Luca Dusi, Passione Vino – Part 1

Luca Dusi, Passione Vino – Part 1

James Sandrini 5th November 2018

What’s it really like to start a business in hospitality? We started an interview series to find out.

This week, we talked with Luca Dusi, Founder of Passione Vino, about wine, branding, design, trends, dogs, Italians and…too much for a single interview. Part 1 of 2.

Q

For many people, wine is a very serious affair. In contrast, everything about Passione Vino says fun – is that intentional?

My way – Passione Vino’s way – is to make people realise that wine isn’t for great connoisseurs only.

I profess that you don’t need to be a fishmonger to know that fish is old, or to be a butcher to know that meat is stiff. So you don’t need to be knowledgeable about wine to know if it’s good or bad, in terms of properly made, or totally manipulated…you should learn to rely solely on your taste buds, as they will let you know at once if what you are about to swallow is genuine or polluted.

And that doesn't apply only to wines, but to anything we put through ourselves.

In Passione Vino we try our best to make clients feel as comfortable as possible when choosing wines they don't know. Our aim is to expand their comfort zone on Italian wine and wines they’ve not tried before in particular.

I’m something of a wine socialist; I believe everybody should have access to a good, well made, bottle of wine. If you have £1 in your pocket, or £1,000 in your pocket, you should have access to a good bottle of wine made with the lowest possible intervention. Obviously, you can access less expensive wines only via big, mass producers and they can still produce genuine wines, within reason.

In the UK, the supermarkets play a major role in what we drink and eat. It’s different in other Country, like Italy, where there are not many chains and they’re not large enough to monopolise retailing nationwide. Being so large, they inevitably import their stock from large negociants.

I’m not against Supermarkets necessarily, but they should care more about the provenance of the wine and how it is made, rather than their profit.

Q

Do you think that final point of distribution – Supermarkets vs. Wine Merchants – is one of the great differences in wine culture between Italy and the UK?

It plays a major part. The UK market is split into 4 or 5 big chains and they can only stock wines that are made at huge volumes – we’re talking 1m bottles plus per year - to satisfy demand across their stores. Again, I’m not opposed to big producers necessarily because they service the people with a pound in their pocket, but they need to work with more of a conscience.

In Italy, there are fewer chains and they tend to sell more local wines.

48.1 - Luca Dusi Passione Vino
Q

And how did wine grab your interest?

I used to go Bottega del Vino, the oldest wine bar in Verona – you’ve been I’m sure – when I was 14 or 15, instead of going to school. My friends would go to this arcade called Florida to play video games, whereas a friend and I would go the Bottega and spend the whole morning looking at locals sipping their wines from large glasses… and sometimes we would get to try them as well. They’d serve you back then of course!

Wine was a mistake for me, really. I moved here on 13th November 1995, to Archway. 12 of us living in this house, 1 toilet. We were always trying to leave as early as possible.

I’d get to work at 7am – remember this is November – in the dark, and leave at 5pm in the dark again. I don’t think I saw daylight for 3 months. I worked as a waiter, as a pizza chef, as a bartender.

I was working in a bar where Barafina was recently, in Frith street. An English bar and restaurants. Italian people would come in and I would recognise them as Italian at once, obviously, but the comments would always be the same: The hotels are shit, the food is shit, the wine is shit. Always the same story. So, I stopped speaking Italian to people!

But two guys came in, speaking in a Venetian dialect, my dialect. Imagine two Geordies recognising each other! One was a winemaker and the other was a guy that was launching a wine distribution company in London. I ended up working for them a few months later, this was in 1999.

We’d go around all the best Italian restaurants – Locatelli, Teca, Zafferano and so on – and it seemed to me that all the top Italian wines were imported. I felt that there was nothing left to discover.

Skip forward to January 2003. I fell out with the owner and I started to work for an Italian business: Istituto Enologico Italiano, producers and negociants with networks all over the world. I traveled the world for them, I went to Japan a few times, the US six times, but the approach to wine was different from what I had in mind.

Then during a super-hot Vinitaly in 2003, I met a lady in the Piemonte hall. She was actively talking to a little dog, who was - in its own way - replying to her.

Attracted by this scene, I introduced myself and learned that she, Bruna Ferro, found the little dog that morning, abandoned by the motorway. We started chatting and I had to ask her to try the wines as she seemed far more into making sure that Ami – the dog – was fine with me being there. So, with a little permission from Ami, we began tasting her range.

The first wine: Lia Vi 2001. A simple Barbera d’Asti. A perfume so clean, and the taste….boom! So simple. So pure. So beautifully sour and real. A shockwave of raspberries, roses, pomegranate, cherries, violets, cassis…they hit me and left me speechless.

The Lia Vi was and still is great but the real lightening for me was the straight connection between the wine and its maker. There was a link; the character of the wine matched the character of the producer, and as difficult as it can be to see sometimes, it is now the essential element for me when choosing any producer.

Wine, producer, terroir, it should be a direct triangle on which each element expresses and represents the other.

A lack of enthusiasm became frenetic adrenaline. In a split of a second, I was on the phone with Federico to tell him that I would fly back to London that day - we were already late with Passione Vino!

48.1 - Luca Dusi Passione Vino
Q

And Passione Vino has been here since 2003. What’s changed in that time?

We’ve changed, for a start. For a long time, we were the Italian boys selling Italian wine to Italian restaurants.

But the big change in wine terms has been driven by 3 people: Fergus Henderson, Ruth Rogers and Jamie Oliver. They’ve helped to create a generation of young, British chefs. In fact, they have changed a whole generation, their mentality and approach about food and cooking and wines. It wasn’t long ago that working in a kitchen was considered a punishment!

Before Jamie arrived, hosting a home dinner party would have seemed mad for many people. What, you’re going to come to mine to eat? And I have to do the washing up? Let’s just go to the pub and get a takeaway.

The new generation of chefs made restauranteurs start to care about wines, with the same passion they cared about their dishes, recipes and the seasonality of their ingredients. So, when it came to chose a wine list to pair their menu, they were looking for flavour, style, taste and provenence rather than names, appellation or title…and it was rock and roll for us!

It was a not just filling a list with obvious and predictable wines that they were told should be on there, as a kind of geopolitical pollution! They’re like, ‘bang, I love it, it’s on the list.’

Q

The public are more informed now too.

Tenfold. The seeds have been planted everywhere.

With biodynamic wine, it’s a way of life, not a fashion. Not to say there aren’t people that have followed the fashion by pretending to be natural winemakers.

It makes me laugh when I go to a wine fair and you see the perfect farmer: Broken glasses, red socks, braces, dirty trousers, just a cord for a belt. Perfect. Then you shake their hand and it’s as smooth as a baby’s bum and you just think, you cheater!

The story is the same: ‘I’ve been a lawyer all my life but my heart beats 3 times faster for the countryside and now I just love being under a tree all day.’ Everyone would love to be under a tree mate!

Q

What’s the biggest difference between the two wine cultures, between Italy and the UK?

Well, Italians get a bit lazy, for a start. They drink what is on their doorstep and don’t know much about Italian wine in general. I doubt wine drinkers in Verona – where I’m from – would know what grape varieties are used in a white Etna, for example.

But England has always had an open culture, really. Colonies, conquering, travelling; they’ve all contributed historically. England is the strongest market in Europe for Italian winemakers, both for volume and quality. People will buy wines here that they would rarely buy in Italy.

Italy is very closed in comparison.

48.1 - Luca Dusi Passione Vino
Q

Why do you think East London has been such a haven for new, contemporary wine bars, like Sapling, Sager & Wilde and P Franco?

Well, all the young chefs are in this part of town and opening a place in this part of London is still cheaper than central and west London.

I do think that some of these bars are going too extreme with their wines sometimes but it’s the trend I guess. Going back to my primary rule – wine is for everybody – I think that some of those edgy, rather extreme wines are only good to create a ghetto, as most punters would not understand them and may face that arrogant snobbish attitude of ‘you don't get, it’s not for you.’
Extreme wines are good fun, but it will never set the trend. I guess this extreme attitude is natural within members of any trade by members of the same trade, but I’m not importing wines for the pleasure of fellow importers.

I do search and discover wines that best resembles the terroir, varietal or appellation; wine is liquid geography when naturally made.

And let’s be clear. It doesn’t matter how natural the wine is, if it isn’t elegant and balanced and faultless its a no go for me. A fault is a fault, period.

As my grandfather made years ago, you can still make clean, neat and elegant wines without the use of chemicals, machinery and modern techniques. Whoever says the opposite are just not winemakers, they’re opportunists who follow this ‘hippy’ style of making wine with the least attention to it as possible. But they will be very careful in choosing their broken shoes, dirty trousers and cords for belts!

Wine is magic. Wine is energy. Wine is effort and elements. Wine is never just a title.

Q

You’ve embraced a few different revenue streams here: The shop, the bar, wholesale. We’re seeing this more and more. What’s the future for wine distribution in London?

There will always be small producers and they will always be embraced by small distributors. I don’t think that model will ever change too much. Localised, face to face, personal experiences.

Q

How do you bring this to other parts of the UK?

Tastings tastings tastings…It’s like preaching, you need to get out there. I think I’m Virgin Trains best customer!

Q

Is there a way to do it differently though? Certain foods have, like Jamon Iberico for example – nobody was paying £20 for a few slices of ham 20 years ago, right?

Jamon Iberico has been helped by big restaurant groups. Let’s use an Italian example, ‘Nduja. Most Italians don’t even know what ‘Nduja is, but Francesco Mazzei, the great Italian chef from Calabria, he made a pizza for Pizza Express with ‘Nduja on it and Boom! An explosion. But without the reach of 500-odd pizzerias, people wouldn’t have heard of it.

Wine is a bit different. If you sit in a restaurant in County Durham or Edinburgh, where we sell the wine you’re drinking now, you still need to speak to someone to be convinced to try it. Otherwise, you’ll stay in your comfort zone.

Thanks to Luca Dusi.

Part 2 of the Interview will be released next week. Keep up with Luca’s Instagram – it’s fantastic – or head down to the shop – we do.