WORDS BY LJ/ ILLO BY JEN
The word Dolcetto sounds like it should be the name of a song, a kind of song, or a story about a song. Or a part of an opera or a style of opera or a sort of symphony.
It’s a wine grape: the “lesser Piemontese wine grape,” it’s called, which makes me want to love it, because it’s more interesting to love the thing you’re supposed to love less more. Loving something you’re supposed to love less because of the reasons you’re supposed to love it less is one of the most beautiful things that can happen to a person, but it doesn’t make very much sense when it comes to loving wine grapes. It makes the most sense when it comes to loving one-eyed, or three-legged, dogs.
I don’t love Dolcettos the wines, mostly I just like them, but I love one Dolcetto, my Dolcetto: My Summer Red. The first time I ever drank it was in the wintertime, but I didn’t like it then: maybe because it didn’t suit the wintertime, or maybe because it needed six more months to age in bottle, or maybe because it was the first Dolcetto I ever tasted, and I was gearing up for myself to love Dolcetto so much more than I love Nebbiolo— the more-er Piemontese wine grape— and was so disappointed to find out that I didn’t that it temporarily blinded me, or my tongue at least.
I was tasting it with a bunch of kids whose boss I am. I was mad at the Dolcetto for not being as good as I wanted it to be: I couldn’t slot it into anywhere, couldn’t figure out if it was serious or gluggable or light-bodied or medium-bodied or fruit-forward or medium-tannin or aromatic or fucking anything, at all, besides being a bottle that looked good on a table, with a matte lipsticky dark pink foil and a swishy little watercolour of a rose on the label, which duped all the children into thinking it tasted like flowers— everyone was saying “It’s kind of floral,” but I couldn’t taste it: I suck at being able to taste the tastes of different flowers in wine— I only know rose, because everyone knows rose, and there’s a certain wine-y taste that I’ve come to know as being “white flower,” but it’s not because I know what white flowers smell like, it’s because I’ve been tasting wines for long enough to know that when certain wines taste like a certain something, it’s “white flower.”
I work very closely with another sommelier from a restaurant that is in the same building as mine and is the same restaurant as mine but is not the same restaurant as mine: I am not interested in explaining that particular circumstance any further; just accept it. He & I are constantly forced to deal with the same style of bullshit inconveniences from our in-house wine agency, and whenever the wine people send him extra cases of a wine he doesn’t want he says, “I just got fisted with another seven cases of [Dolcetto, or whatever]” and it’s so crass, something I would never think to say on my own, but at this point I’ve worked alongside him for so long, and heard him say “getting fisted” re: getting sent a billion cases of crap enough times to render myself incapable of defining getting fisted with X amount of cases of anything as anything but “getting fisted” to myself.
In February I got fisted with five cases of Dolcetto and I called it “the stupid Dolcetto” and hated it and when it came time to take it off the list I said “Good Riddance to the stupid Dolcetto” instead of “It’s time to say goodbye to our old friend Dolcetto,” which is what I say when it’s time to say goodbye to any by the glass wine that I love or even like.
I said Good Riddance to the stupid Dolcetto preemptively, at the end of March, because I was bored of it. I arranged the remaining twenty-three bottles into a pattern in the wine cage outside the bathroom, where it could make itself useful: people waiting to use the bathroom could look at it while waiting, take note of its prettiness. That was the best the Dolcetto could ever do, I thought.
The bottles sat there for months, collecting dust, until it was slow one night, and I forced some busser to dust them. In June the Dolcetto came back in stock and I got fisted with another seven cases, so put it back on by the glass, because I had no choice. On the night of that wine list swap-over I shimmied my way through the narrow pathways of the little closet we call the "Harry Potter closet," my shoddy bit-rate wine cellar that one of my servers once told me I “low-key like,” to which I reponded, “No— I high-key love it.” I stacked four cases of the Dolcetto into one row and another three cases into a smaller row next to it. I skulked back upstairs and made a big deal out of how sad I was to have it back on the list.
A couple days later I helped myself to a splash, to remind myself of whatever garbage it tasted like. And that was my revelatory moment, when I realised… It tasted fucking GOOD! Like thick strawberry juice, a boldly yummy cheerer-upper that brought nothing but good vibes to the table. It reminded me of all the food-tastes I wish I could only ever be tasting: Strawberries! Strawberries! Strawberries! Strawberry jam, strawberry soda, strawberry ice cream, syrupy strawberry anything submerged in syrupy strawberry everything. Plain white cake dotted with strawberry chips generously iced with strawberry frosting, strawberry candy leather, Fruit Roll-Ups or Fruit-by-the-Foot. Gummy Haribo strawberries shaped like strawberries, dyed in green at the top but the green still tastes like red. Strawberry Lipsmackers, kiddie strawberry perfume. The sweet perfume of a strawberry-scented plastic Strawberry Shortcake doll. And actual strawberry shortcake! It’s like that wonderful Andy Warhol quote about how he wishes he could only eat sugar: “everything else is just for show.”
There was no tannin, no grip, no bite. I thought: I do not give enough credit to wines who only aim to please.
“I love the Dolcetto now,” I told my bartender, and he said: “Provocative!” and I thought, “No wine has ever been less provocative than the Dolcetto,” and I drank a glass for dessert that night, and declared it my Official Summer Red.
We ran out of Dolcetto two nights ago, on July 16th, and I drank a glass to say goodbye. It tasted like what it tasted like, and I shrugged, “I guess summer is over now.”
That’s a lie, but I know it will be a very long time until I find another wine that asks so little of me, whose good-naturedness I am so wholly impressed by.
2. Grumello (July 20th)
I ordered the Salsiccia for my staff meal and the plate, the physical plate, was my favourite kind, rust-coloured and encircled by a lip, like a pie crust. The food looks so nice all piled up inside of it, but after you start eating, the dish gets sloppy, gloppy, quickly. I don’t like the way the rapini looks with the celery root puree smothered all over it. It’s untidy.
I asked my bartender to pour me a taster of a low-end Lombardian Nebbiolo, called “Botonero,” which always makes me think of Beaujolais Day from wine school, when my Wallace Shawn-looking instructor kept saying “cheap & cheerful” to accurately describe the overarching vibe of the Gamay grape, and I thought he was the first person ever to have thought to describe wine like that, but then I realized it’s a thing that British people say. Mostly about Beaujolais.
He poured me two tasters into one glass, because he knew I was in a mood and needed them. It was cheap & cheerful and tasted like thin fruit juice, dribbly juicebox punch. I ate a bite of the sausage and took a sip of the wine. In my mind I saw a picture of the lid of a tin can, the kind you pull off with a tab.
My phone rang. Three days later I smashed the face of it: not on purpose, by accident, in the dullest way: I was holding it, and I dropped it, and it broke.
I went outside to hold it and talk. I sat on a cement thing outside of the store called Harvest Wagon that we all call Harvs Wags. Calling it Harvs Wags started out as a joke about something we could call it but probably wouldn’t, because why would we call it something so stupid it as that, but then we started calling it that. And now we only call it that.
I went back inside and ate the end of my Salsiccia and I'd been gone for so long I thought the busser would've cleared my plate but she didn't. I mopped up the last of the puree with a piece of bread. I felt shaken, I'd been shook, and since I felt as though I’d just endured something, I could permit myself to eat a piece of bread. The bread is not the gift: the permission is.
I knew it before I could define the shape of my discomfort, I knew: you have permission now. You will have it until you don’t. You can drink all the wine now, and eat bread, lots of it, smoke until your tongue’s numb. Run out of wine, run out of smokes— it’s no problem! Just stumble round the corner. Go buy more!
I jogged downstairs to the office, unlocked the door. My office keychain is a grubby reproduction of the cartoon character Stitch, coloured in pink instead of blue. Her body fell off.
I took my debit card out of my wallet, ran back upstairs, and swiftly purchased a bottle of a different Lombardian Nebbiolo: “Grumello,” it’s called. In the description of Grumello on my wine list, I wrote that it’s “[the name of my restaurant] sommelier Laura’s day off go-to,” and whenever I sell it to people I trace the bottom of that sentence with my finger and say “See? I’m Laura! It’s literally my day off go-to!” and then they buy it and it does something to them. Last night we had two bottles left and now we only have one.
I poured myself a glass. I did not measure out a 6 oz pour but am confident that I poured myself 6 ounces. One of the many pointless but practical skills I've acquired over the course of my career— like being able to pour out the remainder of a bottle into X amount of glasses in equal measures, finishing the bottle, without having to go back to any glass and pour again— that I take pride in not because I taught myself to do them, but because I didn’t. They are borne from a corner of the larger concept of time that I rarely remember to be grateful for: repetition.
I don’t like drinking wine out of Nebbiolo glasses, which are the same thing as Burgundy glasses, meant to coax out detail and aroma: broad-bowled goblets, narrow at the top, with big fat guts. It’s too much of a production— I find the picking up of the glass and holding it to my lips to be unnecessarily exhausting, and the liquid doesn’t swirl around too neatly when you’re swirling it. And also I figure that if a wine is good enough, and if I’m good enough, neither of us should require any fancy glassware to call attention to what its good about it. If a wine can't tell me why it's good on its own, no Nebbiolo glass is going to save it, and no Nebbiolo glass is going to save a shitty somm who can’t taste wine, either. Really, you should choose to drink wine out of the glass whose weight and shape feels most comfortable in your hand, when you’re using it to gesticulate. I tend to favour a standard white wine glass, but on that night I responded positively to the theatre of the Nebbiolo glass. I became, to myself, a tragic heroine, and required that even something as simple as taking a sip of wine to be as arduous as possible.
The next night I permitted myself to get sloppy-weird drunk off of very cheap Cava and I drank my cheap Cava out of the Nebbiolo glass I took home from work because it had a chip in it. I spent the entire night holding that Nebbiolo glass by its base and began to perceive it as an extension of myself, a new appendage. An appendix.
The Grumello is made by the same people who make the Botonero I was talking about earlier, from the Salsiccia bite. Lombardian Nebbiolos are Juicier than Piemontese because it is slightly warmer in Lombardia, which you pronounce, and sound coolest pronouncing, with the accent on the di. I used to run the Grumello on by the glass and at first I didn’t take it seriously because before we sold the Grumello by the glass we sold the same producer’s Sassella by the glass and I didn’t care for the Sassella. And the look of the bottles is nothing to write home about: the labels are somber and dull.
Realizing I loved the Grumello happened like a hypnic jerk, like the time in my dream when I pulled the pin out of the grenade and killed my friend and died myself and then woke up and the air was smooth as granite.
I can see the shape of time and spend my life watching the ribbon of it unroll on top of the air in front of me. There are points and places on the shape, markers, where before it something wasn’t there and after now it is, and that's how everything that happens has to happen.
There is no greyscale, no midpoint.
A wine you love so much it tastes like nothing. A wine so perfectly attuned to the needs and desires of my palate that my palate has no need to read it. The Grumello fits into the shape of my mouth the same way my foot fit into the plastic bag of paraffin wax the pedicurist stuck my foot into.
On that night I took one sip of it, behind the bar, alone beneath the strand of lights labelled “Coffee” on the lightswitch. The Coffee lights are like the ones above a movie star’s mirror in her dressing room, in a movie about a movie star. That weekend, I decided, I would be a movie star looking at myself in a mirror underneath a strand of lights called Coffee. I would be the star of a movie about that weekend that I would be the star of.
I forced myself to think harder than I wanted to about the wine because I knew I’d be forcing myself to write about it a few days later. Here I am.
It makes me think of a plastic bunch of grapes frozen into a cube of glass, a fake block of ice: a sweet but expectedly-tacky seventies statue, overpriced ($35?) at a cutesy shop that sells cutesy housewares from a long time ago.
It doesn’t make me think of that. It makes me think of a real bunch of grapes, frozen into a block of ice. I had to make it into the grape-statue in my head because a bunch of grapes frozen into a block of ice doesn't exist; it doesn’t need to.
It makes me think of a candied bunch of grapes, dusted with white sugar. And it makes me think of my own foot, immersed in a plastic bagful of pale pink paraffin wax.
“Is that wax?” I asked the pedicurist.
“It’s paraffin,” she said.
“What’s the difference between wax and paraffin,” I asked, flat, no question mark, but interrupted myself before she had the chance to answer.
I didn’t care. I just liked the sound of the sentence.
3. Gavi (last week of July; not a red)
I have spent the past week-and-a-half engineering Summer Red-oriented end-of-the-night wine-drinking situations for myself to exist inside, all of which have been run off course by the unanticipated presence of a half-bottle of Gavi di Gavi: recently de-listed, subsequently unsellable, a wine that I would run by the glass for the rest of my life if I could, a wine that I think— no, believe— should be the house white wine at every single bar, pub, café and/or restaurant in the world. As charming as it is innocuous, delicately juicy, dainty & spritz-y, yet so fucking fun— makes me think of: eating key lime pie in the back of an air-conditioned minivan with the girl who taught me how to smoke a cigarette. It’s a true story! That happened to me once. She was a blonde Eminem fan named Jackie, in the year 1999.
If the story happened today you could replace both good parts of the story with key lime pie flavour vape juice.
My Gavi, my Summer White that never was, is a wine that at first sip you mindlessly assume should be drunk mindlessly, though joyfully, before seeing that its simplicity has been curated with such deliberation and tact that it in turn becomes as chewy to think about as some rich oaky masterpiece that has been heavy-handedly manipulated to taste, as opposed to be, complicated.
4. Dolcetto, again (August 17th)
The Dolcetto returned for a victory lap at the end of summer, on the second day of the second half of August. While I was sitting in my backyard drinking Garnacha with my Dad someone at the restaurant, which somehow still exists when I’m not at it, sold a bottle of Dolcetto to a table, poured them the requisite taste, and their faces soured: they sent it back.
This pains me. I have no sympathy for people who abuse the ritual of “the taste,” which is not intended to enable the orderer vocalize their personal opinion about the wine, but rather to see if they detect a fault. If you have gotten yourself to a place where you’ve had a conversation with a server or somm about what kind of wine you're into, they’ve suggested a bottle based on the information provided, and you’ve decided to take their advice, the transaction is now complete: if you don’t like the wine, that’s on you. You did your best, your somm or server did her best, you all fucked it up, whatever, it’s not a big deal, learn from your mistake, move on with your life, drink the wine that doesn’t dazzle, pay your bill, go home, and never think about it again, because it’s not a big deal.
I can assess the scope of my personal appreciation for a given wine within one second of sniffing it, think 90% of all wine I drink is either eh, blah or whatever, and barely, or rarely, care. I am deeply offended when I am poured a taste of wine I’ve ordered by the glass or half-litre: to me, this communicates that the restaurant’s sommelier is untrained and cannot determine the smell of corked or oxidized wines on her own.
I don’t care if I like the wine that I buy. Why would I assume that entitlement? It’s like turning on the radio, hearing a song you dislike, and taking the fact that they're playing it as a personal affront.
I don’t know what wine those horrible people ended up buying after they rejected the Dolcetto, nor do I care. Those people cannot handle the responsibility of ordering wine in a restaurant, and as far as I’m concerned, should be doomed to drink room-temperature Coors Light or boxed Pinot Grig 'til they die.
The open but undrunk bottle of Dolcetto was returned to the wine fridge, and staff were encouraged to sell it off by the glass, but no one bothered, and no one told me about it, until one day I noticed it and asked “Why is the Dolcetto there?” and someone told me the story, and I sighed, and said: “I guess I’m just going to have to drink it myself.”
(All my Reds of Summer:
The chirpy bottle of Beaujolais-Villages, a delightful idiot of a wine, that I shared with my roommate but drank mostly alone out back, chain-smoking in my navy-blue hoodie before accidentally dumping an entire ashtray full of dirty Gauloises butts and murky ash-water all over her sedan. Then I cleaned it.
Three biodynamic Sangioveses I hated substantially less than I hate most Sangioveses, and so I loved them: I loved them because I didn’t hate them. Splashes of leafy tarry and ultimately shrug-offable Barolo-after-Barolo the owner of my restaurant treats me to whenever he dines in, black cruel Barbarescos that make me think of men and turn me on, the Boca I blind-tasted as a Chateauneuf, dead-wrong but still… “I would have guessed it as a Chateaneuf,” too breezy to bother with “de Pape”—you know what I mean. A minty and stylish glass of Langhe Nebbiolo at the place across the street, post-therapy on the afternoon of my mother’s birthday. They prescribe to a stupid concept they’ve named “anti-service” at that bar, which means you have to ask for water; they don’t just give it to you. I wasn’t in the mood to ask for water. I left black-tongued and morose.
The last bottle of my father’s favourite Garnacha, soupy and vanilla bean, a strident amphora-aged Valipolicella, one-note yeah but man did that one note sing, loud and hot and cold clear, across the tops of mountains, I thought of mountains, that horn-thing an angel blows into: a story about a song. And Grumello, yes, my winsome Grumello… though when I think back to that night I think more of her kicky little brother, Botonero, and that stupid sausage bite, thin blood in my mouth, and a white: the clarifying glass of bony, yeasty Muscadet I drank when I got home.)
I drank my last glass of Dolcetto last Thursday. I felt ill, that night it rained and every pane of glass in the restaurant fogged up with the warmth of people’s breath and bodies, my lungs burnt to shreds and I didn’t even want it, but felt I had to have it. And it tasted just as I’d remembered: thick, wild strawberry juice.
Two nights later I poured myself a second glass, sniffed, and sipped. It tasted like sour liquid metal, a dog’s unwashed coat. It had gone off.
I said goodbye to my old friend Dolcetto as I unceremoniously dumped its remnants down the sink and voided it through the system as “Wine expired.” The rain dried up and the air cooled down.
That was summer! It was over.