Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino

Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino
Life is a fiasco


Pssst. Wanna buy a house?

“Will the world’s worst salesman please stand up.” I glance around the crowded planet at the seven-billion-plus people seated smugly pretending not to be looking my way. Must mean me, I murmur, and, mortified, stand up.

Nightmares have a sneaky way of revealing uncomfortable truths. I used to josh with friends that I considered myself the world’s worst salesman, but lately I’ve come to believe it. I mean, only the King of Klutzes could have put a splendid home in Tuscany on the market four years ago and failed to sell it. I’m talking about a 16th-century stone villa in the historic hills southeast of Florence with views to take your breath away. Check out: www.tuscanydreamhome.com

We’re selling because the place is more than an aging couple needs. I figured the sale would cover the cost of building a smaller house elsewhere in Tuscany, with enough left over to live comfortably in the golden years.

We’d bought the house in 1982, after succumbing, as dreamers did in those days, to love at first sight. I was sure the same would happen this time around, that it would be grabbed up the minute it hit the market. A typical miscalculation that I’ve blamed on the economic crisis, starting in 2008, which ravaged real estate markets everywhere. Yet I’m certain that anyone with a modicum of savvy would have sold the place long ago.

The house has been advertised on international sites and posted by local agents. But visits have been few as realtors repeat that “nobody’s buying anymore” as an excuse for not trying. I’ve lowered the asking price from over a million euro to 795,000. Recent queries have come from dubious types. One (a diamond dealer?) offered cash if I’d fly to Brussels the next day. Another (a Saudi financier?) suggested the same if I’d meet him in San Marino for a coffee.

After discretion flushed those deals down the drain, we’ve weathered the winter watching bank balances approach the brink of poverty, while hoping to point dreamers’ desires at tuscanydreamhome.com. That site, created by the ingenious Jack Kelly, seems to have the requisites for promoting a love-at-first-sight deal—unless, that is, it’s been jinxed by you-know-who.

It’s hard to explain my chronic inability to sell things—not only tangible goods but above all myself. Having an inbred aversion to business, I guess selling isn’t in my nature. I recall a radio ad of way over a half century ago with a door-to-door salesman ringing doorbells and muttering, “Nobody home, I hope I hope I hope.” Others sniggered; I empathized. 

Whether it was home-made lemonade or an outgrown bike or used books or, later on, an almost new Volkswagen Beatle or the kids’ abandoned Vespa or a nifty old 36-foot sailboat, I ended up getting the short end of the stick.

Some have the knack, some don’t. I’ve noticed that in Mediterranean lands—from all the variegated shores of the sea—shrewd vendors proliferate. Maybe that’s because in climates where much commerce is carried out at open markets, bartering and bargaining are a spirited way of life. Face it, any four-year-old huckster in an Arab souk knows the tricks of the trade as thoroughly as a Harvard Business grad. Not only that, the kid’s intuitively equipped to spot a sucker—picture me on safari—from half way across the Sahara.

Italians excel at hawking most anything from shaved ice to bottled water to what they call aria fritta (fried air). Jewish merchants were the acknowledged masters of the mercantile arts. It isn’t certain, though I suspect that mercenaries from Mediterranean lands performed the miracle of convincing generations of Americans that 99 cents is less than a dollar.

Up north, in my ancestral homelands, Scandinavians often lack the knack, maybe because in ice-packed, sunless spots, folks stocked up on goods for the winter, freezing trade. Salesmanship doesn’t seem to figure in the Norwegian DNA, so perhaps heritage is at the root of my problem.

As for publishing, my books never got close to a bestseller list. The Pocket Guide to Italian Wines—which ran through uncountable editions and titles over twenty-some years—sold a grand total of 350,000 copies. Sound impressive? Well, royalties from all that netted me about enough to buy the Land Rover I’ve been driving for a decade. My latest triumph is the self-published novel Boccadoro, running at 4,714,889th in the Amazon book hit list. In Kindle sales it ranks 493,773rd.

But maybe there’s hope for me yet. The world of arts and letters abounds in self-aggrandizing folks who made it big even if they didn’t seem to have that much to start with. Am I alone in my conviction that more than a few bestselling authors write like stressed out PR persons or that a good many big name artists paint and draw or splatter like hyperactive preschoolers? The main talent behind their megabucks seems to be a flair for selling themselves.

The same could be said for protagonists in other fields, politics for example. Remember that 1960 poster of Richard Nixon with the caption, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Well, Tricky Dick must have sold himself to somebody—nobody I know, I hope—if they elected him president eight years later.

I suppose I could take some comfort in knowing that the slickest of salesmen often turn out to be the slimiest of sleazeballs. A widely held view is that to get ahead it helps to be a con artist. Well, in my life I can’t deny generating my fair share of tall tales, fibs, white lies, and out-and-out bullshit. But none of the BS ever got me anywhere. Come to think of it, being honest never got me anywhere either.

Take that tuscanydreamhome website. The content there must be somewhere in the neighborhood of 99 percent true (allow a 1 percent margin of error). I have a sneaking suspicion that some who have seen the site thought it was too good to be true and didn’t bother to follow up.

I suppose it’s kind of gauche for a writer to use a blog to promote real estate. But, really, I can’t think of many other places to turn. Someone out there is bound to ask: So, okay, what’s the difference between the 795,000 euro asking price and 800,000? Well, let me tell you, for 5,000 euro you could buy yourself a pretty nice used car. 


Amanda’s Fort Knox

American student Amanda Knox, who was first convicted of the murder of her English housemate in Perugia, Italy, and then freed when the verdict was overturned on appeal, has signed a book deal with Harper Collins for $4 million.

That outsize reward for a richly undeserving celebrity got me to thinking about the strange workings of justice in Italy and America. It made me wonder how Knox might have fared as a student in a U.S. college town like, say, Waco, Texas, if she’d found herself in circumstances similar to those of Perugia four years ago. My guess is not so well, even if she is white and becoming enough to be called “Angel Face.”

My disgust at the Knox news was conditioned by an article I’d just read in The New Yorker: “The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik. It noted that the more than six million persons in U.S. prisons surpass the peak totals held in Stalin’s gulags. Huge numbers of Americans are serving sentences “much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world,” wrote Gopnik, adding that, “Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teenagers to life imprisonment.”

Amanda Knox enjoyed star status long before her release last October. A campaign to free her, mounted by family and friends in her hometown of Seattle, swept up press, politicians, lawyers, and influential personages as high up the ladder as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Support spread to Italy, where it’s rumored that even President Giorgio Napolitano put in a good word for her.

Yet, as the drama unfolded, opinions split rather keenly on whether “Angel Face” was innocent or guilty—or somewhere in between. Knox’s overexposure on Italian TV left me, and many Italians, undecided. Was she “Foxy Knoxy,” the she-devil or strega (witch) that some Perugians screeched at her and family when they came within earshot, or the blonde, blue-eyed, plumply pretty picture of virtue as the U.S. media depicted her? The line from Knox’s legions of friends seemed to be: how could those cruel Italian judges and their hopelessly medieval legal system treat an all-American girl that way? Obviously she’s innocent. Just look at her.

Knox and her then boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted for their alleged roles in the sexual assault and murder of Meredith Kercher, and of covering up the evidence by simulating a burglary. The victim’s throat was slit during what prosecutors described as a drug-fueled sex game. An African-born man, Rudy Guede, was also convicted of the murder and is serving a sentence of sixteen years.

“Friends of Amanda,” buoyed by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, claimed that evidence against Knox was inadequate, that she had been subjected to harsh treatment after arrest, and that there had been negligence in the handling of the evidence. Those allegations were based in part on Knox’s version of the truth—or versions rather, since her recollections tended to waver. Backers quietly overlooked the fact that Knox served three years—discounted in her four years of preventive detention—for falsely accusing the African-born owner of a bar where she once worked of the murder.

I, too, cringed when I heard that Knox had been sentenced to twenty-six years. My view is that most young people, however grave their mistakes, have qualities better redeemed in correctional institutions than in cages. Still, in Italy, with its antiquated legal system and overcrowded jails, convicts rarely serve a full term. The death penalty, as in most of Europe, was abolished as hopelessly medieval. Chances are that even if Knox had been confirmed guilty, she’d have been able to live most of the rest of her life free.

Not likely in America, where the penal system is aggressively punitive, even for young people—especially if they fall into the categories of black and Hispanic, which dominate the prison population. According to Human Rights Watch, the United States is the only country in the world with youth offenders (below 18) serving life without parole in adult prisons. There were about 2,590 at last count. The Supreme Court will consider arguments about the constitutionality of the practice in March.

Even if the court decides that the practice constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment (which reality renders a euphemism), I wouldn’t expect much progress on penal reform in a country where a gun-toting governor wins applause for touting his state’s record number of death sentences, boasting that he’d have no qualms if some of the executed had been innocent.

Life in prison without parole is extreme torture because it never ceases until the victim dies, a fate surely more cruel and inhuman than the death penalty. As Gopnik suggests in The New Yorker: “Lock yourself in your bathroom and imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.” Or imagine perpetuating that Kafkaesque incubus for sixty or seventy years.

Among the 2,590 hope-deprived kids there must be some who—with a little love, understanding, and learning—could lead useful lives outside. A responsible society would guarantee all of them at least a chance at rehabilitation. Locking them up and throwing away the keys is as demented a solution as herding them into gas chambers. Medieval? In terms of cruelty, I'd say somewhere between fascistic and barbarian.

The Italian court found evidence against Knox and Sollecito flawed and inadequate in overturning the verdict. It’s hard to say how much influence her influential friends might have had. But after their heavy assault on Italian justice, a meek round of bravos greeted the somewhat surprising verdict that left their heroine scot-free. It might be hoped that they turn some of that zeal to weeding out injustice in their own backyards. Even Knox’s home state of Washington seems to have twenty-eight kids condemned to life without parole.

As for Angel Face’s credibility, well, I’d trust her about as far as I could throw her. And in my currently decrepit state, that distance would be considerably less than an inch. I truly hope her book flops—unless she summons her angelic nature and devotes profits to a worthy cause. For instance, movements dedicated to reforming the American penal system and its policies toward youth—a system under which, if she’d been tried, instead of being a literary luminary worth four million bucks, she might have ended up as just another loser locked away for life.


Tuscany’s Olives—Another Fatal Freeze?

Tuscany is under siege from the coldest weather since 1985, when a major share of the region’s olive trees froze and had to be cut to the ground. Northerly winds of more than 60 kilometers an hour have heaped snow into drifts, leaving me stranded in my half-built house in the Maremma with no running water (the pipes froze overnight) and a compact woodstove the lone source of heat. The current wind chill is -18°C (-4°F). Tomorrow, hot damn, it’s supposed to be windier and colder.

Maybe I should worry more about my own health and safety than the well-being of those 85 olive trees out there bowed forlornly under icy snow. But I don’t. I could always phone someone to plow clear the road so I could escape with my car. Nobody I know of could intervene on behalf of my poor, dear olives, whose Mediterranean dispositions prepare them for almost any exigency short of Siberian blizzards.

Damage seems certain, though there’s hope that it won’t be as drastic as 27 years ago. Back then, in early January soon after the harvest, trees retained sap that froze at the core and destroyed the trunks above ground. The millennial resilience of olives permits roots to put out shoots that can be nurtured into new trees, though it takes a decade or more for a grove to return to normal.

This time, after a long drought, trees were dry and dormant so freezing might not be so severe. At best we might get by amputating some branches. Whatever the case, production—always iffy from olives picked by hand—seems certain to suffer.

So, once again it turns out that sunny Italy isn’t Florida. Popular images of Tuscany focus on the summery aspects of a region that in truth endures flip-flops between cold, rainy, and blustery through much of the year. I find myself grumbling more about the weather here than I did as a boy on the ice-packed lakes of Minnesota, where the foremost gauges of the wind-chill factor were flash-frozen fingers and toes. A sign of getting old, I suppose, aggravated by built-in Scandinavian melancholy.

Extremes of weather have a way of bringing out a defiant nature that I trace to my Viking heritage. I knew damned well what was coming when on Monday I stocked up at the market on the makings of a monumental minestrone, which, thickened with wood-oven bread late in the week, transmogrified into a resplendent ribollita. Throw in some salame, cheese, fruit, lots of good red wine, and enough milk for my morning cappuccino, and what’s to worry? As for water, nothing's finer than boiled snow. Like those guys who go out into the wilderness with nothing but a sharp knife and a stout constitution, just another challenge to overcome. No big deal.

Well, okay, it’s pretty damned cold here at Sassofortino, even inside my mini-fortress with the woodstove blasting. Tomorrow I have to decide whether to trudge a half-mile uphill through packed snow to stock up on groceries for another day or two or call in a plow and get the hell out of here. My olive trees, like my little red robin buddy who pecks away at the crumbs I throw out into the snow, seem to be telling me to stick it out. I guess they mean friends who freeze together, squeeze together, or something like that. How could I say no?


Burton Anderson
Beyond Vino

My first book, Vino, published in 1980, was lauded by critics as a landmark in the literature of wine. Over the years as a free-lance writer based in Tuscany, my books and articles brought me recognition as “the world’s leading expert on Italian wines.”

That’s no longer true, if it ever was, because I’ve pointed my literary career in new directions. Recent works include a novel, Boccadoro, self-published in 2007. But my main efforts have been dedicated to two volumes of nonfiction, neither yet finished.

One, entitled Boso’s Tuscany, is the story of my quest for clues to the life and times of an ancestor named Boso, who in the tenth century was the margrave (head man) of Tuscia, the state in the Holy Roman Empire’s Kingdom of Italy that became Tuscany. This spirited tale of sleuthing in the shadows of the Dark Ages has won praise from friends, agents, and even publishers, one of whom feared that it might be too wonderfully wacky to become a bestseller.

The other still-untitled book is the account of my late-in-life venture of building a new home as a replica of a traditional stone farmhouse in Tuscany’s Maremma. The house, like the book, is in limbo, each roughly half done, because I need to sell my old house near Florence to finance remaining work on the new. The latest chapter is Halfway House.

I hope to finish both books, but considering the vagaries of mainstream publishing, I can’t be sure they’ll appear in print. They contain a major share of my best writing. That may sound like the vainglorious raving of an aging hack, but I’m determined to find an audience for them. After years of hesitation, I decided to establish a blog and call it Beyond Vino.

My reasons for moving beyond the world of wine are described in the first feature of the blog entitled: My Life in Wine: The Good, the Bad, and the Bubbly. There will be more—much more, I hope—including chapters and excerpts and bits and pieces of my writing over the years.

Beyond Vino will also take up current topics, such as gastronomy, travel, sports, history, and even a bit of art and culture, spiced with observations on the weird and wondrous ways of life in post-Berlusconi Italy. My aim is to open up the blog as a forum of sorts for an exchange of ideas with readers, whose stimulating comments and reasoned criticism will always be welcome.

My views have been shaped over half a century in Italy, living mainly in rustic paradises of Tuscany, where I’ve persevered as a skeptic with liberal leanings on social, political, and philosophical issues. Though I’ve been suspected or accused of being an angry old misanthrope, anarchist, infidel, rebel, cynic, and hedonist, the one label I readily accept is epicurean, in the classical sense. That is, as a follower of the Greek Epicurus, who, in the fourth century BC, espoused a philosophy based on the pursuit of pleasure—comprising fine dining and drinking, of course—while conceptualizing with astounding acumen the nature of the universe and how to live in it.


Wizards of Winespeak

My views on modern wine critics may have seemed less than gracious up till now. See the post, My Life in Wine: the Good, the Bad, and the Bubbly (9 January 2011). So I’d like to take a closer, more insightful look at the work of taster-raters.

Devotees of wine have devised lexicons to describe colors, aromas, flavors, textures, and more. Such terms analogize sensations in ways that supposedly give professionals a frame of reference and aspirants a guide to character traits. I’ll admit to having borrowed some of the clichés myself before limiting my imagination to the drearily prosaic confines of fermented grapes.

Wine criticism is a competitive field in which taster-raters pack columns, newsletters, and—these days especially—blogs with points and notes. In their quests for fans and fame, some have shown extraordinary creative flair in describing wines. I’ve surfed the net for original, poetic, bizarre, and outrageous examples of the cutting-edge lingo created by these wizards of winespeak.

To tell the truth, some of the terminology baffles me. But what do I know? Mr. Slow Learner was the last to grasp the genius of the likes of Andy Warhol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dan Brown, Lady Gaga. It might even be that behind the bodacious bylines of the blogosphere lurks winedom’s new Emperor or Big Brother.

Here’s a sampling of winespeak descriptive terms in no particular order: prickly pear juice; witch hazel; earthy mushrooms; creosote; tamarillo; animal gaminess; pomegranate; Christmas cake; mulch; showy nose; medicinal nose; brooding nose; nutty nose; damp fur; minerally accented red plum; pungent minty plums, balsamic marzipan; beefy-textured chestnut; cream soda; fried flowers; butcher shop smells; beef blood; pigeon blood; grilled bacon; blood sausage; incense; India ink; squid ink; linseed oil; hairspray; cherry Jell-O; cracked green peppercorns; Acapulco sunsets; graphite shavings; pink panty punch; orange zest; crystallized ginger; musk; jammy bramble fruit; coal dust; cheesy; cherry-berry; spice box; diesel; smoky plum; shoe polish; huckleberry; weedy; leafy; lead pencil; truffly underbrush; camphor; cotton candy; smoky meat; oriental spices; quince; tree bark; gooseberry; warm suet pudding; the Elephant & Castle tube station.

But perhaps I’ve done our gurus a disservice by listing these terms out of context. Let me try to right this wrong by composing a hypothetical description of a wine employing some of the above terminology in a style that I can only hope to be worthy of a tried-and-true taster-rater. When it comes to describing wines, I’ll admit to being a bit rusty. But, what the hell, here goes:

Color: Deep ruby tamarillo and pigeon blood hues underscore cherry Jell-O tones melding with ripe red gooseberry and chokecherries over a swirly shadow of squid ink. On the rim, hints of pink panty punch, pomegranate, Acapulco sunsets.

Bouquet: Knockout, in-your-face nose opens onto a potpourri of fruity-leathery-tobacco-spicebox scents with undertones of creosote, butcher shop smells, mulch, shoe polish and diesel. A second swirl and sniff reveals deep, brooding qualities, vaguely medicinal, with hints of shaved graphite, earthy mushrooms, smoky meat, tree bark, and (a real surprise) warm suet pudding.

Palate: Supercharged upfront zing zaps the tongue with ripe cherry-berry sensations of minerally accented red plum, beef blood, jammy bramble fruit, huckleberry, and beefy-textured chestnut before gliding into the mid-mouth with a cream soda-like lift accented by orange zest, fried flowers, grilled bacon, incense, and cotton candy. I can’t emphasize enough the nearly interminable finish of this wine with its subtle undertones of truffly underbrush, musk, mulch, and camphor.

Conclusion: This wine from a somewhat offbeat vintage seems too green to hang a posterity tag on. Tentative score: 73 ++. Considerations: could surprise with age: 20-150 years.

Note to skeptical possessors of this €220 bottle. If you have the patience to let it slumber in the cellar for a couple of decades—and the fortune to live a long and happy life—you might find it taking on the persimmony-dried apricoty plushness of the grandiose 1850 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho. Or, though this is a real long shot, the singularity of the Opimian vintage of the Roman Falernium (121 BC, would you believe?). I’ve never had the privilege of tasting that classic, but to judge by accolades showered upon it by much more than highly reliable sources—Pliny the Elder, Cicero, Julius Caesar himself!—it was to die for.


Italy on the Rocks

It’s hard to resist likening the wreck of the Costa Concordia to the fate of Italy in recent times. The Concordia and the ship of state were commanded, respectively, by the reckless Francesco Schettino and the feckless Silvio Berlusconi, who left them derelict and foundering on the rocks. Both skippers tried to cover their follies with lies so ludicrous that if their deeds hadn’t been so dastardly they might be redeemed as clowns. Instead, they seem destined to go down in history alongside such tragicomic rogues as Nero, Cesare Borgia, and Benito Mussolini.
There’s some doubt that either the Concordia or the ship of state can be salvaged. Yet experts harbor a glimmer of hope that the giant liner could be righted, towed, and patched back together rather than cut up for scrap. Mario Monti’s emergency government, faced with more than runaway debts, falling credit ratings, and a shaky euro, is struggling to refloat the economy and bring Italy back to safe harbor. Wish him luck.
Come to think of it, my analogy might be a little lame. It took Schettino less than an hour to scrape a reef and leave the Concordia, with more than 4,200 persons aboard, capsized on a ledge of granite after telling potential rescuers that he had nothing more than a minor problem. Berlusconi spent the better part of 17 years denying that the ship of state leaked, while, in his cavalierly despotic way, blaming Italy’s plunging fortunes on everybody but himself. 
The commander is widely despised as Capitan Codardo (Captain Coward). The ex-premier is scorned by a sizable segment of the public and press, who know him as il Cavaliere, the il suggesting singular status among Italy’s hundreds of thousands who won or wangled honorary knighthoods. Then again, if you own three of the seven main TV channels and manipulate three others of the state-run RAI (as Berlusconi did when he was Italy’s richest man and still in power), and if you use your own newspapers to insult adversaries as communists or coglioni (a term for testicles that also signifies putzes or jerks), you probably are unique among knights.
Schettino, 52, is at home in Sorrento awaiting trial on charges of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship, which could bring him up to fifteen years in the cooler. There’s some chance that he might actually serve a few of them, though he’s basing his defense on the line that Costa Crociere cruises required captains to swing past ports as publicity stunts. Costa denies this.
Berlusconi, 75, ensconced at his Arcore mansion notorious for bunga-bunga parties, faces more criminal charges than even his legions of lawyers can keep track of. Yet everybody knows he’ll emerge from courtrooms, where “The law is equal for all,” without serving a minute behind bars.
His exit from power may have given Italians a sigh of relief, but it will take years to get Berlusconismo out of their systems. During his reign, much legislation was aimed at protecting the premier from pinko prosecutors out to get him. Among Europe’s highest paid parliamentarians, 85 have either been convicted or charged with crimes. Of these, 57 are in Berlusconi’s party, Popolo della Libertà.
It figures that the Cavaliere’s kissing cronies in the political sphere were George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Berlusca, as some call him, once described Barack Obama as a bright young man with a nice tan who had a lot to learn from old warriors like himself, George, and Vladimir.  There might have been a hint of envy in that, since B’s own permatan seems to have been spread over the surface of an oft remodeled visage topped by a slick of transplanted hair of indelible ruddy brown. He’s adored by cartoonists, thanks to his double-breasted suits and elevator shoes, and the looks of a figure in a wax museum with an expression transfixed between a grimace and a shit-eating grin.
But there I go again, venting my disdain for what a cover of The Economist hailed as “The man who screwed an entire country.” Not to worry. I’m not about to turn Beyond Vino into a political forum. This time that lame ship analogy was hard to resist. But there are a whole lot of topics I’d rather discuss than the sordid world of politics.
To tell the truth, after a long voyage as a free-lance navigator my good ship Lolipop is also on the rocks. I too, like our two captains, have a way of blaming my sinking on others, starting with Wall Street bankers whose greed sparked the worldwide economic crisis that in turn ruined Italy’s real estate market. But deep down I know that I have nobody to blame but myself for believing that I could sell a gorgeous old house in the heart of Tuscany for enough profit to build a gorgeous new (but  smaller) house in the coastal Maremma with a nice surplus as a nest egg for the golden years.
If you happen to know somebody who’s looking for a gorgeous old house in the heart of Tuscany, please steer them toward www.tuscanydreamhome.com. If this sound like a plea for sympathy, it’s not. It’s an SOS.


Tom Mueller’s Masterful “Extra Virginity”

Olive oil is as close to my heart as wine. For decades I’ve grown and hand harvested olives for what, with luck, would be enough to supply the family for a year. I know the thrill growers feel when they return from the mill with their zesty new oil to douse slabs of grilled bruschetta. I’ve learned the long and hard way the value of true olive oil as opposed to the dubiously cheap stuff labeled “extra virgin” that clutters supermarket shelves everywhere. I’ve known all along about the monstrous scope of olive oil fraud in Italy and abroad, but never found the energy, perseverance, or, above all, the courage to write about it.

Finally somebody has, and far exceeded my aspirations. Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity, the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W. W. Norton & Company), is a milestone in writing on food and a masterpiece of investigative reporting. Tom, a fellow Yank living in Italy, is a bright young guy whose views are so close to mine on olive oil and much else that I consider him a soul mate, fellow traveler, and pal. I know I’m breaking rules in heaping praise on the work of a friend, but no apologies. This is a book of fundamental importance to anyone who cares about the quality and authenticity of olive oil, and, for that matter, almost anything they eat. Food fraud is by no means confined to oil.

Written with passion, wisdom, and wit, Extra Viriginity explores the world of olive oil from its remote origins to its sublime and scandalous present, contrasting the machinations of multinationals that dominate the trade with the down-to-earth quests for excellence of artisan growers.

Tom uses profiles of dedicated producers to point out differences in typology and quality of oils made from hundreds of olive varieties grown on four continents. He tells how to recognize honest oils and how to judge quality through elaborate tasting procedures.  He describes the character of oils that deserve to be as prized as estate-bottled wines. He reviews with candor the healthful qualities of honest extra virgins as opposed to the worthless and sometimes even noxious contents of phony oils.

Through it all a negative tone underlines the anger and frustration of people who seek honesty in an industry that is hopelessly corrupt. Here’s the sad tale in Tom’s words:

“I’ve met olive growers and oil-makers whose divine nectars deserve to be celebrated around the world, treated with reverence and gratefulness. And I’ve seen that they’re losing their shirts. Yes, losing their shirts. Because for all the things that are right about olive oil, there’s a whole lot that’s wrong. Again and again I’ve witnessed the same bizarre drama. Olive oil bottles labeled with fancy phrases—‘cold pressed,’ ‘Made in Italy,’ ‘first pressed,’ ‘extra light,’ ‘pure,’ and the ever-present ‘extra virgin’—that are meaningless, and often downright lies, false virgins selling at a fraction of the price of true extra virgin olive oil. Faced with this situation, governments do nothing, oil buyers turn a blind eye, big bottlers and oil traders pocket the cash. Consumers everywhere are systematically defrauded, and honest growers go bankrupt. Over the last five years I’ve seen one of the world’s greatest foods reach a breaking point, where the future of quality oil is in question. It makes no sense, but it’s happening now.”

As a veteran oil advocate I can vouch that there’s no exaggeration there. It has long amazed and appalled me that the powers that be in Italy—as in Spain, the largest olive producer—have left the oil industry to its own devices. Equally shameful, the press in Italy and abroad has shied away from exposing the methods of a worldwide cartel wrought with fraud and corruption.

Only after Extra Virginity was published last December did the Italian daily La Repubblica publish an article echoing Tom Mueller’s accusations—without, of course, mentioning his name.

Take the case of Andreas März, the Swiss editor of the wine magazine Merum and a producer of fine oils in Tuscany. März wrote an article, based on interviews with experts, accusing the giant Carapelli firm of, among other things, labeling inferior oils as “extra virgin” in outright contempt of the law. Carapelli sued März in a case that dragged out for years until, finally, a judge ruled decisively in favor of the accused.

That surprise verdict delighted März and fellow artisans, who expected it to set off a groundswell of public opinion against oil fraud and strike a crippling blow to dishonest industrialists. Instead, to my knowledge, the case was never mentioned in the Italian press and no legal action has been brought against Carapelli or other oil giants.

Italians, a people of countless attributes, have a maddening tendency to take corruption for granted, quietly tolerating dirty dealings in politics, bureaucracy, business, finance, and, of course, organized crime, which taints all it touches. Silvio Berlusconi with his godfather manners may be blamed for lowering ethical standards while making Italy the laughing stock of Europe. Yet the ex-premier’s crass conniving seems merely symptomatic of the moral malaise that plagues the nation. 

But enough. There’s much more to this superb book than slippery businesses in Italy and Spain. Tom has explored the new world of olive oil with the same sort of diligence he brings to the old. Everywhere he goes, he converses with characters: cooks, shopkeepers, farmers, importers and exporters, food cops, and oil-makers at all levels of production, including an order of Australian monks. He even conveys the message that if the old world doesn’t correct its erratic ways with olive oil, the new world may surpass it in production and commerce.

Tom traces the history of olive oil, with its legends and myths, relating its manifold uses among ancient peoples as a food and preservative, lamp fuel, lubricant, soap, and base of cosmetics. He discusses its symbolic value in the sacred and profane, emphasizing wine as oil’s age-old companion and rival. But why go into the detail that readers will savor once they pick up the book.

Before I read it, I was stunned that a New York Times reviewer ridiculed the book and its author in a way that was, well, sophomorically snotty. I suspect he didn’t read the book in depth and doesn’t give a damn about olive oil anyway. Whatever, he grandly flaunted his ignorance.

Extra Virginity should not only be coveted by food lovers, it ought to be required reading for anyone involved in the commerce and legal control of comestibles throughout the world—starting with Italy and Spain. I hope it will be translated into many languages and remain on the market for many years. It ought to become the  handbook of a revolution, influencing writers, legislators, law enforcers, and, above all, consumers to insist on honest quality in olive oil and pressure a hopelessly corrupt industry to clean up its act or drown in its own dregs.

While, I’m at it, I’d like to boost Tom Mueller’s candidacy for honors, not only in the field of writing on food, but also for a Pulitzer and/or National Book Award. In my mind, it’s that momentous, a work of outstanding courage. As the guy who didn’t write it, I admire it all the more.


My Life in Wine
The Good, the Bad, and the Bubbly

My life in wine—like the other thirty-odd years of it—has had its ups and downs. If I had that time to live over, I’d strive to become a complete writer, oriented more toward mastering the craft of fiction and less toward appraising the virtues of nectars of the grape. But since I joined the field and stayed there due to my own stubborn volition, I can hardly complain. I’ve had happy and proud moments with writers, winemakers, cooks, and other people who love to eat and drink, though there have been times of sweat and strain, and, of course, some disappointments.
It began in the early sixties, when I took a job at the Rome Daily American and cultivated a true amateur’s devotion to vino, canvassing Italy for novel names and flavors. I collected labels and notes, but didn’t begin writing about Italian wine until I moved to Paris, to the news desk of the International Herald Tribune, and acquired a farmhouse near Cortona as a retreat and research base.
My first article, in 1971, was a profile of Franco Biondi Santi and his Brunello di Montalcino—names that became legends but were then scarcely known beyond the province of Siena. “Wine for People with Patience” was the title, an irony of sorts, since I’ve never had the diligence to let a fine bottle collect dust in the cellar.
My aspirations grew until, in 1977, I turned down a generous offer to become managing editor and quit the IHT—my last gasp of stable employment—packed wife, kids, and a dog named Grappa into a Peugeot station wagon and headed for Tuscany. While waiting more than two years for a phone to be installed in our home at an isolated burg called Teverina, our link to the outside world was La Posta Italiana, which functioned at about the speed of Pony Express. Verdicts on my career choice among colleagues and friends leaned decidedly more toward crazy than courageous.
I’d already begun writing a book about Italian wine, though, aside from an insatiable craving for the stuff and a gift of taste memory, my qualifications were practically nil. Yet I did have something going for me. At that time, few English-speaking readers were aware of the vast and varied compass of Italian wine. So, after traveling around meeting winemakers and recording impressions, I filled a void with a book called Vino, the Wines and Winemakers of Italy, published in 1980 by Atlantic-Little, Brown after a dozen or so rejections.
Vino even won some praise from Francophile U.K. critics, perhaps amused that an upstart Yank would dedicate an entire book to a country noted for cheap and cheerful Chianti in the straw-skirted flask—or fiasco, as it’s called in its native Tuscany. Besides Chianti, the U.S. market then overflowed with sweet Lambrusco (Italian Coke), bleached blond Soave, Frascati, and Verdicchio, and jugs of dago red.
More books followed—principally The Pocket Guide to Italian Wine, 1982; The Wine Atlas of Italy, 1990; Treasures of the Italian Table, 1994; Burton Anderson’s Best Italian Wines, 2001—along with articles, columns, booklets, lectures, conferences, videos, and more. Everywhere I’ve gone, people have alluded to my luck in having such a cushy job. Imagine getting rich lounging around the pool in Tuscany sipping Brunello and Barolo.
Get real. The free-lance adventure has comprised thirty-five years of scraping together funds to finance a family, homes, college tuitions, research, travel, fiscal bumbles, lawsuits, and the mandatory ex-pat visits to far-away relatives. Forget vacations. I might have tried more gainful pursuits, but never got around to it. Too busy meeting deadlines, I suppose.
Through it all, I’ve watched Italy surge to the forefront of world wine, though that was inevitable, given the country’s ubiquitous aptitude for vines and its people’s ingenuity. Still, I like to think that I gave a small nudge to Italy’s modern renaissance of wine. And I get a contrarian’s kick out of reminding legions of doubters of Italian potential that I told them so.

Sour Grapes

Soon after the turn of the century, and the publication of the unrewarding Burton Anderson’s Best Italian Wines, I decided to point my literary career in new directions. My way of writing about wine, which intuitively traces quality and character to people and places, had been superseded by the summations of taster-raters, led by Robert M. Parker, Jr., whose peerless palates spew verdicts in points with notes as sacrosanct as papal bulls.
Sour grapes? You bet, but what are old codgers for if not to carp and grumble? The change of direction, among other effects, reinforced my conviction that I was not too old to make it as a serious writer. Others have expressed serious doubts, inciting me to swallow my pride and take a walk on the wily side. Among suggested schemes:
1. Dash off a book on Italian wine with points and tasting notes. I get it. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. But at my age could I master the wine guru lexicon, that list of two-hundred—or is it two-hundred-and-fifty?—terms describing odors, flavors, colors, and more, through often gaudy analogies to animal, mineral, and vegetal sensory perceptions, including every imaginable fruit except grapes? No cakewalk that. Also I’d have to brush up on counting backwards—not having had much practice since high school team-bus choruses of “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” But since wine is the subject, I suppose I’d only need to count down from a hundred to around seventy-five. To the raters, that’s already purgatory, just a point or two from hell.
2. Whip together a recipe book with lots of great pictures. After cracking Julia Child’s weights-and-measures codes for boeuf bourguignon and bouillabaisse—risking a crise de nerfs in a cramped Paris kitchen to conceive the best versions of those dishes I’ve tasted—I swore off recipes forever. I’ve since played it by nose the Italian way, sniffing out the best ingredients at hand, preferably home grown, while holding the cooking to a respectful minimum.
3. Become the Peter Mayle of Tuscany. Uh-huh. Or maybe the Walt Disney. Dare I admit that I’d bitten into as much as I could swallow of A Year in Provence by about Page 40—which more than doubled my endurance mark for Under the Tuscan Sun. Am I being snotty? Could it be that I lack the bestseller gene in my DNA?
Anyway, shunning those and other shenanigans, I knocked out a novel to try my hand at the fiction I should have pursued much earlier. Entitled Boccadoro, it’s a romantic thriller about a middle-aged Yank with a golden palate who takes up with a gorgeous Italian widow running a restaurant on a Tuscan island. While writing, I envisioned it as a terrific movie starring Jeff Bridges and Carla Bruni. Might be a little late for that now.
Attempts by agent Alan K. to push it to publishers drew nixes, some with remarks. One: “Hilarious insider stuff on Tuscany, food, wine and people, but slow in spots and short on sex.” Another: “Builds to a convincing climax of suspense, comedy and romance, but early chapters read like a travelogue.” I more or less agreed with the latter, but instead of tightening and rewriting, I self-published Boccadoro with iUniverse in 2007.
Meanwhile, I dabbled away at Boso’s Tuscany, a tale of a long-lost ancestor who was head man in Tuscany in the 10th century. Sample chapters submitted by Alan and an English rep elicited perplexity. One reply: “Wonderfully wacky. Loved it, but fear it won’t sell.” Another: “Might work if Anderson cut back on the history and assumed more of a Peter Mayle style.” Him again. How about Boso’s Provence? My ancestor was born at Arles, by the way.
With Boso on the back burner, I turned my attention to building a house—and selling another—and, just for the hell of it, writing about the experience. Even the nascent Rockfort Chronicles risked getting waylaid when, in the fall of 2009, a hyperactive wine wizard, Ian D., talked me into co-authoring a new version of my first book Vino.
Ian, who bills himself as “Italy’s foremost wine expert,” said that Vino had inspired his own career. He offered to supply the bulk of information while I wrote in my style. With the data at his fingertips, he figured we could dash off the book by October for the Christmas market—self-publishing with the expectation that a big-name house would pick it up for a handsome fee and make it a bestseller. Sure thing, while I metamorphose into the speed king of ink slingers .
I insisted on trying for an advance from a publisher. So I turned again to Alan K., who as a lawyer had managed to free me from a quarter-century of bondage as an author-serf to the U.K. publisher I call Mitchell Beastly. Alan liked the Vino-2 idea, calling it a potential winner. But he doubted a big advance, reminding me that the golden days of publishing were over and that even authors like Dan Brown were having trouble. Poor Dan. Poor me.
I humbugged it through the holidays, working to organize the project and have a précis ready for potential publishers by January. Meanwhile, I heard nothing from Ian, who was not answering e-mails. His odd silence continued until I sent him a note saying forget it, I’m going on my own. That brought no reply either, then or ever. Oh well, co-authoring always struck me as something on the order of sharing a mistress or of two dogs gnawing on the same bone.
Alan reported two rejects: from Simon & Schuster, with a couple of ho-hum lines after a three-month wait, and Norton, whose culinary matriarch Maria G. reviled me: “There’s no place for Burton Anderson in a Parkerized world where people buy wine by numbers.” Gulp. The proposal went to Thames & Hudson in May 2010, but I heard no more about it. So much for hot-wired wine wizards, warmed over culinary matriarchs, well-meaning agents.

The Rating Game

I’m beginning to suspect that I’m a slow learner—not so good when you’re over seventy. After a decade-long sabbatical, it was presumptuous to suppose that I could write an opus on the rapidly evolving realities of Italian wine. On the other hand, I might have come up with a passable guide filching info off the net. But that would have been too much like the easy way, which I seem to resist by nature, along with anything that smacks of styles or trends. Exhibit A: my wardrobe.
One thing I have learned, though, is that times have changed. And how. When I started out in wine—and well through my journeyman years in the eighties—writers, producers, and people in the trade got together to taste and have fun and exchange views. I rarely took notes, recalling details about wines, winemakers, vineyards, and cellars through the acumen that rewards a devotee’s ardor.
At the start, I followed a simple rule. If I liked the wines, the people, and the ambience, I’d write about them. If I didn’t, I tried to ignore them. Fair enough for an unknown. But, when published, as my name got around, all that changed. I became the target of a new breed of predator: once-clueless producers who’d discovered the powers of PR (and/or the benefits of BS). They barraged me with hype, invitations, propositions, samples, gifts, none of which I asked for—though, I confess, I never went to the trouble and expense of sending the baksheesh back. It was no mean feat to make it known that I couldn’t be bought. That attitude, as I’ve been reminded too often for comfort, made me a rare bird in Italy’s flock of wine hawks.
Yet I couldn’t avoid getting involved, however modestly, in the rating game. That U.K. house I mentioned earlier published many guides, following a formula of evaluating wines using stars in a range of one to four. In my often updated Pocket Guide to Italian Wines, I used the scale mainly for collective denominations (i.e. Barbera d’Asti *à***; Taurasi **à****), although appraisals couldn’t be avoided for well-known individual wines from noted producers.
Since the system was vague, and the sliding scale wishy-washy, I followed it in a perfunctory way. I’d always believed that describing wines in words is more meaningful to readers than rating them on a scale, whether using numbers, stars, or other symbols. Dream on. Only a slow learner would have failed to fathom the impact of the worldwide web on the literature of wine.
In the nineties, raters came to dominate the wine media, beginning in America with Parker, whose 100-point system was copied by The Wine Spectator and others. Their sphere of influence spread to Europe and beyond, changing patterns of buying, selling, and even producing wine from California to the historic vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Newsletters, blogs, and websites provided instant access to all the info needed to buy a ranked bottle at the nearest shop (where you’d be certain to find the pundits’ scores already posted).
The market for wine books by literary-minded authors plummeted. But since print publications are in crisis everywhere, the raters can’t be held entirely to blame. Even disgruntled literary types like me will admit that the best of them are skilled tasters and judges of quality, though there are plenty of copycats, sycophants, and second-raters (pun intended) in their ranks.
What aggravates me is the often arrogant way many of them use, and abuse, their palates. The standard rater ritual entails tasting through a series of wines in a limited time: sniffing, sipping, analyzing the wine in the mouth without swallowing, then spitting it out. Points, or other criteria, are assigned to each with descriptive notes. Such reports provide insights into a wine’s quality at a moment of its life. But all too often critics have the gall—and, worse, readers the gullibility—to regard such judgments as definitive.

The Godfather

The virtuosos often taste in solitary confines remote from the atmosphere in which wine is normally consumed: with food, in company in convivial surroundings, as a drink to be savored and admired, not as a specimen being put to the test. It depresses me to witness wines being judged clinically, scrutinized and analyzed by impersonators of wine-tasting robots.
Obsessed with omniscient numbers, people sometimes seem to forget that wine’s main role is to provide enjoyment—where, in times past, it was a basic nutrient used prevalently for medicinal and religious purposes. Yet, even in the old days, wine was exalted by those who knew it as the paragon of pleasures of the table and the noblest expression of man’s mastery over things that grow.
Most of us veteran writers have done extensive analytical tasting, enough to know that evaluating wine requires concentration, experience with grape varieties and places of origin, and the knowledge that the subject of our scrutiny is in a phase of evolution. I’ve always taken into account the enduring factors that determine a wine’s quality over time, the natural and human elements that govern development of individual character.
Here I’m talking about wines that bespeak their origins. And, yes, I’m an advocate of the tenets of terroir, the credo of cru, as conceived by the French and embraced by winemakers everywhere who work with grapes from designated vineyards. To us terroiristes, it’s essential that procedures in vineyards and cellars respect the nature of the soil, the ecosystem, the variables of each vintage, the bona fide ways of producing and aging wines. Such wines carry an indelible pedigree, whether they come from a grand cru chateau or a devoted vigneron’s half hectare.
The pedigreed class excludes a majority of the world’s wines, as processed and priced for popular markets. I don’t mean to be condescending; the overall quality of everyday wines has never been better. More pointedly excluded from the category are designer or proprietary wines, blends of unstated origin ostensibly tailored to the tastes of influential critics and the cults that follow them. Closely related are artsy-fartsy wines devised by companies that put more stock in packaging—posh bottles, labels, corks, capsules, crates, etc.—than the integrity of the product.
Beyond cliques and fads, mainstream wine drinkers often base purchases on points rather than personal tastes. Some lack experience and the confidence or means to buy and compare. Those who can afford them, tend to covet wines that rate 90 or more, regarding anything from 89 down as second class. Conscientious merchants steer customers toward worthy alternatives, ignoring the scores. But many retailers seem only too happy to let the critics do their work for them.
In Italy, winemakers keep an eye on the main domestic guides—Gambero Rosso, L’Espresso, Veronelli—but by now the world brotherhood of raters has fixed standards so stereotyped that they hardly need to bother. The universal trend has been toward wines that are richer in flavor, bouquet, color, body, and alcohol, thanks to advances in cellar techniques, as well as the bags of tricks used to ameliorate mediocre vintages.
The points of Parker, and a choice few others, not only determine the commercial success of certain wines, but dictate styles that winemakers strive to emulate. This phenomenon is so widespread that critics condition global production trends—most conspicuously at premium levels where points can make or break a wine. In doing so, they boost the egos and earnings of producers whose top-ranked bottles often sell at wildly inflated prices.
To hear the raters tell it, their numbers and notes provide a key consumer service as guides to what to buy, and what to avoid, through fearless criticism of wines that don’t meet standards and lofty praise for those that do. What could be loftier than a Parker score of 100? What could be lowlier for a wine of established reputation than an 80?  But is Parker to blame if his judgments are taken as gospel by customers and as godsends by commercial interests that profit from propagandizing his points? Isn’t he, after all, just doing his job?
Of course he is, having become rich and famous in the process of advocating what a Parker biographer called “the new world order” of wine. Good for Bob. Bad for those of us who pursue the once honorable calling of putting wine into words.
If, in the beginning, I’d imagined that one day the most important figure in wine would be a taster, a rater, I might have chosen to explore more venerable subjects of interest to me, such as archeology or architecture. The biographer called Parker “the Emperor of Wine,” concluding that he has a “unique semi-divine tasting ability.” Wow. As the boss of bosses of production, commerce, and consumption, Godfather might be more to the point. Or, in a not so different sense, Big Brother.

Great Expectorations

But, hey, no hard feelings that couldn’t be assuaged by the laughing cure (for a jocular fifteen minutes daily). In my active days, I did a lot of tasting myself, most of it decorously, but not always. That’s what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned palate abuse, a subject I know a thing or two about.
An extreme example was a tour de force tasting of a hundred and eighty Italian red wines over the course of a day in London in 1999. The event was arranged to expand the data base of the New York Times website Wine Today, of which I was a columnist. Also on the panel were three British critics, including the actor-singer-tasting champ Oz Clarke. Our job was to assess the qualities of various Italian wines without actually ranking them.
The session began in mid-morning, as we focused eyes, noses, mouths, and wits on endless rows of glasses—swirling, sniffing, ogling, sipping, sucking, swishing, gurgling around the tongue,  and spitting, a routine often repeated two or three times. We evaluated each wine using criteria the details of which I’ve gratefully forgotten. The line-up included major Italian reds, spearheaded by Tuscans and Piedmontese, but I don’t remember much about them either. I shudder to imagine how many gallons of fine wine were dispatched into the salivated murk of spit buckets that day.
The Wine Today organizers commended my speed and accuracy in identifying types in a marathon that went beyond testing tenacity to pushing palates toward licensed torture. I tried to be judicious, but my senses weren’t always up to the task. In the afternoon, I ran ahead of the pack, aware that by spending, say, fifteen to twenty seconds on a wine I could analyze it better than if I dwelled on it longer. Oz took it easier, ducking out for a leisurely lunch with a lady friend, a neat excuse for skipping a good third of the tasting.
Normally, when I taste wines in sequence, I sample each and come back later for another exam, as aromas and flavors evolve. Not during that blitz. Some critics have more acute senses of taste and smell than others—and I’d always counted myself among the adept. But no matter how sharp and disciplined we claim to be, sensory research has shown that we lose lucidity in tasting multiple wines in succession.
Much as we spit and rinse with water, we inevitably swallow a little wine, amounting to a notable alcohol intake over the course of a long tasting. This ingestion desiccates the oral cavity as salivary secretions decrease, dulling taste buds and blunting “mouth feel” the perception of texture, weight, and balance. Repeated exposure to wines’ odors causes olfactory fatigue, attenuation of the all-important sense of smell.
The studies concluded that to be accurate and fair in tasting wines, one needs frequent breaks to clear the nose and mouth. Only a layoff of at least five minutes between wines permits reasonable recovery of olfactory perception. In any case, it’s not physiologically possible to judge the thirtieth or fiftieth or hundredth wine in a series as precisely as one judges the first ten or fifteen. Yet self-proclaimed supertasters pooh-pooh the evidence while immortalizing up to a hundred and twenty-five wines at a sitting. Follow their scores if you will. It’s your money.
I’m no scientist, but I can sure as hell vouch for the validity of the aforementioned research. During the London grind, a cartoon kept coming to mind of a chimpanzee—J. Fred Muggs, I believe—holding a glass of wine with the caption: “It’s a rotten, thankless job, but somebody’s gotta do it.” To judge by my wooziness toward the end, I’d guess that I imbibed the equivalent of way over a liter.
Our mouths were stained purple: lips, teeth, gums, tongues, no doubt even gullets. Mouthwashes didn’t help, nor did brushing with strong dentifrices. Bubbly wine, Champagne no less, tickled our parched tongues. But the true antidote turned out to be a London pub crawl, quaffing beers until we’d giddily chased away the demons of the day’s nightmare. I recorded the experience as Great Expectorations, all the more fitting since we were in Dickens’s old bailiwick.
Soon after that I quietly bowed out. Wine Today folded, Burton Andersons Best Italian Wines flopped (at least in terms of earnings), and I got to thinking how warped and weird my once wonderful world of wine had become. The few times I’ve mingled with modern wine crowds since, I’ve felt awkwardly out of my element.
The last event I attended was a comparative tasting of Chianti Rufina and Barbaresco, held in a chichi Florence hotel in November of 2009. I’d reluctantly agreed to serve on the panel, where my role seemed to be that of the wizened veteran recounting the good (read preposterously quaint) old days on the Italian wine trail. There must have been eighty or so participants, tasting, making notes (mainly on laptops), and taking themselves extremely seriously. It dragged on for more than five hours; my attention span, even in the best of times, is well under three.
During the endless Q&A, I felt an uncomfortable sense of pity watching people make work of what my generation of scribes and aficionados would have turned into a festive occasion with a little learning as a bonus. It was as though I’d accidentally wandered into a meeting of scientists, whose grim visages might have been those of lab technicians analyzing specimens of body wastes or—perish the thought—pathologists examining cadavers.
Most of the discussion was in Italian, naturally, spiked with foreign terms—savants love to flaunt erudition in mispronounced English. Much of it sounded like shoptalk in a lingo that could have been Mandarin for all it meant to me. A colleague explained that Roman wine geeks had devised a lexicon to cover minute details of vinous sensorial analysis, adding that the Rome school was way ahead of everybody in the field, even Parker.
I nodded in wonder, recalling that in my time there in the sixties I rarely came across a Roman whose knowledge of wine went beyond his daily doses of dubious Frascati—often diluted with fizzy libations, including—I swear to the wine god Bacchus—Coca-Cola.
All of a sudden it was my turn to speak. Dispirited by the somber mood, I felt like shouting, “Don’t worry. Be happy!” But I couldn’t get up the nerve. So I murmured into the mike memories of my early (read preposterously quaint) experiences with Chianti Rufina and Barbaresco. That soliloquy seemed about as welcome as a whiff of corked Barolo, vintage ’38. After an embarrassedly polite applause, the crowd returned to the earnest business of anatomizing wine.

Forbidden Fruit

Even if my literary links to wine have become casual, I still consume far more than my fair share of the stuff.  After decades of buying no more than, say, a third of the wine I drank, the balance has tipped dismayingly the other way. These days I’m forking over for about nine bottles out of ten. Gift cartons arrive now and then, mainly from old timers who appreciated my work. Now, more than ever, I appreciate their generosity.
During my career, I’ve never requested a sample bottle from a producer, let alone a handout or a gift. It’s not so much a question of ethics as a matter of respect, trust, even pride. Asking for something for nothing isn’t in my nature. Besides that, to be persnickety, how could a critic who solicits a sample be sure he’s getting the genuine article? Who’s to know if a shifty point-seeker slipped a superior wine into the bottle?
The reason I bring this up is that I’ve heard of critics who claim to be simon-pure. That seems to mean that, to avoid being influenced, they don’t accept advertising, gifts, favors—free trips, hotels, meals, etc.—from wine-related interests. Some declare that they buy the wines they rate. Swell, but if samples arrive at the door, what do they do, donate them to the Salvation Army? The way I look at it, either you’re simon-pure or you’re not. There’s no almost. It’s a bit like virginity or, maybe closer to home, biting or not biting into forbidden fruit
But there I go again berating raters for pretending they don’t do what the rest of us do with guilt-free guile. By the rest of us I refer to a mixed bag of authors, journalists, correspondents, columnist, bloggers, hacks, flacks, and loonies loosely defined as “wine writers.” Ours is not one of literature’s high callings, even if certain practitioners may tell you otherwise. Nor, in my case anyway, has it been lucrative. But the job has its plusses, first among them freebies.
It’s hard to resist becoming a freeloader when nearly everybody you run into in your line of work—from producers to merchants to restaurateurs to PR and marketing folks—foists wine and food on you. Taste this, try that, bottles and more arriving for the holidays, gala banquets, trumped-up awards and honors, all-expenses paid junkets to bacchanalian paradises in exchange for such bothers as traipsing through vineyards and cellars and tasting wines. As I learned in my conversion from a hard-nosed newspaperman to a free-lance drifter, wine doesn’t lend itself to objective reporting. Ours is decidedly not a calling for the simon-pure.
After a decade away from the circus, I sometimes pretend that those days of fortuitous mooching are over. But I know perfectly well they aren’t. Over the recent holidays, while visiting friends who run wine bars and eateries, do you suppose I managed to extract my wallet? When I’d ask for the bill, they’d hoot at me like a comic who’d cracked a bad joke. At the Enoteca-Vinoteca Lenzi, my hangout in Castiglione della Pescaia, when I mumbled something about being mollycoddled, Luciano, the owner, shut me up by thrusting a chalice of Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill at me with the reminder that among real friends bubbly is always on the house. Why argue?
I’ve never been a wine snob, if for no better reason than that I couldn’t possibly afford to be. I mean, how could I lord it over less fortunate imbibers if the superlative stuff I’ve been privileged to sip over these years hadn’t come gratis?
No, I prefer to think of myself more along the lines of an upper echelon wino. Most of the time lately I’ve been forced to follow self-imposed rules of austerity in the limbo between Oliveto and Sassofortino that’s found me strapped for cash. Times are tough all over, they say. But, you know what? Life on a limited wine budget isn’t nearly as dreadful as I’d feared.
One reason is that enhanced techniques, including more or less legitimate gimmicks, have made winemaking so slick and risk-free that it’s sometimes said there’s no such thing as a bad bottle anymore. That’s poppycock. Even technically correct wines don’t always taste good, at least not to my weathered palate, which reflexively rejects wines that are overblown and overpriced.
Yet there’s no denying the steady increase in good to very good bottles available at popular prices. The world economic crisis has made markets so competitive that once uppity European houses have reassessed aims and put the emphasis back on wines of quality-price ratios to match values coming from the New World, notably the southern hemisphere. In combing shelves of Italian shops and cellars, I’ve found a surprising number of wines with the sort of pedigrees I mentioned earlier selling at €5 to €10—with a quantum leap if you up the limit to €15. I refer to full-fledged estate wines of exemplary class and character.
My current budget would probably not permit bottles that rate a 90 or over from Parker and company—not that some wouldn’t deserve it. I’ve learned to make do nicely with wines they’d likely relegate to 89 or under. Come to think of it, if I were still in the rating game, that’s what I’d assign my career in wine: a solid 89. No false modesty. But just imagine what that score might have been if my taste-buds were semi-divine.