Joe Bob's America: Swearing off vino

By JOE BOB BRIGGS   |   Oct. 11, 2002 at 6:03 PM

NEW YORK, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- I think the Italians are plotting against me. In fact, I know they are.

I saw a bottle of Barolo at the liquor store that was priced at $225.

Are they insane? It wasn't more than 10 years ago that Barolo was the discount wine you ordered when you had a cheap date from Altoona. Not that it wasn't a GOOD wine. That was the whole point.

The Italians always made good wine, but you had the impression they were friendly guys in straw hats running family vineyards with slaves or something so that the vino was never more than 10 bucks a bottle.

The Italian wines, Barolo being among the best of them, were for people like me who couldn't afford pricey French and California labels that got more expensive every time Robert Parker wrote a book.

Robert Parker -- for those of you who aren't wine fans -- is the guy who supposedly has such impeccable taste buds that, if he rates a wine 90 or above, it's one of the best in the world.

The original idea of his books was that you didn't have to pay an arm and a leg for famous overpriced vintages. All you had to do was follow his recommendations, and you would discover all these wonderful wineries that nobody had ever heard of.

The only problem was that, as soon as Parker came out with a recommendation, a little cardboard sign would go up in the liquor store: "A 93 From Parker!" And the price would immediately go up 20 bucks. I hate Robert Parker. He needs to shut up.

Anyway, Parker was a Francophile. He hung out in Bordeaux and rarely went to Italy. And so Barolo was always the Italian wine that was so cheap even WINOS could afford it. But it was a good wine, and so it led to my discovery that, by ordering Italian wines instead of French or American, you could escape the Robert Parker Effect, which also meant you never had to pronounce

"Languedoc" or "Cotes du Rhone" in public.

In fact, for people like me, who despise all the stuff you have to remember about wine, the Italians were a godsend. Were the Italian wines made in 1,500-liter vats or 500-liter tonneaux, for that subtle hint of oak? I have NO IDEA.

Were they grown organically with a short maceration? I DIDN'T WORRY ABOUT IT. Was the wine gravity-fed from vinification vats to the barriques where it underwent malolactic fermentation and aging? NOBODY CARED!

You know why? The wines were from Italy, not France, so nobody ever even went there to ask Giuseppe what the hell he was doing in the first place. It was just good solid quality wine.

You had the impression of millions of little one-acre Italian vineyards, all of them different, and all you ever had to remember about any of them was the four B's: Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco and Bardolino. All of these are places, not types of wine, so you didn't ever have to know which vineyard was which.

The YEAR didn't even matter that much, because you could start drinking them when they were two years old.

Of course, if you drink enough Italian wine, you eventually glean a few facts from Enzio the busboy. The first three B's, it turns out, are from the Piedmont region. Bardolino, a particular favorite of mine, is from the Veneto region. There's also a "bad B" -- Barberino -- which I refused to order on principle once I

discovered it was from Tuscany.

I have nothing against Tuscany per se, but I refuse to drink anything served in a miniature fruit basket. Besides, after that book "Under the Tuscan Sun" came out, I decided Americans should give that place a rest for at least the next three centuries. It's part of my effort to stop Yuppies from going there and fixing up old houses and pretending they're Italian peasants.

The other thing that happens if you order the four

pronounceable B's all the time is that restaurant owners will eventually notice you have a thing for the Piedmont and they'll start talking up bottles that are a little pricier but from the same place.

That's how I found Gattinara. Gattinara was just slightly higher but was amazingly tasty, had a cool-looking bottle and was always good for weddings, big dinners and those special office parties where you plan to drink a LOT of wine but still intend to work the next morning.

I found out later that the Gattinara craze was caused by one man, this guy named Giancarlo Travaglini, who went big time in the 80s and started exporting wine from the little town of Gattinara all over the planet.

He makes about 300,000 bottles a year, and 90 percent of it goes to foreign destinations. Like all wine stories, it's boring except to people who love Gattinara.

Okay, so my question is, when did the Italians -- ANY

Italians -- start selling $200 bottles of wine?

I went to talk to my neighborhood wine expert, Joe the Liquor Store Wine Guy, and Joe just shook his head at how out of date I was. "You aren't going to find a Barolo under $40, especially '97s or '98s."

"Barbera?"

"Nope."

"Barbaresco?"

"No way."

"Bardolino?"

"Lemme see if we HAVE any Bardolino. That sells out pretty fast."

The four B's were GONE. They didn't exist anymore. And so I spent the next few weeks trying to figure out what had happened.

Unfortunately, I couldn't really blame Parker. He does review Italian wines, but he's not THAT crazy about them. As far as I can tell, the guilty party is a Piedmont winemaker named Giuseppe Caviola, known to his friends as "Beppe," who started winning awards all over the world and RUINED EVERYTHING.

I don't WANT the Italian wines to win awards all over the world. Apparently the Italian government has been trying to become more like France, inventing new grape-growing zones, changing the labelling, dividing up the country into competing regions, and now there are SNOB BOOKS devoted to Italian wine.

I found one book that does professional tastings of twenty-five THOUSAND different Italian wines every year. And just listen to

what they've done to one of my favorite Barbarescos:

"The Bricco selection is made with near super-ripe fruit from one of the finest vineyards in Treiso. Its still-developing aromas disclose sweet notes of jam and tobacco with just the right hint of toasty oak. The palate is still tannic but already presents admirable balance. This is a bottle that will keep winelovers smiling for many years to come."

Well, it won't have ME smiling for years to come, because you just made the price go up 30 bucks by telling people it tastes like jam and tobacco. One thing I know about wine snobs is that they'll drink ANYTHING that sounds like ingredients that would make you instantly puke under real-life conditions.

Offer somebody tobacco-flavored jam and he'll think you're an idiot, but offer the same guy a wine that has "sweet notes of jam and tobacco," and he'll say: "Gimme one case for the cabinet and one for the cellar."

I know guys who get orgasmic over wine that tastes like "fresh-mown hay," so the ideal wine flavor would be something like drilling mud with rat-dropping highlights and a cat's-breath aftertaste.

But it gets worse. Listen to what the experts say about Gattinara:

"Clean as a whistle, it allows the bouquet to express all the noble complexity of a great Nebbiolo that is destined for the cellar. The aromas will intrigue with their endless range of nuances, including raspberry, plum, violets and a faint note of cinnamon and black pepper spice."

That's for the Gattinara Riserva '97, but there's a separate review for the "standard-label" Gattinara, which I would assume is the one we drink at Gino's Pizza:

"Its deep ruby color is flecked with garnet and has concentrated aromas of bramble, plum, liquorice, cocoa powder and violets. The sensations on the palate are intense, clean and echo the nose delightfully while the attractive and anything but ordinary fruit is enlivened by an unexpected hint of zestiness. The nicely astringent finish reveals notes of blackcurrant and pomegranate."

You know what makes me mad about this? Besides the fact that I need to go buy a pomegranate to know what he's talking about? It's that I'm gonna always be wondering now whether MY Gattinara tastes as good as this special super-duper swell "riserva" Gattinara.

I mean, the other one has that cinnamon thing, not to

mention the raspberry, while all I've got is liquorice and cocoa powder -- and I don't like liquorice OR cocoa.

Plus, when you study these books, the four B's all start to blend together (or at least three of the four B's). You've got Barolo that's made in Barbera and Barbera that's made in Barbaresco, and Barolos, Barberas and Barbarescos that come from towns I've never heard of like Agliano Terme, Alba, Alice Bel Colle, Asti (of Asti Spumante fame?), Canale, Castiglione Falletto and Costigliole d'Asti.

And they put all this information right there on the bottle, just to RUIN MY DAY.

What happened to all the little men in overalls and straw hats, just fermenting and corking the stuff and sending it out?

Of course I know what happened. One of them said: "You know what these French guys do? They put a bunch of completely incomprehensible information on the label, enter a bunch of wine competitions, send bottles to Robert Parker, and there are turkeys in New York who will pay $100 a bottle."

I told Joe I'm not drinking Piedmont anymore and asked him what was new. He marched me right over to the Australian section and pulled down a bottle of shiraz called Yellow Tail. "Can't keep it in the store."

I turned the bottle slightly and found nirvana: $6.97 a bottle. And it's from a country where ALL the words are in ENGLISH.

Somebody please tell Robert Parker to keep his ass out of Australia.

*

Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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