The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Wine People

Every Bottle Tells a Story

I often find myself wondering, if wines could talk who they would be?

There is nothing more enjoyable to me then scanning a wine shop alone. I find myself in my own little world similar to the film Toy Story. The bottles come to life; they talk to me. They tell me stories. They teach me the lessons. Each bottle, like a dancing orphan in Oliver! or Annie, yearns for my attention.

This morning a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano stood tall and saluted me as if I were a fifteenth-century king for whom he was trying impress. With his arm perfectly apex he greeted me. “Boun giorno, signor,” he said and bowed deeply.

At the same time his next-door neighbor, a Rosso di Montalcino, was trying to grab my attention by doing cartwheels. Like a little child wanting to be picked first, this juvenile Rosso continued to jump up and down with his hand waving at me.  The Vino Nobile lashing out at the boy, “Basta child! You’re too young,” he admonished.

“Now sir,” he said to me in a solid yet graceful voice, “please come with me. I’m certainly the most perfectly fit wine for a gentleman such as yourself.” I pondered for a moment. Should I take this noble character up on his offer to taste a piece of history or ought I play with the youthful Rosso? The Rosso exclaimed in his squeaky voice, “I’m younger, more fun and can show you a good time right away.” He continued, “I’m uncomplicated. I’m fresh! I’m the fun Sangiovese!”

“But sir,” the Vino Nobile reasoned “I have been the favorite of Kings for centuries.” He lost self-control and cried out, “I have been forgotten!” I found myself feeling sorry for this legendary character. I turn to the joyful Rosso, patted him on the head and promised him that we will play another day.

I opened the statesmen-like bottle, and Signor Nobile told me of his history. With each sip he reminded me that he was once the favorite of Popes, Kings and even some American presidents like Thomas Jefferson. He told me about being immortalized in the play Bacchus and how the great Italian Poet Francesco Redi called him the “king of all wines” and “fit for nobility.” Throughout his tutorial I stare at him and find my eyes lost in his beautiful garnet red color. I cannot help to admire his aroma of violets, dark cherries, and black fruit. He’s one manly, but supple, wine.

At the end of our visitation, I let Signor Nobile know I appreciate his history and will do my best to remind others of his once forgotten greatness. We embraced each other with a traditional kiss on each cheek and a final Salute. As he turned away to the beaten Tuscan path and faded away into the hills, I was left with a smile on my face. With every bottle I taste I go on a journey; every bottle tells a story. Wine is more than a drink. It is a history lesson, a science, art, imagination and a beautiful story; it’s a person.

On Reading Food and Eating Words

Thwarting Chaos, One Letter at a Time

I’m a writer, teacher of writing, college professor, and the editor of this blog. I’ve been writing for IWM and for Sergio Esposito for almost two years, and I have a confession: I can’t spell. My spelling makes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s look like H.L. Mencken’s, which is to say pretty egregious indeed. My inability to spell is a deep-seated failure, a source of some embarrassment, and an ongoing shame. I’ve never had much interest in spelling; putting the letters in the correct order has always taken a distant second place to arranging words in aesthetically pleasing and emotionally true syntax.

I can’t spell in English, and I can spell even less well in Italian, French or Food. I therefore have a tremendous and involuntary response of compassion for the poor beleaguered White House menu writer who completely botched the menu for the Obama’s most recent—and first—state dinner last Tuesday night.

As the New York Times reported in its blog The Caucus, the Obamas went all-out to thrill their guests with a newly hired star chef, a tasty menu and a series of carefully chosen complementary wines. Anahad O’Connor reports, “one person the White House apparently neglected to hire was a spell checker.  The special dinner menu — a lavish mélange of Indian and American favorites as well as several excellent wines — was rife with typos.” (You can read the full story here, and you can also find it all over the web—so horrified were journalists and copy editors everywhere.)

Reading that the menu misspelled “Grenache” as “Granache,” divided “chickpeas” into two words, and violently excised an “l” from “Willamette,” the hyphen from “Thibaut-Janisson” and the accent from “geleé,” I felt a profound sense of kinship. Nothing has made me as acutely aware of my spelling deficiencies like having to bang out “Sassicaia,” “Grattamacco,” and “Friuli-Venezia Giulia” on a regular basis. About the only thing that gives me a more consistent horrorsloth of humiliation than having to look up those words each and every time I type them is attempting to say them aloud. Uttering “Castello dei Rampolla’s Vigna d’Alceo” or “Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis” is tantamount to slipping on a Hawaiian shirt so badly does my pronunciation brand me an ugly American.

And yet while I feel a great tenderness for the individual who made the errors on the White House menu, and while that tenderness radiates out to the humming committee who approved it, the hard-nosed editor can’t quite condone it. If the White House can’t spell the menu for their first state dinner correctly, what hope is there for us hoi polloi? We might as well serve a red wine with shrimp curry or call a varietal a variety. It would be complete gastronomic chaos. And no one wants that, however correctly spelled.

Nice to See You Again, Beaujolais Nouveau

Keeping in Touch with What Wine Might Be all About

This time of year everyone talks about Thanksgiving, and more than making me think of family dinners past, it reminds me of my first wine tasting experiences back in culinary school. We were supposed to be learning how to pair wines with our food, and naturally, all of the students looked forward to these weekly sessions—they were certainly my favorite part of class. Our chef instructor had been the wine steward at Windows on the World, and he was always quite solemn as we discussed the wines, their different aromas and flavors, and how they would stand up to certain foods. It was all quite serious and analytical, and many of my classmates were just plain bored.

But the class I remember best was just a few days before Thanksgiving, and the wine that we tasted in that session was a Beaujolais Nouveau. The chef told us the story of how every year on the third Thursday of November, the winemakers in the Beaujolais region bottle some of their wines after only a few weeks of fermentation and release them as Beaujolais Nouveau. Then on “Beaujolais Day” messengers would race from the vineyards to Paris with the first taste of the new vintage. Of course, the wine is simple, fruity, and not at all serious –it can be more like drinking grape juice than actual wine. Yet no one seemed to be having a problem with finishing their glass.

As we were tasting our Nouveau, another of our chef instructors stopped in to taste a glass. Chef Dominique was a tall man with a thin moustache and the thickest French accent I had ever heard. In his chef’s jacket and toque, he was the quintessential French chef. We asked him what he thought of the wine, expecting him to dismiss it completely and to mock the silly Americans for their unsophisticated tastes in wine. But as he took a sip, a twinkle came into his eye. He smiled and said simply, “It’s fun!”

And when it comes down to it, isn’t that really the point of wine?

How’s the 1929 Château Capbern Drinking?

In Wine, Miracles Happen

Dinner at New York restaurant Daniel isn’t the hardest Friday night I’ve had to suffer through, especially when I’m spending it eating beautiful food and drinking lovely wines with friends.  Such was my fine fortune last weekend and the wine de résistance was a 1929 Château Capbern.  Château Capbern, you might ask?  Mais, oui!

I hadn’t heard of the wine, but happily two of my friends—one a founder of Gourmet Garage and one an esteemed wine writer—have long trusted their taste buds and discovered this estate’s wines back in the 1970s at the tasting of a trusted merchant.  They lovingly cellared a cache of a variety of the chateau’s vintages that they purchased at the time.  Château Capbern-Gasqueton, they informed me, is a St. Estèphe Cru Bourgeois nestled in the appellation better known for châteaux Cos d’Estournel and Montrose, as well as the more widely-recognized Crus Bourgeois like Phélan-Ségur and Haut-Marbuzet.

Delighted to be invited to partake, I still had to hide my surprise that my host was brimming with confidence about how the wine would show.  I had only tasted one other 1929 Médoc, and it looked and tasted like mud.  In actuality, the wine seemed like nasty joke on terroir, literally “involving the soil.”  So as we sat to eat an elegant meal in the honor and company of this supposed treasure, I tried to bury the memory of this prior disappointment, hoping the wine in the silver-gilded, basket-woven cradle wouldn’t produce similar heartbreak.

Then it was time to uncork the bottle. I held my breath and crossed my fingers.

Formidable! The 1929 Capbern vibrantly perfumed the glass and its seamless structure coated our palates. The wine enchanted the entire table.  My friend, John, who had co-purchased the wine, marveled, “How in the world can a plain old Médoc stun us like this…80 years on?”  And another companion replied, “It’s wine…miracles happen.”

Knowing as I do that now is a time of great worry over the provenance of the world’s best wines, I admit I couldn’t completely check my incredulity. This bottle was a “simple” wine that most of us probably wouldn’t touch ten years out of vintage today, much less eighty.   And yet I was delighted. I am someone who goes to great lengths on a daily basis to ensure the provenance of our wines and to have the luxury of simply sitting back and savoring a wine made in 1929, the end of the Roaring Twenties and the year of the great Wall Street crash that lead to the Great Depression, was an invaluable experience.

Moreover, one sip and I was blessed with not just history but a gorgeous moment rich with a reminder of why wine is such a mystical treasure.

My First Apartment

On Disaster, Paint and Moscato d’Asti

I just moved into my apartment and could barely find my bed through the sea of boxes. The first night I even had to sleep on my futon couch, because I couldn’t make the trek to my bedroom. To say it was messy is an understatement…it was a disaster that I couldn’t envision as being my new home. But day by day of unpacking, the pile slowly dwindled, and I actually saw my parquet flooring for the first time.

Once all my things were neatly put away, I started to decorate and make this place my own. I hung some framed pictures, arranged flowers in vases, and got cable television. But when I came home from work everyday and plopped my keys in the green bowl on the side table by the door, it didn’t feel complete. That night I spent countless hours researching budget design ideas online until I found what I thought of at the time to be the answer: a green accent wall.

That weekend, I made a trip to the Home Depot to prepare myself for battle, and returned home with a gallon of “New Green” paint, rollers, and blue tape (to help me color in between the lines). My boyfriend and I fanatically painted all afternoon, and managed to put on two coats before our arms were ready to fall off. To celebrate, we opened a bottle of Massolino Moscato d’Asti from IWM that was sitting in the refrigerator just waiting to be opened. When it was in my glass, the beautiful small bubbles rising to the surface lured me in, and the aromas of honey and apricot sealed the deal. The wine was wonderfully succulent and refreshing at the same time. We sat there silently, sipping our moscato while staring at our great accomplishment.

That day we transformed the apartment into our home, thanks to a little paint, a lot of hard work, and a glass of Massolino.

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