"In 2009, I was working the grape harvest with Bruno De Conciliis at the Viticoltori de Conciliis winery in Campania, Italy. I lived in his home for about three weeks and worked in the cellar every day. That was a huge learning experience for me. Just seeing how basic the winemaking process is – from having the grapes come in; crushing the grapes; checking ferments every morning; when you know to rack something; how to put it into a barrel…
I think anybody who’s working in the wine business should work a harvest at least once to see what it’s like. Because you have to know what you’re drinking in the bottle – where it comes from. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?
So, anyway, I was traveling alone and wanting to see as many regions as I possibly could. I had tasted some of Giampiero Bea’s wine back in California and I had to meet this person. I had heard a lot about his natural winemaking style and the new cellar he was building at his family's Paolo Bea estate in Montefalco, Umbria, and I think sagrantino, which they grow, is a grape and a wine that is really interesting.
I wrote emails for the full three weeks that I was in Campania to all the winemakers that I wanted to meet, but I didn’t get a response from Giampiero for a few weeks. Finally, he wrote back. Thank god.
So I took a train to Montefalco and didn’t realize how far away his cellar was from the station. I tried to speak in broken Italian to these cab drivers and they were telling me it was going to be maybe €30–40 ($40–50). Clearly they were trying to rip me off.
I started crying and thought, ‘I don’t wanna bother Giampiero, but I have an appointment with him in like 20 minutes and how am I gonna get there?’ So I called him on his cellphone. I really had to hold back the tears, because I wanted to see him so badly but I didn’t want him to know that I couldn’t afford the cab.
Anyway, he came to pick me up at the train station, and it was so kind of him to do that. And we went back to his cellar and looked through the vineyards; we saw the brand-new cellar he was building from the ground up. He had been an architect before taking over the family business, and it was amazing.
He had to go to meet someone else, so he left me in the old cellar, which is basically an annex off his parents’ home. And it’s kind of dark, dimly lit, and there were about 15 bottles of wine, some of which had been opened, maybe the day before or a few days before. That’s perfect for sagrantino, and his wines especially. They can really change or evolve in the course of a few days, or maybe a week. Especially the passito wines – the dessert wines.
So I got to taste the full line-up, pretty much, and do some comparative vintages – just by myself. His mother, Marina, brought out a plate of cheese and some kind of fruit cookie. I was literally sitting there, saying, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m tasting these wines.’ I was pinching myself. That was the moment when I first started to get into natural wines and understand what that actually meant: how pure the wines felt and how rooted in that place, and how very Bea they were. I felt like I could understand the family dynamic – Giampiero and his parents, and their home and the grapes.
Giampiero draws all of the labels on this little computer. It was my 30th birthday in July and I got a tattoo [from the Paolo Bea labels] on my wrist. It’s like a cross-section of a grape. It reminds me of those three months in Italy and also that moment in the cellar, when things started to get real.
I’ve been able to continue to experience the wines over the past couple of years and taste the new vintages. I sell them at the wine shop where I work and I also pour them at the Italian restaurant called Terroni where I am a sommelier. It actually gives me a lot of cred when I try to sell a bottle of Bea and I show the customers the tattoo on my wrist. They are like, ‘Oh, okay. This is legit. If you’re gonna get a tattoo of this guy’s wine label on your wrist, it’s probably pretty good.’"
As told to Wiremu Andrews
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