Wine and Food are Like Music

By Kelly Louiseize
Editor Jennifer J. Lacelle
September 25, 2021

Out of 900 wine samples tested each year, Donato Carozza and Franco Stalteri can sniff out the best by instinct.

“It hits you right there,” Franco says, pointing to his heart.

Donato nods. “Agreed. Passion is king in this business and it has always led my brain. It has been all heart all the time.”

How they became one of Ontario’s top wine agents started 23 years ago when Donato gave up his career as a bond representative, his Yorkville pad in Toronto, and a BMW 325I to learn the art of wine making in Italy. It sounds romantic, sure, though it was anything but, he says.

After graduating from York University in Business Management, Donato took a job selling assurance bonds to construction companies. When the market went hard, (premiums increased and clients began questioning their policy) he had to rethink his career choice. So, he took off to the Province of Treviso where his Uncle Bruno owned a 60 million litre winery in a small village called Montebelluna. Translated, it means nice moon hill. Moons seem to be an important symbol of transition in Donato’s life.

It was there he stayed learning the craft, waking at 6 a.m. to clean out the garbage disposals, moving to plastics and packaging, cleaning fermentation tanks and eventually to testing laboratories, and into the vineyard. On his days off he visited neighbouring wineries, learning the subtle differences that would make their grapes different than another and their wine a signature of pride in the family. In a country populated by vineyards, it is the smallest of nuances that give a vineyard its reputation. Donato was consumed with knowing everything there was to know about wine making. Somewhere down the road he would put that knowledge to good use.

A Night to Remember

On a clear night, a full moon so close one could touch it, he and Uncle Bruno visited friends in Sardegna, an Italian island south of France and west of Italy on the Mediterranean Sea. He and his uncle sat down to zuppa di pesce (fish soup). It had been simmering for 12 hours, its Mediterranean flavours burst open with every spoonful.

“It’s cooked in tomato soup — just fantastic,” he laughs.

After mopping the bowl with bread, he and Uncle Bruno migrated to the laboratory. The side door on the wine production facility was open and it was there they performed sample testing until close to midnight. Sharing a bottle of grappa talking about wine and life, the men philosophized.

“Wine is like music, it is all about the feeling, the mood. You must drink what you love. Once you find out what you love, don’t hesitate to explore other wines, ask questions. Once you begin to understand wine like you do music, it becomes a mood and food thing. They work together in life,” Donato recommends.

In the laboratory the following day Uncle Bruno prodded Donato about his future. He suggested he fly back to Canada and begin his own wine agency. His tutorage with Uncle Bruno was coming to an end. In the following weeks, Donato prepared to return home.

Back in Ontario, the LCBO’s heavy restrictions on wine products were continuing to suppress consumer choice. Donato approached the LCBO for a license and registration of which he was approved. That was a fête in of itself since those tickets were like winning a lottery.

Uncle Bruno sent his nephew three Venetian wines: a white, a red and a sparkling.

“You should be able to cut the market in half starting with these,” Donato recalls his uncle saying

This was also a time before cell phones and the smooth transference of text, email and online banking.

Greater Toronto Area restaurants and large companies were his first points of contact.

Their “edge to the wedge” was a new sparkling Prosecco. It was Donato who introduced that lively, refreshing taste to Ontario, he says.

For restauranteurs, the price point could not be denied. This allowed other products to be introduced. Owners also liked the fact that these wines could not be found on LCBO shelves.

Despite a three month wait for orders, that they were required to pay upfront, Donato’s customer base grew.

“I wouldn’t go home at night until I was productive. I would go to a Yorkville restaurant and order an appetizer. The owner would come around and soon he was sampling my products. Before I left, I made a sale.”

So successful was he that David French, head of operations at the LCBO, wanted to use him as the poster boy to show how a new system can benefit operations. An estimated 300 agencies opened but soon collapsed after realizing how difficult it was to penetrate the market and stay focused. Only 100 of those agencies are in existence today with Grapebrands being one of the top 10.

To show his support, French provided Donato space to house an inventory of wine at one of the LCBO warehouses. This was a real cue. It meant his clients didn’t have to provide funds upfront and could receive their purchases the next day.

“This was great because I always stumbled over myself asking for money upfront.”

Soon these cases grew from a 100 to 1,000 to 10,000 plus. During that time Donato was living out of two small rooms in Yorkville. One was his office and the other his bedroom.

Grapebrands introduces Charlie’s Burgers

“I was scratching my pennies just to make my payments. I cut (metaphorically speaking) my arms off and grew new ones during this time.”

Today, he services over 600 Greater Toronto Area restaurants, of which 400 are consistent buyers. Clientele from restaurants were exceptionally supportive. Yes, he says, there was a darkness of uncertainty in those days, but I just kept at it and didn’t raise my head until the day was done.

One evening while hosting a wine event at the Pier Palace, located in the west end at the mouth of the Humber River, he was introduced to Franco. The wine event had a bit of a theatrical slant to it. In the library of the home, Donato served wine vintages while waitress angels distributed samples of sparkling wines. Each wine group had a theme. The idea of creating a night based on a theme and delivering good food paired with stellar wines set in motion Charlie’s Burgers.

For those unfamiliar with Charlie’s Burgers, it is the most recognized dinner series across Canada, says Franco. Each month, one of Canada’s top chefs had cart balance over the supper menu and Grapebrands would pair boutique wines and select locations.

People invited to these exclusive events are given a guest card along with suggestions for attire. For instance, if it was a cruise ship evening, guests were told to arrive in nautical style fashion. So popular were these events that they had to create secret codes and passwords to let guests in and keep transients out.

“It was all cloak and dagger with maps and special codes,” Franco chimes in.

In fact, part of the thrill was the secrecy of meeting a strange man by a mailbox who would confirm their password. Other times he was the man on a park bench reading a newspaper upside down. Each month the theme would be different and held in a distinct location, with a turnover of 50 new enthusiastic guests.

“We created an experience for people that was exciting. Each dinner sold out and we had 1,000 people wanting to get in. It was lively, intimate and fun,” Franco says.

It attracted guests from all over the world: Denmark, Spain, Sweden. The evening was so unique that Charlie’s Burgers made #3 on New York City’s best Food and Wine magazine in 2010. Chef Louis Charest, who managed the Canadian Governor General kitchen, decided to have an Arctic menu with whale, muskox and of course Arctic char, which he experimented and served to the princess of Japan, Aiko Toshi, several weeks later.

The dinner club became such a craze that Charlie’s Burgers had their own following of people who treated it like a cult, Franco says. Guests would compliment the gentlemen on wine pairings and inquire how they might purchase a case of Georgio Pellisaro from the Piedmont region, or Brunello from Tuscany or a French Chablis which happened to be Donato’s current love.

“It has never been about the sales pitch. My goal has been to inspire people with a bird in hand approach,” says the man who is more comfortable rolling up his sleeves and dirtying the knees of his jeans with vineyard soil. “It is important to drink better and live better, enjoy life for today and understand wine like you consume fine foods and music, with passion and meaning. Discovery and exploration are great ways to learn about wine or simply enjoy it more sensibly. Guests asked to buy wines and of course we wanted to sell them but more than anything we wanted them to enjoy the evening. We talk business the next day.”

Donato and Franco cannot count the number of suppers they’ve organized, but each event brought more people inquiring about the wine selection. Out of that demand came CB Wine Program, a membership that delivers three boutique wines to one’s door each month, including details of where the wine was crafted, its process and operators.

“If it is good enough for my table it is good enough for someone else’s,” Donato says.

Downtown Toronto deliveries are by bicycle which adds to that European flavour. To say this collection of wine tasters helped buoy the business during COVID is an understatement since most of the restaurants had to close with gradual reopening occurring in 2021.

Grapebrands represents over 130 companies from Spain, France, Washington D.C. and Italy, with over 1,200 imported wine products.

Over the next two years they will be developing the website to create that same cultural experience.

“We don’t want to lose our wine, that is our spine,” Donato says. “We want to continue to create meaningful experiences that are epic in quality and commitment. Our hearts are in the right place and we want to continue giving our members a reason to stay.”

So, it was something about the moon from Montebelluna that led his heart to Sardegna which carried his passion back to Canada. In delivering wines as a way of life rather than a way of income, he found his calling, a calling he now shares with the world.

*The views and opinions contained within subjects, content, information, data and imagery does not necessarily reflect those of iinta, iinta’s staff, or iinta’s affiliates. For full disclosure statement, please visit our Disclosure Page.

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