Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Best - Not the Greatest - Wine for the Moment

I’ve spent the first part of this year tasting numerous types of Italian wine. More than I can remember in a long time. And while that is part of the life, I’ve been thinking about wine, why we like it, what draws us to it and what to do with it going forward.

What catalyzed these thoughts was a recent dinner I had with a friend, who is both a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier. We’re both the same age (a month separates our birth days) and I was listening to him tell me a little more about his progression in wine over a lifetime. We both shared similar experiences growing up in the wine world, tasting incredible wines which for the most part are now impossible to find.

Over a bottle of Ligurian Vermentino which had some skin contact (although in no way does that qualify it as an “orange” wine) he took me on a trip in time which was a parallel track from mine, but which wasn’t too terribly different. The difference of course, was that he chose an academic path and I took to the streets. But all these years later our paths converge.

The real kicker here is that after both of us have had experiences tasting wines that are considered the greatest of their kind (think Romanée Conti), including any number of great wines from France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, California, you get the picture. It has come down to this: Is the wine tasty? Is it well balanced? Does it complement the food (or the conversation)? Inotherwords, is it the best for the moment?

I take a sniff of the Vermentino we ordered with our fish dishes, in case my colleague might want to talk about this wine. But he seems to be enjoying the moment, with little conscious indication of analysis. I note the aromas, the body, the balance and then I proceed to pour a little more of the wine into our glasses. Often, in the wine world, we tend to get stuck in the navel, postulating about whether an orange wine is really orange or a natural wine is really natural or whether a first-growth is really worthy of such vaunted status. I know there is a technical side to all of this. But tonight isn’t one of those moments. It seems we’re enjoying the wine and the conversation too much to analyze the wine.

I’ve talked about this before, where the young up-and-comers flock to the cellars of the collectors in order to experience the classic wines of the past. And yes, it was exciting to taste that 1964 Costanti Brunello or the 1926 Haut Brion. But those wines didn’t define what wine is for me. They are an adjunct, a peak moment. But clearly not something we can (or should) do every day. For me, the key is to find those moments where the wine recedes into the moment, part of a larger gestalt. That , it seems is what me and my colleague have come upon, separately, but now after all these years, in these few hours together breaking bread, from our individual paths to this confluence.

And what is one to do with this information? Do I get rid of all of the great wines sitting in my closet, some for 30 years? Do I drink them up? Do I share them with the young lions? Do I really have to answer this right now?

These days, I more actively share the rare ones with my wine community. And that’s a lot of fun, as it usually involves a slew of great classic collectible wines over a brief period of time. And that can provide context for going forward. For instance, I am learning that old Nebbiolo wines, and we’re talking 50-60 years old, while they have their delights, winemaking in the 21st century has upended much of what they knew about making wine back then. I truly believe Barolo from 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, yes, the new stuff, is more compelling now than the old stuff. Sure, it isn’t tawny and leathery and musty and rustic. But the ones I have had are tasty. They’re well balanced. And they seem to complement the food (and the conversation) as well or often better than the old soldiers. They’re not front stage and center; they’re members of the chorus of life. They play their part, they don’t scream from the rafters. They give one the options of sensing all the parts of an evening, from the light over the table to the smell of the roasted meat. From the voices of friends here with us to the lithe sounds coming from the speaker.

Yes, wine is important for those of us in the dugout. But that’s not why I’m here. Wine is a small part of the picture and all my life in this business it seems I’ve been trying to put it in its proper perspective. And after all these years, it seems, my friend and I have found a viewpoint that more accurately puts wine in balance with life and all its swirling, rotating, vying-for-attention elements. And wine has never tasted better than it does now.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Mark Scudiery said...

Fantastic post Alfonso. Supports my belief that the experience is what counts, not the score.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely admire, and personally aspire to your perspective on life. Oh, and I really enjoy your thoughts on wine too, Alfonso.
Thanks for continuing to share so much!
Brian in MO

Francesco Bonfio said...

Everytime I read one of your post I only regret I do not know your language enough to enjoy totally your great way to write.
Thank you Mr. Cevola.

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