Gifts fit for perfect friends
I’m an altruistic diner: whenever I’m out at a restaurant with family or close friends, I always look through the menu from all perspectives. I try to spot the dishes I think that each person would like, and I usually find something for everyone—sometimes even before my friend sees it him or herself! I believe that food is elemental to everyone’s personality, and the more time I spend eating with people, the more I learn who they are, what they like, and what they want to eat. For example, I can now confidently order for my father without his even touching the menu. This foodie quirk that I have developed actually translates pretty well when it comes to gift-giving, and my expertise has made Christmas one of my favorite holidays.
Picking out presents can feel very tricky because you want to balance fun with practicality. There’s nothing worse than a response such as “Oh that’s great, thanks so much for the shovel, it’s going to come in really handy this winter.” I hate the idea of my Christmas gift recipient responding with nothing more than politeness. It’s just crushing.
This year, I’m a little late on my Christmas shopping, so I needed to find something quick and easy that still fit well with each person. Working at IWM, I found there was really only gift: wine. To my friend Jennifer, who is very outgoing and ever the instigator, I’m giving Col Vetoraz, one of our signature Proseccos, so that she can start her own party. To Susan, the girly-girl of my group and the woman who takes the longest to get ready, I’m giving the Ca’ dei Mandorli Gavi 2007, a wine that smells just as good as she does. To Stephanie, who is very wise and calm-headed, I’m gifting the A & GN Fantino Barolo Vigna dei Dardi 1996, a wine with a bit more maturity, seriousness and reserve to match Stephanie’s own. I have so many more giftees to go, but I can’t list them all and give away all of my secrets…Happy Holidays!
Now Don’t complain and say we didn’t give you any choices or we’ll pin you!
Festivus, as the saying goes, is the holiday for the rest of us, and it is celebrated today, December 23. Festivus, the anti-holiday, came to cultural consciousness via Seinfeld, the television show famously about nothing. In a Seinfeld episode airing December 18, 1995, Festivus appeared as a holiday celebrated by the Constanza family, taken up by Kramer, and used by George as a front for charity. Given its auspicious birth, Festivus soon spread to the big three-dimensional world beyond the small screen. In reality, however, Festivus began several decades earlier in 1965, when it was created by Dan O’Keefe, the father of one of Seinfeld’s writers. Mr. O’Keefe came up with Festivus as an antidote to the crass commercialism of Christmas (and later Chanukah), and the stark nature of the Festivus traditions continue to speak against the glitz, the glamour, the tinsel and the all-around gooey warm fuzziness of the holidays, engendered by the jiggling of fat men’s bellies, airborne ruminants and never-ending oil.
Like the wise men, the Festivus traditions are three: a metal pole (George Constanza’s dad prefers aluminum because of its “high strength-to-weight ratio”), the airing of grievances, and feats of strength. There’s also a feast, but there’s always a feast; no holiday fit to wear the name “holiday” comes without a feast. Beyond Festivus’ simple triumvirate, the traditions are open to interpretation. The pole may be long or short, set in a base or hung from the ceiling, slim or wide. The feats of strength conventionally are wrestling matches that end only when the host is pinned to the floor, but they too can include almost any act of physical prowess. The airing of grievances typically include the expression of disappointment, but those too can range far and wide like particularly spiteful Monarch butterflies.
You and I may celebrate Festivus very differently—I may like individual potted poles for all my guests, while you may like to plant yours in your backyard like a Spartan cedar—but one question always remains: what libations go best with the Festivus traditions? Christmas has its nog, its wassail and its toddies; Chanukah has its Manischewitz; but what does Festivus have? Every holiday deserves a drink, even one created by a writer on his first date to impress his eventual wife and mother to his children.
To my thinking, nothing complements the simple beauty of an unadorned metal pole like Movia’s Puro. Holidays seem the natural time for sparklers—a bubbly wine is a party in your mouth. Festivus is no exception to this rule, and the operatic opening required of Puro serves as a counterweight to the austerity of the metal pole, plus Puro’s crispness creates a pleasant companion to the aluminum, which I use because I am, above all things, a staunch traditionalist.
Festivus celebrants often reach to a nice single-malt scotch or a beautiful boutique bourbon to accentuate their feats of strength, and for good reason. I have nothing against a lovely Dalwhinnie or a delicious Laphroaig, and I’m delighted to partake of Knob Creek, but let’s talk turkey. If you really want to pin that host and put a fork in Festivus, you might want to consider sipping some serious grappa. I like Poli Grappa Miele because it’s awfully pretty, plenty tasty and wicked strong. It’s artisanal grappa, and as long as you move those delicate little hand-blown grappa glasses out of the living room before the Greco-Roman wrestling begins, you’re good to go.
Some people see the airing of grievances as a serious business, and for those people, I might suggest a somber red along the lines of a Giacosa Barolo or a Soldera Brunello. These are wines for Festivus followers who put great weight in their grievances, bold and contemplative wines, wines that brood with furrowed brows, wines of gravitas, and they are incidentally really, really good. But if you’re someone who likes to put your tongue firmly in your cheek during this portion of Festivus fun, you might enjoy a wine that’s higher on sass and lower on glower, like Giuseppe Quintarelli’s Valpolicella or Movia’s Lunar. It’s up to you how you want to pitch your grievances, and the wine you choose will set the tone for your evening.
There is no specified order to the Festivus celebration. Just as some people open their Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, while others wait until Christmas Day, some Festivus celebrants like to gather around the metal pole, then engage in the FoS, eat the feast and finally air grievances, while others eat first, gather, fight and air later. It’s a matter of personal faith, really, and whatever works best with your loved ones, aka those who have most grievously disappointed you. It’s a time for sharing, and not caring; a time to gather, and to blather; a time to wrestle, and then maybe to nestle.
Make merry, drink responsibly, love one another and yadda yadda yadda.
From Toscana to New York and Back
Daughter of wine legend Gianfranco Soldera, Monica Soldera has been raised with the heart and soul of Toscana. The Soldera family’s home sits in the middle of the idyllic Case Basse estate in Montalcino, a spot as known for Monica’s father’s Sangiovese Brunello as her mother’s rose garden. After obtaining a degree in Economics, Monica received a Master’s Degree in Communications from Bocconi University and pursued a career in marketing in the food industry until she was lured from Milan back to her family home. These days, Monica and her husband both work at the vineyard, alongside her parents, with her four children nearby. Wine is a family affair, and what a glorious affair it is at Soldera.
1. What one aspect of Italian culture did you witness in NY that made you feel at home?
New York is always fascinating to me! One reason is that I spent part of my honeymoon here many years ago. I always feel at home in New York; I appreciate the hospitality and also the smiles I see on many faces; I feel safe. Of course, I also experienced the signs of the economic difficulties, but at the same time I felt a lot of hope. Everybody seems to do his or her best for getting over the crisis.
2. Where did you eat in New York and what were some of your favorite dishes?
I eat in different restaurants—all of them great restaurants with high level of quality not only in food but also in service. The wines lists were amazing and I drank so many very nice wines. I met sommeliers with high professionalism. I appreciate all the restaurants where I eat, the fact that each of them was different in their style of cooking and the dishes they offer to guests. I also enjoyed the differences in the places, like the different architectural style.
3. What one thing that you can’t fit into your suitcase would you most like to bring home from New York to Toscana?
The smiling faces of the customers tasting our wines!
4. What is your best (or first) memory of Sergio Esposito?
Sergio has always surprised me for his knowledge and passion for fine wines. In addition, he deeply expresses the positive, sweet soul of people from South Italy. Most of all, I appreciate his respect and admiration for my father.
5. What one story from your trip would put a smile on your father’s face?
The congratulations everybody expressed to me for the greatness of the 2002 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino, its finesse and elegance, and its Sangiovese purity.
A Night in the Life of Service & Hospitality
A few nights ago, Sergio asked me to lead a dinner he was hosting with two of his partners for some very special guests. I was eager to return to my service roots and excited to lend a helping hand. On this evening the store glowed with soft lighting and twinkling red votive candles. Andrea Bocelli’s Christmas album played in the background, and the smell of Chef Kevin’s cuisine lingered in the air. I greeted our guests with a glass of Salon 1997, an unrivaled Blanc de Blancs with a pale gold hue, subtle apple fruit, racy minerality and an elegant finish. It complemented the beautiful antipasti: a selection of regional Italian cheeses, an assortment of marinated vegetables, cured salumi and our fresh crudo. I could see our guests beginning to unwind as the Salon began to take effect.
The conversation became more spirited, postures more relaxed and smiles surrounded the table. Lobster was served next, paired with Gravner Breg Anfora 2002 and Montevertine Le Pergole Torte 2004. The organic nature of the brilliantly crafted Gravner was a classic complement to the dish. Its silky tannins mirroring the delicate texture of the lobster, the Torte showed how a soft red can provide a perfect match to seafood. After the lobster, we delighted our new friends by presenting pappardelle pasta with braised duck paired with Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino 2004 and Talenti Brunello Riserva Vigna Paretaio 1999. I had decanted the Talenti two hours before the dinner to allow the wine to open, and it was delicious. I could see our guests were reveling in their experience. They had been seduced by the lobster pairing, and the pasta course established trust between us. The anxiety from the frenzied New York pace was dissipating.
The meal’s crescendo arrived accompanied by dramatic flair—Gianfranco Soldera’s Case Basse di Soldera Brunello di Montalcino 1993 and Case Basse di Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1983. The wines were simply majestic. If ever there was a wine that was like a cathedral song, it would be Soldera’s remarkable Brunellos. A festival of grilled meats was served family style to accompany these gorgeous wines. The 1993 was still showing concentrated dark red fruits and firm tannins, while the 1983 had evolved into perfect balance. The guests were delighted; we had exceeded their expectations. They were ready to ease into dessert.
We did not end our meal with a gentle expression; rather, we finished the culinary experience with a kaleidoscope of flavor. We turned to the Master of the Veneto, Giuseppe Quintarelli and his 1986 Recioto della Valpollicella, a wine whose sweet, black fruit nectar is framed by violets and tar, and whose finish is elegant and long. The wine was matched by Dolce Gorgonzola a sweet, creamy, dense blue cheese. It served as the canvas to the wine’s purple fruit. The meal’s finishing touch came from Jacques Selosse Exquise. Crafted for Alain Ducasse as a dessert Champagne, the wine shows a bit of sweetness in the front of the palate but finishes with Selosse’s signature expression of elegant minerality.
The guests were impressed. As they put their coats on they hugged Sergio and thanked him for another supreme effort. Sergio profusely and sincerely thanked them for the opportunity to share his passion. I watched, and witnessed more than the natural end of a perfect meal. I saw that Italian Wine Merchants is not merely a business that Sergio created; it’s the embodiment of all he holds sacred.
Finding Romance in a Book and a Bottle
I like to believe that I live a romantic life, but the naked white-light truth is that I do not. The first time I got drunk on wine I was fifteen and I was with my friend Kim Danforth in her log-cabin mansion in Vermont. I’d never been drunk before, and the whole Danforth clan saw this as a dire situation they needed to remedy. Her parents went out for the evening, leaving us a couple of bottles of red wine with which to entertain ourselves. The evening began with Kim and me playing Cardinal Puff and ended with us singing along loudly to Gilda Radner’s album Live from New York and my vomiting spectacularly all over the Danforth’s oriental carpet.
It was not pretty; it did not foster in me an appreciation of wine; it was brutal; it was a very good time; but it was not in the least bit romantic.
Which is why I like to pretend that I actually got to know wine like Charles Ryder, a character in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, got to know wine, because it is the very pinnacle of romance, and romance is more or less the point of this novel. I imagine that like Charles I had serendipitously made fast friends with a member of the fading aristocracy, that like he I am folded into that family as gently as egg-whites, that I am invited to a great stony mansion capped with a dome designed by Inigo Jones, that I am given free rein to plunder a wine cellar; and that I am clever enough to liken a bottle of wine to prophets, pearls or unicorns. (To my credit, I did once tell Sergio that a wine he’d given me reminded me of a really, really smart beauty contestant; he replied that he was pretty sure I was talking about myself.)
I’ve quoted below the scene from Brideshead Revisited that I wish I had lived. In it, Charles is drinking with Sebastian Flyte at Brideshead, the Flyte’s ancestral mansion. They are enjoying the estate’s wine cellar with the rapacity of Visigoths. They are having a simply fabulous time. I want to be them—and that is, of course, the beauty of literature: we read and we are transported. We too gather the tatty glamour of dusky aristocracy. We too discover anew. We too become young again. We too can live beautiful, if evanescent, lives.
And we too can open a bottle and feel free to call that wine a meadow, a leprechaun, a gazelle. We can, and when we do, we can let loose the romantic within.
One day we went down to the cellars with Wilcox and saw the empty bays which had once held a vast store of wine; one transept only was used now; there the bins were well stocked, some of them with vintages fifty years old.
“There’s been nothing added since his Lordship went abroad,” said Wilcox. “A lot of the old wine wants drinking up. We ought to have laid down the eighteens and twenties. I’ve had several letters about it from the wine merchants, but her Ladyship says to ask Lord Brideshead, and he says to ask his Lordship, and his Lordship says to ask the lawyers. That’s how we get low. There’s enough here for ten years at the rate it’s going, but how shall we be then?”
Wilcox welcomed our interest; we had bottles brought up from every bin, and it was during those tranquil evenings with Sebastian that I first made a serious acquaintance with wine and sowed the seed of that rich harvest which was to be my stay in many barren years. We would sit, he and I, in the Painted Parlour with three bottles open on the table and three glasses before each of us; Sebastian had found a book on wine-tasting, and we followed its instructions in detail. We warmed the glass slightly at a candle, filled a third of it, swirled the wine round, nursed it in our hands, held it to the light, breathed it, sipped it, filled our mouths with it and rolled it over the tongue, ringing it on the palate like a coin on a counter, tilted our heads back and let it trickle down the throat. Then we talked of it and nibbled Bath Oliver biscuits, and passed on to another wine; then back to the first, then on to another, until all three were in circulation and the order of glasses got confused, and we fell out over which was which, and we passed the glasses to and fro between us until there were six glasses, some of them with mixed wines in them which we had filled from the wrong bottle, till we were obliged to start again with three clean glasses each, and the bottles were empty and our praise of them wilder and more exotic.
“It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
“And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”
“Like a swan.”
“Like the last unicorn.”
And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining-room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.
“Ought we to be drunk every night?” Sebastian asked one morning.
“Yes, I think so.”
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