“Wine is like bread and salt: without it, dinner is incomplete.” (p.18)
Italian wines occupy about 20% of my wine cellar. Only California and Spanish wines occupy a higher percentage. I am fortunate that many different Italian wines are available in my area, including some very small and traditional producers. Yet there is still much I want to learn about Italian wines. There are so many indigenous grapes that I have yet to taste. I am always looking for ways to further educate myself about Italian wine.
I recently received a review copy of Passion on the Vine: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Family in the Heart of Italy by Sergio Esposito. This book was recently published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group which is a division of Random House. It consists of 285 pages, broken into fourteen Chapters and an Epilogue.
“Meat is dead, vegetables are dead, baked bread is dead, cream sauce is dead. But wine is alive, full of yeasts, and ever changing, evolving like a plant or person, a divine creation.” (p.65)
The title obviously appealed to me with its emphasis on Passion. Yet would I find true Passion within those pages? The subject matter drew me in as well, my hopes that I might learn even more about Italian wines. As I began to read the book, I became hooked from the very first chapter.
Passion on the Vine has an easy reading style, very descriptive and with an intimate touch. It is well written and the language can sometimes be poetic. It is educational but never preachy. It presents Sergio’s opinions and thoughts in an appealing manner. It was a real pleasure to read. And I certainly found much passion within it.
Sergio currently owns, in conjunction with Chefs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, a wine store in New York City called Italian Wine Merchants. Founded in 1999, this store sells only Italian wines and is dedicated to selling the best that Italy has to offer. Sergio frequently travels to Italy on wine buying trips, and much of the book is devoted to descriptions of a couple of those trips. We then get to meet numerous wine makers, from all over Italy, including famed individuals such as Enrico Scavino, Valentino Migliorini, Giuseppe Quintarelli, Josko Gravner, and Bartolo Mascarello.
“A good wine is good because it tastes good. Basta. That’s enough.” (p.22)
The book is also part biography, describing Sergio's childhood in Barra, a suburb of Naples, during the early 1970s. We learn about Italian culture, the importance of family, food and wine. When Sergio was 6 years old, his family moved to Albany, New York, for financial reasons. There was much culture shock as Albany seemed so radically different from Italy. Though this is also the time when Sergio first began to love wine. Who would have thought that the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, one of Jack Nicholson’s best films, would move Sergio even closer to food and wine? To understand that, you will have to read the book.
By the summer of 1998, Sergio had developed plans for his dream, an Italian wine store devoted primarily to traditional Italian wines. He felt that we would find great wines by finding great producers, those wine makers who were passionate about wine and who were not just seeking to make money. That is certainly a philosophy dear to my own heart. I fully agree that it is those passionate individuals who most often bring about greatness. Italian Wine Merchants then opened its doors in October 1999.
“This taste of earth is what everyone refers to as territorio.” (p.140)
Like Alice Feiring, though certainly not as confrontational and controversial, Sergio prefers traditional wines to more modern style wines. He is supportive of biodynamics as well, feeling that such wines just taste better. Terroir, or territorio, is very important to Sergio. Wine should taste of the place where it is made, giving it its own uniqueness. He feels that the traditional Italian wines he prefers are not “Parkerized” wines, that they are unlike many of the big, bold wines Americans are used to drinking. And nearly all Italian wine should be drank with food. Sergio though does sell some modern style wines in his store, though primarily as a gateway to get people to try more traditional wines.
Much of the book is devoted to a wine buying trip to Italy that Sergio took with his parents in 2004. During this trip, they traveled to many different regions, meeting many different wine makers, as well as attending Vinitaly. Throughout this section, there is plenty of information on Italian culture, especially their food and wine. Sergio provides enticing descriptions that make you want to visit Italy. The personalities he encounters are compelling. You certainly won’t be bored.
I was especially intrigued by the modernist Luca Maroni from Montalcino who invented his own rather bizarre and complex wine rating system. For Luca, Quality=Pleasantness=Fruitness. This Q/P/F is composed of Consistency + Balance + Integrity. The top possible rating is 99 points though you need algebra and a conversion table to figure out each specific rating. I don’t think that this rating system will ever become too popular.
“A great wine has harmony, elegance and complexity. And moreover, it tastes natural. And even more important, it has medicinal effects.” (p.199)
My only complaint about this book was it seemed to end too suddenly. I wanted a more satisfying resolution. Maybe I wanted to know more about how his parents felt after their lengthy trip to Italy. But this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent book. I definitely recommend this book to both food and wine lovers, especially if you have any interest in Italy at all. It is a compelling read which should please.
It has also motivated me to visit Italian Wine Merchants when I visit New York City this summer. You can look forward to a future report on that visit.