The Human Face of Wine

Wine's personality comes from the winemakers and grapegrowers behind the labels
Jan 13, 2014

There are lots of reasons to love wine, but for me the most important reason is people.

Wine is, after all, a story of humans working within the dynamics of nature, culture and history. When you put those forces together, you are bound to have tales of operatic proportions.

These are the stories I love telling.

When I moved to France more than a decade ago, I was awed by the abundance and variety of wines from places I'd heard of, and many I hadn't. But I found myself even more inspired by the fascinating, inspiring and sometimes heroic stories of the people in those places.

My home is strategically located just an hour west of Italy, and I have explored many of the wine regions of Western Europe, thanks to Wine Spectator and other projects, including my two books. Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country (2008) wandered the backroads of France; Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (2010) explored the tension between deep past and vibrant future in one of Europe's oldest wine regions.

The more I explore, the more fascinated I become with the endless stories on the wine road: of family traditions and rivalries, of humbling connections to the land and pride in innovation, and of passionate individuals striving to capture magic and put it in a bottle.

My aim is to share these stories in a blog you'll think of as a letter from a friend on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here, I'll talk about the traditionalists and innovators, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and the eccentrics and executives who are shaping wine in Italy, France and throughout the Old World.

In this space, we'll also find room for news and controversies, as well as portraits of chefs, sommeliers, artists and other individuals influencing the greater wine culture.

A bit of my background. I've worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, and throughout my career and whatever the assignment—be it pop culture in San Francisco, Texas politics or crime and development in New York—I have written about the human characters behind the news.

I was born in New York City, where one of my first preschool memories was helping my Neapolitan grandfather (a 1st Avenue grocer) pull corks on his basketed bottles of Chianti as heady aromas wafted out of my grandmother's kitchen.

Decades later, I recaptured and built on those childhood memories on trips to Italy and France. First were the convivial lunches with my wife's French relatives in which different wines made laps around the table with each course. Then there was our honeymoon that veered through Mantua, Italy, where one restaurateur showed us one of the headiest pairings of all time: sweet, aromatic passito sipped between bites of handmade pumpkin tortelli.

Still, my eyes weren't fully opened to Old World terroirs until I moved with my family from Texas to France in 2001. At the time, France's wine regions were in full renaissance as winemakers in one obscure or low-esteemed wine area after another were upping their quality to compete with the traditional big guns like Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Today that rebirth continues across Europe, which remains the world's most concentrated collection of terroirs. Here, from province to province, wine appellation to appellation, not only do the recipes and traditions change, but also the stories.

There are lots of qualities to admire in a wine. One of the things I appreciate most is something I also value in the wine world: unpredictability.

I love that after thousands of years of cultivation, wine is still capable of something at which we humans excel: the delicious art of surprise. I hope that "Letter from Europe" will provide readers with useful information, lively stories and, above all, delicious surprise.

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