Friday, July 04, 2008
The Hill Country Interview
Guest interview by Beatrice Russo
While Alfonso is finding his bliss on his very little own island, he has given up the blog to me, once again. Before he left, we sat down in the Texas Hill Country, where I interviewed him.
BR: Did you start out wanting to be in the wine business?
AC: No actually I wanted to be a gypsy-freelance photographer. I went to New York in the mid Seventies, lived in Chelsea, did a little part time work at the New School and assisted for a photographer.
BR: What happened?
AC: I am a westerner, like to see the sunset and the horizon. New York in 1975 was pretty depressing. I moved back to LA.
BR: What was the wine scene like when you arrived in LA in the late Seventies?
AC: It was fresher, cleaner than where I had just been. I started working in a restaurant in Pasadena, called The Chronicle. It had a fabulous cellar, mainly California wine at the time, but I was exposed to some of the great winemakers at the time. Pasadena was just a little too conservative in those days. I remember the night Jimmy Carter won the election; some of my customers were pretty upset. They looked at me with my longish, curly hair and started blaming me that the country was going down.
BR: What did you do?
AC: I realized I was in an environment that wasn’t healthy. My son had just been born and I was full of hope. The prospect of serving up Ridge and Georges de Latour to a bunch of miscreants motivated me. So I worked in Hollywood across from Paramount studios on Melrose. It was a happening place. Wine was coming down from Napa we had French wine on our list, there were a lot of stars coming in. It was just a brighter place.
BR: So you opted for Italian wine.
AC: That came after a while. I was living in Dallas, working at a great old Italian place, Il Sorrento. They had this little room up in the attic that was tem-controlled and had all kinds of old bottles of Barbaresco, Barolo, Gattinara, Amarone and Vino Nobile in there. I was tired of selling Piesporter and Bolla Soave so I asked the sommelier to give me a list and some prices. I went to town. Folks like Stanley Marcus and Terry Bradshaw came in, along with the wealthy set in Dallas, looking to have an experience. It was the Eighties and oil and money was flowing.
BR: Were you surprised by the public reaction to Italian wine, or by their eventual mass acceptance?
AC: A lot of people travel to Italy. So they are looking for a way to recreate that experience. After a while Italian wine just seeps into your bloodstream and it becomes a natural part of your life. I am constantly surprised and disappointed at the same time.
BR: Half-full, half-empty, which one is it?
AC: Both. I was recently in a new Italian spot; they had spent millions on the place. But when I looked at the wine list, I wanted to puke. I saw wines on the list that were marked up five times. I mean, who’s gonna spend $170 on an ‘03 Brunello in these times, especially when they can go down to Cost-Co and pick it up for $49. There still is an imbalance out there. That’s the half-empty part.
BR: So what did you do?
AC: I told my server that I had to leave, personal emergency (it was, to me) and we went back into town. Walked into a little place that makes great pizza and pasta and uses some great locally sourced produce. Sat down ordered a bottle of a cool red, a dry, real Lambrusco for $34, and got back on track. Twenty years ago we would have had to just buck up and drink the Bolla. Not these days, even here in flyover country.
BR: Yeah, what’s with you and that flyover comment? I read it on the blog lately.
AC: It’s a reference the East Coast folks make to where I hang my shingle. The midsection of the country. You know, where we can still see sunsets and horizons and have a back yard and a garden.
BR: You have a unique style of writing. How did this blog thing come about?
AC: I have written stuff all my life. I wrote a novel (unpublished) in 1979-80. When I was in Palermo in 1971, I remember writing poetry on the typewriter in my uncle’s library. In those days Italy only used 22 of the 26 letters, I think. So my poetry was a little strange. After my uncle took me around the streets and ruins of Sicily, I read everything I could get from Sicilian authors. This is my basis in blogging. It uses wine as a buoy but launches out as far as I can go, even sometimes in to Borges country.
BR: You lost me there, AC.
AC: I’m not surprised.
BR: Did you ever feel that you had tapped into the Zeitgeist in some special sort of way?
AC: This is starting to sound like Dylan’s Rolling Stone interview, Beatrice. Are you talking about the way the blog has been going?
AC: As I look back on it now, I am surprised that I came up with so many of them. At the time it seemed like a natural thing to do. Now I can look back and see that I must have written those posts "in the spirit," you know? Like "The Endless Italian Summer" or “The Meltdown” -- I was just thinking about that the other night. There's no logical way that you can arrive at posts like that. I don't know how it was done.
BR: It just came to you?
AC: It just came out “through” me. D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem called “We are Transmitters,” that said it all.
BR: You have been doing posts, as far as I can tell, three times a week for two years now. What's going on here?
AC: Well, The tail is definitely wagging the dog on that one. I don't know what to say; I'd love to slow down, but the tap is on and the stuff is flowing. So I'm just going with the flow.
BR: Have you ever considered moving to Italy? Where you might feel more at home?
AC: I considered that back after my wife died. But then I thought about being in Italy, where they’d always treat me like a stranger on a Sunday night. I’d rather not have any illusions about my isolation. Texas gives me space and I like the out West places well enough. No, I’m not bound for Italy, not looking for a convent in the Marche to redo anytime soon.
BR: So, tell me a secret, AC, something that you have been keeping all to yourself.
AC: I don’t know about that, Beatrice, how about a little dream?
BR: OK, yeah, sure.
AC: I’d like to slow down on this blogging thing, ‘cause it just seems to have a bit too much of a hold on me. I have other stories in me, like my science fiction side. All those years I spent throwing the baseball in my backyard with the old Italian who used to work for Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone, I guess. I also would like to write a book about a wine personality. I mean one of the John Steinbeck, larger than life people. The kind of person the common man could identify with.
BR: You got someone in mind?
AC: Look around you, here in the Texas Hill Country; vineyards, Bar-B-Q, all kinds of people running around here. There’s at least two or three books scattered around this crowd. Three that I know of. But there is one I am working on. Wait and see, Bea. You gotta practice your patience, young lioness.
BR: Thanks, AC.
Comments to me here:Beatrice