Sunday, February 03, 2013

Everything I know about wine I learned from Catholic school - Part II

It seems that some friends in the wine business who read the first post, “Everything I know about wine I learned from Catholic school” had ideas about their experience in Catholic school. Over a bottle of unoaked Verdicchio followed by swigs of Chartreuse, we brainstormed and came up with a second part.

Freshly starched habits – When Sister Bernadette or Sister Claire came into the room, perhaps it was the start of spring. The days were getting longer, the air was still cool, but by mid-day the temperature would rise. When one of the sisters would walk into the room with a newly starched habit, one could feel the difference. Fresh, clean, crisp, slightly citric, an edge to it, with a faint perfume of lilacs and lavender. Not unlike the white wines from Italy. Take a fresh Verdicchio (unoaked) fermented in concrete and driven all the way out to dry-ville. No butter, no apples, no milk, no heaving breathing. These were no Portuguese nuns; these were by the book, old-school proper nuns.



Canvas binders – the original ones, blue and easily shredded. They would start off durable and stiff and over six months or so they would loosen up a little. But in the first days of back to school, when it was still warm in September, these newly glued and died units would remind me of aromas I would find in Tuscan Sangiovese. Nothing as lofty as Vino Nobile or Brunello (which I am still giving up for Lent) but more akin to the basic red that defined a region. That was before the flying winemakers and rock and porn stars crowded the Tuscan stage. No these were simpler times and simpler wines. And sweeter memories.


Mimeograph paper – before instant printing and Xerox there was the mimeograph. Probably a toxic slew of chemicals to bind words onto a less than natural paper. But it made an impression on this young mind. The bouquet that arose from the stack of papers we would pass around would later remind me of the inky wines from the Valtellina. Ethereal but sharp, delicate but slightly contrived, that dusty, slightly chemical residue that one can sometime glean from Chiavennasca. Not a bad thing, just an impression. Much more pleasant to drink an inferno than to get high sniffing test papers, that’s for sure.

Sugar glazed donuts – sometimes, on the way to school, my mom would treat the kids to fresh donuts at our nearby Winchell’s. We all now know that donuts are evil, fat-filled, cholesterol-laden heart-bombs, but when we were 10, they seemed to be a treat. The best donut I ever had was at L’Andana resort in the Maremma, overseen by the kitchen of Alain Ducasse. In the early days, we would get to the donut store early and watch them cook the ones we would eat. They’d come off the line steaming and get sprinkled with a light coating of sugar. Within minutes I’d devour a couple of them. They were moist, yeasty, uber-sweet things, not unlike Moscato d’Asti.

Oil cloth – when very young, we would spend more time in arts and crafts. And to make the messes easier to clean up, there would always be oil cloth coverings. A clean mind, a clean body and a clean desk – cleanliness is next to Godliness – the nuns would tell us. The oil cloth smelled odd. It was slightly chemical and slightly earthy. Its surface was fluid, things wouldn’t stick to it. The canvas backing would hold it in place on the desk or the work tables. It reminds one of certain Soaves, those ones from the high reaches that are more sky than earth, more the signature of the winemaker than a sign from God and terroir.

Clay – accompanying oil cloth would often be clay. This was a magical combination. We lived in the desert and only saw clay when we dug down 10-12 inches and then it would be with so much sand mixed in with it. But the modeling clay was all earth, all muddy and slimy and smelling like a dirt path in the forest after a good rain. It would later remind me of wines from Abruzzo, especially Montepulciano. Or Negroamaro from nearby Apulia. Wonderfully earthy, almost sweet in its quality, a lovely memory and one of the reasons I probably still love Montepulciano and Negroamaro for everyday drinking. After class, of course.

New Baltimore Catechism – My era was issued the #3. Aside from all the rules and regulations written inside regarding how to grow up as a good Catholic, the physical book itself issued other references for the future. Whatever kind of ink they used in the printing of these somewhat mass-produced books - in combination with the paper, a lighter weight kind - would in future years remind me of wines as varied as Tuscan Galestro to wines from Friuli. Dusty, inky. But also some reds, lighter ones from the Colli Albani (first had in cafes in Rome) to the Merlots and Cabernets on Lison Pramaggiore. Not quite a Dantean experience, but I’m sure there will be other reasons why I will find myself lollygagging in some level of hell for some other infractions.

Water and Wine Cruets – as a good altar boy, some of my first exposures to Altar wine were had in the sacristy, the room behind the altar. This was sweet smelling slightly cooked wine, which I would someday recognize again when I walked into the Marsala wine bar in Palermo. When I tasted it, it was very sweet. But the aroma of orange peel, honey, spices, nutmeg, exotic and thick. And of course all a preview of my beloved Sicily. Now that wine and my memories are relics, but sweet ones none the less.

34 sweaty, after-recess kids – we lived for recess. Getting out from the military building our school originally was, out into the wide open spaces. To jump out of swings and become airborne. The run around like wild children and to take our crude little merry-go-round into hyper speeds. When it was all over, and the bell would ring, what were left were tired, thirsty sweaty little kids. Kind of the same thing that reminds me of some of the orange wines making the rounds. One of my favorites, the Coenobium "Rusticum" brings me back to those glory days. Good times.

And there you have it, the second and final installment of the influences that shaped my early mind and made it search for wine and Italy.



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