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Passion on the Vine: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Family in the Heart of Italy

Overview

As a young child in Naples, Italy, Sergio Esposito sat at his kitchen table observing the daily ritual of his large, loud family bonding over fresh local dishes and simple country wines. While devouring the rich bufala mozzarella, still sopping with milk and salt, and the platters of fresh prosciutto, sliced so thin he could see through it, he absorbed the profound relationship of food, wine, and family in Italian culture.
Growing up in Albany, New York, after emigrating there ...
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Passion on the Vine: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Family in the Heart of Italy

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Overview

As a young child in Naples, Italy, Sergio Esposito sat at his kitchen table observing the daily ritual of his large, loud family bonding over fresh local dishes and simple country wines. While devouring the rich bufala mozzarella, still sopping with milk and salt, and the platters of fresh prosciutto, sliced so thin he could see through it, he absorbed the profound relationship of food, wine, and family in Italian culture.
Growing up in Albany, New York, after emigrating there with his family, he always sat next to his uncle Aldo and sipped from his wineglass during their customary hours-long extended family feasts. Thus, from a very early age, Esposito came to associate wine with the warmth of family, the tastes of his mother’s cooking—and, above all, memories of his former life in Italy. When he was in his twenties, he headed for New York and undertook a career in wine, beginning a journey that would culminate in his founding of Italian Wine Merchants, now the leading Italian wine source in America. His career offered him the opportunity to make frequent trips back to Italy to find wine for his clients, to learn the traditions of Italian winemaking, and, in so doing, to rediscover the Italian way of life he’d left behind.
Passion on the Vine is Esposito’s intimate and evocative memoir of his colorful family life in Italy, his abrupt transition to life in America, and of his travels into the heart of Italy—its wine country—and the lives of those who inhabit it. The result is a remarkably engaging and entertaining wine/travel narrative replete with vivid portraits of seductive places—the world-famous cellars of Piedmont, the sweeping estates of Tuscany, the lush fields of Campania, the chilly hills of Friuli, the windy beaches of Le Marche; and of memorable people, diverse and vibrant wine artisans—from a disco-dancing vintner who bases his farming on the rhythm of the moon to an obsessive prince who destroys his vineyards before his death so that his grapes will never be used incorrectly.
Esposito’s luscious accounts of the wonderful food and wine that are so much a part of Italian life, and his poignant and often hilarious stories of his relationships with his family and Italian friends, make Passion on the Vine an utterly unique and enchanting work about Italy and its eternally seductive lifestyle.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An unabashed love letter to Italian wine and food . . . a memoir of all the ways that food and wine bind us together, in lives full of emotion.”
—Bloomberg.com

“It is hard to read a page without developing pangs of hunger and thirst.”
—Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly

At a young age, Esposito and his family move from Naples, Italy, to Albany, N.Y., where he first falls in love with wine in the basement dining room of his uncle's house. Even as he reflects on the poor quality of those first sips, he understands he was consuming the sense of family and the spirit of his crazy yet adored uncle. After opening a store in Albany, he moves to Manhattan to work as a sommelier in the early 1990s. There he partakes of haute cuisine and affluent wine collections, while learning the hierarchy of international wines. While French wines are considered the pinnacle of the industry and Californian wines are gaining interest, there are very few Italian wines of note. With a fiery passion, he determines to bring appreciation of the wines of his homeland to America and opens Italian Merchant Wines, where he continues today to import highly selected Italian wines. His writing is exuberant, and his wine descriptions evocative. A bottle of Ribolla reminds him of "staring at a cracked painting of a beautiful woman from long ago." For lovers of wine, this is a full-bodied read about one man's passion and the many delectable moments along his journeys. (Apr.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Do not read this book on an empty stomach: The author lovingly describes so many exquisite-sounding Italian meals that those without immediate access to fresh mozzarella and artichokes will feel very sorry for themselves. Esposito, the owner of Italian Wine Merchants in New York City, opens his debut memoir with an account of his idyllic childhood in the slums of Naples, where women lowered baskets from their balconies to buy the fish straight from the sea and grapes straight from the vine. His lifelong love affair with Italian food began in this gastronomic paradise, but his family was ripped from Naples in 1974, when he was still a child, and condemned to live in Albany, N.Y. Esposito writes heart-wrenchingly of their tearful adjustment to a new culture and cuisine (so-called). The pasta they ate in Italy, he writes, had been laid in the middle of the street, "so that the unique combination of Mediterranean and mountain winds would dry it in just the right way, to produce the perfect texture when it was boiled." At his family's first meal with their American cousins, the pasta was "mushy . . . like glue in my throat." Still, it was in Albany that Esposito's uncle shared his nightly glass of California red, launching an autodidact's career dedicated to improving the reputation of Italian wines and revitalizing the flagging economy of traditional winemakers. Describing his travels through his native land, first as a student and then as a wine merchant, Esposito writes with such earnest enthusiasm that detailed accounts of winemakers purchasing different types of equipment are actually interesting. He reaches his poetic heights, however, in describing the food and vintages he consumed oneach adventure. In one Roman restaurant, a southern white wine "smelled of apricots, white flowers, dried honey, nuts . . . [I] got the sensation that I was being seduced in a Pompeii brothel before the volcano erupted."A charming tribute to food, drink and homeland.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767926089
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/19/2009
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,394,535
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

SERGIO ESPOSITO is the owner of Italian Wine Merchants in New York City. He speaks at and hosts wine dinners throughout the country, has a much-visited Web site, and writes a popular e-mail newsletter about his discoveries and travels in Italy. He lives with his wife and two children in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Rome

We'd left behind the south's sharp ocean inlets--its black volcanoes pasted against orange evening skies, its lemon groves and crumbling villages--for Rome. We followed the A1 Autostrada del Sole, the Highway of the Sun, which cuts through the country, straight from Naples to Milan. It was a two-hour drive, first through lush hills; then through flat farmlands, the standard horse vendors displaying their grazing wares for motorists; then past the withered vineyards, the smoky power plants, the stoic gray roadside corporations, the brightly colored Iperstores, the worker-free construction zones of crushed asphalt and detours, the elaborate Autogrills perched like bridges above the road, the Gypsy camps. We drove by it all and then through the concrete tunnels until we hit the capital, rising up around us in the form of shops and apartments, of ancient statues, baroque palaces, sweeping piazzas. My brother Sal and I had been on the road for days and la citti eterna was to be our last hurrah before our return to the States.

Our roles in the rental car were always clearly defined: I was the driver, he the navigator. We were finishing up a whirlwind wine-buying trip, so we were pale and exhausted. I own a wine store in New York City and there wasn't a day that passed without some uninformed individual, a dreamy look on his face, telling me I had the world's most wonderful job. Such people thought it was glamorous, floating across the Italian peninsula, sipping wine poured from fine bottles, sleeping in villas on sweeping vineyard grounds. They couldn't be blamed for the misconception; God knows, I'd thought the same thing when I was a kid.

It may be a wonderful job, but it isn't always glamorous. I had slept in opulent villas and dined with royals, but usually it went like the most recent trip: in the last seven days, Sal and I had hit up almost sixty wineries and tasted countless bottles of wine. We'd woken up at six and gone to bed at four. We'd eaten at truck stops and at two-star restaurants, gobbled down panini in the car, and been forced by our producer-hosts into many long, multicourse, pasta-laden, oil-drenched meals--the kind of experience you'd savor if you did it twice a year, not twice a week. Sometimes it was kind of like working in the world's best cupcake bakery: no matter how much you love cupcakes, you don't want five a day, every day for a week. Sal and I had stayed in some moldy roadside hotels, a couple of simple rooms-for-rent, and one medieval castle; had tasted virtual vinegar and the most beautiful wines in the country. I'd spent time listening to a Russian scam artist who guided wine tours and I'd sat in the office of a wine producer whose family had at one time been commissioned by a king. We'd been social hostages, privileged to be included at the family table but also dragged to Italian discos filled primarily with men in tight pants. This was what a typical tasting trip was like, racing around the country, trying to find the best wines for my clients and for myself.
Sal didn't officially work with me, but he came along because he loved food, he loved wine, he loved the excitement. Round, rosy-cheeked Sal, his head topped with swiftly disappearing red hair, was the reason I was in this business in the first place. He was the one working as a chef, when he was only eighteen, in the little French restaurant in upstate New York, making beef bourguignon and duck Æ l'orange and chicken cordon bleu to pay for my clothes and my food and my bicycle. He was the one who hired me on as a dishwasher at that restaurant when I was twelve. I would stand on a stool and scrub plates after school, gazing at him with nearly religious devotion as he, baby-faced, clad in a crisp white collarless shirt, yelled at his staff to keep all the knives in place. He was the one who mocked a sous-chef who'd bungled the carving of a leg of veal.

"I bet you my little brother can do a better job than you can," Sal said to the defeated man. I looked up from my dishes and tried to suppress my joy. I was being given the opportunity of a lifetime, threefold: I could humiliate an adult, impress my brother, and cut meat. "Get over here, Sergio. Show them."

He was also the reason I had the thick scar on my left thumb, because as I expertly butchered the shank, I looked about the room proudly, lost track of what I was doing, and sliced my finger to the bone.

Despite the injury, I had gone on to make a career of wine and food, while Sal had branched off into business. Now, in addition to running a software consulting company out in the Arizona desert, he acted as my secretary on trips to Italy. He organized my schedule and kept me company in the car, and his payment was a series of excellent meals and lots of wine, both famous and obscure. Over the past fifteen years, we'd drunk wine from botti in Barbaresco, from cement tanks on the Amalfi coast, and from underground urns in freezing Friuli. We'd gambled until dawn at a Slovenian casino, watched an unimpressive show at a blue-collar strip joint in Turin, and spent loud nights with our extended family in the southern Italian ghetto from which we had emigrated long ago. And now we were on our way into Rome for a final meal before our departure for America, and for the most important tasting of the trip--and perhaps of our lives.

I'd had other plans. I wanted to take Sal out to a thank-you dinner at Don Alfonso 1890, a restaurant in Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, near the coastal village of Sorrento, where we'd gone on vacation when we were kids living in Naples. Don Alfonso was a famous place owned by a well-regarded culinary family, the Iaccarinos. They had long been considered masters of the regional cuisine. A few years earlier, I'd eaten remarkable, refined versions of the area's most traditional dishes, all made from ingredients grown on the family farm.

I'd been talking it up to Sal and we were excited when we sat down in the sleek white dining room. We didn't even bother with the menu. I like to let culinary professionals do their thing: I told the waiter that we'd have whatever the chef recommended. We got a bottle of Mastroberardino Taurasi Riserva and waited. We were expecting lamb that had grazed nearby; spicy olive oil; spaghetti with tomato, basil, garlic; fish caught in the bay; local herbs. Then the first dish was set upon the table.

Sal and I looked at each other. Pineapple and foie gras? When the pasta arrived, it involved cheese foam, not basil. The main meat course was laced with curry. This was not the menu I remembered. The food was excellent, but Naples is about eggplant, lemons, mozzarella di bufala, the flavors of my childhood, the produce that grows on the hills. Foams and curries, fruits and pates--these were all fine and good, but they had nothing to do with the seaside zone. We could have been eating the same dinner in Hong Kong or Paris.

The chef came out of the kitchen--a young, dark-haired man in a white jacket and rubber clogs. He was Ernesto Iaccarino, the newest generation to enter the business. He introduced himself and we began to talk.

"So, what did you think?" he asked. "Did you enjoy your meal?"

"To be honest," I said, "I brought Sal here for the traditional menu I had last time. Things have changed. What happened?"

Ernesto nodded. "We don't serve that anymore," he said. "It's too tough. Reviewers want you to have the food they're accustomed to, and they're usually accustomed to French stuff. They want modern touches. They want the foams, the unorthodox flavor combinations. We give them what they want so that we can survive."
It was the scourge of the Michelin star that I recognized. The same thing happened in the world of wine: producers, to keep selling, had taken to shaping their wares according to the tastes of major reviewers. I supposed it was the natural way of things, but it didn't sit well with me.

"But we still do the traditional stuff," Ernesto continued. "We've got a new place in Rome, called Baby. You're still around tomorrow, right? I'm going up there; why don't you let me cook you lunch?"

That was how we found ourselves in Rome so early in the day, circling the Villa Borghese gardens, the former vineyard converted into gardens by a cardinal in the seventeenth century and currently the city's lush and extensive central park, around which cars, scooters, and buses raced. The restaurant Baby was in the majestic Hotel Aldrovandi Palace to one side of the whirling traffic, and I took a sharp right-hand turn to pull up to the grand doors.

The restaurant, situated downstairs from the extravagant lobby, was an ethereal series of rooms in gray and glass overlooking the hotel courtyard. Ernesto emerged, welcomed us, and then pushed back through the steel doors and began to work as the restaurant filled up. I ordered a bottle of Vestini Campagnano Pallagrello Bianco "Le Ortole," a southern white made from grapes picked late in the harvest, the sun having dried them just enough to concentrate their sugars. It smelled of apricots, white flowers, dried honey, and nuts, but to me the value was the images it always conjured up: I usually got the sensation that I was being seduced in a Pompeii brothel before the volcano erupted. Sal and I clinked glasses.

"Al prossimo Giro d'Italia," I said. To the next tour of Italy.

Ernesto first sent out what technically could have been labeled "eggplant parmigiana," but was not in any way comparable to the heavy casserole most Americans understand the dish to be. It was, instead, a delicate piece of vegetable art: sweet local eggplant, sliced thin, layered with mozzarella made that morning and highly acidic tomatoes from the foot of Vesuvius, and drizzled with oil. Not only was it unlike the eggplant parm of American red-tablecloth joints, it was different from my mother's parmigiana di melanzane. But we weren't there for some good ol' home cooking. We were there to see how our good ol' home cooking was conceptualized at another level, how the same flavors upon which we were nurtured, the flavors that made us grow, the first, most common tastes for us, were made by the Iaccarino family.

"Now this is what you were talking about," Sal said.

Ernesto sent out a pasta next, ravioli di caciotta al pomodorino e basilico, pasta made with flour and olive oil--not with flour and eggs, as is typical in most of Italy. The pockets were the size of a quarter and filled with caciotta--a sheep's milk ricotta--seasoned with wild marjoram, prepared in small baskets and drained of their liquid, and then topped with little tomatoes, a play on the palate between the flavors of tangy cheese and sharp tomato.

"I could eat this every single day," I told the waiter. "For my entire life."
The meal reached its peak with the arrosto di piccione con passato di ceci. I couldn't figure out exactly how he roasted the squab to so perfectly caramelize the outer skin. But the true beauty of the thing was that the tiny breast was set atop a chickpea puree seasoned with cinnamon, and when I ate it--the bright young peas, the sparkling fresh spice, the crispy bird--I felt that I was somehow tasting liquid gold. Sal's expression told me that his experience was similar.

After some time, dessert came out: pasticcio di melanzane con cioccolata, squares of sponge cake topped with sweetened ricotta  and studded with candied fruit and chocolate pieces. Slices of steamed eggplant--dolce, sweet, like only eggplants grown on Mediterranean soil can be--were placed on top of the mixture, and the whole creation was covered with a white chocolate sauce flavored with Marsala. Eggplant, it seems, was Ernesto's guest of honor that season.

Ernesto stopped by the table as we were drinking our espresso.

"Traditional enough?" he asked. "Did you get what you were looking for?"
Ernesto had indeed done for us what a great chef does for his diner. He'd presented us with artistry--we'd consumed dishes that were the culmination of his vision, talent, history. Sure, you can standardize a great meal and serve it anywhere in the world, just as you might have watched Luciano Pavarotti perform in a great opera in Istanbul. But there was an added value to seeing Pavarotti sing an aria at La Scala in Milan; it was more illuminating to see the man in his element. The meal at Baby was a postcard from the south of Italy, made by a southerner with southern ingredients, with respect to tradition--to the long line of people before him who'd shaped the cuisine--and with respect to the land. Ernesto made us food of the region, the season, the place. You could make the meal all over again in Los Angeles, following a recipe with scientific precision, and it wouldn't be anything like it.

"I'd say we got what we came for," I answered. "Thank you."

But we had actually come to Rome for two things, and the second was far more significant. We'd come to drink some extremely rare wine, and by the time we'd finished up the lunch and I looked at my watch, we were late.

I grabbed sal and rushed him to the street. I'd leave the car at the Aldrovandi because we didn't have time to find parking. I spotted a yellow cab smushed in the middle of the mass of Roman traffic, of two-seater cars and motorcycles, all weaving at an alarming speed through the narrow streets. The driver of the cab also saw me, and, with a calm expression on his worn face, he cut through the metallic throng. It parted, just barely, for him, and everyone honked aggressively.

"The St. Regis, please," I said. "You know it?"

"Of course I know it," the cabbie said. "Best hotel in Rome."

"Fast as you can," I said. I rubbed my temples.

"But Sergio, since when do you get nervous about being late to a tasting?" Sal asked. "I don't think I've ever seen you arrive on time."

Sal couldn't yet understand, but this was no regular tasting, not for me and not for him. I had bought these singular and particular wines a few months back, every case that existed in the world, and I was now having them all shipped to my New York wineshop. This was a gathering that involved a bunch of Italian journalists who wanted to taste the stuff before it left the country forever, but I didn't care about them. I was anxious, really, to see what Sal thought. He was my litmus test for sellable wines--a born Italian who was now essentially American, a noncollector and a nonprofessional with a good palate, somebody who didn't go for cookie-cutter drinks, for easy new styles. If Sal, who liked all things wild, strange, and beautiful, understood these wines, they had a real future in my store. If not, I'd be crushed.

"It's too complicated to explain right now," I told my brother. "I made a promise to a dying man. That was six months ago, when he was still alive, and these were his bottles."

Sal nodded, perplexed. "That does sound complicated," he said as we pulled up to the St. Regis. It was large and gothic, flags hanging from its elegantly carved stone doorway.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss the title, Passion on the Vine. What does it take to develop a passion for a life’s work, or for an indulgence? What sparked Esposito’s passion for wine?

2. What did the opening scenes help you discover about the realities of the wine trade? How did these passages compare to the rosy images that travel writers so often use to begin their books? In what way do Esposito’s direct, sometimes gritty depictions only enhance the experience of his writing?

3. How would you characterize the dynamics of Esposito’s family? How was he influenced by his family stories of war and of a fallen aristocracy? What makes his brother, Sal, his best associate on buying trips? How do Esposito’s interactions with his wife compare to the families of his parents’ generation?

4. In the first chapter, Esposito describes his disappointment in discovering that a local restaurant no longer served traditional, regional cuisine. “It’s too tough,” restaurateur Ernesto Iaccarino says. “Reviewers want you to have the food they’re accustomed to, and they’re usually accustomed to French stuff. They want modern touches. They want the foams, the unorthodox flavor combinations. We give them what they want so that we can survive.” How has the power of critics grown in other fields as well? Is there a disconnect between the food and wine that critics praise and the choices that personally please you?

5. Esposito describes the mournful scene of his family’s departure for America at the end of chapter two. Previously, he had described a life centered around close-knit communities and magnificent food made from fresh ingredients, cooked at their peak of flavor. What were the costs and benefits of the Espositos’ departure from Naples? How might his parents characterize their immigration? Why might they find their Arizona condo more appealing than their homeland?

6. What role does wine play in Italian culture? What does the author mean when he writes that “Italian wine, like Italian food, is simultaneously no big deal and the biggest possible deal”? What is the significance of his observation that in his family, the goal of drinking wine was not to become drunk? Are American attitudes and laws regarding alcohol unhealthy?

7. Discuss Esposito’s tragicomic memories of life in Albany. How did Zio Aldo, alongside Esposito’s reticent father, serve as a model for how to be (or not to be) an ideal man?

8. What made Esposito the perfect candidate to become San Domenico’s sommelier? What was revolutionary about Tony May’s approach to being a restaurateur?

9. Chapter six describes the spectacular meal during which wines of master vintner Guiseppe Quintarelli were consumed. Esposito describes them as “a mellow symphony,” attributed to the appassimento method in which grapes are dried, an extraordinarily risky process. “Why his wines are so remarkable has never been determined. In the lab, scientists have re-created the environment of his small working farm. … And they’ve never made anything close to a Quintarelli.” To what do you attribute the success and complexity of wines from winemakers such as this? What common denominator seems to exist among all of the legendary wineries Esposito reveres?

10. What did Josko Gravner’s experience with cutting-edge technology say about the current schism between purists who see wine as a natural process and those who scorn ancient methods? Which would you prefer if you were to try to enter this business?

11. What cultural differences did you detect when Esposito and his wife crossed the border to call on Slovenian winemaker Ales Kristancic? What is symbolic about his sediment-laden bottles of Puro?

12. Chapter eight describes Esposito’s bungled introduction to Maurizio Anselma and his ensuing association with the greats of Barolo, including Bartolo Mascarello, who led Esposito to conclude that “the value of a great wine ... lies within the fact that you can never understand or master it,” a realization that caused the author to leave behind his whiz-kid mentality. In which American circles is this sense of ambiguity and wonder appreciated? Among what kinds of aficionados does the “whiz kid” prevail?

13. Does Luca Maroni, the radical modernist featured in chapter nine, have a future? How would the world’s perceptions of wine change if his algebraic formula and his argument against aging proved to be effective?

14. One distinction between the history of French and Italian wines is marketing. How did the winemakers Esposito depicts in Passion on the Vine respond to the need to market themselves? How is image both an asset and a hindrance to artisans?

15. What will you take with you from the story of Esposito’s meeting with Gino Veronelli, and the wines consumed in the aftermath of the vineyards razed by Prince Alberico Boncampagni Ludovisi? What do Esposito’s observations in his epilogue regarding the Prince’s methods say about contemporary attempts to define “traditional”?

16. In the book’s closing paragraph, Esposito observes the transformation of American impressions of Italians, from the early twentieth century image of “desperate hungry immigrants” and “a fascist state they’d fought against.” What does the twenty-first century promise in terms of American attitudes toward Europe in general and Italian exports specifically?

17. How has your own experience of wine changed throughout your lifetime? What transformations have you detected in the American marketplace for wines? What are the traits of your favorite wines? How has Esposito affected your approach to choosing and enjoying Italian selections?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2008

    All the best of Itlay, wine, travel and family

    Sergio is arguably the best mind in Italian wine in the United States. Whether you are curious about Super Tuscans or Italian travel or are just looking for a great read, this book is it!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2009

    A fantastic ride in Italy.

    If you like Italian wine or want to know more, then take a ride with this book. It's history, people, food and family. It's great.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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