Thursday, August 05, 2021

By the Bottle: Joanie Bonfiglio

Wine lovers on wine and the vinous life.

Joanie Bonfiglio is the epitome of hope wrapped inside a bundle of energy that could power the city of Las Vegas. I’ve tasted, supped and enjoyed wines with her in Italy and California, and am always overjoyed at the questions she asks, the wines that show up at the table and her enduring effort to polish that giant chunk of marble we call life. Joanie is young, female and undaunted – perfect for the 21st century wine trade. We need more Joanie’s in this world, but for now I am overjoyed we have her in our midst, taking us into the future. I can't wait for our next dinner together. [all photos by Joanie – she is also an accomplished shooter!]


What wines do you have standing up right now?

There are so many wines to open right now. I just started a new role as a national sales manager (in the West) for Kermit Lynch, so I have been happily working my way through the portfolio trying to get a feel for all the producers.  Leaning about and tasting all the new wines has the be the most fun part about a new job in this industry.


What’s the last great wine you drank?

I feel an immense amount of privilege when I think about the Great Wines in my sensorial memory. Thanks to this community of generous friends and colleagues I have had the pleasure to taste some of the greatest wines ever made.  However as of recent I opened a bottle of Jean Francois Ganevat’s “en Billat” Pinot Noir.  This was a bottle that really struck me as a truly Great Wine: crunchy red fruit, the valiant heart of true Pinot Noir with a relaxed, comfortable invitation to stop thinking so much about this wine and just enjoy.

Are there any classic wines that you only recently had for the first time?

This is an anecdote that perfectly illustrates the nature of our community in the wine business: I haven’t had a ton of experience with the wines of Coche-Dury.  This has to be one of the most sought-after and highly-prized Burgundy producers in the world, and a defining producer for the Kermit Lynch portfolio.  Shortly after I transitioned into this role, my friend and former client Max Kogod brought a bottle of the Coche-Dury Meursault 1996 to lunch in honor of my new job, and also because he is just an exceedingly nice person.  That was the first time I really got to sit with a bottle of these wines and think about what makes it so special.  It was so expressive and classic- it was a bottle that really put things in perspective for me. You can believe the hype. Coche-Dury is just making better wines than most.  We can talk about these unicorns all day and you can see the stratospheric pricing and kind of understand what’s going on, but until you taste the wines you can’t truly appreciate why people are so touched by these wines.  Coche-Dury truly is making some of the most moving wine in the world.

Describe your ideal drinking experience (when, where, what, how).

I am always less concerned with any other factor than I am with the WHO.  I crave the interaction and the shared experience of tasting with other people- it is extremely rare that I would open a bottle of wine by myself.  I have probably 100 cases of wine stored at my house, and I would open literally ANY bottle for anyone who came over and was interested in tasting it with me.  I also enjoy a bottle or two with friend over a meal more than I like tasting in a larger professional format.  While these trade tastings have been invaluable to me over the years, they provide the least amount of pleasure. Practically speaking, for wine drinking to be “ideal” I love a nice, thin-lipped wine glass made by Zalto or Zwiesel.  They improve the overall experience and give me a better snapshot of the wine itself.

What’s your favorite wine no one else has heard of?

I am sure that many people have heard of this wine, but it is probably one of the least-known grape varieties, by one of smallest family-farms in the world.  The Erbaluce made by Camillo Favaro in Caluso has been a treasure I have collected since I met Camillo and started selling his wines almost 20 years ago.  Erbaluce is a beautiful, serious, world-class white grape that can make some stupendous wines in the hand of a master like Camillo.  It is also inexpensive and totally age-worthy (yes, you can age your white wines. Especially from Italy. Especially Erbaluce!)

What wine should everybody drink before the age of 21?

I think everyone should drink wine (responsibly) as soon as they’re interested in learning about it.  I don’t understand how we can put an age limit on these things in the US- I can enlist in the military at 18 but I can’t pair wine with food until I am 21?  It makes no sense to me.  Wine is a food, and it is an important part of human culture.  In my opinion we should teach our young people about wine as soon as they’re ready- otherwise it only feeds the frat-boy mentality that alcohol is for getting drunk and misbehaving.  I only wish my first experience with alcohol had been a great bottle of wine at dinner with my family, with a story about where that wine came from and why it was special, as opposed to the vomit-inducing tequila I swiped from my parent’s liquor cabinet (sorry dad...)

What wine should nobody drink until the age of 40?

I don’t know that I would say anything should be off-limits, but I do think that in particular I did not have the breadth of experience or knowledge to truly appreciate Burgundy early on in my career.  Some things only make sense in context. For me, I needed to go to Burgundy and do a lot of tasting while studying maps and researching growers before I really “got it”.  However, I wouldn’t say that any of the Burgundies I tasted in my youth were wasted on me- every wine we taste give us the opportunity to store a sense-memory.  These memories add up and eventually become part of your personal index for what grapes and terroirs taste and smell like to you.  So I say- TASTE EVERYTHING, ALWAYS.

Who in wine — winemakers, winery owners, writers, retailers, collectors — active today do you admire most?

This is a fun question because in my opinion, the most important thing about wine is people.  Those who make it, sell it, write about it, photograph it... I treasure the relationships I have made through wine more than anything else.  The very first person to mentor me in this wonderful world is a man named Giampaolo Gravina.  Through an incredible stroke of luck he was hired by the first company I worked for in 2001 to consult on an importation project.  Giampaolo is an Italian who lives in Rome, and has built an incredible career writing about restaurants and wine.  In addition to being on of the most beautiful writers I know (in Italian, French, English…) he is a gentle soul who really sees the beauty in the world.  He taught me that every wine was really just bottled history- the generations of people who made it, the ancient soils where the vines were grown, the drama of the weather during that vintage.  He was so incredibly patient and kind, and I think he understood that I had the potential to see the same beauty he does, and that I would some day be a good story-teller myself. Never underestimate the power of being a good teacher.  He recently gave me the opportunity to help translate a book he and Camillo Favaro wrote about Burgundy from Italian to English (Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy), and it was one of the hardest, most important things I have ever done. This man shaped the course of my entire life and I will always be indebted to him.

Another person who really inspired me and shaped my professional trajectory is a man named David Scott.  Dave is currently the Senior Business Manager at Breakthru in Nevada, but when we met in the early 2000s he had already built a multi-decade career with Terlato.  He is a true wine enthusiast and I am so proud to know him.  He was one of the first salespeople to represent Santa Margherita in the USA- this man paved the way for all the small and unrecognized wineries in Italy.  Without him (and Santa Margherita, frankly) I do not think the US market would be able to support the tiny growers like my friend Camillo, or Manni Nossing, or Valentini or Gravner, etc etc… When we first met Dave was so generous with his time and his mentorship- he taught me how to sell wine, how to tell a story about a winery that would make people feel connected, and how to think like a customer so that I could be better at my job.  Initially I thought I might stay in academia and study Italian Literature, but after I learned from Dave how much art and history and culture are wrapped up in wine, I began to see how wine sales could make a lot of sense for me.  I am so fortunate to have met Dave when I did. He really gave me the confidence I needed to exist in this rarefied world, and he always respected my hard work, even when I lacked experience and general knowledge.  Dave is a true gentleman and I am honored to consider him to be more than my friend- he is family. 

Do you count any wine as guilty pleasures?

Never- guilt is a wasted emotion.  Wine is a celebration, always.

Has a wine ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

This question gets at the heart of one of the tenets I believe to be true: wine has a unique power to bring people together.  There is something special about sharing a bottle of wine with somebody- it marks an occasion and imprints a particularly multi-faceted memory in your brain.  You select the wine, you open the bottle and smell it, taste it- it goes inside you!  This is such an intimate experience and I try not to take it for granted.  One of my favorite memories is of a particularly delicious bottle of Ruinart Rose, opened in a park on Easter Sunday, paired with a pepperoni pizza.  I don’t think I have ever felt closer to another human being than I did that afternoon.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a wine recently?

I don’t know if it is the MOST interesting thing, but it might be the most profound: wine is always teaching me patience.  We read all the weather reports and make assumptions about vintages so early. Critics conduct barrel tasting and write up reviews that color the way we think about the future of entire categories of wine before it is even bottled.  However, what I’ve learned is that wine will reveal itself only with time.  Even when tasting a bottle of wine over dinner, the wine you’re drinking at the end of the meal is always so dramatically different than when you pour the first taste.  Patience is always the key. Pay attention.  Be curious. Wait and see.  These are life lessons as much as they are wine lessons for me.

What moves you most in a wine?

The romantic in me is always moved by a good story- for this reason I have always loved the wines of Josko Gravner.  Today Josko is known for his skin-macerated, amphora-buried “amber wines” but he started out making fairly technical white wines.  His evolution from a commercially-minded, status quo winemaker into an extraordinary, totally creative and cutting-edge visionary is inspiring to me.  It reminds me that we don’t have to be the person we were yesterday- humans are fascinating that way.  We can just wake up and decide to be different.  It is liberating once you realize this- the power to change whatever you want is truly inside you.

Which styles do you especially enjoy drinking?  And which do you avoid?

I find that I drink a lot more white wine as I get older.  I love red wine very much, but I feel like the essence of what I’m usually looking for in wine; namely acidity, freshness, fruit and pleasure, is more readily accessible in white wines than red.  I tend to avoid big, tannic monsters until they’re older, and thankfully now that I’ve been buying wine for awhile, I have some interesting options in my cellar.

How do you organize your wines?

I do not organize my collection at all- which makes managing my inventory completely impossible.  It is however, a lot of fun to go rooting around in my various boxes and shelves and cellars- like hunting for treasure. Thankfully I have a really good memory for wine so when I need to find something specific I can usually remember what I should have on hand.

What wine might people be surprised to find in your racks?

I think people assume (rightfully) that I am pretty focused on French and Italian wines, and so they would be surprised to see how much wine I have saved from my friends at Ambyth Estate in Paso Robles.  I first met them in 2008 and I was so impressed with the wine and the winegrowing that I signed up for their wine club- I still have cases of wine from some of those first vintages and I think they are among my favorite wines from California still today.  Biodynamic farming, pure terroir-driven fruit and just wonderful people.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever received as a gift?

I spent a few days working in Southern California with Michele Braganti and Alessia Deiana from Monteraponi.  When they found out I had never tasted it before, they kindly bought a bottle of 1995 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte (from their neighbor, Martino Manetti’s winery) to thank me for my time working with them.  Unfortunately, I got home late that night and unloaded the trunk of my car- and the bottle slipped out of my hands and smashed on the concrete.  It smelled great.  (Mi dispiace tanto, Michele...) 

How have your drinking tastes changed over time?

I remember my first trip to Vinitaly in 2002, travelling from booth to booth with my then-colleague and mentor Giampaolo.  At that point I was functioning as a glorified secretary for the importer who employed us, making appointments, keeping the schedule and translating for my boss who didn’t speak Italian.  Giampaolo, the generous soul that he is, was also using our time together to try and educate me about wine and tasting.  I specifically remember being with Aldo Vajra, tasting his wines when Giampaolo asked me which wine I preferred.  I think I told him I liked the Barbera or the Dolcetto the best.  He asked me why, and I remember thinking the Barolo were too tannic, too tough for me to enjoy.  This was probably accurate as I am sure they were current releases, but instead of laughing at my uneducated opinion, he tried to help me understand the aromatic profile of Nebbiolo.  He assured me that with a little more time I would understand why the world adores Barolo, and why Nebbiolo is such an incredible grape.  The next stop we made was to visit his friend Teobaldo Cappellano, and after tasting those Baroli it actually did start to click.  Now I look back on those meetings and I am so grateful for the experiences that have shaped my palate and my friendships in wine.  Over the course of the last two decades, I have represented both of those wineries proudly.  And today as much as I love their other wines, I always prefer their Baroli to anything else.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What wine did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last wine you set aside without finishing?

There are plenty of wines that I don’t like at first, however I have learned that wine is alive, and our palates are constantly changing.  The way we perceive flavor and aroma has much to do with things that are not actually contained in the wine itself.  The food you eat, or have eaten earlier, whether or not you’ve brushed your teeth, the temperature of the room you’re tasting in or the wine itself, the glassware, and even the mood you’re in can dramatically affect your sensory perception.  I’ve also found that I can taste a wine on separate occasions and have two totally different reactions to it, so I try to approach the experience with curiosity, and without judgement.  This isn’t always possible, but that’s the goal.

What wine do you think everyone should try?

I wish everyone in the world could experience a truly great bottle of Champagne.  I think this category is so misunderstood by so many people, mostly because the word “Champagne” has become synonymous with “sparkling wine.” This is a huge problem, because I think people taste a really cheap California sparkling wine at a wedding and think, “oh I don’t really like Champagne” and then as consumers, they are hesitant to explore real Champagne (for which they’ll have to pay a lot more).

You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three people from the wine world, dead or alive, do you invite?

Lou Amdur, Nicoletta Bocca, Wink Lorch

As I am chronically social and terribly extroverted, this is a really impossible question to ask of me.  However, one example of an ideal foursome would be to invite Lou Amdur of Lou Wine Shop, Nicoletta Bocca of San Fereolo and Wink Lorch to dinner at my house.  I would probably roast a chicken and vegetables- comfort food would be a necessity- and for the sake of fleshing out this fantasy, we’d drink super high-acid Loire Valley whites and old Nebbiolo.  There would also have to be Champagne and a Macvin or two to finish. 

Lou Amdur is the most fascinating person I know, both personally and professionally.  He is an encyclopedia of wine knowledge and has been a client and friend for as long as I’ve been selling wine.  He gave me my first taste of Pineau d’Aunis, probably 18 years ago!  Lou is the kind of person who enhances any cocktail party conversation- he always has a funny anecdote to share or a piece of relevant ephemera to add to the conversation. He might even bring his sock puppets. Nicoletta Bocca is one of my favorite winemakers in the world.  Her specialty is Dolcetto, which she farms biodynamically in Dogliani, and then ages like Barolo.  She has endured more sexism and overt aggression from the men in our industry than most women I know, but she persisted and she is finally now recognized as one of the Greats.  I am so inspired by her resistance to the naysayers, and her deep knowledge of self-worth. From the very first time we met I felt a deep kinship with her and when I have visited there never seems to be enough time to dig deeply enough. Wink Lorch, another woman I admire, who has literally written the book on wine from Jura and the French Alps, would round out this quartet.  She is another person whose temerity and dedication inspires me.  It can’t have been easy to crack into these relatively unknown corners of the world with such grace and ease.  Her books are such a gift for wine professionals- these are areas we all love but not much had been written about them. She is an expert without being inaccessible and she’s clearly passionate about her subject matter.  I can’t wait to see what she does next. I would love to know more of her story personally too, and I’d like to be her friend.

Dinner with the three of them would be an absolute pleasure- I’d have to record the conversation between them because I think it would be fascinating.  In fact, I’m inspired now to make this happen in real life.  (Thanks Alfonso, you’re also invited.)

What wines are you embarrassed not to have drunk yet?

I am not generally embarrassed by my lack of knowledge or experience about anything, especially wine.  All I see is opportunity. If I stay curious and open-minded, I don’t think there are any limits to what I can learn and experience in this lifetime.

What do you plan to drink next?

A friend of mine is in town this week and we are going to a lovely restaurant in San Diego called The Fishery, with an extraordinary wine list.  I am hoping to find some Raveneau still lurking in that cellar, because I think it will be the perfect thing to pair with fish tacos.


wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Tony Laveglia said...

And she’s wearing a Presentosa! Good Abruzzo woman!

tomfiorina said...

Alfonso, your By-the-Bottle series is amazingly good about capturing the personality and humanity of people who make the wine world so fascinating. I look forward to future such profiles.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Tom,

It has exceeded my expectations. More good ones to come (and a few surprises too).

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