Among my pals here in Italy, I am lucky to count a person who I think has hands-down the coolest and most glamorous job of anyone I know. Eugenio Bigliocca, founder and owner of Cave du Roi, a wine sales and distribution company, is a bona fide international wine expert. And if you think I’m exaggerating because he’s a friend of mine, then I’ll let his resumè speak for itself. Besides the fact that he has been a sommelier certified by the Italian Sommelier’s Association (AIS) since 1994, he is often called on by Slow Food, Italy’s premier foundation for promoting education and appreciation of excellent food and wine, to present and discuss wine; he works with some of Italy’s top up-and-coming “diamond in the rough” wine producers, scouring the Italian countryside personally to discover them and sometimes signing their wines for exclusive distribution; in addition, last year he was asked to become a judge for the International Wine Challenge, a kind of “Oscars” in the international wine community, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon someone who works in the field of wine tasting, sales and education.
Since the day I met Eugenio a few years ago, I have been continually impressed by his approach to wine. I’m a total wine amateur—I drink it, but can’t say I know how to properly “appreciate” it. That being said, I’ll admit that I always believed that in order to be a real wine expert, a job pre-requistite was to be a colossal snob. I was not only intimidated by the field of wine appreciation, I was turned off by the idea that you had to have a major superiority complex to be part of this “in” club.
When we first encountered Eugenio after coincidentally sitting next to him at a dinner for a mutual friend, we ended up talking to him literally non-stop for the three hours or so the dinner lasted. I was instantly intrigued and completely enchanted by his down-to-earth approach, and above all his passion for wine, which was tangible and contagious. I took the chance that first evening to ask him lots of “wine for dummies” questions and he never once made me feel ignorant or silly, bringing me instead, even if just for a moment, into that exclusive club I never thought I could join.
For a while when I was contemplating my transition away from my rather overwhelming job as director of a large US university study abroad center, we toyed with the idea of becoming partners in a wine business here in Rome. We talked about opening a wine shop, a wine bar…we let our imaginations run wild. Unfortunately we never took this dream project to fruition; as his business continues to skyrocket and my newborn business of hosting tourists in our apartments picks up the pace slowly but surely, we’ve left our plans aside for the moment. But I can certainly say that if ever there was a perfect person to dream up an incredible business plan with, Euge is the man.
Needless to say, he keeps us in good supply because we get all our wines from him and him alone, including the bottles I leave for my guests in the apartments. It's a little like having a personal wine shopper who knows your tastes and introduces you to amazing wines you weren't aware of, without going broke. So I can definitely admit that in this respect I, and my guests, are quite spoiled!
But enough of my gushing. I’ll let you read for yourself why I think he’s such a rare find in the world of wines. I asked him if he would allow me to “interview” him for my blog, and he was happy to oblige. I’m hoping we’ll all learn a little something new in the process. Grazie, Euge!
Q: How did you start working in the field of wines?
A: Out of passion. When I was five years old I used to help my grandfather bottle wines and… that’s where my mania for “the nectar of Bacchus” started.
Q: What was or what is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to/have to overcome in your work?
A: The incompetence that reigns sovereign over many “experts in the field.” I’m referring to those restaurants and barmen who chose a wine based only on its notoriety or price.
Q: What’s your philosophy on wine? By that I mean: how do you work, who are the producers you work with, what sets you apart from others in your field?
A: I personally choose wines made by “small producers,” almost always unknown to the media. I deal with denominations (denominazioni) of notable origin, made by excellent producers who are often still complete “unknowns.” I love working with someone who makes 30,000 bottles of a quality wine that dreams are made of, rather than 1,000,000 bottles of medium-level quality.
With respect to my competitors, I differentiate myself because by choice, I don’t sell famous brands, but rather “niche” wines. I’ve chosen the path of non-devotion to the celebrated super-famous wines, which are hardly ever truly extraordinary, unless you’re talking about their price.
I try to discover enological jewels and to tell their story to true wine lovers, meaning those who don’t buy wine with a guide in their hand, but who are gifted with critical capability and feeling. And those who trust my judgement, obviously! I like to surprise my clients and ignite their curiosity with my definition of what constitutes a good new wine. My competetive advantage is often better quality at a lower price.
Q: For someone who doesn’t know anything about wine, but would like to start somewhere, what’s your advice?
A: I suggest they sign up for a course held by a qualified professional, for example in Italy I’m referring to something like a course with the Italian Sommelier’s Association or ONAV (National Organization of Wine Tasters). I think it’s impractical to try to teach yourself. I think in this field it’s essential to start off on the right foot.
Q: In your opinion, how can someone tell a “good wine” without being an expert? What are the characteristics that a person should look for?
A: Above all, I would look for an absence of defects. That means I would try to understand if the wine smells excessively like sulfur dioxide. Do you smell a “stink” of burnt rubber or sulfur? Or if it smells excessively like vinegar. Or if it has really strong notes of wood with hints of vanilla. In this last case we’re in the presence of a misuse of the barriques. In the mouth we’re trying to taste if there’s excessive acidity or if it’s well-blended with the alcohols. A wine-tasting course is useful because it teaches you in just a few hours of lessons how to recognize the values and defects of a wine.
Q: Lots of people think a good wine has to be expensive. Is this true, or is it a false myth?
A: False. In a market economy, a wine’s price is determined exclusively by supply and demand. There are incredible wines that cost little only because they aren’t yet in high demand. And these are the wines that I devote my attention to. That being said, I can maintain that I’ve never drunk an expensive wine (by that I mean more than €50 a bottle) of truly low quality, but medium quality, yes.
Q: What then in your opinion is a reasonable price for a “good” wine, or maybe it’s impossible to say because it always depends on something?
A: Often the price is connected directly to the denomination (DOC) of the wine or the region where it was produced. It’s hard to generalize. I would say that in an enoteca (wine shop) I’m willing to spend €12 for vintage wines and €25 for reserve wines, at least as a jumping-off point.
Here's Eugenio and his lovely girlfriend Mariana with Ale and I on the right (like how my shirt matches the tablecloth and curtains?? I totally planned that, you know) during a once-in-a-lifetime vacation we took last summer to St. Petersburg, Russia. He's a total giveaway: look how he's holding the glass, next to us amateurs! Even though he's holding the glass, he was actually the only one who wouldn't brave trying the "chacha," a gut-burningly strong traditional after-dinner drink (or perhaps anytime drink, for that matter) from the country of Georgia. I remember him saying, "You guys are out of your minds! If I don't see the bottle and I don't know where it comes from, there's no way I'm drinking it. You don't understand how risky that can be!" See what happens when your profession causes you to "know too much"? You miss all the fun! ;-) That is, if you consider swigging the taste equivalent of gasoline and rubbing alcohol "fun." Well, like they say, when in St. Petersburg...
The interview continues in my next post, where we talk about what the heck it means when someone says they “smell tobacco” or “smell grass” in wine, and what you’re really supposed to do when they bring that bottle of wine to the table for you to taste. Stay tuned!