I have spent the last week in the company of Napa Valley wines. Hundreds of bottles have been opened. I have pages of notes. Along with that I have a slew of ideas for articles and more information for my latest research on the influence of the Italian immigrant on California viticulture.
Being a native Californian, I understand these wines on a visceral level. We are both products of the same world. But I have also been critical of many things California has spawned. Maybe it is part of the reaction to the power of the place. California tries to force a control of individuality over me. From a distance, I look back at my native state, at hands length. California can still enthrall and influence me, but it doesn’t hold sway over my every thought and action.
It is like the first love. Young and beautiful. Desirable. Meant often for another. She has a solar gaze that shines over we trembling ones and we all want to be loved by her. But she cannot love just one; she has been created to break hearts with her beauty. And she does, often.
During this time I tasted many Cabernet and Merlot wines. A little Pinot Noir. An odd and out-of-place Nero d’Avola. Some Sauvignon Blanc and barely any Chardonnay. I remember only one or two Zinfandels and a few Syrahs. There was a wonderful Petite Sirah that I couldn’t finish. Not because it was undrinkable, but because I was tired.
Saturday, during a barrel tasting of probably 200 wines - after about 20 my tongue felt like I had just taken a razor to it. It was finished. So I walked over to the dining area at Greystone, which is the kitchen for the Culinary Institute of America. There I found rigatoni Bolognese, gnocchi and polenta. There was also baccala, wonderful green salads with frisee and avocado. Cioppino in little cups had shrimp floating on the surface. Dutch ovens of risotto Milanese, done properly. It could have been Italy, easily. The sensibility in the kitchen was overwhelmingly Italian.
Italy is a force, even for California. I’m don’t see the wines where the food definitely is. When will the winemakers realize what has happened to the cuisine of California? The marriage of the Italian sensibility, so long ago, among others, cultivated by the Italian women of Napa. Could it be that the food has been under the influence of the female energy, that California recognizes so readily, but the wine is still be held hostage by the masculine vigor? Taste many of the rich and powerful red wines of Napa valley. It begs the question of who they are making these wines for. An $80-300 bottle of wine made for a blood-rich chunk of meat, whose California does that belong to anymore?
Last Friday I was sitting, parked in front of a beauty salon in St. Helena. Parades of elderly Italian-American women were coming out of the shop, their grey hairs all arranged in perfect order. My 94 year old mom and 92 year old aunts also have this ritual. It’s a little rite they perform, to strike a balance with their well being and the way they present themselves to the world.
California has been good to the women and the women have transmitted the sacred energy of the table onwards to the next generation. I look forward to the day when the man and their wines dance again in harmony with their ladies and their cuisine, when the Italian influence returns to the winemaking in my home state.