Wednesday, January 29, 2014

My first Barolo

Someday I am sure they will impress me. Here we are deep in our Way Back machine.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to arrive for work just in time to take part in an impromptu wine tasting, being held under the hopeful gaze of two wholesale distributors anxious for us to like and buy their product. Seven Italian wines stood open on the counter top, and I had already missed the first five. The charming Italian gentleman in charge of matters poured out the first five for me in quick succession -- thank God I had made a substantial lunch -- and each one seemed delicious. There was a prosecco, a light white from the arneis grape (new to me), then a light red which I'm sorry to say I forget, then a Montepulciano, then a Valpolicella. Both our wholesale distributors soon packed up all these wines and carried them off to their next account, so I did not have time to note labels or take pictures. After the first five we tasted one more, heavier red, and at last, a Barolo.

A Barolo is a legendary wine of northern Italy's Piedmont region, made of the Nebbiolo grape, but only when the vintage is judged excellent.

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"Powerful, deep-colored, and long-lived," said Frank Schoonmaker in his Encyclopedia of Wine more than a generation ago. Another one of my favorite sources, Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger, writes of having tasted one many years ago, and of its indescribable, sumptuous earthiness. They are to be had no more, he (evidently) exaggerates, because they have all been bought up as investments by rich orthodontists who keep them in their cellars and probably drink diet Red Bull instead. At our little impromptu sales-tasting yesterday, my colleague who has thirty years' experience in the wine industry gazed humbled and admiring at the Barolo. That color, that aroma ... a lovely, lovely wine, for the price, he added.

My sampling of the Barolo was the seventh wine, as I have said, in a quick succession of tastings, and anyway I do notice that whenever I taste wine, I tend to like whatever I tasted first, best. Perhaps that's simply a question of the palate and the mind being freshest then. And I was busy thinking that this impromptu tasting had already taught me one thing, that the gentleman in charge knew what he was doing. The progression from light and sweet to heavy and dry was perfectly controlled -- I could, as it were, feel the wines progressively saying something different in my mouth, and louder each time, as I went along. And at the store we do wash our glasses with soap and water, which my colleague says should not be done, only the health department has rules about that.

What I am leading to, of course, is disappointment in the fabled Barolo. I fear I smelled chlorine, and the taste of the wine was thin and unremarkable. So was the color. Of course I agreed with everyone else who adored it, because we all know about Barolo, and one doesn't want to be a barbarian. After the nice wholesalers had gone, I asked my colleague whether I'd go to hell if I don't like Barolo, and he said no, of course not, "it's probably just too big for you."

Now this was annoying. Too big? Only the night before I had tasted a high-end but probably not legendary California merlot, Sbragia, which was everything I should have thought an excellent red should be -- all those indescribable things, berry, spice, earth and leaf, subtlety, lushness, joy. Why is Barolo considered better than that?

Wine snobbery and wine ignorance are such strange things, yin and yang, like a bickering married couple who need each other desperately and don't know it. I left my pour of Barolo out on the counter top to "open up," because I was determined to give it another try, determined to like the damn thing. But who knows? Perhaps nine knowlegdable people out of ten would have agreed with me that the previous night's merlot far outclassed it. Perhaps this particular maker of the wine is infamous, among knowledgeable circles, for not doing all he could with it. In the last year (it's a year ago today I started work at the wine shop, in fact), in myself and in other people, in new customers and established customers, in colleagues retail and wholesale, I have seen the yin and yang of snobbery and ignorance play out. It's amazing how quickly it starts, sometimes. Everybody wants to like what is best -- Barolo! in hushed and portentous whispers-- but everybody also wants to be secretly experienced enough to shrug at the best and say it's not that good. And then everybody wants to take a turn secretly shrugging at the poor soul who doesn't realize, for heaven's sake -- it's okay to have an opinion, but that was Barolo. Of course it doesn't taste like a California wine. Get a clue.

Why wine should bring out this unpleasant little streak in human nature continues to puzzle, but it is great fun to watch. It's a streak of jealousy, really. Very odd. Other gustatory pleasures, fried chicken for example, do not bring this out, though I gather Authentic Texas Chili Recipes do. Anyway, -- yes, that Barolo did "open up" in my glass, a little it seemed. It took on softer caramel notes, and it did linger on the tastebuds as wines don't do very often. I am not sure when I will ever have a chance to taste, still less afford to buy, another Barolo. But at least I can say I've tasted it, for what it's worth.

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