mong the best and most effective ways to learn about wine is just to drink it. Since it’s impractical to buy and taste 200 bottles to determine what you like (it’s also a swirl-sip-and-spit waste of good grapes) the Italy-based neophyte should consider the enoteca — or wine bar — approach. Find one and begin exploring.
The strategy works on many fronts. First, your neighborhood enoteca often comes with cute wine boys (or girls). Appearing doe-eyed and curious and asking shyly, “Can you tell me something about Italian wines?” helps break the ice in terms of practicing Italian and can score you some good wine — and maybe even a date to a nearby winery.
Learning by the mouthful also hones taste and electicism. As you experiment, preferences sharpen.
Do your taste buds prefer Negroamaro to Nero d’Avola or Cabernet Sauvignon over Cabernet Franc? Or maybe you want a blend of two?
Do you like light-bodied wines or more full-bodied ones? Soon, you’ll know if your palate favors traditionally-crafted wines or more international styling that eschews old-world structure.
Enoteca learning has another dimension. Money doesn’t necessarily buy good taste. Employees generally know what patrons like, not just what their euro buys. By offering myriad choice, enoteca staff can gradually identify the drinking patterns of its clientele.
You can find dozens of enoteche scattered throughout Italy’s major cities. Pick with care. A good rule of thumb is to find one that sells wine both by the glass and by the bottle — and whose selections change frequently.
The better enoteche, such as Le Volpi e l’uva in Florence, boast staff who really know their trade. Owner Emilio Monechi is an enologist and vineyard owner. His partners Ciro Beligni, Giancarlo Cantini, and Riccardo Comparini are professional sommeliers who have passed through three tough levels of wine training mandated by the A.I.S. l’Associazione Italiana Sommelier (sommelier.it), the vinous equivalent to the law boards.
“People tend to have specific characteristics that they like and don’t like when choosing a wine,” Beligni told me recently. “I ask them questions… do you prefer light wines or full bodied wines? Sometimes they say I want something elegant, which usually translates to full-bodied.”
Le Volpi e l’uva specializes in wines from smaller producers. It taps not only Tuscan bottles but those from vineyards in Alto Adige, Piemonte, and Sicily. Their by-the-glass selections change weekly.
Ask Beligni to select a reasonably-priced wine and he pulls out Emilio Bulfon’s Piculìt Neri delle Venezie. It’s a wonderful red made from an ancient grape that has only recently been reintroduced. (It’s this kind of insight that explains why Le Volpi e l’uva rates highly in Slow Food’s rating of Florence enoteche.)
Some enoteche have by-the-glass tastings of the so-called Supertuscans, long popular among Americans. Tasting by the glass is an excellent screening process.
Below is a list of enoteche I’ve handpicked based on three essential criteria: knowledgeable staff, friendly atmosphere, and wines in all price ranges.
Le Volpi e l’uva, Piazza dei Rossi, 1. Florence. Tel. 055.239.8132
Enoteca Margherita, Via Guelfa, 73. Cortona (Tuscany). Tel. 057.560.5067
Il Goccetto, Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14, Rome. Tel.06.686.4268
Enoteca Cotti, Via Solferino, 42. Milan. Tel. 02.2900.1096