I did not particularly like wine when I was growing up. My parents had wine in the house and it was not a restricted item for me as it is in most american households. But I did not crave it. It was just there, available but not desired. When I matured a bit and went away to college, wine became a bit more prevalent. But not as something to be savored but as a means of altering one’s moods, a way to get shitfaced. Which I also was not fond of because of the wicked headaches that would result.
Wine and beer and booze were just mind altering drugs and not substances to be savored because of the qualities they had besides their alcohol content. But yet I was aware that people drank these things for reasons other than getting drunk.
When I started working, still in college, and making a little of my own money, my curiosity grew to the point where I started exploring the world of wine and spirits. One of the jobs I had was as a busboy in a mafia restaurant in the Bronx. It was not run by the mafia but many of the clients certainly were. I grew friendly with the Sommelier, who was a friend of my older brother, and was put under his wing. He let me taste wines from bottles that were not fully emptied and I started getting a little bit of an education of the World of wine. Not enough, by any means, to become an expert but enough to spark a bit of curiosity.
By this time I had married Alice and my interest in food and wine had increased. I was still a college student and relatively poor. Since I had had experience in the restaurant industry, I was able to get summer jobs in that world. I worked as a cook in a high end steakhouse on Long Island where again I was exposed to food and wine. My first exposure to Scotch was the bottle of Dewars that was opened every night at the end of the shift by the chef. Yea, I thought it was a bit odd too but it sure made the end of incredibly stressful shifts a bit more relaxed. I also learned lots about steaks at that job.
One day I needed to buy a bottle of wine as a gift. At this point I forget for who the wine was for but I remember going into Queens, to Gold Star Wines, on somebody’s suggestion. This wine shop, larger than most, was owned by an Italian man named Lou. He was in his fifties at the time so he was much older than I was. When I entered the store and started looking around I was absolutely overwhelmed by the selection. I came to find out that Lou had the largest selection of Italian wines in the United States, at that time.
He saw that I was struggling and came over to help. He understood that there was a spark of curiosity about wine in me and spent some time taking me around the store and explaining the basics to me. I finally purchased a bottle of wine and left.
Visits to that store became a weekly habit. It was like going to wine school. I didn’t choose anything. He would introduce me to various regions and wines and told me what to buy and how to to drink what I bought. He knew I didn’t have much money so he always went easy on me and many times would slip me an extra bottle to try.
On one of those visits he immediately brought me to the back of the store to show me a new line he had just brought in. Lou was a wine shop owner and not an importer. New York State law makes a distinction between the two so he could not legally import wines. But he did. He did by going to Italy and finding promising wines and making arrangements to have them imported under an importer’s license. The importer would get a certain percentage of the shipment while Lou kept the lion’s share. This particular line was an Amarone from the producer Quintarelli. These wines were fairly expensive at 15 to 20 dollars a bottle in 1982. But he said I must try these if I am to understand what truly great Amarone wines are. Amarone is a wine from the Veneto made from a mix of grapes that are selected for ripeness and quality. The grapes are then mat dried for several months before being pressed into a dry wine that aged for many years in oak and chestnut casks. It is a wine not like any other. One bottle of Amarone made me a lifelong fan of that wine.
One day I got the opportunity to go with Alice to Italy for the first time since I was four years old. Still in our twenties and naive, I asked Lou for suggestions to where to go and what to do. Since he traveled in Italy several times a year and dealt with wine producers and restaurateurs all over the peninsula, he had plenty of advice to give us. That trip had many events and highlights that I may cover at another time but one place we went is related to the flow of this story. He suggested that we visit Quintarelli. So we made Verona one of our stops. We stayed in a hotel by the colosseum and attended the performance of La Boheme in the Colosseum. The next morning we had an early breakfast and set out to find Quintarelli. We just had a rough idea of where to find the town of Negar, about an hour north of Verona. No address, no phone number, no internet, no nothing but the name of the town. When we drove into the town we stopped at a coffee shop where a few ancient men were sitting sipping on coffee. I asked them if they knew where I needed to go and at first they had no idea of what I was talking about. One of them said to wait and went inside and soon the owner came out and he knew. He gave me some complicated directions based on landmarks rather than road names and sent us off. Impossibly, after many turns and many hills we pulled into a driveway that lead to a modest farmhouse. At this point I did not know if it was the right place but I walked up to the door and knocked. A few minutes later a woman came to the door in her apron and, looking at these assholes at her door asked what we wanted. Don’t forget that we showed up unannounced. I told her that I was here to see Giuseppe Quintarelli and if he was available. I could see that her expression was “who the fuck are you?” but she was nice. I then said that I was sent by Lou. At that point she said wait and shut the door. About 5 minutes later a man came to the door with a big smile on his face wearing pajamas. He said to give him a few minutes and he would be right out.
He walked us behind the house and into his cellar. The room was much larger than I expected and it was full of 250 gallon oak and chestnut barrels lined up like soldiers. He handed us glasses and went from barrel to barrel drawing samples for us to taste while told us about what we were drinking and telling us stories. He was having a great time and was obviously proud of his wines. After about an hour a young woman came down stairs to talk to him. She seemed a bit upset but I could not understand what they were saying because they spoke in a tight venetian dialect. She soon left and the tour continued. This was still about 11 AM and we had tasted much wine. Much wine. About a half hour later, while he was showing us how he decants and bottled the wines by hand, she returned and they had a similar conversation. She left and he turned to and said that he was going to have to cut this short because he had to get ready for his daughter’s wedding.
Boy we felt like shit. I said to him that he had done too much and I didn’t know what to say. He said come with me and took me to the far end of the cellar and walked behind the last barrel and came back out with two bottles of wine. One was from 1960 and the other from 1959. He said that he had never sold these wines and that they had been produced for a competition in which he had won the gold medal for both wines. At this point it was quite overwhelming and I wanted to get out of there before he could do anymore. I asked him for a suggestion for a place to eat that has his wines. He thought a moment and said wait while he made a call. Again in the venetian I could here that he was explaining something complicated to somebody. He then hung up and said that he had made an arraignment for us to eat at a restaurant that was actually closed for the day but they would fed us. The place was hard to find so he said that somebody would meet us in the middle of a town about 45 minutes drive away and we would then follow him, on his vespa. Forty five minutes later we found the man who excitedly waved us on as he lead the way on narrow country roads. He lead us up to a large old building with a giant smoke stack coming out of the middle. We walked in and were greeted by a waiter in street clothes who brought us to a small room with one table. We could see that the restaurant was full people working busily so I didn’t understand what was happening, since it was “closed”.
Soon dish after dish started coming out accompanied by different courses of Quintarelli wines. Porcini mushroom salad with shaved parmigiano, fettuccine with porcini and truffles, a perfectly done filet mignon completely covered with a porcino mushroom cap, and a bowl of of mixed (actual) wild berries that had just been collected. Each dish with its own amazing Quintarelli wine. Until we were finished eating, other than bringing the food and wine out to us, nobody had taken the time to talk to us. At last our waiter came to us and started making some conversation. He asked if we wanted a tour of the place and we agreed. First he brought us to a curved wall with cast iron hatchways at shoulder level. He open one and had us look in. Inside was the interior of the large chimney that we saw from outside. The space was oval rather than round and inside there was an oval glass table with ten chairs. The floor under the table was also glass and you can see down into the basement were there were stacks of wine, the wine cellar. The chimney was converted to a special party room where guests were served through the hatches. The top of the chimney had a glass cover as well. The building was an old lyme kiln.
The man then brought us to a back room that could hold over a hundred people and it was setup with tables and chairs and place settings. The front table had several cases worth of Quintarelli wines with the corks popped so that the wines could breath. At this point I asked if they were going to have a reception and the man said that the owners son was getting married today. Light Bulb flashes on very brightly.
Postscript: A few years later Lou Iocuci, the owner of Gold Star, on a wine buying trip to Italy died in a car accident. The importer that had the arrangement with Lou for the Quintarrelli wines took over full control of the importation and immediately raised the price from $20 per bottle, on average, to $300 a bottle. Now those wines sell in the $800 to a $1,000 range with older vintages selling for much more.