Passion On The Vine: a memoir by Sergio Esposito

When I first read Sergio Esposito’s book seven years ago, it changed my understanding of Italian wine. Esposito explains so clearly how the best and most interesting wines of Italy are deeply connected to family, culture, tradition and most of all, place.

He begins the book by describing his early life in Naples, then, the dramatic change his family went through when they moved to Albany, New York. They clung to the ritual of a family meal on Sunday, Esposito recalls. For him, being at the table and sipping from his uncle’s wine glass was a kind of cultural lifeline.

He recounts…
Wine didn’t get us drunk. It brought out the flavors in our food. It cut the spice, cooled down the heat, heightened the sensations. We needed it as we needed one another; it made every taste, every moment complete. As a bonus, not only was wine for pleasure, it was for health—though in the Italian psyche, the two are eternally linked. (p.23)
Sergio_sm(Photo courtesy of Sergio Esposito)

He also helped me understand why the point scoring method (first popularized by Robert Parker) that I had learned in sommelier school was not a useful way to evaluate Italian wine.

He starts by saying that scores are incongruent with thousands of years of history and culture in Italy:
…Italians understand wine the way the understand people, art, accomplishment–intuitively, emotionally, without pretension or over analysis. (p.22)

Then, he explains more specifically why points don’t work: Problematically, Italian wines are often the opposite of most French and California “Parkerized” wines. They’re meant exclusively to be drunk with food…. (p.111)

He continues:
But even more problematically, Parker’s approach has corrupted an old idea of wine as artistic, strange, and indefinable….What you liked was, in large part, a question of taste, a complex concept generally agreed upon to be a reflection of individual preference. And part of tasting and understanding wine involved being open to the idea that some wine requires patience and work and is not instantly gratifying. (p. 112)

And then:
Finally, there is the real question that Parker’s work raises….Even if it is possible to be unarguably correct in figuring out aromas, what does it mean? Does the simple fact that a wine tastes a little like red fruit signify anything bigger than the fact itself? What line of logic brings us from red fruit to excellence?”

The stories of Esposito’s own life and career path along with tales he recounts of winegrowers, present all of these ideas in a way that is accessible and intuitive. Esposito lets the reader know that the best Italian wines hold intimate stories of people and place by telling the stories. He takes the reader not just into the vineyards and cellars but also around the kitchen table with winegrowers he has known for a long time.

Reading this book helped spark my interest in organic and biodynamic growing methods. In one story, he describes a funny but fascinating visit to Movia where Ales Kristancic, who makes biodynamic wines on the northern border of Italy with Slovenia. Many of the winegrowers he meets in the book make wine naturally: Giuseppe Rinaldi, Bartolo Mascarello, Ales Kristancic (Movia), to name of few.

I have gone back to reread Esposito’s book several times. I find new wisdom each time along with the sheer pleasure of hearing stories told well once again.

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