Sunday, May 04, 2008

Wine Bahs

New York
“The last time I saw a selection of wines this idiosyncratic was on a closeout list from a distributor,” somebody was heard to say, when talking about one of the many wine bars that have sprung up across the country.

Whether it is to find an outlet for those seldom seen wines, that do often languish in the corners of many a wholesaler’s warehouse, or if it is the result of a methodical search for a pure expression of wine, today’s wine lover need only to stumble into a wine bar. Or enoteca, as we say, on the wine trail.

Minutes before I was to do just that, I was in a clothing store that caters to young urbanites. On display were as many different T-shirt selections as I would soon be faced with when looking at the wine list. One shirt caught my attention. It read, “Who the f*** is Mick Jagger?”

An hour later, over a glass of Gruner, Mick would pass by our window, sans entourage.

30 minutes earlier I slipped into the wine bar, before my friends. Ordering up a glass of an Italian white, an Asprinio, it recalled a wine I had made a hundred years ago in California. Tangy fruit up front, a hint of volatility, not quite ready for oil and salad, but veering off in that direction. That’s OK with me in small doses. Italian whites, especially made in a rustic style, can be charming when that element is doled out judiciously. Civet in a perfume can be attractive, ask anyone who loves Chanel No.5.

Speaking of the rear end of a tomcat, I am sitting here struggling with terroir. My friend and I had an appointment with the owner of a wine bar, who walked in, and by, chatted up his staff, looked not in any direction at his clientele (one of which, wasn’t he supposed to rendevous with?), and headed back out the door.

Maybe it’s all those years I worked at being invisible when I photographed on the streets. Perhaps he is forgetful, though we met and spent time together, recently. I’m quite sure the success of his career has nothing to gain from knowing me.

All these thoughts, not just to excoriate the young lion for his comportment. More to my quest is this elusive search for recognizability in that thing we call terroir.

I use a different word which comforts me and because I understand it better than terroir. Territoriality. Probably a made up word, but one which offers focus to a blurry scatter of opinions about the spirit of a place, which means something to us for a reason. Maybe it is because grapes grow there and unforgettable wine results. Or hands making memorable music. Perhaps it is because a certain potato flourishes there, exclusively, and from those potatoes a gnocchi (that I’ll never ever forget) of which I had three bowls, at lunch, in the Marche. Back there, in the dungeon of my memories.

As the forgetful proprietor hurried off to his more important task, my friend arrived with a colleague. We sat down to drink that bottle of Gruner, Mick hurrying off in the same direction as Mr. Oblivious. Everyone to their own T-shirt. Wine boss, rock hoss, jazz joss. Not yet, Thelonious, that’s coming, uptime, uptown. Later.

While the revolutionary T-shirts are brought to the table with a sampler of appetizers, we ordered another bottle, this time a red. I proceeded to blunder, thinking the name was printed on the list with a redundancy. My younger, more mentally agile colleague gracefully corrected me. Just so everyone knows, Italian wines, even to those who make a life study of them, have many, many names. This one, known as Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, just to make things interesting, is also not from Alba. Or anywhere near Piedmont. Look it up. Oh, and the winemakers sometimes use the Tuscan governo process, but it’s not from Tuscany. Got it?

About this time one of the observant ones at our table casually mentioned that Tom Waits just shuffled by, in the direction of William Burroughs old place. One of them is late. This is one helluva people-watching wine bar.

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