Thursday, September 09, 2021

By the Bottle: Carmen Castorina

Wine lovers on wine and the vinous life


I’ve known Carmen for awhile now. He’s one of the best storytellers in the wine biz. He knows everybody. He’s been around for ages, so he has “all the dirt” on almost anyone who's anyone. Not that he’d ever go down that road. No, Carmen is a guy who loves life, family and wine. In 2014, he retired as the chief storyteller for the Gallo family. And before you put your high-hat on, don’t. We all started out somewhere, and in the early days the paths were fewer and far between. But he navigated through a large family company during one of the most historic epochs for wine, and especially wine in California. That said, Carmen isn’t the man in the grey flannel suit. No, he’s more of a stretchy polo and linen shorts guy now, especially in North Texas, where we are still enduring high 90+⁰F days, blistering sun and heat, heat, heat. And you wonder why we drink so much white (and rosé) wine down here? Anyway, I am a huge fan of Carmen, and now you can be too, if you so desire.


What wines do you have standing up right now?

As I continue to purposefully “drink down my cellar”….

Peter Lehmann The “Mudflat” Shiraz 2000, Fontanafredda Barolo 1974, Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 1988, A. Rafanelli Zinfandel 1997, Clarendon Hills Romas Grenache 2006, Summus 1997, Benanti Serra Della Contessa 2001.

What’s the last great wine you drank?

Penfold’s Cellar Reserve Grenache 2002. Big surprise in that it looked, smelled and tasted as vibrant as it did back in 2004.


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

Traveling in various wine regions and having a meal consisting of a locally sourced regional specialty paired with a wine produced nearby. Some examples….the seafood of Galicia paired with Albarino,…..clearly a local pairing that has evolved down through the ages. I also recall a memorable dinner of roast lamb along with a Morellino di Scansano while visiting the original home of my wife’s family, Pitigliano, in 2014.


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

For most of my career the wines of Sicily were overlooked and ignored. When I first tasted the wines of Mt. Etna 18 years ago, I became enamored of them…in particular Nerello Mascalese and Carricante.  They were little known then and continue to fly under the radar, 


What wine should everybody drink before the age of 21?

The old family tradition of giving the younger folks some wine mixed with ginger ale surely cannot be considered detrimental in this age of enlightenment!


What wine should nobody drink until the age of 40?

I honestly can’t think of any.


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

Without sounding patronizing, the Gallo Family and their winemakers strive to produce excellent, well-made wines at all levels and coupled with their distribution prowess result in wider spread availability to consumers on a global basis.  I have great admiration for the winemaking team at Catena in Argentina…their wines, across the range, never seem to disappoint. As for the wine press….three stand out not only for their ability to widely “spread the gospel” and have a broad-based impact.….but also for the genuine nature of their personalities…. Robert Parker, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson.


Do you count any wine as guilty pleasures?

Tokaji Azu 6 Puttonyos Aszu and Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume come to mind.


Has Covid19 changed the way your approach wine?

Obviously more at home consumption as opposed to dining out on-premise.  A silver lining here in that Covid has accelerated my long-term plan for the older wines collected down through the years that have been looking for a reason to be opened.  Many surprises along with disappointments.


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

While not involving a particular person a wine that had a dramatic effect on my career would have to be the 1978 Gallo Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve, noteworthy as the first vintage dated bottling released by the Winery. Some background—-in August 1979 as part of the job interviewing process I was invited to Modesto and given a tour of the newly completed underground cellars. Little did I know that among the wines aging in large 2000-gallon Slavonian oak casks was the aforementioned Cab. I was also made aware that the winery was in the process of ramping up its commitment to acquiring properties in the prime North Coast growing regions of Sonoma and Napa. Once on the job and having spent three years involved with E&J Brandy it became time to go to market with a lineup of vintage dated varietals. The ’78 Cab, having aged for 48 months in those large casks, was Gallo’s initial entry into the so-called world of “fine wine” and I was fortunate enough to participate in this project. That led to other assignments in the ongoing expansion of the fine wine portfolio which continued until my 2014 retirement. 


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

Expect the unexpected and be prepared to be surprised. 


What moves you most in a wine?

When a wine meets or exceeds the expectations you have for it.


What do you really wish you understood about wine?

The ability of winemakers to assess a wine’s changing characteristics as it develops from crush to final bottling is something that I have always admired. The really skilled vintners seem to really be able successfully vinify, blend and age to achieve a desired result.


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

Clean, well-balanced wines that show their provenance as opposed to over-oaked, manipulated wines. As I ramble on through life, I find the lower alcohol wines to be much more “tolerable.”

How do you organize your wines?

Haphazardly…..but with a nod towards vintage and country/area of origin.


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

Ports….courtesy of an industry friend I have a number of them on hand.  Over 20 years ago I was able to acquire a bottle of Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port ’94 which was rated 100 pts. by Wine Spectator.


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

Considering “best” a relative term I was fortunate to have been given a bottle of 1990 Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva.   


How have your drinking tastes changed over time?

Low tolerance for higher alcohol wines began years ago and continues till today. I likewise moved away from many California Chardonnays as the oaky, smokey, buttery trend took over.


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?

For a long time, I struggled to appreciate Barolo and while I’ve come to a much better understanding of wines made from Nebbiolo given a choice I still would go in a different direction. As for not finishing a wine if there are no flaws it seems foolish to me to leave a bottle unfinished. 


What wine do you think everyone should try?

Picpoul from Washington State.


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

Ernest Gallo, Nicolas Catena, and Piero Antinori. These innovators made significant, impactful lasting contributions in their respective countries that continue to spread throughout the wine world. 


What wines are you embarrassed not to have drunk yet?

Sad, rather than embarrassed, to not have tasted all of the First Growths and most of the Grand Cru Burgundies. Having said that I find no embarrassment in enjoying wines that are more accessible and affordable.


What do you plan to drink next?

I’ll know at dinnertime.



More here from the archives - My Dinner(s) with Carmen

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