Ken Robinson
  The author with Luca Currado, proprietor of the Vietti winery (located between the towns of Barolo, Alba, and Barbaresco). Vietti wines are available all over the greater Seattle area in stores and restaurants, and were among the first high-quality Italian wines to be imported into the United States.

New column: Wine Beat

Kagan on wine

By Ken Kagan

If, like me, you are of a certain age – and by that I mean, for example, that you remember where you were when you heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot, then your early association with Italian wine was almost undoubtedly the modestly-priced Chianti that was brought to your home by well-meaning guests.

Sometimes the bottles were shaped like a regular wine bottle, sometimes they had extremely long, skinny necks, and sometimes they were truly oddly misshapen, but almost always, the bottles were covered in straw, and the wine was most often bone dry, tannic or acidic.

For the last 20 – 25 years or so, and more and more every year, we here in the States are blessed with an abundance of some of the world’s greatest wines, at prices real people can afford, from all over Italy, with no woven straw in sight. Italy boasts more than 20 very significant, world-class wine producing regions, within which are literally scores of smaller regions producing fabulous wines – red, white, rosé, and sparkling.

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to attend a tasting of exclusively Italian wines at the Seattle Center hosted by the Slow Wine organization (an offshoot of the Slow Food movement), dedicated to persuading vineyardists, winemakers, distributors, retailers, restaurateurs, and, most important of all, consumers, to slow down and consider what is on their plates and in their glasses. If the growers would slow down and not take short cuts in the fields; if the cellar magicians would let nature take its course and not try to cut corners; if distributors and retailers would sell wines with a little more age on them, and if you and I would open the bottle, pour a glass, and get the full range of experience of what you can see, smell, taste, and feel, we would fall in love either all over again, or maybe for the first time.

It was tough duty – facing the challenge of walking into an exhibition hall with dozens of families from more than 80 wineries pouring several hundred different wines from 14 different regions all over the country. Many of you are already familiar with the best-known regions, such as Tuscany (Toscana), Piedmont (Piemonte), Umbria, Veneto, and Sicily, and they were represented in full force, but I was privileged to sample wines from lesser-known (though not in any way due to lesser quality) regions such as Marche, Abruzzo, Campania, Puglia, Calabria, and Basilicata.

In my nearly 40 years in and around the wine business in various guises, I have been to countless “industry tastings,” but the Slow Wine event on January 26 was unlike almost any other. Rather than it being a transparent sales exercise, where there is no disguising the mercenary aspect and everyone knows exactly why she or he is there, this was more of a love fest, in that the families and their representatives from Italy wanted us not only to taste and love the wines, but to understand and appreciate why they love their heritage, what they do, and how they live.

That’s not to say the mercenary aspect was completely absent. More than half of the 80 wineries on display are not yet represented by importers, and their Slow Wine tour around major wine markets in the United States (San Francisco, New York, Austin, and Seattle) is intended to make those contacts and get distributed in the United States. Seattle was put on the itinerary, along with the other three cities, in recognition of the great wine market the Seattle area represents, with our fresh local ingredients, imaginative cooking, and discerning, inquisitive tasters.

I’m going to spare you the annoyance of having me rave about the lovely, memorable wines I tasted at Slow Wine, only to have to tell you that you cannot buy them here (which, in at least half the cases, will be true).

What I will do is give you some advice for shopping purposes. Rather than go with the greatest hits over and over, try this: experiment with different regions of Italy. I would approach it this way – try going to a store that has a good selection of imported wine, with clerks who know something about the wines they carry (I’m thinking of the Metropolitan Market, Thriftway, etc.). Choose a region (there are at least 20 major regions). Decide whether you want red or white. Limit yourself to a maximum price and stick to it. Ask the sales clerk for some assistance or recommendations.

For the reds, open the bottle and pour into a decanter or carafe at least 3-4 hours before you intend to drink them. The old idea of simply pulling the cork and letting the uncorked bottle sit on the counter accomplishes nothing. For the whites, chill them, but don’t serve them ice cold, as you will lose a lot of the aroma and flavor.

Be sure to drink these amazing wines with food. I promise you that you will be stunned at the synergistic effect of wine and food, as opposed to just wine or just food!

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