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December, 2003

Mmmm, Wine Good!

I went to Italy last week. It was a trip with my church choir, a pilgrimage. We've been planning and fund-raising for a year, and it was everything we'd hoped for. We sang a mass at St. Peter's and sang at a Papal audience; the Holy Father looked tired and faded visibly during the hour...about what you'd expect for a guy his age who's been shot and has Parkinson's. We got to sing a concert at the Church of the Jesu, the home church of the Jesuits (fantastic acoustics and a hugely powerful organ in a stunning rococo church). Then we went to Florence, where we sang a mass at St. Mark's and toured the beautiful excesses of the Medici. We finished up in Assisi, the spiritual highpoint of the trip for many of us. We sang a private mass in a chapel in St. Francis's lower basilica that left some of us in tears. 

And we drank a lot of wine. I probably drank more wine in those 7 days than I have in the past year. We were loose for lunch every day, and my friend Pat and I made the most of it. The first day I had a big bottle of Tuborg with lunch, but after drinking wine that night in the bar, well, I started drinking a lot more vino rosso, baby.

Especially when we realized how dirt cheap it was. As I've said, and as you've probably picked up, I don't know diddley about wine. Wine for Dummies is about my speed. But I look at wine the way Republicans look at pornography: I don't know what I like, but I know it when I taste it. We were bringing bottles back to the hotel that cost under E4 apiece, and I liked them. So did most everyone else, though a few wine lovers held out, saying these wines were okay...but not really good. 

Fair enough, and they were probably right. But we were buying wines in restaurants for E8 a bottle that were real drinkable! I just couldn't get over how good these cheap wines were, and I started thinking about why they were cheap and why they were good...and why I don't find American or French reds to be either. When I'm at home, I don't drink reds. I don't like what I've had, except for a couple northern Italian reds I've either bought or drunk at the home of a State Department guy I know who brings them in through the pouch. So what was going on here?

The wines we were drinking were table wines, vino da tavola. That was obvious. What was a bit more subtle was that unlike table wines I've had elsewhere, these Italian table wines weren't thin, weren't clumsy, weren't fakey. They were good wines, well-made and flavorful. They put me in mind of a good pale ale or helles, as opposed to a light beer or a British lager. 

By the same token, these wines weren't huge or austere, either. That came home to me when our tourguide, Susanna Da Pinto, took us to a family-run bottega in Assisi, a place where they sold olive oil, spreads and sauces, pasta, their own meats (excellent, and Susanna talked me into buying a big chunk of capocollo, bless her happy carnivore heart), and wine. There were three levels of pricing on the wine: under E10, E10-20, and over E40. "Any of these are good," she said breezily, waving at the first group. "These are for something special," she said firmly about the second group. "These are very rich," she said of the third group, mostly Brunello di Montalcino, and generally dissuaded us from buying them. "Very big," she said, not realizing she was waving a red flag for some of these wine bulls.

Background: Pat and I had joined Susanna for lunch the previous day in Florence. We went to a wine bar (Boccadama, if you're interested; an excellent little place on the Piazza Santa Croce) and she ordered Dolcetto d'Alba. Okay, I figured, she knows something about wine (she must, she's European), I'll get that too. It came, and it was a nice, dry, light-bodied red. But when I asked Susanna about it, she said she didn't know a lot about wine. In fact, she said she didn't like wine until she was about 24, and really felt left out among her friends because of that. Then she found this wine she liked, and since then she'd been finding others. 

So here was someone who drank what she liked. Not what someone else told her was good, not some horrible stuff she liked because she'd been drinking it since she was three, but wine she had come to with an adult palate and decided she liked. Her palate is not mine, not yours, of course, but how she came to it fascinated me. 

Maybe that's why I think I don't get wine. Maybe it's because I keep trying to 'get' what the winelords keep telling me, the wonders of huge, complex wines. You'd think I'd know better, given how I've been preaching the beauties of simpler beers. Nothing drives me nuts faster than beer geeks who try to take people directly from Bud Light to Stone Double Bastard; why, then, did I let wine people do that to me? When I'm outside my smarts zone, looks like I'm as much a sheep as anyone else.

Well, shear me. I've got the wine wool out of my eyes now, and I'm looking for what I like. I got a bottle of nouveau -- no, excuse me, nuovo that I really liked in Assisi. When I went to my local PA State Store, which has a pretty good wine selection for State Stores, I was told there were no Italian nouveaus. Ha! I'm on the hunt now, and I know what I'm looking for. I'm looking for stuff I like. I'm developing my taste. 

I feel so silly. Don Feinberg told me this years ago, and I never thought to apply it to wine. Listen to the master: 

Understanding your own likes and dislikes requires that you have experience. So I would say, experience many things, and see if you like them. After a while you will amass a book of what you like and donít like, and that will be your taste. Having taste doesnít mean youíre a snob, itís knowing what you like, and there is nothing wrong with that. Having someone else tell you what you like, I think thereís something wrong with that. Liking what other people like, or something thatís popular, I think thereís something wrong with that, too. Look, if itís worth putting in your mouth, itís worth being good. And you can be the judge of that. But knowing what good is, that takes a little bit of experience.

I'm not here to tell you what to like, and you're a fool if you like something -- if you work at liking something just because I said it was good. I'm here to tell you what I like, because I hope you might like it too, and because of the two of us, I'm the one lucky enough to be going out there all the time and finding the new places and new beers and whiskeys. I'm blessed by having the opportunity to think about these things all the time and call it work. My job is to make you think about what you're drinking, and maybe think about drinking some different things, for different reasons. In the end, I'd be very pleased if I encouraged you to experience many things and see if you like them. 

Develop your taste. Know what you like. Even if it's wine.


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: November 30, 2003