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Wine flows through pages of novelist's works

Dave DeSimone
| Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The late fiction writer John Fante (1909-83) vividly captured the trials, tribulations and joys of the Italian-American immigrant experience in the Western United States. Several of Fante's novels and short story collections were reissued recently after being long out of print, and his works are enjoying a popularity never realized during the author's lifetime.

I first became aware of Fante's writings while enjoying a coffee at La Prima Espresso, Downtown. Since the shop's opening nearly 10 years ago, owner Sam Patti and his staff have seeded a well-stocked rack of reading material ranging from free tabloid weeklies to paperback novels to scholarly works on art and culture.

While savoring coffee, I spied Fante's novel "The Brotherhood of the Grape" (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15) and was immediately intrigued. I plunged in to discover the saga of Nick and Maria Molise, a Northern California stonemason and his wife of 51 years who face the joys and challenges of old age while balancing their relationships with middle-aged children.

Nick Molise, an irascible old-timer and proud craftsman who immigrated from Abruzzi in Southern Italy to lay the bricks and stones for many public buildings in a small wine country town, has a life-threatening heart condition and diabetes. His ailments do not, however, stand in the way of his smoking stinky, old-fashioned Italian cigars, enjoying his pasta and veal dishes and joining his cronies in drinking copious amounts of the local red vino from a mute 84-year-old winemaker, Angelo Musso.

When the narrator, Molise's estranged son, returns home for a short visit, his mother inveigles him into assisting the old man in attempting one last brick-and-mortar masterpiece, a stone smokehouse to be built high up in the mountains. Before embarking on the job, Molise, his son and a few of Molise's old friends in the "brotherhood" visit Musso at his winery to sit in the shade of a grape arbor next to the vineyard in the intense late afternoon heat of a spring day.

"For my father and most of the old-time Italians ... Angelo Musso was extra-special, an ancient oracle who dispensed no wisdom, a sage who gave no advice, a prophet without prediction and a god who fermented the most enchanting wine in the world on a tiny 30-acre vineyard endowed with large boulders and sublime vines ...

"As we took seats at the long table, Angelo tapped the wine carafe ... and a woman appeared, carrying a tray of food and wine. She was ... whirling down on us quickly, dispensing glass tumblers, two pitchers of wine, and plates of bread and provolone cheese ...

"We tossed kisses (Angelo's) way to show our pleasure with the chilled wine, the homemade mozzarella and the Italian bread. Now the bees came, one or two at a time, to investigate Angelo's guests ... (The bees) formed a little halo around Angelo's gray hair and helped themselves to his cheese and wine, and he seemed to enjoy their company."

Fante's earlier short story collection, titled "Dago Red," was republished along with several other later stories in "The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories" (Ecco/HarperCollins, $16). Again, wine plays a sacramental yet joyous role when the oldest son of an Italian-American immigrant family dreams of returning in "Home, Sweet Home":

"I am singing now, for soon I shall be home. There will be a great welcome for me. There will be spaghetti and wine and salami. My mother will spread a great table piled high with the delicacies of my boyhood. ... The love of my mother will come over the table, and my brothers and my sister will be happy to see me among them again. ... I shall pass my glass to my father, and I will say: 'More of the wine, Pa,' and he will smile and pour the red stuff with a sweet taste into my glass ... and I will swallow it slowly and deeply, feeling it warm my belly, tingling my heart, singing a song to my ears...the wine from fresh grapes, purple-red and bitter-sweet, will bring delight to that hour of welcome, and we shall all have a fill of it."

Fante's characters are never pretentious about their wine. Instead, the wine and food are simply part of their identity and experience of life. Read Fante's works as a welcome antidote to the pomposity and pretensions of slick media campaigns and sterile numerical ratings that all true wine lovers would do well to eschew.

The following wines would fit perfectly on the table of Fante's characters:

  • Carlo Rossi Paisano, "100 percent Grape Wine," California (5496, $7.49 for 1.3 liters): The light red color has sprightly, fruity aromas of cherries and plums leading to bright, fruity berry flavors. The wine has good acidity and very soft, round tannins through a slightly sweet finish. Drink it to wash down hard cheeses and pepperoni slices with olives and crusty Italian bread. Recommended.

  • 2003 Francis Coppola Rosso, California (5383, $11.99): Film director Francis Ford Coppola has Southern Italian roots and grew up drinking his uncle's homemade wine. This wine blends 49 percent zinfandel, 38 percent cabernet sauvignon and 13 percent syrah, and has a deep purple color, concentrated fruity flavors of plums and blackberries and a very good balance with silky tannins through a dry finish. Try it with pasta with a red sauce. Recommended.

  • 2003 Ca' del Solo Big House Red, California (8774, $11.99): Winemaker Randal Grahm favors a distinctively Mediterranean vibe with this hearty blend of syrah, petite sirah, zinfandel, carignane, barbera and malbec. Its deep ruby color offers aromas of plums and black pepper opening to rich, fruity flavors of plums and smoked meats through moderate tannins, and a dry but fruity finish. Try it with grilled meats. Recommended.

    Additional Information:

    Wine Rack Newsletter

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