Sunday, June 29, 2008

We Don't Call it Terroir in Texas

Looks like this is shaping up to be a Staycation-Summer here in Texas and that ain’t all that bad. At least we have real good red meat and long highways that take us into interesting places along the wine trail. It’s airplane (and bus and train) free and yes there’s a little work involved, a lot of sun and plenty of family and friends. Life is good. Witness one of the wonders of Texas, our group’s Terroir-child Gia, who is just about as happy with the Texas dirt as the vines and all the rest of the stuff that inhabits this crazy-wonderful state.

Blanco Texas is somewhere between Austin and San Antonio and in the summer, there’s always a little river rolling and a hillside to set upon and let the breeze cool one off. A little wine, and a little more wine and it isn’t too bad. Sure it isn’t Ischia or Lago di Como, but it is the life we have chosen.

After a Friday night marathon of restaurant visitations with “those who review”, whereupon we had sashimi for apps, pizza and mussels for secondi and gelato for dolce, I got up at 4:30 AM to make the trek to the Texas Hill Country. Around 9 AM I rolled into Austin to pick up the IWD, where she had a perfect espresso waiting for me. A block away we stopped at the Taco Shack for a prima colazione, one Espresso and two breakfast tacos later we headed for Blanco. It was shaping up to be one of those perfectly beautiful sky-full-of-Texas days. Hours later I’d be walking the vineyards with Giulio and we both remarked on the unbelievable quality of the Texas sky. Something about there’s always a cloud or two in the sky but the sun was always shining.

As we rolled into Stout Vineyards, there was a whole bunch of folks getting after the nets which were being put over the Syrah vineyard to protect the fruit from the birds. We had to do it this weekend, ‘cause Guy is heading to Washington D.C. for an Under the Texas Winemaking Tent event, on the National Mall during the July 4 week. He’s giving a talk about Texas terroir. Like Guy says, “We don't call it terroir in Texas, we call it dirt.”

The birds were angry and I caught a couple of the crazy ones dive bombing the vines, even though the grapes were a ways off from good eating. Actually, in this vineyard, harvest is looking to be around August 10-10 at this point. A good five weeks. Eight year old vines on caliche and all kinds of tough soil, good ventilation, great sun, but on those 4 acres maybe 2-3 tons a fruit will be delivered to the winery. A lot of work, but a lot more love. This is the love child of Mast Somm, Guy Stout, who is Texan through and through. He was busy that day unrolling bird netting and cleaning out irrigation lines, handing out clothes pins and watermelon.

Smile, Devon, look like you're enjoying it.

Our goal that day was to secure all the vineyards with the netting to protect the fruit from the birds. It was hot work with a lot of crouching and bending over. I am not a farmer and whenever I go into the vineyards I gain a lot of respect for those who toil in the fields. It’s punishing work. I am sore in places I forgot existed in my body.

No Ma, it isnt Gitmo

Yeah, this is kind of a momma-mia blog today, but hey, sometimes the wine god takes us into their hands and we are merely their slaves, building their pyramids and in return be rewarded with friendship, good wine, conversation, more wine, food and more food, a soft place to sit and with a little luck a cool breeze when it is all said and done.

Two thirds-way through the work a kind gent brought us some Chicken and Brisket from Riley’s Bar-B-Q in Blanco. Giulio and his wife Stacie brought an amazing Macedonia (fruit salad) and a brand spanking new rose from the Maremma from the Tenuta la Badiola estate. This was a wine that Alain Ducasse, chef at accompanying restaurant and spa L’Andana, asked the winery to make to go with his food served at the restaurant. This rosato called Acquagiusto. Italian rose from the Maremma, it doesn’t get any better.

Giulio in Vintage Polo Seersucker with the Maremma Rosato

Back to the vines, nothing like a little wine, some Bar-B-Q and watermelon to get one ready to go back to work. Wrong. I was wrangling for a nap, but no slacker am I, or my colleagues. So a few more hours and the job was done. The vineyard was wrapped up like a Christmas present.

Now we could unwind and have fun.

Guy has a funky barn and extended patio, more like a shed, but it works just fine. Devon Broglie from Whole Foods brought some vino and Giulio brought some Dolcetto and Barbera. Guy had a ton of NZ wines and other assorted outcroppings from some discarded warehouse. Tracie brought a Verduzzo tradizionale from Friuli and I gathered a few specimens. Anibal Calcagno of Brenner's Steakhouse was part of the party, a young somm from Houston who took notes and was too polite to correct one of my more erroneous assertions. We were rolling into the comfy padded chairs under the shed in the breeze. Life is good.

Master-Somm Farmer-John Guy and Italian Blogger-Principessa Tracie

Baby Gia entertained us with her little girl antics. Everyone’s child should be a Gia, a happy to be there soul. Love that little one, thanks momma Stacie and poppa Giulio for bringing her with ya.

What else is there to say? A long night that ended with Canadian ice wine somewhere just shy of 2 AM. Almost 24 hours nonstop.

Driving home today from Austin, I was fueld on espresso ( the Taco Shack was closed on Sunday) but it was alright ma. I just set my sights on Big D and the pool in the backyard. Somewhere along the late afternoon I made it into the cool waters, where my little piece of Texas sky was waiting for me.

Sitting here now back home listening to John Fahey strum his guitar, all of Texas is ripe with tomatoes, melons and soon, figs and grapes. This ain't such a bad place. It beats sitting on a slow train.

Isn't that just the prettiest little baby girl you ever did see?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lessons From Our French Cousins

Texas is very much like France, in that it is of similar size and very independent thinking. California and Italy share similarities in land mass, climate and lifestyles. Nothing exact, but some parallels to think about.

Tonight, after a wonderful outdoor concert by the lake, I decided to pose questions to an Italian who is very adept at getting to the French people and obtaining what she wants, to give us some insights into their way and their successes. And quite possibly, how we can learn from our French cousins, things that can make us stronger and more nimble in today’s changing world. Of course, the answers come from the same place as the questions.

Q. Carla, you have adopted France and French ways. In fact you have married the most powerful French man in our time. Can you give us some insights as to how the French mind works and how we as Italians could approach the world in this new time, in ways that would be relevant and appropriate?

A. First, there are more similarities than differences. The macro view is to tear it apart and see how different we are. But if you look at how the two countries live, we are much more alike than not. We enjoy fresh food, prepared in a simple and clean manner. We like our wines fresh and unadulterated with not too much alcohol or wood. We like our clothes fashionable but well made and in a timeless manner. And of course we both are passionate and obsessed with living life with all seriousness and devotion.

Q. Lets talk about the wine. France has a long tradition of winemaking that is famous all over the world. So does Italy. What can Italy learn from their neighbors?

A. For one they should keep their private business behind closed doors. Both countries have a saying that goes like this: If it is meant to be done in the bedroom, then it should be kept behind the bedroom doors. There are private passions that shouldn’t be paraded around for the world to see and judge.

Q. How so?

A. Lets take wine scandals. There are laws and then there are those who think they can make something better than the law will allow. This is all a matter of opinion, unless the aspect of safety enters into the discussion. But when Bordeaux has a conflict, they discuss it in chambers and seek to fight it out, hammer out the points and come to a compromise. It isn’t perfect, but after all the discussion, there is consensus. They arrive at a solution.

Q. And Italy differs in which way?

A. Italy treats these matters like an opera, like a public forum, not realizing that their image, the perception, is altered and sometimes to the detriment of the overall goal of the community.

Q. France is struggling though, recently, with dock strikes and work stoppages. Right now as we speak in the port of Marseilles, there are 29 oil tankers prevented from entering the port. How much more public than that can one be?

A. I cannot speak for the politic, except to say the workers are striking to protest privatization, the inevitability of the modern global world economy. That is more a problem of short sightedness and also the French aspect of pater-familias, whereby the state takes care of their citizens. In the US I believe they call that entitlement programs, and that is no longer economically viable. But it is human nature to try and get as much as one can for as little as they are willing to pay for it. The economies of the world now make that kind of attitude and position obsolete.

Q. That’s a pretty heavy statement from the first lady.

A. One thing the French have long realized is that the world is a stage and to be players on it one must take risks. The Italians do as well, but is usually for a shorter term goal, at least in recent history. But like Catherine di Medici and Napoleon Buonaparte, who both had roots in Italy but shaped so much of the modern history of France, the French understand borrowing and adapting other notions into their culture to make it better and brighter. And then to claim it as their own invention. That’s why they do so well with wine; they understand the art of self promotion.

Q. Restaurants in the US claim to be French or Continental and then you go inside and they have pasta and simple fish dishes and everything seems more Italian than what is proffered.

A. Also in France. Robuchon in Paris makes a wonderful Carbonara, and Savoy has a chicken that Tuscan has inspired. Gagnaire, well he is still very French, but his food is not without their Italian influence and sensibility in terms of bright and simple perfection.

Q. One last question. Where are you planning on going this year for vacation?

A. As you know last year the vacation was in America. But this year I am hoping for a little time back in Italy, perhaps an island like Panarea or Sardegna. My friend Carol Bouquet has a nice place on Pantelleria and Giorgio (Armani) is also there in August. I also like the Isola del Giglio. But Corsica is also being considered, especially since that region is so sensitive and suffers from their loss of identity with France. But we shall see.

Q. So we won’t see you in Texas this year?

A. Not in the summer, but after the elections, you never know. We shall just have to see.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bursting the Bubble

A little less than a year ago I wrote this post, about a friend of mine who was mentoring wealthy friends in his neighborhood on how to live. Since then, some of those people who live in that neighborhood (in Dallas it’s called “the Bubble”) have had to readjust their lives somewhat. Sell a Ferrari or two, downsize to a Maserati and a Land Rover. Move from their 12,000 square feet home to a smaller 8,000 size. Maybe only a month in Aspen in the summer, rather than the whole season. Or opting out of spending August in Sardegna to scale down to a few weeks in the yacht off Portofino. Yes, life is rough for the alto-borghese, here in gli Stati Uniti.

Several folks have asked me to guide them in the appreciation of wine, life and things Italian. They have asked me to set them up in Sicily and Sardegna this summer. They are cruising in mega-yachts that offer the comfort of things recognizable while in a world they aren’t so familiar with. Why even go to Italy?

I find it to be a futile exercise; why not stay home? The money is familiar, the language is recognizable, the food doesn’t challenge one’s idea of what food should be, and there are always inexpensive fruity wines from out West that they can stock up, from their local big box. What more could one ask for? That’s what we have been fighting all these wars for in the last hundred or so years, so we could protect our way of life.

Well, that bubble is bursting, big time. Everywhere you look, the paradigm is shifting. Everything is changing. Everything.

Where do we start?

Let’s take simple wine, everyday stuff. On another wine blog, this one with a post about a wine that costs less than 3 bucks, check out the comments. It’s pretty amazing what people can talk themselves into.

Saturday we had a family reunion at a park in central Texas and the rule was no glass. So like a rule-abiding citizen, I brought this box wine. When I came up to the event, some of the folks thankfully had some Giuseppe Cortese wines from Italy (part of the family has the name Cortese). I felt a bit of a fool hauling my box wine. Then I saw jugs of wine that I took for Carlo Rossi. Actually, some of the family just re-used the bottles for their home made sweet red and slightly-drier rosé. The rosé was refreshing and simple.

Back to the box wine. In the shade of 95° F weather, it satisfied the need for a liquid to go with the Italian-style baked chicken. I wasn't embarrassed to say I liked it in that moment, or did I talk myself into it?

Driving the car downhill and slipping it into neutral, why not? At the bottom of the hill there’s the inevitable red light. Who needs a Ferrari in this kind of time? You’ll get home at any rate. Or the doctor will call you up and interrupt the plans you’ve made for your life with the news that you have brain cancer. And you must shift gears, just like that.

Last night, while a dear old friend was breathing his last breaths I was lying in the pool staring up at the sky. My sparrow hawk family was foraging for dinner for their fledglings. The bubble is a circle in three dimensions, and the circle of life continues.

So while we try to find a wine to like for under $15 the stuff of life passes me by, as I shift down to 60 and head for the slow lane of life. There’s just too much going on to worry about a fuel surcharge or a foolish brother trying to wrestle money from his newly widowed mom.

Yesterday I decided to take a walk around lunchtime. I was escaping the cube farm, which was cold enough to force me out into the Texas heat. I went out walking, when colleagues passed by me coming back from lunch. Moments later, one of them called. “Is everything alright?” “Yes, I’m okay, just trying to thaw out from the office.” Maiden voyage in these parts, to actually be walking around, like some kind of modern day Vespucci. Breaking out of the bubble.

People are telling me they have to downsize from three homes to two, from a Ferrari to a Maserati. But on the trail I am seeing people who are trying to decide if they should buy food or gas. One person told me they could buy a foot long from Subway for $5 everyday, and eat it for lunch and dinner, and they could exist with a budget of $150 a month for food.

In El Paso and Las Vegas the gas stations are restricting purchases to $50 and $75 per transaction. Sounds like rationing to me. $75 to fill up a truck, half the monthly food budget for the new paradigm. Scary stuff. And we’re worrying about touring a winery in Sicily or Sardegna with some psycho-pop culture guru? Is that "living a life that is more in tune with your "authentic" self (who you were created to be) or your "fictional" self (who the world has told you to be)?"

Maybe it’s a little like the lawn chair man, tying helium-filled balloons to his chair, and when he is ready to come back down to earth, he bursts them as he needs to. So you sell a Mercedes or a condo in Florida and come back down to earth. You go to Wal-Mart and buy some Chardonnay for under $3 or you head to your local Piggly-Wiggly for boxes of chicken and chardonnay. The paradigm is shifting. So are the currents. Hang on to your bubble before the winds of change blow it away.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Tank of Gas

Clark's Outpost ~ Tioga, Texas ~ Hugo's hands, 93 years
young and still building Model-T's, 30 hours a week.

During the off hours, we've covered a lot of ground this past week, visiting relatives, seeing sights and uncovering a story or two. A little visual lagniappe for Sunday, give everyone a little break from the verbal meanderings; let you all get caught up.

A mini waltz across Texas, on a tank of gas, from Tioga to Strawn to Temple and back. The cool pool awaits, so you all sit in your rooms and stare at the screen or come out, as it pleases you. I’m heading for my back yard, and a little sun and silence. Happy summer, y'all.

Berry picking in Aubrey

Country "Guest House"

The Spider's Lair

Mary's Cafe ~ Strawn, Texas ~ Ray Price concert announcement and oyster warning (the only oysters served here are the Rocky Mountain kind)

Freshly Fried Chicken Livers ~ West Texas fois gras

Chicken Fried Steak done the right way, pounded and skilleted up, not deep fried; with a side of real Texas pomme frites and okra

High Noon in West Texas for the Italian Wine Guy

Something you'll never see in New York City

Chinese revival mansion in Temple, Texas

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Gondolas? We don't need no stinkin' gondolas

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Tex-Mex of Tarantella

"You heard me, get me some chicken fried steak, frito pie and
fried chicken livers over here, on the double. You got it?"

Mixed bag from a crazy week. Where to start? Frank Bruni writes in the NYT about Italian food being the Tex-Mex of Europe. I just wish sometimes that Italian in America was as good as some of the Tex-Mex I’ve had here at base camp. Don’t get me started.

While we’re on the NYT blog watch, something Eric Asimov said the other day struck me: “the dance that comes of shooting oneself in the foot.” He was referring to, who else? The Montalcinisti’s.

All week the spiders in my house have been attacking me in my sleep. I am covered with spider bites. My skin has been crawling for days.

So we have Tex-Mex, Italian, dancing, shooting and spiders; I sense a theme here.

Earlier in the week I was at lunch with my Italian wine loving friend, Paul. We were at a little place in our neighborhood, York Street, talking about wine and food. Tasting a few wines, more for pleasure than anything. At the table behind me an Italian wine importer is chatting up his rep. He goes off on a property in Umbria and the consultant, Riccardo Cotarella, and how all his wines are overblown and why does he make Sangiovese taste like Zinfandel and why, oh why does he make Merlot? It reminded me of someone who was nega-ranting about Alice Feiring’s book ( or her position ) on a blog somewhere. I wanted to ask them all, “So you think you have a better idea? Then present it, get it out there and see what kind of mileage you can get from your point of view.” I know Cotarella is working to break away from the way he is perceived, we’ve talked about it. It’s like an artist that gets pigeonholed for a certain style and then, bam, he can only be a cubist or a surrealist or an abstract expressionist. Or a naturalist or a pure-wine Euro-loving Cali-hating effete snob. I want to say to these angry ones, have you ever picked up the phone and called these people? Or how about an email? Why not engage them in a dialogue? Why does everything have to be High Noon in this culture?

Look, the young importer seems to have a nice portfolio and I’m sure he is repping good people who are committed to their land. But is Cotarella any less committed to his evolution because he has found a thread of success that brings a lot of people to Italian wine? Quit knocking it. It’s cursing the darkness; it’s a mobius strip that will only drive you nuts.

Another day I’m in my kitchen with a bunch of wine and food folks with this cat from Copia and he’s in the basement mixing up the medicine and all of a sudden we’re drinking Riesling with lamb, Chateauneuf du Pape with seafood stew, asparagus with Napa cab and some fruit compote with a maderized 1971 Clos Saint Denise from Bertagna and you know what? Maybe it’s bunko, but everything worked. Even the Burgundy came back from the brink.

Ok, so maybe the dude knows how to do group hypnosis and we all were under his temporary spell, so he could schlep his secret sauce. The point is, there is always another way to look at things, without applying some dogma to it. Just being with it, observing it, thinking a little about it, maybe letting yourself be changed by it and moving on down the road to the next scenario that the future has in store for us. Huh?

Right now 40% of restaurant business in the US is take out, so that means they aren’t selling wine to those customers. The restaurant business is in the tanks. I was in a restaurant last night with a friend and he gets a call from a client wanting about 20 or so bottles of wine. The fellow couldn’t have planned his business a little better? And now he expect the salesman to stop everything he is doing so he can waste time and gas on a losing proposition to deliver this poor-planner his pittance of Pinot. And then the restaurateur wonders why his business is doing so badly?

Another restaurateur can't buy wine because he has to decide whether he should pay his wine bill or the note on his Mercedes. Of course, image is everything, so he stiffs the wholesaler. Again. And then someone like that will threaten the big suppliers if they don’t come in and spend money in the place. This whole thing this week is like watching a bunch of rats drowning from broken levees and in turn they start chewing off the arms of their fellow rats so that can have something to float on. Bizarre week in flyover country.

A comment on the state of the importer. Business is slow and people in Italy have got to know there is a slowdown in America. But hey, July is coming and then August and then Ferragosto, so we need to tidy up the office, get the orders in, so we can get on with our vacations.

I called a Brunello producer today. The last time I called him he was in India and said he’d call me back. Well, he must have forgotten. So I called and called and called again. Finally I reached him; he was in some ex-Soviet satellite city doing a winemaker dinner. I ask him how his Brunello is going. He says to me, “everything is Ok, everything is OK, just order the wine, Parker just gave it a 91.” We've got Toscana IGT's that Sir Bob gave 90's to and they are 1/3 the price of Brunello. And they're sitting in warehouses, moving slowly. So, how about instead, Parker giving me a gas card, something I can use?

I told him I wanted to know how his certification is going. I guess he is too busy spending time to develop the emerging economies to backtrack to the American circus. Just let Parker rate it and everything will be OK? NO-K.

Have you heard of the word staycation? That’s when you stay at home because it’s too expensive or you don’t want the hassle of traveling in these times. And more people are doing that. It’s only a small step before wine lovers do the same with wines. Hello Italian winemakers, marketers, owners, enologos and everyone else who is looking to the largest economy in the world for their wines: we do not want to be treated like we are total fools. Yes our demand for more than our share of the world’s energy is ludicrous. Yes we are fatted calves. But you are feeding from the trough and it’s got a shaky leg.

That same leg that the foot dangles from got shot by its owner, on account of we too, like the winemakers in Tuscany, and people all over the world, are still working this being human thing out. We are still trying to find our somewhereness on this blue orb. Do you or don’t you wanna dance?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Intervista nel Futuro

From the 23rd Century, near a place in Tuscaremma, called Montalcinapaia.

Q. Montalcinapaia has changed, so it seems. What is the most important change, in your opinion, in wine in the last 200 years?
A. For one, we are a dry area, very arid now. Ever since the Wind War of 2059-69, this area has relied more on natural species for their survival skills than for their elegance. But we have found out that if we work in this minimal environment, we can coax a lot out of the soil.

Q. Tell us in the past a little about the wine you are making in your time?

A. Interesting that you would ask, because right now we are seeing an interest in bringing back Sangiovosso to the vineyards. After LVMH's Castello Banfi was leveled by a tornado ( see picture) and the community decided to establish a wind farm on the property once owned by Banfi, Antinori and Argiano, the area had been left to go wild. The earthquake cycle of 2101-12 also contributed to re-arranging the area. The whole time we had stories of the robots who worked on the windmills telling us about a vine that would grow up on the posts of the giant rotors. But because the area is so hot we rarely send humans out to investigate in the spring and the summer.
Anyway, we have been making wine from Frappatocino and Nero D’Avellino, because they seemed more suitable for the region. But we are investigating these wild vines from around the ruins of LVMH's Banfi property.

Q. Any other developments in the past 200 years or so?

A. This area now has been active in growing the blue Agave. We can concentrate the spirit and use it sparingly. Since we learned that drinking more than 2 glasses a day of red wine was harmful, in the 22nd century, we stepped back from overproducing wine and have sought to supplement our farming and our diet with more appropriate products.

Q. Agave, that was pretty drastic wasn’t it, getting a succulent from Central America to replace a large part of your wine production?
A. You mean like the tomato and the potato? We were searching for sustainable spirits and agave was best suited to our world. We were very fortunate that the Sicilian grapes did well in Tuscany and that we were able to save them before Southern Italy was forever altered.

Q. Back in 2000, there was a lot of talk about the so called International varieties, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, that kind of thing. What has happened to them in your world?

A. When the Chaîne des Puys came back to life and erupted in 2076 in France, that changed everything for Bordeaux and Burgundy. And then 10 years later when Duppacher Weiher spewed, that brought Germany to their knees. We have actually been very lucky in Central Italy. Southern Italy, that is another story. What happened though was that winemakers and farmers were looking for crops to grow that were self sustaining and didn’t need fertilizers and little water.

Q. And what role does science play in winemaking these days?

A. It’s very important. Now we need ways to help the plant work on their own and since enology met nanology it has been a great boost. Now we can develop the grapes, via nanology, to notify the winery when they are ready to be harvested. We harvest berry by berry and so our yields have not really suffered. But because we are now a world population of 63 billion, the demand is still great. Another development is the birth of new fruits that we can harvest in space, the extra-terroir-estrial varieties, like Vitus Veronellus and Vitus Iacuccius. These have been heaven sent. The best (and now, the only) Riesling comes from a space station that circles the moons of Venus, from a variety called Vitus Theisus-Shiroshekar.

Q.What about the idea of alcohol in culture and society?

A. What a strange question. I'm not sure I understand the context. With the world being almost 2/3 Hinduslam and meat eating and alcohol seen as part of a life style for the privileged, this has had some social repercussions. Getting around on the land hover vehicles now is seen as a quaint but particulare’ amusement for the Gigglionaires. But really now alcohol isn’t taboo with the eastern religions, it’s more a problem that the governments still try and tax and regulate it, to fund their space colonization programs.

Q. If I could have brought one thing from 2008 for you, what would you have wanted?

A. Water.

Q. If I could give you information from 2008, what would you want to know?

A. Nothing really. We have survived the Wind War, the Tornadic era and we have skirted the Volcanic era. We have been very fortunate. But there is one mystery you might be able to clear up for us. We have these ancient bottles of wine, from the 2003, that we found at the estates where the wind farms now are. One was called Brunello and the other was called Duemilatre. Could you please tell us what those wines were?

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