This story should sound familiar to anyone who has fallen for the world of wine. One day about a decade ago, a budding opera singer and his wife were sitting outside a caffè in Rome. "I had quit drinking in my very early twenties due to the financial constraints of college and grad school," said Matthew Polenzani, "but on a beautiful warm evening the moment called for a nice glass of wine. We've never looked back."
The Illinois-born Polenzani, 44, now sings great lyric tenor roles from Mozart to Verdi at the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Chicago Lyric Opera and Teatro San Carlo in Naples. He has become an international star. Over late-afternoon glasses of wine in San Francisco, where he had just triumphed in the demanding title role in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann at San Francisco Opera, he pointed out that what he finds most rewarding is discovering and enjoying wine in the place where it comes from.
"One of the big perks of being an opera singer is to visit so many parts of the world," he said as we perused the Zuni Café wine list for a likely bottle to share. "We've been able to enjoy Bordeaux and Burgundy when I've sung in France, Brunello and Chianti when I've sung in Italy, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner in Germany and Austria.
"Obviously we can enjoy these wines here in America, but there's something special about drinking a wine while you're actually in [its] region."
With that in mind, I asked him what kind of California wines he might want to drink. "Doesn't have to be California," he replied, "but I'd like to try a Chardonnay I haven't had before. I've liked bigger, fuller-bodied wines, especially Kistler and Kongsgaard, and I've never much cared for white Burgundy."
OK, got it, he likes richness. But maybe he just hasn't had a more classically structured Chardonnay with enough generosity. From the Zuni list I offer a couple of options without getting into triple-digit options. I suggest Stony Hill Chardonnay Napa Valley 2008 ($65 on the list), an old-school California classic that's on the leaner side, and Les Héritiers du Comtes Lafon Mâcon-Chardonnay Clos de la Crochette 2011 ($64), which applies a Côte d'Or approach to the Mâconnais. Both wines, in my experience, show more intensity and ripeness than others in the tangier style.
"Let's try the Mâcon," he decided. To go with it, we shared one of Zuni's prosciutto and Parmigiano plates and some baguette slices. After a few sips he ventured that he liked the wine but, for him, it does not come close to overtaking the richer California wines he mentioned.
"That zing of acidity gives it the classic structure that sommeliers and Burgundy fanatics love," I said, "but I take it you prefer something creamier."
He shrugged. "Guess so, but I'm glad I got to try this. It's growing on me, and it's refreshing with the prosciutto."
(There's a lesson, here, for those who insist that wines must be of a certain style to be acceptable. I'm looking at you, hipster sommeliers.)
It was a trip to Napa when he was at San Francisco Opera singing Count Almaviva in Rossini's Barber of Seville that first got him and his wife, mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella, to delve deeper into wine. "We visited some wineries, and we tried a high-end wine the first time at a visit to Opus One. We ended up buying six bottles of Overture (the second wine), Opus One being well out of our price category, and I've still got one bottle of Overture left in the cellar."
Two years later, celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary at the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Canlis in Seattle (where he sang in Mozart's Così fan tutte), the sommelier brought a wine for them to try. "I'll never forget what my wife said after one sip of Cayuse Vineyards Camaspelo," he chuckled. "Her first words were: ‘Oh my gosh, this wine is beautiful!' We were so inspired that we decided to drive to the winery to visit."
Being winter, snow had closed the highway through the Cascade Range out to Walla Walla, so instead the couple wrote a letter and got on the mailing list. That was before the waiting list got to be longer than the mailing list for Cayuse. "We are still on that mailing list, and we love all the wines we receive from them," he said.
Musical connections have also expanded their horizons for wine. He mentions a piano accompanist in New York, Anthony Manoli, who introduced him to some California Cabernets. They have attended dinners hosted by Philip di Belardino, a vice president at Banfi and opera lover. "He sent us a mixed case and we've really enjoyed getting to know the wines," he said.
Dining at SD26 in New York, a wine collector at the next table offered to share the wine he had brought to dinner—a 2006 Marcassin Chardonnay Three Sisters and a 1998 Les Pavots from Peter Michael. "We were blown away by both wines, and we ended up staying in the restaurant chatting with him for about four hours." Polenzani added that the collector, Harvey Roisman, organized a wine country trip for them during this trip to San Francisco, which included Aubert, Arietta, Kongsgaard and Peter Michael over two days.
It's good to make such generous friends. Wine does that.