Small-batch Italian Wines? Smart!

My initial impression of Cosimo Azzarone – that of shock and awe – came in the form of lunch. In other words, I was baffled and amazed by the man’s voracious appetite. We were dining al fresco in the Umbrian hill town of Montefalco, where he and Cantine Rialto winemaker Eraldo Dentici treated us at L’Alchemista, a town-square ristorante widely considered by locals to be the best in the area. (It’s not my pick, but that’s another story for another time.)

Though Azzarone, who was working with Dentici at the Enologica wine festival, was less impressive than the toothpick-skinny winemaker (who also annihilated dessert), both men demonstrated an insatiable hunger for animal flesh.

They kicked off the meal by devouring plates of bacon. A pile of it – we’re talking double-digit strips – braised in Sagrantino. That was followed by a filet that measured at least 8oz. When I inquired about ordering some vegetables, both men looked at me quizzically. (I settled for fried, ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms.) We also, by the way, pushed through about 5 delicious bottles of Dentici’s wine.

After lunch, those two went back to work. My wife and I went to bed. (I did, admittedly, procure a small gelato – for dinner – later that evening.)

We ended up sharing a patio table with these two handsome fellas because I’d written about Cantine Rialto – staple of the PA LCB Chairman’s Selection program – a few times, and Azzarone had reached out at a time when, coincidentally, I was planning a trip to Montefalco. He’s primarily an importer representing small wineries – such as Rialto, Tuscany’s Tenimenti Andreucci and Marche’s Villa Imperium – who’s found success in my home state of Pennsylvania and its backwards wine laws.

villa-imperium glass

Recognizing the dangers of having all of his bottles in one proverbial case – “when you have just one big client, that is always dangerous,” he notes – Azzarone has recently moved to diversify. What followed was Smart Wine Shop, a direct-to-consumer web store that’s looking to share the spoils of avoiding the US three-tier system.

“We don’t need a distributor in America, so it saves on cost, which we pass on to the end customer,” Azzarone tells me about his new venture. “If an American buys from a normal shop, he pays $30. If he buys from Italy, it is $20 or 25, including transport, for a very, very good wine.”

There’s no doubt the cost of shipping from Italy is cringe-worthy. Azzarone charges $110 for a case – about $10/bottle – which is standard in my experience. Consumers, who have been conditioned over the years to not pay explicitly for things like S&H, don’t like it when they are asked to. It can reap benefits, however, to take a broader view. When one buys a bottle of wine at a local wine store, for example, is the shipping not already reflected in the cost?

In one instance, I found a bottle of Cantine Rialto’s Montefalco Rosso stateside for $26. Azzarone is charging only €10, so even with the extra shipping cost, it only comes out to around $21 a bottle, at the current exchange rate. (Not to mention the fact that the NYC shop selling this wine also charges shipping, if you can’t get there in person.)

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Beyond good deals, Azzarone is targeting smaller wineries that might not show up on the shelves of many US shops. “There are so many small wineries in Italy that can be sold in this way,” he says. “Sure, in America, there are lots of Italian wines available, many of which are from big companies such as Zonin, Antinori, etc. But just because you have a well-known name does not mean you have the best wine.”

While preferring to avoid the term “best,” I can certainly vouch for the Smart Italian Wines quality-price ratio. Though everything from Cantine Rialto is solid, in particular their structured, massive Sagrantino (both dry and passito). just €18, is a super value. Even with the freight tacked on, that’s still a good deal less expensive than many other equal-quality SdM bottles.

Azzarone, however, admits that he, if buying, would rather have two bottles of an entry-level rosso than one high-end Sagrantino, and the bulk of his current portfolio represents that ideal. Beyond Rialto’s consistently excellent Umbria Rosso (€8) and Montefalco Rosso (€10), he offers a great variety of quaffable reds from Le Marche’s Villa Imperium (once known as Villa Grifone, changed because of a family dispute) from €8.

Though the overall selection is relatively small at the moment, Azzarone is constantly reviewing new wines and hopes to continue to expand his collection in the future.

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