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Branding Vino

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How a hard-charging New Yorker helps drive Italian wine

When Stevie Kim dines out on her home turf in Italy, she shuns wine lists. She prefers to let restaurant owners surprise her.

 "I try different wines everywhere I go," says Kim. "For me, wine is something fun—it's not so serious." 

Kim is nonetheless a serious force in Italian wine as managing director of Vinitaly International, a global promotional vehicle for the country. When the 50th edition of Vinitaly—one of the world's largest wine fairs—opens on April 10 in Verona, it will bear the stamp of more than six years of her modernizing efforts. 

Just how did an Asian-American woman who grew up in New York end up as a leading promoter of Italy's vino?

"It helps that I'm not Italian and that I'm not a wine expert," says Kim, a tiny woman with a long black mane that flies about as she shifts from type-A New Yorker English to expressive and fluent Italian, complete with hand gestures....read the full blog at Wine Spectator

Going Native

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An Italian winemaker expresses the tradition of....where was that?

Elena Pantaleoni has spent most of her life in the middle of nowhere.

Her family’s La Stoppa estate, which she took over 25 years ago, nestles in the hills around the city of Piacenza on the western edge of Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy. It’s a gorgeous rolling countryside of vineyards, dairy farms and wheat fields. From the estate’s 15th-century lookout tower, you can see clear north to the snowcapped Alps and south to the Apennine Mountains.

“Even in Italy, most people don’t know where it is,” says Pantaleoni of the area, which is closer to the Mediterranean port of Genoa and the business center of Milan than to Emilia-Romagna’s own regional capital of Bologna.

Obscurity is magnified by complexity. The small Colli Piacentini DOC produces 16 different wine types—including reds, whites, rosatos, frizzante and sweet wines—from international varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to the Barbera-dominated blend with a name that sounds something like an Italian insult: Gutturnio.

France's Urban Cru

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A Provence jewel in the hills of Nice
 
Joseph Sergi is an unlikely producer of high-end wine in an unlikely place.
 
Sergi’s first career was as an auto body repair technician in Nice, France. He later ran a brasserie outside town with his in-laws. Then in 1993, when he was 30, Sergi and his father-in-law bought a small 1950s-era wine label and a 5-acre vineyard in the only AOC located within a city limits—Bellet, in the hills of France’s fifth-largest city, Nice.
 
The idea was to make a little wine for the restaurant and the local market. But things didn’t work out that small.
 
What began as a sideline quickly became a passion for Sergi, who sold the restaurant and worked as an intern in Burgundy.

Bardolino? Seriously?

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Could this cheerful Italian red be the next Beaujolais Villages?

More than 15 years ago, Matilde Poggi's wines were unanimously rejected by American importers.

Remembering a conversation with California-based importer Oliver McCrum, Poggi says, "He told me, 'The wine is good, but the consumer is not ready for it.'"

The problem? The wine was Bardolino—Valpolicella's lighter, fruitier cousin, which had a poor reputation in Italy and was largely unknown abroad.

Today, the fortunes of Poggi and her Le Fraghe wines have changed. Not only have her wines gathered acclaim in Italy, they have been imported for 10 years by McCrum, now one of Le Fraghe's eight U.S. importers. What's different? Says Poggi, "In the United States, they started selling wines that were easier-drinking."

For a little more than 30 years, Poggi, 53, has been one of a small group of  producers striving to make high-quality Bardolino in the hills west of the Valpolicella appellation and east of Lake Garda.

Unfinished Business

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Celestino Gaspari is standing in the entry of his architecturally avant-garde winery, dug into a centuries-old sandstone quarry outside Verona, in northeastern Italy. He greets me with these words: "I am not a normal man. I don't like to live easy."

At 53, Gaspari is certifiably not "normal." He is a rare perfectionist who is both a devout adherent to tradition and a restless experimenter.

"I start one project and, just before I am finished, I start another," he explains.His Zymè wine label, founded in his home garage in 1999, is regarded as a regional leader of quality and innovation, with two divergent lines of wines: One with staunchly traditional Valpolicellas and Amarones and another featuring peripatetic experiments and cult wines from unusual combinations of local and international wine grapes.

"I don't want to repeat the same things others do," laughs Gaspari, a smallish, compact man with graying hair and lively blue eyes. "I am a protagonist to myself...read the full blog at winespectator.com

At home in Verona

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This new year is momentous for me: I'm starting it in my new home of Verona, Italy. A couple of months ago, my wife and I moved from the south of France, where we had lived nearly 15 years.
 
Why? Why not? Doesn't everyone want to live in Italy? Despite its problems, Italy has some of the world's most beautiful places, my favorite cuisines, a very agreeable lifestyle and an ever-dynamic wine scene.
 
Verona, a city of 250,000 straddling the Adige River, isn't as cosmopolitan as Milan, but it is in the modern North. Importantly, things tend to work here. The trash gets picked up. The place has a civilized feel, typified by the sometimes-dapper men and the often-elegant women riding bicycles along cobblestone streets in which most cars are banned.
 
Verona is also heart-stoppingly beautiful—laced with Roman vestiges, including its impressive 1st-century Roman arena, along with well-preserved medieval and Renaissance palaces, towers and churches.
 
Our first dinner invitation came through family friends.

Prosecco's New Wave

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As a young enology student less than a decade ago, Christian Zago learned that most Prosecco was akin to beer.

"They taught us that common Prosecco was something you drank and then pissed out," laughs Zago, 29, at his family's 91-year-old Ca' dei Zago winery in the hamlet of San Pietro di Barbossa.

His blue eyes widening, Zago counters that, within the gorgeous sloping hills of Valdobbiadene in the Prosecco Superiore zone, "We have some fantastic terroirs. The problem is that, to the public, it is all Prosecco."

Prosecco's image is changing, if slowly. And in a very short time of only five vintages, Zago has established himself as an important producer of what is known as traditional col fondo Prosecco.

Prosecco Sunrise

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Prosecco Road Part II: Talking lifestyle and Prosecconomics with Bisol

On a balmy fall morning in the main square of Valdobbiadene (pop. 11,000), Gianluca Bisol swirls a large wineglass with a few mouthfuls of what has become Americans' preferred sparkling wine.

"It is not impossible to drink Prosecco with breakfast," says Bisol, 49, elegant with his Clark Gable mustache and jacket pocket square.

"Especially Cartizze," Bisol enthuses about Valdobbiadene's most revered steep hillside terroir. "Cartizze is creamy. In the morning, you want something delicate."

Almost three decades after joining his family's near century-old Desiderio Bisol & Figli winery, in the heart of the Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore zone, Bisol is a Prosecco leader—both at its high end and in the mass market. In those years, Prosecco has boomed from a footnote in Italy to the leading sparkling export in the world by volume.

Dignified Prosecco

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Primo Franco, now a white-haired Prosecco statesman, recalls the moment the world changed for him.

More than 35 years ago, he was dining at legendary chef Gualtiero Marchesi's Milan restaurant. A customer had left an unfinished bottle of classic white Burgundy, and Marchesi offered it to Franco.

"Gualtiero said, 'Would you like a glass of Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1969?'"

"I said, 'Why not?'" Franco shrugs.

Today in his Nino Franco winery in Valdobbiadene, Franco doesn't even try to describe the complex sensations, flavors and feelings he experienced with that glass, though he says it changed his life. At the time, Italy's white wines didn't reach the quality levels they do today, and he had never tasted anything like it.

Magic Mountain: Scaling the heights with Speri in Valpolicella Classico

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It was only a matter of time before I climbed Monte Sant'Urbano.

The ascent started at the dinner table in the heart of old Verona, where my wife and I supped with a velvety, complex Valpolicella Classico Superiore Sant'Urbano 2012 from Fratelli Speri, one of the oldest families making wine in this zone.

Two mornings after draining the bottle, we are on the small Monte Sant'Urbano, covered with 10-foot drywall terraces that climb to 1,100 feet. Tall pergola-trained vines dangle the dark grapes used in blending Valpolicella—Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella—above our heads. The views over the Fumane Valley stretch to Lake Garda on the southeastern horizon.

The Speris' history here in Valpolicella Classico dates to the mid-19th century, and the winery is now run by the sixth generation. Since the early 1980s, the Speris have produced a Sant'Urbano cru—their most prized vineyard—using grapes that are partially dried, but less so than those for Amarone.

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