Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pulling the Trigger

I feel like one of the judges for American Idol. It seems that every three or four hours I get a call from someone wanting to bring new Italian wines into the market. And while I am not anti-immigration regarding Italian wine, I think someone should stop booking ships to the New World filled with the hopes of Italian winemakers, hoping we will bring them out of their funk.

Today I read it in our papers, finally. America is now officially going through our own “malaise”. Recession has arrived; the cost of war is depleting our resources and the hopefulness of our population. The middle classes and below are being downsized into smaller pieces of the American Pie. Only the 1%’ers can ponder their new Bentleys or their $500 bottles of Barolo. And still, folks call, wanting to send more Chianti, more Prosecco, more Pinot Grigio.

I told one contender today, “I don’t pull the trigger. I'm just one of many who ride the wild horses around the square, in our daily Palio.”

Let me put it this way. It’s not just about price. Or margin. I really can’t bear to hear one more comment about how high the distributor’s margins are when most of the importers are 6-10% higher. My friend Sam Levitas has this mantra. It goes like this: “You don’t take margins to the bank, you take dollars.” Anybody listening, importers, retailers, restaurateurs?

The next great idea probably isn’t going to be an Italian Yellow Tail or Two Buck Chuck. Or a celebrity label, or one from a "famous restaurant". I might be wrong, but looking back over my wine label graveyard collection, there are a lot of "great ideas" that never made it. Why? Because there are no short cuts. It's very simple: It isn't easy.

Let me ask you, if there are any winemakers, importers, brokers, retailers, restaurateurs or just plain folk put there in the enoblogosphere who like to eat and drink: What do you prefer, a chain restaurant or a small place where the proprietor greets you at the door with a smile and an honest, simple, fairly priced menu and wine list? Where do you prefer to buy wine, at a supermarket where you now check yourself out, or at a quirky little store where the owner spent several years in Gascony or Greve fiddling around learning about wine and culture and then bringing that passion back home to share with his friends and clients?

Why would it be any different with new wines? Do we really need another tired concept? How about getting on your own horse and battling it out around the piazza with the rest of us? Maybe fall and get scraped and drag yourself back up, and stay in the race? Or how about just getting in the game, in the mud and the rain and the slop of the daily slog, from walking on all fours towards an eventual upright position? And then to have to carry a shield and a sword and battle some more? That is the state of our union.

There is plenty of work, and more wines than we can say grace over, already. We need some fresh meat in the trenches, throwing punches and winning a few battles. We don’t need anymore armchair generals with self-proclaimed great ideas that will never win a skirmish. Does anybody hear me?

We don’t need any more wine – we need boots on the ground – selling what has already made it through the gates – they need a home before we can send anymore ships loaded with wine and hope, over here.

Enough already.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wine That Lives On

I started out to write about a trip I took to Galveston, and a wine that changed my life, the 1964 Monfortino. But as often happens when I am gathering my images, a sign appears and we are on another road to Alba.

It happened once, many moons ago; we were on our way there by way of Novara. They make wine from Nebbiolo grapes there as well, and we were going to visit a tartufaio, or truffle hunter. He was a round, jolly man and we met him in a local cantina.

OK, I cannot go any further until I get this little piece of business taken care of. A colleague handed me the latest Wine Advocate and asked me if we had any wines in there. There were some pages about the 2004 Barolo inside and he wanted to know if we had any offering available. I scanned quickly and saw so many of the usual names, when I came to Giacosa. The Rocche del Falletto 2004 had been given a 99. I remarked to my colleague that the 2004 Giacosa was in there but we still had some 2001 and 2003 available. But at US $180 plus (I don’t even want to think about the 2004 price) it and all of those highly rated wines have become a trophies for people who aren’t in the wine business.

I walked into my little wine room to talk it over with the bottles inside. Many of the wines have been there for some time and so the spirits of the winemakers frequently hover and we have this little chat about the state of things as they are now. Luigi Pira sits on the shelf with an ancient bottle of d'Yquem, while an expired bottle of Marylyn Monroe’s Chardonnay lingers and livens up the bin with her sad little smile. So much tragedy on that row between Pira and Monroe, forget that in 1959 d'Yquem was just happy to get a harvest after the disasters of 1956, 1957 and the lackluster 1958. Pira, it had been said, was depressed and 1980, a harvest of misery, was the coup de grâce.

So what is the use of a score unless there is some music that comes from it? If I hear another winemaker tell me what Parker gave his wine, what am I gonna do? Nothing. But I sure would like a way to tell them, abbastanza, I am not the person who will or can buy the 95 point wine anymore. I only can afford wine made by dead people.
Take that 1974 VINO VINO VINO VINO, bottled to commemorate the 20th harvest of the Cantine Sociale dei Colli Novaresi. Signed by the contributing growers, what pride they show in their signatures. A 90 point wine, then? Who cares? Most of them are dead and rid of us, but that little US$7 bottle of wine lives on.

Luciano de Giacomi of Cascine Drago was a hard crust of a man. But he had a soft, warm inside. The archetypical serious Italian, and the founder of the Order of the Knights of the Truffle and Wines of Alba. He was over educated for the world he found himself in. But there he was, in his cellar with his factor, Barone Armando de Rham, taking new wine out of old barrels to teach the young acolytes about Nebbiolo. I remember more from that afternoon than from a month of reading reviews. In fact I remember nothing from reading reviews. Niente.

All I want is the music inside the bottle. I don’t want to know that your winery is carbon neutral, but you take your private jet to France every year to pick French barrels, which you replace yearly. That's not a carbon-neutral imprint, that's a McMansion floor plan. What kind of shadow does this cast? It's the Hummer school of wine, and they have the big, bad wine reviews to gas them up and send them scurrying from city to city, recanting their narcissistic-cum-artisanal stories of how great they are. Huh?

That's not how the old dead guys taught me in Italy. We went to lunch, yes, and without cell phones. So maybe, once in a while we headed down little dirt roads in fast Maseratis, but all with respect to the localita’ of it all.

What did they do to me? Did they turn me into the mean old men they were? Or did they inoculate me with their un-steroided Nebbiolo? Delicate? Yes. Light in color and not ashamed of it? Yes. And if we had Dolcetto, it tasted and cost like Dolcetto, not some œuvre-oaked, muscle-ripped, winner-take-all winegasm, for the 1% who can afford it.

Yeah, I've gone deep-end-of-the-road on this one. You know the one, it’s a little out of town, and on the right there is this little cemetery filled with the souls of winemaking past. And from time to time they “call” on me to ask how things are going these days.

And I tell them, at my house, it goes well. As do their wines.

Buon Anima ~ Luciano e Armando

Friday, January 25, 2008

I Coulda Had a Maserati

This week I came roaring out of debt-free status, after five years. For that time I felt like a millionaire, insofar as I had nothing hanging over me. But opportunity called and the timing was right. So I signed a loan to buy a condo as an investment. No big deal, compared to what folks have to do to buy a place in NY or San Francisco.

But as I signed the contract, I looked down at the bottom line and exclaimed to the loan officer, “I coulda bought a Maserati.”

The Maserati is a running joke. When I was a youth, my dad always said he wanted to buy me a one. I suppose it made him feel good to think he would someday do it. He never did, and he never had to. He did buy me a pretty cool Fiat and he also saved my financial butt more than once. And he did it when he was having hard times. So, bless the memory of my Pop, he had the best of intentions.

And while I’m no longer enamored with automobiles as I once was, a Maserati Quattroporte is a lovely sight.

Tonight in North Texas is getting a might cool. Nothing like Minneapolis or Sondrio, but we’re in the thick of it for all that we’re used to. The new harvest is deep in the core of the earth, slowly emerging. The bees have disappeared from the tree in front of the house. Even the pitiful old black cat is scarce in these times. Squirrels are a bit cranky, it’s like they have entered some period of collective insanity. They peer over brittle branches and shout their staccato insults at invisible dogs and peacocks. Poor things.

Valentino said farewell in Paris. If he hadn’t, the hook was there in the wings, ready to pull him off. There they were, telling those around him that his day was done, his time had passed. Fast forward 25 years and they will feel the chill from the metal synch. Be it Milan or the ancient vineyards of Chaldea, 3,000 years ago or 200 years from now, one's time is brief and then it is time for the new bees to appear. Nothing to feel superior about, it’s merely a cycle that is more dominant than man. It binds us to the earth in the wine business, because we must follow the cycle and be in symbiosis with it.

Last week Matteo Bisol was telling some folks about the vineyards of Cartizze. In case you’d like to see a picture of Cartizze, some of the most expensive vineyard real estate in the world, here is a picture I took four years ago with Sergio Mionetto. It is not so manicured like the first growths of Bordeaux, but the land here is more suitable for grapes than for great chateaux. The people on these steep hills are a simple, rustic folk. They don’t wear tuxedos or stiletto heels. The tree reminds me of a tree I saw on the freeway today. How is it decided that one tree gets to live in this beautiful hillside and another gets to live on the side of a freeway?

I decided tonight to sip on an Amaro from Braulio. It is a special Riserva 2002 which I first had a Sal e Pepe in Sondrio a few months back. When I splashed a bit into the snifter and was walking back into my inner lair, I was transported back to Bormio and Monte Braulio. Maybe the UFO that was recently seen nearby had something to do with it.
It seems the right libation for a cold winter night; a bitter from the Swiss Alps.

Tonight I had little to inspire me to cook. I had some of those wonderful tomatoes from Salerno, capers from Pantelleria, Reggiano, olive oil from Sicily and some fresh eggs. I poached the eggs in with the tomatoes and had a marvelous soup of poached eggs in tomato puree. Simple, warm, filling. And an apple for dessert, with the Braulio for the after-dénouement dram.

It really is a dog’s life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Il Conte e Il Contadino

During the harvest of 2006, when I was in Tuscany, I passed by an estate in Greve. I recognized the place as I passed it, going to and coming from an appointment. I didn’t have time to stop. Behind the wall of the estate there is a story that is really out of this world. It is a story about a family with ties to Chianti that go all the way back to Ricasoli, pass through Antinori and head north towards Milan and Trentino, to the hillside vineyards of the Northeast. It is a story about a water parched parcel of earth, a noble family and a mystic farmer who brought water and abundance to the land.

A parcel, a building, several hundred years of neglect. A child of an artist walks on to the land and is moved by what he sees, hears, feels. The land is in the middle of Paradise, but it was in a temporary Purgatory. Now the doors will be pried open by the new generation, with a little help from an ancient one.

The young man speaks Italian like an Italian, French like a Frenchman and English like an Englishman. He stands straight and tall and has clear, piercing eyes. He is young but his soul is that of one much older than he. When he looks around the estate he sees centuries of history, for it courses through his veins and his DNA. He is bringing new life into this thirsty vineyard.

There is no proper well on the property, so it must be abandoned during harsh weather. When a place is empty for periods of time, it is like a person who can read but only stares at a television. Things start to fall apart. Tuscany and all of Italy had the fortune in the past to have people who could read the land. But those people are dying and their craft has not been handed down. The craft of the diviner is one of those.

One day the noble young man summoned a local farmer, a contadino, to the property. The farmer, it was said, had the gift. He could find water. Yes, he was a bit crazy. Yes, he scared the women and the young children. At first. But squirrels would come up to the man and talk to him. And he would answer them. Birds would follow him as he walked through the land, keeping an eye on what was ahead. Dogs loved the man; they sensed his ability to tune into their frequency.

He appeared at the door of the Castello and the young man welcomed him. Yes, he would help to find water in this estate, which in Italian meant “re-dried”. It would not be inexpensive, but he wouldn’t charge unless he found water.

He walked around the property for about an hour reciting Dante. He had memorized the Divine Comedy by heart and was prone to reciting verse after verse. It would take him to that place where his mind would no longer pay attention to the distractions, and then it could get on with the work of bringing back life to the dirt.

The mystic farmer fashioned a rod from a branch he found on the property. With it he started walking in search of the water source. At a point he found indications of water, but told the young man he wanted to find the place where the two underground rivers met. There is where the well would be dug and a stronger water force could be found.

The young man was a bit skeptical but he stayed in the background, letting this walking encyclopedia of Paradise and Inferno go about his work. When the farmer found the confluence of the two rivers he brought out a little pendulum. “Ecco”, he exclaimed, he had found the spot. He then told the young man that he would find water at eighteen meters. The young man asked him how much he wanted for his service, but the old man told him to drill first and if the water was found he would be back with his bill.

To drill for water is expensive. But the people who do such things were summoned and started right up. The deeper one drills the more expensive the job is. But eighteen meters was not so harsh. As they neared ten meters, the workmen thought they hit some kind of hard mineral. But after a time they moved on. Past fifteen, to twenty meters. Still no water. Deeper, to thirty, forty, fifty meters. Nothing. An hour or so later they found what they were looking for. As they hit the water there came a sound out of the bowels of earth that could have been from Hell. Deep and haunting was the rumble and silence for a brief moment. Then all Hell broke loose and a force of water shot twenty meters into the air. There was no way to stop the water until the workmen came back to cap it the next morning. When they returned to finish the work, all of the property had been flooded. They indeed had found the joining of the two rivers, not at eighteen meters but at eighty.

When the farmer came around to collect his fee, he was apologetic and didn’t want to accept any money. He felt bad that he had misled the young man and made him drill deeper than he had divined. The young man persuaded the old man to accept his fee, and asked the old man how much it would be. The farmer explained that he had expenses and had to keep his old farm running and had to keep food on the table. This talent that he had was a way for him to subsist. The young man started getting nervous, thinking this was going to cost more than he had imagined or allocated. When the old man asked him for 250 Euros, the wise young man wrote him out a check for 1,000 Euros. Because the old man had miscalculated the depth by four times, the young man also miscalculated by four times when he paid the fee. It seemed a fitting way to repay the man for his “mistake”.

Now the property still carries the Italian name “Re-dried”, but the property has water year round. Swimming pools dot the property and the vines bear luscious fruit which become delicious wines.

If you ever visit Tuscany and are in the area of Greve, please do not hesitate to visit this property. This is a true story and the estate accepts visits off the street. Email me and I will send you the information, when you want to go there.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

5 Days, 4 Cities, 3 Hotels & 3,700 Miles

The Empire State Building @ 3AM

What a week this has been. The wine trail has ventured from Dallas, Texas to New York and back to Dallas in 24 hours. Then, a day in Dallas for a trade tasting and a sold-out dinner for 61. Get up the next morning and drive to Houston for a trade tasting and a dinner for the distributor managers. Get up the next morning and drive to Austin for a trade luncheon and a final dinner with the Italian winemakers. And get up the next morning, drive to Dallas for another event a holiday party for the Texas office of the company I work for.

This morning I awoke from a night of strange dreams. I remember two parts. The first part was me floating over a large body of water, tracing the path of giant luxury liners from above with my finger. Sharks were swimming in the sea and when I flew too low they tried to lure me into their jaws of death. The other part of the dream had to do with going somewhere. I was glad to be home and happier to wake myself up from that confusion of a dream. Probably meant to make me feel not so regretful of the travel.

And I’m not. This week has been a week of stories to write about. I have met some very nice folks, the young Italian wine community who are taking the reins from the older generation. That is a good thing to see.

Would you buy a Bonzarone from this man?

New York
The tasting at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square was to recognize the producers of the import company, Vias, and their 25 years of business in the U.S. Vias is a confluence of Americans and Italians that has put together some very nice properties to bring here. It is run like an Italian company, which is to say, there is always a little bit of improvisation. It’s quirky, but it seems to work for them. There are smaller importers who probably look at Vias like they are some kind of middle-of-the-road company. But I sense there is still a good amount of passion for the little, artisanal winemakers. When Northwest manager Chris Zimmerman mans a booth with wines named the Lambrusco Grasparossa, Pignoletto and Bonzarone there is an indication that the flame still burns brightly.

Look Ma, no wrinkles

Blogger ConfluenceAs I wrote earlier last week saw a coming together of some of the bright lights of wine bloggerdom. Alice and Keith were there and it was a moment to actually talk, not type, to each other. I will probably come back to the NY apartment in May for a week, so we can properly taste wine and maybe even share some ideas.

I'll have a glass of Adelmo Rosso, please

Un Quartino
Back in Dallas, we had two events, both at Jimmy’s. How I wish every town had a Jimmy’s. Here’s a place where the proprietors want only Italian wine and are not afraid to put them on the shelf. Owner Paul DiCarlo hosted the winemakers for a trade event that was packed for three hours. Folks like Chef Sharon Hage from York Street showed up, Charlie Palmer sommeliers Drew Hendricks and Brandan Kelley made an appearance, as did blogger David Anderson and his Italian wife Rafaella.

The spawning migration of the Anjou Pears

And when it was over, Paul & Co. turned the room around in an hour and set it up for 61 people. Chef Lisa Balliet prepared a wonderful meal and the eight wineries had each a wine in the meal. The meal went for three hours and all but one person stuck around for the whole event. The pears for the dessert were a welcome sight at the end of a large meal. Good idea, fruit for dessert. Well done, all.

Houston, we have lift-off
After a cold front moved on (the one that was supposed to cripple the Northeast?) and an early morning drive to Houston, I met up with the winemakers at Catalan. Sommelier Antonio Gianola and Chef Chris Shepherd hosted the event, which was classy and well paced. Blogger Tracie B joined us. One winemaker, Thomas Romanelli of Riseccoli, remarked that he thought she was a very good palate. Tracie has come back to Texas, perhaps to immerse herself in the wine world. We will see. She speaks Italian very well; even if some of the Northern Italians think she does it with a Neapolitan accent.

Afterwards, a not so short dinner with the distributors managers at a local Italian place. And though some of the winemakers were starting to get restless, I convinced the young ones to go have a drink and meet up with Tracie and her friend Talina to see some belly-dancing.

Italians can sometimes be reticent about new experiences. But once they get into the soup they mix in well.

Austin – T.G.I.F.Again, after a late night I rose and drove through rain and fog to Austin. There would only be one official event, a two hour tasting and lunch at Zoot. This one was well attended by most of the wine cognoscenti of Austin, folks like Austin Wine Merchant’s John Roenigk , wine merchant and blogger Greg Randle, friend Chuck Huffaker, sommelier Devon Broglie and many more friends and colleagues. The distributor representatives from Austin and San Antonio also came.

Who says Barolo is King?

Austin was cold and wet, but the vibe is always welcoming. People just “get” Italian wine in Austin. Nice finale.

Later that evening we took the Italians for BBQ and beer. What a trip, all of us Contadina and Count alike, gnawing on bones and popping jalapenos. Meat lovers, these Italians are. And Texas can put out a spread of meat.

Meat brings everyone together

Saturday Morning, we did our farewells, and “See you at Vinitaly” and we all spread our wings and headed home. So after 5 Days, 4 Cities, 3 Hotels & 3,700 Miles, I am home in my cocoon and reflecting on the past week.

The young people are embracing this wine business both in Italy and in America. They are smarter, they speak each others language, and within this next generation we’ll see a further evolution of the appreciation of Italian wine and culture in these here United States. Stay tuned.

Today's mixed-up youth: Tracie, Talina and the 2 Luca's

Pictures from the tour HERE

Friday, January 18, 2008

If It's Friday This Must Be Austin

Monday and Tuesday-New York. Wednesday-Dallas. Thursday-Houston. Friday-Austin, here we come. Eight winemakers-Four cities. Planes, cabs, driving across Texas, wine events, dinners and even a little belly dancing. We've had wines and their young winemakers, from all across Italy. And we've run into wine bloggers all across the country. More on that later. It's very late and very tired are we. So enjoy the pictures that follow the jump and we'll tell their stories later.

Dallas Tasting with the winemakers

Working very HARD

Houston Tasting with the winemakers
Belly Dancing with the winemakers

"Working" very HARD

The wineries and their ambassadors:
Meri Tessari from
Luca Ghione from
Luca Fontana from
Gualtiero and Anna Ghezzi from
Thomas Faure Romanelli from
Natalino Crognaletti from
Fattoria San Lorenzo
Aldo Vacca from
Produttori del Barbaresco

The bloggers:
Alice Feiring of Veritas in Vino
Keith Beavers of
East Village Wine GeekDavid Anderson of Italian's Insight to Travel Italy
Tracie B of
My Life Italian (on hiatus)
Greg Randle of
Good Taste Report

& Talina Grimes - The Belly Dancer~Teacher

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