The Enth Degree – November 1, 2006
Stefania Pepe is one audacious babe. At age 20 she defied her father, the celebrated winemaker Emidio Pepe, when they disagreed on her education. She took off for America to make her own way. At 24, she asked the Italian government for $1 million to start an organic winery, back when the concept was virtually unknown there. Turned down flat, she bounced back to gradually prod the family wine business toward organics, and in 1989, when women winemakers were rare, she helped found Italy’s female winemakers association, Le Donne del Vino.
At 40, Stefania Pepe is still a joyful rebel who now has a label of her own. She is building a gravity-based wine cellar that reaches 10 meters below ground, and is installing a video camera so she won’t feel compelled to sleep there during fermentation. A gracious host, Stefania is also adding “agriturismo” guest rooms overlooking the vineyards, where visitors can indulge in wine-centric spa treatments such as grape skin baths.
Wine Enthusiast: What are some of your earliest memories of wine?
Stefania Pepe: Stamping grapes a piedi nudi—barefoot—at age four. But when my father lifted me onto the grapes I was so ticklish under my feet I could hardly stand it.
WE: Was crushing grapes by foot common in Abruzzo at that time?
SP: Yes, and we’re still doing it. Ten years ago I said to my father, this is too much work: after finishing in the vineyards around 7 p.m. we’d be pressing until 2 a.m., minimum. So we bought a pressoir. But the difference in the stability and the strength of the wine was enormous, so I found a kind of compromise: part of my grapes are pressed by foot, the more expensive “Pepe Bianco” line, and part with a pressoir, the “Cuore di Vino” line.
WE: What were some of the most important things you learned from your family?
SP: My father taught me the philosophy of respecting nature; of respecting the vineyard. He taught me to walk in the vineyard very often to observe how she’s growing, to see if she’s having some problems, and to go into the cellar to taste and smell. If you have a friend it’s normal to visit them. The wine is like your friend; you need to see if he’s okay, to see if he needs to be decanted.
I also learned from my grandfather, who taught me to drive a tractor when I was eight. I come from a very traditional Abruzzo family where the woman does not have power, but I was lucky because I was the first daughter and my grandfather thought, “Okay, now we have a woman. I don’t know if there’s going to be a man, so we’d better start teaching her.”
WE: Were you a rebellious daughter? What was the argument with your father about?
SP: My father didn’t want me to go to university. In Italy they say you lose a daughter who goes to university; it means you’re going to change. So I told my father I was selling wine when I was actually following the lessons. When he found out he told me to go home and work in the wine cellar. I said, “No—I’ll show you,” and I went to New York without any money and supported myself as a waitress. I was 21 years old, very thin, very elegant, very fancy, and I can tell you I never worked so hard at home! But in America no one could say I had a nice car and money because I was the daughter of Emidio Pepe.
WE: After you returned to complete your education, what was the road to starting your own company?
SP: At university I did my thesis on organic wine. When I finished, I asked the state for $1 million to create a company that made organic wine, which was practically unknown in Italy 16 years ago. They said: “We cannot give a 24-year-old a million dollars to create a product that does not exist.” I told them, “It doesn’t exist today, but it will exist in the future.” Still, I didn’t get it and I went back to work for my father.
By the time I was 38, I felt I needed something of my own. But when I ordered two custom-made wood fermentation tanks, my father said: “No wood in my wine cellar!” But they cost 22,000 Euros and they were coming, so what was I going to do?
We have a saying in Italy: “When one door closes a bigger door opens.” So I said, “Okay, papa, I’d like to put my tanks in that old wine cellar you’re not using.” In one week I cleaned everything top to bottom and started doing my first wine. You cannot imagine how much sacrifice it was; but also how much joy when I drink that wine.
WE: Do you think women make different wine than men?
SP: Ooh la la, yes! Right now my wine and my father’s are made from the same grapes, but his is more aggressive, more tannic, more acidic. Mine is rounder, suppler, more fragrant. If you look at a woman, she is rounder than a man. We make wine like we make a baby; we create something we want to be the best and to thrive, so we grow a vineyard like it’s a part of ourselves.
There’s blind tasting, and then there’s blind tasting. When you take Blind Wine Tasting 101 from Don Katz at his Symposium Wine Bar in Southern California’s Orange County, you’re getting the real deal.
Katz, who had spent the last few years working in restaurants, woke up one day in a New York hospital, paralyzed and blind from meningitis. Physical therapy helped him learn to walk again, but his vision never returned, so he abandoned his plans to become a chef, and switched to his other passion—wine—figuring that the loss of one sense might strengthen his others.
Katz, a slight young man who looks younger than his 30 years, lets his instincts guide him when choosing the bottles for his boutique wine bar. “When reps bring in new wines for me,” says Katz, who passed the Certified level exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers and studied Sensory Evaluation of Wine at UC Davis before going blind, “we don’t talk until after I taste. I like to do true blind tastings.”
It was during his hospital stay that Katz became aware of his increased sense of smell. “When I was being wheeled around the hospital I realized I could identify what the other patients were eating from the aromas,” he remembers. As for wines, he says he “found [he] was better able to notice off flavors,” which helps him reject some bottles and select others that will be pleasing to a wider audience.
After his long period of recuperation in the hospital, Katz returned home to Orange County to open Symposium with assistance from his family. “My father, Moshe, works with me…I gave him a job,” Katz jokes, “and used all his money.”
Symposium stocks only wine, beer and soju (a mild Asian vodka), and serves them with a variety of artisanal cheeses, chocolates and nuts. The wine list features a changing selection of five dozen-plus bottles; tasting flights are a crowd favorite. “Everybody buys a flight,” confirms Katz, who personally favors Zinfandel. “You don’t have to spend $10 on a single glass of wine you might not like.”
While most of the offerings at Symposium come from boutique operations, Katz does generally stock a few well-known names, including Cain Concept and Vieux Télégraphe. Katz, who sports dark Guccis—”my ‘blind man’ glasses,” he calls them—as well as 14-gauge hoops in each year, typically perches at the front of Symposium, where there’s a small retail section, welcoming customers as they arrive. Katz will guide guests to individual bottles to take home, but defers to his employees to take the wine off the shelf and ring it up. “I am here to talk about wine with the guests. I have my staff do the actual service parts,” he says.
Later, Katz will work the room, and occasionally sit down at a few tables to talk about wine. “My job,” he says, “is to sit and taste wine, look pretty and schmooze.”