Sunday, August 29, 2010

What these Italians did for their August Vacation

The normal course of action, In August, for an Italian, is to take the whole month off. While it is not as prevalent as it once was, there are still millions of Italians who flock to the beach, the mountains, away. Business as usual is halted, while everyone gets their fill of sun, sand and seafood.

But once in a while there is that beautiful deviant, ones who have broken from the pack. They see the times for what they are; they put their personal desires behind. And they head for the mean streets of America, even here in flyover country.

As I have been flying over and through and within flyover country on this day, while many Italians are packing up to go back to the cities, to work, back to even the harvest, let me take this time to signal some of those who spent their Italian vacations working, with the rest of us, in the missionary lands, striving to make the word safer, and more plentiful, for Italian wines.

Pio Boffa
Pio, does he really need to work in Texas in August? Do any of us? But for those of us who will never be called back to the motherland, we have one mission, to infiltrate the heathen countryside and convert it over to wine, Italian wine. And Pio was there with us this year. Even when I had my “bout” when I had to rush myself to the emergency doctor with my “heart attack”, Pio covered the wine dinner and made good. Pio is in his mid 50’s, has a successful worldwide import business, he is famous, his wines are famous. He is like Angelo Gaja. But Pio made a decision to come to America, to flyover country, to Texas, and work down in the nitty gritty of the market place in a room filled with people on a hot August night in the heat of the summer. Pio has true grit.

Daniele and Barbara Pozzi
Fourth generation winemaking family. Wealthy, societally landed. What did they decide to do in August? The decided to criss cross America and work the badlands in the service of their wines. Simple wines, Nero D’Avola, etc from Sicily. Nothing special you say? But here they were, in August, working sweating, building displays, in a time when it means a lit form those of us who are on the front lines. Here is the epicenter of the battle for wine and love of things Italian. And here is where Daniele and Barbara made the sacrifice to come, work, sweat, laugh and cry with us. Hero’s in my book, any day.

And where does that leave us, as Italians have packed up and gone back to their jobs, after a month of sun and swim and relaxation. I for one am looking in the rear view mirror of the summer just passed and looking forward to a holiday season in an uncertain time. But know this: the folks who emailed me with ideas and those who cancelled their trips because there were more important things on their agenda, they will suffer because they just don’t seem to have what it takes to make it in today’s world.

And like the old crooner in the corner likes to sing, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Really.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Problem of the South

Back around 1984 I was talking with an Italian wine importer, at Vinitaly. I worked for a small company that brought his wines into the Southwest. We sold a lot of Tocai and Verduzzo, Barolo, Barbaresco, Vermentino, Pigato, Chambave Rouge, Passito di Chambave, Elba Rosso, all the kinds of Chianti, Brunello, Morellino. The economy was very strong. And then something happened.

Just like that, poof, it was over. The oil market tanked. And then we went back to selling Pinot Grigio and oaky California Chardonnay and Merlot. And shiny little Shiraz from Australia.

Back to Vinitaly. We were talking, me and the importer, the Barone. He was pitching one of his Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo offerings, a nice one from the area of Controguerra. Not Illuminati. Another Barone’s estate. Nice guy. Barone #1 was trying to get me interested in Barone #2’s wine, and I had already been working with one of Barone #2’s neighbors. Illuminati. I told Barone #1 that I didn’t think I could do justice, in those times, to two Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo wines. Around that time, he said to me, “You Southerners all stick together.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he pulling the terrone card on me? I was born in Southern California from 1st generation Italians, Southern Italians, and was living in the South of the United States. “Which South”, I asked him.

“It doesn’t matter.” he replied. “It’s the problem of the South.”

I was offended. Hurt. I wear my feelings on my sleeve, at 22, 33 and 59. That’s one of the problems of being a consummate Southerner. Or is it?

This week, I was visiting a wine buyer in a steak house. He was charged with writing a wine list for one of their new restaurants, an Italian “concept” with a heavy red sauce and steak influence. He wanted to pepper the mostly American list with a smattering of Italian wines. Big wines. Brunello, Amarone, the usual suspects. The place was packed, on a weekday, at 1:30. There was no sales job to be done, these folks were successful and they weren’t going to leave the door open for me to muck it up with all my flowery talk about Valpolicella and Rosso Piceno. Nope, they were going to give the clientele what they wanted.

Two hours later, on the other side of town, I stood in front of a group of servers, talking to them about several Tuscan wines on their list. One of them I had never sold, but they thought I did. I knew the winemaker, so I offered it up to the Italian wine god. There was a favorite Chianti of mine from dear friends and a famous and popular Brunello from one of the category leaders. I waxed on about Sangiovese, the dark brooding type, a traditional, lighter style and an upstart, the Montalcino version. The chefs were presenting new kinds of pizza. They looked OK, not bad. Not sure one would ever find them in Italy. Sure one would, in Rome, one finds everything in Rome. That’s one of the problems of the South.

Where am I going with this? Where I have gone for years and years. In circles. The seminar I did was for a restaurant that was changing their concept; they were becoming an Italian Steak house. Once again, Italy is co-opted with steak in these parts. We just keep going around in this cycle of drilling for oil, finding oil, boom, steak, bust, economy goes sour, we go back to simple, to value, to local, maybe even natural. And then the economy starts to ratchet upward and folks get a hankering for steak. Now it is fashionable to call it a Tuscan Steak house. I get it. And put some Argentine Malbecs on the list too, while we’re at it, so the folks can have something full and rich and familiar. That’s one of the problems of the South.

Does it make you wonder then, why some wine producers in Italy adopt a California style because their main market is the United States? They’re not dumb. They know their markets. Not like me, trying to sell Tocai in San Antonio in 1987 or Morellino in Ft. Worth in 1986. Mr. Smarty-pants. Mr. Italian wine director. Mr. Fool.

I have tilted at windmills in these parts for so many years. People in these parts want giant steaks. They want big, juicy, fruity, oaky red wine pretending to be Italian. They want large scores from Parker and the Spectator. Those are my windmills masquerading as giants.

That, too, is the problem of the South.

The Barone was right.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Salesman, the Sommelier and the Supermodel

A vertical of Brunello and a slab of meat or a delicate glass of champagne and a beautiful woman – which would you choose?

It’s Monday, day after Ferragosto, I’m still in a suit and tie, end of the day, grand tasting at a wine conference, Texsom. The day after I have a 9:00 AM tasting with another journalist, 50+ wines and roughly two hours to get the job done. This day, I have arranged the wines, made sure they are the correct vintages, vineyards, temperature and lined up a room. Outside it is still blazing at 105°F. But at this moment there is a room filled with wines from all over the world and somewhere inside there is Champagne.

I make it around the room, only, at the last stop, to find the bubbles. If I had gone counter-clockwise I would have found it first, but I might have just stopped there. After a sip of the sparkling wine, I head back to taste wines, when I ran smack-dab into a wall of truffle oil.

“What was that chef thinking?” I ask myself. The pungent odor of truffle knocks out half my nose. The other half is running as fast and as far from the center of the room. Recalibrating. Recalibrating.

A friend hands me a bottle of a single vineyard Etna Rosso, nice. A Twitter buddy tells me on the other aside of the room there are some interesting Italian wines. Let’s go see.

In the corner I spot an importer sales-rep, one of those old-school guys who loves a tussle in the streets. Not a bad guy, good wines, a little overbearing. But I have my fly swatter if I need it.

A sommelier friend is there chatting me up with a story about how he has gotten his older mother to move from sweet wine to a drier style. Really a great story and probably a blog post in the future. What I love about the story is that this fellow deals with the best of the best and the wealthiest of the wealthy. He opens great wines on a regular basis. But he is so well grounded that he is still working on upgrading his mom to a better wine, albeit incrementally. That’s all the spoiler I will offer.

There we are, talking, the salesman and the sommelier and me, and as if she had just been beamed down, a tall, lanky, tanned, gorgeous woman appears. She is wearing a tunic and sandals. She has long wavy hair, and looks like something out of Greece, 6th century BC. I note in the corner of my eye as my two gents are chatting and think, “Where in time did she come from?” I really thought she was an apparition. And in August, with this heat, and sipping wine, it wouldn’t be totally out of the question.

A day later, hunkered over a table full of wines, the first wine I would open would be a sparkling rose of Nerello Mascalese. As I opened the cork, the wine would spew forth, frothy, but cool to the touch, blushing, ready. The Sicilian sparkler imitating life. Wines have funny ways to portray their territoriality. But that is in the future; now we have a room full of frantic salespeople, exhausted sommeliers and the lone supermodel, sipping wine.

“It’s my birthday today,” she notes. “What are you doing here?” one of us asks. (What do you mean asking her that, do we really want to stare at each other all night?). She offers up an explanation that she is working in town and someone had noticed her at the pool, alone, and invited her to the tasting.

A colleague calls me over to another table and I excuse myself, but the way she bends her head towards the glass and gives me a look, with just one of her eyes, beckons me to revisit at another point. I note it and hesitantly saunter off.

Fearing this was getting a little too Nabokov-esque, I move on with my business, but as I avoid the truffle table, I notice her sitting alone. I remember something my sister told me about pretty woman and how lonely they are because men are often afraid to approach them. I gather my courage to walk past the truffle table, grab a glass of sparkling wine and head back though the feculent fog.

I hand her a glass of the Champagne, wish her a happy birthday. She invites me to sit down. We talk.

It seems like minutes, but it was an hour or more. I notice the room is emptying; the overhead lights are dimming and brightening. It is time to go.

Further ahead, at a fancy feast, sommeliers are sipping on several vintages of elderly Brunello and carving chunks of meat to match.

I walk out of the room with the most beautiful woman in it and the words of Nabokov taunt me, ripping me from this vision and slinging me back into the still blazing night, leaving me with only these words:

"Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator. Don't stop to think, don't interrupt the scream, exhale, release life's rapture. Everything is blooming. Everything is flying. Everything is screaming, choking on its screams. Laughter. Running. Let-down hair. That is all there is to life. "

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Our Sangiovese: It Will Be Wonderful Brunello

Montalcino Report: Millenovecentosettanta

“Excuse me, do you know where I could find a vegetarian restaurant?” I asked the person in my pensione in Florence. You would have thought I was asking them where the nearest insane asylum was. That was Tuscany in the 1970’s. But eventually I came across a macrobiotic mensa run by Episcopalians, and was able to eat the diet I had chosen.

In those days, to choose to be a vegetarian was an oddity. Italy was coming out of the haze of a terrible war, the economy was still in shambles from a world recession and here was this American kid asking to pay money to eat food without meat.

But deep inside the country this wouldn’t be as difficult to discover as it was in the cities. In the country, one could make a meal of polenta, some wild greens tossed with oil and vinegar and some salt, maybe a piece of cheese thrown on the spit and in the fall some mushrooms, roasted. And the hearty, rustic wines of the time would also nourish, albeit in a serviceable and not very elegant manner. This was the reputation of wines from Italy, rustic and simple. And often undrinkable to the connoisseurs, the French wine lovers and the new Americans who were multiplying in their affluence. Tuscany was tired of being poor and downtrodden. And Tuscany, at the time, was the spearhead of the Italian wine movement towards more polish, focused, drinkable wines, mainly red.

In the months when we stayed in Tuscany, and Umbria, we would backpack from town to town, often staying in the country. One period, during harvest, as we passed by Siena on our way to a hilltop town, Montalcino, we saw old people, young people, whole villages, working in the vineyards, harvesting.

“What kind of wine is this, Chianti?” I would ask. “No, signore, Sangiovese.” Up in the village they would call it another name, Brunello, from Montalcino.

I was able to buy a quarter of a liter of the house red, and it often was the low of the low. But it would usually be refreshing, slightly prickly, not too dark, and it made me hungry when I drank it.

I had a name from a friend in Florence, who gave me an address if I should ever be in the little hillside town. “They make a wine there that has a great reputation in the area, but the people keep to themselves. We can barely understand their dialect. They are protective. Ever since the war they have burrowed into their hillside. The keep all the good wine for themselves.” I heard this often. It was as if the town was inside a protective layer, keeping progress and modernity, and more war from ever getting in.

I looked this friend of a friend up, went to his property and looked around. Chickens were running around, and several dogs were resting by the doorstop. I could hear people talking; one was singing a tune in a rhythmic manner. The melody was hypnotic. I knocked on the door, but no one answered, so I walked around to the barn. It was made of stone and held all manner of farm implements, machinery, a wine press, some ancient barrels, large. Further in the dark were concrete vats, not too large, home made looking objects.

Deeper into the structure I heard movement. It was October; the air in the early afternoon was starting to cool earlier. The sun was deeper down the horizon. I had a moment of worry that I was in the wrong place, that they might think me an interloper, or a trespasser, and punish me for my transgression. Those fears were never to be realized, thankfully.

What I did eventually encounter, was this friend of a friend, who was waist high in one of the large tanks, with grapes and juice and bees and flies and the hum of Bacchus setting the pace of the work. “Come in here, take off your clothes, get in and help me, please.” He pleaded friendly and not in a threatening way. Here I am not even knowing this person and he’s asking me to take off my clothes and get in a vat of sluice to help him.

“What is this?” I asked him. “What grapes are these? What wine is this becoming?” I asked him as I climbed in, my young, lean body climbing into the container to help him complete the work.

“This? It is our Sangiovese. The elders call it Brunello. It will be wonderful if we can get the work done.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Remembering Herman Leonard

Too marvelous for words

New Orleans, summertime, pre-Katrina, a crowded Italian restaurant, Maximo’s, and I’m sitting at the bar. The owner, Jason, is pouring Champagne, Krug, from magnums to a large table and topping off my glass and another fellow's whom he affectionately calls Herman. Just a couple of guys sitting at a bar, drinking Champagne, waiting for the night to develop. And in New Orleans, anything could happen. I notice Herman has a little point and shoot camera with him and we start talking about wine, jazz and shooting.

I immediately liked him, he reminded me of a gypsy-freelance photographer that I hung out with in the early 1970’s. But Herman had it together; he succeeded, he had that special vision.

That night, on a steamy New Orleans summer night, it was just the two of us, having a drink and talking about stuff. I knew his work, lived with it whenever I sat in the restaurant. They filled the place. Ella, Duke, Bird, Tony Bennett, Art Blakey, Miles, Dizzy, man I would stare at Lester Young’s hat and coke and cigarette and would swear that cigarette was still burning. Herman took a picture of Charlie Parker in the late 1940’s that was a technical masterpiece. Low light, hand held and detail to the micron. I would stare at Bird’s suit; it had a pattern that was mesmerizing. I loved, loved, loved his work.

Look, there are plenty of sites out there with information about Herman, much more comprehensive than mine. He was a friend of a friend, and we would share a glass of wine together from time to time, that was all. I used to stay at a hotel near his house before Katrina wrecked the neighborhood.

Reggie Nadelson wrote," When I got the news that he had died, I looked at his photographs on my wall and I recalled what Tony Bennett said when he heard Frank Sinatra was no longer with us: ‘I don’t have to believe that.’"

I loved how he took an art form, jazz, and made art from the folks who made the art. And he took us along with him on this historic journey of a uniquely American music form.

One night Herman was dining with Doc Cheatham when I walked into Maximo’s. Doc had a gig in New Orleans and was getting an early dinner (9 PM). Folks would come by and pay their respects to Doc, Herman was shooting, his young assistant by his side. Good times.

I’ve been lucky to know some great photographers in my life. I collect photography and shoot almost every day for the last 45 years, ever since I was a young kid. I have an old childhood bud in California who is a great collector, one of the top in the world, for photography. But my takeaway from Herman, and the treasured body of his life’s work, is that there’s seeing and there’s living. Herman saw, but Herman lived a wonderful American life.

Happy trails, Herman, thanks for sharing your passion, your work and your images with us on this pretty little planet we all call home.

The best is yet to come....

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

This is the moment we live for. Hotter than hot, slower than slow, this is the time when one goes out with a bag of Italian wine and tries to convert the souls over to our way.

My computer was down, I lost all my contact info and forgot an important 3:30 staff training at a hotel. The phone rang at 3:15. “Just calling to remind you of our training,” my hopeful saleslady cheerfully reported. “Holy crap,” I yelped and sprang from my desk, running out the building.

Adrenaline pumping in a car at registering 103°F, pre-rush hour, 12 miles away, man I was embarrassed. My little left toe tingling, the result of a too aggressive trim job with underpowered reading glasses. Huge pain from one of the smallest parts of the body. But pressing on, darting in and out of traffic, trying to get there without getting a ticket.

3:35, a text announces, “we’re in the lower dining room." I go to the upper banquet room, running into a group of white American businessmen and women registering for a convention. Finally someone calls my name, one of the angels in our company; she guides me down to the proper place, to a table of young men and women.

“I’m out here a thousand miles from my home,” the words from Dylan searing my skull. Three wines, a Vernaccia, A Gavi and a Fiano. 15 minutes to give birth to the beauty that these wines held, two of them forgotten on a wine list, locked in a cellar, waiting for the moment when that precious liquid, so arduously gathered by the hands of the farmers, would be released in a glass.

The Vernaccia, a 2008. Would a 2009 have been more welcome? But what about the older white wines? Have we treated wines like women, preferring only young and perky ones? Isn’t there a time to appreciate a mature wine, like we do a mature woman?

The Vernaccia. She was subtle, her aromas were delicate, a little sting of sweat, a pinch of tropical flower under the ear. A kiss of honey, a lick of butter and a bite of sharp fruit. Perfect wine to go with the perfect selling day, the hottest day of the year.

The next wine, a Gavi, a 2006. Someone had forgotten her charms, shelved her for a more seductive unoaked Chardonnay or a fashionable Pinot Gris from Oregon. No doubt. I was familiar with the 2006 and was a bit worried. But the first sensation showed that wine was healthy. She had been well kept.

This was a wine I had first had in the early 1990’s, sitting in the restaurant of a friend's aunt, on the Adriatic. She brought us a plate of linguine with small clams, simple, a little oil and parsley and salt. The wine matched well and a memory was made. Today, almost 20 years later, I recast the wine and the story, weaving a way to encourage the young servers to bring this pretty lady out of the cold and into the hearts of their customers. I want to go back to that restaurant and drink that wine up before she passes beyond an uncertain and muddled age.

The last wine, a Fiano. We didn’t sell it now, although we might have sold it when this wine, a 2001, was made available to the restaurant. And who knows, we might sell it in the future, having just been in a meeting the week before with the importer, who had gotten his foot jammed in the door and wasn’t going to pull it back before we gave him 10-20-30 minutes.

But the wine. The Fiano. 2001. The color was perfect for an older Fiano. Light. Great cellaring. The nine year old wine had wonderful development for a wine from a good vintage and a grape that can age. Lithe, tanned, taut and worldly, well traveled and evocative. Not the over-the-top voluptuous in-your-face type. A wine with an independent nature, a lover of history and the arts, a self-starter. Salty, sweet, bitter, tropical, long, grazing the tongue but leaving no marks. And in an instant she is gone.

And just like that, three wines, fifteen minutes, and it was all over. From the initial rush to get there in a hot car, to the final act, I found myself in a cold sweat and heading back to the office, now in rush hour, to make a meeting. I’m loving it, pain and all, this summer surge towards an uncertain holiday season. Bring it on. I am ready.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Bursting the Bubble

From the dog days of summer department

Photo by Teresa Rafidi

After a week of trauma and high drama I am resting and content to stay on my little isola, my island at home, with a pool and water, and wine, and tons and tons of crap. It seems after so many decades on earth, I have accumulated too much of everything. So today, along with my physical purge and cleanse, I am also purging and cleansing my world of useless, repetitive belongings. Not useless to someone else, I hope, but for my needs, enough is too much. Some of these thangs gotta go.

It seems we can never get enough of anything in America, including endless blogging about this wine or that wine. Enough already! Let’s go sell something.

I don’t have anything else for you. I ‘m taking the rest of the day off. Move along now, there’s nothing to see here….

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Here Today, Gone Tonnato

From a day in the "life" of a wine salesman fool department

5:40 AM – Wake up, look at the clock. Not 6:45 yet, but up. It's 88°F outside.

6:45 – Alarm goes off.

7:30 – Emails rolling in.

8:00 – Text from supplier, asking if we are going to meet them at first appointment.

8:30 - Call to my Aunt Jo, who is 94 today. phone is busy.

8:40 – Call to salesman- I will pick up the vendor and the winemaker at 9:30 and meet him at first appointment at 10:00 and then take them to the next stop.

9:00 – Stop for a coffee because am out at home.

9:20 – Sitting outside it’s already 93°F.

9:22 – Dump half the coffee – it’s too hot to drink anyway.

9:23 – Text from supplier, winemaker is going to be 15 minutes late.

9:24 – Take a picture of a storefront.

9:25 – Arrive at hotel and wait outside.

9:45 – Supplier meets me outside. Winemaker isn’t here yet. Talk. More talk, sitting outside hotel in the shade, where it’s only 89°F.

9:55 – Winemaker arrives. He hasn’t had coffee yet. We are 15-20 minutes from first appointment with 5 minutes to get there.

10:08 – Call from salesman. “Where are you?” he asks. “Two blocks away,” I lie.

10:12 – First appointment, introductions and tasting of eight wines from Piedmont, six of them red, five of them Nebbiolo.

10:40 – Meeting goes well. Next appointment 11:15 – we are 20 minutes away.

10:45 – Stop at another coffee shop for the supplier and the winemaker, who haven’t had their coffee yet.

10:50 – Call from another importer who tells me his best selling Pinot Grigio has new owners, but the old owners own the trademark to the name. Brainstorm over new name.

10:55 - Call to my Aunt Jo, who is 94 today. phone is busy.

11:00 – Importer calls me back. It seems they can use the name until the end of the year and still get the wine and then the owners will pull the plug. 20+ years of working a brand goes down the drain.

11:02 – On the road to next appointment.

11:16 – Call from another salesman, “Where are you?” he asks. “Two blocks away,” I lie.

11:18 – Meeting with next account. Friendly folks, a jolly buyer who loves soccer and a sommelier who loves to blog. It’s all good.

11:45 – Finish appointment – hand supplier and winemaker over to salesman. He has a farm truck that is 4 feet off the ground. I worry how my not so tall winemaker is going to get into the cab of the truck. It is now 95°F.

12:15 PM – Arrive halfway across town at a Caribbean place for a 12:30 lunch appointment with the top chef. 15 minutes early. I spill water all over me in the car and it looks like I wet myself. It is now 99°F, in the shade.

12:30 – Lunch with chef. I order the Cuban (sandwich) and water. No fries. Arroz moros instead.

1:30 – Back to office. I have a car full of wine, a wine dinner tonight with the winemaker, and work back at my desk. Redoing a list of Italian wines, following up on previous calls and projects, and “checking in” with my colleagues. The temperature is now 103°F.

1:45 - Call to my Aunt Jo, who is 94 today. phone is busy.

3:30 - Walk down to first floor to photograph our mixologist for a blog post. She hands me three drinks she has made for a Grand Marnier cocktail challenge and asks me to taste them, tell me what I think of them.

4:30 – Looked up and saw the afternoon disappeared. I grab a bottle of water from the fridge and down it. Look out the window. A package arrives at my cubicle space. Parts for a computer. I unpack and condense the packaging and set aside the recyclable parts for the bin at home (we don’t have a big enough one at work).

4:40 - Call to my Aunt Jo, who is 94 today. Finally picks up.

4:41 - Run out mail a package. The temperature is now 108°F.

5:15 – I have to gather the supplier at 5:30 for the wine diner which starts at 6:30 halfway across town. Down the staircase, with a briefcase, a camera and other packages I feel a sharp twitch on my left side near my chest. As it get down the stairs in the parking garage the pain is getting more intense. I cannot breathe in too well. I try to stay calm.

5:22 – Selt-belted in the car, Air conditioning blasting high, the temperature in the garage says it is now 105°F. My left side is in pain, but I don’t think (or hope) it is a heart thing. I try to put my earphone (for the phone) in but it keeps falling out. I almost back up into a pillar in the garage. My heart rate is steady. The pain is increasing. I am getting nervous.

5:30 – I call Kim, more afraid of her than anything I’ve got. She lost her last guy to a heart attack and I don’t want her to get pissed at me because I didn’t listen to the signs. As she is talking to me, my supplier and winemaker pile into the car. Rush hour traffic is murder; the temperature now says 107°F. I hang up with Kim, as I don’t want to worry my car mates.

5:40 – I explain to my car mates that I am going to get them to the wine dinner and if I don’t feel better when we get there I will need to go do something about it. The winemaker looks upset; the supplier gets on the phone and starts swearing in French.

5:50 – Another importer friend calls me about a meeting on Monday. I have an earphone that is stuck nine yards up my ear, a sharp searing pain in my chest, a supplier and a winemaker in my car heading onto a freeway at rush hour; with a deadline to be somewhere and motorcyclist commuters are swerving in and out of traffic. Oh boy.

6:15 – We get to the wine dinner destination and I drop off my companions. I get back into the car, take off my tie, and call Kim back. “Should I go to the ER or a Doc-in-the-Box?” she was heading out to yoga, but decided not to. “You go to the Doc-in-the-Box where we took Renee. If you are worse off, they will call the ER and expedite your entry into the hospital. Go now!”

6:28 – On the surface streets at rush hour with commuters who have been cooped up in office downtown all day and the temperature is holding at 108°F.

6:40 – I walk in the Doc-in-the-Box. The pain is really intense now, but I am not panicking. I cannot blow my nose, sneeze or breathe heavily. I need to blow my nose. I need to pee. I am really uncomfortable now. And the desk lady hands me a pile of paperwork and asks for my insurance card, drivers license and credit card.

6:50- Sitting in the waiting room. There is the end of a movie with Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson on. They are in a wine cellar and he is manhandling a bottle of 1923 Burgundy in a room that is lit up like the 4th of July. I wonder if I am going to meet Natasha before this day is done. Both she and the bottle over Burgundy are dead and the saying, “non c'รจ due senza tre” runs through my head.

7:10 – Paper work done, and then scooted into a little, dark, cold room that has Leave it to Beaver on. I touch every button on the screen. Last thing I want to do is die with that running through my head.

7:15 – Vitals checked. All good. On to chest x-ray. Back to little, dark, cold room. The TV is now dead. Good, that’s the “tre”.

7:30 – Doctor comes in. shows me the x-rays. Stomach is filled with large pockets of air. “What did you have for lunch?” he asks. “Just a Cuban and some rice and beans,” I answer. “Do you eat beans often?” he asks. “All the time.” Not lying.

7:40 – Doctor asks me to lay back. He presses my abdomen and when he helps me get up, there is no more pain. None.

7:45 – Before he discharges me, the Doctor, tells me “Don’t eat anything spicy or creamy, stay away from fried foods and alcohol. Drink some Sprite or Perrier. And don’t lift anything for a few days and please try to stay out of the heat.”

8:00 – I show up at wine dinner. I missed the Vitello Tonnato course. Everyone is surprised to see me except the owner’s brother. He is putting on a pair of plastic gloves, looking like he's playing Doctor and getting ready to give a digital rectal exam. “Where’ve you been?” he asks. I scurry past him after I say hello in a funny, Italo-idiomatic way.

10:00 PM – After the dinner the supplier wants to go to the hotel and sleep. The winemaker wants to drink some of the supplier’s champagne. I call up several people to ask where we could go. We are directed to a quirky French-ish wine bar near the hotel. I proceed to drink a little Champagne and take my friends back to their hotel room. Temperature says it’s 99 °F at 11:00 PM.

11:45 PM - Go home eat some crackers and goat cheese, and watch an episode or two of Weeds and go to sleep. Wake up every two or three hours though the night with the worst headache. But I could breathe. And my heart was beating strong and steady.

All in a day’s work, on the wine trail, in August, back in the US of A.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Tending the Volcano

The unbearable heat of summer makes for an unexpected adventure of remembrance

We were supposed to be flying over Etna, but for some reason I was lying in my pool, staring at the sun. The birds were having a feast on the figs, which were exploding in a sugargasm of sweet, exotic honey living goodness. My body was roasting, bronzing like the grapes on the vineyard surrounding the volcano I was supposed to be flying over. But it was alright, because in summer, the wine and fig gods look after me.
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