I’m not a wine expert. Nobody has ever paid me to write about the stuff, not once, and I have been in this word game a long time. My friend Tom, who makes a living writing about adult beverages, complains about the lack of wine coverage on this blog, specifically Italian wines, which I'll admit to spending many years studying.
“I don’t understand,” my friend will say. “Italian wines are really hard to get your arms around. There are so many different grapes and designations, and the labels are impossible to comprehend. People might actually be interested in learning the things that you know about these wines, you know.”
Okay Tommy, here’s some expert Italian wine advice for you. Read it carefully, because this might just be the only time I give advice like this in public.
Never pay $50 for a bottle of Italian wine when you can get it someplace else for $8 and change. Come to think of it, this probably goes for all wines, not just the Italian ones. But, as I said before, I'm no expert.
How's that for advice?
I can rant all day about this but will simply lay out the facts and be on my way. My Associate and I were in Arizona recently, on a driving trip that spanned a little south of Tucson to a little north of Flagstaff. On two occasions we dined at places whose wine lists had been Wine Spectator-approved. They could not have been more different.
The first was the dining room at Hacienda del Sol in Tucson. The wine list, a book that required true commitment to plow through, included the requisite I-don't-care-what-it-costs-just-bring-me-the-damn-bottle selections (the $4,500 Vosne-Romanée comes to mind). But it was in no way a list crafted to rip you off. I found a really nice Nebbiolo d'Alba for $54—and it was 15 years old! The same bottle in a wine shop (if you could even find it) would cost at least $30, maybe more. Another bottle we cracked open was a 2008 Sagrantino di Montefalco, a little-known Umbrian varietal that I like a whole lot. The retail price on this particular bottle is around $25. It's on the wine list for $59. I'd call that very reasonable, especially given that the restaurant is in a resort.
Days later, at L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek in Sedona, also the kind of place that prefers entire wine books over lists, I found the exact (if misspelled) vintage of Sagrantino di Montefalco, but for $75, not $59. This didn't bother me so much. Okay, it bothered me a little. But what really got me going was this place's entry-level Italian wine.
This is the least expensive bottle on L'Auberge's paltry selection of Italian wines. It's the 2009 Monte Antico, a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The price: $50.
Average retail price: around $10-12. Though I've seen it plenty of times (at the supermarket, for instance, as this is one very high-production label) for less than $9. This is a place where the least expensive dinner option is a three-course prix fixe job at $80. Serving Monte freaking Antico. Seriously.
I don't begrudge a restaurant from getting its markup, even a hefty one. But if you're going to pull a scam at least be smart about it and pick a $9 wine that I never heard of—and that I can't pick up where I buy milk and laundry detergent.
But what do I know?