Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Italian Wine List in America

From the "Knick-knack paddywhack" dept.

The setting: A hip Italian neighborhood restaurant, once upon a time in America.
The clientele: Well-traveled, well-heeled, conservative but adventurous with food.
The chef: Inspired, deft touch. Hails from the neighborhood; sensitive to the seasons and the spirit of Italy.
The wine buyer: Newish, youngish, enjoys big wines; is not from the neighborhood.
The challenge: fitting the sensibilities of the chef, the expectations of the clientele, the tastes of the wine buyer and trying to make it all work in harmony.

I am setting up this scenario, an amalgam of places I have noticed, from Park Slope, Brooklyn to San Francisco, California (and places in between) in order to try to understand how something like this can work best.

Let’s say this is not a classic Italian place, for which there might be other factors, such as a well established wine cellar, a clientele who are used to certain things and don’t want to see much change in them. After all there is a place for vitello tonnato and Gavi. Or pasta Bolognese with a hearty red wine.

But let’s say the chef is capturing all that is correct about La Cucina Italiana in that he/she understands food has a season, that simplicity is preferable and that there should be clearly focused flavors and a harmony on the plate. If one understands that, it is my belief, then a chef can make a dish that may not resemble the food we see coming out of a kitchen in Italy, but still encompasses the spirit of the Italian kitchen. I have seen it many times in America. Likewise I have seen kitchens in Italy, where the chef tried to elaborate a bit too far, stretch the ingredient list one (or two) too many for the plate he/she has trying to create. Yes I have seen disasters in Italian restaurants. But usually there was a wine to rescue the dish, or the evening from being a total loss.

But what if a chef in America passes all the tests and the wine list doesn’t harmonizes with his or her philosophy?

That is a trend I am seeing. Why? Well the easy answer is that we have a slew of young wine buyers who just do not have enough life experience. Chances are they have never (or seldom) been to Italy and experienced the magic of the Italian table, including the wine component. In Italy, wine is seamless in the event of dining. It isn’t a religious experience, but it is something, which without it, the meal would be incomplete.

If the wine buyer doesn’t have that frame of reference, he or she will have to turn to other points of inspiration: Wine reviews, high scoring wines, wines that are more recognizable, wines that fit a price point. Wines that resonate with the wine buyer.

But if the wine buyer was brought up on Jif ‘n jam, or beans and rice, or steak and potatoes, their palate might have been imprinted with a whole different set of expectations in the beverage department. And if growing up they drank Pepsi, or sweet tea, or Fanta Orange, then that could take a certain amount of deprogramming. I’m not saying those things are bad. But they aren’t part of the Italian experience and a wine buyer needs to separate their personal experience from what the goal of the restaurant is. Or get in sync with the mind of the chef, the philosophy of the food. And that takes letting go of ego, and having what they call in certain circles, a teachable spirit. And the education experience in America doesn’t quite exactly engender that attitude. Not to say there aren’t people who are ”naturals”. But I have seen enough disconnects lately that if I were an Italian winery, I might be having second thoughts about where I’d import my wines in America.

How does this manifest itself in the real world? First, I get a fair amount of input from salespeople that their clients (wine buyers) are looking for “Super Tuscans”. That’s like code for an “Italian Silver Oak.” I also get my share or queries looking for a list of “Big Barolos:, which translates out as “Brawny Italian Pinot Noirs”. Furthermore, I get a lot of people looking for “Amarones and Ripassos”, which is deciphered as “Give me something big to go with the Chesapeake Bay scallops the chef just brought in”. That really happened, you ask? You have to ask?

Maybe it’s because I like Italian whites so much that this really has come home to me as a problem. But I do like red wine too. I love Nebbiolo, just don’t think of it as “big”. High acid, yes. Tannic? When they don’t overuse oak, no, the tannins aren’t out of control, generally. And I love wines from Tuscany. I can think of nothing better than a beautiful little traditional Chianti, let’s say from Querciavalle or Selvapiana, to name just two, that age well, drink beautifully when they are young and are expressive enough to take on a bistecca fiorentina but wouldn’t fight a nice grilled fish from the nearby sea. There are wines available, I am just not sure they are the gateway wines the young wine buyers have first contract with. And that is a subject for another post in the future.

Is this a problem? Do any of you see this problem as I do? Do you have other views, points of reference, comments? Do you have some spots, which you know of, that are getting it right, knocking it out of the park? Please inspire us. I know there are many who'd love to hear your comments.

written and photographed (in Marfa and Big Bend, Texas) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy


Hal Rose said...

Where to many awesome varietals and regions that should be explored from Schioppettino to Nero d'Avola to Pecorino. You're dead on from what I see!

TWG said...

There is also the opposite problem where the cooking is too sweet.

Jenny Neill said...

Alfonso, I'm curious, these young sommeliers you hear about or meet... are they certified? By which organization? Who is teaching them?

I wonder if more experiential events with some of this "new blood to the business" might help. I've found the best way to convince people, be they diners or colleagues, that some of the lesser known reds and whites of Italy are not only drinkable but delicious and affordable is to insist that they be tried with food.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Hi Jenny

This isn’t a matter of certification. One cannot pass a test to become more sensitive to the world they are in. It is about experiencing “the magic of the Italian table, including the wine component.” As I said in the post, “a wine buyer needs to separate their personal experience from what the goal of the restaurant is. Or get in sync with the mind of the chef, the philosophy of the food.”

Experiential events would help, as long as the buyer has an open mind and heart and sees the value and allows the time in their schedule for these extracurricular educational activities.

Thanks for your comments

Jenny Neill said...

Hi, Alfonso,

Actually, I was hoping you could shed more light on how these young sommeliers that you reference are or are not being prepared to be wine buyers. This, it seems to me, is the real disconnect.

Your "young wine buyer persona" is little more than a very generic sketch. Perhaps even only a simple stereotype. Personas can be useful in finding innovative solutions to training and sales issues. But, I think it merits a bit deeper an understanding of the person to whom you intend to sell.

Thus, to me, what you say above raises multiple questions about how this Young Wine Buyer came to be the wine buyer if they are so out of sync with the chef and the "neighborhood" for which you cast a pretty wide net ("...Park Slope, Brooklyn to San Francisco, California (and places in between)...").

If they don't know the neighborhood or the clientele, how did the Young Wine Buyer get the gig? Is managing the wine program their only responsibility? Were they promoted from within? Were they trained on how to evaluate wine or a wine's appropriateness for a wine list at all?

And, when you say young, do you mean their age? "Young" to drinking wine? "Young" as a wine buyer? All of the above?

I ask these questions because you make the claim the "education experience in America doesn't engender ... maintaining a teachable spirit." Which education experience are you criticizing? General education or wine education?

These are the things I've been thinking about since reading this post. And, I'd welcome seeing your replies or additional thoughts about these questions.


Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Jenny

I have written about this many times on these posts. Send me your email so we can talk more

As always I appreciate your input!

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