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, Lancers, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or — for the generation of wine books soon to be written by millennials — boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law of wine writing.
So let me begin by saying I went through a period 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 a mix of chalky, watered-down SunnyD and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with other, numerous suburban New Jersey public school rites of passage.
My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in the big city. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my 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 schools at the end of my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference. It was also 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 ’80s, leaped headlong into an appreciation of Napa and Sonoma cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. 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 unlabled liter bottle he’d fetched from a dark corner of the barn — the same barn I’d wandered into one morning, where I saw him butchering a cow. Paolo didn’t go for fancy wine glasses, but rather used what we would have called “juice” glasses back home in Jersey. Beyond slicing meat and cheese and pouring wine, he was otherwise forbidden from his wife’s kitchen, so while Anna busily made us dinner and the television blared a soccer game, Paolo and I would sip our cool, fizzy red wine from our juice glasses on those hot evenings.
I had never tasted or witnessed a wine like that. 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 strange 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 pleasant way. I didn’t have the language back then, but in my memory the aroma smells 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 a decade ago, and since neither Anna nor his daughter Daniela drinks wine, I didn’t learn the fizzy red’s provenance. 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 spiritual home.
As I moved further into drinking and 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!” Cheap, sweet lambrusco had, of course, had its heyday in the 1970s, just like leisure suits and swingers and fern bars — and 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 1980s and ’90s, budding wine connoisseurs didn’t want to hear about fizzy red wine anymore.
So even though the stuff I used to drink back in Pieve San Giacomo was neither sweet nor cheap, I just stopped talking about it, or even thinking about it. Like so many other aspirational Wine People my age, I dutifully learned to appreciate Serious Red Wines, which in the early 21st century mainly meant cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir from various pricey bottlings. I studiously pursued an education in Bordeaux and Burgundy and all those big California reds that my father appreciated. Instead of rustic Italian wine, I delved deeply into Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino.
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 that, as a knowledgeable wine drinker, a Wine Person, I should be moving beyond things like fizzy reds. That is, after all, what usually happens next in traditional wine education. We’re told that wine is a ladder, with the student constantly reaching upward, leaving behind so-called lesser wines and climbing toward greatness, toward the profound, and toward — inevitably — the expensive.
This is why, two decades after my summer abroad, 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. I tasted dozens of amazing, and often profound and transcendent, Barolos, 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, inside the famous castle in the town of Barolo. Bottles from prized vintages sold to collectors — some from as far away as China, Singapore, and Dubai — for thousands of dollars. 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, Barbara Sandrone, whose family’s elegant, silky, Barolos annually receive the highest scores and have been called “genius” and “breathtaking” by top critics. During the lunch, we tasted about 15 examples of the 2009 vintage. Later, there was talk among the younger winemakers about Jay-Z’s recent visit to Barolo for a weekend, where he supposedly dropped $50,000 on wine and truffles.
I won’t lie: It is sexy and exciting to be part of an afternoon crowd like that. And I cannot state clearly enough how much I enjoy Barolo — it is 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.” Who could possibly disagree with that preference?
But that afternoon at the castle was pure fantasyland. When I returned home, would I be drinking very much Barolo? Um, 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 on special occasions or when I order it in restaurants, I probably drink Barolo three or four times a year. Maybe five 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. So, even though I love Barolo, it will always be a special occasion wine.
I was thinking deeply about greatness in wines when 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 almost car sick in the backseat, we were finally welcomed into the garage of the winemaker, 80-year-old Antonio, and his daughter, who was roughly my age. 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 a strange, straw yellow wine made from the local Ortrugo grape. 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 splashed the purple into it, as it formed pink foam. “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 aromas and flavors were like a time machine. I was again 19, dressed in Birkenstocks and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, experiencing wine for the first time. Holding that huge 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 lambrusco?” I asked.
He laughed again. “No! It’s Gutturnio. It’s a blend of barbera and bonarda.”
Um…what? What the hell? By then, I was a mess of conflicting emotions. For 20 years, I’d been telling myself that my seminal wine experience was 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 gutturnium, from which the wine’s name is taken. Julius Caesar’s father-in-law was famous for producing wine from here.
We sat at the table and ate cheese and meat 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. There are a lot of other tastes that people seek.” Antonio shrugged. “There is an end for everything. Everything ends.”
Suddenly, the 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 represented totally fresh knowledge — seemed more important than even the greatest Barolo. This strange experience I was having in that farmhouse in the Piacenza hills seemed to me to be the very essence of wine, the reason people spend their lives obsessed with it, an example of how wine becomes part of our lives.
Wine is not a ladder, as we’re so often taught. Not even close. Wine is a maze, a labyrinth, one we gladly enter, embracing the fact that we don’t know where it will take us, and that we’ll never find our way out.