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.


Frantoio Forsoni EVOO from Umbria: Estate Grown, Estate Pressed, Estate Bottled.

I came to know Massimo Forsoni through his aunt, Dora Forsoni, a 68-year-old winegrower/huntress and proprietor of a small winery in Montepulciano (SI) called Az. Agr. Sanguineto. Before I moved to Italy to set up Giannoni Selections in 2014, I tried to attend Vinitaly — Italy’s annual wine trade show held in Verona — as often as I could, which meant tasting with Dora and her life partner Patrizia almost every spring. Not only was I introduced to Sanguineto’s sangiovese-based wines in Verona, but I inevitably got to know other extensions of Dora as well, namely her wild boar salumetto and the extra virgin olive oil made by her nephew, Massimo. Dora Forsoni may be minute in size but she is by no means small in character. As the commander-in-chief of her local, all-male hunting chapter just northeast of Montepulciano, she is a ball of conviction. When hunting, she evidently spends most of her time perched in trees, waiting for her prey. (This way the beast is unable to sense her odor and presence as she attempts to seal their fate.) She essentially takes a sledgehammer to many of Italy’s conventions, especially those regarding viticulture, family, gender, and sexual orientation. Upon meeting her, it becomes obvious enough to just embrace all aspects surrounding Dora, including the olive oil.

We managed to develop a rapport against the backdrop of a dizzying trade show, unignorably distant from her Tuscany. Even though we connected infrequently, Dora remembered that I worked in a specialty foods/wine store and was sure to have me taste Massimo’s recent harvest, preparing a small plate of bites to accompany her wines. It always included a salame that she had hunted and cured herself – wild boar – and Tuscan bread, you know, the kind without salt, drizzled with Massimo’s peppery, extra virgin olive oil. However, she never bothered to explain what distinguished his extra virgin from others. Maybe it was my Italian back then? I don’t know. For Dora, a product is either good or not good and beyond that there isn’t much discussion. In her sort of tough, butch, Central Italian way she had decided that if I recognized that Massimo’s oil was good, I could sell it.

This past April I revisited Sanguineto’s Vinitaly stand, this time as an importer and proprietor of my own company. It was as if I was trying Massimo’s extra virgin for the first time, considering it for Giannoni Selections’ portfolio rather than that specialty foods shop in Cambridge. Sensing this, Dora called Massimo on the spot and handed me her cell phone. I was a little taken aback; it was impossible not to feel pressured with the producer on the phone. But it was Dora! And Massimo was lovely! We chatted for a few minutes and I made tentative plans to visit him in Umbria few weeks later.

Shortly thereafter I headed to Umbria and met Massimo in Roselli at his Frantoio Forsoni, located in Umbria’s picturesque Colli Martani, just outside of Spoleto. It became quickly apparent that like Dora, but in his own quiet and focused manner, Massimo only believes in top quality. He showed me the workroom where the olives are delivered and processed. It’s not enormous but it is pristine. Here he pointed out the latest technology, explaining each of the machines (many with temperature control) that carry out the cleaning, slitting, pit removal, malaxing, centrifugal extraction, and vertical decanting. Producing olive oil short of the extra virgin category isn’t for him; he opts to send away the pomace (which still has quite a bit of juice remaining in it) to steer clear of any further refining activities. Massimo’s oil, once extracted, is stored in stainless steel drums in the naturally cool cellar below the workroom.

To give you an idea of the other end of the spectrum of production, in Spain’s Jaén (Andalucía), the crop can be systematically harvested using large, crab-like machines that shake the young trees, causing the olives to fall to the ground to be later vacuumed up. Massimo’s reality is quite different. Everything must be done by hand in his groves because of the steepness and promiscuity of the terrain. Interspersed on some of his slopes are other fruit trees that share the arid, rocky soils. Further, harvest is carried out exclusively during morning hours so that the olives arrive still cool at the mill, which is essential for fragrance and overall freshness. The way Massimo sees it, extreme cleanliness and attention at to detail are crucial at every step, not just during the harvesting/pressing stage. Otherwise all the work during the year in the groves would be futile.

As I was saying goodbye, it occurred to me that even if I wasn’t necessarily looking to import olive oil before April, it would be difficult to say no to a producer like Massimo Forsoni who takes estate extra virgin olive oil to another level. It’s extremely rare to find an extra virgin that is cultivated, pressed, and bottled by the same person and produced on such a small scale. Perhaps more importantly, the quality of Massimo’s oil speaks for itself – just as Dora instructed it should.


Portfolio Items