When I started Arborway Imports 23 years ago, I began by buying southern French wines, but soon segued into other areas of France. It wasn't until I was well into Year Two of Arborway's existence, however, that I felt secure enough to branch out by importing Italian wines.
I had met Marc de Grazia at a trade tasting and was impressed with him and his portfolio. It was (and is) a who's who of Italian producers. I called Marc and asked if he had wine available for me. He said, "Of course. Just come to VinItaly this year. We'll show you around and introduce you to suitable producers. Also, after the wine fair, we are touring Tuscany and the Piedmont visiting some of our growers. Why don't you come along?" I did make plans to go to VinItaly but, stupidly, as I didn't want to commit myself and feel obligated, I said "no" to the invitation to tour Tuscany and Piedmont.
So what is Vinitaly? The biggest wine/trade show in the world, over one million square feet of exhibition space. It is held annually in Verona in a huge complex of 16 or so buildings, each as large as our world Trade Center. You can find the best and the worst of Italian wines there, plus wine from other countries. There are over four thousand exhibitors. (read more at www.vinitalytour.com).
When I first arrived, I walked around in a kind of daze, not knowing where to start or how to get there if I did. I finally sorted it out but resolved to learn Italian.
When I finally found my way to the impressively large de Grazia tasting area, I was met by Marc and got to work. I was shocked at the quality of the wines available for me: Azelia, Giovanni Manzone, Marco Parusso, Correggia and Moccagatta all from the Piedmont, Uccelliera, Le Cinciole and others from Tuscany. They were great wines then and they still are now.
Marc and Iano (Sebastion) de Grazia are half brothers who, respectively, are the Founder and Managing Director of Marc de Grazia Selections. They must be the progeny of the same father, different mothers as they look nothing alike. Marc, who was brought up in the San Francisco area, started the business in 1980. I'm not sure how he transitioned to Italy, or when, but his Italian is indistinguishable from native speakers, and he also speaks fluent French. He speaks English just like any of us, often spicing his comments with as much good old Anglo Saxon English as Terry Francona (or me). We were simpatico from the go and still are. I love both these guys.
Iano, who must be in his early 50s, is six feet tall, heavy set but not fat, very pragmatic and intelligent, relatively calm in his demeanor, but suffers fools badly. He is warm and personable, just a great guy.
Marco is shorter, maybe five feet nine, stocky and solid. His most striking features are his eyes, which are snapping black and penetrating, loaded with obvious intelligence and good humor. And then there's his good sized, but not out of proportion, Roman nose.
His temperament is anything but calm. Charismatic, mercurial, tempestuous, brimming over with energy, he suffers fools even less well than Iano. I've seen him at VinItaly verbally destroy (it almost came to blows) a wise guy, know-it-all, Italian journalist. And I've seen him at the wine fair, with eyes flashing, banish from his booth growers who had transgressed against previously agreed upon rules. Marco expresses himself beautifully, clearly and succinctly in at least three languages. I once asked him to expound on the differences between various cru Baroli. I only wish I had recorded it.
After going to VinItaly for the first time and learning how good the de Grazia portfolio was, I kicked myself for my self righteous attitude toward the tour Marc had invited me on. So when he asked me to go the following year, I jumped at the chance. When we set out, Marc was the driver, I sat shotgun.
Our party included an Austrian Importer, Christian Lerner, a Japanese importer, whom I only knew as Madame Goda, and a Japanese journalist who was traveling with Madame Goda. Christian was a handsome, very friendly, and bright guy who was fun to be with. The journalist, who was very slight, quiet and polite, spoke only Japanese. Madame Goda, who was in her late thirties/early forties, only spoke Japanese or broken English "wine talk." I found her highly amusing even though we didn't communicate directly. The trip from Japan to Italy must have been a killer because, except when we were in the cellars tasting, this lady crashed. If we were dining, her head was on the table. In the car, she slept. Only when we were tasting, did she resuscitate herself. She then asked hard to understand questions that made no sense even if you could have understood them.
We covered a lot of ground, starting in the Piedmont where first night I dined with the so called "Barolo Boys:" Elio Altare, Dominico Clerico, Paolo Scavino, Luigi Scavino, Renato Corino, Marco Marengo and others. The food on this trip was beyond belief or expectation. I remember having some kind of beef capaccio with the Barolo boys which I was leery to try but was delicious. The problem was, each day we had fabulous three hour lunches and four hour dinners, all in people's houses (i.e. home cooked meals). After the third day, my stomach revolted, went on protest, and shut down. I remember making it to the Piazzano Estate in Tuscany when I was just starting to recover, but not fully. I had to be careful. We were there for lunch and they were grilling, on a spit, some kind of meat that was held together with twine. It smelled and tasted so good but I dared only nibble at it.
Marc made no concessions to us, his guests, which was his right--it was his nickle paying. He loves to talk and hold court with his friends and that often lasted until very late at night. I wasn't as jet lagged as the poor Japanese lady, but that didn't mean I wasn't tired. I remember one night she was completely zonked and the rest of us were crashing, and looked it. We were just sitting there listening to Marc expound in Italian. I had started learning Italian the year before so I had some rudimentary proficiency but still, I only got a word here or there. The lady of the house, a lovely young woman a bit younger than Marco, took pity on us and said "Marco, sonno stanchi, sono stanchi" Marco, they're tired. An understatement. Marc didn't care, he kept on talking. We survived to do it again the next day.
Once we almost didn't survive. Marco at the wheel, me again shot gun. We were approaching the entrance to the autostrada (super highway). When Marco realized he was heading in the wrong direction, he swerved into the correct lane, cutting off and almost taking out a large Bimmer. I turned to look back and there was the Bimmer's driver making violent hand signals at us. I have never seen, before or since, such a sequence of obscene hand gestures. And, with a red face, I actually knew what they all meant. Never underestimate the non-verbal communication ability of Italians.
I have never had the opportunity to go on another Italian wine tour with Marco, more's the pity. But I am glad I went on this one.
Joel Berman represents the third generation of merchants at Berman's Wine and Spirits. Joel’s knowledge of and passion for wine are unmatched in America. His proclivity for procurement of great wines and great values from Europe is the cornerstone of Berman’s Wine and Spirits today.
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We're pleased to introduce our new website with e-commerce! Now you can place orders for our products online, as well as by phone or email. And our course we would love to see you in the store!