Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lament for an Old Giant

from the archives - posted 7/2/09

It seems like everyday we get another headline announcing the passing of someone who was part of the larger American family. I have been thinking about this iconic Tuscan wine, one that grew up with America. And as America developed, so this wine also expanded in the marketplace and on tables across America. For many people this wine came to symbolize Italian wine. In restaurants, surely, in its day, the top tier had more swagger than Brunello.

My earliest memory is in the cellar of an old Italian restaurant, helping the leggy female sommelier open all the wood boxes. It would take 20 or more minutes, from the 750ml to the 1.5 Liter, the regular "Tan" and "Gold Standard" Riservas. We could have sold those boxes now, but in 1979 they were broken down and thrown out. A shame, because they used a kind of pine that dried to an almost hardwood density.

There was this little red wine, referred to as if it had become an amorphous reanimation of a magnificent Italian from the Renaissance. Today it would a simple Toscana IGT, but in those days, it was a find. Sangiovese, probably with a little Montepulciano or Primitivo ( legal for that time) that would come to the table for under $20 in a white tablecloth high-class place. The goal was to replace ice tea and Liebfraumilch on those white tablecloths with something Italian. Something that went with the food.

A few days ago I walked into an Italian restaurant’s wine cellar and saw chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet in abundance. I wonder if that would make Maurizio Zanella or Lamberto Frescobaldi happy now. Why am I asking this? These gentlemen don’t care what I think. And they are some of the few who come from the country of wine who know something of wine, while they swim all around millions of their countrymen and women who don’t know that they live on one of the grand magazzini of wine for the world. Still, I lament the loss of those simple and authentic wines as if they were friends, replacing a great Sangiovese with a blinged out merlot. As if having a few friends on Facebook makes up for not having a community of flesh and blood real-life ones.

From the little “magnificent one” Sangiovese this dynastic family would bring mountains of Chianti in fiasco to America. Go through any antique shop in Northern California or East Texas and one can find examples of those hand blown bottles with the straw lovingly wrapped around the base. This is what ignited the Americans imagination for Italian wine and food. Even cartoon movies like Lady and the Tramp romanticized the wine. As children we were being prepared for Italian wine by Walt Disney. I shudder to think of the other influences we have been implanted with by that genius.

This brings us to their top tier wines, the Riservas. They were color coded in those days, the labels. Today, the colors are muted but there is still an historical reference to them with word that now reference to royalty and a slight nod to the color of the highest one, their gold standard.

A pity, because all of these wines were the soldiers in the day. And the salespeople, ones older than me, who took them into the little mama and papa red tablecloth places, they were tilling new fields with these wines. Imagine a Chianti Classico Riserva having more cache than a Brunello? A generation ago, it was thus. And now we have the “influenza bordelaise” deep within the walls of Chianti, arriving by sea and landing years ago at La Maremma.

I am reminded of the beginning of the 34th Canto of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso:

Oh famelice, inique e fiere arpie
ch'all'accecata Italia e d'error piena,
per punir forse antique colpe rie,
in ogni mensa alto giudicio mena!
Innocenti fanciulli e madri pie
cascan di fame, e veggon ch'una cena
di questi mostri rei tutto divora
ciò che del viver lor sostegno fôra.

O fierce and hungry harpies, that on blind
And erring Italy so full have fed!
Whom, for the scourge of ancient sins designed,
Haply just Heaven to every board has sped.
Innocent children, pious mothers, pined
With hunger, die, and see their daily bread,
—The orphan’s and the widow’s scanty food—
Feed for a single feast that filthy brood.

So, to my old friend who walked in battle with us in the heat of the Texas sun, and in the darkness of the white tablecloth restaurants, happy trails to you. You are older and many people have passed you by. And while none of us will escape the loss of our peak moment, I tip my ragged tweed coppola in your direction, as you were one of the giants whose shoulders we stood upon in order to see an uncertain future filled with hope.

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