A Few Words with Giovanni Pagano, Scuola di Vino
My first impression of Giovanni Pagano was through one of the wines he imports, Cantina Giardino’s “Adam,” a skin-fermented Greco from Campania. It was miraculous and I mean this literally as it had a soulfulness that made me wonder if God is camped out not in a cannabis plant but somewhere in the hills of Campania. There is a lot of great wine made throughout the world but few that are metaphysical. After this initial meeting, I ran into Giovanni a few times in San Francisco and then, he moved back to Modena, where he grew up and now runs his business.
When he was 19, Pagano left Italy for New York City to work for his uncle who had several restaurants. He did just about every and anything needed in the front of the house, wearing the hats of busboy, runner, waiter and bartender. After graduating from the school of hard family knocks, he became the “bar guy” at Esca[i] where “he fell in love with wine.” From there, he went to Abboccato starting as a Maître D before taking over the wine program. Three years later, Esca hired him back, this time as the wine director.
In 2008, he moved to San Francisco continuing to work with Italian wines at Sociale and Uva. His last stop before starting Scuola di Vino was helping Anthony Mangieri open Una Pizza Napoletana, which many consider the best pizza place in the Bay Area.
Even though he is based in Italy, Gio spends a lot of time in California. At present, he is a one-man show and feels that staying in touch with his customers and having face time is just as crucial as spending time with his producers. This says something about his old fashion and old world ideas about business. He was in town in March and we spoke a then and have been in touch a few times since about his work and the current state of natural wine in Italy.
PSB: What made you want to import wine?
GP: I worked in the wine business for a long time in New York and San Francisco as a sommelier and also wine buyer. I’ve always been very attracted by wine. The restaurant (business) was a little tough on the body. I felt that wine was a little more my personality. The idea was to open a wine company with international wine. Now little by little I’ve sharpened it up. The goal is to become the best natural wine importer for Italian wines.
PSB: Which wineries did you sign first when you started out?
GP: My first two wineries were Cantina Giardino and Ferdinando Principiano. Both outstanding producers and very well regarded in the natural wine world.
PSB: Did you want to work exclusively with natural wines from the beginning?
GP: I started out with the idea to do natural wines. I’ve been learning as I go. To me at first, natural was if you worked organically. If you did a good job, if you used a little sulfur, you were natural. Along the way I’ve realized certain wines are really not natural.
PSB: At this point what would you say makes a wine natural?
GP: Real natural wine is made without anything besides maybe a little sulfur or copper in the vineyard, but don’t use chemicals and basically in the winery, just use grapes. Ideally, you work without sulfur, 30, 40 parts (parts per million) at the most. Some wineries are semi-natural so they start filtering their wines and use sulfur where they have maybe 80 parts. I still have some wineries like that. In Italy, there are 15 – 20 that are made without sulfur.[ii] You get used to drinking these wines without sulfur added and there’s no going back.
You need to go and see sulfur. It’s like this white powder. If you’re this person who wants to drink a bottle of wine a day with food I think you’re poisoning yourself. Real natural wine is just made with grapes. Of course, if you have wines that are just made with grapes you may have some VA (volatile acidity) and some reduction but that’s fine as long as the wine is very good. What I’m trying to do is find these wineries that work this way that are good. I’ve found some but the wines are not good and I can’t bring them in.
But also being honest with you, being here for a month and a half it’s amazing to see how much ignorance there is of natural wines. They (wine buyers) think you work organically and you’re natural. There is a misconception, even of what natural wine is. There is a long way to go and a lot to learn. I think it is good for people who import natural wine to go and train the staff and show what natural wine is. A lot of restaurants try to have natural wine and there is a lot of confusion.
PSB: At least some are making efforts.
GP: I don’t understand why so many restaurants go out of the way to buy organic produce and organic meat and they serve conventional wine.
PSB: How has your business changed since you moved back to Modena?
GP: When you’re there, you cut a lot of deals. You’re with the producers all the time. They trust you. It really creates a solid connection. I just found a new winery outside of Bologna. I found a guy in Sardinia. I keep finding these small wineries that work really well. The goal is to find things no one else has ever seen, to keep finding these up and coming natural wineries and introduce them to San Francisco and little by little New York.
I was in Lazio in a restaurant that specializes in natural wines and they already told me about three or four wineries that are specializing in natural wine. In Sicily, I found young guys they are my age that got the vineyard from their grandfather.
PSB: Some of your wineries have been imported before and have a following. How do you offer something different or better than other importers?
GP: You need strong producers to build your list around but you also need to do your homework and always find new things that nobody else has. Cantina Giardino was imported before but only the Le Fole and the Paski was brought in. I believed in everything they produced like Greco Adam, Greco Tarara’, Fiano Gaia, Fiano Sophia, Coda di Vole “Volpe Rosa”, Aglianico Drogone, Aglianico Nude, Aglianico Clown, and all of their mags. I think I saw immediately something strong in perspective that the previous importer maybe didn’t. It’s like having Maradona playing for your team, and you keep him on the bench.
PSB: Fuck Maradona. Messi! Messi!
GP: I grew up watching Maradona. I was a Naples fan as a kid. What a player. Very strong and charismatic. Messi is faster than Maradona; the ball is glued to Messi’s feet. Unbelievable.
OK, back to wine.
GP: The same will be for Le Coste. Le Coste makes 26 wines!! And little by little, I will bring them all in. Ca’ de Noci makes ten wines and so on, so these wineries were brought in before but I am trying to promote everything they do since these wines are delicious. My strength is that I am small and I only do natural Italian wines, so I can invest in all of their wines.
I try to develop a real strong relationship and friendship with all my producers. I also visit them as much as I can and try to grow with them. The perfect example is Carolina Gatti. Her first Prosecco brought to the US was almost undrinkable because of reduction. Her second year was much better but lacked a bit of a pop and bubbles. We are working hard to get it in a magic spot and I can guarantee you that the Prosecco Gatti will be a huge hit in NYC and SF in the future. Most of the colfondo[iii] that are out there are “fake” with re-fermentations done in stainless containers and then bottled. Carolina’s is the real thing and she has a terroir that is very hard to find.[iv]
To finish on this topic, if you have a fantastic winery, make them feel like stars (as they should) and bring in everything they make. If you have an up-and-coming winery bring in what’s good and leave out the wines that still need work. But if you see talent continue to roll with them because they’ll get better. Living in Italy makes this easy. I can be in most places in less than two hours.
PSB: How did you end up working with Le Coste?
GP: Le Coste and Dressner decided not to work together anymore almost a year ago. I was contacted by Gianmarco himself who asked me if I wanted to pick up his wines and bring them to the US. I went to visit them for 3 weekends in a row. On my first visit, it was friendship at first sight. We went to Rome and spent a day together drinking wine and eating pizza. Their wines are amazing and Gianmarco is super direct. He’ll tell you to go F## yourself in no time if you say something that pisses him off. Marco Buratti and Fulvio Bressan are the same. Daniela from CG[v] always laughs at me and jokes around, “How can you deal with the three of them?” Well, I just do and I like them all a lot. To go back to Le Coste, these are delicious natural wines. Extremely drinkable and pure. I think that we’ll do very well. I am bringing them to NYC as well.
PSB: There has been a lot of controversy over Bressan. Why have you decided to import them?[vi]
GP: The wines are outstanding. It’s a delicate situation. He makes inappropriate comments and people are upset about it. Hopefully, Fulvio won’t make any more crazy statements. I met him personally and don’t think he’s a bad guy. I think he messed up. A few years have gone by and I think he deserves a second chance. It’s the only winery in Friuli that has 30-35 quintali per hectare. It’s like a grand cru. They have 17 hectares of land and make barely 30,000 bottles. I went to visit the vineyards. The Schioppettino is 150 years old. One wine is better than the next. I’m willing to work with it and give it a second chance.
My strategy is if I know if it’s a very liberal wine bar or if people are very sensitive I’m going to be delicate about it. I’m not going to try to push it on people. I’m trying to be sensitive.
Taking what he said and translating it into English, it is a very difficult for someone in San Francisco to understand Bressan. It’s a different context over there.
PSB: Can you explain that a bit more?
GP: I’ll give you the perfect example. A very common blasphemy in Italian is to compare God or the Virgin Mary to different kind of animals. I think that we are the only country in the world that does this. Sometimes, I visit some old contadinos who makes wine and every four words they say, they repeat the same blasphemy over again comparing God to a pig. This is how they talk and in most case scenarios they speak a strong dialect and blend this blasphemy in. As an Italian, I don’t pay too much attention to it because I grew up hearing them all the time. Now, my question is, how do you translate this and explain it to a foreigner? Why would anyone in the world compare God to a pig? It makes absolutely no sense and taken to a religious context, it’s as bad as it gets.
This is why in Italy the Bressan’s wines are doing great and in the US or England, some people are still pissed. Those words were too strong, too much.
I also don’t agree with the way that this story was handled. It’s easy to point the finger and say, “that’s the bad guy there, fuck him.” But, what makes me sad is that the pure-moralist blogger who translated those words is well known in Italy for getting paid by producers to write about them. What makes him better than Fulvio Bressan? I just don’t get it.
We all make mistakes at a certain point in life, we pay for it, but we do deserve a second chance. And this is exactly what I am doing with his wines. Not to forget, that his wines are a work of art. The most elegant wines I bring in.
PSB: People talk a lot about poaching. What are your thoughts on it?
GP: Times have changed. Thanks to TEI Imports and Fruit of the Vines we now have a bunch of kick-ass small importers that aren’t afraid and in most case scenario want to dig deep into wine-knowledge. Producers are tired of big importers and now prefer smaller importers for many obvious reasons. “Poaching” is bad. A lot of my producers are approached all the times by other importers. I think that a smarter question to ask is, “Why does a winery want to leave an importer?” If importers perform well, then, wineries won’t leave you.
PSB: Have you lost any wineries since you started Scuola di Vino?
GP: I have opened in 2012 and I haven’t lost one winery. A winery has never left SDV to phrase it better. But I am planning on dropping at least 3-4 wineries within the next few months. I pick very carefully who I bring in. If they are too big their expectations will be too high and I don’t want that kind of stress. There needs to be a strong connection and a friendship. I can’t work with assholes.
If I see that the wines are getting worse and the producer doesn’t care, they eventually will need to go. I always tell my producers that if for whatever reason I won’t be able to do well with their wines, I will be the first to admit it and try to help them find someone else. Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet.
PSB: Would you say that natural wine has gone beyond the fringe in Italy, to the mainstream, as far as consumers and taste are concerned?
GP: People got so used to drinking conventional wine and now they call natural wine extreme. What’s extreme is when you take an unnatural ingredient and put it in your wine. I feel like the perception of people is a little upside down. Sometimes you taste with a young chef and they say this is the wine my grandfather used to give me. It’s changing, it’s evolving. It’s bigger, it’s not just a trend. It’s definitely happening. You can see it when you can taste with someone who has been drinking a lot of conventional wine and they taste something natural and are blown away.
PSB: Which regions are exciting you these days?
GP: The lesser-known areas where they don’t have as many traditions. There is a lot in Marche that is happening. In Emilia, you have the best homeopathic doctors. That’s an area that is growing really fast. In the province of Padua, real estate is still cheap. You see a lot of abandoned land and vineyards. A little is happening in Montalcino. There is a lot who I would say works semi-naturally. There are some that truly push it.
If you think of Piemonte you want to go away from Barolo and Barbaresco. They don’t care so much so you want to go north to Alta Piemonte. These are areas that are naturally and geographically more suited for it. You can’t make natural wine in Barolo because of the monoculture. In the Monferrato, you see a lot more natural wine being made there.
PSB: Where do you sell your wines?
GP: San Francisco and a little in Los Angeles. I’m going to start in New York in June. After a few years in NY maybe some distribution in other states will start. All of these wineries I’ve been finding don’t have representation. It’s a no brainer to go to NY. We’ll see. The goal is to stay small, 20 – 25 producers, that’s it. If you get larger you have to get into larger distribution like Whole Foods and K&L. If in NY things go really, really great we’ll see. Maybe it’s 30 but no bigger than that. The reason why Cantina Giardino likes to work with me so much is because I give them a lot of attention.
Bringing this full circle, I had a talk and tasting with Daniela and Antonio di Gruttola of Cantina Giardino, and Giovanni several months ago. While “Adam” may forever have a special place in my heart, the wines, across the board, are special (in a good way). They are one of the standouts in the Scuola di Vino portfolio for me but also represent the spirit of the entire selection. No doubt, Pagano is not afraid to take risks and while this might alienate some, it is a sign of dedication and points to an exciting future for his company and those of us who love his wines.
[i] A Southern Italian restaurant created by the culinary supergroup of Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Dave Pasternak in 2000.
[ii] Currently, Scuola di Vino has seven producers that do not use any sulfur during vinification: Cantina Giardino, Il Folicello, Podere Pradarolo, Le Coste, Ca’ de Noci, Mario Macciocca, and Marco Buratti.
[iii] Traditional Prosecco, before pressurized tanks became commonplace in the 70’s, was double-fermented in bottle on the lees so they were cloudy and served with sediment. While most Prosecco is made in tank, a number of producers have returned to the colfondo method.
[iv] The vineyard has clay, lime and rocks called Carnato, a yellow rock composed of calcium carbonate. Pagano feels it gives “minerality and sapidity, almost a saltiness.”
[v] Cantina Giardino.
[vi] Fulvio Bressan came under a lot of fire when he called Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s Minister of Integration, a “dirty Black MONKEY.” Here are articles from the Huffington Post and Forbes written shortly after afterward. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/12/fulvio-bressan_n_3914296.html
When Pagano decided to start working with Bressan this year, Jeremy Parzen, who writes the blog, Do Bianchi, openly criticized him.