Misa Labarile writes this about herself: ‘I am an Italian expat in Brussels, and a EU civil servant. As such, I would normally have loads to whinge about – the weather and the food, for example – but I make up for the rainy days by enjoying the lovely expat community. I love dinners with friends. I like a house full of people. I like listening to stories, and probably that’s what attracts me in wine too, that each is a story in its own right. As a hobby, I am learning fashion design, and I am an occasional theatre improviser. Through all this, I am passionate about wine: I drink it, I taste it, I learn about it, and I read about it. I have a WSET Award in Wine Level 3 qualification, and a Sommelier qualification by the Fondazione Italiana Sommeliers. I do not have time to moonlight as a sommelier just now, though: I am also the happy mum of a perfectly European baby – half English, half Italian, French speaking – who will grow up to make me feel linguistically inept. My life before my baby was full of exotic, often solitary, offline travelling. I miss that sometimes. Business trips have taken up a very romantic tinge. Otherwise, wine being a shared passion in the family, trips around wine regions are rather frequent, and with some luck, we’ll pass on the torch to the next generation.’ Here’s her (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
As children, if we are lucky, we grow up surrounded by very present, dependable parents, who look eternally solid even as wrinkles soften their smiles, and movements progressively slow. When we are old enough, if we are lucky, we learn that they have had a youth and a journey: and we may find ourselves wishing to have known more, and understood better. This is how my relationship with wine developed.
I grew up in a nondescript village in Northern Italy, where industry bloomed and any indulgence to the senses was a pastime which oughtn’t disrupt the pace of hard work. As such, my mother frowned upon wine; my father, a Southerner better inclined to enjoy life, compromised by buying 25 litres demijohns twice a year, re-filling the same fiascos over and over.
I can not remember a lunch, or a dinner, without a fiasco on the table, just as I can’t remember one without bread, or espresso finishing off the meal. My father had this theory that a glass of red per day was just what the doctor ordered: “it is good for your blood”, he would admonish us endlessly, and with some severity, since no one would drink with him anyway. That improved when I finally turned eight; although, of course, we still had my mum to reckon with.
But even so, wine was in no way remarkable. It was drunk in glass tumblers, absentmindedly, interchangeably with water. It was mostly red. It was stored in the basement, together with cold meat, garlic, old books and the suitcases for the holidays. My dad used the garden hose to rack it from the demijohn to the fiasco, and I was allowed to start the siphon with my mouth. This is hardly a clean method of racking. If a child is not allowed to swallow more than a tiny sip (or even if she is) quite a lot of wine sloshing is to be expected. All our copies of La Divina Commedia carried a slight vinous tang.
But what really strikes me now when I think back to this, is the fact that, as opposed to clothes, shoes, bags, perfumes, music, literature, movie stars, wine had no name; no label; no identity. I now know that what we were drinking was mostly Croatina; but for years, wine was nothing but a straw fiasco.
It all changed the night I was poured a glass of Amarone della Valpolicella Masi Riserva di Costasera, 2007. It was a fine night in a chic wine bar in Rome. After years of travelling, several career advancements and layers of hard-learned sophistication to cover up the scrappy child from the basement, for the first time in my life I was living in Rome, and Rome was sinking in. I moved in exclusive circles around Renaissance palazzos, drinking award-winning cappuccinos for breakfast, and breathing in decadent pride. I tried to fight off the lazy indulgence of it all, as one does, until, after endless dinners, and great bottles which I liked without pausing, the Amarone made its majestic entrance. Like Rome, it commanded enjoyment.
The fun fact about my discovery that wine had a personality is that I wasn’t even drinking it: I just sat there and smelled it. I was picking up mouth-watering scents but I couldn’t grasp them, so I kept trying, and failing.
I must have looked very knowing, frozen in my seat with my nose in my glass, until I voiced my wonder and delight. I was immediately mocked for not knowing the first thing about it, since Amarone and I grew up next door to each other. It is a commonly known fact that geographical proximity to a wine region makes you a natural expert on local grapes, so naturally I was an oddity. I felt ashamed of my poor understanding, and by extension, of my upbringing.
But all of a sudden I was curious, and started making good use of the fancy dinners and patronising experts. This brought me to formal sommelier training, which lasted a couple of years and left me with a pin, a qualification, great friends and a mild form of PTSD. The utter number of Italian grapes is enough to damp any pretension of expertise for years to come. Luckily, the tastings kept up the enthusiasm. But it was a lesson for life I badly needed: train on Italian wine, and you will be given the gift of never taking yourself too seriously, no matter what.
So I know something about wine now. People ask me for recommendations. Labels matter. I have a baby who hears wine discussed every day, and is encouraged to smell the glass. I have many, many proper wine glasses – bottles, too, come to that. I go on wine trips and ask knowledgeable questions. And when I go home, where my dad’s chair is now empty, I am in charge of the wine. Fiascos were discontinued years ago in favour of plain, cheaper glass bottles, but it is my job now, to put one on the table.
Not long ago, I visited my father’s only living brother, whom I hadn’t seen in far too many years. He invited me over for dinner, which, as for many elderly people, was a small affair. But there it was, on the table: an unlabelled bottle of the local red, which no one really knew the name of. Not even two inches splashed in my uncle’s flat, ordinary glass, a sip to wash down a bit of pasta and an apple. Because it’s good for your blood.