What school provides 14% alcoholic wine with a three-course dinner as part of their program? Well, Cornell in Rome just hosted a wine-tasting night last Friday (actually maybe more like an afternoon – it started at 4pm and ended before 6pm). The first half of us 50 hungry college kids got to enjoy what was, for some, their first experience with wine. Although this was not the case for a few of us: one of our classmates actually brought his own wine glasses to the dinner, his ultra-thin Baccarat outshining the ones the restaurant had prepared for us.
The event was held in Cornell’s long-time friend Renato’s restaurant, just a few blocks away from the school. We all loved Renato right away – his friendly smile and his contagious enthusiasm for wine. Annalisa told us the story of how young Renato, thirty years ago, came to Cornell’s first campus which was right across the street from his restaurant to offer students a discount; and so the friendship began. Sadly for us, they do not offer those lunch discounts anymore since they’re only open for dinner.
Renato began by giving us an incentive to listen to his talk: a competition to guess the three fragrances he prepared for us on the table. The winner gets to take home a bottle of wine. What better to motivate 20 students living on a budget?
There were instances when Renato really tested our “Ivy League brains” to its extent. He asked a rather simple question: “How many colors of wine are there?” to which one of our classmates philosophically responded, “infinite!”. The answer was three.
He also asked us what 60% of 20 was, and one of our mathematicians responded “14.4”. Although this may have been a listening comprehension problem, as most of us heard him say 24 not 20.
We also learned to open a wine bottle without making a popping noise. The key is being gentle, and slowly twisting the bottle, not the cork. I was too much of a coward to try, but the more adventurous classmates were pretty successful in the operation. Others not so much – a loud pop awoke those dozing off from hunger.
Photos by Auri Ford
Another interesting thing we learned is how to tell the alcoholic content of the wine by looking at how slow the arches of the wine on the glass go down after swirling. Higher the content, slower the wine will creep down. Also, you can tell the quality of the wine by looking at the bubbles in champagne. Greater speed, better quality.
The first wine pairing was a Spumante with some garlic breadsticks, cheese stuffed bread, a cheeseball and prosciutto-wrapped-cheese. Spumante is traditionally paired with snacks and appetizers, we learned, and this combination was beautiful. I swallowed them a little too quickly, but took time with the spumante.
Fun fact about champagne: the Benedictine monk Don Perignon invented champagne in 1670 by accident.
Next came a wonderful stuffed flower and another prosciutto-cheese combination, this time with a plum. I’m not a food critic so please excuse my rough descriptions of the dishes here. This was paired with white wine. The vegetarians/vegans of the class were served sweet lemon to replace the meat.
Last came the gnocchi in tomato sauce. Renato told us that traditionally gnocchi was served on Thursdays, but that’s a thing of the past. The gnocchi came with red wine at 14% alcoholic content. I took a sip of it and it was enough for me. Slowly some of the less tolerant ones started turning red, myself included. The red wine was a ripasso wine called San Rocco.
I lied, last came the chocolate cake. But before dessert was served, we turned in our final guesses for the three fragrances I mentioned earlier. My team consisted of four people who have absolutely zero knowledge of wines. We didn’t really understand the game either, and randomly wrote down ‘flower’ ‘herbs’ ‘fruity’ on our paper. Apparently we were supposed to guess the exact smell, like ‘strawberry’. We were the farthest off from the actual answers, and three of the other tables got one or two answers correctly. There was only one real winner: they guessed all three fragrances correct, even violet! I don’t even know what violet smells like, and yet they were able to guess it. They said that the scent reminded them of baby powder, and they googled to see what that scent comes from, and found out it was violet. Quite amazing.
So that team should have been the only ones able to take a bottle of wine back. But good guy Renato gave the rest of us a bottle for the effort. Even our team, who guessed ‘herbs’ when the answer was some kind of fruit which I already forgot.
Through this experience, I learned that wine is really not for me. I smell wine and I can only smell the alcohol. I taste it and I can only taste alcohol. I wonder if a semester in Italy will train my senses… I’ll be bringing my wines book that the school prepared for us around and see if I can start to be a pretentious wine amateur.
It was time to say good bye to Renato as he prepared his restaurant for the night. Two of my table mates loved his bread and went to ask him where he gets it from, and they were able to subscribe to his bread dealer every two weeks for only 3 euros. We’ll be coming back to his restaurant soon, hopefully. Maybe a post-review celebration.