“Do you want to know how good a winemaker in the Langhe or Monferrato is? Try their Grignolino. If it’s a good one, chances are their other wines will be as well.” Thus spoke The Maestro, at a recent gathering of chefs and writers at the food and wine workshop, Gastronomix, where we gathered in the Monferrato and Canavese areas of Piedmont.
My first exposure to Grignolino was thousands of miles from northern Italy. In fact, it was in the Santa Clara valley of northern California where I went to college and tasted my first one, from a local winery there that had been established by Italian immigrants.
Years later, while working in the trade, I encounter upon and sold, Heitz wines. And their Grignolino (and Grignolino rosé), while different from their Italian counterparts, made me a fan.
Gerald Asher wrote of Grignolino, that is can be “drunk young with pleasure and old with delight.”
Veronelli felt the Grignolino from Alessandria was not suitable for ageing, whereas the one from the Asti area was a “superior wine if properly aged.” He characterized Grignolino as “anarchistic and individualistic.”
Patricia Guy wrote “Grignolino is not an easy variety to work with, and the resulting wine usually has a tannin level that is at odds with its light color and body. The old-fashioned wine it yields was much appreciated back in the days when Piedmont was under the House of Savoy. Its acidity and structure were an ideal foil for the rich, buttery French-influenced foods of that period.”
In today’s climate, young palates are seeking out higher acidity and lighter color, having been weaned on the tannic monsters of Napa Valley. Grignolino is in a crossroads of time and mood, where a wine like it can be an attractive proposition. Like Aligoté is to the white grapes of Burgundy, Grignolino, for me, is a red wine that expresses a measure of Piemontese-ness that is different than Barolo or Barbaresco. And it can be drunk young and is within the reach of most people’s budgets. It is enormously flexible with regards to all the varied comestibles that grace our dining tables. It goes well with the classic Italian dishes from the era, as well as dovetailing easily into other food cultures: Mesoamerican, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, regional American. Grignolino with a hot steaming plate of Nashville hot chicken is alluring and practical. The cool, fruity light red with a backwash of acid and light tannins is more than enough to cleanse the palate for another wave of hot, greasy, delicious spicy chicken.
Grignolino definitely has a place on my table. It’s just a matter of finding the well-made ones and drinking them in the right time.
My go-to Grignolino, here in flyover country, is from Cantine dei Marchesi di Incisa della Rocchetta. It’s available, for one. And it’s usually under $20. And it’s fresh, not cooked in some large warehouse where it is lost between the massive stacks of Yellow Tail and Jack Daniels. The wine is correct, with healthy (but not overpowering) tannic structure, and great color and fruit to go with it.
Gaudio Bricco Mondalino Grignolino del Monferrato is another reliable one, provided you can find a current vintage, which right now would be the 2017, with the 2018 coming later this year. I go back many years with this wine and it is one of those wines that proves if you make Grignolino well, anything else you make will be well-made also. Lovely wines, classic style, in which I mean they are timeless.
At Gastromonix we also we tasted several notable examples:
2017 Grignolino D’Asti “lanfora” from Montalbera – we enjoyed this wine over several nights during dinner, and I got to spend time with this wine with many kinds of foods. This wine gestates for 8-10 months in terracotta amphorae. An important producer (12% of all Grignolino D’Asti is produced from their vines) and this example tests the waters in the realm of natural wine. It’s a lovely and successful embark upon that restive sea. Using terracotta as an incubation vessel has been most serendipitous for this wine. It is a classic example, yet it proudly reflects, in the best way, Veronelli's portrayal of Grignolino as “anarchistic and individualistic.”
While I have, more than once, addressed the challenges of selling one’s Italian wine to America, it seems I haven’t enough touched upon the complexities of importing Italian wine into America. Since I am no longer “ITB” (in the business), I have gotten a barrage of emails from people looking to “get into the business,” from both Italy and America. It’s probably time to go over some things in relation to the realities, in 2019, of pursuing that path.
First let me offer an anecdote. In the fall of 2008, I decided to buy a condo in Dallas, Texas, as a rental property. I was debt free, had some cash to invest in something, and the property I bought was in a very good zip code, one of the wealthiest in my town, and one of the top 50 zip codes in America. I bought a little on the high side, at the time, which was probably not a good omen. But It was still an affordable investment, and within the confines of my comfort zone with regards to the risk, even though Wall Street was melting down.
What I didn’t take into account was that folks who rent might be affected by the downturn and my rental property might be vacant for a time.
Well, my first renter got hit hard and within a year she bailed and moved back home. The place stood empty, and after several months and lowering the rent, I found some college students to lease it to.
They were fine enough, but college students are not stationary. So again, the place stood empty.
I ended up selling the place, and factoring in the initial cost (and improvements and repairs) on the place, not to mention the months it sat empty not collecting rent, I lost some dough. Enough in fact, that if I hadn’t bought the place and just taken the amount of money I eventually lost, I could have bought a fancy new sport scar (like a Porsche Cayman) driven it into the ground for two years, wrecked it and left it on the side of the road, and I would have been ahead of the game. I wouldn’t have had to take those 2AM wake-up calls about a stopped-up toilet or a kitchen sink that overflowed because the garbage disposal just couldn’t grind up raw Brussels sprouts. But I didn’t. And I learned a valuable lesson:
"Something from the outside can appear to be more glamorous and not as risky as it can be inside reality."
This is merely to say, when folks go to Italy on a vacation, let’s say Puglia, and they spend their vacation in a leisurely manner, eating, drinking, making love, swimming, etcetera, their defenses have been lowered. Then they go to their little trattoria by the seaside and drink that lovely, inexpensive Chardonnay or Negroamaro rosato from the area, and someone says, “We should import this to America, they’d love this!” It sounds simple enough, it sounds innocent enough. My answer to them, now, would be: “Buy the Porsche!”
I’ve gone enough into the logistics on other blog posts, and if interested, please read them. What I will never be able to do will be to convince someone that the investment in importing Italian wine into America, in these times, is time-consuming and highly risky. And if you have “The Dream,” far be it from me to rain on your parade. I will try, anyway.
But the competition will do that much more effectively. And it will be an expensive lesson. But, hey, you made your money, and like me, you can throw it in any direction that you’d like to. But know this: You are a minnow in a sea filled with sharks. They jump higher, their pockets are deeper, they know more about how we got here and they don’t like to lose. This isn’t TBall, hey it isn’t even softball. It’s sliders and spitballs. It’s a fastball heading at 97mph right to your head and you don’t have a helmet on - you are the target. So, know that.
When I was working for a large distributor, who recruited me to look after their Italian wine business, for every case of Italian wine that was imported, we accounted for 1 bottle in every 12-pack case that came into America. And that included everything from the low to the high. The business grew amazingly in the 14 years I looked at the business. This is not a brag. As the business consolidated, what I saw was that fewer and fewer players at the top grew to dominate the Italian wine landscape in America.
You think you have an organic Pinot Grigio that Whole Foods is sitting there, waiting for you to bring to them? Think again. You’ve found a Chianti that Total Wine cannot live without? Don’t bet your life on it. You have found a Sicilian Grillo and Nero d’Avola that Kroger cannot say no to? If they aren’t returning your emails, don’t assume their silence means maybe. The big import companies struggle with these issues all the time. Like I said, you are a minnow in shark-infested waters. Don’t jump in the deep water if you cannot swim faster, deeper and longer. And most likely you cannot. Don’t even go there.
You’ve found a region, let’s say the Marche, where their business in Missouri is severely underrepresented. With all respect to my friends and colleagues in Missouri, have you tried to understand the why of that? I remember going into a restaurant, in Kansas City, owned by a large and famous group, who also make their own wine. What was I thinking trying to sell them a Verdicchio, let alone a Pinot Grigio or Prosecco or Chianti? But what the wine buyer showed me, chilled me even more than the lack of a selling opportunity. “Look at that wall, Alfonso. I have four vintages of our proprietary Pinto Grigio stacking up. I have Sangiovese coming out of my pores. And I have more Prosecco than I will sell in six years, and in six years I will six more vintages of the stuff. I’m drowning in wine I have to take, and it isn’t selling fast enough.” And that was Missouri.
Which, while we’re talking national accounts, let’s talk about the on-premise channel. First things first: You don’t sell wine to them – you buy real estate. That’s right, if you want a slot on that list, it ain’t a butterfly. It’s not free. It’s going to come with a slotting fee. And you better have the wine in all 30-40-50 states, at the same price, and you better not run out in Austin on a Friday night. Because you ill get a call from an angry restaurant manager threatening to pull you wines off (he can’t, not so easily, but he can phone up to his company and complain, complain, complain until the wine buyer in Tampa, or Newport Beach or Dallas gets sick of hearing about it and “sources” another wine). And your hard work, and all the money you paid to get there is a memory.
Why this screed? Because I know, with Vinitaly (and Prowein) coming up, and with the better weather, people start getting out and about, the new vintages start being released, and all of a sudden there are innocent folks out there who might be tired of their job or who think this could be a good sideline to their paying gig. And I get emails, and have gotten them for 15+ years, thinking they’ve discovered something someone “ITB” just hasn’t gotten around to discovering. But sadly, in most cases, they have. And it has either worked. Or in many cases, it hasn’t. Hey, don’t let me stop you. But don’t expect a lot of people waiting around for you to make a call to their office with your dream. They will crush your dream, as I am doing right here, right now. Except I’m trying to help you before you waste the time and the money. Just go buy the Porsche.
And when you tired of driving it around, give me a call. I’ll make you a deal you can’t refuse.
There’s nothing more enjoyable and illuminating than to rediscover a wine, a grape or a region as if I’d never had an iota of exposure to them. Such was the case with Erbaluce di Caluso from Piedmont last week while there for the food and wine workshop Gastronomix. It’s a spin-off of Collisioni, with Ian D’Agata directing the education.
Tasting wine. Large tastings, where one goes from table to table, usually public events, where you stand and sip and spit, can be informative, and give one a quick view into a particular wine or region. But ultimately, for me it is an uncomfortable exercise. Its hard to dive in deep and really uncover the little nooks and crannies of wine or a region.
That wasn’t a problem last month with Erbaluce. We came back to the wines, again and again, tasting them in groups of different producers. Enjoying them at lunch or dinner with food. Sitting among peers, discussing the wines. Going over the wines. That is what immersion is about. And at this stage of my life, I want that deeper encounter, that time exposure, to get inside a wine and find out why and how it became a staple and even an icon for the region in which it was born.
Still - Dry
A light went off. Here was a wine that I had a little experience with. But I really didn’t know the wine. I’m not sure I can say I really “know” the wine now. But I have a deeper insight into the nature of the wine and the character and the why of the wine. Why it grew up, matured and became an important part of the region in which it lives. And something the people who live there enjoy, over and over.
I experienced that when we first arrived to the area for the event. It was a Sunday and we took a walk from our hotel down the hill into the town, Ivrea, where we were staying. About a half mile down, we stopped for lunch. There was no sign on the front, but we saw people inside eating. It was simply called Ostaria Vino Cucina & Birra. I ordered a half liter of the house white. It was on tap, and slightly fizzy, what we once called frizzante.
Vitello Tonnato a la moderne
The wine was fresh, with good fruit, but in no way a sweet wine. It was dry. Bone dry. And it was the perfect wine to go with the simple seafood dishes we had. And isn’t that really the purpose of wine, ultimately? It set us up for a few days of Erbaluce immersion with Ian D’Agata, arguably the most informed Italian wine (and grape) expert in the world. In his ground-breaking tome, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Dr. D’Agata had this to say about Erbaluce:
“Though nobody will ever mistake a wine made with Erbaluce for a blockbuster, when well made these wines are a marvel of balance, with minerally, crisp white flower and fruit aromas and flavors combining hints of chlorophyll and apricots. It’s true that poor examples can be marred by eye=watering acidity, but this same high natural acidity has given us sparkling wines in increasing numbers. Made either by refermentation in the bottle in the manner of Champagne or by the Charmat method like Prosecco, these can be marvelous wines, and are underrated in my view.”
Erbaluce has a flexibility that one would be hard pressed to find in other grapes around the world. Awarded the DOC in 1967 (!) and DOCG in 2010. The base wine is still and dry. The metodo classico sparlking version rivals the Trentino and Lombardia sparklers, and the charmat style is in a world apart from Prosecco. And the air-dried, passito version, laden with botrytis, can be a life-changing occurrence. One can find these three styles from a singular grape in the Loire Valley, with Chenin Blanc and in the Marche, with Verdicchio. I’ve racked my brain to try and find other examples from grapes that produce a white wine (Chardonnay? Sauvignon Blanc? Carricante? Riesling? Garganega? Tokay?), but I’m still scratching my head. And under the same DOP! Erbaluce, where have you been all my life? Or at least, for the last 35 years?
So, I went off to my local wine stores, here in Dallas, Texas, starting with the Italo-centric Jimmy’s, which usually has everything Italian under the sun. No Erbaluce. Perhaps at one of the small wine stores, or maybe even one of the large chains, like Spec’s, I will find one. But Erbaluce isn’t posing any impending existential threat to Prosecco, Pinot Grigio or Moscato. And that’s a bit of a shame.
The 3-tier opponents will offer up this dearth of Erbaluce to the dismal state of wine procurement in America. And perhaps there is a kernel of truth to this. After all, when Big Wine is stepping all over themselves to bottle their 16th iteration of Cabernet or Chardonnay, usually from the same tank, slapping a sleek and Instagrammably sheik label up for the influencers-for-hire, what chance does this meek, little grape have for expanding their base outside of Monferrato and Canavese?
These are wines that sommeliers, retailers and Italian wine directors should take a plunge at. They are very drinkable and enjoyable, again and again (that which I can attest to). They are versatile, and they are varied in their flavor profiles to enjoy over different courses and seasons. Why isn’t America jumping on this wine? Maybe they are, in New York, San Francisco, Portland (for sure) and Seattle. As for Middle-America, they’re barley a blip on a screen. And that’s really a damn shame.
Sometime around the late 1990’s I was working with an Italian importer and one of the owners brought up the subject of alternative red wines from Piedmont. We’d ventured into Barbaresco with La Ca’ Növa, in Barolo with Cascina Bruni and Cordero di Montezemolo, and in Gavi with a wine from Roberto Bergaglio. As well, we had a steady producer of Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, Arneis and Freisa from Cascina Cheirello. But this new red wine, this Ruchè, from Crivelli, was a different beast.
Look, selling Italian wine in Texas was like selling Italian wine in Paris. There were a lot of hurdles to jump over. The first one was that nobody was looking for such a wine, this being a time before Instagram and “influencers” of the trendiest and most esoteric wines from grapes that nobody had ever heard from. What I most often heard was, “I haven’t gotten any calls for Ruchè, or whatever you call it.” Which translated as “I’m not that curious or interested. Besides, did it get 90 points from Parker?”
Thankfully these days are more enlightened, even if we have to contend with the instant expertise of social media mavens. And Ruchè has become an enduring as well as an endearing red wine from Piedmont, for myself as well as many more wine lovers.
And a great refresher course it was for a wine I haven’t seem much of in these parts, flyover country USA.
My entry point into Ruchè in the last century and millennium was via a small producer called Crivelli. Proprietor Marco Crivelli was (and still is) an eccentrically wonderful chap. I really think the air that circulates around his person is of another ilk than the rest of us. It probably has to be if one specializes in wines from grapes like Ruchè and Grignolino, when nearby neighbors are farming Nebbiolo and making premium and much sought-after wines like Barolo and Barbaresco. But Italy, if it is one thing, it is a place dedicated to celebrating the antipodal in nature. Sure, one could farm in a place like Cuneo and make a nice life, living off the fame and garnering a fortune from Barolo. But money, and fame, isn’t everything. And resuscitating a once lost wine from a grape like Ruchè has been a calling to folks like Crivelli.
Mind you, he isn’t alone in this obsession.
I sat with Luca Ferraris, winemaker and the president of the Produttori del Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG at a dinner in Asti last week. Luca’s family was also very instrumental in bringing Ruchè back to life. Luca’s great grandfather went to the new world in the mid 1800’s and found his way to California just in time for the Gold Rush. And he was one of the fortunate ones to strike gold. Rather than build a life in America, he took his fortune and went back to Castagnole Monferrato where he bought an old estate and started growing grapes. Luca told me that after WWII, his grandfather Martino would take his wines, on horseback, to Turin and sell them to merchants. These are some of the pioneers of the Italian wine renaissance which ushered in the Golden Age of Wine we now bask in.
Ruchè is largely here because the local parish priest, Don Giacomo Cauda, made wine for the village (and for the Mass) and when he vinified the Ruchè grapes apart from the more prevalent Barbera, not wanting to waste anything, for that was a sin, discovered after a few years ageing, that the almost extinct grape, Ruchè, had developed into an interesting wine unlike any other on the Monferrato area.the Ferraris family makes a Vigna del Parroco, a flagship wine honoring the priest, who passed away in 2008.
These days there are over 20 producers who offer a Ruchè in their portfolio.
I happened to pull out an older bottle of the Crivelli, a 2001, from the wine closet, which has been there for almost 20 years. Thinking its time was past, I asked Luca Ferraris what the possibility for ageing Ruchè was. And he answered that in a good year, Ruchè could go 10-15 years. 2001 was a good year. So, I will report back once it stands up and settles, at it appears to have thrown some sediment along the walls of the bottle.
Meanwhile, Ruchè is delicious when young, like a good cru Beaujolais. And it can serve in similar situations as the fabled French wine made from Gamay grapes. Not the same, but kindred. And both very enjoyable.
2017 and 2016 Ruchè wine are drinking quite well these days and wines from Crivelli and Ferraris as well as Tommaso Bosco, Montalbera, Massimo Marengo, Bersano, all of which were among some of the Ruchè wines we were exposed to and enjoyed over the five days we spent with chefs, sommeliers, journalists and winemakers at Gastronomix.
Ian D'Agata with the Ruchè producers at Gastronomix
One day on the highway in Liguria, it hit me. We were driving up and down hills, into one valley and then on to another. All along the way I was meeting people, some who were winemakers and some who simply liked to drink wine. In Italy, it is easier to find a single wine that you can enjoy over a lifetime. A visit to a winery in your neighborhood, and there you go. It might be a crisp white wine or a mellow, rich red. But along the wine trail in Italy, I keep meeting people who have found their wine. So what is wrong with us in America? Or maybe the question should be, have you found your wine?
Merano ~ Südtirol
Tonight, as I write this below the base of the Alps in Merano, I think about the day 10 years ago when I married my wife. We spent a lifetime finding each other, had a dozen or so years together and then she was gone, taken back by the Creator. We had found each other and drank from each other's heart of a wine as sweet as the latest harvest. Tonight in a small trattoria, I watched a young couple sitting beside each other drinking their wine. Have they found in each other a wine for the rest of their lives?
Vallée de la Roya ~ Airole
Days before, I had been on steep hills plunging down to a rough river, ragged with the bones of ancient mountains. On the schist-laden slopes, vines struggle to break open the concrete soil, pushing towards the sun, holding their breath until the flowers bud and the fruit forms. A summer of heat and night takes over, like making love, then falling back on the pillow, only to disappear into a dream world. Day after day, for four, maybe five, months. Then the love children pop out and are ready to be picked. Anxious workers huddle under the canopies of the vines, picking this cluster and that one. All the offspring are sent to the winery to be nursed and made into precious liquid, so young couples can drink them and fall in love. A cycle that will be repeated until none of us are around to have these thoughts and urges.
Finding your wine. What can it be? How will you know? Does it need to be only one wine?
I met this winemaker in Liguria, Fausto he was called. Fausto has a gray torrent of uncut hair, covering ears that have still black hairs around the openings. An Italian surf bum, but not a lazy guy. Behind the furrowed brow, two eyes peer out, full of life and not a little mischief. Fausto has found his wine. It is a Pigato, an unlikely wine he makes, but one that works very well in his life. As he jumps into his little 2-cycle utility truck (really a glorified scooter), he grabs a bottle of white and heads off to his sister's sports bar. At a table, a plate appears, tiny piquant sausages in a fiery broth that only a Pigato can quell. Fausto teases one of the cook's daughters, and one can see his life is carefree and happy. Almost every day Fausto goes there, to eat his lunch and drink the wine that makes his life lighter and brighter.
I am not sure I have found my wine. And while there are some wines that I prefer over others, what could be a better wine to have with Fausto's sausages than a Pigato?
Valtellina ~ Sondrio
Some of us are outsiders, wandering the trails, in search of our tribe or even our moment. Some of us can never settle anywhere long enough to find our wine. We are poorer for that. For to enjoy a simple dish that our sister has made alongside a wine we have made with our own hands, well, that is such a special circumstance. Haven’t those souls won the big lottery of life? For along with finding their wine, they have also found their life and their place on this earth.
Tasting notes are a cinch. How does one tell the tale of Southern Italian wine with a single photograph?
You think there haven’t been changes in how the South presents to the West?
Compare these two PR pieces from Puglia, 40 years apart.
The first one (1977) was very basic, but for those times, I’ll say this: they were one of the few regions I traveled through in the early days that had access to pamphlet and area information. They were out in front, and still are.
The older is steeped in tradition and un-retouched customs, some which might seem a sight strange to outsiders. It’s amazing to think that Italy still has that connection to the mystic.
But today, what does everybody want? Fresh air, fresh food, fresh water, a healthy, balanced lifestyle, in which everything is in motion and is good and forever? And Puglia sets up for the delivery.
In real terms, there is a plethora of white and red wines available. And rosé from Puglia is an institution, much in the same way Provence has become with the lighter version.
You want California style? You can find it. Old, rustic, funky? Oh yeah, there’s plenty of that in Puglia. Fresh, fruity, dry, wholesome beverage to go with the abundance of fresh and wonderful foodstuffs. Yeah, bucket list stuff.
So how about that tasting note?
This wine is not from Puglia, it is an alluring Pigato from Liguria; please appease me. I’ve had a checkered past with Pigato. God, how It was near on impossible to sell a white wine from Italy in 1983 in Dallas. For sure, without a pretty label or a name someone could pronounce, or would want to pronounce, well, let’s just say it wasn’t easy sailing up that river.
It resembles a steely, minerally, cold water out of a fountain in the school yard. The temperature that day is over 100®F and the first gasp of sweet fruit and then that steely, long, black dress that follows. Served ( in 2019) with fresh trofie flown in from Italy, served with a pesto made from basilico that came from the garden.
The wines of the natural world are something I do not take on lightly as a self-assigned subject of current interest.
As I see it, natural wine is not a meme, nor is it trending on Instagram in my life. It’s not a tweet or a Facebook rant, nor does it dominate every beat of my heart. It is part of my life, as it has been for 40+ years. It’s not a fad. It also isn’t a mania. It is interwoven as well as it can be, in this world of disruption that we find ourselves living in.
One of the reasons I was so interested in Birkenstock sandals, in 1976, was because I could go down to the local health food store and buy sole replacements for those sandals. I could repair my own shoes, not discard them when they wore out. It was a small step towards self-sustainability.
Near that store we had friends who raised chickens and we ate their eggs. A local dairy produced very nice raw milk and cheese products and we enjoyed them.
This article, which I wrote for the Dallas Morning News, is geared for folks who are not in an inner cycle of knowledge or fashion. They might just be wanting some straight up info within their orb. It isn’t about “the debate” about natural wine. It’s not going away. And it didn’t just arrive with the latest iPhone-carrying generation. It is. And it isn't going away.
Regular readers of this blog have known for some time that I am retired from a working life. What many do not know, are the details of a life that arrived to this point. And specifically of a working father, a single father, in the wine trade in America.
While it is fashionable these days, with influencer marketing, to dump on established channels (and institutions) of wine commerce in the US, there were, and still are, many people who are simple, honest working folk. They just happen to be slinging Chardonnay or Vodka to the local restaurants and retail establishments, rather than coat hangars or auto parts. The notion of progress, not perfection, becomes readily identifiable once one has an extra mouth to feed, a mortgage and a car payment.
As a single dad and devoted to being the best dad I could be in a family-fractured world, I was also wrestling with the “What do I want to be when I grow up?” notion. However, I figured adaptation along with a measure of resilience would probably see me safely for a few years of adjusting to a more extroverted life. After all, selling isn’t for the shy. And lots of rejection. By then, I hoped I’d be “all grown up.”
Failed marriage(s) will get one up to speed in the rejection department pretty fast. As for resilience, one must have the luck of the genes along with an attitude that looks forward, not back, and tries to have as little or no regrets as possible. Onward through the fog!
I should talk about selling wine to supermarkets. If you are a current consumer, and go into a supermarket these days, it is a shock of another kind. But in 1985, it was a freer, more relaxed time. There wasn’t a lot of expectation for having “everything under the sun,” so espoused by today’s influential caste. Although, pondering my label box, it appears we had a hell of a lot to sell. And supermarkets were unencumbered by chain-logistic managers, who eat corn out of a can and think the lettuce on a burger is a vegetable.
People were happy to try something, anything, new. And $10 a bottle, heck in some of those Dallas neighborhoods, even $15-20 a bottle wasn’t a big stretch. The maids were coming in with a list. If they wanted Sonoma-Cutrer, they got all they wanted.
Now there are more SKU’s on the shelf of the mega-sized markets (national chain supermarkets or large regional ones as well) today than in 1985. The difference was, everything on the shelves were just a little but different than the others. Today, the control by a handful of large wine companies makes one wine under 7-15 different labels. But essentially a carbon copy with just another pretty label. It is pretty daunting to go into a supermarket and try and find a bottle to take home or to one of your wine geek friends. I wrote a piece about that last year. Actually, I was heartened to see a few cracks in the darkness. But, in my dotage, I am going deeper down the river of wine, whether looking for the origin of Primitivo, or Gamay, it makes no difference. I want no middle-of-the-road beverage; the calories are too dear.
Anyway, I pushed it and whatever I sold, I stocked. I had bad knees, hemorrhoids, cuts on my hand (some needing stitches) and what seemed like a perennially sore back. And I wasn’t yet 40. It was nothing to lift 3,000 pounds (30 pounds at a time) in a day’s work. But I had a family, albeit a small one, just the two of us.
My son remarked to me the other day that he thinks part of his work ethic, especially in regards to design and setting up a showroom/showcase situation, came from the many nights I’d take him on my stocking run. Or when I had to help the display department build a large wine display. Yes, a sleeping bag next to the deli and he would watch (and do homework) as long as he could and then surrender to sleep, under the fluorescent lights. We’d still have three or four more hours to go. Yeah, pure evil, we were part of. Little devils. Bringing Trebbiano to University Park.
I’m glad my son saw a positive in those experiences. I felt a little guilty taking him, especially on Sundays, to two or three of my in-town supermarkets. I could get the order, get out in front of the week (in case I was needed to coach soccer, a sport which I knew nothing about), get there before the competition, outwork them, make sure they hadn’t buried my placements (or displays, which from time to time they would do. The Gallo boys had to sell their Ballatore or their Vintage 78 Cabernet Sauvignon.) It took a few years off me. But I read the manual too. Work harder than the competition, be there before them and after them. Be all over them. No relent.
I gave service to my client and commitment to my family. The store directors knew it, saw it, and responded. It was rare for a man to be doing that. A few other colleagues of mine were in the same boat. This was way before #MeToo. We were just trying to feed our kids, be better dads and sell a little wine along the wine. I guess that lead to the evil mess we’re all in now, where no one can find what they want when they want it. Yeah, pretty tough to be in those folks shoes these days. Nothing’s ever right.
So how about that tasting note?
Really enjoyed the Skerlj Malvasia. I know Ian D’Agata has a bit of a mania for this grape and I’ve been lucky enough to sit near him when he waxed poetic (and prolific) about Malvasia, and in this case we were in Basilicata. So, it was historical as well as enlightening. The Skerlj, from way up north on the Italian peninsula, when opened, was bright and electric. The aromas were flashy, a bit savory, with the tiniest hint of salinity. Bone dry, no Sicilian sun-drenched olfactory bomb here. But nice.
An hour or so later, with the opened bottle, I noticed a slight drop-off in the brightness of the wine, as if it had just run 400 years at full-speed and was doing a cool-down. Still nice, but the fireworks show was past us at that point.
There you have it. I did not want to write a blog post today. Blogs are so démodé these days. But I also realize this is a record, a log. So here’s another one for the fire.
Wine as an obsession seems a bit odd to me these days. As I recede from the shores of the wine trade, the daily activities, the desires, the fears, the needs (are they really?) all seem to look less important to me. Does that mean I no longer love Italian wine, or even wine in general? No, not at all, but I do feel like the obsessive behavior I had, and which I see all around the wine world, might be misplaced energy. At least for me.
It’s no secret that I have little desire for any more certification for anything. I can see how the young generation might look at higher accreditation as a career path towards greater security, independence and freedom. But if you are working, and have to work, the idea of freedom will be limited, at least in terms of livelihood. Balance in life might be more seek-worthy, and from the looks of things, the young generation has a bead on that and have had at an earlier age the preceding generations.
I’m gradually backing away from the Italian wine guy persona, a de rigueur affectation in the beginning of the 21st century’s social media wave. I love Italian wine but it was not my first love.
If I am to have an obsession, at this point, it appears that my earlier pursuits, starting as a young boy, are supplanting the steady drumbeat of the wine world that has measured out the pace of my life. That earlier pursuit is photography. It was my first love, and it still is a true love of mine.
In 1970 I happened upon a workshop in Monterey, California. With the likes of Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, two masters of photography, it was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. These two were gods in the photography world, and here we were, eating with them, walking, talking, shooting and being mentored.
Imogen was the same age as my grandmother, but I dint think of her like that. She was spunky, had lots of energy, in her 80’s, and was engaging. She was present in the moment, not looking over her back at some time long gone.
I remember her telling me she liked one of my photos. A few months later I took a print to her home and gave it to her. She immediately put it on her mantle. If I had an exhibition at a gallery on Union Street, I couldn’t have been more fulfilled. A master who liked my work.
But what I liked about her was she lived in the present. Photography can affect you that way, for it is a fraction of a second, you must slow your world down, turn off the monkey babbling in the cage inside your skull.
These days, I have a Herculean task to catalog 50+ years of photographic images. I’m forced to look back, in a way. But that doesn’t stop me from shooting any day I’d like to. And not with my phone. With a real camera. It must be intentional, not some afterthought because I just got the latest Huawei 20 or iPhone 25.
My world has slowed down a lot. I can shoot now at 1/15 of a second or 1/30, not 1/1000 or 1/2000. The images before me play out in a different tempo. And because my life has slowed down, I can look back at those moments when 1/250 or 1/500 of a second had important things in them. Like the seemingly lost soul at an anti-war rally in San Francisco in 1972.
What photography compels me to do is to slow down and really look the thing in the eye. Not scan, not flitter. Be still.
It is also having a good effect on my appreciation for wine and the stories of wine. I know long-form blogging is presently pas à la mode. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Delectable, Vivino and the like have supplanted in-depth exploration with high-spotting. But I resist. I still think there are some amazing stories in wine. I see them when I put a sheet of negatives on a light box or go through my digital pix on the laptop. Yes, a picture can be worth a thousand words. But sometimes we need the words to go with the pictures.
So, that is what I am up to these days. Still obsessed with something, just that something has evolved from just wine to the larger picture. More to come. Stay tuned.
Assisi - Eremo delle Carceri (St. Francis' Hermitage)
As one might be expected to do in the later chapters of life, I’ve been cleaning up my study. Actually, it feels more like prepping a dead man’s home for an estate sale. At the very least, I am (heaven forbid my use of the “C” word) curating the collection of a wine man. A traveler. A photographer. A father. A husband. A son. And a primate on earth. And therefore, some things have been bubbling up to the surface, like an ancient vat of Sagrantino, done the old way, with lots of dried fruits and a healthy dose of residual sugar.
Rainy day in Umbria - the baby wasn't so happy about it
In one of those rear-view mirror visions, the children are looking out from a window of a little trailer, which is camped high up in Assisi in a hostel area, which is closed for the season. But the caretakers kindly let me and my new little family rent the trailer for three weeks, for about $5 a day in 1977 prices. Not too bad.
A short walk from the trailer was (still is) what was once a stall and inside they are cooking food, for a good price, very local, very healthy, and with all the accoutrements of an (humble) Italian table. We keep within our budget (which it turned out was $17 a day for a family of four, all expenses). But at the time, we’re vegetarians, and it is the autumn time. And there is plenty of great verdure and bread. And cheese, warmed over a wood fire, ala spiedini. And red wine from Umbria. Simple red wine. Fresh. Dry. Balanced. Sane. So very naturale, although our life, at the time, effloresced much more naturally. After all, we were young Californians, with dreams of a progressive future. We were broke. But we weren’t in debt over our heads. We treaded pretty lightly. And it was a good time to be young and alive.
Years later I would take my wife Liz, before she died, to Assisi, and we stayed down the hill in Torgiano. It was a starry-eyed young couples place of great luxury. I was representing Lungarotti in Texas and we were guests of the family. And it also was quite lovely, very special and wonderful. After our winery tour, one of the Lungarotti family members said to us, “When you go into the restaurant tonight, please order any wine of ours that you’d like, it doesn’t matter how old it is. You are our guests.”
And that is the balance of life as I know it in Italy. Whether it be a modest meal in front of an autumn fire in a stall or a sumptuous feast of duck and Torgiano Riserva on a linen table, also near a fireplace. Both are dear to me, not one is greater. For I am grateful for all of the experiences to have had in Umbria and in Italy. From the stalls to the stars.
Piero Antolino wrote the article “From stars to stalls, this is the life!” in the May 1990 issue of Italian Wines and Spirits, and was the jumping off point for this post. I came upon his article in my ever-expanding travel file that I have for Italy. It is now three stackable containers, by region and if the city is big enough, they’re given their own file spot. Rome is bulging. Venice too. Ditto for Florence. Everything in those files I’ve gathered on one of 50+ trips over the past 48 years. A card for a little trattoria in Trentino. A brochure for an Apulian village that has long ago changed dramatically. Lots of ephemera, and all catalogued like a librarian. My life’s memories of travel to Italy on reams of transitory paper.
And along with that goes the photography. Umbria in October, from right below the Eremo delle Carceri (St. Francis' Hermitage), has a vista that in the fall is often filled with fog and bonfires. Get up early and listen to the shepherds herding their flock through the fields below. The bell ringing leader, taking the others to greener plots.
There are files of photographs needing to be gone through. And it is on the list of things to do before I die.
I’m sitting on a bench on a men’s changing room. Getting ready to walk the treadmill and do my penance for having lived a rich life. Trying to make less of myself. And so far, have been relatively successful, shedding 18+ pounds since I “retired.” I feel great, am up to 54 push-ups a day and am organizing my other life’s work – the photographs.
Anyway, two older gents nearby are kvetching about how terrible everything is in America. How it’s not as great as it once was, as it should be. And all because of young liberal left wingers (and aliens) who don’t want to work, who all they want is a hand out, and who don’t do things the way these old men did, and what a great frigging shame the whole thing is.
I hear fear in their voices, mixed with a couple of tablespoons of anger and self-righteous entitlement. The fear is fear of change. Good luck with that, old boys. Everything is changing. Like it always is.
I find myself getting really angry. Listening to these two old crows banter on about stuff they’ve just regurgitated from the screaming box they're addicted to and can't take their eyes off of. And they, barely two generations removed from another country themselves, from being the immigrants they so fear and loathe.
I’d tell them there are all kinds of addictions and afflictions. But the rate of change and the need to ever be more vigilant in regards to the information that is coming past your ears and eyes, to not let it harden your heart or endanger your children’s children’s future. But they haven’t asked me into their conversation, nor would I find it very uplifting, trying to change two men who both have one foot (or one lobe)in the grave. In any event, I’m an introvert, a loner. And they’ll be dead soon enough.
It’s weird to think that way, but I now think the only way to cleanse it is for the natural state of things to take place. The earth doesn’t need us. We need the earth. We’re on our own. And some of us are not doing that great right now.
But you came here to read about Italy and wine, non e vero?
So, let there be blood. Let's give you a tasting note.
I long ago read about Sagrantino being originally a passito wine. Making Sagrantino dry would come centuries later, along with the heavy bottles and high price tags. This was tasting the history of the wine; this was meeting face-to-face with the ancestors. This was a moment to bow on one knee before taking a sip.
That Sagrantino that I spoke about earlier, it was a half-bottle, 7 years with age:
Lights down, music to a low chant, with only the heat from the candles. Once inside, the wine turned my palate towards the pagan. We had landed in Xanadu: the sacred river, the pleasure dome, the caverns measureless to man and the sunless sea. The milk of Paradise. And you didn’t even have to die.
That’s my Italy. My hope. My dream of renewal. It can be yours too. It beats yelling at the TV screen.