Wednesday, June 28, 2006

White Heat

It is scalding. The car is hot; we search for a shade spot to park while we crawl into the next account to proffer our selection. Today, being a wine merchant is just downright miserable. The last thing I am thinking about opening is a bottle of Barolo or Burgundy or Syrah….just not possible…worlds will collide.

I’m in the desert and there is a mirage. Three sirens call. “This will quench your thirst.” And there I am back in the arms of the Italian, the Spaniard and the Portuguese. I’m rescued for a time.

The Italian we call Costalupo and this young Abruzzese, the newborn white blend of Trebbiano, Passerina and Riesling makes me long for the langosto of the Adriatic’s San Benedetto del Tronto. Here we must be content to sip and dream. But don’t dream the summer without this one at your side…

The Spaniard is a bit exotic, Spain being the place these days for experimentation in architecture, in food, why not in wine? I’ll never remember the name of this wine, Oroya, but the flavor will save me through the second month of the inferno here. Also a ménage of three grapes , Airen , Macabeo and Muscat of Alexandria, ready for the characters from Lawrence Durrell’s “Quartet” to raise a glass and drink through the night. Designed for sushi (or carpaccio di pescespada) and anything Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz or Katsuya Fukushima can... in their wildest imaginings.

A Portuguese man went blind at sea and for six years while on board the vessel circled the globe. Upon arriving home in Porto, within a month his sight returned. But his lament was for the world he discovered in those years, a world without war, a world with life and endless vistas. For the remainder of his life he wrote down all that he experienced in those six years..It took him twenty years to finish.
The wine? Oh yes, a simple dry vinho verde, called Famega. Absolutely quenching, even when one is trying to regain their lost years those lives lived.

Costalupo (appx $11.00), Oroya (appx $12.00) and Famega (appx $7.00).

Monday, June 26, 2006

Il mio giardino

A few pictures from the home garden.

The winter garden in transition.

Arugula and Italian Parsley re cycling.
In the back, Cardoons expecting their arrival. Peppers and Cucuzza incubating.

Nepitella for Il Gato.
Hoja Santa for Mozzarella Company and Artisanal.

The end of the Chard.
Hoja Santa mingling with Epazote awaiting their reincarnation with formaggio locale.

Basilico in the seldom seen shade taking un' ombra with Oregano and Aglio.
The flowering of the Cardoon.


Sunday, June 25, 2006

The 31st of June

In the Veneto, legend has it that a monk got into a little trouble with the devil. The monk, Fra Stefano, wanted to make the greatest wine that had ever been made. Inspired by the miracle at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine, this monk filled his barrels up with holy water and called upon an unothodox power to help transform this into wine. A certain fellow, but a diabolical one at that, came upon the scene and offered to help this monk in exchange for his soul. This being harvest time and the monk wishing to enjoy the fruits of his labors, he bartered with the devil to let him have his soul until the end of spring. Now this monk wasn’t too good with time and numbers and when pressed by the devil for a definite date, the monk said, “the 31st of June”. At which time he and the devil made their deal. It seems the devil was none to good at time and numbers as well. But a deal is a deal even when one makes it with the devil. Oh, what a good wine it was!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A young man arrived in the Veneto, in a small town where the Prosecco wine is made. The town, Rolle, is very near the epicenter of the Prosecco heartland, Valdobbiadene. He had read about this area for some time now, the prospect of anticipation was now a reality.

As he settled in his room for the night, in an inn that had once been an abbey, he felt a serene familiarity with his surroundings. It was as if he had been reminded of something that hadn’t yet happened.

Valdobbiadene and the surrounding area is a fantasy land for wine and food lovers. One hour or so from Venice, but light years from the tourists and the hype and the come on. No menu turistica, no pizza, no gondolas. There is something wonderful about the sound of the church bell ringing at 6:45 in the morning calling the people to mass and the workers to their labors. As it has been for centuries. Roosters crow, doves coo and cuckoos announce the dawn add to the symphony of the hills. There is a peace in these valleys that resonates in ones soul long after one is back home.

The wine is simple. It’s white and often bubbly. Fresh and lightly fruity. Now it is fashionable in places like San Francisco and New York, but fashion from this place seems odd. The spirit of here whispers, “Timeless”. Some of the winemakers the young man will visit are Mionetto, Montesel and Bisol, all from the land of the Valdobbiadene.

The problem with fashion is that it overlooks the timeless for the new. Our societies in Italy and America are rapidly paving over the traditions once held in high regard. And with it go the people and the stories. People like Giuseppe, who owns a small plot of land clinging to a hill in Valdobbiadene. An octogenarian who rises at four in the morning to go out and work in his vineyard. The children have moved away to Milan to become accountants and pharmacists. They will never get home by the 31st of June. His way is dying and he tells me he fears this way of life will go when he goes. No legacy buyout from a corporation wishing to further his work into the future.

Sergio Mionetto sold his company some time ago but remains with the company as their spokesman and spiritual compass. The company now embraces modernity and innovation, hoping to reach a larger audience of Prosecco-isti. Sergio, meanwhile, has become a living symbol of those hills, etched on his face like the gulleys of his beloved Cartizze, a small drop of a land that is thought to be a place where the terroir of the Prosecco has its greatest potential. Only 106 hectares. Here the land is some of the most valuable in Italy, valued at $1,000,000 euro per hectare. On this land are more souls who work the land, become the land, who breathe out of that soil nectar that seldom is found in the land. Sell their land? Not likely.

A visit to a farm in the hamlet where the Prosecco of Cartizze is grown. Here in this land one doesn’t find over stuffed mansions of 10,000 square feet with 5 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms, for only two people. Here is a small house with a wood burning oven, home made bread, cheese and wine. And two very content and happy people who live there. Looking at the purity of their smiles, the clarity in their eyes, the simplicity of their lives, these are people rich beyond the value of their land, wealthy beyond trust funds.

During the early spring the winemakers put on an exhibition of their wines in the
little towns. In one of these Sergio gathers with some of his friends and colleagues, journey men and apprentices. A modern day guild of sorts, this one to celebrate the miracle of grapes into wine. Without the devil and the holy water. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that happy gathering? What a life!

Renzo Montesel started as an agronomist for the region. On the outer edge of the Valdobbiadene zone, in Colfosco, He and his wife have a small farm. Their vineyard, the Vigna Paradiso, sits on tufa rock, porous soil that has excellent drainage and exposure. The wine has an infinitely fine mousse. These are younger people and with them comes the hope that some of the living legacy of the elders will live on in the labors of Renzo and his wife Vania. Their wine is ‘hand-made’ and rivals the best the region has to offer in Prosecco.

The Bisol family is equally understated in their outward appearances, but here is where the Prosecco finds an anchor. One of the largest landowners in the Cartizze (they hold 3 hectares) and gregarious in their reach. Their vines cover 50 hectares (where the average vineyard holding is 1 hectare); their family offers wine growing classes, wine tasting seminars and traditional cooking courses from their hospitality center, the Foresteria Duca di Dolle. Here one can lose oneself, or perhaps really find ones true reason for being. The opportunity is here in many ways.

And tonight this young man on his way back from several days out in the field with these beacons of inspiration. On his way back to the room he picks up a book, about an older man of the village. His life, his story, this man who after a period of traveling while young, came back to this little village and lived his life. How oddly familiar this story was to the young man, but only in the way one can sense something that might be about to happen, what they call déjà vu.

The next morning the young man, sitting out among the vineyards taking in the morning, was filled with light and an understanding of the cycle of the old mans life and his, entwined like the vines and the poles holding them up. As the church bells tolled, it was as if the life of the grapes made to sparkle infused within him to the point of immersion into the territory. He was becoming part of the terroir as a flower would bloom, a bird would sing.

It was then the young man knew that book about the old man's life was about the life he was about to start living, in an amazing place, in the hills above Venice.

June 31st had arrived.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In this small, fascinating borgo there are two very renown restaurants: Da Andreetta and Locanda al Monastero, where it is possible to taste some fine local dishes, according to the culinary tradition of the Prosecco hills.
Seasonal products are an extremely important ingredient in the preparation of the menus: Mushrooms, Treviso Red Chicory, Spontaneous Wild Herbs, Asparagus, cheese from the Pre Alps, are just a few of the options available to the chefs. Wonderful al fresco dining in summer and excellent fireside dining in winter.

Ristorante da Andreetta – Terrazza di Rolle
Address: Via Enotria 7 Rolle (Treviso)
[this web site has additional information on Rolle ]

Locanda al monastero
Menu changes daily according to the seasonal offerings. My vote for last meal on earth. Address: Via Enotria 21 Rolle (Treviso)

Ristorante 'Da Gigetto'
An absolute pilgrimage to a shrine for food and wine. One of the best experiences I have ever had.
via A. De Gasperi, 4.31050 Maine

A relaxing and pleasant stay at the “Foresteria Duca di Dolle” will be an unforgettable experience, where enjoying fine wine and cooking classes, visits to artistic sites and excellent local restaurants, mountain biking, walking, where getting what every body is looking for: the perfect balance between mind and body, can transpire.

This land invites you to celebrate the joy of life. The gourmets will find their paradise in this area: in any season, local products are used to create fine typical dishes, and are presented in excellent restaurants and unique gastronomic festivals held all over the Treviso Province. Festivals are just some of the many interesting events to take part in while visiting Rolle.

Cocofungo (mad for mushrooms) - October
Cocoradicchio (mad for radicchio) - Febrary
The Radicchio di Treviso Festival - December
The Combai Chestnuts Festival - October
The Prosecco Spring Festival March - June
Amopesce (fish festival in April)
Riso e Verdiso… - middle of May
The Mostra Nazional degli Spumante Exhibition - September (held at the beautiful Villa dei Cedre in Valdobbiadene. An Italian Exhibition of over a thousand extraordinary, unique and sparkling wines).
Vino in Villa - last week-end of May (organized from Consorzio Prosecco of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene)


Via Colderove, 2
Valdobbiadene 31049
Tel: 0423.9707

Via S. Daniele 42
Colfosco Di Susegana, 31030
Tel: 0438.781.341
no web site

S. Stefano di Valdobbiadene 31040
Tel: 0423.900.138

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Calabria: The Legacy of Local

”What was it like?” I remember my aunt asking me later, about walking into the village where her mother was born. Old Calabria, a little village clinging to a hillside like a vine that wrapped itself around a sycamore tree and hung on through time and the elements.

Right now I am sitting in a room at midnight and it’s 85 degrees F. It’s the middle of June and we have at least 3 months of this inferno to go. We’re in a drought, the wind is blowing from the west, range fires crop up and clear cotton fields, threaten livestock. We’re living in a harsh environment and that’s before you take into account the social aspect that we’ve found ourselves in. What was it like?

I can only imagine what they were thinking 100 years ago, when where they were, in Calabria, looked as inviting as that West Texas dust storm raging on the plains. Devastating earthquake, utter breakdown in civilization, a civilization that had been established in the 6th Century B.C. Desperation, hope,a clean slate, away, just far,far away.

The train took us from Brindisi to Cosenza and we followed Merlin back in time, the pine tree forest through the mountains over the hill. Back to grandmothers house. It was the harvest season, September, in a year that would be remembered, by some, as a better than average harvest. 1977.

Cosenza was as it might have been 30 years before. Ten years later a taste of the outside would plant itself in that sleepy little southern town. For now, all we had was a name, Bucita. Somewhere in the hills we would find our cousins and uncles and aunts. And the legacy of their love of the land, and the grape.

Walking into the village, an overwhelming balm infused the air. Ripe figs, roasting inside their leaves in stone ovens. Honey, bay leaf, chestnut-like complex aromas. Unforgettable.

An older man on a donkey approaches us. Yes
he thinks he knows who we are looking for. This man, Giuseppe takes me to his house where his wife Teodalinda is standing on a stone floor. My grandfather put that floor in. In his wine cellar Giuseppe would later initiate me into a world where wine held secrets and mysteries inside bottles and barrels. He was a winemaker and the harvest was in full swing.

On the same train, another cousin, Luigi, traveled home. We followed Giuseppe and our interpreter, Antonio (Tony), to a small ancient home. On the table, with a demijohn of red wine and
some fresh cookies, and the figs, were pictures of my parents on their wedding day. Connection.

We were just in time, the family needed hands in the fields, a storm front was threatening the harvest. Grape harvest reports supplanted the soccer games on the local TV,
people were more interested in the price of Greco or Gaglioppo than Rossi or Zaccarelli. Time was contracting.
The elements here dominate the environment, the sun, the rain, lightning, thunder. Earth, alive and moving. Here comes the sun. Luigi, finding some of his vines have been washed away, clears out a creek bed for water flow. After
two nights of Olympian pyrotechnics, the people of the land were given back the hill. Like goats we swarmed the vineyards, competing with the bees for the nectar. His wine vats await the harvest.

Another cousin, Giovanni, has been in his olive groves, they seem to have survived. Tonight his wife Elvira, will be making home made pasta, casalinga, and eggplant, melanzane I segreti della nonna.

Sitting in Giovanni’s home with Luigi and Tony, Elvira and Francesco the weaver, drinking Giovanni’s excellent wine. Below us in the basement is Giuseppe’s wine room, the hum of thousands of
crushed grapes fermenting. Teodalinda’s wine flushed face as she posed for a photograph with her husband and a glass of their wine, the ever ringing bells reminding one of the presence of time even in a place like Bucita. They are all gone now.

What remains is the offspring of those days, a
life devoted to the legacy of the winemakers met in those early autumn days in southern Italy, in Old Calabria. Since then I have studied wine in books and passed exams certifying me in some realm of wine specialization. But never were those books, even those vaulted chateaus in France, ever as influential and meaningful as spending long evenings in a room lit by a bare bulb with the elders, drinking their wine and talking into the early hours of the morning.

What was it like? In Bucita we found our people close to their land, eating the food they grew, drinking the wine they made, fresh air, clean, pure,
sweet water. Their legacy of local. Individuals, charitable people, people whose lives hadn’t been too easy, but souls still able to give and keep on giving. My mother’s people, for so long a mystery to us, to find them was an amazing gift. To be with them and in their daily life was an experience I will never forget.

My destiny was being weaved in that place.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Fathers Day 1977

On to Calabria!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Grapefruit, Eggplant & Montepulciano d' Abruzzo

Something that’s been bugging me off and on is words to describe things that are taken from another word which has another context. About once a week I get someone in a sales group or wine shop asking me about the different Montepulciano wines, that "noble" one from Tuscany and the “other” one from some region to the east of Tuscany.

It is part of the distinct charm of the Italian state of mind to give unlike wine similar names. Or anything for that matter. Anyone who has driven in Italy and tried to find a town starting with the name of Colle, Castello, Rocca or Monte will recognize the dilemma. But, after all, it’s Italy and people have been finding their way around, eventually, to the town or the Café or the vineyard. Or not. And then it’s merely a matter of “recognizing” that wherever they have landed, either be it for lunch or a wine tasting or a day in the country, is just “perfetto” . One of my dear friends would say “ottimo”, most favorable. It’s that Italian sense of latitude relative to their compact with happiness.

What did he say? When in Rome…..

So, what’s with the fruits and vegetables? Those who speak English (and Italian) know the difference between grapefruit (pompelmo) and grape (uva). Also the English speaking (and Italians) know the difference between eggplant (melanzana) and egg (uovo). The Italians use different words than the English so there is no confusion. All clear?

But this Montepulciano business is really something that keeps coming up. The folks in Abruzzo say the Tuscans should rename their Vino Nobile and some of the Tuscans tell the folks in Abruzzo, “Hey, we were here first! Get your own name!”

Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Ed McCarthy, the authors of Italian Wine For Dummies, say it best in their book, and I quote, “The confusion is understandable, but these two wines are definitely different wines made from different grape varieties. Vino Nobile is a dry red wine made primarily from the Prugnolo Gentile variety (a type of Sangiovese) around the town of Montepulciano in southeastern Tuscany. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is also a dry red wine, but made mainly from the Montepulciano variety, which grows in the region of Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast, southeast of Tuscany. The Montepulciano variety is believed to be native to the Abruzzo region, and it has no connection to Sangiovese or to the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany.” That’s as simple and clear an explanation as it gets! Now go and get the book, because there are other nuggets in it.

In trips to Italy I have been really fortunate to spend time in the Abruzzo region and make friends with winemakers there.

There are great memories around the open hearth with vine branches roasting fresh lamb and pork from the macelleria with bottles of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Oh, and the people too. One great wine pioneer, Dino Illuminati and his family, stands out in my heart . It was in the town of Controguerra that Abruzzo made Montepulciano theirs. That’s Dino’s town and he’s their Antinori or Mondavi. And he can eat for all three of them. Great guy. Bigger than life. Historical. The stuff great novels are made of.

Now do we have it all sorted out? Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo? Eggs and eggplant? Grapes and grapefruit?

What about this just to mess you up? How do the Italians deal with telling the difference with words like uva (grape) and egg (uovo) when they are growing up? Or what about that Calabrian peasant recipe that has a casserole of eggplant with eggs? You get the picture? Confused again? Good.

And that calls for a glass of wine.What shall it be? Maybe something... Montepulciano? Maybe from a Castello? Or a Poggio? Or a Monte? There is a Monti Montepulciano d' Abruzzo. But dont confuse it with the Montori Montepulciano d' Abruzzo, who also happens to be Dino Illuminati's good friend. But we're way beyond confused again. Pop the cork.

Bona Notte!

Links Italian Wine For Dummies
Illuminati Winery & the US Importer info
Elio Monti Winery & the US Importer info
Camillo Montori Winery
Macelleria Photos from Hank's Wonderful Vacation

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Up the Douro River

Where does one go after they jump off the Italian peninsula? One journey I recently made took me back about 200 years to Portugal, Oporto and the Douro River. Portugal, to me, is like going back in time to what Italy felt like when I first went there. Time moves slower, people walk with a gait that resembles an accompaniment to their Fado’s. Yes slow food is very much alive and theirs is slower… food, wine and the music , that wonderful music.

So why would someone jump off the Italian wine trail? Nothing above me, nothing below me, was that one of the koans we were told by the master, selling water by the river? The river in this case, The Douro, and the land that encloses it, is one of the most important wine producing areas in the world. As important as Bordeaux or the Mosel Valley, Napa or Tuscany, Burgundy or Kakheti, Champagne or Piedmont. Places that time has been honored with the toiling of the vine-tenders. But back to the Douro.

We took a few days in Oporto to acclimate to the pace, and I would recommend that exercise. Harvest time is not high season but is the reason this port exists. The ancient wine families and their business houses across the river at Villa Nova de Gaia, small cafes, slow moving boats, all very laid back and therapeutic, in a very good way.

A train is a wonderful way to move people from one time to another. On the train, workers are heading home with skins filled with home made wine. One soul makes eye contact and brings over a sandwich and a boda bag. The wine is a dry rose, definitely home made, something I will remember as well as the 1945 Dows Vintage Port I had a day earlier or the 2005 Chateau Margaux a few months later.
People, hear me, it isn’t always about the 100 point wines, sometimes it’s about the experience, the ride up the hill, that temporary escape from a world gone insane, that journey up the river.
The Alto Douro ~ off at a tiny speck of a village called Tua. Our home, for these days on the Douro, is Quinta Malvedos , a remarkable estate house with a veranda and provisions. We are guests of The Symington family and a gathering of journalists and members of the world wine community are assembled here. This is a little like being in a chapter from Norman Douglas’ South Wind. A master of wine and his young acolyte. A high priest of the wine world and a good hearted soul. They will share the downstairs room. Two journalists for two very prestigious journals for the successful and wealthy classes. Nice chaps, both of them, representing the east and west coasts of North America. Two rooms on separate floors. Myself and the one who brought me, from the lower midsection of the US, a food and wine writer, on the floor with the wonderful veranda. And our hosts, Rupert Symington and his stateside accomplice.I may not be the most critical of people, and I tend to not want to find too much fault in those around me, especially in close quarters and for a short period of time. So why would I mention it? For those reading who might think this is just a shallow glom. These were nice folks, all of them, and they made the trip that much more memorable. And memories are the harvest of experiences.But this isn’t a travel log. Like the master says, nothing above me, nothing below me….so we jump off! (To be continued)

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