Sunday, June 03, 2012

Under the Tuscan Scum

Il Prezzo del Potere

“What do you think of Gaja’s Brunello?” a wine enthusiast sidled up behind me and asked. It’s the kind of question I have been getting more often. Folks who are getting into Italian wines or who have just come back from two weeks in Tuscany. You know the kind where they find a villa outside of San Gimignano and share it with two or three other couples and their scadload of kids. Private chef, day trips in and out of the compound (“Just make sure you get back before it gets dark”). Insulated from the scary Italy. Safe for the American kids. Under (but not among) the Tuscan Sun.

What do they want me to say? Of course I've had the wine, had it before Gaja bought it, back when I was poor but could still afford it.

Or this one, “Which is your favorite Super Tuscan, Sassicaia, Solaia or Masseto?” I usually get that from a younger type, tall, tanned, brimming with confidence. Trying to stump the old man, unleash a jolt so I can not only covet his youth but his wealth. Once I actually answered with the truth, referencing a dinner I had with a Hollywood mogul pal, thinking that would derail their hubris. Went over their heads. Failed to impress the elite of my town, my California roots showing again.

Which leads to a list of wine subjects I’d like to dispense with. I have curated this list at great expense of time and soul-searching. Now I'd like to leave it in the dust. The world of Italian wine is deep, but somehow we Americans always try to distill it down to the Casey Kasem Top-40. Or nine, in this case. We like it that way in the US of A.

1)  Brunello isn’t Napa Cabernet. No matter how hard my True-Blue Red-State American inquisitors want me to point them towards those wines, I cannot. If you want a Napa Cabernet, I will gladly recommend some. Why would you want to have a wine like that? For years Napa wanted to be like Italy, or France. Now Napa is fine with its image, comfortable in its repose as America’s premium Cabernet producing region. Drink those wines instead.Or Whisky.

2)  Name dropping Antinori and Gaja into a casual conversation with the Italian wine guy does not impress. It signals a commiserable stab at connecting to the expert and at the same time trying to put him in his place with all the rest of the Tuscan scum. When I mention the 1968 Sassicaia and how lovely it was and how it compared to the 1979, the 1982, the 1985 or the 1988, it pretty well much falls on deaf ears. Like the guy who wants a restaurant recommendation in Siena but really wants to tell me about his private driver and personal chef. It’s not about me. It’s about their personal (and private) connection with the power players of Italy.

3)  Barolo vs. Barbaresco. A few days ago a Piemontese winemaker was describing to me the story of the King and the Queen. After he finished his explanation I wondered for the life of me how or why anyone could prefer Barolo to Barbaresco. Barbaresco, in his elaboration, is supple, elegant, soft and feminine and cuddly. Barolo is less yielding, keeping to itself and taking years to come around. And then I realized some people like things that are hard to get. They don’t actually want to “get” them. Some of them want to tell people they love Barolo because it signals they have climbed the mountain, they have arrived at the top. Great news; that leaves the rest of us at base camp with wonderful quantities of Barbaresco to enjoy.

4)  “I just don’t get Chianti.” I’ve heard that so many times it’s starting to ache. Chianti isn’t for beginners. Sure the Tuscans and Walt Disney have done a great job of getting the wine out to the masses. And along the way every producer in the region has been dragged along that trot-line. When my young neighbor down the street went to Tuscany and I hooked him up with a family I have known for 25+ years, one of those small, hands-on affairs, he came back with a new religion. But to talk to a group and to propose a comprehensive evening of Chianti would surely make a monkey of me. Too bad, because there are so many wonderful folks who lavish their land and their wines with unending love and attention. There are those who wallow in the primordial slime of Sangiovese and we will continue to revere these wines and their people. But for those whom debasement is a pleasure sport, Chianti is little more than a wine recommendation in a line from a movie by a depraved cannibal.

5)  “Where’s your Cabernet?” In a store the other day a sharply dressed woman, tall and shapely. She asks me that question. She knows her fashion; the bespoke clothes that caressed her privately trained torso safeguarded her nescience. “Not in this store,” I answered firmly. “You’re in Italy, go Italian. You dress Italian, now it’s time to drink Italian.” She got it. I handed her a bottle of Montepulciano from Abruzzo. If she isn’t miserable with not getting her Cabernet, she might find herself a new lover. Who ever thought a Montepulciano would be the go-to wine for America’s cougars. When they’re not lusting after those younger, manly Barolos.

6)  “What kind of Prosecco is this?” Short answer: It's not. Again the success of a category has led to death by a thousand cuts. In this case, I’m recommending a Franciacorta or a Trento or any number of sparkling wines made in Italy besides Prosecco. One of my favorite answers is “Prosecco cannot be made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Franciacorta is. It’s more like what you are used to.” Hence, more like what you really deserve. Whether you deserve it or not. Win-win, as we are elevating the elevated into realms they are more worthy of. No slumming with the Charmat scum of the Veneto. No way.

7)  “How come Italy doesn’t have any Malbec or Shiraz?” My answer ranges from “How come you never noticed?” to “Why would you deprive Argentina and Australia of their time in the spotlight?” In fact Italy does make Malbec and Shiraz, from the tip to the toe. They also make Pinot Noir. My question back is “How come you’re not driving a Chevy?”

8)  “I don’t like dry white wines.” Good for you; nor do millions of other folks. That’s why there are sweet wines. Excuse me, I mean wines with body and flavor and the fresh pressed bounty of crushed ripe peaches. In a word, Moscato. Oops, did I say something wrong? The “M” word? Look, if you don’t like dry and you are wired for fruit (let’s call it sweet) that’s really OK these days. Tim Hanni says so. So get over yourself and indulge in a really nice handcrafted bottle of Moscato or Brachetto. Or save it for the rest of us who are not threatened by Lil’ Kim ‘n Wayne.

9) “I find Italians taste different in America than they did in Italy.” And when you made love to your wife in the cruise boat overlooking Vesuvius I reckon she could commiserate that some things are just better in Italy than in America. You are on vacation. You aren’t wearing a tie. Or socks. Your Blackberry coverage isn’t good in the Tyrrhenian Sea. You are paying attention. Things are brighter when you step away from your 4G 64GB iPad3. Real food, real wine and real experiences. It’s called life. Kinda cool, huh?

Look, Italy isn’t that difficult. You get on a plane, you step out of your hotel and go left or right. And something wonderful will happen. But it isn’t going to be what you think it should be. Americans want to program their vacations and their wines. Italy is not set up to disappoint. It’s not a less-is-more or a more-is-more kind of thing. It’s “we have what you are looking for and you don’t even know you’re looking for it” scenario. It has never let me down. It does require we put our preconceptions and our fears in the drawer with our passport and our dollars and step into the wonderful chaos we call Italy. Everything’s going to be OK; your gated community back home will be alright without you. Your Cabernets will survive.

Thought they might not mean as much to you when you get home, once you have spent a little time under (and among) the Tuscan scum.

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