Sunday, June 11, 2017

40 Years - On the Wine Trail in Puglia

What a difference 14,520 days makes

It seems to be unimaginable for someone young today to digest a span of time like 40 years. And when older people, for whom time has stretched farther than one might like to admit, relate a long-past thing, for those who did not live in that time, in today’s Instagram-gratification culture, it’s insufferable. “I didn’t live it, old, man. It doesn’t affect me.” Yeah, I get that. But it does - the wine we tasted then and the wine you are now enjoying - they are universes apart. And it is important to know what happened, and how we got here, so that you can better enjoy your Nero di Troia, or your Negroamaro Bianco or your Susumaniello rosato.

September 8, 1977 – My first encounter with Puglia. The summer season was over, people were returning to the cities, abandoning the beaches. Puglia was a deserted island of a place. It was still warm - the mosquitoes had not left - they were still munching from the all-day buffet of those who had remained behind to work the vineyard and olive orchards. Or for those few tourists, who were walking along the road from Fasano to Locorotondo.

Puglia wasn’t pristine, but it was unspoiled by commercial tourism. You could go anywhere, without crowds, without danger of getting hit by people driving while talking on their cellphones. Alberobello was a quiet, little sleepy town with funny buildings, not a huckster’s dreamscape. It was a safer place. And it was a more innocent time. But the wines? They were simple if not a bit feral.

A stop on the outskirts of Locorotondo, where a small winery, a Cantine Sociale, would fill up a liter bottle for the equivalent of $.50 a bottle. Good enough, serviceable, definitely wine, if it lacked for pizazz. But it was cheap and cheerful enough. Touring Italy on $17.00 a day, all expenses, it was a bargain.

Later, when I returned to the U.S. and immersed myself in the wine trade, the wines from Puglia started coming into our little warehouse. One I remember, a 1979 Salice Salentino from Barone Malfatti, was a large, lumbering bear of a wine. Unfiltered, it possessed a sort of animale nature, one that naturalistas today would love, for it was grapes into wine with nothing in between. And it aged well enough for 5-10 years, before it bricked out and lost its deep, dark tan.

Really my love with Puglia came in the early 1980’s, when I worked with Nicola Savino, who was a young chef from Conversano, and he had come to Dallas to cook in an Italian restaurant, La Tosca. Nicola was (and still is) an amazing palate. He first showed me how the food of Puglia dovetailed with the wines. And then subsequent trips, too many to remember, continued to reinforce that notion.

Ah, so it was about the food? If you haven’t been to Puglia, then you have only to step onto this land and become born again with the conviction that wine is food, which in Puglia is to orbit around a marvelous microcosm.

It was really up to the winemakers in Puglia to catch up to the food. Cracking the code in Puglia is not something one can do in a week. This is a large (and long) region. It is, for me, one of the most mystifying in Italy, because one might want to think, at first blush, that one “gets” Puglia. Hey, it’s all there, the sun, the sea, the forests, the fields, the produce, the seafood, the pasta, the meat, the oil, ah yes, the oil. But that is not only what Puglia is.

This region is an island by virtue of its size. Not an island like Sicily, or Sardegna, but a landlocked landmass that admits not just anyone. Oh yes, you can arrive to there, and walk and drive and swim and sleep and eat and love your experience. But to enter the deep caverns, to discover what lies under the surface, that is not for the weekend wanderer. This is just arriving to me, after 40 years, an inkling of what Puglia really represents to Italy. It is not a heel; it is a cultural anchor, a mooring, a support, to keep the peninsula in balance with the world that swirls all around it.

This is a revelation to me. That Puglia is the reliable relative, one you can go to for clarity, for understanding, for reassurance. Here, there will always be the prima materia that we look to Italy for.

After I left Puglia, this time, I flew to Rome to catch my flight back to America. A day in Rome. Walking, camera in hand, looking for that place where I first was dropped into this minestrone that I have been guzzling all my adult life. I didn’t want to go, didn't want to leave Puglia. My friend Nicola Savino told me one of the reasons he came back to Puglia and Conversano, was because he “missed the smell of the place.” A chef, leaving behind a career, fame, money – in America – because he longed for the macchia of his motherland. That’s a chef to follow and flock to, people. That’s someone who gets Puglia. I can only aspire to hear and breathe and see that wavelength.

So there I’ve gone and heaved all over this page with nary a word about the wines and how many giant steps they have taken in those 40 years. Yes, with not one tasting note, not a crumb. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

It will just have to linger for that inescapable occasion….

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