A life with wine

Thomas Pellechia shares his extraordinary story


It was a tough Brooklyn, NY neighbourhood I grew up in, whose inhabitants once included Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. Still, hard-working Italian immigrant mentors could be found. One of them for me was Anton, a Southern Italian in the building next to our tenement. The old man often greeted me with a handshake squeeze that he dared me to withstand as he applied more pressure, perhaps to shape me for what was ahead in life. He did this in his back yard, where he lovingly tended fruit trees, especially figs, and where I helped out. But it was his wine that left a lasting impression.

In autumn, flat bed trucks rolled into the neighbourhood laden with grapes. While the old Italian men bickered over price and quality, Anton’s grandson Anthony and I took in the intoxicating aroma of grapes basking in the still-strong late September sun—like pies baking. The wait also forestalled the heavy lifting we were soon to face. At commotion’s end, Anton directed us to quickly unload crates destined for his cellar. 

We spent the next few months moving juice and wine, and endlessly cleaning up. One day, Anthony placed a crate in front of a fermenting barrel and told me to climb up. He pulled the cork and said, “sniff”. The CO2 knocked me off the crate, but not before it sent out the fumes that took up residence inside me. Like an opium smoker, I had been primed to “chase the dragon”; mine was oenological. 

Anton gave our family a gallon of red each holiday. Even though my ration had been cut with water, I can still conjure its slight volatility as well as its asphalt-like aroma. It was light, yet leathery. The wine’s rusticity lingered on the tongue. I wasn’t yet ten years old.

When Anton died, gone was the holiday gallon. But in our mid-teens my friends and I finagled access to what we referred to as wine—Thunderbird or Italian Swiss Colony port or sherry. There was always an older guy who would buy for us, as long as we provided sixty cents for his pint. Mostly, we were cushioning the hard reality of our frequently violent environs. But I had other ideas. By age nineteen, ensconced in a furnished apartment in the swank Brownstone regions of Park Slope, Brooklyn, I entertained friends with what I then considered better wine: Almaden Mountain series, the oval bottle of Mateus, Lancers, tall, slim Blue Nun—until, that is, I discovered Bordeaux, Rioja, Valpolicella, Bardolino, Chablis, Pouilly Fiuissé. I was the only one in our crowd to own a corkscrew. 

I wanted to work a European grape harvest, but life had other plans, the worst of which was the tail end of the mandatory U.S. military draft. Along with the many heavy drinkers in military service, I used Scotch whisky and beer to get me through it.

Upon my return to New York City I filled a “between jobs” gap with a taxi driver’s license. During night shift driving I took swigs in the cab from a Spanish wine pouch I had filled with a different style of wine at the beginning of each eight-hour shift, and had emptied by shift’s end. A fare once asked if I minded if he lit up a joint in the back seat. I held up my wine pouch and said that would be fine, as long he didn’t mind me taking a sip now and then.

With a limit of four dollars a bottle my new discoveries included Saint-Émilion, Corbières, Provence, Alsace, Gattinara, Spanna, Primitivo, Penedes, Dao, Napa… I bought the wines in a nearby small shop, where the proprietor made recommendations in Brooklynese: “try ‘dis Bawd-oh”.

Around this time I met Anne, my wife of forty-eight years and still counting. Our first date was over tea, but that changed when Anne expressed a particular attraction to the spent wine bottle collection lined up along the walls of my apartment. Within two years we were married and had become expatriates in Iran. The money to work in Tehran for an American company, and the chance to travel, were hard to pass up. One drawback: we expected no access to wine in a Muslim country, but we decided to make the sacrifice. 

The November flight to Tehran on Swiss Air dropped us off in chilly Geneva to spend four days. The city provided our mutual first taste of Chasselas and Neuchâtel wines, alongside volumes of raclette and cheese fondue. Expecting hedonism to soon be circumscribed, we lived it up in Geneva, sipping Cognac through a sugar cube after wine-washed meals. Imagine our delight, then, when we walked into the Imperial Hotel in Tehran to see a small bar off the lobby. 

Expecting hedonism to soon be circumscribed, we lived it up in Geneva, sipping Cognac through a sugar cube...

At the time, Iran was under secular rule. For the next two years we enjoyed a rustic Iranian Riesling produced in the mountainous northern reaches; every bottle delivered a generous portion of precipitated tartrates, but it was wonderfully fruity and crisp. We once braved the treacherous guardrail-free Elburz Mountains stretching across Northern Iran for a trip to a British-operated hotel and casino at the Caspian Sea. There, we lunched on a Beluga caviar-sour cream omelette; the Riesling cut right through its luscious fats. An Iranian red, named 1001 Arabian Nights, produced south of Tehran, was deep and intense, much like a Syrah, but we were never able to confirm the grape variety. A bottle of each cost us no more than one U.S. dollar. We were in the country well before Patrick McGovern’s academic team discovered an 8,000 year-old wine site in Iran’s Zagros mountains northwest of the capital.

A mid-contract vacation in Greece hinted at a gestating wine revolution there. Amidst ancient ruins, and where ancient wines tickled our imagination, we tasted the future and it was good. Outstanding was the white wine of Lindos, consumed with lobster on the island of Rhodos, as well as a Pallini white produced near Athens from a base of Savvatiano grapes. Each deliciously dry, fruity and well-made. The island of Samos provided a memorable calamari lunch with a pleasant house wine. The calamari had been swimming in clear waters nearby just a few minutes before it was served. Who produced the racy wine that paired perfectly with lightly battered and sautéed calamari we did not know, but the lunch was so good we finished it and ordered a second.

At contract’s end, a rail trip through Europe gave Anne and me a seat at the tables of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland and France. We soaked in conviviality in cultures that had no compunction seating restaurant guests among strangers and where service was a highly-developed and valued skill. France and Italy provided the memorable wines, from Quincy to Côtes du Rhone, Piedmont to Puglia. Some of the best wines had no names—they were produced and served by the family that operated the restaurant. Since my ancestors hailed from Campania, a place noted for its wines as far back as 121 BC, it was exciting to taste modern Falerno.

Our last stop was London. That fantasy of working a European harvest had returned, but a second-best option appeared the day before departure. I had taken a solitary walk during which I spotted a home winemaker’s shop not far from London’s financial district. The owner was a good salesman. When I hesitated, he mentioned how sad it is when we fail to follow what our passion demands. He was soon consigned to ship winemaker supplies and grape concentrates to our U.S. address.

The following autumn, I bottled my first batch of wine in the U.S.—Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Riesling. The reds received good reviews from friends and family; the Riesling didn’t fare so well. I came home from work one day to find a flooded basement with bobbing corks: the Riesling had re-fermented in the bottles with a bang.

I came home from work one day to find a flooded basement with bobbing corks: the Riesling had re-fermented in the bottles with a bang.

The 1980s was an exciting time for wine. Anne and I joined a wine club, Les Amis Du Vins, which provided a magazine and access to all kinds of new-to-us wines. Wine books and periodicals piled up at home. In Manhattan, the International Wine Center (IWC) had started up. Anne and I registered in an IWC wine appreciation class, and I took a winemaking class. Developing associates and friendships in the wine and food world was exciting, too, but nothing beat gaining special mention at the end of winemaking class for my small batch of wine. I was ready to reach for that oenological dragon’s tail. 

At dinner one evening, Anne and I sampled an impressive Finger Lakes, New York Chardonnay, which prompted a visit to the region. Not long thereafter, we owned a 10-acre property, with a vineyard and a house, circa 1826, six miles north of Hammondsport, where the region’s wine industry had begun in 1857. Our excitement was exceeded only by the amount of work in front of us. We had a commanding view of Keuka Lake, that gave us calm against the erratic regional climate, where temperatures can take you from near tropical to near arctic within twenty-four hours. After short course winemaking classes at Cornell University’s agricultural station, I held a license to produce Cana Vineyards Riesling, Gewüztraminer, Chardonnay, and a couple of blends. There were good years and there were bad years, good wines and bad wines, and also many visitors to our tasting room, some of whom became personal friends.

Alas, a growing customer base and a few awards for my wines over eight years proved not enough to offset the fact that I hadn’t the capital to expand. I let the winery go, but leaving the wine world was not an option. I took wine sales jobs, first at a small winery, followed by a job with a fine wine distributor. Later, when an opportunity to partner with someone in a retail wine shop in Manhattan’s changing East Village neighbourhood appeared, I jumped on it. Our concept was to offer New Yorkers wines that other shops did not carry, at prices that made them easy to try. Annual buying trips led to discovering wines of Savoie, the Dolomites, Eastern Europe, Basque, and so much more.

Over the years I had written and published dozens of wine and food articles. After five years as a partner, I left the wine shop to concentrate on book writing—and wrote six, five of them on the subject of wine. 

Anne and I once traveled to Italy’s north regions to research a story that took us to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to meet the wine and grappa Nonino family. We happily discovered the region’s Austrian-inspired Italian cooking as well as incomparable wines: Schioppettino, Verduzzo, Piccolit (a rare, own-rootstock grape variety that produces sporadically, but, oh, when it does!). Best of all were Italian producers who treated us as family at their tables. In fact, wine people are family. Warmth and mentoring are in our DNA. 

Thirty-five years in the wine business provided me with vocational skills, history lessons, and education in the gentle culture of conviviality. But the time to leave the table has arrived. I will miss the profession, yet will never lose the passion. I have a feeling a glass will have to be pried from my hands on judgment day, but not before I get all the wine down.

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