Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Italian Wine Expert


I
was in my local Italian store yesterday, picking up a few things for the weekend. On the way, there was a light dusting of snow. The brisk breeze swirled the snowflakes across the windshield, but the biggest danger was the drivers around me who drove with abandon. Something about the cold weather in Texas that makes people even more unpredictable than they already are.

Inside the store, it was bustling. Way too many people. I skirted around them and made a path through the wine aisle. There, in front of the Brunello section. were some well-dressed women with cellphones looking at the phone, and the wines in front of them. Instinctively, I asked them if they needed any help. Yes, they were looking for a particular wine. I found it for them and moved on.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

The man who drank only one wine his whole life

It would be love at first sight. Deliciously dry with a keenness. It wouldn’t take itself too seriously. Vivacious and often mysterious. Ever changing, but constant and certain. And it would go with everything, and in every moment. In other words, it was the perfect mate of a wine. And it was going to be the only wine he would ever need, or ever drink, in his lifetime.

So it was, that I happened to spend an afternoon, at lunchtime, with the man who only drank one wine his whole life.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Advice to the Italian wine trade – don’t come to America now

Well, here we are, another new year. Another new variant in the coronavirus. And with the new year, the wine trade in Italy and America is raring to get back in gear. Oh sure, not until after the Epiphany and La Befana, and the ski trip to Cortina d’Ampezzo or the tropical island trip to the Seychelles. But eventually, someone is going to tell their export director to get back on the road. But I’m warning you – DON’T!

Oh, I know, the p.r. lackeys out there will tell you not to pay any attention to my warning. And because you’ve been holed up all year in Italy, you’re probably itching to go somewhere exciting, and get back to work. Make some money. Get your life back. Get on a plane. Make reservations at a nice hotel in New York or Los Angeles. Sit down at a restaurant that’s pouring your wine. Maybe even set up some wine dinners and work withs with your importer or distributor.

I get it. You’re tired of Covid. You’re bored. Your life needs some deeper meaning than a zoom call or another virtual wine dinner in Cleveland.

So, how are you going to pull the rabbit out of the hat in 2022? What would I do?

Sunday, December 26, 2021

On the Wine Trail in Italy – Sweet Sixteen

How long does a butterfly live? 

Dear reader,

You’ve endured my ongoing screeds about the relevancy of wine blogs for almost as long as I’ve been writing them. They are an artifact of an era which won't be known for longevity. At this point, I’m prone to considering wine blogs akin to Tales from the Crypt, sans the gratuitous horror. Bored to death? Well, maybe we’re just not paying good enough attention. However you may look at it, I'm celebrating anyway. It’s sweet sixteen for this old wine blog.

I don’t look on the passage of time with as much surprise as I once did. Time has one speed. We have our own perceptions of the momentum, and that often changes in one’s life. For now, I’m just strapped in and riding along, as we zip through the solar system, galaxy and universe. I’m surprised I’m not dizzy, or nauseated, or just plain pooped, from the jaunt. But I’m actually enlivened and activated, having survived, so far, this life and the ride. So, let’s take a gander at where this blog went in 2021, before I tell you where we’re going in 2022.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Are you dying to go to Italy?

“Per me si va nella città dolente, per me si va nell'etterno dolore, per me si va tra la perduta gente.” - Il canto terzo dell'Inferno di Dante Alighieri *

On March 8, 2020, when we were just entering the tunnel of Covid19, I wrote a post and posed the question, “Should you go to Italy right now?  Now, 642 days later, as we end 2021, I am posing it again. But this time, with the benefit of the last 642 days’ worth of history, I’m looking at it differently than I did then. Of course, one could say that about almost anything in the last 21 months.

I’ve lost two winemaker friends in Italy, with countless other friends having contracted the virus, in Italy and America and around the world. I’ve lost a handful of friends here in America along with a relative. As well, a handful of my relatives have gotten the virus, some worse than others, requiring hospitalization and long recovery times. So, it has not been a hoax or a conspiracy to me. It has been real, and at times, very painful.

So, why am I asking if we should go to Italy? Well, for one, I’ve seen scores of pictures and posts from friends and acquaintances who have gone overseas. And every time I see one, I ask myself the question, “Would I go to Italy now?” But I also ask myself why I would want to go to Italy. Do I need to go to Italy?

Sunday, December 12, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. VI (finale)

“All things must pass, none of life's strings can last.” – George Harrison

Forwarding to the present day, where we must end this story, for now. Segundo is no longer there; he was let go, claiming he is still “consulting.” For all we know, that’s just a cover for his inability to admit it’s over. Saving face. OK, let him have his little charade. It can’t hurt anyone except himself.

What concerned me was that he used Italian wine, in his role, to assert his personal power over others. It wasn’t like he was the first person to do that (how could he be – he is Segundo!), but the way in which he used people and power to populate his social network, it seemed misguided. I’ve seen others who’ve gone against the wine gods, and it usually didn’t end well for them. Remember, we’re in the service industry. We’re here to serve. We did our best to serve Segundo, but his heart was closed and his motivation always seemed to be adumbral. He was insecure, and he projected his fears and doubts upon those of us who came to present and provide. Talking about biting the hands that feeds you!

Sunday, December 05, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. V

“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” ― Benjamin Franklin

I could see the horizon approaching more rapidly. It had been almost 40 years since I’d started in the wine trade, and the time was coming when it would end. I had my team in place. They’d take it from here, and carry on as ambassadors of Italian wine. I had other directions I wanted to go towards, and was ready to move on.

Years ago, I’d read a piece about how Italian restaurateurs were ambassadors of food and wine to the world outside of Italy. Savvy Italian vintners enlarged the scope of the mission to include the wine trade, from the importers to the distributors,. We were all working to uplift Italian wine and food, and in the last 40 or so years amazing strides had been made. When I first moved to Texas, it was nearly impossible to find an espresso, a decent mozzarella, artisanal pasta from Italy and fresh white truffles. Now, it takes a lot of effort to make a bad espresso (although there are those stalwarts who still insist on making a crappy ristretto). But, by and large, we’re in a golden age of food and wine right now. Who knows if it will last? But we got here with the tireless dedication of thousands of players, working days and nights to bring a better interpretation and experience of Italian food that once was only found in Italy. Now you can find it in New York, Seattle, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, hell, even Las Vegas. Italy has taken root in America. It has been a great victory and it was wonderful to watch it all unfold and be part of it.

And it was for that reason that I didn’t give up on Segundo. I just couldn’t believe his heart was so dark and hard that he couldn’t understand the bigger picture. In other words, I was naïve and unwilling to accept defeat.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. IV

"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." – Confucius

My boss, Brad, convinced the powers that be to let me hire a trio of Italian specialists, as our Italian wine business had mushroomed in the past 10 years. Where it was once hard to sell Italian wine across the board, now Italian wine was tres chic, even with some French dining establishments. So, I went about the business of putting a team together. It went well, even if it took longer than my boss had wanted. I had the business of a tonsillectomy that got in between interviews and negotiations. But once we had that all sorted out, I had a good, solid, team.

Part of the mechanism of ramping up the validity of the team and their street cred was to enroll them in the Italian wine specialist program at Italian Wine Central. The head education honcho in my company wanted as many credentialed specialists as we could muster. It was so mandated. And the team got after it and jumped through the hoops. It was, and is, a terrific program, and one I recommend highly for anyone wanting to further their skills in understanding Italian wine at a higher level.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. III

“Ah, how the seeds of cockiness blossom when soiled in ignorance.”― Steve Alten, The Loch

Back from a working trip to Italy, I invited Segundo to a wine tasting. We had a winemaker in town and I was told he liked to rub shoulders with celebrity vintners. He accepted.

I knew enough to leave him alone when he was tasting. He usually brought a consort with him, to provide cover. I observed they liked to keep to themselves, to draw little attention to any observations they made about the wine, the venue or the other wine buyers in the crowd. Segundo’s lack of confidence saw to it that he was duly shielded from anyone who might know more about Italian wine, or wine in general. He usually avoided me in those situations. I would ease the sail in order to provide him with ample room for his maneuvering comfort.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. II

“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” -  Wayne Dyer

For whatever reasons Segundo Sguattera ventured into the wine buying world, he did so without the proper preparation. I say this because everything he learned from the chef at Le Chant du Coq was based on a truculent foundation. Several of the veterans in the wine trade tried to welcome Segundo into a more amicable world, the one which many of us experienced, from the vineyard to the importer to the distributor. We were all part of a team, pulling to make sure the farmer’s efforts at the source wouldn’t be for naught. After all, the vigneron has to deal with the weather, with labor, with inflation, with competition, and with the changing economic and physical environment. At the end of the supply line, we want to give the producer a soft landing.

But Segundo would have nothing to do with it. I believe at the basis of all of it was his insecurity and ignorance. Which is folly, for who starts knowing everything? Or anything, for that matter? Segundo was a wounded creature from the get-go. His history and his ingrained maladies only served to further nourish a burgeoning inferiority complex, resulting in a boundless spate of anger, mistrust and furtive behavior. As I said, he wasn’t a pleasant person to be around. I reckon he, as well, felt that about himself. And his buying process reflected that.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. I

This is a tale about a most miserable wine steward

When Primo Sguattera first saw his son, Segundo, in the hospital, he couldn’t recognize any similarity between him and the newborn. He was so small, and remained that way into adulthood. Primo thought Segundo might not be his son, more likely the pairing between his wife and the weather-beaten scarecrow out in the corn fields outside of Tijuana where they lived.  But his wife swore she’d had no other man, even if Primo was less than the most desirable choice for a husband and a father. Fate had it that way.

Segundo’s mother, Maria Teresa, was a mother and a martyr. She had been named by her grandmother, who had the ability to sense the future. So, she prepared Maria Teresa for her future, giving her a name that would explain, in two words, her life to herself. That made for little happiness, if indeed at least there was some clarity to it all.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

And the Beat Goes On – A Propitious Epiphany in Trento

For Roger…


There are those moments that sneak up and drop a lifechanging effect on you. It might be something as simple as the change of the light upon a tree you look at every day. And then suddenly, as summer merges into autumn, it’s as if you’d never seen it with such clarity. Or it could be a simple sniff of a wine that transports you back to when you were a teenager, sitting in a darkened theatre next to your first girlfriend. All of a sudden, your arm is around her shoulder and the two of you are getting ready for your first kiss. All from a dessert wine from Friuli, or Denmark.

So it was, one spring evening in the town of Trento. I wasn’t looking for it. But something was stalking me, waiting for me at the bar where I eventually sat down at.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Your Ice Cream is Melting

I’ve wandered so far off the island, at this point, for those of you who are still stopping by, here goes nothing.

I’m fixated on this relationship thing, post-career. And along with that, the transactional piece of those relationships we thought possibly more than they were.

It has hit home more than once in the last year or so. I’ve allowed for the epoch we find ourselves in: pandemic, social striation, a general turbulence in the balance of things on earth. Probably not something new, in geologic time. But for those of us in the here and now, it can be a bit disconcerting. Oh, and also, our ice cream is melting.

So, when I saw this post from an erstwhile associate, it gave me pause.

“Community. It’s a concept that is lost on a lot of people these days. I have been a part of many communities but none so important and fulfilling as the amazing people I have met in my life in food, wine and hospitality. A special bunch they are. I have always appreciated how people in the biz would genuinely applaud other people’s successes. You don’t find that in all industries.”

I know that feeling. Probably there are some reading who do, too. It felt real. It was real. Then.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Wine, Women and Watches – Gathering Joy in the Long Lunch

I’m kinda in a mood. Not the Glenn Miller kind. More of a Billie Eilish/David Byrne kinda mood. I’m played out with wine writing. Can’t read it. Can barely write it myself, these days. I’m so doggone burnt out with stupid words and clichés, and drama and asinine tasting notes, and the same old repetitive crap, all the blasted time, parading as wine (and food) writing. Who in hell cares what anyone drank (or ate) in Jackson Hole or Bucaramanga? The narcissists and cliché curators have taken over wine and writing about it, at least on the open internet. It’s done, they’ve killed the “thrill” of it for me. And, from the notes I get from others, I’m not alone. Not that it should matter. I am an introvert, after all. In the past two years, I’ve learned to live in relative solitude.

That’s why my weekly lunch, outside the home, is probably a good idea for my mental health. It’s like going to confession, but with food and wine.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

What makes a wine great?

From the archives

"They say that life itself is really just the dead on vacation." - Tom Waits

Over the years my ideas about wines have changed a little. A lot less than I would have thought. Looking back over 35+ years of seriously tasting wine, there have been moments when I tasted greatness. What was it about those moments? Was it the stage the wine was in, a moment coinciding with its peak? Was it the season? Was it my physiology? Was it a magical confluence of all the above and more? Or was it just dumb luck?

What makes a wine great? It’s in the back of my mind all the time, a touchstone sought and rarely found. Not that the pursuit of great wines is my primary task. I must constantly taste and evaluate wines for my work that needn’t be great. They just need to be good enough, or good values, or in-offensive. Not all days are vacation days. But this is not the time for that discussion. Today, I am pursuing greatness. So what is it that evades these pages, darts about, zips off the screen like a dragonfly or a refraction from a light source? Where does one find this greatness factor?
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