14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
If you have any interest in wine, food, travel, culture, history, family, and people as I do, then I recommend you read this book - I enjoyed all of it. Basically, it's a memoir of the author's move from Italy to the U.S. as a boy, and how his interest and love of wine and food inspired him to learn more about wine, open an Italian wine store in New York, and through his travels, continue his wine education.
He describes his travels throughout Italy in quest of the finest wines produced in that country (and the world) and understanding what motivates and inspires the people who make them. Along the way the reader gets taken for the ride through the beautiful wine making regions of Italy, and introduced to some of the iconic figures (some a bit eccentric) of Italian wine making. The author describes in detail his meetings, conversations, and tastings with these producers, and we get an inside perspective of how some of these icons have passionately and steadfastly respected history, terroir, and nature in crafting memorable wines they believe in. You'll visit their wineries, meet their families and partake in meals the author shared with the wine makers. Together they discuss the importance of food and wine pairing, and how, when done well, enhance each other and represent one of the essential aspects of an enjoyable and elevated quality of life.
I imagined myself as a secret participant of the winery cantina visits and mealtime conversations he describes in the book. As a person who appreciates good wine and food, they were absolutely riveting for me as it enabled me to learn more by getting a peek inside the minds of these great wine makers.
When you open this book and begin to read, it is much like a bottle of fine wine that develops and evolves over time. It has varying layers of characteristics that enhance your enjoyment, promote thinking, and will stay with you even past the last drop, or the last page.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Although I don't have even a single corpuscle of Italian blood in me, my wife is 100%. Her grandparents on both sides were immigrants who came to Newark from the town of Avellino, which is about 45 minutes east of Naples, and if known at all in America, it's probably as the alleged hometown of Tony Soprano. Naples, of course, is far more famous for crime, but it's also the ancestral home of Sergio Esposito, author of Passion on the Vine, and it provides the springboard for his worldview and life's work.
So I know a little about life in a Southern Italian family, at least through osmosis. It would also probably constitute full disclosure to add that I have an amateur's abiding interest in Italian wine, as evidenced by a number of Amazon reviews I've written on books that deal with this specific subject.
Throw in the fact that I've been to Esposito's Italian Wine Merchant store in Manhattan a number of times, and you'll probably understand why I had certain preconceptions about this book before I ever opened it. In hindsight, I probably would have been better served if I had read it blind (pardon the atrocious mixed metaphor), and like a blind wine tasting, known nothing about it before I tried it. I was kind of hoping for a book that celebrated the true and the beautiful in Italian wine, but also the accessible, in the sense that you shouldn't need to take out a home equity loan before you buy, as would be the case if you were chasing '05 first growth Bordeaux. You certainly can find good, authentic QPR (quality/price ratio) wines in Esposito's store. Unfortunately, you won't find them in the book, but I'll return to this theme later.
Passion on the Vine really isn't a traditional wine expert's memoir (here I lump together the works of intrepid importers like Kermit Lynch and writer/educators like Gerald Asher), because the story of Esposito's Neapolitan family is deeply woven into the narrative. It's a relatively engaging immigrants' tale, and the personalities of his parents, uncles and aunts especially come to life and remind me sharply of my wife's many relatives who still live in Avellino. But if your goal in reading this book is full immersion in the contemporary Italian wine scene, you may be disappointed by the family details that spill across the pages at the expense of more stories about wine. Or maybe you'll love them. You'll also probably find more details about the food he's eaten than the wines he's consumed, but that goes with the territorio.
Accordingly, I'm not going to recount the "portrait of the wine merchant as a young man" story since that's not of real interest to me. For me, the first half of the book seemed to drag on and occasionally frustrated me. There are a few strange things I noted, like how his transplanted family appears to have suddenly gone from near abject poverty in Albany to relative affluence in Scottsdale without explanation, and occasional incomprehensible statements, like when he describes one of his early mentors as a true "scientist," since no one can reproduce his experiments. I also can't for the life of me figure out why he would effectively call the initial investors in The Italian Wine Merchant a bunch of clueless Wall Street boobs who couldn't understand how a store could only sell Italian wines, but then gave him the money anyway. At times the book reminded me of the scene in Animal House when Bluto says "...was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Otter whispers to Boon, "Germans?" And Boon replies, "Don't stop him, he's rolling."
Esposito seems to believe he alone invented the idea that a store dedicated to Italian wine could succeed in the US, although he didn't get around to opening the store until 1998. I recall shopping in a wonderful Italian food and wine store in Chicago in the early `80's called Convito Italiano, at a time when Esposito was still in knickers. The profiled producers (see next paragraph) were mostly all well established when Victor Hazan wrote his wonderful guide simply called Italian Wine, published in 1982.
When we finally get to Italy on business, the chapters are mostly arranged around visits to iconic, world-renowned properties (Bartolo Mascarello, Biondi Santi, Soldera, Josko Gravner), each singled out I presume for their respect for the land and what I might term modern traditionalism, where the best of the past is effectively preserved and enhanced by application of non-interventionist technical advances. Like I said before, these are fiendishly expensive wines that all sell for $100 a bottle or more, so don't come looking for bargains here. But Esposito has a real gift for letting the winemakers tell their own stories. The chapter on biodynamics, for example, unfolds as a Socratic dialog between a Serbian winemaker and the author's wife. It is unquestionably the best and most entertaining introduction to the how's and why's of biodynamics I've encountered, and should be required reading for anyone who wants a primer on biodynamic theory and practice. The wines you read about here are mostly true vini di meditazione, so much so in fact that when visiting legendary Barolo producer Bartolo Mascarello, the winemaker sits mute for an hour smelling the wine and smiling to himself. Except for the fact that's he's confined to a wheelchair, all that's missing is the lotus position.
Esposito isn't afraid to reveal his personal foibles to the reader. He's impatient, petulant, self-absorbed, and even downright mean at times, particularly when he openly baits the effeminate son of one of his wine producers with a string of female names like Coco Chanel and Ursula Andress. Is he a homophobe? Well, that's passion of a different kind.
I recognize this review is getting a little off topic, not unlike the way my initial expectations wandered from where they started. Read this book as a cultural history based on Italian family, food and wine in that order and you'll probably love it. Despite my grape gripes, I enjoyed a lot of it, and I don't think anyone could have summed it up better than Gianfranco Soldera, quoted after another prodigious Italian meal recounted by the author: "La storia, la famiglia, il cibo, il vino. Questa e la vita dell'uomo. History, family, food, wine. This is the life of man." A bottle of the wine they drank that afternoon, the '99 Casse Basse Soldera Brunello, isn't available at the Italian Wine Merchant, but you can get the '01 on pre-arrival for a little less than three hundred smackers a bottle if you inquire now.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2008
While I have come to appreciate Sergio's vast wine knowledge by way of his weekly e-Letters (through Italian Wine Merchants), I was intrigued when I heard about Passion on the Vine. Honest, engaging, personable and humorous, it brought me to a new level of understanding about the patience required to appreciate wine, from its production to its later enjoyment (or at least analysis). A passage that has stayed with me is Sergio's interactions with the late, Bartolo Mascarello, a traditional winemaker from the Piedmont region, known for his Barolos. Sergio relays the events with such respect and fond admiration, as the two take in a half-opened bottle of 1978 Barolo. Waiting for the elder's cues for an approval to taste, Sergio is left waiting far longer than he initially anticipated. However, it is over the duration of this exchange (that is so eloquently narrated and moving) that you are, like Sergio in that moment, anticipating Bartolo's gracious admission for a taste. It is also in this moment that you witness Sergio's growth. Powerful stuff.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I loved this book. Wine, food, gossip, history - who could ask for more. Page 128 has a story of a wedding that will have you rolling on the floor with glee. The only drawback is trying to find a bottle of Vestini Campagnano Pallagrello Bianco - which Mr. Esposito describes as, '..being seduced in a Pompeii brothel before the volcano erupted.'
on September 7, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
PASSION ON THE VINE is a deeply moving, eloquent and personal expression of his love for the essence of Italian wine and its inextricable, sensual and sacred relationship with the land, its people, its culture and of course it's food. As an accomplished cook, my most surprising discovery on my first trip to Italy (Tuscany) was not the quality of the food - I've had comparable quality in LA - but how the experience of food was imbued with wine and the company of friends at table. Nothing was "segmented", nothing was rushed or regarded as "food as fuel" as in the US. It that moment, my understanding of Italian food at a soul level incarnated. And that was my experience reading Sergio's book: this is a very challenging, profound and intimate concept to communicate and he did it masterfully.