Proprietor, Giannoni Selections
Organic/Bio-dynamic Wine Importer
The best moment is around 8:00 PM when everyone is gone. The weed whackers, the tractors ‘sono spenti.’ They're off and we joke that we have what's called 'planter's hour.' This is when a planter, or a grower, sits outside on the terrace drinking a glass of wine. That is the best moment of the day but you have to wait until eight.
Interview by Heidi Legg
For close to a decade, Gemma Iannoni was a familiar resource for foodies in Boston from her perch at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge. Today, she is living in Italy and founder of an Italian/Boston based wine importing business called Giannoni Selections. Her decision to pack it all up and head to Italy to live on a vineyard and import wine bears all the turning points of a perfect midlife novel: Peter Mayle, Frances Mayes and even, the iconic drinking haunts and discoveries of Hemingway come to mind.
[On that note: please send any publishers to my agent Robert Guinsler at Sterling Lord Literary in NYC who has my latest novel, Chasing Jane – winemaking, middle-age and escapism cloaked in fiction. The East Coast protagonist escapes her own midlife and moves to California where her grandmother, Jane, back in 1960, bought vineyard acreage and left her secrets with it. Don't you want to read it? After 90 interviews, I can't help but use this platform for personal use. Therein, I ask you to send any publisher friends to Guinsler at Sterling Lord Literary. Writing is a tough business and, apparently, shameless.]
With that said, Iannoni's story has appealed to me for a long time. I hardly know her but have asked about her work, winemaking and harvests and recent move to Italy since we began TheEditorial.com. Whenever I would run into her around Cambridge, I would ask her when and if we could sit down and record her story. There are many people like that for me around this City. For that is the tapestry of a place – The people in it making things and being deeply interested in a subject and following it through as far as it will take them. Such a practice is also available in the freedom of a democracy and functioning economy. You see, craft production represents something of value to me – The freedom to explore and build market based on craft and deep interest. I would argue this is something not to be taken for granted, today. And wait until you hear the love story that winds through Iannoni's path. Honestly, sit back and escape your life for a few minutes. About 8 minutes to be exact.
Many locals in Cambridge remember you from Formaggio Kitchen, a small, local boutique food shop, where you spent years recommending fine and, often for me, inexpensive bottles of wine and imported cheese. Now you are living the dream. Can you tell us how it came to be?
I'm not sure I'd quite call it a dream! It's a small wine importing company that includes myself and another woman who does the sales. I'm based mostly in the northeast corner of Italy. Most people don't even know where to find Corno di Rosazzo, but it's right on the border of Slovenia, about an hour and a half northeast of Venice.
Is there more tourism in that area than before?
It’s slowly increasing but it's for really passionate folks who make their own way over there. It's not on the radar of people who go to, say, Tuscany or Rome or even Umbria. Maybe the people who visit Barolo might make it to Friuli if they like white wine. It's more white wine centric.
What drew you there?
It was the people at first. I think I did six harvests, if I remember correctly, as a secondary wine buyer going way back to my time at Formaggio. Then I became a wine buyer in 2008, and I was introduced to these wonderful people who were growers in Corno di Rosazzo. The son was visiting Cambridge and going around the market with his importer which is exactly what I do now when I come to Boston, taking producers around. But while I was at Formaggio, I was introduced to this young grower and, admittedly, he was fairly handsome and I asked if I could do harvest for him in Italy and shockingly he said, 'yes.' Now that I know this family really well, I'm really surprised he said, 'yes' back then. (Laughs)
They're very introverted in many respects, and are representative of northern Italian people, especially those in Veneto and Friuli.
I am sure it’s not every day that an American asks you if they can come harvest for him. So was your question unusual for him?
These are folks who've lived all over the world. They lived in Africa for about twenty years working in the UN, so they're similar to Cambridge people. I really enjoyed being around them and stayed up 'til two a.m. talking about Italian politics and Boston and everything in between. I was cleaning the cassette in which you harvest the grapes (weighing 22 kg or so, when full), and actually picking grapes sometimes, and being bitten by a million mosquitoes, flies, and everything else that’s out in the field. I got to know these people really well and a relationship developed between the father and me, instead of the young man who I was admiring.
A romantic relationship?
After his wife died. Yes.
This is a novel, not an interview about a wine startup, says the fiction writer. Are you kidding? How many years ago was this?
I’m not kidding. This was 2012, back when this piece of the story began.
Are you still involved?
Yes. His wife actually said to him, 'you know, Gemma's not coming to see Mario [the son]. She's coming to see you.' She said this to her husband, who's now my partner, Ferdinando.
Before she died?
Before she died. It’s complicated.
Life is beautiful and has many turns. I think it may be interesting for readers to know that we interviewed Ihsan Gurdal, the founder of Formaggio, very early on in our series. In it, he describes the informal program he runs with employees where he encourages them to go work and spend time in the area where they are buying. And in that he talked about his employees going their own way. Why did you go off on your own?
I had been working on my language skills ever since college back in New York City at Barnard, and I took Italian for a few years. Language, culture, and food were all in my background. My grandparents had a pizzeria. I've pretty much worked in food from the day I went to high school. When I was at Formaggio, I certainly had the opportunity to travel to food centers through the store although I will say, I definitely supported some of it myself and certainly all the harvests were during my summer vacations where, essentially, I would clean cassette and load a wine press.
So asking to work on a harvest is something you’ve done before?
No but I do feel like I was part of the dream team of cheese mongers and wine people at Formaggio before it kind of disbanded. Jason Sobocinski who now has a shop in New Haven, was one of my mentors, as well as Robert Aguilera who hired me.
Where is he now?
I believe he is still selling cheese-making products, maybe for a Canadian company. You learn so much at Formaggio because it's like being surrounded by a library of basically foreign food and like-minded peers. We push each other but it also has this piece that's quite challenging which is the frenetic environment and all the different personalities all the time. If you can imagine Cambridge, it's certainly a great place to find a million different personalities. At a certain point, and maybe it took me a little bit longer than other people, I had to move on. I had a parent dying in between, which was kind of a catalyst to figuring out what was important.
My father passed away of pancreatic cancer after my ninth year of working at Formaggio, maybe eighth, but it was a long time.
So you set off to do the harvest?
I had done five at that point. It was a question of figuring it out. I'd always talked about writing a business plan but never really had the tools to do it and Ferdinando, who had been running companies in Nigeria, really helped me with that and then it became fun crunching numbers and seeing the business side, something I never saw at Formaggio.
Was Ferdinando already present in the US market with his wines?
He was present and then he disappeared, and I'm certainly working to reinstate his presence. I think people have always identified with his wines. I was a pretty big proponent of them, certainly at Formaggio. We had a direct relationship. I had another importer clearing wine for me.
Were you involved with him romantically at that point?
No. No. Go back. The son came to the store and then we started the relationship around the harvest. I was still working at Formaggio. They broke up with their importer and Formaggio and Violette Wines (next to Sofra) brought his wines in from Italy, but I really spearheaded that.
When did you decide to move to Italy?
It was 2013. In the fall, I gave my notice and packed everything up in January. And in the middle of winter, Ferdinando thought I would probably stall and maybe take another month or two, but I managed to do it on time. My father had passed away in September of 2012.
So you’re in Italy in 2014. What was your mission?
At that point, I think it was probably to breathe and to establish some space and time for myself because the Formaggio lifestyle, although it's fun and very exhilarating, it's also very exhausting working from 11 AM to 9 PM every night and really putting your heart and soul into every interaction.
So you're in Italy and breathing... Then what happens?
I'm breathing and trying to figure out what to do with wine. I had some help from Richard at Violette Imports figuring it all out. I realized the licensing process is super intense in the US to import wine, and decided to get creative. In your interview with Peter Fritschel, he mentioned "Selezioni di Gemma." That was the early thinking.
What were the steps?
The first step is finding growers. I was pretty desperate for winemakers in Italy to work with me because it's not all the time that people are willing to sell wine to you when you don’t have an established market in the U.S. By collaborating with Violette Wine Cellars, my wines were only aimed at final clients. Now, I sell to retailers and restaurateurs.
Producers want me to support their wines in more in-depth ways, not to just sell to a final client. Finding people who would sell me wine was a real challenge at first but I sort of stumbled upon some people who were really great. I had the I Clivi brand, which was a good start. Now I have fourteen brands: twelve Italian and two Slovenian and the focus is certainly on producers who are located in the most prestigious terroir which is the best soils most adapted to high quality production. Some people look in the nooks and crannies for wine producers, and maybe they're doing the right thing because they're paying lower prices for those wines from the cellar, but in the end the wines might be less memorable and at this point I'm trying to put myself on the map by offering clients wines that are a little different, that will make an impact and will be memorable.
Is it impossible to get well known vineyards to give you their wines to sell?
That is absolutely true.
Where, in terms of market maturity, is the area in Italy you are covering? Napa, for example, here in the US is so fully commercialized now. Is this area undiscovered?
I don't have the scale to be able to represent the big brands, yet. They would be looking for someone who has ten sales people on the ground in Boston to represent them.
The regions that I’m focusing on represent some of the more mature markets, including Piedmont and Tuscany. That said, there is innovation happening even there, it’s just harder to pinpoint. There are small producers in some of the top appellations who are unknown and making exceptional wine—my (certified biodynamic) Barolo producer, Eugenio Bocchino is proof of this. As a startup, the biggest challenge is competition. I’m up against established wineries and brands that are imported by companies that are even willing to take a loss on a high volume product to get in the door of an important client. This describes the realm of big-box liquor store—a sector that actually brings value to what I do as smaller or mid-sized retailers try to distinguish themselves through rarer, less ubiquitous products in order to stay in business.
Why are you able to access these areas in Italy? I would think Italy is fully discovered and represented?
That goes back to those relationships that I was building during the time at Formaggio when I was traveling and going to harvest and going to shows which were mainly focused on organic, biodynamic folks who were working as naturally as possible.
Recently this past year when I was forming my company, a local importer - I won't name names - was very frustrated because a producer in Veneto had signed on with me and didn't go with him. He's like the $10 million company with something like 200 producers. I feel quite honored but that goes back to relationships. Also, what kind of exposure is that wine producer really going to get in that size of portfolio?
In which areas are i Clivi’s vineyards situated and what growing area do you represent where you live in Italy?
Fruili-Venezia Guilia but there are two growing regions that are more distinctive - Collio and Friuli Colli Orientali, which are where Ferdinando's vineyards are located. That’s some of the best terroir that you can get in Italy for white wine production.
The soils themselves have been related to the Côte-d’Or, Burgundy soils. The soil composition is similar in that it's a sea-bed that has risen gradually over the past sixty million years, or something like that, and it's basically a calcareous clay-marl, that contains marine deposits that have fossilized, sandwiched between layers of sandstone. So, it's like an ancient terroir that has produced, historically, some of the world's greatest wines. The most expensive wine in the world comes from Montrachet (a Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune), and Friuli has some inkling of Montrachet in it based on the soil – we're very pleased.
Is it best for growing white or red wine grapes?
What conditions make a white wine so special?
White wine is really much more difficult to make than red, in many respects, because you need temperature control and a very gentle pressing. This area is one that is known for macerated wines, which means the process is like steeping tea. The longer you leave the tea bag in the tea, the more tannic it gets and kind of coats your mouth. They're left inside the grape skin longer and it gives it color and it’s almost like making like a red wine out of white wine.
Is it like a rose?
No. Rose is usually just a matter of hours in terms of skin contact although Pinot Grigio does produce a rose-like color naturally.
My objective has always been to look for producers who try to get as close as possible to the varietal itself and to native varietals. Those are the two pieces that are really important to me. One that really fascinates me is Ribolla Gialla, which is actually from the town where I'm living, Corno di Rosazzo. There's an ancient abbey that holds all the records recording this grape and the wines that have been produced. The Austrian Empire used to purchase wine from vineyards in this area, to give you an idea of its historical importance.
Another varietal that's produced there that's really important is Friulano. It used to be called Tocai Friulano, until the Hungarians took over the name because they actually have a wine region called Tokai. Also, Verduzzo. There are a bunch of local varietals in our area, mainly white, that are cultivated but then you see a lot of international varietals that have come in as well such as Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. We have old Merlot vines that are something like seventy years old now.
What do old vines give wine?
Old vines give kind of a level of character that usually you can't get with young vines: nuance, depth, a range of flavors that are usually much more interesting. But then again it really depends on the hand of the producer. It’s a question of going back to cleanliness in the cellar, temperature control – they have to interfere as little as possible and this area is known for making red wines out of white wines. So, they make dark orange wines and they're thick. They have very little fruit.
You can make them sweet. Most people do dry but it's just a question of texture and the flavor profile. They're less fruity but that's not what I'm after. I'm after really pure, transparent wines. If you look at the color of i Clivi wines, they tell you everything. It comes from a pressing that's as gentle as champagne is pressed. So, whole clusters of grapes are being pressed extremely gently. So if you look at the grapes after the press, they're still full of juice.
A lot of people are crushing and de-stemming and we call that 'making minestrina' instead of doing whole cluster press because you basically abandon a good amount of production - like 10% is just discarded.
What do you do with the leftover grapes?
Some you reintegrate into the soil as a type of fertilizer. The skins of some get taken to a local distillery. It's a big area for Grappa production. It's actually mandated that producers send their skins off to be pressed and distilled.
Is that mandating a good thing?
It's kind of a bad thing because we have to pay to have them shipped off. It's sort of annoying.
Life in Italy has to be a lot different than here. What is the reality of living over there in a small town?
It's really funny. I put a video up on Instagram last week of my desk and the sights and sounds. My desk overlooks a vineyard of Tocai Friulano grapes and living on a vineyard means having people around that are working in the vineyard. In the background of that video is literally a weed whacker. My mom's friend's joke that they live vicariously through me and I roll my eyes because I'm envisioning me sitting at a desk trying to get work done to a weed whacker looking at the Euro to see whether it's going up or down.
The best moment is around 8:00 PM when everyone is gone. The weed whackers, the tractors ‘sono spenti.’ They're off and we joke that we have what's called 'planter's hour.' This is when a planter, or a grower, sits outside on the terrace drinking a glass of wine. That is the best moment of the day but you have to wait until 8:00.
How is it going as a new importer over here?
So far, so good. We have about 14 producers we represent. We're everywhere where I was hoping to be in terms of retailers and restaurants. For example, Bar Mezzana recently opened in the Ink Block, they are carrying our wines by the glass and we have seven on the list. We are also at Alden & Harlow who just won 'Best of Boston,' and we are listed at new hot spot, Shepard, in Cambridge. It's an incremental process getting wine on lists. Especially when restaurants are already established, it's sort of a painstaking process. The Wine Bottega has been very supportive with great people and a similar focus. Puritan & Co., Peter Nelsen has always been a proponent. I guess people might look at me and think back to that brand of Formaggio being one that's a bit curated, as much as I hate to use that word because it's so pretentious.
There is a problem with "pretention" in the wine industry and guys in suits and we sort of do everything possible to not be pretentious.
Do you think curating is important? I don't want robots sending me everything. I want the personal investment and knowledge and time.
We're doing quite well in Boston. In the greater Boston area, let's say, our challenge will be to get some wine up to the North Shore. The Market Restaurant in Gloucester and Wine Sense in Andover are two examples of places we are excited to be working with.
What public opinion do you want to change?
There's certainly a level of bureaucracy that's impossible - with label approvals. I feel like it's a layer that could just be eliminated completely and they could put those tax dollars toward something absolutely more useful. Certainly the waste of time and efforts on the part of the state for controlling this industry - some of the controls are just tremendous but all in all, I wouldn't say I have a huge public opinion or something I would like to change - not something that's as important as looking into some of the other issues out there like refugees and #buildthewall and climate change. I mean, my issues are sort of small potatoes to be honest. Keeping it in perspective.
I would say being a female in this industry is really hard even, although, supposedly women have a better sense of smell than men. So, more women should infiltrate it but the reality is that I think there might be some prejudice there and it's a challenge for sure.
How are you trying to grow in the next year? What do you want to change?
I would say definitely trying to narrow my list of products - curate better than I have this past year - always trying to do things tighter. For example, my rose program is not up to snuff right now. Seeing the walls of pink wine that were out there over the summer and I wasn't really a part of it because my producers just don't focus on rose. And to sign on with a producer just for the fact that they produce rose is sort of against my inner belief.
Maybe the trend will pass?
Maybe, but I would say I should pay attention to trends more than I have and keep my ears open to my colleague and Sales Director Andrea Alexander. She has a really good sense of those kinds of things, whereas I sort of have a producer's perspective.
But how can you produce something that doesn’t exist in your market?
True. I won’t ever be importing wine in a can, not to offend anyone who is importing wine in a can. I started seeing that recently and, well, that's maybe for others. Not for me.
If importing wine from Italy and living there is actually work and filled with distractions, where do you unwind?
Actually, I want to move to Greece.
What about Ferdinando?
Ferdinando does too. To Corfù. I love it there. It's where I try to go once or twice a year to unwind. The water is so clear. There are no jellyfish. Italy is full of jellyfish, especially in Liguria, near Portofino. I love that area too. That was always my first love but I've shifted south and it's right across from my own familial roots, which is Puglia.
But, I really love Corfù. The Venetians colonized it, too. So, the population speaks Italian and it's a really cool place.
How's the wine in Corfù?
The wine is tough. There's actually only one DOC there. So, it's really not identified as a major wine-producing island like Santorini but who knows?
Will you have a wine program here for people to buy wines from you over there?
I would love to do like a CSA with a shop at some point. I haven't quite identified who would be willing. I'd obviously have to do it through restaurants and stores. It's a bummer to put that third layer of cost on it but you can find our wines now in many retails shops now in Boston.
Where should I visit in your area in Italy?
I have to start with food and wine. L’Argine a Venco, which is a restaurant that recently opened, another startup, by a brilliant women who's from Trieste. She's a magnificent chef. It is all local, seasonal. They have their own garden. Their place is 700 meters from where I live. I feel so lucky. Although by road you have to go like ten minutes because you can't walk over the hill. But I love eating there and we eat there frequently probably once every week or two weeks just because it's so convenient.
Bringing me to another place, Trieste, is a crossroads to Eastern Europe over here. It has so many cultures. It has the largest piazza in Italy – Piazza Unità is a beautiful place.
Any thoughts on the US election as an American living in Europe?
I'm scared. I'm currently working on my Italian citizenship to be quite honest as my backup plan. I'm actually going to be here in November. We are going to be in town with a producer from Chianti. Hillary Clinton, as much as I felt the Bern, I can't let Donald Trump do anything with this country. It would just be such an embarrassment.
What do Italians say about the election?
They're embarrassed for us. They're shocked and they're dismayed. It's awful.
A couple wines we should drink this fall to get through it?
Drink as much Barolo as you can drink and afford. I would say mine – little self-promotion here – Eugenio Bocchino’s Barolo “Lu” is biodynamic, from older vines which is not easy to find because people want to grow as many grapes as possible and make as much wine as possible. Did you know that a hectare in Barolo goes for $3 million? In Proseco Valdobbiadene, it goes for about $1 million. I mean, we're talking real estate. So, going back to what to drink. Barolo and i Clivi Galea or Brazen are the two cru-vineyards that are made right from where I live. I think two brilliant white wines that are two of the top white wines in Italy, and sort of lesser known and just superb: They retail for around $38 for the I Clivi cru wines and for Barolo, I'd say between $75-$85. It’s a weekend wine or, (laughs) New Year’s wine.