Sunday, February 01, 2009

Grand Cruelty

After most of the week in NY for Italian events, and coming home to make a Bordeaux tasting, which I missed, I meditated over the relationship between the French and the Italians. Over and over, during the Italian events, I kept hearing the mantra, “We’re #1” as if making and selling more wine would automatically put any country over the top.

The French, does anyone think they care about those kinds of declarations? I see their claim to fame is their careful cultivation of their image as a country of small gentrified farmers coddling the land and coaxing out the best from their beloved terroir. Marketing as a fable, having gone through malolactic.

And I am not writing here to beat up on the French farmers or winemakers. Or wine lovers. But the argument that positions one great country against another, to me is just meaningless. I am a bit surprised that professionals in the Italian wine trade get worked up over such matters, unless it is just some form of argument they use when trying to justify the Italians ascendancy on the world wine stage.

OK, so the Italians had me at Buon Giorno. But along the way, tasting the different wines, I am struck more by how similar they are than their differences. Maybe it is my baseline from an early time being brought up drinking the local wines of my area (California) that makes the wines from Italy and France seem more alike than not. I don’t think I have a California palate, as I prefer the wines of Europe, generally.

But lately, as if to coax myself out of my stubborn preconceptions, I have been popping red and white wines from California. Last night we opened a 2005 Chateau St. Jean Les Cinq Cépages. Out of the bottle into a quick decanting, and straight into the glass. I was drawn into the seductive quality of the wine. Fleshy, woven with aromatic ripeness. I was 15 again and looking more at the young girls in bikini’s on the beach than the waves.

Did the California wine take me back to my youth? I remark to my companion that this would make a fine $25 bottle of wine. The wine, though, sells for three times that in a store, $75. That would make it $150+ in a restaurant. And out of my league.

Not that France or Italy doesn’t have similar wines that seem to be overpriced for the current state of the world. But in agriculture, the planning of these wines is made in advance of any economic downturn. And once we get into these waters, what are the wine growers supposed to do?

In the wholesale (and retail) business, if you can’t sell a product at the price you had planned on and if the product sits in a warehouse or on a shelve eventually one must make way for more viable products. Discounting, close-outs, bin-end specials. These are part of the toolbox that keeps the machine cranking along. Restaurants know this too. They have happy hours, special menus (we’re starting to see specials now that aren’t just overpriced entrees) and ways to fill seats.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be working: The overpriced wine dinner. When a restaurant tries to sell, let’s say, an Opus One dinner for $395 per person, I'm thinking the message is: We have too much inventory let’s make an “elite” wine dinner up and get our best customers (and investors) in to help us clear some of this stuff out. It’s an out-of-touch idea that suggests the establishment has run out of ideas. Makes me wonder about their food, too.

Meanwhile the cycle of the vine begins in a new year. In quiet little towns all across Italy and France, people are preparing their vines and their cellars for the work to begin. From the greatest crus to the humblest plots, the love and the care for the land, that these people who care for them have been entrusted, makes me shudder. We have to go forward, the earth doesn’t stop. The cycle, the cycle, the cycle.

So, here we meet. A producer in the Côte d'Or, or Rabajà, over these cold dark nights, must consider how they are going to approach not only their land, but their clients across the world. Does one lower their price and compromise their stature? Does one march on ahead leaving their loyal supporters in search of newer and maybe more elusive ones? Or does one do nothing and hope the economic cycle moves eventually upward?

To my way of looking at it, to do nothing is the height of the grand cruelty to the land. The land did not proclaim itself greater than another, that was something man has decreed. And as that assertion is more symbolic than substantive, to punish the land is to only repeat the endless sins against the earth that we earthlings have been perpetuating for many, many years.


Anonymous said...

Come al solito, you touch on so many important things in one post..
Why DID the Italians do so much cheerleading? Are they not comfortable with being NO. 1? Still looking over their collective shoulders? Or simply a bunch of paisanos needing a loving pat of assurance?
As for high-priced wine dinners (or over-priced wine menus), there is a segment (perhaps the same people who must sit in the big-money seats at the Super Bowl, court-side, etc, ) that feels money not only buys love (what ever happened to Lennon-McCartney?)but respect.
Meh, whatever that means to them..
è stato un piacere incontrarvi...

Anonymous said...

Oh yes amico, it's the same planet we all walk on.

Unknown said...

Did somebody say paesano?!

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