrea Fassone
Enotria Imports

598 Hancock St.
Brooklyn (that would be in Bed-Stuy), NY 11215

Last post for 2008 - Next post Sunday Jan 4, 2009 - Happy New Year! Felice Anno Nuovo!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Consigliere

When I was thirteen I thought I was going to grow up to be a photographer. I spent endless hours in the darkroom and carrying my cameras everywhere I went. Being shy, it was the perfect date for me at a youth dance. I could take pictures of the action and go into the darkroom later that night to print them. Often folks would come into the darkroom (it was at the same place the dance was, usually) and see what I was doing. Photography was a social magnet.

A few years later, in college and during the Vietnam War era, photography opened up the greater world to me. I met different folk than the ones in the small resort town where I had grown up. I even met a famous one from time to time.

A word about fame, something I know a little about. I grew up in a town filled with famous people (Palm Springs, CA) and learned very early not to make a fuss over folks who have been afflicted with it. Leave ‘em be, talk to them normal, change the subject away from them. Some of them might even make the grade to friendship. But, I ramble.

I am a walker. Love to walk the streets of a town. Rome, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Palermo, Naples, Chicago, Dallas. I once walked the route on Elm Street in Dallas where JFK was shot (grassy knoll) to the shop on the same street where John Hinckley bought the gun that he shot Ronald Reagan with. On a hot July day I took my trusty Canon VIT rangefinder and a new Canon AE1 and did my own shooting. The Dallas of that day has altered greatly.

New York? Since 1975, I have trudged the streets of that city camera and wine bag in tow. My childhood friend and photography co-conspirator Bruce took a fabulous street shot, worthy of a Weegee. Bruce went on to become a movie mogul and one of the greatest collectors of photography in the world. And still a friend and drinking buddy.

I spent time in the NY scene with Diane Arbus’ teacher, Lisette Model. Not much time, but enough to remember one cold afternoon in January in her apartment. I had already been to Arbus boot camp. It started in California and concluded in a bar in Milwaukee, a bar right out of the collective mind of Kubrick, Serling and Lovejoy. I had walked onto the set of a world that someone like Diane Arbus lived daily. And it scared the holy crap out of me.

I had my time with the world of reportage and photojournalism. One photographer from Magnum, to remane unnamed, asked my help in getting him and his art director through Tijuana for a photo shoot. An ad campaign for Pentax. I thought it odd that the photographer almost exclusively used his Leica M3 for the assignment. When I asked him, his answer seemed cynical at the time. Now, I think he was like a sushi chef, just using the best knife he had to cut the Toro.

And the old masters, so many of them I was lucky to encounter, sit awhile and soak up their greatness. They were called the f64 group. My entry was through Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. In the darkroom with Ansel was a breakthrough, I still remember the warmth of that little room, and not in a creepy way. How often is it you can stand in the dark and be dazzled with brilliance?

Imogen, she reminds me a lot of my friend Alice. Petite, but never diminutive, cantankerous, strong willed and boy crazy. But a vision and a determination to walk her trail without fear. Imogen was a wonderful mentor to me in life.

On the fringe of the f64 group was Wynn Bullock. Wynn was the one who taught me about the vision thing. He schooled me in the philosophy of perception. Thanks to Wynn, some of the best photography I have ever taken was without a camera. I remember how supportive he was when I came back from NY, explaining to me that he also had to take NY in measures, not in giant doses. Like him, I needed the horizon.

My dad was a photographer and a film maker. I still have hours of 16mm reels of film he shot, some of it family, some Italy, and also Old California footage. He always thought I should take more sunset pictures.

Being a black and white kind of guy, I could never understand why he wanted to thwart my path. But fathers do that to their son’s even when they aren’t conscious of it. I love to watch sunsets (like sunrises better) but not to shoot.

My college teacher, Philip Welch, introduced me to many of the West Coast school. He was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and had given me the entrée to that world. He told me about famous people. He said, “Call them up, knock and their door. If they are truly great they will talk to you, if not, they are only famous. You want to meet greatness, not fame.”

I’ve had a few friends through the years who made it to fame, but not quite to greatness. I have also had more than my share of friends who bypassed fame and went straight to greatness. I have photographed them, opened bottles of wine with them, danced with them, laughed with them, cried with them and walked through pools of Jell-O with them.

All along the way there has often been a camera nearby, my consigliere of consciousness.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Italian Family Sundays ~ The Golden Age

From the Archives ~ Jan. 21, 2007

Yesterday I was driving to the older part of town to visit a friend who was in the hospital. He has been a mentor to me, and as I was nearing the facility, I saw the old street where my dad and his family had lived more than 90 years ago. The picture above was taken there, 1313 Hall Street, Dallas, Texas, where my dad was born. The house is gone. All that remains of his original family is his sister, my aunt Mary. She's the little baby in my grandmother's arms.
My friend in the hospital was asleep, but he didn’t look well. He is dying. I know the look, the sound, the smell. If it were a wine, I would describe it thus: pale and a bit cloudy. The bouquet has faded with a light scent of dried rose petals and ripe, aged Asiago. In the flavors there is a little tinge of acid, the tannins are all gone, the fruit is fleeting, and the finish is swift.

Hopefully, my friend's will be as well. For his sake.

It had been raining, and the streets were damp and saturated. It reminded me of Ireland, of a hopeless and miserable Dublin after a night of drinking too much Guinness and too little sleep. Cold, dank, unredeemable.

I was near my friend's wine store and hadn’t eaten all day (it was 2 p.m.), so I stopped in to get a sandwich, and ended up working the floor.

The store was crowded, and Sinatra was crooning over the speakers. A young man came up to me and asked me about the Italian Club. I gave him the requisite information and encouraged him to stop in at one of the Wednesday wine tastings they are starting to do. Then he reached out his hand to shake mine. My hand was bleeding from a boxcutter that had slipped when I was arranging some wine case stacks. I didn't even know I had cut myself. All in a day's work, even if it is a Saturday. Or a Sunday. Grab some tape, cover the cut and back to arranging bottles and straightening shelf-talkers.

In the past, we didn’t need an Italian Club. We had the Family. On Sundays like today, my family would spend the day together, eating, drinking, carousing at the beach or in a vineyard somewhere, in Sicily, Dallas, Los Angeles.

My dad and his dad would hang out together. My son is in Vegas, working. My dad and his dad are gone. It’s Sunday again, and I’m sitting in my room writing about something that doesn’t exist anymore.

My dad and his dad were in business together, for a while. I don’t think my father liked that too much. Probably my grandfather wasn’t too clued in on his son’s aspirations. I think my dad probably wanted to be some kind of artist, maybe an actor. He certainly ended up in the right place for it, Los Angeles in the 1930’s. The golden age of American cinema. But my dad cobbled, and my grandfather acquired real estate, and the ship sailed on. E la nave’ va.

Once, when my grandfather had made a pile of money, he loaded his young family up and sailed back to Palermo for a while. He was now an American, and while he was going back to Italy for a while, he could never stay there indefinitely. He had crossed over into the American dream. He was making it big. In the picture he wasn’t more than 24 years old, but the opportunities that he had reached for paid off early. My son is now 30 years old. I wonder if the opportunities for his generation will ever afford him a chance for a good life. It doesn’t seem as bright now. Warmer, yes. Brighter, no.

When my mom and dad were married in 1936, they took their Ford roadster up the California coast. They were building the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. My parents were 21 years old, hopeful for happiness in their future and their children’s future. For their honeymoon, they tooled up Coast Highway 1 into a world we can only dream about now.

The Great Depression was receding, and war was a few years off. It was a moment to enjoy all that the possibility of life had to offer.

On those Sundays leading up to those years, they would spend sun-drenched days at the beach with their Wise Guy uncles and their Hollywood girlfriends. They were “A” listing through life, the Golden Age of the American Dream.
Cigarettes didn’t cause cancer, yet. Diseases were being conquered. The atom was being harnessed. Seat belts weren’t necessary. Front doors needn’t be locked. Out in the San Fernando Valley and Escondido and Cucamonga, the family would picnic in the vineyards. Note the happy faces and the glasses of wine.
My dad with some of the many women in his family. His Aunt Mary, his sister (my aunt) Mary, Josie and Cuccia, Tootsie and Anna, and Rosemary and on. So pristine in the simplicity of their happiness. Wine, women and song. And food, what great food. Local, fresh, not microwaved, not from a can. California, the Golden State in a golden age.
My mom and dad, with riding boots. Chances are, Dad made them. How much my son looks like him. I now am the age my father was when I wondered what it would be like to be his age. I think I might be happier at this age than he was, but his youth sure looked good from this vantage point. And my mom, the classic Italian beauty. She’s almost 93 and still pretty fired-up about life and living. Thank God she’s in good shape. My friend in the hospital, what I wouldn’t give for him to have been that fortunate, too.
My Aunt Josephine, on the right in the picture, next to her brother Felice and his East Texas bride, Reba. And my dad and mom. A night out on the town. Was it in Dallas? Or Hollywood? They look out at me from this picture as if to say, “Bring us your best bottle of Italian wine, and come sit down with us and enjoy your family.” If only I could, Uncle Phil. My mom and my Aunt Jo are both in their 90’s now, both in pretty good health. Still driving. But not in the rain.

My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, called me today. She was checking in with me. Her husband passed away a few years ago. Her son-in-law died a little over a year ago. Last summer one of her grandsons had an accident in the ocean, and he too is gone. So she called to see if I was still here, still around.

Yes, Aunt Mary. Many of them are gone but we are still here, those of us on the edges of the photographs. Still ticking and kicking. Still dreaming and still looking for a way to make all this work out. I miss our Family Sundays. And so I sit here and put down these thoughts for the internets to hold, for another place and time and people. It was a great time, and the memories feed the heart and the soul, on Sundays, when the family is spread out far.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Grand Slam Club

My brother-in-law Nick was born a hunter. Growing up in Greece during WWII, where famine was the norm at the time, he learned how to survive at a very early age. When his family immigrated to the New World, settling in Southern California, I could only imagine what he must have felt like, as a child. He took to California and the American Dream like a duck to water.

All this as an introduction in the way of a comparison. Nick, being a hunter, is one of a handful of hunters who have made it into the Grand Slam Club. You can read about it here. The guy loves to hunt, fish, golf, win. I mean, we were sitting outside having lunch and I caught him stalking prairie dogs, it’s just in his blood.

Oh, and he likes wine. Italian wine, California wine, French wine. Good wine.

On a visit earlier this month at his and my sisters rambling Tuscan ranch house, on the 16th green of a PGQ gold course in Indian Wells, we got to opening a few bottles of wine. And talking about what makes a wine great. It got me to thinking about the way we collect our wines. Are they trophies to put on a rack and lay claim to bragging rights? Or is there a deeper meaning to the wines we have opened, enjoyed and appreciated over the years?

Is there an Italian Grand Slam for wines? And if so, what would they be?

In my mind I’d be putting Barolo and Barbaresco up on the wall. Brunello? Most likely, but these days, Brunello is bothering me. If you put it into the context of 50 or so years, then OK. But right now, I’d say Brunello is on probation with a lot of us.

The fourth wine? Amarone? A Maremma red, maybe from Bolgheri? Something from the Valtellina? A Taurasi? What do you think?

About ten years ago my brother-in-law and sister and I were having breakfast at a hotel. A few tables away Angelo Gaja and his field rep were seated. I mentioned to my brother-in-law that the gentleman about his age was a famous Italian winemaker. I went over to the table and said hello. After all I had first sold Gaja’s wines in 1981.

When I came back to the table, Nick seemed surprised that I knew and had done business with such a famous wine personality. I explained to him that once you enter into the field, most doors will open one day or another, no big deal.

But Gaja has not only entered the Grand Slam Club. In his winemaking ventures he also has produced the grand Slam wines if you see those four wines as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and Bolgheri. So to him, hats off. I only wish I could taste through some of these wines once in a while. They seem to have moved to an arena where other wines that I used to enjoy, wines like Pomerols and Pauillacs, have also migrated to. The investor classes.

No doubt Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello are in my club. But the fourth wine? I’d like to think Amarone might rate high and Taurasi as well. Not yet with Sicily, nor Sardegna, sorry islanders. Not yet.

I do have fond memories of Chambave Rouge. But that is a wine for the ages now and the storytellers. I guess Neal Rosenthal and I are some of the few lucky chaps to still have a bottle or two around of the legendary 1961 from Ezio Voyat.

I’m sure my brother-in-law, if he was playing this game, would put Sassicaia on that wall of fame. And prior to the 1990’s I would agree. But that just gives the wine two decades to have proven itself. Is that enough? Is the wine still capable of evoking legendary emotions?

After last years trip to the Valtellina, I was hopeful. And while I won't rule it out, there’s still not enough time for those wines, in modern times, to have redeemed their once lofty status.

My mind seeks to focus my gaze through the crosshairs; focus. Is it even another red wine we seek?

What do you think?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

If the Shoe Fits

Haven’t we all had a shoe or two thrown at us this year? That was my thought this afternoon. I had spent two days preparing a proposal for an Italian-styled restaurant. They needed to replace a whole slew of wines that a distributor had lost. And we got the call. I’m not sure they really needed me. I think they might have been looking for less expertise and a deeper pocket. With a blank check.

So along with two of my colleagues, we headed for a late afternoon appointment. And waited. And waited.

The person with which we had the appointment never showed. Two days I worked on this presentation. For a no show. It happens. You show up and someone throws a shoe at you. Or worse, they just blow you off. After 25+ years, who likes it? But what can you really do about it?

Last week, I did a wine dinner for 30 people. I realized very early in the evening that these folks really didn’t come to hear me talk about Italian wines. They were there for a good meal on a cold night. So I spoke for about 7 minutes and then sat down and talked for the rest of the evening to a couple of people who I really liked talking to. I wasn’t supposed to sit next to them. In fact every time I chose a seat, someone came and took my seat. At first I felt offended. Wasn’t I the person who was here to explain the evening to them? But in reality, that wasn’t the case. The shoe didn’t fit. I was just there along with them. Hey, the owner of the restaurant, who lived on the grounds and whom I have known for 25 years, didn’t even come down to say hello. To his customers! The folks who pay his bills. Forget about being a friend of his for a quarter of a century. Boy, things have gotten really off kilter these days.

Is it really that important? No. It. Isn’t. So why the expectations? I really have no idea. Maybe it is something about the Italian idea of respect for one's trade and the hope that if you ply it long enough and diligently enough someone will respond with the deserved respect. Well that could be a cold day in Dante’s Hell, if you really think folks peer that far out of their own personal box of consequences.

Life or death; now we’re talking consequences and importance. Not whether we can talk a restaurant manager into lowering his wine by-the-glass prices. The free-market forces will take care of that. The consumers are the real experts in that they will reward (or punish) good (or bad) business decisions. Not those journeymen who breathe it, live it, dream it, day and night, year after year. A sobering thought in the abstract. But weighed against life and death decisions, well, let’s just say if the shoe fits…

There are plenty of folks who wish they could get back into their own shoes. But their life took them to a place where they had to answer for the decisions of others. In the last 5+ years, many of these men and women have been lost to the future. Someone dodges a shoe, others can’t dodge a bullet. Random? Some divine plan here? And what does it have to do with the Italian wine trail? Or rather, what does the Italian wine trail have to do with it?

Not much. If anything. Like our little galaxy, just off to the corner from the really important goings on. Except for those of us who are going through it at the time. As it is with each and every one of us. Except perhaps for the most highly enlightened. Like the yogi master on an island somewhere.

Seventh inning stretch.

OK, back to the ballgame.

Where were we?

Oh yes. Yes, the meaning of our place in this daily activity. The wine business. The holiday season. The economic slowdown.

Like I told a colleague today, if you can feed yourself and wipe your own behind, consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

Or would you rather walk a mile in a pair of shoes that the owner got blown out of?

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