Sunday, July 31, 2022

Are “The Best Italian Wines” the Best We Can Do?

From the archives
I thought we might have dodged the bullet. You know, the one whereby all the wines of the country are judged by a few? France has had that moment a time or two. Lately it’s been in China, where Lafite ruled. Now it’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s turn.

Italy, ah Italy, land of wine for the everyday person. Maybe in Italy. But in the rest of the world, has Italy managed to escape the curse of the wine snob?

The Italian-styled spot my friend went to and was disappointed in their wine list, when I looked at it, I saw some of the wines certain people consider “the best.” Among them were Tignanello and Sassicaia. I’m not sure how much Tignanello (at $170+) and Sassicaia (at $270+) their flip-flop wearing clients are going to be ordering, especially when it is 95°F at 9:00PM.

In years past, it seemed the only way Italian wines made a statement was when they stood out. One way to do that would be on price. Another would be on rarity. Restaurateurs would proudly display wines like Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Solaia, Tignanello, Sori Tildin, Biondi-Santi, Bricco Rocche and Santo Stefano on their wine lists, while the rest of us were left holding our tongues, just wishing for a nice little wine we could get through the evening (and the menu) with.

But Italy didn’t conquer the world with wines that were rare or expensive. Quite the opposite.

Now we’re hearing this might be already happening with Italian wines in Asia. Right after the folks over there pass through their Romanée-Conti phase.

Is it the fault of those who make the iconic wines that command so much attention? Is Piero Antinori to blame? Angelo Gaja?

I am willing to bet that Angelo Gaja doesn’t drink Sori Tilden on a daily basis. Not that he couldn’t if he wanted to. But even a wine like Sori Tilden on a daily basis would take the specialness out of that wine. Likewise, I find it hard to imagine Piero Antinori sitting down to the lunch table every day and opening up a bottle of Tignanello or Solaia. It’s just too much. So why do some people put these wines up as the epitome of what Italian wine is all about?

Part of it is marketing. The “We are just as good as the French” argument. Which, for all intents is over in Italy. But there are folks in America (and China) who haven’t gotten the message, or the fax, the text or the tweet. So, one more time.

“Italy’s best wines” isn’t what Italy does best. Yes, Italy does luxury as well or better than anyone else. People copy their cars, their shoes and fashion, their food, their music, their films. Italy is a brand that drips with luxury. But it’s lux omnes, a more grounded, everyday celebration of the soil and the hand of humankind. What good is it if only a chosen few can enjoy it? Don’t we already have a perilous imbalance in the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of the folks? Does anyone remember France in July of 1789?

While this blog isn’t going to solve the problem of the wealth gap, the idea that Italian wines are only good at the top for only a few is a trend that needs to be shut down now.

Contrary to what I have been reading on local blogs, the reality is there are lots of Italian wines that have quite a following in these parts, along with the rest of the country. One just needs to step outside of their bubble and breathe in the fresh air and the good news that’s all around us. I go to my local Italian store, Jimmy’s, on Saturday, and there are all kinds of people buying Italian wines. Now, the folks at Jimmy’s don’t give them a choice (they only sell Italian wines) but you don’t hear many of their clients complaining about it. It’s not that big of a deal – it’s just a short explanation, maybe a little story and they head home with one or 30, with happiness and relief. The relief is that they couldn’t figure out which wines to buy. But someone who knows helped them. So that made them happy. But that is the duty of the merchant and the restaurateur. Yes. Duty. And it’s a joyous one.

Italy is happy to share their best with anyone and everyone. That is the great secret of the best Italian wines. It’s grounded. It’s every day. It’s easy. It’s painless. It’s affordable. It’s no big deal.

It’s that simple.


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