The Making of a Wine List
Do you feel as though your life has a soundtrack? How many times has a song popped into your head at just the right time? Or how many times have you burned a disc for a dinner party or road trip? Or Sinatra’s “Summer Wind,” or Bare Naked Ladies’ “Pinch Me” for an outdoor dinner party?
When I was a young adult on a sailing trip with my parents, we got caught in a nasty squall (although luckily we were securely moored). My dad put Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 into the CD player, and despite the raging thunder-and-lightning storm knocking us around, I never felt so safe and secure. For one of the first times in my young life, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. All those brooding oboes, bassoons, and trombones were the perfect fit for the storm and the cocoon-like berth I curled into. At the same time, I do remember being disappointed that the only reading material I had was People magazine and not one of the works of the great masters.
As much as I feel as though my life ought to have a soundtrack (how fun to make the ultimate collection), perhaps a wine list might be more appropriate.
Like music, my wine tastes have enjoyed phases of obsession and total dedication.
Early on, I confess (not proudly), American Chardonnay was my thing. You know those big, buttery balls that hurt the back of your throat? Yeah, I loved ’em. How I could taste food was a miracle. I think, though, that it brought me to the table. And I learned about the different growing regions of California, and why tracks of land in Napa and Sonoma could be so different, and how soaking the grapes in burnt-oak casks could make it all taste the same. I learned about winemaking. It opened my mind and palate. It was less an obsession than a diving board that gave me the impetus to learn and know more… like background music.
I think the first real breakaway wines for me were the whites of Southern Italy — Campagna specifically. I took a whirlwind wine trip with a friend who’s an importer. And I mean whirlwind: We landed in Naples, flew to Sardinia, then Sicily, then back to Naples; then drove south through Campagna, Calabria, Basilicata, and Puglia; then headed north via Molise and Abruzzo, and ended in Rome/Lazio — in less than 10 days.
We tasted a lot of wines, red and white, good and bad. I think people think of Italian wines as the reds of Tuscany or the Piedmont, but it was the indigenous varietals of Campagna that charmed me — Fiano de Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Falanghina caught me in their cunning trap. They’re sexy wines, dating back to the times of Nero and Pompeii, and when made by reputable producers (Feudi San Gregorio being my first love), they sing.
And as much as I truly appreciated them for their great balance, bright flavors, and approachability (I still have an affection for them), part of their appeal was that nonwine folks didn’t know them, and I got to be the cool kid turning them on to these reasonably priced ancient varietals.
Then it was Northern Italy and a trip to Friuli Venezia Guila, and the Friulian vineyards specifically. Cool-weather Pinot Grigios, Picolit, and Tocai Friulano from Felluga (both Marco and Livio) — are crisp and clean in the bottle, but enough fruit and terroir to be intensely interesting and food-friendly. I couldn’t get enough.