Ryan Chartrand

The restaurant was busy and bustling, filled with conversations, with people coming and going and with smells of epicure wafting from the kitchen. As the waiter brought yet another carafe of white “vino” to the table, I couldn’t help but notice how fast this pinot grigio had snuck up on me. It was a wonderful evening in Florence, though there had been lightening and thunder storms earlier. The sun was beginning to set while my Australian friend and I were more preoccupied discussing our highlights of Italy.

My top three highlights were carafe wine, pasta and gelato. This white wine that we sipped was not notably fresh or innovative, but something about its subdued nature drew me back glass after glass. There was something new yet remarkably familiar, something I couldn’t put my finger on.

That something familiar could be the fact that I have enjoyed a near replica of this Italian white wine, here in California. That’s right. They’re called “Cal-Ital” wines, same pinot grigio grape, same Italian style. With nearly 1,600 acres of Pinot Grigio planted in 2000, counties such as Lodi, Sonoma, Monterey and Kern are responsible for bringing us mass quantities of this “Cal-Ital” wine in a major way according to Wine Business Monthly.

Pinot grigio is just like the wallflower at a social gathering. You like it around, but it never draws enough attention to where you would seek it out once you got to the party. It’s mild mannered and very low-key. In a culture filled with lifted trucks and outspoken, ostentatious people, Americans could take a few lessons in the art of subtlety. The Italians, as far as white wines are concerned, have mastered this subtlety down to a science. Enter stage right: the pinot grigio.

Pinot grigio comes from the Northern part of Italy. Truth be told, it really comes from France, where they call it pinot gris. Literally translated, it means “pinot grey.” Of course, this makes sense because the grapes have a grayish-white gleam to them. The pinot gris is allegedly a close clone of the pinot noir grape. Buyer beware: if you happen across a California “pinot gris,” you will be getting a French, usually Alsace region white wine instead of an Italian one.

Among some of the more laid-back wines, the pinot grigio has been called, well, a lot of things. Of all these things, for better or for worse, British wine writer Jancis Robinson calls it “a sea of reasonably undistinguished dry white with low aroma and noticeable acidity.” Basically, it is lacking aspiration and has a hint of bitterness…remind you of an old ex? Oh, but pinot grigrio is such a comfort to come back to. You go to it when you are a bit lonely and that familiar comfort is there for you. You drunk dial it at 3 in the morning and old reliable pinot grigio is there, ready to mix things up again. You randomly run into it cruising the wine aisle and decide to take it home. Well, you get my point. There is nothing wrong with having a reliable, comfortable standby.

Though, just as in the case of old flings, as time passes, your interests dwindle. At this point, you generally want to move on and experience new things. Maybe you want to sauce things up with syrah, or perhaps you are looking for something more long-term. A romance with Rhone? The possibilities are endless, but at the end of the day, all wines aside, you have pinot grigio sitting on the bench, ready to be called in.

No matter the occasion, be it enjoying a glass with dinner, or hosting an unexpected friend stopping by, pinot grigio makes an excellent addition to your refrigerator. Its mild-mannered nature makes it always a crowd pleaser. If you prefer dry and light I recommend a chilled Bonello d’Italia. If you’re looking for a twist on familiar, go with contadino, which gives you an effervescently pleasing surprise. Both can be found at Trader Joe’s for under $5.

While pinot grigio still gets along well with all your old mutual friends, it should be noted it doesn’t do so well with highly acidic foods. Some big no-no’s are things like tomato sauces and citrus salads. This white wine is a great pair with appetizers, cold foods, salads and seafoods such as shrimp or salmon. In Florence, I enjoyed a seafood pasta in a butter cream sauce alongside my carafe of grig. Here in San Luis Obispo, I happily settle for pitas, hummus and a glass of my favorite mistake.

Feel free to submit any recommendations, accolades, favorite wines or recipes to laurenjeter@gmail.com.

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