Sunday, August 11, 2013

Breaking the Code of Silence on Italian Wine

Echoes from the archives  - posted 1/10/13

From the “Om mani padme om-erta” dept.

The single most asked question I get, on a regular basis, is still “How do I figure out Italian wines?” I have to deal with it in work, on this blog, in educational situations, in sales, and in almost any situation I get into when the subject of Italian wines is brought up among normal people. I say normal, because in the wine geek world, those folks are more interested in how many DOCG’s there are or the difference between Cannubi and Bussia. But that’s rarified air for folks who are just trying to unlock the key to understanding Italian wine for their purposes, those being immediate drinking pleasure. So this isn’t an academic exercise, although many folks in that arena struggle with this as well. Maybe that’s why the book, Italian Wine for Dummies, is the one many of us recommend to folks who are trying to simply sort it out.

But there has to be an even simpler answer. Not everyone is going to read a book. Too bad we can’t go the route that Mimmo Siclari chose, selling cassettes of Calabrian crime songs from the rear of his car. And as risky as that was, and it was, much more of a risk than I am attempting, the stakes are even higher with regards to cracking the code on Italian wine.

What catalyzed it for me this week were two phone calls from colleagues. One, a manager of a fine wine department deep in flyover country. We were setting up times for me to come into her state and do some ambassadorial work with her sales staff and their clients. But rather than the usual song and dance, Italian Wine 101, she presented another angle. “Look, we get that often, either internally or via our network of importers. We don’t need to know the difference one more time, between Barolo and Barbera. We need to know, working with our markets and their limitations, how to go about presenting Barbera as a three case stack in a retail store or by the glass in a restaurant and how the client will understand the wine in his or her world. Inotherwords, what are these wines like that correspond to something in their realm of experience so that they can identify with all these wines and engage in selling them to the consumers and diners in place of or in addition to let’s say Pinot Noir or Cabernet?”

Fair question. Not the easiest of answers. In fact, looking back, a question that I have been dwelling on for years and years and years. As Ron Washam says of me, “on and on and on and on.”

Good news, there is no culture of omerta in trying to get straight answers about Italian wine. There just are no straight answers. Period. But that’s not all bad news. Humor me, let me elaborate.

First, none of this is easy, even for those of us that it looks easy. I didn’t understand the difference between Barolo and Barbaresco at first blush. I’m not even sure that I understand any better now than when I first was made mindful of the two wines. Oh yeah, we all hear about feminine and masculine and all kinds of crap, but those are crutches, preventing any and all of us from really getting to the essence. And for me, getting to the understanding of Italian wines, breaking the code of silence, is more about the bent answer than the straight one.

Huh? “What did they put in his Soave,” you are asking yourself?

It’s really very simple. In the words of Lao Tzu, “An over sharpened sword cannot last long.”

“Bent vs. straight, over sharpened vs. who-knows-what, is this guy pulling our leg,” you might be thinking?

I might be thinking about nothing. In fact, that exactly is what I am doing, because there is too much with Italian wines, too many grapes, too many wines, too much wine, too many choices, too much information and way too much psycho-babble about it.

Look, in my day job, I’m going to have to figure out a Western-rational-left brain way to help my colleagues and their clients. But in my very own reckoning with Italian wine there’s another path. And that is the thought I’d really love to be able to figure out how to teach. Maybe I will. In the meantime, I just take it one step at a time, journey of a thousand miles kind of deal (Lao Tzu again).

So what if I don’t remember the difference between Matelica and Castelli di Jesi? Or the attributes that make a Chianti Rufina what it is compared to a Montespertoli? Will it matter really if when I am trying to remember how Kerner came about that I remember it was the result of crossing Riesling with Trollinger? Maybe I remember it was not Trollinger but Schiava? Or Zottelwälscher? All the years I have been around when someone recalled the story, not one time did anyone remark that the person who developed the wine named it Kerner after the poet Justinius Kerner. There is the bend in the road that I am interested in. And more people I come across relate to that state of being.

600 or so words ago I said there were two phone calls. The other one was from a lady I have known for a long time. She works as the assistant to a CEO of a company. She called me because the CEO had a friend who was looking for an exact wine from Tuscany and wanted to know if I could help them.

The wine in question was from Tuscany but followed the bordelaise style; that is, with Merlot and Cabernet injections into the cepage. I told her I really wasn’t sure they could find the exact wine but I could help them find a wine that would be similar. Two things could happen.

They could call back and ask me what my suggestion would be. And I could bring them to a level of enjoyment that they experienced with the wine they are looking for if they could not find it. Or…

They would opt for not taking a substitute. They might opt to want to recreate exactly the wine experience they had when they first had it in Italy. Ah, that is a fine trick indeed.

They will or will not be disappointed, depending on their flexibility of interpretation. They won’t be on vacation and in Italy, so the wine will be a little different because they are different. But they might choose to accept the difference because their hearts are set on recreating an experience, exactly. Where they wouldn’t be flexible in taking a substitute, they will opt to go to the ends of the earth to get the same exact wine. But it will never be the same again. The fact that we are speeding through space at some unbelievable speed and the cosmic dust and our cells and just everything is always changing, well do you get what I am getting at? Simply that Italian wine, like everything in existence, is constantly changing, so much that you cannot pin it down. The code cannot be cracked, in silence or with a big bang. It is the stuff of life in a carbon based universe. Nothing is ever the same. Hence, why try and pin it all down? Maybe for fun, maybe to indulge oneself in a little harmless delusional thinking, if that seems to be fun. But I have found out this great little secret which I have taken almost 1300 words to share with those of you who are still with me. Italian wines are. They simply are. Now. Here. Unpinnable. But some of the most gratifying stuff of life. Why go long or deep? Save your energy for the elusive fleeting nature of wine.

Or in the words of Lao Tzu “It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to carry it when it is full.”

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Anonymous said...

Humans are the luckiest mammals on Earth, we get to experience, learn and gain knowledge, the best way to learn about anything is to immerse yourself into the topic. I am so over these overwhelmed people who don't exercise their basic right as a human - gaining knowledge. Italian wine can seem foreign at first but it's based on location, go there, walk and live the area and it all will unfold for you, my god, Marco Polo figured out a thousand years ago and without a iPhone or iPad and public transportation.

Tony Laveglia said...

Alfonso, I have always tried to "simplify the complexity"of Italian wine. Commercially speaking, as you know I would, it has helped me demystify the category to those people both of us know- the earnestly interested folks who find the whole "Italy" thing so cool yet are so quick to add that " I don't know a lot about wine so can you answer this..." Ironically, I am probably guilty of marginalizing that process of constant change you write about, but it works for selling.

Tony L

Travel and Taste said...

I teach a class called Wines of Italy. It is a 16 week class and though my students do learn the basics of Italian wine they leave feeling even more overwhelmed than when they started, but they do leave feeling more connected to the culture than their Italian Literature or Italian film classes. Though I have to make the class academic, I just tell them to drink and taste, that is the only real way to learn wine.

Matt said...

Great post Alfonso
Precisely the reason why I love Italian wine, the sheer size and complexity of it makes you always a student.
Now pass me a glass of that more 'masculine' Barolo-styled Barbaresco ;)


Aline Conus said...

It's hard to simplify such a deep subject but any action to broaden the horizon of novice wine enthusist is always a good thing.

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