It’s Not About the Wine

The introductory wine notes to the new cookbook from Philadelphia’s Vetri—which Mario Batali has called “possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast”—carry a surprisingly sweet observation. The book is called II Viaggio di Vetri: A Culinary Journey, penned by Executive Chef Marc Vetri and a writer named David Joachim, and it won’t be published until this fall: October, to be precise, and I’ll be sure to remind readers at that time. But I’ve just received an advance proof, and I find the book so appealing that I want to spread a little early buzz, in part by repeating an anecdote from Jeff Benjamin, the restaurant’s wine director.

Benjamin’s telling a story about a first trip to Italy, with Vetri, and how his biggest wine-related lessons were unexpected ones—about the importance of human relationships, for example. One lesson that emerges, in more than one form, might be described as putting wine in its place: Through Benjamin’s encounters with Italian wine experts, he is reminded that wine is just wine, a supporting player in the joy of a meal or event, not the whole point. To illustrate this idea, he describes a large gathering for a restaurant meal, and how he fretted intensely over the choice of wines. It was a very wine-savvy crowd—producers, experts—and he wanted to get it just right. But something funny happened: One couple had brought their new baby.

“Everyone was eating, laughing, drinking, reminiscing, and marveling at the baby. The wine tasted fabulous with the food. But at that moment, the most important beverage on the table was the little boy’s bottle of milk. This evening was Julio’s moment to shine, and the wine merely served to enhance the moment.”

Poststructuralist literary theorists tell us that a reader makes every text anew; a text exists, in a sense, only through each independent reading of it. This particular reader, in this particular case, sees Benjamin’s own yearning for recognition, his very human ache to have these people acknowledge his fine selection and savor it. This reader sees, also, the humbling moment of discovery, of accepting that This Just Isn’t About Me. The baby bottle, then, is not sentimental; it’s not a claim that mother’s milk is somehow superior to wine. The baby bottle is pedestrian, generic, and intentionally so; it is a symbol of what binds that evening together, the center of social energy. And perhaps this reader sees the anecdote in that light because it feels so familiar to me: In all of my entertaining, cooking, and putting out good wine, a part of me aches to be acknowledged, to have somebody say that the food and wine are wonderful, perfect. But I’m always happier when I cling only loosely to that yearning, and put my heart instead wherever the mood and conversation are going. I’m always happier, in other words, when I share in the night.