Article By: Fred Bouchard
Corporate Wine Educator
Martignetti Companies, Norwood
SOME GUYS keep up their careers going full steam ahead – sixty-year-old Len Presutti is one of them, combining youthful vigor, extreme work ethic, jazz fervor, devotion to cooking and baking, and burning passions for the table and grape. Now in his 25th year working for and with Carmine and Carl Martignetti, Len has earned teaching certifications from the Society of Wine Educators from Bordeaux, Spain and Germany. He also holds degrees from Duquesne University and Berklee College of Music. Len translates his panoply of experience and interests into dynamic wine education. He’s renowned in the trade for his superlative palate, olfactory memory and encyclopedic recall of wine data. Len’s infectious enthusiasms bubble over as we explore unusual tapas and wines at Toro in Boston’s South End. We’re pleased to find ourselves on common wave-lengths of jazz and wine.
FRED BOUCHARD That’s a pretty comprehensive wine program you run [at Martignetti HQ] in Norwood.
LEN PRESUTTI I teach three levels of wine courses for our sales people. Wine Basics runs for eight weeks, designed to make someone totally wine literate. Each class runs two hours. In the first hour, I’ll lecture on a topic like winemaking, food and wine matching or viticulture. In the second hour, we have a discussion and tasting from major wine regions, with a heavy emphasis on France because of the pronunciation. Often we’re hiring people more for their sales ability than for their wine knowledge.
FB Some coming from other careers or right out of college?
LP Absolutely, both. Lately what’s been working out well is using our merchandisers, who are very passionate, as a ‘farm system’ inside the organization. Some will take this class a couple of times to to help them slip into a good wine route.
On top of this, we’re teaching the collegiate level, with the 3rd revision of The Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Exploring Wine. The book is huge, 8OO pages, really serious and detailed, and we really kick up the level of the wines. It’s as in-depth a book as you can imagine – detailed, fantastic – the best book of its kind I’ve seen.
The advanced wine course has multiple textbooks and double-blind tastings. Hugh Johnson’s Encyclopedia of Wine and James Wilson’s Terroir are required reading. I bought a geology textbook to bone up on terms.
FB How do you challenge your students?
LP The advanced course’s double-blind tastings hone tasting skills – what you can glean from color, pH. Like, “Does this wine come from cooler growing region or is it an older wine that’s lost its color?” These take three hours. Even our wine buyers and VPs might take this course. To make it a true blind tasting I might throw in a Chateau Yquem or a ’96 Mouton Rothschild. Could be a jug wine or a first growth! Nobody gets them right all the time, of course, but it does make you focus.
FB We were talking about practical biodynamics earlier . . .
LP Nicolas Joly’s theory of getting the vine to remedy its own deficiencies, is to spray an extremely diluted liquid of manure buried in animal horn, stirred and dynamized. To some it seems hokey, but those who try this biodynamic method are convinced: Olivier Humbrecht [Zind Humbrecht], John Williams [Frog’s Leap], Michel Chapoutier all corroborate dynamic differences. That it amplifies the sense of place, as an extension of the Appellation system – it’s more important for a wine to be authentic than it is to be good.
FB We remember so many marvelously fresh young wines-of-the-year from dining in European bistros and trattorias . . .
LP There’s the theory that some young wines don’t travel well because of esters, not added sulphur. You have acid and alcohol molecules (neither of which have aroma or flavor) bonding together to make esters, which do have aroma and flavor. With the post-fermentation esters, they might pull apart when the wine travels (travel sickness) but over time will rejoin. The young, fresh, low-alcohol wines we enjoy at dinner don’t rejoin after travel. It makes sense: the wines are so quaffable, delightful, never-get-a-headache, so right with the food.
FB Beyond the Martignetti classes, you’ve been involved for years with the Society of Wine Educators (SWE).
LP SWE is the international organization purely devoted to wine education. It creates exams on several levels. The exam for Certified Wine Educators (CWE) that I administer with the help of a proctor is much more difficult now. We have 13O local members; of the 3O people who took the exam recently, our group scored higher than the national average. The CWE designation involved tastings, identification, including identifying ‘faults’ [elements] that were barely over the threshold of perception: sulphur, sugar, alcohol. Some people had to come back to take it again and again. Questions can come from any published source, and some are brutal. “The legal definition of wine in USA?” Very difficult! Now you also must teach a seminar at an SWE conference, or send in a video of [a similar] class.
The study guide for Certified Wine Specialist (CWS) contains everything you’re tested on – a finite set of facts. Cramming helps for the CWS test but not the CWE test.
There’s no place you can go to get such in-depth knowledge about wines and wine regions. Somebody gave a two-hour seminar on the wines of Soviet Georgia who’d just been there and was totally conversant. I remember having just been on an in-depth trip to Rias Baixas, and there was a seminar on Albariño. I said to myself, “Do I need this?” Well, their book of notes was an inch thick on sub-regions, stylistic nuances – and we had a fantastic aged albariño! I couldn’t believe how much I learned about a region I’d just been to! Next July’s conference is in San Mateo.
FB I guess we both make frequent analogies between jazz and wine.
LP Wines have character you can relate to individual styles and players. I mean, some new world stuff is like King Curtis playing sax: that power and intensity, that core of sound, but at the same time rich and balanced within itself. Barolo – could be Stan Getz. For me, Barolo is a misunderstood wine: tannin and acidity act synergistically, so if you have two wines with the same tannin, the one with more acid will seems more tannic. Young Barolos are high in both, so when young they seem very masculine and brawny, but when that tannin precipitates out, the wine becomes very delicate and ethereal. Tar and rose-petals, that ethereal quality for me approaches that airy sound of Stan Getz. Maybe a stretch.
There’s a really strong correlation between music and wine. Both happen in time. With the tone envelope, you have attack, sustain, decay, and release. With the tasting process, it’s attack, mid-palate, and finish. . . Every once in a while you’ll smell a wine that seems like a symphony, playing a chord in perfect proportion to one another that speaks of great beauty.
FB Name a wine that does that for you?
LP The problem is, catching a wine at its perfect moment in its life. I had a significant birthday recently and opened a 1985 Chateau Lafite that was pretty amazing. Sometimes you find it in a great youthful wine. For a wine to age effortlessly, it depends on balance as much as the intensity of the elements. At Harvey Finkel’s massive 3O-year vertical tastings of Beaulieu Vineyards’ Georges de la Tour [reserve Cabernets], we sometimes found that those little $2 Beautours he’d also put away held up better over time.
There are some little wines that hold big surprises. Remember Monte Antico? If you look in an old Hugh Johnson Wine Atlas, it’s an actual locale across the Ombrone River from Brunello di Montalcino. High density plantings and elevation, good exposure, 35+ year-old vines. When I opened a 199O this year, I said, “Aww, it’s faded.” But after 45 minutes, the wine blossomed, and it was like drinking a little Brunello! It was real wine, with no obvious oxidation. Those are fun things. Listen, I opened a 1997 Marcarini Moscato d’Asti – supposed to last a year, right? I figured I’d use it in steaming liquid for Peking Duck, but when I pulled the cork, it was beautiful! I recorked it and we drank it with dessert.
FB Were you raised with good food and wine?
LP At home outside Pittsburgh, both my dad and grandmother cooked. Thanksgiving Italian style meant antipasto, pasta for two hours, hour break, then turkey, then desserts, then coffee and grappa.
They were from east of Rome, Arezzo or Marche. My father’s name is Presutti (a corruption of prosciutto, or ham) and his mother’s maiden name was Mozzarella – ham and cheese! We made the best tomato sauce from home-canned tomatoes, and all home-made pasta.
My uncle Nunzio had eight big casks in the cellar; they bought the California grapes in lugs [at the market]. They’d squeeze the grapes; if they were slippery, they were sweet enough. No Brix or refractometer! They’d press the wine in a big wooden press. The wine had amazing purity, went down like water, but strong! A construction worker asked for a second glass; my father said, “Sure, but first, stand up!” He almost fell over. My uncle opened a 25-year-old bottle of white (moscato?) in the late ’7Os that he’d sealed – I kid you not – the ancient Roman way, he floated olive oil into the neck and a rag stopper to keep out dust.
FB How did baking color your life?
LP After Berklee, a saxophonist roommate and I bought the old Previtero Bakery in the North End, by Paul Revere’s statue and Old North Church. We made tremendous bread on rotating trays, 18O loaves at a time. Since I was into cooking, I’d get up at 2am to make the dough. But I had to do it all when my partner smashed his fingers on a mixer hook. Then the powers that be ripped up the street for three months because we were pulling the other bakers’ businesses.
I wanted to go to Madeline Kamman’s cooking school in Newton but she had a three-year wait. Meanwhile, I was playing jazz and baking. A month before I was supposed to start, she sent me a letter saying she was sorry but was going back to France. One of the most upsetting moments of my life. But I decided to stay in Boston, conflicted between being a chef or musician. I couldn’t be both at the same time, but I could work in a wine store, so I got into wine. When Randy Sheahan finally hired me, the deal was that I’d work any shifts they wanted except when I had a gig. Walking the bandstand paid ten times more than walking the floor!
I still love baking. Cooking is a passion, but I was a professional baker. I still make ciabatta, pugliese, baguettes, semolina bread. I have 3O different bread-making books. We make our own pasta. I still have the motion for making perfectly tight round dinner rolls because I’ve done that hand motion 1O,OOO times.
FB Your participation in Wine and Health seminars at Brandeis University came up with some encouraging statistics.
LP I’d done a ton of research and I kept quoting facts to wear down objectors. Heart-healthy benefits studies have been repeated in 63 countries and the jury’s no longer out. Wine helps prevent 3O diverse maladies such as: macular degeneration in elderly, osteoporosis in women and dementia by a factor of 65%. Wine’s acidity actually kills bacteria that causes ulcers, and helps regulate the release of insulin, so it prevents Type II diabetes. I could go on.
FB You’ve done some serious travel on the wine frontiers.
LP I’ve had the chance to do an amazing amount of travel to all the world wine regions: South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, California, Washington, Chile, and Argentina. In Bordeaux, we were tutored for three hours at Château Yquem by the vineyard and cellar master. We had tastings at Romanée Conti. We visited Latour, Mouton, and with Paul Pontellier in the cellars of Château Margaux.
FB Which wine shops have come to your attention lately?
LP Among many, I could name two in Chestnut Hill: Patrick Dubsky’s Winestone and TJ Douglas’ Urban Grape. Howie Rubin at Bauer Wine [Newbury Street] is an icon. He combines passion and knowledge with an uncanny ability to discern exactly want the customer wants.
FB What are some of the southern hemisphere stars on the horizon?
LP I’m keen on Chile and Argentina. Archivel Ferreira’s counter-cultural winemaking is turning heads. Errazuriz’s high end syrah rivals Guigal’s Côte Rôtie. And Clos Apalta from l’Apostolle.
FB What do you note among wine trends?
LP All this sweet wine makes me sick. I mean manipulated, artificially ‘sweet wine’ that’s all the rage today. A few were not bad, that added notes of cherry, though most have no redeeming values. I recently tasted a chardonnay and could actually taste sugar granules in the wine! But I must say that of the higher quality sweet wines, like Moscato and Brachetto d’Acqui, it’s interesting to see people’s reactions to them. I used Brachetto in a seminar last Friday, yes, there was a little chocolate around! It’s almost like people are afraid, or need validation, to like some wines that’re sweet. It’s weird how that works. I’m kinda giving them permission, it’s like biting into a bunch of ripe berries. We knew about Asti Spumante, but not about Moscato d’Asti, which is a better wine.
FB Aren’t German wines still getting a bad rap? Are they too subtle for the American palate?
LP It’s one of the consistent joys for me to turn people on to really great, complex German Rieslings. Think about this: when you and I first got started in this business, there were two noble reds and two white grapes – Chardonnay and Riesling. Everybody regarded Riesling as the superior grape. It makes such complex, interesting wine, with that beautiful minerality and amazing balancing acidity that gives the wine such definition. To see people’s lightbulbs go on when they first try a great Riesling is a true delight.
FB How you do deal with a dog?
LP I have always been totally honest about wines. If I had inferior wines in my book, I would not hype them, but just tell customers ‘I need for you to taste this . . .”
FB Why do you love teaching?
LP It’s this sense of sharing. Like “Man, I just heard this Sonny Rollins solo! Check it out!” or “I just went to Argentina! And you can’t believe how the high altitude affects the Malbec grape skins!” I have a blast sharing what I learn with people. It’s that one-on-one thing. And you see people are getting it. I think I got into the wine and food thing by talking about restaurant experiences with wine friends.”
FB Len, you’re one of those mavens Malcolm Gladwell talks about in The Tipping Point. People come to you to find out the hot wines, hot regions. You open doors.
LP I have to read that book. You know, I’ve never lost that honest-to-god love; the enthusiasm hasn’t waned, it’s intensified: the more I’m exposed to it, the more I love it. You’re hearing a symphony, you know the composer, his cultural background. For me, I enjoy it more as the years go by. I have to admit, I owe a huge amount to Carl and Carmine Martignetti. They presented me with opportunities that few have had, the stuff of dreams.
I had dogged Randy Sheehan for a job at Martignetti’s, the original on Soliders Field Road in Brighton. After my first year, I’d tasted every single wine in the store, except for expensive lock-ups. I went to every trade tasting. I wasn’t the wine buyer, but you got to taste alongside him. So you could sell it better.
Carmine has an amazing palate. He asked me years ago, when I was starting, “Can you cover a tasting for me? We’ve got 25 Grand Cru Gevry Chambertins.” I said I didn’t know there were that many being brought into the state. He said, “We’ve got somebody flying to France to bring them back.” Oops, over my head! The wines were tasted single-blind. If they didn’t like your comments as they went around the table, you weren’t invited back. I filled in for him a few times, and was invited back, often with him.
We tried 139 different 1986 Bordeaux, including Petrus, all the First Growths, and Yquem. We tried everything in many sessions with George Buehler and Harvey Finkel. Unbelievably comprehensive: all the major seconds, many third and fourths. To try all those iconic wines gives you reference points.
FB Wow, some amazing insights to be culled there.
LP By the time I was a wine buyer, I put in 175 facings of 199O Red Burgundy. I’d tasted 3OO to come up with them. You don’t get a chance to taste everything. Who can do that today? We’d chip in to buy a bottle of the 199O DRC wines. Tom Schmeisser [Marty’s] and a bunch of us did our own tasting. Today, no way! You’d need a blank checkbook. Thousands of dollars a bottle upon release? Come on! The upside of this is amazing values in petits châteaux. l’Argentière [Medoc] grows up to 2O% Petit Verdot, though they don’t admit to putting that big a dollop in the cuvée. Really speaks of the Left Bank and retails for $18. On the 2OOO, our cost was $9.33, I went thru multiple cases as a house wine! Three to 5 years and the stuff tasted like a $5O bottle. Fun things!
FB Our little babies!
FB What’s your take on the explosion of hard liquor drinks?
LP It’s bringing a certain vibrancy to the whole drinks world that was sadly lacking ten years ago. It’s fostering an openness that’s good for both the wine and spirits scenes.