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Old Hippies

sumi label I was under the Eiffel Tower drinking some of the best wine I had ever tasted. It had no brand name other than 12%. It was 1974 and I had picked up the jug in the Parisian version of a corner grocery, where the wine was sold by the level of alcohol, not a brand name. I know it didn’t cost very much because I basically had no money. That bottle was my ticket to lunch as my contribution to the myriad communal meals being shared by small groups of traveling hippies like me scattered on the broad green expanse surrounding the tower. It was great, you just showed up with some wine, bread, cheese or salami and joined into a group meal. I still remember those meals with a certain psychedelically enhanced sentimentality.

Recently I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant in Washington D.C. that I had just wandered into as it was close to my hotel, it was late and I was hungry. It turned out to be swankier than I expected and I, still wearing my standard issue Oregon attire, felt quite underdressed. First one gentleman, than another, joined me at the bar. Both were wearing dark suits, white shirts and red ties, which I now believe are the only items stocked by men’s shops in D.C.. I had ordered the excellent 2004 Giacosa Nebbiolo d’Alba, while the other ordered an expensive Super-Tuscan, which to save a few more oak trees, will remain nameless and as boring as almost that entire genre. The other ordered a bottle suggested to him with great Italian accented flair by the chef. At first we were all quiet, but by the second glasses of wine we had become friends and bottles were passed around. One was in the oil business (Cheney must have been busy that night) and the other was, not surprisingly, a lobbyist.We were all a clearly 50+ bunch, so these guys could have been sharing wines with me under the Eiffel Tower some 33 years ago. Not only had the wines we shared gone up a lot in price over the years, but also increased a lot in alcohol. That 12% wine I bought three decades ago had been the top-of-the-line jug wine, but that D.C. evening’s expense account driven meal did not bring a wine under 13.5% to our glasses. Needless to say we were best friends and exchanged cards and hugs as the evening came to a close. You can’t beat a reunion of old hippies.

The chef had recommended the 2001 Braida di Giacomo Bologna Barbera d’Asti ai Suma to my new best friend. This is a wine that combines eccentricity, exoticness, excess, and expensiveness into the perfect wine for Washington D.C. expense accounts. It’s a late-harvest, barrique-aged barbera that instead of a wine flavors, creates kind of a strange, sweet, raisiny grape stew in your mouth. Like Amarone, it may be a great combination with some delicious, stinky, runny cheeses, but the idea of matching this glob of wine with any kind of refined cooking is not very appetizing. Just to give you an idea of how over-the-top this wine is, Parker gave it 94 points, and you know what that means. I’m not saying this is a terrible drink, but it certainly is nothing to match with a meal.

Those few Francs I paid for that simple French wine in 1973 brought me far more pleasure and luck than this big buck Barbera in 2007 as Nixon resigned while I was drinking that little French wine under the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, even with the increased price of the Bologna ai Suma, it brought no such luck in 2007.