Marco Pasanella says himself that he’s never had a ‘real job’ but he has been and still is a teacher, a designer and a writer. Then he added to the list another ‘not real job’ —that of becoming a wine merchant. He has just published his second book, “Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine” (Clarkson Potter) chronicling the story of his shift from designer to setting up and running a wine store, Pasanella and Son, in the ground floor premises of the South Street building he owns and lives in with his wife, Rebecca Robertson, a former editor at “Martha Stewart Living,” and their son, Luca.
I read some of your book online and these stories of people who turn around halfway through their lives and do something that is completely different to whatever it is they’ve done before have great appeal. It is revealing how much people love these stories, this idea of a second chance, don’t you think?
It was like a mid-life malaise. It wasn’t like there was something so wrong with my life … I was sort of bored. Ironically as I got a little bit more successful, the work seemed to be a little more like … for people who didn’t really need me. They’d re-done their place last year and had gotten bored [with it] rather than really needed somebody to make a dramatic improvement.
So there is something that drives you to take something rough and really throw yourself into changing it?
Oh I love that. It’s that kind of flea market find, right? The diamond in the rough thing. But if the diamond’s already polished and someone asks you to polish it again … it’s not as much fun. It’s not like my design career is completely over. Some friends asked us if we could find the time to design their apartment and my wife and I just did it. I did sort of rationalize it by saying that both wine and design are about kind of making daily life a little bit better.
How did you come up with wine—why was it wine as opposed to some other field?
Partly it was the circumstances. The fish guys [from Fulton Fish Market] left the ground floor premises and the sort of people who came knocking were … like this one guy who left a motorcycle idling on the sidewalk, smelling of alcohol and told me he wanted to open a nightclub.
I guess you didn’t want to live above a nightclub …
But I also had a big mortgage. The people who wanted to take those kind of risks on a neighborhood that is completely “out there” were the kind of people who drew their own crowd and … they’re not the kind of people you want to live above. And then we were sort of complaining about how we had to go, like, a mile to buy a decent bottle of wine—a mile! And we were in Manhattan! There was a place next to the subway that specialized in hip flasks …
Did you just learn about wine as you went along then?
Kinda … the population [in the neighborhood] seemed to be exploding. There were all these big buildings that were turning residential. Per capita, they were not the richest people, but the highest income was down here in our zipcode. So we were like, Okay, there are people with disposable income.
What is your clientele like?
It’s become families. It’s become Strollerville down here.
It’s become Strollerville everywhere—I do have kids but I have some sympathy with Fran Lebowitz when she lamented all these families taking over New York—“Why? They’ve got the rest of America.”
[Laughs]. You know the singles drink out … it’s when you have a family, that’s when you take home a bottle of wine—otherwise you’re going out for margaritas.
It sounded like this shift to selling wine was tough. What was going through your head when you were lying awake at night worrying?
Yeah, it was tough. Our first manager turned out to be, um … a handful … very, very talented and knowledgeable about wine but a complete loose cannon in every other respect. There are some stories in the book about carousing with winemakers … there’s one anecdote in the book about these very uptight French Burgundy producers who came—Burgundy is about the most prestigious wine you can get. They were deadly serious and then Janet, the manager, said she was going to take them out and show them New York. And the next day I come into the store and they look like they’ve been on an all-night train from Bangladesh. She took them to the Hustler club!
Sian: I want to ask you about the language of describing wine … chestnuts and spices. What are they talking about?
Lesley: At least they say chestnuts and blackberries and burning car tire. It used to be just adjectives like “surreptitious” and “lively.”
It’s just infuriating because the more you try to describe something as ephemeral as taste, the more you fall off the mark. Sometimes when you describe something in a way that is a little bit more abstract, for example we have this super classic Sancerre, and we described it as sort of like the Catherine Deneuve [of wine]: chic, timeless, elegant. Everybody got that.
We were just wondering if opening a wine store is more of a man’s dream than a woman’s dream.
Our most regular customers seem to be women. And the ones with whom we have the greatest rapport seem to be women. We’d like to believe it’s because we’re trying to approach wine not in this way of the competitive, cigar-smoking, moneyed thing but more in terms of discovery and value and being surprised—in a good way.
It becomes a status thing with some men.
A certain echelon of men. It is a little bit, “who’s bigger?” Mine is bigger than yours. We’ve never really sought those people out. They’re all trying to get that same particular $200 bottle of wine for $198. They tend to be people in finance and other competitive industries.
What is it about the world of wine retailing that, as I read in your book, makes it “irrational, highly emotional, crazy”?
It’s because it’s subjective, right? I think you have to be slightly nutty to be a winemaker, right? In New York City we have 25,000 different winemakers we can choose from. Imagine that competition! We have about 450 labels in the store. It’s harder to get into than Harvard.
So how do they get in?
They have to be represented by a distributor. There are a lot of wine distributors—300 of them—and they often are dragging in tow this winemaker, who for the most part is trying to grin and bear it, telling you the same little chestnut about their grandpa’s vines or losing their virginity in the vines … it’s all the same, you’re like “Uhuh, I’ve heard that one before.” And then they sort of pull out their wares and they’re like: So what do you think? On Wednesdays, we’ll have like, ten of those people, each with a half dozen to a dozen wines.
And how can you tell which ones are good when you have so many wines to taste?
The weird part is: very clearly. It’s amazing how quickly you go, “That’s good and that’s not so good. That’s good but it’s super expensive.” It’s not brain surgery. And you’re looking for a balance. The whole store can’t be Australia.
Can you tell us about the piece you wrote for The New York Times about the liquor laws?
Yeah, it was that piece that sort of got me the book deal. The liquor laws are still a holdover from Prohibition. They’re filled with all sorts of things like, God forbid that we sell a bottle of sparkling water because a bottle of Perrier could induce a normally law-abiding citizen to come into the store and then go straight for the vodka. You couldn’t have cheese or sliced salami or taste wine with a little food in the store. There are a lot of entrenched interests that are competing against each other. The latest salvo was these grocery chains who wanted to be able to sell wine in grocery stores. And I wrote, instead of saying “no way”, I said, well then make it an even playing field. Let me sell other stuff too.
And so I’m looking around for a giant jar of Tylenol … what’s the best cure for a hangover?
The best cure for a hangover is to drink less.