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 A visit with John Given A favorite importer drops in for a visit, and brings along a collection of intriguing Italian wines.
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A visit with John Given

John Given
Several times I have sung the praise of John Given, a wine importer based in New York state, who's earned my trust by delivering consistently appealing wines that fall right into my zone of special interest: Tasty, food-friendly and fairly priced Italian wines, with extra points for a strong focus on artisanal producers using offbeat grapes in out-of-the-way wine regions.

I first learned of John through his wines, which started turning up at a couple of my favorite wine shops earlier this year. I featured one or two of them in Wine Advisor articles, which began an occasional E-mail correspondence. So imagine my delight when I learned that he was going to be in my home town for a wine dinner this week.

Naturally I needed no arm-twisting to sign on, and it was my great pleasure to meet John and taste a lot more of his wines - along with an excellent dinner fashioned to match - in a Wednesday evening tasting sponsored by the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF) and the Bristol Bar & Grille in downtown Louisville.

In a brief presentation, Given introduced himself, sketching a brief biography of his life as an Associated Press correspondent in Tokyo and a move to Buffalo, N.Y., where he caught the wine bug from a chance encounter with a home winemaking supply shop, which started a hobby that turned into an obsession.

Tiring of journalism in what he jokes that his wife called a "midlife crisis" but that he defined as "a strategic change of career direction," Given gave up his job with AP and moved to Dutchess County in New York's Hudson Valley, where he first tried professional wine making, renting space in a commercial winery to produce wine under his own label. His newfound wine passion took him often to Italy, where, prowling the huge Vinitaly wine exhibition in Verona one spring, he said, he found a wine "that fired my entrepreneurial imagination."

It was a Prosecco, a simple, fresh and fizzy light wine from the Veneto, surrounding Venice, a wine whose time in the U.S. - at least according to his reading of the conventional wisdom in 1998 - had not yet come. Given wanted to import it, but he couldn't find a distributor who'd represent him with such an offbeat wine, so he decided to do it himself.

As it turned out, he caught Prosecco on a rising curve, and he sold out. A career in importing was launched. "I got it into 15 states," he said, "and that's the reason I'm standing here today. After 15 years in journalism, I'm having the time of my life in the wine business. Wine is fun ... I love to eat, I love good food. Wine is one way to lead the good life ... you get to meet a lot of good people and enjoy a lot of good food and wine."

As a one-man band running a small company, Given said, he's able to indulge in a selective portfolio that's limited entirely to the wines he loves. And they're just the kind of wines that I love, too ... it's no wonder that I couldn't wait to meet this guy.

Here's a look at the wines served with Chef Roman Forcelledo's dinner; after the meal, Given shared tastes of still more wines, the remains of sample bottles that he had been showing to local retailers and restaurateurs during the day.

With bruschetta topped with fresh tomatoes and basil:

Bellenda Prosecco di Conegliano 2003 Valdobbiadene Brut - Clear straw color, pours up with a quick froth. Fresh white-fruit aromas, melon and a floral note. Crisp and fresh in flavor, with a good acidic snap and a prickly fizz on the tongue. Perhaps just the slightest hint of sweetness as it warms in the glass, but it's basically refreshingly dry.

With tricolor tortellini in sun-dried-tomato cream sauce:

Tenuta Roveglia 2003 Lugana - From Lugana in far Northern Italy's lake country, a delicious white wine that Given says he discovered when he stopped for lunch in a trattoria on Lake Garda one day and said, "What have you got that will be great with fish?" Made from the usually disrespected Trebbiano variety, Given says this Lugana clone is special, and the wine speaks in support of that. Clear straw color, it offers fresh apple and pear aromas on the nose and palate, with an intriguing chalky minerality to add real complexity in a crisp, textured wine.

With a salad of crisp escarole with walnuts, olives and an intensely anchovy-flavored vinaigrette:

Ronco dei Pini 2003 Collio Pinot Grigio - From the Collio hills in far eastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia, perhaps Italy's best source for Pinot Grigio, this clear straw-color wine redefines this grape, with fresh and floral aromas that blend honey and beeswax into forward floral fruit. Lovely full-bodied white-fruit flavors are laced with subtle minerality, with crisp fresh-fruit acidity that turns steely in a very long finish. This is Pinot Grigio.

With pork scaloppine Milanese garnished with a roasted tomato stuffed with spinach and Parmesan:

G. Camerano e Figli 1999 Cannubi San Lorenzo Barolo - Given said he waited a long time before adding a Barolo to his portfolio, but this one made the sale. Dark garnet in color, it breathes lovely red fruit and violets, classic Nebbiolo, leading into a deep, brooding red-fruit flavor, "sweet" and properly acidic, over a solid but very smooth and accessible core of tannins. Not a modern, internationally styled "blockbuster" Barolo but an older, more classic approach, a wine that's almost delicate yet shows the stuffing needed to age for decades. Remarkably, its wholesale price should permit a retail tag well under $50, making it an unusually affordable Barolo.

With angel-food cake topped with moscato berry sauce and billows of whipped cream:

Marchese Fioravanti 2003 Moscato d'Asti - A drink that Given calls "grown-up grape juice," fizzy and light at just 5.5 percent alcohol, pale-straw and frothy, with classic Muscat aromas, citrus and grapefruit and perfumed wildflowers leaping from the glass with a yeasty back note; grapey and very sweet flavors shaped by snappy, refreshing acidity.

A quick rundown of the sample wines tasted after dinner:

Valdinera 2003 Roero Arneis - Clear straw color with a brassy hue. Perfumed, floral, appealing aromas; crisp, lean and tart with complex minerality. Impressive white.

Tenuta Maggiore "Sentito" 2004 Provincia di Pavia IGT - Cortese (85%) and Riesling Italico (15%) - Given jokingly calls this his "orgy" wine after a lusty medieval party scene on the tiny front label. Very pale greenish-gold. Amazing floral perfume, a burst of white fruit; luscious, full and dry. Excellent wine.

Giovanni Scilio 2004 Sicilia Bianco IGT Rubé - Made from indigenous Sicilian grapes, 50% Carriconte and 50% Catarratto - Clear straw color. Citric, fresh and crisp, with floral overtones. Fresh white fruit and snappy acidity, with a slight, pleasant bitterness in the finish.

Sacchetto 2003 Veneto Sauvignon Blanc - Very pale greenish-gold. Good fresh citrus with a subtle "grassy" backdrop. Fresh, rather full-bodied, nicely balanced with crisp acidity.

Ronco dei Pini 2003 Colli Orentali del Friuli Tocai Friulano - Pale brass color, with "outrageous" ripe melon aromas, musky canteloupe. Flavors consistent with the nose, full and ripe, musky melon and tangy acidity.

Bellenda 2003 "Col di Luna" Piave Cabernet - A blend of 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Cabernet Franc - Very dark ruby with a clear bronze edge. Grapey, spicy, soft and quaffable; tart red-berry fruit in a long finish.

Cantine Sant'Agata 2004 "Na Vita" Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato - Dark garnet. Floral perfume and spice, warm and aromatic, red cherries and citron, "fruitcake in a glass." Similar on the palate, bright, spicy fruit shaped by snappy acidity, warm brown spices in the finish. Idiosyncratic but fun, a very fine, very offbeat wine.

Valdipiatta 1999 Trincerone Tuscana IGT - One of Given's few "Super Tuscans," it's a blend of 60 percent Canailo (the red grape that's usually a supporting player in Chianti) and 40 percent Merlot, aged 1 year in "young" French oak barrels. Black plums, anise and menthol, a whiff of smoke. Wood is quite evident, but so is bold, dramatic fruit. Young, impressive, needs cellar time; strikes me as a bit "New World" in character, and thus a bit out of synch with much of Given's portfolio, but it's the style of wine that's bound to rack up big points with the major critics.

John's Website is a good one, simple and easy to navigate, with detailed pages on all the wines he imports, along with where-to-find-it information detailing where the wines are distributed:

Also, particularly for readers outside the U.S., try digging up details on these wines from the databases on,

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Friday, June 24, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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