And the winner is: 2017 La Focaie, Maremma Toscana.
Every summer I look for a budget red or white, the wine I’m going to open at home, enjoy while cooking lunch and with chocolate after lunch. A couple summers ago it was Cecchi, an Italian red. Last summer it was budget California chardonnay from Costco. These are not wines I take to someone’s house. Neither are they jug wines. These are everyday house wines that consistently satisfy, until I can’t get them anymore, or until they no longer satisfy consistently. Nothing lasts forever.
When I married into an Italian immigrant wine-drinking family, I came to understand jug wine to be four-liter jugs you decanted and drank with dinner, often cut with water. Yes, half a glass of water, pour some red into it. Salute. My father-in-law bought Cribari Vino Rosso da Tavola and Carlo Rossi red, four jugs in a case. It was California made, much like the stuff John Steinbeck immortalizes in Tortilla Flat We drank the Cribari and Carlo Rossi reds in the late 1970’s, when Italian wines were just beginning to establish market share in the US with Lambrusco and straw-covered fiascos of Chianti.
Decades later, a new generation of vino da casa, Italian house wines. Lots of choices. Pretty good value.
A few weeks into the pandemic, the first time I ventured out to a grocery store, I bought three different Italian reds, two Tuscan wines and a wine from Lombardi. And found Podere il Palazzino. It hits just the right notes, like the trattoria table wines we guzzle with food in Italy–a little tanin, some light fruit, and, above all, a wine that opens its arms to food. Nothing complicated here, nothing hoity toity.
I’ve enjoyed this wine every day for the past two months, one glass while cooking lunch, half a glass with chocolate after lunch. If I’m disciplined, and if we go easy on the chocolate, one bottle will go almost three days, at a cost of about $3 a glass, which is what I would pay for a wine by the glass in Italy.
Good things come to an end. I don’t know how long the Palazzino will be in the store. So, thinking about the future, I thought I’d better look ahead and find something I like as much at the Palazzino. I bought four more Tuscan reds, all blends, not Chianti exactly, but like Chianti with the sangiovese as the main grape. My goal was to find something that compared favorably to Palazzino. To be scientific, I tried all four in the same circumstances. When I was down to the last half glass of Palazzino, I opened the candidate wine. Same time of day, food on the stove, getting ready to eat. A sip of Palazzino, a sip of the new stuff. Back and forth while getting lunch, tasting, testing. Then a taste of the candidate after lunch with chocolate. (I rarely drink wine with food, particularly when eating at home, to prevent myself from becoming a total lush.)
Here are the runners-up:
I’ll spare you the winespeak, because I am not fluent in that lingo nor confident that it means much of anything.
As a young teacher I signed up for a newsletter written by three guys in a wine club at University of Michigan Dearborn. They were happy sots who had a thing with a local wine shop. They tasted wines and wrote them up in a monthly newsletter, in each issue of which 30-40 wines were reviewed, whites, reds, roses, wines from the US, France, Spain, Italy, Australia, and probably South America. What can you say? Good with pasta. Good with fish. Good with a burger or a bloody steak. Full bodied, medium bodied, anorexic. Long finish, short finish, barely gets started. Hints of cherry, oak, plywood. Buttery, spicy; crisp, flat; clean, dirty. Old world, new world, middle Earth.
The same descriptors over and over. Words would lose their meaning. At the end of each bit of blabber, they answered this question: How much?
I’m going back for 2017 La Focaie, Maremma Toscana. I liked it. That is, I think I liked it. I’ll repeat the paired tasting, same time of day. The other three I didn’t like as much. I don’t think I didn’t like them. I know I didn’t. These wines cost $12 – $15. I’ll have a glass while cooking lunch and half a glass after lunch with chocolate. And dream I’m in a trattoria in San Marino or Rimini, Santarcangelo or Pesaro. Salute.