Uncle Emilio’s wife, Serafina, sent Anne Marie a note. “Uncle Emilio isn’t doing so well. After his last fall in the vineyard, he just hasn’t been the same. I guess, after 63 harvests, he’s been very fortunate. But the grapes won’t wait for him to feel better. Is there any chance we could have you here for harvest?”
As it turned out, this was good timing for Anne Marie. The winery she worked in as a cellar rat in was changing. The owner was leaving the winery to his kids. They lived in the larger cities and were more interested in the value of the land. She felt the call of Italy.
When she got there, things weren’t as bad as she had feared. Emilio had a good team and they knew what to do, more or less. In Italy, there are still vestiges of a paternalistic society, especially in the country. But with Emilio and his employees, it was first and foremost a matter of respect. Respect for all that he had done and what he brought to uplifting his locality and those around him.
Before he took on the task of turning his grandfather’s winery into a 20th (now 21st) century winery, he had to imagine how many years it would take. In that time, he witnessed, along with everyone else in the world alive, the magnificent changes Italian wine made. And how the world turned towards Italy, now seeing their wines as treasures, not bargain bin rejects. But that wasn’t without trial and error, and with evolution and being an agent of change. And, along with that, managing those around him and maintaining respect for the work, the wine and ultimately for the man. Emilio was one of the few fortunate ones, for his community respected him, even though his better days were behind him. And this is where Anne Marie came in.
She peeked into his study, where he would read deep into the harvest nights, and he motioned for her to come over. He kissed her on the cheeks and she sat down. A bottle of wine was open. “Let me pour you a glass of this red wine. It is from that special Sangiovese parcel I have been saving for you.” Anne Marie took a whiff and then a sip. It was clear and lucid in coloration, not too dark. A garden of roses flashed through her nose, followed by a salty-dustiness and completed with a dark cherry note on top. When she swirled the wine inside her mouth, it was as if her palate was being reborn. Every point on it was tingly. Waves of flavors searched every nook and cranny. This was like no other wine she had ever had.
“Uncle, what is this wine? How did you make it? What did you do?” She was fantastically intrigued with all the details. This was new territory for her.
“You like it, eh? I’m glad. Surprisingly, we have done very little. The vines are old, as you know. And they are fierce. When my grandfather went to replant his vineyards, when the phylloxera epidemic hit our part of Italy, this was the only parcel he didn’t pull up and replant with the American stock. He told me this when he was very old, that they ran out of root stock, and had waited to do this parcel last because it was such an irregular site. Rocky, uneven, with those winds that come up over the ravine. Maybe the vineyard had its own idea of what it wanted to be. Stubbornness does run in the family, after all.”
Yes, this was providential.
Emilio continued, “Dr. Scienza, came by the vineyard once for some cuttings. He told me that these are very old types. Said the only other place he found vines like this were in an ancient vineyard in Calabria. Even thought that these might be the ‘mother-clone,’ and left it at that. All I know is they produce well, manage through droughts and hailstorms, and are cantankerous enough not resist any modern pruning and trellising practices that have been tried upon them on the last 60 years. They are free spirits. And now it is up to you to go get them and make the wine.”
Anne Marie took another sip, outside it was getting darker and a shower of meteors lit up the window of the study. The wine tasted like a child of the stars, it was out of this world.
And now, the old parcel was being handed to her from Uncle Emilio. “Well, why not,” she mused, “after all, I’m not getting any younger either!”
Two new wines that have recently graced the dinner table. Both made with biodynamic practices and are Vin Demeter.
The French wine – 2015 Chateau Peybonnehomme-les-Tours “Energies” is a Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux AC from Famille Hubert Vignerons. The wine (SRP $25, sample) has an Italian connection. From the first impression (a Bordeaux wine in a Burgundy bottle) I got the idea that this wine was not going to be your grandfather’s Bordeaux. 60% Merlot, 30% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon from a vineyard in the village of Cars near Blaye. The Gironde River is nearby and the vines are around 40 years of age.
Completely Demeter agriculture biodynamique since the beginning of this millennium.
Opening the wine, it was tight. After about ten minutes it opened up. The thing I noticed, right off, was the granularity of the wine. It had this texture that softly sanded away on the palate. Not abrasive as much as stimulating. Good balance, dry, bone dry. An hour or so into the wine (we had it with a soup of chicken, mushrooms and potatoes) it really hit its stride. The rose aromas starting blossoming in the nose, along with a tiny bit of inkiness, and a walnuttiness, very pleasant combination. With the soup, which is often difficult to pair a wine with, it was perfect. Quite an enjoyable wine and moreover, a wine that had a sense of itself, an identity and it was a pleasant one. I would buy this wine in a heartbeat, really a great diversion from the “tried and true” of what we have come to know (and love) about traditional red Bordeaux wines. Another new face in the clubhouse, looking a little different than the others, but in the end, still part of the family.
Oh, and the Italian connection? After fermentation in concrete, it was aged for 12 months in Italian terra cotta amphorae.
The Italian wine – 2013 Coste di moro Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from the Orsogna winery, their “Lunaria” line of organic wines. This wine ($15 retail, purchased) comes in an attractive long Bordeaux shaped bottle. It’s very brown bag hip looking, very upscale in a low impact way. Also biodynamic (Demeter certified).
The initial aromas in this wine were dark chocolate, rich plum, but a little closed in, still napping. After it awoke, the wine opened up. The texture of this wine also had a graininess to it, which gave the wine volume to dance with the sumptuous fruit. A bit grapey in the beginning, which leveled out during the night. What I liked about this wine was its versatility. We had the wine with stove-top smoked Piedmontese rib eye steaks, and also a salad with a quasi-Caesar- like dressing (olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire, Dijon mustard, anchovy puree, garlic, pepper) and a small Yukon gold potato with a yogurt dressing (in place of butter or sour cream). So, lots of different spices, textures and flavors. And the Montepulciano fit right in, in fact, fit in so well that it was seamless and ultimately delicious.
This wine is a great value from the perspective of provenance and accessibility.
There you go - two natural wines that you should put on your dinner table soon.
Anne Marie was from a new generation of global citizens. Born in America in the late 1980’s, from parents who immigrated from Europe, her mother was from France, father from Italy, and they met among the vast plains of West Texas. Both looking for space, for freedom from convention, for a patch of blue sky they could claim. Along the way they found each other, fell in love, settled down and gave birth to Anne Marie and her twin brothers.
Neither were farmers, the father was an engineer, the mother was a doctor. Both their families had roots in the farm and in grape growing. But that was a long time ago in an entirely different world. This was America and The Dream was still alive.
Anne Marie showed an inclination towards the French culture early on, learning to speak French fluently by 4, and attending the Dallas International School Mission Laïque Française. Anne Marie was smart, precocious and dearly loved by her mother, her doting father and her twin brothers. When they spent summers in France and Italy, she showed interest in the culture, the food and the farms of her French and Italian families.
And then she became a teenager in Texas, and for a brief time went into another world. Music, technology, peer groups, all intersected in this budding young human. And the future, when one is 13, seems so much further off than one’s best friend down the street. Anne Marie was “ma fille Américaine,” as her mother loved to say.
So, Anne Marie lived in the moment, and grew into an adult, heading off to college in the West Texas Panhandle town of Lubbock, Texas Tech.
If you’ve never been to Lubbock, Texas, I will only say this. You have to have a reason to go there. It is flat, often bitterly cold in the winter and blindingly hot in the summer. There is little or no water, no beaches, and the mountains pale in comparison to their Rocky Mountain cousins to the north. The wind blows so much that the place is a veritable center of the universe for windmills. And the ancient red, fine sand, ashes of ancient mountains when they were as tall as Everest and much older, now pulverized by millions of years of, gets in everything. It may look romantic in the old Western films, but it isn’t.
One of Anne Marie’s college friends came from a nearby cotton farm, and with the global shift of cotton farming to countries that could produce the fabric much cheaper, the family looked to diversify their crops. Someone told them to start growing grapes and so they planted Chenin Blanc and Sangiovese. To Anne Maire it was a clarion call. She enrolled in winemaking classes at Texas Tech the next semester, changed her major and set upon a path to learn all she could about winemaking.
When she graduated, she secured a spot in the Loire Valley, nearby where her mom’s family lived, and became an apprentice at a small winery. There she saw Chenin Blanc in all its many forms before it was made into wine. She tasted, walked the many vineyards, learned what was being done right, and also learned about the many missteps farmers made in France, thanks to Crédit Agricole’s influence among their many loan holders. She would see one vineyard bright and green and alive right next to another one, which was brown and burnt and fallow. And she would taste wine from the different plots, noting how different the wines tasted. It was here she got religion and committed to winemaking in the most natural way she could, when the time comes.
One August, she decided to visit her Italian family on the Umbria-Tuscany border. They grew grapes, Montepulciano and Sangiovese. Her uncle Emilio would walk with her among the vines showing her the differences in the grapes, the rows, the topography. This was an area in Italy where natural practices were strongest, no herbicides, no pesticides, no Crédit Agricole. Here the green bank was the earth, and the locals saved wisely. Here Anne Marie would come to find a full circle for her life, from the wind-swept plains of Lubbock to the enchanted valleys of the Loire, to the green heart of Italy.
Uncle Emilio said to her one afternoon, while they were sipping on a red from the demijohn, “Anne Marie why not join us for harvest? With your education, and your love for wine and your influence from your mother’s country, your father’s country might benefit from all of this. We’d love to have you with us to help. Think about it, for I know you are already committed to harvest this year in France. But next year? I have a special parcel of old Sangiovese, it can be yours to do with as you see fit. Just don’t wait too long, the vines and I are not getting any younger.”
After almost thirteen years writing this blog, observing the wine trade, from within and without, and folding those impressions into the culture-at-large, I have to say I have begun to wonder, who are we? What follows are composite, fictionalized characters, who have components of people I’ve encountered of late, as I explore mastery and the paths to it.
Glenda worked at a local bistro, got bit by the wine bug and started taking classes. She made certified sommelier pretty easily, and, living in a vibrant urban setting, was encouraged to go “all the way.” After six years, she made it to master sommelier. She quit the restaurant, her labor of love for seven years, and went to work for a local distributor as an education specialist. Missing the floor action, she moved into a sales management position. She traveled extensively. The corporate job allowed her to keep one foot in the business and the other foot in the society of sommeliers that she’d beelined to. She was nearing forty. She made good money, but not as good as the male ms in the company. He had two children and was there first.
Still, she endured. She was smart, rose in the company and in the sommelier community, but wasn’t really happy. She had a hole in her middle.
“That was when I realized that I missed the thing I got this damn pin for, to be a sommelier, not a check on a box of some corporate H.R.’s promo- piece on how progressive their mega-large corporation is! And the club I was in, fewer and fewer, at the top, were on the floor. Yeah, there was Robby, always hitting it. But more and more were shedding the apron and donning the three-piece. I just didn’t feel it. I needed to get back to where I was, before I was certified as a master. I wanted the path back, I want to be masterful at something, not because a bunch of men in suits and ties told me I have ‘passed,’ into their world.”
And there we leave her, at an outpost, somewhere, selling wine, one bottle at a time, to her guests. Happy as a clam. On her way, ever so slowly, to mastery.
Zeke is a brilliant writer. And teacher. One of the most intelligent and sensitive souls in the wine trade. And a really nice person. How did he get here? And how will he remain sensitive and kind, while climbing the ladder of wine?
“I live in the city. It’s noisy and impersonal. I dislike riding the subway, but it’s quicker and I can get work done, down there. Above ground, there are too many distractions. I can actually fast-track my career down below.” Well, alright. When I was young and living in that city, I’d sooner freeze my ass off walking to work, from Chelsea to the Lower east side. And I often did. But I’m a Westerner, not a city guy.
“They way I see it, I love words. And I love teaching. And I am young and healthy. I figure I can do this for ten years and see what comes of it. It’s not a bad gig. And I have plenty of free time in the summer and during holidays for ‘research.’ But I really don’t know what tribe I belong to. Am I a teacher, a writer, a wine guy, a pet lover? Look at my Instagram feed and you see all that. But what does it really tell me, about me? Who am I doing this for? Master of what?” I ask myself that a lot, buddy. I do not know.
Cathy is an expat. Has herself a man, and land, and proximity to a great city, but not inside it. She left her native land, some of the sweetest beaches in the world. Sweet meat. Wine, to her, is a part of a larger assemblage.
“Look, don’t get me wrong. I love a lot of folks in the world of wine. And there is an almost equal amount now, who think they need to be in that game. They are transplants and it takes time for their grafting to complete.”
Fully committed to western ranch life, where one must pay attention to the soil, the wind, the light, the rain, and the many other elements at play. “I love nothing more than a rich, fat juicy chicken sausage on the fire, that we raised and butchered (humanely). That, along with a crisp fresh glass of Altesse. Especially if the sausage is on a hard roll.”
Yeah, my kind of wine description. Food, farm, family. Not enough points to reward. A masterful lunge within her domain. And envy-worthy by many of us.
The wine business is changing. Everything before now has been built on the goal of global distribution. And those old models are in major disruption, not just in the US, but all over the world. It isn’t something a new and groovy web-site can fix, nor can a following of 20K on Instagram. That can’t hurt - but do we really need another pocket sized backpack? But econ-world is clenching down, cutting costs, predatory regs, you name it. They aren’t coming to get you. The gates have been raised. Hope you have a good home base of clients. And hope your world domination plan still allows you to travel there, regularly and relatively cost-effectively. The name of the game is “skin in the game.” Good luck!
And for the rest of us schlubs. Again, this is from the eddy. If you are going after something because you need a club, or a tribe, or a place to belong, and you want to be a leader, a maker, and you aren’t afraid to risk a lot, you know the magic combination. As for who is a master and who tells who can be a master, well that is a whole ‘nother box o’apples. Mastery is a tricky scenario.
I think the bigger questions are, who are you and how do you frame mastery?
My French cousins seem to be on a roll. They stand up to political bullies, they smoke when and where they want and they appear to be more interested in Italian wine than their Italian cousins. At least, that’s how it appears over here on the wine trail in Italy.
For year I have tracked who comes here and from where. And though this is an English language blog, and while most of the readers live in America, it comes as a bit of a happy surprise that my second largest readership comes from France. In fact, over the life of this blog, going on thirteen years now, French readers exceed Italians by double. Maybe the French just have more time to mull things over, even if it is in this crazy English language. Or maybe some of my English friends, living in France are also driving this? For whatever reason, this is intriguing. Who loves wine more – the French or the Italians?
No doubt they both love food and wine more than most countries – it’s just a matter of the fact that good stuff grows in both places and the natives support the local produce, be it liquid or solid.
And I too, love both wine and food from France and Italy. I find, these day when I peek into my cooler and look for a bottle of wine for the night’s meal, that lately it has just as likely to be French as Italian.
Maybe the sensibilities aren’t that different. I don’t know. I just somehow feel that the French mentality is often more curious about things. Gosh, that sounds like a gross generalization. But the numbers don’t lie.
Maybe the French come to the wine trail in Italy for information with a little inspiration. I know my English-speaking readers often tell me they come here not so much for a wine review as for a wine recharge. They don’t want me to tell them what flowers are swimming in their glass. They want someone to dance a tango or a waltz with. They want a partner, not a wine-splainer.
Oh, I can get stuck in my “splain” mode. Or my “inside baseball” mode. I hope that most of you come here because I don’t talk about wine like the magazine reviewers do. Usually there is some kind of connection, hopefully a visceral one. I can always add some “woo-woo” icing to the cake when I feel the calling. Lately I feel it more, having been unshackled from the bonds of “career.”
Career. Work. Livelihood. All these things, which, when you’re in them, feel like community, your tribe – your identity. Well, that was an illusion that has now been rendered. Yes, we work with others. And sometimes we make friendships, sometime lasting ones. But the reality is, when you’re gone – you’re gone. Out of sight – out of mind.
And that’s probably as it should be. My younger, once-upon-a-time colleagues still have to raise kids, earn a living, climb the ladder of their career, make more money, save for college, split the assets for a divorce, and so on. Meanwhile my French cousins are reading this old chap’s musings and they throw me a lifeline.
What I thought I would find in my wine friends, in this time, well, as I said, out of sight… And though I miss some of the interactions with them, I realize I’m in another world now, on the side of the stream, maybe in an inner tube floating on an eddy, thinking I’m in the river with them. But they’re in the moving part of the water, and my moving days, well, they move a little slower…It’s the cycle of life…
To those of you who are still in the hyper-kinetic part of your life, working, searching, rushing about, someday you might need someone to throw you a lifeline. Don’t forget there are those that have been there, just like those before me, and those who are glad to pull you on over into the still water, if and when you’re ready.
In the meantime, I’m cooking up these deep-water thoughts on the side of this river, thanking my French, and Italian and American and English and German and Scandinavian and Asian, and Australian, and all the kind folks who come visit the wine trail in Italy once a week or once in a while. This is where you’ll find me. I’ve pretty much given up the Instagram world. It’s nothing but mirrors to this observer. And I try and stay away from those shiny reflections. The old-school bloggy-blog world, that’s my comfort zone. And it so seems, as well, for my Gallic cousins.
Now where did I put that bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Or was it a Barbaresco, mon Dieu!
It is very fashionable these days to call something a master class. Do a search and you will find any number of master classes, with famous folks like Martin Scorsese, Dan Brown and Oprah Winfrey presenting a path to mastery. But what really is entailed in a master class about wine? Who is qualified to lead such a class, and how should those classes be structured? These are some of the questions I have been pondering of late, in my search for the paths to mastery.
In today’s hyper-aggrandized environment for aspiring wine professionals, where certification is all the rage, one would think that someone like a master sommelier or master of wine could be more than capable of teaching such a class. And many are. Likewise, I’ve been in master classes led by master sommeliers who had me squirming in my seat for their lack of preparation and dissemination of faulty and incomplete material. After all, they too, are only human. But there is an expectation around an event like a master class, that one who attends such a seminar comes away having greater knowledge of the subject than what he or she had before such an experience. It isn’t necessary that such a class be taught by a master, but it should be handled by someone who has mastery of the subject and is fully capable of communicating the necessary information.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with an outline of salient features I’d like to see in the next master class I attend (or give). And hopefully, those readers who are looking for such continuing education will benefit from this outline. And if, by chance, there are those who engage in teaching master classes, this might also help inform them for future reference., myself included.
The Subject – If one is teaching a master class in, let’s say, Sangiovese in Italy, the subject matter should reflect the many iterations of Sangiovese in Italy. It should cover the basic kind of Sangioveses produced in Italy, from Chianti to Rosso di Brunello and Rosso di Montepulciano in Tuscany, to the various entry level Toscana IGT that are Sangiovese-based. As well, such a class should cover the higher expressions of Sangiovese based wines, such as Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile (once called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano), the various higher expressions of Chianti, such as Chianti Classico, in the normale, the riserva and the Gran Selezione expamples. And there are those Chianti’s that are not in the Classico zone, from Montespertoli to Rufina, etc. Most of these wines should ideally be 100% Sangiovese based, so when tasting them the attendees will not get confused by the flavors of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, or even Canaiolo or Colorino, or any of the other once traditional blending grapes. I know this might be difficult for wines like Nobile or Chianti Classico (or Carmignano or Torgiano, etc.), but wherever possible, for the purpose of more greatly understanding the nature of Sangiovese, 100% Sangiovese wines should be sought out.
And not to restrict oneself to just Tuscany. There should be some discussion of Sangiovese from Emilia Romagna. After all, it is a very important grape for the region. From there, one should mention Sangiovese in other regions such as Marche, Abruzzo, Veneto, Molise, Umbria, Sicily, etc., but note that the majority of those wines made are blends.
Finally, there should be a tasting that encompasses many of the wines that represent Sangiovese in full blown 100% expressions.
This would be easier to do with a Nebbiolo master class. And likewise, with Nebbiolo, one should seek out those wines from the great appellations, not just Barolo and Barbaresco, so one could come away from a seminar better understanding a particular grape variety.
What about wine from places where the identity of the wine is not so exclusively driven by one particular grape? Let’s say, Etna Rosso? While Nerello Mascalese is somewhat of a dominant grape for the wine in question, there might be other determinants. Such as, the other grapes (known and unknown), that go into the making of Etna Rosso as we know it. As well, there are the weather factors, the geological factors and the socio-economic factors that have created a particular area which has become (or is becoming) famous for their wine. This isn’t just restricted to something like Etna Rosso. Those factors also are important in a master class in Sangiovese or Nebbiolo. Or Aglianico or Verdicchio. All this to say, one who teaches a master class needs to be super prepared. There is a responsibility to represent what mastery of a subject means. And, stepping back just a bit, the reality that one can never really impart 100% of the knowledge or information necessary in a master class. It is the first step of many. But these should be solid steps that won’t lead the seminar attendee astray. This is no place for moonbeams and butterflies. And while it shouldn’t be droll and clinical, it should be authentic and well presented. Passion will follow. But information must be straightforward and truthful.
A master class in no place to bullshit or promote an agenda or a particular product. I’ve witnessed more of those than I care to, seminars promoted as master classes, in well-regarded conferences, that were an embarrassment to those who came to truly learn. If only the person who led the master class had taken the time to research the subject and didn’t rely on their effusive personality to carry the session. Hopeful attendees are not well served by something proposed as a master class that is a waste of time. OK, enough of that.
There is an expectation, these days, that the term master will be magical if it is used in relation to some goal we want to achieve. But here in the 3rd (or maybe 4th) quarter of my game of life, I’ve come to know that experience, maturity and humility play a great part in the mastering of a subject or a skill. One might graduate from Julliard but still not be able to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor, Op. 30. And even when the pianist finally gets down to completing the piece, they may be years from mastering it. And as the artist matures, so does his or her idea of life change, and the interpretation of something (like the Rach 3) evolves. Mastery is not static. It is not a place. It is not a destination. It is a goal, a path, an aim. And likewise, the aim of a master class should be to solidly put the participant of a steady path forward.
In a recent article for Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, Ian D’Agata made a case for age worthiness in regards to a white Italian wine, Verdicchio (article here, subscription required). Being a lover of Verdicchio I devoured the article. While digesting the piece over the last week, I’ve put my mind to the concept of wine as it ages. Along with that, there is, in my mind at least, an inevitable comparison of those factors of ageing in wine with those human beings face as well. The grape and the hominid have closely trod the same path for eons. And while that journey is far from over, for both of us, hopefully, we do share some of the same challenges and opportunities in our stages of life.
Stages • Prenatal development – where did it grow? How did it grow? How well was it fed? How healthy was the place in which it grew? • Birth – what kind of harvest was it? Were there chemicals used to induce labor? Hand harvested or machine (or forceps)? • Early days – how well was the young being, or wine, nurtured and kept? Exposure to toxic or damaging influences? Tranquility or constant agitation? • The idea of what a wine, or a being, will become, based on the influences they had early on. Education – home schooled or via a larger institution? Expectations? Some wines and children are raised up naturally. Some are brought up in a stricter, more aseptic environment. How that affects the future prospects of that wine, being. • Maturation date – the big “if” for many wines. With humans there is the aspect of emotional maturity, with wines the notion of what kind of “stuff” it has to go whatever distance is intended. Evolution is also a consideration, in that there will be a route, a progression, an arc in which both we humans and our silent partners, wine, travel. More on this later. • The prime of one’s life. • What comes after the mountaintop.
Observations One thing I notice in the US with regards to things with age on them – it seems aged wine is more revered than aged humans. In America, youth (in humans) is the default setting for exaltation. With wine, it is a bit more fluid. But there are many out there who worship aged wine just because it is old. Even if it is flawed. With humans, if they are flawed and old, they’re pretty much done for by society-at-large, at least here.
We should consider the source. If it is someone who is young in the game and they’ve jus tried their first 1971 Barolo, it might be a stunning revelation to them. If you are a Michael Broadbent, while it might stir you, it is one of a number of experiences that has been had with regards to older wine, and there is a different context. It might be noteworthy, but it might not be exceptional. Point in case. Somewhere around 1985, I remember my boss asked me to go pick up some BBQ from a local place for our lunch. When I got back he’d opened up a magnum of 1911 Château Lafite Rothschild. While it was an interesting old wine, it had dried up and was a bit feeble (may be bottle variation). We moved on to another wine.
A few months later, I’m in Chicago at a Christie’s auction and tasting a 1959 Château Mouton Rothschild, with Mr. Broadbent. The wine was vibrant, rich, and delicious. Tasting with him gave it even greater context, for this wasn’t the first time he’d had this wine. Was it ready to drink? It was then. And it might very well have been later on (I have not had the fortune to return to the wine to see how it has faired in the past 30+ years). This was a wine that was 48 years younger than the 1911. And while it wasn’t young, it wasn’t really an old wine. But it was definitely a more memorable experience, and in my estimation, a greater wine.
Now, admittedly, I’m refencing some of the top-quality wines from the world of wine. What about other places. Like the Verdicchios that Ian D’Agata notes.
I’ve had my share of older Verdicchio and have noted those occasions more than once on this blog. I remember one experience, opening a 1983 La Monacesca Verdicchio di Matelica, around 1998. People weren’t really talking about older white wine from Italy 20 years ago, but at the time, it was a revelation. The wine exhibited notes of freshly ground coffee (which I loved) and had this briny, brightness to it. It had a good acidic backbone, a trace of mineral, and still a healthy dollop of fruit. The wine was balanced and, obviously, memorable. And it was fifteen years old, fairly aged for a white Italian wine in that era.
But I have had less-than-memorable experiences as well. The 1991 La Monacesca was spotty, tasted over the years. Sometimes lovely and ready, and sometimes a mess of age and fatigue. The 1992 as well, once a bright sunrise of a wine, and once a tired wet, rainy, muddy sunset behind the clouds. One really never knows.
So, when I read someone tasting an older wine or older wines, I often wonder just how much that person projects onto the wine something from their own interior life? If it’s a fifty-year old who maybe has the emotional maturity of a teenager, that’s a different take on life than a 20-year-old who’s had to spend the last five years of her life tending to a dying mother. Again, context.
And then there is this reverence for an older thing because of what it represents. Often, wine seems to have to edge on the person, in that we give more weight to, let’s say a 1947 Cheval Blanc, than is given to someone born in that year. Oddly that was the year Robert Parker was born. Perhaps not a good example, for both the Cheval Blanc and Parker are legends in their own right. And possibly they’ve both reached the zenith of their existence prior to this present moment? Still, what they both represent. And still, how forgiving we tend to be of wine, lesser so with humans, Parker included. That troubles me.
Which summons up evolution. In time, there are all kinds of timelines for evolution. Owls are evolving at a different pace than possums. Wines, too, evolve differently. Just because some thing is old doesn’t make it age worthy. How many old people do you know who don’t seem to keep up with the times? The worship of something just because it is old, rather than for its relevance or the context, to me is simply too easy. And then, there’s luck. A bottle of wine, stored miserably in the bottom of a counter for years, when opened, is glorious and breathtaking. A wine taken out of a pristine cellar, with impeccable provenance, when opened, is flat, muddy and dead tired.
I know there are some wines in my petite armoire that have aged. Some maybe even to the point of senility. I’ll know sometime soon, when I pull them all out and take a proper inventory of them. I know I don’t mind drinker younger wines as much as I used to. Winemaking in these days has had a hand in that, making wines with more suppleness in youth, not so unbearably tannic as they once were.
We humans seem to always want what we had or what we can l no longer get. Youth, aged wines, love, privacy, adulation, time. I for one, am happy if I have drunk up all my old wines. Yesterday I was at a cattle ranch in Texas and at lunch we had this beautiful young red from Angiolino Maule, a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend from the Veneto region. It was very young, 2015 vintage. What a gorgeous youthful wine it was. I am easily consoled by the pleasures of youthful wine like that, and don’t care what age they or I am, from this point on.
While this site is primarily my web log of thoughts, emotions and observations from the wine trail (mainly in Italy), since I have “retired” I’ve written a few pieces for the Dallas Morning News. If you missed them, here they are. I’m doing more of these and enjoy the creative process. Currently working on a piece about natural wine. And no, it isn’t controversial. But it will be informative and will offer helpful guides along the way. Look for it, in the future, in the Dallas Morning News. Thanks for reading.
(* Note: The Dallas Morning News is a subscription site, but the first few articles can be read for free. If you have an ad-blocker on, turn it off. and if you get a pop-up telling you to subscribe because your free articles have already been read, go into your tools/options/privacy & security area and clear out your dallas news cookies, and you should be able to browse the articles.)
All across Italy there is an army of souls standing over fermenting tanks, hoses running everywhere, with the ubiquitous sweet-sour scent of fermentation, laboring long hours in the annual miracle of grapes into wine. And thousands of miles away, their largest market, America, is shattering day by day, self-destructing in a miasma of fear and rancor. To the farmer and the winemaker, it is like being a chef on a luxury liner that is heading towards an iceberg, preparing dinner for a room full of people who might never see dessert. And still they hover over the barrels in ancient chambers, in the dark, hoping to husband this fermenting mess of must into something miraculous and wonderful. And for whom? For these new American barbarians? While this is nothing new to the Italian culture which has often been between Scylla and Charybdis, this does nevertheless present a present-day dilemma, which has concrete, material implications. But it also advances a metaphysical plight. How does one expect to nurture and grow their business among their largest audience when that audience is undergoing a societal seppuku?
As a long time member of the wine trade in America, now sitting more on the sidelines, writing about wine and occasionally consulting with Italian wineries, I am in a quandary. What do I tell my friends and colleagues in Italy? How do I convey that sense of hope of the American dream, which still burns bright inside me, to them in a time of tumult and upheaval?
I’m quite frankly, not shocked by any of what I see in America. The carnage, the destruction, the unfiltered hate that spews out of every possible outlet there is. Alvin Toffler clued me into this in 1970 with his book, Future Shock. Much of what I am seeing before my very eyes, is this overall inability by Americans-at-large to assimilate the information that is being thrown at them in such a voluminous and haphazard manner. We are a country in present shock. We have become a zombie nation. I’m not sure we believe in a collective future for those unborn souls.
So, how do I tell the Soave producer to keep on plugging away, we will turn a corner soon? What do I do to convince the Sangiovese farmer in Montalcino to keep the faith? In which way should I counsel the Prosecco producer, or the Barolo winemaker or the small vignernon on Mt. Etna, that this is a temporary moment in time and space and it will pass – go ahead and borrow that €5 million to buy that parcel to expand your production? I mean, really? What do I say? What do we do?
In our house, we now talk of an impending event of violence, that we very well could experience. It could be at our Kroger, or at our workout space, or in a public place like an open park, a concert, a gas station. Or a synagogue, for God’s sake, where even holocaust survivors cannot live out their life, naturally in America, without avoiding senseless slaughter? Thoughts and prayers, my ass!
It has happened, countless times, and we as a country are inured by the endless and repletion of senseless killings and violence. It is as if we have come to expect it, all the while hoping it won’t touch us personally. But it has pierced us as a culture. We are wounded, and slowly bleeding out as a country. Hope is draining out of America, worse than it was in 1968. Now, the war isn’t in Vietnam. it’s in Pittsburgh, in Miami, in Las Vegas, in San Bernardino, in Louisville, Kentucky. It is everywhere, we are in a war. Call it a civil war, call it a cultural war. Call it a fringe war. But we are at war.
Oh yes, we can still make reservations for dinner and go have blue fin tuna sashimi flown in from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. And we can go to out local steak house and have 120-day aged wagyu steaks. And we can go to our cool kid’s wine bar and drink grower Champagne or orange wine or 1st growth Bordeaux or Gaja Barbaresco and leave our Tesla at the valet stand while we amble up a marble staircase where all pleasure will await us. So, it doesn’t seem like we are at war when we can divert our attention from the carnage on a screen to a sous-vide on our plate with a sharp Laguiole steak knife by our side and a Zalto wine glass filled with Screaming Eagle. After all, it’s not in our back yard.
Alas, in the last four months of traveling across this United States, I did see otherwise. Everywhere, including in our nations capital, homeless people, everywhere. Soldiers who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, now on the streets, mothers and their children darting out of dumpsters, peering behind fences, waiting for the cars to pass so they can find some thing of nourishment. It’s all there, in America. So, how, do we reconcile with an uncertain fate for Italian wine in this strange, new America? What do I tell them, tell you, who is reading from Poggibonsi, from Ancona, from Randazzo? Go somewhere else? Seek your future in China? In Russia? In Kazakhstan?
I do not know what to tell you in Italy. I think about WWII and what everyone had to go through then. And they did, and they came out of it and rebuilt their lives. But it took generations to do that. And we have been steadily climbing out of that pile of rubble for 70 years. How much fight does one need to have in them? How many rounds must one go?
I am not a pessimistic person by nature. But I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where to run, to move to, to escape this endless death spiral this country seems to be in the grip of. Worry not, this isn’t being penned by someone who is depressed. On the contrary, I am a resilient being. Mind you, this is coming from one whose wife died in my arms when we were in our 40’s, an incessant procession to the end, an incurable illness, while she (and we) were in the peak of our life. I’m not afraid of death. But I am stumped here. I have not a clue out of this fog this country is in, and which appears to be putting the whole world at risk. So, really, which Chianti Classico or Rosso Piceno one chooses to have in the dining room of the luxury liner isn’t on my highest priority list. What wine is trending on Instagram is of little concern to me. What an errant master sommelier did to change the life of one (or 23) young aspirant pales in comparison to the bigger issues facing us. What over-the-top Halloween costume party where everyone had a great time at the prestigious winery in wine country in California seems trite and meaningless in these troubled times. Rome is burning!
I am sick of what my America is projecting to the world right now. How can I tell my Italian friends and colleagues in wine anything that sounds remotely hopeful, if we don’t fix this monstrous mess of a country?