Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Calabria is a strange place. I do not advise American tourists to go there on their first trip. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Calabria. But you cannot pack your wash-and-wear assumptions about the way the world is from an American-based set of ideas.
Calabria is its own reality, and if you don’t mind what happens, then you can become immersed in a world of color and spice, folklore and music. The rest of Italy sometimes makes fun of Calabria, for her poverty and her backward ways. The Calabrese say, that impression, while not correct, serves well, to keep away some of the riff-raff.
The beaches, the water, the sun, the breeze. Elemental ways. If you don’t mind. Paradise for those who can turn the tempting serpent of their inner chatter box off long enough to take in the Now.
After a long and winding drive through the Sila, Cosimo, our host, was waiting for us at his trattoria. A short man with one eyebrow and piercing, beautiful eyes. Like a sunflower stalk, Cosimo stands on this earth anchored, confident. A very happy soul.
Immediately he starts rapid-fire talking to me in Italian, and for some reason, I understand almost every thing he says. Maybe it’s the accent, like my Nonna Lucrezia’s. He excuses himself to talk to his fishermen out in the sea.
Italy has a strange cellular reception configuration. I should ask David about this, he knows more about that than I do. I imagine, for the trade involved, the brokers and restaurant owners on the shore need to be linked up with the fishermen, in order to gauge their commerce in fresh seafood.
A plate of gamberi came out from the kitchen and Cosimo opened a bottle of a white Mantonico.
Crisp, cool, fresh, I knew I had to pace myself. This was just one of probably many courses. Antonio from the winery would be here in 20 minutes, he wanted us to taste his new wines in the ambience of Calabria. It had been a few months since we tasted the wines at Vinitaly, so I was anxious to taste them again and in such a wonderful place.
After a meal that regenerated our road-weary souls, we sat along the shore to the song of the waves lapping by our feet. Peace. We had gone from forest to coast in a few hours. The only hot thing we suffered through was the grappa al peperoncino. This is Shangri-la, sans serpente.
What do I love about Calabria? Well my trips there from the past have great memories.
The figs, the eggplant, the peppers. The farm made cheeses, the exotic honey, the green hills, the innocent rustic character of the region. Even though the trattoria is along a strip of coast, the heart of the place is in the hills, among the wild things. That’s what makes Calabria so alluring.
Friday, July 27, 2007
IWG sent a text. He is out of range for broadband, can't post latest installment on his southern swing. Apologies. Something about mountains interrupting his connections. And a plate of pasta with a vodka and peperoncino sauce waiting for him at the table. And, pass the Ciro, whatever that means. He'll post his Calabrian piece when he can. In the meantime he asked me to drop in one of my latest cartoons. And, no sweet Bea, it isn't about you.
Thought for the weekend? J. Krishnamurti says his secret of life is "Don't mind what happens." Later. -AK
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
It’s 5AM and I’m staring at cameras on a shelf, wondering which one to choose, to photograph a shadow. A €2.00 Euro coin, and pottery shards from over 2,000 years ago, crowds the desk, making little room for the cup café latte that will help me through the fog. Winding roads through a park, the scent of the sea and some eerily familiar feeling is slowly receding as the sun pulls its way towards the new day.
“The Salento Peninsula”, she whispers, from her secret grave. Here where the cult of the goddess reigns, where the Mas of the Languedoc becomes between the Masserie of the Salento. Where silent temples rest among fields of wheat and vines. Here is where one can find a sense of Italia Antica, a place where one can reclaim some of that which has been lost by time. Where one might look into an ancient mirror and come face to face with Her.
How easily we are satisfied. All they have to do is find an abandoned building, get some government funding, fix it up a little, a couch here, a television there, maybe an internet connection. Make sure the beach has sand and umbrellas, stock the kitchen with fresh vegetables and seafood, and pasta, always the pasta. And voila, the buen retiro for the traveler or vacation bound is ready.
We were sampling some Falanghina and a few other varieties that will never make it to America, except perhaps New York. How can I have that sort of thought in a place like this?
In a courtyard, in the shade, Arturo and I are talking. Arturo is a man who once lived in New York; he watches the city from the internet now. “How is it someone like Joe Bastianich goes on national TV,” he asks me. “to talk about water?” I tell him we are now a country of city folk obsessed with where our water comes from. “You should worry more about where your oil comes from or those gigantic cars you put them in!” I cannot disagree. But I do wonder if the folks in New York have gotten so distracted that they no longer concern themselves with which wine. “Maybe Joe thinks he can turn water into wine,” Arturo comments. Or maybe water into gold. Wine into gold, wheat into gold, tomatoes, pasta, fish, the whole experience will turn into some golden god that is the fashionable one to worship today. New York, you can have your melted down idol of gold and water. Here, in The Deep South, you'll never touch our goddess.
I get an email from a friend in Manhattan, she tells me that I am sounding a little crazy. “There are many many crazy things,” Sinatra sings, “May I list a few.”
I could stay here for more than these moments will allow. But the road calls, Calabria, Sicily, Tunisia, Malta.
But under the shade of the tree, napping a little, I hear Her, calling from inside the earth. No, they can’t take that away from me.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
In southern Italy, with a room by the beach, and a fan. Looking from the window at this yearly ritual of recharge and rest. Only a distant memory now, while the Italians listen to the waves lap the shoreline, talk about what they will have for dinner, think about their fantasy lovers. Another endless Italian summer.
For the next six weeks or so, the Italians have put all manner of tasks on hold. Along the way, the grapes are calling, this time it's an early harvest from prolonged early heat and sun. Grape pickers, some who are scheduled to work a rice or a peach harvest, might be hard to obtain for the delicate work of bringing in the grapes. That isn’t part of the dream. Not in the plans for the Italian’s summer. Winemakers will have already planned to stay home, or at least delegate to their vineyard managers: find some bodies and keep the cell phones on in the fields.
As the car leaves Potenza we have to decide if we head towards Salerno in Campania, or make the longer trek south into Calabria. There are several winemaker friends to visit in Campania and the thinking is to get there before they disappear for a few weeks. In Calabria, they are already gearing up for the grapes, coming on the heels of their other crops. They will vacation in October, when it is still warm.
Funny how a trip to Italy, while one is drawn to the water, always leads back to the interior. So while the Italian is dreaming of their time on the beach, others drill deep into the heart of other matters.
On the phone with a winemaker in Trentino, who is not happy. He hasn’t raised his prices in three years and this time he want to go up 20%. Combine that with a weak dollar and sluggish consumer pull (read: buying cheaper wine), and he is in for a very rude awakening. I wish him luck and say good-bye, probably forever. How do you tell someone, making a Sauvignon Blanc in northern Italy, that the New Zealanders have just handed you your head on a plate? Folks might be buying Classic 7 apartments in NY for $2.5 million, but they aren’t springing for $30 Italian Sauvignon Blanc for housewarming gifts. Next.
Gravina, Falanghina, Greco, Mantonico, Grillo, Inzolia. We will make it up in The South.
A pack of wild dogs cross the Super Strada, stirring the dreamer. The car comes to a halt. They stare at us, we stare back. What? Four, maybe five seconds of that and it’s time to pull the car over and take a break. As that happens, the animals continue on their path. Wild rabbits have been seen in great numbers causing the dogs to move into the area, to feed on the bounty. A few small children have been reported missing, and occasionally, one comes across one of the dogs, shot, dead, hanging from a fence. A talisman for the pack to change direction. A middle aged man was found nearly dead, slumped in a field, with a bullhorn and an empty canteen of water. It was said he had gone looking for his young son and now the wife has nearly two members of her family gone. Barely two miles away other families play on the beach and plan their meals. The dream, intersecting with the unthinkable.
All the while the waxing moon heads towards fullness. And Mt Etna waits patiently, stirring slightly in her slumber, sending signs that have yet to be understood.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Thankfully, it was cool at that time of the day. And quiet. No one calling to get donations for a policeman’s fraternal order in Billings, Montana. Or offers to get a Kia SUV with no money down, no payments till January. Little or no interest.
The map was laid out on the table. Where were we going? Friends in Conversano have been asking, “When are you coming?” The sad little region, Basilicata, however, was whispering in my ear, “We haven’t seen you since the year of the comet.”
Basilicata is a ragtag region of cave dwellings, fields of wheat and bald mountains peeled back from the harsh winters. Like the rags of Armani before Miami, one would almost rather have the Douro as a replacement region for this sad little isola of a region.
From Puglia, crawling along the coast on SS7 and over to Taranto, the pilgrimage to one of the main towns, Matera, takes one though a Pittsburghian landscape of refineries and discarded automobiles. Like the set of Giant in West Texas: abandoned, rusting, desolate. A glimmer of hope as one passes through Massafra, where a revival of sorts took place. It was a simple plate of pasta with clams, but one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Still in Puglia, as we pass though Castellaneta, an outcropping of stone with the all too human brick and mortar. Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi was born here the same year as my grandfather, and left for California about the same time.
Right after the Masseria Pantano, one slips into Basilicata. From there it’s a climb up to Matera. It’s here where the SS7 tires, but ultimately finds its way to Potenza, a Death Valley mule-stop turned into a dull hope for the humanity who have parked their lives in that place.
This is a durable village, blessed by sun and a solid foundation. In a land of earthquakes and invasions, Matera offered a chance to dig in and establish some sense of civilization. Plenty has been written on the place, and I won’t dare to press the stone with any more impressions. Just go there. It is a place with a sense of itself and a vibration that is unique. Is it Italy? Of course, it’s all Italy. And Matera, like anywhere in this country, isn’t some candy-coated tourist destination for scared American tourists.
The bread, to die for. Wine? Yes, but in its barest essential form. Red. Hearty. Necessary.
I started this blog almost two years ago with an image from Basilicata, looking through a vineyard of Aglianico towards Monte Vulture. In this time, now, we stare, eyeless at a blazing ancient stone village, walking the deserted paths, wondering for the lives of those who smoothed the rough rocks down to this silk road of smoothness.
This is not a place to spend a lifetime. But a few hours, or days, what can it hurt? Anything made with wheat, in this town, will be great. Cheese from the uplands. Wine from the vinelands. The sea is far, but it’s not like Kansas. There is a hope to drive a few hours and see the endless blue. And we will. We must head towards Potenza, to taste wine. And press on, to Campania, to Calabria, on the wine trail in Italy.
Photography by Allegro Paolo
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Lorenzo is a successful land manager; he has made millions. He lives life on his own terms. “Lorenzo,” I ask, “how do you motivate your farmers?”
“Amico, that I cannot do. I can only show them the opportunities that exist by looking at it from my perspective. I believe I am right, but they cannot be forced to see it my way. They must see it through their own eyes. If they do, they get rich. And if they don’t, they keep carrying sticks up the hill on the back of their donkey.
“Look at Franco’s wine. Everyone told him this was red wine country. But he had a vision and the passion to develop a unique white wine. No one else believed in the project except for Franco and his family. And now Franco D'Agostino has the only wine for the D.O.C. of Gravina. Where else does something like that happen? Chateau Grillet in the Rhone, and pochi altri.”
He poured the wine. It felt like I was taking a bite out of a Honeycrisp apple. The aromas reminded me of my aunt’s bosom when, as a baby, I was lulled to sleep in her lap. We were deep in the South of the matter now. Summer was churning. Life was proceeding.
I had been wrestling with people, old and new, calling on me to bring their projects into my world. The Italian wine ark was full, I would tell them. Let me in, they would respond, you gotta let me in, please. I don’t gotta do nothin’ but die.
The wine export numbers are being published in Italy, and the first quarter of 2007 is looking good, very good. So why am I being hesitant with these souls who are just looking for a home for their wines?
For one, because the average price of the wine in that report comes into the US at about € 1.72 per liter. That works out to about $1.78 per 750ml bottle in The States. That price point is where I have seen a lot of action lately. I know, I know. It doesn’t make me feel good, either.
A salesman recently called me on the Blackberry. He was at a store displaying 300 cases of Italian wine, selling for $39.99 a case. That’s about $3.33 per bottle. A gentleman walked in the store and bought three cases and had them taken out to his car. The car was a Maserati Quattroporte. That’s about $112,000 per car.
There are certain things people will pay and pay dearly for. A car, enhanced breasts, a pair of Prada loafers.
But the buzz right now in The States is the Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay winning gold medals. We want the illusion of great things but we aren’t always willing to pay for them.
Lorenzo is laughing at me. Wi-Fi and rolling waves, and what do I pick? The fish is almost ready to grill. The pasta has just come to the table.
“So,” I ask Lorenzo, “all these Maremma wines coming to The States, what do you think?” Lorenzo lets out a belly laugh and drapes his napkin over his gold chain, making sure not to cover his pendant from the malocchio. “They want to still be French. But look at what they have over there. Their beaches are not as pretty, their fish is not as good as ours. Their climate is unpredictable. They like to say they are the California of Italy, but we laugh at them. They are wealthy, they are important, but they still doubt their nature. They want to still be French!
“Let them try to sell their fruity, expensive Napa-talians. I don’t care to worry about them. I am not jealous. Look around. Is this not Paradise right in front of you?”
I paused to consider what he was saying. Next fall I will have to try and figure out how to market these expensive Maremma wines. For now, all I can think of is that cute little Greco-Malvasia that’s tempting me with her unrepentant charm.
Photos by Alberto Bizzini
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Looks like the IWG will be back in the swing of things next week. If you need to reach him, his Blackberry is on and when he is in an area where he gets coverage he will answer it or reply to e-mails. -Bea
Ziff & Dale has been a boon for the IWG and for me. I have been helping a friend tie up the loose ends of a new wine project ( translation: funded pay), and it's just been a busy week. I am also trying to get out of town and go to Northern California for a few weeks.
Wine wise, it’s been interesting. I have some tasting comments on a wine I tasted this week, at the end of these notes. Not a bad week. First, the business.
Thank you, Arty, for pinch-hitting this week. I hope you get your wish. Drew called and is still trying to get me to come work for him (imagine that?), and he was lamenting that you didn't called it Drew’s Bomb Shelter. I think you should have called it Smokin’ Dopes, because those two guys are the dopiest wine dudes on paper. But their careers are smokin’. I love 'em both and wish 'em happy days.
The Ziff character has a few surprises, so Arty tells me. Seems he’s headed to San Francisco, wants to test the waters in a bigger pond. Maybe we can meet up in The City. I know Arty also has an interview out there, so, who knows what mischief we can get into?
So the cartoon has been launched. My new project is going well (see: title). Summer is not as hot as it could be. The rain has helped. And if we could get this insurgency thing over there resolved, maybe we could go back to some form of social evolution. Note to the old-fart Boomer generation: Get it together, you guys suck.
This week, some wine guy calls me up, tells me to meet him at the restaurant. He's opening up one of the Big Boys, a 1999 Brunello from Soldera. When I got there it was open and decanted. A plate of fettuccine with wild mushrooms was coming in our direction. So we got to tasting the wine before the pasta touched down.
The Brunello, supposedly organically grown, was wicked. It had a gritty texture, not unpleasant. Smelled like flowers and soil. A band was playing in the bowl. It had everything going on in there, sunshine, the full moon, children crying, colors flying. I could never afford to taste a wine from this property, but it was pretty amazing. Like in a dream, I felt like one of the chosen ones. - Thanks to geezer-rocker Neil Young for his lyrics in helping to describe this wine.
With a wine like that, every other note’ll have to wait. I have to get back to the project.
Thanks Arty, thanks Drew. IWG, come back. Pay your check, and come home now.
Friday, July 13, 2007
The IWG is still MIA...
The inspiration for this series ( if one can call it inspiration, rather than just a dumb idea from too many Shiner Bocks after midnight) came from my childhood, which doesn't seem that long ago.
So, Ziff & Dale were two of my imaginary friends. Today they are loosely based on a couple of characters in the wine and food business. In fact all the cast is someone, somewhere.
I think Bea sez the IWG will be back in his blogdom next week. I might have to get my own, or something else to do with these. I'm going into the busy wine and food season and studying for too many certifications for sommelier and other gigs. I have to get up early, so here I must sign off. -AK
Thanks to David @ Italian Insight for the Italian translation.-AK
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Later I was talking with Bea (Beatrice) and she said Italian Wine Guy was into the old world stuff. So we got together and polished off a couple of bottles of Barolo and stormed some more. IWG can be old school but he's still crazy, like an older person with a mind that hasn't been set in concrete. At First we thought to call it Corky & Toré (Corkscrew and Decanter). We tried it out for a couple of weeks, and then we all met again.Bea said it should be short, like her temper. IWG suggested to still go with something wine-oriented. So we finally decided on, Ziff & Dale.
Like Bea said, I have a night job, so when I get home wired from the gig, I like to decompress. Since I'm in this wine and food gig I thought a running conversation between this corkscrew and a decanter would be a good idea, at the time.
I have a few worked up, so will post them in the days to come, while the IWG is MIA. Or until the New Yorker returns my call.
Cheers. - Arthur Krea (aka AK)
Oh, and, David said I should do it in Italian too, so until he gets sick and tired of it, here's the Italian version.
One last thing. Dedicated to Anna, who turns 21 today. Party!
Thanks to David @ Italian Insight for the Italian translation.-AK
Monday, July 09, 2007
Sunday, July 08, 2007
I have a lot to do these days, but seeing as Italian Wine Guy keeps me in the loop, I will help him out, one more time. But next week is going to be a busy week for me, so I will probably hand it over to my sommelier-cartoonist buddy, Art. Later. - BR
I don’t know what's up with Alfonso, but the last two posts have led with photos of cars heading off to some other place. From what I can tell, the competitive nature of the business, coupled with a demanding schedule and, well let's just say, it's no place to look for wealth and fame.
Which leads me into a minor rant. Hillary Clinton
She should have a talk with someone like Meryl Streep. ASAP.
Hillary is way too shrill and she comes off like an angry soccer mom. I will be voting again next year, and I'd like to offer my vote to an alternative from what I have seen growing in the last 4 or 5 years. The last thing I want is an enraged momma in the White House, who spins better than a brand new Maytag. Hillary, call up Meryl Streep and invite her over for a day or two. Ask her to help you put on a new face. Stop acting like you enjoy picking up babies. And for God's sake, quit pointing to the crowd at people that you don’t even know, acting like they're some long-lost sister. You wanna make me puke, it's so phony. If you can't get real, then learn how to act more realistically. Apparently it worked for Ronald Reagan and it seems to work for the Law & Order man, Fred Thompson.
Yeah, like she'll read this sorry old blog.
Whatever. Back to my world.
I have some work lately, for a writer. I am a researcher for her. She is a food and wine writer, but also a ghost writer. So there is a lot of work and right now there is lots to do. It’s on my own schedule and I just need to get the work out within the deadline. So I have been running, doing my yoga, lost a few pounds, working on my tan and partying a little. I’m not sure I want to go into the wine business, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of money in it. Lots of work, making money for other people, usually aging boomers.
My friend Arthur Krea and I have been taking pictures of corkscrews and decanters for his new comic strip, Ziff & Dale. It’s about this pair of wine accessories that sees the world through their viewpoint. I don’t get all of the jokes, but Art is pretty wacky. He hears a lot of things from his night job on the floor, talking to folks about wine. He’s hoping to sell the idea to the Wine Spectator or Gourmet. I told him he’s getting way too ahead of himself. Anyway it’s a fun thing to do when we have spare time together. I posted one of his below, in English and Italian. David at Italian Insight helped with the Eye-talian.
Right now we’re over at the IWG’s house leaching off of his air conditioning, feeding the cat, swimming, stealing wine and bandwidth. Hey, we were invited, and the old man is not here.
Oh yeah, the car driving away thing.
From what his sister tells me, if Italian Wine guy doesn’t get inspiration from somewhere, like magically out of the sky or the air, he goes bonkers. Or he goes looking for it, his vision quest thing. The last three times he has been to Italy, it has been on death marches from winery to winery, or the Vinitaly slog. Hey, I told him I’d go next time for him, but he tells me it’s work first and play second. So a lot of work and a little play. Yuck.
He was looking to go out West to California, but it’s hot out there and the place is ready to go up in flames so I don’t think that’s where he is headed. He told me he’d check in on the blackberry e-mail, but not to worry. Believe me, I’m not going to. He’s a big boy. Go get some down time, a little beach and waterside action, work on your tan. In the meantime I have the keys to his house and his wine closet. Me, worry?
I’m just trying to decide between the 1990 Aglianico Brigante from Sasso or the 1979 Barolo Briacca from Vietti.
Art's newest obsession. What do ya think?
Friday, July 06, 2007
Nine letters that can take one from the incessant rain of the Texas plains to Apulia, and an isolated beach front cottage.
A friend, Vincenzo, just bought a Ferrari, and he has offered to pick me up in Bari and take me to a fishing village in the Gargano, where another friend, a writer, has a simple little place on a private beach. No crowds, she promises. Sunny skies, clear water, no internet, no cell phones, no e-mail.
Folks have suggested that I take it down a notch for a week or so, and turn the world off. If all goes well, a plane will have a spare business-class seat for a weary pilgrim. To dip one’s toes in the Adriatic, to step off the stage of the wine-soaked killing fields and sip on a little wine, a little water, some figs, some langosto. As if in a dream. We shall see. If so, Beatrice might fill in, though she will not be compelled to do so. She has a friend, Arthur Krea, who is a sommelier and amateur cartoonist. He also wants to blog in my absence. As the millenniums say, whatever.
Working hard gets to a point where it becomes a violation of one's humanity. I have sinned and sinned big time. Driving so hard it seems I have pushed beyond others' ability to understand the sense of urgency I have been feeling. My problem, not theirs. The Italian wine sales are good, almost great, so why not celebrate this success? So what if some of the folks haven’t kept pace with the wagon train? Their problem, not mine.
The wine is piling up in the warehouses in Italy. I hear from my colleagues over there that storehouses are bulging. Something has got to give. Two areas where the hype has not kept up with the actual need are the Tuscan Maremma and Sicily. Overpriced Super Tuscans, with their expensive architecture and even more expensive consultants (some from France), have created a country club wine for the ultra rich. But are the ultra rich buying? Go to Laguna Beach, California, where the average house is a million dollars. Step into a Trader Joe’s, and watch them carrying out case after case of inexpensive Cabernet and Chardonnay, right into their $90,000 Porsche Cayennes. They are not buying the hype of the super-expensive Tuscan.
And Nero D’Avola that sells for over $10? That’s another dry well. My Sicilian cousins are telling me that some of the big houses are bulking out their estate Nero d’Avola’s to shippers in the Veneto. Too much of a good thing? Or too much buildup and down-trending demand? Word to the factors: Look away. Open your eyes when you do.
I had an agent offer me a Morellino di Scansano from the 2005 vintage this week for € 2 a bottle. Another one was offering me Grillo for € .90 a bottle and Nero d’Avola for €1.10 a bottle. 13% alcohol on all of them. The heady days of folks like Planeta and all the wannabees asking €15 for a bottle of Cabernet or Nero d’Avola are over. La comedia e' finita.
People are looking for something more timeless, more classic. They want romance, yes, but they don’t want to sacrifice their first born or sell their daughter into slavery to drink a bottle of wine with dinner.
America is a place where many in the Italian wine industry look to unload their wines at premium prices. We’ve been hog-tied and wrestled to the ground by the Amazons of Agrigento. We’ve been challenged and check-pointed throughout the pavilions of Vinitaly. They have forgotten to do the dance, lead us by the cool waters, show us some compassion, some mercy, some new moves. Maybe they should trek to India, to the ancient temples of Khajuraho. Shiva, not Coulter. Soft and subtle, not collagen and botox. Romance, not confrontation. The art of seduction and the even finer art of selling.
I know, this is not about the wine trail in Italy. The wine trail in Italy is the metaphor, stupid. Ponder that while I’m AWOL. Or not.