Malcolm Jolley interviews a wine agent in love with the wines of Italy.

Paul Perugini with the “Capo”, Grappa master Gianni Capovilla.

“You know who you should interview?” said David Minicucci when I tried to pin him down for one, “You should interview Paul Perugini.”

Minicucci is the owner of L’Unità on Avenue Road, and sells a lot of Italian wine. He sells even more lately since he’s opened the red hot Giulietta on College with his friend Chef Rob Rossi. Well fair enough, I thought, if I can’t get the restaurateur to talk about more than a decade of successfully operating an Italian restaurant, I’ll talk to his agent.

Actually it wasn’t hard to convince me at all. I met Perugini a year or two ago at dinner showcasing his wines at (of course) L’Unità that Minicucci put on for a few of his regular customers. I remember really enjoying the wines at dinner, but then having great fun with Paul Perugini after at the bar. He had brought all manner of rare and obscure wines from all over Italy, and we tasted through them as he explained what he did at Perugini Inc. and how he got into the wine trade largely by accident.

A little while ago, I asked Perugini over for a coffee to tell the stories again and recorded our conversation for the interview below. It’s been edited for length, clarity and style.

Good Food Revolution: So how did you how did you get into the business?

Paul Perugini: Actually I got into wine fairly late in life. I always loved the history and tradition, and, you know, my grandfather grew grapes. Growing up in an Italian family, there was wine on the table all the time. My grandfather would bring wine for lunch. It was everywhere. Growing grapes in the backyard and using a BB gun to shoot the old wood barrels that were soaked with wasps: I grew up with it. But I didn’t acquire a taste for wine until I was about 25. I had my first glass of Ripasso and loved it and realize my palate changed: Oh my God, I love wine!. From that point on it was an obsession of trying as many different wines as I could.

Good Food Revolution: Hey, 25 is not that old! I think that’s probably around the time that I became really interested in wine too. But getting into wine is not the same as getting into the wine business. How did that happen?

Paul Perugini: I started bringing in some really rare varietals from Italy that weren’t available at the LCBO. I started researching about these grape varietals, old historical varietals from Italy and I went to the LCBO to look for them but I couldn’t find anything. So, I decided to start importing my own.

I had a great wine in Italy that I fell in love with. I came back to Toronto…

Good Food Revolution: What was the wine?

Paul Perugini: It was a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo called Infieri.

Good Food Revolution: That doesn’t sound like a very glamorous wine, like a Barolo or a Brunello.

No, but it was a fantastic wine. When I got back home I decided to contact the winery. I told them I wanted to import it, but they told me they already had an agent. So this is when I started learning about the world of agents and you how you had to have a license to import wine. So, I went to the AGCO and got a license and started targeting a lot of other, more rare, varietals that I was looking for, originally: Aglianico, Falanghina, the wines from Lago Trasimeno in Umbria. We’re going back 14 years: you couldn’t find them, even Dolcetto or Frappato.

I always wanted the wines nobody else did. It was about having that special niche product that I could almost call my own. So that’s how it started, but it was still more like a hobby.

Then one day I was at Terroni Queen Street – this would have been around 13 years ago 14 years ago maybe around the same time. I was looking a their wine list and I was blown away. They had all these really rare varietals, some of which I brought in. But also a lot of the wines that I brought in at the time, they didn’t have. I asked the server who would I be able to speak to with respect to the wine list? He said, oh you can talk to “John”, he looks after our wine list. And I’m green to the industry. I hardly know much about wine technique or production at the time. So I met with this guy John, who happened to be John Szabo. I had no idea who he was. I didn’t know what a sommelier was, I didn’t know what a Master Sommelier was. But I met with John and showed him the wines I was bringing in as a hobby and he asked if he could place an order. I wasn’t really looking for an order but that first order with John is still my biggest order to date! It was an order for ridiculous amount, like 150 cases. There were four or five Terroni-based restaurants that time. I was shocked. I always knew I wanted to something entrepreneurial on my own, and when I left there that day I thought, wow this is it.

Good Food Revolution: That’s an amazing story.

Paul Perugini: Yeah but I remember thinking, oh my God, how am I going to be able to put I’m going to put a 25% deposit down on 150 cases! But Terroni were fantastic. They took care of the deposit and I started working with them from that point on. I started traveling in Italy from the South to the North, meeting with multiple producers of multiple varietals until I found the perfect one of each. I was looking for the one that, you know, spoke to the terorir, spoke to the land, that was family oriented, boutique. Something with historical importance to the person making it. So that’s how it started and I started importing more and more wines that Terroni loved. They probably thought thought I was selling elsewhere but I wasn’t. I was only selling to them. And then around a year after that I began selling a bit to Mercato and some other restaurants. That carried on as a part time thing for around three years. Then I jumped into it full time.

Good Food Revolution: You had an interesting day job before you went as a full time agent.

Paul Perugini: I was working at CN Rail, as a superintendent for construction. I would drive the wine in my CN truck, park it down the block, change out of my boots into my dress shoes, do a tasting and jump back in the truck.

Good Food Revolution: That’s hilarious. Was that one of those trucks that can also drive on the train tracks?

Paul Perugini: [Laughs.] No, No it wasn’t one of those. But it was crazy and I got to the point where I couldn’t manage both. So I knew it was the right time to make the jump.

Good Food Revolution: Do you deal exclusively in Italian wines?

Paul Perugini: At the beginning I dabbled with California for a bit, but no one took me seriously, because I had such a strong Italian representation. So I’ve been 100% Italian up until six weeks ago. I found the wines of Luis Pato from Portugal. So I’m 99.9% Italian, but I do carry the wines of Luis Pato just because they’re spectacular. And there’s a real interest for his wines, as well, in the market.

Good Food Revolution: So would you diversify further? Look for more Portuguese wines, or elsewhere?

Paul Perugini: You know, there’s so much more to discover in Italy. And we represent all 20 regions of Italy. I don’t know if there are many agents who do as well and have such a vast representation of so many varietals; maybe Cavinona. But there are so many varietals that even within those 20 regions we are always looking to bring in something new.

Good Food Revolution: OK, so what are you excited about these days?

Paul Perugini: Sicily is so hot right now, and I have an amazing new producer, Pianogrillo that I’m just in love with. Probably one of my favourite wines I’ve ever had. And I dabble a little bit into food.

Good Food Revolution: Is that just because you’re there, so when you’re tasting wines, why not pick up the olive oil too?

Paul Perugini: Exactly: a lot of it happens by chance. I’m there at the winery and I have this incredible olive oil and then I want to bring in the olive oil. At Pianogrillo, for instance, I had a tomato concentrate, an extract of ciliegino pomodori (cherry tomatoes) that’s just amazing. And I have a pasta from Gragnano…

Good Food Revolution: I’ve been there: it is the pasta town.

Paul Perugini: The birthplace of pasta: macaroni! Food is not my focus, but if I find something good in my journeys I try and bring it in.

But going back to what’s hot right now, in terms of bubbly it’s Pignoletto. It’s an indigenous varietal to Emilia-Romagna. I saw it almost everywhere in Bologna and Modena, it’s like it’s the new Prosecco. But it’s not new, it’s been around forever. And it’s all regional, with Italy. If you’re in your hometown, you’re drinking from the vineyards that are across the street or around the corner.