By Beatrice Russo
I got a call from IWG, he was heading out, could I come over and watch his house and his tomato plants? $100 a day to look after the old man’s crap, sure why not? As the taxi pulled up he was rushing to catch up with his adventure. “Where are you going?” I asked. “To a place where these cell phones and internets don’t go.” “When will you be back?” We were changing places in the cab. “I’ll be back soon. Just watch the house, don’t let your friends leave anything in their cars if they park in front of the house. And one more thing, that interview with the Italian wine sommelier, why don’t you test drive it around my blog?” He handed me the keys to his silver bullet, cool, quick German sedan and told me to drive safe. Yeah. Uh huh.
After popping a bottle of Saten and settling in for the weekend, nothing new but Slumdog Millionaire on his DVD shelf, I called my friend and polished off the interview along with the bottle of bubbly.
I’m young and underemployed, but free. But some of my somm-buddies, here and in Italy are pushed to a breaking point. Lots of work, not a lot of money, working on all the days when everyone wants to be playing, and watching all the old folks having time and money. Meh.
So here’s my rough-form, this so-called Interview with an Italian sommelier.
My friend Andrea has been a sommelier in a pretty fancy place, lot of alto-borghese types ordering Patron and Sassicaia. The past six months have been a major pain. Hours cut, inventory cut, customer count down, cost per bottle average down. Not what Andrea thought when getting seduced into this business.
First question: So, Andrea, tell me what are people drinking?
Andrea- more quartinos than bottles, more glasses than quartinos. Our normal clientele usually were high rolling types. I think they still want to be, but their resources have disappeared. So they come in and order a Barbera instead of a Barolo, and a Rosso di Montalcino instead of a Brunello.
Q- And there’s something wrong with that? Aren’t those wines pretty goods these days?
A- Senza dubbio, indeed. But I really wonder if they liked those wines in the first place or if they just come in to order them because they think someone wants them to like them because of their place in the society. Do you know what I mean?
Q- No I don’t.
A- Well, this society worships title and prestige. Everyone wants to drive in Ferrari, wearing Dolce & Gabbana, drinking the finest wine in the world. And here it is like the higher you can make yourself to appear, the closer you will get to the people who have what you want. And with wine, it might become a status symbol too, but did it start out that way? Did Monfortino decide to become unbearably precious so long ago?
Q- Oh, that. Italian Wine Guy has been ranting about the price of wine lately, but I thought it was just because of the mark ups he has seen lately in his markets.
A- I don’t know about that, but I have read recently a good piece in the American wine press from Matt Kramer where he talks about a bottle of wine costing not more than €12 to make. And then he talked about a Chilean wine that was selling in the States for about $12 that he really liked. Maybe my clientele are finding that they like Barbera or Rosso do Montalcino for that reason.
Q- Yeah. Well that’s if your manager or accountant doesn’t get greedy. I have a friend who is a bartender at an Italian place and they just got a great review. And what was the first thing they did? They raised the price of all the food menu items $2 and then they started raising the wine prices. A bottle of Chianti Classico that they paid $11 for they already had at $46 and they want to raise even more?
A- Maybe they don’t have as many people coming in and they need to keep the doors open.
Q- They won’t make it through the summer if they do. But enough about what I’m seeing, over here most of the folks except crazy-wonderful Antonio think they have to mark things up like they’re a gentleman’s club?
A- Gentleman’s club?
Q- Lap dance place
A- Oh. Yes they mark up high here to in those places. So I’m told by friends who go there.
Q- Tell me when you buy wine from a producer, let’s say one from Piedmont, what do you expect in the way of price?
A- I think everyone here knows the relative price. We all have friends at wineries so we know the ex-cellar price, more or less. And if there is a middleman, or a broker, there is a commission. We all expect that. But a Barbera, selling for €4-6 comes to us for €6-8. And we sell it for €12-14. Everyone takes a piece but no one takes too big of a bite.
Q- What are you drinking, enjoying, pushing these days?
A- I love the Sylvaner from Alto-Adige. And the crisp Pigato from Liguria. I found a Gamay from Umbria that I currently love, and the Lacrima di Morro d'Alba right now is drinking bellissimo. We have this sexy Aglianico rose and a sparkling wine from Sardegna, dry Moscato, really a nice aperitivo. Red wine, right now we are featuring three Montepulciano d’ Abruzzos from people who have had a hard time since the earthquake. We are marking up a little more and donating 50% of the selling price to the rescue and rebuilding efforts. And of course we have a nice Barbera d’Asti and a Rosso di Montalcino.
Q- How is Brunello now?
A- We are still looking at the 2003 stocks and worrying we will miss out on the 2004. The 2005 we don’t think are as nice. So maybe the Chinese and the Indian markets will get all the 2004?
Q- Well, I don’t know. You know the Italians. They do pretty well in a crisis when they know they are in one.
A- Yes, but this crisis will need more than the superpowers of Dr. Zaia.
Q- I hear more from my friends here that getting a sommelier certification doesn’t get you the dream job? How about your life, how goes that?
A- I think people want too much to be important and famous without thinking about if their life will have meaning or not. I don’t care too much about any further letters after my name. You know, it Italy it is a mania. Everyone is a Dottore.
Q- One last question, Andrea. Do you have any special plans for summer?
A- If I can I want to go to the southern part of Elba and lie on the beach and drink Vermentino and eat fresh seafood. That is my thought for a great vacation this year. And you?
Q- I don’t know. I was hoping the Italian wine guy would go away so I can use his pool and his car and raid his wine closet, like I did last year. Or I might go hiking in Yosemite.
A- Well you are always welcome in our world.
Q- Thanks, Andrea. We’ll see. And thanks for talking with me about wine and things.
A- Ma prego si figuri.