Good Taste And Chianti A couple of years ago, I threw a small party to celebrate moving into my old apartment on the Upper East Side. A really small party, only five people. A fabulous affair wasn't my goal; what I wanted to do was introduce my place. I was seeking validation.
Yes, I do, I thought, and thanks for noticing. I had quite the little pad uptown, cramped but attention-grabbing: dusky sage walls, some okay art, a bar, custom-made curtains, silk flowers, my collection of French and Italian ashtrays, cheapo Persian carpets and so on. Faggy, but not totally faggy. Just faggy enough.
It's not true that my taste could really have been considered "great." What it was?and I guess still is?was needlessly daring. Flairful. Moderately deranged, tinged with the ever-present possibility of failure and embarrassment and ridicule. Grasping taste, not great taste. But that's what taste is: a declaration of dim-witted fearlessness. An admission of an appetite for ill-advised experiment and potentially damaging foray.
That apartment uptown occupied a middle Manhattan passage between my first Brooklyn digs?where the decor was shabby-granny, scavenged furniture, crystal lamps, quilts, too many books?and my current Brooklyn dwelling, which is infinitely more bacheloristic (even though I haven't yet gotten around to giving up on my affection for thrift-shop needlepoints). Part of this is a function of space. I currently have several hundred additional square feet to fill with crap, but because I do, I haven't. I've also become a lot less twee: CD racks and sporting goods out in the open are now acceptable. I've traded silk flowers for live cactuses. I've gotten interested in brown furniture. Stickley. Heavyweight Arts & Crafts stuff. Oak. The tv has pride of place. The other day, I even flirted (briefly) with the idea of purchasing a black leather recliner, just to placate my closeted fratboy and conclude my endless quest for a brown vinyl footstool. (How hard can it be to find a brown vinyl footstool?)
I've always had interesting?or questionable, depending on how you look at it?taste. It's very important to me, and it goes back at least to college, where in a dormitory initially designed to house military students (my closet featured gunracks), I cultivated the illusion that I lived in what my friends educated under the British colonial system (Nigerians, these guys) would have termed "rooms." Again, I was risking criticism for caring too much about what the immediate world around me looked like. But that's my mojo: I'm willing to take chances, to follow whims, make mistakes. I've made plenty. I believe strongly, almost at the level of a personal ethic, that taste is a quality, an aspect of character, that exists independent of wealth. This is New York?I've seen money in action, and the results aren't always pretty. A truism: You can't buy taste. You can hire it, but the fact is that it's something like athletic ability. A fragment of DNA needs to be wound in.
But here's the thing: Taste is over. Taste is finished, even manque taste, such as mine. There is nothing so futile as being a straight guy who's devoted to pursuing his own esthetic. I can think of exactly one person who has pulled this off: Robert Gottlieb, the former New Yorker editor, whose appreciation of kitsch and the ballet and Japanese fashion I share. Furthermore, nothing could be more frustrating than knowing what you like and not being able to pursue it. Taste often competes with poverty.
A rarity: to find someone who argues for taste who doesn't also argue for food, for wine. For consumption. For hedonism, pleasure. A cruelty: the inaccessibility of that pleasure if you're not wealthy; the inaccessibility of the means to wallow in one's taste. To get stuffed. To drink and drink. To discover a path toward gluttony.
Now, I'm by no means a glutton. In this column every other week I've striven not so much to depict in detail the restaurants at which I've eaten or the bottles of wine I've drunk, but instead to etch the drypoints of my taste. That's not necessarily narcissistic. To argue for taste is to find in oneself a natural generosity?narcissism's moral twin, the antidote to self-obsession. I learned this trick a long time ago from reading St. Augustine: You might be convinced of your enlightenment, but you still need to translate the distant light into sullied rhetoric. You need to deliver the goods. Donate the pleasure. Get it down.
What this does is make one stoical. The reality of one's translated taste will always be a ruin of the ideal. What this does is inspire pragmatism: Taste is meaningless unless tested, and tests imply failure, defeat, disappointment. Thus in taste are the opposites combatively conjoined: the lovely ideal and its coarse enactment.
Taste makes trouble for itself. In my case, it's always a matter of money. I don't have any, and that doesn't really bother me too much?not in the conventional sense, anyhow.
I've often told people that I have only two responses to everything: good or bad. The gigantic Yahoo sign looming tackily over E. Houston St.? Bad. Bethesda Fountain in Central Park? Good. Wildly overpriced Bordeaux futures? Bad. Young Australian shiraz, the kind of likable red wine that rarely costs more than $10 a bottle? Good. Money? Bad. Genteel disarray? Good. Shiny shoes and hoity shirts? Bad. (And furthermore, un-American.) Scuffed shoes and frayed shirts? Good. Patriotic.
And what exactly does this all add up to? It adds up to crap, is what. An adolescent ethic, handed down from my parents and increasingly invalid. My hobbies have become expensive, consuming, distracting, out-of-hand.
I should have seen this coming. You get interested in hedonism, you invariably wind up being compelled to follow the cash. You want to lay in a few cases of the '97 Hess Collection cabernet sauvignon. You feel the urge to taste a few pricey Barolos. But it's impossible?not on your measly earnings?so what you do is placate yourself with a steady flow of pleasing, perfectly okay midrange booze. Then you incorporate it into your ethic; then you transform it into an expression of your taste. In my case, you become a debunker of the putatively snobbish notion that wine is an elite pursuit. But, of course, there is an element of elitism in wine?always has been, always will. So what I'm saying here is that my taste is, to a degree, a deliberate lie. You've been advised. I'm trying to be honest about the whole matter because when you get right down to it, I'm a snob. Or worse, a snob who's also a phony. And I only get worse as I get older.
But at least I've decided to fess up. Trust me. I'll never pull a stunt of the sort routinely encountered in the Young Wine Punk books and websites and whatnot that are all so familiar now. I'll never make it sound like wine is easy. There's no such thing as a person who drinks wine who isn't a snob. Even that walleyed, leather-skinned, bowlegged, nicotine-yellowed, potbellied, picturesque, Provence-dwelling septuagenarian lush with his barrel of plonk and his filthy split fingernails and stubbled visage, his trousers cinched with a rope, his eyes an endless squint, plodding down the vineyard path and grinning idiotically beneath his frayed wool beret?even that quaint old coot, that walking cliche, is a snob. Like I said, it's in the DNA. He's such a snob that he'll sell you his rotgut red for three times the rational price, sucker. An inverted snob, this figure? Hardly. A hustler, as all snobs must be.
But enough of this. How about some wine? For the last few months, I've been drinking a respectable quantity of Chianti. I decided to do this because, while I was in California in August, I became preoccupied with the new waves in West Coast winemaking, and saw sangiovese as perhaps the most curious and underreported of the booze that isn't cabernet sauvignon, merlot or chardonnay. Knowing that California viticulture tends to swerve from the Old World templates toward more balls-to-the-wall aggressive styles that emphasize immediate drinkability and simplified structure over the subtler pleasures of complexity and durability, I figured that the sangioveses I liked were probably a lot more California than Italy?or more specifically Tuscan, where sangiovese is the core grape for Chianti.
I was only half right. Or maybe it's a question of priorities being flipped?of the Italians wanting to become more like the Californians and the Californians wanting to become more Italian. Beats me. It's true that, in Napa, the Old World Bordeaux style of red-winemaking has caught on, perhaps as an antidote to all those monster cabernets of years past. Whatever. The Chiantis I've been drinking taste more like the California sangioveses than I expected.
Like most Italian wine, the way a Chianti is labeled is complicated. And deceptive. There are basically three categories: the sangiovese wines?Chianti, Chianti Classico?and the so-called "Super Tuscans" (not permitted to be labeled "Chianti" under the Italian laws, these are labeled "Vino Da Tavola," ironically a designation used to identify some of Italy's most innocuous wines). Super Tuscans are usually made up of all sangiovese, all cabernet sauvignon or blends that can also include cabernet franc, syrah and merlot. These efforts express Italian wine at its most daring, go-go, pseudo-Californian, quasi-French best. As far as the other two are concerned, "Chianti" alone can mean almost anything. "Chianti Classico" indicates that the wine originated within a specific region of Tuscany approved to use the designation. (The bottles are all labeled accordingly, with seals that distinguish between mere Chianti and the more expensive Chianti Classico.) There are some other largely meaningless little bells and whistles in there?"Riserva," for instance, several other red varietals, some whites?but that's the basic picture.
Here's what's rocking good about Chianti right now: The Italians have had about five straight solid years ('97 was great; '98 has been called dicey, based on some poor weather; '93-'96 were up and down, but considered generally above average). By and large, everything is pretty tasty?you almost can't miss, and the prices aren't outlandishly high. All of this was borne out by my very haphazard tastings over the course of the past month or two. I basically just plucked Chianti and Chianti Classico off the shelves with no eye toward producer or vintage. And to a one, they were nice wines, significantly better than many domestic cabernets in similar price ranges. (But to be perfectly fair, they were also significantly less demanding than similarly priced cabs.)
Now, it's not that California cab is on a terrible run or anything. To the contrary, the producers of the most-planted red wine varietal in the Golden State are enjoying good times these days. It's just that Tuscany is in a seam. The intangibles, the unpredictables, are all cooperating: weather and soil and sunshine and the vintners' voodoo. What doesn't hurt is that Chianti is such a wonderfully drinkable wine when it's good. (And horrible when bad, deserving of its straw-bottle image, a ringing endorsement for syrah and a host of Rhone varietals that are more consistent performers.) It's also a terrific wine to drink young, even in its more expensive incarnations. (Plain Chianti was never built to last, and Chianti Classico has a bad record for going south after a few years.) I didn't do what wine warlock Robert Parker Jr. recommends in the latest edition of his Buyer's Guide?seek out and stick to well-known producers, load up on '97s?but I didn't really encounter any disasters, either. In fact, I found a Chianti Classico I had never heard of, and haven't seen around, that I thought was excellent: the '95 Castello di San Polo in Rosso. This was a perfect medium-wattage wine, raspberry fizz up front giving way to cedary undercurrents and a finish just tannic enough to sustain your attention through swallowing. No fruit bomb, not even remotely chewy, the color a mellow ruby parked squarely between the deep purple of a hardy cabernet and the luminous strawberry of a pinot noir.
On other fronts, I did pick up a bottle of the '96 Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva?and considered it less significantly worthwhile than the '95 Castello di San Polo in Rosso. Understandable, given that '95 was a questionable year for quality, even among big producers like Antinori (the Mondavi of Italy). It wasn't that the wine was horrible, just that it lacked spice, snap, charm. At $15, versus $20 for the Antinori, the more obscure Castello was a smarter buy.
On the cheapskate front, I enjoyed Bonacchi's '98 Chianti, a boilerplate red that lacked the twists and turns of the Antinori and the Castello di San Polo in Rosso, but that also delivered what you often desire of an Italian wine: the capacity to wash down a plate of noodles. At eight dollars, it's a relative bargain for a style that hasn't yet been widely equaled among New World wines (most American Tuscans, usually labeled as sangiovese, cost two to three times as much and aim for high-quality Chianti Classico effects, though they just as often end up tasting like plain Chianti).
Make no bones about it: Italian wine is hard. As I've noted before in this space, the country is less coherent in its viticultural organization and less sophisticated in its winemaking practices than almost everyone else currently striving to extract magic from the magical grape. I could get into the whole chaotic story, but I think I'll save it for another day.
In the meantime, I'm determined to crack Italy, to wrap my head around it. I've got to hit the books.