Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A little Orange among friends - from wd 8/3/2009

Thinking back, it was basically because of Chip Coen. Chip is a sales manager with MS Walker in Boston, where I used to live. A friendly enough guy, Chip is always fast with a ready smile and a strong clap on the back. He seemed like decent people, so I ended up loaning him this book I had. Kind of a hard book to find, by Simon Loftus. About Puligny-Montrachet. It was cool because it really painted a picture of the village itself, and the ways of the older denizens, the folks who set the stage for the current generation of players. The Vincent Leflaives, and such. I liked that book. And I never saw it again. Chip will occasionally claim to still have said book in his possesion. Nonsense. That book is gone. I am sure Chip only gave it up under supreme diress. He's a decent dude after all. Probably some powerful private wine collector scoured the earth for just that edition, and finding only one copy left in existence, kidnapped Chip's family and held them for ransom until the book was turned over. Maybe there was some sort deadly game of cat and mouse involved, as Chip eluded both the law and some serious bad guys named Berserker and Dr. Klaw to get his family back by the only means he knew how: relinquishing the precious Burgundy book. Or dude just lost it. Either way, some Hong Kong big wig collector probably keeps Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy on a shelf somewhere in his cellar at this point, who knows.

Anyway, I think Chip felt bad about the whole thing, because he not only invited me on a trip to Nuevo Yorka for an Italian wine tasting, he gave me my first book about Italian wine (the Lynch/Bastianich travelogue) to read on the bus trip there. So on the appointed day I get on a chartered bus with a whole mess of MS Walker folks, and we make the journey to the hallowed midtown Marriott Marquis, home of so many (so many!) wine tastings. I tell you, I didn't know it then, but if those puke yellow walls could talk, I bet you they would tell a fine tale about the wine business. Yes, Sir. They might speak of the Rosy Fingered Dawn of the morning tasting, or tell you the truism that the hotter the salesgirl tending the booth, the worse the liquor. About spit buckets missed and glasses broken. Of case drops agreed to and special pricing indicated. Attorney General Elliot Spitzer probably had the whole place mic'd with recording devices when he was cracking down on the distributors. Maybe one day they'll find all this secret wiring in the walls and assume it was the FBI trying to catch terrorists or something who put it there, when it was really just Spitzer trying to suss out the price per bottle on 50 cases of malt liquor.

So we go. It's a Vias tasting. I taste a bunch of Produttori, Novacella, Argiano and the like. And then there's Chip with a bottle in his hand. "Taste this" he said, "it will take the enamel off your teeth!" Not sure why that seemed appealing at the time, but it did, so I took a swig of Gravner 2000 Ribolla Gialla. My first orange wine. I'd like to say the heavens opened up, and that I fell to the ground in awe, stunned by the revelation. In reality, I was preplexed. I have found over time that this is a key facet for illiciting real interest from me. If I totally don't get it, then, of course, bring it on! More! The wine also had a nice label. A nice label helps. Anyway, I was smitten. How to get more, how to learn more about this sharp clawed Hippogriff of a wine?

I got back to Boston and put Gravner on the list of my restaurant stat, assured that legions would compliment my sophisticated taste and bold wine selections. I think I sold that wine to maybe three people. I remember Jeannie Rogers had it and was psyched. Cat might have had a bottle. And some dude who ordered it by mistake. Let's just say it takes awhile to change the world sometimes.

Fast forward to Palm Beach. I was working as the wine buyer for a famous French Chef at a place gathering all sorts of critical attention. Older patrons who had long since become set in their wine ways, a Chef who drank French wine and only French wine, holding suspicions even of Alsace, and a service staff that was used to selling Pinot Grigio and 5 types of Merlot in the Florida heat, all adding up to a pretty much predictable situation: this was clearly the place for Gravner. I wasted no time in ordering some for the restaurant. But now, I was told, things had changed. Gravner had moved to Amphora. Would I care to go along for the ride? Sign me up! Gravner 2001 "Breg" Amphora arrived soon after I placed the call. A place holder in my cellar inventory, that wine was also not the, how should I say, biggest seller. But that's me. Always waiting for that Knowledgeable Someone to come walking through the door, so happy to find such a wine list. Somebody who gets it. Maybe Matt Kramer would take up golf and visit PB for a round. Maybe Jancis Robinson would be in town visiting her good friend Rod Stewart. I have no idea what I was thinking. I can tell you that I was happy, though. Happy to have a wine like that around. I remember we opened a bottle for one of the servers when he was going away, as a sort of farewell party offering. Dude probably thought I was nuts.

Eventually I moved to New York. Working for the same famed French Chef. I couldn't get to any Gravner now, because none would be allowed in the mothership, the crown jewel of the empire, and all that I had bought was still down south, under the care of a new sommelier. One evening a guest, a rather old lady with a rather loud voice, hailed me to her table. Curious how I could help, I approached her. "Excuuuse me, are youuuu Levi?" she asked. Why yes, I said, somewhat flattered, what might I do to help? "Well!" she said "You can stop buying such terrible wines!! Poor [new Florida sommelier's name] is having such a hard time with all that junk you've choosen!!" Crestfallen I slunk away from the table. The Palm Beach sommelier sent me an email at some point, wondering after me. I never replied. Petty grudges and resentments may get you nowhere, but I find them easy to keep.

After work Fabio and I used to go downtown and slurp our way through Italian wines for the remainder of the evening. Fabio was the Milanese sommelier at the same French restaurant I was working at. Fabio missed home. I missed drinking something besides Burgundy and Bordeaux. We used to hop a cab from the UES and take a straight shot down to Rivington and a wine bar full of Italian vino. Massa Vecchia, Pepe, Valentini, Fiorano; these were our cohorts. We'd drink those wines and Fabio would say something very Italian, like that The Godfather 3 is better than One or Two, something no self-respecting American would ever say. Fabio reasoned that it was because of the Church angle in three. Corruption tied in with the church reminded him of the real situation. I would nod and try to understand. Corruption has ruined so much in Italy, even film appreciation.

It was back then that I tried the "Ariento" Vermentino 1999 from Massa Vecchia, a wine that made me once again staunch in my Orange beliefs. And it was probably those long drinking nights that led me, eventually and in a circuitous fashion, back to Italian wine as vocation. Funny, but sometimes it is the outliers that bring you back into the fold.

I like to slip Radikon into a tasting menu when people aren't looking. It is a 500ml after all, and that's a nice size to open up for a 4 person tasting. Suddenly there's the Radikon, the color of a banana slug in the glass. What to do? I talk to them about the reclusive old Mr. Radikon and his ways, and then I let them taste. And they dig it. One guy, an editor for Rolling Stone, was especially taken with the Radikon 2003 "Jakot". LOVED it. Usually the culture magazine types aren't so into wine. I considered it a major coup. Wouldn't it be just a kick in the pants one day to roll up to a newstand and see Stanislao on the cover of Rolling Stone?

I've had my Damijan Days, my Movia Moments, but I have to say that one instance that really sticks out for me was a lunch I had over a year ago. I was dining with the superior intelligence that is my current boss, Chris Cannon, and for some reason he decided to push the boat out a little. I really don't remember why. Anyway, there we were drinking both La Biancara 1996 "Taibane" and Ca' de Noci 2006 "Notte di Luna", and all I can tell you is that that Taibane was sweepingly and completely transporting. Tremendous. I don't think I have ever drunk the like before or since. Which is a shame, because I have had the "Taibane" 1996 a few times now, and never again has it unfettered all of it's petals and reached out into my very soul as it did that first day. Not that the "Notte" 2006 was any slouch. In fact I remember declaring to all who would listen (no one) that the "Notte" would in ten year surpass the mammoth record set by the "Taibane". That one day the "Notte" would be more than just the Blonde Haired boy with the Perfect Teeth that it is, and transcend into a choir symphony of Angels. Really I do hope that is true. Really.

But I know that pisses off the "Ageno". You might not think that wines have feelings, but the La Stoppa 2004 "Ageno" has shown me otherwise. Long were the days that the La Stoppa spent at the Wildman tastings, year after year, ignored by all in their mad rush to taste Meo-Camuzet's latest. Ignored by all, that is, but me. I took a liking to the Ageno and it's breadth across the palate, it's reach, and I purchased three six-packs. And for awhile the Ageno was happy, and showing well, and the world was one, seamless. I would call to the Ageno, and it would answer me at attention. Happy to oblige. But that was before the days of Notte di Luna 2006. Before that showoff with the pretty floral perfume strode into the cellar from Emilia (homeland also of the Ageno), and took up residence next to the La Stoppa. And ever since the Ageno has been cranky. Deeply cranky. Faultlines of minerality and crevices of gamey tones emerged. The Green Eyed Monster of Jealousy was starting to take hold. The Ageno never again sat up straight, never heeded my call to drink the same. Always it was the same story "Oh, this wine [the Ageno] is nice, but this other wine [the Notte '06] is so much prettier!" Forever now the Ageno has been slouching in the corner hissing deprecations at everyone's little favorite, the Notte. And I could tell that this saignee business was the last straw. Oh, you didn't know? Why this lady not only said she did not care for the Ageno during the Cartwright 31 Days showpiece, she couldn't even remember it's name! I knew nothing would be the same after that, but little did I know that when I opened a bottle of the La Stoppa 2004 "Ageno", that the nice David Banner Ageno I had known would be gone, ripped apart and replaced now with the Lou Ferrigno Ageno. AGENO SMASH!! was the yell as muscles of ripped minerality pulsed through the texture of the glass. A beast. Untamed, and out for revenge.

Did I tell you about the Kante Sauvignon 2006? It is the quiet reflection of a quiet man. You can hear a lot when Edi Kante is speaking. The man is John Cage reincarnated. You not only hear Edi, you hear all that is going on around him. How can one talk and amplify the the minute noises of the surroundings? Edi knows. So do his wines. Never showy. Always ready to stand back and hold the door for those more rambunctious coming through. And yet. And yet. We speak now of the most beautiful Italian Sauvignon Blanc ever hewn by man and soil. Really. Listen to it one day. Hear all that it brings with it. I ask you to do this. It is the least we can do. Because the texture of the Kante Sauvignon 2006 truly is well-played, well-judged, and a wellspring. Please, for me. Listen to a bottle on a quiet evening, as if it were Beethoven on the Harman-Kardon's. I promise it won't let you down.

I wanted to write all this down because Portraits at an Exhibition are one thing. 36 Views of Mount Orange are one thing. Orange Petals on Wet Black Bough, and so on. I did a dinner recently (perhaps you heard about it?) to show you those. But I thought there was something more to be said.

I can't believe I forgot the Gravner 2001 "Amphora" Ribolla Gialla moment. Crazy. Cause it was. Crazy. It was the night we opened for business under the new name, an Italian restaurant recently renovated in Tudor City. It was just myself, and it was late. Maybe 4 or 5 am. I'd been at the resto all day. Busy place. Tired me. Always there was one more thing to do, more folks to help with this or that. That's how it is with openings. But now there was just me and an unfinished bottle of Gravner, left over from no less than Ruth Reichl's table. I sat at the bar and poured myself a glass. How to explain. Uh, well, I saw Monument Valley melt in front of me. A translucency, you could feel the sun's rays on your tongue. A liquid Monument Valley. There might even have been a little John Wayne in there somewhere surfing. I don't remember. But I remember just this INCREDIBLE texture, I mean this is what it's all about, this is it, this is the best wine EVER!!! This is what I have been looking for allllllll this time. Nobody is around during such moments. Maybe I make them up. All I know is I want that one back. That one was a keeper.

1 comment:

Mark Goldberger said...

Funny thing is, when I took over as sommelier at blu after you went down to PB, I added Radikon Oslavje to the list there. And like you, I didn't know what to make of my first orange wine experience, but after my third try, I had to get some, even if I knew it would never sell on purpose. So it goes...