On G.D. Vajra and How I Fell in Love with Italian Wine.

Amici del Vino @ Sgt. Pepperoni

Giuseppe Vajra, Joanie Karapetian, Stan Frazier and Patton Penhallegon– sharing a deep love of Barolo.

What is it about some wines that endears them so quickly to your heart and so indelibly to your frame of reference? I’ll admit the first time I tasted the wines of G.D. Vajra I was very young- just 22 years old. Maybe when I first found Vajra I also found myself.  It was after meeting Aldo Vajra, during those years of perfect, open-minded malleability that I decided I wholeheartedly belonged in this industry, working for (and with) these people who were dedicated to growing and producing wine.

Vini VajraGiampaolo Gravina, my professore del vino, a true teacher of wine, introduced me to Aldo Vajra at Vinitaly that year. I was overwhelmed by my first experience of the Fair- a jostle of color and frantic movement, loud Italian and everything caught in a haze of nauseating jetlag. We ran from booth to booth meeting producers, Giampaolo stopping every five feet to salute somebody new, my right pocket, containing my own business cards, becoming lighter as my left pocket was systematically filled with cards of new contacts, new producers, new people who would become part of my life. I was totally overwhelmed and starstruck. Angelo Gaja was holding court to my right, while Leonardo Locasio, in his smart, red-rimmed glasses, passed by me to the left. I found myself in the epicenter of the industry I had studied for a year form afar in my California office, and I didn’t quite know what to do.  I just blindly followed Giampaolo’s tweed coat and tried not to stumble.

Giampaolo Gravina and Joanie Bonfiglio

Grande Professore Giamapolo!

We made it to Aldo Vajra’s booth and I felt the climate around us change. There is an air of calm to the Vajra family- it was as if we had reached the center of a dramatically swirling storm and although the chaos continued around us, we were somehow coddled and protected in the center of it all. The temperature dropped perceptibly, comfortably, the noise fell away and I found myself transfixed by Aldo Vajra and his wines.

I realize how silly and incredible it sounds, but Vajra’s 1998 Barolo was the first Barolo I had ever tasted in my life. How is that for a defining moment? (For the record, this is only one example of how I will always owe an immense depth of gratitude to Giampaolo Gravina for his unwavering guidance.)  On my path to learning about wine I unwittingly skipped past all the big name brands, the highly marketed wineries, the plush, rich California wines, and even the big boys of the Southern Rhone.  I started here in this quiet instant, with Aldo Vajra.  And I had no idea what I was doing.

Joanie Karapetian and Giuseppe Vajra

I don’t think this was an epiphany-moment for me.  My palate was too untrained and my points of reference were few and undefined.  I think instead it was this trip to Vinitaly that gave me a starting point.  The beginning of a long process of exploration.  In much the same way, my relationship with the Vajra wines has developed slowly over the years.  I began to understand what it was the drew me to them in the first place- the elegance, the balance between power and finesse. The ups and downs of varying bottle age.  Just like the deepening of a friendship over time.

Since that first year at Vinitaly I have worked my way through the Italian wine industry, selling all kinds of wines, representing many different wineries, learning about everything I can, and yet that moment stays with me.  I feel a gentle softening in my heart anytime I see Vajra’s wines on the shelves of a wine store.  I unfailingly order their bottles in restaurants- any wine, any vintage- a feeble attempt to recapture a piece of that magical moment with Aldo and Giampaolo, and my first sip of Barolo.

Next month I will be going back to visit the Vajra family in the physical place of the start of my intellectual journey through wine.  I am awestruck with my own good fortune to be able to walk in the middle of the Vajra vineyards during harvest this year, so many vintages after I first fell in love and found my way.

Somehow I am still struck by the knowledge that I’ve only just begun.