Sunday, August 30, 2009

Are You Collecting or Connecting?

As I look through the wines in my closet, or study a wine collection from a deceased doctor or lawyer that the widow is trying to make sense of, I wonder about the nature of one’s relationship with wine. Odd to say it that way, as wine isn’t a person, how can one have a relationship with it?

What one can examine, though, is one’s way of relating to wine and the people and places that make up the story of wine.

Loads of people write me and ask me to tell them where to go eat and visit when they head to Italy. Often they are going to Tuscany. And I have a list of places I and others have found that are off the touristic path. So I send some of these folks a note with ideas. I usually end with something like this: “No matter where you go in Italy, you are in Italy, and there is sure to be a wonderful place right under your nose, just waiting for you to step in with an open heart and a sense of adventure.”

And more often than not, that is what I have been doing. Sure, I take my guides and notes, but the real find is the one I haven’t found before. And the palimpsest that is Italy, when you scratch beneath the surface, will emerge and something wonderful will happen.

The other night I went into the wine closet and pulled out a bottle of Chianti Classico. I had been needling a newspaper friend who was twittering about what kind of wine he should take to a B.Y.O.B. We got to talking about Chianti and he mentioned one he recently had that was lovely. Good old Chianti, in good times and in lean times, it is a staple. And this one I opened, a 1988, was still lively and vibrant and kicking. I had gathered a case of the wine and was going through it slowly. In the time since this wine had been made, the family had lost one of the elder brothers and the grand nephew and niece were now in the wine business. Kids when I first met them, the boy played soccer in the field with my son while we toured the vineyards. Now the son is married, is having his own children. And the daughter keeps in touch on Facebook. I don’t just love the wine; I love the people and the greater story of the wine.

To go into a store only to find what one is looking for, whether it be a best value or the most natural wine, is to limit oneself to one’s own story. It is to go in with pre-conceived notions, and that is really all they are, notions, about what and how and why a wine should be. It doesn’t take into account anything outside of one’s own bubble. And that isn’t natural, to me.

If the farmer doesn’t use pesticides and fertilizers and makes a wine that is wholesome, all the better. But better the farmer take their cues from a higher authority than us city folk, trying to tell the country folk how to live and grow and farm. Who do we think we are, really?

I keep going back to the farmers I met, in Puglia or Liguria, Sicily or the Marche, and their stories are what I collect. I connect with the people and then, their wines. If a man runs his winery by the biodynamic principles so in vogue these days, but is rude and callous to his neighbors or his clients, what good are the wines to any of us? I have stopped putting these stories in my closet. They have been given away to be opened, drunk and forgotten.

That is what I am interested in these days. The whole story, not just some technique popular with urban enophiliacs.

Just like the bees in my tree that have grown and out grown their home or the crazy parrots who escaped their cages and now zoom across the sky with their shrieks of joy, or the lone coyote that has everyone on the neighborhood nervous for their cats, or the little lizards that sit on the large Hoja Santa leaves and sun themselves before they grow too large for the leaves to support their weight. These are my local markers; these are the reasons to connect with the good things on earth. And like that, if it just so happens that some of those good things end up inside a bottle and compel me to gather one or more, I now want it for the connection; not some meaningless collection that someone’s widow or orphan child will have to figure out how to get rid of, long after they're gone.

Photos by Daniele Giuntini

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flying to Nowhere

Yesterday I had to get up early to catch a plane for a wine dinner down south. The restaurant had asked me over a month ago, they were new and needed a little love, Italian style. So I agreed to catch a plane and stay in a hotel to help them promote their new place with an Italian wine dinner.

They don’t know me and I don’t know them. But that’s what we do in the channel I work in. A lot of it is on faith. I don’t charge for it, although the restaurant agrees to buy the wines for the dinner. But it is a service I cheerfully offer. And hopefully there will be 20-30 or more people there.

Last week I did a wine showcase at my local Italian store, Jimmy’s. I love doing events there, because people know they will come and have a good time. And Paul, the beloved owner, will buy a stack of wine and often when the show is good, people will head home with 3,6 or even a dozen bottles. Last week we knocked ‘em dead. The stars were aligned and everybody had a good time. And it makes all those no-show moments disappear.

Years ago I was scheduled to do a wine dinner in New Orleans at a restaurant near Lake Ponchartrain. I had never been there and went blindly into the event. The hotel room I had reserved (over the internet, also never seen) was a shambles. I couldn’t stay there, so I headed straight to the restaurant. When I got there I was told that they only had 6 people for the dinner. Of the six one was the owner and two were myself and my local representative. So we had three people. But next door I found a great little bed and breakfast, the Rose Manor, that I called home whenever I went to New Orleans. When Katrina hit, the B&B was flooded even though it was on high ground. It was also near the broken levees. An acquaintance, Herman Leonard, the great jazz photographer, lived nearby and his place was ravaged. Many of the photographs he made and collected were lost. And Leonard moved away, forever.

The point I was trying to make was that even though you set out to do something, it doesn’t always work out like you intend. But that doesn’t mean the opportunities are lost. It’s all a matter of perception.

Yesterday when I landed, my representative let me know that the restaurant hadn’t been able to get anyone to the dinner. It was priced right (under $60) and there was a great lineup of wines. And yes it is the beginning of the school year and everyone is getting back and settled into their routines. I chalk it up to inexperience on the part of the restaurant and hopefully in the future they will learn how to promote an event to better showcase their food, their wine and the available talent. After all, I killed them last week in Dallas. I was suited up and ready to knock another out of the park. They just weren’t able to get the butts in the seat.

I write this not to complain about the situation, although when I first was told I wasn’t a happy camper. I’m over that now. It’s August and this is the time to plant the fall garden. The harvest will be in December if things move forward in these times.

But it got me to thinking about my Italian colleagues, who are just packing up their beach gear and getting ready to leave their seaside places and head back to the vineyards. They have had a month in the sun. We have too, out here in flyover country. The difference is that we have stayed in our vineyards and worked through a hellatious summer of changes. If our work is in any way successful it will further insure that when the Italians pack their bags to come to America to work in September (and to show off their tans and buy clothes at the outlets and sales) they won’t be booking their planes to nowhere.

Because no one likes to till in barren fields.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Qui Non Si Gode Asilo

I was warned about her by my pop. “She’ll break your heart if you let her. But you gotta let her try.” I was new in this town and Dallas was bright and glitzy and new. I was rebuilding my life, coming from California, where things were in bad shape. Unemployment was high, housing was expensive, taxpayers were revolting against the government. Déjà vu.

But Dallas had hope. Still does. It’s just hard to see with all the bright shiny things floating around.

Years later, in the present, I am standing in this huge ballroom in a downtown hotel, filled with all manner of wine and spirits vendors showing their products. A young wine salesman comes up to me. “Do you think there’s one in here that isn’t adulterated in one form or another?” I assumed he was talking about wine. Looking around, I couldn’t answer, I was surrounded by scantily clad women with jello shots and vodka drinks trying to get me to take one from their tray. “Maybe in the wine room, you can find something you will like,” I told him. I must have walked that room 4 or 5 times, stopping to talk to old friends and battle mates, bosses, best men and anyone who came up to me to say hello. It is like any business; pick one, jewelry, news, entertainment, pharma, pretty much the same characters, just different products.

In our business the products must be sampled and when too many are, places like the one I am in will be a madhouse by 10PM. I’ll be gone by then, on to other things. Vinitaly is similar, except the men dress better and the women aren’t all blondes. But the same m.o.

Another young salesman and I walk the room, talking about where he is going in the business. He isn’t as connected to it, has a life outside of the job. Chances are he won’t be walking the room 20 years from now like some of the folks I have seen doing this for the last 25.

I run into a very lucky character, he’s made a lot of money being in the right place at the right time and having a good line of b.s. that the right folks bought into. He was miserable. All the wealth and success meant nothing to him, he said he wanted out. The disease of the newly wealthy. I thank my lucky stars I am not him.

So who is going to take this business over and run it into the future? Well, there are some bright young rising stars and I also ran into them today. One young man is raising a family in South Texas and is a hard worker, is honest and is smart. I told him today that he is the future. Another man, a little older, from far West Texas, a happy person who always has a smile and something good to say. All he has to do is look across the border and see the war being waged in Mexico to know how fortunate he is to have an opportunity to make a difference for his family and for the people who work for him.

Another one, a woman in her forties, she battled cancer and won, has taken back to the streets and is running a sales company. I could tell she was excited, to be alive and to have a challenge that seems easy compared to the fight for her life she just went through. So, there are willing participants in this business who want good things for them and their family and the profession. And I imagine we will see this played out on the streets in the next few years in a way that has deeper meaning for the players who will weather the hard times and learn how to get through it successfully. Because as the Italian saying goes, “Qui Non Si Gode Asilo,” Here there is no refuge. Sink or swim.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Make Wine Mine Natural Real

This weekend during the Drink Local Wine and the Texsom events there was a lot of wine tasted; some for learning and some for pleasure. During the three days a number of people with experience and expertise flooded the panels and parties. Not once do I remember anyone getting into an argument over natural wine.

Here on the most unnatural of all soap boxes, the blogosphere, one would think the world was ending and we were all going to hell because some of us, most of us, are actually enjoying the wines we are drinking. This weekend there were no lines drawn in the sand, no scabbards vacated, no friendships ended over the matter of what a natural wine is. I find it all a bit mystifying and hyper-critical, these exaggerated Greek choruses singing their dirges over what is and isn’t natural.

Do you live in an urban area? How natural is that? Do you take vitamins or supplements, or use deodorant or makeup? Do you buy food from the market or grow it all yourself? Do you walk everywhere you go? Do you fly on planes, ride around in cars? When you get sick do you take medicine? Do you still think you are living a natural life? Have you been made to feel you might be living a lie?

There were a number of Master Sommeliers and a Master of Wine or two as well, along with PhD’s and folks with decades of experience. I asked many of them about this "natural" question, as I am interested in their perceptions of such things. After all, they are probably more influential than many, or most bloggers. Funny, because there are so many interpretations. I find our world extremely manufactured on so many levels, but then I have the memory of that little conversation I had when I was barely 21 with a larger than life person, Buckminster Fuller. I was no more than six feet from him when I heard him say this: “Anything that Nature lets you do is natural.”

Bucky Fuller was a god to me. I thought of him as the 20th century Leonardo da Vinci. My son wants to build domes and live in them. We are as close to being his secular disciples as anyone can be in America. What he said to me is like a koan that I have thought about for decades now.

Another friend of mine, a doctor, we met while working together in a vegetarian restaurant in Pasadena, California in the mid 1970’s. He once remarked to me about sausage (I was a vegetarian), “Consecrate the sausage as you eat it, don’t let the devil of doubt poison your body. Give thanks for it allowing you to receive sustenance from it and be grateful.”

Once, when I was spending time at a Zen monastery in Northern California, the Roshi went to the local Safeway and bought food to be prepared. Often she would bring back vegetables and rice and fresh foods. But this time she brought back a load of ground meat. I remember when she had it brought into the kitchen some of the cooks were astonished and didn’t know what to do. One of them asked her what she wanted them to do with all of this ground meat. She answered. “Cook it. And don’t get too attached to being a vegetarian. Lose the desire.”

These three episodes have formed some of the ways in which I think about things. Wine, like any other part of life, has its place. But it is not the most important thing for me in life.

So if your Barbera isn’t biodynamic or your Yarra Valley Riesling isn’t made with native yeast, does it really matter all that much in the scale of things universal? If it does to you and it is worth losing friendships or jeopardizing civility, might you want to ask yourself if you aren’t taking all of this just a little too seriously?

This is just my manufactured perception, but to risk losing something real, like love or collegiality or a place in the circle of life, over some concocted opinion about what is natural or not is just an immane assumption.

And we all know what happens to those larger-than-life types.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ferragosto ~ Southfork Style

Here in Big D, Texsom is underway in its 5th year. One of the traditions is for all the Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine and conference sponsors to get together on the Saturday night before and enjoy some leisure time. In otherwords, music, beer, BBQ and party! Yesterday the Texsom magic bus took all the partygoers to the Southfork Ranch far north of the Dallas City Limits. This is where the 1980’s hit show “Dallas” was filmed (the outside scenes, that is). It is a working ranch and the family that owned it before were much like the Ewing family, except their patriarch (and yes he was also a J.R) lost the property hedging the ranch against a big oil deal. Nowadays, Sue Ellen is Tweeting (as is "Dallas") and the Southfork Ranch can be rented out for private affairs. So the Texsom steering committee set it up and what a party it was. Live music was performed by the Austin band Max Stallings, a country band with a progressive bent to it. Nice, mellow, music that wasn’t too loud and you could dance to it. Plenty of good wine, beer, and BBQ along with a killer strawberry shortcake. But the group was raring to party and party they did! The house has been furnished with all sorts of “Dallas” paraphernalia, complete with the J’R and Sue Ellen bedroom suite. The sunken bathtub was supplied with the rarest of all wines the 1984 Ch Mouton Rothschild Blanc. Master of Wine Charles Curtis, who now heads up the Wine Department for Christie’s in North America, pointed out the extremely “rare” wine. And he should know. When I would travel to Italy in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the Italian winemakers found out I lived in Dallas, their mom or aunt would always ask me how Sue Ellen was or if I knew J.R. So real was that show to them, especially in Sicily and Calabria, that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I never met them. But I told the aunts and the moms that the Ewings were doing just fine. “Well, you tell J.R. to treat Sue Ellen better,” one would say, or another would comment, “Sue Ellen, she needs to drink less whiskey and more wine, we worry about her.” I kid you not. Funny that the longhorn steer share the environment with the urban sprawl, not unlike Chateau Haut Brion must with their growing urbanization. One ranch grows cows, the other grapes, but city life pushes the plants and animals further out. Before the night was finished, the photographer herded all the masters together for one happy group shot. Of course with beer, BBQ and country music playing a few of them got frisky and cut up for the camera. The somms rarely get together in these numbers when there isn’t a test or some task involved and to just share the pleasure of each other’s company is as rare as that white Mouton. So, good for them, they all seemed to enjoy cutting up with each other and kicking back on a warm Ferragosto night deep in the heart of Texas..
Master Sommeliers Joe Spellman, Laura DePasquale, James Tidwell, Drew Hendricks, Keith Goldston and Fred Dame. Hey boys, is that anyway to treat a lady?
By the way J.R. wanted to tell all the Italians who read this, “Happy Ferragosto y’all!”

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Anticipation and Consummation

We are now officially in the dog days of summer around these parts. Italians are flocking to one vacation or another, cell phones are not working, email is down, fax machines have melted into the past. The Italians never forget August.

The whole country is vibrating on many levels right now. Many people are on vacation. The world has stopped for a brief moment. There isn’t much going on anywhere. America is having town hall meetings so that idiots can rant about a future they don’t want, which is inevitable. I have never seen so much misplaced anger.

Yesterday, instead of taking lunch I went to see a healer and a friend. His office was packed with fretting and worried people along with the most delightful pride of children who were lying on the floor and reading. Not one battery powered game among them.

In the room where the healer works on the energy patterns of folks who come in with back pains and such, there was quite a psychic stirring. I was off to the side in a private room, really his office with a low table. I fell asleep. When I awoke I heard a women weeping. My healer friend is leaving today go overseas, where he conducts seminars. He came into my room and looked spent. I could feel it. It drew me out too. There is a lot of pain and suffering and anger in the world right now. There is also a tremendous amount of connected emotions. Tielhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist hinted at that connectedness with his theory of the noosphere. Right now the noosphere has a few kinks to work out of the fabric of its being.

This wine (and life) thing distills to these two coin ends, anticipation and consummation. We want to try this Soave or that Barolo; we want the ’68 or the ’07. We want the orange wine and then the older rosé wine and then the sparkly wine and then the ancient red wine. We want the young girl in the second row with the long flowing hair, and then the red haired mat cutter in the frame shop and then the long haired blond in the restaurant and then the dark eyed beauty in the jeans. We want, we want, we want. Anticipating some immeasurable pleasure or revelation. Desire, desire, desire. We are all hungry little wolves prowling the grasslands looking, hunting, needing.

In Italy hotels and restaurants have been reserved for weeks, months, years, in anticipation of another August holiday. The whole country goes into a collective orgy of sun, sea, mountains, food, wine, lust, sex and satiation. Only to wake another day and start all over again, year after year, generation after generation, century after century, epoch after epoch. It’s quite exciting to think about thousands of people eating and drinking and laughing and loving all at the same time.

When I was a young boy, the town I lived in, a resort, filled up for a holiday, I remember lying in my bed on a Saturday night. I was all of 10 or 11. I swore then I could hear people making love, I could hear their collective screams of pleasure on those spring nights when the world was blossoming in my head.

How does this relate to the wine trail in Italy or anywhere? It’s a similar yearning and longing for something not quite within our reach. It might be for that bottle of Brunello when there is only enough money in the wallet for a Rosso di Montalcino.

It might be for that wine to not go away. It’s not like a painting. Once the genie is out of the bottle, all that remains is the memory.

It is energized and fed by the anticipation of something special. Wine, like passion, when bottled up, can only wait so long. Knowing when to open it up is the key. Waiting can be as much fun as what it is one is waiting for. If you buy that bottle of 1985 Sassicaia and hold on to it for 20 years, the pleasure of anticipation might be as rewarding as the consummation. It might even be better. If the wine is corked, isn’t the last 20 years of thinking about that wine all the reward one could expect? At that point it would. But how bad would that be? Has any one wine really made a critical difference in one’s life?

I still have a few bottles in my wine closet. Some of them have aged with me. I am not sure I want to open them up and end our long journey together. I have more recently and the final act has been wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But then what? Le commedia finite? O comincia?

Long live anticipation; for Italian wine lovers it is a dance of seduction that is better than any blue pill.

Vintage photos by Vittorio

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Bagging 'n Bragging How many times do we have to read about it? Yes, some folks out there get to taste some a.m.a.z.i.n.g. wines. But to open up the wine magazines or blogs and constantly have to be reminded how lowly we are because we didn’t taste a 10 year vertical of Gaja Darmagi or an 1852 Naval Reserve Madeira Sercial, really, how much of this can we take? I am on a riff about Elitism again, because it is rife in the 21st century of electronic wine literature. A wine lover opens up a whole slew of rare wines and invites a friend or two over and, Pow! an enthusiast or blogger has to regurgitate every wine, every nuance, every breath of their so wonderful evening. As if us knowing about it will make it greater for us? Maybe for them! But really does it? I was thinking about some of the wines I have tasted and not tasted in my life and asked myself the question: “Is there any wine you just must have before you die? Will the experience do something for your health and sanity that to not have it would have irreversible consequences?” I mean, really, all the wines I have had to this point won’t prevent me from running into a wall (or a wall running into me). So, no, there is nothing I need from here on out. Not more of anything. Probably less of some things. Most things. But think about it. We run from coast to coast or continent to continent, chasing things, Wine, love, fresh air. Around and around we pace ourselves in our lifetime ring looking for the big match, the score, the experience of a lifetime. Will getting to taste a 1947 Cheval Blanc really matter? But we desire something outside of ourselves. Wine is joyous; yes I’ll give it that. And getting together with friends and colleagues over a lineup of wines is more than the sum of the parts. Yes. But what is there to this kiss-and-tell we are seeing all over the place? On TV the newscaster reads his prompt screen, “Today Michael Jackson died. And Hugh Robinson cracked open a bottle of 1934 Calissano Barolo. Details at 11.” So what? Measuring the fullness of our lives by what we have drunk vs. the next person is shallow and snotty. I can’t taste it, reading about it. So what good is it? What does the reader take away from it? I’ll tell you. That the person who brags about their wine conquests is saying, “Look, mere mortals, up here on Olympus this is the way gods drink and enjoy their position. And you’ll never make it up here with us. So stick to your longing and your desiring, because as long as you have it, you make us more powerful.” Hey, this is my Sunday supper rant, and braised with a little tongue-in-cheek. So before you fire off some flaming comment meant to defend the uber-tasters, stop right now. Look at yourself. Think about what it is you do when you read a post or an article about some great wine tasting. And then, if you write, think again about what you want to say about an event like that, if you even do.
“Personal history must be constantly renewed by telling parents, relatives, and friends everything one does. On the other hand, for the warrior who has no personal history, no explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with his acts. And above all, no one pins him down with their thoughts and their expectations.” -Carlos Castaneda
the magnum of 1911 Lafite... was interesting. It was 75+ years old, same age as the U.S. president at the time, without the benefit of lighting and secret service. It was brown and losing its fruit in the glass. But the elusiveness of the fruit made it precious. Here was a wine that was dying, and we were allowed to sip its last drops, breathe its last perfume before it said adieu. Wonderful moment.” Pretty, yes, and a nice memory. But a 75 year old wine tasted 23 years ago isn’t important. It’s someone’s personal history and it should now be erased. So, in this August summer of 2009, as one goes forward, all this posturing and measuring must be just that. History. And with it comes the exhilaration of freedom one gets from stepping into the ring of the unknown.

Photographs of 20th century boxers (many Italian-Americans) from the Harry E. Winkler Photographic Collection

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