Sunday, March 02, 2008

Battle of the Bottles

It all started out innocently enough. The Italian-American Chamber of Commerce wanted to square off in a friendly competition with their French-American counterparts for a night of food, fun and frivolity. Would I help arrange the Italian side of things, with regards to wine?

I am such a sucker. I had envisioned a Mr. Rogers kind of evening. It would be convivial, and everyone was guaranteed a good time.

So, in good faith, I start emailing the French folks, eliciting their ideas about how we should pair the wines, which would be served blind, one from each country, to complement food courses. My Gallic counterparts were very busy at the time, and we couldn’t get ourselves coordinated. I chose the Italian wines based on the parameters outlined, which were: The wines should retail for under $20.

With that, I headed off to a week in Napa to go to my writing symposium.

In the middle of the week, I got an email. I was in a writing exercise class and the rain was pounding our little Arts and Crafts inspired classroom. It appeared the French had chosen more expensive wines. The question to me was, “What shall we do?”

What could we do? They had chosen their wines, and we had chosen ours. If their more expensive wines showed better, then we could always plead that they had exceeded the agreed-upon price limit. And if the Italians showed better, we could always rise triumphant in that our wines were better quality and more reasonably priced. I went back to my soggy classroom feeling as smug as a Frenchman.

Back in Dallas, the day of the event arrived and I hurried back from a class that I was teaching at the University in Denton, about 35 miles away. At the appointed restaurant ("It needs to be neither French nor Italian, it must be a neutral space.”), I arrived to make sure the wines were all in place. The restaurant was nearly empty save a server or two and the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce delegate. No Frenchmen in sight. We helped to clean glasses, wrap the bottles in aluminum foil, both Italian and French, and open some of the reds to let them breathe.

An hour or so before the official start of the event, I was getting anxious, for at this point we had prepared much. Still no Frenchmen in sight. My expert counterpart was probably at work, making lots of money, while I was polishing his glasses. And then they would appear and ask why things were not set up properly. That was the film playing before my imagination. It wouldn’t be right, and it would all be the Italians' fault.

Finally they started arriving 10 minutes before the event. They walked in; we made nice and set about the battle of the bottles.

"Calixte" Cave Vinicole de Hunawihr, Crémant d'Alsace Sparkling
Rotari Talento Brut, Trento DOC (metodo classico)

First Course
Field Greens Tossed Lightly in Walnut Oil
Topped with Walnut Crusted Goat Cheese Croutons

Vincent Girardin, Emotions de Terroir Blanc 2004
Illuminati “Costalupo” Controguerra DOC
(Trebbiano/Chardonnay blend)

Second Course
Pan Seared Scallops Wrapped in Apple Smoked Bacon

Domaine des Baumard, Savennières 2004
Santi “Solane” Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso 2004

Third Course
Beef Tenderloin with Wild Mushroom Demi-Glace

Guigal, Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2003
Coppo Camp du Rouss” Barbera d’Alba 2004

Fourth Course
Assortment of: Mascarpone Stuffed Dried Apricot; Roquefort Stuffed Fig; Milk Chocolate Mousse in Dark Chocolate Tulip; Stilton Cheesecake Topped with Poached Pear

Domaine des Maurières, Coteaux du Layon 1998
Ceretto Santo Stefano Moscato D’Asti 2006

The walk-around sparkling reception was harmless enough. One French couple arrived, and as I asked them which sparkling wine they wanted to start, the elderly gentlemen, in a rather gruff tone, barked out, “We will not have alcohol, only sparkling water.” And a giant welcome back to you, pardner.

Meanwhile, my French counterpart, who resembled a rough-sanded Philippe Noiret, was asking about the Crozes-Hermitage Rouge. It seemed some of the corks were a bit soggy and the two sommeliers on duty were concerned about the red wine inside. He was unphased and said something about this is the way a natural product should be.

Well OK, then. And that would be fine with me, too.

However, some of the wines were a little corky, and not in a “Hi, my name is Alice Feiring and I’ll have some of what you are having,” kind of way that encouraged the appreciation of unmanipulated wines. Forgive me, Alice, these were wines that had seen temperature fluctuation in storage, and they were a little crippled. Fortunately, not all of them were, so the sommeliers and I culled through the lot and found, we thought, enough bottles for the group of 76 anxious spectators.

The first course was my moment to shine. I thought sure the Italian was the French and vice versa. A gentleman at my table wanted to discuss the wine I thought was French. I explained to him, because it was a 2004, you could tell by the oxidation in the glass that it was an older wine. He didn’t like my explanation or the wine. One victory for the Italians. Or so I thought.

I got the wines backwards. He looked at this “expert” before him, and I knew I was in danger of losing this one to the French. Forget that his wife was with the Italian-American chamber and was Sicilian through and through. He was convinced I was an idiot. So I cinched up my pride and belted out a rational worthy of the finest Frenchman. “Now you can all relax,” I explained. “Your 'expert' has chosen to make the first mistake so we can all sit back and enjoy ourselves.” No one bought that one. One more try. “Look,” I pleaded, “the only thing that separates an expert from the rest of the folks is that experts make fewer mistakes, but they still make them. I admit it, now let’s enjoy the wines.” [Sub-text: that is unless you want to see how Sicilian I can become]. Sold.

Then the evening veered off into uncharted waters. For the second course, I had made the egregious error of staking out a position of modernity by choosing a red wine to go with the scallops. Smoky bacon wrapped scallops. And of course a more traditional French pairing would match a fine Chenin Blanc with them.

I really, really liked the Domaine des Baumard, Savennières. I just didn’t like it with the scallops. For that matter, the Santi “Solane” Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso didn’t go all that well with the second course, either.

Then came the obligatory red-meat course. Every wine dinner gots to have ‘em. Unless you are in California. Why is that? Who knows?

Now the food and the wine were matching up well, the kitchen was putting out plates to the tables, no one was complaining. Everyone was drinking. It was getting louder and louder in the room. I went to the microphone to talk about the wines.

Nobody wants to listen. They are having too good of a time. Fine. I slink back to my table, the Frenchmen looking at me as if to say, “Don’t talk now, enjoy the meal. That is the duty you have now. Sit down. Shut up.”

At that point, one of the sommeliers slides over to me, little beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He is running out of the Crozes-Hermitage, and the last table still needs to be served.

I told him to find a bottle that isn’t too bad, that we are probably being too sensitive about the soggy corks. Take the bottle over there, and serve it. I, after all, have been commanded to sit and eat.

Five minutes later, my French counterpart came over to the wine table, there was secondary-furrow on his brow and he seemed alarmed. They have a wine at the table that is going through another fermentation, and did we have any more of the Crozes-Hermitage? Of course, no problem. The sommelier tended to their needs. Touché.

Last course, dessert. Here the wines outshine the food. They are varied from each other and offer a sweet counterpoint. The two wines actually dance together much better than the dessert, a lazy-Susan assortment of various items.

Then comes the moment of truth. My French counterpart and I must get in front of this now happy but unruly crowd to discuss the wines. I notice the Frenchmen at the table and their wonderful shoes. Coupled with their conservative outfits and their impeccable women. I glance towards some of the Italian tables, women in slinky black and red leather, their men in crisp white shirts and tailored Italian suits. Some of the young men wearing those pointy little shoes that fashionistas still linger over.

“We would now like to see which wines everyone chose,” I croon into the microphone, channeling my inner Perry Como At this point the Frenchman explains something philosophical. Then, I have this epiphany of the logical Gallic man who finds joy in explaining why they are so different from everybody else, while this American-Italian sees how the Italian in me has spent his whole life reaching across the aisle to welcome the diversity and embrace our differences. No sale, again. But for me, a crystal clear moment as to how and why the French and the Italians are so similar, but in such different ways.

A major problem arose at the judging of the Third Course, the Beef Tenderloin with Wild Mushroom Demi-Glace with the Guigal Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2003 and the Coppo Camp du Rouss” Barbera d’Alba 2004. It seems the wine I had on my “official card” that said it was the Italian wine was in reality the French wine. Or so the French table assuredly pleaded. It didn’t take much for me to agree; I too, thought the wines had been switched in the glass by the sommeliers. The restaurant owner came up to me and explained that no, they hadn’t been switched; everything was as it had been marked. But I had tasted too much of the poor Crozes-Hermitage to relent in my judgment and of course, the Frenchmen were also correct. It would have been too easy to explain the bad wine was Italian. After all, a random American-Italian man came up to a Frenchman earlier in the night and literally surrendered to the notion that all French wines were better than any Italian wines. Even though he had never set foot on Italian soil. That’s another blog. And this has gotten way too long.

So where did that leave us in the battle of the bottles? Who won? Who knows? Who cares? There were some good wines from both countries. And people were surprised to know they chose preferences, in a blind tasting, that they wouldn’t normally make. And that is really OK. We had some fun, and I learned there are more similarities between the two countries than differences. I know the French might disagree with me on that last point. Oh well, vive la différence.


  1. Always peering into the setting through your words, as if I were a fly on the wall. How Sicilian are you? You'll have to 'splain in May.

  2. At least you didn't ask the French to pronounce ceci.

  3. Thanks gents, for the warm and fuzzies...

  4. Hot diggity, dog ziggity boom!


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