His hand coiled lightly around the stem of the glass, his eyes dancing happily above the rim of its generous bowl, Frank Machover is in his element.
Like the fine vintages that he sells, he has taken time to transform himself. Leaving behind a career in the retail perfume business, he has spent years cultivating an appreciation for deep and subtle flavors and acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the Grape.
The pose is familiar – seen at countless wine-tasting events he has presided over across St. Thomas, many of them held as fundraisers for various local causes, and all helping to establish him as the island’s resident wine expert.
Today, he’s at his office and more businessman than bon vivant.
Located on the top floor of an old building on Back Street, the small office is accessed by a steep stone staircase partially hidden and easily overlooked. The name of the company is Frank Leonard – Machover’s middle name is Leonard, he explains – and the most active division is VI Wine Wholesale, which distributes French wine in the Virgin Islands.
Machover is “taster, buyer and CEO.”
He’s also historian, promoter, dreamer, and very serious about his product.
“I’ve always liked wine,” he said. He credits his father-in-law with refining his interest. “He had a cellar of great wines, and he really educated me on what to look for.”
He decided to turn his hobby into an import business one day about 10 years ago as he and a friend, well known St. Thomas entrepreneur Terry Buder, sipped wine together in France. Buder has since left the venture.
But Machover has immersed himself. He’s taken courses and reads widely on the subject. And it doesn’t hurt that because of his wife’s roots, he lives part of the time in France. The office walls hold several renderings of landmarks from Cahors, a region located in the U-shaped bend of the River Lot in southwest France.
“The Romans planted the grapes there,” Machover said. By the Middle Ages the area had a reputation for dark-colored, full-bodied tannat grapes, and in the 13th century the family of Pope John XXII, who was born and raised in Cahors, began exporting so-called “black wine.” It became the favorite of the Medieval Christian Church.
Today’s popular malbec wines from Argentina come from clones of those vines, Machover said. They have also made their way to various South American countries, parts of Italy, South Africa and parts of the U.S.
Of course it’s not just the fruit itself that determines the quality of a wine. Another important factor is the environment in which it is grown. That’s why in Burgundy, Bordeaux and other premiere wine regions in France, pesticides are forbidden.
So is irrigation. The idea, Machover said, is to ensure that the plants go deep into the soil to seek water and thus absorb the flavor of the land.
“It makes the roots work harder,” he said with a smile. “We all know anybody who works hard has more character than someone who’s lazy.”
France does not allow fracking – the process of forcing water underground to extract fossil fuel – because it doesn’t want to disturb the water tables, he added.
The country has lots of restrictions on its most famous industry. Wineries in Bordeaux are allowed to grow only six different types of grapes, four red and two white, Machover said. “In Burgundy it’s even stricter.” The only white allowed is chardonnay and the only red, pinot noir.
Meanwhile, there are rules against calling a wine by the name of a region if it isn’t actually grown in that region.
“There is no champagne from California,” for instance, he noted. There is sparkling wine, but it is not properly called champagne.
The finer points may be lost on some of his customers, Machover knows.
“The hardest part of the business is educating the consumer,” he said. “It’s a very interesting challenge.”
Machover maintains a website www.viwinewholesale.com and also sends a regular email newsletter to anyone who wants to be on his mailing list. There he covers the basics of wine production and consumption and discusses the latest trends.
The best known brands are brought into the Virgin Islands by major distributors, Machover said. His mission, as he sees it, is to find small vineyards that are producing high quality wines but lack the big names to draw the attention of importers.
“We go (to France) twice a year,” he said. In July and August he tastes the early wines and in October, he samples those that weren’t ready in the summer. This year, he’ll be tasting burgundies from 2012.
“I bring in a lot of wine,” he said. In season, he imports about 3,000 bottles every three to four weeks. Off season, about half that. “I don’t ship in the summer because it’s too hot.”
He sells the wine to local bars and restaurants and to private customers at wholesale prices.
He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 340-774-5688.