Sunday, November 29, 2020

Everyday Italian Wines for Everyday People in Extraordinary Times

For some, this is a way with a deep-seated furrow. The road often taken. The commonplace. The not-so-out-of-the-ordinary. But predictable? Not necessarily so. Wine is a living, breathing, evolving thing. And with that, even an ordinary wine can act extraordinary in these unprecedented times.

That was how I started out with this odd holiday, Thanksgiving. Like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving has come under fire by some who see it as having racist origins, representing a celebration of the conquest of Native Americans. I get that. I also know we, as a country, need something to unify us in this time of discord. I don’t think cooking a bird or smoking a ham will save us, I’m not that naïve. But I do see people finding ways to make moments for peace and serenity. And if celebrating Thanksgiving in the old way that the story was told to us is behind the times, can we not shift from that to a less highly charged observance? We cannot go back and undo what the Anglo-western world did to the indigenous souls here in America. But we can recast the day with thoughts of gratitude and clarity. No, we Americans aren’t the greatest nation the world has ever seen. We aren’t even handling something like this pandemic as well as many other nations on the planet. We have failed miserably. But we cannot shirk away and pretend that all that came before didn’t. We must admit, even concede, that we are not great again, and we must start over again, with the hindsight that we didn’t do it right, all these years. We must change now.

And what does that have to do with wine? Well, this is, sometimes, a wine blog. And over the last few days, many of us have been hunkering down and eating foods that provide comfort, maybe even solace, away from our families and normalcy and the world we once lived in, which is no longer.

I often come back to one word – resilience – to chart my course in rough seas. It has worked many times. And now it is a big part of what I believe will get many of us through this cultural dust storm, which has blinded so many from seeing the simple truth.

And now, on to food and wine. This is where it gets tricky. Why? I know well enough that there are scores of sites with wine notes. People attempting to talk about this wine or that wine, with superlatives and adjectives and a laundry list of attributes that we’re all supposed to understand, nod our heads in agreement, and rush to the store, or our online merchant, and order up. Those notes are really more for the individual writing them, a journal of sorts, of their perceptions and observations about a particular wine. I get little or nothing from them when I read them, and there is no reason to think if I were to continue with that kind of exercise here, that any of you would really get to “know” a wine with my words.

But two wines in the past week have given me pause to think more about them and their context in my life. They were accompanied by food, and they caused me to consider how ordinary wines might become extraordinary, when the times are out of the ordinary.

The first, a 2011 Abbazia di Novacella Gewürztraminer. My son, on Thanksgiving Day, came over early and took the helm of the HastyBake to smoke a turkey breast. He asked me if I had any Gewürztraminer on hand, as it was a wine that he had cherished memories of. I pulled out an older one, from 2011, and we chilled it up.

I noticed two things about the wine right off. It was too cold, and the flavors were closed in. So, we let it warm up and breathe. Now, I’m a fan of Abbazia di Novacella. I love their Kerner and their Sylvaner. During a visit to the winery, probably ten years ago, I marveled at the amazing repository of knowledge their library held. It is on the Via Imperii and was one of the stops along the way for religious pilgrims on their spiritual path to Rome. One of the oldest wineries in Italy, it oozes history. One can spend a moment in the chapel or the library, for reflection, meditation and the hope of clarity.

The wine wasn’t oozing with spice as Gewurztraminer is often cast. It was more like a pulse, a heartbeat. I watched and listened and sipped this wine over several days. At nine years old, a white wine, and an ordinary wine at that, it was full of life and balance and even pleasure. It doesn’t qualify as a vino da meditazione by the usual parameters one expects of such a wine, but it nonetheless ignited a moment of contemplation.

The wine was so pure, so clear, so focused and clean and balanced, and it matched well with the smoked turkey my son labored over for hours. In one word? A joy.

Over this time, I had harvested the last of the eggplant from the garden. Those scraggly, twisted weather-beaten aubergines would be a challenge when making the Parmigiana. It would be a rustic version. I am already predisposed to a grittier version of the dish, as my cousin In Calabria taught me.

And this time, the Parmigiana was coming together like a nest of hornets. If it was music, it was Bartok and his peasant singers, not Leonard Bernstein and his West Side street gangs dancing till their last breaths.

A funny way to look at food? Maybe. But everything’s a little funny right now, isn’t it? So, why not?

For the wine I wanted something red and not too old or important. I chose a 2014 Barbera d’Alba “Il Cerreto” from RobertoVoerzio.  Not the cheapest Barbera by a longshot, but probably one of Voerzio’s more affordable wines. I was in the mood for a Barbera with a Parmigiana, so Voerzio’s it was.

I didn’t look at the vintage when I opened it. When I cut the umbilical cord, and the wine entered into the world at 6 years of age, at first sniff and sample, I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. I remember saying to myself, “Why didn’t I just open a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo?” The answer to that question would have been, “Because I didn’t have a normal, young, everyday one in sight.” So, I set the Barbera aside and proceeded to direct the oven to make a hearty, rugged crust on the top of the Parmigiana.

The Parmigiana came out bubbling and frothing, sizzling and whistling. A musical Parmigiana, it was not Pavarotti. But it would dance well enough to Bartok’s Romanian polka.

Meanwhile, the wine, 20 minutes later, was warming up to its new life.

I was engrossed in the Parmigiana, because it was one of those times I made it and it rose above the ordinary, the just good. It was, can I say it? Yes, I can. It was perfect. It was “last meal on earth” perfect.

So, it went from an ordinary, husky dish with an everyday Barbera, to a lightning bolt moment. The wine was right there with me and my Parmigiana.

It was like an octopus, a shape-shifter of a wine, in which one moment it was scratchy and tannic and fruit-laden, to the next, when it was velvety and rich to the point of plush. But there was no self-awareness imbued within the walls of that bottle. It was rocking into its life, dancing and swaying. Such a pleasure. No, I didn’t need to open a 20-year-old Brunello this night. Or grab my one of my last ancient bottles of Hermitage. The Barbera would suffice. And then some.

It wasn’t meant to be a night for such an epiphany. It just happened that way. And the reason why I started on this lengthy post and this perambulation was for this: You don’t always have to grab for, or hope for, a “great” wine. You don’t need to be jealous of your friends in New York or Singapore, when they post their umpteenth bottle of Soldera or DRC. It isn’t necessary. Sometimes the shy little one in the corner is as good of a dancer as the princess or the queen, maybe sometimes better even. It really relies upon your soul and the way you look at things, to take their gifts in. If you have an open mind and an open heart, you will be rewarded. You may not get 300 likes, but really who cares? The “like” will come from you. And that is something no one can “block” or take away.

And that is the little secret about everyday Italian wine for everyday people.
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