Iris Rowlee is the Wine Director for San Fracisco restaurants Perbacco and Barbacco. Additionally, she serves as the Chicago ambassador for Conegliano Valdobiaddene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. We spoke with her about her love of Italy, Italian wines, and Prosecco Superiore – plus what she would want her last glass of wine ever to be.
What sparked your first interest in wine? And how did you get your start in the industry?
The other day I listened to an interview with sommelier Jeff Porter on Joe Campanale’s podcast “In the Drink.” Porter points out that you can’t stay enthralled by wine if you’re just in it for the juice. Juice could be what gets you there, but it’s not gonna keep you there. Wine is a multi-faceted feast, living history in the glass, the individualism, the community. It is the dance of a coveted family of fruit with a land and its people (and don’t forget the microbiota), science in action, perfect and unique sets of aroma molecules and anthocyanins composed like musical notes, each grape variety playing their own special melody to our palates through time. The relationship of man and grape is intrinsic and enthralling.
North of Rome as a teenager, well before my palate could understand the chewy, rusted flavors in my glass, I had a serious “aha” moment in a dim, dingy wine tavern, near the Estruscan ruins of Cerveteri. My brain was swimming, lost in a day of studying an awe inspiring ancient civilization (of wine lovers, mind you) and looking around sipping, I felt included in something bigger, a deep human culture. I felt I was looking at a timeless scene and I was in it! I sensed this titillating feeling that wine was a liquid thread through time, the ultimate interdisciplinary, speaking to me excitement and interconnectedness. I was hooked.
You’ve had a fascination with Italy and a passion for Italian wines for years now – what is it about Italy that continues to captivate your interests?
I feel so much love for Italy and passion for its wine and the more I’ve delved into it, the more my captivation grows. So many people say to me that trying to learn Italian wines overwhelm them, the complexity and vast variety, but its complication is a great part of its preciousness.
Each area one travels to in Italy has a new micro culture, a new dish, a new cheese, a new bevy of indigenous grape varieties to meet. I love the never ending options and surprises, the bounty and diversity of grapes and terrior, the cuisine, the generous hospitality and personalities of the people, the strikingly beautiful landscapes everywhere, the casual great breadth of history intertwining with the grapes histories. There are literally backyard backdrops to biblical references and Greek mythological stories.
It’s just like falling in love with a person, it’s the whole package, and in this case it’s the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen and they have the coolest family. I mean how much of an argument do I have to make for a stiletto boot shaped peninsula in the glittering Mediterranean with what’s regarded internationally as the world’s best food?
As a wine director – what do you feel is the most challenging part of your job? And what is the most rewarding?
The most challenging part of my job is trying to not get disappointed by guests’ lack of desire to branch out, palate homogeneity, I call it, or tongue tunnel vision. It’s that feeling you get when you work so hard to cultivate a vast and colorful set of selections and all your guests want is Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.
As you can imagine, the most rewarding part is the exact opposite of that same spectrum. Getting to turn a guest on to something new, broaden their horizons, provide a little introduction the grape’s personality and the land and people that made it makes me happy, makes me feel like I’ve done my job. I see wine as a classist affair and I love to see the underdogs come up. But really, I’m a sucker, any wine connection that makes a guest happy makes me happy, be it Cabernet or Grignolino.
What one experience would you share from your recent trip to Conegliano Valdobiaddene that speaks to the character of the region?
In the soft rolling green countryside of the Treviso hills, just outside of the tiny township of Pedeguarda di Follina is nestled the most tender and charming little restaurant, Osteria al Castelletto, where I had the most memorable experience. Since 1977 the owner, chef Clementina Viezzer, former cook for the royal Brandolini family, has held court there, crafting the most heartfelt local Venetian cuisine in a cosy yet noble setting. Like many of the traditional osterias of the region, the room focuses on a glorious wood burning fireplace for roasting meats and staying warm on rainy days. At Clementina’s table in front of the fire, big hard bound guest books are stacked next to a simple calculator and notepad.
The osteria itself dates from the 1400s as a part of the fortification to defend the castle of the Brandolini family, feudal lords of the region for centuries. The walls of the osteria are still striped red and white, paying homage to the Brandolini family coat of arms and a painting above our table with the roman numeral date of 1630 shows the little Castelletto at the base of the hill of the Castle. Back then the space was a resting stop for travelers to replenish, not so different from today.
The highlight of the meal for me was a risotto, seasoned with the wild foraged herbs and greens of the vibrant spring that was bursting in the hills outside. Organic vineyards surround the osteria that they make their own wine from but we had to try a different historically pertinent pairing. The Gregolletto estate has been producing wine just up the road from Al Castelletto since 1600. Some may not know this but Prosecco Superiore also comes in a non sparkling style too. Their 100% Glera based wines are mineral, dry, with light herbal notes, expressive, and elegant.
In the competitive world of sparkling wine, why are you pro- Prosecco Superiore?
I am always excited by lesser known appellations and this just happens to be one hiding in plain sight. There is so much on the horizon for Prosecco Superiore; and so much history and diversity in its repertoire. They have steeply sloped crus called Rives, Colfondo undisgorged Proseccos that pay homage to ancient methods, beautiful terroir expressive bruts and zero dosage styles, a true bevy of bubbly beauties most would not know were associated with Prosecco. The DOCG is a higher tier literally and figuratively; where the flatlands end and the hills begin defines DOCG territory.
These hills are a rare and specific geological formation called hogbacks, typified by a rippling series of steep, rugged slopes that the local inhabitants adapted viticulture to (where there’s a will, there’s a way). They developed a unique type of terracing they’ve been perfecting since at least the 16th century called ciglione in which they use grass instead of the typical stones as the reinforcement. This prevents erosion and holds the vines in place on the steep terrain. In July of this year, the Prosecco hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene became a UNESCO World Heritage site designated as such as a cultural landscape. This status speaks to what we who are familiar with the magical region of Conegliano Valdobbiadene already know: there is a divinely unique and palpable connection of man and land here, innate, instinctual, visual poetry that plays out in perfect harmony of vineyards undulating with the slopes. There is no way to not feel it when you’re there.
Is there any advice you would give to people looking to break into the wine industry or become a Somm?
I would say the first and foremost tenet of being a successful ambassador of wine is education, education, education. Sign up for the classes, meet the people, read the books, listen to the podcasts, watch the films. Lap up as much knowledge as you can, don’t ever be above anything and always be open. Curiosity is a unifying trait of our industry and luckily for us curious people, its an endlessly dynamic field so we can keep learning all our lives.
Also, I have been very blessed by awesome mentors both of endless acclaim and humility, Shelley Lindgren of A16 and Ian d’Agata author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy etc. whose teachings and inspiration are the most precious to my heart. Find wine people to admire, study why you admire then, then follow your palate, there is a reason certain things speak to you. And if intimidation is what’s holding you back, remember, it is all just fermented grape juice!
If you had to drink only one last glass of wine for the rest of your life, which wine would you be pouring for yourself?
Hmmm if it was my last glass ever, ever I would pick something really god awful so I would miss it less. Haha, really though it would depend on the sentiment. Would I be feeling OG and brood over a heartfelt Giacosa Barolo or whimsical and dust a Paltrinieri Lambrusco di Sorbara? Or really, final answer, since me only having one last glass of wine is a fantasy anyways, let’s make it a fantasy wine I can’t get anymore: Villa Diamante, ‘Vigna della Congregazione,’ Fiano di Avellino 1998. It haunts me to this day; the glass I would pour it in would be a massive Burgundy and I’d pair it with some not so quiet Paganini and one salty tear.