Sunday, October 21, 2018

Tocai Friulano - For every funeral there is a second line (and a silver lining)

From the Native & Indigenous Italian Grapes Series

It was April of 2007, in Verona. Colleague and dear friend, Andrea Fassone, called out. “Come outside, there is a procession at Vinitaly. They are giving a funeral for Tocai!”

Sure enough, there was a line of horns, bellowing out a dirge for a wine which was losing its name, a victim of EU regulations. Tocai from Friuli was no longer to be called Tocai, in deference to Hungarian Tokaji. From that day forward in Italy it would now be known as Friulano. Period. The end.

This sprung hope that it would give the wine a second life. In America we were still waiting for the first one.

Flash back to the early 1980’s. Before anyone was touting native and indigenous Italian grapes. We were just trying to get people to drink anything from Italy, other than the shittiest Chiantis that had been flooding the market for years. Forget about white wines. And Tocai? Wasn’t that a wine the bums drank in hip flask bottles down on skid row? It was pretty much the same story for every white wine from Italy. But Tocai wasn’t on anyone’s radar. No one traveled there. There were no major cities nearby. Trieste? Yeah, a few pilgrims making the trek to see the dive bars where Italo Svevo and James Joyce had to be scraped off the floor at the end of the night. Other than that, nothing. No demand.

From the Arwood H. Stowe fine wine catalog, ca.1983
And then the wines start coming into our little fine wine warehouse in Dallas. Refosco, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Picolit, Pinot Noir. And Tocai. From Colli Orientali. Good provenance at least.

A few made it on to the lists at the time. Alessio Franceschetti had them on his list (at Alessio's) in Dallas. So did Tony Rao and Charles Petronella, Nash D’Amico and Damian Mandola at D’Amico’s in Houston. Hallie and Michael Speranza took them in Austin for their eponymous trattoria. And chef Carlo Croci bought them for his Bella Italia in Ft. Worth. Texas took the plunge. And at a time when you couldn’t find Tocai from Friulano in San Francisco or Williamsburg. But it was short lived. The recession of the 1980’s, along with the petroleum-funk Texas found itself in, gave everyone pause. Oh, and California fighting Chardonnay was all the rage, in the Ronald Reagan "Let's Make America Great Again" period. Back to the drawing board.

Many candles were burned during those long, dark nights. It wasn’t for want of trying. But there was the issue of value. White wine from Friuli has long been more expensive than their counterparts from the Veneto, Tuscany, Lazio and Marche. And Venice, Florence and Rome provided those wines with a base and a jumping off point, for when the American tourists went back home, they knew Pinot Grigio, Vernaccia, Frascati and Verdicchio.

1988 - Myself and Abbazia di Rosazzo winemaker Sandro Facca
Touring in Friuli, one could find an inexpensive frico and a glass of Tocai, and it was pure bliss. And over time, more importers were going to places like Udine, Pordenone, Buttrio, Gorizia, Grado and Cividale. Then sommeliers (like Bobby Stuckey) started “discovering” the area 20 or so years ago. But it was still slow going. And then the name changed.

I wasn’t all that concerned about the name going from Tocai to Friulano. In fact, it was a bit of a relief. No longer would we have to explain, “No, this is the dry one.” Or “No, this isn’t the one the winos drink.”

And the wine. When you consider it in the abstract, without all the baggage, and as a wine, in a glass, with no idea of where it comes from, there’s where it comes in focus for me.

With a lovely texture, almost a (material-like) felt thickness, but not heavy or cloying. An herbal quality that reminds one of a forest, with exotic notes and almost discernable flavors. I say that because the wine is indeed different from almost any other white wine I have ever tasted, although it is right on the edge of recognizability. And then it shapeshifts and takes you down a rabbit hole. Heaven forbid you get it in a blind tasting, where some certification or reward for identifying it lies at the end of that rainbow. It’s a chameleon of a wine, and it is beautiful. But it is subtle. The acidity doesn’t rock you like a flinty Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire. It doesn’t charm the pants off you like a Puligny Montrachet from the Côte-d'Or. But is in the same league as the French cousins. It just takes a little more time to solve this Rubik’s Cube of a wine. When you do, then the price seems like a deal. Which it is. But in a world of wine where the p.r. wonks yell out loud and often, vying for internet hits, the quiet wine in the corner with a new name (and an old name that the locals still use), makes it confusing to the world which wants to know what they need to know, now, and usually from an anonymous peer on Instagram or Pinterest. That’s no way to get to know Tocai, or Friulano. One must go to the river and dip their whole being into the world of Friuli. Eat the frico. Drink the Friulano. Sleep in Buttrio. Immerse oneself in the world where the wine comes from.

And that, while it sounds romantic, is inconvenient.

Do this. Find you a basic Friulano Bianco from the handful of producers that have made it to your sunny shores, be it America, Denmark or Australia. Or anywhere. Rome, for God’s sake. And sit awhile with it. Don’t expect fireworks, or moonbeams, heart palpitations or pre-orgasmic rumblings from deep within your gut. Listen. Be still. Let the sound of the river running through you come into your consciousness.

Sound a little to “California corny?” Well, maybe this wine isn’t for everyone. They don’t make that much of it anyway, so it’s not like they have to win everyone’s heart. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if your heart was one of those ones it did win?

We’ve had the funeral. Now we hope to experience an ascension of sorts. Friulano deserves a chance. It’s older than dirt, its roots are deep and it is an original. And it has a personality that, although it is Italian, it isn’t Italian like anything you can pre-conceive of. It is. And isn’t it time to take another long look at this underappreciated white wine from Italy?

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James Biddle said...

Love this stuff! First had it in Reggio-Emilia in 2010. We'd ordered tuna and the owner/server said he'd bring the perfect wine. It was Tocai and it was perfect. I just ordered a case yesterday. Let the "silver" shine.

Unknown said...

Back in the 70's, I and a colleague, when we had business in London, would always eat once or twice at the simple but good Bizarro restaurant and drink Tocai. Really good memories, the food, the wine and the times. I thought it couldn't be found in the US until I googled it and discovered Friulano.
I truly relate to your articles, thanks.

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