Wine Opinion: How Italian styles won a master's heart
Michael Palij has been in love with Italian wines for 20 years. The affair began over lunch. Having been honoured with a rare invitation to an Italian home, the Master of Wine was offered not a glass of one of the major Italian wines but vino sfuso, the stuff left with the lees at the bottom of the barrel.
"The point is that I was there to have lunch and talk and see the family. The people were centre stage, not the wine," he says.
Nowadays, Palij is on what he calls a mission to demystify wine and remove all the pomposity and vanity he feels surrounds the drink.
The Canadian of Ukrainian extraction has been in Britain for 24 years, working as a wine merchant and educator. He established a company, VinoVeritas, selling Italian wine in Hong Kong about six months ago and is relocating here.
Palij believes that a lot of wine is overpriced and drinking trends are too fashion-driven. The effect is that consumers are paying too much for wine.
"There's no understanding. Here you have Bordeaux one day and Burgundy the next, and Burgundy [producers] have lost sight of what value for money is in wine," he says.
Palij makes the point that two bottles of wine can have exactly the same objective specifications - that is, containing 75 centilitres and with an alcohol level of 12 per cent - but one will cost HK$30 and the other HK$30,000.
The extreme price range would be understandable if the comparison was between a family car and a high-performance Bugatti Veyron, as their specifications are dramatically different.
With wine, he says, the price range can only be explained by "somebody, somewhere mythologising the complexity of wine". Palij often arranges blind tastings and says that nobody ever picks the most expensive wine as the best. "If you served a 78 La Tache to 100 people, how many people would like it?" he asks.
Palij also recommends a look at what people buy at the supermarket - it's generally New World wines that are ripe and very fruity.
He describes these wines as "not academic, not great wines, but what people want".
He finds it strange that the wine industry feels obliged to push consumers in the direction of wines that may be perceived as great but which don't match customers' palates.
Italian wines, he claims, have a much more accessible price point. "If you spend HK$2,000 in Italy it buys you just about anything. In Bordeaux and Burgundy you wouldn't be scratching the surface of the big names," he says.
At an early point in Palij's career he was buying the cheap and cheerful Lambrusco for a British off-licence chain. It was the company's best seller at a time when Italian wines had little reputation abroad.
On a buying trip to Italy he realised it was ridiculous to think a country with a wine producing history going back thousands of years couldn't produce great wines. "How could a country that gave us Ferrari, Ducati, Prada and Gucci not make nice wine?" he asks.
The insight was that there was little emphasis on quality before the early 1970s and what little quality wine that was made was drunk by Italy's own wealthy wine lovers.
Now that Italian wine has come from nowhere to second most popular in Britain, Palij is in the lucky position of "sitting on a clutch of top producers that 20 years ago nobody wanted".