Aspen Times Weekly: When in Rome … or Paris … or … |

Aspen Times Weekly: When in Rome … or Paris … or …

by Kelly J. Hayes
Italy, Palermo, Vucciria, Piazza San Domenico fruit market
Getty Images | Digital Vision

Under The Influence

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico “RS” 2011

So Cathy wanted to make the point that one of the joys of Italy is great wine can be had for just a few Euros. Unfortunately. I didn’t have the option of going to Italy for my wine so I may have paid a bit more, $18, if I remember correctly, for this wonderful Sangiovese. I considered it a steal as I sipped it with some cheese and salami from Molinari in San Francisco’s North Beach.

It is a charmed life, that which is led by Aspen author, skier and wine-lover Catherine O’Connell.

I met her on the last ski weekend of the year as she was picking up her 55th day on the slopes. This from a woman who told me that she had spent the months of March and April abroad, living first in a Roman apartment and then in Paris for the launch of spring.

Ah, the life of O’Connell.

As is frequently the case during my chairlift conversations, the talk turned to wine and Cathy had some interesting things to say about her wine experiences of the last couple of months. As one who has spent time working in bars in Chicago and selling wine for Kobrand, she had a wealth of experience to draw from.

“In Italy, there is always a bottle on the table,” she said emphatically, as though that were a requirement for any meal. “But the Italians sip their wines, like it’s a garnishment, just something that goes with the dish. You might see eight people at a table and then just one bottle. A little wine in each glass. It’s not like any one is trying to get drunk.”

It is just a part of the dining experience.

I thought back to Richard Betts, the former sommelier at The Little Nell and now a noted author and wine educator, who likes to say, “Wine is a grocery,” meaning that it is something to make a part of each meal as a course in itself.

It got me to thinking about how in Europe, the “Old World,” wine and food go together naturally, organically, without too much thought. Here in the “New World,” we put so much work and emphasis on having just the right wine, just the right vintage, just the right pairing that perhaps, sometimes, we miss the point. We tend to over think it, to over work it. Wine enhances a meal. But if it becomes a focal point then maybe we have our priorities out of sequence.

That is not to say that pairings don’t matter, or that we can’t spend the time and money to buy a great wine that we feel is a perfect accompaniment to a great meal. It’s just that in places like Rome and Paris, simply having a bottle or a carafe of the local wine, say a chianti, or even a young beaujolais, on the table can be as satisfying as the experience of buying, decanting and contemplating an expensive Barolo or Bordeaux.

OK, maybe not. The big bottles and the classic wines have a place. But you needn’t make a wine event every time you sit down to a meal. Like everything else in life, moderation and simplicity can make the wine experience richer, more enjoyable.

“Living in the Testaccio area of Rome, a very local neighborhood, it’s hard not to cook at home when faced with the beautiful food and wine choices,” Cathy said, as she told me about her day-to-day experiences in Italy. “I go to the local markets and just pick out what looks good that day. Everything is so fresh and there are so many choices. Fish for example … you can pick out an orata (sea bass) and they will have farm-raised, net-caught or line-caught. And they are so fresh, and so beautiful, with the tails and the heads still on. You can look in their eyes.”

“One of my favorite dishes is the fresh line-caught orata grilled on the stove top in a grill pan, white beans with sage, thyme, and lots of olive oil, and broccolini,” Cathy said, with a look that told me she was, in her mind, back in her kitchen in Testaccio. “I’ll serve it with a rich and luscious Jermann Pinot Bianco 2012, which will cost just 12 Euros.”

She knew she had me. “Or maybe I’ll have some fresh, handmade rucola and tellegio raviolis from Volpetti’s, the best specialty foods store going — and it was just down the block — with a rich tomato sauce and grilled marinated vegetables on the side. I’ll wash it down with a 2007 Riserva Travaglini Gattinara that I can get for around 28 Euros. I never miss an opportunity for Nebbiolo when it’s not going to break the bank.”

Getting hungry?

And then there was Paris. Cathy stays in the 12th, the Arrondissement de Reuilly, home to the Opéra de la Bastille, and does her shopping at the local Marche d’Aligre. Off the beaten tourist path, the Marche d’Aligre is a local’s gem.

“I might do some sweet fresh shrimp cooked in the shell with a little mustard, mayonnaise and fresh Brittany oysters from the market. They’re perfect with a crisp Muscadet Sevre et Maine, 2013 that will cost about eight Euros. Or any champagne. Even the cheapest are good, because they are, after all, champagne. I buy them in the grocery store.”

On a cold day she might roast a chicken. “I’ll get some potatoes from the market, sauté some fennel with some green peas folded in and I get a warm, freshly baked (even in the evening), baguette from the local boulangerie that I’ll spread with some rich French butter.”

At this point I began to drool.

“A juicy 2012 Coteaux du Languedoc Pic St. Loup (14 Euros) from the Languedoc region is the perfect foil.”

With that, I thanked Cathy for this column, bid her adieu and watched as she headed over to Ruthie’s for a season-ending run.

Paris. Rome. Ruthie’s. Yes, Cathy does live a charmed life.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at

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