Corkage and Racism

Corkage and racism… These aren’t two words you’d expect to find in a binomial expression. But they are the words that flashed like burning embers in my mind the other night at Sotto in Los Angeles when two couples (right out of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, facelifts, fake tans, shiny teeth and all) sat down and plopped a magnum of a wine that rhymes with joke (you know what I’m talking about), a Brunello I’ve never heard of, and a pack of Marlboro Lights on the table (no joke).

Before I get to explaining my thought process, let’s begin by revealing how offensive it is when restaurant goers do not follow the etiquette of proper corkage.

Lettie Teague wrote this excellent corkage guide a few years ago. And I also really like this guide by Jack Everitt on his site Fork and Bottle.

When it comes to corkage, there are three things that everyone seems to agree on: 1) find out what the corkage policy is before you visit the restaurant; 2) bring something truly special and ideally rare (not something readily available) and offer the sommelier a taste; and 3) order a bottle comparable in value from the list (and leave a generous tip for your server who’s check is reduced as a result of the corkage).

The couples that came the other night already knew that we have a two-bottle limit. They thought that they could get around this by bringing a magnum (two bottles in one) and a 750ml. (It reminded me of a story about an undertaker who got a ticket for using the carpool lane with just him and a cadaver in the van.) It was as if they were saying (and in fact, they were shouting at the top of their lungs): we love the food (and the A-list celebrities) here but we think the wine list sucks and we can’t drink your crappy wine…

And here’s the part where their attitude became racist in my view.

Our wine captain informed them that the magnum counted as their two bottles of wine and so they were forced to order something from our list. Otherwise, how could they get their drink on between smoke breaks?

A server brought them the list and I approached the table and asked the hair-plugged gentleman who seemed to be in charge of alcohol consumption, very politely, “may I answer any questions about the wine list for you, sir?”

He looked up at me and said dismissively, “no, I think we’ve got that covered.”

He ordered a glass (yes, just a glass!) of Lioco 2009 Indica (Carignan and Grenache blend from Mendocino by one of my favorite Californian winemakers, Kevin Kelley).

It was then that I realized that his fear of “the Other” — in this case, southern Italian wine — overwhelmed any ounce of civility that his parents may have imparted to him during child rearing.* (In case you’re not familiar with the concept behind our wine program at Sotto, it’s devoted to southern Italian wine, with a short list of Natural wines from California.)

On the one hand, here was this slick angeleno, with his trophy wife and his Santa Rita Pinot Noir. On the other hand, our wine list must have conjured every southern Italian stereotype in the western canon.

Granted, our list is esoteric by any measure. Even Italian wine professionals will tell me that they don’t recognize many of the wines I have sourced for the list.

But his gesture was a sweeping dismissal: it was abundantly clear to me that in his view, there was no wine from southern Italy that he could possibly drink.

And that, my friends, is racism in flagrante delicto.

When you work in a restaurant, you have to de-sensitize yourself to rudeness. It’s part of the deal. But this is where I draw the line…

Thanks for reading and please treat your servers and sommeliers well!

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as constituent in self-consciousness. He wrote of pre-selfconscious Man: “Each consciousness pursues the death of the other”, meaning that in seeing a separateness between you and another, a feeling of alienation is created, which you try to resolve by synthesis. The resolution is depicted in Hegel’s famous parable of the master-slave dialectic. (Wikipedia)

Wrath of grapes: thoughts on the Calabria riots

rissa in galleria

Above: Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni’s celebrated and controversial canvas “Rissa in Galleria” (“Riot in the Galleria”), 1910. Boccioni was born in Reggio Calabria, not far from Rosarno, in Calabria (the “toe” of Italy’s boot), where African immigrants rioted over the weekend to protest “subhuman living conditions” and organized crime.

News of the riots that took place over the weekend in Calabria came to our attention this morning via The New York Times and NPR. I’ll leave the reporting to the experts but I will also report that Tracie B and I were both deeply saddened by this news as we drank our morning coffee on a chilly Austin morning today.

Most of the African immigrants (the extracomunintari, as they are called in Italian) who were rounded up by Italian authorities and bussed off to “deportation centers” (I’ll let you interpret the euphemism) do not pick grapes. In fact, they pick mostly oranges and other citrus. Historically, Apulia and Calabria (both ideal places to grow fruit and vegetables) have provided the rest of Europe with fresh fruit (including commercial grape production for bulk wine). Since Italian immigration policy began to change in the 1990s with EU reform, southern Italy has come to rely more heavily on migrant workers (sound familiar?) to pick its fruit.


Above: An image from the riots that took place in Calabria over the weekend published today by The New York Times.

From this side of the Atlantic, as much as we’d like to view Italy solely as the “garden of Europe,” the “birthplace of the Renaissance,” the “fashion capital of the world,” and the home to an enogastronomic tradition that has happily conquered the world (and it is all of those wonderful things), Italy — from north to south — is experiencing one of the most troubled times in its history — socially, financially, politically, and ideologically.

I can tell you from personal experience, as an observer and a lover of Italy: Italians, by their nature, are among the most generous and human souls on this planet. Italy is one of the world’s biggest contributors to the UN budget (the sixth biggest, the last time I checked) and Italy does more than any other European country to promote economic development in Africa (I know this firsthand from my days working for the Italian Mission to the UN).

But as Africa’s gateway to Europe, Italy also faces some immensely difficult issues when it comes to race and attitudes toward race. When I first traveled to Italy as a student in 1987, these issues had yet to emerge. Today, they are at the forefront of the national dialog.

An editorial published today by the Vatican daily L’Osservatore romano (The Roman Observer, a highly respected gauge of the Italian cultural temperature) tells its readers that Italy has not yet overcome its issues with racism, as is clearly evidenced by the events of the weekend.

I’m going to poke around this evening in our cellar for a bottle of wine from Calabria for me and Tracie B to open with dinner. As we drink it, we’ll remember the hands that picked those grapes and the people who turned them into wine.

Thanks for reading…