Describing wine and its galaxy is not always easy. Varietals, estates, producers, production, ageing, cellars and sellers — the list is never ending. It can feel like a strange, foreign, and at times even an elitist passion.
Bacchus’ nectar effectively strokes all of the senses — touch, sight, smell, taste — but one of those needs an acoustical nudge. Sound. That ‘cling’ of a toast and the laughter and chatter that goes with raising a glass in company. Wine encompasses all of the senses. If a sixth sense could be added, it would be called togetherness. Something that has been put on hold, but not forgotten, by wine writer and journalist, Monica Larner.
Monica has been covering wine for over two decades. But her global understanding of the mystical fruit and all of its manifestations goes back much further. Even before her family planted their first vines on Larner Vineyards in California, Monica knew how to tell the story of Planet Grape. Make it accessible, understandable, earthy and human.
A grape is a friend to know, and a tale to be told. A delight to be shared.
In the span of a month (in times past and times to come), Monica can be found visiting any one of Italy’s 46,000 vineyards, attending numerous events, speaking at conferences or giving a Master Class in New York City. Her vibrant approach and accessible descriptions demystify and charm. As a journalist, she has the rare insight into this Italian cornerstone and speaks to the most savant, and also, most eager novices. Her style transmits a universal appreciation that is hard to come by.
Over the last months, Monica says, “My adopted home Italy has been on a national lockdown due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). I am watching events unfold from afar because I was unable to return to Rome before my return flight was canceled. As the COVID-19 pandemic casts its dark shadow across the globe, we look to Italy for bittersweet consolation and inspiration. Our hearts are profoundly touched by the resilience and creativity of the Italian spirit.”
From this deep reflection, her Decameron Wine series for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, takes readers on a journey dipping into an Italian literary classic. The key is historical, the timing contemporary, the subject timeless.
In these times, the taverne (taverns) in bell’Italia are empty, street cafes are just shaking out of an imposed hibernation and while convivial moments have been hard to share, they have been shared. Chats, through the written word, or banging on pots from a balcony in cities that used to throb with activity, have replaced the usual get togethers.
Despite the pause button for people, some producers and all of the global anxiousness, Monica has found the eternal pulse in the subject. The gift of wine and all it has to offer continues to be told, bringing a sense of togetherness in isolation.
This is what Monica, author of Living, Studying and Working in Italy and In Love in Italy (amongst many titles) has to say.
“Without the chin chin, wine is just a bevanda, it’s just a beverage. But with the chin chin it becomes a social. It becomes a celebration, a birthday, an anniversary — it becomes a moment of human interaction. Wine is the glue that metaphorically covers anything about humanity that we love and appreciate,” Monica Larner.
These are odd times to be a wine journalist. How do you taste wines by zoom? What are your challenges right now?
Everything has changed now. Everything has changed in my job with this Corona virus. I get seven or eight conference invitations a day for tastings, for interviews. Most of them are Zoom some of them are Facebook a lot of them are Instagram Live. I did one that was a wine auction. So everybody has embraced this new technology, this kind of reaching through social distancing via social media.
Is it working though? Are you able to navigate it that? Obviously you can’t taste by zoom, so it becomes technical.
I did a tasting with (Tuscan producer and Marchese) Lamberto Frescobaldi. They sent me samples. So I tasted with him by screen. We both had the same wines in front of us. Now, I am doing about four of those per week. Producers send me the wines then we set up an appointment and taste together. It gives me a chance to ask what they changed or what is different about that vintage or whatever. Its actually convenient because you get all the information needed to write a review.
So ironically it is smoother and more efficient?
Ironically, it takes up more time. The conversation is always longer because we want to talk about the family, how they are and how things are in Italy. Everyone is in so much shock and disbelief over what is happening that there is a lot of catching up and a lot of people want to reach out. I have had people that I don’t usually have relationships with, like importers and people that I have never met in person, all asking me for Zoom and Facebook calls. Before it would of been just an email. It is almost as if everyone wants to be closer.
What is Italy facing once the Corona virus has passed? What will be some of the factors that hit producers?
Ultimately the experience of going to vineyard and getting that proverbial sand on your boots, being there in person and smelling the flowers, being in the breeze… all of that is so much a part of wine is about. But for now, it has become virtual, which is a convenient work around. Personally, I really can’t wait to kind of going back to do my job being in the places of where the wine is made. And I am not the only one. Producers will have to find ways of opening back up for the public and adhere to social distancing rules for a very long time to come. Tastings will change. The closeness. Even toasting.
When do you think things will go back to normal?
I don’t think any of us are ever really going back to the way things were before. That constant rush to airports. I remember there were times when I had a flight, and the next day I had another, and then I just had enough time to if I was lucky to take a taxi and get to Rome and change my suitcase out again. I think all that frantic pace is beyond us now. It seems impossible to imagine it at this point. This is huge moment of reflection on how we interact with our planet and our fragile ecosystems. Everything is going to change and I think for the better. We were given this blessing in a sense to really reflect of how we interact with our planet and we have to come out of this with something, some lessons learnt. Some changed habits.
Is there a takeaway from all of this moment of lockdown and slowdown?
The incredible thing about this experience is that nature doesn’t stop. The vineyards are growing and in fact I have the great fortune of being here during the entire spring and see the whole vineyard awaking. It has been breathtaking. I walk every afternoon and literally see 10 centimeters of growth a day. Being able to smell the grapes bloom — they have these tiny little flowers and with a very delicate honey, violet, kind of melon aroma. It is just beautiful. I was even talking to some producers about this and they say the same. It is a time of year when they are always off their vineyards in Italy to see our exporters and go to trade shows. Now this year we are all kind of sitting watching this magic unfold. There is no better place to be during this time than on a vineyard, so close to nature, seeing it all happening. I feel so fortunate that I can witness this magical awakening.
You have explained that opening a bottle of wine is like opening a universe — earth to flask, it is a sort of alchemy. I have a fond memory of you saying (as you held up a grape between your fingers) “in this grape there is an universe.” How can you transmit that in these days?
It’s not a coincidence that the word for vines in Italian (vite) sounds like life. Because on a metaphorical level the life cycle of the grapevine mimics our own — all these beautiful different cycles. It’s one of the reasons we have such affinity for this plant and we have cultivated it since ancient times. We love the fact that the yeasts on the little skins of the grape, together with sugar, turn into alcohol and create wine. It happens on its own. No other fruits on the planet would do that just sitting there by itself. This course of life between our existence and grapevine has always been interconnected. I love is the idea of using the grape as a metaphor — that one tiny berry — as a way of telling the stories of an entire nation. This little fruit becomes a vehicle for talking about the regional differences of Italy, the cuisines, dialects, historic tensions, and the personalities. There is just so much richness there and all of those stories can be told thanks to this little fruit that has accompanied us throughout history and continues to give us pleasure, to make us convivial and happy. Ultimately wine is a magical potion of togetherness.
Is there any part of that process that strikes you as the most important or dramatic?
Making great wine is making that vine suffer in some way. Training it is a forcible thing. Trimming, the trellis, its limbs are tied down in place so it can’t grow wild, then grooming, which means cutting off all its new growth so it stays compact. Inhibiting growth so that all of the energy the plant goes to the fruit to make it better quality. And then harvesting — taking off its fruit that it worked so hard to produce all year. We are torturing these vines so that they produce the best fruits for us and then we celebrate a wine that lives passed 70 years old because the poor thing actually was made to crawl through its life producing fruits for us. I don’t know if the grape vines enjoy it very much, but they do make better fruit when they are under duress. Give them sandy soils, or soils that are not good for other kinds of agriculture, they grow on hillside that where grain won’t… all of this is like pushing an Olympic training regime or something, pushing the plant to outperform itself and to beat the clock every year. We have this funny relationship, but it’s very vigorous. Grapevines are kind of a metaphor for vigor, for resilience, for life, for longevity. Ancient, noble plants that are very much a symbol of life eternal. The grow anywhere. We could grow them in Antarctica if we wanted to. They are resilient plants.
You are a photographer, writer, journalist and sommelier. How does that experience and expertise apply to your daily work of scoring vintages and products and being a wine correspondent?
The reviewing part of my job, giving scores, is less interesting to me. What I like is being a journalist covering Italy. Using the grape as my way of telling stories of Italy. Giving scores, those numbers, I find that very limiting and less gratifying. Often people go through my scores and they are only picking out the wines that have 95 points or 98 points (high ratings). That’s great because those wines are beautiful, but it seems reductive simplistic. In general, I wish less importance was placed on those scores. The scores are there, they are a good way of communicating into digits what a wine is about, so I understand. But I relate to that part a bit less. I like the writing part, I do like the writing part. I love the writing part.
For a good part of your life, you grew up in Italy. You went to high school in Rome, and were shaped by that experience. Then worked for an Italian newspaper in New York, then a US publication in Rome. How has that shaped you?
I have this great luck because I always wanted to be a journalist in some way telling the stories of Italy. I realized over the course my experiences doing that through politics or through finance is not really the most accurate, or better, the only way of telling the story of Italy. In the end its this fruit, this little grape, that does it for you because it really reaches into every nook and cranny of the entire peninsula. It is found from every little community to every little lost hamlet on some hilltop somewhere. It binds, it glues everything together, because in every region of Italy grapevines are cultivated for wine. And that’s why this idea of being able to piggyback on the grape as a way of telling a story of Italy has worked. It has been really, really fascinating.
You created a column, regular feature, called The Decameron of Italian Wine. It is moving and insightful. Please talk a bit about it.
We went to this great restaurant — this was my last dinner out before the lockdown — with a friend the first week of March. We were talking about the book and film. So Decameron became a vehicle for telling the story of that moment of quarantine. And I thought, how do we continue telling stories like they did during 13th-century Florence and keeping themselves busy during quarantine when people are going stir crazy and have nothing to do. They started making up stories. So I did this through wine. This would be a way to continue the story telling of Italian wine — present a wine a day with a little bit of a story behind it, which then through Instagram, becomes photographic storytelling. It has been really successful and many have tapped into the wine world through this vehicle. This series was meant to be now, during this quarantine time. It probably wouldn’t have been as powerful before.
Just for fun and out of curiosity, what do you think these people would be drinking? Some historical, some contemporary… Cleopatra, George Clooney, Boris Johnson?
I would say Cleopatra would take a grape like Syrah, which has unknown roots from the Southern Mediterranean that ended up in France. Also it’s very voluptuous it’s very round and it’s kind of romantic. Like Cleopatra, it is an image of beauty and at the same time has this big intensity. I see Clooney on his motorcycle going through Tuscany drinking the big icon wines of Italy. Boris Johnson? I would give him a prosecco. Now that he just become a dad and he has a baby. He is celebrating with a nice chin chin in a delicate mini glass with sparkling fresh prosecco.