Issue 28

How Italians Drink Wine

How Italians Drink Wine

As I sat next to my father at the dinner table and stared at his glass of wine, I mustered up the courage to finally pop the question:

“Dad, can I have a sip?”

“Sure, but not too much.”

The liquid barely touched my lips. Still, the taste was unique and not all that unpleasant.

“Dad, why doesn’t anybody else’s parents drink wine at dinner?”

“I guess you would have to ask them. But I think most people in this country are a little intimidated with wine. They don’t feel that they know enough about it, so they just drink something else,” my father responded.

I’m not sure I understood his answer. See, the word “intimidated” is a pretty large gulp to swallow for a twelve year old. But in my quest to beat this question to death, I persisted.

“Dad, then why do we drink wine?”

“Well, your nonno and nonna (grandparents) came from Italy where wine is very common. Everyone in Italy is comfortable with wine. They drink it with their meals. But you have to be careful, it is not good to drink too much of it.”

Good answer. Even I was starting to get more comfortable with this “wine” thing. So, I persisted.

“Dad?”

“What?”

“Can I have another sip?”

“No. Eat your pasta.”

Now decades later, I still see the wisdom in my father’s simple answer. And today wine is more popular than ever in the U.S. While our comfort level has grown considerably, there are still some distinctions in the consumption habits of Americans versus Italians – and other countries of Western Europe for that matter. Having recently returned from a trip to Italy, here are some observations.

Everyone in Italy is comfortable with wine. They drink it with their meals. But you have to be careful…”

  1. Italians almost always drink wine with food. Whether it is the smallest trattoria or most upscale of restaurants, wine comes with basic cheeses, fresh breads, prosciutto and salami, olives and other veggies. Why? Perhaps food tastes better with wine. The natural acidity of wine begs for food. Perhaps in Italy it is assumed that wine’s purpose was, is, and always will be to accompany and enhance foods. And likewise, food enhances the flavor of wine.
  2. Wine is a very unpretentious beverage. On my recent trip, and in previous ones, there was a noticeable lack of gargling, spitting, closed-eye sniffing, genuflection, hyperventilation, levitation, or exaggerated inhalation to the almighty elixir. The full range of glassware was used, from the finest Riedel or hand-blown Italian stemware to the smallest juice glass. They all worked. And what was always present with wine was a lot of stimulated conversation and smiles, and always respect and appreciation for good vino.
  3. They drink their own. Wine lists in Italy typically do not include American, French, Spanish, or any other foreign selections. Why not? With more indigenous grape types than any other country to choose from in their own backyard, Italians feel no need to drink anyone else’s wine. While in Rome and throughout the region of Tuscany wine lists were covered with Chianti Classico, Brunello, Barbera, Nero d’Avola, Aglianico, Primitivo, Cannonau, Vernaccia, Vermentino, and dozens of other native, Italian-only wines. With the exception of some tremendous Supertuscans and an occasional Merlot, ever popular American favorites such as Cabernet and Chardonnay were about as easy to find as Bin Laden.
  4. Wine is an everyday, positive, stimulating, friendly beverage. The intangible cultural, soulful, artistic influence of wine is evident and undeniable throughout Italy. It would be a stretch to say that wine had anything to do with the actual physical construction of the masterpieces of Italian frescos, sculptures, churches, and monuments. But it would be unfathomable to think that the imagination of the Italians was not stimulated to create and design these unparalleled works of art in the first place. Just as food sustains the body, wine can revive and stimulate the mind.

Americans have come a long ways in our understanding and appreciation of wine. Our wines are better than ever and consumption is on the rise. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the 20-somethings out there, now preferring wine as their beverage of choice more so than ever before. And they are drinking pretty good stuff too, not the sugar-sweet “pop” wines of a generation ago. Sure, there’s no end in sight to the goofy-labeled “critter wines” of the modern era. But at the same time, interest and curiosity in previously unknown and obscure wines from all areas of the world are at an all-time high. We are finally getting comfortable with wine. And while countries such as Italy had a bit of a head start with this whole wine thing, we are getting there. Finally. Salute’!

John Finocchiaro

John Finocchiaro

John Finocchiaro is a former co-owner of Johnson Brothers Finocchiaro, LLC, a Nebraska wholesale wine, spirits, and beer distributor. Formerly the owner of Finocchiaro Wine Co., Inc., John has been in the wine distribution business for the past 25 years and the Finocchiaro family’s association with the Nebraska wine industry has been continuous for the past 73 years, since 1935. John was a Certified Public Accountant before entering the family business and is a Certified Specialist of Wine.


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