Authors: Marco Pasanella
I changed the names of some individuals and modified identifying features to preserve their anonymity. The goal in all cases was to protect individual privacy without damaging the integrity of the story.
Copyright © 2012 by Marco Pasanella
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
CLARKSON POTTER is a trademark and POTTER with colophon is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Pasanella, Marco, 1962–
Uncorked : my journey through the crazy world of wine / Marco Pasanella.
1. Pasanella, Marco, 1962– 2. Wine and wine making—Anecdotes. 3. Wine industry—New York (State)—New York—Anecdotes. 4. Pasanella and Son, Vintners (Firm) 5. Merchants—New York (State)—New York—Biography.
I. Title. II. Title: One man’s journey through the crazy world of wine.
Jacket design by Stephanie Huntwork
Interior photography: © Tetra Images/Getty Images
Jacket photography: © Henrik Bostrom/Flickr/Getty Images
© Stockbyte/Getty Images
To my son, Luca—
look what your dad got you into
purplish ooze bubbled out of the bottom of the shipping container sitting on the dock at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. It looked just like the putrefying goo that seeps under the locked doors of self-storage units in cable TV dramas, tipping off the cops to the corpses
At least that’s what I pictured in 2009 as I learned that the steel box filled with 7,800 bottles of my wine, the one on which I had bet the farm, was stranded on the dock during Memorial Day weekend. One hour at 200 degrees—the temperature of a car seat after just sixty minutes in the sun—is all it would take to obliterate five years of work, worry, debt, and sacrifice. I had dumped a successful career, tripled our mortgage, stressed my marriage, and maxed out our credit cards. Was it all going to be for fifteen hundred gallons of grape-flavored sludge? What, I agonized, was I going to find when I cracked open the first bottle?
This was not the joyous rebirth I had imagined a few years before
, winemakers assumed that a good till reanimated the soil. To start afresh, they believed, you just needed to turn all the soil upside down. They dutifully hoed their vineyards twice a year: once at the end of the growing season and again just before spring. Plowing peaked during the 1980s as interest in wine boomed worldwide. If the traditional light turnover twice a year was good, the enthusiastic hoers believed, a deep cleansing every few months with a five-hundred-horsepower Disk Ripper tiller was better.
In recent years, partly as a result of the advent of natural winemaking, plowing has become more thoughtful. Some conscientious growers have turned away from machines, which can chop up the roots along with the weeds, and toward horse-drawn plows. Old-fashioned tilling, they believe, gives you more control, preventing damage while breaking up undesirable plants and encouraging the vines to grow deeper by gently loosening the surrounding earth. “Go slow,” they intone. “Be careful.”
Other winemakers favor planting over plowing. During the off-season, they grow cover crops such as peas, oats, and
clover between the rows of vines to minimize soil erosion. “Don’t churn up dust,” the nurturers aver. “Sprinkle some seed.”
Some die-hard naturalists eschew both sowing and digging. The less they touch the soil, the better.
HE FISH GUY VANISHED
. My wife, Becky, and I had barely managed to scrape together the down payment on our waterfront wreck of a five-story industrial building in Lower Manhattan’s old Fulton Fish Market. But without the rent from the fish guy we weren’t going to be able to live there, much less make any improvements (windows would be nice), unless we found a new tenant to replace him on the ground floor. Months passed until we finally found the perfect one: an enthusiastic would-be wineshop owner willing to take over the space. The only problem was that
he was me
I can’t say that I was actively unhappy with my career in design—just a little stuck. I had recently finished doing the interiors of the Maritime, a trendy boutique hotel in Chelsea, and a penthouse triplex in the Hotel des Artistes, a labor of love. I had written a decorating how-to book,
Living in Style Without Losing Your Mind
. I had designed and curated an exhibition on the next wave of product designers for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. I had taught at Parsons the New School for Design for more than a decade. I was still writing my column for the
New York Times
occasionally. But I started to have rumblings.
“IT HAS TO BE THE BLUE GRANITE,”
proclaimed my client with the closetful of Manolo Blahniks and the kitchen lined with empty teak cabinets. “But you already had them cut the Calacatta,” I reminded the woman who was already on the third renovation in just as many years. “We finalized that six weeks ago,” I added, trying to mask my impatience.
“I know,” the put-together blonde admitted sheepishly, and then cooed, “Darling, just tell them to take it back. They can sell it to someone else.”
“And please,” she added offhandedly, “make sure I get full credit. Thanks, love.”
I looked at the two-foot stack of stone samples for the countertops at my feet, the piles of fabric swatches arrayed on my desk, the bulletin board with the inspirational magazine clippings. I surveyed it all and realized that I had had enough.
This type of design wasn’t making lives better. It wasn’t even making anyone’s life prettier. This was going in circles.
I needed to break the cycle.
So I opened up the fifty-year-old Laubade armagnac that my mom had given me. I doused the desk, set it on fire, closed the door, and never looked back.
In reality, I did what people of my background do: I reached into the wine rack and whipped out the best bottle Becky and I had, a brunello riserva we had been given as a wedding present. The tannic red needed another five years before it would be ready to drink. “Screw it,” I told myself, “I’m taking action.” As I strained to sip my big glass of bitter red wine, I pondered. After a half an hour, the glass was empty. My mouth felt dry. Still no
epiphany. But I knew I had to find a way off my upholstered hamster wheel.
Tibor Kalman, the late graphic designer and a friend, once told me that he tried never to do anything more than twice. The first time, he reasoned, you panicked, made mistakes, but also had the freshness and the passion to do it well. The second time, you could reduce the anxiety and the screwups but still be excited about the product. By the third time, however, Tibor contended, it all became too rote. The bumps were smoothed out, but so was the passion. Tibor, I should point out, was a little nuts. But his worldview resonated with me. I could design another hotel or more fancy apartments. But was more the answer?
I wanted a change but was not going to shave my head and move to Tibet. Instead, in the year I turned forty, I finally got married and bought a house. But I was still restless. I’ve never really had a career track as much as a career web, albeit always rooted in design. I’ve made furniture, licensed housewares, designed apartments, and written about architecture, though I never really felt as if I had left any of those jobs behind forever.
In Italy, where I spent summers and holidays growing up, this kind of vocational variation seemed to be no big deal. Carlo Mollino was as well-known for his chairs as for his buildings—as well as for his pornography. Massimo Vignelli (“If you can design one thing, you can design everything.”) created the iconic 1972 New York City subway map, equally iconic dishes, and, no less important to me, the wine label for one of my favorite producers, Feudi San Gregorio. And I’ve always identified with multidisciplinary types. Not so much with the big geniuses such as Leonardo, but with Renaissance men writ small, such as David Byrne: art rock
plus Latin music plus biking (an interest we share). Or my friend Douglas Riccardi, half hip Brooklynite, half Italian grandma: he makes his own pasta as well as his own driftwood furniture (and weaves the rush seats).