Wednesday, December 1, 2010

wine changes with you - from wd 7/28/2009

Sometimes a wine sneaks up on you.

Two Januarys ago I started working as the sommelier of an Italian restaurant in New York. Previously I had been selling a lot of Riesling and White Burgundy. I knew a bit about Italian wine, had even visited several wineries there, but mostly my tasting experience was confined to the Great and Boldfaced in the Cannon of Great Italian Wines. You know, the Top 100 List, the Guide Wines, the Greatest Italian Hits, the Dessert Island Wines, same bullshit. People have a tendency to reduce a whole country to a handful of names. It is a shame. Anyway, I had mostly toured the Big Time Autostrada, not the small highways and byways and paths through the wood. So I tried to learn a lot. You know, feet first and all. Taste what you can, read what you can, steal what you can from others, the usual deal.

At the time back in the cold of that first January (I started my new job a few days before my b-day, sometime around MLK day) we had 2 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. They were there from the guy before me. Or maybe from the guy before him. We had 2003 Zanna Riserva from Illuminati, and we had Torre dei Beati "Mazzamurello" 2004. I knew the Zanna bottling. I had tried through some Zanna from the early and mid-80s back a year or so previous. Decent stuff. Those wines had held well, if they lept a bit shy of profundity. The Torre dei Beati I had never heard of. It had a funny looking label on it. A little drawing of a guy, kind of like a weird mixture of Klee and Edvard Munch. I looked it up on the internet, trying to get a bearing. It was the project of an ex-sommelier turned winemaker. The Mazzamurello was a riserva bottling. I tried a bottle. The oak was sticking out a bit. The fruit seemed a bit candied, with large extract behind it, but mostly showing cranberry. I wrote the wine off as the Italian version of Clos des Fees and never recommended another bottle. It was Zanna all the way. Go with what you know, Baby. And the Zanna was decent enough. Structured, tannins, not overdone. Give it some time in the decanter and it went well with the lamb. A few dollars more than the Mazzamurello, sure, but you know, you pay for better. I sold a goodly amount of Zanna that winter. People were happy with it. We ran out. Couldn't get more until the next vintage. Who knew when that would come. I put on a Pepe bottling for a lot of money and sort of left the Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo category alone for a bit. Wouldn't catch me recommending any kind of spoof Mazzamurello that I myself wouldn't drink, No Sir.

At some point along the line I decided to strap a Steinway to my back and hike up a few flights of stairs, which is to say, I started focusing on Southern Italian wine. No more North for me. Plentiful goodness in the South (there is), lower prices (there are), high quality with a story that people haven't heard before (true), lovely with the food (yep), no fight for allocations (relief), no feeling like a monkey just taking the square peg from the Great Wines Book and putting it into the square wine list hole (happiness resulting). Anyway, there wasn't, how should I say, a huge stampede to buy the Nero's and Nerello's flooding the list. The Occhipinti Frappato was not the big seller then that it is now. Folks like a familiar name and all, and they gravitated towards the remaining Barolo and Brunello and - yes - Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. I wasn't buying more, but we still had plenty of listings for that sort of thing. Not surprisingly given the Economic Weather Pattern, there wasn't as much interest in the $400+ old Pepe bottling as the $80ish Mazzamurello, sitting on the list almost by it's lonesome. None of you here may believe this, but sometimes customers don't listen to me. Sometimes they just order off the list and stuff. Like I'm not there. Despite my best efforts to be recognized for my intelligence and good deeds. That's cool. I'm used to it. It's my parents all over again: Hey, look at me! No? Not so much? Well, fine, but I'm still smarter than you! Oh, you pay for this house? Oh, hmm, okay, well uneasy truce then. I did that for 18 years. I can do the customer thing too. So the Mazzamurello starts marching out of the cellar single file. People have heard of Montepulciano. They may not know if it is the town or the grape that they like, but they have heard of Montepulciano. And $80 is a universal language, unknown only to babes and that girl in the movie Nell (if she was raised away from civilization, how were her teeth so nice, I'd like to know?).

With all this Mazzamurello flying by, I tend to taste some now and again. Seems like the wood is settling in, and the fruit tones have gone deeper. Whatever, the stuff is for the tourists. Where's my Amphora bottling at? That's what we want to be selling. Amphora, Anfora, whatever you want to call it, that's crazy stuff. More more phora!

The situation continues apace. I buy more Aglianico, we sell more Montepulciano. For awhile I think every day about the story Theise tells: Yes, this is from the Best Village for Chardonnay in the World! That village is called Riesling. And whenever you see a bottle of Chardonnay with the label "Riesling" on it, you should buy it, because that is the best Chardonnay there is! I mean, what does it take to sell a little Sud, people? What does a man have to do? Yes, this is the Best of the Best New Supertuscan! It's called Aglianico del Vulture! Anyway, I think like this sometimes.

There is a phenomenon, well-known amongst Restaurant Industry Professionals, referred to as "Saturday". Perhaps you have also heard of this so-called nice evening to go out. People (lots of people) come, said people look at the wine list, studying it in-depth for perhaps hidden meaning. Sometimes I think there are quadratic equations in there or something, the way people look at that list. I offer to help. "May I be of any assistance with you wine selection?" I say, in my best helpful, nice guy voice. No, no, I know what I want, just give me some time! Comes the reply. Ok, sure, just let me know if I may be of some help later, I say as I saunter away. And then every time (really!) the guy then calls over the waitress and orders the Pinot Grigio. That's Saturday. It's amazing. There is one Pinot Grigio on the menu, because really, I don't want to have to hear about it all night for not having that one there, I mean, I've got a life to live, man. It's a good Pinot Grigio. I mean it's okay. Nothing horrible about it. It's inexpensive. I try to do the right thing by people. You got to make sure the world keeps turning. Just let them order the Pinot Grigio from the waitress and move on. Now substitute Mazzamurello for Pinot Grigio in that last instance, and you'll see my thinking. Less Fight Makes Right, Dude. They want the Mazzamurello, fine. I order another drop of cases. And then another. We become the Nation's Fastest Seller of Torre dei Beati. I mean really, somewhere there should be a plaque. We sold tons.

And you know what? This is the real kicker if you are still with me. I even start to like it a little bit. I mean it's not for me or anything, but it's not showing so bad, and hey, the people who like it like it, and hey, nothing wrong with that. I try to suss out who I am talking to, and if the feeling is right, hell, Mazzamurello it is. People are getting two bottles in an evening. I have a server while talking with a guest refer to the Mazzamurello as "the wine everyone gets two bottles of". He proceeds to sell one and then another to the same table. Just like that. First bottle not even over and the guy is ordering another one. And that was a DEUCE. Two people. I ask the server to start referring to the Cerasuolo di Vittoria as the wine everyone gets two bottles of, if it's all the same with him.

So there I am recommending the Mazzamurello to people. Do you ever have this strange phenonmenon happen to you? Let me try to explain it. Hmmm. Well it's like when you bring a bottle of wine to a wine tasting dinner. Man you want that wine to taste good. You are showing it to other people. You want them to like it. You want them to compliment your taste. You want to be that guy. Somehow wanting it makes it more true. At least to the person who brings the bottle. Mark my words. The next time you are at a dinner like that, remember, everybody thinks their bottle was the best one. They taste it, they taste the other wines, and they always like their own the best. They are telling other people it is good, and somehow that makes them believe it more themselves. I tell people about wine for a living. Sometimes I'll describe a wine and then taste it before serving, to check for TCA and all, and I'll look for what I described in the wine. Cause sometimes there is bottle variation. Sometimes a wine shows different. So I look in and see if what I just said is there today. "Yep," I'll say, "I sure got that one right. Lots of citrus." One time I was really busy, deep in the shit. I got confused for a minute. I was thinking about a bottle I was going to be serving one table, while tasting another. "Yep, right again." Except, uhh, dude, that's not the wine you thought you were tasting. Yeah, look at the label. Look for something and you find it. Recommend something and you like it. Truism.

Back to Mazzamurello. Time has passed. We are at like year one on the job. It ain't bad. Things are coming together. So has the Mazzamurello. Really. Maybe not my thing, maybe not something I'm bragging about to wine hipsters, but I'm liking it alright. And so it goes. I keep it in the spare pocket for recommendations. I even start moving people who say they want Barbaresco over Mazzamurello way, because when asking them what they want the wine to taste like they are spelling Barbaresco B-A-R-B-E-R-A, which is not how I spell it on my list. Nor do I spell it C-A-B-E-R-N-E-T. So I tell these people they would be happier with the Mazzamurello. And they were. Yes they were. Two bottles to every table or my name ain't L-O-V-E-S D-O-N-N-H-O-F-F.

Fast forward seven months. Here we are. The Mazzamurello has long since sold out from the distributor. We took like the last 6 cases or whatever. The 2004 is but a memory for Artisan Wines, Inc. The list at my workplace is solidly South these days. Wierdly, this seems to be working. Put one Taurasi on the list, nothing. Put on 30, success. I guess folks figure, well if they have a lot of them, must be good. I'm cool with it. It has been awhile since anyone called me to the table to scold me about the list. Maybe I should try harder to piss people off. Anyway, the other day I sold a Mazzamurello and it was just GORGEOUS. GORGEOUS. Again. Repeat. Lovely stuff. It is crazy how a wine will justcometogether on you one day. There were minerals in there, there was definition, it kept going and going. I sold one and then immediately sold 4 more bottles to other tables. They had to TRY this. I was Evangelistic. It was great. I was happy. Folks were happy. Really, it doesn't always happen that way, despite whatever a fan may tell you.

And tonight I had one bottle left in the house. Just one, solo. That's all she wrote. And I sold it to a guy who I could tell was looking for something really wonderful, and just like I knew he would he totally dug on it and was only sad about the fact that I didn't have more to share.

And the deal is, that was just so crazy. Because that bottle tonight was the best wine I have had for awhile, and some dude brought in Gaja '82 tonight and stuff like that. I mean, that Mazzamurello was everything you would want it to be. I was just too dumb to know it before. Or maybe it just wasn't going to tell me until I was ready.

Bravo to the Italian ex-Sommelier contingent.

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