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May 19, 2010

The Grape Escape: A Chianti fiasco

What ever happened to the old Chianti bottles that came wrapped in wicker baskets? If you’re past a certain age, you’ll remember these well. Once the mainstay of modest Italian restaurants around the world, they served as handy candlesticks after the wine was gone.

Actually, the bottle — called a “fiasco,” and there’s a story behind that — is still made. They have fallen out of general fashion, though, for a couple of reasons.

One is that as Italy’s economy prospered in the postwar years, the wages of the skilled workers who wove the baskets rose to the point that it cost more to make the bottle than the wine.

Perhaps even more significantly, as Italy’s modern wines have gained wider respect on the world market, Chianti’s producers upgraded their image, fearing that the old fiasco bottles implied rustic country wine. Many of them switched to a standard square-shoulder wine bottle.

So why was the old bottle called a “fiasco”? Simple: It stems from the same ancestor word as the English “flask.” But in Italian slang, “fare fiasco” — “make a bottle” — means, well, really screwing up, and the English word “fiasco” comes from that.

Want a vinous nostalgia trip? Find a family Italian eatery like the new DiFabio’s Casapela on Frankfort Avenue, reviewed this week. Order a bottle of the Melini Chianti — $26 on the wine list — and treat yourself to the familiar fiasco. The wine inside is decent Chianti, dry and tart, redolent of black cherries and spice. But for drinking at home, take my advice: Go for a popular lower-end Chianti producer — Caposaldo or Gabbiano, for instance — and save a few bucks by skipping the wicker.