Sunday, February 21, 2021

Do you know what it means?

ew Orleans has been on my mind lately. Maybe because last week should have been Mardi Gras. Or perhaps I am just missing a place I got to know well. And it got to know me too. I love that place. It was my American Palermo, and if I had to, I could always fly there in an hour or take the longer scenic drive.

I’ll just admit it, I miss New Orleans. But also, Louisiana. Real bad. It was the only place in America I’d take my passport with me when I went. Well, that was more for practical purposes, as I once learned in Alexandria. I got a moving violation and the local gendarme took my license until I settled the whole affair (guilty until innocent in Louisiana – Napoleonic law). My friend further down by Lafayette excoriated me for paying the fine right then and there when I got it. “My friend, we have judge friends, you didn’t need to do that.” Lesson learned. But I took my passport with me, anyway, when I flew, just in case. I wanted to be able to get back home if it happened again.

And it was like a foreign country to me. Not like the rest of America, all 44+ states I’ve seen anyway. It was old. And slower paced. Like Italy. Wine and food were appreciated and understood in Louisiana, in ways I never saw in my travels for work or play, with the possible exception of Napa Valley.

And so, when I went to Louisiana, and always New Orleans was on the itinerary, it was to enlarge the scope of Italian wine in the retail shops and food halls of the city.

Italian food in New Orleans – like in no other place I have experienced in America – is complicated. It’s a mélange of things, from the deep, rich and rustic Southern Italian expressions to those tinged with the French influence, to the more modern American chef driven, genre busting interpretations, all the way out to something which I had never seen or hadn’t remembered from my childhood. I remember a time when we were driving out to Houma to do a wine dinner for a bunch of doctors and halfway, we stopped and had our first dinner at a little spot, Mosca's. A roadside stop since the end of World War II, Mosca's was like going back into time, over to my Aunt Anna’s house. It smelled like her house, and the people all kind of looked and talked like the people who would come to her house for Christmas Eve. I knew some of the family had settled in and around New Orleans right after the Civil War. Maybe some of them spread their seed a little further than our genealogy records show. In any case, it felt like coming home.

One time I was listening to jazz at Donna’s Bar & Grill. Kermit Ruffins was playing and I’d seen him earlier at Maximo’s and he said to stop by. So, I did. It turned out to be a very long night. And thinking I had an early morning of work the next day (or really, in a few hours) I decided to walk back to my hotel. Only I started walking in the wrong direction. Fortunately, Kermit was outside taking a break and he motioned to the bodyguard/bouncer to stop me and put me in a cab. “Are you crazy, white man?” the bodyguard exclaimed. “You got no reason to go that way ‘cepting you wants to die young.” I got his drift. Not everyone was friendly. But I did have my guardian angels.

Getting folks to expand their repertoire of Italian wines was the work at hand. And there was no shortage of work in that department. New Orleans was, and probably still is, built of ongoing relationships. It didn’t matter if my wine was that good. They either bought into me or they didn’t. To my accounts, it wasn’t that is was a Yankee or a Texan or whatever they thought I was. Eventually, I broke down the barriers and made some good business for Italian wine in the city and beyond. Italian wine was coming into its own in American and Louisiana, and New Orleans, was on board.

Now, the funny thing, to me, was that I thought Italian wine would be a natural fit for the place, seeing as they had so many Italians already there for generations. But they had been altered by the place and the influences that shaped New Orleans. Wine wise, the over-arching influence was France. French wine ruled, even in Italian spots. Because if you live in some place for four or five generations, things are going to get a little mixed up. People bump into people and all of a sudden you have a French grandmother and a Sicilian grandfather. You get my drift? And so, they mixed up the wine stuff too, which made it a challenge when peddling wines one thought to be singular and authentic.

But there was always a way to get through. Usually, it meant paying homage to France and French wine (and enjoying a little along the way), in order to arrive at an understanding, a common ground. The relationship thing. Many nights were spent in what the Spanish call sobremesa, that long lingering conversation you have after the meal. The dance. The ritual. The experience. And eventually I was able to chip away at it and make the world a little safer for Italian wine in New Orleans and beyond. It was a wonderful thing.

Do you know what I mean?

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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