Steve Pignatiello: Ambassador to Burgundy

Posted on June 16, 2009

by Carl Danbury, Jr., Points North Magazine: Serving the Stylish Northside of Atlanta
September 2004

Steve Pignatiello is an importer of fine, hard-to-find scrumptious French wines. During a family vacation nearly 10 years ago to the Burgundy region of France, he uncovered a business opportunity that has enabled him to combine his masters degree in international business, his fluency in the French language, and his unbridled passion for both the wines and the people who produce them. In essence, while Pignatiello is simply a wine importer based in Asheville, N.C., a more appropriate title might be ambassador to family-owned vintners in Burgundy. A cumbersome title, assuredly, but one that is entirely apropos.

In his spare time on that trip, Pignatiello literally began knocking on doors in hopes of tasting wines from this highly respected wine-growing region. In Burgundy, there are few of the large chateaux and estate vineyards one might find in Bordeaux. Here, the majority of winemakers are nothing more than farmers living in modest homes with a hereditary instinct and panache for producing excellent wines, primarily in small quantities. Pignatiello”s declaration, “I would like to taste your wines,” was met with guarded enthusiasm even though the notion of a business opportunity was the farthest thing from his mind at the time.

Following these first tastings, Pignatiello and some of these unassuming wine producers became friends. It was later that they would become business partners, as many were reluctant to consider the notion of exporting their wines outside their own region, much less to the United States.

At Pignatiello”s exclusive tastings throughout the Southeast (many of which are here in Atlanta), connoisseurs and novices alike receive an education about the wines they are sampling as well as the region itself. Pignatiello charismatically engages his audience with personal tales about the winemakers. These are not movie stars or athletes who thought it might be neat to purchase their own vineyard in some posh and trendy enclave. These are grape growers who may own several rows of vines along with dozens of other small producers in towns like Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, Beaune, Pommard, Macon or Chassagne-Montrachet.

“This is one of the world”s undisputed, most respected and sought after wine regions,” Pignatiello related. “In Burgundy, these are just normal people and most of them are fairly unpretentious and spend their days out in the vines. These are famous towns that mean something to those who know wine, but the vineyards are tiny, perhaps the size of a couple of football fields.

“These people are farmers, not savvy marketers. Some of them are from families that have been making wine for eight generations. They own the vines, they harvest the grapes by hand, but their specialty is the expertise of how to turn their grapes into some of the world”s greatest wines,” Pignatiello offered.

“Many of the winemakers Pignatiello represents go through exhaustive steps to ensure quality. “One of my winemakers in Pommard once told me that there is no such thing as a bad vintage in Burgundy, just bad winemakers,” Pignatiello stated. “Because you are a small mom-and-pop operation doesn”t mean you make good wine. Out of 10 winemakers, two make lousy wine, six are just pluggers who make decent wine but don”t do it with any pizzazz or enthusiasm, but the top two make extraordinary wines. They are excited about their wines and passionate about them. All of my winemakers fit into that top two category.”

The process necessary to produce quality wines, regardless of whether the vineyard is based in Burgundy or Napa Valley, begins with using good grapes. Sounds simple, right?

“Even in the worst of years, as long as you take what God gives you, a quality winemaker can produce great wine. If the grapes are separated by hand and you take only the best fruit, you can make great wine every year. Certain vintages may have less production but the quality remains the same,” Pignatiello said. “Poor winemakers won”t go through those exhaustive steps to ensure quality.”

There are many other facets to growing good fruit that produces fine wines, but avoiding shortcuts is a big way to ensure quality, as is experience. In Burgundy, the overwhelming majority of wines are produced using two types of grapes ” Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Gamay and Aligote grapes are also grown here but in less quantity.

Interestingly, the Pinot Noir grape, which yields an abundance of sweet colorless juice, is used to produce both Pinot Noir and Champagne. The red hue of Pinot Noir produced in Burgundy is due to the presence of the skins in fermentation vats.

“In Burgundy, good winemakers allow the grapes and soil to express themselves. They don”t mask flavors with oak, different types of yeast or sugars like we find in many New World wines,” Pignatiello said. “One of the hallmarks of Burgundy is that you can take a wine produced from the same vineyard, same town and same classification from two different winemakers and it can have its own unique characteristics. The grapes may have been grown just a few rows apart and the wines can be very different in taste. That”s why Burgundy is such a minefield for consumers who don”t know who the best winemakers are.”

In fact, most Americans recognize wines from just three Burgundy winemakers: Bouchard Pere et Fils, Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jador, whose influential marketing arms have given birth to an expansive distribution network throughout the United States. The winemakers Pignatiello represents are virtually anonymous here for a variety of reasons.

“The wines I import are not mass marketed, nor mass produced,” Pignatiello said. “When you only make 75 to 200 cases of a particular wine per year, you don”t need the entire United States buying your wine. Publications like the Wine Spectator give winemakers a broad audience. They rate the wines and Americans go buy them. With the small lots that I am selling, my winemakers don”t need the power of the pen to help them sell. They already are in high demand because of the quality and limited production.”

While the larger producers sell thousands of cases of wine each year, Pignatiello concentrates on providing access to some of Burgundy”s most respected winemakers, including Laurence Jobard, Domaine Drouhin”s esteemed oenologist, but who also maintains a watchful eye over her family”s exclusive wines in Pommard (Domaine Gabriel Billard).

“Laurence is one of the world”s most respected winemakers, but the difference is that she cannot possibly oversee every wine produced by Drouhin, whereas at her family estate, she and her sister can maintain that oversight,” Pignatiello advised. “She proudly puts her name on the label of her personal family wines.”

Another example of the exclusive nature of the wines P. Comms International imports is those produced by Domaine Servin. The vineyard now overseen by fifth generation descendant Francois Servin, Domaine Servin produces some of the world”s finest Premier Crus and Grand Crus in Chablis. While those Servin wines are widely available in 16 countries, bottles from Francois” own vineyard are not. Pignatiello has exclusive access to those.

“Francois told me in order to import Domaine Servin wines, I would have to work through his agent. When I told him I was not interested in doing that, he said that he owns vines in his own name,” Pignatiello said. “”I have never sold my personal label wines to anyone else,” he told me and then asked, “Would you like to have those?” I am the only one in the world with access to those.”

And those limited production exclusive wines are what Pignatiello offers aficionados primarily in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Georgia. He provides access to some of Burgundy”s most exclusive wines that, for the most part, would not otherwise be available. “Not every one of my wines fit that description, but at least half of them do. Because of the friendships I have forged during the past 25 years, I know who the better winemakers are,” he said.

Just because they have solid reputations, however, doesn”t mean that Pignatiello imports every wine they produce. “They allow me to cherry pick. Out of the 15 or so winemakers that I represent, there are only two or three that I take every wine they produce.”

Another vital aspect to Pignatiello”s business is he is a single entrepreneur with direct connections to the winemakers he represents. Thus, he is able to cut out the middle men and imports better wines at less cost.

“I think a more important distinction is the fact that I am not just selling wine,” Pignatiello said. “I am passionate about these people. They are friends and I am selling who they are and their whole lifestyle.”

In Burgundy, that lifestyle is a blend of nothing more than sharing good food and good wine. The region is famous for its cuisine. Beef Bourgogne, Coq au vin and escargot are some of the more well-known dishes. Burgundy is a gastronomic capital where food and wine are one and inseparable.

“One of my winemakers said, “Unless you have food, what”s the point. Wine is made to be drunk with good food,”” Pignatiello recalled. “One of the most surprising things about Burgundy is how down-to-earth the people are. Their lifestyle is centered upon good food and good wine.”

Thanks to Pignatiello”s friendships in France, we have access to that wine, too.

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