Interview of the Week : Charles Scicolone

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Whenever my father tries a new style wine, loaded with oak, vanilla, and ripe fruit, he shakes his head in disappointment and says, “This wine is not sincere. A wine should be sincere ! ” Maybe it’s because Charles Scicolone is Italian and born in the same year as my father, that he reminds me of him. The two are very similar. Besides both being earth signs, they take me back to a time when, let’s be honest, things were better.

I do not remember when I first met Charles, but it was probably in the very late 90’s and I immediately liked him. Look at him. Look at his hair. He looks like you can stick him into any Italian painting from any era and he would fit. I remember stopping by the restaurant “I Trulli” and their wine store “Vino” to chat with Charles and admire the great wines he would help select.

I admired those wines because, like Charles Scicolone, they were sincere. There were no disguises or fakery. He selected those wines because he loved and respected them and knew where they came from. Charles views wines as people; they are constantly evolving but must always be true to their roots. If a wine comes from Sicily, it should have Sicilian character and not be masked by the international costumes in the forms of low acidity, over-ripe fruit, vanilla, and too much oak (to name the main villains of the many). It is thanks to people like Mr. Scicolone and his influence that winemakers are resisting the tidal waves of conformity. He urges them to stick to what they know best: telling their stories through their wines.

Charles’ resume is anvil heavy. Besides being a wine consultant, writer, and educator, he helped build up ” I Trulli ” into one of New York’s top restaurants and their wine store ” Vino ” into a go-to destination for Italian wines. When you are as good as Charles, the name James Beard will follow you around. Besides the coveted James Beard nominations for outstanding wine service and wine list (6 years running), he also coordinates the wines for the Italian themed James Beard Awards. On the charitable side, you can also throw in the St. Vincent’s Hospital Kids Project Fundraiser. The list goes on and on, but I can assure you his credentials are unmatched.

Charles the man is much more impressive than his resume. I love to listen to him tell stories. Whenever I am curious about a wine or vintage of a wine I did not try, I ask Charles and if he says it is good, I will order it without even trying it (something I almost never do). He formed a super team with his amazing wife, Michele, who is one of America’s most important food writers. When you meet them, it gives you hope in marriage and a strong belief that all couples should be like them. I mentioned to a group of friends who also know Charles that we should make a movie about him. Until then, check out what he had to share with Piazza Life.

1) What do you look for in a wine? Character? Balance? Price/Value?

Price/Value, Character, Balance are not concerns. I am interested in which wines go best with the food I am eating. I never drink wine without food. When you go to a bar in Italy and order a drink or a glass of wine, they always send out small sandwiches, peanuts, etc. If the wine costs under $20 – even if it is $12 – and if it goes with what I am eating, I will order the wine. I will not order a wine no matter how special it is if it does not go with what I am eating. First comes the food, then the wine.

2) We have seen the wine world change dramatically and mostly for the worse. Where do you see wine going?

When I first started drinking wine in 1968, almost all the wine went with food. Then came the international style wines – over-concentrated wines aged in new barriques, which have so much wood and vanilla, they do not taste like wine. It was like drinking vanilla with your food. When I was the wine director for ” I Trulli ” in NYC, wine makers from Italy would come into the restaurant ( we only had Italian wines, 600 of them on the list) and try to sell me an international style wine made for the American market. All these wines taste the same. They have no sense of place. I would ask them if they drank these types of wines at home. Their answer, after some hesitation, was “NO !” Then I would ask, “Why are you trying to sell something you will not drink?” I am happy to say that, recently, there are many winemakers that are making wines less overly-international styled. There is some hope!

3) As a wine educator, what were the main points you tried to stress the most to your students to help them get it.

Know how the wine is made. In other words, what is the style of wine? Do they use stainless steel, barriques,large barrels etc ? What grape/grapes are used and where does the wine come from? If it comes from California or Australia, you already have a good idea of the style. Don’t be afraid to say that you do not like a wine, even if it is very expensive. There are very expensive wines that people go crazy for; I will not drink them. It’s not because of the price but because of the style. Give me a $16 Piedirosso instead.

4) I envy your travel schedule. You go places most people could only dream of visiting. What are your favorite places and where do you visit most?

Italy is #1. I love every region and have been to all of them more than once. The best region for food and wine is Piedmont, especially in the fall. I love the food in Rome and if I were a rich man, I would live in Rome. Naples and the Amalfi coast – I go there often. All of Italy is wonderful. I also go to France. Paris and Northern Provence are my favorite places there.

5) Do you believe in an After Life?

One can only hope.

6) Favorite meal and favorite wine (they do not have to pair well with each other, just favorites individually) ?

As I said before, the wine has to pair with the food. Fiorano per 1995 with lamb in Rome- in the oven, fried, or on the grill. I once had the perfect meal in Rome: Zucchini flowers, deep fried and stuffed with Mozzarella and anchovies, Pasta Amatrciana, and baby Lamb and potatoes in the oven.

7) Being married to Michele, you guys have formed a Super team : Food Expert and Wine Expert. Do you guys ever disagree on a wine or dish?

We discuss the food and the wine. Most of the time Michele will make a dish and I will then pick a wine to go with it. For the most part, Michele leaves the wine up to me. Sometimes, I will have an older wine that is ready to drink and will ask Michele to make a dish that goes with the wine.

8) Speaking of your marriage, how did you two meet?

We met in a singles bar on 1st ave. I saw a very attractive young woman sitting at the bar, but she was with someone. Next thing I know, she is standing next to me with a cigarette in her hand. I do not smoke but the friend I was with did. I snapped my fingers and said to him “Light it”. And the rest is history.

9) How will the emerging markets of China and India affect wine style and wine business?

China will keep the prices of expensive wine high and is a hugh market. I was talking to someone from India that imports food to India from all over the world. He knows all about wine and liquor but does not drink. He said that the taxes on these items are so high, that only the wealthy can afford to drink. He did not see India as a good market.

10) If you could live in any era, which would it be?

I was a Medievalist in my former life, so may be the Middle Ages. But I like it here now.

11) Would you not travel to Italy for 3 years for $ 5 million?

I would travel to Italy for 3 years for much less than that.

12) Which are your favorite soils for producing wines?

Volcanic soil, limestone, clay. gravel, marl. Campania, the Rhone, Piedmont etc

13) Can you leave me your amazing wine collection in your will?

The last question is very interesting. Interesting.


3 thoughts on “Interview of the Week : Charles Scicolone

  1. Michele and I have been friends since 1960, and when she met Charles we welcomed him in with open arms! He is a wine genius and she is a food genius.
    I use a lot of her recipes and my husband tries his best to play Charles’ part in wine pairing!

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