Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Right Place @ The Right Time

How does one follow up a lunch like the last one? With an appointment to visit an important cellar in the historical center of Alba. Our visit with Ceretto came to an end and we pressed one last espresso into the remaining space we had. Then a few thanks you's and buon lavoro's and a brief walk back to the parked car, to ply the meter with more time. I gave a call to Cesare Benvenuto over at Pio Cesare and begged for directions. “No problem, walk 100 or so meters down the street from where you are, turn left and it is on the right. Ring the bell and I’ll meet you at the gate.” Huh? No madcap driving through the cobbled streets of Alba to a countryside vineyard? No mud? No stoplights? No getting lost? On time, this time? Was I finally getting the hang of the Langhe?

Young Cesare greeted us warmly at the portal of the Pio Cesare winery. This was a winery that the town of Alba grew up around. How many times had I walked around the town and never knew the winery that slaked around underneath the ancient bricks. All very interesting to realize an historical operation was so cleverly concealed. As if the act of making wine was the most important aspect. Note to Napa: Hide a winery in the middle of St. Helena and make it a seminal one. No tee shirts, no restaurant, no Godfather’s desk. Hmm…

Once inside, we were led past two statues of Italian greyhounds while a little yippy-type dog protected Nona’s garden. Yes there is a matriarch, and her presence gracefully looms over the compound. Cesare remarks that it is only recently that he has moved into his own living space outside the walls. He is starting a family and needs a backyard and room to grow his brood.

Time out: During this recent trip everyone we have met and spent time with has been in their early 30’s. Where are their parents, my contemporaries? Not that I cannot communicate with the younger ones, in fact I often prefer it. But where are they? Have they retired? Are they all on vacation? Do they not feel the urge to stay in the game? Or is that so very American of me, to persevere like an eno-centric Satchel Paige while my colleagues have long gone to the showers? I’m not that old, am I?

In the tasting room, little details of a long life of the winery surface. This is a quaint stop; I would have never thought the Pio Cesare winery to embrace such tradition and to enshrine it along the walls and in the cellars. It’s like finding an old battleship in the depths and then exploring the galleys looking for things left behind.

A tour of the winery. When one goes to places like Rome and sees the excavations of the floor of the ancient city 20-30 feet below the modern city, does anyone else wonder how in that time it was buried below centuries of dust? So it was at this winery, though only a few feet separated the original winery from modern times. Still, two feet is a lot. But Alba has been growing up lately.

Then we run into Rome. About eight feet below we encounter a wall the Romans built over 2,000 years ago.

Turn a corner and here we find a vine planted by Cesare’s great-great-grandfather, in the cellar. Modern day building has formed a roof over what was once an open area, but the vine is established and grows up the dark wall towards the light. These are things one doesn’t often see in a winery, anywhere.

We are walking in a working museum.

In the area where the wine is boxed and prepared to ship, Cesare's uncle Augusto runs by, recognizes me slightly, says hello and proceeds to conquer Russia and Singapore with his wine. So I’m not the only silverback working today. Business is good, the world is flat, seize the opportunity, Augusto.

My young colleague and Cesare hit it off; they have similar trajectories in the wine business and are also in the process of assembling their families. By the time this is written, Cesare should be a proud papa.

After hitting the lowest level of the cellar, where the old wines still rest, we headed back up to taste through the range of wines that are in release. I did my due diligence for the work related business; after all we represent the winery in several states. Those notes are not for these pages, though I will say that the 2004 vintage in Piedmont for Barolo and Barbaresco is stunning. I am breathless when tasting these wines. These are classic wines, in general, and I recommend collectors (young ones) to snag some.

“What are you doing for dinner?” Cesare asks. It is our last night in Italy on this trip, and we have had many, too many, wonderful meals. I am beginning my downward spiral to a state of puny, which persists to this time.
“Please let me take you to a little place in the country that my friends run.” Italians are so graceful. “No, it is no problem, this is the life we have chosen, please let’s make your last night better by spending some time together.”

We meet at the bottom of the road from where we are staying in Castiglione Falletto and it is a short ride to the restaurant. Il Vigneto is located in Roddi, between La Morra and Alba.

It is a restaurant and a country home, with 6 guest rooms starting at €75.00 for a double. This is a find. And the restaurant and cellar are outstanding. The
menu changes with the seasons, but is extremely reasonable. The wine list is just a sampler of what rests in the cellar. Go here, stay here, eat here, make love here.

So after a huge day and a great finish, we headed down to the cellar for a little Barolo Chinato and a farewell to Alba. Cesare and chef Manola along with his partner Rossano led us down through the kitchen into the cellar, where treasures after treasure of red wines from the Langhe, and beyond, slept in peace. A gravel floor and another private cellar (reserved for special wines and foods) were situated beyond where we settled. A little Chinato, a little grappa, a shot of espresso to make the road down passable and that was our night.

As we headed back to Bricco Rocche and our rooms, Cesare led the way so we wouldn’t get lost. We stopped at a road he indicated would get us up to Castiglione Falletto. We then said goodbye and headed up the road a few feet and stopped, waiting for Cesare’s car to disappear. It seemed he had led us to the wrong road (we had gotten lost a few times so we knew when we weren’t on the right road). Then we proceeded to the correct road and raced to tuck ourselves into the comfortable little beds on top of the hill. We were in the right place at the right time.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Elephants Are Dancing in Alba

Finally, an appointment we weren’t too late for. We were already in Alba, so chances were we wouldn’t get lost. I felt us getting closer. After a bit of friendly correspondence with Bruna Manzone from Ceretto we were finally there. We would be their guests for two nights at Bricco Rocche.

Everything about Ceretto can be summed up in this phrase: The elephants are dancing.
There is a bit of controlled chaos in the current cycle of the Ceretto Empire. I think it is an exciting time.

Piedmont has really hits its stride in these days. They seem to be at peace with their markets, having spread out to a larger world base while still keeping their uniquely provincial perspective. They have jazz and foam and Spada and can be in Milan in little time or anywhere they want to be. Many of the young winemakers spend time in New York; some of them even have flats there. So this quiet little Langhe can serve to recast their ambitions for the larger world stage.

The wines are made for the world at large and when in history can one say that about Italian wines with more resolve than now? So the travel and the exposure have paid off.

The plan was to meet in the afternoon and tour one of the Ceretto wineries, do a little tasting and then the next day visit several more and finish with lunch at one of the family restaurants called Piazza Duomo.

Confession: I have struggled in Texas with getting the Ceretto wines off the ground in the manner in which they seem to have been accepted in some of the more cosmopolitan world markets. These are not Bar-B-Q and Barbaresco wines. What started out years ago as a conscious effort to strive for higher expression of winemaking aiming toward sophisticated levels of cuisine, what some might even call alto-borghese, has not always been how things in Texas have played out. That is changing, ever so slowly. One should not be too old to hope to see it eventually come to a fuller realization. I anticipate eagerly, living long enough to witness it.

After a tour with Ellan, their young American assistant, and a tasting with Gianluca Picca, a sommelier and now sales manager for the family, we drove to Castiglione Falletto where Bricco Rocche sits. It is easy enough to find with the glass cube that marks the space. But oddly, when one spends time there, waking up early in the fog and walking around the grounds, one feels a little awed about being able to sleep around the vines that create so much joy for people around the world. I guess I’ll never really get over something like that; the urban dweller in me finds it hard to believe.

I love going to Castiglione Falletto, it seem like the heart of the Barolo zone, to me.

We had a long day of driving hard and hitting several wineries, so my colleague and I opted for beer and pizza the first night, a little break from all the great new expressions of la cucina Italiana that we had been witnessing the past few days. The next day we were slated for a lunch with Federica Ceretto at the Piazza Duomo restaurant in Alba, one of the family culinary jewels.

As the new day dawned, we would be going to Barbaresco, to the winery in Asili, for some barrel tasting. We went in the car with Gianluca, a transplanted Roman, who travels 40% of the time. He lives above the winery in Asili and loves it, when he has those rare moments at his home base. He seems to have assimilated quite nicely into the Langhe environment; I saw an intense and engaged face as he walked around the cellars.

Later on, in Alba, we met up with Federico, or Fedé as he was called. Fedé reminds me of an Italian Bono with a dollop of Elvis Costello. His is an animated young man who has definitely sewn some of his wild oats. Now he is engaged and will be married later this spring, and is drawn up in the pageant of the family celebration. We sat in the restaurant below the sprawling Francesco Clemente fresco.

Chef Enrico Crippa sees Piazza Duomo as an international dining destination. Influenced by a youthful stay with Gualtiero Marchesi, and three years spent for him in Japan. Pristine food, fresh ingredients not over manipulated, wonderful flavors, colors, aromas, the whole gestalt of the table. And the Ceretto wines, where they shined brilliantly with the meal.

You can read elsewhere about the wines of the family. My intent is to encourage you to visit Alba and find the wellspring where the wines and the food pay respect to the same goddess, Mother Earth.

And to be baptized with Moscato d’ Asti in this shrine, that is a dream, from the Wine Trail in Italy.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Back In The Saddle

The best thing about this very moment is that I am in my own bed. Finally. After camping out for five days at Vinitaly and then taking to the road for another week in northern Italy, I came home exhuasted and relieved. Airplanes filled with sick children coughing for eleven hours must have broken down my resistance. A week in the office trying to put together a series of wine seminars across Texas and then a very important dinner for an important Italian winemaker, almost broke me. I spent a weekend alternating between duties at wine dinners and laying on my couch trying to prevent getting any sicker. But come Monday I was stung. Maybe it was a little flu, or a cold or allergies, whatever it was, I should have sat the week out. Instead I took to the road. Dallas on Monday, Houston on Tuesday, Austin on Wednesday and San Antonio on Thursday, with a quick flight back to Dallas for a private and very upscale event for Riccardo Cotarella at the home of a friend in Highland Park and sixty of his closest friends and family.

Last Sunday I knew I was sunk. I had driven off the wine trail onto a shoulder, and it was leading me straight into the gates of hell. But what could I do? I was scheduled to work all week with my colleague and friend the Master Sommelier, Guy Stout. Four days, four cities. The show must go on.

I had no voice. I emailed a friend whose wife is an opera singer, a coloratura soprano. She is very protective of her voice. So I asked him to have her send me her remedy for a sore throat with no voice and the need to perform. Her email was priceless, and someday I must reprint her remedy, for it is alchemy and genius.

I proceeded to go forward. Monday was upon me. Our meeting with salespeople went well enough. That lasted for an hour and was fairly low impact. The challenge would come in the afternoon when we would be doing a ninety minute presentation and a lot of talking.

Time out. I don’t usually talk about these things. I call these kinds of posts “mommy blogs.” See what I did, see who I talked to, see my wonderful life. I usually stick to topic. But lately I have heard from a lot of folks about how wonderful my profession and life is. And it is. But not without some downsides as well. Many hours, lots of work and when one wears themselves out, burn on through it. Don’t stop. Not very glamorous.

So I was suited up and sounding like Barry White. Dallas went well, plenty of folks showed up; it was an SRO(standing room only) kind of day. Around 5:30 I was dragging and someone suggested I go home. One stop first. A friend with MS needed some wine for her MS charity event planning meeting. So I rounded up some bottles and took them to her penthouse. And then home and straight to bed.

8 PM and it is still light out. But in eight hours I must get up and catch a plane. So I forced myself down and hoped when I awoke I would feel better.

No chance. But I'm on a 6:30 AM plane, anyway. If I wanted to feel bad about my plight I saw two other colleagues at the airport who had come from way out in the suburbs to catch their flights as well. So no tears for me.

I have a friend who I rarely see, but it seems lately we are on the same plane to Houston. We both started out about the same time in the wine biz and we took different paths. But it is always interesting talking to him about the big Napa Valley wine business. Lots of correlations.

Houston. 7:30 AM. 80°F and 90% humidity. I should have brought more shirts. On to the morning meeting.

First one went well. The afternoon one started later and I found myself on a hotel room laid out trying to regain some strength. I was taking a mixture of antihistamines, zinc, aspirin, nose spray, cough drops and cough syrup. I was up, down, soft boiled, poached and rendered. I felt like crap. Thirty minutes to showtime.

Seventy folks filed in and my spirits were raised. I talked as long as my voice held out and then I handed the program over to Guy. A friend in the audience told me later that he saw my voice trail off and disappear as I handed the program over to my colleague.

2 days down – 2 to go

After flying to Houston and doing a full days worth of program we loaded up the car and headed to Austin. I have taken that Houston to Austin road three times this year and I am beginning to really like it in a country and western song writing kind of way. As we headed into Austin, missing dinner with any number of Italian winemakers who had descended upon the capital, we rolled into the hotel and bagged it for the night.

Austin. We had two great days and we got cocky. A decent enough session with our staff and then on to the trade function.

Austin isn’t like anywhere else. There’s no predicting what will or won’t work. We set up the room, decorated the tables for 50 and opened up scores of great Italian wines. And then we waited. And waited.

Earlier we had rolled out for a quick lunch of tacos, chased with a bottle of Kerner. In plastic glasses, over ice. Had we offended the wine gods? This was Austin, was that so wrong?

Finally we started. Seven brave souls made it to the event. Along with double that amount of wine suppliers and staff. I had no voice and my emotions weren't too high, but I belted out a program that was one of my best. I gave it 120%. Later one of my friends showed up and lifted my spirits. I was really down. Guy wasn’t feeling so masterfully wonderful either. But we soldiered on and packed up the car and headed to San Antonio.

A nice meal at Luca and a glass or two of wine and we were three days down and one to go.

San Antonio – Thursday 9 AM – there must have been 45 salespeople in the room. Guy and I did our thing and afterwards several salespeople came up and told us we had made a difference for them that day. One old boy brought tears to my eyes. Something that I said about just making a note to have an answer to the question, “what’s new?” really pushed his button, in a good way. Yes, they liked me, they really liked me. On to the afternoon seminar.

Meanwhile Guy drove us, on the way, to an aggie store where he returned some ridiculously expensive pesticide. I had been traveling in his car for two days with this ultra concentrated poison that cost $200 a gallon?

In the poison store that had these wonderful posters with detailed drawings of ants and bees and sharpshooters. Down to the hairy backs on the big headed ants. Weird, but wonderful, in a macabre way.

Finally we made it to the last venue in time to get a call that my alarm back home is on and the alarm company won't call the police because I haven’t updated my permit info. All this while my phone/blackberry is crashing every five minutes.

So I lose it. I call my son and neighbor to go over and check it out. Seems that Dallas was having some serious April weather and the power was out. Small favors.

The afternoon seminar, the last one before heading back to Dallas for the Cotarella event. The restaurant had set the room up as if only seven people were coming to this one. No, no, no. Eventually 15-20 people showed and we averted a disaster.

I started the event off knowing I would have to bow out early and get to the airport. Around ten minutes past the time I should have stopped, Giulio popped his head in and got me out to the car. Along the way he made conversation about things, trying to ease my worry.

Airport. In time. Phone dead. Catch plane. Ears clog up and stay clogged up. I’m never gonna get well.

A hard landing in Dallas and a quick dart to Highland Park to prepare for the Cotarella event. I am dead tired. I am grouchy. But the show must go on. Clouds were gathering. Would our wonderful Italian al fresco event be forced to move inside? Please, please, please, don’t rain.

Riccardo showed up looking tired too. We were the walking wounded in search of the illusive bella figura. But we grabbed each others arms and headed for the stage. Just like Bing and Bob. We killed ‘em. They loved it. Almost done.

Finally about 9 PM Riccardo looks like I feel. He stands up and says good night. Thank you, Riccardo, we can all go rest up and get ready to pitch our tent another day.

That’s a peek into a week of the glamorous wine life.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Young Lion

We had to be in Alba at noon. Leaving the fluffy witness protection program of L’Albereta would be difficult, but not impossible.

A brief breakfast downstairs, the perfect cappuccino, and a short meeting with a colleague from a nearby winery. He counseled me to take the autostrada from Brescia towards Piacenza. It would be one of several misdirectional errors I would make that day. But we had three hours to get there, we could make it.

On the road, four hours later, Guido calls. “Where are you, close?” “Yes, Guido, but we will be there in 20 minutes.” An hour later we arrive in Alba and set about meeting up with the young lion, Guido Folonari.

Guido is a force of nature. Guido does not know the meaning of “I can’t”. Guido is irrepressible. Guido is turning 40 this year.

A brief lunch at the underground and very private Enoclub in Alba, where we sampled some of the Tenuta L’Illuminata red wines, Dolcetto, Barbera and Barolo. Plates arrive at the table; Carne crudo and a pasta with ragu, a dole of guanciale perched upon a mound of perfect polenta. We are no longer lost.

Ah, Alba, what a place. A small little city in an ancient corner of Italy, where some of the great wines and foods of the world are born. It reminds me a little of Beaune, a bit more urbanized, larger. But with any wine capital there is a concentration of energy that is focused of the pinnacle of perfection that we all seek to reach in the wine (and food) world. Alba, off the touristic path, is left for true believers. The wine gods are wise and generous.

After lunch Guido takes us in his SUV to his estate near La Morra. There he is in the process of restructuring an old, grand building, which houses his Piedmont winery. Along the way he has expanded the interior to accommodate a few guest rooms, a kitchen and a grand room. Guido has plans for the future.

I should really talk about the wines, but once in a while you come across a person who shines bright. He still has the energy of impetuous youth, but he also possesses an old soul aspect. It is as if the torch has passed to him and his generation and he is taking it to his mountain top. Guido is larger than his wines.

The winery is named after a chapel which was built to thank the Heavens for saving the area from the Plague. The chapel gives its name to the winery, L’Illuminata. Good thing it is still consecrated, or Guido might be thinking of installing a chef and a kitchen and looking for a nearby property (which there is) to locate a little country hotel.

One does not say no to this young man. I watched him at a table of strangers. Within minutes he had everybody under his spell. He is funny, he is engaging, he is a very smart young man. Women love him. Men admire him. Guido exudes untapped power.

Yes, Guido is his own power source; his energy is the hybrid-model of the new Italian entrepreneur. While much of Italy is struggling with their economic and personal funk, Guido is unphased. It doesn’t hurt that his father and his uncles sold their major brand, Ruffino, several years ago, for an ample supply of capital. Future projects were dreamt up and Guido set about collecting what he calls his killer B’s of the Italian wine world. Those are Barolo, Brunello and Bolgheri. One wife, four kids and three mistresses (those would be his killer B wine estates); this is Guido’s orbit. God knows what he is doing when the rest of us are sleeping. I am sure he sleeps four hours a day, maximum. Whether it is saving a homeless winery dog or choosing the right stone floor, planning a new vineyard or plotting the future of his triangulated empire, this is a man with a mission. And a time crunch. How does this come across?

Occasionally, as I said, you encounter a person with an energy that reflects a sense of urgency. Not that anything terrible is forecast. Not, it’s more like 100 years is not enough, but let’s try and do all that we can imagine and let’s not waste a moment.

That hour that we kept him waiting in Alba? I cannot return that time to him, though he could probably use it very effectively. But I am sure he will find a way to reclaim that lost time, by making it up on some autostrada in the direction of one of his big plans to change Italian wine on the 21st century.

Somewhere in the jungle the young lion is roaring.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Your Pace or Mine?

It was 2:30 in the afternoon and we were just finishing lunch in the hills above Trento. The phone buzzed, it was Giulio. “I’m just leaving Guido’s and heading towards Franciacorta, where are you?” I lied and told him we were on our way.

Fifteen minutes later, after our goodbyes, we slipped down the hill and found the autostrada towards our next appointment. We were running a little late.

On the highway it was raining lightly, so I looked to keep the speed down below 150 km/h. But it was a straight shot, downhill, against the traffic, and we wanted to get to L’Albereta no later than 4:30. I would probably "need" to push the Bee-em-voo a little, nothing over 160-170 km/h, tops.

As luck would have it, with only one turn around, we crept onto the manicured grounds of the hotel. We were to be guests of the Moretti family, who own this little gem. L’Albereta is part of the Relais & Châteaux, a collection of very fine hotels and restaurants around the world. After five nights on a too-small straw bed and a shared bath (Vinitaly), I was more than ready for a little coddling.

Our pace, since the end of the fair, had slackened only slightly, and we were getting ready to kick it up a notch going into Piedmont. As usual, I had over booked winery visits. But really, in this game, playing on the sidelines and treating it like a vacation doesn’t cut it back home. And yes, there were many more estates I drove by and felt awful about passing.

We were met by Giulio and Terra Moretti director, Roberto Barbato. They both looked like they had just enjoyed 18 holes of golf and were ready for the 19th hole. But we had a winery to visit.

Erbusco, between Bergamo and Brescia, and in the heart of Franciacorta, is where the Moretti family also own Bellavista and Contadi Castaldi. That’s a little like owning Roederer and Duval-Leroy. Lots of eyes looking at everything you do. Glamour and high expectations, and a fickle lot of trend-followers waiting to glam onto the next big thing. Sparkling wine in this tradition is determined by years of patience and perseverance in dark, dank cellars, not a smoke filled cat-walk in Milan. Odd, how the two have somehow hooked up.

The face of Contadi Castaldi is Mario Falcetti, who has been there almost since day one. Mario is still a young man, but he strikes me as genuine and warm, and very savvy. It appears that the folks at CC have a lot of fun, while managing to be a serious wine producer.

America has been slow to awaken to Franciacorta. I remember 20 years ago struggling to sell Ca’ del Bosco. Then again, 20 years ago it was all more of a struggle than it is now.

I find that interesting, in these challenging times, that a premium item like a Franciacorta appears to be easier to sell now. I think the explosive acceptance of Champagne in the US has thrown the spotlight on other quality producers across the globe. Now, with Champagne heading precariously towards their own possible Brunello-gate, with expansion of the appellation, it seems ripe for the folks in Franciacorta to stake their claim to some of the world market for the fine bubbles.

After visiting the cellars Mario and his winemaking team led us through a tasting of the Contadi Castaldi wines. It was there they showed to us their newest baby, Soul.

Soul is a Saten, similar to a Cremant. This one was from the 2000 vintage, and had just recently been disgorged after 72 months on the yeast. What I noted was an intense wine with a degree of depth normally reserve for still wines. The fruit was almost syrup-like, not cloying, layered. And at the end there was this little kiss of roasted coffee. The last time I remember having that sensation was in a magnum of 1964 Salon, back during the Reagan era. The Salon was one of the more memorable moments of that period of time.

The tasting done, Mario had another commitment and we said our farewells. But he is a good “connector” between the land and the shark-filled seas of commerce.

Francesca Moretti was opening a new casual restaurant and we were invited to the opening. But, the restaurant was not ready. So we were re-routed to a round table at Gualtiero Marchesi’s restaurant at L’Albereta.

I remember first eating at Gualtiero Marchesi’s namesake restaurant in Milan in 1984. Those were in the heady days of Nouvelle cuisine and Marchesi was leading the attack from Italy. We’re way out of trattoria and comfort food when we talk about this stage. This is food as art, carefully orchestrated in the kitchen and on the plate. No complaining here, for this is a way to see natural ingredients elevated in solo performances. Here asparagus is performing an aria, there truffles are counter-pointing with fois gras in a duet.

Performance, drama, luxury and when it is all said and done, a happy and full belly, dancing to some mellow techno-beat sounds in the background.

The maestro ambled over to our table in civilian garb. He was the conductor now; tonight, the kitchen was no country for old men. Now he exudes wisdom with his warmth, and it was interesting to see him interact with the young Francesca, whose family reigns over this kingdom.

A few words about this. Someone in Francesca’s shoes could be a wealthy little spoiled kid, bossing around famous chefs and feeding from the trough of the family wealth. But I don’t perceive her in that way. What I see is a very serious young woman who understands the responsibility of success. What do I mean by that? When you have three or four wineries, several Relais & Châteaux, a construction company that is pervasive in Italy and unlimited possibilities for the future and you see yourself as a servant-leader, that speaks volumes about the level of intent and engagement this family has with the land, their employees and ultimately their destiny. This is a historical period for Italian wines and from what I can see the Moretti family understands the historical context and their duty to be curators of that pageant of accomplishment.

Risotto with gold leaf. It wasn’t the first time I had enjoyed this from the kitchen of Gualtiero Marchesi. It might not be the last. It was like a little gold bow that wrapped that last 24 years up in a circle of the continuum of the wine carousel. Maybe it was the wine god’s way to wrap up the last generation (and me with it) or perhaps it was just a nice plate of risotto with a lovely glass of Franciacorta.

As I headed back up to my room with a bed that more than fit (and a bathroom that I could have put all of my Vinitaly room into) and a window with a view, the bell tower struck midnight. I would have eight hours to turn back into myself, before heading towards Piedmont. There, waiting, were all the young lions, ready to devour us, or conscript us into their pride of Nebbiolo.

Hakuna matata!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dale De-Spoofilates *

* De-Spoofilate : After five days at Vinitaly, to purge the tannins of the Super Tuscans and the hype of the Amphoristi, by taking time in Venice, for a personal makeover.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Talento’ed and Gifted

While the Champagne region widens their premium appellation by annexing land, the Italians hold council in boardrooms and bedrooms. Over a cup of coffee or a parting shot of amaro, the Italian migraine pounds.

It seems there are different standards for wine regions in the EU. So while Champagne skates, Tuscany returns to Savanarola and the Inquisition. Right as the wild asparagus on the hill is fresh and tender.

Meanwhile in Trento the young lions have embraced technology with all of their Teutonic fervor. Thrown in with them is a southerner from Abruzzo for a little spice; that is what awaits us on our visit to Trento.

I am a huge fan of Mezzacorona. The landscape is dramatic (and cool), the winegrowers are arranged in a social network to encourage quality over plonk. The grower’s cooperative of Mezzacorona is an anthill that works extremely well. And the wines, made with regards to efficiency and cleanliness, are rather nice values. And in times where our currency is as rough as the Italian toilet paper in the 1970’s, that is a good thing.

We were guests of Alberto Lusini, export director and Lucio Matricardi, winemaker, for a brief visit. Alberto is in his early 30’s, fresh and hopeful, with the strength of the Dolomites in his spine, keeping him in a steady path towards a future goal. I’ve watched him over the past four years and seen an evolution that is just what the Italian wine industry needs. Sound principles with a plan. In a young person, that is music, to this old eagle. Reinforcements are being readied. Yes.

Lucio is another story. While he is the enologo, he could as easily be in sales. He has a side to him that is like the pancetta and onions in an Amatriciana. Spice. A smart guy. Though he is a Dottore, he didn’t get it from some Italian diploma factory. He got his PhD from University of California at Davis for work done on ageing. He has a crazy side to him, which is a great balance to the calmness of Alberto. A good team. We like Lucio.

The whole operation is filled with youth. Working. The North, so grounded with their mountains and their alpine water.

After a brief tour around the winery, which I call the most beautiful industrialized winery I have ever seen, we headed up to a meeting room for some blending. Lucio had arranged several samples of the sparkling wine, called Talento, for us to make a cuvee. This is their Rotari, which has this uncanny aspect that, when tasted blind against some of the big brands from Champagne, taste better, richer, cleaner and cost a fraction of their French cousin’s wines. Go figure. They're not selling perfume in Trento, just serviceable bubbly with high quality and flavor that the Italians looove.

A word about the vineyards. For some time now, before green was the new black, a movement has been underway in Trento to return to the ways of their great grandparents, in terms of farming. The use of artificial stimulation and pest eradication by chemical means is being highly discouraged by the Mezzacorona team. For one, they are also apple farmers and the whole earth cycle relies on the interplay of crops and bees and creatures and health in the farms. People are living in their vineyards and groves; the average size of the farm is less than 2 acres. So the farmers are close to their source. This is not some agribusiness making decisions from a boardroom on the 45th floor. They are living their life on site and also feel the need to protect their health as well. Got it?

All this happened between two dining events. The night my colleague Todd and I arrived we met at the Ristorante Chiesa in Trento. Owner Alessandro Chiesa and his talented young chef, Peter Brunel have created a warm, smart place in sleepy little Trento. Great food, fresh, foraged from local sources with an eye towards simplicity, with a dollop of elegance. A nod to Gualtiero Marchese, another to Ferran Adrià. And then the energy of youth and the spirit of place pull their strings. Don’t miss this spot. One of the best meals of the year.

A word about asparagus. I have this love-hate relationship with asparagus. Kind of like I do with Pinot Grigio. Let me just cut to the chase and say that this year in the north of Italy the asparagus rivaled the artichokes. And artichokes roll me over with nary an attempt to win my heart. I love them that much. But the chefs in Northern Italy have been blessed with a wonderful asparagus harvest this year. And we were lucky enough to sample the harvest as they worked their way through the kitchens of Chiesa, L' Albereta and Piazza Duomo. Didn’t mean to brag.

The other meal was a lunch in the hills before we sped off to Erbusco. This was in a room holding no more than 20 seats. Country cooking. Hearty. My aunt Amelia’s cooking. Homemade stuffed pastas and farmers plates. Add to this a bottle of Teroldego, and you have an "Oh God, wonderful" moment.

Heading down the hill to the autostrada (we were running late), I looked back at Alberto and Lucio, one from the north and one from the south, and saw the future, once again, in the hands of youth. Yes, politicians with new hair and fresh tans work the airwaves to rearrange the power grid in Italy. But this is not the world that 70 year old men can fix.

And while those young men disappeared rapidly from my rear view window as we sped off in haste, they will not be swept away by never-ending elections. Let's hope they, and the engaged young men and women of Italy, are the antidote to the Malessere.