Real Talk: #nattywine + importing

Jessica Sennett is a former colleague and founder of the Cheese Grotto, an acclaimed solution to cheese storage. She has specialized in cheese making and cheese retail for eleven years and has worked at many notable cheese shops including Cowgirl Creamery, Formaggio Kitchen and Bedford Cheese Shop in addition to apprenticing in France and Washington. She makes her own cheese and is also well-versed in tasting, educating, and cooking with cheese.

Jessica:  Can you recount that AHA! moment you had that made you fall in love with Natural Wine?

Gemma: Let me preface this by saying that a lot has changed for me since I started working with natural wine back in 2005. It was in Verona, Italy that I had my first taste of the wine world at Vinitaly, Italy’s largest trade show. I happened to be visiting a friend in Milan at the time and ended up taking a train to Verona to tag along with Violette Imports’ Richard Kzirian, South End Formaggio Wine Buyer and colleague Julie Cappellano, and Oleana sommelier, Theresa Pao Pao. At the time I would say that it was more because of my association with these people that I adopted natural wine as my lens for learning about wine. While I didn’t know much about what I was tasting at Vinitaly in 2005, the energy that the folks who were working organically/biodynamically transmitted was contagious. They were engaging and forward thinking not only about sustainability but also their own lives and what they wanted to create.

When I took over as wine buyer in 2009, I became a natural wine warrior, essentially eliminating conventional wine at Formaggio Kitchen by curating a selection composed of nearly 75% no-sulfur-added wines. Looking back this approach was probably far too extreme, and in fact, I ended up alienating many customers in doing so. But it wasn’t until I left my wine buying role behind at FK and moved to Friuli, Italy to live at Az. Agr. i Clivi, a certified organic winery in Colli Orientali, that I began to understand more. My “aha” moment surrounding natural wine has been an ongoing process of questioning all of the reasons why I supported natural wine in the first place. Seeing viticulture and winemaking firsthand over the course of four years in many ways gives me pause on this subject. Natural wine has sort of become a cliche. And for some it is means to an end: an adult beverage through which one can feel young and hip, perhaps not all that different from the #roseallday lifestyle. Back when I was curating that selection of natural wine in Cambridge, I believed that wine was conventional if it didn’t have any flaws; if it didn’t stink a little, or have some streak of “realness” that I couldn’t identify, it was a homogenous product.

I’m afraid that many natural wine imbibers currently share this view: if a wine doesn’t stink, it isn’t REAL. I no longer agree with applying such strict binary oppositions to wine: REAL or CONVENTIONAL.

I’m now in a position to ask the hard questions about a producers’ farming and make an informed decision about a grower by considering not only the relative production factors – terroir, vine age, winemaking, and the people – but more importantly, I can size up the wine itself. Ultimately it’s my palate that I trust. I didn’t have the experience to do this back when I was choosing those no sulfur wines at FK. I was selecting them for the fact that I admired the decisions that those growers were making by not loading their soils with chemicals and taking a hands-off approach in the cellar. Now as an importer, my approach is different. I look for ethically-farmed wines that are pleasing to both the eye and the palate. I believe wine should be evaluated in the same way as a plated dish at a restaurant; it should be visually appealing and well presented. This is to say that while I’d be happy to taste many natural wines, with only a few exceptions would I want to pay for them and DRINK them.

 Don’t get me wrong; I admire the exuberance and the imperfection of many minimal-intervention wines out there, not the mention the people who make them. But I do believe, and I think I speak for many of the folks that exhibit their wines at shows like Vin Natur, Vini Veri, Raw Fair, and Brumaire, the goal of the producer is not for their wines to stink of dead mouse or poop. I genuinely believe that most growers know that they could be doing better when their wines have those defects. Whether the hashtaggers of #nattywine understand this, I’m not sure. But I’m thrilled to see that the conversation surrounding wine is alive and well and that’s what matters in the end.


Jessica: Do you currently split your time between Massachusetts and Italy?  If so, how can I join ??

Gemma: I spend about 85% of my time in Italy. Clearly you can join any time you like, you too have EU citizenship! 🙂


Jessica: How many wine producers are you currently working with?

Gemma: Eighteen producers / just shy of 100 wines.

Gemma Iannoni, founder of Giannoni Selections


Jessica: What is your mission for company?  Is it to get every American drinking sustainable wines?

Gemma: Beyond spreading the word about sustainable, eco-friendly wines, my mission very simply is to engage with producers and customers authentically. I’m never going to be that importer who just moves cases. Handcrafted wine is the medium through which I try to relate to people, about many topics that extend far beyond what I’m pouring in their glass. It also goes back to the question of hospitality and nourishment – of not only the body through a wholesome (or integral) product, one that is organic – but sustenance of the soul, making a place for wines and people that require more explanation. This is the point. We all want to be understood, including those of us with longer, more complicated stories.

So going back to wine, Giannoni Selections tends to focus on lesser-known grape varieties (Ribolla Gialla, Ruchè, Timorasso, Verduzzo, Pascale di Cagliari) and organic/biodynamic growers that work with a hands-on, minimal-intervention approach. It’s very likely that this is not the best business model. But if success means shifting my focus to selling wines that don’t require conversation – those are easy to sell – I’d rather do something else.


Jessica: How can people identify natural wine in their local wine shop?  It is very elusive when it comes to labels.  What do you think the solution is for this?

Gemma: Organic and biodynamic wines sometimes bear certification on their labels. Demeter, Ecocert, ICEA, AgriBio, etc. However, I think it’s probably more important to have a good relationship with your wine merchant but even more, try to get to know importers or producers themselves if possible. Importers and producers love to connect with customers. Travel, taste, ask questions and repeat.


Jessica: What are your favorite American Natural Wine shops?

Gemma: At this point this is a more difficult question because I’ve been living in Italy for a while now and usually I’m only in Boston or NYC when I’m Stateside…That said, I’d say The Wine Bottega, Eataly Boston, Chambers St. Wines, Thirst Wine Merchants, and Discovery Wines.


Jessica: Imagine your ideal cheese board.  What natural wines would you pair with?

Gemma: My ideal cheese board consists of mostly goat and sheep cheeses, think Loire Valley, Basque, Piedmont, Sardinia, Spain, Portugal. In my opinion, white wine is a much more natural pairing with cheese in general because for me big, red wines interfere with the more subtle flavors of the cheese. So I turn to white wines (sparkling and still, mostly dry) with good acidity, so Loire Valley whites, Erbaluce, Ribolla Gialla, grower Champagne, Verduzzo. As for specifics, what am I drinking right now with cheese? 2016 i Clivi Verduzzo and Friulano continue to blow my mind, Daniele Ricci Timorasso “San Leto,” and Nathalie Falmet Champagne.

Italian Vineyard

Photos courtesy of Gemma Iannoni.


You had me at Merlot.

I Clivi Galea Rosso is made from 70-year-old, endangered merlot vines. Yes, endangered. For nearly a decade, winegrower Ferdinando Zanusso has jokingly threatened to uproot his four acres of merlot. And he is neither kidding nor laughing about their low yields.

I Clivi only made 100 cases of Galea Rosso in 2012. Yet Ferdinando can’t help but share his frustration  over the merlot – with hidden pride. Then again, he doesn’t bother to conceal his preference for the varietal white wines that he makes from local friulano, malvasia, ribolla gialla, and verduzzo grapes.

Colli Orientali del Friuli is reputed for its white wines; its soils have been likened to Burgundy’s Côte D’Or which is high praise for any growing region. Based on this fact, it makes sense that i Clivi should give most of their attention to their white wines. And while most producers rush their reds to market when their wines’ astringency makes one wince, no such urgency has ever occurred to Ferdinando. He only releases Galea Rosso once he deems that it has hit its stride, when it can give pleasure to its imbiber.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for seeking out the lone red of a great white wine producer such as i Clivi. Given their trained apathy towards red wine, it means they only bother to produce Galea Rosso in good vintages and they still inevitably age each bottle in their winery rather than in your cellar (or closet).

Ferdinando admits, “It would be difficult to find a wine of this quality (at this price) from Bordeaux’s Right Bank, merlot’s native territory.” He nods, “È un signor vino.” Drink a bottle or two and you’ll find his words difficult to dispute. Look for an intricate, balanced palate that is redolent of black cherries, tobacco, leather, and spice. Pair with roasted or braised meats, salumi, Robiola Roccaverano – always my favorite – and pecorino, preferably Sardinian, aged 4-8 months.


*Note: I Clivi Galea Rosso starts to sing about an hour or two after uncorking and holds up a day, or two, or three after opening.

BAR MEZZANA Opening 6/1 – Drink these Giannoni wines!

Bar Mezzana (360 Harrison Ave., Boston) – OPENING June 1st!

Look for these wines from Giannoni Selections at Bar Mezzana:

’11 Eugenio Bocchino Barolo “Lu”

’15 Cascina Carrà Rosato “Rosa Thea” (Nebbiolo)

’14 Crealto Grignolino “Marcaleone”

I Clivi “RBL” Spumante

’13 I Clivi Ribolla Gialla

’14 Quantico Etna Bianco

’15 Rado Kocijančič Refosk

’14 Santa Caterina Ligure di Levante Vermentino “Poggi Alti”


Ain’t No Ordinary Slice: Pizzeria i Tigli Raises the Bar for Italy’s Food Culture

Located outside of Verona in San Bonifacio, Simone Padoan and his team at i Tigli are working very hard to make some of Italy’s finest pizza. And their version is by no means street food. Guests are invited to sit down to an upscale, well-pressed, red and white kitchen towel in place of Italy’s clichéd, checked (and usually plastic) tablecloth.  Call it “gourmet,” “highbrow,” or “fancy” if you like, this pizza is not to be ignored.  I Tigli’s take on pizza is a slow-rise focaccia that acts as canvas on which to juxtapose a myriad of thoughtful flavors, colors, and textures. Each bite is well-defined and evocative of Italy’s landscape and seasonal bounty, notably coming from researched and sustainable produce of superlative quality.


Padoan’s mission to create the most superb dining experience is supported not only by the food itself but by the design of the space. It has a way of conveying the level of dining experience the guest should expect. The lines of the place are clean, modern, and inviting with pleasant subtly and transparency, including a kitchen that is just as open, airy, and spacious.


I always make it a point to order at least two pizzas, one of which is almost always a Margherita. I Tigli handles Italy’s this iconic dish with almost palpable consideration.  Offering four takes on the classic pie, each is defined by texture and type of cheese.  It is the leavening, however, that determines the final result. The options are either “classica,” “soffice,” (soft) “croccante,” (crisp) or “bufula” and the tomatoes are always the preferred San Marzano from Campagna. For the cheese there is a choice of a surprisingly tasty fior di latte from Alberobello (Puglia), DOP Mozzarella di Bufula from Paestum, (a town in Campagna that is known for being home to the nation’s five top producers) or burrata. Provenance is usually noted on the menu, an element that has only more recently become more present in Italy. The staff is also trained to speak to all aspects of the menu, including, of course, their eclectic, natural-minded wine list.


Quality, seasonality, and a creative spirit go without saying at i Tigli.  Radicchio di Treviso would never appear before the end of November and, likewise, white asparagus would only find its rightful place on the menu at the beginning of March. Along with the intense consideration for seasonality is an appreciation for the colors that various times of the year have to offer. Known for its visually striking pizzas, the featured delicacies contrast color and textures intelligently and tastefully, making it difficult not to notice of their artistic rendering as they are placed on the table.  Also making an impression on the palate are some unlikely encounters of savory and sweet.  In the same bite Padoan isn’t afraid to offend (Italian) customers by mixing fish and cheese or even propose other culinary influences, such as those of Thai or Japanese origin. Nothing is to be taken for granted on (and off) the menu.


Whether Padoan and i Tigli are truly embraced by their clientele, it’s not absolutely apparent, judging from some of the rather scathing reviews posted online. It’s true that i Tigli is not inexpensive by any standard.  But their prices not only reflect the cost of ingredients and attention to detail, but more their chosen risk to do things a little differently.  In doing so they also petition their customers to think differently about pizza.  Certainly there’s room for fancy pizza alongside the slice joint, right? Given Italy’s lagging economy and its increasingly migrating talent, lamenters should delight in the fact that a food luminary such as Padoan still exists within Italy’s borders and stop complaining about his prices.  Cheap, mediocre pizza is available everywhere in Italy and it doesn’t take much research to find it.

Be sure to call ahead to book a table for dinner or drop by for an impromptu lunch until 14:30 pm.

Pizzeria I Tigli – Via Camporosolo, 11 37047 San Bonifacio (VR) 045 6102606 (Closed Wed.)


The Big Chill: Europe’s Cool Summer and How it Effects Harvest 2014

The Festa dell’Uva in neighboring Cormons (DOC Collio) ended its three days of festivities on Sunday, September seventh.   However, many winegrowers here in Friuli are scratching their heads about what exactly they have to celebrate this year. While some producers have already commenced picking—especially those that cultivate Pinot Grigio and Tocai—others have continued to let their grapes remain on the vines, hopeful for few more sunny days to bring up the sugars and lower malic acidity.  From weather forecasts many are weary of the diminishing window of opportunity to bring in this year’s crop and increasingly present are the risks and fears surrounding unripe wines.

At the end of August, Colli Orientali del Friuli’s Consortium convened to attempt to address this year’s climatic shifts that are concerning not just Italian growers but even more those in France, Spain, Germany, Austria and Portugal. Without going into too many meteorological details, it comes down to the inherent location of the Arctic jet stream. Rather than positioning itself around Iceland as it usually does during the European summer, the Arctic jet stream lowered itself to the British Isles. In doing so it inevitably summoned an almost permanent vortex that prevented the high pressure system of the Azores to establish itself properly at the end of June—one that typically presides over Europe’s summer. Unfortunately, presence of this vortex or low pressure system created a continuous collection of humid air in northern Europe that resulted in frequent disturbances including precipitation, thunderstorms, cloudy skies, and overall cooler temperatures throughout the summer. However, June, July, and August weren’t the only months that were atypical this year. Temperatures during winter were a solid three degrees Celsius above average throughout. And, even as a transitional season spring, was dramatically warmer and gave way to bud break of the vines four weeks early. Those advances, however, were reabsorbed by the abnormally chilly weeks that followed.

Not surprisingly, the wine community in Friuli is cautious to draw conclusions and make predictions from this rather anomalous vintage. Growers can merely note this year’s stark contrast to the arid summers that they have experienced since 2003 and consider closely the measures that they undertook to counter the threats associated with such an abnormal year. Does this year mark a sort of climatic recalibration that we are experiencing? Question mark. Nevertheless, there are some bright spots. One is that indigenous varietals are still fairing relatively well this year.   They are not as susceptible to difficulty under less than optimal conditions unlike non-native grapes. Secondly, making good wine is not impossible; rather, it may take more selectivity and work in the cellar. What remains to be seen are which growers will make the difficult decisions necessary to draw upon those bright spots and deliver wines that are still superlative in quality despite this summer’s big chill.


Bruno Giacosa: The Genius of Nieve?


Last evening I had the privilege of drinking a spectacular bottle of Bruno Giacosa’s 1978 Barbaresco Riserva Santo Stefano di Neive.  It’s not everyday that one comes across a wine of this age and caliber.  My friend Ferdinando with whom I shared this incredible bottle had visited Giacosa in the late 70’s, mid-80’s, and again in 2001. On the first two occasions he had the opportunity to speak and taste directly with Bruno after which he purchased a 180 bottles each time. From Ferdinando, it was fascinating to get a more intimate perspective on Giacosa and a broader context of the winery.

He explained that Bruno Giacosa had been bestowed with the title “il Genio di Neive” – the genius of Neive – because of his superior wines and ability to elevate the level of quality far beyond the standards of his peers.  By knowing each of the cru vineyards in the region with great precision, he was able to essentially cherry-pick the finest grapes of the from growers that sold their produce rather than making wine themselves. Since the 1960’s, Giacosa became one of the region’s (and Italy’s) most profound producers of Barolo and Barbaresco.  His meticulous wines were known to be of utmost consistency,  sometimes even sacrificing entire vintages, selling them off as vino sfuso (bulk wine), rather than opting to bottle them.  Additionally, Giacosa was a pioneer for his labels that included the name of the cru, in the tradition of Burgundy producers in France.      

It’s not by chance that relying solely on purchased fruit, he was able to exploit certain factors that came to distinguish his wines.  Relative vine age was one competitive advantage on which Bruno most capitalized; his wines were always made from old vines that were low-yielding and well-tended.  Other producers were subject to the inherent conditions of their sites that they inherited or cultivated.  Giacosa didn’t actually cultivate vineyards until he purchased the Falletto (Barolo) vineyard in 1982 and the Rabajá and Asili vineyards in Barbaresco in 1996.  After these junctures he began to experience the advantages and disadvantages of other growers.  His Barolo vines in fact were rather young for his standards and he therefore struggled to make wines of the quality that he once achieved.  At the end of the seventies, Giacosa noticed increasing property values in Barbaresco and Barolo and an growing scarcity of fruit to which he previously had access.  Farmers were  frustrated at their returns that were glaringly insignificant compared to the prices that the region’s top cru wines fetched.  This was evident already in the late seventies when Giacosa’s ’71 Barolo Vigna Rionda – that which my friend had formerly purchased – was no longer available.

The winery was forced to redetermine its course not only with the purchase of vineyards in 1982.  Giacosa also took on enologist Dante Scaglione in 1990 rather than continuing to craft the wines himself.  Other subtle changes began to take place as well.   Macerations began to shorten in order to produce more approachable wines and French oak began to replace Slavonian.  The winemaking that was once pathbreaking in the region was replaced by an oenological philosophy is described as “updated traditional.”

For me, the bottles of Bruno Giacosa’s ’71 Barolo and ’78 Barbaresco in Ferdinando’s cellar have become even more precious after learning of their dialogue over the years and the changes that the winery has undergone in recent years.  Even if I can only appreciate their relationship from a distance as I admire its not surprisingly vibrant rim, I nonetheless savor each of those coveted glasses and a connection to this once great barolista.

Vintage bottles awaiting uncorking.

Vintage bottles awaiting uncorking.

Fugassa (Focaccia) a Camogli


It’s not by chance that the image of the focaccia comes first. And THEN the photo of Camogli. I spent the past couple of days tasting focaccia genovese or “focaccia normale,” how it is frequently ordered, in order to both satisfy my craving for this classic Ligurian specialty and solidify my opinions that have been steadily forming since I began coming here in 2003. I visited my top three favorite focaccerie so to rediscover why each had made it into the rankings.

To give you some background on Camogli, the name of the village is evidence of its deep relationship with the Mediterranean and fishing as ca and ‘mogli are derived from the words casa (house) and mogli (wives). More exactly, it became known as the town of wives’ homes because their men were always out at sea, fishing, to support their households. Camogli is located between Genoa and Savona on Italy’s Italian Riviera, situated in the region of Liguria.

Don’t get me wrong, the setting is sublime. But at the beginning of March the sun is rather weak (or non-existent) and for me Camogli becomes more of a food destination than an escape to the sea.

Buone Cose di R. Briasco
Via Giuseppe Garibaldi
Camogli (GE) 16032
0185 772073

As evident in the photo below the blog heading, this focaccia proved to be the highest rising (though difficult to see in this snap) with notably generous olive oil and the deepest dimples. Just out of the oven it was crunchy, chewy, mouth-watering as well as yeasty, salty, buttery.


This focaccia is why I come to Camogli; it is always my first destination. I will literally schedule my trains around their hours. Not only is it the focaccia that keeps me raving about this unforgettable regional delicacy, it is also the one to which I was first introduced when I came to Camogli initially in 2003 when I lived in Bologna. I have always noticed and appreciated the same faces – confident, attractive, and smiling – behind the counter since the beginning of my relationship with this bakery. This is the top. Make no mistake.

Panificio Rizzo Rocco
Via Della Repubblica 134
Camogli (GE) 16032
0185 770247

This focaccia turned out to be the flattest, blondest, saltiest, and chewiest with a faint anise aroma and flavor. Less salty towards the crust and almost sweet, buttery, and salty in the center, it showed only a modest dimpling.

These results were surprising given their Apulian roots and propensity for a higher rise – in addition to my past experiences tasting their focaccia. That said, it was quite delectable. I’m not gonna lie.

Panificio Giuffra
Via S. Fortunato 22
Camogli (GE)
0185 771053

The most savory and earthy of the sampled focacce that offered a hint of smokiness from the oven. This was the darkest focaccia (and the crunchiest!) and the second highest rising. I would describe it as pleasantly salty with moderately deep dimples and a faint yeasty finish.

This focacceria is probably the least touristy and also the friendliest. Their location also dictates this because they are tucked in a steep stairwell across from a fishmonger rather than on the seaside promenade. Locals can easily pick up their focaccia, just caught fish, produce, and meat by walking less than 100 yards rather than venturing down towards the usually busy waterfront.

Sometimes even after some critical consideration, as in this comparison of Camogli’s focaccia genovese, it seems as though it’s inevitable to go back to where it search of Buone Cose.

Primavera a Tavola: Paccheri con Piselli e Basilico


The ingredients: fresh peas, fresh basil, Pecorino Romano, olive oil, salt and pepper. That’s it. Simplicity is so satisfying – as with this dish!


Remove the peas from their pods. *(Two pounds of peas will serve four to six people)*

Steam the peas for about three minutes over medium heat – check them occasionally to make sure that you remove them when they are still vibrant green. Place in a ice water bath or run under cold water so to stop further cooking/retain color and texture.

Purée 2/3 of the peas with:

– 2 Tbs shredded Pecorino Romano
– 2 Tbs Olive oil
– 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
– 8 leaves of basil

Boil the pasta – I love Paccheri as a shape for this dish because they catch the peas and purée inside the opening.  Be sure to reserve some of the cooking liquid from the pasta.

Dilute the purée
with three tablespoons of the water in which the pasta is cooked, of course only after some starch has been released into the water.

In a saucepan, (towards the end of the cooking of the pasta) heat a small amount of olive oil and quickly toss the remaining whole peas in the oil.

Strain the pasta into the saucepan with peas – a bit of the starchy water should still remain in the openings of the Paccheri so to help bind the purée to the pasta. Toss the pasta with the peas briefly and then add the purée, mixing until it’s fully combined over medium heat.

At the table, finish the dish with a sprinkling of shaved Pecorino, freshly cracked black pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, and freshly torn basil.

Pair this dish with Tocai Friulano, Verduzzo, or Ribolla Gialla.

Buon pranzo o buona cena!!!