Sunday, November 23, 2008

Moths in Search of Their Fame

Vercelli ~ early 1980's

Where have all the great Italian wine experts gone? Over the weekend I have been thinking about who represents the best of expertise in Italian wine. Who is putting the Italian wines out in front? Who isn’t first looking at their margins or how much money or fame they can garner? Who isn’t devising a strategy that includes a book as a vehicle to propel their celebrity before those who still toil in the service of the vines?

Sure there are a lot of self-proclaimed experts who would like you and me to think they have remade Italian wine, and because of their singular efforts, all is well. Well, balderdash. Living large and taking a handsome fee to regale willing participants aboard a cruise ship of their love for Italian wines, I don’t buy it.

This all comes as a result of my procrastinating this afternoon over a shelf cleaning assignment. Instead of doing that and making room for more books I ran across an old Rolodex. A card popped out, and it was as if the person whose name was on that card was trying to reach out from the other side. The card belonged to Lou Iacucci, a crusty fellow from the 1980’s, who was a real expert in Italian wine at the time. He was brash and had a healthy ego, but he also worked the floor of his store and turned many a young person, myself included, on to Italian wine. He didn’t filter me through one of his handlers and then make a 10 minute appearance to regale me with fabricated sorties from his soon to be released best seller and definitive tome on Italian wine.

No, Lou could care less about that kind of crap. He was a noodler; he was always on the lookout to hook another fish on his line. It was through Lou that I was introduced to the wonderful dessert wine Torcolato, from a young Fausto Maculan. He also pressed bottles of Mastroberardino and Hauner upon me.

Toscana ~ Porchetta Stand 1980's

I had just returned from a three month stay in Italy and had worked the harvest. I was ripe for the picking. Lou was patient with me, and he encouraged me to develop my interest in Italian wine. Through Lou I felt that I could someday begin to approach his level of understanding about Italian wines. Yes, he was a shameless self-promoter, but he made space for the rest of us to gather some of the air in the room. Today, east coast or west, there are too many self-nominated authorities who don’t see the possibility of the rest of us wanting to contribute.

Armando de Rham and Luciano Degiacomi

Last spring in San Francisco, I sat next to a young lady, who was so proud that she had been nominated for membership in the Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini di Alba. I mentioned to her how I knew the man who founded the order and gave her my card, suggesting to her that we stay in touch; you know, synergy and all that. She never returned an e-mail.

San Benedetto del Tronto, 1984, with IWG, Toto Rao,
Charles Petronella and Guy Stout, now a Master Sommelier

I met a fellow in New York, an up and coming Italian wine expert. In what has seemed like too many emails to remember, in which he has never responded, I have finally deleted his address from my virtual Rolodex. I hear from Lou Iacucci more often than I do from some of the young lions. They don't realize we were all young lions at one time.

Pietro Berutti of La Spinona in Barbaresco with Armando de Rham

A fellow in L.A., another self-declared master of all things in relation to wines Italian, was so rude the last time after I went into his store. It seems he couldn’t understand how one of “his best customers” would know me. One of his best customers, a film studio head, just “happened” to be a friend of mine from childhood. That’s how it was possible. But these arrogant young brats all want to think that they have the exclusivity on expertise. They don’t want anyone else playing in their sandbox. Ma va'.

New York has a couple more. I get a kick out of the ones who claim they don't remember the handful of times we met, had dinner, or sat on a panel somewhere. I’m not talking about the older ones with short or long term memory issues, but again the young lions who think the trail just started up when they got on it. They self-proclaim they’re a flame when they’re but moths in search of their fame.

I have a pile of books from one of my mentors, who like Lou, has passed on. His stories were like guideposts to me. I treasure those stories, for they truly set me on the course. And while I view all this from a serene eddy in flyover country, it offers me the perspective of one who can see all this from a distance. And that puts it into focus.

All those years Lou took the road from Firenze to Siena, were constant pilgrimages back to the source of the energy. One of those trips the wine gods called him back. He didn’t take one or two trips and write a book. He drove those roads till they wore down with his incessant search for this or that little producer.

Paolo de Rham, IWG and Franceso Guintini of Selvapiana in 1984

He didn’t conspire with importer B or C to prevent restaurateurs from having access to their wines. Sure, he wanted the lions share and he often got it. In those days not many folks clamored for wines like Montevertine or Selvapiana, let alone knew about it. But if they did, he didn’t do his damnedest to prevent others from taking pleasure in them. He didn’t hog the great wines just for the sake of a bunch more money.

So as I continue to roam about the world of wine, whether it be in Italy or America, I see that some of the most important things in my cellar are my relationships with people who will understand that we are not in competition with each other, we are only in competition with that person we can become. And that becoming is in a constant state of change and refinement. But the wines and the friends make the journey so much more rewarding than any pile of money or book deal could ever promise.

Piemonte ~ 1980's

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