Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Straws

During the month of March, winter prepares to slink out of the bones, making way for green and grow and sun and spring. In Bordeaux and Alba, the season lingers just a little longer than elsewhere. In both places there are practitioners of the wine trade that are busy with the business of the last harvest.

In Bordeaux, it is the courtier who has the hallowed position of puppet master, deciding which of their property’s wines get sold to those fortunate negociants. Some courtiers are friends and some are family. Some are even hated. But in Bordeaux, it’s all about business, order, method and moving bottles.

The courtier can be a brother-in-law of the chateau owner. Perhaps his sister has gotten him this position so he can provide his family with a comfortable, if modest, life. He takes his lunch downtown in Bordeaux, sometimes ordering a plate of oysters, at other times steak frites. Occasionally he will have a glass of red or white Bordeaux, but will rarely venture further afield. More often than not, he dines alone. During the offering time he might join several other courtiers to exchange client information or get the latest news on how the pricing is going up in the higher classifications of Bordeaux.

Over in Alba it goes a little differently. While Bordeaux is used to dealing with an international clientele for many years, Alba and Piedmont in general are new to this kind of interaction with the outside world. For so many years the wines were kept secret and only for the people in the Langa. Occasionally wine would make its way to Torino or Milano. But generally, this was a provincial trade. Which is not to say it was a joyless one. It’s all about observation, selection, inspiration and finding clients for whom this wine will resonate.

One any given day in March one can find the Italian wine mediatore enjoying any number of Piemontese specialties in the little cafes that dot Alba and its environs. One day it might be Polenta con merluzzi e cipolle, another day it could be agnello al forno. All this would be accompanied with a fresh Dolcetto or Barbera, Nebbiolo or Barbaresco. It can be a lengthy lunch followed by a leisurely walk under the bare trees lining an empty street in town.

While the courtier has a plum job, good money, easy work and respect for his position in the community, it is the Italian mediatore who has really gotten a better deal in life. Perhaps he won’t have the exposure to the world of commerce and the possibility of squirreling away a few extra Euros. But a warm fire with a bowl of roasted chestnuts and a fresh glass of Grignolino waits for him faithfully.

When the courtier goes back to his office, there is a telex or two with orders for wine from the estate he represents. He will give the order to the secretary to process the order or give it a lottery number in case the harvest is light and must be randomly assigned. He might call his wife or his father, for a quick and clinical chat. It might be to discuss what to have for dinner or to check on the father’s vineyard. He works daily, in a solitary manner. Only when the wine is considered a special vintage and there is scarcity will he get invitations to come to Paris for a weekend. If not, it is oysters and steak frites for lunch and perhaps a tureen and poached fish at home in the evening with his wife and only child, a quiet yet doting daughter.

Life in the Langa, aside from work, revolves around the elements. Perhaps there is a plot of vineyard in back of the home, a chestnut tree and a spot where the truffles appear. Down by the creek there are thrushes that make a wonderful ingredient for his wife’s risotto. Or perhaps earlier in the day she and her mother had made fresh tagliatelle for an evening dish of “Tajarin” al sugo de fegatini. Again, accompanied by a nice bottle of Dolcetto.

Next month there are those who will be sent to Bordeaux, to meet with the negociants and château owners and courtiers. They will go into town and eat oysters and steak frites and drink red and white Bordeaux. It will all be very calm and orderly and civilized. It is wonderful in the way it is so ordained, for those with whom this kind of life resonates.

And there will be those of us who will be assigned to go to Italy and Alba and meet with the winery owners and estate managers and mediatores. We will go up to La Morra, perhaps to stop for a meal at Belvedere, in the fog above the Langa, while tables of cheese hold us hostage inside until the sun burns the nebbia off. Or we might have a plate of carne cruda in insalata or Macaron del frét at the Antica Torre in Barbaresco.

And while I do enjoy Bordeaux wines, I am so very thankful that I pulled the straw that will be sending me to Italy late in the month of March.

Photographs by Ruth Douillette


  1. well we are happy for you too, ace. we live vicariously!

  2. If you were the Lebanese wine guy, we would never had met. You are doing at good job, no matter what they say about you.

  3. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

  4. Your Wine Trail memoirs/photo essay are just terrific, Al, it's almost like the world was taking its time just getting ready for you to deliver it! Everything is a perfectly orchestrated mix of colleagues, friends, family, words, images...

    Aside: I just finished Tom Cahill's MYSTERIES OF MIDDLE AGES, digital audiobook version. You especially would benefit, Cahill does such a great job with St. Francis of Assisi, Giotto, and Dante. (You could even work them into your wine trail!)

    Cheers, Kevin


Real Time Analytics