On a yacht a mile off Italy’s Ligurian coast, the Marchese di Grésy, a noted Barbaresco producer, is playing air guitar. Beyond the cerulean water, the cream-colored houses of Santo Stefano al Mare climb toward the sky. The audience for the Marchese’s impromptu performance includes millionaire publisher Silvano Boroli, whose eponymous wine estate is a rising star in Barolo, and wine broker Brian Larky, the organizer behind this extraordinary gathering. With the boat slicing through the perfect water and a glass of Boroli’s 2004 Barolo Villero in everyone’s hand, it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic (or privileged) scene. Yet this afternoon is as much a business meeting as it is a party. Di Grésy and Boroli are both part of Larky’s impressive portfolio of Italian wines.
© Francesco Lagnese
Brian Larky is not an importer but a wine broker who works as an agent for the producers in his portfolio; the wineries themselves export their wine to the United States. This unusual structure knocks out a layer of middlemen and—more important—lowers prices in the process.
Larky’s company, Dalla Terra Winery Direct, is really a very communal effort—for a new property to be added, a consensus must be reached by all of the company’s current wineries. That makes lunches like this one key, as winery owners socialize with Larky and each other. “We get together to decide who’s going to join the club, who’s invited in,” Larky says. “This year, for instance, we’ve only added one new winery, Tenuta Sant’Antonio.”
That Larky didn’t follow the usual model when he set up his business isn’t actually surprising; he hardly fits the image of a wine connoisseur. He is more likely to be found rappelling down a rock face than pouring wine at a tasting, and he spends a good part of his time mountaineering, kayaking and piloting light aircraft in various places around the world, conducting business via BlackBerry as he travels. He’s also a competitive sailor—he first steered a racing craft from Hawaii to California when he was 17, and this year he has already taken part in four major sailing events. Here in Liguria, he treated his guests on the yacht to a bravura display of throwing and tying cables in midair as they left Santo Stefano’s sunny harbor.
Air-guitar performance over, di Grésy packs up his invisible instrument. One member of the audience, Michelin-starred chef Maurizio Quaranta—who presides over the restaurant Locanda del Pilone on the Boroli estate—disappears belowdecks to see to the finishing touches on lunch. He has prepared a number of dishes, all drawing on immaculately fresh local seafood as well as traditional Piedmontese ingredients. Larky starts opening more wine—in addition to bottles from di Grésy and Boroli, he has brought along half a dozen crisp northern Italian whites from Dalla Terra producers located in regions such as Friuli and Alto Adige.
© Francesco Lagnese
Quaranta begins sending dishes to a long table set on deck, and the group sits down to eat. The first starter is quintessentially Piedmontese: red pepper involtini, in which silky slow-roasted red peppers are wrapped around fresh, creamy ricotta cheese and chopped ripe tomatoes. “In Piedmont, we have what we call la cucina povera,” says Elena Boroli, Silvano’s wife. “The food of the poor. Peasant food, with vegetables like leeks, cardoons and—above all—peppers.” The sweet peppers pair brilliantly with di Grésy’s berry-rich 2006 Monte Aribaldo Dolcetto d’Alba. Made from a single vineyard on the Monte Aribaldo hill near Alba, it proves the rule that producers known for making extraordinary high-end wines (like Barbaresco) are almost always trustworthy at the more affordable end of the scale, too; the Dolcetto sells for only $22 in the States.
Now Larky begins to pour the whites he’s selected to pair with Quaranta’s local-seafood dishes. A salad of tender octopus, green beans and potatoes seasoned with olive oil and garlic is perfect with a crisp ’07 Sauvignon from Russiz Superiore in Friuli, one of two wineries owned by the young, ambitious winemaker Marco Felluga. Larky follows that with a slightly fruitier ’07 Pinot Grigio from Alois Lageder, probably the most well-known producer in the Dalla Terra lineup. Its fresh white-peach flavor and light minerality are wonderful with fillets of sautéed local rouget set atop pasta tossed with crushed cherry tomatoes and lightly browned slices of artichoke heart. Every one of these vibrant wines seems to exist purely to defy the notion that the only duty of Italian whites is to be dry and cold and to taste of nothing in particular.
At the end of the meal, with the wind shifting and the guests enjoying spoon-size servings of semifreddo, an ice cream–like dessert flavored here with bits of torrone (a nougat made with honey and nuts; recipe at right), the Marchese di Grésy reveals that he’s actually a multi-instrumentalist. His air-guitar skills may be inimitable, but his true love, he tells everyone, is the Hammond organ, and particularly the music of Procol Harum, the 1960s-era outfit responsible for “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (and, appropriately, “A Salty Dog”). He explains that he likes to belt out their hits on a Hammond M-100 at his hilltop winery, where there are few neighbors to complain about the volume. The story makes Larky smile. Of course, he may simply be amused—but more likely, he’s just chosen the site for the next Dalla Terra business meeting.
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London-based Patrick Matthews’s most recent book is Burgundy: How to Find Great Wines Off the Beaten Track.