For Michael Carpenter, Tuesday had begun as a normal workday at his Culver City wine store The Redd Collection. Then the phone rang. On the other end was "an overseas customer – that’s what I could tell just from the sound of the phone call.”
The caller was “a gentleman asking about this wine, the 2008 Papale Primitivo di Manduria. I confirmed we had two or three cases and he asked if we could get some more. I said yes, and he said, ‘I need 115 bottles.’"
It turned out the wine was being shipped to Italy. “I quoted the shipping, which came out to almost $20 a bottle on top of the $20 for the wine.” Did Carpenter wonder why an Italian wine was being shipped across the Atlantic? “I did think, 'I would have thought it would be available there,' but who am I to turn down an offer?”
It was when the order was placed that the plot began to thicken. “I took the payment information and asked him to give the shipping address, and the moment he started reading it off line by line, it was apparent this was the Vatican.” The address turned out to be the office of the Cardinal Secretary of State.
Carpenter recalls: “I said it would be there next week and asked if I should send a note with it. He said, ‘No, just send it.’”
The mystery then deepened. “When I hung up the phone, I said why the hell would these people call me to ship this wine back to Europe – it can’t be that rare – and when I put in a really simple search on Wine-Searcher as just Papale and the producer, Varvaglione, I popped up.”
Carpenter then did a Google search to verify his suspicion that the Vatican customer had landed in Culver City via Wine-Searcher. “If you put in the producer and the wine name on Google, nothing but stories pop up. No wine stores are suggested. So Wine-Searcher is my best guess. How else would they have found us?”
It would appear that the Vatican does not have a Pro-Version subscription to Wine-Searcher, as that would have produced a list of 19 suppliers.
When Carpenter checked the label of the Papale wine, its attraction for the Vatican became clear. “The region in Puglia was used by Pope Benedetto VIII in the 18th century; it says so right on the back of the label. That area and that wine became known as Papale and it was sent to the Vatican around that time in history.”
As for the 115 bottles: “It was a little bit of an odd number, but I didn’t think much of it, and then my brother said there were 115 cardinals in the conclave. Read into that what you want. All I know is I got a guy buying wine, shipping it to Italy. Period.”
One might wonder why the Vatican was not ordering an Argentine wine, given that the new pope hails from Buenos Aires. Carpenter points out that the order was placed on Tuesday, when the cardinals were still deliberating inside the Sistine Chapel and their choice had not yet been made.
Some have suggested to Carpenter that the Papale wine might be divine, or even heavenly. “I said no, it's not. It’s delicious, but I would call it humble and it fits the humble pope.”
The Redd Collection concentrates on rare and collectable wines, but also features “overachievers."
"I have $10, $20, $30 wines here that drink 50 to 100 per cent above their price point," explains Carpenter. "They have not necessarily won awards or got really high scores, but they’re just delicious and they drink beyond their cost."
The Papale Primitivo is one of them. "It’s 20 bucks, but it drinks like a beautiful $30, rustic, well-made wine from Italy.”
In terms of a food match, Carpenter suggests “any arriabata. It’s a spicy meat sauce and it would go good with this wine, which is a little chunky and old and spicy.”
What would Carpenter have recommended if the order had been for an Argentine wine? “We have quite a few, but looking at the same-priced wine, something that’s not outrageous, we have a phenomenal Cuvelier malbec that is $25. It’s made by the family who own estates in Bordeaux and it's amazingly good.”
Final question: if he were having the Pope to dinner, what would he put on the table? “I would serve a fantastic Argentinian wine – probably Achaval Ferrer – and big Argentinian slabs of beef with sea salt on top. That’s about as good as it gets.”