“Taste must not be confused with gastronomy. Whereas taste in the natural gift of recognizing and loving perfection, gastronomy is the set of rules which govern the cultivation and education of taste… And this brings us to the heart of the problem: If the gourmet is a delicate connoisseur, is the gastronome a pedant?… Not everyone is a gourmet; that is why we need gastronomes. We must look upon gastronomes as we look upon pedagogues in general: they are sometimes intolerable pedants, but they have their uses.” P de Pressac, Considérations sur la Cuisine
So there we were, in an artfully-lit vault under Piccadilly, eating great oysters and drinking Poggiotondo Vermentino and Rosato, when the subject of influence surfaced like a hungry shark. Our host was the creator of these vivacious wines named for the ancient shells – conchiglie – found in the limestone soils, 100 metres above modern sea level, where the vines grow. Alberto Antonini is a winemaker and global wine consultant – so, arguably, an influencer of sorts in the wine world, although I don’t think he’d appreciate the descriptor. I had first encountered him in the Barossa Valley, in a glass of Alkina Estate Grenache so fresh and elegant that, served blind, it would work beautifully to bamboozle any wine-lover who still thinks South Australia makes nothing but the kind of heavyweight Shiraz you could bet on in a boxing match.
Antonini may make wines all over the world, but Poggiotondo, between Florence and Pisa, is his family estate, bought by his father when he was nine, the place he learned to love wine. Learning was the topic under discussion – a consultant, after all, is a kind of teacher – when Antonini suggested that, rather than talking about influencers and followers, we should properly substitute educators and “people who wish to learn”.
I’m not entirely sure I agree. Plenty of people, after all, do want to follow a leader, even if the world might be a more comfortable place were that not true. By this time, I was tasting his Chianti Riserva Vigna del 1928, from vines planted 95 years ago… almost a century of catastrophes due in part to populations’ resistance to learning, although this bottle contained evidence – spicy, raspberry-scented evidence – of the benefits that accrued knowledge can bring. In any case, the division isn’t clearcut. As a critic, I am sometimes an educator, sometimes a student, frequently a pedant; it helps that I am prey to strong enthusiasms, which with wine means a tendency to steep myself in a region until I feel saturated, then move on to another one. Last November, I visited the Chianti Classico region to try to understand the region’s new subdivisions, known as UGAs (which translates, sexily, as Additional Geographical Units). There are 11 of them – an attempt to make Chianti Classico more comprehensible by making it more complicated. When the educators come up with this kind of thing, it is easy to understand why so many people prefer to be followers.
Still, in Tuscany I was lucky enough to have Alessandro Masnaghetti explaining the new classification to me. Now, there is an influential man. First with Barolo, then with Chianti Classico, he has created a detailed geological study, marching into each vineyard in turn and mapping it. Standing on a chilly hilltop, he pointed to two outcrops, one jagged and one rounded, and explained that we were looking at geology. “Sandy soil erodes more so the slopes are steeper,” he explained; “with clay, there’s less erosion so you get rounded hills.” He waved his cigar, already smoked down to the stub, at the evocative landscape for emphasis. It was 9am.
So I returned, as I often do from an interesting trip, determined to improve my understanding of a segment of Italy that has been, for over 500 years, famous for artists and bankers, poisoners and popes… and winemakers. In the last year, I have talked to Francesco Ricasoli, whose ancestor formulated the original rules for Chianti (and who now makes superb Chianti Classico about 80km south-east of Poggiotondo); and Giampiero Bertolini, who has been CEO of Biondi-Santi since that great Brunello di Montalcino estate was purchased by French company EPI in 2020. I have visited nearby Castiglion del Bosco, an abandoned village reimagined by the Ferragamo family as an ultra-luxury hotel and wine estate (the Ferragamos sold up last year). I have tried as many wines from the region as I can, lots of them good but a few mediocre, because experimentation comes with no guarantees and if you never taste anything that hasn’t come highly recommended then, no matter how much you spend, your life will taste of sand.
But the conversation in that vault stayed with me. My own creed aligns with Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s late film critic, who said that you will know the film lovers, when you walk into a room: they will be the people talking, not about the films they loved, but about what they loved in the films they hated.
Kael herself is a case in point. Before I was a wine critic I wrote about film for a living, and even before that I read Kael. She wrote fiercely, devotedly and well and I almost never agreed with her. It didn’t matter: her voice was what I loved in the opinions I hated. Very few pleasures, after all, are unalloyed; most have some baser elements. And conversely, joy is to be found in some very unlikely places. Taste, like knowledge, is acquired, and the acquisition is personal: how boring life would be if we didn’t react differently to the same stimulus! Too often, wine is presented like the Rosetta Stone, as a code to be deciphered. And so it can be, if you like, and the MW exams await. But I prefer to taste the vanished sea with the Vermentino, the remains of ancient oyster shells along with the bivalve that slithers for a salty, delicious second down my throat. I don’t say that one is better than the other: I too am partial to facts about what I am drinking, or what is my imagination to swim in? If there were not far more to wine than a set of rules to follow, we would all choose inebriation or thirst. Whereas the joys lie in between. Pleasure is always a matter of degree, and righteousness has no outstanding vintages.
Photo by Karen Zhao on Unsplash