Thursday, June 25, 2009

Calabria: The Epiphany

There has been discussion in Italy about the future of wine in Calabria. In brief, there are two camps: one to maintain a more traditional use of the native grapes for the wines of Ciro and one which seeks to elaborate the appellation with the use of more international grapes.

Calabria is where my mom’s mom came from. She left a poor region, which had just been devastated by a terrible earthquake, early in the 20th century. Calabria has been abused by organized crime and tribal urges. It is a beautiful place. The wines are hard to sell, but when someone tastes a Gaglioppo or a Montonico they become enthralled with the fruit and the texture and the echo of the earth from where they spring.

Can Cabernet help bring wealth and fame to Calabria? Who knows? When a wine like a Ciro or any number of wines from Calabria tries to make it in America, it is a combination of energies. When the Statti’s or the Librandi’s come to America, the wines are well received and people love them. And surely these two wines often represent different styles and philosophies of winegrowing in the region. The connection isn’t always because of a review or a score. Sometimes it is the personal touch that these people bring to the selling game. So it’s not as easy as Cabernet or no Cabernet, native yeasts or designer yeasts, French barrique or chestnut botti. It’s just all simple and black and white.

When I first went to Calabria in 1977 and visited my family in Bucita, it was harvest time. I’ve written elsewhere about that experience on the blog. I didn’t elaborate on the experience but now I would like to do so.

Many have had a wine that was an epiphany. If you haven’t yet had it, be patient, you will. In the past, when someone would ask me what my epiphany wine was, I’d search back and come up with all kinds of examples. The 1964 Monfortino. The 1935 Taylors Port. The 1974 Heitz Martha’s. The 1961 Lafite. The 1953 Petrus. The 1928 and 1929 Haut Brion. The 1928 D’Yquem. The 1968 Sassicaia. And so on.

But the wine that really was the one that turned the light on for me had been put up in a used beer bottle with a crown cap. It was in the wine cellar of my family, the one at the top of this post. My cousins brought me down in the evening after the meal, when the children had been put to bed and the women upstairs were busy (always) making something. We’d go into the cellar and empty bottles so they’d have them for the new vintage. They were not wealthy, but there was a lack of raw materials, so nothing was ever wasted. They weren’t poor. They had a washer and a dryer. Back home in those days, we didn’t. And they had a better car than I had. And a TV. We didn’t have TV because we didn’t want one. But the cars were old 1962’s, a Corvair and Falcon wagon. So to me my cousins were doing well. They just didn’t have enough bottles.

We sat down and after drinking a couple of demijohns of stout red wine, about 5 of us, one of the cousins went to a cabinet and brought out this little bottle of golden, murky wine. It was a Greco or a Moscato, I don’t remember the grape. But it was a late harvest dessert wine. My family loves sweet things. Those wonderful figs that are baked in their leaves, the cookies, chocolate and fruits, dripping with honey-sweetness. And by the way they unlatched the little cabinet and brought out the wine, I could sense this was important.

I loved how they accepted me. All too often everyone is too darn busy or angry to give a damn about anyone except for themselves. But in 1977 things were different. Things were slower. Not as many people lived in their own little reality bubble. No phones, no email, no blog rage, no tweet-spies. Just the sun in the morning, a day of work, two meals, a nap in the afternoon and in the evening after the last meal and the occasional passeggiata, a venture into the wine cellar. And here we were.

The wine: I still remember the smell. It was like the flower of a jasmine. Sweet, honey, a little edge of bitter, and the floral blousy exposure. The last thing I smelled something that wonderful was the perfume on the neck on my girlfriend when we were fourteen.

The taste: was a wisp of fruit, not enough acid to matter, but nothing awkward or out of balance. This was a wine pure and natural as it had been made for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It connected me to all of the people that had come before and made me feel like finally I had been born to something that I was meant to do, something I loved. It was my entrance interview that the god of wine had arranged with my cousins. It was test and celebration, certification and baptism all rolled up in one. It was the choice that was being given to me for a vocation of a lifetime.

And now, entering into the fourth decade of this work. All around us there is tension and stress and warehouses and wineries filling up with wine. Where will it go? Who will drink it? How will we ever get it all out of the cabinet in the cellar and turn on the light for all those many souls for whom the epiphany awaits?

As it has been since the days of the Chaldeans making wine for the Egyptians, so it is 4,500 years later. One precious bottle at a time.

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