Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Importers of Authentic Italian Wines - Part 1

Fontanafredda Estate in Serralunga d'Alba, one of the great Italian wine producers whose wines are imported by Domiane Select (Photo by Tom Hyland)

I can think of hundreds of ways that are easier to make money than importing Italian wines. Thank goodness there are enough dedicated individuals who do this work year in and year out, so we can taste the distinctiveness of what Italian wine producers have to offer.

It’s one thing to import a few trophy wines such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino or Amarone, but along with those selections, importers must also carry Dolcetto, Barbera and Chianti Classico along with speciality wines such as Rosso Conero, Aglianico del Vulture and Vermentino. These three wines – along with dozens of other unique offerings – are wonderful, but in reality, how often do you see these wines on restaurant lists or on retail shelves? Clearly someone who brings in these wines is a believer in the quality of Italian wines from across the country.

Add to this the fact of the relationship of the US dollar versus the Euro and you can understand the difficulty in making the importing of Italian wines your business. Thankfully, the dollar has become stronger over the past six months, so prices are not as unreasonable as they were over the past few years, but it is still a difficult proposition.

So in this post and the next, I want to single out a few importers of small estate Italian wines. These businessmen are committed to offering wines that are based on indigenous and not international grapes and for that, we should all be thankful.

Paolo Domeneghetti – Domaine Select
Paolo Domeneghetti, a native of Italy, founded Domaine Select in 1999 and today this Manhatttan-based company is one of the key importers of Italian wines in the United States. While he imports wines from small estates from other countries as well (including France, Germany, Austria and Chile), Italian wines are his specialty.

Domeneghetti’s portfolio is one of the most impressive collections of Italian wines you’ll find anywhere. There is a nice mix of estates from virually every region in Italy and while he has a number of famous estates that are well known to Italian wine lovers (such as Fontanafredda, J. Hofstatter and Edoardo Valentini), his book is filled with small estates that produce wines of the highest quality, yet are terribly unknown. These include Vinosia from Campania (the most recent estate of the Ercolino brothers who founded Feudi di San Gregorio), Villa Sparina, a highly original producer of Gavi and Tenuta Olveto and Il Palazzone, two producers of Brunello di Montalcino that release balanced and subtle bottlings of this iconic red.

On a personal note, Domeneghetti features reviews on his website from numerous publications, big and small. He has included some of my reviews from my newsletter (Guide to Italian Wines) as well as from some of the top wine blogs. This is typical of the vision he has; too many importers are only willing to print reviews from the Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate, as they believe those are the only two wine publications that matter. Clearly, Domeneghetti believes otherwise.

Domeneghetti’s book is constantly changing, a sign that Paolo is always looking for the best Italian wines estates. I’ve seen him in action in Italy- he truly is tireless!

Bruno Nada, a Barbaresco producer, whose wines are imported by Premium Brands (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Paolo Boselli – Premium Brands
Paolo Boselli is one of the true gentlemen in the importing business. In his early 70s, he continues to build a remarkable portfolio of Italian wines at his company based in Forest Hills, NY.

You won’t find too many big names in his book, but if you are looking for wines from small estates that echo the local terroir, this is the place. He’s done a wonderful job with producers from Barbaresco, for example, with the wines from Fiorenzo Nada and Fontanabianca (both of whom received a coveted Tre Bicchieri rating from Gambero Rosso in their 2009 guide). He also represents a great grappa producer from Piemonte, Marolo, whose bottlings, from nebbiolo and moscato grappa to camomile liquor, are truly amazing. He also represents small Barolo estates, such as Bruna Grimaldi and Bel Colle.

Casa Emma, San Felice and Lilliano are three of his excellent estates in Chianti Classico; other producers worth noting include Guado al Melo from Bolgheri; Panizzi, an outstanding producer of Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Isoidoro Polencic from Friuli (another Tre Bicchieri winner for 2009). You’ll also find producers from just about every region in Italy, including Valle d’Aosta, Emilia-Romagna and Liguria.

Paolo’s son Alessandro ably assists his father in day-to-day operations and together they continue to build one of the most notable collections of Italian wines in America today.

Ancient Vine at Giuseppe Apicella Estate near Amalfi Coast, Campania. Apicella's wines are imported by Wine Emporium
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Franco Bengasi – Wine Emporium
Franco Bengasi is typical of many importers of Italian wines in this country in that he does a lot of work himself, from visiting Italy and finding new and/or unrepresented producers to going out in New York City (his offices are in Brooklyn) and tasting the wines with customers. Franco does have Agnes in his office to help, but it’s up to him to make his business work- there’s no team of 25 salespeople here!

Bengasi, a native of Campania, does not have a huge portfolio; rather it’s a small, well thought out selection with some real gems. He represents the wines of Sergio Barale of Barolo, a vastly underrated producer, who also happens to craft a lovely, non-oak aged Chardonnay (I rarely care much for Chardonnay from Piemonte, but I love this one). He also has the wines of Tiburzi, a relatively new producer of Sagrantino di Montefalco wines; they are modern is style, but offer gorgeous fruit and aren’t overwhelming in their tannins.

From his home region, Bengasi has the wines of Giuseppe Apicella from the Amalfi Coast, I Borboni from Caserta (a gorgeous passito offering of Aspirinio di Aversa) and from the Taburno area, the wines of Fontanavecchia, which produces first-rate bottlings of Aglianico (their regular 2004 Aglianico del Taburno is a steal at less than $20). This is a nice mix of Campanian producers; it’s nice to see that there is an importer that understands there is more to this region than Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Taurasi.

Then there is the excellent Franciacorta brand Monte Rossa as well as Gradiscuitta, a producer from Friuli that should be better known. You get the idea – Franco Bengasi has done his homework and represents the true spirit of Italian wine.


  1. now imagine how difficult it is importing italian wine to south africa with the rand (its currency) at 13.43 to the euro.

    great list of items though; plenty of quality producers.

  2. Lorenzo:

    I can only imagine. It's probably difficult in other countires as well. Thanks for the information.