For all our US-based readers, the idea of wine with dinner, especially out at a restaurant, could well be considered a tremendous splurge. The restaurant industry is notorious for marking up alcohol at a minimum 100% in most cases. Your knock-off bottle of California Chianti (which can’t by law exist by that name in Europe) in your favorite casual dining chain Italian restaurant will cost you $20, while at your local grocery store you can expect to buy the same bottle for less than $10! Somehow this is a perfectly acceptable arrangement.
Wine has this unfortunate reputation in American culture of being some kind of luxurious beverage out of reach of the ordinary person. In antiquity, this was very true, but it no longer applies in the 21st century. It’s interesting that in mediterranean civilizations for thousands of years wine was the beverage of choice only for the privileged few. Good wine was very hard to make, so ales were the drink of the common folk. Where wheat grew in abundance, it didn’t take people long to figure out how to make beer. We know from the Bible that the good wine was served first so that when the guests became drunk, the bad wine wouldn’t be noticed. Jesus, being the life of the party, demonstrated with his first miracle turning water into wine, really GOOD wine!
Today, wine is enjoyed by the masses. Per capita consumption in Europe far exceeds that of the new world. Spain at the LOW end, consumes an average of 22 liters yearly, Greece – 26 liters, Austria – 30, Italy – 40, France – 45, Andorra (also home to the longest life expectancy in the world) – 50, and finally the Holy See, Vatican City – a whopping 60 liters a year. And while the United States may be the world’s largest wine market, per capita consumption still sits at just over 10 liters.
But why!? Why has the world’s largest economy not embraced this glorious beverage as staple of everyday life? Is it the crazy conservative religious right? Is it the legacy of prohibition? Or is it more likely the overall stigma associated with alcohol in American Culture. It certainly isn’t due to any lack of availability. The anti-alcohol-everyone-is-a-potential-alcoholic-legal-drinking-age-obsessed-draconian-state-laws-ultra-conservative culture has so far stymied making wine a mainstream fixture in American society.
However, this is not a post about the history of wine, nor is this an information piece on wine consumption statistics, or an essay on legal issues in today’s American wine industry. This is merely the perspective of a somewhat educated enthusiast who is perplexed by the complexities of wine culture in the United States, having personally gained an appreciation of the european wine culture which seems to make a heck of a lot more sense.
Imagine a place where parents allowed their children to taste wine diluted in water as early as the age of seven or eight. Imagine a place where the majority of youths frown upon overindulgence of alcohol and getting drunk. This is also a place where the legal drinking age is 18. Wine is included in fixed menu deals for blue-collar lunches, and served in company cafeterias, DURING the working day. A good percentage of the population not only have a personal grape-vine growing on any spare inch of soil, but also dabble in wine making, or have at least a 5 liter jug of wine on hand all the time. This same place has stricter drunk driving laws than the United States allowing only a 0.05% blood alcohol limit and can test anyone without probable cause at any time! And the most startling statistic of all, out of 100,000 deaths, 0.2 are directly caused by alcohol, compared to 1.6 per 100,000 in the United States (World Health Organization, 2011). What place could we possibly be talking about? How about Italy.
So here’s the concept Alicia and I have lovingly embraced recently, after a collective seven years in Italy. We can’t afford not to enjoy the fruit of the vine! We live in a country with vines everywhere, both sides of our house actually. This place is culturally connected to winemaking, an industry that contributes over $40 billion a year to the Italian economy. We’re very cognizant of the responsibilities associated with alcohol consumption, but we’re also not getting drunk. We could easily be talking about coffee, and the perils of too much caffeine and addiction. But culturally, it’s basically the same thing. Instead of the subtle nuances of coffee bean varieties, we are appreciating the wines produced from a variety of different grapes, and enjoying it!
Our philosophy has led to our current TINY collection of about 25 bottles of “the good stuff”. We’re using a great tracking system and resource cellartracker.com to catalog our stock. One thing difficult about being a wine enthusiast in Italy, is the lack of wines from other countries. Most Italians agree that the best wine comes from Italy, so why would they drink wine from anywhere else? They even go so far as to categorize it into tiers or appellations, with many sub categories. Fine by us, as we’ve come to love and appreciate some the superstars of the global wine industry being grown right here in our own backyard.
Anyone who knows anything about Italian wine will immediately recognize the name “Brunello di Montalcino”, a full bodied 100% sangiovese from the picturesque hillsides of Montalcino, Tuscany. We own six bottles of the stuff, and break it out only on special occasions. A bit closer to home, we’re lucky to have the Valpolicella wine region less than half an hour away. We have a favorite producer, Ca’ Rugate, from whom we really enjoy their “Valpolicella Superiore Campo Lavei”. The Valpolicella region is best known for its slightly out of reach nectar of the God’s “Amarone della Valpolicella” which we’ve had the pleasure of drinking just once. Bolgheri, down in the Livorno province of Tuscany, is perhaps our favorite region. Less well known on the global scene, but home to THE ultimate SuperTuscan, Sassicaia. This is my number one bucket list wine, which at $300 a bottle, I’ll settle for just a glass as a once in a lifetime experience.
As much as we love the good stuff, what makes the wine culture of Italy so great, is the awesomeness of the ordinary. It wasn’t until recently that we embraced the concept of “Vino Sfuso” or “wine on-tap” at home. Every neighborhood trattoria serves the stuff, at (brace yourself) 5-6 euro a liter. We aren’t talking about fine wine here, nor are we talking about terrible boxed wine. This is the working man’s wine, the wine they make in giant steel vats a thousand liters at a time, the wine that tastes of the earth it came from. Not sophisticated, not refined, not elegant, just GOOD drinkable wine. The everyday-half-a-liter-between-two-people-this-stuff-is-cheaper-than-a-coke-lunchtime-during-the-working-day-on-tap-and-included-in-the-fixed-menu wine that we honestly can’t get enough of.
We still open a bottle of fine wine for guests or on a special occasion, but only in the last few months have we been driving ten minutes down the road to Cantine Muraro Enomas and having our own five liter jug filled with local sfuso wine. Not only does this mean we’re supporting a truly local business, but we’re also drinking wine produced from grapes that are grown from the hills right behind our house. This stuff is cheaper than gas, ranging anywhere from €0.70 to €1.80 per liter. Our last fill-up, just yesterday, cost us €7.50, and we’ll be drinking well for a few weeks. To put it in perspective, you buy a 0.75 liter bottle of cheap merlot from your local grocery store in Florida, and are probably paying $3.00 minimum for something a hobo might drink from a paper-bag. This sfuso stuff is GOOD, and we just bought 5 liters for about $10.
Yes the markup at the local trattoria is huge (€5-7 a liter for what costs €1 at the sfuso place), but at no restaurant in the United States are you going to find amazing wine available in increments of 1/4 liter, let alone a bottle for less than $15. I think the last time I was at an Olive Garden (circa 2007 – perish the thought) I saw a GLASS of Antinori Villa Toscana for $9.
All this to say, we enjoy wine because it would be a tremendous shame not to. We are NOT wine snobs, but we really appreciate the good stuff, and we absolutely love the every-day very drinkable sfuso. In our favorite local trattoria, or in our home, we can’t afford not to enjoy the fruits of the bountiful harvest.
To the wine snobs who might be reading this, your tasting note references to four hours of decanting to release the subtle nuances of honey and pine forest will be perceived as you have no clue what you are talking about. No one cares. Just enjoy the wine, and enjoy the life.