In the spring of 2000, I attended VinItaly for the first time. VinItaly is Italy’s yearly wine extravaganza, held in Verona (where Romeo and Juliet loved and lost). It takes place in a massive exhibition hall, where wine producers from every region of Italy set up tasting booths for the trade. Shortly before VinItaly, I had attended the Wine Spectator’s annual Wine Experience in New York — an event similar in some ways to VinItaly, except that the New York event is all about judging, buying and selling wine. In New York, producers pour wines from behind a row of long tables, while producers at VinItaly have space, however limited, for tasters to sit, nibble at something and chat.
As I went from booth to booth at VinItaly, I had a revelation. For Italians, wine is never about “taste and spit.” It’s about storytelling, fantasizing, befriending (conniving?) and losing oneself while finding kindred spirits.
The lesson of VinItaly certainly affected my own approach to wine and to life. So I was happy to have another delightful taste of wine, Italian-style, on Feb. 20 at the 48th annual gala dinner dance and awards ceremony of the American Society of the Italian Legions of Merit. Held in the Pierre Hotel’s Grand Ballroom — one of New York’s most intimate, old-fashioned and elegant party spaces — it had all the sensibility of Verona (minus the double suicides). We were there to eat, drink, talk, laugh, dance and participate in the last vestiges of Italian chivalry, with the awarding of medals, similar to knighthoods, to Americans who have strengthened “the bonds of friendship” between Italy and America.
I was delighted to find myself seated near Pierluigi Bolla, whom I had met last summer at a tasting of his family’s wine, Valdo Prosecco. What impresses me most about Pierluigi is his modesty, which belies a deep knowledge of wine. Coming from one of Italy’s important wine-producing families in the Veneto, he began his career in the ’70s as an intern for Robert Mondavi in the Napa Valley, at the time when Mondavi was beginning his own business and intensely curious about the international wine trade. Bolla and Mondavi found they shared an approach to wine that centers on conviviality. As Mondavi adopted European winemaking techniques (like secondary fermentations and oak aging), he urged Pierluigi to value the attributes of the Bolla family’s wines from northern Italy — fresh acidity, balanced alcohol, pure fruit expression — that were different from the wines of Napa.
Pierluigi Bolla never forgot that lesson and went on to build a wine empire that he eventually sold, along with the Bolla family name. Then, he expanded his family’s other wine, Valdo Prosecco, with a singular focus on sparkling wines made from the Prosecco grape in the Veneto. Valdo, the biggest seller of Prosecco in Italy and Germany, entered the American market only in 2009 and is now selling over 30,000 cases here. Recognizing that wineries in Romania, Croatia, China and Brazil were beginning to grow and market “Prosecco,” Pierluigi spearheaded a change in Italian law that protects Prosecco by making it the name of a defined region rather than a grape variety. Now, the grape is called glera. Still, in 2013, about 30 percent of DOC (controlled designation of origin) Prosecco sales in Italy were based on illegal wines.
At the gala, Pierluigi was far more interested in talking about his new granddaughter than about glera vs. Prosecco. With the evidence for the quality of real Prosecco in wine glasses before us, we sipped his deliciously dry, crisp Valdo Oro Puro with the first of four courses — all of them ravioli, including dessert. There was ravioli with beets, artichokes, baccala (salt cod), lobster, spicy “njuda” pork and chocolate. These didn’t exactly go with the wines.
We had a strangely dull white wine (that shall go unnamed) with a sunburned taste, then Biondi Santi’s lusciously fruity 2009 Sassoalloro Tuscan sangiovese and Castello di Querceto Il Sole di Alessandro 2008 cabernet sauvignon — an “international style” wine that was utterly delicious but fought with the njuda. The stunningly aromatic, sweet Abraxas, Passito di Pantelleria 2008 bested the dessert ravioli.
As strange as the wines were with the crazy quilt of ravioli, the music pulled it all together with wildly danceable jazz. So this was fun, Italian-style. No one was fussy about how it all came together, but as 300 friends of Italy swung around the dance floor, there was friendship in abbondanza.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.