Sunday, March 07, 2010

No Country for Old Wines

Happy 82nd, Oscar!

Have Italian wines become like cinema? Has oak become what full frontal nudity was in the 1970’s, now hackneyed and dull? Do we look for nuance in wine and film and walk away from a dark room or a disappointed table with similar letdowns?

Last night I went to visit my friend Jay the pizzaiolo, who was halting his guerilla restaurant for a few weeks of renovation. Inside the dining room, people had brought their own wines. I surveyed the tableau – Silver Oak, Kosta Browne, Caymus. I had brought a little Piedirosso, and it felt like I had just landed in America with my little satchel of handmade (and outmoded) clothes, walking onto the stage of my new life. And that is what the original wines from Italy must endure when they, too, come to America, walking the red carpet, without the sponsorship of Muccia or Donatella. Perhaps that is why some of the new, young energy of Italy, those affluent enough to send their children over to visit or to work in Napa or to take classes at Davis, have sussed out the future of the business. We aren't in La Terra Trema territory anymore. No, Italian wines have morphed into some Avatar of expectation, at least in many minds who reside in the heads of those who sit at the tables across America. And apparently in Italy, too?

I’m not going to go all sans soufre on y’all, but once again I stand on the corner of Any Given Sunday and Bloody Monday, that glorious time between reflection and heading back to the streets, and wonder if I am ever going to get Back to the Future?

Which begs the question, “OK, Alfonso, what do you think they need?” To which I begin by answering, "It's The Magnificent Seven meets The Barbera 7". It’s not what they think they need, but it is what we need to bring back – and those are the real expressions of Italian wine, that even when winemaking was less sophisticated, those old guys (and gal) were able to coax into the bottle.

My feeling is that it has more to do with the character of the person than the vineyard or the barrel room. The terroir of the human soul. I keep thinking of those people who still have the connection, who aren’t acting, who are living out the drama of their lives but with a realism that has been lost, in the bottle and on film, these last 20 or so years. And that is the crossroads that Italian wine teeters on, seemingly often.

Enough of the Blazing Saddles romp we have been getting, this is a High Noon moment.

How do you know you have lost something precious if you have nothing to compare that loss to? It is that way with so many things in youth. We cannot fathom the loss of a soul mate or a parent, because it hasn’t happened to us. Sure, one can read Lampedusa or Emily Dickinson or Paul Auster, but until the pin pricks your finger and you bleed, you will not know it as intimately. Viscerally.

And again, the director taps me on the shoulder and asks me to pull focus, bring it in for a close up, get to the point.

I do see light in the tunnel. The Piedirosso I brought to the pizzaiolo had been sanded with a rough grade of paper, but it had True Grit. The Primitivo we served in Marfa last week had the rough-and-tumble character of Accattone. You could almost feel the glass shards piecing your poor bare feet as you let a wine slip from the stained cup into your unbrushed teeth. Was it pleasant? It wasn’t pretty from all the make-up. It was a Giant, but it was frank. It was truthful. And that made it a beautiful thing.

What was once the key to the kingdom, getting a great revue and 90+ points or the three glasses from Gambero Rosso, all that has been rendered useless in this Mad Max world, where the rules of economics have been disco-oxygenated so trophy hunters can fill their silos. They can still have their 100 point Walk in the Clouds and drink their $300 cult wines too. When The Eclipse comes (isn’t it already here?), those with mega Euros will have plenty of oaked wines to drink with their canned foie gras in their tax deductible offshore underground shelters cellars. "I'm gonna live forever, baby remember my name." Oh yeah.

Until then, I will hope for a time when more can take pleasure in the joys of wine and in the simple satisfaction of unadulterated, accessible, drinkable wines. Wines that have Places in the Heart . Wines that we can really, really love. Wines that go with real food. Then maybe it will be time again for a Capra-esque return to that Wonderful Life.

And the winner is….

Photos from Oscar nights of past


Thomas said...

Alfonso, had any orange wines lately???

Just askin'...

In 1998, while attending VinItalia, I was with a group at a reception in the Bolla visitor center in Verona--it was hosted by Brown-Forman.

We were treated to a new line of Bolla varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, ad nauseum.

After tasting the nuclear bombs I asked the winemaker why he felt the need to produce California wine in Valpolicella. He said that is what the importer told them that Americans want.

It's the Holy Grail syndrome.

Anonymous said...

my head is spinning with refrences and wit. Great Post!

Anonymous said...

The Barbera 7, I like that!


Susan Guerra said...


I am way behind in my reading this week. Sorry for the delay in telling you how great this post is. Funny enough, I did my NJ Monthly post on basically the same thing. I hope that the pendulum in Italy and everywhere begins to swing back and this obsession with winning awards for the best spoofulation (special effects) grinds to a halt.


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