Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"One of the most extraordinary vineyards on earth."

Winemaker Genevieve Janssens

This past weekend at the Premiere Napa Valley, wines were presented from 190 wineries. One that caught my attention was from Robert Mondavi. From Amuse Bouche to Z-D there were many cool properties represented, and some made Mondavi look, well, old and out of place. But place is what made this winery and valley great. And though the new tide of sommeliers don't look to Mondavi for inspiration these days, they're missing a national treasure.

Notes from the catalog - Lot Description:
Following the Robert Mondavi Winery's 40th anniversary celebration in 2006, it seemed only fitting that for Premiere Napa Valley 2007, we would look back to the early days of the winery and select grapes from some of our oldest plantings to create a very special wine from the 2006 vintage. This year we present Nostalgie, a blend of exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon from time-proven vines in the Marjorie's Twilight Vineyard (planted in 1972) and from our Z Block in To Kalon Vineyard (also planted in 1972). Both of these vineyards lie on the western bench of Oakville, just at the base of the majestic Mayacamas Mountains. Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 7) grown on classic St. George rootstock was hand-picked from old head-pruned vines, hand-sorted and fermented in oak tanks in our To Kalon Reserve fermentation cellar. After extended maceration, the wine went into French oak chateau barrels where it will remain well into 2008

I must have walked around that room 3 or 4 times, waiting for a moment to pay my respects. Winemaker Genevieve Janssens was pouring her wine. An historical figure for one so young, she has been at Mondavi since 1997 where she came to from Opus One after 9 years. The To Kalon Project was her baby, which was a major renovation of the now 40-year-old winery. Genevieve wanted a winery equal to the To Kalon vineyard, which she says is “one of the most extraordinary vineyards on earth.”


So amidst all the glitter and the glamour of the barrel tasting, good old Mother Earth quietly served up another great one. With land, we are given its inherent territoriality. With the founder, Robert Mondavi, we are given an innovative tradition. And now, with Genevieve, we are gifted with a sensibility and reverence for something out of the ordinary. This may be Napa, but the wine gods are beaming at their native sons and daughters. And that is something one doesn’t find solely on the wine trail in Italy.

My tasting note? As I tasted the wine something stirred within me, something that is still moving, as if I had been in the presence of a great master or brujo. I have only had the experience three times, but as I let just a little of the wine slide down, not spitting, another liquid appeared. Not colorful or perfumed, but of an emotion that wine rarely touches. It was a tear that fell from my eye. Powerful, a tremor that is still pulsing within, but not one of shock. One of pure joy.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Wine Country ~ Alexander Valley

Not every wine trail is in Italy

Monday, February 26, 2007

Premiere Napa Valley - Desserts

From the students and chefs at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California. Served with a standup lunch after the barrel tasting and before the auction, which raised over $2 million.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Back Home ~ in California

The past week I’ve been working, out in Napa and Sonoma. Lots to talk about and I will, but the airplane was late getting off and the return flight across the country, through a storm, was bumpy and tedious.

For four days we attended the Napa Valley Wine Writers Symposium, along with a very interesting group of writers. I was attending as a wine blogger.

I visited an old haunt in Alexander Valley, a place I spent time in earlier days.

Napa Valley has changed since I first drove down Highway 29 in 1970, but more on that later.

There will also be more, especially on the influence of Italian culture on the Napa and Sonoma wine trails.

Stay tuned....

Friday, February 23, 2007

Benvenuto Brunello 2007

In the hilltown of Montalcino, it's everything you ever wanted to know about Brunello but were afraid to ask, for the next four days.

Just as folks are gathering up here in Napa Valley for the Premiere Napa Valley, in Italy other wine-lovers are already starting to taste and evaluate the new vintages of Brunello from one of Tuscany's great wine territories.

This is a challenging year for Tuscany. I think we are looking down the barrel of three potentially wonderful vintages: 2004, 2005 and 2006. Benvenuto Brunello is held at the Fortezza, the castle atop the town. This is an invite-only event for the press and the trade, but in Italy that never held back a wine-lover. So if you are near, get yourself to Montalcino, even if you have to take your uncle's donkey (or that old Cinquecento), and see and smell and taste for yourself.

2006, according to the Consorzio of Brunello, is regarded as a optimal (ottimo) year with a near-perfect ripening season, a not-too-harsh August and a little bit of craziness in September that had producers scrambling. However, it was more worry than was warranted, for the diligent producers were managing their plots and were able to prevent those few days of rain from robbing them of potential glory. But, we shall see.

I'll be very excited to talk to producers when I go to Vinitaly next month. For now, I am enjoying the block party and bake sale otherwise known as Premiere Napa Valley, while I take a few days of divertimenti.

Check out the Brunello Consorzio page or Benvenuto Brunello. Also, the Premiere Napa Valley event is here as well.

And for God's sake, drink that special bottle of wine you've been saving for a special time. On Sunday it's OTBN7 (courtesy of Dr.Vino's wine blog from an article by Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher of the Wall Street Journal, Open That Bottle Night 7).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Stainless steel tank detail

We're taking a brief moment in Napa Valley for a pruning workshop. Rows of Cabernet bask in the morning sun below Howell Mountain. Vineyards, meant to embellish the lives of the fortunate, were raided today by a band of wine writers and bloggers.

Inside the winery, burnished steel tanks and custom wood fermenting vats await the fruit of our labors. Today we will be preparing the vines for their spring surge. In this event, we precede technology, the barrels, the caves, the bottling lines and the custom labels, to do what man has done for centuries. With eyes and hands and a sharp tool, we trim the vines and ready them for their long journey from grape to wine.

Cast-off vines would make my Hasty-Bake barbeque group so very happy. But these clippings will be recycled for quail shelter and shredded into pathway mulch. My bistecca fiorentina dream will have to wait, until I get back home and ask my uncle to send some clippings from his West Texas vines. Texas beef and Texas grapevines, maybe not with Texas wine, this time.

It was a scene that reminded me almost as much of Bordeaux or Tuscany as Napa. It’s been a good day.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Non Dimenticar Mai

Saturday, February 14, 1953 ~ Saturday, February 17, 2001

Friday, February 16, 2007

T.G.I.°F. = Warm Sicilian Winter

65°F during the day and 50°F at night. Ah, winter in Sicilia. Southern Sicily, Nero d’Avola and Cotarella, that is the Morgante winning formula.

Italian lifestyle blogger Davide recently waxed about the area, Agrigento. My first exposure to the Valley of the Temples was back in 1971 as a mere lad. Uncle Peppino and Aunt Vitina took me all over the island to see the ancient evidence. Agrigento was memorable for its almost Valley of the Kings feeling.

That was some time before the grapes for this project were planted. In those days it was a miracle that wine was made and could be enjoyable. Nero d’Avola was waiting in the wings, rehearsing its lines.
From the Valley of the Temples, the crow flies 15 miles inland and to elevations of 1500 feet, where we find a large farm, planted simply to Nero d’Avola. Morgante is a family with a single purpose, much like someone who would live in Burgundy and plant only Pinot Noir, or Piemonte, and plant only Nebbiolo. This is the laboratory for Nero d’Avola. It's winter and time for full immersion in the vineyards, training and pruning the vines for the next growing cycle.

Morgante makes two wines, the Nero d’Avola and the Riserva, Don Antonio. One grape, a very simple visit at Vinitaly. I’m always pleased to see the regular Nero d’Avola on a wine list. Maybe some wine-buyer thinks they should throw a Sicilian wine into the mix. I have seen some awful representatives in that category, the token Sicilian thrown in at the last minute in the back of the bus. Beyond Gaja and Sassicaia, most wine-buyers, looking to win an award, don't bother to dig deeper into the portfolios. But if you see the Morgante Nero d’Avola, take a chance. It is a faithful passport to the land of the temples, to the southern soil and the hillsides trodden by so many cultures.

Experiencing the Don Antonio is like visiting my great grandfather. It’s a liquid representation of my father’s culture, our collective DNA recast in 25 ounces of viti-culture. Don Antonio is a wine that commands respect. No need to scream out at you. Riccardo Cotarella doesn’t make the wine as much as he senses it. Because he consults, he isn’t so hands-on. But that’s OK with old Don Antonio, as the wine largely makes itself. This wine is the Sergio Leone of the Nero D’Avolas. Great with a Texas-raised, Chicago-aged, bone-in cowboy ribeye, grilled over mesquite hard-wood charcoal, with a little salt, pepper and a touch of the Virgin olive oil. Sicilians know how to live, in the old world or the new.

Respect for Mother Earth, a climate that would make Paradise jealous, a history that goes back thousands of years and a culture that isn’t trying to destroy itself or the rest of us, and one grape. My kind of place. What a wonderful world.

Morgante is imported into the US by Winebow

Photos courtesy of the Morgante family.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Return to Surrender

I’d been putting in 12-hour days for some time now and wasn’t getting caught up. A north wind was blowing and wasn’t showing any signs of backing down. Weather forecasters were predicting more cold and possibly snow. I still hadn’t picked up my dry cleaning or gassed up my car. I forgot to get a V-Day card and make a reservation. I'd been working like a fool to get ahead with this Italian wine gig, and here I was, on the eve of the most important romantic holiday, running around like a Fiat Cinquecento with 50 miles to go on a quart of gas.

All I wanted was a quiet little Italian spot with a nice wine list and a decent menu, nothing too exotic. But here I was fighting off the winds and the clock, meetings, yearly reviews, last-ditch efforts to sell a couple hundred cases of Sicilian wine, or worse yet, some Veronese varietal jug wines. I’d been living off of Jimmy’s tuna sandwiches for three days now, and the cat was starting to get frisky with me. I could feel that I was losing the battle, starting to drift over, past the demilitarized zone.

It was then that I knew I had to take drastic measures, so I slipped into my closet and made some changes.

This wasn’t going to be just any Valentine's Day!

Ever since I stopped pushing Cataratto and Inzolia, I’ve felt like I was betraying my countrymen. Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, even Mendocino Gewurztraminer, were coming before the fatherland. When was I going to get it?

From the early days of the fighting varietals to the current critter craze, I’ve been on the sidelines. Then along comes Pinot Grigio, and we’re back in the game. Then Oregon, and then Napa bring out their fighting Gris, and it's back to being an unwanted, alien wine guy. So I grabbed my girl and headed for the open skies, to a trattoria that understands my plight, feels my pain, and serves up al dente and ristretto the way it was meant to be.

To a place where Falanghina isn't mistaken for some deviant behavior and Piedirosso isn’t perverted. Where Primitivo isn’t taboo and Aglianico isn’t ugly, south of the Mezzagiorno.

Forget about the ferry across the straights. We’ve got it covered. Disregard the mountain passes. We’ve found a way around them. No need to worry about the choppy seas and the earthquakes and the stubborn Sicilian donkeys. We’ve got new ways to deal with them. We’ve survived all these thousands of years, all the volcanoes, all the bandits, and the marauding kings and the empire builders. We are the children of terroiristis. We will survive this evening and this age.

No cream, no reductions, no coulis, no fooling. No foam, no towers, no mashed potato home-base plates, no rancid white truffle oil. No microgreens with maxi-prix fix, no Batali-Bourdain WWF smack down on a limited-edition Chihuly, no McRobuchon on the Vegas Strip. Got it?

We’re going back to Sorrento or Positano, Porto d’Ascoli or Sinalunga. We want to go to the Laundry without getting sent to the cleaners. And we’ll keep our reservations for next Monday. But why do we, responsible adults, have to call our underaged, Panisse-reservation parole-officer 48 hours before we show up? Is there a sourdough baguette bracelet on my ankle? Are we in trouble for liking good food? Rules, even in Berkeley? What is this 40-year sleep I am coming out of? Who let it get so cold in the fortress?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

No Reservations

Italy seems to be synonymous with romance. Opera, art, the entire culture drips with the sweat of an erotic current that powers the emotional life in Italy. Something as simple as a lunch on an outside terrace of a villa overlooking Firenze, or a hotel room with a balcony looking out to Capri, can set emotions in gear, that can fuel the heart and the soul of the lovers who share that meal, or that room.

Have you ever been hit by the thunderbolt? In Italian life it is seen as a rare gift for the fortunate few. Puccini, Verdi and Rossini devoted hours of their operas to love at first sight. It does happen. It happened to me once.

The past few days I've been talking with people about their upcoming romantic holiday, Saint Valentines Day. Saint Valentine the martyr. Eros and Thanatos. Open arms and open hearts. Soul Mates. Chocolate and Brachetto. Champagne and anything. Love and loss. Guys and Dolls.

This is not a moment to schlep another Chianti, not to worry.

This might be a call to the search party in the desert, to the lonely wanderers looking for their lost parts, their completers, to come back from the solitude of the sand and look once again in more familiar places.

Folks running about, running out their time as if it were a roll of quarters easily replenished over and over.

Today a man in a hospital bed was breathing what might be his last breaths. He has given his life to the grape and the fork. Two of his three children are missing, his customers are nowhere to be found, and his colleagues are otherwise occupied. And yet he must climb that last hill alone. How fair is that? He has given all his goodness to the vine and the hearth, neglected no one. Not his father, nor his wife, nor his children.

Where is France when this son is old and dying? Where is Italy for this soldier of Spumante? And California, which without folks like this one, would still be making jug Chablis and Burgundy? A fine send-off for one of the early ambassadors. And yet the young ones grab for the brass rings of certification, their master grasping, hoping to elude the grim reaper and the realm of anonymity.

Like my two young friends who have spent all week testing and tasting, hoping and praying. They remind me of these characters from the Alejandro Jodorowsky film, El Topo.

So while you hunt for the perfect restaurant to take your romantic partner to, or decide between the dark chocolate or the deep red rose bouquet, or maybe it’s a home cooked meal and that special bottle of wine you’ve been cellaring, go about it without the pressure to be something out of the ordinary. Love, with no reservations.

For if you’ve found that someone special, something out of the ordinary has already happened. It may not have the accompanying thunderbolts, don’t worry.
Be thankful for the ones you have found along the path, these are fleeting moments to savored, on any trail.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Dilegua, o notte, all'alba vincero' *

Sometime around 1983, samples arrived from a Mosswood Wine Company. Gerald Asher, who dabbled in wine importing along with writing for Gourmet magazine, sent a note along with a wine called Gavi di Gavi, from an estate called La Scolca. We loved the wine and brought a bunch in. At the time there weren’t very many good white Italian wines available, and the La Scolca was a hit. It was rich and refined, delicate and able to wean the locals off Pouilly-Fuisse, which was the popular wine at the time, even in Italian spots. I remember Franco Bertolasi at Café Royal went crazy for the Gavi. He was a believer.

This week, at lunch, I tried two other wines from La Scolca, the Rosa Chiara and the Pinot Noir. While it is still chilly outside, spring will return. The Rosa Chiara, a dry rosé (80% Cortese, 10% Barbera, 10% Nebbiolo) from Piemonte, is a gentle harbinger.

On the label, it says “Sur Lie” in French, indicating the wine is left in the fermentation tank in contact with the lees, deposits of particulate matter. Character, spice. Good stuff, Maynard.

A pale salmon color, this was a delicate and delicious wine. We often go looking for pleasant rosé wines from Italy, and this is one to seek out. A very pretty wine.

The other wine from La Scolca that we tried was a Pinot Noir from Lombardia. A couple of years in small French oak complement a wine that is floral and peppery. “An earth-bomb", my associate called it, and rightly so. Again, a delicious red wine.

The Soldatis are a famous wine family in Piemonte, and they have elevated the image of Italian wine onto the world stage with their Gavi di Gavi. It is not a wine to sit and taste in 30 seconds and then pass judgement on. It is of its own world and makes the conditions whereby it will be enjoyed and evaluated. And that is at a slow dinner table with friends and candles and food and lots of time to enjoy it.

These two wines, the rosé and the red, are welcome additions to the Italian table. Seek them out, take the time to find them, and take even more time to enjoy them. You’ll be back.

Imported into the USA by Frederick Wildman

*Depart, oh night, at dawn I shall win.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Master Game

The wine business is a funny game. As a career, it has its rewards. Dining in fine restaurants, travel, meeting interesting people from all walks of life. And daily challenges, like deadlines, pressure to get to the top and to stay there. Some of the young up-and-comers have decided they want to take the express elevator to the summit.

How‘s that? It’s called the Master Game. Cram, study, taste. Taste, study, cram. Network. And pray. And pass. There you go, you’re a master.

Everybody wants to go to heaven; everybody wants to be recognized for something. So, in the wine business, the fast-track, rise to the top is seen as a way to get fame, a better paycheck and a degree of autonomy, a degree of separation from the masses. The masters that have risen to the top, be they master sommeliers or masters of wine (and yes, there are those enlightened ones who have achieved both) have worked hard, very hard, to get there. So, this is in no way aimed to mock or belittle their achievement.

Two recent observations in my local region have punctuated just how important those on the outside think these achievements are. A local sommelier conference lists some of their recent presentations. They then list some of the folks who were presenters. All of the presenters were master sommeliers or masters of wine, with one exception.

Another local wine gala hawks its upcoming awards ceremony, the best steak chef, the best martini maker, the best wine guru. Oops, another master, in fact a double-master. That'll fill the seats. And the pattern goes on and on.

It’s like these events are using these masters to hype their events, that without a master why would anyone care to attend? I mean, if Neal Rosenthal or Kermit Lynch showed up, wouldn’t someone care to hear about their experiences on the wine trail? Surely they would. But they are kind of famous. Yes, fame is important. Look at the superstar chef game that’s playing itself out to a fizzle or a black hole. OK, so how about if we dig deeper, let’s say in the hills of Piemonte, and bring out of the caves Luciano Degiacomi? Or how about traipsing to the island of Salina, near Sicily, and pulling someone like a Carlo Hauner out of his infinite ecstasy to wax on about the birds and the bees and the honeyed wines of his island?

Who are these people?

Well, these people are the stuff of legends. With these people, I would choose to sit at a simple table in an unadorned room, eating fresh and uncomplicated foods and drinking wholesome and delicious wines, listening to them talk about the history, the future, the life of the vine.

And probably many of the modern-day young masters would appreciate that too.

But what is the message that’s being sent by these event planners and seminar promoters? To me it sounds a lot like, “Come to our show, see our masters. They walk on water, they swallow fire, and they will set your free. They are famous, and if you hang around with them long enough, you will feel good about yourself, because you are in their circle, and this will make you feel more important. And if you can climb their mountain, get to the top, you too can have all this: fame, fortune, autonomy, a slim waistline and never-graying hair.” Or maybe, just hair, period.

I have dear friends who are masters, but their lives are not perfect, folks. Be not tempted by the message that if you only do this, only get these letters after your name, your life will be better, everything is going to be OK.

That’s an illusion; it will make your head spin, until all you are is dizzy and disenchanted.

Did you hear the story about the master of wine who took the stairs down into his cellar for a bottle of wine? He tripped, fell and broke his neck.

He was found, days later, alone and passed, in his cellar, with his bottles and his broken neck. Alone.

No guarantees.

Young aspirants, listen to the ancient ones. Work your craft, study your vintage charts, find your bliss. But don’t look outside of yourself, for the ultimate affirmation of your being. A couple of letters after your name won’t guarantee you friends or family or happiness. Or freedom from suffering.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Under the Big Tent

I have been getting e-mails daily, from hopeful Italian wineries, looking for distribution in the US. Along with that, our current group of wineries is bringing up new items for us to look at. The market for new is still conservative, but all doors must be opened, all thoughts entertained. That’s the way life is under the big tent, the uber-distributor that must serve many. And as there are many grapes in Italy, there are as many kinds of people in our eno-circus.

Sometimes it feels like being a juggling ringleader, with all the creatures from the circus clamoring for their time under the lights in the main ring. We have the elephants, who put of lot of folks in the seats with their drawing power. They know what they are and how much weight they carry. Often they are kind, knowing their footsteps can crush. They know how to balance, though they sometimes run amuck. But they are entertaining and loved by the masses.
The clowns can be a challenge to organize and co-ordinate. There are the happy clowns, who accidentally make it big and don’t know why. But they are content to run around the ring and satisfy the needs of their fans. There are princess clowns who must be attended and catered to. They usually have special needs. It might be pathological or they might just really be princesses from an era that has long since left the harbor. Usually the happy clowns help them to forget, holding up an ageless mirror, proclaiming their immeasurable youthfulness and splendor.
Then there are the acrobats, folks willing to stand on their heads to do whatever it takes. These folks fall and hurt themselves, but they are so driven, and their energy is so contagious, that one cannot help but wonder how they go about it day after day. They often have new ideas and products, and there is innovation in their duffle bag. They are always practicing.

Like the circus, the wine business is seasonal. Many of the winemakers and marketing representatives are now coming back into the markets and making the circuits. Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston. Sometimes they book out to Corpus Christi or El Paso, Lubbock or Harlingen. You really have to not mind living out of a suitcase. And once the season is over, it starts all over again. It’s not like you find a cure for polio and move on to finding a cure for measles. You just keep going around and around, year after year, making the kids laugh and finding a way to get the adults to buy the front-row tickets for the whole family.
Then there are the big cats and their tamers. They are big draws for the show, under the big tent. The represent danger, uncertainty. The lions, with their hostility and their rage. The lionesses, their uncertainty and erratic traits, one moment docile, the next moment lunging for the throat. They are out of their cage but they are still captive. Their wildness gnaws at them. Those few moments that they perform serve only to exacerbate their longing to be home in their kingdom, at peace in the grass, napping and taking in the breeze and the sun.
Once in a while, a new act auditions, and we find room for them in one of the rings. One never knows if they might be a star someday. There’s a bit of instinct and a bit more of the risk factor. And of course the clowns must like them, or no one can stay in the ring for long. There’s always that one serious clown, maybe in white face, maybe with a banjo or a performing dog, but there’s a solemnity in his presence. This is the conscience of the ringleader, the outside perspective that allows him to keep the show moving. He might have a sheep dog, herding and moving the show along. Or a terrier, hunting and rooting out the undesirables in the ring. But that serious clown has a purpose besides entertaining or comedy.

“The serious clown is the soul of the circus,” a friend once said.
It’s all intended to make the acts under the lights in the ring perform to the best of their ability, to answer their calling. Italians have loved the circus, from the earliest days of the Roman Empire. Performing, training, stretching their wings in the air and bringing joy to people, this is an ancient calling and a vital part of the psyche of the Italian.

It’s not called the greatest show on earth for nothing.
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