Sunday, March 30, 2008

Searchin' For My Baby

All this sprang from a little conversation I was having with my barber. I called up him up, his name is also Alfonso. “Hello, this is Alfonso,” I started. “Yes, this is he,” he replied. “Alfonso, this is Alfonso, do you have time to give me a haircut?” He answers, “Yes, this is Alfonso.” “I know it is you Alfonso, it is me, Alfonso, I just wanted to come in for a trim.” “Of course it is me Alfonso; yes we can fit you in. Your name please?”

I got there and the place was steaming hot inside, like Etna in August. I asked him what the deal is. He said there were gangs roaming the streets for copper, taking apart air conditioners. It sure was making it real difficult in this place without any air conditioning.

Meanwhile, all things Italian were also heating up, we had to go find what we had been missing. It had been too long. Ready or not, we were going up. The scouts hadn’t radioed back in months; the surface of the planet was getting hotter. We had to find her and bring her back, dead or alive.

The scouts were supported by all the New-Age efforts, Slow Food, Demeter and even the USDA Organic group. They were looking for her, in all her pure and simple way. What they used to call traditional. Now we think of traditional as just something they did back then, and put our ways upon the times. But back then, they had integrity; they did it in harmony with nature and the world around them.

Then something happened, they took Mother Nature for a ride and held her hostage. There she was, off in a corner of the Milky Way Galaxy, tied up like some combatant, like some Guantanamera.

This was our new Crusade, to find our unspoiled red wine and bring her back to prominence. Not some overmatriculated Sangiovese posing like it were some garagista on vacation in Tuscany. She was our Holy Grail, our Mother, our Source and our Saving Grace. She was our sister, our aunt, the girl next door, our first love. She was the quintessential red wine from Italy and we had been led astray with so many Shiraz’s and Malbec’s and Bonarda’s and Zinfandel’s.

Now we would return to her and huddle close to her bosom, soak in all that is good and pure and right with wine from Italy. She was our caldera, our mountain top, our Xanadu.

My only hope is that we aren’t too late. I hope we haven’t abandoned her to the fast talking salesmen in the white linen suits. You know the type; they hang around the hotels in Rimini in the off-season. They find ways to fill up milk tankers going south and bring them back full. No one wants to talk about it; nobody returns the phone calls when they know they’re going to be asked those questions. But there is hell to pay for cheating on her and she will extract the fitting price.

The consequences for going against the Holy Mother of Italian red wine, the Source, our Naima? Hell hath no fury. Cancelled orders. Close-outs. Closed doors. Anyone remember the Italian wine scandal of 1986? It took years to dig out from the fallout. Now there is talk of great and noble wineries being implicated in Tuscany.

Back in 1986, who were the six who were suspected of shipping tainted wine? You might be surprised to recall the names: Baroncini of Solarolo, Ravenna; Biscardo of Calmasino, Verona; Cauda of Cuneo, Piedmont; Mascarello of La Morra, Piedmont; Ricordi of Piave, Treviso; Tombacco of Trebaseleghe, Padua. In 1986, people died. In 2008 with a war torn world and a stumbling economy, this is not what Mother Nature wants to hear. The ride is over, she is breaking her bondage. She will return the volley with a vengeance. Look out.

Luca Brasi’s got nothing on this 50 foot woman.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Knucklin' Down

California wine sales have slowed. Sales of Argentina wines are not up dramatically. French wines are slumbering. Is this the month Italian wines will hit the wall?

Just take a quick look around. The great January and February surge is over. With the month of March, we are finally seeing the recession take hold. Take a spin around Anytown USA. There are many empty seats. Restaurant owners are looking around wondering where their customers have gone. This will be a good quarter, no thanks to March. But we might be gonna looking back at this time and wishin’ we be havin’ this kind of action in November.

We are headin’ into slog country. And with Vinitaly around the corner, how am I gonna tell ‘em what they need to know but don’t want to hear from me?

I’m not going in alone, that’s for sure. I’ll be taking a sidekick with me, one of the younguns’ who can cover my back and provide me with some cover. I’ll be darned if they shoot the messenger, just ‘cause they don’t like the message.

I wrote about it at the end of last year. We just got a little momentum going into the new year, but now it’s getting down to knuckles and guts. Like I told one of the old pros, if we’re going to grow the business in these times, we’re going to have to take it from our competition. And we better not let them take it from us.

The old pro told me that the new weapon on the streets was youth, youth, youth. He was right skeered, ‘cause he staked his claim first and now everybody’s taking shots at him. This too shall pass, they'll get old, just like the rest of the folks in the saloon.

That’s just part of the game, I reminded him. We were young bucks once and had the world laid out before us. Just never let 'em see you sweat.

Back to business. If the Italians want to grow their business they need to listen up and do these three things:

1) Keep coming to the US markets to show their face and show us their goods, in person.

2) Make sure they keep their noses clean and their wines unadulterated. No funny business, no winks, no bait and switch.

3) Remember the US currency is going to be worthless, at least until after the elections in November. You better be thinkin’ twice about raising prices, partner.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

...from the Archives

My Two Sisters, Nebbiolo & Sangiovese
Sunday, September 17, 2006

The waves have pounded the shores this week, they have been felt by our family this week and we have been reminded of the fragility of life and how things can change, forever, in a moment.

In a conversation with an agronomist from Greve, she mentioned how some of the major grapes of Italy were related, at least by their DNA. That led me to thinking about my two sisters, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.

Nebbiolo was the first born to the family. She was the first great hope of the family. Her way is to do rather than to be. From my very first encounters with her, she was not one that was easy to get to know. Part of it has to do with her mystery. She conceals herself from family members, preferring to work in the background, helping but not taking the bows. Not that she couldn’t. Her talent is that of a renaissance artisan. All the while she presents herself as this delicate and slightly difficult grape-being.

I don’t know where she really came from, she doesn’t appear to look like much of the family. Not that she isn’t, it’s just that she came from the recesses of nature, to appear like this apparition of greatness.

She has aged well but not without the changes many of us have witnessed in the past 40 or so years. She has been many things to many people. She has mothered many a Barbera and a Dolcetto, sheltered a Grignolino and a Freisa, and welcomed a Moscato and an Arneis. Her children and her grandchildren have multiplied and many have prospered. Some have languished and some have strayed, but the tenacity of her nature has safeguarded the nobility and grace of her domain. Misunderstood at times, loved and then not loved, and then taken on new love, my sister Nebbiolo has had an interesting life in that last 60 or so years. But she is not over, in fact her strength and her wisdom is more needed on the scene now than ever before. So we won’t be replanting the vineyards with Merlot or Pinot Noir. Not now. Not ever. She is an original, there is only one place to be found where she will prosper and reach her potential. She is not an easy one to get to know, but hers is greatness at the highest mark on the castle wall.

My second sister, Sangiovese, is another story. She is a bit more fiery and conflicted at this time. Her realm is in a bit of a crisis in these days, partially due to the success of her popularity, no doubt from her youthful energy and her giving nature. But she has been misused and misdirected and now the realm is in need of readjustment.
Not that she isn’t up for the challenge. The energy of sister Sangiovese is one of a great well of endurance. Sangiovese can bear much, trapped in fine French wood and blended in with other creatures not normally akin to her original nature. She might be more at home with Nero d’Avola or Aglianico, but Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have scaled the walls of her domain. Syrah has made attempts too.

Her children, Colorino and Canaiolo, are as different as night and day, one being mellow and easygoing, the other a tropical storm of emotion and inner conflict. Sometimes they blend well together, but lately they are not seen as much. Sister Sangiovese really needs a strong match to temper her fiery nature, something to hold up to her, to challenge her. Part of Sangiovese’s confusion is to where she resides best for her inner growth. She will be planted in the hillsides at the higher elevations and will thrive, and then she will be moved to the seaside and be challenged to complete her destiny in a new place with new challenges. And then she will be sent out to the arid, almost desert, climes of Tuscany, only to find she has to struggle and be beautiful there too. Sangiovese is the preferred grape of the new ruling class but she is a school girl who wants to run in the fields with her hair loose and her feet unshod.

Sangiovese has one true love, and that is Tuscany. She really only has known that one love and it appears that has been good for Italy. I hope it has been good for her too.

To my two sisters, I salute you and love you and hope your every expression of grace and greatness will be achieved in history.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Embracing Your Inner Italian

You’ve visited Italy a time or two. Perhaps you’ve even lived there for a moment. Long enough to get a sense that something was tugging on you. And then you go back to your normal life. One night you wake up in your place and you look around. You’re alone. There is no sound of five Italians talking at the same time. Except in your head. You go to the kitchen. The bowl of fresh fruit is missing. Open the fridge. No Sicilian orange juice. A bottle of California Chardonnay stands in the corner, half empty. What are you going to do with your life?

That tugging feeling persists as you make a cup of coffee. It’s 5:15 in the morning; somewhere in Italy someone is having a plate of fritto misto with a bottle of Sannio or Campi Felgrei. Somewhere a group of loud, happy, boisterous Italians are extending their Pasquetta celebration with a plate of strufoli or tarallucci dolci and a sip of Moscato from Benevento. Followed by further sips of home made limoncello. And then you look into your cup of dark, bitter coffee, missing all that life you would never see in that way again.

You might have come back from Italy to this place you call home. But inside a little bird was singing, “never let you go, never let you go.” You were hooked.

So how will you remake the life you found in Italy, back home? Let me tell you a secret. You already have. There’s no going back to hot dogs and shiraz, you have been stung by the arrow of Bacchus. And as one of those chosen to carry the message of the Ancients, forget explaining it to those around you. Press forward.

I was having dinner with my son on Easter. He said, “I have come to that point in my life where I realize I have to specialize.” Those words both scared me and also signaled that he had arrived at a point where he has found something he loves. He wants to carve that stone into something grand and beautiful.

With Italian wines, that rock is marble. And inside are the whirling tarantellas of your story. All you have to do is set about chipping away, to release those spirits.

Can you do this with other wines from other countries? Sure you can. Folks left Italy during the Renaissance to discover a land we now call America. There will always be people interested in those things. But the hook is set with some of us, with regards to things Italian, and it is set deep. Thousands of years deep.

I can always enjoy a California wine, very easy when I am back home there. It is an extension of that Mediterranean lifestyle, but in a uniquely California way. I have sat at the edge of Lake Taupo in New Zealand and enjoyed the wine and food of that land. I could imagine that kind of situation in many places, Argentina, South Africa, and even little old Texas. But if you’re pulled out of Lago di Avernus or Trasimeno, or some smoky Sicilian caldera, you are compelled to follow your destiny. Or in the lingo of today, “you’re set for specialization.”

So why not embrace your inner Italian, that little canary in your coal mine? You don’t have to shout it out like a mockingbird or a screech owl. It can be a little chirp at a time. But feed it and watch it grow into a life Italian, that years down the road you will thank your lucky stars you were fortunate enough to be picked out of the primordial soup to carry on the work of the gods.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Blame It On The La Cá Növa

My first time visiting Piedmont was a generation ago. At the time a winemaking revolution was in its infancy. The Italians had discovered small barrique and higher prices. New wineries were going up. It was the beginning of a cycle that only now is starting to make full circle. It was an exciting era for Italian wines and Piedmont. And they were getting world respect for their wines, like their cousins in Burgundy.

That initial visit we toured Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba , Diano d'Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d'Alba and Novello. I also met winemakers and tasted in Neive, Treiso and Barbaresco. Somewhere between Bricco Faset and Rabajà I got religion. But it wasn’t until several years later that they let me in the church.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Southern Islands in Spring

Like the sparrow hawk family that returns every year to the trees in my yard, so my soul flies off to Islands in the South. The days lengthen, the breeze warms, and now a light sweater will do instead of the heavy coats we have been armoring ourselves with during the dark winter days.

Naples was my first time to hop over to an island. That time it was an overnight affair and the island was Sicily. Unbeknownst to me I was backtracking the steps my grandparents had taken when they left Sicily to go to Naples and then to America, 100 years ago.

Naples fascinates me, the food, the wine, the erotic decay. One of the finest archeological museums in one of the most illogical of towns. Pizza that people try to emulate all over the world. Tailors who are unmatched for their craft and artistry. And there are the beautiful women, both the Italian, and the American, who flock to nearby areas of Positano, Ischia and Procida.

I am fascinated with the wines of the region. It was here that the indigenous varieties had their springboard back from obscurity and endangered status. Families like the Mastroberardino’s, who clung resolutely to their instincts and gave us all a gift of wines from grapes like Aglianico, Fiano and Greco.

But today I want the wind in my face and the salt water misting our linen clothes. Outside is where the life in the South is lived, whether it is playing or eating or sitting at an outside table having coffee or playing scopa.

I had a note this week, from a young reader, who wrote:
“I have been reading your latest posts and think you are complaining too much. I like to read the posts that have passion, but it sounds like you just want to sound critical, as if that lends authority to your voice. Please, once in a while, come back to the wine trail in Italy and inspire us with your tales.”

The young reader was right. We have gotten off the wine trail, just a little. In the next few weeks, there will be more emphasis on getting back on. There is some travel being planned. During that time, I probably won’t have the connection to post. In any event, posting three times a week for the last two years has been quite a lot. Along with getting back on track, I must also drink from the well, drawing inspiration.

Thank you for your patience and continued visits to On the Wine Trail in Italy. There are more folks coming to the site and I feel the responsibility to not let anyone down.

Martha Graham said it best when she said, “I am only in competition with that person I know I can become.”

Happy Spring and Easter Holiday.

Photos by Vittorio

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Carbonara Here We Come

Oh where, oh where do we start? Put me down for one Holy Week rant, and let’s get this thing going.

It started out in San Francisco. I was with a winemaker and his importer having lunch at a fashionable Italian-styled spot. The place was buzzing with winemakers, importers, industry hacks, the whole lot. The wines were spot on, I was half-expecting Dr. Vino to saunter in wearing a “No Spitzer, No Spoofalated” T-Shirt. That would have been apocalyptic enough.

When the server asked us what kind of water we wanted, and then grimaced when I suggested something “local”, I reckoned this would be a lunch in search of a kicker.

And then I bit into one of three small pork meatballs ($15 – sans pasta). There must have been $2 worth of salt in that bowl of polpette. The toilet back at the hotel was broken, so I figured I’d probably be in for an interesting night. Salt- water - more water, a long night.

We finished with a bitter espresso, “They need to clean the machine,” one Italian remarked.

Somewhere between lunch and dinner I was staring out at Alcatraz when my phone rang. Southern Wine and Spirits had announced they were setting up shop in Texas, and a very worried sales rep was asking me what was going on. Why ask me? I would be the last to know. The very last one.

Still in the City and dinner plans had been made. Again at a very trendy Italian-styled dinner spot. We arrived early and were asked to stand outside, away from the empty tables and seated diners. I ran down the street and bought my mom a loaf of sour dough bread. Buying time. Never, ever to get any respect from any quarter.

Finally our lottery ticked paid off and we were six, squeezed into a table for four. And we should be happy to have been lifted out of the mire and into the land of the chosen ones. At a table nearby I spotted two women enjoying their night out and each other even more. San Francisco, how that city can take such a common occurrence and raise it to a level of curiosity, only to have it veer off the plastic-fantastic expressway into some field of visceral abandon.

Back to the table, and heated conversation among food and wine ‘sperts, when plates arrive. Again, a dish saturated with saline excess. Doesn’t anyone in these upscale kitchens taste their food? Are they all smokers who cannot imagine a palate that looks for other flavors, other pleasures? I was thankful for high acid wine from Italy, to counter the constant cauterizing my tongue was enduring from the American youth in the kitchen. Pigato saves the day.

A day later, in chichi Hollywood, again one of the hot spots of Italianista food Meccas. We sit, we order, we’re served, and again I feel like I am working the salt mines in Trapani. What in hell is going on in these highly regarded kitchens in California? I haven’t taken in this much salt since I spent a summer body surfing the rip tides of Newport and Huntington Beach.

A week or so later, back in the saddle. Home for a few weeks. Again, importers making their visits for meetings, working on the wine lists, pressing palms, the blocking and tackling of the daily business. Here we wouldn’t be assaulted with the common white seasoning. Here is where we’d get head butted with the black pepper grinder. Surprise again.

We go into another swank Italian-styled spot. Hard to get into. Cool. Utre’. I decide to take a ride down memory lane and order Roman inspired things. First, Carciofi alla Romana. I’ve spent time in Rome, hunted food in the ghetto. A plate of what looks like deep fried palmetto bugs arrive sitting next to a milky looking liquid that resembles nothing I want to put in my mouth. What happened to my artichokes Roman style? It looks like it made its way here via the Colosseum and some gladiator’s trifecta.

And then the Carbonara arrived. Now, many years ago I was a waiter in a restaurant that had table service. I wore a tuxedo. Wore three of them out. And I wasn't a "tuxedo" person at the time. I must have made a couple of hundred Carbonara’s. When someone ordered it, instead of the Fettuccine Alfredo, I was so pleased with them that I would prepare their Carbonara as if it were their last meal. So when a huge bowl arrives ($18) and there appear to be four, maybe five bites, I am a more than a bit disappointed. First bite is cold. Second bite is warmer, but not acceptable. I motion to the server to take my plate and warm it up, per favore. He looks at me and asks me “Just that small amount?” I answer, “It isn’t my fault it’s small, please warm it up.” He walks away, peeved that I interrupted his suck-up session with a local celebrity chef who made it to the finals of Top Chef. She was his reason for being here, not some old fart who made a gazillion Carbonaras, correctly, and was griping about it being cold. After he had eaten most of it. Yeah, whatever.

Waiter-gush boy goes back to kneeling at the table of the cute young chef-as-customer. Micro-warmed up plate of Carbonara (now 2 bites left) comes to counter and is set down. Managers, runners, pizzaoili saunter around the orphan bowl. My waiter is now entering a coma over his rapture with 15-minutes-of-fame-celeb-chef. I will never see the two bites ($9 worth) in a warm state. Finally, a manager figures it out, with a little hand waving from our table.

He brings it to our table and asks me, “Just that small amount?” I answer, “It isn’t my fault.” Now go away and guard the espresso machine, make sure no one turns it off before the restaurant is closed, like the last time when I was there with three very disappointed real Italians.

The two remaining bites of Carbonara were D.O.A. I managed one bite and then surrendered. There would always be Nutella and grappa at home if I was more hungry than tired.

What is it with dessert that makes servers so damn happy? It’s like a ticket taker on a train with one more stop before he gets off for the night. Happy, happy, joy, joy. Give me a break. Several espressos are ordered and then I understood why the machine should have been turned off. Weak and bitter, like this rant.

Two more weeks till Vinitaly. I can hardly stand it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Still Driving West

There are changes in the air: A little morning fog, a bounce in the breeze and the path of the sun in the morning. Spring is near. While my mission is Italy, my mind veers towards California. No it isn’t about the wines, it’s something else. Maybe it’s the way the place welcomes in a new cycle of the season; maybe it’s my Sunday nostalgia creeping back in. I don’t know.

Over the past week we’ve had a lot of wonderful Italian wine, from Franciacortas to surprisingly fresh Sangiovese-Cabernet-Merlot blends from Tuscany. I know, I said Merlot. Live with it. Last night a delicate Grillo and tonight a fresh Gaglioppo, so while the flesh is being drawn across the sky to the West, we’re anchored in the lake of Italian wine.

I am concerned that everything is careening out of control. The war, the economy, consumerism, denial. And still we pass one another on the street gunning our engines like it’s 1961 and gas is 23 cents a gallon, not $4.00 and climbing. Were driving ourselves over the cliff and taking everyone with us.

What started out as a highway to the West became a mania for us under this affliction of the internal combustion engine.

Multiply that by all the boats and planes and trains, moving products all around the world so that we can have prosciutto from Parma and capers from Pantelleria and Zweigelt from Bressanone, it all gets a little overwhelming.

Will Italian wines someday be only a distant memory? Like the ones I have of a California that exists no longer?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Backwards and in High Heels

A man and a woman sitting at a table, talking. Obviously some kind of wine dinner. The man has a familiar face. In fact, he has been a major force in the world of wine these past 20 years. But who is the woman he is talking to, is she famous too? Or even in the wine business? Maybe a fan? Or the wife of a collector?

How about this: Her actions move more wine in the world than his. And nobody but a few of us knows about her. Oh yes, he’s famous and influential, he’s a superstar. But she does all he does and more, backwards and in high heels.

There a legions of women nobody knows, but who make all the difference in the world. And their numbers are growing. They are all ages. And they are a force to be reckoned with.

At last month’s Symposium for Wine Writers in Napa’s Meadowood, the room was filled with bright, intelligent women, asking questions, taking notes, making their mark in a traditional male dominated world. I have witnessed it for decades now. Men pass their power to their buddies in the form of a wink or a secret hand shake, behind closed doors, in back rooms and at industry gatherings. But more and more, in seminars, in classrooms, in sales rooms, I see women filling the ranks. Yet we still sell like the good ol’ boys taught us.

This week, from the Italian wine trail, Francesca Moretti joined our door-to-door activities in presenting and selling her wines from Tuscany and Franciacorta. Francesca is in her early 30’s, and has a long life ahead of her in which she will see many more changes in her direction. I see a confident, stable, ready, willing and able person like her making the future of the Italian wine business so much more interesting. And fun.

But it isn’t just at the ownership levels. We must have that commitment from the Italian families, sending their sons and daughters to the New World, preaching the gospel of Sangiovese and Aglianico. We also need our home-grown ones too.

Look at their faces, they are ready. And this is a cause for rejoicing. I know how hard it is to try and sell in a “man’s world.” It’s even harder to do that when it is no longer relevant. It isn’t your father’s one-sided world anymore.

Looking around a sales room, I see the daughters I never had, filling the chairs. They have chosen wine. And they are so good at it.

Sit before someone like Karen MacNeil, who worked her way through the “clubhouse” to the top of the game. She has something to say. We have something to learn from her. She’s not through with us yet. Not by a long shot. All the young writers, from California to Washington, to New York to Texas, and all points in between, longing for their ideas to be aired, their voices to be heard. People like Karen, who paved the way for them with every drop of blood she gave, in the struggle to climb her mountain and plant her flag for herself. And for those who come next.

Gents, those who listen and those who care, take a moment and look around you. The next time you taste a Chianti or a Gavi, if there is a woman nearby, engage her, talk to her about the wine you are tasting. Let her tell you about it, what she is smelling, tasting, feeling. You’ll learn more about that wine than any review can impart to you. It could be your mother, your wife, your partner, your daughter, your sister, your aunt. Turn them loose and open your mind to hear what they have to say about it. This is the future coming at you. They are not going to sit on the benches and merely be spectators anymore. They are not going to be advocates for your tastes and your wishes anymore. They are the new force of nature in the wine business. And they might just save us from this smug little corner of hubris we’re backing ourselves into.

Besides, who among us cares to dance alone in the dark?

[ Blog Post # 300 ]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Life We Chose

When I saw Giulio tonight he looked more tired than his 35 plus years. He had been in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in three days, then back to San Antonio and rural Boerne for a country wine dinner. Before he made it to Dallas his entourage flew to Oklahoma City for a wine dinner. He brought with him Francesca Moretti and Roberto Barbato, an owner and the commercial director for the Terra Moretti Company.

Everyone was tired, including myself. But here we were at an Italian restaurant. Showtime.

Inside the swank little spot on the edge of Dallas’ Park Cities, one of the wealthy safe deposit box neighborhoods, we were led to our table in front of the pizza oven. Front row and center. We passed by a client and one of the friendly competitors. The competition was everywhere, these days. Nowhere to hide.

Chef Jules seemed to love us and that was all we needed, after thousands of miles making flights, renting cars, late nights with clients and winemakers. Yes, this is the life we chose.

This isn’t just about Giulio. He is an archetype. It could be about Andrea or Lionello or Paolo or any number of people in this boat, all of whom have a similar life. All who have chosen it or have had it chosen for them.

No complaining, we are all looking somewhere over the rainbow for our little piece of the Emerald City. Or Kansas.

Giulio had a bottle of Francesca’s Tre Bicchieri winner, 2004 Petra, accompanying him on his recent travels. Roberto brought it from Italy in his luggage. And here we were, finally, opening the wine to try and with luck to enjoy. Francesca apologized with her big brown eyes, excusing the wine for its frequent altitude adjustments. But even though she would have preferred we let the wine settle for ten days, it opened up like a champ and was brilliant.

Plates started appearing at the table, and here we were again. No this wasn’t San Francisco, nor was it Hollywood. It wasn’t Verona; that was still a few weeks off. This was Highland Park and the place was Nonna’s. And it was just perfect for all of us tired wine ambassadors.

Chef came over and offered a pleasant welcome. Here’s a young one, with the future waiting for him and what he has to offer a hungry world. Italy is just beginning her ascent into American mainstream culture and the wine from Francesca with the food of Jules is where it is going. No cell phones or computers needed to figure that one out.

Roberto surprised everyone by ordering a second chocolate dessert. He is mistaken for an Italian movie star in elevators. Women love him. Everyone loves Italians. Life is good.

Tomorrow we tackle Texas BBQ and Patric chocolate cake.

Just leave the espresso machine on in the window.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Taking It All In

Hotel Miramar Fairmont ~ Santa Monica, California
Gambero Rosso Road Show

I was strolling around the banquet room, tasting white, and then red, wines. We had just finished our seminar, a very adventurous wine tour across Italy. There were experts on the panel and experts in the audience. I was in my observer mode, eyes at the camera screen, looking for the definitive shot which would say, “Ah here’s the expert.” Unfortunately the camera memory ran out rather quickly. There were so many experts around me.

A few days later I was looking at a speaker's bio for a wine fair in New York. One of the speaker’s curriculum vitae noted that he was “the foremost authority on Italian wines in America.” Those words exactly. I read it again. Was he really? It seemed I was finding foremost authorities all over the land, out West and back East.

Back in the room in Santa Monica, as I sampled the wines, I started listening to the conversations people were having with each other. It split into two camps; the Italians and the Americans. Both with different points of reference. This was getting confusing to me. There were experts, everywhere.

I recalled Vinitaly with all the knowledge and interest in Italian wine, in such a concentrated time and space. I was starting to hyperventilate, thinking about the insignificance of one’s life in this area. I should have gone into gardening, or law. Or maybe forestry. As to Italian wine expertise, no, I would never make it to the mountain top.

And then there was the travel advice I had just given to a young bicyclist in Napa Valley. She spends three months a year training in Lucca. She asked me if I had any special tips or places that she shouldn’t miss. I fired off an answer modified from one told to me by a photographer. I told her to pay special attention to what it right in front of her; the Italy that she is witnessing in the present moment is just as good as it gets, and if one could stay in the now she could get a feel for the real Italy. Or words like that.

How about if I took my own advice, with regards to expertise? Let’s look at this, shall we?

What would one accomplish by being the foremost authority on Italian wine? Would that mean one knew everything there was to know about it? There is a computer somewhere that holds all that information. What about sensing trends and being an influence on the changing state of Italian winemaking? That would also be part of that omniscience one would need to be considered one of the giants in the field. I cannot imagine only one person being able to fit into those shoes. Maybe six, or twelve or twenty experts, but one? Count me, and anyone that I know, out.

Then there is the passion in the pursuit. Enthusiasm is not an elective in the building of the pyramid of perfect knowledge. But there was more than one Pharaoh, one Caesar.

Taking a break from the process of analyzing this, I crawled back into my mortal shell and walked around the pavilions of the past Vinitalys' I had been to. One of the first ones, in 1984, I remember seeing an elderly Italian man, a sommelier, who everyone seemed to love and respect. For years I saw his name in trade publications, occasionally spotting him in an important dinner or tasting in Italy. Then he passed away. Did all that knowledge and ardor pass with him? Did he have acolytes? Are they now foremost authorities on things Italian?

I remember feeling overwhelmed about the prospect of never “getting” Italian wine to a point where I could look back and say to myself, “I have arrived.” First the language would be a barrier; my Italian couldn’t open certain doors. I daresay that would also be the case if I had been born in Italy. But there were so many opinionated people, some who have spent many years in the study of this Italian wine thing.

How would I reconcile this with respect to my significance to this matter? And why was it so darn important?

Honestly, I don’t think I ever will. But I am getter better acclimated to accepting that there is a place for many of us at the table.

I am saying this because there are people that ask me how I ever got to this point where I could teach and talk and sell Italian wines in the way that I do. They seem to think it is so daunting, that they will never be able to grasp it.

But I ask any of you reading this, who has those concerns, to put them aside, like I have. Take off your blinders of apprehension and slowly open your eyes to the light. Take a deep breath. And listen. This is where you are. This is where we all are. It isn’t perfection, but it is a good place to start and to be. You will forget many things and you will learn many more. But we aren’t building a rocket ship to the perfect spot in the universe. We are merely living life on a small planet with some wonderful smells and colors and flavors. And people.

And that's just gotta be good enough.

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