An excerpt from “Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine,” by Jason Wilson and published by Abrams Books. It is available for purchase on Amazon today. Wine books almost always begin with a light-hearted tale of the author’s initiation into the world of wine via some crappy bottle of plonk. This is where you’ll normally read an anecdote of misguided youth involving, say, Thunderbird, Sutter Home white zinfandel, Boone’s Farm, Lancer’s, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or—for the generation of wine books still to be written by younger millennials—boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law, so who am I to violate it? My own wine story begins during my senior year of high school when I was very enthusiastic about Mogen David’s flavored and fortified wine MD 20/20, otherwise known as “Mad Dog.” MD 20/20’s Orange Jubilee was my particular tipple of choice, and the reason had more to do with how much easier it was to hide in the woods than a six-pack of beer. I vaguely remember it tasting like a mix of chalky, watered-down Sunny D and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with numerous other suburban public school rites of passage. My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in Boston. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my dorm floor. After gagging and spitting out the MD 20/20, my new friends laughed and gave me the ironic nickname “Mad Dog,” which stuck until I transferred to the University of Vermont after my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference, as well as a lesson in how it feels it to have one’s taste disapprovingly assessed. In reality, there was no reason my first “wine” had to be MD 20/20 Orange Jubilee. My father was of the generation that, in the late 1970s and 1980s, leaped headlong into an appreciation of Napa and Sonoma cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay—all aspiring to compete with Bordeaux and Burgundy. There were often bottles of Kendall-Jackson or Robert Mondavi or Grgich Hills or Beringer opened at dinners and parties. I occasionally had a taste, but back then I had little interest in drinking what my parents drank. So it wouldn’t be until the summer after my sophomore year, when I was 19, that I first truly experienced wine. I was studying abroad in Italy, living with a family in a village called Pieve San Giacomo near the Po River in the province of Cremona. Every night, Paolo, the father, sliced a plateful of prosciutto and cut a hunk from a wheel of Grana Padano. Then he uncorked and poured a fizzy red, chilled, from an unlabeled liter bottle he’d fetched from a dark corner of the barn. Paolo didn’t go for fancy wine glasses, but rather used what we would have called “juice” glasses back home in Jersey. Beyond preparing sliced meat, cheese, and wine, men were otherwise forbidden in his wife’s kitchen, so while Anna busily made us dinner, Paolo and I would sip our cool, fizzy red wine from juice glasses in front of the television, blaring a soccer game on those hot evenings. I had never tasted or witnessed a wine like this. The liquid was bright purple, with a thick pink foam that formed as it was poured. I knew enough to know that the Napa cabs on my parents’ table back home didn’t foam. Paolo’s wine certainly tasted fruity, though it was more tangy than sweet, and what made it foreign to me was the aroma. My father’s wines smelled like identifiable fruits—plums, cherries, berries—unlike this fizzy wine. It was a little stinky, to be honest, but in a very pleasant way. Sort of like the beautiful hippie girls I had crushes on back at college in Vermont. I didn’t have the language back then, but in my memory the aroma smelled earthy, rustic, fertile, alive, almost like the essence of the farm and dusty streets of the village. Back then, it simply smelled and tasted like the Old Europe I had hoped to find. Of course, being young and naïve, I never bothered to ask Paolo anything about his wine—the grapes, where it was made, who made it. I kept in touch with the family, but since Paolo died in the late 1990s, and since neither Anna nor his daughter Daniela drink wine, the fizzy red’s provenance remained a mystery. Over the years, though, as my wine knowledge grew, I hypothesized that what I’d been imbibing those summer evenings long ago had been lambrusco, mainly since Pieve San Giacomo is just over an hour’s drive from Modena, lambrusco’s place of origin. As I moved further into drinking and learning and eventually writing about wine, I occasionally told Wine People I met at trade tastings and industry events about enjoying this fizzy red wine as a 19-year-old, and it never failed to draw a chuckle. “Lambrusco!” they’d say. “Riunite!” For decades, cheap and sweet Riunite lambrusco had been one of the best selling wines in the United States. During its heyday in the early 1980s, I can remember seeing those cheesy “Riunite on ice. That’s nice!” commercials when the babysitter let us stay up late to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. But as Americans’ knowledge increased during the 1990s, budding wine connoisseurs didn’t want to hear about fizzy red wine anymore. So even though the stuff I drank back in Pieve San Giacomo was neither sweet nor tacky, I just stopped talking about it, or even thinking about it. Like so many other aspirational Wine People of my generation, I dutifully learned to appreciate Serious Wines, which in the late 20th and early 21st centuries still mainly meant cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir and char-donnay from various pricey bottlings. Instead of rustic Italian wine, I delved into high-end Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, and Super Tuscans. There seemed to be a general consensus on what defined a Serious Wine. “Frankly, there are no secrets about the origin and production of the world’s finest wines,” wrote Robert Parker in an essay called “What Constitutes a Great Wine?” in The Ultimate Wine Companion. Serious Wines, according to Parker, pleased the intellect as well as the palate, offered intense flavors and aromas, and always improved with lengthy aging. I’ve read similar things from other critics. When talking about Serious Wines, very little is said about drinkability or refreshment. So I filed away my old “unserious” fizzy red into a similar place as my youthful Orange Jubilee. I was being schooled by wine educators and sommeliers and wine critics: As a sophisticated drinker, a Wine Person, I was made to believe I should be moving beyond things like fizzy reds; I should be climbing the ladder, constantly reaching upward, leaving behind so-called lesser wines and striving toward greatness, toward the profound, and toward—inevitably—expensive Serious Wines. Two decades after my summer in Pieve San Giacomo, I found myself in Italy’s Langhe region, in Piedmont, visiting a bunch of producers of Barolo, the complex, elegant wine made from the nebbiolo grape—the epitome of a Serious Wine. It was the court wine of the House of Savoy monarchs in Turin, gaining its nickname as “the wine of kings, the king of wines.” I tasted dozens of astonishing and often profound and transcendent Barolos—some of which had been aged for decades—which convinced me, once again, that nebbiolo grown in this corner of northwestern Italy creates one of the world’s greatest wines. My visit culminated on a sunny Sunday afternoon, when I attended an auction called Asta del Barolo. On the day of the auction, I climbed the village of Barolo’s winding, narrow cobblestone streets up to a castle overlooking miles and miles of some of the most valuable vineyards in the world. Bottles from prized vintages sold to collectors—some from as far away as Shanghai, Moscow, and Dubai—for thousands of dollars. A group of men bid live via video chat from a restaurant table in Singapore. One acquaintance, an Austrian banker living in Hong Kong, paid 3,000 euros for three magnums dating from the mid-1980s. I sat next to a charming producer, whose family’s elegant, silky, Barolos annually receive high scores from critics, who call them “genius” and “breathtaking.” During the many courses of lunch, we tasted about 15 examples of the 2009 vintage. Later, there was talk among the younger winemakers about Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s recent visit to Barolo for a weekend, where they supposedly dropped $50,000 on wine and truffles. I won’t lie. It is seductive to be part of an afternoon crowd like that. And I cannot state clearly enough how much I do enjoy Barolo. Perhaps it is nerdy to say, but it can be like listening to a beautiful, challenging piece of music or standing before a grand, moving work of art. I love it so much that when people ask what my favorite wine is, I often exclaim, “Barolo!” And they nod, and say, “Ah, yes. Barolo, of course.” But that afternoon at the castle was total fantasyland. When I returned home, would I be drinking very much Barolo? No, not so much. Saying Barolo is my “favorite” is very much a misrepresentation of my everyday drinking habits. How often do I drink it? Outside of professional tastings, when I’m buying wine to serve at home or when I order it in restaurants, I probably drink Barolo two or three times a year. Maybe four if I’m particularly flush. That’s because the price of a decent Barolo starts at around $60 a bottle, and quickly climbs to well over $100 at a wine shop. Double or triple that price on a restaurant wine list. No, even though I love Barolo, it will always be a special occasion wine. After Asta del Barolo, I was thinking deeply about greatness in wines. So I decided to make a quick side trip to visit my old exchange family in Pieve San Giacomo. On a whim, I’d asked Daniela, Paolo’s daughter, to do a little research to see where her father used to buy his fizzy red wine, and with some effort we located the winemaker. To my surprise, the winemaker was not based in Modena, but rather a couple hours in the other direction, in the Colli Piacentini—the Piacenza hills—a region I’d never heard of. After getting lost, and refereeing an argument between Daniela and Anna, who was feeling carsick in the backseat, we were finally welcomed into the garage of the winemaker, 80-year-old Antonio, and his daughter, who was in her 40s. Anna became emotional—the last time she’d visited the winemaker was in the early 1990s with Paolo. “I remember you had a goat and it used to like eating the grapes!” she said. The goat, of course, was long dead. From stainless steel tanks, we tasted his crisp riesling and an enigmatic, dark yellow wine made from a local and arcane grape, ortrugo. Antonio told me that most of his customers come to buy his wine in demijohns because they prefer to bottle it themselves, as Paolo did. “What about the frizzante red?” I asked. “Do you still make it?” He smiled broadly and fished a bottle from a corner of the garage. He grabbed a wide white bowl and as he splashed in the deep purple wine, pink foam bubbled up. “My customers insist on white bowls for the red,” Antonio said, “to bring out the color and aromas.” I closed my eyes and took a sniff, and then took a sip. Sharp, fresh, tangy, earthy. Wow. The wine in the bowl was a time machine. I was again 19, dressed in Birkenstocks and a Phish T-shirt, experiencing the aromas and flavors of this wine for the first time. Holding this wide bowl to my face nearly brought me to tears in the dark garage. “Ah, lambrusco,” I said with a satisfied smile. Antonio laughed at me. “Lambrusco? No, no, no. This is Gutturnio!” “Gutturnio?” I said. What the hell is Gutturnio, I thought. I must have said something wrong. Maybe I was having trouble understanding the dialect. “Is that the local name for lam-brusco?” I asked. He laughed again. “No! It’s Gutturnio. It’s a blend of barbera and bonarda.” (And bonarda, for maximum confusion, is the local name for a grape called croatina.) Wait . . . what? For more than 20 years, I’d been telling myself that my seminal wine experience was over lambrusco. Now I find out that it’s a wine called Gutturnio? And how had I never even heard of this wine? It’s not like it’s new. I later learned that the Romans drank it from round jugs called gutturnia, from which the name is taken. Julius Caesar’s father-in-law was famous for producing wine from this region. We sat at a table and ate cheese and meats with the wine, and Anna and Antonio reminisced about the old days. Antonio said he now sold about 4,000 bottles per year, about half what he did about 20 years ago. “Ah,” he said, “a lot of my customers, they’re dying.” Meanwhile, the younger generation just wasn’t as interested in local wines like his anymore. “Nowadays, people want different tastes. Maybe they want cocktails and beer. There are a lot of other tastes that people seek.” Antonio shrugged. “There is an end for everything. Everything ends.” Suddenly, this humble purple fizzy Gutturnio that I swirled around in a white bowl—which connected me to my own past, to ancient Rome, and yet at the same time was totally fresh knowledge—seemed more important than even the greatest Barolo. This strange experience I was having in this farmhouse in the Piacenza hills seemed to me to be the very essence of wine, the true reason people spend their lives obsessed with it, an example of how wine becomes part of our lives.
Sommelier/Wine Educator LibationEducation
Delicious Lambrusco, classic black & red fruit, slightly dried, just a hint of RS, perfect with salami. — 4 years ago