Lessons in Wine

For a number of years, I worked as a buyer of Italian wines for a US wine importer. Annual trips to wine regions were a tradition. A few years ago, we had managed to gather a group of ten of our best clients, buyers from some of the most important restaurants and retailers in the country, for a tour starting in Sicily.

We were in a rental van, heading north on the E6 toward Messina. Jay, the owner of four important restaurants, was driving, and his assistant, Alec rode shotgun. I was giving them the lay of the land in Sicilian winemaking, leaning through the middle of the two front seats and going through my points, kind of loudly to get over the sound of the road, ignoring for the moment, the clients farther back in the van, whom I thought I’d educate later.

They were all arrivistes, I was saying, all the newly-trendy wineries that the press couldn’t get enough of, all the names being bantered among buyers as the hottest new properties, had no Sicilian roots at all. The families actually from here, families that were bottling wine before the turn of the millennium, were only a handful.  That was my first point, to separate for them the natives from the newcomers, which struck me, as an importer, as essential.

“Salenti, that’s the guy,” interrupted Jay, leaning forward and looking over at Alec, an up-and-coming sommelier at the hottest of Jay’s four cash-printing restaurants. “He’s got incredible wines, Alec.” Inevitably, a journalist—not a frequent visitor to Sicily—proved to be the source of Jay’s discovery. “Had dinner over at Sam Binnel’s place last fall. He opened Salenti’s ’02 Lavaria for me. Talk about terroir. 90 year old vines. Blew me away.”

“Salenti’s actually from Milan,” I carefully rejoined. “He made a fortune on some pharma patent, and came down here to try his hand at wine. At least in terms of advertising, all that money sure helped. He put the region on the map, and the locals are truly grateful. Now, the winery I’m taking you to today is historically Sicilian. The family comes from Giarre, on the coast, and the kids grew up skipping the first month of school every year to help out with the harvest. The only marketing they know how to do is label the bottle. Whereas Salenti, although he has a bit of land, as, uh, a front, I guess, between us, he’s mostly a bottler. You know, buys grapes, or mostly wine actually, and bottles it under his label. The easy way, for sure, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you know, not the real thing, right? Not really what we’re after in terms of authenticity.”

“So Binnel hung out on Salenti’s boat last summer,” added Jay. “Wants me to join them this year off Capri. We’ll see. Anyway, while they were cruising the Mediterranean, Salenti tasted him on the Mille Metri. Grapes come from a vineyard a thousand meters up the side of the volcano. He ages it 6 years in these casks he gets custom-made in Austria.”

I feared I wasn’t getting through to them. “Yeah, great guy, Binnel, really great guy. Has he been over here, uh, recently?” I wondered aloud.

“Holy shit, there’s smoke coming out of there.” Jay took his hand off the wheel to point in the direction of the volcano, and everyone looked up and to the left. We were almost even with the volcano, which meant we were halfway to Taormina.

“Oh no!” I blurted out. “We missed the exit!”

Jay looked like the jet lag had suddenly caught up with him. “Are you kidding me?” The other van, with my boss, and the rest of the clients, would be at the winery by now, and everyone would have a glass in hand and be sitting down to antipasti at their long table overlooking the sea.

Since we had to go clear up to Taormina to turn around, I gave it another try.

“The truth is that here, all the terroir is great. 90, 100–I’m starting to hear 120–year old vines are par for the course. Vineyards at 600 or 800 meters are too. It’s not like Burgundy where fifty meters up or down a slope changes everything, and the villages can be ranked according to finesse. Here, position is not the differentiating factor.”

“Solicchiata,” Jay said out of the blue. “That’s the village where everyone wants to be. Rochetti, de Mucchia, all those guys are in Solicchiata. Best exposure by far.”

“Dude,” said Alec.

To myself, I cursed the power of marketing, but out loud I agreed, “Solichiatta’s good, the northern cusp, but so is Linguaglossa, Santa Venerina. I mean the whole northeast quarter of the volcano is ideal. As I said, you can’t really go wrong here in terms of terroir.”

“Rochetti, now there’s a guy,” Jay continued. “I finally got an allocation of his Bella Nera for the restaurant? Sold like hotcakes, at two-fifty a bottle.” Rocchetti, I knew, was a Florentine. Tales of him bringing in tanks of Tuscan Merlot to flesh out his “Bella Nera” were rampant.

We pulled into the parking lot and Jay, Alec and the others practically fell out of the van. I put the info sheets I had printed back in my bag and climbed out too. I felt hot and car sick from the road, and I had clearly blown my chance to win these guys over.

Here we were at the winery that had first attracted me to Sicily, the first winery I had found for the portfolio, a winery akin to our philosophy in every way: a family that made its own organic wines (something almost unheard of in Italy, where even the smallest vineyards hire oenologists to do something their ancestors took for granted.) I thought of the breathtaking taste I had had of one of the 2009s just after fermentation which had smelled of pure violets and been silkier than anything I had ever tasted in Italy. I thought of the unassuming family owners. This was the real thing, and nobody seemed to care.

The rest of the group was standing with Pasquale, the owner, on the patio looking out over the yellow-green vineyard terraces, the soft grey olive orchards and the masses of bougainvillea spilling down the hill toward the sea. They were listening to my boss, Mark, describing the feathery feel and crisp, almost saline taste of the white they were sipping. Everyone was smiling and cheers kept breaking out.

Pasquale’s mother appeared with a steaming bowl of sausage and cabbage pasta, and we all sat down. When the first red was poured, Mark stood up and made a toast to the Trelio family, our hosts. “Here’s to your courage,” he said, “to your willingness to let your mountain terrain, your ancient vines, and the mythic Sicilian sun make these beautiful wines.” He sat down, and the table stayed mostly quiet. Everyone was eating and drinking. Mark, who had Pasquale’s father on his left, and Jay on his right, spoke in an aside to Pasquale. “Of course, we’ve figured out your secret,” he started. Jay put his fork down and looked up, all ears. “The light touch,” Mark continued, without yet explaining. “Uh-huh,” Jay mumbled, still without going back to eating. Mark looked up at him. “You know, the cellar. All the other wineries have the same expensive consultant who’s aging the wines too long. The neophytes are fooled by the hype and can’t tell the wines all taste the same, dried out and tired. Trelio, on the other hand, has got the Burgundian touch. Quick release of the wines, to preserve their natural texture and delicate violet bouquet. The wines stay fresh and get better and better with age.”

Jay reflected a minute, then smiled, and picked up his fork. “How much can I get for the restaurants?”

Later that evening, depressed, I went to my boss. How come they listened to him and not me? “Oh, he told me. It’s just marketing: pasta, wine and a view like this. Makes it easy, doesn’t it?”

 

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Jem Macy

I am a winemaker and writer.

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