Friday, November 30, 2007

Long Weekend Escape to Torino

One of the great hidden cities of Italy is Torino (Turin). A native Torinese recently told me, “We don’t want too many people to know about Torino. Torino belongs to Italy, not to the tourists.”

Hint: Instead of taking a long weekend to Paris, or San Francisco, go to Torino. Why? If you live on the East Coast, it's just a little longer than going to San Francisco. From the Midwest, rather than Paris or London (which aren't close to wine country), it's a small stretch. Here’s what I’d do.
Catch a flight to Torino, or Milano, if you cannot get to Torino so easily. But bypass Milano, this time.

I’m going to make this simple. Rent a car. It’s easy to get around Torino, and you’ll need it for a day trip. Reserve a room at a nice hotel such as the AC Torino. It’s a five-star hotel, and when I stayed there in November you could find a room for €90.00. Book it on or Hint: It’s cheaper to book on the European site, the belief being that Europeans need to spread their money farther and conversely, that the Americans have money to burn. Yeah, when the conversion rate wasn’t what it is these days.

You’re 40 minutes from serious wine country and 90 minutes from the wild side of Liguria. But more on that later.

In Torino, and specifically at the AC Torino Hotel, you are right around the corner from a wonderful food center called Eataly. In fact the hotel and the building that houses Eataly were part of the Carpano factory, next door to the original Fiat factory.

See, Torino was an early industrial town. But it is also a town with great architecture, wide avenues, like Paris, and a cosmopolitan atmosphere that is sophisticated and a little wild at the same time. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself I was in Torino, not Paris. The feel of the place, architecturally, is similar, with the influence from Baron Haussmann.

Since the 2006 Winter Olympics, the town has been scrubbed clean, and the old center of town, once reserved for junkies and hookers, has been revitalized and is now a warm, lively nighttime area, boasting wonderful cafes and wine bars.

Eataly – Imagine something like a Central Market, or a Wegmans or a Whole Foods, that merges with the Slow Food movement, and you have this uber-paradise for food and wine lovers, all under one roof. There are a number of restaurants in Eataly, each with its own specialty: fish, meat, pasta, pizza, vegetables, antipasto or ice cream. And you can hop from one to another, feasting slowly. You can also shop for rare wine and food items from all over Italy.


One place to eat, in the old center of town, is called Tre Galline, and it specializes in Bagna Cauda and Bollito Misto. Do not attempt to eat both in one visit. We tried the Bagna Cauda, which came with a mini-garden selection of vegetables. Very cleansing. Reservations are a must. Go with friends, because there is liberal use of garlic, but not as excessive as we find in the US.

The wine list is extensive and very reasonable. I saw a 1997 Bruno Giacosa Le Rocche del Falletto Barolo for under €100.00.


We chose a 2000 Lessona from Sella for €20.00. The Piemontese call Lessona the national wine of Italy, because when they were toasting the newly unified Italian government in 1870, Lessona was chosen, instead of Champagne.

Make sure you find one of the old Caffès in Torino to have a caffè marocchino, which is a caffè espresso in a glass, topped with a layer of cocoa and frothy milk, something I unknowingly have been making for years.

What else? I’d say take your time, walk around the city enjoy the outdoors.

The Famous Mule Brothers of Airole
For a day trip you have a couple of options. Alba is 40 minutes, and there you are, in the heart of the great Piedmont wine region, where they produce Barolo, Barbaresco and the like. You cannot find something like that in Paris or San Francisco, especially at these prices. 

Or, this is what I'd do. Head over to Liguria and experience the wildness of the Italian Riviera. Go to Dolceacqua or some of the little towns that dot the region up into the hills, like Airole or Cisano sul Neva. Go visit Fausto, and eat lunch at his sister's restaurant, simply called Ristorante Bar Sport . Above Dolceacqua in Arcagna, the Locanda del Bricco of Terre Bianche is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Or maybe go to Ristorante U Veciu Defisiu in Airole and have a plate of their Baccalà mantecato.

Leave on a Thursday and return on a Monday. A great getaway to a part of Italy that is not so touristic and still affordable, even with the weak dollar.

Interesting article: Torino is Getting Green

Torino photo blog

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tasting Notes ~ Valtellina

Wines from the five sub-zones Grumello, Inferno, Sassella, Valgella and Maroggia of the Valtellina Superiore DOCG appellation.

Straight out of my tasting journals, which I keep for every wine tasted.

Nobili – in the heart of Inferno-
Small producer Silvano and son Nicola Nobili with only 4 hectares. This is a typically small producer. Less than 3,000 cases made. A labor of love.

Tasted three wines
1) 2004 Sassella
Clear color; dried fruits; good balance; fresh.
4,000 bottles made 60-65 quintals per hectare .
Really a pleasant drink.
Cost from winery €8.

2) 2004 Inferno
Rose petal nose; bergamot ;
Flowery nose;
Taste is a bit tight; slightly bitter – minerally; stoney; good fruit; cinnamon notes.
6,000 bottles made.
Cost from winery €8.

3) 2002 Sforzato di Valtellina “Il Montescale”
Chocolate covered raisins.
Well balanced; slightly amaro (bitter).
2,000 bottles made.
Cost from winery €16.
Full flavors – nice, but doesn’t knock my sock off at that price.

This was once called the Arturo Pelizzatti Perego winery, but when it was sold to the Swiss they lost the use of the name. Now they have their cellars back and use the acronym Ar.Pe.Pe.
At one time this winery, along with Nino Negri, produced the lion’s share of wine from the Valtellina. The huge winery now serves as a great place to house older vintages. In it’s time it was state of the art large production. Now it is a jewel of a winery, smaller quantities but very high quality. Isabella and Emanuele Pelizzatti Perego, a sister and brother team, he is he winemaker and she is the enologist and marketing, now run the operation. Very well respected in the region.

Tasted 5 wines
1) 2006 Valtellina Superiore D.O.C.G. Sassella ( still in botti).
Delicate perfume; nice;
stoney, minerally; schist-like.
tight, good fruit;
needs time.
Great phenolics (I liked the way it smelled).

2) 2005 Valtellina Superiore D.O.C.G. Sassella ( still in botti);
Nicely perfumed, rich, well balanced , delicious.

3) 2001 Valtellina Superiore D.O.C.G. Sassella Vigna Regina
late harvest (dry) – they don’t make a Sforzato, so this is their late harvest entry.
Fruit is twangy, a little sour ( orange);
Still in tank so a bit imbalanced at this point.

4) 2004 Sassella Ultimi Raggi Terrazze Retiche di Sondrio I.G.T. (Late Harvest).
Good raisiney fruit; good balance (in stainless steel tanks) ;
“Sforfzato in pianta” – left to dry on the vines.
from winery website -The Ultimi Raggi (means last rays of sunshine) is Ar.Pe.Pe's expression of a modern Sfursat style wine but is not a Sfursat (they don't make one) but a late harvest Nebbiolo! Grapes from the Sassella sub-zone are left to over-ripen slightly on the vine and harvested in late November after the first snowfall. The wine ages for 6 months in French oak Tonneaux giving it some sweet spice to add to the fresh red fruity aromas. -Amy Wadman

5) 1996 Valtellina Superiore D.O.C.G. Sassella Rocce Rosse Riserva
raisiney; rose; flowery ;
interesting – open 12.5%
very light color.
Winemaker explains here because of the biodiversity of types of Nebbiolo here in Valtellina that indicates a high probability that the origin of the grape is from here.

Nino Negri with Casimiro Maule

1) 2006 Ca’Brione
Sauvignon Blanc,Chardonnay, Incrocio Manzone and Nebbiolo (15%)
Straw, grass; barrel fermented
Flavor of fruit; peaches,melon,butter, a little squash (pumpkin and zucchine)
Nice finish

2) 2004 Quadrio - Nebbiolo and Merlot
nice buttery flavors in the nose; open; rich, flavorful
great flowery nose

3) 2004 Sassella “Le Tense”
1st nose = oak, but sweet, nice, like a coconut aroma. Flavors are rich, remind me of California, very easy to enjoy – American palates might like this.

4) 2004 Inferno “Mazér”
delicate perfume – smokey, nice entry; pleasant wine
wood is understated (thankfully)
from winery website:
"Mazér" in Valtellina dialect means "good, beautiful and generous"
The vineyards from which this wine comes are located in the smallest of the four sub-zones of Valtellina Superiore: 68 hectares between Poggiridenti and Tresivio along the slopes of the Retiche Alps; on the right bank of the river Adda; the name Inferno relates to the steep slopes and the high summer temperature.

yield restricted to 60 quintals per hectare

5)2004 Valtellina Superiore cru “Fracia”
restructured vineyard – vines planted horizontally (most in the Valtellina are planted vertically) to follow shape of the hill in Valgella.
intense; elegant; good structure – well made
late harvested

6) 2004 Sfursat
gorgeous entry into the nose; roses; a little tar;oak;butter; round mouth entry ; fruit, tannin; acid, fresh; a little maturity, a mellowness; pleasant; mouth filling – wonderful sensation – 15%

7) 2004 Sfursat 5 Stelle
sweet fruit;tame oak all in apparent balance; slight cigar box;
mellow flavors – slight edge, but structure, not flaw

from winery website:
Sfursat 5 Stelle is made from a selection of the best grapes from the most celebrated vineyards of the Valtellina Superiore, produced only in top years, The bunches are subjected to a natural drying process; the wine that results from this is particularly robust and alcoholic. Production began with the 1983 vintage and is very limited.
Vineyard: the most favored vineyards in the three sub-zones of DOCG Valtellina Superiore: Grumello, from the Latin "grumus", hill, Inferno, so called because of its steep slopes and very high summer temperature; Fracia, a "cru" exclusive to the House of Negri in Valgella (from the Latin "Vallicula"). Vinification: The best bunches, perfectly healthy and ripe, are picked by hand into small boxes of 6 kg each, then allowed to dry naturally for about three months; during January and February the dried grapes are pressed ( 4 pounds of grapes produces 1 bottle of wine) and vinified by the traditional red wine method for 30 days, with a long, slow fermentation

Alberto Marsetti

1) 2006 Rosso di Valtellina
12% - good sign
herbal notes, sage, oregano
nice flavors, a little harsh

2) 2003 Grumello
some funk in the nose – sulfur – stinky socks – flavors are sharp and not balanced

3) 2003 Valtellina Superiore D.O.C.G. “Le Prudenze”
Still a slight funk (I think it’s in the cellar)
Bitter/stemmy /fruit out of balance with acids and tannins

4) 2003 Sfursat
Again, the wine is one-dimensional- flat;tannic; off smells in the nose
Out of balance….at this time

When we walked into this little cellar in the town of Sondrio I was struck by the quaint character of the space. It would make a great osteria. I believe the cellar should be evacuated and thoroughly cleaned. It is my fear that the wines suffer form contamination in the cellar – TCA – cellar taint. Too bad. It would make an awesome restaurant site, though.

In my mind, the Nino Negri wines were heads and shoulders above the rest. Of course having someone like Casimiro Maule and his 35 years worth of experience helps. To his credit, he talked about some of these other winemakers with encouraging hopefulness. A rising tide can lift all boats, but these other producers are going to have to row a little harder and a little longer before they catch up with the Maestro in Chiuro.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Looking for Paradise in the Land of Inferno

The e-mails were crawling like snails towards beer. I was confirming my appointment with Nino Negri winery in the Valtellina. I wanted to spend some time with their legendary winemaker, Casimiro Maule.

“Yes, yes, we understand,” the e-mail assured. I worry when the Italians tell me they understand. “We will make every effort to assure your visit will show you a thorough picture of what the wines of the Valtellina are about.”

I had a late-morning appointment with Signore Maule, who is the hand, the voice and the spirit of a once-great wine region. I say it like that because the time I spent in the Valtellina, everyone I talked to spoke as if their moment had passed, generations ago. One can see the Valtellinese are still in shock over losing their place in the world wine market. It was huge in the first half of the 20th century, and somehow in the 1980’s it tanked, and they are still in purgatory over their loss. What happened? Where did that vision go blind?

A few hours with Casimiro and hopefully we would learn more about this lingering crisis in the Valtellina. Thankfully, we would also taste the greatness that still exists in their wines.

Chiavenna is a small area about 40 km northwest of Sondrio that gives the name to the local Nebbiolo, known as Chiavennasca. The wine is often regarded as a lighter, less formidable version of the more serious Barolo and Barbaresco wines from Piedmont.
I am not so sure of that. Yes, there are more producers of Nebbiolo in Piedmont, and, yes, they have been more visible in the last 25 years. That was about the time the market for Inferno, Grumello and Sassella took a back seat on the international market. According to Casimiro, when a Swiss company came in and bought the two largest wineries, Negri and Pelizzatti Perego, they decided to double the quantity of wine. At the turn of the 20th century, wines from Valtellina were imported to the USA, all through Europe, South America and were considered on a par with wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux. It was a golden period for this small, inaccessible region. Researchers believe this was the birthplace of the Nebbiolo vine and have been working with the local growers to save the older strains of the grape. The Piemontese see this area as a living laboratory for the revival of the forbears of the original Nebbiolo. The grape defines an area that reaches for the greatness of the past but cannot quite touch it. Yet.

My idea of the Valtellina was of this backwater, remote country where people spoke the ancient Ladino language and carried these huge baskets on their backs filled with grapes, along steep hillsides. The vision was one of maidens in folkloric dresses, singing country songs. Dark haired, curly and long, rustic, original, prehistoric.

As I looked from the road down into the town of Sondrio and saw the vines extended into the back yards of the modern apartment building, I realized that my preconceptions were based on the overly romanticized versions I had read in the older books by the likes of Cyril Ray, Charles Bode and T.A. Layton.

The wines suffer from the ghosts of the past, but also the economies of today. The dollar is weak, so an obscure Grumello or Sassella can seem out of range, approaching a retail price of $30.00. But labor-intensive is an understatement, and though the fields are not littered with virgins in braids anymore, someone has to do the work of gathering the grapes. The work is shared by local and immigrant labor from the once-Eastern bloc, not machines.

How did they lose their supremacy in the import market? In my opinion, greed was the force that doubled the quantity and halved the quality. The Swiss had to answer to their stockholders for the profitability and growth of their investment. The wines became weak and insipid. I remember an ancient bottle of wine from the Valtellina which was fashioned as a precursor to the IGT reds of today, a funny-shaped bottle with a name to capture the tongue of the American pronouncing it, with a low price and a lower quality. When I mentioned such a wine to Casimiro, he smiled and recalled the folly of those days.

Eventually the Swiss company tired of losing money and sold the wineries. They liquidated some back to the Pelizzatti Perego family. The Negri winery and much of the vineyards, they sold to Gruppo Italiano Vini.

Casimiro Maule is from Trento and graduated from the enology school at San Michele. He got a call from Negri 35 years ago, asking him to come to work as their winemaker. Casimiro is a man who could be as busy as Ferrini or Chioccioli or Cotarella. But he decided to go to Chiuro. The only problem, he didn’t know where Chiuro was, even though it was less than 100 miles from Trento. That was how inaccessible the Valtellina was to the mind of the Italians.

Casimiro found his way there, and along the route of time he made his life and his reputation. A tall man with large hands and a warm gaze. Winemaker of the year in 2007 by Gambero Rosso. Yes, his wines do well in their reviews, and yes they are precious.

What really impressed me – here is a man who could spread himself across Italy, consulting and building his treasury along with his reputation. Here is a man who decided to stay put, focus his efforts and work to bring back the glory of the wines from the Valtellina. In the time I spent tasting many wines from the area, the wines from Casimiro and Negri were luscious, focused, elegant wines. Wines that understand the modern tastes. Yes, there is fruit and a refrain of wood in the formula.

But I also tasted in many other cellars. Some were infected with TCA, making wines that were out of balance. Others were just too rustic, way too much volatile acidity through the roof of my mouth. Recalling the wines tasted with Casimiro in his office that afternoon confirmed that he is the one bringing prominence back to the wines of a region that had gone into a deep slumber. It takes a larger-than-life person to make something like this happen, and that person, Casimiro Maule, appeared on the doorstep 35 years ago. A life of meaning that has resuscitated a whole region, stopped history and reset the clock. They might just find their way back into the Promised Land.

Valtellina Tasting Notes

Friday, November 23, 2007

Chant of the Ancient Wines

" Ancient souls must relive the wine in the time it was born in order to bring it forward."
At the Merano Wine Festival there was a little jewel box of a room filled with all types of gold and ruby dessert wines. It was embarrassingly empty of people. It was also almost impossible to get to, hidden behind a parlor with famous and important wines from France. I’m not sure how many people found their way to the room with the sweet wines. For those who did, it was like finding Madame Pillaud’s perfume shop in Menton.

Outside, the wind was howling off the freshly snowed mountains. Inside, the sun steamed the room to a frothy warmth, one that required taking off several layers of jacket and sweater. The opened bottles of dessert wines were a Greek chorus juxtaposed with the morose Italian vendors who were vying for the attention of those few who found the secret door to the room. I looked at one wine, resembling a murky mess of primal goo, and commented with a facial gesture resembling one who had just peered into the face of Gorgon.
As the room steeped, the olfactory sensation created from the polyphony of the wines was intoxicating, if not a bit disconcerting. Imagine going to a dance where there are all manner of beautiful and unattached creatures who all long to dance with you. It was too much.

I put three wines on my dance card: a late harvest Marzemino, a Sagrantino passito and the murky fellow, a ménage of Grecchetto, Malvasia and Trebbiano.

I was really trying to wrap my head around these dessert wines. How did they come to be accepted, in older times, as wines that went with food? What was the reason, the meaning of these wines? Was it like the cheese and the salumi, a way to preserve food products for a time in the future?

I have been down into the ancient tunnels below the town of Orvieto, where the brown, reclusive bottles slumber far from modernity. Wine catacombs, but the wines are not dead or decaying. Merely waiting for a time when someone will bring them out into the light.

This day in Merano was one of those moments.

You Give Me Fervo
The Marzemino, from the Astoria wine estate in Crocetta del Montello. I was interested because Donato Lanati is involved with the winemaking. Lanati teaches and consults for wineries such as Frattina, Librandi, L'Abbazia di Santa Giustina, Palari and Pietra Porzia. They had me at salve. Two nights before, we sat next to owner Giorgio Polegato at the Ristorante Laubenkeller. Giorgio loves to eat, what you’d call a “good fork”. So as we pulled up to their booth, I recognized a man who knew his way around the Italian table. Fervo, as it is called, is in this squatty little bottle, very posh. I am sometimes suspicious of cute bottles from the Veneto – they know only too well how to market items from the living workshop of Venice. But I closed my eyes, opened my nose and took a plunge. Inside the bottle was this sanguine sensation, visceral in the thick texture. Dense. It had the most beautiful shade of crimson going towards cyan along the edges, like the light through a stained glass window. I’m still tasting it, some memory alongside my palate tugs at me.

What to do with such a wine? Drink it at the end of a meal, of course, with figs soaked in brandy and then covered in bittersweet chocolate. In ancient times, with what food? Game, such as deer, or with andouille or Pizzoccheri, like we had at Sale e Pepe in Sondrio.

Very gothic, plush velvet, scarlet and embers.

The Milk of Paradise
Sagrantino passito from Antonelli San Marco in Montefalco. The lady behind the table was one of the few females in the room. Her gaze was hypnotic, perfect for sales. I see Umbria and their wines as having a lot of female energy. My California roots are showing? In any event, the dark one at the Antonelli booth was ladling Sagrantino Passito into the chalice. It is one of the primal wines of central Italy.

I read recently about Sagrantino passito being the original wine of the area. Making Sagrantino dry would come centuries later, along with the heavy bottles and high price tags. This was tasting the history of the wine; this was meeting face-to-face with the ancestors. This was a moment to bow on one knee before taking a sip.

Lights down, music to a low chant, with only the heat from the candles. Once inside, the wine turned my palate towards the pagan. We had landed in Xanadu: the sacred river, the pleasure dome, the caverns measureless to man and the sunless sea. The milk of Paradise.

What to do with such a wine? Try roasted meats with a high fat content. Pork would be perfect. Or if a dessert is needed, go to your local church and pilfer some of the communion hosts, pre-sanctified. Dip them in a wild honey and dust them with cinnamon. If you must have the Body to go with the Blood.

The Big Muddy
Rhea Passito of Carlo Massimiliano Gritti from Umbertide – the trinity of Grecchetto, Malvasia and Trebbiano. This was my cloudy mire of aboriginal slime. It had me grimacing as if I had just lost a stare down with the demon. It wasn’t that it was horrible. Au contraire. It was a shock. This hall of sweet wines was filled with clean, clear, diamond points of nectar, and here we were faced with chaos that was rich and unctuous, from a time when it was the only wine in the world. Gravner could only hope to make a wine with this kind of depth, coupled with an attraction that was molecular.

“Will you write about my wine?”, the hopeful young Italian asked me. I assured him I would. But it wouldn’t help him sell it. This was a wine from another time, another language. It would be like asking the Americanos to read and understand ancient Greek. But that is a wail for another chorus on another day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Merano ~ Bosom of the Dolomites

A fascinating aspect about Italy is what it represents to people, what they think it is. Aside from the usual misunderestimations about Italian food (spaghetti and meat balls) or wine ( Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio), it goes to a deeper level. Italy is the four cities: Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. Doesn't anybody ever talk about going to Torino or Palermo? Italy has such wonderful countryside in Tuscany. The Amalfi Coast is so picturesque. As if getting to the Tuscan countryside or the Amalfi Coast weren't strewn with unbelievable beauty along the way?

So it was with me, when I arrived in Merano at the base of the Dolomites, 70 miles from the Austrian border. In a store back home, I ran into a local person, and they asked me about where I had just been. When I told them the Merano Wine Festival, they remarked, “Oh, don’t you just love the colorful glass from there?” Why, yes I do. Especially when they get it from Murano.

I don’t get as worked up over those encounters anymore. I find them bewilderingly amusing. I tell myself, at least they are appreciating something Italian. Oh, and pass the meatballs, please.

Merano must be wonderful in the summertime. I’ll not likely get there in that period. I prefer large bodies of water, the Pacific or the Adriatic or some lake, somewhere. But I can imagine its attraction, with those long days and moderate temperatures, especially when I am in Texas in July. Which is more likely the case than not. What an oasis it must be.

We arrived at Merano in time for a little snow flurry action in the higher elevations. Nothing to wreck the leather-soled shoes, rather a light dusting that one could admire from a distance.

Here the wines have names like Kerner, Schiava, Lagrein, and Zweigelt. The last three are red wines. These are wines that are more well known coming from other countries, say Germany or Austria. But because they are technically grown and made in Italy, they can be marketed in the US in Italian restaurants and wine bars. Still a bit of a tough sell, because the names are as difficult to pronounce as Falanghina or Granaccia, which are also not household names.

Gestalt at Ristorante Laubenkeller: wine & wall

Again, this is the beauty of things Italian: not to be pigeonholed into the same old fiasco. The awe of this Italian wine labyrinth is in the complexity, the diversity, the seemingly endless variation. Want something simple? Go to France, or Germany. Those countries are infinitely easier to grasp.

This side of Italy can be a comforting change from the chaos of Southern Italy, or even the maddening laissez-faire of places like the Marche. Here in Merano there is order. One friend remarked that it was the worst of both worlds, the irrationality of the Italian with the inflexibility of the Teutonic. I see it another way: The creativity of the Italian is tethered and brought into a workable state by the rational determination of an ordered society. Brightly painted walls, but with a paint to last through winter snow storms.
Still, there are madmen wandering out of the asylum. Who else will pay €149.00 (that’s US $225.00) for a pair of jeans that looked like they were fished from the bottom of the pile in a thrift store? Oh yeah, someone drinks a little too much Die Jäeger in these parts too.

I spent evenings with Calabrese and Sicilian winemakers - my tribes. It was interesting to see this part of Italy through their eyes. To them, it was another world, more removed from their experience than New York. I could only imagine what my Tuscan-countryside-loving, Amalfi-coastline-hugging Americanos back home would think of this.

For my part, sitting under a heated patio lamp, sipping wine and looking at the snow falling on the mountaintops was as natural as watching waves nuzzle the sand down in the Gargano. As I thought about the days I was spending in the Val Passiria, here in the bosom of the Dolomites, you wouldn’t hear any complaints from me. I was lapping it up like mother’s milk.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

There Are No Sick Bees Here

I have been back in Texas less than a week. During the first half of November, I visited six regions in Northern Italy. These were wine producing areas that were mountainous. There was usually a temperate valley included, for the grapes. We visited wine producing areas such as the Valle d’Aosta, Valle de la Roya, Valtellina, Valpolicella and the Valle Isarco.

Today I worked in my garden. It is past mid November and the figs on the trees are ripe, the basil is still growing and I harvested a 5 pound cucuzza squash. There are dozens of baby cucuzzas that probably won’t survive the coming cold spell later this week. The oregano and the rosemary will, though.

I don’t know how to go about telling stories about the wine valleys we visited. They were intense visits, lots of climbing and probably too many appointments. But what diversity there is between the regions. Is this Italy? Happy to report, it is, although it will be difficult to find many of the wines, and the food to go with it, in Italian restaurants here in the US.

One place that captured my heart was Airole in Liguria. Positioned in the Italian Riviera, this is a little known area, but what a treasure. Stark landscapes, dramatic inclines, awesome vistas, heroic spirit of place. On the trip into Liguria, and specifically to Airole, we had an appointment with Dino Masala, whose A Trincea property makes a wonderful olive oil from the Taggiasca olive. The oil is a dense, prehistoric kind of primordial slime that is worth fighting over. Brilliant yellow, cloudy, dense and desirable. If an olive oil can be sexual, the oil from Liguria is a symbol of that kind of sensual quality one normally associates with a person. It is an elixir, a medicine, an antidote, a vitamin, mineral and vegetable, a full meal and an anointing potion.

Dino Masala charges €18 Euro for a 1 Liter bottle of his oil. That’s precious enough. He also makes a variety of white and red wines, but it is his signature wine called Roccese that was one of the most interesting finds of the trip. Made mostly with the famous Rossese of Dolceacqua and blended with other indigenous grapes of the area. That could mean Italian or French varieties, as we straddled the two worlds on these mountaintops, shared between vines and olives, thyme and ruta. The wine is this rich, fleshy, ride in the back seat of a '55 Chevy - smooth, comfy and pleasurable.

Dino Masala is a man with a tan from working on his land, not from a tanning machine or a bottle. He is less about the wine and more about the land. Here is a man who, when he puts his head on a pillow, sleeps so soundly, so deep, that when he awakes, resurrects himself everyday as a new man. An entrepreneur who has made several fortunes, but who sees his bees and his vines and his mules as his real wealth. As we were walking though his property, which looks and feels like something out of Cervantes and the Douro, the bees were buzzing so loudly as to be the dominant hum of the world around us. “There are no sick bees here,” Dino remarked as we walked through a wall of the busy little creatures, intent upon gathering as much of the precious nectar that they could find, or steal. Yes, the air was filled with the sound of bees with the music of Leonard Cohen playing in the valley below.

Maybe it is just that I haven’t been here that much. For me Liguria is a wonderful find. It is rustic and wild, far from cities and frescoes. It is a wild side of Italy. At the end of the day I smelled like a bouquet of herbs - ruta, thyme and rosemary. From the top of A Trincea I remarked to Dino that his place is the Macchu Picchu of Italy. He nodded, as if that hadn’t been the first time someone had said that to him. To the old Roman bones inside this soldier of the vines, it was like coming home.

The Macchu Picchu of Italy

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Master Class for the Nose

Olivetta S. Michele ~ Côte d' Nez

The circular driveway up to the Mansion on Turtle Creek wasn't crowded. No snaking line of cars waiting for a valet. More like a deserted main street in a Western town, waiting for the gunfight to start. It was a serene evening in the twilight, not unlike one I’d had just days before on a mountaintop on the Italian Riviera. There, wild herbs shimmered, waiting to become an essence for perfumes, some of which we were about to experience.

Inside the newly enhanced entry of the Mansion restaurant, class and luxury oozed from the walls and polished marble floors. Textures of circles and squares distinguished the space, as if one were entering into a three-dimensional checker game. The genial maitre'd, Brian Perry, greeted us as if we were his neighbor. Upstairs, the scent scholar, Chandler Burr, had collaborated on a dinner paired with aromas. A master class for the nose.

This evening had been planned as a feast for the senses, with scent being the headliner. But make no mistake, the Mansion on Turtle Creek is a visual, audible and textual experience as well, reincarnated after divorcing what seems a now-dated Southwestern mode. A few miles away, at another property, folks who want to relive their heyday, along with the requisite cotton candy hair and Goodyear boobs, are welcome to wait in the parking line and take their chances. The Mansion has moved on. A little New York, a touch of Paris, a sense of Milano, but Dallas to the bone. A Class Act.

I hope somewhere Chandler Burr's parents are proud of their child, even if he hasn't become the international economics expert they might have envisioned. And though he might seem to be wound tight, it is a necessary measure. There is so much potential, so much promise in the man, that it must be doled out carefully, like a perfume essence. He has the gift of gab in at least four languages - English, Italian, French and Japanese. And does he know how to sell. Burr is the perfume critic for The New York Times, which he admits is a first. But he also says that if he hadn’t met Luca Turin, a man he calls a genius of smell, he wouldn’t be here tonight. On a Eurostar train from England to France, he sat next to Turin, a Frenchman of Italian origin, and they engaged in an intense conversation all the way to Paris. Along the way, Burr had already decided he would write a book about Turin, and so the journey wasn’t over at the train station. That book, The Emperor of Scent, is a must-read for anyone who is fascinated with the subject of smell. Burr is so damn good at what he does; he has you reading scientific formulas like they were passages in a romance novel. Every writer must envy him for his talent.

As the guests arrived, Roederer Champagne was being poured and light fluffy apps were floating off the trays. Burr was greeting us with an excitement that was contagious. Over in the corner of the room, the scents we were going to guzzle were ready like beauties in line for the bathing suit competition. There were essences of aromas, some very rare. Along with them were famous perfumes to show the final product and scent strips to convey the sensations. All very organized - heads up, chests out. The bathing suits would reveal gorgeous, one-of-a-kind beauties.
The courses, revolving around scents, were:
First course – Salt
Second course – Carrots and Ginger
Cocktail Course- Cedar infused Martini ( absolutely brilliant)
Third Course – Saffron
Fourth Course – Pepper
Fifth Course – Pineapple, Mango and Coconut
Sixth course – Cotton Candy, Vanilla and Chocolate

The fascinating aspect to this dinner was how Chandler Burr assembled individual aromas from their essences, then showed a perfume that corresponded with their comingling. Then Chef John Tesar and staff ingeniously matched them with food and wine. It was as brilliant as the checkered floors and circle paintings downstairs. What seemed, at first impression, to not match appeared as a new expression, a unique pattern.

My favorite course was the dessert, really a brilliant arrangement of perfumes - Missoni by Missoni and Black Orchid by Tom Ford - with a very blue ice cream and cotton candy, select textures of chocolate with vanilla aromatics. To this they added the perfect glass of wine, a Brachetto, Rosa Regale, red and bubbly.

And while the dinner seemed a little long to some, I found the evening magical. Great food and wine with an engaged and charming speaker, mixing up distinct elements to make new arrangements. In the foodies' world, this comes along as rarely as white truffles from Alba. And though I had just gotten off a plane from a time zone seven hours and thousands of years removed, this was captivating stuff. No way was I going to surrender to jet lag.

Let the ritzy rattlesnakes duke it out, down off the mountain top. Pass me a snifter and some Chanel No. 5. I’m staying up and watching the sunrise.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Finding Your Wine

Vallee d'Aoste ~ Vigne de Torrette

One day on the highway in Liguria, it hit me. We were driving up and down hills, into one valley and then on to another. All along the way I was meeting people, some who were winemakers and some who simply liked to drink wine. In Italy, it is easier to find a single wine that you can enjoy over a lifetime. A visit to a winery in your neighborhood, and there you go. It might be a crisp white wine or a mellow, rich red. But along the wine trail in Italy, I keep meeting people who have found their wine. So what is wrong with us in America? Or maybe the question should be, have you found your wine?

Merano ~ Südtirol

Tonight, as I write this below the base of the Alps in Merano, I think about the day 10 years ago when I married my wife. We spent a lifetime finding each other, had a dozen or so years together and then she was gone, taken back by the Creator. We had found each other and drank from each other's heart of a wine as sweet as the latest harvest. Tonight in a small trattoria, I watched a young couple sitting beside each other drinking their wine. Have they found in each other a wine for the rest of their lives?

Vallée de la Roya ~ Airole

Days before, I had been on steep hills plunging down to a rough river, ragged with the bones of ancient mountains. On the schist-laden slopes, vines struggle to break open the concrete soil, pushing towards the sun, holding their breath until the flowers bud and the fruit forms. A summer of heat and night takes over, like making love, then falling back on the pillow, only to disappear into a dream world. Day after day, for four, maybe five, months. Then the love children pop out and are ready to be picked. Anxious workers huddle under the canopies of the vines, picking this cluster and that one. All the offspring are sent to the winery to be nursed and made into precious liquid, so young couples can drink them and fall in love. A cycle that will be repeated until none of us are around to have these thoughts and urges.

Finding your wine. What can it be? How will you know? Does it need to be only one wine?

I met this winemaker in Liguria, Fausto he was called. Fausto has a gray torrent of uncut hair, covering ears that have still black hairs around the openings. An Italian surf bum, but not a lazy guy. Behind the furrowed brow, two eyes peer out, full of life and not a little mischief. Fausto has found his wine. It is a Pigato, an unlikely wine he makes, but one that works very well in his life. As he jumps into his little 2-cycle utility truck (really a glorified scooter), he grabs a bottle of white and heads off to his sister's sports bar. At a table, a plate appears, tiny piquant sausages in a fiery broth that only a Pigato can quell. Fausto teases one of the cook's daughters, and one can see his life is carefree and happy. Almost every day Fausto goes there, to eat his lunch and drink the wine that makes his life lighter and brighter.

I am not sure I have found my wine. And while there are some wines that I prefer over others, what could be a better wine to have with Fausto's sausages than a Pigato?

Valtellina ~ Sondrio

Some of us are outsiders, wandering the trails, in search of our tribe or even our moment. Some of us can never settle anywhere long enough to find our wine. We are poorer for that. For to enjoy a simple dish that our sister has made alongside a wine we have made with our own hands, well, that is such a special circumstance. Haven’t those souls won the big lottery of life? For along with finding their wine, they have also found their life and their place on this earth.