Sunday, March 01, 2015

Comfort me with Nebbiolo

The waking world is fraught with disappointment, large and small. From the land mine of the news cycle to something as simple as overexposure to tannins. And so it was, last week, bundled up in my warm little cabin on the side of a hill in California wine country, that I eagerly awaited a night away from the fears and the pains of everyday life.

A winemaker friend in Napa Valley, who considers Nebbiolo to be his true love, invited a group of winemakers, writers and industry pros for a “boys night out.” I had been anticipating this night for months.

Curiosities from the forgotten box
In preparation I found a special bottle from the 1971 vintage, in California, bought it and had it waiting for me when I got off the plane. Along with that, just for fun, I scavenged the forgotten box in my wine closet, where I had been keeping for a very long time some examples of Nebbiolo from the West Coast. But that was a sideline, not the main event.

The intent, as I saw it, was to look into the heart of Nebbiolo, going long and deep. All week I had been in the Napa Valley, surrounded by Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a lone Petite Sirah. I was ready to recalibrate. Napa Valley wine is a lifestyle, and a wonderful one. Driving down the Silverado Trail, I occasionally get homesick for California and wish I could live there. I know it appears glitzy and glamorous, a 1%er kind of place. But turn up Old Howell Mountain Road from Silverado and there you are in an old grove of tall trees, singing a different song. The California I once knew, though hidden, still reveals to those who look for it. That is one of my many afflictions.

But this night California was a warm kitchen with homemade pasta, a spread of lovingly cured salumi, a bottle of bubbly and a table full of Nebbiolo.

There are friends in this room, some I have known for ages. There are folks whose names I don’t remember now, but hope to see again. There are old ones and young ones. And of course there is the pulse of humanity, young bipeds walking around the table like it’s a game of musical chairs, each one picking up a bottle of the precious liquid before the music goes out.

I brought the 1971 Barisone, which a month ago a sommelier friend from Austin, now in New York, poured me an ounce with a Coravin. A month ago the ’71 was slipping into Marsala-land. Trepidation filled the bilge of my mind. But I was hopeful.

Nebbiolo can age, but there is always the question if it was really better back then. How well was the vineyard farmed? What kind of yeast was in play, the ambient or some newly created one from the enology schools? Were the barrels in good shape? Had barrique made its appearance in the Langhe yet? What kind of vintage was it? How well was the wine stored? I look over these phrases and realize it’s like a human who takes inventory of their life’s actions in regards to health. Did I smoke? Did I exercise? Did my parents love me? Did I eat too much meat?

As I tasted through the 20+ wines on that table, there were those that were bright one minute and dull the next. There were some that came out like a baby, screaming and punching, but eventually tiring of crying and settling down, a little. There were examples of wines that had more fruit than acid, and ones that were leathery and tawny. No one defining expression of Nebbiolo, save for the fact that they were from the same family. Yes, that’s what it was, a family reunion, with uncles, aunts, babies, grandparents, mothers, brothers, cousins.

The ’65 – an odd vintage. I don’t ever recall having anything from that vintage, from anywhere in the world. I would have written it off, but I kept going back to it, like my Uncle Pete, who had the most unusual stories. He was old, his brother downplayed his importance. But he had tales to tell that the others didn’t.

The two main factions of the family, Barolo and Barbaresco, their members stood in great numbers.

The Barbaresco side – from 1974 to 2010, those who chose to come to this reunion were all still alive. The 1980, as I remember, was disappointing to many winemakers in the Langhe. One I know of committed suicide after it. One can hope that the poor soul had deeper concerns than one vintage, but a friend close to him told me that the 1980 harvest didn’t ameliorate his depression. The Barbaresco we had was strong and pleasantly healthy. Like the 1965, a vintage we don’t necessarily look to for the classics. But like humans, what they make of what they have to work with, sometimes a greater result than from those expected to be great.

The Produttori clan showed strong and well. What a great testimony to a group of growers blessed to be living and farming on those hills. I have long loved these wines, and frankly, they have compelled me to curb my impetuousness in my daily life actions from time to time. If I had only one winery that I could put in my wine closet, it would be these wines. I am serious about that.

Other family members? The Cappellano, by virtue of it being the oldest member, still standing, at the table, was a lovely visit back to the summer of 1958. I’ve been told this was a classic year for Langhe producers and this wine, even as God knows how many times this wine was sold, traded, and moved around the world, still had lovely elegance that a wine that starts out strong and healthy can retain even into the twilight of its years.

Spanna and Sizzano came to the party, older, wiser, a little tired, but softly they whispered their stories. I heard them; they are prized members of the family. I still love them, even if there are louder, bolder voices at the table. They have a revered place in my heart.

And what of the youngsters? The millennials at the table, let’s say from the 21st century?

One of our tribe of bipeds brought a magnum of the 2005 Brovia. I imagine if we had been around a few days later, that wine might have been ready. But as it was, we drank the wine too young. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable. Indeed, I will be drinking more wine like this in my future for the simple fact that they exist and I don’t have time to wait around and try them in 40 years. I still remember the backbone, the plunk this wine made on the strings of my heart. I will revisit this wine, hopefully, more times in the next ten years.

There were many more members at the table, but not enough time to take their profiles down in this short space. I must talk about the humans as well.

As we bipeds were circling the room, kissing and hugging our uncles and aunts on the table, I stepped back and took it all in. I remembered the time I drove up the Napa Valley in the summer of 1976, in my ’62 Falcon wagon with my budding family. My first real time in wine country as someone in the trade. I flashed to my trips to Italy, more than I can count at this time, and to places like Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and Texas, where I settled for the second half of my life. Texas, where I spent so many years devoting myself to Bacchus and the wine from Italy. Where I’ve cried so many tears because some wine director didn’t “get” Italian wine like I “got” it. All the disappointment that a lifetime of being a missionary in an often hostile and disappointing landscape can offer. The scars on the heart, not to mention the knees, the back, the hairline. In one brief moment, though, as I looked upon these young winemakers and wine professionals, talking in low voices, virtually quivering as they stood before these foreign objects that had traveled so far, I had an epiphany. I remember telling the group, “This really fills my heart, after all the years of struggling to bring Italian wine to America and tell the story, to see people in my home state who get it, who love it, and who, I know, after I am gone, will carry the love for wines like these into the future. I can die a happy man now and thank you all for that.”

My family, my tribe, they took me in, they fed me and they brought me in from the cold. And they comforted me with Nebbiolo.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

with much thanks to Dan Petroski and his pals for a great night
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

3 comments: said...

Your love of Italian wines and the passion you have out into them over all these years is evident in this beautiful piece. I think you have left your mark on the wine world.

Samantha Dugan said...

Dude, you made me cry....again. I so understand your vision kid and I'm positive there are "The nexts" that will think of you as they stand around a table like the one you shared here.
Loved this Alfonso.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, sis....

Thanks, Sam....

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