The Sandy Koufax of Wine

In An American in Rome, Articles by Christopher Maclean1 Comment


In many of life's artistic and skilled pursuits, you’ll find a singular enigmatic figure who follows a less traveled path and forges something unique. This person is often something of an iconoclast, plainly marching to the beat of a different drummer. The mysteries only add to the mystique.

If you’re into rock-climbing, the foremost elusive genius might be Alex Honnold, who, according my buddy Jay, “hides out for long stretches after accomplishing feats of great notoriety, like a solo climb of El Capitan.” In the software world, Google senior fellow Jeff Dean evidently enjoys a huge “Chuck Norris-like myth” online. Linus Torvalds, founder of Linux, famously codes in his bathrobe and says he doesn’t really like other people.

In baseball, the greatest enigmatic figure has to be the incomparable Sandy Koufax. He hung up his cleats for good when he was the most dominant player in the sport.

To meet one of these giants and learn something from them is a special kind of industry currency—a badge of honor. I’m certainly not above boasting about the time I met Emidio Pepe and tasted a few back vintages with him. The more I tell the story, the easier it is to leave out the part about there being 30 or so other tasters present!

Nor do I shy away from talking about the time I visited Zeno Zignoli, the genius behind Monti dei Ragni in Valpolicella. If you don’t know much about Zeno, we have a tastingspots feature on him:

Determining the leading individualist, the Sandy Koufax of a given industry, no doubt makes for a lively debate. Allow me to propose a few great mystery personalities for the wine industry.

In Italian wine, to me, the ultimate such figure is Francesco Valentini in Loreto Aprutino, Abruzzo. He’s the only Italian winemaker I know of producing a highly sought-after red, white, and rosé. (Emidio Pepe makes all three as well, but Pepe’s wines are much more widely available than are Valentini’s.) I’ve never been able to meet Francesco Valentini or taste his wines at the source, although I’ve been to Loreto Aprutino twice in the hopes of getting in the door. Sigh.

Sure, there are other illustrious Italian wineries like Giacomo Conterno that shun marketing and don’t pour their wines at VinItaly. The Conterno wines are singularly great, but I don’t think you would say Roberto Conterno is elusive or enigmatic. I have friends who’ve walked up to the Conterno residence without an appointment and were treated like kings. There’s even a website.

In Burgundy, it’s got to be Jean-Francois Coche-Dury. True, there are other elusive Burgundian greats. But when you talk to wine people about Coche-Dury, even in Burgundy, you get the impression that no one knows anyone who has visited the domaine.

A few years ago, just before a visit to Burgundy, I wrote the offices of longtime Coche-Dury importer Kermit Lynch to see if they could get me an appointment. I didn’t expect much but I’d been a customer for a while, and figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. The response? “Good luck. Kermit Lynch staff can’t even get in to see Coche.”

When my girlfriend later called Coche-Dury’s unpublished number (found in an older wine book) to request an appointment, she was very politely informed that the Domaine simply does not have the resources to host visitors. Instead, she was advised to look for their wines at two shops in Beaune. We quickly paid these stores a visit. At both, the wine merchants longingly and bemusedly stated that they hadn’t been able to source Coche wines in years. Apparently, the best way to catch a glimpse of ”The Great Man” is to linger in Beaune on market days, when he strolls around in peasant clothes and boots.

Last week, while traveling in Israel, I learned that the local enigmatic vigneron is Gaby Sadan, an Israeli of French descent who founded Shvo Vineyards. According to a friend in the Israeli wine industry, most of Israel’s trendiest restaurants would love to serve Gaby’s wines. The problem is, Gaby rarely answers his cell phone. But when he does answer, the requested bottles always arrive just a few days later.

Gaby’s wines have a way of making both professionals and customers rethink what’s possible for Irsaeli wine. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to care at all if they are priced accordingly. They sell for less than 30 euros a bottle.

I’ll have more about Gaby in my next post. In the meantime, who do you think is the Sandy Koufax of Italian wine? Who has tasted at Valentini? I won’t even ask about Coche.

by Christopher Maclean


Looking for artisan Italian wines at home?


Our wine club ships to all 50 states and to the EU!



  1. Nice post, Chris. I wish more sommeliers could relate baseball and wine!

Leave a Comment