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Wednesday
Apr092014

Critic's Context

Have you ever been to a museum and looked at a "masterpiece" of painting, only to think to yourself: I don't see what the fuss is all about.

Sometimes we need context to understand greatness, so if you don't spend all of your free time studying art history then you might not get exactly why a certain painting is considered "great." There are those who find Jackson Pollock's drippings ridiculous and others who are baffled by Kandinsky's abstract genius. However, if you don't understand composition theory and the symmetry of beauty, it might be difficult to weigh in on these debates. Any masterpiece must be defined by context, but if you don't understand the origins of a genre, it's difficult to appreciate the impact of innovation.

When you see a film labeled as a "critic's choice" you might think to yourself: this is what the experts like, so I should like it, too. However, what you have to remember is that people who work in the field get bored when subjected to the same thing over and over again. Therefore, critics tend to appreciate individuality and diversity over implicit quality, simply because they're begging for something new. The same phenomena happens in the wine and spirits world. When you see "staff picks" at K&L they're generally the result of my co-workers getting excited about geeky, out-of-the-ordinary products that represent something fresh and exciting. Therefore, those looking simply for delicious California cabernet might be let down if they follow us down this path (of course, the cynic's response to this would be: you just like it because it's different, not because it's good!)

Context is definitely required if you're going to understand why we're all very excited about two $70 half-bottles of grappa that we recently secured from Sicily. Even though they're of stunning quality, I don't think the pureness of these spirits alone is going to help you understand why we love them. Frank Cornelissen is like the Jackson Pollock of the wine world. He's a guy making crazy, intense, all-natural wines on the slopes of Mount Etna that challenge the idea of what we think wine should be. Some people think his wines are incredible, while others find them undrinkable. I could explain more about who Frank is and what he does, but the Wine Spectator's Matt Kramer did it five years ago when he visited the winery and he's done a far better job than what I would be capable of.

The short version is this: Frank Cornelissen makes the type of wine that people who drink wine for a living get excited about because it's so different than what we usually get to try. However, if someone looking for a nice, drinkable bottle of Italian red came in and asked me for a recommendation, I would never in a million years give them a bottle of Cornelissen wine because I know they would hate it. That's a strong endorsement, eh? It's not always easy to explain this concept, but that's the best way I can put it. I like it, but I can understand why most people wouldn't. 

So when I found out that Frank was making grappa and that my buddy Nic Palazzi managed to bring two of those selections into the U.S., I was all over them. We could only get twelve bottles of each expression, but a case of each should be more than enough.

Frank Cornelissen Munjebel Rosso Grappa 375ml $69.99 - All of the classic grappa flavors are here in this esoteric expression from Frank Cornelissen: the petrol kick of the distilled pomace and the fiery goodness that the spirit is known for. However, there's a lovely hint of fruit and violets on the palate that goes far beyond what most grappas offer. The finish is mineral and clean with an earthy overtone that one finds threading through Cornelissen's wines as well. It's not for everyone, and not everyone will understand what makes it special, but those who do will revel in it. The Munjebel Rosso grappa is distilled from 100% nerello mascalese.

Frank Cornelissen Rosso Del Contadino Grappa 375ml $69.99 - Distilled from 80% nerello mascalese with the remaining 20% a blend of allicante bouschet, nerello capuccio, uva francese, minella nera, minella bianco, and inzolia. That extra 20% gives the grappa a more floral, perfumy, and spice-driven character than the other Cornelissen grappa: the Munjebel. It's more delicate, feminine in style, and easy to like. Truly appreciating the grappa requires an understanding of what Frank Cornelissen is about, his committment to natural winemaking and his disavowal of anything chemical. That pureness defines his philosophy and his spirits.

-David Driscoll