"Taste this!" Marco de Grazia, Italian-wine broker extraordinaire, will urge a visitor, pulling the cork from his latest find. Whether it's a Recioto di Soave from the Veneto, a new Barolo or even an earthy Sicilian red made from grapes grown near Mount Etna, de Grazia's enthusiasm is so extravagant it's almost overwhelming.
An American who grew up in Florence and still lives there, de Grazia is much more than a wine exporter--he's an exceptional figure in Italian wine, a collaborator and a coach for nearly every one of the 90 estates he represents. About half his producers were just grape growers who had never bottled wines before de Grazia took them on and plotted out how far he could take them. In most cases, that has been quite far indeed.
Marco and his brother Iano (short for Sebastiano) have accumulated an astonishing number of plaudits. Their wines, all from small estates and produced in limited quantities, have consistently won raves from influential critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., and tend to sell out immediately upon their arrival in America. Thanks to the de Grazia brothers, Italian wines have become sought after--so much so that oenophiles now scour shops and the Internet for de Grazia selections, such as Sandrone's 1990 Barolo Cannubi Boschis and Pertimali's 1990 Brunello di Montalcino, the way they might a grand cru Burgundy.
It's easy to forget things weren't always like this. The Italians have long lagged behind the French when it comes to promoting their wines. Consider the image most Americans had of Italian wine 20 years ago--most likely Chianti wrapped in straw or a white wine in a fish-shaped bottle.
Those sorts of images drove Marco de Grazia crazy when he came to California as a college student in 1979. De Grazia was already accustomed to drinking good Italian wine, a passion he'd developed while living in Chianti. He had spent an entire year there, walking from estate to estate, tasting, learning and helping with the harvest. By the time he arrived in California to attend college, he says, he was "moderately wine literate."
That's why California was such a shock. De Grazia couldn't find any of the wines he knew and loved. Dressed in a Harris tweed jacket and a down vest, with a bandanna tied around his neck (a look he still affects), a beret jammed on his unruly hair, he cut quite the figure, riding around the Bay Area on his motorcycle, looking for Italian wines. One day he came across a Berkeley wine shop with a better than average selection of Italian bottlings. He and the wine buyer, Joel Butler (now a Master of Wine), got to talking. Butler, it turned out, had spent a year studying in Florence, where de Grazia had grown up with his Italian mother, a painter, after she separated from his American father. Marco, who is as blunt as Iano is diplomatic, said to Butler about his selection, "You could do better." Butler bristled, but the two ended up having dinner, accompanied by a good many bottles of the wines that de Grazia had brought with him from Italy. Butler told de Grazia he had to have the wines at his shop, asking,"Why don't you export them?"
Soon to graduate with a spectacularly impractical degree in comparative literature and no idea of what to do next, de Grazia took the idea under advisement. On his way back to Italy, he stopped in New York to discuss the possibility with his brother, who had just finished a music degree at the North Carolina School of the Arts and was living in an apartment above the Grotta Azzurra restaurant while working for the wine shop Ferrara. Iano was encouraging.
Back in Florence, Marco decided to start with Tuscan wines, because those were the ones he knew. His first properties were Il Palazzino in Chianti and the now famous Fontodi. Later he signed up Pertimali in Montalcino, an estate owned by a talented but eccentric farmer who, in addition to making a phenomenal Brunello, was earnestly trying to cross a potato with a tomato.
The first years were a struggle. "I didn't have a secretary. I had other jobs," de Grazia recalls. "My accountant was doing everything for free, because I couldn't pay him." It wasn't until 1988 that de Grazia's business finally began to gain momentum.
In the meantime, he had begun exploring other Italian wine regions, including Piedmont. "In 1980," he says, "I don't think there were more than 15 Barolo or Barbaresco growers there who bottled their own wine." But a few young growers, such as Sandrone and Clerico, wanted to do things differently. Today they are two of Piedmont's most sought-after vintners.
De Grazia persuaded the producers to taste and critique one another's wines--quite an achievement in insular Piedmont--and convinced them they could earn a better living if they focused on quality not quantity. The producers and de Grazia worked closely together, although none of them were trained winemakers. But the vintners, especially Clerico, were game for whatever de Grazia proposed they try, including aging their wines in French barriques.
Although Piedmont and Tuscany put him on the map, de Grazia wanted to see what was possible in other underachieving regions using similar artisanal methods. He turned up the Gini brothers in the Veneto, who make gorgeous, concentrated Soaves, and the Dubini family in Orvieto, whose wines are a model for their appellation. Currently, de Grazia is excited about Campania, which he calls "the new Piedmont," and its red grape Aglianico, which he is sure will prove to be the "Nebbiolo of the south."
Iano joined the business in 1992, and he now stays mainly in Florence, leaving Marco free to do what he does best. But whenever Marco is around, the two are sure to get together with friends for an exuberant feast, often at Marco's apartment or in the cool, fragrant garden of Iano and his wife Mandy's spacious home. Dinner is likely to involve a wild shopping spree, perhaps out to the Chianti countryside to pick up a standing rib roast of Chiana beef. And if nobody is up to cooking, the brothers might call on caterers Sabine Busch and Bruno Tramontana, as they did for this dinner. The meal began with a selection of antipasti, paired with the rich 1999 Le Calcinaie Vernaccia di San Gimignano Vigna ai Sassi. After winter squash risotto and a young Le Cinciole Chianti Classico, roast guinea hen served with stuffed zucchini was matched with Pertimali's incomparable 1995 Brunello di Montalcino. Dessert was an orange and lemon tart accompanied by a small serving of frozen custard and a glass of 1991 Piazzano Vin Santo.
I've always suspected that Marco and Iano have more fun while doing business than anyone else I know. Especially Marco. Call him on his cell phone and he might be walking his dog Totò around Florence, inspecting a vineyard in Piedmont or cooking a fish on his sailboat off the coast of Sicily. And if you're ever lucky enough to have a meal with the de Grazias, drinking Italian wines the way they are meant to be enjoyed--with wonderful food--then you'll know, as I do, that Italians, especially these Italians, really know how to have fun.
S. Irene Virbila is the restaurant editor of the Los Angeles Times.