Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Nature Trails of Italy

The past few days have been a blur. Somehow, something hit me, and I became a host for a germ party. So blogging and wine have not been high on my list.

In fact, putting out three unique posts a week in the last year has taken a bit of a toll. And while I don’t intend to stop, somewhere down the road this will probably go to a twice weekly kind of activity. It’s just too much to do. We'll see.

I've been thinking about nature trails of Italy, trails like we have so many of in America. Where I come from in the West, we were always on some trail or another, looking at coyotes, hawks, ponderosa pines, majestic mountains. My childhood, was spent sitting before a very large and wonderful mountain, Mt. San Jacinto, and just staring into the many faces and aspects of it. Different times of the day or the year, there would be familiar scenes that would show up.

I don’t ever have enough time to take those trails in Italy, but once in a while I have been lucky to get on a little path, something that usually didn’t have anything to do with wine or grapes, but everything to do with being a lover of nature.

It was the 4th of July and a Sunday, and a group of friends decided to go up into the hills in the Marche and have a mass and a picnic. There was a little chapel where we first stopped. Some of the youth set up their instruments and music and played through the mass. On the way down to lunch, I was talking to the priest. We talked about wine and he was so proud that the wine he used in the mass was a D.O.C. from the Marche. Ah yes, Italy, where even the little details matter.

By a summer house people started setting up the charcoal cookers and setting the long tables, for now we were a larger group of 30. About this time someone suggested a hike, which struck me as funny, because I had never really been around Italians who liked to hike. In my early days, like I said, we were always doing that sort of activity, but in Italy, it was unheard of. So I jumped at the thought of getting on a trail and seeing how the Italians would deal with it.

The hike was beautiful; we truly got out and away, to the point where we got lost. One of us had a cell phone and they called the home base and someone honked horns and walked us in back to the waiting lunch. Really a funny experience and one that I will remember along with my river rafting and mountain climbing experiences.

Even though it was the 4th of July and we weren’t in America where the holiday was celebrated, we had food that reminded me of home. Watermelon, roasted sausages (resembling hot dogs, but much better tasting) and corn on the cob, something I rarely find in Italy. And lots of red wine from the Marche, Rosso Piceno, Sangiovese married to Montepulciano, a wonderful combination. And while I love Sangiovese on its own and Montepulciano in purezza, the combination of these two grapes is special. Fruity, savory, spicy, acidic, a great balancing act.

The next time you think about visiting Italy, think about this. Yes, take time to visit Florence or Venice or Rome. By all means, do that. But take a day or two and go to the Cinqueterre or La Sila in Calabria. Or get out into the Tuscan countryside and take a day hike. Don’t worry if there isn’t a two star Michelin nearby, you won’t starve. And yes maybe the little albergo that you find at the end of the day might not have air conditioning, but open the window at night and breathe in the fresh, pure air and sleep like you never have. Take a moment to spend some time in the vanishing nature of Italy.

Photos from Webshots friend Ruggero, from the series,
Greek Calabria, a wonderful series of photographs. Please go see and enjoy.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Re-Collecting Our Tribe

Palermo's DNA Dungeon

The 1960’s had ended. The economy was going into a tailspin, the sexual revolution was shifting into second gear, a war was killing too many young people halfway across the world, and I landed in Sicily, looking for my roots.

My Aunt Vitina and Uncle Peppino thought it would be good to take me around and visit the relatives. They started with the dead ones. Under the busy streets of Palermo another world could be found, layered, like a Sicilian Cassata. The catacomb was a cool, dark place. It was more a descent into a forgotten family museum than a neglected morgue.

Down in the cellars, families would bring their picnic baskets and have a little lunch with their departed families, an escape from the blistering heat and humidity of July in urban Sicily. One family I know kept their wine there, for it remained cool and, by custom, untouched by strangers.

Here was an Andrea, there was a Concetta, he was a priest, she was a baroness. They all rested quietly now. I asked my aunt, “Why did you bring me here first?” and she replied, “Because if we are going back, this is where we start.”

We made the procession, up onto the street and past the storefront that had once been my great-grandfather's wholesale leather business. It was from here that he sent a 15-year-old, my grandfather, to Fort Worth, Texas, in search of new sources of leather, expanding his empire to the New World. What a place Fort Worth must have been 100 years ago, with the stockyards full of cattle, sheep and pigs. How it must have seemed a world away from the busy streets of Sicily.

We went past the store to the market place, La Vucciria, for a sip of Marsala in the wine bar, casks of different types: dry, old, new, virgine, vecchio, tan, tawny and fine. My uncle handed me a cup of Fine Secco. It had a light amber taste that was sharp and refreshing. Aunt Vitina was picking up some swordfish and tomatoes for supper.

Over the meal, a few more relatives poured into the house, a two-level affair in a building off the Via Roma, in old Palermo. They were curious about the young “Americano” relative with shaggy hair and blue jeans, a rare sight in those days. Friendly and curious, they talked about my grandfather and grandmother, my father and Aunt Mary. “You should meet old Guzzetta. He has been around the world. He knows many of our relatives.” A card was handed to me by a cousin; Jorge Zito C. was printed on it. He lived in Venezuela and was visiting Palermo while I was there. There were reports of relatives in China, South America, Australia, Torino - more stories came about the tribe I was part of. “What about the Scaloras who moved to Texas?” someone asked. “Michelangelo moved somewhere between Dallas and Houston, with his family.” I wasn’t to learn about them until decades later.
Sometime after the Averna, around midnight, kinfolk started heading to bed.

The next week or so we carouseled around Sicily, visiting and photographing family and ruins. Temples and cities now lying in piles waiting for the archaeologists (and tourists) to eventually give meaning to the scattered remains of history. It wasn’t dead to me, for my uncle and aunt made it seem like part of my history. Though the family was spread across earth, understanding them seemed within my grasp. But it would become more of a mystery as I headed down into that dark labyrinth of the family over the next 40 years.

Meanwhile, the new seed had sprouted and a young lion appeared, clutching his grapes and heading out into the world. Once the cord was cut, the next generation was in play.
Wine and humanity travel upon parallel paths. We need similar conditions; we depend upon each other in a strange, exotic way. We improve one another but we don’t really need each other. Like the winemakers from southern Italy discovered (about the same time I found my family), there are strains of grapes (and families) that have been lost among the weeds and brush of history. But once uncovered, if given a little care, they can be resuscitated and brought back to a place of beauty and health. This is the story of grapes like Minedda janca and Grecanico, and families like Scalora and Plescia.

Just as each new generation embarks upon its path, a once-young boy also calls, from the past and the ruins, that our tribe, though scattered, isn’t hidden. And while, in the future, we may be able to go back farther than that day my aunt took me into catacombs, I am getting restless. I’m running out of time.

Friday, May 25, 2007

If It's Friday It Must Be Eggplant

Eggplant reminds me of Trebbiano. Neither is particularly distinctive. Both are rather ubiquitous around the Mediterranean. They often get paired with other more powerful partners, like garlic or oak. One can find many variations of either, from pureed to roasted, barrel fermented to distilled. It seems many people don’t understand either too well, and along with that goes a dearth of appreciation. But dependable and always ready are both of these workhorses in the Italian stable.

I absolutely love eggplant. It is my comfort food; it is the ingredient that I have spent more time working with in the kitchen than any other. Except, possibly, eggs. In fact, the two in combination would often make a meatless Friday meal, for the observant ones.

Looking at wine, Trebbiano has been my silent friend. Always fresh and affordable, never in fashion. Not cool enough to be a Pinot Grigio or trendy enough to be a Grillo. It missed the Riesling wave of popularity, and never quite found the audience a Chardonnay has. It rarely aspires to greatness, although there are ones out there that get a lot of buzz.
So these two jilted items, do we think they care? Do they know we think?

Last month, I brought eggplant seeds back from Italy, called Black Beauty. They grow into wonderful big bottomed plants. Today, in my garden, they shuddered under the torrent of rain that pelted their young frames. If they make it through the next 30 days, we should be able to harvest a good crop.

More and more, I am less interested in what people think Italian food and wine is. I relish the stories that have been handed down. My aunt Elvira, in Calabria, told me the story of our way with eggplant. She testified with a fire and a skillet. What she passed along to me 30 years ago, was part of our family’s culinary history. It was wonderful to see her cousin Amelia, my aunt in Texas, who also had a way with the black beauty. These two, who never met each other, knew each other through their eggplant heritage. And I was lucky to witness both of them working in the kitchen.

Likewise with Trebbiano. There was a man in Grottammare, Dottore Spinelli, who passed his knowledge along to a young winemaker in Abruzzo, Claudio Capellacci. In the locality of Controguerra, he passed the torch of his passion to the young man. It was like a lightning bolt. History of countless generations of winemaking transmitted to the up and coming adults.

Dottore Spinelli was a wonderful man. He had a Ray Bolger-like head, shaped like a grape. When he drank wine his head would turn red from the top, like a sunset. Over the evening his head would become almost beet red, and he would tell stories that had been handed down from previous generations. That was how wine was, and is, made. Without the stories we wouldn’t have the map. The road to discovery is taken with the help of the ones who went before.

One night Dottore Spinelli was coming down the hill from Controguerra in Abruzzo, back to his home in Grottammare. He was with his wife of many years. They were in their little Lancia and missed one of the hairpin turns in the dark night of the country. It was an accident that only one of them recovered from. He lost his partner and the love of his life. After that, it was only a matter of time; he lost the will to go on.

How will you be remembered? Is there a wine you have made into a wonderful masterpiece? Or a recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation? Will someone mourn your passing, missing your touch and your laugh? What will you contribute to the carousel of humanity, on this tiny little planet off in the corner of a minor galaxy? Trebbiano and eggplant, even if they are misunderstood on a daily basis, have left a legacy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sliding Past the Devil @ 60mph

Photo by Chema Madoz

A couple of years ago I was in a car on a freeway in wine country. The driver fell asleep and we went off the road, going about 60+ miles per hour. As we headed off the road, there appeared a tunnel in our path; it looked like the Gates of Hell. By some chance the driver managed to get back on the road, puncturing several of the tires, and, as the car swerved out of control, back onto the freeway, we headed straight towards a concrete barrier. The automobile wanted to flip, but instead, it crashed into the barriers, spun around and crashed again. We tagged a truck along the way, but all four of us walked out of a brand new, and totally wrecked, rental car.

After a brief visit to the hospital, we headed back to San Francisco, where three of the four of us headed back to New York and Italy. I remained in the city. Staying in the Marina district, I walked down to an Italian spot called A16. It was a busy Saturday night and the place was jammed with folk. Somehow I couldn’t get myself to walk in, maybe I was too shook up, maybe being around too many people was too much at that point. I stopped a few doors down ate a little sashimi and went to bed. I was sore for three weeks.
Two weeks after the accident, I was in Italy for the wine fair. I felt lucky to have escaped mortal injury. I knew when I saw my Gates of Hell that either I was going down or somehow we would walk. I guess the Italian Wine Trail wasn’t finished with me, yet.

There is a disturbance in The Wine Force. I have felt it lately. The wine industry is a mess. Consolidation, large getting larger, small spin-off companies surfacing like little republics after the fall of the Soviet Union. They stay in business just long enough to distract, like mosquitos after a warm summer rain. Warehouses are full, good salespeople are hard to find, managers even harder. Online wine commerce is growing. The dollar is weaker by the day and gasoline prices have risen 20+% since February. Getting Italian wine to America, without the wineries raising their prices, is already a challenge. And yes, some of them are raising their prices. Well that will work itself out in the marketplace, no need to gnash and wail over that one.

9:00 PM and a call tonight from a little Osteria. The owner was having a difficult time with a supplier. Because of this small distributor’s stupidity, the owner couldn’t get any wine, by law. And he had a couple of big parties. So I went over to sort things out. He was out of wine and needed a dry white to cook with, a sec for the sauté. Over a plate of Pasta alla Norma, we talked it over. Things are tough enough for the small business person, without having to deal with jerk vendors.

So again it's late and I'm driving home. And everywhere people are driving like Hell was closing in five minutes and they were all rushing to get in before the gates slammed behind them. One guy was even backing up from an off ramp thinking those of us who were going forward wouldn’t mind if he went against the flow of traffic, at 50+ miles per hour. Once again, the Angel was watching over me.

So what wine am I drinking tonight? I chose not to drink at the restaurant, although I had fresh strawberries that had been sitting in Sicilian Merlot for a few hours. That was a very nice thing to do for the Merlot.

But at home, all I wanted was my Sicilian orange brandy. I am becoming my grandfather with his nightly tass of brandy, un cognacchino. And after a day in the jungle, it’s really nice to sit in the quiet and peace of my lair with my glass of sunshine.

After all...tomorrow is another day.

“ Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” — Samuel Johnson

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunshine Puddin'

I have a little card file box of recipes, mostly favorites, from my wife, who is no longer with us. Some of the recipes are printed in a wonderful script from the days before her hand shook and she was unable to write. She was a Fort Worth girl and many of her recipes were homey and simple, and wonderful comfort food. So today, after many weeks of travel in hotels and restaurants, was the day to pull out the recipe for Sunshine Puddin'.

Bread, milk, eggs, cheese, sounds a little like a grocery list. A pot of coffee and some fresh orange juice and a fruit salad and Sunday, the day of rest, ah yes, I remember it well.

But today was not to be a day of rest, but rather a day to share stories and ideas about wine from the Veneto.

And unlike the last posting where I stood in front of people who just wanted me to fill up their wine glasses and check on the air conditioner, today they actually let me talk a little about the wines of Prosecco and Soave and Tocai and Valpolicella and Amarone. They got it. So while I technically worked today, like I tell my mom, yes I worked and though it seems like a vacation because I enjoy my work, it still is work. But that’s not a problem.

But when I came home, I came down. My body collapsed on the couch and I slipped into a quick, deep sleep for a couple of hours.

If you Google Sunshine Puddin(g) all kinds of things pop up. But not my gal’s recipe. Seems like we’re all sitting in a kind of sunshine pudding of our own making these days. Looking out over my last hotel room, the scene outside took on a Dante-esque aspect. Mid-May and temperatures approaching 90° F, gridlock on the roads and folks jamming the lunch spots before 11:30 AM.

Her recipe is a lot like some of the experiences I talk about regarding Italy. Memories of comfort, tastes and sensations of harmonious and pleasant foods, a familiarity with the table and the meal. Where are you going to? Comfort, Texas. Who are you going with? Pure and simple. Who do you think you are? Nobody, are you nobody too?

Look in the Mega stores, where life there offers so much more than just bread, milk, eggs and cheese. I don’t go there often, too many choices. And though the world of wine can also seem like that ( many choices, many countries, many price points) my idea is to put one foot in front of the next and just take a direction, look ahead, look up, slowly and simply. One doesn’t need the 90 point wine; all one needs it to get those little points of pleasure piqued inside ones palate.

It’s all along the lines folks are thinking about in relation to their life and their homes and their consumption of natural resources these days. Just like brown is the new black and 40 is the new 30, 1500 square feet is the new luxury home. Sound crazy? I have a friend who is contemplating going from a 1700 to a 900 square foot residence. Like he said, when he first got married and had two kids, it worked for all of them then. Maybe one has to be Italian, or to have lived in New York to appreciate this direction. It does give one the extra cash for that mountainside retreat in the Alto- Adige. Something to think about. Pass the puddin' please.

Friday, May 18, 2007

From Pot to Paté

…Don’t trust anyone over 60

Scrounging For Your Next Meal
So far this year, lots of “fine dining”, plenty of great wine. And the year ain’t even half over yet. So this might be shaping up as a rant, but don’t worry, it will be fair and balanced.

Tonight I was the wine host at an event of a wine and food group. I was told this is a serious group. Uhumm.
Mind you, there were a few friends there, so for their sake (and mine) it wasn’t a total loss. But for the most part, the people there were not really interested in learning too much about Italian wine. They were there for a good time, and wanted to make sure we kept their goblets filled. Oh and they also had plumbing and electrical issues they wanted me to attend to. Yessa Massa.

This from their core values page:
• We preserve the regional and ethnic culinary heritage of the table.
• We educate others on quality food and drink.
• We encourage professional research to grow our culinary culture and knowledge.

Not tonight we won’t; just don’t be running out of Montepulciano.

You Got Nothing to Lose You're Invisible Now
Anyway, many of the folks were retired and elderly, and really there were only a few folks who weren’t into what I had prepared. But that set the scene and made it highly improbable that I could share with the other people some stories and insights I thought a group like theirs might like.

Even though this group of people was collectively not too much older than me, I felt like a child who couldn’t get the parents to listen. Jeesh, I had that experience, back in the day.

Go To Him Now, He Calls You
So, I also interact with younger folk, people in their 20’s and 30’s. And while their attention span is somewhat short (they just “get it” quicker), I have been finding them to be more interested in what I have to say. As long as I keep it short and sweet (not like this blog).

All this to say, I belong to a generation that has passed from pot to paté in what seems like a short time.

Once Upon a Time You Dressed So Fine
I wrote elsewhere about a vegan meal I had last week in Austin, and a week later I am served bacon ice cream.

Last year in Verona I sat through 9 courses (out of 18) as an exercise in vegetarianism. Seen here is a mini-veggie burger with micro-frites and home made mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup.

Elsewhere, in Paris, an amuse-bouche of an egg in an elixir of sweet pea soup with a wedge of sour dough.

Have we traded in our bongs for Bandol, our sensimilla for semifreddo; have we gone from hash to haute cuisine. What happened?

Connoisseurship has led our generation from the hemp fields of Mendocino to the oyster farms of Marennes-Oléron. I hope this is leading somewhere. Because if all we end up with is the gout, then we have learned nothing.

Princess On the Steeple and All the Pretty People
Yes the dishes are beautiful, delicate, balanced creatures of culinary enchantment. Foams, emulsions, mostardas. Micro greens, fruit essences, heirloom potatoes, grass fed meats. Panama Red, White Widow, Northern Lights. Looking for that ultimate hit, that hook-up, that spirit in the sky. That somethingness outside of oneself that will complete oneself. Mannaggia.

This is perhaps an American perspective. I can’t say for sure if the Italians relate to this kind of process, the food thing comes so naturally to them as a culture.

I know today I was punished at lunch, 30 lashes by garlic, tortured by Bolognese. Tonight I was served food by a real Italian, so the risotto was correct, even the garlic was moderated, my community service to the wine and food group was at least served with a few small plates of real food.

How Does It Feel?
Where am I going? From where I sit, it seems that I might be going back to where I got these ideas; somewhere in my youthful idealism. Or maybe it is timeless hopefulness. In any event, I have had enough bad meals and I am close to having enough great meals. Where I am going is back to find my tribe: back to a simpler life. Not exactly meat and potatoes, but not fois gras either. I’m done with that. And this too. Good night, Gracie.

Apologies to Robert Zimmerman for the headings

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Rich Life...

...doesn't need a large bank account

But in places like Texas, shiny objects attract. It almost seems like they have passed a law down in Houston that makes it illegal to park your own car, must be valet parked. Even if there is a parking lot full of spaces, bright orange traffic cones block the driver from parking. And we wonder why Houstonians have a problem with weight?

In places like Ascoli Piceno, there is a town square, where people come to meet, walk around, have a coffee or an anisette, get some air, pet a dog. Defrag. There is no “entrance” that needs to be made, no one that must be impressed with a big shiny car. It’s a rich life.

The people of the Marche, where Ascoli is, have a secret. No one really knows about the region. When Marcheggiani immigrate to the Americas or Australia or Denmark or wherever, they have a higher return-home-rate than any other region. They like their place. They might go to Canada and open up a hardware store and work it for 30 years, but, zap; they pack it up and head for the hills. Or the beach. Or both. It’s a rich life.

I was talking with some friends about a mutual friend who recently did that. He was from the Marche and he bought a convent in a town called Monteprandone. A pretty little walled city from the 1200’s, historical, quaint, in the cool hills above the white sand beaches of San Benedetto del Tronto. Great seafood, great meat, awesome vegetables, pretty wines.

He was going to restructure the convent, bought a little parcel of the building next door. A couple of apartments, an office space, maybe a cooking and wine school. A destination for wine and food lovers. Unfortunately he didn’t get to spend much time with the project, as cancer had other ideas for his future. Bon anima.

Big buildings on a marshy plane, lots of dreams in those buildings. A lot of hopes. Probably a good deal centered on the goal of acquiring wealth, after all this is a golden triangle of opportunity. In the green space below the tall buildings are multi million dollar homes, 7,000-10,000 square feet. Usually with a couple whose children are grown and gone. Another home in Aspen, August spent in the cool mountains in another 7,000-10,000 square foot house. Is it a rich life?

Empty Terraces

I am looking out at a multi-level parking lot at 2 o’clock in the morning. It is empty. Of course it is. No one can park there; it is for the valet police, not for the driver of the car. Remember the "law"? So we build these empty buildings that we cannot use or that we only partially inhabit, spending time in them, trying to amass wealth, homes cars, riches, maybe even fame. And on the way home, in the traffic, trying to pick up a son or a daughter and take them to ballet or soccer, in the air conditioned bubble of a SUV or maybe a Maserati, do we look out over our village from the penthouse and see what this rich life has cost us?

That little family who worked their hardware store for 30 years and went back to the Marche is not wealthy in monetary terms. But when they open up the door of their little house (which is paid for), and walk into their garden filled with eggplant, oregano, grapes, tomatoes, basilico, arugula, artichokes and whatever else will fit , they look out over their “assets” and know they truly have the rich life.

Jam-Packed Terraces

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Working on Mothers Day

Today started out like most Sundays. A little coffee, some breakfast, a bit of work in the garden. But like the past two or three Sundays, I have spent most of the afternoon packing and preparing to go back on the road, working in another region. Last week it was Austin, this week it will be Houston. Such is the exciting life of Italian Wine Guy. Hotels, early flights (tomorrow the plane departs at 6:30 am) and early meetings. Not complaining, just the time of the business where we all must beat the streets.

Monday my colleague, Guy Stout, and I will conduct a 2 hour seminar on Italian wine for 40 or so salespeople, complete with about 20 wines to taste. All before noon. Another Monday. Weather in Houston will be around 90° F with thunderstorms. So, hot and humid. Real glamorous.

Today my son couldn’t make it for dinner because he had to work. The other children also had work or meetings, so it was empty nest day. I called my mom and sisters, but nobody answered. I could talk to the ones who have already passed over; at least I know where to find them. So today I talked with my grandmothers and aunts and fathers and grandfathers and uncles. There were all together, just like the old days.

I guess I am a little tristé. I long for the days where the family got together. That was before therapy. I still miss those long tables and the stories and the uncles and aunts and cousins. Tables where I had my first sips of wine among family who guided my journey on the wine trail so that it would be sane and sober, most of the time.

Those wines from northern California; Zinfandel and Carignane and Alicante Bouschet.

Last week I was fortunate to taste the brash and unapologetic wines from Four Vines Winery in Paso Robles. Wines with names like The Heretic ( old vine Petite Sirah), Anarchy ( Syrah, Zinfandel and Mourvedre) and Maverick ( 100 year old Zinfandel from Grandpere vineyard in Amador County). Wines not ashamed to express their lineage, but wines that can still rock with the best of them, from Clapton to Modest Mouse. Old California strutting into the 21st century. Wines like I grew up with; red, smooth, delicious and proud to be alive.

Now I, or is it we, just have to get our families together by the long tables again and keep the fires stoked.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Three That Stood Out

Photo by Giuseppe Pino

You’re on the road four, maybe five days. Maybe it’s New York or New Orleans or Phoenix. And you’re ready to go home. A week in Austin well, I’m ready, il conto per favore.

Three wines that have stood out this week. A week filled with nothing but tasting. There were many wines not from Italy but I want to get us back on the wine trail in Italy. Sans weirdness, sans snark, just playing the part, without wise saws or modern instances.

Castellare Chianti Classico 2003
I often forget about this wine, usually I am breathing heavy over a bottle of Rampolla or Querciabella. A little ways down on the SR222, in Castellina in Chianti, the winery is situated on what the local people call “i sodi”, land too hard or steep for horses, vineyards that have to be worked by hand. This is an illusive wine, or maybe it is just too direct. Maybe I am looking round corners for an explanation of this wine, when right in front of me it stands, simply naked. Honest. True to its origins. It could be one of those ancient southern wines that I dream about or one of those wines made 4500 years ago in the Northern Sinai for the Egyptian rulers.

I am still tasting this wine, trying to figure out how it will fit into a world that wants it “right now”, because this isn’t a wine that will yield so quickly. Yes it’s right there in front of me, but the problem, Horatio, is that this isn’t part of the philosophy folks in many parts dream of. In hipper-than-California Austin? Let me slip my i-pod on and listen to a little Modest Mouse and I’ll get back to you. Maybe.

Back….better now. This is like a pair of jeans that are torn and worn and dirty, real cool. Only thing is, you didn’t buy it that way, you wore the jeans for years. You turned them that way by living with them, wearing them, sweating in them, dancing in them. This is not a store bought, plug-and-play Chianti Classico. This isn’t “old school”. This is “ancient school” Chianti. But like the winemakers of 2500BC, they had eight generations to polish their craft, get something to gleam.

Austin, or anyone who cares, take this bottle onto a porch in the late afternoon and spend an evening with it watching the earth turn.

Altesino Rosso di Montalcino 2003
Rosso di Montalcino used to not sell and then the wholesalers would close it out and give someone a good deal. Rosso di Montalcino is now as expensive as Brunello used to be. Rosso do Montalcino isn’t a shadow wine of the big brother. Past, present and future. We just have to get to the future part. It’s a funny thing, wine geeks go out of their way to dig up interesting wines from the Loire or Margaret River or Paso Robles. They exist; I was sipping on a very nice Bourguiel last night, followed by an old vine Petite Sirah from Lodi. Yeah, yeah.

So what are we gonna do with the not-so-big-Mamou?

I reckon all of Alesino’s Rosso di Montalcino is opened and drank sooner or later, so let someone else worry about that, for now.

I got up at 5:00 am and drove 200 miles. Around 9:45 I was tasting the Altesino Rosso do Montalcino on 6th Street in Austin with a client and the winemaker. After three plus hours of driving from Dallas I had arrived to Montalcino, I was in the Tuscan Hill Country. The glass was the passport. Smoky, dusty, oregano, dried porcini, a walk in the fields. Nice way to rid myself of driver’s legs. Sweet fruit, thick and juicy. Steak and eggs, with a side of garlic grits.

Viviani Amarone 2003
I know I probably talk too much about this winery. I get perturbed when I hear folks talking about what they think a great Amarone is. Walk the hills, get lost in your car in Negrar at midnight. Drive past Dal Forno’s place three or four times looking for a place more “garagista” than it is. Then talk to me about great Amarone.
Walk the walk first.

I shouldn’t even have to talk about this. You should already know the greatness of this wine, this estate. You should have already “gotten” this. I am an altar boy in my starched cassock, preparing the implements for the priest. Everything is ready, the candles are lit, the incense is loaded. The wine is poured into the cruets.

The aroma of this wine is reminiscent of the little San Gabriel Mission, tight, fine, ancient wood beams, light incense floating in the air, deep-roots sweat-and-blood. A high mass wine, the cardinal and the courtesan dine and drink alike when this wine is present.

So, while I haven’t exactly swerved back into the vortex of a reality most people would find recognizable, these are just a few notes gathered while trying to find my way back to the base camp.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Zapped in Spillville

Brunello on the Brazos
There must have been a vortex that I slipped through. Drove to Austin on Monday to meet Guido Orzalesi of Altesino. All went well; a little 2003 Rosso, some 2001 Brunello and an amazing 1997 Vin Santo. After work, driving around Austin tasting these and other wines, I took Guido to a non-Italian place. Not too far from the hotel, Sandra Bullock had just opened up her café, Bess. It was either that or Guero’s Taco Bar, and the last time I was there, the tacos al pastor were dried out and tasteless and the bartender treated me like a Yankee. Pineapple in a taco al pastor? I know, but this time is seemed so much like yuppy chow.

Talking with Dottore Guido, a young man who is really trying to help take Altesino and Montalcino into a realm of the world view. It was refreshing how he said the signs were good, but folks still compare their Brunello to their neighbors. Or rather talk about how much better theirs is than their neighbors. Invidia.

“Folks in Bordeaux say, our wine is better than Brunello, than Burgundy, than Napa” Guido said. “In Montalcino they say how much better their wine is than neighbor over the hill or the big company down the road. They cut down Brunello. Lafite and Mouton don’t cut Bordeaux down.” Amen.

I would so love to talk to the producers, say at Benvenuto Brunello, and offer my perspective. We must all work together, first, getting people to drink wine, then maybe red wine. Then Italian, and then Brunello. Over the next generation.

“The older generation went out in the 1980’s and told people around the world a little about Brunello. Then the land became valuable and more growers started making wine. But they ask a price for their wine without considering what the market can bear. All they see is their wealthy neighbor asking so much for their wine and the think, because they are next door or down the road, that they can ask the same, or more.”

Gold Bands on Grape Stained Hands
”What they don’t see is that large winery, or even a small one like us, going to America and elsewhere in the world, traveling away from home, from our families, to listen to wine buyers and sommeliers tell us what they are looking for. We don’t always hear what we want, sometimes we hear them angry with the prices and they tell us about the other wines of the world that are competing for their dollar. It is very sobering, how do you say, a reality check?”

Yes, a reality check in Austin, that’s an anomaly. Maybe we have slipped through a vortex.

The next day there was a ZAP tasting here in Austin, so everything stops. Italian wine business, etc. And Thursday there is a vertical Malbec tasting, so we must sell tomorrow and shovel coal, solo, the next day. Jeesh, the Italians in this town just don’t ever seem to get their due.

At the ZAP, I overheard a wine-industry wonkette, say, “Yeah, we spill more Zinfandel at our winery than all these folks make.” Sweet. Nice bragging point in ever-so-greener-than your town-Austin. Now, if you spill more Zinfandel than let’s say, Shiner Bock, maybe that would impress the locals. The ones who make the Berkeley-lovin’ guy feel like a Yank. Well, Mr. Borrego, back in Dallas, with his Mutton tacos and not-so-cool crowd, is seeming cooler and more grounded than these dreaded hipsters. The only thing he does with pineapple is juice it and serve it with a straw.

Scalpel, Suture, Winelist
So I get word an Italian restaurant, that a friend of mine is opening (and one of the reasons I have come to Austin) has a partner, a doctor, who is writing the wine list. So I have decided the only thing I can do is, buy a book and learn how to do open heart surgery. Without anesthesia. Just like in sales.

I called back home as I was driving up Congress Avenue; just thought I’d ask if maybe I died in my sleep last night and this was all part of hell. No answer. My watch said 6 o’clock, though the sun was directly overhead. Maybe I had sunk even lower than hell.

Who Wound Up the Wine Doll?
Back at the Zap tasting, some hand pats my butt, and I look around to see one who shouldn’t be. Someone who doesn’t even know the difference between a Dolcetto and a Roero. That can be a real turn-off. I’m now not just in hell, but Dante’s layer-cake hell. With only Zinfandel to drink.

Fortunately Donn Reisen of Ridge had a table with his Lytton Springs, York Creek and Geyserville Zinfandels.
A Berkeley alum, red wine that doesn’t burn, something I can swallow (after the umpteenth joke about, "hey Alfonso, where’s the Primitivo?")

Before yesterday, I was proud to be from California, and Palm Springs at that. The Old Mountain that I used to stare at as a kid, talking to San Jacinto. Now even that memory has been tarnished by an experience that I can only allude to, in a Schrambling-like crypticism.

I’ve gone way over my limit, and only a little hint about wine, the Ridge. Great stuff. Nuff said.

Back to the cake; see if we can burrow past the pineapple, out of this bete noire.

IWG & Baby B

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