Sunday, October 20, 2013

Everything I know about America I learned from Sergio Leone

Some of the characters I encounter, ones who want to sell their wine to America, have some of the darndest ideas about this market. I get all kind of inquiries, probably enough to write a book about, or at the very least a textbook. But the one that intrigued me was when I met with a winemaker from Italy who thought America was more or less like the way it was portrayed in films like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “For a Fistful of Dollars.” Fascinated by this history-cultural slant and feeling like this deserved further elaboration, I have taken said interpretation to the edge and imagined what our world might have been if Italian wine had come west with the great expansion in the 1800’s.

1) Every man starts drinking before noon.
In a world where there are five saloons in a town of 200 people and they are open right after breakfast, it would seem that America would be the perfect place to sell wine. After all, wine is alcohol too. And Italian wine goes so much better with food; it would be easier for the cowboys to have it with their breakfast. Imagine steak and eggs with a nice, big bottle of Brunello at eight o’clock in the morning. Brunello wouldn’t get in the way of the coffee or the bacon, the runny eggs or the burnt toast.

2) Every woman wants to sell their man another shot of whiskey before they take them upstairs to complete their business.
From the Spaghetti Western School of restaurant service and prostitution, this is an easy leap to make. Whisky is so rough on the system. Something like a nice high-acid wine like Soave or a Sicilian Insolia. These are high production wines, so the cost wouldn’t be prohibitive. In fact, the wines could be shipped in bladders and distributed in barrels or tanks for further savings. An added bonus would be, when the bad guys try to burn down the saloon (or the city) by shooting up the place or pouring bottles of whiskey on tables and striking a match on the side of their Levis, it would be infinitely more difficult to burn the place down if the bottles were filled with white wine than whiskey. And the ladies of the night could also safely imbibe in the lower alcohol wine and not risk staining their pretty harlot costumes.

3) The problem of turning the indigenous people into a subculture of alcohol addled ne'er-do-wells would be eliminated.
One of the great tragedies of the Great Move Westward was the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans coupled with the survivor population's dependency on fire water. If wine were the alcohol of choice, a Lakota Sioux might have had an opportunity to have a buffalo steak with a nice bottle of Amarone, thereby cementing a relationship with his local foods and applicable wines. Instead of the plague of alcoholism that infects places like Gallup, New Mexico or Wounded Knee, South Dakota, they might have been culinary centers in the future.

4) The Re-imagined Sheriff
All throughout the history of the taming of the American West, the sheriff has been a sober reminder that law and order must go hand in hand with expansion. In many of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, the sheriff was little more than a pawn for wealthy uber-lords who held the purse strings and the power cords. Imagine a west with a sheriff that had a stock of Barolo and Barbaresco in his compound. Spending many a lonely night babysitting the town trouble maker could be assuaged with Nebbiolo. And if citizen were spending a night in the drunk-tank, how much more pleasant would it be for all if he too had been brought in not because of drinking too much hooch, but because he tipped the last of the Frascati into his shot glass and forgot to have it with the special pork chops of the night.

5) The gunfight at the OK corral
What if before the night of the big drawdown, the two sworn enemies sat down to a magnum of Montefalco with venison steaks? Starting with a lively apertivo of Freisa with an accompaniment of Rocky Mountain Oysters? Finishing with a rich plum pudding and a ration of Recioto? Would high noon seem that important the next day or would they be planning what they would have for lunch? Maybe an antelope burger and some nice Monferrato Barbera?

And while the world that Sergio Leone dreamt up was raucous and bawdy and romantic and inevitably unrealistic, just what if Italian wine had played a part in Manifest Destiny? How different would that have been? And what a transformed place we might have had waiting for us when we made our debut on the stage of this crazy world?

Images from the films of Sergio Leone
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