Thursday, April 2, 2009

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene...

Aaron Epstein has been passionate about wine since before he could legally drink it, and at 27 he now has more than 5 years of professional wine experience. His love of the grape was born in Spain, took root in Italy, and has since led him around the world to work wine jobs in almost every aspect of the industry, most recently in Mendoza, Argentina. As of March, 2009, he is once again based out of his home city of New York, where he is racking up airline miles as a wine consultant and export agent for some of South America’s finest wines.
For more information visit Aaron’s wineblog Vino e Vita, or contact

For centuries, the city of Verona in Northern Italy’s Veneto region was best known as the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Today it has become synonymous with wine – specifically the Valpolicella (and Amarone della Valpolicella) made in the hilly area from which it takes its name, just outside of town.

Since 1967, Verona has also played host to VinItaly, the world’s largest wine fair, which begins tomorrow and has provided me with the perfect excuse to come enjoy spring in my favorite part of the world. It’s a bit intimidating, however – 5 days, more than close to 4,500 exhibitors, and God only knows how many tasters from more than 100 countries. I hope I’m tough enough to keep up.

Luckily (I think), I won’t be tasting the whole time – I am here to work (or at least to “work”) – and will be spending much of my time pouring wine with my friend Alessandro Speri, 5th generation of the Valpolicella’s storied Speri family, and producer of one of Argentina’s most unique wines, Prodigo. Of the many winery owners and winemakers I had the fortune to meet while living in Mendoza, Argentina, Alessandro is the one I’ve become closest to - a friendship that began a year and a half ago in a mutual search for the best pizza in Mendoza has since led me to Verona. Hopefully, with our forces combined, it will also soon result in Prodigo overtaking the US wine market. And needless to say, we’ve had a couple of pizzas together here, and more than one buffalo mozzarella!

The story of Prodigo is fascinating to me not only as a personal anecdote, but also as an example of Mendoza’s growing allure to winemakers (and wine lovers) the world over.

Very literally, Alessandro grew up in the winery. His family home was located above the Speri cellar, and as a child he played amongst the vines and the barrels. (I know the image is a bit cliche, but it happens to be true.) He went off to Milan to study law, and it was there that his course changed when, in 2000, he fell in love with the Malbec grape. Upon meeting famed Tuscan winemaker Attilio Pagli - one of the pioneers of modern Argentine winemaking at Altos Las Hormigas – he began to dream of taking his family’s tradition to the new world. In 2002 he decided to make the move to Mendoza.

In doing so, he caused quite a stir in his family - his father was strongly against the move, as he thought it was impossible to make quality wine in Mendoza. He did not support his son (the Attorney) taking such a risk. Nor, I imagine, did he want his family name to be associated with what he saw as such an un-tested wine region. However, Alessandro went ahead with it against his father’s wishes, and became the family’s ‘prodigal son.’ Prodigo was born.

Based La Consulta, Uco Valley – his favorite region for growing Malbec and home to some of Mendoza’s highest altitude vineyards - Alessandro began by crafting small quantities of two wines, Malbec Classico and Malbec Reserva. He has since added a Pinot Grigio and a Tempranillo, and is currently producing approximately 3,200 cases of Malbec Clasico, 1,500 cases of the Malbec Reserva, and 1,000 cases each of the Pinot Grigio and the Tempranillo. The wines are lovely - relatively light for Argentina, with a high acidity that evokes the hills of the Valpolicella and makes for perfect food pairings. His wines are served all over Italy, including Verona’s renowned Bottega del Vino, where it is served by the glass. This is saying quite a lot, given that very little wine is imported into Italy, other than Champagne (which I’ve been surprised to see a great deal of on this visit).

Alessandro is certainly not the only Italian making wine in Mendoza, with wineries like Ave beginning to make waves with wonderful wines that evoke the winery owners’ Tuscan roots. However, my personal connection aside, the Speri background makes this story all the more interesting and illustrative. While the wine world is quickly coming to accept Argentine wines as world class, the anger of the elder Speri exemplifies old world skepticism, and shows that while many of us are constantly looking for innovation, the wine ‘establishment’ has centuries’ old traditions and often closes its eyes to change. It has taken quite a while for many new world winemakers time to prove themselves to sommeliers and wine buyers, and even to their parents. (Perhaps especially to their parents.)

Despite his success in Argentina, and in the Italian import market, it wasn’t until recently that the real reward came for Alessandro. When his father tasted the 2006 vintage of Prodigo and smiled, not only did he acknowledge the full realization of his son’s dream, but also the immense potential of ascending wine regions such as Mendoza.

The prodigal son has made his father proud, and I am more excited than I can say to be part of the next chapter of the story.

1 comment:

  1. Aaron thanks for the information, I was just researching Verona for an essay I am writing, took a break and logged on the blog ~ it was a great surprise to see your post and get a glimpse on a more personal insight to the area....much better than my text...