This month’s collection, California Soil, Italian Soul, comes straight from the heart. These six delicious, impossible-to-find wines are all from my home state of California, and produced from some of my favorite Italian varieties. So where else was I to turn for food pairings but to one of my most beloved Italian-American wine geeks?
Joanie Bonfiglio Karapetian is Southern California’s champion of Italian wine; she is herself equal parts Italian and Californian, and she lived and studied in Bologna, Italy as I did. She sells some of the most exciting imports in the state as a representative of AI Selections, and her blog – “Italian Wine Geek” – comforts me every time I find myself missing Italia. It was so much fun to share my interview questions with Joanie and to read her responses. Check back soon for her food pairings recommendations for our current selections!
Aaron Epstein, Curator
AE: Tell me about that pivotal moment when you decided to dedicate your life to wine. (Come on, we’ve all got one…)
JK: After I graduated from the University of Bologna I returned home to California without a clue as to what I would do next. A degree in Comparative Literature and that year studying semiotics with Umberto Eco cemented my passion for language and literature, but convinced me that I was not cut out for a career in academics. Luckily I found a local businessman in Southern California who was looking for a bilingual Italian-speaking-secretary of sorts, to help him with his budding Italian wine import company. At the time I knew nothing about wine, except for Lambrusco and Pignoleto, which we drank in the trattorie of Bologna, as “vino sfuso” on tap out of clunky glass carafes.
I spent 4 years working for this company, getting to know the producers and their wines, and I found a deep-rooted connection there. It was a revelation- my passion for literature and art and language all had roots in the same place as these funky Italian wines. Erbaluce from Caluso is a part of Piemonte’s history, just as much as Dante is part of Toscana’s antiquity. These wines are a part of human history in Italy, just like Michelangelo’s sculptures and Botticelli’s paiting. However, the fascinating part about wine is that this history is ALIVE today in the cultivation of these varietals.
I was totally convinced- this was where I needed to be!
AE: What food(s) did you find most comforting as a child?
JK: I didn’t realize that this was my ultimate childhood comfort food until I was in college and I would go home to visit my mom. I always wanted her to make a “Mommy Sandwich”… Toasted English muffin with a fried egg and Canadian bacon. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like a hug from Mom.
AE: And what does “comfort food” mean to you today?
JK: Today I find food most comforting when somebody else is preparing it for me!
I love stopping by Terroni in Los Angeles around noon. Max Stefanelli will almost always try to feed me something. A pizza, a porchetta sandwich… what a beautiful thing in the middle of all that traffic and chaos and noise, to have somebody offer you a second to sit down and share a quick meal together. Positively civilized.
AE: Do you have a go-to “house wine” that you always have stocked at home?
JK: I like bubbles in general as “go-to” wines… sparkling wines make people happy, and they go with everything. Champagne is definitely my favorite region, but price points from that area have led me to explore other bubble-growing zones. I love Franciacorta for example- I always have a cold bottle of Ca’ del Bosco in the fridge. It’s the law of the land.
AE: When you’re planning a meal, do you generally develop it around the food, or the wine?
JK: This depends on what day of the week it is. During the week when I come home from work with a bag of open bottles, I usually have something I want to drink with my dinner from that day’s sales calls. In this case I am inspired by the wine and I end up cooking something to go with the wine. (By the way, the answer can always be the Mommy sandwich. Eggs and pork- also go with everything)
Other times, if I have a great ingredient on hand, I like to think about which special bottle I will open to go with the food. For example, if my friend Erik Sun has hunted down a wild boar, there will definitely be Sangiovese or Nebbiolo on hand!
AE: Is there a dish that you’re famous for among your friends?
JK: I don’t know if I’m famous for it, but my favorite dish to make is a simple roasted chicken. It is a comforting dish I think everyone relates to (except for you vegetarians- you can have a salad.) I like to throw a bunch of root vegetables and whole garlic heads under the chicken while it roasts. Season everything really well with salt and pepper, maybe a bit of thyme or rosemary. This makes the house smell amazing and cooks everything together in one dish. Simplicity is key.
AE: How do you decide where to eat when you’re traveling?
JK: I do copious amounts of research before travelling- especially regarding where to eat! I feel so lucky to be a part of the food & wine industry- hospitality among this business is unparalleled. For people like me who really appreciate and value a great meal, being linked in to other people in the business is so rewarding. I love supporting good people crafting excellent menus and wine lists!
AE: What is your favorite place to shop for food?
JK: My mom’s family has been in the California farming business for two generations now. I love supporting local agriculture in southern California by shopping at farm stands and Farmer’s Markets… however I live in the suburbs near the beach so this isn’t really practical most of the time. I do buy local from wherever I shop, and thankfully some of the smaller chains are starting to make that easier to do. Support small farms! It’s the only way we will be able to feed ourselves as a country in the future.
AE: Imagine yourself as a culinary ingredient or grape variety. What would you be, and why?
JK: This is tough. Requires a special kind of reverse-anthropomorphic-thinking that I am not quite sure my brain is capable of. What grape am I? I suppose on some days I aspire to be Nebbiolo, but I only make it to Concord…
AE: Would you consider your approach to food & wine pairing to be more scientific or intuitive?
JK: I am definitely more intuitive than anything else. Wine is emotional for me- when I have a special bottle I save it for a time when I can open it with food prepared by people I care about, and share it with friends. In fact, I think I pair wines with specific people before anything else. I have a bottle of 1985 Vernaccia di Oristano in my cellar waiting for my friend Geoff. I find things at shops and think, “I should buy this for the next dinner with the Earlys or the Loudys..” I have a bottle of 1976 Produttori Barbaresco on hand that I carried back from Italy, earmarked for my husband… and so on.