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
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.