American children don’t grow up with wine as an inherent part of meals as Italian children do. We drink milk, and while wine might be at our tables, lumped in with beer or liquor, we inherit almost a fear of it. It is illegal after all; we might be arrested if caught drinking it under 21, our parents might remind us. Not to mention that it tastes horrible.
Since an Italian’s taste for wine is absorbed over time, the idea of getting drunk on it, as this one teenage American did once, is obtuse. My first exposure to the beverage came not at a table but in my best friend’s bedroom before a high-school party. We passed back and forth one of those jugs of Chianti wrapped in straw until it was empty. I don’t have to tell you how the night ended. I stuck to beer after that.
After I graduated college I began to drink wine again, this time as a form of luxury to accompany my new and trendy (at the time) 80-hour work week. It was a welcome change to come home Friday night and relax over a glass (or two) as opposed to being out with my friends getting blotto at happy hour (Margaritas, anyone?), as we young Americans like to do in order to forget the fact that we are living to work and not vice versa.
The wines I bought were from corner liquor stores. Screw tops, mostly white, carried out in paper bags filled with cans and boxes of the processed foods I grew up on. I had moved beyond Gallo but still mostly drank California wine because that’s all they had. As my income increased, so did the prices I paid for wine because as a proponent of the American Dream and at the forefront of the dot-com boom, I understood concepts like more, bigger, and higher (as in price) to mean better.
But now I know the best Barolo vintage of the last decade (2006); I know why certain years are better than others, and why some years are exceptional. I don’t need to know all the technical details of winemaking, but I know that passion and obsessiveness to detail contribute significantly to consistent, excellent vintages, even when the elements refuse to cooperate. I know that weather, for instance, can wipe out an entire year’s work. The moon, where the peaches fell, certainly there’s luck involved, not to mention love, life and veritas.
Wine grows with us. Or we grow with wine. I’m not sure what happened to me. It was a slow metamorphosis, a change that took place without my knowledge. For one, I’m less influenced by price. Good wine doesn’t have to cost a lot, a simple concept perhaps, but one that’s taken me a while to arrive at. Secondly, while my roots are Californian, given the choice now I reflexively reach for the Italian bottle, for the complex, tannic and dry over the bolder, stronger and fruitier.
My Rombauer Chardonnay-drinking sisters remain confused by my defection. No doubt they think that I have been brainwashed, that my long love for the Italiano has turned me over, and perhaps, unimaginably, it has. Wine enthusiasts say that to really understand a wine you must understand its culture, you must dig your fingers into its soil and feast with its people.
Perhaps on one of the many visits to my husband’s Piemontese family I accidentally planted a seed and now that seed has sprouted a root. Not just any root, but a Nebbiolo root, those that dig deep into the weather-beaten hills of Tuscany’s dark cousin, the Langhe region– hills with earth so thick and chalky that the vines’ roots must grow deep to survive. They must live long lives; some of them are over a hundred years old.
The Dolcettos, Nebbiolos, and Barolos– I could be anywhere in the world, but when I sit down to drink these wines, it’s like I’ve come home.
Jackie Townsend recently released her second novel, Imperfect Pairings. For more information, visit jackietownsend.com .