September 6, 2007

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Wine lover’s shopping trip
Is Italian the hot label?
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

You can tell a lot about people by how they shop.

What they buy says even more. Like the guy whose yard is perfect and he can’t resist that new pair of hedge trimmers. I’ve seen closets so full of clothes that you wonder if the owner has any time left for stuff like eating and work. I had a boss who once spent $139.49 on a chicken fat separator in a kitchen store. I never knew they had such a thing, but he said it was essential for perfect gravy. Turned out he was right. I did make the perfect gravy with a homemade one using my sieve, a highball glass and a turkey-baster. (I want to make a Jodie Foster joke here). But I have no right to ridicule. Me in a large wine shop can be an all-day affair.

I spend hours asking myself, “Is the ’99 Lisini Brunello di Montalcino as good as the ’97?”

“Burgundy or Oregon?”

“If I got some Yellow Tail stick-on labels, could I paste them on a bottle of Baron Ricasoli Casalferro and buy a case at low, low prices?”

“In prison, would I rather work in the kitchen or library?”

Obviously, the Italian wine sale at the New Hampshire State stores has me all atwitter.

Italian wines are hot right now. They’re not as cheap as Spanish wines, but they’re cheaper than Burgundies, Bordeauxs and the Napas. The great harvests in France in ’00, ’03 and ’05 and Americans’ increasing infatuation with wine sent prices through the roof. And anyone with $40 to spend can get a great wine from Napa. And let’s face it: the label on a bottle of Californian wine is so much easier for the wine rookie to read than the one on a Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio.

A wine collector always knows the right bottle. A wine drinker mostly buys Smoking Loon. But we of the wine middle class move the market. We own a few bottles, but they don’t count as a cellar. We can read the foreign labels, just not in Greek or German. And here’s the core: we like to try new things. New sure things.

So Italian wine’s perfect for us now. It’s available, less expensive, just as high-quality, just as delicious and with just the right amount of snob factor. It’s not the next new trend in wine, but the next new “again” in wine. Wine’s an industry that revisits itself a lot. In a few years, I predict, Portuguese rosé will become hot again, replicating the success of Lancer’s but at a higher quality. For now look to a $60 Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Amarone or Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo to equal anything French or Californian in the $100 price range.

This weekend I spent time with people my own age. Fifty is the new 30. Except for the receding gums, bad eyesight, sensitivity to loud noise, hair loss and sexual dysfunction. And we went shopping. One weekend a month, Thelma runs an upscale tag sale out of her accounting office, which has a large and sunny store front window. Something in me stiffens up at the thought of clothes shopping. Perhaps it was my mother, who dragged me to dress shops where I had to endure phrases like, “Oh how precious that top is!” and “It had a delicate floral print across the (spoken softly) bosoms.”

Or maybe it was the trauma of puberty and tweenage when I had to wear the line of clothes for fat kids called Husky. Yes, boys had Husky and girls had Chubbette. Today we have X-Large and XX-Large and XXXXLL for that really big gentleman from Florida.

The tag sale had some nice but over-priced things. I asked Thelma to pull some shirts in the under $15 price range for me. She may call it vintage clothing, but to me it’s used and I’m not paying $27 for a polyester shirt. This approach worked. All I had to do was try on three Cuban shirts, a matador’s vest, a leisure suit jacket, four Hawaiian shirts and a $50 Italian designer shirt that looked like someone’s jammies. I was done in under an hour. I did get a nice pair of pants. Or so I thought until I wore them and stuck my hand in the pocket and felt dried cinnamon crème brûlée. (Please let it have been crème brûlée) This illustrates the problem with tag sales. Somebody used it before.

Having shopped successfully, with people my own age, I decide to take the same tag sale approach at the wine shop. I asked the salesman to show me a few of his favorites and wines he’d like to try. He took about a half hour and showed me at least 20 wines. I took notes. The first night I went cheap; I got the Babcock Vineyards Big Fat Pink Shiraz ($11.49). The wine was nice, a little singular in the dimesion, but the slight sweetness made it unique and able to go with or without food. A little tastier in the rosé department was Alois Lageder Lagrein Rose ($14.99) from Italy’s Alto-Adige region. It was fuller and had a bit more richness, but I’d buy both these wines again.