2 March

Gusto in Scena
A gray scrim hangs over Venice. There is a vaporetto strike and we walk to the stop where the hotel launch makes its hourly pickups. Streets I have never seen before shimmer out of the fog. We are here to visit Gusto in Scene, a food and wine fair organized by Marcello Coronini, an amiable and enthusiastic man who loves his job.

The event is held (and we stay at) the Molino Stucky Hilton, a colossal brick pile on the Giudecca.

We run into Beppe and Egle, a nice a couple journalists from Genoa who turn up at every single food and wine gathering. I trust their recommendations completely. Beppe takes us to try a culatello, the most delicate part of a prosciutto crudo. The meat is aged for 26 months. The rose-pink slices are transparent. There is a delicately nutty undertow in the flavor.

“This,” says Beppe “is poetry.”

The first wine I taste is from the Franciacorta producer Villa. The 2006 Villa Rose Brut (40% Pinot Noir, 60& Chardonnay) is wonderful. A vibrant orangey salmon color. The nose is firm, creamy and clean with a fine hush of delicate fruit scents. Raspberry, wild berries – merge into something distinct and unique. The palate follows the nose. Very elegant. Flavorful long finish.

“We tried experimenting with the percentage of Pinot Noir,” says Paolo Pizziol. “But we found that increasing the Pinot Noir led to a loss in elegance.”

I said to Michael as we walked away: “If we win the lottery, I want a glass of this wine everyday with my lunch.”

Other wines we tried that particularly appealed to me:

Le Vigne S. Pietro 2008 Custoza Apricot-y fruit. Nice weight in the mouth.

A representative of the winery says: “I believe that our Custozas have the structure to last.” He also says that the winery will be presenting its first Amarone at Vinitaly this year. I will swing by and try it on that occasion.

One of the most intriguing white wines I have come across in a long time is the 2009 Palistorti Bianco from Tenuto di Valgiano. It is a blend of Vermentino, Trebbiano and Chardonnay. A fine tallow gold to a clear rim. Apricot fused with green gauge plums. A crisp minerality. It has energy – undulating acidity. An exceptionally attractive wine. I will try it again when an occasion arises.

I spoke with Laura di Collobiano of Tenuto di Valgiano. She told me that the grapes for some wines are still pressed by foot. “I’ve done it myself,” she said.

The other two wines we tried here were of excellent quality: 2007 Palistorti Rosso Soft ruby color. Very soft on the middle palate. A long finish. Almost thick with dark berry fruit. A gentle undertow of tar.

I have made it a policy to only name the good to great wines that I taste. However, I will include some notes (without identifying the producer) on wines that do not fall into that category. Here comes one now.

We wander up to the end of a table. A man rushes out to greet me. “You visited our cantina last year, Signora,” he says. I have no memory of this. We parry for a while and determine that I visited the winery in 2008. The memories come rushing back when I taste the wines again. They are too soft. They lay – flaccid – in the mouth.

Think about what it is like to shake hands with someone who places his clammy paw in yours and does not participate in the handshake. Think of the creepy feeling that experience leaves you with. Well, that is the impression these wines give me. The raw material is excellent. The packaging is excellent. But this winery needs some human being who will come in and let what personality these wines may be capable of to show itself.

Back to nice wines…

We stop at Tessere, a producer from the Piave. Her dry 2004 Raboso spends 24 months in tonneaux. A lovely, round “furry” (in a pleasing way) sensation. A soft burry fruit, a brambly warmth, an idea of spice rather than a firm sense of it. Intriguing.

“We serve this wine with venison accompanied by chocolate-based sauce,” says owner of the estate.

Tesseres also makes a Piave Raboso-based sweet passito wine called Rebecca that is very appealing.

We meet at the Daniele Hotel for before dinner drinks. The barmen at the Daniele are Real Pros. They are offering Rossini (Strawberry juice and Prosecco) and Vespa Martinis (2 parts Gordon’s Gin, 1 park Vodka and a dash of angostura bitters, garnished with a curl of lemon peel). This drink was invented decades ago when Casino Royale was being filmed here.

Alessandro, the barman, has worked at the Daniele for 14 years. “I love my job,” he says. “You have to love this work because when the rest of Italy is on holiday you have to stay and work.”

A man next to us nods towards the perfect rows of glasses, each garnished with a slice of strawberry. “Notice how each strawberry is exactly the same size and width –now that’s professionalism,” he says.

Then we – some 70 people – troop off to dinner. All of these people have been attending a food and wine event. All of them are professionals in the trade – as journalists, publishers of wine and food magazines or as exhibitors. I will not name the restaurant we went to.

If you have read these diary entries or any of the restaurant reviews I write for magazines – or if you actually know me! – you know that I love to describe good food and that I always take notes when I am dining out in a professional capacity. I try to take notes at this meal but my descriptions for the first three dishes include things like: “too much salt” and “unfocused”. So I gave up. And then there is The Incident of the Imperious Sommelier .

The first wine offered is an entry level wine from a producer that we know well. (An entry level wine is the least expensive wine in a producer’s range.) I taste it and it is not as it should be. There are no chemical faults but the wine seems tired and dull. Since I like this producer and admire his wines I want the wine presented to our table of Italian wine writers and publishers (and one Real Paparazzo!) to show at its best.

I ask the sommelier to bring our table another bottle as the wine did not display its usual freshness. To which she replies:

“We know this producer.”

“So do we. We taste his wines frequently,” I say.

“Three of us have tried the wine,” she says. “And there is nothing wrong with it.”

“I am not saying the wine is corked. But I am saying that the wine is not as fresh as it should be.”

She straightened her spine and says haughtily: “I am a campionessa of (Something, I frankly do not remember the competition that she won because I was still amazed at her condescending tone.) And there is nothing wrong with this wine.”

“I too am a campionessa,” I said. I must confess to experiencing a certain pleasure as I watched her bite back the impulse to shriek: “No you aren’t!” (I figured: I’ve won prizes – haven’t we all?.) “I have also studied enology and worked as a sommelier,” I said. (And I have.) “I am not saying that the wine is corked. I am merely saying that this particular bottle is not showing as well as it should.”

She huffed away.

Now let us examine this little drama. I was asking her for another bottle of a wine that costs the restaurant under $7. I know this price because I know the producer and I have seen his price list. We were not asking her to rip the cork out of another bottle of 1961 Lafite or a rare vintage of Sassicaia. All she had to do was be gracious.

My first evening on the job as a sommelier (at a very chic restaurant in New York City), the head sommelier said: “Our job is to make sure that every customer leaves this restaurant with a smile on his face. Our job is theatre. The protagonist is the client. You are only a supporting player – there to make sure that everything goes well for the client.” Our restaurant’s policy when a client decided to send a wine back was to smile and remove the bottle and bring the client what he/she asked for. If we thought the wine was really in good condition, we would bring it back to the kitchen and give the cooks and wait staff a chance to taste an excellent wine. Everybody was happy.

This incident gave my Italian colleagues a chance to vent their ire at the growing Sommelier Cult in Italy.

“Sommeliers think they are wine experts,” says Otmar. “They are not!”

“They don’t realize that they are there to be wine waiters,” adds Alberto.

At many of the national and international sommelier competitions the participants are quizzed on their knowledge of wine regions, grape varieties, decanting techniques, etc. All of this information is important. However, there is another fundamental aspect of a restaurant sommelier’s job that is often ignored. A good sommelier must be able “to read” a table. He or she must be able to recognize when to offer assistance and when to shut up and serve. This requires sensitivity and grace. Both are qualities to be admired and respected.