Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Santa Rosa Press Democrat Dan Berger: Europe's culture of food, wine in sharp contrast to U.S. By DAN BERGER FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT October 11, 2011 at 11:22 a.m. The food/wine culture of Europe is so vastly different from what we experience in the United States there’s almost no comparison. After spending two weeks in the Mediterranean, briefly visiting towns in four countries, it was clear that those who are adventurous eaters and drinkers can find an almost infinite array of comestibles in Europe — a culture of dining that puts America to shame. We have developed chain eateries that have essentially spelled doom for thousands if not millions of family-owned dining establishments. By contrast, Europe’s “pre-prepared food” culture remains, for the most part, mom-and-pop. And regionally fascinating: Simple sandwiches displayed in ways that would make a U.S. restaurant inspector apoplectic. Evidence of this culture is obvious in the wine offerings. Whether it was in Portugal (where wine is so cheap you think it’s a misprint), in France (with a mind-boggling array of choices), or Italy (with wines from grapes most people never heard of), wine lovers are in heaven. Well, maybe not all wine lovers. If you want a 15% alcohol fruit bomb with a slug of wood residue, you’ll be out of luck. Nor can you find fat, lugubrious Chardonnays or over-the-top Syrahs. Wine is everywhere, even included with some “fixed-priced” lunches. In some cases the wine was simply termed “vin de table” or “vino rosso.” When we asked English-speaking servers what grapes were used, we merely got a shrug. And for 3-4 euros ($4 to $5.30) for a quarter-liter, the wine was fine with our pasta. American chain restaurants, by contrast, offer us soft, higher-alcohol wines with less food compatibility at prices that would seem to a European to be absurd. A major reason for this is simply that most of Europe considers wine to be an integral part of a meal. By contrast, most Americans look at wine as one of two things: Either it’s equated with all intoxicants or it’s a specialty drink for the snooty. Another factor is that many American wineries have an exalted view of their products. But at most smaller, family-owned wine farms in Europe, prices are routinely remarkably fair. In particular, we visited two wineries on this trip, one in Cadiz, Spain, one in Ajaccio, Corsica. Each one made an excellent dry rose wine. Each sold for less than four euros, about $5.50. Most California wineries with roses this good charge at least twice as much. Even the “reserve” red wines sold for less than $20 a bottle. Perhaps one reason for the success of so many California wine brands is familiarity. Brand loyalty is a key factor for many; people find comfort in buying wine with a recognizable name. But real wine lovers — those who worry more about aroma and taste than they do brands or grape varieties — know that the most excitement today comes from the obscure. And one key point: Price is usually unconnected to quality. A lot of exalted wines are far less interesting than they should be, and many lower-priced wines are perfectly compatible with food. About one bottle in every three sold here is an import, an all-time high. That indicates that what we found on our trip isn’t going unnoticed. Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him email@example.com.