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With his new memoir, wine expert Sergio Esposito is feeding the growing American appetite for the best Italy has to offer. By Joseph Guinto

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Two hours, three courses, and two bottles of wine into lunch, I finally feel like I’m getting to know Sergio Esposito. Going into this marathon meal, I thought I had a pretty good sense about this co-owner of Italian Wine Merchants -- a wine store and private-event and dinner space in Manhattan that’s also owned by Iron Chef Mario Batali and Italian wine guru Joe Bastianich. After all, I’d read Esposito’s new memoir , Passion on the Vine: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Family in the Heart of Italy (Broadway, $25), which is a sort of travelogue about his journeys through the Italian countryside -- his meeting, dining, and drinking with the country’s best winemakers. In the book, Esposito talks about how his family immigrated from Naples to Albany, New York, when he was a boy and about how he discovered his love of wine -- cheap, California jug wine, though it was -- while sitting on his uncle’s lap and getting a single sip at family meals. It sounded familiar. The Italian side of my family came from Sicily in Southern Italy and settled in upstate New York -- Syracuse, in our case. And, like Esposito, I fl ed the torturous winters of upstate New York at my first opportunity.

Yet even with our commonalities, and though he’s immediately gracious and hospitable and looks and sounds a lot like one of my cousins, there’s something closed off about Esposito at first. Indeed, it’s not until after we’ve polished off a variety of Italian cheeses, a house-cured fennel-studded salami, some white anchovies, cured Sardinian eel, ravioli stuffed with prosciutto, and a pan-seared turbot fillet served with cuttlefish and are crunching through a selection of cookies that he starts to open up -- smiling, laughing, and tossing out a few words that are saltier than the pecorino we began the meal with. Luckily, for the purposes of this story, there’s a nice simile here. Italian wine, like Esposito -- one of the foremost authorities on the subject in this country -- can be hard to get to know too. And it is certainly impossible to fully appreciate unless you’ve experienced it with a meal.

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Therein lies the problem for Italy’s best winemakers, whose stories Esposito shares in Passion on the Vine. “People like instant gratification,” he says during our meal in Italian Wine Merchants’ vintage tasting room . “And with Italian wines, you might not get that. It can take awhile to understand them. When I do speaking engagements about wine, people will say to me, ‘Italian wines don’t have a single identity,’ and I say, ‘Yeah. Duh. That’s the point.’ ”

But the point is also the problem. The greatest marketing weakness of Italian wines is their greatest viticultural strength. Perhaps no other country sports the tremendous diversity of wine styles that Italy does. Hundreds of different grapes are grown there, resulting in hundreds -- at least -- of different styles, from those in the chilly north to those in the steamy south. You can get your Cabernet, your Merlot, and your Chardonnay there, sure. But you can also get Sagrantino di Montefalco and Teroldego, which may be more expressive of the regions in which they’re grown but which you’ll rarely find in your corner wine store. On top of all that, Italy is so geographically and even culturally diverse that some Italian winemakers aren’t even recognizable as Italian. For instance, if you drink Chianti, you’ve probably heard of the names Ruffino and Antinori. But how about Aleš Kristanc?ic? ? Doesn’t exactly sound like a character on The Sopranos.

This is where Esposito can help. In Passion on the Vine, he introduces us to many winemakers, including Kristanc?ic?, who heads the Movia winery. It sits on land where Italy’s northeastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region meets Slovenia. Kristanc?ic? is a maverick who believes in challenging wine buyers, especially professional sommeliers. “Aleš wants you to struggle sometimes,” Esposito says. By way of example, our meal begins with a bottle of Movia’s Puro, a sparkling rosé that is bottled unfiltered, which means that when it’s opened, it has a layer of yeast and sediment that has to be disgorged. That’s done by holding the bottle upside down in a bucket of water. “I said to him, ‘Aleš, how do you expect a sommelier to go through all this in a busy restaurant?’ ” Esposito recalls. “And he told me, ‘That’s exactly the point. I want them to stop for a second and to understand what they are opening -- that they are not just opening a cork on another bottle, but to think about where this bottle came from, who made it, and how it was made.’ ”

That’s also what Esposito wants to get across to readers of his latest book. He wants us to know who the best producers of Italian wines are and why their products are worth our time even if they don’t have cute animals on the labels or the kind of big fruit flavors that American palates have been tuned to in the last couple of decades. “The greatest insight you’ll ever have into a wine is knowing the person who made it,” Esposito says. “When you meet someone like Bartolo Mascarello or Bruno Giacosa or whoever it may be, you learn that their wine is, in some cases, a mirror image of their personality. If they’re humble people, they make humble wines. If they’re full of themselves, that comes through too.”

Still, even with Esposito’s help, we can know these winemakers only at a distance. Unlike him, we may never cook a rabbit-sauce pasta with them in their kitchens. So for the rest of us to ultimately get to know the best makers of Italy’s best wines, we have to go a little further. We have to meet them, or at least their products, at the table.

“People in the U.S. separate food and wine and family, but in Italy, they all are the same thing,” Esposito says. “You don’t have wine without food, without family.” He points to a bottle of Manzoni di Valentino Pinonero, a red wine made from pinot noir grapes and which we’re having with the seared turbot, and adds, “For me, this wine supports this food. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The problem is, you need to know the food to figure out the wine. So that makes it a little more complicated than just grabbing a bottle off a store shelf.”

Complicated, yes. But deliciously so.


Three Names to Know

Here is a trio of Sergio Esposito’s favorite winemakers.

Bruno Giacosa, Piedmont “Giacosa makes a great sparkling wine and a great white wine. And all his reds are great, too -- from Nebbiolos, Dolcettos, all the way up to his Barbarescos and Barolos, which are fantastic.”

Giuseppe Quintarelli, Veneto “Quintarelli makes completely different wines. He makes Valpolicella, Amarone, and Recioto , plus sweet wines. If you stocked my fridge with just Quintarelli and Giacosa [wines], I’d be happy.”

Gianfranco Soldera, Tuscany “I think Gianfranco Soldera is the best winemaker in Italy. I did a tasting from wines in his cellar with Eric Asimov of the New York Times, and they were so good that Eric said to me, ‘I think I’m going to start crying.’ ”




COOKING CLASS
What food goes best with wine? How about Sergio Esposito’s own mother’s recipe for a slow-cooked rabbit sauce that in Passion on the Vine he describes making with Maurizio Anselma, one of Piedmont’s greatest winemakers. The book wasn’t exact on portions, but Esposito seemed pretty sure I could figure out how to make it. “It’s all in the book,” he said. “You just have to follow what we did.” Here’s my best guess.

Pasta with slow-cooked rabbit

INGREDIENTS
6 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 rabbit, deboned and cubed

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

4 large shallots, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or to taste

1 tablespoon each of chopped fresh rosemary and thyme

2 pounds roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped. (If tomatoes are out of season, use two 28-ounce cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained, crushed by hand, and with the juice squeezed from them. Or try three containers of Pomi-brand chopped tomatoes, also drained.)

1/2 bottle of dry white wine (from Anselma winery, perhaps, or something from the Campania region, where Esposito’s family is from)

1 pound store-bought fresh tagliatelle

1/2 cup each of pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

DIRECTIONS

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat.

Mix the flour with the paprika.

Dredge the rabbit in the mix, and then shake off excess.

Cook the rabbit over a medium flame for 5 minutes until browned on all sides.

Pour off the oil, keeping the rabbit in the pan.

Add 2 tablespoons fresh oil to the pan.

Add garlic, shallots, and red pepper. Cook 1 minute.

Add herbs and tomatoes. Cook several minutes to meld flavors.

Deglaze pan with half a bottle of dry white wine. Turn heat down to low. Simmer for 1 hour. (This would be a good time to do as Esposito did and drink the other half of the bottle of white wine with your guests.)

Heat a pot of water for the pasta. When the water boils and the sauce has cooked 1 hour, add the tagliatelle to the water. Cook for the required time, strain, and then add the pasta to the pan the sauce has been cooking in. Remove from the heat and add the cheeses.

Serve in four individual bowls, topping each with a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme and a light grating of cheese. Drizzle the remaining tablespoon of oil evenly over each bowl.