Sommelier Leslie Rosa of La Dolce Vigna
There is a picture of the wine world involving snotty sommeliers, elaborate terminology, and glass stems delicately pressed between the thumb and index finger. Where long time connoisseurs give a deep sniff, as their hand wafts the aroma towards their waiting nostrils and they bellow a series of adjectives you never thought would be possible to use together. This picture, laden with pompousness, is the pure antithesis of sommelier Leslie Rosa, founder of La Dolce Vigna, an innovative wine + culture tour company, with roots in California and Italy.
Leslie is on a mission to bring wine back to the roots. To a place where it is fun and approachable for everyone. Where wine is a catalyst for human connection, great food and an all around good time.
Leslie was born a New Yorker, made a few stints around the globe and settled in Italy, before transplanting to the Bay. Without knowing her, you’d probably be able to guess as much. Chicly dressed in a colorful sundress, patent leather oxfords, sipping a beer on a Friday afternoon in SoMa, she emanates an intellect, warmth and sprightly spirit. It’s not hard to imagine her wheeling and dealing on the Big Apple art scene, traipsing through the Tuscan countryside or enthusiastically leading people through the secrets of Treasure Island (a wine tour now available through EnjoyFresh). We sat down with Leslie and talked all things wine, food and travel.
Tell us a secret?
My first wine experience was with Carlo Rossi. I had it at some family event. All the kids had these little liquor glasses of the crappiest wine. Those were my humble beginnings with wine. Now, my gift to my family every year is a case of Prosecco. We all go upstate for the holiday’s and spend the nights making dinners. We go through a bottle a night.
How did you get started in the wine world?
I was living in Italy, working the art world and I decided I wanted something different. So, I started looking for the next step. In Italy, you can’t help but be connected to their wine and food culture. It’s part of the ritual of everyday living. I’d always been passionate about wines so I decided to take a sommelier course. I started learning the specifics of Italian wine, took the first level and fell in love.
I began visiting wineries, traveling the back roads. This is where you experience what Italy is all about. You set all these amazing characters who are so warm and eager to teach you what wine is all about. I felt so connected. The wine world is a humble world, you meet real people, real wine makers with their fingers dirty from cleaning out barrels. It’s a beautiful window into life, especially compared to some of the pretentiousness that exists in the art world.
How did you transition to running your own tourism company?
I love sharing experiences with those around me, so it was a very natural thing. Every friend who comes to visit me, I always plan everything out. Once I started learning about wine, I knew this was what I wanted to do.
When I started out, as a NewYorker moving to Italy, life was very different. I had a different pace was more stressed out. When it was time to leave Italy, I knew I didn’t want to go back to New York. I left more West Coast. I think there is a different way of life here, more similar to Italy. People understand the important things, that you should always do your best and work hard, but you need to enjoy life. That was something I wanted to share with people and there’s a great wine culture here.
What do you get most excited about with your tours?
Being able to provide people an authentic experience. For those people who can’t go to Italy for a week, they can still get something special and genuine. I take people to small, family run wineries, where there is a real love for the work. The wineries understand that they are part of a bigger system. Part of my tours are to help people understand their senses and feel empowered about wine tasting. They are just little things, starting points, but you can see the light bulbs start to go off. The Urban Winery Tours, especially Treasure Island is a different world. Things slow down even more, it really feels like island life, even though it’s close to the city. There is a fascinating history that comes across when we visit these wineries. People leave not just with a better understanding of the wine but a better understand of the place. You are connected to the stories of the island through the wineries. You learn about the military bases and film production, you get a picture of grapes from different many different regions all in the backyard of San Francisco.
Tell us more about the wine education piece?
I get a lot of different types of people on my tours. I get people who are very knowledgeable on wine, people who think they’re knowledgeable about wine and people who know nothing. At the end of my tours, all of them know.
People who don’t have much experience are timid. We always start with a Wine Tasting 101 and everyone gets decked out with little wine notebooks. They have all the tools, it helps when people have a visual and descriptors. They can look at the notebook and start to put the pieces together. Everyone leaves with the right tools. Between the picnic and the wine pairing 101, it really comes through. When people get to taste food with the wine they really start to understand and develop their own opinions.
I’ve had wineries tell me, “this is the best poolside wine” when tasting a super strong, over bodied chardonnay, that’s hitting you over the head with the butter, oak and malolactic. People who don’t know will go along with it. I want to give people a toolbox to figure out what they like and make their own opinions.
What was it like developing relationships with wineries here?
It’s always really lovely. The people you meet are wonderful. They are making this product to be shared and drunk by lots of people. They are open and happy when you express interest in what they are doing. Winemakers are humble people. Sometimes you see pretentiousness, but I don’t take people to those wineries. The places we go always have a family feel.
What is it like translating your relationships and experiences into tours?
It’s very natural. People are warm and welcoming. I have to do very little, the wonderful thing about human beings is that you can figure out a way to communicate. When I do my research I’m always looking out for the places where the experience is authentic where there is little work.
Favorite wine trend?
I’m really happy about the growth of organic wine. You’re seeing people experimenting with not putting any sulfites into wine. Everyone is getting wise to the fact that we can’t pump chemicals into the earth. I also love the return to small batch, boutique wines. You can taste the difference, people put more care into each product.
Least favorite wine trend?
It makes me sad when people have bad experiences with people who are supposed to be helpful. It doesn’t happen every day, but there is a lingering pretentious that happens in the wine world. I also have a problem with super pricey bottles. The people who do tours with me won’t have to deal with that.
Wine should be under 50 bucks. Before I came here and it was the norm. I would never have bought a bottle that cost $40, and there is no reason you can’t get good wine for reasonable prices.
Tell us a story that really encapsulates what your tours?
I was in the hills of Prosecco, visiting one of my favorite producers in the region. There was really wonderful women who was taking us through and explaining everything. All of a sudden this old man comes out and start shouting in Italian from the back. He was yelling to the women, telling her all the things about the place and the wines that he wanted to share, but couldn’t communicate himself. It was really adorable, and a perfect picture of what I love about wine making. This cute, old Italian man, so passionate about what they are doing. It reminded you it’s family. There are so many people who go above and beyond to share with you.
Another time on one of my tours we ran into the Italian version of the Royal Teennabaums. I was taking a small group to this winery, it was big house, real noble estate, slightly falling apart, but really cool and the family was full of wonderful eccentrics, so excited we were there. You had this total Gene Hackman dad in his cashmere, the mother had been a high powered judge. They invited us into their kitchen and made us stay for lunch. It was so surreal, in this old home, eating local fish with the whole family, these things happen all the time.
What are the major differences you see in the wine regions?
In California you see a little bit more, focus and dedication to the winemaker. People have a lot of respect for what happens once you harvest the grapes. You see it in the wines. California has a lot of bold, loud wines. Wine makers play with indigenous yeasts that are transforming wines. There is little interest in crafting subtle wines here. There isn’t a lot of focus on varieties you count the types on one hand. It makes sense. The vines were brought over from Eurpoe years ago and there was only a handful.
In Italy, they let the grapes do everything. There are hundreds of different grapes and indigenous grapes to specific regions that don’t grow anywhere else in the country. It’s only recently you see wines getting more expensive. Italian wine makers are starting to get more business savvy. Drinking is more engrained in the culture, the land has been in families for years, people drink all the time. In Venice, it’s not uncommon to see people having a spritz or glass of wine at 1:00 in the afternoon. Those cultural differences come through in the wines.
What do you love most about your job?
I was talking about that yesterday with my friends actually. It’s not really about wine, it’s a philosophy of life and living. Wine is at the core of so many things that are important to me in life. Wine for me is a way to address all of these things. It’s at the center of a really good meal, it’s about talking with winemakers about their journey. All these things that are important aspects of life and I get to be a part of sharing these things.
What frustrates you about your job?
The only thing that frustrates me is that I wish things were somehow more affordable to more people. My Italian wine tours for example are $3500 and that doesn’t include airfare. For some people it’s nothing, but for a lot of people it’s inaccessible. I want wine to be for everyone. Wine is wonderful, it makes you feel good, it’s better in company, it goes well with food. Whether you have 10 bucks or 100 bucks you should still be able to enjoy it.
That’s what I really like about the tours here, Treasure Island in particular. They are affordable. You still get the essence. I still explaining everything and bocce under the bay bridge, a picnic, it’s really fantastic. I just worry sometimes not everyone can do it.
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