Choosing Wine, Serving Wine, Mastering Wine

I visited the Museum of Modern Art a few days ago to view the new Magritte exhibition and look in on some old favorites. Among the latter I was struck in particular by a single Modigliani painting of a reclining nude.



It was off in a corner, virtually unlooked-at by the hordes that were parading admiringly past the Picassos. As far as I’m concerned, that single painting was worth more than all the Picasso nudes – pink, blue, or cubist – in the rooms around it.



For all the mannerism of Modigliani’s drawing and painting, that nude was real and alive and intensely human. She radiated sensuality, and by doing so redefined sensuality. Everything in the painting served her, presented her, celebrated her. All the Picasso nudes I looked at that morning also celebrated something, but what they celebrated was mastery – Picasso’s mastery, of his medium, his techniques, his subjects. The women in his paintings didn’t live, they served: They were Picasso’s subjects in every sense of the word. Still great paintings, mind you – but great in a way different from Modigliani’s. Many people will prefer them to Modigliani. I once might have myself, and I still respect them – but I love the Modigliani.

So, I realized, for me there are two whole different categories of esthetic response, and probably two different kinds of art that create them: admiration of the artifice itself, and a new or renewed understanding of what the artifact in a literal sense re-presents. (I’m sure the philosophers have beaten me to this apprehension: There is nothing new under the sun.)

Needless to say, it quickly occurred to me that that was true of wine too. (It’s been a long away around, but you knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?)

I realized that there are producers whose wines celebrate the grapes and their terroir, and there are producers whose wines celebrate the mastery of the winemaker. A few nights ago, Diane and I enjoyed a 1999 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo with some excellent broiled lamb chops, followed by a small plate of equally excellent cheeses. And a few nights later, we drank a lovely bottle of classic Frascati – Fontana Candida’s Terre dei Grifi – with some simple fried chicken, preceded by an even simpler shrimp cocktail. Both wines were absolutely lovely, and both perfect with the meals they accompanied; and both, on their different scales, were celebrations of the grapes they were made from.

???????????????????????????????FrascatiTasting them, I thought Langhe hills! and Roman campagna!, not who the winemaker was or what the cellar had done. That the winemaker and cellar, in both cases, must have done a lot – or refrained from doing a lot – was evident upon reflection, but it’s not what popped into my head with the first, or second, or third sip. A lot of Piedmont wine – and not much Frascati – is like that, whereas a lot of Tuscan wine seems to me to fall into the other category, where what strikes you first and foremost is what the winemaker has accomplished. Certainly some Chianti Classico is like that, and a lot of Brunello, and almost everything that comes from Bolgheri – not to mention 99% of classified-growth Bordeaux. This is not to say that these are lesser wines, but wines different in nature, and having a different impact, both on the palate and on the imagination.

All this caused me to realize that for years now I have been choosing wines for my dinners for two different reasons: one set of wines for the vivid presence of the grapes and where they came from, the other for the technical perfection of the winemaking. These are equally admirable but very different kinds of wine, and I saw too that I usually serve them in different circumstances: the first with deliberately simple foods of the best available prima materia, the second with more elaborately constructed dishes or more complex sauces. I choose the first combination because it showcases the wine without in any way detracting from the food, the second because the interplay of food and wine intensifies them both. This is not an ironclad rule, of course – I’m too much of an anarchist to believe in ironclad anything – but it has been for me a useful, if unconscious, rule of thumb.

So my little epiphany in front of Modigliani’s gloriously incarnated painting also made me aware of something I had been acting on for a long time without ever being fully conscious of it, and that realization in turn has given me a new handle on the wines I drink and serve. A long time ago I set out to tell people about Mastering Wine: clearly, I’m still in the process of doing so myself. I have no idea whether my current thinking is my final destination or just a way-station on the road, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.

15 Responses to “Choosing Wine, Serving Wine, Mastering Wine”

  1. dannybz123 Says:

    I know and Love that Modigliani painting well, and that gallery is one of my favorites with: Hoppers, Picasso (Gertrude Stein and), Grant Wood, Thomas Harte Benton and the like .. Bravo Tom

  2. Livio caroli Says:

    Obviously Modigliani drank a very good bottle of vino before he created that master piece

  3. Alfonso Cevola (@italianwineguy) Says:

    Brilliant post, Tom. This is the kind of creative thinking that really makes the wines, the food and the art so much more integrated into a style of living that is seamless and not contrived – Bravo!


  4. Stephanie Miskew Says:

    Fabulous post, Tom! I love how you tied art and wine together and you make a very valid point. Also, how was the Magritte exhibition? Would love to see that as well!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thank you, Stephanie. I like Magritte a lot, but I actually found the exhibition a bit disappointing. So many Magrittes cheek by jowl showed up a lot of his ingenuity but also revealed an underlying sameness — sort of a one-trick pony show.

  5. Ole Udsen Says:

    Yet another lovely, thoughtful post. I generally agree with the sentiments, but have to admit I am rather taken with Picasso, who – for me – transcends technique and has a very strong impact. Much of his work does seem rich in testosterone/alpha male, so perhaps the whiff of that is also somewhat offputting? Modigliani has seemed too cerebral to me through the ages, but perhaps I need to take a closer look. On the wine front, I cannot fault your logic, and find the framework you put it in very convincing.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Hi, Ole. I think you’re right about Picasso and the alpha-male pheromones he sprays. As for Modigliani, I’ve always found his intellectualism well balanced by the sensuousness of his painting. But de gustibus, etc.

  6. Ernie DeSalvo Says:

    Tom, there are many wine blogs out there but none are as beautifully written or artistically presented. I loved this article and agree with you wholeheartedly.

  7. John Wion Says:

    What a lovely post, Tom.

  8. Geoff Says:

    What a beautiful analogy! On reflection I now realise I tend towards “Modigliani” wines but would never have thought to express it like this. Interestingly, I prefer Modigliani’s work to that of Picasso as well. Perhaps it’s because Picasso was always so full of himself and that’s so obviously reflected in his works; one could make the same observation about many wines (and perhaps winemakers!)

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