Bordeaux is in the tanks, Australian wines are on the decline. Elite California wines are having an identity crisis, and Spanish wines suffer from not having a large enough base. Argentina is emerging because of their affordable and drinkable wines. So Italy, where does that leave you?
I get a call from a restaurateur. He wants me to come to his restaurant to taste wines and meet a winemaker. For years he has wanted to show in his place the wines from his region, Emilia-Romagna. One time I worked for a company that brought in wines for him, from Predappio. Predappio was where Mussolini came from.
Well, Predappio was a sad little place that had some imposing Mussolini era architecture which had fallen on hard times. The wines were a work in progress. So I was expecting more of the same.
Happily, the winemaker is someone who is grounded. I could tell by the way he took a piece of focaccia and placed the tomato and mozzarella on top of it, making his own impromptu pizza Margherita. He wasn’t waiting for someone to bring it out, he was taking charge.
Did I mention that he was born in Friuli? We talk about wine as symbol and wine as sustenance. He pronounces Gravner correctly (Grǒwner). He knows how hard we all have tried to sell those wines, but he also knows that we also have to buy braces for our kid’s teeth. And he also knows we want to love the wines we sell.
The wines? Only three are tried, from Emilia-Romagna, all Sangiovese based. The basic wine, selling in Italy for about € 3.00 is our first glimpse into the heart of this young winemaker.
I was inclined to like this young winemaker. We have a mutual friend. And he isn’t wearing loafers (suede or shiny). He is a working guy, his hands are big; the kind one needs in a vineyard and around a winery. I can tell that we also are probably more aligned politically than the conversation at the table is going. Yeah, I like him alright.
As we move on to the second wine, a Superiore, a duo of pizzas arrive at the table. We have launched into eating at this point; the wine is supporting the food, not outshining it with its brilliance. So far, so good.
And then we arrive at the point when the next level red is opened, also a Superiore. Mostly Sangiovese, but interloper grapes are involved, Cabernet and Merlot vying for our attention. As if they didn’t get enough from Napa, from Bordeaux, from the Maremma. A plate of tagliata with arugula appears; let’s drive this wine around the dining room, shall we?
I go back to the first wine, the simple Sangiovese. And then to the second wine, the Superiore of solitary Sangiovese. And then back to the last wine. Back and forth, eating, talking, sitting in the middle of a little trattoria in flyover country, enjoying a simple meal, with a beacon of light from Italy, this messenger from Bacco. Magnificent in its simplicity; perfect wine for the time.
The winemaker is going back to the base wine, pouring himself another glass. “So tell me, Stefano, about this wine. It is simple. It stands up to the other two wines above it. It is inexpensive. And it is so well balanced.” (He had me, didn’t he?)
“Well, Alfonso, this is the wine we make in Emilia-Romagna. Even at this level the terroir comes through, as it should in any wine. I love to drink this wine. Everyday.”
Of course he does. Because this is really the mission of wine, isn’t it? To give pleasure in a simple and uncomplicated way. And this is something the Italians have done so well, for so many years. Before the bright lights of the scores and the designer clothes and cars got in the way of the mission of all the millennia leading to this present time.
Italy, take heed. The time is over for spoofulated, manipulated, overly oaked and alcoholic wine at high prices. Oh, you’ve heard this said too many times on these posts? Well, that is the word, once again, from the trenches. Get back to being real about what wine is in this world. It isn’t a Hollywood starlet with plastic surgery. It isn’t a 500 horsepower roadster that gets 10 miles to the gallon. And it isn’t a Sangiovese or a Merlot, or any other wine, at 15% alcohol in medium toast French barrique that is destined to be a wine of meditation, whatever that even could begin to be in this world today.
Get back to wines we can drink everyday, at lunch, and go back to work afterward. Wines that we can afford to drink everyday. Wines that are simple but wines that reflect their sense of place. Do that, and do it consistently, and then you can have all the designer clothes and watches and cars and plastic surgery your little heart desires.