Most of us who come to love wine in a significant and sustained way have a story to tell about when the light bulb went on. Not the “Aha! I’ve figured this out!” moment, but: “I’ve got to know more about this – lots more!” For me it came in a bar in the town of Haro, the unofficial capitol of the Rioja wine region in Spain. I was part of a group of American and Dutch early music aficionados who were practicing and performing Medieval Spanish music along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Pilgrims get thirsty, of course, so when the bus pulled into Haro, several of us ducked into a nearby bar and ordered a bottle of wine. I don’t remember the wine, but the label naturally said “Rioja”. It was the first time I recognized that places could have flavors. On later trips to Spain, I tasted other places: Jerez, Priorat, Ribeiro, RÌas Baixas, Montilla-Moriles…. Not long after, I lucked into my first wine industry job, working in a wine shop in Oakland, California. I correctly divined that it would be the best way to taste enough wines to get a real handle on place-flavor questions. The wine shop also drew my attention to other countries with interesting place and flavor associations and, most crucially, inspired my first trip to Italy.
Five years after Haro, I found myself around a restaurant table with four wine producers in Canale d’Alba, in the Roero appellation of Piemonte. (By this time Italy, and Piemonte in particular, had displaced Spain as the focus of my travels.) As Mario, Angelo, Filippo, and Marco asked me questions in Italian and traded jokes in Piemontese, I knew that another light bulb had flicked on. This time the epiphany was, “I need to know more about these people and their culture.” Not just their vineyards, winemaking, and wines, but their history, families, customs, and everything else that goes into what Italians call *territorio*.
The following fall I worked my first harvest in the Roero, picking grapes and eating meals with each of the four men and their families. Mario’s mother-in-law, Pasquelina, taught me the subtle choreography of harvesting in due – two of us working side-by-side. Angelo’s father, Alfonso, taught me a little Piemontese and demonstrated with his tirelessness in the vineyard how he earned the nickname il mulo (the mule). With Filippo’s extended brood I sat down to lunches in the vineyard, including a thirst-quenching, low-alcohol wine that they bottle in magnum-sized pintun, the Piemontese equivalent of jug wine. I’ve been back a dozen times in the ensuing eight years, including three more harvests and a two-month stint living and working with Angelo.
These two sets of experiences – Spain and the Roero – represent two modes of discovery, whether in the world of wine or in any other potentially captivating endeavor. I think of the two modes as going wide and going deep. There’s probably a natural tension between them: As the Roero drew me in, I spent less time across the river in the Langhe, including fabled Barolo and Barbaresco, and I roamed the other regions of Italy (and Europe) less. But deep doesn’t, or needn’t, extinguish wide. I didn’t completely abandon visits to producers and friends in the Langhe. With the Roero as my base, I got to know Liguria and its bracing white wines and high-wire reds better. I made my first visits to Emilia-Romagna (where I met Walter Massa at a winemakers’ dinner in Modena) and the Colli Tortonesi in eastern Piemonte (where Ernest and I went to get to know Walter in his element).
Still, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the Roero is a big reason I decided to join PortoVino last October, after two wide and deep years with the superb Spanish portfolio JosÈ Pastor Selections. I’m working with Ernest and the rest of the PortoVino team on portfolio selection in Italy and on education and sales with our distributors in the U.S. I get to promote the wines of Roero producer Mario Roagna (Cascina Val del Prete), one of the friends who was around that table in Canale eight years ago. I’ll be traveling the U.S. and Italy, returning to states and regions I know well and discovering other places and their flavors for the first time.
So that’s my New Year’s advice: Go wide, don’t be afraid to dive in deep, and resurface from time to time. It’s worked for me so far.