“Frank Cornelissen came from Belgium to Etna,” wrote Eric the Red in a recent New York Times piece, “where he makes extreme wines unlike almost any others on earth, which people tend to love or hate.”
Cornelissen’s supremely polarizing wines are a wine director’s worst nightmare. Because they are entirely unsulfured, there is extreme bottle variation in any allocation and secondary fermentation (and the resulting spritz) is more common than not. Because they are unfiltered and unfined, the wines are cloudy and have all kinds of nasty looking bits floating around in them. And the volatile acidity in the wines — there’s no way around this — can make them smell like shit when you first open them.
So why did I put them on my list at Sotto in Los Angeles (where I’ve been curating the carta dei vini since the restaurant opened on March 5, 2011)? And why did the general manager, Dina Pepito, agree to let me, against her better judgment?
It’s a lot easier to serve Cornelissen’s wines at home, where you have all the time in the world to let them rest upright and let their sediment fall to the bottom. When we’ve served them in our home, we made sure to give them ample time to repose and we’ve drunk them over the course of an entire evening, following along as the wine changed from first glass to last.
When I worked the floor at Sotto on Saturday night, there were ninety people on the waiting list trying to get in. It’s one of the hottest A-list tables in LA right now. And in all that hustle and bustle (between the CAA dick-waggers and the Chardonnay-drinking housewives of Beverly Hills), a sturdy Gaglioppo works great while a delicate Etna blend tends to be unsettled by the roaring din of the rich and famous.
And even though the allocation we managed to get certainly doesn’t meet the criteria for “fine wine,” we store the bottles with our verticals of Taurasi, Cirò, and Graticciaia because the wines need to be handled with the same gentle tenderness.
When the wines became available to us thanks to Amy Atwood Selections, I put them on the list because I wanted to offer our guests Natural winemaking in its most extreme expression. From the Natural wine police to the consumerist hegemony of wine punditry in the U.S. today, everyone agrees that 1) these are impeccably Natural wines; and 2) they represent, to borrow an expression from Roland Barthes, “wine degree zero.” These are wines to which literally nothing has been added. Nothing, zero, zippo… (If you don’t know the wines, read this profile by Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator, of all places!)
And of course, I wanted our wine list to reflect the renaissance of winemaking that’s taking shape on the northern slopes of Mt. Etna.
I sold a couple of bottles of the wine over the last weekend (when I was visiting for staff training and to “work the floor”).
One was to a table of wine geeks who had read a preview of the list in one of LA’s sea of food blogs. It was amazing to watch their eyes light as the stink blew off and they slowly nursed the wine. “I’ve never tasted anything like this,” said one. “The wine is slightly sparkling,” noted another.
I sold another bottle to super glam Eastern European lady (Hungary?) who sported a Farrah Fawcett hairdo and who was in town to visit her daughter, who was dining with her.
“I cannot drink wines with sulfites,” she told me. “I break out if I drink wine with sulfites. I can only drink natural wine,” she added, clearly unaware of what the volatile term natural can mean to wine professionals these days.
“As it just so happens,” I said, “I have a wine to which, I am 100% sure, no sulfites have been added.” (We actually have a couple on the list.) And I opened the Contadino (the same as in the photos above).
She wasn’t entirely thrilled by the wine but she didn’t send it back. She was normally a “Merlot drinker,” she told me. And in one of the most bizarre moves I’ve ever seen, she ordered coffee after dinner but kept nursing the wine with her coffee. (Disgusting, right?)
I don’t think the wine made much of an impression on her. But I’m assuming, since she didn’t call to complain, that she didn’t break out the next day.
And in our small little way, we made the world a little safer for Italian wine…
Stay tuned for my next post about my recent visit to Sotto: “The Racism of Corkage.”