There comes a moment in your life when you know that, at last, you’ve become your own person. You’re an adult. For me, it happened over a bottle of Verdicchio.
In the suburbs of 1970s America, Verdicchio was the white Italian wine that my father drank to feel fancy. I always associated it with him. Joseph John Andrews was an incurable striver and an irascible drunk. He grew up in hardscrabble, upcountry Pennsylvania, the son of a Czech immigrant who worked the mines and died, eventually, of black lung disease. My father spent childhood picking coal lumps off slag heaps — or so he claimed. He was a teller of tall, heroic tales about himself.
He left home for the Korean War and didn’t look back. My father wanted nothing of the mountains his widowed mother cleaved to. He went to college on the army’s bill, married my mother, and moved to Philadelphia with her.
The knotty pine bar
A bit player in the oil industry, my father set up factories to recondition steel drums for shipping crude. His work gave us a wobbly middle-class lifestyle. But my father wrapped himself in the trappings of luxury. He wore those silky neckerchiefs called ascots in imitation of a British industrialist with whom he did business. He called himself J.J. He drove a Rolls-Royce to the country club. Traveling constantly for work, he flew Pan Am, an airline synonymous with glamour. He was seldom home, but when he was, he would boast that he was going to build an indoor swimming pool atop the garage.
Instead, he spent every cent he earned on cars and the boat he never learned to pilot, on travel and women who weren’t my mom, on fancy dinners and, also, on booze. In the wet bar with the rollup window in my parents’ knotty pine basement, the shelves held exotic bottles: Poire Williams, pear bobbing within; Galliano in its Italian soldier’s hat; Danzinger Goldwasser, a windup ballerina twirling amid gold-flecked liqueur.
The bar was usually locked, but the triangular closet beneath the basement stairs was not, and that’s where my sisters, brother, and I played hide-and-seek and haunted house. In the carved wooden racks built into its crevices my father kept his wines: Mateus Rosé, Lancers, Almaden; sweet, red sparkling André Cold Duck; and my favorite: fish-shaped bottles filled with Verdicchio. When I opened the closet door, light glinted off the straw pale liquid filling the vessels’ glassy scales. They seemed like treasures. But I didn’t dare touch them. My father liked a bottle of Verdicchio when he was showing off with lobster or shrimp scampi.
“Your daddy is a gourmet cook!” he’d proclaim, pouring the wine with a flourish. He’d be livid if ever I broke a bottle.
As a teenager, I rebelled against my father. Sick of his bombast and rage, I’d snatch those fish-shaped bottles from their cradles and guzzle them warm in the park down the street with my pot-smoking friends. I don’t remember the Verdicchio tasting any better than the crappy beer or cheap vodka we otherwise drank. It was just there, a buzz for the stealing, my father’s unwitting payback for the years I spent fearing him.
The wine’s mediocrity mirrored a larger truth about my dad. At the country club, where he drank at the bar, he told them he was some sort of aristocrat. But the Rolls-Royce was a clunker he rehabbed himself — bought used and barely functional. The only pool we ever had was plastic and made for kiddies.
My father wanted to be a swell. But his drinking, his unreliable word, and the boom-and-bust cycle of the oil and steel businesses left him far afield of his fantasies. Drunk on his plonk, I was my father’s daughter. Still, I didn’t want to grow up to be like him, lying to myself about what I had achieved.
Wine reveals our family truth
In his later years, with my parents’ marriage dissolved and the knotty pine basement gone with the house, my father was pretty much broke. By then, I was a journalist, specializing in travel, food, and wine. My career was the legacy of a father who fashioned himself a gourmand. When I was a child, he’d yell at me if I tried to switch hands to cut my meat because that’s not how they did it in Europe. But when he deigned to take me out with him, I was as romanced as he was by those candlelit continental restaurants, with their Crab Louie and their Beef Stroganoff.
I came to realize that the lies my father told about himself, lubricated by his excessive drinking, wrecked his aspirant palate. His “bouillabaisse” was nothing more than shellfish steamed in tomato juice. The “real French bread” he sometimes baked was as rubbery as the bouncy balls us kids played with. Instead of really learning to prepare haute cuisine, he took a shortcut and pretended.
It was the same with his wine. There was good wine to be had in America by the 1970s — the Judgement of Paris, after all, happened in 1976. But my father’s cellar never saw the likes of Château Mouton-Rothschild or Stag’s Leap. Journalism gave me a way to revel in the love for food and wine that I shared with my father, but it also gave me a responsibility toward the facts, and the truth of my own palate. I knew that the wines swiped as a teen were no more valuable than a six-pack of Bud.
Coming of age
Still, when the opportunity arose to report in Marche, I leapt. I knew this Italian province on the Adriatic Sea is where Verdicchio comes from. What would it be like to drink Verdicchio, not from my parents’ basement, but in the cellars of the wineries producing it?
The decades had changed the winemaking. Judicious pruning, sustainability, single-site designations, and other improved vineyard practices, plus hands-on attention in the cellar, had elevated the quality. The bland Verdicchio my father drank was no more. In the coastal appellation of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, I lingered over a luscious, golden glass of 1999 Podium, the flagship estate wine of the fifth-generation Casa Vinicola Garofoli. Verdicchio’s pronounced acidity, I discovered, gave it legs for a long run of aging.
Even more intriguing was smaller, sleepier Verdicchio di Matelica. Sunk into the mineral-rich soils of a long-ago salt lake, the vines produce wines of structure and complexity. At La Monacesca, the estate his father established in 1966, winemaker Aldo Cifola blew me away with a 2007 bottle of his riserva DOCG wine, Mirum. Toasted almonds, aniseed, cedar smoke, honey — it was gorgeous.
Before returning to New York, I stopped in Amsterdam to see an old friend in her sprawling house on a flower-lined canal. I had known my friend since our hard-partying freshman year, when I was not far removed from guzzling bad wine from my parents’ basement. Now, she took me for the kind of meal my father would have loved, in a high-end Italian restaurant, where her regular table was waiting.
Fancy as she was, my friend knew little about wine. She handed me the list.
“We have to get this bottle,” I said.
It was the Mirum. I ordered beef carpaccio, sautéed wild mushrooms, scallop risotto. The maitre d’ opened the Mirum with a flourish. I tasted. It was good. He poured for my friend. She sipped and turned an astonished face toward me. In the lift of her eyebrows, I knew in an instant that, if you’re lucky, you can improve on your parents’ aspirations and their choices. In the three decades-plus since those days of knotty pine, both Verdicchio and I had grown up.