- Sarah O'Kelley
Italian Wine Importer Q & A
This past week I had the pleasure of a virtual chat with Marie Tyler, national portfolio manager for Oliver McCrum wines, in preparation for our virtual tasting with her this week at Edmund's Oast Exchange. If you would like to join our tastings -- Northern Italy this week and Southern Italy next week -- feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org -- you definitely don't want to miss either!
How long have you been in the wine business?
I’ve been working with Oliver for a little over 10 years, before that I was in restaurants off and on, but mostly on, starting in high school up until I started working with Oliver. So food and wine combined it’s been a long time.
What initially drew you to this world? Happenstance? Or even a certain bottle?
Food, restaurants, and curiosity.
How has it felt to be in the wine business during the COVID pandemic? Even as the world pauses grapes keep growing so there will still be wine to sell but here in the United States the restaurant business has taken such a heavy hit...
It’s been a rollercoaster. We were hit with the EU tariffs at the end of last year, and that’s an ongoing battle with the government. Everyone in European import and distribution was stressed before the onset of COVID, and now we all miss the days when we only had tariffs to worry about. The majority of our customers before COVID were restaurants, when the closures happened we lost about 60% of our customer base. To see that kind of decrease overnight had us worried about survival. And to have so many friends close their businesses or lose their jobs is beyond heartbreaking.
But there have been some bright spots. Oliver and Michele kept our entire team on, which is incredible because a lot of people in my position lost their jobs in March or April, still having a job is something I am enormously grateful for.
What has been your own therapy during this crazy time -- Wine? Food? Exercise?
Being cooped up is tough. I live on the edge of downtown Oakland in California and it’s a short walk up into the Oakland hills so I’ve been taking daily walks and runs in the hills. Outdoors are the therapy.
Have there been any especially memorable bottles or meals during this time? I know I have certainly tried to find reasons to celebrate and open special bottles. There has also been that “smoke em if you got em” feeling to this whole thing!
Since we’ve been cooking at home so much I’m digging into my cellar more frequently. There is a rancher/ fisherman duo from Marin County called StoneRoot Field and Sea, they have the most flavorful little chickens, we make the Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken and have it with a bottle of rosé, and I pretend I'm eating at a bistro in Paris instead of in my apartment….again. I’m obsessed with rosato from Nebbiolo, it’s not a traditional way to vinify the grape, but it’s some of the most compelling rosato around.
We get the CSA Box from StoneRoot, I’ve been using it as an excuse to open ’serious’ bottles of red wines, and drinking a lot of Nebbiolo. I opened a bottle of 2010 Cavallotto Barolo Bricco Boschis the other night when we grilled a steak; it was beautiful and still a baby - those wines have so much life! I drank a 2009 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, too, and it was in a great place in its life to be drunk. I also recently drank a 2014 Le Pianelle Bramaterra alongside a pork chop grilled in the cast iron. The 2014 vintage got such terrible press before the wines were even done fermenting because it was a cold, wet vintage and tough to farm, but there are producers who made hauntingly beautiful wines, and this 2014 Bramaterra is ethereal.
My friends May and Dave own the Grand Lake Kitchen in Oakland. Among other things, they make the best french fries in town. For my birthday we ordered a huge serving of french fries and drank a bottle of Bérêche Champagne Brut Reserve with it, that is my idea of perfection!
This might be verging on too many wines, but we’re almost 6 months in at this point! Two noteworthy bottles of 2014 white wine from Campania: 2014 Ciro Picariello Fiano di Avellino ‘906’ and 2014 Michele Perillo Coda di Volpe. Like I said before, 2014 was cold and rainy all over mainland Italy and these 2014’s are lightning in a bottle, plus they both have beautiful volcanic minerality, and they have individual, distinctive character. Anyone who loves fine white wine and hasn’t explored Campania is missing out, even the table wines are a treat.
How does Italy’s 2020 harvest look to you? From a perspective of quality? But also are your wineries having trouble staffing due to COVID?
I asked Mario Andrion from Castello di Verduno this question about the vintage the other day and he said he’s not talking about it until the grapes are in the cellar. Mario Zanusso from i Clivi said they’ve had an interesting but good year so far in Friuli, spring was good - cold with a lot of sun, then good amount of rain at the right time and they’re happy so far.
Italy is big and varied, the growing conditions are different region to region, but I don’t have an immediate recollection of producers reporting dramatic or unseasonable weather events, so as long as things continue to progress steadily with no crazy surprises it’s looking pretty good. No crazy surprises wouldn’t be very 2020, though. Fingers crossed.
As far as staffing goes, producers are preparing our orders and having them picked up pretty quickly, I haven’t heard about staffing being a barrier to operating. But I have heard about shortages of services (like trucks for bottling and disgorging) and longer than normal waits for things like bottles and labels. I’m sure we’ll hear more stories as time goes on.
On a personal level what lessons do you hope to take away from this tumultuous year and what is your vision for moving forward as a country and as a global citizen?
That’s a big question. Personally, the year has forced me to sit still and think about everything that’s going on. I’m worried about the future, domestically and globally. It is daunting to look around and see how much need there is. That is nothing new in itself, but there is a new sense of urgency. So everyday I try to do one thing to support the future I want to see, whether it’s signing petitions or supporting relief efforts in some way. Sometimes it's as simple as forgoing the convenience of online purchasing to support an independent merchant. And there is no shortage of amazing organizations with email lists that offer action items that you can do in just a couple of minutes.