Thursday, November 17, 2011

No Dignity in Dying

We’ve all read it many times over. The obit said “Shirley died after a courageous battle with ovarian cancer.” Of course, Shirley isn’t anywhere to dispute whether she waged a battle or if it was even courageous. Having written an obituary once upon a time, I know folks stumble together a jumble of words; they’re in pain and shock and are just looking for a little way to assuage the ache. So they make mention of the deceased person's bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. But in reality, none of us are getting out of this alive, no matter how much valor and grit we gather up. We are born to live and then to go away.

I’m in a pensive mood tonight. Live with it. I’ve been doing some looking back. Over decades of joyfully carrying a wine bag into accounts, year after year, many times with wine I now am no longer associated with. But wines that still dot the various wine lists in the regions I have worked in. Not that the influence is due to my influence, if at all. In reality, the longer you are at this game, the more insignificant you come to realize you are.

I exchanged texts tonight with a young sommelier who consulted on a list for a restaurant that was recently reviewed. And while the restaurant was praised, the wine list was dinged, mainly for just being too expensive. When I looked at it for the first time tonight, I saw some selections that were under $60, but the majority of the wines were at the $100 threshold. What came as a shock to me was the Italian section – 85% of the reds were priced over $70. Sure, most were big reds from Piedmont and Tuscany. But these are not the wines we drink on a regular basis in Italy. Nor are they the wines I drink at home regularly. So where is the disconnect?

For me, the incongruity is in how Italian wines are perceived in America - as something special, as something rare, as something to consider in a moment of indulgence. Dining has become this elaborate lap dance affair. Size matters. Public display. Heavy breathing. Lots of $100 bills being thrown around.

$100. Really? Is that a winning strategy? Or is it another one of those “wine list as wardrobe malfunction” notions?

So where am I going? Let’s just say that’s not where I and many of us are going these days. Like I told him, “It’s a bitch to be misunderstood.” This I know from years of being disregarded; first by my elders and now by the younguns. So the young sommelier needs to learn the lessons the hard way. They won’t learn from my experience. Some of them don’t want to; they need to “discover” wines that go “where no man has gone before”. Pity many of these fellows haven’t had to carry around a bag of wine, up the stairs of the subway, across a West Texas pavement so hot you would burn your feet if they were bare. Through all climes and times. Yeah, 10 miles in the blinding snow. That can give one perspective on the real world we live and work in. But now it’s all become one giant Orange County Chopper-fest, some of these wine lists; and Italy is an accessory with Super Tuscan, Brunello and Barberesco(sic) options. Screw the courageous combat crap; my mentors would be rattling in their graves about now. Zombified. Night of the living dead.

Talk about a battle; all the years giants like Al Moulin and Tony LaBarba, to name just two, went to bat in really tough times (like say, 1972) for Italian wines (and French, German, Californian and more) only to have had their life’s work mutate into a collection of cult wines the likes of which many folks have never heard of, including many of those in the wine business. And many of us wine geeks at that. There was once probably a reason to go where no man had gone before. There weren’t that many wines to choose from. But now that’s all a thing of the past. We have an orgy of choices, with all the residual confusion that goes with it. Often it weighs in on the backs of the diner (taking a chunk out of their wallets in the process).

As for those who got us here? The Moseses? Their “courageous battles” laid the foundation for future generations to re-invent the wine list. Sometimes, often these new lists are an improvement. But often, they lack historical reference, that continuity with the procession of the wine trade. A backhand slap to the men and women who got it to this point? “We’ll take it from here, old man, we know what we’re doing” kind of thing.

All this to say, even after a generation of chopping in the woodshed, digging into the foxholes of the wine trade and trying to make the world a better place for Italian wine lovers, friendly fire from the newly enlisted can be as lethal as inertia. And there is just no dignity in that kind of dying.

Shirley, you must know what I mean.

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