Hank Zona, Wine ‘Geek,’ Unwrapped

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Hank Zona, The Grapes Unwrapped. Credit: Joy Yagid.

Hank Zona, The Grapes Unwrapped. Credit: Joy Yagid.

“Wine was always on the table,” says Hank Zona, longtime Maplewood resident, about his childhood in Staten Island, New York.

Although Zona is a wine educator and wine events professional, he prefers to call himself either a “wine aficionado” or simply, disarmingly, a “wine geek.”

Zona’s love and appreciation of wine started before he attended college at Cornell in Ithaca, grew when his mother sent him and his brother to stay with family one summer in the Alsace region of France, where he visited local wineries and breweries, and was cemented when he answered an ad in Wine Spectator magazine for a teaching assistant job, where his main task was to pour wine for tastings.

Still, he worked as a headhunter in New York City for 25 years but admits that, “one of the benefits of being self-employed was the ability to develop this interest” in wine.

“Wine is personal, wine is social, wine is connective,” he gushed, as he proffered a book about the food and wine of Alsace, explaining his mother’s family connection to the region and the influence his early visit had on him.  

Zona can tell you what grapes go into the making of what wine. He can tell you where the grapes were originally grown and what groups of people took cuttings from their Old World origins to their New World adopted homes. He loves to match whatever is being eaten, from the priciest entree on a restaurant’s menu to artisanal pizza or chocolate to even Girl Scout cookies, with the perfect, the most complimentary bottle of wine available, saying that when “the wine and the food go together, it brings out the best of both.”

His Facebook and YouTube show The Grapes Unwrapped has been on hold for a while but is about to be resurrected with new segments called Hank’s Wine Shorts, 3- to 5-minute pieces about what people are eating and what wine they might order to drink.  The show should make its way back to SOMAtv soon.

Of American wine in general, Zona said, “There are wineries in every state now and just because it’s California doesn’t mean it’s good and just because it’s New Jersey doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Of Maplewood in particular he said, “Both [wine] stores in town now have very genial owners and I’m impressed with how Sid Patel [the new owner of Village Wine Shop on Maplewood Avenue] is trying to bring in more artisanally produced and smaller-batch wine and not carry the typical strip mall wine selection.”

If you mention White Zinfandel, Zona might smile and remind you that, not only is it mass-produced wine, “it’s food-processed” — or that the most popular imported white wine, a mass produced Pinot Grigio, at $25 a bottle, often doesn’t stand up against a Pinot Grigio half its price.

“Mass-produced wines use technology preservatives and additives to attain consistency,” Zona said. A mass produced wine, to Zona, is like buying a “box of Twinkies vs. making cookies at home from scratch.”

When it comes to buying wine for his own consumption, Zona “shops all around,” he said.  “I like Ferry Street in Newark if I’m looking for interesting Portuguese, Spanish or South American wine.” He mentions Gary’s Wine Store in Madison and Cool Vines in Westfield, Jersey City and Princeton. Zona also buys wine in the city or direct from the wineries he visits. In fact, he just bought four cases of wine while on a summer trip to the wineries of Virginia.

To see Zona in action, his next public event is at The Club at Orange Lawn in South Orange this Saturday, October 11. Zona is hosting an Italian wine pairing dinner with the executive chef Richard Krug.

  • 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Reception/tasting
  • 7:30 p.m., Four course sit-down dinner,with wines selected from the Italian wine portfolio of South Orange-based boutique wine importer Charles Woods of Bonhomie Wine Imports.

Cost is $45 for dinner plus tax and tip: $69 with paired wines included, plus tax and tip. Wine chat provided by Zona and Woods. Call 973-493-4404 (The Club at Orange Lawn) for reservations or email hank@thegrapesunwrapped.com for additional

Zona is available for hire to host wine events. Email him at hank@thegrapesunwrapped.com, follow him on Twitter @grapesunwrapped, or visit his website at www.thegrapesunwrapped.com.

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