Thursday, September 10, 2009

Unforgettable in Every Way

And forever more that’s how you’ll stay

Lately at wine dinners and talks, people ask me how I got into the wine business. I tell them it was an accident, and a damn lucky one at that. Often we talk over certain wines, maybe they were epiphanies, maybe they were special wines along the trail of a lifetime. I am a label saver. These are the stories about twelve of the unforgettable ones.

I was working in an Italian restaurant and we must have had ten cases of this wine, the 1970 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Melini. It was a good wine, a good year and the stars aligned around this wine. I think the wholesaler was selling it at the time for $5 a bottle. I bought a case for my house. This was the wine that made me fall, in a big way, for Vino Nobile.

The same wholesaler also had a bunch of Calissano 1969 Barolo and Barbaresco Riserva Speciale. They were asking about $10 a bottle then, around 1980. I had a little wine bar that I was running at the time, and we had it on the list for about $20. I still have a bottle of the Barbaresco in the wine closet. This was my entry into the wines of the Langa, one that endures for going on 30 years now.

When I started working in wholesale, the company I worked for had some eclectic wines. One of them was the Scanavino Barolo, also a Riserva Speciale 1969. We sold the wine for about $8 and often discounted it lower to move multiple cases. It was a “value” wine, meaning that it filled a category on a wine list or in a wine shop for a Barolo that folks wouldn’t get scared off by the price. I liked the wine enough, much better than the cheaper Orsolani wines that were really rock-bottom priced. At least Scanavino looked official with the label and the bottle (what we did in those days to interest people in Italian wine). It was far from making the world safe for (or from) Italian wine.

The company also dealt directly with Angelo Gaja. We had a bunch of his 1976 Barbaresco and 1978 Barbera. The 76 Barbaresco was a funny wine. Hot year, the fruit was fleeting and the acids were searing. But the juiciness of the Nebbiolo grape, especially from the kinder and gentler Barbaresco appellation, made a wine of interest. It was expensive, selling for over $20 wholesale. Somewhere I have a file with Telex communications I had with Gaja about ordering the wines. I will dig it out and blog about it sometime.

When I moved on to another company I came into contact with Armando de Rham and his company in Florence. Armando had an office in the Piazza Annunciata, where I once stayed for a month in a hostel run by nuns. One of his wines was this 1971 Barbaresco from La Spinona. I still see Pietro Berutti at Vinitaly. He is very old now and bent over. Sometimes I walk by his booth and he is napping. Like his little dog on the label, he has earned his rest. I loved this wine and the people who made it and we made a lot, a lot, of friends with this wine. We sold it for about $11-12.

The wines of the Maremma, in 1982, were unknown to America. But the Le Pupille 1978 was a groundbreaking wine. Tachis oversaw winemaking there and the 1978 vintage, another year of 13 moons (like 2009) produced a rich, fruity, grainy, delicious wine. We sold it for $5, and it was an uphill struggle with the Italian restaurateurs. Now Morellino is more fashionable, but I am not sure I have ever had one as good as the way I remember that 1978.

Villa di Capezzana is an old favorite of mine. This week, the grandson of Count Ugo Bonacossi, Leone, was in town and we worked the market for a day together. Leone is half Tuscan and half Sicilian and he is an old soul. His first love is art, but the winery and family called. And so Leone is in America for six weeks. The 1978 Carmignano was a revelation, as was the 1975 we also offered. My colleague, Guy Stout, fell in love over a bottle of Carmignano. His first two sons are here, partially thanks to the Villa di Capezzana. The current wine, the 2004, is as good as the 1978 was. I remember the 1937, when Armando got us a couple of cases and I sold them to an Italian restaurateur in Fort Worth, Texas. Unfortunately his wife and he went through a messy divorce and I fear some of the wine went missing. Or so the story goes.

When I went to visit Lou Iacucci in Queens in 1983, he turned me on to Maculan and Torcolato. I remember what passion Lou had about this wine and wine in general. But thanks to Lou I became infused with a love for the tropical dessert wines from the Veneto. Ciao, Capo.

The Selvapiana 1977 Chianti Rufina Riserva was a wine l loved to sell and to drink. We sold it for $7, a steal. And the wine aged very well. I drank my last bottle of 1977 in 1997 and it was velvet. Francesco Giuntini, a relation to the Antinori family, looked after this property. They made a wonderful olive oil which we had many cases of and by which I learned to love Tuscan olive oil, made all the more dear from the deep freezes in the 1980’s that decimated the olive trees in Tuscany.

I have had a love affair with Vernaccia. On again, off again, that kind of affair. But when it was good it was really good. The Strozzi 1982 was a spot on specimen and it brought a lot of pleasure to the people whose hands (and mouths) I put it into. Remember, this was in a time when Italian white wines, as a rule, were pretty dismal, oxidized, yellow to brown wines that barely made the ocean voyage. The Vernaccia was a tough old bird and loved to travel. I have fond memories of the happiness this wine gave to many scores of people.

Vietti was a winery that set Piedmont on its side. The proto-critter labels, the modern winemaking approach, these were difficult wines to sell in 1984. But the Dolcetto was one of my faves and I loved to put this in the hands of willing Italian restaurant owners. My restaurateur friend Alessio was one who understood my passion and supported it with his loyalty. The wealthy and influential, the cream of Dallas society, drank these wines at his little restaurant, and they loved the experience. Those days have changed, but the memories stoke the fire of my passion today.

Finally, the 1975 Cavallotto Barolo. Another Riserva Speciale, from Castiglione Falletto. 1975 wasn’t a vintage that many people knew too much about, but the wine had great fruit and balance. It was a big wine that was a gateway for folks sticking their toes into the greater Italian wine pond. I have great fondness for this wine and for all of these wines, as they were some of the wines that have defined my life in wine. And when people ask how I got into this wine business I have wines like these to offer up as evidence of the miraculous little accident that is my life, here on the wine trail in Italy.


Sariya said...

This is a superb post and I enjoyed looking at all of those old labels. I share a similar happenstance to you regarding my travels on the wine trail, so far, and so this post hits home.

Greg Randle said...

I loved going on this walk with you. You always have a way of soaking me with humanity and reminding me why I love the wine experience. :)

Peter @ italyMONDO! said...

What's the best way to remove and save a label?

Alfonso Cevola said...

Back in the day, warm water worked well.

The best way to remove a label is to never have it on the bottle in the first place.

Now the super glues make it real hard. there are companies that make label off products that I have been told work well

tom hyland said...


A nice reminder that it takes a lot of different wines - some famous, some not, some expensive, some not - to make the world go round.

Do Bianchi said...

Geez Louise man... what are you doing to me? The Auberbachian mimetic desire is boiling in my blood!

77 Selvapiana?
75 Cavallotto?
71 Spinona?

SHEESH! You're killing me....

Would love to try any and all of these and the others but the 71 Spinona is the most alluring to this palate.

Btw, where have I heard of Scanavino before? ;-)

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