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Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Praise of Pitigliano

Leaving Rome and heading north up the west coast is a little like exiting L.A. and heading up Hwy 1. I had never done it before but somewhere after Civitavecchia it started looking familiar on a molecular-memory level.

It was Sunday morning and after a little cappuccino in the hotel in Parioli we crept out of Rome, with help from the she-devil Gps. The sky was overcast and there was an early autumn breeze in the air. We were heading to California.

I am newly acquainted with the Tuscan coast, so I wonder why it took me over thirty years to get around to it. Maybe it was my mania for visiting every region in Italy. That is, except for Sardegna. I must go there with my landscape-chef friend Francesco, who as a child looked out from Orosei towards the land we were now driving up.

Sunday was a quiet time on the SS1 and once we passed Montalto di Castro my partner in crime started getting hunger pains. The night before we had gone to a little trattoria and had our second on many Last Suppers, but it was a new day, a little rain was starting to fall and there you have it, time for pranzo.

I spied a delivery truck in front of me and saw that he was pulling off into a little roadside place and my inner Gps said “follow that man.”

It was a very humble place, no tourists and a lone Indian inside the entrance peddling exotic jewelry and speaking a strange hybrid of Italian and Hindi.

We took a table opposite a large picture window and watched the rain float, then strike the outer world. But we were safe inside the little lunch room, and thirsty. I asked the waiter for a good local wine and he recommended a fresh white from nearby Pitigliano. It had been years since I had thought about the Bianco from Pitigliano, when I once brought in a 20 foot container of the stuff for a Jewish client who had an Italian café and retail store. He loved the stuff and sold the hell out of it. I remember it was light and dry and crisp and it reminded me of the Trebbiano from Abruzzo that we drank so much of in those days.

In those days we didn’t call it the Maremma. It wasn’t yet fashionable to render it so. The wines were cheap and cheerful and under appreciated. Morellino would eventually reach the close out list and we’d all make friends with $4 red from Scansano.

For now, it was Sunday afternoon and the Pitigliano was still cheap and cheerful. The owner had opened the picture window and a cool,fresh salty-rain breeze washed over us. And with a platter of fresh fritto misto from the nearby waters, maybe a little plate of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, a small dish or two of zucchini and patate, was there a more wonderful way to spend an afternoon anywhere on earth?

I just have to say this. A wine like Pitigliano, if it were my local white wine, I would be a very happy man. Yes, my tastes are getting simpler and simpler, and Pitigliano is a perfect wine for the pensioner, the student or the wine lover who just wants refreshment and no barrel chatter. Yes, I would be ignorant, but happy.

After lunch and a café, it was almost like the Indian knew we were thinking about him. He came up to the table and had an array of jewelry, each one with a story. I bought one that my contramico liked. He wanted to sell us two, three, four. He really was a fish out of water, but the water he had landed in was just fine. I mean how could a guy from Mumbai land in the Tuscan coast selling jewelry from God knows where? I’d say he won the lottery of life. He might beg to differ, what do I know?

As we neared Castiglione della Pescaia, our she-devil navigator steered us onto a side road towards La Badiola, where L’Andana was waiting for the fortunate ones who were destined to stay within here pampered walls. It was just like we had seen on the website, except that Alain Ducasse had long left the place to his trusted surrogates.

As we checked into the little jewel of a hotel, I got a faint sense that there are many Italy’s. There is the Italy of Rome. There is the Italy of the roadside café and a simple plate of misto fritto and a bottle of Pitigliano. And there is the Italy of the Alto-Borghese. We were grifters upon this refined side of Italy, with linen sheets and one star Michelin restaurants. With home made donuts in the morning, steaming cups of cappuccino and the sweetest melon this side of the Pecos.

Nowhere but Italy - Guess the wine region, become a millionaire

After a sweet little nap and some mindless television, we would press on into the full moon landscape and try our luck in this new world. It had shaped up to be a very special Sunday along the Tuscan coast on the wine trail in Italy.





Friday, September 26, 2008

Roma: Lupi Apud Oves Custodes *

* The wolves are watching over the sheep

As we were in Rome, so it is also the same as we are back home. Several days ago, I cold-called a new Italian place in an older part of town. The owner was receptive and friendly. So I handed the info off to a colleague. Yesterday I walked into another account to set up a wine event for women only, and our company order was rolling in. Everyone was out taking lunch, so I checked the order in and, seeing as it was the lunch hour, put up part of the order. Part of that “now go back home and sell some of this stuff” business. Who has time to look for a job? I have more work than I can say grace over. A couple of articles needing to be written, deadlines looming, a panel of tasting notes for another piece, an educational piece I’ll be needing for next Tuesday, and a proposal for a tasting today in Cowtown. Too busy selling this stuff to worry about mergers and acquisitions. Selling, not buying, that’s the game. Getting harder, but not as hard as being on the outside looking in. That’s a bowl of future-tripping.

Anyway the salesman finally shows up to the account with his young acolyte in tow, and they are giddy. Seems the youngun’ has written a proposal for the new Italian place I handed over to his older sidekick. They wanted me to take a look at it. Now mind you, I just went in and talked to a potential customer about an Italian wine list for an Italian-styled restaurant. The youngun' hands me his list, and there’s a Malbec from Argentina on it. I ask him, what the hell is that? I’m sitting looking at a pile of wine for the tasting today and there’s an Aglianico and a Montepulciano, a Monica and a Cannonau. Why Malbec? And then I see the proposal populated with California wine and wonder if we will ever get off this not-so-superstrada of New World wine somnambulism and get back to the Italian wine trail. Yeah, right.

I woke up a few hours later and went to my office. Jet lag was rousing me from my Italian-time afternoon nap and telling me to get busy, lyrics from Dylan’s “Highlands” clamoring in the pre-cappuccino pre-dawn,

Woke up this mornin' and I looked at the same old page
Same old rat race, life in the same old cage
I don't want nothin' from anyone, ain't that much to take
Wouldn't know the difference between a real blonde and a fake
Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery
I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me
Well my heart's in The Highlands wherever I roam
That's where I'll be when I get called home

Rome is a walking town; the she-wolf always seems to get you on her turf. I was lucky enough to have my wife Liz still able to walk, when one June we pressed all around the place looking at the antiquities. Stopping in a bar to drink that cool white Colli Albani wine that then flowed into the ever-so-willing carafes. Eyes always staring out from some quiet corner.

Caput Mundi has her silent sentinels stationed in every quarter. In this memory, the most recent of the Roman reminisces, somewhere between the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum, I eyed a tiny alley with some tables. It was a cool day, and we had miles to go. A few minutes earlier we had stared at and touched a Michelangelo sculpture in an anonymous church, no guards telling us to stand back, no €6 Euro entry fee. Now flatbread and fresh mozzarella called, a spray of arugula and some prosciutto, and that damn carafe of red wine.

Why, when I can have any Italian wine from any list, do I order the red in a carafe? You have a sweater and it fits after so many years. It is broken in. No, it doesn’t go with the Isiaia suit, isn’t meant to. But it is comfortable and familiar. I like to go back to the carafe, especially in Rome; it’s a barometer of the state of Italian wine.

Walking Rome stirs one to reflect about Italy, and all that those of us who work for her wine industry all these centuries. The missionaries in flyover country, the stylists on the West Coast who are like Terry Riley or Harry Partch in their orchestrations of the wines and the interpretations of the food. The driven ones in New York and Chicago, those who actually sell wine for a living. And the Roman salesmen, the home boys on the cobbled streets, with their Vespas and their briefcases, walking the Testaccio and the Trastevere, The Parioli and the Via Veneto. The not-so-silent sentinels. Pressing the flesh for the fruits from the wine press. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Just like 3,500 years ago, when the Chaldeans worked with the female Egyptian factors to ensure a continuous flow of red wine to the Pharaohs. Or am I being too archetypical for you?

Rome has become a coarser urban setting, more people with their hands out, hands looking for your pockets. On one of the days, there wasn’t a moment when someone didn’t want to interpret (for a price) what I was looking at. As if seeing it for the twelfth time in 27 years didn’t inoculate me from the swirling bats. Always in threes, non ce' due senza tre. We swat them back into their caves and endure the travesty of time and humanity with our limited interpretations of such things. Or am I getting too paradigmatic for you?

Those old faces staring back at me from behind their glass cases take on a resemblance that 30 years ago I wouldn’t have recognized. Now it’s more like staring at my death mask. Rome is filled with death masks, and they are beginning to look more contemporary to me. Maybe it’s just the familiarity of the remembrance after so many visits, like visiting an aunt in Alcamo or a cousin in Cosenza. These cold, stone carvings are like my family now. Or have I become too paronomastic for you?

And then there is that tattoo-dosage of modern reality that tells you as long as there are people on this planet, there will be those who will have to learn it all, not from staring at the ruins of a long gone empire, but by walking in their own flip-flops amidst the gaze of the Capitoline wolf and making their own mistakes, going their own way without the benefit of history. To survive or perish.

There is fear and dread in every corner, and there is hope and clarity after a long night in the corner of a cold room on top of a hill in some forbidden village. How one interprets that opportunity or yields to the udders of the she-wolf, well, that’s up to each and every one of us in our own way, isn’t it?




Thursday, September 25, 2008

Roma: In front of the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole




Dr. Zaius, what are you up to?


Brunerlot?


Don't get excited...It's just an early morning jet-lag joke. Un'scherzo...



Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In Gps We Trust

Rome, Rome, Rome, always the beginning and the end of so many stories. In the recent events, it was the point where we started the circle and finished it.

Coming into Rome from the airport was so much easier than it was the first time; just turned on the GPS-she-devil device and plugged in the hotel address, and 30 minutes later we arrived at the front desk. Not like the time in 1990 when I had my wife, Liz, jump into a cab and I followed her to the hotel. After wandering around the city for two hours.

Driving in Rome is an interesting challenge, one that seems to have become more intense in the last 30 years. Italy, too, has become less civil and angrier on the road. And then there are the motor scooters and two wheeled space invaders that plague today’s Rome. But that’s the way of a city, even one as old as Rome. Wisdom doesn’t come so easily.

The 2008 harvest is underway and in the coming days I’ll be posting notes from what I saw and touched, drank and thought. This year the harvest report centers on Central Italy, with Tuscany and the Maremma on one side and the Marche/Abruzzo on the other, like a teeter-totter between Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Other grapes as well. But we won’t be going off too far into esoterica on this trip, no, this isn’t the time for too much autochthon. This is a time to batten down the hatches and lean out, make it through the present cycle, which is not without its challenges.

I have a friend who is starting an import company right now, and mainly working the NY-east coast. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. But to his credit, he understands that the relationship with the restaurateur is more important than holding the hand of the winemaker. It’s a buyers market, and like my 20 new best friends, wine salesmen in Rome, told me last week, it's all in how you bond with the customer.


Interesting find in a neighborhood that I like to stay in, Parioli. A little spot called La Balestra on the Via Simeto 2/F. Not on anybody’s radar, no reviews, just a great neighborhood spot with good service, clean food, fantastic wine prices. I will post about it later.

Another place, on the other end of the trip, was in Monteporzio Catone, in Frascati country, a place called I Tinelloni, found as a result of a Slow Food recommendation from a book Sausage Paul pressed into my hands before I left. Definitely worth a post as well.

The wine trail led us this year, from Rome up to the Tuscan Coast to Castiglione della Pescaia. We climbed over and into Firenze to meet up with an old friend, and then trekked over to the Marche/Abruzzo coast at San Benedetto del Tronto. A couple of day trips from there, one during a wet afternoon to forage for mushrooms over white tablecloths. Fish on the coast, meat in the hills. And then back to Rome via Monteporzio Catone.

One story. On the last day, we were about 40 km from the airport, with traffic no more than an hour. I set the GPS for the quickest route, not the shortest (I had learned that the hard way when we went from Castiglione della Pescaia to Firenze, over every last hilltop town).

But then we got into the traffic flow, and flow is a kind word, more like a molasses surge, I knew we were going to have a tale if we didn’t miss the plane.

Roman drivers are singular in their ability to ferret out every last drop of pavement in which to claim their driving space. They are aggressive, meaner than a junkyard dog, sometimes not paying attention, and ultimately forgivable in their ability to recognize another who just has to get to the airport on time.

I drove the wrong way on a street to jump in front of a traffic line and get myself back in the direction that the polizia told me to go. I gave people a wave to go in front of me and got the finger by someone behind them because I didn’t give it to them as well. I got honked at mercilessly by an ancient Roman because I was blocking the road, never mind that I had a red light. He had to turn right. Guess the poor old guy had to pee. In any case, the polizia, who just gave me directions, turned their heads away as I crept past the line so the vecchione could get on with his turn. I had scads of bottle rockets, Vespas and other two wheeled insects buzzing all around me, you think I was a pile of oregano in bloom the way they were swarming the car. But I made it through, without a scratch. Two hours later.

What it did to me later, as I was resting in the plane, was to give me the royal boot back to America. “So there you have it Italian Wine Guy, we took care of you one more time. You slept in nice beds, had great food, saw wonderful countryside, and drank delicious wine, from the carafes you love so much to the finest vintages. Now go back home and try to sell some of this stuff. And don’t come back until you do.”

Oh yes, I got my due. And now it’s back to paying my dues.






Sunday, September 21, 2008

There Are No Sick Bees Here

From the Archives ~ Nov. 18, 2007

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, September 19, 2008

Grapefruit, Eggplant & Montepulciano

From the Archives ~ June 9, 2006

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

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

What did he say? When in Rome…..

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

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

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

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

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


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










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

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

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

Bona Notte!

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



Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Meltdown

From the Archives ~ Aug.22, 2007


Annabella and her friend Lily were waiting for us at the airport. A small car, but ample enough for the four of us with our carry on bags. I had met Lily when she was married to Roberto. That was several years back at Vinitaly. They seemed happy enough then.

Lily was somewhere between 38 and 42, a dangerous time for an Italian woman, married or divorced. She can become anxious and unsettled, like a wild cat in a cage. If married, her husband’s friends can be suspect. If divorced her ex-husband’s friends can be considered provocateurs. Fear, superstition and uncertainty, with life and the future looming ahead, all add up to a powder keg of tension and explosive emotions. Perilous times.

“The first summer a newly divorced Italian woman spends is a test of how she will spend the rest of her life,” a saying goes. Here on Pantelleria she would be removed from the scrutiny of the local people who know her in Sicily. But her inner sentinel would still be on guard. For now it appeared her primary goal was getting as tan as she had been when she first blossomed into a woman at 16.


The airport in Trapani was unavailable for landing. Umberto had a friend in the Italian military, so he called ahead to Pantelleria for the unscheduled landing. The airport in Pantelleria is busier in August than most of the year, but it wasn’t really a problem of traffic. As the private plane touched down the temperature reading outside was 38°C. It was 10:00 AM.

A short drive to the resort went smoothly enough. A little idle chatter and gossip, nothing to sink the teeth into yet. Lily was a student of music and Marsala, her father was a winemaker, mother an opera singer. We were going to taste some of his older wines along with a few others from some of the luminary winemakers of the region. Marco de Bartoli was up in Bukkuram. Salvatore Murana was harvesting his Zibibbo at Mueggen. Donnafugata’s Ben Ryè was being harvested and taken over to Khamma Fuori. So at once a busy time for some, and a time of relaxation for others. And at night everyone would gather and eat and drink and enjoy each others company.

This time of the year they don’t do too many primi's or secondi’s. But being Sicily there was an abundance of dolci; in liquid, in solid and in other guises.


And the cards games. Ever since I watched my grandparents playing Scopa or Briscola, I was fascinated with people spending time playing cards. As a young boy I thought it odd that these old people would spend what few remaining moments they had on earth in pursuit of winning a card game. While my grandparents seemed ancient to me I knew somehow that they wouldn’t always remain so. It frightened me for them that they didn’t realize their folly.

Now I see it was a way for them to relax, unwind, stop the daily chores and duties and take a few breaths.
Umberto seemed to enjoy playing with Lily. Both of them were alone, and while Umberto always has this sense of self-sufficiency, someone like Lily would be a match against his hard stone; something could ignite.

Lily was in her post meltdown sequence, according to Annabella. Not interested in men, but definitely interested in parts of them. Conflicted, angry, hurt, vulnerable, cautious. A true Sicilian.

The party at Giorgio’s that Friday. I can’t tell you anything about it, I’m sworn to secrecy. I can tell you what we tasted though.

The wines
Marco de Bartoli Marsala Superiore Dieci Anni- 10 years in big oak barrels with the Solera method. 50% Grillo, 50% Inzolia

Marco de Bartoli Marsala Vigna la Miccia Cinque Anni- The wine is aged in small oak barrels for 5 years. 50% Grillo, 50 % Inzolia

Marco de Bartoli Vecchio Samperi- 20 years in old barrels. 70% Grillo, 30% Inzolia

Marco de Bartoli Bukkuram Moscato d`Alessandria (Zibibbo) Passito di Pantelleria


Donnafugata’s "Ben Ryè" 2004 Passito di Pantelleria

Salvatore Murana "Mueggen" Moscato di Pantelleria

Lily also brought some of her fathers aged Marsala wines from the 1960-1970 era. Definitely Vecchio, some Superiore, Riserva and one Vergine.


Like the women in our party, the wines were all ages, in all stages of life. Young, middle-aged and elderly.
They all shared a common familiarness. There was an attractiveness that they all had, but in many cases it was like what one feels for one's mother or daughter, or one's sister. Once in a while the lover would appear. But we were in their milieu, their surroundings, their sea. I was just a carefree observer on a short break.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Life at the Table

From the Archives ~ Dec.12, 2007

Why do we eat out? That was the question I was asking myself today at lunch. I was in a little Italian-styled restaurant where we had convinced the owners to do a progressive wine list. Unfortunately they hired a manager, still wet behind the ears, who thinks he knows better. “The people can’t find the wines they are looking for; we need to make it easy for them.” We were – by arranging the wines in the order of their styles so they wouldn’t have to depend on the constant turn of wait staff and managers who have no real life experience in these matters.

Young people with old minds – old people with young thoughts – the argument about people wanting something more traditional is just not correct. If that were the case, this same style of wine list, which we put into use in the most traditional Italian restaurant over 10 years ago and which worked magnificently, well it would have failed there and then. But it didn’t. So what we have here is a failure to communicate.

The picture above was shot in 1969 on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, in what is still known as Café Mediterraneum. It was a magic moment for me seeing the light coming though the windows and on to the table.

The table, that one ring circus where it all takes place; food, wine, romance, engagements, break ups, life and death.

All through the world we break our stride and stop. Today a friend and I just took the time to talk about our world, our families, our time on earth, and yes a little of the wine business. With this new crop of ill prepared restaurateur, it gives us much to ponder over; lots of mulch for the fields in which we still must toil.

The Italians have been wonderful for all of us. Who would have thought a simple plate of pasta would give so much pleasure day after day, throughout the generations? A little flour, an egg, some water. A little tomato or maybe some porcini. And cheese, my heroin.

Not just the Italians though. One day on a Good Friday in Frankfurt, we happened to walk by their Wall Street, the Börse. Outside, tents had been erected and impromptu wine bars were pouring Riesling and Muller-Thurgau to the businessmen and women. What a grand revelation – the leaders of business for one of the strongest industrial and economic powers, lollygagging outside, talking to each other on the eve of a holiday. Drinking wine, not making money. How civilized, I mused, how very wonderful.

The fabulous city of slow food, Eataly, in Torino. Table after table of the different stages of eating, with people, families, sitting together, enjoying prosciutto or gelato. The table, always the table.

A picnic in Perigord. A visit to the farmers market and a wine shop or two. A roasted chicken, some potatoes, and green beans. And red wine from Cahor. A light breeze through the trees that were shading and cooling us, and people we just met were strangers no more. Today one of the couples emailed me from New York. They were at Babbo and were wondering about a Traminer on the list. Not some traditional, tired wine list. They had their hands on a list with spunk, with balls. For lovers and fighters, with passion and purpose.

It doesn’t always have to be life changing. After all, it’s a meal, something we do thousands of times in our lives. But it needn’t be mundane. We have plenty of choice in the matter, how we nourish ourselves through the days of our lives. Sometime it might be a simple freshly baked loaf of bread and some cheese. And of course the wine. It could be burgers and Brunello or it could be Fontina and Fumin. Or it could be a bottle of cognac and a lifetime of stories.

But restaurateurs take notice – we are traveling more – we are expecting more from you and your concepts. It is too easy to make a simple, wholesome meal at home. We aren’t always looking for some epiphany over Peekytoe crab. We just want you to treat our future memories with the proper care and feeding.




Friday, September 12, 2008

Heart and Soil

From the Archives ~ Sept.13, 2006

This week I have been immersed in Piedmont. Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga, Cuneo, Barbaresco and on. Sorting out some information for the young sales force. This link between humans and the land that makes one wine taste one way and another, over on a hill 2 miles away, taste another way. The Italian wine trail ends today in the Langhe, but starts in the Marche.

15 years ago I landed in a little town, Matelica, to taste the wines of Aldo Cifola from La Monacesca. On that visit we were looking at his new vineyard, Camerte, where his Merlot and Sangiovese vines were newly planted. That will be another story for another day. What happened on that day, and how it leads to Piedmont, is something totally out of the linear way of seeing things. They really have nothing and everything to do with each other.

The inspiration for this came from a photograph I took back then at the estate, of the La Monacesca caretaker and his sons. After a wine tasting, in a little room, with prosciutto he prepared from his happy pigs, they brought out the accordions. Now I’m a sucker for accordions, used to own a couple of them till I donated them to some missionaries in Central America. Maybe it’s the um-pap-pah music of Calabria or the Zydeco of our beloved southwestern Louisiana nearby. If there’s an accordion nearby, count me in. Accordions, the mobile musical terroir machines, for me.

To see this father and his sons, now grown up, let’s back up. The food was raised at his farm: The grapes were made into wine, the prosciutto, the bread and so on. The children were raised here, too. Heart and soil. That’s Italy in a New York second.

This man and his wife took on the stewardship of a land he didn’t even own. They are caretakers. Correction, they are caregivers. From the dirt to the denim, the family was infused with caring, for their vines and their children. The Camerte vineyard, when I first saw it, I wanted to lie right down and die in it. And that’s not a morbid wish, please understand me. I wanted to be a part of what was going on there, on a molecular level!


There are other occurrences. Italy is rampant with them.
In Calabria , in the Veneto .

Three years before that trip to the Marche, I was looking at some newly planted vines in Barbaresco. The area was called Montestefano, and the family there was quite excited about this vineyard that would be ready in a five or so years. Five years! We’ve gone through a mate or two, two cars, two houses, a stereo system, two computer upgrades and 3 cellular phones in that time. And for what? Those vines on those steep hills, patiently working their way up, easing the love from the dirt into the vine, year after year, grape after grape. And what do we understand about that, back in the meeting rooms? What do we need to know about that, how do we convey that sense of connection to our fledgling wine-drinkers back in the U.S.of A.?

Look at the way the youth of Italy are exposed to the traditions, but even more important, the love for the obligation to share in the caring for the land and the fruits of one’s labors. For the young boys in Matelica, it first started with a baby pig. The young sommelier, for her, it started walking with her grandmother, picking chestnuts in the Langhe. It grew in them, and they grew into it. Not another new Game Boy or another new pair of designer jeans. Not just that. Time, the influence of the daily communion with the earth.

That’s what makes it so difficult to help our wine industry professionals and the clients. I can’t put that on a sheet of paper with a score and a good price. I try. But it seems so much less than the inspiration that I feel when I take an hour and think about it, reflect on it. Question is, as it has been for some time, how do we get folks to slow their world down to take a peek into this wonderful Emerald City of Wine? How do we impart this in a meaningful way, to the person who decides which wines go on the rack at the wine shop, to the neighbor in the new house who wants to know more about Italian wine? And how do we get it to stick?

This ain’t plug and play. This is day by day…really hard work. But it is so rewarding when, at the end of the day, one is drawing a glass of Nebbiolo or Barbera and looking at some incredible site across the hill (even if it is only on this page or in your mind). The neighbor’s house may not be new and improved, and the internet connection might still be dial-up. That’s right. Very, very right.