Over the past month, with holidays and traveling, I have been in my share of restaurants. Usually we are in an Italian place, but not always. But inevitably I get handed the wine list. “Pick something,” I am told. If only life were that simple.
I have not always made the best choices in life, but a wine list shouldn’t be a life shattering experience. And while there are many more things worthy of our serious attention, this is the life I have chosen, and so, I wonder while I wander on the wine trail in Italy.
During this time period, I was sent a wine list from a restaurateur who wanted my input on his list. He’s a chef, has a wine warden, but I get the feeling they aren’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye these days. I could easily guess from looking at the wine list and the menu together. The menu is this graceful elaboration of small and thoughtful plates, utilizing seasonal ingredients, often sourced locally. The salumi, cured in house, is fresh and direct. One of the items I had, a ciccioli, was just a bite (The banquet is in the first bite, as Pollan likes to say) but was an explosion of wonderful, harmonious flavors. The chef knows food.
The wine list, however, was a mine field of overpriced, spoofulated wines, with the usual suspects from Tuscany and Piedmont. Really a shame these two never got on the same page. With a little luck, the wine warden will move on to a steakhouse. Soon. In the meantime, for this little place and for all Italian places that are looking to makeover their wine lists, here are some wines I would put on if it were my place.
Malvasia Bianca "Donna Marzia" from Conte Zecca – 2008 - A bright, slightly fat white from Puglia. Just enough body to favor cured meats pork, or a scallop dish with a smoked cauliflower puree. I have turned my friends on to this white wine since last summer. Giorgio Marone, who studied under Tachis, consults with this estate. I met Marone years ago at Illuminati and liked his laid back approach. The wine is fruity, fresh and sells in retail shops for under $10. In the right restaurant it should fly off the wine list for under $30. From Mionetto USA Imports.
Tramin Chardonnay – Alto Adige – 2008. Stainless steel. No oak. I was telling Damon Ornowski about it the other day. When I first got into drinking wine there were scads of inexpensive white wine from the Maconnais. Those days are gone, but I still like to get my drink on with a nice crisp chardonnay. Willi Sturz fashions such a creature from pre-alpine vineyards. I do not know why this wine isn’t on every Italian wine list in America, at least from the Mississippi river heading west. In stores it sells for under $15. On my wine list I would notch it at under $35. From Winebow.
Basilicata Bianco – Re Manfredi – 2008 - From Terre degli Svevi, who make a massive old school, Aglianico. Their white is another world. A blend, (grown in Basilicata, mind you) of Traminer and Muller Thurgau, grown at elevations of 1100 feet on volcanic and harsh slopes, just the place to build character. I find this wine to be a gulper, but I have to get it on a list first so more people can have that pleasure. It’s an odd confluence of grapes and locality, but these little miracles happen all the time. Now if we could just get the good Lord to put His hands over the small placements and let them multiply. In the retail wine shops it should be findable for around $20. I’d love to see it on a wine list for $39, but if someone asked $42 I’d sign up on the spot. From Frederick Wildman.
Gaglioppo - Statti – 2008- The other night we found ourselves in a classy place, Craft, with a wine list that was interesting enough to find more than one wine for the night. Kudos’ to the somm and the salesperson (and probably the importer) for getting this wine onto the list (now, if we could just get it onto an Italian wine list or two?). From Calabria, this wine is pretty direct – light color, delicate spice on the nose, good body, balanced flavors. This unassuming Gaglioppo is one of the perfect little wines that make a night out part of a great dining experience. Found in the stores for under $20, on Craft’s wine list it sold for $48. I can handle that. From Vias Wine Imports.
Barbera d’Asti “Villa Lisa” – Cascina Bruni 2008 – looks like a pattern here – 2008 vintages all of them so far. I reluctantly embraced this wine, as experience indicated that Barbera wines do not sell. But we got this onto the floor of the greatest Italian wine and food store in America and over the past 4 months they sold 100 cases of this wine. People loved, love, love this wine. One somm I showed it too poo-poohed it, “Too light,” “Not enough extraction,” “I like bigger Barbera’s.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, the little people like it. And I’m one of them. It’s the perfect Italian red wine for everyday. No romance, not even a sleepover. But you can get some satisfaction with this bright and cheerful red wine. It reminds me of my son's cat, who likes to wait at the door for people who come to his house. He's ready to play and jump around and have fun, and this Barbera is ready and attentive. And, at the end of the day, it’s a pussycat of a wine. A lap cat. Cuddly and warm and not too complicated. In the retail world it sells for way under $15. So, on a wine list it should be selling for $30 – max. From Tricana Imports.
Last one –
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Vigna Nuove – Valle Reale – 2008
Folks who read these posts know how much I like Montepulciano from Abruzzo. The Illuminati’s are like second family to me. Maybe I am not as crazed as Sausage Paul, who has 15+ on his racks (way to go Paul!), but I do like me some Monty! This one, from Valle Reale, just rolled into my life and I can’t get enough of it. It is dense, nutty, a solid quaff. I do not know why more folks (i.e. young aspiring somms who want to make a career in the wine business) don’t pull their head out of their amphoras and dedicate themselves to giving pleasure to their customers. On the East Coast, Montepulciano is all over the place. West of the Mississippi, who knows what the hold up is? What I do know, is that one can make a career starting with one wine. If I were a young buck, I’d do it all over again and swing on this star. In the little Italian stores you can find this wine for under $15. Same as the Barbera above. From Winebow.
Do you see a pattern? Value? Quality? Drinkability? No barriques. No Spoof. No Testosterone.
So there you have it - my Six Picks- Extreme Makeover ~ The Wine List Edition. Read ‘em and weep. Good luck finding them. Most likely online they are readily available. Tell your friends. Tell your local restaurateur. These are wines worth seeking out.
"Take my wine — please."