Vino sfuso: How to enjoy great local Italian wines and pay next to nothing
My wife’s old aunt has a little man, an omino. When she wants to cook a rabbit for lunch, she has an omino who sells her the rabbit. She wants fish, she has another omino. She has a repair job to do in the house, she calls a different little man. We were having lunch the other day, a baked orata she got from her fish omino. I asked her about the wine. Dark red, slightly frizzante, in a full liter bottle with a metal cap, no label. She says—of course—she has an omino.
“He lives just over there.” She points a crooked finger toward a hillside. “He’s been bringing us wine for years.”
I want an omino.
In particular, I want a wine omino.
One of the special pleasures of being in Italy is local wine. It’s young, it’s light in alcohol content, it’s great with food. And, by American standards, it’s incredibly cheap.
Consider the carafe—that ubiquitous vessel gracing the trattoria table.
There are days we order a quarter liter, or a half, or sitting down to eat with a large appetite and the prospect luxurious foods, we know we’re going to need a full liter. All the years I brought people to Italy on eating excursions, they inevitably extolled the virtues of the wine. What is it about these Italian wines? I don’t get tipsy. I can’t get enough of it. And no headache.
For some time now, when I buy wine, I go to Zonzini. It’s a store just down the road from our apartment in San Marino. He is part wholesaler, part retailer, a purveyor of, among other things, bottled water by the case, chocolates, liquor, and wine. The high ceiling and cement floor, along with the floor-to-ceiling metal racks, give the place the feel of a warehouse. Behind the cash register there’s a stock of wines from all over Italy. You can go back there and look. Typically I stand in front of local wines, the ones from Romagna, and select Sangiovese Superiore. My criteria for selection are attractive label and price. The wines come from nearby towns, Imola, Predappio, Cesena, Bertinoro, San Patrignano. Until recently, I had my standards. I wouldn’t go lower than 3 euros for a bottle.
That was then.
Alas, Bacco has smiled upon me.
I have an omino. Her name is Francesca.
Okay, so she’s not a little man. And technically she’s not really an omino because she works in a store. Your standard issue omino does not have a website. But I’ll take her. This store sells vino sfuso, the stuff you get in trattorie by the carafe.
Across from the mercato centrale down in Rimini, a sprawling fish-meat-vegetable-fruit market, I notice this store one day: I Vini delle terre di Malatesta. It’s well lit. It looks like a high-end enoteca. Lots of racks, lots of bottles with attractive labels. Except in the back corner, I notice two faux kegs protruding from the walls. On each keg two spigots. Three reds, one white. For each wine there is information about its source, alcohol content, and price.
“Bring your own bottles to the store,” Francesca explains, “or we have bottles you can buy, and fill, and reuse. Buy as much as you want.”
I taste the two reds, a Cabernet and a Sangiovese, and choose the latter. She fills a handsome bottle, packs it in a thick take-it-with-you sack. All for 3 euro. In the U.S., the sack alone would cost that much. I take the wine home and love it.
In fifty years Italian wines have come a long way. In the American consumer’s view, such as it was, Italian wine was kind of a joke. Buy a straw-covered Chianti fiasco, pour out the wine, and plug up the bottle with a candle. It was like Mateus. Great bottle. The wine? Meh. Then again, fifty years ago, Americans were not wine drinkers. And the Italians were smart, my wife likes to say. They kept the good wines for themselves. No doubt that’s part of the story. So many omini, so much good local wine.
Then along comes Giovanni Mariani, Jr., son of Giovanni Mariani, Sr. The latter founded the House of Banfi, in Greenwich Village, in 1919. Mariani the younger introduced Lambrusco to the American consumer in 1969, sold 20,000 cases of the stuff that year, then 50,000 cases the next year. By 1975 imports of the bubbly sweet red increased to 1.2 million cases, in 1984, a whopping 11.2 million cases. Lambrusco is a wine you drink cold, a forerunner of that unfortunate American contribution to wine culture, the wine cooler. (I remember, in the mid 70’s, a night out in Columbus, Ohio, with a couple friends, cruising blue grass bars, guzzling Black Russians, and finishing the night drinking Riunite on the rocks.) Riunite and Cella wines established the Italian footprint, or wine stain, in the American market. According to Funding Universe, “By 1980 Banfi alone was bringing more wine into the US. from Italy–some nine million cases a year–than France and Germany combined.”
Thanks for that sweet red wine, Banfi, we might say. The wine was pretty bad. But there’s more to the story. One word:
In 1977 the Banfi organization charged oenologist Ezio Rivella with finding the perfect location in Italy for a vineyard. He was their omino. He did his job. The place he found was Montalcino.
Today a Brunello di Montalcino will sell for up to $250 a bottle. American wineheads flock to that far flung Tuscan town. Rory Carroll, writing for The Guardian, reports, “Those who get to taste [Brunello] come away drooling adjectives such as intense, full-bodied, fruity, smooth, rich, chewy, velvety, super-ripe, spicy, gigantic. In the battle with the new world, Montalcino stands as a citadel of old world might and venerability.”
And today, Coldiretti, an Italian grower-producer organization, boasts that Italy is the largest wine exporter in the world. In 2013, the U.S. imported $1.3 billion in Italian wines.
In omini we trust.
Probably every trattoria and osteria in Italy has an omino. He’s the proprietor’s cousin or uncle, he’s a farmer with some vines who makes local swill that’s dirt cheap and consistently good. The omino’s vino sfuso graces the table, complements the food, goes down easy.
Except when it doesn’t.
In Novilara, in the hills above the Adriatic, is a restaurant where we eat tagliatelle and beans. The food is something of a religious experience; the house wine, on the other hand, for two of three consecutive years was terrible. It was kind of a joke. But not.
And just last week my wife and I had lunch in a Pesaro trattoria. At the table next to us a couple local guys ordered wine by the glass. This was a joint. The server did not stand on ceremony. He didn’t show the label or smell the cork or stand and watch as the guys swirled, sniffed, and sipped. He brought them stem glasses, the wine already poured, then he brought their food. I confess at the moment I felt just a little smug. We ordered the house wine. Don’t they know how good it is? When the server came to our table and set down a half liter carafe of red, I turned over my bistro glass, poured some wine, and had a taste. Someone’s uncle must have had a very bad year.
Then there’s Alberto, our new friend. A couple nights ago we had dinner at local agriturismo that serves strozzopreti with sangiovese, sausage, and radicchio, a dish of pasta that is life changing. And the wine was exceptional.
“It’s a sangiovese,” Alberto said, “With a little merlot added. You can taste the merlot—it makes the wine a little rounder.”
I wasn’t really sure I could taste it, but I nodded my head.
He said this year the grape harvest was not very good. They didn’t make wine.
“If you don’t have good grapes,” he said, “you can’t make good wine.”
The wine we were drinking, from the year before, they had a lot left, enough to get them through the year. We could buy some if we wanted to; a bottle, a five liter jug, as much as we wanted.
In omini we trust.
Yes, trust. But verify.