Thursday, September 8, 2016

I think I'll just have a Brunello in the garden

It takes years before you begin to understand, that is, unless (I suppose) you make a frantic study of it, in order to become a "somm." We have a new staff member in the department, promoted yesterday God bless him, and I can only imagine what the tossing sea of shelves crammed with bottles looks like to him.

To refresh our memories, re: -- oh, I don't know, pick one. Italy. The simplest thing is to imagine a map of that country, with two spots highlighted, Piedmont in the northwest and tourist Tuscany in the central west of the peninsula. In Piedmont, we have the wines Barolo and Barbaresco, grandest of the grand. Both are made from the nebbiolo grape.

In Tuscany, we have that slew of wines all made from sangiovese or its close relatives and clones. Chianti, Chianti Classico. Brunello di Montalcino. Rosso di Montalcino. Whenever a fine Italian wine has a sort of humbler little brother, it's called Rosso, "red." Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Rosso (ah!) di Montepulciano. Still Tuscany.

It takes years, sans frantic study, just to get that straight. Then comes the tasting. In sum, know that Barolos and Barbarescos (back to Piedmont, or da capo you might say) are magically silky, startlingly brownish, but are also so acidic and full of tannin that, after one swallow, they can seem empty and disappointing. The lady buying her birthday treat from our cellar last weekend described to me just such a Barolo. I knew, and could confirm for her, exactly what she meant. You must drink them with great food, or else wait until your bottle is twenty years old or you are on vacation in Milano before opening it, or all three. For a sure thing right now she chose Verite La Muse instead, all plush merlot velvet and Sonoma-cult price (circa $400 a pop).

Brunellos, now. Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany. They are different. At least they seem so to me, but you know my Barolo problems ....

Brunellos also are among the grandest of the grand. In starting to like them, in noticing "they are different," one's years of experience are, perhaps, beginning to tell. They are silky, again, but they suffer less tannin and acid, and give more agreeable depths of fruit flesh; in a Brunello the sangiovese grape that makes a Chianti of  black tart berries and dry sandpaper, and a bit of olive brine and horse stable thrown in, remember? -- in a Brunello this same grape and this same region (did you remember? Tuscany) make a lovely, light, complete and liquid thing inexpressible in mere and discrete greengrocer's metaphors. Similar to a Rioja -- that's in Spain -- it's just wine. And it's the kind of thing you look forward to coming home to and planning a meal around. Almost like a person, no? A guest.

2011 Sassetti Livio Pertimali Brunello. Retail, about $40.

Now moving on, to the garden. It's best not to have your Brunello there, really, since in this late summer we find ourselves again in the season of the yellow jacket or "meat bee," hungry for any and all food and drink. They will pester you and your picnic right indoors, although Wikipedia tells us that Vespula maculifrons is a valuable predator of other annoying insects.

One of the attractions of this particular condo building, otherwise no different from the several tucked along a quiet street here, and all backed by their parking lots, open land, and walking path beneath the huge high tension wires, is the garden. Somewhere in the details of the condo association's thirty-year-old bylaws I saw something about every owner having approximately an 8 percent stake in everything. I thought, "won't it be nice if that means we all get 8 percent of the garden, to do as we like with?"

One evening my gentleman friend and I approached. The sun was setting. Everywhere were red cannas, yellow Black-eyed Susans, and purple phlox; and huge lavish green prehistoric-looking leaf clumps that turned out to hide butternut squash, hanging in modest salmon-hued glory in the shade, and acorn squash too, sitting modestly green on the earth beneath more yellow blossoms of the same, shaped weirdly like elegant drooping half-clenched yellow hands. Gentleman friend is a grower of cannas and begonias and a tender of tomatoes, too. This gives him an almost professional interest in everything. (An ex-girlfriend taught him to garden. He still shakes his head. "I never thought I'd like it. If anyone ever told the guys...." ) "There's someone who can tell us," he now remarked. A middle-aged lady had straightened up from her work in the really huge plot.

 We asked questions. Who started this, who participates, etc.? "Oh, no, it's just me," Carla said. She told her story of dismay at seeing nothing but a stand of dead, collapsed poplars from her third floor balcony -- with its view of the high tension wires -- when she moved in twenty years ago. So she planted a little plot of zinnias. And then, over the years, her project expanded.

"Just me." I should have guessed. How many people like to garden? I can only measure it in human terms. How many people like to garden, such that a plot as big as this, about forty-five paces broad and ten or fifteen deep, might be maintained by the enthusiastic common effort of an at least occasionally-changing cadre of owners in this one building, across twenty years? Count twelve units, times twenty years, plus or minus, let us say, three owners leaving and three more arriving per, let us say, -- every five years? Already the arithmetic is too complex to think about. Far more likely that it's just one person, everlastingly, who likes to garden. Just Carla. That explains the variety too. A group effort would have installed flowers by committee consensus, and you would have nothing but petunias and vinca vine ground cover.

"Things come and go over the years," she went on. The wagon wheel was an anonymous gift. "The bench is made of deckwood," so it proved too heavy to steal. She spotted it one summer morning, halfway across the greensward under the high tension wires, on the way to the woods beyond and to some other home and garden. But the thieves had given up. The beautiful heavy glossy brown bench returned, thanks to the efforts of honest condominium owners, to its rightful place. Carla's father built it.

Sometime during our evening talk, when gentleman friend and Carla were quite hitting it off -- he was telling her all about the feral parrots of the inner city, and they do exist, I have seen them -- I said, dear me, I would like to play a part in this garden, but I wouldn't want to intrude.

"Oh, it wouldn't be an intrusion." So kind, but I couldn't help but wonder. Really? Human nature being what it is, and considering her twenty years of effort, and never knowing whether or when the condo association, or ComEd under their high tension wires, might say Stop That, we're going to get sued for something or other, I couldn't help but wonder. No intrusion? You mean I could help clean it up, and get rid of the Welcome mats and strips of carpet keeping down weeds at the back? How about less dead brown vegetable growth and more interesting things? The cottage garden look is all very well, but then where are the foxgloves, delphinium, and hollyhocks? No lavender, no potted orange or lemon trees? I see a few remnants of lilies, but otherwise no glorious peonies, no spring bulbs? No cinder paths where one  may really walk, almost no bushes or trees (except Rose of Sharon, which I am sorry I do not like), "the bones of the garden"? And why the huge central bed of raspberries? I am glad to feed the birds and voles, but it looks a bit exhausted.

Then I had a fresh thought, which may seem soapy but I hope is not. Anyway "she'd probably appreciate the help," my friend had said. And I thought: the garden is a metaphor for the world, isn't it. You find it lacking; yet here it was before you arrived. Step back and look, and you may find suddenly you see, you metaphorical insect, that it is a privilege to participate.

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