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Cork & Bottle

Uncorked: Check the fine print

On the wine label in tiny type you'll find the name of the importer, often the most dependable guide to quality for consumers.

Published September 8, 2004

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Marco Vivona and his 4-year-old son Marco, are the namesakes for Marco & Son Wine Importing and Distribution in Tampa. Vivona imports wines from Italy and South America.

Like a lot of people, Marco Vivona likes to sample wine when he travels abroad.

The difference is, he brings his favorite home by the boatload. Well, at least container loads the size of boxcars that hold 2,000 or more cases.

It is wine from northern Italy that Vivona will try to sell throughout Florida. After 22 years serving wine and hosting at restaurants such as Lauro and Cafe Amaretto, Vivona established Marco and Son importer. His goal is to break into the ranks of respected wine importers, a crucial link in the chain that brings wines from around the world to U.S. shelves.

The importer's name is usually on the back label in print smaller than the names of the winery, the geographic appellation, the name of the vineyard and the vintage. So with all that other stuff to sort out, shoppers might think the importer is one bit of capitalized minutiae they can ignore.

Wrong. Exactly the opposite. Many wine shops and restaurants look to the name of the importer first as a quick shortcut and guarantee, especially for wines from lesser-known regions where the best values, often less than $15, lie hidden among thousands of small vineyards.

The most valuable importers to know are not big firms such as Banfi or B&G or Georges DuBoeuf and others that own large estates or represent the most famous vineyards. Smaller outfits, however, are often based on the palate, savvy and contacts of a single person who knows a country or a region or two well and assembles a portfolio of 60 to 80 favorites.

Say you want to try muscadet, the Loire wine that's so good with oysters. Is Sevre-et-Maine sur lie a good one? When "Kermit Lynch, Wine Merchant" is on the back of the label you'll know it is perfectly crisp and true to form.

Or should you trust a wine called Pino & Toi that sounds like a bad lounge act and comes from an Italian winery somehow named Maculan? Yes, says the seal of Leonardo LoCascio. The wine is a delightful blend of pinot grigio and tokai, round and full of melons, peach and pears, yet still light.

If you don't keep up on Spanish Riojas, what about a 1999 reserva from Bodegas Muga? Don't worry, selected by importer Jorge Ordonez, it's rich and plummy.

Operational details vary depending on licenses and states. Importers may sell to distributors or sell directly to restaurants and stores; some ship to and from their own warehouses, sometimes a winery overseas ships direct to U.S. dealers.

On the other end, the transportation has changed little in centuries. Wine almost always travels by boat. And the importer is someone who knows the territory abroad (and has sales clout at home).

Chris Lano, of Stacole Fine Wines in Boca Raton, which specializes in French wine, has gone to Europe three or four times a year for 20 years. In Bordeaux, he and other importers negotiate; in Alsace or the Rhone he hunts for unique producers such as Didier Dagueneau that he found in the Loire. "I might try 100 or 120 wines in Languedoc," Lano says. "I'll find three or four I like, then visit them and taste through several vintages to make sure they're consistent. "You do have to taste through a lot of junk," he concedes, but he also relies on current accounts to tip him off on rising stars. Still, he may wind up with only 150 cases from a small local vintner.

And money matters to everyone. "These small producers, they live from vintage to vintage," Lano says. Stacole takes risks, too. "I felt the 2001 Rhones were phenomenal, and I knew there wasn't much in 2002, so I stepped up to the plate and bought $1-million (worth)."

Success isn't always based on ancient geography or linguistic skills. Dan Phillips went to Australia less than seven years ago to do a magazine story on shiraz.

"What I discovered was a cornucopia," he says.

While the big brands down under exported good value in large quantity, Phillips' Grateful Palate now has a "portfolio of shiraz that's different" from Brothers in Arms and 40 other small vineyards.

That personal taste drove Terry Thiese, known as a champion of German rieslings, to expand into Austrian wines and, surprisingly, into French Champagne as well.

Why? "Champagne is another northern-latitude minerally wine, (almost always) without oak, and designed to be graceful and elegant rather than voluminous and powerful," Thiese says. "I never set a priority to do terroir-driven northern European wines without oak; it just turned out that way as an organic byproduct of following my palate. I could easily do Alsace, Loire, Savoie among others following a similar aesthetic. I don't, because I don't want to be spread too thinly, and because the best in those regions are already taken."

By now importers such as Lynch, Ordonez, LoCascio, Thiese, Phillips and Stacole have big names in their portfolios and made some of their finds famous. But they hunt for more wines not now sold in the United States in South America, Italy, and odd corners of France.

Smaller importers do, too. For Vivona, that means going to Italy and looking for amarones and proseccos from the Veneto and Verona and exploring Argentina as well. He has a dozen labels already and hopes that he has just lined up another winner: an Argentinian red blend from Raices de Agrelo bearing the blond mane of soccer player Carlos Valderrama, who played for the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny.

Chris Sherman, who writes about food and wine for the St. Petersburg Times, is the author of "The Buzz on Wine" Lebhar-Friedman Books, $16.95. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 7, 2004, 10:19:36]

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