Sunday, October 29, 2006

That Fine Italian Hand

1972- The author, at his grandmothers table. It was
the dawning of the age of a curiousness about things Italian.

Made by hand, hand-rolled pasta, hand-sewn shoes, hand-tilled soil, hand-crafted. For as long as I can remember there has been a sense of importance over the making of something with one’s hands. Italy can lay claim to being at the epicenter of that development over many years.

Just look at my grandmothers table. Everything on it was made by her. She didn’t have a Viking 6 burner stove with double oven and salamander broiler. She didn’t have a stainless steel SubZero double fridge with separate built in cooling and crisping drawers. She made her food by hand. She grew some of her food in the back yard between the fig trees and the roses.
On a recent trip to Tuscany and the area around Montalcino, people were using their hands. The American Italian Chef, Damian Mandola, raising his left hand in a conductors approach to orchestrating a meal at his hillside villa. The industrial giant, Lionello Marchesi, in a moment of confidence with his winemaker and then in a show of gratitude for all he has been given. Banfi’s leader, John Mariani, explaining with his hands an approach, one that changed the face of sleepy little Montalcino and propelled it from one of the poorest hill-top towns in the 1970’s, to now, one of the wealthiest ones. Starting with the hand.

Most sacred to many Italians is the land. From the land the work by the hand brings some amazing things. An estate near Leonardo da Vinci’s home is shown here, a study in order and composition. There are vines in the scene.
The hand tools that work the grape harvest. My friends, The Losi family, thought it odd that I’d stop and make a picture of their brooms and shovels, stained with the blood of Jove.
The hand made noodles. Both my grandmothers made them, as my mom does and sisters too. My aunt Amelia had a little apartment with electric burners. She could out cook Batali in that kitchen.
Paula Lambert-i, in her kitchen in Montalcino, feeding 12 people from a single pan. Herbs and vegetables from the back yard (again), no one went to bed hungry. Or thirsty.
And while sometimes living in Italy seems like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, ask most Italians. They may leave home in the physical sense, but they will be living on Mars and hanging out the hand-made casalinga for the afternoon meal. It’s meals like those last week and 34 years ago, that make for great memories.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

High Galestro ~ The Pyrite of Panzano

"No foolin', there's gold in them thar' hills"

I had been on this road a few times. A couple of times in the dark. Lost. Oh, and going the wrong way. So I was getting pretty good on the ol' SR222, once known as the ancient trail of the sheep.

An early departure in the morning, as we had a 10 a.m. appointment at Castello dei Rampolla. Right. Somewhere between Siena and Greve we got a call on the cellular. The agronomist was coming, could we delay our arrival? No problem.

While the light was still fresh and bright we parked in Panzano and made an orbit around the little hilltop village. In 4 days this town would transform into a bazaar of butchers, for the annual "We are macelleria men and we love to eat meat" fest.

Checcucci was already preparing the pigs, and closer towards the town gates Dario Cecchini was cranking up the Puccini and dusting off Dante in his venerable chapel to Chiannina.

But ours was a different mission, to go where no man has gone before, at least with the aid of a map.

Cecchini led us out his door and offered his take on the road to Rampolla. Follow the cobblestone road, past Checcucci, where we get our prosciutto, and turn left at the church, right at the stop. There, you will find a meadow, where the bees make the finest honey that we use for our morning toast. Go to the next church and take the road left. Then you will find some signs and follow them to the ancient castle. OK, that seemed easy enough.

Once there, we spotted the owners in the fields with their consultants. Signs everywhere saying, "Tachis was here." I could see why he was excited. The vineyard hummed with the life of the earth it was sewn into. This is a golden shell of energy; I was waiting to find a crop circle around the corner.
They practice "Biodynamic" here; hence, the rack of bull’s horns waiting for the mixture of concentrated manure from the 7th bull of the 7th bull. Full moon was 2 weeks away. A lot of folks who have wished the wish - "I wish I could be a fly on the wall"- are getting their afterlife-karmic requests granted here.

They have a young winemaker, Marcus, with deep, penetrating slate-blue eyes, tall, upright, a welcome addition to the Tuscan table. Marcus was born in Germany, raised among the steep, dark, schist-laden vineyards of his homeland. There is a heaven for some. The payoff is work in the sun. Not a lot of money, which is another story for that young generation.

The wines of Rampolla still resonate within me. The finish is lingering in a way I rarely feel in wine. It isn't just a bottle of wine. I don’t know if it is even wine in the strict sense of it. Yes, they use grapes and barrels and bottles and corks. But I am still tasting those wines!

What was Daniel Thomases thinking the last time he tasted, and wrote about, these wines? Shame on him. I think he liked the wines, but other than a score, where's the passion? In this arena, a score of 89 or 98 is irrelevant. Did the owners strike him in the wrong way on that day, using tu instead of lei? They never showed up on my visit either. Big deal.

What did show up that day, as has been the case for millions of years, were the bees and the lizards, the flowers and the dirt, the high-galestro scrigno, this treasure chest of pyrite whereupon the vines sit and flourish, making merry in the sun. Wine for us mere mortals to sip, perchance to dream, the dream of Dionysius. And linger over Sangiovese fit for the gods.

I walked a mile for a Sammarco.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

La Strada Del Vino

Up and down the rolling hills, back and forth, and up over another set of hills, racing to the next winery appointment. But I’m in my bed sleeping, dreaming. Like a summer night after a day of body surfing, when you’re lying in your bed and still feeling the surf pound your body, so was this night. I had been back already a few days, from the Tuscan trip, and still I am trying to find one more place, make one more appointment, amidst those vine-laden hills.

The road, SR 222, la strada del vino, will be my midnight ride for the time being. In the dream, I'm going over the hill from Siena, to Castellina or Greve, or Panzano, in search of the meaning of Sangiovese, Chianti and the wines of the region. Why? When there are so many important issues pressing on all of us from so many directions? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the level I am able to rise to, to address some confusion and wander forth through the jungle in search of beauty, of meaning, of a simpler existence.

Ah, but if only "simpler" meant what it used to mean. If only we could find one or two of the “great ones” from the vineyards set in albero style, climbing, climbing, finding their level under the warm sun in the hills between Siena and Firenze. One here, and another there, Sangiovese, Malvasia, governo, wicker. Greatness. Not yet.

Here we have conical tanks of stainless steel and refurbished concrete vats vying for the awards. There we have spurred cordon (sounding so much better in Italian, cordone speronato, like a wild fish or a medieval weapon) going up against high-density planting of the vines. Now we see lower-temperature, longer-time fermentation compared to flash-warming, to jump-start and decrease green tannins. And that’s just the top of the must-cap. Technology and the paradox of choice, the menu of the modern winemaker, are changing how we must look at the final wine in the bottle.

Weeks before, I had been in a wine store walking the aisles, amazed at all the choices from Tuscany and Chianti. Now I am still perplexed, because all of those wines on the racks have a story. A story that 85 or 93 points on a shelf-talker cannot begin to explain, even if those points mean something to anyone, other than the person who was awarding them.

An American, like myself, looks at the scene and says: “Let’s discover it, let’s map it, let’s subdivide it, and let’s build from there.” The Tuscan land responds: “Sit down, by the terrace, watch the sun set, listen to the bird sing, see the honey bee, drink my wine. Would you like something to eat?”

So, "tackling Tuscany" isn’t going to happen. What I expect to be doing in the next few weeks and on into the next year (and beyond) is simply taking it one bottle at a time, one estate, one winemaker, one person. The beauty is, there is so much excellence in the land, that this will be a pleasure. A recent article notes that Italian wine and food in America are experiencing “ a golden age”. Yes, the light is shining bright and warm, and the time is special for Italians in the world, again.

Mr. Columbus, we’ve turned the ship around and are heading back into the new-Old World. Back to the hills and the golden rush of light and luster.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

8 days, 14 wineries, Solo Toscana.

A quick, long week to make an orbit around Tuscany to taste the new wine and talk to some of my winemakers. We traveled as far north as Vinci and Capezzana and as far south as the Maremma, with some time spent with winemakers in Montalcino and in the Chianti Classico zone. We saw estates in Greve, Panzano, Castellina, Castelnuovo Berardenga and Barberino Val d’Elsa.

The next few weeks I’ll be reporting, in my own way, on this recent trip. This was a packed week, and pretty much work-filled. So I’m going to need time to digest all the information.

It was my intent to spend some time in Tuscany only, to try and begin to make sense of what is going on there, on the ground. Chianti and Sangiovese wines are still confusing to a lot of people, and it is my hope to begin to try to demystify the wines and the styles. I was able to spend time with some seminal figures in the Tuscan Wine landscape. My job afforded me the entrée to some folks who actually do move and shake the business.

2006 will be an exciting vintage and hopefully the beginning of a movement that will engage and embrace more wine lovers.

I’ll be back when I catch up to the time zone. Ciao for now….
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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Monday, October 09, 2006

Monday on the Wine Trail ~ in Pictures

Yes, it's been a Monday to remember. Or not.

It started out with a semi-dry sparkling rose' blend of Nebbiolo and Semillion from Uruguay...I am not kidding. Then on to an Arriloba and then a Malbec, all done up in Gaucho-Style. Organico.Biologico.Ecologico. A Biodynamic, bolo-throwing, steer-wrassling, Gaucho wine! Dang, I needed that. (I really must have slipped back into a Southern Star Twilight Zone.)

As if that weren't enough, we were bestowed the latest in German High Kulture Wine Marketing, just in time for the holidays. What have we here? A white Gluhwein that someone is marketing to little girls. An amaretto and rum flavored Punsch whose target audience used to work for the Kaiser? And a new-age mother-and-child-reunion sparkling Liebfraumilch...umm-umm good...

Yes, It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas

Note: I might take a week off from the blog-o-sphere, soon. Gotta go get some batteries in far-away land. I'll be back.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Thoughts from the Heart-Land

Several folks have mentioned that I seem to be getting into a “rant” when I drop words here. That must change.

I truly love the wine world and seem to spend many of my waking hours engaged in some activity, be it work or after work, that relates to wine and food and Italy. So while the successes recently have been rationed, in no way am I compelled to disengage. I only yearn to have the message heard and believed by more people. Alas, perhaps the messenger is to blame.

Around 40 years ago, Italian food and wine awareness started making inroads on the American scene. It was through wines like Lambrusco , Soave, Frascati, Valpolicella and Chianti that Americans were starting to see, in the stores and on wine lists. Much of it had to do with the locales of Rome, Florence and Venice, tourist destinations on the Italian Trail. When in Rome, many people would enjoy a glass of Frascati, in Florence, a bottle of Chianti and in Venice a beaker of Soave or Valpolicella.

What are the tourists of today finding? Let’s say in Siena? Perhaps a glass of Brunello or Vino Nobile do Montepulciano. On the Amalfi coast, perhaps a white wine from Campania, like a Greco or a Falanghina. Tourists in Sicily might enjoy a bottle of Nero d’Avola or a Grillo. In Trento they could order a ½ liter of Lagrein or a flute of dry Spumante made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. On Lake Como a tableside sip of Cortese or a refreshing Dolcetto might be enjoyed. Tourists are delving into Italy, following trails into the smaller towns and regions. And there, waiting for them are the foods and the wines. Today, gnocchi is more commonly found on menus in Chicago or Denver. Salumi are made and found in Seattle and San Francisco.
Coffee is roasted in Dallas and Brooklyn to specifications once only found in Naples or Trieste. So, we are making progress in the last 40 years or so.

Why? In a word, Italy is Delicious. The air, the earth, the water, the wine. The aromas, the rain, the roasting in the oven, the searing on the grill. The fermenting in the barrels, the longing within the guidebooks. Italy is the ultimate trend and the ultimate tradition. Italy is subtle and delicate, also outspoken and intense.
I pledge allegiance to al dente and ristretto. I seek to form an alliance with Gorgonzola and Trenette.
Do I have a strategy? Does a donkey carrying oil up to the castle have a plan? Yes, to get there. And that is my plan, to get there.

Everyday, one day at a time. One sunrise at a time, one hill at a time. Without relent.

Friday, October 06, 2006

T.G.I.F. ~ Thank God It’s Fall

This week we’ve seen Yom Kippur, Ramadan and a full moon. I’m in my 3rd day of a fall cleanse, the leaves are turning, the world is churning.

Sometimes I read wine blogs when I get home from work, and a lot of them are rehashing stories one hears on, the Wine Spectator, various newspapers and online news portals. So what? Don’t we have original thoughts anymore? Is this just Labor Day weekend at TNT with back-to-back "Law & Order" reruns ad infinitum? Are we like sheep?

Look, I don’t want to be someone who regurgitates information and feeds it back to you. You don’t need that. And this doesn't to be a place where you get slammed with 15 million other items, links or distractions. What are you here for? I’m not CNN or NBC. Or PBS.

Let me tell you, and this might be the cleanse talking. Things are slowing down when they should be gathering momentum. The grapes are in, the wine is being pressed, the warehouses are ready and waiting. So where are the wine drinkers?

Italian Insight Man called me today and told me about a report on CNBC or FOX (or both) about the disappearing middle class. Especially around the corners of the country, places like Los Angeles, Dallas, and so on. The good news was, there aren’t as many wealthy folks as earlier thought. The bad news was there weren’t as many middle class folks either. Translation: There are more poor folks. And those souls don’t give a hang about the harvest of 2006 in Cinqueterre.

There are good indications that folks are biting off more than they can chew, and extending their debt level and their carbon footprint beyond their one-ness. Living beyond their means. Super-sized appetites for things, for stuff, for future estate sale belongings. Jeesh.

Maybe it is time for a thing-fast. Take a month off from buying crap. And so, Italian Wine Guy, where does that leave you with your pathetic quest to turn everyone into an Italian wine drinker?

Well, let’s take one of my current rants, Chianti and the calamity that it has become. This will be a recurring theme in the coming year, for I plan to tackle Tuscany and get a grip on the geography, from Greve to Gaiole.
OK, so we’re fasting, it’s fall, the moon is full, and I’m talking about fixing our obsession with the best money can buy (which most of us cannot afford) with an alternative. Small is beautiful, that kind of idea.

Conversing today with Serena Bonacossi about her family estate, Capezzana, which leads me to the wine for your fast life, the Capezzana Conti Contini Sangiovese. Say that five times fast!

Here’s an MW’s take: “Conti Contini Sangiovese provides a clear example of what's so exciting about the IGT category: freedom from constraining rules, freedom to capture the most delicious flavors you can. Ripe, direct in flavor and soft textured but with a tangy edge, so you know you're drinking Sangiovese, it's a stylish quaffing wine; the fact that it's finished off in screwcap helps enhance the wine's contemporary image and from a freshness standpoint is only a plus.” Sandy Block, MW, VP Beverage, Legal Sea Foods

Simple Sangiovese in a screwcap. Not for the investor class. For the poor day trader who got out of the market a month ago and needs a catch-up value. Take it to the bank. On your bike.

And I’m out of here…..

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Welcome to the Camp *

Too much wine in the warehouses, more wine in the fields, made-up wine in some marketing office, and everyone’s looking to young adults as the key to growth?

I’m sorry but there aren’t enough in that group to handle the deluge that is appearing, and has been here for a while now.

This is probably more of an industry angle, but it’s something that has been bothering me lately. Recently, it seems that every week one or two winemakers from Italy have been sending wine for our consideration. And while the unsolicited samples have been well made, good labels, clean, fresh, nice wines, where will they fit?

Tie in to that existing supplier relations, folks who are bringing more new items into the fold, new labels, new wine-producing areas, and it all gets a bit daunting. Where are the wine drinkers for all this wine? And where are the salespeople who can assimilate all the information and who will find the clients that will take the time for the presentations? And the wave is just hitting the shores. Are we selling soap?

Reports from the West coast about wine gluts, $5 Napa Cabernet, press releases from France about the Bordeaux identity crisis, with all but the top 50 or so chateaux searching to pour their wine into someone’s glass tonight. Hints from Italy, whispers, suggesting the disparity say for instance, between the Chianti on a shelf for $6 and another one next to it for $30, both selling at levels below their expected “burn rate”.

And not just that. In the past quarter I have had three independent restaurant operators call me and ask me to meet with them. It seems they have a friend in Molise or Liguria or Puglia. They want to bring in their wines for their restaurant. Hello?

Since we were talking "Blue Sky," I casually mentioned to one of them that I knew well enough, and asked him if he could help the company I worked for set up a kitchen, so we could help out a friend we had who was a wheat farmer. He asked me what for? I mentioned that we were looking into starting a restaurant as a sideline to help our farmer friends. He said that wouldn’t be right, that it would compete with his already established restaurant business. Really?

So what makes any sense of their “plan” to bring in their own wines? Other than to skirt the existing network.

I told one of the clients, we could do it, if 1) they bought it all, and that would be a minimum of 800 cases, at margins our company operates on to stay in business. And 2) he gives us 100% of all of his wine, spirit and water business.

I didn’t wait for the door to hit me on the way out. Point being, he thought those conditions were ludicrous. Like delivering 3 bottles of a wine on a Friday night by the salesman isn’t? Which is something that does happen, often. Try and get your internet wine company to give you that kind of service.

Yep, this is an industry rant, and one that will go on for some time. Look, I’m OK with different points of entry into the world of wine-loving. And if a medical post-grad student orders a bottle of Barolo from Wine Expo in L.A., cool.

If that person happens to someday become a partner in a restaurant and decides on Thursday that he wants that wine for his Friday night customers, then another network is needed. It’s called the wholesale distribution network. And it supports many families. And it is a good thing. And it works.

So the next time you head out on a Friday night with your friends and family and decide at the last minute that you want to go to Café X and have Wine X, know that you will likely get it because of a dedicated bunch of people, in the trenches, day in and day out, who have made it possible for your wine to be on the front line, the restaurant.

And that is the bottom line.

* Lyric from The Rock Opera, Tommy, by The Who
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