Sergio Esposito's Passion on the Vine (Broadway Books 2008) is a funny, intriguing, thought-provoking, multi-layered discourse weaved around and through the central themes of the book: memories, food, wine, and family. Esposito, the Founder and CEO of Italian Wine Merchants, sought to provide readers with an "intimate and evocative" memoir of his experiences living in Italy and the U.S.A. and his travels back to the old country as a part of his wine business. The book more than delivers.
When I initially saw the book, I thought Ha! An Italian book by a guy who sells Italian wines. A great paid-for marketing opportunity. But even though the book introduces wines and regions to the reader, it is not done in an obtrusive manner. Rather, it is woven into the fabric of the story and the reader is grateful for these nuggets of knowledge (I had developed a pretty good wish list and list of observations by the time I had completed my read.).
The book has pronounced longitudinal and circular facets. Longitudinal in that the early sections focus on Serge's development over time, both in terms of life in Italy and America and as an employee within the restaurant/wine business. Circular in that he uses a trip to Italy with his family as a platform from which to jump back in time to key interactions with Italian wine stalwarts, always returning to the family at the end of the reverie. Circular in that he neatly closes the loop at the end of the book on his brother's early question as to the origin of the wines they were tasting at the St. Regis in Rome and in the way he visited his Naples extended family for Sunday lunch, bringing along his Alaskan wife and his two kids.
The author's writing style makes this an easy book to read but it is far from substance-free. It contains one of the most elevated discussions on traditional versus modern winemaking that I have encountered to date and follows this up with scintillating discussions on biodynamics, artificial versus natural yeasts, and the elements of vitiviniculture. In terms of traditional versus modern winemaking, Sergio reaches back to the philosophies of the earliest winemakers -- priests and alchemists, according to him -- and relates that their philosophies guided those who followed. Technology, he says, has come to be the bane of this traditional approach. "New wines are produced by technologies that allowed modernists to exaggerate everything in the wine while de-emphasizing vineyard care."
Espositio gives Parker his due as the individual who provided the light when Americans needed direction in exploring the hitherto murky waters of wine drinking. He points out, however, that Parker has favored a wine style that is the complete opposite of traditional Italian wines. Further, the rating system has introduced an insidious new dynamic, the sense among consumers of "right" (Parker high-rated) and "wrong"(not so much) wines. Sergio raises the question as to what is actually accomplished when wine is tasted and then described in Parkeresque language. How do we get from the aromatic description to a sense of "excellence?" Carlo Maggi, one of Sergio's friends, exhorts us to "use your nose, mouth, and eyes and you will know if you like a wine." You get the sense that Sergio also subscribes to this philosophy.
The author utilizes flashbacks of meetings with key players in the Italian wine industry to illustrate the wine and food cultures in Italy and, in so doing, opens up a sometimes funny window into the Italian psyche. I was on a plane coming back from Tuscany when I read Sergio's account of Steve Clifton's (of Brewer-Clifton) wedding reception in Friuli and I could not restrain the laughter that came pouring out.
I enjoyed this book immensely. It can be read and enjoyed by both novice and expert and its travelogue-style identification of restaurants and hotels in Italy can only redound to the benefit of those organizations. My question is: Where can I get a bottle of the 1985 Malvasia di Candia?