Wine Column: When keeping it simple is simply better

08/03/2012 1:41 PM |

The marked difference between the way Americans and Europeans experience wine became apparent to me when I first attended VinItaly, Europe’s biggest wine trade fair, in 1997. Unlike the typical wine event I’d attended here, where each producer served wine samples from behind a bar to ambulating tasters, in Italy attendees were treated like guests, invited to sit comfortably, eat a little snack and chat while tasting.

When I returned recently to Europe (this time to Moravia and Venice) I again found the attitude toward wine as a welcome part of everyday hospitality, but also found that the new glorification of gastronomy has, in some places, corrupted the old and charming ways.

In Czech Moravia, traditional generosity survives in abundance at the home of Radek and Lida Nepras. Radek, a dissident under the communist regime that ended in 1989, is one of Moravia’s leading vintners. Under a vine-covered pergola, he served an Alsatian riesling (not wanting to be just a promoter for his region, but a true host) with Lida’s special crêpes, filled with brandied cherries from their orchard. After leading us on a hike to the 12th-century castle above their vines, Lida made us soup from spinach just picked in her garden and traditional schnitzel with potato salad. Radek offered us two of his own wines, a dry riesling and a pinot blanc. Food and wine were all extraordinary, but instead of drawing attention to them, we talked of other topics: the Bronze Age cup and bracelet he had found while cultivating his vines, her uncle’s research into Paleolithic times, my plans to visit the caves up north.

The next night, I enjoyed an equally memorable evening with another Moravian family that also incorporated wine and food seamlessly into our activities. On a grassy hilltop with a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, our host took his two young sons (ages 5 and 7) into the nearby forest to gather firewood while his wife started a fire “Survivor”-style. Soon, a small group of us roasted corn and chunks of fresh local goat cheese on pointed sticks while kids cavorted with kites and a soccer ball. From good glass stemware, we guzzled wine made by students at the local enology school while eating chunks of speck bacon, crisped in the flame and dripping with luscious fat, on chunks of buttered bread. We also cooked short, plump sausages that had been cut at either end so that, as they cooked, they opened like blooming lilies. Salad, melon and chocolates completed the meal, followed by a sing-along under a blazing sunset.

On to the tiny island of Mazzorbo, in the Venetian lagoon, where the Bisol family, owners of one of Italy’s most prominent prosecco houses, has created Venissa, a much-touted “destination” restaurant and guest house in an ancient vineyard. Excited to see the dorona grape they rescued from extinction, and to taste locally inspired food of chef Paula Budel, I expected it to be the highlight of my trip.

Ah, the folly of great expectations.

Venissa is pretty enough, if you only look at the vineyard and bell tower, discount the burlap and imitation-Ikea décor and ignore the mosquitoes. Though artfully presented, the food did not merit its haut cuisine prices. For $45, an insipid little appetizer of raw bass deserved a squirt of lemon and my chunk of flounder should have been boned. A “glass” of wine contained about an ounce. One had the curious feeling of being in a temple of gastronomy where the high priest of a maitre d’ would rather be home watching soccer.

Surely the Bisols must be lauded for their effort, but the place was missing the very thing I had found in Moravia: warm hospitality, a generous spirit and that old European way of incorporating wine and food into a joyful experience. Maybe the change is a result of cable TV shows turning chefs and winemakers into celebrities; maybe it’s a result of too much money at the top of the world’s economy or maybe it was just a case of the place having supercilious management.

Whatever it was, that’s the last time I seek out a hot spot for wine and food. Give me some fire-roasted speck, a chunk of chewy bread and a quaffing of new wine; add to those pleasures some interesting conversation with lively people, a rising moon or a sunset — now, there’s the quintessential gastronomic experience. And (minus the ruined castles), we can replicate that here.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

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