Sunday, May 12, 2024

Why “Italian” restaurants in America still don’t get Italian wine - Pt. II

Forging ahead with my quixotic crusade, let’s turn to red wines. I’ll try and be a little more circumspect in my presentation.

While Italy now has a plethora of great wines, I’d like to start with the less patrician and more serviceable ones. I say this because we still have legions of folks who don’t understand the intricacies of Italian wine. They are looking for easy road marks and equivalents. Not always so easy, but doable.

North to south – Barbera, Nebbiolo, Valpolicella, Merlot, Cabernet, Refosco, Sangiovese, Chianti, Lambrusco, Montepulciano, Rosso Piceno, Primitivo, NegroAmaro, Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Cannonau. I know I am leaving out some beloved one to Italian wine lovers, but these are basic building blocks of a rudimentary red wine core list. Not the fancy stuff, although one could find fancy wines from this list. But a beginner’s starting point.

From there, the more famous fine wines – Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Ghemme, Valtellina Superiore, Amarone della Valpolicella, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a generic Super Tuscan category, Montefalco Sagrantino, Aglianico del Vulture, Taurasi, Etna Rosso and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Again, someone will miss their favorite if it isn’t in this group. But these are, again, fundamental reds from a higher tier.

There are other wines, some more esoteric, some as good or (in the opinion of some experts) maybe even better. But you don’t start playing piano with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor.

I say this because, even after many years on the wine trail in Italy, there are surprises and revelations, from every corner of Italian wine. A breathtaking Chianti Classico is very possible as can be a Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato. A wine list is like a building. It benefits from a solid foundation. The penthouse suite on the 88th floor is part of the building, but not the only part. Or even the most important part. Integration of design. Solid structure. The goal of timelessness? In a building, yes. Why not on a wine list? Why cave to the fashion corps?

There is a quote I heard time and time again in college from my cultural art professor. “What is forever building is building forever.” by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. A wine list can also be something that is in that realm. Why not?

See, I’m not as enraged as I was last week. I’m philosophizing. Better?

Let’s talk about the spirit of the list. Is it meant to be a classic list? An innovative one? A bit playful? Or didactic? Something for everyone? All of the above? None of the aforementioned?

My belief is that is has to start with the food. What is the chef attempting to do with the menu? From there, a wine list can develop. But it goes back to the chef and their intentions. Oh, and there is the disposition of the target clientele. A group of diners in New York City might have a different baseline for Italian wine (and food) than a crowd in Dallas. As a wine list creator, you might have lofty goals, but if your clientele doesn’t understand your dialect, it can be frustrating for all parties. Thankfully, a good wine steward working the floor can suss that out pretty easily, and over a fairly quick period of time, get an understanding for just how far one can push the envelope.

Personal preference in wine or following certain fashions and hoping you can take the clientele with you, sans difficulté, is probably not terribly realistic. Not impossible, but implementing some baby steps along the way might help with the journey. If you have a diner who was weaned on high-test Napa Cabernet and you want to give them a Barbaresco, that might be a challenge. But if you can stair-step it, maybe with a Super Tuscan, the path will be smoother for all. Likewise, if you want to baptize Chardonnay drinkers in a font of skin contact Ribolla Gialla, you might be disappointed when the clients just don’t get it at first blush. Think of it like you would foreplay. Slow and stabile.

Let’s sidebar for a moment about French and California wine.

Look, there are many great French wines that have been developed and that go extremely well with French cuisine. And some of them also go well with Italian food. As some Italian food goes equally well with some French cooking. And when you see a handful of Italian wines on a wine list in Paris, it goes to show that those folks get it. But not everyone does. And neither should French wine be an alternate default on the Italian wine list, so as to cover all the bases. You lose your uniqueness sometimes with this approach. I mean, if you do that, what’s to stop the diner from asking the chef to take that disc of raw minced meat, aka carne cruda all' Albese, and cook it and put it between a bun and cover it with melted cheese and serve it with some fried potato strips?

If high-octane Red Zinfandel is your current jam, and you want your Eggplant Parmesan and Bistecca Fiorentina diners to swig that down like you do, you might want to curb your enthusiasm. I get it, I love California and her wines. They’re my vinous mother’s milk. But not everyone wants to jam with your play list.

Look, there are established cuisines and their counterparts in the wine world. And there is always that magical combination waiting for someone to “discover” it and share it with their guests. Nothing wrong with that. But let’s not think we’re going to be the first ones setting foot on the moon, when that happened over half a century ago. A dose of sobriety, mixed in with a teaspoon of humility will make any wine slinger a more balanced blend of human.

A word about size and why it matters.

Yes, you can amass a bible, with chapters and verse. And you can buy, buy, buy, till your daddy takes the T-Bird away. And you can tell your vendors how much you want them to order X, Y and Z for that monument to your ego. But then you must sell the wines. That’s if you actually return your vendors calls and emails after they order the darn wines for you and you’ve moved on to esoteric verticals of Alta Langa or Passopisciaro wines. So, the best advice I can give is this: Brevity isn’t easy, but if you can make a smart, small wine list, you are on the road to mastery. And all of your commercial relationships will be brilliant, because you will sell everything you buy, if done right, and everyone wins. And everyone loves a winner!

The moral of the story? Small is beautiful.

Final thoughts

I’ve tinkered with many a wine list, but there is one Italian wine list that I’d love to see. In the Italian restaurant I’d also love to see. In fact I probably have.

It could be a simple menu, maybe not even a “greatest hits” one. As an example, the dinner menu at Armando al Pantheon in Rome, which skews towards classic Roman dishes. Their wine list, which is organized by region, is an archetypal one, and though it is longer than what I’ve been proselytizing, the owner is an enthusiast. And the sommelier, a young female, in the selections, shows their passion for wine. But it’s brilliant. And there are scores of wine I’d love to order, over and over. That’s a wine list that makes sense to me.

But what I’d love to see is a small list, let’s say under 40 bottles. Price ranges from US $40 to $100. If you’d like, have a separate reserve list for a small collection of rarer and more expensive bottles, but keep it tight. The main list is the meat-and-potatoes driver of the wine program. It moves wine. It makes the guests happy. It makes the vendors happy. It makes the owner happy. No waste. Movement. Success. Why can’t Italian restaurants in America get it?


[ Part III? No way, I’m done. I'm getting out of town...]


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