“In Italy I already had a job and family. If I had come to Japan and everything finished, I could have easily gone back to Italy because I had a place there. Coming here was a bit like a game and it still is for me,” says TV celebrity Girolamo Panzetta.
Sporting a snazzy electric-blue suit accessorized with a brightly colored plastic bracelet, Panzetta radiates a Peter Pan charm that immediately puts you at your ease. Now in his late 40s, this celebrity has lost little to age, recently enjoying added kudos as the cover star for the men’s style magazine Leon.
As Japan’s most famous Italian, Panzetta frequently appears on cookery shows extolling the delights of Italian cuisine. We’re here today to talk about Italian wine, and it soon becomes apparent that having no formal training as a chef and not being hidebound by strict tradition actually works in his favor.
“You can play with wine and with food, but to do so you have to be a little bit flexible. In Italy we are very conservative; we think this is only good with this,” he says.
Having made a living adapting Italian cuisine to the Japanese market, Panzetta is full of creative ideas about how to match Italian wines to Asian food. For example, “If you eat Chinese food, you have to drink a strong red,” he says. “It acts like tea,” he explains, describing how the tannins in the red dissolve the oils in Chinese food.
Panzetta’s initiation into the mysteries of the wine world came when he was a teenager in Naples. His father, he says, had a big hand in developing his future passion: “He had many friends who made a lot of wine. In September we visited them and they let us squeeze grapes by foot.”
Such experiences were also early lessons in the pitfalls of imbibing too much alcohol. “The first time I got really drunk I was 18 years old. I was so drunk, I still don’t remember anything about that day,” he says. “Later, I saw many pictures that others took of me. Me sleeping near a cow, and me sleeping holding a dog, like this,” he laughs, cradling an imaginary dog in his arms.
The wine that produced such a colorful experience was made from a grape native to Panzetta’s region called Aglianico. It is, explains Panzetta, “perhaps the oldest, strongest wine in Italy. The oldest wines in Italy are Amorone, Barollo and Aglianico. But those other wines are world famous, Aglianico is not famous because it’s too strong.” For a more sophisticated rendering of this rather inelegant grape, he says “There’s one wine I buy from my city, called Terra di Lavoro. They make just a few bottles and it’s difficult to buy in Japan. I bring it back just to drink.”
Galardi’s Terra di Lavoro is not a rustic rough-and-ready Aglianico, but instead a more refined blend of that powerful grape with the softer Piedirosso varietal. If it can be found, it fetches high prices and reflects the quality and modern winemaking techniques that began with the Super Tuscan revolution.
“Italian wine is getting famous now, (in the past) Italy was famous for wines like Lambrusco and Chianti, but those were kind of cheap wines. People from Italy who moved to America for work thought, ‘Ah Chianti, Chianti — Italy,’ but that’s because they used to drink very cheap wine, very bad wine,” says Panzetta. “In the 1970s Italy started to have a system like France. A winemaker named (Giacomo) Tachis mixed in Cabernet Sauvignon (grapes) like the French. After this wine started to become famous, people began to ask, ‘Why don’t we use the grapes that we have in our city?’ Old grapes like Falanghina, Allianico.
“Wine producers began making wine with Italian grapes but using the French system. Before, in Italy, we used to have 10 kg of grapes per vine, and we thought 10 kg was good, but the French cut this and said 5 kg is enough.”
While Panzetta extols the virtues of these breakthrough wines that embrace the French winemaking aesthetic of quality over quantity, he is distrustful of many wine producers who he believes want to make a quick buck off the Italian quality-wine boom. “With French wine it’s very easy (to choose one) because you have the Cha^teau system. But in Italy, one area has so many companies that it becomes difficult to choose. These days, if you have money you’ll invest it in a vineyard, but a good vineyard takes at least 10 or 20 years (of cultivation). We also have people who say they use a specific grape, but actually they’re using a cheaper one. You can’t check.”
He recommends researching companies and the importers before investing in an expensive Italian wine, or just buying any wine made by world-famous oenologist Tachis. “He is like a magician. If you have money to pay for the magician, he makes a good wine for you,” he says. “I have three wine cellars full of Turriga, his wine from Sardinia.”
Panzetta may have high standards for wine, but he is not a wine snob. Stressing that the purpose of wine is ultimately to enhance our enjoyment of life, he says, “With wine, especially if you go to the country to a small city, you make friendships with everyone. Times change, but wine still symbolizes celebration and wine is still associated with friendship. Wine is something incredible.”
So what kind of wine sums up Panzetta’s own personality? “It could be Allianico; it’s my origin. It’s a strong wine, but if you know how to manage it, it’s a great wine,” he says. The grape can have an overpowering tanninic taste in youth, but if handled with care, it can, he says, develop over time into an astounding wine. “With age I’m going to be not soft, but have a good taste,” he muses.
Still vivacious and irreverent as ever, Panzetta may have mellowed with age but he’s right — nobody can accuse him of going soft.