Simple vs. Complex

By Craig Camp
Friday, July 11, 2003

TODAY I am drinking a fizzy Lambrusco Secco without a specified vintage. For the last three weeks I hadn't let a wine pass my lips that wasn't at least fifteen years old. The change in experience is significant.

For the last month I was faced with the realities of actually moving my wine cellar. In the process I assembled about four cases of orphans, odds and ends, low-fills, forgotten bottles, and wines probably past their prime. These wines needed to be consumed not moved, and the deadline was quickly approaching. I figured I was just the man for the job.

The first week was wonderful. Our kitchen was still in working condition and we were still taking the time to cook. As the move was still three weeks away, we were still packing at a relaxed pace and inviting friends over to eat and to drink these old wines with us. Highlights of the first week were 1980 Girard and Fisher Cabernet Sauvignon, 1983 Poniatowski Vouvray, and 1980 Lafon Meursault. These were all extraordinary wines with multi-layered complexity. I was quite pleased with the dilemma presented to me and the solution I decided on. I was drinking great old wines at every meal. A wine lover's dream.

The second week started out well with an assortment of 1981 red Burgundy from producers like Domaine de la Pousse d'Or, Lafarge, and Rion. Each was a little past its prime, but they were still very nice wines with complexity of flavor that most pinot noir wines only dream about. That week also heralded the start of packing the kitchen. The wines were lovely old pinot noir from an average vintage. The kitchen was a mess. The food started to get simpler and faster as the impending moving date was starting to become a little more of a reality. I opened another case of wines and moved quickly through some disgusting old California chardonnay bottles from the late 80's. Girard Reserve, DeLoach OFS, Calera, and others were brown, foul-smelling wines most of which went straight down the drain. A pair of delicious chardonnays, 1988 Kalin LD and Matanzas Creek, saved the California chardonnay contingent from total embarrassment. We finished up the week with some Bordeaux. Several pretty petite chateaux wines from the early eighties were subtle, delicate wines and 1982's from Chateau Soutard (a favorite wine of mine) and Chateau Haut-Marbuzet were outstanding and exactly ready for drinking.

Then it was our last week and the kitchen was essentially in boxes. Cooking and entertaining were almost out of the question. There were still two cases of wine to go. In the refrigerator were bottles of white Burgundy waiting to be consumed. All the Reidel had been packed away and replaced by a few Libby glasses that were to be left behind. Our meals were coming from the deli down the street and other carry-out and delivery places. The 1985 Chablis Grand Cru Clos Domaine Laroche was excellent, but it seemed lost next to the Quizno's subs. The Drouhin 1988 Puligny Montrachet, rich with a firm mineral backbone, fared better with carry-out roasted chicken from Greek place on the corner. As I pulled the corks from bottles of 1983 and 1987 Valentini Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, I realized I had had enough. Drinking old wines everyday was getting, well, old. My palate was yearning for some simple, fruity wine from the latest vintage. We were leaving the next day and I had to give up. I taped up the remaining case and gave it to a friend.

I was wishing for fruit. Soon my wish came true.

We arrived at our new home in Italy with only our luggage. The rest of our belongings are on a ship somewhere on the Atlantic not scheduled to arrive for weeks. Our first mission was to get a car. We knew what we wanted so that was not a problem, but discovered it would not arrive for two weeks. Not a problem, we thought. After the stress of our move, hanging around the house for a week or so felt like a good idea. Although we live in a very small town there is a wonderful bakery, a small grocery store that would qualify as a gourmet shop in the United States, and an excellent ristorante and pizzeria, all within five minutes walk. Everything you need for a relaxing week at home.

The only problem was wine. The little grocery only has a small selection with most of the wines being from the 2002 vintage -- both red and white. These are young, bright, fruity wines, often vivace, which means they are a little bubbly. So my wish came true and I have come full circle. I have gone from drinking nothing but great wines with average food to drinking nothing but average wines with great food. Be careful what you wish for.

It Italy wine is mostly a casual beverage people don't think much about. It's just something you have with your meals. There are no full-service American style liquor stores here and you have to go out of your way to find an enoteca, or wine shop. This means only the local wines for us until the car and our shipment arrive. As we live right on the border with Piemonte most of the choices in town are barbera in one form or another, but they aren't the barbera labels you see in the United States. Most of these are from commercial producers who only sell here. The top quality brand available in our local store is Fontanafredda, a company that makes good, solid, unexceptional wines. The only Barolo offered is theirs and it's not bad -- especially at €12.00.

Last night I was drinking a barbera given to me by my new next door neighbor. He was quite proud of it as he had gone to the coop, "selected" the wine, bought several demijohns, and bottled it himself. We're eating outside and he can see us so I feel obligated to drink up. Drinking young wines everyday is getting, well, boring. My palate is yearning for some complex, complicated wines with some bottle age.

Much of what makes wine interesting and fun is the variety of experiences available. If you only have ordinary wine it becomes a simple beverage like iced tea or Coca Cola. If you only drink great wines your palate becomes jaded and snobby. The excitement comes in finding the right wine for the right moment. Sometimes a Lambrusco Secco is a better choice than Lafarge Volnay.

I wish my car would get here.