Ode To A Young Sommelier

Last Friday, with a family birthday to celebrate, our old kitchen removed and the new one not yet installed, we reserved a table at a local restaurant. To be honest, I would usually rather eat at home: the wine list is better! And, in the summer and fall, nothing is more delicious than garden vegetables, just-pressed olive oil or hazelnuts gathered in the woods near our house. But there is a restaurant in Siena where we had eaten a nice meal last spring and drunk a lovely bottle of aged Champagne, so I booked there, eager to comb their wine list again for a special bottle to mark the occasion. As soon as I opened the carta dei vini, though, my heart sank. The sommelier, who was standing over me, smiled. 

“If you’re looking for something like the bottle you had last time, you won’t find it. I’ve pivoted to Italian sparkling wines, exclusively,” he explained, still grinning proudly. I saw that it was true: two Prosecco’s were listed, one unknown to me, another a big brand producing millions of bottles a year. We drink a lot of Prosecco at home—among the estates my partner manages is one in Asolo, one of the original Prosecco villages—which is exactly why I didn’t want to order one. There were Tuscan sparkling wines on the list (alas), including one from a large bottling company to whom I have, over the years, sold inferior bulk wines, as well as a sparkling rosé from a winery newly-acquired by a Genovese family, the swag from which—ice buckets, monogrammed glasses, cork screws and tee shirts–suddenly turned up at every restaurant in Tuscany the summer before Covid. I can only hope they are investing as much in viticulture as they did in swag!

The list of sparkling wines also featured “Franciacortas” made in Lombardy in the metodo classico (second fermentation in the bottle, as is done in Champagne). When I was managing the Italian portfolio for a U.S. importer, they forbade me to take on any Franciacortas—it didn’t matter whether or not they were good. At the same prices, good Champagnes could be had, and the Franciacortas would never have been able to compete with them in the U.S. market. 

“We have a top selection from Franciacorta,” the sommelier interjected, “wines that really hold their own next to Champagne, wouldn’t you agree?” I looked up at him, for the first time taking in that the shaved head belonged to a young man, short, trim and pale, who was rubbing his hands together with what looked like new-found self-confidence.

“I would not,” I said and turned back to the list. Later, it occurred to me what I should have said. “Have you been to Champagne?” I could have asked, “to the six original Grand Cru villages? Have you walked through the white-earth vineyards of Cramant and Mesnil, seen the thick, 80-year-old vines with their Kelly-green springtime shoots? Have you reached out and touched the chalk walls of the caves carved into the Montagne de Reims under those vineyards? Have you seen the old wine makers in the small domaines, riddling their bottles by hand? Have you tasted base wines from barrels of just-fermented Chardonnay or noticed the hints of raspberry in the Champagnes made from Pinot Noir? Have you drunk aged Champagne from Avize, with its bouquet of sea air, honeycomb and hearth dust, its flavors so delicate you wonder if you are tasting them at all, a masterpiece of nuance, barely bubbly like a fine, old Meurseault?” But I held back and quickly changed my mind.

“There’s no law that says we need to drink Champagne,” I said to myself instead. “We can celebrate with a lovely bottle of white.” But the selection of whites was worse. There was a wine made from the trendy Timorasso, a Ligurian grape that is said to have a “neutral flavor,” but when I want neutral, I drink water. There was a wine made from Riesling–a grape perfectly suited to the granite soils and moderate temperatures of the Mosel river banks but in this case grown in Piedmont’s hot, sandy vineyards, and there was a diluted Chablis I had been disappointed by before. I glanced at the reds and noted one made from five different kinds of grapes—as they say in German, “Ein Hund aus jedem Dorf” (a dog from every village)! There was also a 2017 Bolgheri red, made from Merlot—an early-ripening varietal ill-suited to Tuscany’s extreme heat anyway and surely further ruined by the hottest vintage in history-–and a Sangiovese-based wine called “Haiku” from the Val d’Orcia, where, up until ten years ago, the heavy, fertile soil was deemed best for sunflowers and wheat.

There was not a single wine on the list that looked like it might convey a sense of place—a wine made entirely from one kind of native grape, grown in an area with high-quality terrain and transformed into wine by a wine maker aiming for purity and a distinctive, genuine taste. 

The sommelier was still standing over me, and it was time to select the first wine. I let him choose a Franciacorta, and it was fine: fresh enough, with a hint of varietal (in this case Chardonnay) flavor and some finesse–good, but anonymous, devoid of any characteristic one might associate with the region or that might make for a memorable drinking experience. For a tenth of the price, I would have gladly drunk one of those slightly fizzy white wines sold in carafes at Tuscan family restaurants, the slightly bitter finish of which would have accompanied the fish-based cuisine nicely. 

Next, we had a downright bad white—an unbalanced Caricante from the heart of Sicily that tasted like an tired Pinot Grigio that someone had squeezed a lemon into and had nothing of Caricante’s tangy orange-rind verve or almost oily vinousness. Last (we were eight adults), a Pinot Noir from the Mugello (north of Florence) where I’ve been told this grape “can flourish”–sadly, it hadn’t; the Mugello may be cooler than the rest of Tuscany but it’s not as cool as the Côte d’Or, where Pinot Noir really can thrive.

Despite the disappointing wine list, I will go back to that restaurant: the Japanese-style preparations, herbs and spices meld so satisfactorily with the fresh, kilometer-zero fish, meat and produce that the resulting dishes manage to be original, delicate and harmonious all at once. For now, though, when it comes to wine, I’ll take a classic—one made from indigenous grapes grown, fermented and bottled in their home region.

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