Sunday, September 30, 2018

Wail Watching in the City of the Angels

Another week, this time in my native place. As a native Angeleno (and Californiano), the circumstance of my birth was preceded by the dreams and desires of my grandparents. It was the American Dream they were seeking, their El Dorado. I just happened to come along when I did.

Because of those fortuitous strokes I witnessed the procession of Italian-American life on a stage where there were limitless horizons, no boundaries, no walls. America was a place where anyone could dream big.


In the vineyards of California, the Italian Americans did dream big. The Sebastianis, the Mondavis and the Gallos, among countless others, saw in America a chance to fulfill the pent-up desires that their ancestors had been holding in, some for countless generations.

Along with that there were the other trades, the leatherworkers, the designers, artists, actors, musicians and restaurateurs. The West Coast, especially California, in the last 50 or so years, sparked a revolution in the way we eat (and are fed) by the chefs and the restaurant operators. And along with that the evolution of the beverage programs, e.g. the wine list, has grown, as has the expectations of the restaurant goers.


I’m in a fashionable and bustling spot in Venice, California, sitting at a community table. Nearby a young woman calls me over, sees that I’m surrounded by copious amounts of wine. “You think the wine list here is something? There’s one nearby that is even better!” What used to be coy talk around a bar now has become wine speak. In less than two generations.

And the wine list at the place I was at was pretty impressive. Yeah, it was one of those cool kid lists. But I got my Erbaluce on. As well as enjoying my prolonged flirtation with Lambrusco di Sorbara. I wasn’t complaining.


Not like the Italian in Beverly Hills, earlier in the day. To hear him talk, one would have thought we were in some third-world land that had just been hit by a tsunami. He was all doom and gloom. “Nobody will pay $60 for a bottle of Prosecco, no matter how good it is.” That was his first volley, interspersed by the roaring of magnificent Italian automobiles out in front of his fashionable al fresco spot. We could barely hear each other over the endless parade of Lamborghini Huracans and Aventadors, and Ferrari GTC4Lussos and 812 Superfasts. “I cannot pay more than $8, my clientele won’t pay,” he whimpered. Who was he kidding? Within the space of 5 minutes, close to a million dollars’ worth of Italian automobile inventory bellowed past us, shaking our table and almost spilling the way-too-precious Italian bollicine perched upon it.

Clearly, this Italian lost his dream. “The supplier just increased the price of Pinot Grigio from $4.25 to $4.95. I have to raise my price from $11 to $12 a glass!” I made a mental note to never order fish at this restaurant, to avert a possible case of food poisoning. Was this guy out of his mind? We wrestled with prices likes that 30 years ago, in the ‘90’s, not in 2018. Not in the canyon of the multi-million-dollar endless Italian car pageant! Who was he kidding?

Later on, I stepped into one of those trendy Italian food emporiums that bespeckle the more affluent neighborhoods in America. Everyone is there – from the famous to the up-and-coming. And wine too - from the best producers in Calabria and Sicily, not just Piedmont. Artisan micro-producers from volcanic vineyards around Lazio, not just Tuscany. A history (and sociology) lesson about Italian wine in the 21st century. Something I never thought I’d see in my tribal lands.


And then came the coup de grâce. A young Italian, not even born when I left my homeland, sees me, keeps me waiting while he takes his coffee. Patiently I wait. And pray that I won’t go postal. When he finally returns from his extended break, he proceeds to tell me this place has very little prospects for another product. “We are looking for partnerships – we want wineries to be part of our family.” I’m trying to read between the lines. This is a company that is having partnership problems, with one partner implicated in a rather large sex scandal, a poster child for the #MeToo movement. And some low-level grocery clerk is trying to hit me up for a slotting fee? I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough, it was a Titanic in search of its iceberg. And the young Italian grocery clerk? Did he not know how lucky he was to be living in this land? And he, without a scintilla of a dream? Perhaps we should review more carefully who comes into this country – see if they too, have a dream?

We don’t need anyone’s dead nightmares. America already has a plate full of shattered dreams. But I resolutely believe this is one of the last outposts of earth where dreaming, and dreaming big, is still possible. I see it in my friends who come here from Italy, and from Asia, from war-torn Middle East and African countries. But Italians with self-imposed walls – they should go back to Italy, find their mother or father, live at home and wait out their pensions. America is no place for people who sleep but can’t dream.


There – I’ve said it. I think I know how the indigenous souls felt when the conquistadores landed on the shores of California and proceeded to destroy thousand of years of their harmony with nature and all things living. And while a wine list is nothing in the scope of things larger (such as geologic time or the choosing of a Supreme Court Justice) even in the macro-environment of the restaurant industry, shouldn’t we be the best ambassadors we can all be for the products made back home by the artisans in Italy? I believe so. I just wish some of my late-comer Italian brothers shared those beliefs and convictions. We fought so hard to get to this point – it’s unacceptable to give it up so easily, just like that. Not with a bang – but a whimper.







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1 comment:

Juliette Becker said...

Excellent artice,Al. I hear you. I feel the same way about all the gender rights that have been fought for since I was a young woman being destroyed by an orange head and his posse of wailing men. So frustrating and disheartening.

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