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An Opera Singer Discovers Wine

Tenor Matthew Polenzani keeps an open mind when exploring new wines
Photo by: Dario Acosta
Tenor Mathew Polenzani gave Burgundy another try after a performance at San Francisco Opera.

Posted: Jun 28, 2013 10:37am ET

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.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  June 29, 2013 12:17pm ET
To me, he sounds like he drank what you pushed on him and was disappointed that you didn't really care how he described his stylistic preferences (basically an argument). In the end, Polenzani was VERY polite to say the things he did in deference to your experience; yes, you WON the argument! You showed him, you made him drink your choice of wine! I think he was being polite. Only.

Classic narcissism: you just gotta show everyone you're better than they. You just gotta win the "argument". It's not about "better", it's about personal preference, and not every style is to every person's liking. Too bad you squandered this opportunity stroking your own ego rather than perhaps exposing him to a lesser known product that perhaps would be a bulls eye to HIS taste.

Oh, and yes, this does sound familiar, because it happens to me all the time.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 29, 2013 12:35pm ET
I am with you, Don; I don't like sommeliers or "experts" who foist their own tastes on the rest of us. And if my description implies I did this, my error. I didn't go into great depth on all that because I wanted the blog to get to his story. But I tried to warn him off of the Mâcon because it wasn't the style he said he liked. He chose it because he was curious.

And in the end we did agree that, although we admired the wine, we both would have enjoyed something richer.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  June 29, 2013 1:25pm ET
Don, I've always felt one learns more from listening than talking, and personally, I go to great lengths to find products which please the personal tastes of our customers, and am happy to do so. But it never ceases to amaze me how many customers are simply interested in telling me what is good, what I should be drinking or selling at our stores, with little or no interest in expanding their horizons.

When I have the opportunity to learn something from one with more experience than myself, whatever, the endeavor, I am thrilled to do so. Although Harvey humbly concedes your point, my take, from the little I know him through his work, is that he is substantially less guilty than some!

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  June 29, 2013 1:42pm ET
I'm glad you clarified Harvey! (Thank you) That does alter my perception.

Consumers get so much of (what I perceived above) when they shop, it's annoying. You want to be open-minded, but 9 times out of 10 it fails to win me over, so it's just annoying (read: salesmanship). At larger tastings it's a different story cuz you're not committing to a bottle, you're there specifically to sample around. But even at intimate gatherings, I've had people play that game. You're clear you're not a fan of the style and they only take that as a challenge and they push it on you. They don't regard a clearly stated preference as a statement of fact, or an invitation to turn me on to another in my category (as a true friend would do). I want my friends to respect my tastes because I try very hard to do the same for them.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  June 29, 2013 2:12pm ET
Vince - I agree with all of your points, particularly in light of Harvey's clarification.

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