Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sacrificing the Basics for Babel

This weekend I listened to a panel of chefs from Texas who brought national attention to Southwest cuisine. They were Robert Del Grande, Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles, and we were at the Buffalo Gap Wine and Food Summit at Perini Ranch in West Texas.

Robert Del Grande, who hails from Houston, said something that caught my ear. He said, “In the beginning, we were looking for ingredients that you couldn’t find in the supermarket.” Things like red bell peppers, chayote squash, heck, even cilantro, they couldn’t be found in the large stores. Here we were, a chef talking about a time 30+ years ago, telling us he was looking for something no one else had.

“And then, something changed. I started thinking that we went in the wrong direction. We should really be looking at was readily available, not the impossible, but the commonplace. To make food from the communal shelves, that was what we found in exotic places.”

Indeed, if you go to a market in Mexico, you can find all the ingredients chefs work with in their area. Or if you walk along open markets of larger Sicilian towns and look at the offerings, there you will see what people are making in their homes and in the local eating spots. This search for the elusive and the exclusive is not a mania in well-developed cultures.

But in America, we are still seeing this grasping for something no one else has. It is especially evident in today’s emerging wine professionals, who are looking for the next shiny thing. Assyrtiko is so yesterday. Gruner? It’s a goner. Who’s next to walk the plank, Trousseau or Touriga? There are endless new grapes and wines to “discover.” How far away from the basics must we veer before we find ourselves locked in our own personal tower of Babel, searching for all the unknowns, looking for something more exclusive, before we reach a dead-end?

Funny, this isn’t something new. The well-dressed somm set didn’t raise the funds, outfit the ships and sail off in search of the New World. This has been going on for ages, sometimes even circling back to some of the classics, gone so far out of popular favor that when they were sighted on a far horizon, they appeared to be as new and unusual as some of the more esoteric playthings of the day. Syrah, Chenin, Nebbiolo, they have benefited from being rediscovered again.

But if you build a house out of bricks and live in an earthquake zone, if you don’t reinforce them, how long will they hold? Without the foundation and with the proper framework, it won’t last.

I see that on some of today’s wine lists. It’s not that I don’t recognize esoteric wine from the Jura or the experimental orange wine from Friuli. But like Del Grande said, it is the readily available that challenges one more than the exotic. Sure it’s easy enough to compile a list that will garner tons of twitter comments and Instagram posts. What about a list that finds the great St. Emilion or the really classic Chianti? Is it because they already have been discovered by someone else?

A restaurant wine director walks into a retail store and mentions a wine by the glass had at a nearby restaurant. “I am pouring that by the glass as well. But I guess it’s time for me to take it off the by the glass list.” The retailer, a mentor to the young wine professionals in his town, looked at this person with some incredulity and said, “Why on earth would you do that? You thought enough about that wine to offer it by the glass. What about someone else liking it makes that wine a lesser thing now?”

There really was no comeback. It was something to think about.

In another setting, a producer of Chianti goes into an Italian-themed place and the wine director proceeds to tell the visiting producer that the wine list contains not one Chianti. Said wine director was proud of it, boasted of finding other things like Ciliegiolo and other wines. “Don’t need Chianti on the wine list.” The producer was dumb-founded. That must have been a long dinner.

It’s as if basic means ordinary, pedestrian, common, uninteresting. And the more unusual wines, sometimes of a lesser quality, they get a pass because they are different, even if that merely means they really are inferior. Meanwhile, the classic wines are judged more harshly because of the neighborhood they came from and the success they have had over the years, regardless of their pedigree or the fastidiousness of their making.

I think we are at a fulcrum, a turning point, where we might have reached the end of this kind of behavior. To use a wine list to display one’s aptitude for finding the obscure over the contentment of the guest, well that just flies in the face of why we are here: and that is to serve somebody. And that somebody is the folks who come in to escape the pressures of the day, to relax and to have a good experience. The same folks who provide the funds to keep these ships afloat.

I’d like to challenge wine directors, especially ones who focus on Italian wines, but not limited to that. The challenge is to find a way to make a wine list with less than 100 wines (preferably 50, no more) that will represent the best Italy has to offer and at the same time be a list that reflects the hard won battlefields of the classic wines that make up the building blocks of Italian wine. Find a killer Chianti that the most diehard Ciliegiolo fan will weep when he tastes it. Offer up a gorgeous Soave. Find us a delicious Prosecco that flies in the face of all the crappy Prosecco that is out there. Bring to our table a Nero D’Avola that isn’t trying to be New World and that isn’t trying to be so obnoxiously natural. Serve us up a Barbera that will make us forget about the hundreds of unknown grapes that you’re dying to teach us about. Make us cry with joy for a Brunello that is humble and precious and so stubbornly Tuscan that we rejoice in having rediscovered Sangiovese from Montalcino. Give us a Montepulciano from Abruzzo that doesn’t cost a gazillion bucks, and isn’t on Delectable every other day posted by an “influencer”, but is made by a honest farmer who works his fields, fields next to pastures where sheep graze, and the wine is rustic and brutally honest, and a joy to drink with friends, with families and even with the other strangers locked in the tower we are all trying to break out of.

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