Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Choosing Red Wine at Sorrento Restaurant - Brunello di Montalcino - Sergio Vazquez - Essay


"...John’s nose was two inches from a Darioush Napa Valley Cabernet, a Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet, a Far Niente Russian River Pinot Noir, and a “mild” Brunello..."


Choosing Red Wine at Sorrento Restaurant - Brunello di Montalcino - Sergio Vazquez

John had begun to officiate over wine selection, but being distracted by conversation with Maria and my straight-up Manhattan, it took me a moment to understand this.  Accordingly he had directed our waiter Sergio to stack four bottles of wine on our table, which in itself looked absurd.
John’s nose was two inches from a Darioush Napa Valley Cabernet, a Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet, a Far Niente Russian River Pinot Noir, and a “mild” Brunello di Montalcino, Col D’Orcia, 2012, DOCG

“Wine snob,” I said.  “Untrue, it’s critical to see the labels, so we can make a good choice.”  Spoken in the oratorical tone he uses as corporate legal counsel.

After label inspection, we agreed to drink the Brunello, which turned out to be an excellent choice with our food.  Not overpowering, the Brunello complimented John’s lamb, Donnie’s osso buco, Maria’s seafood stew, and my lobster tortellini, with bread.

We enjoyed the shindig.  Conversation was naturally brilliant, at times too loud, then we Uber-ed home.  The next day however, with a clearer head, I wanted to know more about our wine selection process.  Admittedly I know very little about wine, except I like it, and I know my friend Barry appears transported as if in a religious trance when he opens one of his “good” bottles.  Here was the opportunity to gain greater insight.  So I called John, and I called our waiter Sergio, and asked a few questions.

But before I get into that, I’ll tell you why I enjoy Sorrento, over and above its location in our neighborhood.  The bread!  Normally I restrict myself to low carbohydrate foods to be able to maintain a normal weight.  However when I go to Sorrento, I don’t give a damn about weight.  None of that low-carb foolishness at Sorrento.

Sorrento’s waiters serve bread like Edwardian butlers.  You’ll detect a decorous head bow when they offer the bread basket.  Such elegant choices in that basket, seven or more bread types, each with a different texture and color, I never know which to choose.  And you can eat as much as you want.

Another reason I enjoy Sorrento is the piano. It’s classy. Makes me feel hot-to-trot.

Also, the painted mural of the Amalfi Coast. Sorrento’s mural reminds me of spending time in Sorrento when I traveled along the Amalfi coast. Can’t remember if I was going to Pompeii, or into the Campania.


“Uh, I have a question about when we drank the Brunello.  Why were you carrying on about the labels?”  It was crucial to see the labels, John said, because Sorrento’s wine menu did not list vintage years for those particular bottles.  Our intention was to enjoy “a decent” red, or more, so we needed to know the vintage year to be able to make a good selection.

Yea, but why?

John gave me a lesson in “fruit.”  In his opinion, the best reds have a “fruity flavor coming at you, and not high is tannins.”  Certain vintage years had right conditions for “big fruit.”  In California for instance, in recent years, conditions have not been optimal for fruit.  California had bad fires in 2017, so a California red with a 2017 vintage year “is to be avoided.”  Ditto 2016, “hit me with a 2013, or 2012.”  John is partial to certain California “Cabs” with vintage years of 2012 to 2014, fruity, not tannic, the way he likes his reds, “coming at me, good right out the bottle.”

A legal stylist such as John is vigorously accurate.  I was forgetting an important step which preceded label inspection.  According to John, the first thing we did was choose a price range.  We did that while we had our drink.  “You drank your typical Maker’s Mark Manhattan, I drank a beer, Don a gin and tonic, and Maria a glass of Chardonnay, so it was time to choose a Red.”  The question was, how expensive.  Did we want to blow $100 on a bottle of wine, or, did we want to piss away $300?  Sequentially, price range came first.  “Don and I worked out price range, you were busy chit-chatting with Maria.”

Next I called our waiter Sergio.  I began by thanking Sergio for taking care of us, his service was superb. Then I asked him why he carried four bottles of wine to our table.  He did that so we could read vintage years on the labels.  Is this something he ordinarily does?  Yes, it’s quite common for customers to want to see vintage years, and when they do, he accommodates them in that way.  Anything he can do to please his customers, Sergio added, he happily does.

A few more questions. I wanted to know more about Sergio.  What was his name, and how long has he worked at Sorrento.  His name is Sergio Vazquez, and he has worked at Sorrento “for thirteen or fourteen years.”

Sergio was born in Dolores Hidalgo in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.  This is in central Mexico. He has lived in Houston for “about thirty years.”

When I mentioned that his table service was highly professional, Sergio told me he learned good service as a child watching his mother who had a small cafeteria, or café, in the Mercado in Dolores Hidalgo.  His mother’s tiny business allowed her to raise seven children.  Sergio worked as a “server” there when he was young.  He believes that despite the business’ small scale, it was profitable because of his mother’s warmth and attention to her customers.  Sergio’s mother had four girls and three boys.

Did Sergio remember which bottle we ultimately selected?  Indeed, you selected the Brunello, an excellent choice.  “You actually drank two Brunellos.”  Sergio felt the need to be exact.



Here’s a piece of philosophical wisdom I found on Sorrento’s wine menu: “Age and glasses of wine should never be counted.” (“non si contano!”)

Back to John.  Was John familiar with the wines he asked Sergio to bring to the table?  Some.  John knew the Darioush Napa Valley Cabernet, a colleague had turned him on to it, “it’s a big ass wine, with fruit forward, don’t have to wait for it.”

The big ass wine with fruit forward which John’s friend turned him on to caught my attention when Sergio placed it on our table.  I was particularly intrigued by its label image of the Persian King, Darius the Great (550-486 BC).  How puzzling.  The Great King, King of Kings, Darius, who invaded the Greeks, ruled Babylon and Egypt, and built the ancient citadel of Persepolis (515 BC), which Alexander burned (330 BC) while happily relieving the Persians of their wealth, probably to retaliate for Persia’s fifth century sack of the Athenian Acropolis.  I recalled studying the relief carvings on Persepolis palace ruins which are remarkable and which provide information about the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, for example as A. T. Olmstead points out, empire fops wore beards artificially curled with a “permanent.”  Why was Darius on the Darioush Napa Valley Cabernet?

Because the Darioush winery and its vineyards are owned by Darioush Khaledi, an engineer and entrepreneur who was born in Shiraz, in modern day Iran.  Khaledi and his wife operate their California winery in tribute to Khaledi’s father who was a wine maker in Shiraz, as well as in honor of the history of Persian wine making, which reaches back to 5000 BC.  This type of rich history excites me.

Did John know the 2014 Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet?  Yes, an excellent Cab with big fruit and a good vintage year.   I decided it would be fun to see what wine experts had to say about the Jordan Cab.  “Early drinkability, forward fruit and elegant tannins,” stated an on-line review.

Far Niente Russian River Pinot Noir?  John was unfamiliar with the Pinot, although he was familiar with other wines made by Far Niente, he has never had their Pinot Noir.  John reminded me that we included the Pinot as one of our four options because, like the Brunello, it was milder, had “less muscle,” and would suit the food.

Far Niente.  These are profoundly seductive words.  Italians use the phrase “Il dolce far niente” to describe sweet indolence, or the art of happily doing nothing.  Another English translation is “without a care.”  The words called up for me delicious moments of Italian indolence such as strolling Trastevere’s narrow streets to look at green ivy on cracked ocher plaster facades.

Research indicated that “Far Niente” became the name of the California winery after the Italian phrase was discovered carved into the winery’s nineteenth century stone façade during restoration in the seventies.

Did John know the Brunello?  He did not know the Brunello, although he drank Brunellos in Italy, “but I can’t recall their names.”

Was he pleased with our bottle of Brunello?  “It was OK.  It had less punch, so it suited your pasta and went well with Don’s veal, and my lamb, and Maria’s seafood stuff.”  Maria’s seafood stuff was Cioppino, I told John.  It’s the Italian version of bouillabaisse, a very elegant dish.  “Whatever.”


I was beginning to think John would have preferred for us to drink one of the California “Cabs.”  Why did we choose the Brunello?

“You wanted it.”

Damn right I did.  That Brunello represents perfection.  The hilly Montalcino region where the Brunello’s Sangiovese grapes grow is indisputably one of the most sublime places in Italy.  Moreover, what exciting history, the region’s wine making dates back to the Etruscans.

Images: Montalcino region Sangiovese grapes

Sorrento Restaurant’s Bread Basket
Four “Reds” Sergio Vazquez put on table

Sorrento Ristorante Italiano
Sorrentohouston.com



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