My story, like so many others, is about dreams, failure, missed opportunity, and redemption. It’s about a kid, one of five siblings growing up in a small town in New Jersey to a loving Sicilian Family.
From an early age, I was surrounded by my immigrant great aunts, aunts, and uncles. My grandparents passed before my birth. However, the sisters of my grandparents filled that role selflessly. The love they showed would always be an inspiration, and repayment would be impossible. We lived a normal middle-class life—not much in the way of extras. No boat, no skis, no vacations. But we had the family, and we ate damn well. My mother and aunts were amazing cooks and could stretch a buck further than anyone.
My earliest contact with wine was watching my uncles pour cheap Chianti into water glasses. I was mesmerized and wanted to taste that which everyone was making a fuss over (and I did, on occasion, when nobody was looking). As life went on, I met and befriended a fellow from California at school. His family owned a few wine stores back home and would occasionally send bottles for him to try. I can still remember the moment the fire was lit within me, by a glass of 1974 B.V. Private Reserve! The year was 1978, and I was hooked. I asked what the price was, and at $14.99 a bottle, my next thought was, “I had better get a really good job.” You see, this is not a story of a wine maker/owner who was born into it. It’s about someone discovering their passion. Although my future was still unclear at the time, the sparks of my obsession began in that moment.
My path led me to California at 20 years old. I started my early career which was a series of sales jobs followed by the occasional management position. The funny thing was, every time I’d start making money as a salesman, I was offered a management job, training those below me for less money. Not too smart and a learning experience for sure. During that time, I read everything I could about wine: books, magazine articles, you name it. But all those bottles, wineries, domaines, and châteaux were a dream, an oasis. Most of my time was dedicated to my two young girls and all my money to the same.
I found myself in servile states, always longing for more and never being able to get there—wherever “there” was. Then it happened. The light came on and I realized that working for someone else was not in the cards for me. I became an independent agent of a mortgage company, and eventually part-owner. My wife and I had two more children (both boys), and bit by bit, the dreams started coming true. I had started collecting wine in a closet, and with each bottle I pulled, the learning curve became a tighter circle. My new career afforded me travel to Napa, Bordeaux, and Rhone. At one time in my life, I had a cellar full of Napa cabs and Bordeaux. But as many of us have learned, all roads lead to Burgundy. You see, some become comfortable in one spot, while the restless move on, never satisfied. So I ventured to the Valley of the Sun—Burgundy—and soon after to auction off all my Cabernet and Bordeaux. (Don’t worry, I kept a few Right Bank wines!) Of course, I also had an affection for Italy, especially Northern Italy. Barbaresco and Barolo were calling me, and I could not resist. Gaja, the King of Barbaresco, and Conterno, the King of Barolo—I was in heaven.
Back home, I put on massive tastings featuring wines from Henri Jayer, DRC, Leroy, Rousseau—all great Burgundy domaines. I organized events at top-tier restaurants—Spago, Patina, and Valentino. The press even wrote about these events. Before I knew it, I was becoming a celebrity. But my 15 minutes were up in the blink of an eye, and all the things I despise most were at my doorstep. The elitism of wine became unbearable, so I stopped the circus. If there’s one thing you need to remember about me, go back to beginning of this story, to the boy from New Jersey and his Sicilian family, where food and wine were shared in love. I can’t stand the person who says, “don’t open that for him or her, they won’t understand it and it’s a waste.” This is where the wine community parts ways with me, as I respond, “how the hell is that person supposed to get it if never given a chance?” Thank God my friend was willing to share his 1974 B.V.! Rather than seek to exclude, the wine community should be doing as much outreach as possible, lest we forget wine is a distant third in market share to beer and spirits. But enough of that.
So, there I was, all worked up about wine with nowhere to put all my passion and energy. I had spent years developing what some have called a very fine-tuned palate. But I have no illusions that this is because I’m better than anyone else. It’s because I have had the opportunity to taste the greatest wines on the planet. Yes, you need to work at it, and it’s not bad work. While sitting at my table in the year 2000, my wife looked at me and said, “You look lost and miserable. Why don’t you do something?”. I happened to be tasting a bottle of domestic Pinot noir and was very critical of the over-ripeness and artificial acid in the wine. I was taught that if you think you can do better, then put up or shut up! Well, that’s exactly what I did.
I launched Ambullneo Vineyards in 2001, and our first vintage was a critical success. I’m not much for the scoring systems of wine, as they are only as good as the palate of the person doing the writing. I’ll leave it at that. Nevertheless, we became the next big thing on the block and made years of extraordinary Pinot under the Ambullneo label. We made wines that were created around my palate, and if you liked them, you understood a little more about me. Wines of the vineyard, low yields, low alcohols, native yeast, native malos, and whole-cluster fermentation. Of course the equipment we used was the best. The procedures dealing with stems were different (and a bigger sacrifice and more work). But the end result was beyond worth it. Also, the vineyard managers are just as important—no—more important than the wine maker, for they bring the fruit. I have said many times, “Give me bad fruit and I have little chance. Give me great fruit and stay out of its way!”
In 2006, my partners (did I mention I had partners?) …well, we had a falling out. Financially, I was left holding the bag, so to speak. However, I launched Greg Linn Wines and made what I consider to be even better products. No longer burdened with many opinions, I was a singular force going in one direction, sink or swim. We have produced amazing Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, and continue to do so. Restless souls must be quenched with new challenges, so without further ado, I launched Greg Linn Imports. Not your typical import company, more like négociant meets world-traveling rock band. Instead of importing wines from distant lands, I wanted to be part of the process. So, I traveled to Northern Italy and, using my years of connections, leased ground and started making Langhe Nebbiolo, and a cru, Barbaresco Meruzzano. Next, I moved to Barolo and repeated the same, producing a cru, Barolo Perno. We are also now making three Champagnes in Les Mesnil, France, with all wines under my direction and label. These wines are second to none, and my greatest achievement. The future is bright, and I only hope I can see half of it before my demise.
I only have one regret. I should have started a lot sooner. But regrets are a waste of time and I have little time to waste. So, here’s to the future, for future’s sake!
Postscript: My wife Jana, I’m nothing without you and our children, (oldest to youngest) Tiffany, Kristina, Alexander, and Christopher. I have truly been blessed!