Oenophilia sounds like a dirty word, one of those many philias that most people, especially cops, gird themselves against. But, during his seven years on the Burlington police force, Keith O’Gorman would go home and do the opposite: nurture his growing love of wine, mostly by reading and tasting.
More refined than tough looking, O’Gorman, 28, a Massachusetts native, joined the force a few months before he graduated from Champlain College — mostly to avoid the monotony of a desk job. It was anything but boring. “I saw three bodies in my first five weeks on the job,” he recalls.
Eventually, O’Gorman’s interest in wine began to trump his commitment to a career in law enforcement. Drinking a Rodano chianti riserva was an “epiphany,” he says, so about a year ago he began to think seriously about transforming his livelihood. Then, last summer, O’Gorman rented a corner space at Williston’s Maple Tree Place, painted the walls red, hired a friend to build floor-to-ceiling shelves and chose a broad selection of wines — going heavy on Italian varietals. He named the place Bel Canto, Italian for “beautiful singing.”
O’Gorman now has 700 bottles in his home cellar and an equal number on his store shelves. “I don’t know where the wine industry will take me,” he admits. But he can hold forth on a Soffocone di Vincigliata or an Elio Altare Barolo with genuine excitement. Last week, Seven Days stopped by Bel Canto to talk vino.
Most people don’t envision a cop kicking back with a glass of barbera. How did you get into wine?
My parents had let me drink wine at the holidays, and it had an allure to me. So when I was 21, I just started to learn about it. I bought books; I subscribed to the Wine Spectator. I did a ton of reading and tasting.
Every wine lover starts somewhere, usually somewhere unglamorous. What was the first wine you really got into?
I really liked Australian shiraz. It was dark, rich, fruity and affordable for a young wine drinker. New wine drinkers tend to like fruitier types of wine, and their paths end with more delicate grapes like a nebbiolo or a Burgundy. But the first wine I really enjoyed was a really old chianti riserva, a 1997 Rodano. It was so unbelievably good; it tasted the way damp earth smelled. It was a lightning bolt. It suddenly made sense to me why people seek out older wines.
Why did you make the decision to get into wine professionally?
With wine come so many other things — culture, history, passion. For the lack of a better word, it’s intoxicating. By comparison, law enforcement was more one dimensional. I think there is a stage where you ask, what are you going to do with your life? You only live so long. I started looking at my options. I realized I’d be disappointed if I didn’t follow this.
Each wine shop has its own personality; what is yours?
I was going for a European feel. My original idea was to have a European wine bar [but Vermont laws do not allow that]. I like to think of this as a place without pretension, where you can come in and people know you by name, and you can chat to them about wine.
Any bumps along the way?
I made a few rookie mistakes. I didn’t set aside any money for advertising, for instance.
Why Italian wine?
I wanted to tackle the hardest regions. Every time you open a bottle, you’re tasting a country. You drink an Italian wine, and you’re drinking something from a hardworking Italian family; you’re drinking the soil. My imagination runs wild when I drink wine. If you open an Old World wine, it doesn’t taste like a New World wine. It tastes like dirt and vegetables instead of fruit and oak — the dirtier tastes. And there’s a cool story behind all of these wines.
Bel Canto Wine, 11 Walnut Walk, Maple Tree Place, Williston, 879-9111. belcantowine.com