Sunday, January 29, 2012

Villa Antinori IGT Toscana 2007

Sunday dinner service is a sharp rebuttal to whatever was said in church that morning about faith increasing as circumstances turn us more wretched.   Do you remember what a pacifier tastes like?  You do if you've worked in the NYC restaurant business for eighteen years, not superstar material but competent enough so that when you threaten to quit every year or two they stuff a meaningless tooth-marked promotion in your mouth.

We, me and one of the three waiters who should be arriving now, get to the restaurant just as the Empire State Building's shadow begins to cast its narrow opinion over Midtown East.  What an indignity it is for the captain not to be trusted with front door keys.  But the door is unlocked, which means Rolando is there.  And there he is, wiping down the bar counter that will never be clean.  In another time there might have been a full waitstaff still taking post-brunch service shots of anything together, but the owners gave up on brunch two years ago.

First seating is at 5:30.  She asks for a Campari and soda and he says he wants a Gibson, attempting a tone of voice that dares Rafael to tell him we don't have cocktail onions.

Good going, old man.  I watch from behind the Compaq 256-color monitor we still use to process card payments.  Good going you decrepit f***.  You made the drive from Nassau County to Manhattan in only forty years.  You indomitable tycoon of middle management, the Jack Welch of showing up every day.  Good practice for the graveyard, all you have to do there is show up every day.  I notice suddenly that I'm hissing at myself, not Mr. Kohland.  He's a good customer, here twice a month with Karen.

And like that the owner's wife has roosted on the corner of their table with her brittle Art Deco hospitality.  For the lady, the same questions she gets every time about  her nails and her kids and her grandkids. For the gentleman, some cliched flirtation to keep his arthritic ego limber.  Oh, stop.  Eventually she leaves, loudly telling Rafa to ensure the Kohlands' every need is met, and winking at me as she returns to her office where she'll shop online until she screws up her computer.

By 6:30 there are five tables and though I could hang back and let Rafa and Macedonio deal with all of them, I take the six-top at table 13 to pass some time.  It looks like a family, or parts of two families.  They tell me which pastas they want (one grunts for steak which is furious with gristle here, every time) and I start for the kitchen.

"And we'd like a bottle of the..." I turn around to the chipmunk-cheeked millenial, the scion of the blond-haired family, who is still speaking to me with his eyes and finger on the wine card.  "...Antinori Chianti."  The card lists Antinori Chianti Classico Peppoli 2008, but our distributor hasn't delivered this wine for five weeks because the owner called him a shyster on the phone.

This is going to work in the table's favor , because it forces me to bring them the only Antinori wine we have, IGT Toscana 2007.  My money's on the kid not noticing, and if he does I can either go apologetic or intimidating.  Either way, they're taking it.  And they should anyway, because this is a better wine from a year when the sometimes-vindictive Tuscan terroir was in concert with the intentions of the growers and their winemaker frenemies.

Sangoviese, no other varietal in Tuscany or anywhere is so taffy-stretched between tradition and modernity.  The crusty, oxidized sad clown tragedies in wicker fiaschi under filthy corks are losing shelf space to glistening, inflatable panders, microoxygenated, reverse-osmosised and Fren-choked into submission under surgically clean corks.

Sangiovese, ushered to the IGT guillotine by thuggish Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah as the "contemporary market", the bloodthirsty rabble eager to see the beheading and drink the drainage, jeers.

Not this one, though.  This is a dignified, generous wine in spite of our best attempts to disgrace it with our smudged stemware and indifferent food.  In this bottle, gentle Merlot and decisive Syrah lend Sangiovese the compassion and motivation it needs to be better.  I will drink anything they don't finish straight from the bottle.

I show it to the young master at the most inconvenient angle I can manage.  He looks at the label, nods at me, and then looks back to the label as I step back to pull the cork.  He says nothing, but has noticed this is not the Peppoli.  Bright boy.  He says nothing.  When you are twentysomething and tasked with ordering wine on behalf of your elders, you probably don't know what to do when the script breaks.  As in lovemaking, when something goes wrong in wine service it can be better or at least intuitive to pretend it didn't.

These feedbags are out at a restaurant tonight, having the experience they wanted to pay for: Looking at a menu, the most autonomy they've had all day.  Being "waited on", whatever that means.  Saying to each other the things they think people say in restaurants, all the while darting their eyes around in hopes of seeing their plates approaching, descending.   The plates remind me of UFOs; get ready for the probe I sometimes think as I deal the losing hands around the table.

This restaurant is going under, do they not realize it?  The Antinoris were, still are, smarter than everyone in this room, going back to that moment near the beginning of last millenium when one of them happened upon the miracle of people paying you simply because you already had money.  They became bankers, and then they made wine. Being rich was so easy.  Giovanni di Piero Antinori must have kept a huge grin on his face that had nothing to do with winemaking as he turned the screw on his basket press every October.

It tapered off, the banking.  By the time Carl Rothschild arrived in Naples with his French cigarettes and insatiable, anonymous grudges, it was already easy to borrow money in Italy without passing a coin to Antinori.  So it goes, so it continues, as this dirty decade in New York City accumulates its declines and falls.

Two hours later I approach their table with the check in my back pocket.  They had two more bottles of the IGT.  The kid is drunk and halfway through a cognac that drew a glare from his father when he ordered it.  No one else had a digestif.  His acceptably overweight mother has tiramisu on her nose.

"Is there anything else?" I ask.

"Just the check," the kid says too loudly.  I set it down in the middle of the table.

"You guys could get some bigger glasses.  Rie-DELLS," he continues unprompted.  He is drawing uneasy glances from everyone at the table now.

I smile in spite of myself.  "You know, I think the glass is only there to keep your wine off the tablecloth," I say as I pour the last two ounces for his father.  I wish the pour was full of tartrate crumbs to help make my point, but this is a modern wine.

Service ends, of course we lost money, and I am ready to split less than five minutes after the last table leaves.  The owner is still back there with the keys.  He owns the keys.

"Estamos chingando!" I say over my shoulder to Rolando as he unlocks his bike out front.

I turn onto Fifth Avenue and decide to skip the pokey R train and walk the mile home to Battery Park City, past the Zuccotti Park gypsies and the big hole.  That bright boy and his Sangiovese, I say as loud as I want as I pass the Flatiron and light my one-hitter.

Sang is blood, Giove is Jupiter, and I strain my eyes as I turn my head upwards, looking for planets through the light pollution.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Jean-Marie Berthier Coteaux du Giennois 2010

When your 1995 Citroën breathes its last on the D951 near Le Clous and even though you have a France-ready Vodafone SIM card you don't have the first clue who to call to get you out of this, do one thing first: sit on the hood and watch the Loire river--murky and shallow here--pass by.

Even though it's silent, as rivers go, try to listen.  Walk to the bank, put your hands in the water.  Grab some mud and extrude it between your fingers.  How long did it take for these particles to end up in your hands in this order?  These centuries of limestone and granite, these underwater fiefdoms of tuffeau. Take all the time you need to realize there's no answer.  When you're ready, go back to the car and deal with reality.

You're only a little screwed.  Maybe you should have started in Orleans and followed the river to the ocean, rather than trundling upstream and away from civilization like this. But then you wouldn't have met that girl in Nantes, the one who looks like Anna Paquin and and sings Motown songs in the shower in her funny accent.  Auréline.  You stayed with her for three unplanned days of earthly delights that you'll remember on your deathbed--stop pretending you're so cool that you forgot her name.

As you walk the roadside, the jerry can you've optimistically brought along even though you definitely didn't just run out of gas clangs against your leg.  The rhythm of it spells out a logic that would not fly in Math 103, but is so right it stings:

Citroën - Citron - Citrus - Lemon

The sun is beautiful and generous and you pray to it that you'll get ten more minutes alone with that butter-scented grad student who sold you the lemon in Bordeaux.  You'll let him pick the Edith Piaf melody to which he can croon his plea for mercy.

An hour later you make it to Gien and just start drinking.  They can tow the autocarcass if they want, they can roll it into the river for all you care.  It's late afternoon, you have money to burn since you bought a cheap shit car, and alcohol is the only help you're going to get until tomorrow morning.  

You're surprised not to be sick of white wine yet, not to have bolted for the voluptuous, pillowy epiphanies you came to expect from the reds and brandies that floated you through Southern France last week. These Loire whites are rigid, fierce, with the essence of cold stone and acidity like a wasp sting. In your mouth they dictate, not discuss. They are the opposite of what you thought you liked in wine.

So what is it that's kept you coming back to them, besides geography? When you were much younger you used to press a nine-volt battery to your tongue once, twice, again, holding it a little longer each time until the pain became unbearable.  This is not exactly like that, but it's not exactly different either.

At the bar you are into your second plate of sardines and ready to knock down an entire bottle of something.  You look at the carte des vins and take a guess towards the middle of the list--that's what you've been doing so far this trip and so far so good.  You let yourself assume "Coteaux du Giennois" means it was delivered from the winery to the restaurant on foot.  

The poker-faced bartender nods and you wonder if you just picked a tourist wine as he turns to the refrigerator.  He uncorks the bottle, gives you a new glass and walks away.


You pour into the same glass you've been using.  What comes out is pale, with a green aurora around the rim you're used to seeing after five days in the Loire Valley.  It glows so radiantly, even in this dim brown room, is the glass plugged into a wall outlet?  

Swirling and sniffing still makes you feel like an ass.  Even after however many thousand wines, it's as though your pants drop to your ankles every time you go through the motion.  But the dinner crowd hasn't arrived yet and the red-nosed old men down the bar pay you no attention as you expose yourself.  And it's worth it this time for the face-slap of glistening, dewy grass and fruit that issues forth.

You sip and do the suck-through-the-teeth aeration that is another habit of occasional-at-best value.  But for once the noise is not the obnoxious slurp of air disrupting wine, it's the fresh crunch of incisors penetrating an almost-ripe Anjou pear, ravenously, over and over.  "Dry" seems--no, is--the wrong word for something this refreshing, but the overachieving little saccharomyces cerevisae cells did their job well, obliterating every memory of sugar.  You eat an oily fish and take a much bigger drink.

The bottle empties quickly and your instinct is to get another, but it's 18h45 and maybe time for some rilletes de porc and red wine, something "imported" from Chinon.  You turn the menu over in your hands, not really reading it, and then you catch yourself singing softly.

I 'eard it srruuu ze grape-vine.

You change your mind, pay l'addition and walk back towards the river.