LEAVING AMERICA for the Fermented French Grape...A Wine Odyssey: Brooklyn to Bordeaux

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michael affatato
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LEAVING AMERICA for the Fermented French Grape...A Wine Odyssey: Brooklyn to Bordeaux

Post by michael affatato » Fri Feb 18, 2011 5:58 am

I was born on Brooklyn in 1965, to parents of European heritage; my father’s parents emigrated from Calabria to American in the early part of the 20th century and my mother’s grandparents hailed from Naples and County Wicklow, Ireland.

I suppose this blend makes me a Classic New Yorker.

My parents moved me as a young child to our new home on eastern Long Island in 1968 and I would continue to spend the majority of my life there until I got a job in advertising in Manhattan. Very shortly thereafter, I visited my childhood friend, Sal, at his new home in San Francisco. Sal is a chef, and took me to Napa Valley, against my initial will.

Then, it happened. My Wine Epiphany.

Despite having a close attachment to my three-quarter Italian roots, would you believe, growing up, there was never a bottle of Chianti – or any other wine for that matter – on the table? In reality, I was weaned on soft drinks, until I got to early adulthood and discovered beer. I saw wine once in a while, but it was usually blush and in a box at relatives’ gatherings...

Therefore, seeing the beautiful rolling hills of Napa Valley, meeting the laid-back, friendly wine makers and – most importantly – tasting the wines there, opened my eyes...and in a matter of what must have been three whole minutes, I knew I was going to quit advertising and go into the wine business.

I sped home to Long Island, got friendly with some local wine makers out there, then joined a few tasting groups in New York City. But this wasn’t going fast enough. I needed to go the source: Bordeaux.

Everything I read hailed it as the Mecca of Wine. Whether the comments were bitter, salutary, jealous; it didn’t matter. I had to go to Bordeaux. This was Autumn of 1991, ironically the worst vintage that area has had to this date.
I jumped on a plane, landed in Paris then drive down to Bordeaux, on my own, stretching myself with my high-school French.

After a few chateau visits in the Medoc, I hit gold at Chateau Latour in Pauillac.

The young lady who received me for the tour and tasting spoke very nice English, was attractive – in a mousy/librarian kind of way – and friendly. This was the “age before email” so when I returned to New York, I decided to pursue her and see if I could coerce her to visit me in New York. Smart girl as she was, not knowing me well at all, she played it coy for months. But I didn’t give up. Snail-mail, faxes and flowers finally got her to consider a trip to New York.
Thankfully for me, she was over-tired and jet-lagged from the flight, so the half-bottle of Dom Pérignon (the best bottle I had in my little wine cooler in my 91st street apartment) made her easy prey. The Couple was United.

She quit her well-paying job at Chateau Latour, shipped her furniture and possessions over in a wine shipment container and we were married 18 months later in New York.

Funnily enough, given her credentials and experience as executive at Chateau Latour, the New York Wine Inner Circle wasn’t ready to give her a job above mere vendor, first at a shop then at a Long Island winery. I landed a job as salesman for a large New York-based wine importer-distributor which was great, until they made the decision to fuse with a competitor who was liquor-based and "wine-squeamish". My profile changed overnight for the worse.

Chloe was born in 1996 and I decided that the “answer” lied in France, to get a good job there with a recognized producer and then return to New York with an edge over the competition for an elevated position in wine sales management. That was February of 1997. Little did I know then, that not only would we not return, but we would go on to buy a 17th century chateau – known mostly as a prostitution house during the 20th century – just a few years later, on nothing but our modest life savings and naïve vision. It is called Chateau La Gatte and dates to 1646.

We have just entered into Year 6 here. If I had a nickel – no, make that a penny – for every time someone said to me “oh, you’re living my dream”, I’d have this place paid off a while ago.

Instead of a dream, it’s been – and continues to be – an emotional roller coaster, sometimes the dips lasting longer than the climbs.

To say we are struggling would be an understatement. When I tell everyone we’re cash poor and our marriage is tested daily, they don’t want to hear it. “They” still want to be “Us”. It seems that everyone feels they can transcend Life’s daily trials, conflicts and general headaches with bucolic beauty, surrounded by an inexplicable virtual security blanket of vineyard, for this vineyard represents Wine.

But then, what about the "Evil French"? The Globe’s snotty, cold, arrogant Nemesis? The population everyone "loves to hate"? But hang on, wait a minute: I’m American! The Globe hates us Yanks, too! At least there’s no question: I’m on the defensive, no matter where I go.

What kind of Odyssey am I on? Will it end happily? Do the French really hate Americans? Can one really make top-shelf wine on nothing but one’s meager life savings? Is life better in France? Will I miss America too much and come running back?

When I’m in France, I’m a “Yankee”. When I’m back in New York, I’m a “Defecting Frog”.

In my weekly life here are astounding cultural revelations, countless social observations, uncommon and glorious food discoveries, behind-the-scene views on wine making (and pulling one’s hair out selling it), proof that one should never have a spouse as partner, real estate tips, politicking the local Wine Mafia, and sincere Praise for the most beautiful country in the world….Through the eyes of a Yankee-Frog.

Jeff Leve
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Post by Jeff Leve » Fri Feb 18, 2011 5:27 pm

Michael... Thank you for adding such as amazing thread. What a great post. I tweeted a link to this hoping others will read and maybe respond. I cannot thank you enough for sharing your story. Bravo. Note to self. I must taste this wine.

Loren Sonkin
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Post by Loren Sonkin » Sat Feb 19, 2011 7:57 am

Great story and best of luck in your venture. I will also look for your wine. thanks.

david shaw
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Post by david shaw » Sun Feb 20, 2011 1:11 pm

Good on you mate..My missus is a born and bred New yorker from a French father and Philippina Mum..he was the first to import Gaja, Allegrini, Cavalloto and Moresco amongst others in NY, when NY was drinking chianti out of flasks. I worked in St Julien in '09 , one of many places around the world where I have gained first hand wine-making experience. I have always admired the grace and humility of the Bordelais and their ability to receive guests with open arms when you would imagine otherwise on first inspection of an ornate iron gate. I love Bordeaux as much as I do Burgundy, Rhone and elsewhere. I have a soft spot for Biscarosse where I insist in taking my loved one every year..to renew our first love indiscrections..!! Good on you to be still around in business and heres hoping that you have the support of your commune and warmth of the french..( It does exist..just not at first as you well know )

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