Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Italian Wine List from a Cinematic Perspective: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.”

There’s something about a wine list that seems a lot like the “hand in the box challenge.” You never know what you’re going to find inside. It could be warm and fuzzy. Or it can be slimy and menacing. It can be a relief. Or it can be disgusting. Working in the wine trade, it now seems from this perspective of 30+ years that wine lists are pretty much a reflection of the sensibilities of the person (or companies) who puts the thing together. Which can be a relief. Or it can be disgusting.

For most of my years, I’ve focused on the Italian wine list. But it doesn’t matter if it is an all Italian list, a comprehensive list, or a regionally defined list. The game is to try a find something that works.

Example. A few weeks ago, I had an Etna Rosato from Girolamo Russo with some fresh smoked Bay of Fundy Salmon. At this time of the year, this salmon is a little more fatty than in the summertime. It’s a rich, buttery, indulgent catch that would have matched with a lighter red. But I chose the Nerello Mascalese in rosato form, as I wanted to try it.

Well, it wasn’t just a perfect match. It was a memorable one. Eric Asimov wrote recently that “memorable wines strike notes beyond the glass.” I so love that emotion. It takes the wine and by extension, a wine list, to a place away from the trough of combat, that those of us in the trade mire in, to get our favorite producers wines that always sought after placement. That a farmer and a winemaker would put their heart and soul into growing and making wine, only to have it rely on the whim or the preconception, maybe even the maturity, or dare I say it, insight, at the very end of the line. It’s a miracle that the process carries on as it has.

And it is pretty much the way it has been, this process, for as long as I can remember, in the wine trade. Those who came before me told me it was that way as well, in the 1970’s, 1960’s and even the 1950’s.

The difference now? As with many things, we have more choices. We have more information at our finger (and tongue) tips. And we have people making decisions, as always, from their perspective. And as we all know; all people are different. Some are really good. And some are really in need of further evolution.

One of the biggest blunders an unfledged wine list “curator” makes is to conflate their tastes and sensibilities with those of their respective patrons. What if the wine buyer is one who likes fruit-forward, heavily oaked Tuscan reds? And what if the menu is by a chef who takes his or her inspiration from, let’s say Liguria or the Adriatic edge of Italy? One could see an end product that is woefully out of balance with one another. Imagine a delicate crustacean, like pannocchie, lightly salted and grilled, with a Tuscan Merlot that is “powerful with loads of fruit and lots of licorice and spices on the nose and palate.” Sounds awful? Try walking though many Italian restaurants on a Saturday night. Rutger Hauer’s character, Roy Batty, in Bladerunner, as he is dying, summed it up: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.”

What I’ve seen reminds me of those emotions the dying replicant elaborated upon with his last words. Not as dramatic as that, but pervasive, in my mind for the sheer number of times I’ve seen disparate conjoinings, as if I were in Kubrick’s last movie, sitting in a corner, during the orgy scene.

“This shouldn’t have happened!” How many times have we looked at a list and wondered how on earth it did? Of course, there is the group effort, the many salespeople pushing their products on an often-unsuspecting buyer. “I’ve got to have this on the list, my boss told me not to come back without getting five placements this week.” There’s that. And then there’s the many items which just get put on there because the wine list warden thinks it’s probably what the clientele will demand once they come there. How many times have we seen a square block in a round hole? The Italian Super-Something Red (parading as a Napa Cab) or the Piedmont white (pretending to be a white Burgundy, because as we all know the French and the Piemontese are royally related over the centuries). And the need for something popular and recognizable. And the desire for exclusivity, for something no one else has nearby (but still recognizable and popular). The need to win a Wine Spectator award, giving birth to an Italian wine list Smörgåsbord, appealing to all and none at the same time. Taking forever to plod through, as if one were riding the A train from Brooklyn to Far Rockaway.

God, how I’ve stumbled out through the doors of many places, wishing there was a place somewhere near where I could get a shower and a glass of amaro, to cleanse myself of the ride I was just on in so many of those unknown and no longer alive Italian spots. I’ve got T-shirts in my drawer proclaiming the glory of places like “Tutti Pazzi,” an erstwhile spot, a generation ago, in a town where the West began. All the tears, all the battles, to get a Pinot Grigio or a Barolo on the list, only to attend a wake for the restaurant a few years later. Or the “fabulous, groundbreaking” Italian steakhouse which no one could pronounce correctly, that swooped in and was going to “change everything.” Of course, they had to have all the big guns, demanded it, even though they didn’t have a track record (or sustainable cash-flow) in flyover country. “We’re from NY, we’re going to show you folks how to eat and drink Italian, properly,” a straight-faced investor unblinkingly told me. They lasted 24 months, give or take a shift drink.

It’s not just those bright stars that crash land on the scene and smolder and fizzle out. There are places that have been around so long they need hospice. The wine lists are like a the charred remnants of a long-gone Pompeii, burnt beyond recognition.

I turn back to memorable, especially what Eric calls that “useful moment of clarity.” As when drinking a wine that evokes a turning point of lucidity, so when a wine list comes into being that complements, not only the sensibilities of the chef and balances so well with the food offerings on the menu. But also matches well with the needs (and not just the expectations) of the patrons. To take one’s self needs out of the equation and apply a greater vision, that makes for a wine list that transcends the immediate needs of the moment, moments which “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

 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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