For lovers of Italian wine, there are a few key importers who really shape the American market. One such, one of the very best, is Vinifera Imports, which over the years has been a steady source of top-quality wines from all over Italy.
One recent, steamy July evening, I had a dinner with Vinifera’s founder and director, Dominic Nocerino, at which we tasted four of his new releases.
Dominic was born and raised near Naples, and like almost every other Neapolitan boy (except the few who want to be operatic tenors), his first ambition was to play professional soccer. Fortunately for us winebibbers, that didn’t work out, and in his twenties Dominic emigrated to America – Chicago, specifically – where he found his calling in the wine business. He founded Vinifera Imports in 1979, and by dint of a soccer player’s energy and an amazing work ethic has grown it into a premier company – not the largest, but certainly one of the most important and most influential.
Dominic personally selected every wine in Vinifera’s portfolio and has made a personal friend of every one of his producers (38 of them at the moment). What you really need to know about Dominic is that he has an excellent palate and a total commitment to quality: The fact that he was for a long while Angelo Gaja’s American importer, and for an astonishing 22 years, Bruno Giacosa’s, tells you everything. Dominic continues to bring in amazing wines. The newest addition to his portfolio is the Taurasi of Guastaferro (about which I’ve raved here), whose maker, young Raffaele Guastaferro, is a passionate artisan with an appetite for work equal to Dominic’s. I think he will almost certainly soon be known as a producer very much in the mold of a Giacosa or a Bartolo Mascarello.
In fact, his 2007 Taurasi Riserva was one of the wines that Dominic poured at dinner back in July, happily announcing that his first shipment of Guastaferro’s wines would be arriving soon. This opportunity to retaste the ‘07 completely confirmed my enthusiasm for the Guastaferro wines. Vinified from a two-hectare block of Aglianico vines more than 175 years old, on their own pre-phylloxera roots, this Taurasi riserva brims with dark, berry-ish fruit and iron and earth and funghi and other underbrush scents and tastes. An excellent acid/tannin balance keeps it restrained and elegant, though you can sense the massive power just under the surface. Raffaele thinks this ’07 the best wine he’s made yet – and enjoyable as it is to drink now, I think it’s a wine to cellar for as long as you can keep your hands off it: It’s only going to get better.
This was an evening of reconfirmations: The addition of this wine to Vinifera’s portfolio showed once again the high level of selection exercised all through the line. Piedmont wines like Rinaldi’s Barolos and Chionetti’s Dolcettos; Veneto bottles such as Pra’s superb Soaves and Amarone; the Tuscans of Fontodi, Poggiopiano, Valdicava, San Giusto, and Canalicchio di Sopra – those would make an impressive lineup of imports for any firm, and they are just a fraction of the producers Dominic brings in.
At our dinner, before we got to the Taurasi, we tasted one of his fine Falanghinas, I Pentri; then an unusual – because of its rarity – 2008 Pignolo from his own vineyards in Friuli. Then followed Cascina Chicco’s newest release, a 2008 Barolo Riserva Ginestra, one of the most prized crus of the Monforte commune.
The two reds provided a study in contrasts, one famous, the other virtually unknown, one a red variety of proven quality, the other of impressive potential for those with the patience to cultivate it and to wait for it. Where the Barolo showed elegance and restraint, the Pignolo showed heft and power. Where the Ginestra seemed already balanced and giving, the Pignolo felt tight and austere, maybe even a little rustic. Both are wines that will reward cellaring, but while we can pretty safely predict the way the Barolo will develop (because of so many years and bottles of past experience with Nebbiolo), the Pignolo’s future is an unknown. It has the structure to endure long and well – but how it will develop, chissà?
That kind of mystery is part of the fun of wine. The willingness to take a chance, to learn something new, to seek out a different sensation – that’s what makes a (I hate the word, but nothing else says it) connoisseur. It’s also what makes a superior importer.