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April 11-17, 2007

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Italians Take S.F.

By Alastair Bland

The Italian Wines 2007 extravaganza last month at San Francisco's Fort Mason brought together 127 Italian wineries, nearly 150 wines, a plethora of alien grapes and the best-dressed crowd of wine enthusiasts to march west of Sardinia.

Italians evidently will travel to other continents in order to taste wines grown in their neighbors' backyards. Seems preposterous, but at the Fort that Thursday, it seemed that nearly everyone was tall, slender and sexy, with chins high in the air, dressed to kill, of impeccable posture and confident stride, and speaking in the sing-song cadence of Italian.

As for the wines themselves, they mostly tasted like dirt, or terroir, I should say. The wines might have tasted a bit more distinct had not almost all of them been relentlessly blended, but that's how the Europeans do it, mostly. This results in faceless, homeless drifters in a land of stately Zinfandels, proud Petite Sirahs, reserved Chardonnays and other distinguished North Bay purebreds.

One wine whose affiliation I didn't bother to note carried flavors of lemon rind, spilled beer, arugula, thriving compost and beta carotene. I looked at the label and saw a storm of Italian hieroglyphics, showered with accents forward and back and several alphabets' worth of vowels.

"Perdon, Madame, qu'est-ce que c'est, por favor?" I queried.

"This is 100 percent Merlot, and it sells itself, at $100 per bottle."

"Why so mucho?"

"Because the maestro made less than 600 cases last year," she snickered.

This was a perfect textbook example of scarcity--not quality--driving the price of wine, and somehow people fall for this scheme. Truly, I've tasted Merlot more memorable from the corner wine shop that cost $5.

There were relatively few Americans on the premises, near as I could tell. They could be distinguished from the Italians primarily by their stunning lack of style and grace. But Steven Segal was there, and he made a strong representation for us North Americans. From the cheese table, he analyzed the situation with his characteristic nobleness. He stood tall in black leather boots, blue jeans, a silky gray button-up shirt, his hair tied back in that classic ponytail we have all come to love. But as I approached him to ask for his autograph, he suddenly belted out "Ciao bella!" at a passing raven-haired farmgirl who broke into a laugh of familiarity. "Nothing but an Italian," I grumbled as I snapped shut my notebook. "They probably stomp grapes together back home." Another day of my life, and still I had never met Steven Segal.

Before departing, my date and I sampled the 2003 Chianti Classico Vigni Casi from Castello di Meleto. It tasted like fine bottled water with a hint of rich limestone dust. The 2003 Tenores Badde Nigolosu, on the other hand, was the finest wine we experienced, like a Zinfandel of softened pepper notes over a foamy sweetness of blueberry pudding. The 2004 Gewürztraminer Passito Terminum, also a nice one, tasted perfectly of pineapple.

But overall, the blended terroir of the wines made them drab and unremarkable--not what I had expected of Italian wine. I recall the ZAP festival and can say I've had better vino, but I stand convinced that Italians are the most beautiful people on earth.

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