Thursday, January 30, 2014

Oh, The People You’ll Meet! (At a Winemaker Dinner)

By my purely unscientific reckoning I’ve participated in over 400 “winemaker” dinners over time. For the most part these have been pleasurable social events. If I was lucky we actually saw information and inspiration imparted and folks went home knowing more about wine. They even might have gone home with some of the wine. In the best of times some of them have even been heraldic moments, in that folks not only have a good time and learned something, bonds were created, some of those bonds lasting for years. Along the way I have come to recognize certain archetypal players that one encounters at many of these dinners. Here are a few of the stand-out characters.

The Wine Geek – He (usually) is the one who knows every great vintage of Barolo from the 20th century. He knows the difference between Brunate and Bussia. He takes pictures of everything to put on Delectable to share within his sphere of influence. He can be a friend or a foe, depending on if he asks a question for which he is the only one in the room who has the answer. If he refrains from that behavior, he can be an ally, one with which to utilize when emphasizing something important about Greve or Etna. It’s better that he sits at another table, so that the folks at the table don’t get bored with our enthusiastic banter. The wine geek is an energetic lover of small details and his (or her, in rare cases) insights and factoids can augment an important point needing to be made during the night, such as “Yes, Italian wines are just as good as French wines.” If I had a nickel for every time someone came up to me and told me Italian wines (at an Italian wine dinner) were not as good as French wines, I’d be set for life.

The Wine Snob – They come in all sizes and from all strata of society. They could be the young doctor from an emerging third world country who is trying desperately to assimilate in his newly adopted country. Or an old money type from a provincial town in Oklahoma or Texas who has nothing really to do but fill his larder with Clos de Tart and Chateau D’Yquem. If said person had a life outside of his entitled position and saw the great mass of humanity below him as brothers and sisters in kind, there might be a touch of simpatico to his demeanor. But that is rare. Usually these types come to a wine dinner to let you know the 2008 Barolo Cannubi is nowhere near and never will be as great as the 1947 he had while spending the summer at Villa D’Este. This type doesn’t have the depth of understanding that the wine geek has, but he something more powerful in his arsenal – a general disdain for anyone below the station in life that he commands from his lofty (and cool) perch in society. Global warming will never touch him.

The Lonely Housewife – She can often be married to the wine geek or the wine snob, or any other number of males who present their colors at these events. Often, she would rather have a glass of Chardonnay (“And keep them coming”) as she would rather be anywhere else but there save for one reason. She is on the prowl. She is looking for some attention. In both large urban areas and the remote countryside, somehow life has passed her by and although she lives a life with almost all of her material needs covered, she is hungry. For love. Alcohol magnifies that hunger. She is enthralled with the foreign, with the man with the Italian accent; the slightest attention paid to her will get a slip of paper with her phone number (or her hotel room, if she is flying solo that night). She is desperately trying to insert herself into the courses of the wine dinner as the real dessert. She will never remember the wines she had in the morning.

The “Collector” – Not always a man of means, the collector might be a teacher or an unpartnered lawyer. But he strives. He could make it big in neurosurgical circles, which means he will have to buy a bigger house with a proper wine cellar. But if he is successful in that arena, there will never be a big enough cellar for his collecting habit. If one points out to said person that they have collected more wines than they have remaining days of their life, even if they drink two bottles a day, religiously, they scoff it off as someone who doesn’t believe in immortality. Wine collections are much easier path to live forever than hooking up with a vampire, they secretly assume. The auction houses love these people; they draw their energy from the geologist in Midland, Texas who happened to own 500 acres above the largest oil deposit in the Permian Basin. And they will suck the wine out of the cellars quicker than Bram Stokers creation.

The “Italianist” – this is someone who has learned to speak Italian perfectly and who comes to these events in order to show their supremacy in all things pertaining to words. They will take the Italian winemaker aside and have a private conversation about Gramsci or Pirandello. They might even break out into an operatic aria, as music will only heighten and showcase their love for the Italian language. Unfortunately they usually cannot hold their liquor and often break out into a polemic about some terrible government somewhere, either in Italy or America. At which time all hell breaks loose, because one must take side in these matters. Opinions matter. And like they say “everyone has one of them.”

The Traveler(s) – usually a couple, retired, and coming to an Italian wine dinner is like going to Venice for the weekend. They love to talk about where they’ve been, who they’ve met. Usually these folks are harmless if a little bit tedious. After a while though, one can only talk about Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence so much. I usually counsel them to visit Torino, Palermo, Matera, maybe even Naples. After all it’s on the way to the glorious Amalfi Coast, which they can never seem to avoid.

The Paintballer – You know the type. They were the ones who were picked on because they were short. Or wiry. Or different. And this character has settled on finding that time and that spot in which they can launch a “gotcha” at the speaker. Never mind they don’t really know their subject. They settle on a simple factoid and they load it into their paintball gun and wait for the right time in which to inflict the most wreckage. I love the guy who has been to “Tig” and wants to tell you all about it. He has the facts down, the land, the story memorized from the tour. What he seldom figures into those kinds of scenarios is if the speaker has ever been there. Maybe they are a friend. Or a relative. Maybe one of us did an internship there for a whole summer. Or maybe they are our neighbors. No, all this fellow wants to do is show that he can hit you when you aren’t looking. They usually come up from behind. Silently. Stealth mode. But their heavy breathing gives away their position, they are so desirous of popping their question. I pity the person who does get hit with it, when we dodge or go into our own stealth mode. It can get pretty messy.

The Wine Lover – these are the people we do this for. They aren’t looking to tell you where they’ve been, what they’ve done, who they’ve done. They just want to learn a little more about a place they dearly love. They are well read, they are listeners. They like to travel and they want to know about places where they can visit outside of the cities. They are not afraid to hike up the slopes of Mt. Etna. They really seem to be there not for self-centered reasons. Some of these people have become good friends over the years.

Wine dinners can be a mixed bag. Never, ever, talk about religion, politics or breastfeeding. Stick to the hills of Tuscany, the tradition of the family, the wonderful tortellini found in Bologna, and you will never go wrong. I have met some wonderful folks and I have encountered some real characters. They fill up my wine cellar full of memories and I wouldn’t omit one of them from my canon of recollections. People are getting more well-read, they are better traveled. A real appreciation for Italian wine has grown in America this past generation. Things are getting much, much better. Which is good, because in the wine business and regarding wine dinners, the show must go on.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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