Friday, September 29, 2006

T.G.I.F. ~ Thank God It’s a Fiasco

I’m a bit “triste” today, because something has been ripped out of my heart this month. In my work world we are entering the O-N-D ( October-November-December) period. Roughly 40% of wine sales will be made in that time period. So while we are all aflutter on the farm side, with harvest and the promise of a new and wonderful vintage, we are entering the zone “whereby all things are made possible.” A lot of expectations in a downtrending economic pattern. Unless you are the 1% of the population that isn’t being affected by it, who doesn’t even know it is happening. But I digress.

I am worried about Chianti. And not just a little bit. I have been tasting quite a few lately, and I think we’ve got ourselves a bit of an identity crisis. Just what we need, another crisis. Looking at the latest Wine Spectator and their issue on the Maremma, which doesn’t offer up a map or an explanation of the perception of what the Maremma is. Lots of scores and glossy, low-light pictures of dining scenes, scenes they could have as easily taken at Portofino Bay in Universal Orlando.

I really have disdain for that accepted custom of scoring. If it’s so successful, then why is the owner of Poggio Argenteria having to double schlep through the U.S. while his grapes bubble back at home in the Maremma? Wine at one-third the cost of Ornellaia and with a higher score, yet he is beating the street. Hmm….

OK. So what’s really causing my heartbeat to go irregular? Go through the wholesale warehouses, and you can find a plethora of highly rated wines, sitting on racks waiting for their day. Some of those wines even come up on reports that are titled “Potential Discontinue” or “Heavy Inventory.” So scores aren’t the savior of this situation.

The Tuscan dilemma, as I see it, is exactly what makes the Tuscan landscape so attractive. It is diverse, it is unique, and it is original. It isn’t uniform, it isn’t predictable, and it isn’t something that a three-syllable sound bite can nail. Let’s see, “Try Tuscany tonight.” Nah. How about “A steak, a grill and a bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano”? Don’t think so. Or maybe “Maremma, the final frontier”? Perhaps “Chianti, it’s not just for candles anymore.” Just doesn’t make it for me. How about you?

It does take something more real than a sound bite or a slogan. And it takes people who want more than a simple explanation or a quick answer. Funny, because most people who write me or call me asking for tips on who to see and where to go, will go to the most out-of-the-way places to experience that particular Tuscan (and Italian) charm that the countryside and its people have to offer.

So why is it people still think of Chianti as that caricature in a fiasco bottle? Is it the retro appeal? Is it that simple explanation? Is it the success of a campaign long ago forgotten?

Maybe it is the simplicity reflected in the Tuscan life that draws folks to something like the fiasco archetype. But the fiasco is the furthest thing from that. Often made in an industrial plant to a recipe, even the wicker for the fiasco now comes from places like the Philippines, where labor is much cheaper.

Why can’t folks just gravitate to some middle ground? It’s not like there is enough wine made at places like Rampolla or Monsanto or Querciabella or Bossi. What we need is a model, like Mondavi was to Napa in the 1970’s. Before it got too big. A leadership role. Some property or properties that can see the crack in the hull and work to repair it before too much water gets in.

Next month, and next year, I’m going to make it a mission to work on this in my world. I’m serious about this. My last trip to Bordeaux punctuated the need for Tuscan wines, and specifically Chianti, to elevate the perception of who and what it is to the world. We can’t rely solely on the glossy photos and high scores. That isn’t working anymore.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Wine Harvest Wednesday

In the Northern Hemisphere the grape harvest is in full swing. Initial results seem to have a good harvest in store for 2006. Abruzzo producers tell me the 2006 will be better for them than 2004 or 2005. Producers in Tuscany, although there was some spotty rain, seem to think the harvest is healthy and they appear to be excited. The Sicilians are happy, as are the producers in Campania. The cycle is in motion.

Heard about an interesting development last night. In Abruzzo there is a depression press that one of the producers has come up with. Without the use of a bladder, the grapes are settled into their press. The air is removed from it, causing a vacuum and the grapes press themselves. The pressure can be regulated so they don’t damage themselves. Folks from there are excited about this new invention. Supposedly, it makes for more delicate aroma’s in the whites and gentler tannins in the reds. I hope to hear more about this. It has been called pressa depressione and pressa sottovuoto. A far cry from the Egyptians!

It's curious how I am coming into contact with things like that and folks who are harvesting by the cycles of the moon and other folks who are looking hard at biodynamic, but when I go into the offices of the wine company, I see a plethora of “created wines”, wines made up with crazy labels and some unusual packaging. There is a gap between the makers and the marketers. Maybe we can sort this out in the next generation. One thing for sure, as long as folks are talking about wine, it will continue to evolve, On the Wine Trail in Italy....

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Legend ~ A Life ~ A Celebration

Today is a bit of an homage to a man who is celebrating his 90th. Here at home base in Dallas. 50+ years ago he started the first of what would be the beginning of the Italian wave of dining. He actually used the word cucina rather than the more popular French word cuisine. He brought espresso to these parts, made his own bread, had his own pasta making room, a wine cellar, tableside service, strolling musicians, fortune teller and much much more. Il Sorrento was Mario Messina’s grand opus. And today several hundred of his close friends came together to celebrate his 90 years of life on planet earth.

His family and mine were close, his mom and my nonna were close, he and my dad grew up together. It was in his restaurant that as a young man I got bit with the Italian wine bug again.

Mario grew up in Los Angeles in the golden age of cinema. California in those days was pristine and innocent. The young boys would hike into the mountains and camp and cook over an open fire. Stars would burn bright over the Angeles forest. Life was good.

A football player at Notre Dame, after college Mario fought in WWII and was involved in bitter fighting “over there”. He was a prisoner of was and lost so much weight that he was close to imperiling his youthful health.

To come back home and open a restaurant had much significance. But to do it the right way, in those days, was an exceptional strategy. You had to be there.

So Mario, here’s to your health! Cent’anni!

Friday, September 22, 2006

T.G.I.F ~ Thank God It's Fermenting

Europe is in winemaking mode! Some places better than others, but the cycle continues. Rain in Tuscany and Piedmont.

The picture above is from Quinta Vesuvio high up the Douro Valley in Portugal, where the winemaking is uber-traditional. For more pictures go here .

In San Antonio, for a preview of the New World Wine and Food Festival. November 9 will be doing a wine dinner at Luciano's at the Strand with chef Jesse Perez.

One of his creations below

Oaxaca meets O Solo Mio!
More later....

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

No Regret Wednesday

Wednesdays really seem to be a bit of a mixed bag lately. I don’t know, maybe it’s that lingering heat. Today it got up to 90F. Really tired of this.

Last week or so, I’ve seen a pageant of young Italians working the market. Not exactly a cat walk, but they have been young, the young women of Italy. They are the worker bees. And some of their comments have been interesting. My friend, David, over at Italian Insight, seems to think they are exaggerating when they speak to me of the new poor Italy. I don’t know. I know even some of the folks over there with money are acting like the sky is falling, money is tight. My concern is, if the young people of Italy feel they have no opportunities in the wine field, they will go to on other endeavors. It is happening here. Unless you get your Master Sommelier or Master of Wine, so many of the young here seem to think they will have little trajectory for the career path. I’d like to tell them about a master or two I’ve known in the past. Even if you make it “big”, you still face many of the same problems the rest of us do. It’s the human condition.

Along the way it got me to thinking if I have regrets at this point in the game. Ok, it’s been 30 years now, chopping in the woodshed of the wine trade. I’ve seen colleagues make great success, and I’ve known some of them to die alone in their bathtubs, lying there for days before they were discovered. It can be a crapshoot, there are no guarantees.

Last week with one of the young ones, we opened up the last of my case of 1982 Le Pergole Torte. I have tasted this wine for 20 years and the other night was a fond farewell to a wine that has gone through a stretch of time with me. Since then my son has grown up, my wife has passed on. Friends have departed and family members have been born. Time has ripened us all.

The wine was ready to drink, gone was the youthful power and fire of the earlier years, the assertiveness of the Sangiovese in purezza. The wine was a gentle, pensive, meditation at 24 years. Its life was staring at the sunset now. Delicate, light, still assertive but with a graceful note. A wine I shall never forget. Thank you Signore Manetti, wherever you are.

Well, in thinking about the regrets, I’m going to ask you readers, all 10 of you, about this. Which wines do you regret not tasting? Was it the 1961 Lafite or the 1927 Cockburns Vintage Port? Was it a 1964 Brunello from Costanti or a 1964 Cabernet from Louis Martini? What are your thoughts?
My regrets for wines not tasted yet, I have a few. They are:
*1931 Quinta do Noval Nacional
*1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc
*1951 Beaulieu Vineyards George de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
*1951 Penfolds Grange
*1961 Gaja Barbaresco
*1961 Chateau Latour
*I’d love to taste something from the 1800’s from Bordeaux.
*Also would love to taste a really old Tokaji Essencia.
*A vertical of Vega Sicilia Unico from the mid 1950’s to the late 1960’s would be wonderful.
*I’d love to go into that old cellar of Bugari in San Benedetto del Tronto and taste all the Italians down there from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Barolo’s, Vino Nobile’s, Taurasi’s, Aglianico’s, Etna Rosso’s...
*I’d love to taste some of those old Marsala wines that Marco De Bartoli has in his cellar in Sicily, some from the 1800’s, real Sicilian history.

Some blogs lately have been writing about foods they must have before they die.

This is the wine lovers version. Let’s hear from you!

What wines are you absolutely not wanting to miss out on, before the curtain is pulled ?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

My Two Sisters, Nebbiolo & Sangiovese

The waves have pounded the shores this week, they have been felt by our family this week and we have been reminded of the fragility of life and how things can change, forever, in a moment.

In a conversation with an agronomist from Greve, she mentioned how some of the major grapes of Italy were related, at least by their DNA. That led me to thinking about my two sisters, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.

Nebbiolo was the first born to the family. She was the first great hope of the family. Her way is to do rather than to be. From my very first encounters with her, she was not one that was easy to get to know. Part of it has to do with her mystery. She conceals herself from family members, preferring to work in the background, helping but not taking the bows. Not that she couldn’t. Her talent is that of a renaissance artisan. All the while she presents herself as this delicate and slightly difficult grape-being.

I don’t know where she really came from, she doesn’t appear to look like much of the family. Not that she isn’t, it’s just that she came from the recesses of nature, to appear like this apparition of greatness.

She has aged well but not without the changes many of us have witnessed in the past 40 or so years. She has been many things to many people. She has mothered many a Barbera and a Dolcetto, sheltered a Grignolino and a Freisa, and welcomed a Moscato and an Arneis. Her children and her grandchildren have multiplied and many have prospered. Some have languished and some have strayed, but the tenacity of her nature has safeguarded the nobility and grace of her domain. Misunderstood at times, loved and then not loved, and then taken on new love, my sister Nebbiolo has had an interesting life in that last 60 or so years. But she is not over, in fact her strength and her wisdom is more needed on the scene now than ever before. So we won’t be replanting the vineyards with Merlot or Pinot Noir. Not now. Not ever. She is an original, there is only one place to be found where she will prosper and reach her potential. She is not an easy one to get to know, but hers is greatness at the highest mark on the castle wall.

My second sister, Sangiovese, is another story. She is a bit more fiery and conflicted at this time. Her realm is in a bit of a crisis in these days, partially due to the success of her popularity, no doubt from her youthful energy and her giving nature. But she has been misused and misdirected and now the realm is in need of readjustment.
Not that she isn’t up for the challenge. The energy of sister Sangiovese is one of a great well of endurance. Sangiovese can bear much, trapped in fine French wood and blended in with other creatures not normally akin to her original nature. She might be more at home with Nero d’Avola or Aglianico, but Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have scaled the walls of her domain. Syrah has made attempts too.

Her children, Colorino and Canaiolo, are as different as night and day, one being mellow and easygoing, the other a tropical storm of emotion and inner conflict. Sometimes they blend well together, but lately they are not seen as much. Sister Sangiovese really needs a strong match to temper her fiery nature, something to hold up to her, to challenge her. Part of Sangiovese’s confusion is to where she resides best for her inner growth. She will be planted in the hillsides at the higher elevations and will thrive, and then she will be moved to the seaside and be challenged to complete her destiny in a new place with new challenges. And then she will be sent out to the arid, almost desert, climes of Tuscany, only to find she has to struggle and be beautiful there too. Sangiovese is the preferred grape of the new ruling class but she is a school girl who wants to run in the fields with her hair loose and her feet unshod.

Sangiovese has one true love, and that is Tuscany. She really only has known that one love and it appears that has been good for Italy. I hope it has been good for her too.

To my two sisters, I salute you and love you and hope your every expression of grace and greatness will be achieved in history.

Friday, September 15, 2006

T.G.I.Q. ~ Thank God It's Querciabella

A slight diversion from my usual TGIF posting. Just a Q. I have Paola Banchi with me, from Querciabella, treading in the "mission fields." Paola is trained as an agronomist. Two of her mentors have been Gianfranco Soldera and Josko Gravner , two of the most iconoclastic vintner-philosophers in Italy. I recently opened up some of these wines with a filmmaker friend. Mamma mia, the end of the world!

Paola is an Italian earth woman, a descendant of those wine goddesses you see on the ancient amphorae in southern Italy. And though her DNA is linked to them, she looks at you from a pair of 6th century B.C. Etruscan eyes. Paola is a recipient of the energy that has passed from the ancients to the moderns.

And like some of us who have been stationed in the colonies as missionaries, Paola has been tasked with leaving her Tuscany and venturing, often, into the world.

Briefly, this phenomenon of the Italian explorers, Columbus, Vespucci and on, has been reborn in the new age with our young Italian vintners. Now they hop planes, but the effect is the same, to come to the new world. This time they bring the treasures.
New York, Singapore, Vancouver, Denver, Osaka, the world is now open for business with the Italians. A far cry from the early 1960's.

Much has been said about Querciabella, and much more will be written. My friend, David, has written about two of the wines here, the Chianti Classico and the Camertina.

I first met Paola in Verona at Vinitaly over a vegetarian mini-cheeseburger and fries. Not just any meal, it was part of a 17-course meal, prepared by Pierino Penati, all vegetarian, to highlight the wines. Slow Food and Slow Wine. It was quite a scene. The wines were center stage, with the Querciabella and Roederer families sharing the limelight. Lots of famous people, mountain climbers, poets, famous chefs, and the rest of us mere mortals. But a great night.

Months later Paola is in Texas, in time for the whooping owl, which is outside my window early this morning, sending its courting call to its prospective mate. Which hasn't anything to do with this posting other than it is wonderful to hear. Click on the link above to experience it yourself.

A day in the fields, not exactly stomping, but definitely treading in the marketplace. Pictured here with Lance Storer, a young man who has an excellent shop in Dallas.

At dinner with a meal at Stephan Pyles, he himself bringing food from his altar-kitchen. We left the meal decisions to him, and why not? Great food, great wines and great friends, and we're just getting Star-ted!

Camartina 2001

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Heart and Soil

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.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sunday in Italy ~ La Vendemmia Comincia

Harvest is in full swing in Italy. Gianpaolo Paglia from Poggio Argentiera is picking and crushing, and the rest of the country is doing so as well, or are getting close. Some pictures follow. Buon Lavoro tutti!

And then we can enjoy the fruits of their labors!

Friday, September 08, 2006

T.G.I.F. ~ Thank God It's F...

... F i n a l l y starting to come alive again in the business. A short posting today. Mostly pix. But the signs, though mixed, are encouraging.

First, a stack of blue sheets means the trucks are full, and it's been this way, all week !

September has taken what August kick-started right into the end zone.

Wine tasting glasses waiting to go into the dishwasher

The sales people are back and tasting the new wines, the suppliers are crawling all over the market (good thing), and we even have some good old-fashioned college football and Pinot Grigio tailgate party promotions! We're back for more, baby!

Also check out this ad one of our talented "millenials", Julie Tijerina, did for an Italian winery, Illuminati ...Right on stuff ! Hey Wine Rock Star, is this getting closer to your age group and audience? Lemme know, we're listening to you!

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