Price-sick

A wine list is a sacred document to a professional sommelier. It’s also a calling card for any topnotch restaurant. Training aspiring wine masters means toughening your selection process. I now grade wine lists the way a professor might grade a midterm. I can be a real stickler.

My dining habits have also changed. For example, I’ve stopped relying on house wines. I ask for the wine list and if I find something interesting I’ll taste it first and then build my meal. As I said, I’m a stickler.

But I’m a stickler friends and family rally around. I like the “you choose the wine” responsibility — unless the person doing the asking is a client (hello, panic attack) or I’m up against friends goading me as part of an inside joke.

Choosing is challenge. Take a group dinner that includes cheese antipasto, fried vegetables and croquettes, raw fish, carbonara, amatriciana, with some people skipping starters and heading straight for steak or salted sea bass with baked potatoes. Add vegetarians, dieters, people who’ve already had dinner and just want dessert, and (worst case scenario) grilled steak lovers who can’t drink red. If I knew magic I’d pull a vanishing act.

Yet Italy’s big advantage is price. A country with a million problems offers up the best low-end (€5-30) wines on the planet. You can drink some amazing things and fill up a cellar without taking out a mortgage or selling your kidneys. There are plenty of fantastic bottles in the €15-25 range.

The U.S., where I usually go twice a year, is another story, which brings me to the story of my first visit to my wife’s family. Eight of us, including my Italian aunt and two business associates, ended up in a upscale restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. The wine list Russian roulette followed the script: I was told to work my magic.

For whatever reason, I somehow imagined myself in an average Rome restaurant (never mind that at the time I didn’t know English well enough to understand all the ingredients on an American food menu). My take-charge attitude hit turbulence as soon as the wine list flew into bubbly territory. I turned pale while navigating the whites. By the time I got to the reds I’d crashed and burned. The prices were out of control. French, American, Australian and New Zealand wines, many of which I knew, started at $90 a bottle — that’s $90 for a bottle of table wine. To a middle-class Italian it seemed obscene.

I decided to take a hard left into the Italian wines, hoping the guests wouldn’t notice the beads of cold sweat dripping from my bald head, which only got fatter when my aunt urged me to hurry up. My wife finally sensed something was off and whispered at me. Except that my wife doesn’t whisper.

Despite all the reassurances and explanations I struggled to get past the fact that the Italian wines priced at $50 and higher I could get for two euro in Rome (and wouldn’t buy anyway). In Rome, $50 fills your gas tank with 12 crystal glasses as a bonus gift.

I eventually understood that U.S. wine markups helped provide a yardstick for American diners: the more expensive, presumably the better. Still, that’s hard to stomach coming from a country with a 2,000-year-old wine history and the best price-quality ratio in the Milky Way.

But I didn’t give up. I finally found a good wine at a decent price. My good name emerged intact. At the same time I also realized I had a long way to go before being able to teach people how to pick fine wines without going broke — at least in States, and based on how much I have in my account.

If you’re ever faced with the same dilemma, here’s word of advice. Find Chianti in the Italian section. The stalwart Tuscan red has history, aroma and flavor on its side.

I was recently in Montespertoli, one of the seven Chianti wine regions that wrap around the Chianti Classico hub. Fattoria di Poggio Capponi, which traces its history to the late 15th-century, is now a delightful vineyard (and agriturismo) nestled in the olive tree-rich Tuscan countryside.

Poggio Capponi Chianti Riserva 2009 DOCG (Sangiovese, Syrah and Colorino; 13.5%; €12) is a beautiful ruby-red wine whose complex aroma hints of ripe red fruit and spices. To the palate, it’s fresh, soft, structured and elegant, with silky, well-integrated tannins.

Perfectly suited to a succulent bistecca alla fiorentina, it’s a wine I think should make everyone’s non-bank breaking list.

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