Artisanal wine, olive oil, and a model of scarcity

The Colorado Statesman

Liquor laws that vary from state-to-state inhibit consumer access and increase price. “When it comes to wine we are at a disadvantage here in Colorado as compared to New York, New Jersey and California,” says Steve Lewis, owner of Giuliana Imports in Denver, Colorado. “In those places, the three-tier distribution system has been done away with, more or less.”


In addition to its innate complexity, the U.S. high-end wine market can be pretty soft during tough economic times. So a number of artisanal winemakers have turned to Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) for incremental revenue. In Colorado as in other places, oil requires much less red tape to import and sell than wine. Olives also have many of the same characteristics as grapes in terms of varietal focus and perishability. Much of the knowledge necessary to ship and store wine is directly applicable to oil.

As is the case with wine, most top-end EVOO is sold in the U.S. on a scarcity basis. Hand-crafted Spanish, Italian or French product, often viewed as being the best, is brought over in tiny amounts in premium packaging. This increases the cost which is often in excess of $50 per 750mL to the consumer. High prices are hard enough to swallow, but the oil may not even be from the country printed on the label! What’s branded as Italian is often grown in Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain or Greece.


Blissfully unaware, consumers hoard this outrageously expensive, not-quite-sure-where-it-comes-from oil so that only miserly dribbles are available on a per-dish basis. But in Europe, the home of ancient olive culture, great oil is liberally poured over just about everything that comes to the table. Wouldn’t it be great if awesome EVOO was inexpensive enough in Colorado to allow the same usage?

A Different Way

Olive and other oils are a natural fit for Lewis’s business expansion. “They’re easy to sell if done right,” he says. “Unlike wine, there are few legal restrictions — FDA labeling is still a requirement but if sold on the Internet there is no sales tax and none of the federal- and state-based sales and marketing restrictions that are so ubiquitous in alcohol. And quality has skyrocketed, especially in the past ten years.”

Lewis started his company in 1996 as a regional importer of mostly Italian and Spanish wines. “But I’m at least as much of a foodie as a wino. I’ve always brought in small quantities of olive oil from my producers, mostly for friends and family. I knew that if I was going to add to my business it needed to be a ready-for-growth unit. So I decided to self-distribute.”

Paolo di Marchi of Isole and Olena and Steve Lewis at a seminar.
Photo by Ben Weinberg/The Colorado Statesman

Running two Colorado companies means Lewis doesn’t have much time to be politically active. But he does vote and is supportive of local causes such as Blue Sky Bridge Project, Community Food Share, and Growe Foundation. He’s not a retailer so it’s difficult to say which consumers own Giuliana wines, “but I’ve been told that many local politicians have our great Barolos and Barbarescos from Piedmont in their cellars!”

Sottimano Cellar in Piedmont, Italy.
Photo by Ben Weinberg/The Colorado Statesman

There is a direct correlation between the quality of Lewis’s business acuity, wine, and oil. “It’s all about trust,” he says, “the result of me selling meaningful wines for 18 years. Also, chefs today are highly tuned into fine ingredients and they can’t get these quality oils from their broad-market food suppliers. If I don’t know the chef personally, the sommelier has given me an introduction. Once they taste it’s all over.”

Isole e Olena Olive Press in Tuscany, Italy.
Photo by Ben Weinberg/The Colorado Statesman

Lewis has never worked in a professional kitchen but has spent a lot of time at home cooking for his family. “In Italy they say ‘before you learn how to cook you need to learn how to eat.’ Well, I know how to eat. The chefs get that and so they give me the opportunity to present the oils. I’m not teaching them how to cook. I’m supplying them superior ingredients. They also know that I travel a lot and so they view me as a resource, particularly on the complexities of regional cooking.”

Giuliana carries only current vintages from the top one percent of estate-pressed and bottled oils. These special elixirs come from a handful of producers with which Lewis has personal relationships, often based in wine. He is thus able to offer substantially lower pricing to the consumer. Bottles that (if available) would otherwise cost $40-$50 are $30 or less through Giuliana.

Vintage 2012 comes from Tuscany, Chianti Classico, Puglia, Campania and Lake Garda in Italy as well as Aix-en-Provence and Cotes du Rhone in France. In 2013 the portfolio expands to Liguria, Sicily, Umbria and Molise in Italy and the countries of Croatia, Greece and Spain. Lewis has also brought oil to Colorado in bulk. He’s constructed a filling station in the back of his Denver warehouse for high-end commercial operations and consumers who want to save another 10 to 20 percent beyond the bottle price.

As with many other hand-crafted foods, few folks have a chance to taste the good stuff. While the experience is often mind-blowing, such product, when exported, has usually been too expensive to use in a manner honed by thousands of years of native culture. But the benefits to ordinary Coloradans of including a passionate, competent, committed wine middleman in their EVOO supply chain are actually quite obvious, as they are for commercial chefs and high-end consumers who want to use that oil as an inexpensive, abundant resource. Producers stay in business. The public has access to excellent wine and EVOO at amazing pricing. Everyone is happy. Everybody wins.

Tasting Notes
On Wines Imported by Giuliana
(750mL bottles unless otherwise indicated)

Sparkling

Anselmi Prosecco NV (Friuli-Venezia, Italy) $14
Smoky ash and green pear lead to soda and lime on an intensely citric finish. Terrific as an aperitif and with seafood of all stripes.

Contratto Brut Blanc de Blanc 2009 (Piedmont, Italy) $51
This is tinted a yellow shade of green and smells of ash and tangerine. Guava and mango line the palate and the finish is high and long.

White

Matteo Correggia Roero Arneis 2012 (Piedmont, Italy) $20
Not many wines have the color of strained green pea soup but this is one of them. Nose and palate alternate between ash, lime and a hint of root beer. Really fun and should knock summer’s fare out of the park.

Isole e Olena Chardonnay 2011 (Tuscany, Italy) $45
This green-yellow beauty smells of just-ripe apricot and tastes of yellow pear. Long and lovely in the mouth but never heavy. Definitely a serious effort at this variety from one of the best wineries in Tuscany.

Red

Lenotti Valpolicella 2011 (Veneto, Italy) $12
Deep purple in color and noses an orchard of violets. This smoky, prune-infused blended red has a high-intensity palate and an impressively long finish, unusual in a wine this affordable.

Sottimano Barbera Pairolero 2010 (Piedmont, Italy) $33
This looks like hard, black raspberry candy and smells of black licorice and cola. Flavors tend toward black cherry and prune while the finish is intense and long-lasting.

Ciacci Piccolomini D’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2008 (Tuscany, Italy) $68
Hued a reddish-brown and redolent of dark chocolate and red cherry. On the tongue this is all about tangerine and smoky clove. Truly impressive and will only get better with age.

Domenico Clerico Barolo Percristina 2005 (Piedmont, Italy) $143
Stupendous and still needs a decade or more in the cellar. Black cherry dominates the color, mocha the aroma and dark chocolate the taste. Just a knockout but such a baby!

Dessert

La Spinetto Moscato d’Asti 2012 (Piedmont, Italy) $18
Thirst-quenching and only medium sweet, this moderately fizzy Moscato brings lime and fresh ginger to the nose and starfruit and clementine to the palate. Absolutely delicious.

Tasting Notes
On EVOO Imported by Giuliana Imports
(All 2012 Vintage, 500mL bottles unless otherwise noted,
retail prices from website)

De Carlo EVOO Tenuta Torre di Mossa (Bari, Italy) $15.60
Hued lemon-yellow, this 2012 winner of the Flosolei “Best in the World” award smells of tomato leaf and basil and tastes of dark chocolate, blueberry and black pepper. Very intense and long, made from trees that are 120-to-200+ years old and 100 percent Coratina.

Olio Toniolli EVOO Bio Monocultivar Casaliva DOP (Garda, Italy) $22.75
Being a bit north of typical olive producing regions means that the ripening of this fruit relies on a mini-Mediterranean climate caused by the proximity of Lake Garda. It is flax-toned with a nose of elegant Meyer lemon and sunflower seed. A sweet cherry, creamy lemon finish shows why this won Flosolei’s “Best Extraction Method” award for 2012.

Frantoio Franci EVOO Villa Magra Fruttato Intenso (Tuscany, Italy) $20.15
Green in the way only Tuscan oil can be. Scents of green apple and mint coalesce with a palate of green pear and black pepper to produce an intense, strongly flavored oil. From high-altitude trees, 50 percent Frantoio, 35 percent Moraiolo, 15 percent Leccino and Giuliana’s best seller.

Alberto Romano EVOO Ortice Riserva (Campania, Italy) $16.90
100 percent Ortice olives produce a yellow-green oil with hints of radish and kale on the nose. Smoky almond and starfruit round out this moderately acidic, easygoing offering.

Chateau de Règene EVOO Iris AOP (Aix-en-Provence, France) $21.78
Truly olive green in color with a nose of white flower and orange zest and a taste of grassy green peppercorn and fresh, green grape juice. A heady blend of 45 percent Aglandau, 40 percent Salonenque and 15 percent Picholine, Grossane and Lucques olives (combined) from young trees in the south of France.

Moulin des Ombres EVOO (Rhone Valley, France) $17.23
30 percent Calian, 30 percent Petit Ribiers and 40 percent other varieties, certified organic. Yellowish gold in appearance, this smells of pineapple and pine resin. The taste is all about lemon, sage and yellow peach. Only moderately acidic.

Certified sommelier and unfilteredunfined.com editor-in-chief Ben Weinberg, JD, MBA, pens Weinberg’s Wine Tech in Sommelier JournalDaily Beast, Worth Magazine, The World of Fine Wine, Wine Enthusiast, and The Tasting Panel Magazine, where he is the Rocky Mountain Editor. He also leads luxurious, behind-the-scenes tours of the world’s most famous wine regions via WineOnTheRoad.com.
Ben can be reached at BentheWineBerg@coloradostatesman.com