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The Real Wine World

A couple of years ago I started a project that I called the Real Wine World. No, it didn’t involve locking three wine industry participants in a house and filming them 24 hours a day. Its goal was simply to follow a wine producer, a wine importer, and a wine retailer for a year to get a better look at how the wine biz works.

The participants were Susana Balbo in Argentina, Italian wine importer Gregory Smolik in Chicago, and the small shop Big Nose Full Body in Brooklyn’s Park Slope.

The reason I bring this up now is twofold. First, I have just transfered all the pieces over to this new site, posted to their original dates. You can find the lead-off piece here. And thanks to the new categories function, you can find all the pieces under The Real Wine World. The pieces now have space for your comments!

Second, I thought I should bring closure to the project. Everyone got busy and the project didn’t make it the whole year. Susana Balbo had further demands on her time as she became president of the Wines of Argentina trade association. Gregory Smolik’s career as an independent importer of boutique wines from Italy came to an end but he now brings his passion and knowledge to his new job at the importer Domaine Select. Big Nose Full Body is still lubricating the palates of Park Slopers with free tastings on Saturday afternoons and 15% case discounts every day.

Who knows, maybe we’ll try for a second season of the Real Wine World sometime?!

Gregory Smolik: implosion

That was the subject line of a recent email from Greg. I feared for the worst.

I called him on his cell phone and caught him in his distributor’s warehouse. The implosion related to a side business that he had been trying to set up to import larger volume wines from Italy that was going to be his cash cow. He was despondent.

“Forget a cash cow—I don’t even have a cash lamb at this point. It’s crazy.”

Such are the travails of trying to sell the indigenous grape varieties of Italy. Greg has high standards and only works with producers who are making wines that he describes as authentic or rustic. His portfolio consisted of just four producers but he has just had to let one go after finding some bottle to bottle variation and price increases. And the wine maker that I met at a lunch in August, Walter Fabbri, has left Basilium W to pursue his own wines. Greg supplies the winery’s popular Pipoli and I Portali wines to 200 retail and restaurant accounts so he hopes the winemaker maintains the high standards that he knew under Fabbri.

Greg’s wines include the Aglianico grape from Basilicata, Falanghina from Campania, and organic wines from Lombardy. A portfolio like this, while appealing to connoisseurs or wine geeks, can be tough to sell to a mainstream audience.

“My wines are too much of a hand sell. The market is not ready for that. Let’s talk about Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio at Olive Garden—they’re not drinking Aglianico. I hate to sell my soul but if I don’t sell something, I’m going down. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about becoming an organic farmer or going back to playing my trumpet,” he says.

“Everybody at school would have Nike; I wanted Addidas. I have never wanted what everybody else had…I just want to change people’s ideas about having to have Pinot Grigio at restaurants. Pinot Grigio 50 years ago was nothing. Tony Terlato [the American importer who built the Santa Margherita brand] was a marketing genius, like Madonna. I’m not shooting to be a multimillionaire, but I would like to get something screamingly successful.”

He may have to get some more mainstream varietals to make the business work. “Finding bulk wines is never a problem in Italy. Find the best possible bulk wines that can sell is more of a challenge. If I don’t do it, I wouldn’t be in business much longer.”

He thinks he has found a good candidate in a Montepulciano that can be available to retailers and restaurants for $6 a bottle, an attractive price point for restaurants to pour as a house wine or a wine by the glass. Montepulciano, with a long history and greater consumer awareness in the US, would be an easier sell. But it is entering a more competitive part of the market.

“There are so many wines out there. It really makes you despise the business aspect of it. I just love wine.”

Beyond the grave

Greg just got an unusual endorsement about the quality of his wines.

Greg recently got a call from Sam’s Wine saying that a customer wanted 18 bottles of Pipoli aglianico bianco and they were scrambling to fill it. Greg asked why one person wanted so many bottles of the wine and the reply came that a recently widowed woman was pouring the wine at her husband’s memorial service-at his request. In his will, the woman’s husband had specified that he wanted certain olive oils, cheeses and Pipoli bianco to be served. Greg asked if the couple had ever been to the winery and the answer was no. Greg was also out of stock on the wine and had to have some flown in from an out-of-state warehouse, such was his honor at the request.

As our call wrapped up, Greg is hoping for some more orders from the land of the living and returned to his work in the warehouse preparing samples for a trip to Las Vegas. His career may seem like a gamble to him at this point, but his passion, knowledge, contacts, experience and language ability all contribute to helping his odds.

* * *

To find Greg’s wines try Sam’s Wine and Spirits, which ships to many states or try wine-searcher to find them in IL, WI, or NV.

The Real Wine World updated

For new readers to the site, I am currently running a year long “reality”-inspired chronicle of three industry participants. The Real Wine World, as I call it, follows a wine maker, a wine importer and a local wine shop. The producer is Susana Balbo from Mendoza, Argentina, the importer is Gregory Smolik who imports rustic wines of indigenous varietals from Italy, and the shop is called Big Nose Full Body in Park Slope (Brooklyn).

In the most recent updates, the wine shop has changed hands! I went to park Slope to meet the energetic new owner, Aaron Hans, and learn about his background, the transaction purchasing the shop, and his plans. In the latest from Greg, I joined him and winemaker Walter Fabbri from Basilicata for a lunch in Chicago.

BNFB: Introducing Aaron Hans

Breaking news: on August 9th Patricia Savoie sold Big Nose, Full Body to Aaron Hans. Pat has decided to pursue wine writing full time. We will catch up with her later to hear from her directly. Meanwhile, I went to Park Slope to meet Aaron, new proprietor of the shop…

Aaron Hans is so bursting with ideas and energy that is small wonder that his close-cropped blond hair stands straight up. But this thirty-something new owner of Big Nose Full Body has plans to tweak the shop, not give it a wholesale makeover. The clever name, the exciting range of wines, the handsome interior space, and the free tastings on Saturdays will all stay the same. But there will be minor changes including staying open seven days a week and even adding some apparel items.

Perhaps the biggest change for Aaron personally is his commute. As a sales representative for Frederick Wildman’s wine distribution he had taken as many as 10 subway trains a day to visit his accounts, both restaurants and shops. BNFB was one of his accounts and when he learned that Pat was thinking about selling he made her an offer. The five block commute for this long-time resident of Park Slope was undoubtedly a factor in his thinking.

“I’ve always wanted to own something,” he told me yesterday in the shop. An early stint in restaurants followed by a stint at a wine bar confirmed to him that he didn’t want to include food in his business. The shop seemed a good fit from that perspective too.

“You’re not going to get rich but you get to do something you really, really enjoy. I’m not stuck in a cubicle all day,” he said.

The store stocks wines from Wildman and Aaron is familiar with those. He hasn’t tasted through all the wines in the shop yet but any new wines that he adds, he will taste. He added a wine from Ridge to the store already, one that he knows and likes. The store currently gets wine from 22 distributors and he doesn’t plan on adding any more. “That’s a lot already,” he says.

I wondered, how do you value a wine shop? Aaron explained that when he purchased the shop from Pat in early August, he paid one price for the business, one price for the inventory, and the rest was thrown in as “good will.” That included odds and ends in the shop such as the racking and the computer-and even the staff. Larry, the assistant manager who was within earshot, joked that that was a lot of good will. “The staff are all great and we have no plans for changes,” said Aaron smiling.

With the busy season kicking in, he will however be buying a new computer to speed up the bookkeeping the current sluggish computer and to help with checkout. Last Saturday evening, there was a line the entire length of the shop.

In order to cope with this busy last few months of the year, Aaron has added opening hours on Sunday. Originally it was 12-6 but he said the last two hours were very busy and he felt badly turning people away. So now the Sunday hours are 12-9. Aaron says that he could easily work 80 hours a week but has limited himself to five days a week in the shop. He has to spend some time with his wife and kids after all.

Kids are clearly on Aaron’s brain. He interrupts our talk at one point to help a woman with a stroller into the shop. Given the demographics of the neighborhood, Aaron will be working with a designer to introduce Big Nose Full Body t-shirts—and baby apparel such as onesies and toddler tees.

“Who knows maybe you’ll come back next year and we’ll be making all our money in t-shirts?” he said. It’s an exciting time for him with lots of opportunities. And yes, he has agreed to continue to participate in The Real Wine World. That’s good for us!

The Greg and Walter mini-tour

When I arrived at Convito Italiano on Chicago’s North Shore last week for a late lunch, the sun was pouring in on Greg Smolik and Walter Fabbri, winemaker at Basilium. Given Greg’s preference for “authentic” wines that reflect their growing environment, it’s no surprise that Walter, who was only on his second trip to the US, is stocky and jocular and speaks only fragmented English. He’s no Michel Rolland being chauffeured in a black Mercedes while consulting by cell phone to over 100 wineries around the globe. He is instead a product of his terroir as much as his wines.

Walter had flown in for Italian Night at Sam’s Wine and Spirits and Greg had been running him ragged ever since he touched down. The Italian Night was packed on Tuesday night, they had appointments around Chicago on Wednesday, Thursday they went to Madison, WI to visit some accounts, returning back to Chicago late on Thursday night. It’s small wonder we had a late lunch on Friday.

Greg and I had scheduled this lunch, our first face-to-face meeting, so that I could meet Walter as well as Lynda Jo Shlaes, wine director at Convito. Although it was a business meeting, the tone was clearly convivial as Greg declared Lynda Jo “like a sister” before she sat down to independently say that he’s “like a brother.”

Lynda Jo described Greg as having star-like qualities. “He’s the only importer or distributor who comes here to pour his wines and there’s a crowd.” She regularly has free wine tastings late on Friday afternoons and says that crowds mysteriously know when it’s Greg’s day and start appearing. I wondered if they had Greg-dar, similar to radar. “I ended up putting a small sign in the window but before that I’m not sure how they knew,” she confesses. “Maybe it was the meat.”

Greg, who loves pairing food with wine, admitted to bringing grilled meats for customers to try—after first tasting the wine alone. “I love it when people are amazed by what food pairing can do,” he admits.

“Greg can easily sell 10 cases of wine in one afternoon.” Lynda Jo said. Convito is not only a contemporary Italian restaurant that has been around for 25 years but also a shop selling Italian wines and gourmet foods to go.

For our lunch, Greg had brought two samples from Walter’s winery. Both the wines, called Pipoli 2003 and the I Portali 2003, are made entirely from the Aglianico grape. Aglianico has only recently come into its own starring role (admittedly off-Broadway for the moment) but once was used to illegally bulk up the wines of Brunello, Chianti and even the Rhone, Greg said. These wines come from the Basilicata in the arch of the boot that is Italy’s silhouette on the map.

Greg also wanted us to try the Pipoli Chiaro, a white wine from the red Aglianico grape, with the lunch. So Lynda Jo brought out a bottle from her stock and chilled it in an ice bucket filled with water, ice and salt (a trade secret). The Pipoli Chiaro 2004 (about $8 retail, Find this wine) looks clear in the glass but has the heft of a red wine. I had just seen the wine director of another store the previous day and she said that she was featuring the Pipoli Chiaro in her fall newsletter as an excellent white. I agreed. It’s a white wine that has a red wine personality, perfect for the transitional weather. Greg, always thinking about food pairings, suggested meat (pork), fish (bacala), and pasta with red sauce.

As our food arrived, panini for Greg and me, a salad for Lynda Jo, and grilled chicken for Walter, we moved on to the reds, starting with the Pipoli Rosso (about $9 retail, Find this wine). The most humble of Walter’s wines, it is still hand-harvested from 30 year old vines and is an excellent value at about $10 retail. It is medium bodied and is ready to drink. Greg recommends pork, lamb or pasta for the conventional or lentils or local hot peppers for a taste of rusticity.

We then moved on to the I Portali, which exhibited more heft and for about $12 retail (Find this wine), seemed the better value red to me. The volcanic soil of the Vulture growing region in Basilicata give this wine some mineral notes but the dark fruits and soft tannins give it a lot of depth and complexity. It’s aged for 10 months in large oak barrels and 4 months in small barrels.

Walter’s top wine, the Valle del Trono (about $20 retail, Find this wine), was not available for our lunch, but I’ve tasted it before and think that it tastes like a wine worth twice the price. Walter’s 2001 vintage made only 30,000 bottles of the wine, which used best grapes from the oldest vineyards. Harvested late on November 20, the grapes received 20 days of drying in the sun (akin to an Amarone), 60 days of fermentation, and 30 months of oak aging. This wine accounts for about a quarter of Basilium’s wines.

These wines are the ones that give Walter the most pleasure but Walter uses the rest of his large vineyards to pay the bills through the production mass market wines. He grows Pinot Grigio and Greco de Tufo to sell anonymously to large buyers in the UK.

Greg has great confidence in Walter’s winemaking capabilities. And after tasting through three of his wines, it’s easy to understand why.

We left Convito to head in our respective directions, which for Greg and Walter meant heading down the road to Evanston for their next appointment and then for Walter that evening, to O’Hare, and then home.

Gregory Smolik, an average day or two

I asked Greg to send us a couple of days from his calendar so here are two days in his life as an importer of Italian wines.

7 AM – Turn on computer, go through e-mails, make breakfast.
8:30 Calls may start from Italy with questions concerning current orders if any.
10:30-11:00 – Organize the day’s events if in town
11:30 -12:00 – Go to Bensenville, IL warehouse to pick up samples and look at inventories.
At this point if my colleague Debbie is in we can go over label approvals, stock, new distributors etc.

12:45 Another quick call from Italy
1:30 – 2:00 Quick lunch
3:00 First appt
4:30 Second appt (same wines usually)
5:30 Third and last appt – depending on if I am driving or walking the city and if I’m in the suburbs makes a difference.
7:00 Dinner meeting with colleagues or doing a tasting.
9:30 Back home on computer check e-mails
10:30 – 11:00 I will leave the computer but I usually get up at some point during the night because I forgot to e-mail or check something.

6am Wake get a quick bite and start driving to first appt:
8am Arrive at first appt sample wines talk logistics.
9:30am Drive to next appt
11am Arrive at 2nd appt taste wines have lunch at 12:30 1pm with owner or winemaker.
2:30 Start to next appt, phone all next days appointments to confirm.
6pm Arrive at appt sit down sample wines may or may not have dinner with winery.
9pm Find a hotel if one is not already reserved.
10-10:30 Go over the day’s events organize all paperwork, etc then organize the next day’s events.

Go back to The Real Wine World home page to view other segments. Send in your questions or see Greg’s previous installment or see his next installment with Basilium winemaker Walter Fabbri.

Ed Lehrman, Susana Balbo’s American importer

With Susana on vacation this month, I thought we could hear from her American importer, Vine Connections. Partner Ed Lehrman spoke to me from his office in Sausalito last week.

When Ed Lehrman goes to Mendoza, he stays in a hotel for half the normal tourist price. How? He lets one of his local producers make the hotel bookings for him. That’s one of the tricks of the trade Ed has learned over the past five years as he has established his company as one of the strongest importers of Argentine wines to the US.

In 1999, Ed went on a fateful journey to Argentina. He had just sold his wine retail business and decided to join one of his distributors, Nick Ramkowsky, on a trip to South America. Although they only spent five days in Argentina and neither spoke much Spanish, they were so impressed by what they saw and tasted that they decided to go into business together and start importing the wines of Argentina to the US.

Ed tasted 3,000 wines a year in his retail business, a company for mail order wine, and Nick tasted a lot too. But when they were sampling in Mendoza, “He looked at me and I looked at him, and we agreed that this is far different from wines we know as Argentine—we have to do something about this,” Ed recalled on the phone last week from his office in Sausalito, CA.

“Susana’s wines were the ones that made the biggest mark. Here was a very talented wine maker whose wines weren’t being exported.”

“Argentina in late 1990s was similar to Napa in late 1970s since people were just developing a sense of their own brands and what they had to achieve. They still are today. Really only since 1994 have they been making quality wines for export,” Ed said.

It was a hard time to make quality wine at all. There wasn’t much domestic demand for it despite the fact that Argentina has one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. “The Argentine consumer doesn’t have tradition of paying up. Susana stuck to high quality. Thus the benefit for her was to go to the export market and show what she can do,” Ed said.

With their knowledge of the US market and its quirks, as well as packaging and sales, Ed and Nick set up Vine Connections and started importing the wines of Argentina. Armed with color printouts of their labels, and samples of their 12 wines, they started knocking on doors to set up a distributor network from scratch. They met with tremendous enthusiasm and acceptance even though the wines were priced aggressively for a relatively unknown country starting at $22 for the BenMarco Malbec and going up to $50 retail. “Price points weren’t as tough as they are today,” Ed said.

Today VineConnections has a presence in 45 states. His portfolio of wines now is almost entirely dedicated to the wines of Argentina since Ed says that as an importer “it is increasingly difficult to be a generalist.” The Vine Connections portfolio also includes the wines of Ernesto and Laura Catena, Tikal and Luca respectively, both the children of Argentine wine pioneer, Nicolas Catena. And they are also importers of several dozen premium sakes from Japan.

Ed describes Dominio del Plata, the winery that Susana built with her husband Pedro, as more comfortable and homey than other, more luxurious wineries. They built it right among their vineyards and also included a residential space in the winery so from their dining room windows, you can see the fermentation tanks. And it’s location on the way to the pass through the Andes to Chile, makes it very convenient. It’s small wonder that one thing on Susana’s plate for the next year is thinking how to better handle tourism requests.

Single vineyard wines are more risky in Argentina than they are in other parts of the wine world because of the risk of a snap hail storm, which can decimate a crop in 15 minutes. He cited staggering figures of a 13% annual loss rate of the total Mendoza grape crop over the last 20 years. Thus producers tend to source their grapes from several growing sites to diversify the risk. And they also resort to hail netting and even cannons, whose blasts are thought to break up hail squalls.

Despite this hail risk, which is manageable, Ed does not envy his fellow wine importers who import wines from France and Italy. “From a business standpoint, I’m not sure I would want to face the vagaries of the weather. The climate in Mendoza is similar to California. There certainly is vintage variation. Overall if you look at the consistency and quality you can achieve, it is great. We thought about the downside and there was very little.”

Snow, of all natural factors, has played a role in their business recently. To ship their wines to the US, Ed and Nick use the port of San Antonio, Chile. Getting there from Mendoza, trucks laden with the wine of Susana and their other producers must bypass Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hempisphere, and scale the Uspallata pass at 12,500 feet. In the summer, climbing this height takes only a few tanks of gas but is no great obstacle. However, now, when it is winter down under, it has become a bottleneck.

“It’s been hard to even find containers to fill,” Ed laments because the traffic has been so backed up this winter because of the tremendous snowfall. Normally, the pass can close for a day or two in the winter but this winter it has been closed for up to two weeks at a time. Nonetheless, ships departing every two weeks means that they don’t have to wait for a boat once they clear the Andes.

Once the wines arrive in the US, the Vine Connections team is on the road selling the wines. Ed says that he travels less than Nick since he has two children but he is still on the road about 100 days a year. Nick has been shouldering as many as 280 days a year on the road, though he will be pulling back with the hiring of new sales staff bringing their national total up to seven. It’s important for Ed and Nick that their sales staff feel the same enthusiasm for Argentina that they do so all of the staff have been there to experience it first-hand.

Ed and Nick were drawn to Argentina in 1999 by the wines but in 2002 many others were drawn by the currency collapse. “When we went from the first time, we thought we had found the Holy Grail, to make good wine consistently, and we thought we could have the place to ourselves for quite a while. But now Argentina is so much on the map and the number of foreigners who have moved in has been phenomenal. No major wine growing country is without some sort of presence,” Ed said. “I’m stunned that it took the world this long to find out.”

Gregory Smolik, in Campania

Greg recently spent some time in the “red zone” of Mt. Vesuvius peering into the original crater. No, he wasn’t leading an excavation of Pompeii. Instead, he was walking the vineyards of winemaker Gabriele DeFalco.

Located in Campania, above the Bay of Naples and on the flanks of Mt. Vesuvius, DeFalco is one of four wine producers in Greg’s Sauvage Selections portfolio. DeFalco, the former vineyard manager of the critically acclaimed Feudi di San Gregorio, makes both red and white wines from the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio DOC.

This trip to see DeFalco was particularly fun for Greg since his wife Nell was able to tag along. This week-long trip, primarily to go to a family wedding but also to see DeFalco, was the first one that Nell went on since Greg started the business. “Usually he’s so booked with appointments, driving eight hours a day, and racing around without a day of rest—that it doesn’t make for a vacation at all,” Nell wrote me last week.

“It’s great to be able to visit the wineries with Nell,” Greg told me on the phone from the O’Hare international terminal. “Obviously the hardest thing about being on the road is being without her but since she helps me with the catalogue writing and images, I always love it when she can come with me to get a sense of the place herself.” Sampling the fresh regional foods together can’t be bad either as they shared a meal of sardines, two different types of clams, mussels, and local aliche with DeFalco overlooking the bay.

DeFalco left Feudi to pursue his own authentic winemaking style Greg said. Although Feudi is known for having put the local, indigenous varietals such as the white Falanghina and the red Aglianico on the wine world’s radar screen (Robert Parker gave Feudi’s $65 Serpico 2001 Aglianico 98 points), when they turned to pursue a winemaking style that produced bigger, more oak-driven wines DeFalco no longer felt comfortable. Now Greg buys most of the wine that he makes for export to the US.

“The Feudi white (Falanghina) does not have a sense of place. The DeFalco white is lighter and has notes of peach that go great with fish. The Feudi rocks the fish,” Greg summarized.

American consumers will be able to taste more of the wines this year. Greg said that the DeFalco labels had gotten final approval from the US authorities, which meant that a container of their wines could now ship. “Hopefully we can get a container out of Italy in the next couple of weeks before the country shuts down for August. Then it would arrive here in Chicago in October and be available for the holidays,” Greg eagerly reported.

Consumers will await them with baited breath—and tongues. Ten days after his return, Greg led consumers through a tasting dinner of DeFalco wines. At the recently opened Night Café in Arlington Heights, IL, Greg had them taste the white, and they approved. Then Greg had them try an olive or take a bit of salt on their tongues and then taste the wines again. “Everybody said ‘holy crap! I had no idea that food could do that to a wine!'”

DeFalco might be the producer closest to Smolik if in name only since his mother’s maiden name is DeFalco. Although he family came from Sicily, where the spelling is DiFalco, they switched to the Campania spelling of DeFalco for ease of pronunciation in America. Greg grew up speaking Italian with his mother and visiting her relatives in Sicily every summer.

Greg was headed to Sicily on Friday when I reached him at O’Hare. He’s going to be in Italy working on a new, complimentary business. He has just gotten financing for a new line of wines that he is going to import under the Cantina della Passione name. They will be accessible selections of barbera, chianti, and Pinot Grigio with a focus on quality. “I have restaurant owners telling me ‘I’ll never be able to sell Aglianico Bianco in the suburbs, Greg.’ So this new line is wine is for them: quality, accessible and higher volumes.”

“I’ve never felt so liberated in my life. I can do esoteric stuff with Sauvage Selections. Then I can also have mainstream wines in other line,” Greg cheerfully stated as they called his flight over the loudspeaker.


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