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Wine Importers Can Be Your Sommeliers. Trust Them.

Liz Vilardi. Credit: Michael Piazza

Liz Vilardi. Credit: Michael Piazza

I went to college in Boston, where I now live and work. I mention this because it was in Boston that I happened to pick up a pretty good J. Crew habit. Mind you, the J. Crew I love now has a bit more conviction and is much more dynamic — thanks in large part to Jenna Lyons, its creative director and president. She’s credited with all the cool innovation going on around there. Hello! Michelle Obama is lovin’ up the J. Crew.

To me, Michelle Obama equals strength, progress, tradition and some serious smarts. Somehow her choice to endorse J. Crew says those same things about the brand, and J. Crew somehow says those things about our first lady. My point is that it’s a mutually respectful relationship because J. Crew and Michelle — and probably Jenna, too, share the same values.

Brand loyalty

Why do I bring this up? I’ve been thinking how to tell you all to trust wine importers and their, well, brands. I tend to go back to my tried-and-true, especially when it comes to food and wine. “I don’t like food, I love it,” says Anton Ego, the food critic in Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” “If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” This speaks to me on a strangely deep level. I’ve paid, but I’ve walked out on many a mediocre experience.

As a consumer, the places where I find what I’m looking for time and again are the places I go back to, whether it’s clothing, grocery or furniture stores; farmers  market stands, coffee shops or restaurants. I choose each for different reasons, but all in all it comes down to me liking, often loving, what they make, curate, inspire and support.

But here’s the question (pretend I’m Carrie from “Sex And the City”): Why is it we don’t shop for wine this way?

Wine intimidates us into thinking this approach won’t work — it couldn’t possibly be that easy. But it can. We can rely on the importer, the person or group that researched, tasted, chose and organized a specific selection of wines on our behalf, the same way Jenna Lyons makes choices on fabric, jewelry and shapes.

Read the label

In short, you can go shopping for wine the same way you’d shop for anything else — by the label. Turn the bottle over. What does it say? Hooseewhatsit Wine, John David Blah Blah. Ask your retailer about the importer and the wine, and if you like the answer, buy the wine, go home, Google it, drink it and make some critiques. Do it again and again, and in time you’ll find the importers you can rely on. This is how their wines can become the awesome pencil skirt, the local strawberries, the pork buns you love so much.

If we enjoy what they’ve whittled down, we can follow these importers to the ends of wine terroir. If we find an importer we jibe with, it can be like a well-paid-attention-to Pandora radio station. We can go back repeatedly to an endless well of tasty drinks. Thumbs up.

De Maison Selections logo

I’ve got several tried-and-true importers who choose quality wines that suit my taste and ideals. These guys avoid the bad things (wood chips, sugar, acidification, de-acidification and stabilizers) and promote the good (hand-harvesting, wild yeasts, low yield, natural viticulture and unique wines). Here they are:

De Maison Selections focuses mostly on Spanish and some French producers. They are easy to recognize not only by their name but their logo of a porron — which is a vessel from the Basque region for drinking a delicious wine called Txakoli. Da Maison’s mission is to find unique, high quality wines made with integrity.

Dalla Terra Winery Direct deals in Italian wine. Slightly different from a traditional importer, they’re brokers — they cut out the middle man and save us all money, and by us I mean the producer, you and me. Dalla Terra and one of their producers — Alois Lageder — are the reason I love wines from the Alto Adige. Dalla Terra represents other reputable, small and delicious wines such as Adami, Selvapiana, Vietti and Inama. They deliver conscientious wines.

At Louis/Dressner the mission is to bring small producers with some crazy ideas to America. Started by the late Joe Dressner, to me, the first hippie of wine, it is now run by his wife Denyse and their protégé, Kevin McKenna, Almost all their wines are natural. I like a lot of Louis/Dressner French bottles and their funky Friulian stuff.

Circo Vino is my Austrian importer of choice. Their producers are top-notch and include winemakers who care about the land and the environment and grow/make wine that fits that list of “good” criteria. Circo Vino is relatively new, but man they’ve got me hooked on Rotgipfler.

SelectioNaturel + Zev Rovine: These two, just in San Fran, New York and Massachusetts right now, work together importing fine wines by really small producers, with some very stringent requirements on the natural process. The wines are unique. I like their French and Italian bottles.

Now, remember, there are small local importers, too, that you shouldn’t overlook. So keep turning your bottles around, investigate the back labels on the ones you enjoy and ask your retailer to tell you more about them and their importers.

Top photo: Liz Vilardi. Credit: Michael Piazza

This week's Zester Daily soapbox contributor, Liz Vilardi, is the owner and wine director of The Blue Room, Belly Wine Bar, and  Central Bottle Wine + Provisions in Cambridge, Mass. She has introduced her guests to orange wines, small organic producers and off-beat geeky bottles. Italian wines are her specialty. This year Vilardi won the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Golden Goblet Service Award, a national prize honoring excellence in the beverage profession.