Article By: Fred Bouchard
SCHWARTZ • 51
• Northeast Regional Sales Manager • VIAS Wines,
New York City
George Schwartz, a seasoned wine salesman and veteran of the Boston and New England marketplace, who looks at the wine world with a quizzical grin through Raybans perched on his DeNiro-like aquiline nose, is a devoted grappa maven who knows his Noninos and Nannonis from his Nardinis and Bertagnolis.
BACKGROUNDER Like many of my peers, I've had a checkered history. I began working with Joe and Linda Savenor on Kirkland Street in Cambridge, selling an odd repertoire of tuna fish, burgundy and ice. From there, I worked for the Martignetti family in Chelsea, convenient to where I grew up. I moved to the flagship store on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton, worked alongside Blake Allison, and tried to fill the big shoes of Randy Sheahan when he left for Remy Amerique.
IS IT LEGAL? In 1984, I started with the Berkowitz family at Legal Seafoods. Roger hired me to do two things: to take out Pier Four by winning a wine spectator Grand Award Wine List, and to grow their small import and distribution business, MRR Traders, named after the three Berkowitz kids. Roger had been building the wine list in-house, talking to distributors. It was perfect timing, as many great winemakers were coming aboard to be on Legal's list: Richard Sanford, Dick Erath, Martin Ray, and the Pattersons of Villa Mount Eden. I devised the floating lists with grand computer printouts and availability. At MRR we were representing major importers like VIAS, Winebow, Epifani. Truth to tell, the catalogue was somewhat random and haphazard, because Roger was influenced by a cadre of European and American producers. We never did get that Grand Award, but we came close. Certainly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and German Rieslings dominated the list. But I was tasting for wines with fish, and began looking to Italy for interesting white grapes, like Riesling Renano and Moscato Giallo. We were ahead of the curve on that score, and I tried to push them onto the list as best I could.
GOLD STAR WINES VIAS started in 1983 with interesting people like Cy Feit, our CEO Fabrizio Pedrolli, and Lou Iaccucci, whose Gold Star wine shop, on the main drag in Queens, was a Mecca for wine geeks like me and Richard Kzirian. Richard would come into Martignetti and find the dustiest bottles and challenge me to tell him what I knew about them. We became partners in crime, but never worked together, and then he opened up Violette Imports. We'd go on pilgrimages to Gold Star just to talk to Lou, an influential maven for Italian wine who had a great repertoire of products and command of the business. It was not just a shopping but learning experience, because Lou would spend hours guiding us and showboating around the bins. He had all the collectables and knew them intimately: every Giacosa single vineyard, Aldo Conterno, Rinaldi, Pira, and many wonderful oddball wines.
WINEBOW In 199O I joined Leonardo LoCascio as Northeast regional manager as he was starting to grow a national program in the Northeast, Chicago and California. MRR was selling many of his wines, so it was a natural segue. But I became stifled as things were not moving as well as I'd liked. VIAS, at an implosive state of expansion, became a golden opportunity for me in 1996.
VIAS We had a strong mission statement of developing brands in NE that has been intriguing, successful and rewarding, if sometimes laboriously head-banging. The Italian category continues to be very healthy in the United States. Time will tell now, with the dramatic fall of the dollar, but still Italian wines capture the public's fancy. It's a combination of people's tastes plus an enduring - even escalating - quest for quality both in vineyard and the cellars. The South made the greatest leaps: the first wave of Nero d'Avola was very exciting; now the bloom is off that rose, as people are backpedaling northward to traditional areas like Piedmont. Montepulciano, the red grape of Abruzze has been booming over the last several years, on many levels, from the $1O bottle to the wild ellipse of Emidio Pepe! He's aging in bottle without barrel conditioning, so if you buy a case, and let it sit a decade, every bottle will be a new experience: petillance, secondary fermentation, Barolo-like, Amarone-like.
GREAT GRAPES People are not rallying to the obscure wines of the Northeast, but I think Teroldego is a great grape with huge character. Salice Salentino from Campania is on the money, one of the great individual wines of the South: it drinks like a junior Burgundy, matching Pinot Noir characteristics with Sangiovese tonality. Cosimo Taurino was a revelation for me at Winebow. Campania whites are hitting their stride, with the combination of Falanghina and Greco di Tufo. Grapes, vintages and winemakers are all stellar: our brand, Terredora, is part of the Mastroberardino family, are sincere, less plush, terroir-driven. Verdicchio from the Marche, are underrated (rich, aromatic) and the Veneto's Soave (closely related). Vermentino has great propensity for growth in Tuscany, a lot in the Maremma, people are blending it more skillfully (say with Viognier) to pick up more oily qualities with the minerality. In Northern Liguria, we see some really good Pigato and Vermentino from around Albenga - peppery yet balsamic-ky. From Alto Adige, we represent Abbazia di Novicella with cult wines like the dry crisp Kerner, as aromatic but less oily than Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner and Lagrein, both steel and burgundy-wrapped.
YOUR GRANDPA'S GRAPPA The history of distillation is not yet well-documented, but if you do enough research, you come to find that it began around 1OOO years ago in west Asia or Egypt. Who knows what kind of tipples they were making back then? They could've been distilling fruits, grape mash, grains. Unquestionably in Italy, the predominant zones are in the cold climate zones - Piedmont, Veneto, Friuli - where you needed it to fuel winter labors and kept you healthy from bugs and bacilli. There were several hundred quality small distillers in Italy 1OO years ago. They'd keep you healthy from amoebic dysentery, as you move on to grandpa's next salami! The bottom line is you can still anywhere, though local consumption may be only for fashion. Indigestion needs attention, and a great grappa can be made anywhere, and everyone to his own medicine! My new trajectory is a project out of Sicily with a high quality distiller making traditional grappas and eaux de vie (acquavite) from pomace, infusions and amarena cherry liqueur.
OFF the CHARTS We used to represent Villa Matilde, the great Falernum producer, on Campania's north coast. Owner Salvatore Avellone - after one of those grand dinners where you need a post-prandial - served a terrific grappa of Falanghina. I asked where he distilled it, and he said "Giovanni Poli", a cousin of Jacopo. I exclaimed, "Really? Why?" That's shipping delicate grape mash from Naples to the Dolomites! He said, "It's a long way, yes, and I'm thinking of making a change, because we have a wonderful distiller in Sicily. You have to try his Cactus Pear Eau de Vie." It turned out to be Giovanni LaFauci, whom I met the following year at VinItaly, being formally introduced by the Planetas. That sip was off the charts! Giovanni's a fanatic: he built his first still when he was 13, and designs and builds individual cauldrons to best extract each type of fruit - apple, plum, cactus pear - and to best separate the heart from the less desirable (read: impure) 'heads' and 'tails'. His artistry is just becoming recognized, so wineries are beating a path to his door.
PURE MADNESS LaFauci is so passionate about Moscato that he contracts the grape pomace from the excellent Piedmont producer Paolo Saracco. Imagine this trip: load the very delicate grape must in Asti; haul by refrigerated lorry to Campania; ferry to Messina; truck it to the distillery. It must be wet and very fresh; if it's a tad off you have to throw it away. So you're making batch distillations 'round the clock. LaFauci has a window into the still and actually watches the vapor separate from the mash. These products are very pure. When I first came to the industry, Stock Guilia was one of the few artisanal grappas available. Since then I've found that there are a few people doing very high quality batch work and rendering it in top fashion. Lafauci is one; Nannoni in Tuscany is another, doing a lot of Brunello work for wineries.
GLASS HOUSES? When people in this country look at fancy hand-blown bottles, they think it's schmaltzy, hoity-toity, a contrived effect, gimmickry. Some are surely trophy items to be admired, but not necessarily drunk. The vehicle is less important to serious tasters, and glassware costs money, so producers today are using more traditional bottles. Lafauci and I have decided to go with a simple 2OOml 'flute' bottle (in six-pack) and tall 75Oml (in three-pack), with wooden stoppers. The 2OOml will have 'softer' presence on the back bar and lend itself more to bartender experiment and consumer curiosity and discovery. Mixologists have just begun to tap into grappa and infusions, and there's a long way to go.
SPIRIT FAILING I don't see great appreciation for this category lagging far behind any clear spirits category, such as vodkas and white rums. The Instituto del Grappa does work both educationally and scientifically. But there's no real vehicle in the States to teach people about the appreciation of grappa; that's one reason why I run seminars and tasting dinners like I did at Wine Expo last year. There has even been a disparaging part of the wine community that sees grappa as an evil spirit. Some view the vinacce (skins, dregs, lees) as something toxic, to be destroyed, rototilled as compost, or fed to pigs. The problem is that some producers are sloppy, but many have brought it to a high art that deserves to be recognized, respected and enjoyed as we enjoy brandy, cognac, marc.
GRAPPA TYPES Clear grappa, much the favorite, protects the 3OO-plus congeners in the grapeskins. Wood's powerful polyphenolics and tastes (cherry, oak, apple) can add delicious adjuncts. Berta, in Piedmont, uses second-generation Allier oak untoasted to add creamy notes, a very hedonistic signature. Nannoni uses wood impeccably and subtly; his grappa for Altesino Brunello shows just a hint, more like creamy, nutty, vanillin, light lanolin. In Nardini's more old-fashioned riserva, the wood is more intrusive, tasting like tobacco and cigars - these were drunk while workers were smoking toscanos [pungent cigarillos]! This effect is quite familiar to the Scotch market.
INFUSIONS Infusions are crystalline brandies - the pure distilled essence of fruit without skin, pulp, seed, or stem. Though they show less alcohol on the palate, they're still 4O% to 43%. Two factors make an infusion appear mellower than a grappa: the temperature at distillation is lower, imparting a more rotund quality, and the base grappa is often of a more delicate grape, such as Moscato. The first ones people have seen in the US are camomile, licorice and Nardini's eye-opener, rue. My line will include lemon peel and more startling flavors: stinging nettle, carob pod, cactus pear. This is not limoncello, where lemon peels are steeped in grain neutral alcohol with sugar and fermented. In this grappa, only lemon peel is left in a neutral (red and white grape) grappa for months.
LIQUEURS They're gaining strength here in Massachusetts, with newly rediscovered Absinthe, Saint Germain's elderflower, Nardini's Acqua di Cedro (made most unusually from oil of cedro lemon leaves). I'll be showing one of Amarena cherry.
SIP THIS at HOME As a bridge between the heart of a dining experience to a grand finish, grappa tasting requires thought, experiment and showmanship. Chefs are using them in dressings, dips and saute pans; dessert chefs add them as color to cakes and strudels; they're making their way onto dessert cart drink lists, whether in fancy hand-blown or functional bottles. It's important to get the serving temperatures right: liqueurs at 45º, clear grappa and infusions at 5Oº, wood-aged at 6Oº. You really need bonafide grappa glasses with out-turned rims to fully express the intense aromas. But you can get by - in a pinch - with a sherry copita or prosecco glass (mini-Champagne flute).
GRAPPA GENERATIONS The artisanal grappa scene seems to be drying up because the younger generation is losing interest in distilling. This may become a prevalent situation when there's no family member to take over distilling. This happened recently at Franco Barbaro's Tastevin, a beautiful distillery in Monbriccelli in Asti that did great contract work for wineries. When Franco died, his sons sold the distillery. Because of my interest and feeling for grappa, some producers have asked me to come over and make their distillations! I probably sell more of San Leonardo's grappa than wine. But I don't want to be in that vapor world, moving pomace around; it's not my scene.