Sunday, August 31, 2008

Suffering ~ Suffolk Style

Commentary by Beatrice Russo

Friday Aug 29 – 8:00 PM
Once again, the old man, IWG, has left me in charge. What an idiot! He knows there are some old bottles, standing up in his wine room, which are pretty close to my birth year. I have already texted my friend down south to see if she wants to come up and raid the room. I even saw a bunch of old Brunellos from her birth year, 1975. I think they’re both ready.

So he goes and abandons ship, says this month really kicked him in the butt, gotta get away, sun and water and wine and friends. OK, so go, nobody reads your damn blog anyway, get on down the road, Viejo, we can handle it around here for a few days wi-chout-cha.

I bet you’re all dying to know, what’s up with the “intern?” I have long ago given up that title, even though IWG still thinks of me as his find. I am so not part of his world anymore, I’ve learned all his mysteries, and I gotta tell you, when he’s running around town saying “ I gotta get more cowbells,” I think we should “make the call", if you know what I mean.

Speaking of running around, IWG seems to think he has everybody fooled into thinking I am some figment of his imagination. He says he already set it up on some older post, just so nobody would offer me a job or a column or book deal. Well, ask the old man’s Sicilian Godfather. Every time I go over there to take him some Googootz or pomodorini from my garden, he livens up a bit. Doesn’t seem to think he’s imagining me. I don’t know why IWG thinks he can claim me as his own. Nobody owns Bea.

Saturday Aug 30 – 11:00 AMI got a text from IWG last night when he landed. I didn't pay any attention to it till now, Great, what’s for lunch and how well will it go with that last bottle of 1990 Cristal that we be chillin’ up?

He wants to talk, says he had a breakthrough. Just another latent and left-behind mid-life crisis that is haunting his oh-so never-will-be-middle-aged keister again. Look it up, he used it. Said one of his friends in the Hamptons uses it. There are very few who are worse name droppers than IWG.

Now he is torn, ‘cause he gets this call trying to bribe him to come into the city for a tasting of old wines , journalists just back from their trips, old Italian wines, ready to go. Spume-man is back in SF and the grand poobah nephew of the great sci-fi guy, well he’s still M.I.A. And that pretty well much cover all his friends. At least the ones he think he’s got left, if you don’t include those whack jobs out in Albany and Nyack.

“No, not those,” he says. “Big ones, really, really big ones. Influential in their own circles. Critics, auction houses, European folk.” Ok, so what? Go.

He said he felt like he was abandoning his hosts on the “island”. Give me a break, they’d love to see him go (I can’t believe he’s gonna let this post stay up).

I left him at that. The bubbly was ready and we had figured out how to make Croque Monsieur with some ancient Fontina and Speck he brought back from his last trip. That should go down real good with it. Now, let’s see where did he put the SPF30? The sun is high and bright.

Why is it something like a 1937 Carmignano so interesting? It’s old, like IWG, that must be it. Hell, I’m digging into old, right here in the wine room; have that 1975 Lisini Brunello lined up and am looking at a 1979 Schloss Schönborn Erbacher Marcobrunn Riesling Spätlese for sometime après swim and sol. Let IWG suffer in Suffolk, tonight friends will come over and we will par-tay.

Sunday Aug 31 – 9:30 AMI told him to not call me before 10. He said he waited until 10:30. Technically, for him, he was right. But I wasn’t ready to hear about his old wine conquests. Our party lasted until 2:30 and some folks crashed around the many beds, while others just split for more private surroundings. I have an aunt of one of the friends who has a cleaning service, he’ll never know. Like he can see anything outside of his own drama? That’s the Mother Lode of Life Theater, boys and girls. Believe me, he’ll never, ever, know.

OK, now he’s all happy, ‘cause he got them to let him take the driver to drive him into town and wait for him, in time to back for some truffle dinner in the Sound. Sounds like he double dipped the elite-class. Good for him.

So it was old Italian for lunch and old French wine for dinner. And there’s still Monday, which he says, in honor of the holiday, will be a tasting of old California wines. I hate him, truly, truly despise every bone in his body. Which is growing ever larger by the day.

Check this out and puke with me ~ His Italian lunch:

1979 Salice Salentino - Malfatti
1978 Etna Rosso - Torrepalino
1976 Morellino Di Scansano - Francheschini

1982 Le Pergola Torte
1979 Tignanello
1979 Sassicaia

1969 Barbaresco Riserve Speciale - Calissanp
1968 Monfortino Riserva - G.Conterno
1961 Chambave Rouge - Ezio Voyay

1937 Carmignano Capezzana

1936 Est !Est!!Est !!! Amabile – Lampari

His Majesty's Truffle dinner and French wine menu:

1966 Margaux
1966 Cheval Blanc
1964 Mouton Rothschild
1962 Petrus
1959 Ausone

1953 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Bonnes Mares ( magnum)
1928 and 1929 d'Yquem.

I’m so glad we drank his freekin' 1990 Cristal, sister.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Reorganizing Italy ~ Part 2

Back to business. The streets have been pretty quiet in these times, so the times call for special operations. I called up Joey the Weasel and told him to meet me at the usual place, bring his young assistant. We were going in. Like Garibaldi, earlier in the morning I liberated Sicily, starting in Marsala. We weren’t going to let some of the greatest wine sit smoldering in an obscure corner. It took an unusual maneuver, but we got ‘em freed up. On to the mainland.

There’s been an iniquity of understanding in the world of Italian white wines, so we worked our way down the rows starting with Liguria and Umbria. In this particular setting the white wines are all grouped together. It’s not all Pinot Grigio.

Time out. The other day, on this blog, I had a bit of a discussion on the merits of the wine industry from my perspective. This week the mission was to go into a store that had seen a lot of action but had been rendered hither and yon (what is a yon?) and was looking skewed. Wines from everywhere were just mixed up. The act of a re-set is to logically re-order the selection so it makes sense, much like one would organize a wine list. In this case the setting calls for wines arranged by region. No big brain-drain here, just fitting everything in. In this case a smaller, niche company easily could have done the work, or a group of companies working together. I guess business has been so brisk that those folks just couldn’t get around to it. A couple of ‘em straggled in looked around, one of them freaked out and left. Another large company came in with their platoon, looked around ordered food and slipped into the back room. I was hoping they’d want to partake, but I figured they thought I was taking ownership of the task and maybe, just maybe they knew I knew just what to do. In this case, a rising tide does lift all boats and all Ligurian wines need to be together, even if they all come from Neal Rosenthal. Hey, Tony, just keeding.

So Joey the Weasel and his young assistant set about helping me. The young assistant was also busy sending SMS’s to the three people she was simultaneously having conversations and drama with. I guess what we were doing just wasn’t that interesting to a 20 something. Ya think?

But that is the work of the moment and with month end coming, and little or no hope of growing sales, how about a little housecleaning?

We tackled Liguria and Umbria, and Basilicata. Then on to unifying Friuli with Venezia and Giulia along with Collio. So far so good. Abruzzo needed to be found and relocated, Pecorino here we come. Good, that’s done. Lazio, wait on it. Then on to the Alto-Adige, the Pinot Grigio selection and Piemonte. Marche, over by Abruzzo, and we still have to figure out where to put Puglia. That leaves us with Trentino, Emilia-Romagna, Sardegna, Sicily and Calabria. Done. Sin adesso tutto bene. Then there is Tuscany and the Veneto.

Now we had a little problem figuring out how to make Campania get along with Lombardia, but after separating them from each other, we averted a cat fight. Then finally Lazio and Puglia are set. Then the rosatos. There, the whites and the sparkling and the rosatos (the chilled wines) are set. On to the red wines.

This is serious business but it was getting late, so Joey the weasel and his charge d'affaires took off to run a delivery and get her back to a young man waiting. I was alone, save for the gang of guys I thought was waiting in the back room for me to leave. But I was not finished reorganizing Italy.

Like I said, this is S.E.R.I.O.U.S. stuff, because the customer is our lifeline. And if his business is slow, we must do something to help him clean out his inventory, re-work it, help him with the investment and the trust he has put in us to move the wines through to the wine lover.

I figured once I got out of the place the thugs would undo everything I had just done. After all they are also a big company and aren’t all big companies bad to the bone? What I didn’t know was that they had gotten their food and slipped out a few hours before. So while I was guarding Ft. Laramie they were on to Little Big Horn.

No problem, I had a country of red wine to re-settle and unify. I saw first that Tuscany was asunder, and I took to separating Morellino from Vino Nobile. The Super Tuscans and Brunellos were all mixed up and I left ‘em that way for the time being. Just as in real life. Let God sort that out. Or Dr. J. Or Angelo Gaja.

I moved on to getting all the Abruzzo red collected. And then on to Puglia. It’s going well at this point, nice and cool in this section of Italy. Not like the 97°F it is outside and the 120°F it is in the trunk of my car, where my three Sicilian refugees were huddled. But Marsala can take the heat, yes? That’s what makes it so darn adorable.

Anyway I then took on the Veneto and Piemonte. I have more to do that we didn’t get to that day, but we reorganized Veneto with Valpolicella and Ripasso and Merlot and Refosco. Then on to my pet peeve, the separating of the Barbera D’Alba from the Barbera D’Asti sections. It’s real important, when setting a store, to make sure the shopper can have a clear delineation. Makes it easier for the salesperson on the floor to help guide the shopper. Got the Barberas worked out for the umpteenth jillion time. And then the Dolcetto and the other varieties, Grignolino, Rucche, etc. Even had time to do a little reconnaissance on the big boys, the Amarones and Barolos and Barbarescos, let a Carema find it’s way amongst them (you’re welcome, Tony) and those Nebbiolos that some wine salesperson thought should have been in with the Barberas. Sent them up with their own kind, unified and all real pretty like.

Two days later I went into the section and some knucklehead had already moved a Nebbiolo back with the Dolcettos and mixed up the Barberas. Time out. Again. Most likely, from looking at the wine, it was one of the small niche distributors. You know the ones those bleating-heart blah-gers think are the hope of the free world? Mind you, remember the big guys (us) are the scum bags, the ones fixing the mess, the rising tide that is often mischaracterized as a tsunami. In any event I wish someone knew how to scratch their niche correctly. Again, it isn’t about the size of a company, it’s the intent and the purpose of the individual. Or as Guy Stout likes to say, “It ain’t the wand, it’s the magician.”

Well, I did my best to wave my wand, and now am feeling pretty good. In less than a day we had gone all the way from Marsala to Lombardia, liberating and unifying all things Italian (wine that is). And it’s a good thing. While it lasts. Which will probably be a week or so. In the meantime, I got a date with a lady and a sunset.

Take it away, Bea, it's all yours. The Hamptons are calling.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reorganizing Italy ~ Part 1

Field report from the Italian-American delegation.

In the past few days the happy warriors along the wine trail have been looking for opportunities to make something out the month of August. While our Italian counterparts are bronzing and eating bronzino, those who have not gotten furloughed from their platoon assignments have been skirmishing and planning counter-insurgent acts toward all things regarding Italian wine. Seminars, working with trainees, retail re-sets, reprinting wine lists, you name it, this is the month to plant the winter garden. And while we won’t see the fruits of our labors in the next few weeks, somewhere down the line, it will pay off. In the meantime, this week, several of us decided to go about reorganizing Italy.

Before month’s end, we’re all looking for any opportunities to sell something, even a close-out. Some folks might be waiting for their ship to finally arrive, though this month not much is moving. And if the transport company happens to take the route from Livorno to the New World via Marseilles, those at the end of the line might have a surprise in store. Dock strikes and port blockades will spiral costs for those wines sitting in (hopefully) refrigerated containers. But the clock is ticking. Then again, if you believe everything you read on the blogosphere, the world is coming to an end with the latest round of distributor consolidations. Now, anyone who has read On the Wine Trail in Italy probably knows I work in the industry, and for a large distributor at that. I have heard the company I work for, and the people in it, called scum-bags, evil-empire, dark-force and behemoths. Oh, and mad-wounded elephants, that’s one of my favorites.

We have read, on blogs, bloviated comments such as “consolidation is a sign of weakness,” and referring to consolidation as a byproduct of “fear and scarcity.” And usually this comes from some unspecified workstation in some condescending setting, far from the reality of the streets. More often than not, the blogger has never sold a bottle of wine. But to hear them, they know the ins and outs of the business; they’re better briefed than the bespoke suits on Stockton Street.

Blah-gers also commented recently about the amount wholesale alcohol distributors spend on political causes. A figure of $50 million has been put forth for spending by American wholesalers and their associations for state politicians from 2000 to 2006. What never seems to get mentioned by bloggers – is the charitable spending these companies do. For example, Larry Ruvo, Senior Managing Director of Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, is founder of the Keep Memory Alive Foundation and the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute. Since its inception, Keep Memory Alive has become one of Las Vegas’ most important charitable initiatives and a key player in the nation’s fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Larry has helped raise more than $50 million and recruited leading specialists to become part of this vital project. But what do we hear from bloggerdom? That worn out talking point mantra: large companies are anti-competitive scum-bags.

James Molesworth said this recently on a Wine Spectator forum, “This is the problem with the 'blogosphere'. It's a lazy person's journalism. No one does any real research, but rather they just slap some hyperlinks up and throw a little conjecture at the wall, and presto! you get some hits and traffic..."

Others trivialize by wondering how “the small wineries will fare with increasing competition for attention among the already over worked sales force with even greater expectations of delivery upon them.” Of course none of those bloggers who perform their armchair criticism will ever know how those barmy-mutilated pachyderms will break away from the psychosis of the wine industry, because they are safely ensconced in a bubble of protection from the reality of having to worry about reality.

For those of us who do sell actively, and selectively, whether it is for the Brobdingnagian or the niche companies, it boils down to this: You are a salesperson offering a product to a buyer. You are one person talking to another person, mano-a-mano. It is up to you to engage that person, the buyer, your client, sometimes your friend, into wanting what you have. It doesn’t matter how big and powerful or how small and terrified you are, you have to “sell” that person on you and what you will deliver. That is the great equalizer. This week I saw a young saleperson from a niche company attempt to enter into an exchange with a buyer and she had as much time and opportunity as I did. And was as challenged as the best of us.

Remember me? One of the guys who work for the “scumbags.” Me and my friends for the last quarter of a century, who have forged a family of wine, who take in the younger people like the trainee we had this week, who helped us reorganize Italy. Yeah, we’re really bad people doing bad things. Just ask our customers, our friends and all the families we help support. I have a challenge for those “nattering nabobs of negativity”: Come out of your protective shelters and walk around in the sun, in our shoes, if you have the cogliones. Which I doubt any of you do.

That would mean having to do real work, no business-class treatment, no free-run of the mouth. The road. The service portion of the exam.

Reorganizing Italy Part 2: Next post.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Peaches, Peppers 'n Pesto

Every spot on earth has its place to find a little bounty from the harvest. This year, my back yard has given up figs for the mockingbirds and Hoja Santa for the cheese maker. A farmer has given us several boxes of East Texas peaches and the garden is ready to offer up the Jalapenos to be pickled and the basilico to be made into pesto. The Pequin peppers are a ways off, if we can keep the mockingbirds from harvesting them first. As well, in the winter garden, arugula and finocchio are ready. Today we will be putting up peaches and peppers and making pesto.

My aunt Amelia put up peaches during her life, I still have a few packages in the freezer (she passed away in 1999) but I don’t have the heart to discard them. So we will offer up the new crop to the collection. They smell wonderful; the home has been filled with the aroma of ripe peaches. I feel like I’m living in a bottle of Riesling.

The Jalapenos have been ready for some time; many of them are ripe and red. The bees love their flowers; I wonder what it does to their honey. They also have plenty of basil and mint flowers to keep them busy in my back yard. We have a couple of colonies of Italian bees in the front yard, high away from children with rocks. They keep my yard happy and they seem to be gentle enough for us all to live together in peace.

The basil is in prime shape and so we will transform them into the sauce we will use all year long. Pine nuts are ready, olive oil from Liguria has been summoned to the dance, and the Reggiano-Parmigiano is resigned to its fate of joining forces with the other ingredients to give back joy all year round.

The Hoja Santa fills the whole yard, I never have to plant flowers again, for the towering plants fill the whole yards with a crop that goes to my friendly cheese maker in Deep Ellum and comes back to me in the form of year-round cheese. And there is never any poison or any kind of intervention, except by hand weeding and pulling off the critters that damage the plants. A compost bin is in the works and this little garden is my own way of letting the earth be the earth in its fundamentally perfect way – simply by letting it be and caring for it.

And as for Italy, come va? How are your ancient villages and hillsides doing? When will we see you? Soon, very soon. In the meantime we have our peaches, peppers 'n pesto to keep us occupied.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bad Waiter Dreams

Over the past week I have traveled the equivalent of halfway across the country, never to set foot outside of Texas. In a car, in the heat, in thunderstorms that shook our windows and in the cool afterglow of a cold front.I have slept in different beds in different cities, some better than others, but none as good as the one back home. I have lost my voice, my temper and my way. We have found new friends, new wines and new opportunities. And all through this week the undercurrent has been that no matter how far you travel, you still must start out every morning as though the past never happened. Because that is the way of the street in the wine business. There is always some new buck who thinks you don’t know a thing, and there are the old sods who don’t give a damn. There are managers who are just trying to keep the lights on and could not be as concerned with how Cusumano is spelled or if a wayward Chianti slipped into the New World wine category on their list. They will hate you for pointing it out and fight you for wanting to help them look better if you don’t find a way to make it their idea. And along the way, when the day is done and you put your head on the pillow, when you sleep, these are some of the dreams that could inhabit your sleeping ways.

The Dreams

You’ve been traveling all day across the flatland of Texas going from Dallas to Houston and your mouth is dry. You stop to get a soda and a snack. The bathroom is flooded and a man with a harmonica points you to use the handicapped bathroom down the hall. Along the way a woman walks by with a fresh pie and winks at you. The aroma of the baked peaches stirs memories of a Riesling tasting you had earlier in the week in Austin. You walk into the bathroom and people are there with party hats and noisemakers and a sign that says “Happy 60th Joe.”

You are late for a flight and they take you to a special military plane to get you to your appointment. Along the way, someone tells you to don a parachute and tie a special belt to your waist. A man hands you a bunch of fliers, which look like wine list proposals. You look at them as the plane lunges 1000 feet downward. A young girl in ice skates asks you to hold her hand as she recites her grandmothers’ recipes for spaghetti and meatballs. You grab her and head for the exit looking to escape from the plane which is crashing. As the parachute opens you look up into the folds of it and it looks like the inside of a wicker bottle of Chianti.

You have been walking the streets of a large city all day, talking to customers, looking for sales. In your haste to come to the city you haven’t made a hotel reservation, so you take your suitcase with you. Along the way someone opens it up and buys a white shirt you had folded inside. They ask you if it is Egyptian cotton or American. You tell them “Shenandoah,” and a large African American man comes from the back of the building to escort you to an abandoned tarmac. About 100 yards away is a billboard in white with large black letters, in block print, with the word “Patton”.

You get a call to let you know your appointment will see you in two hours. You are 5 hours away, but you convince a pilot to slip you into his jet and get you there in 90 minutes.

Along the way he says he must fly in a formation for a local air show, but it shouldn’t be a problem as he will make up the time by going faster than the speed of light and going back in time. He does so but you get to the appointment 30 years too soon.

You are walking on a country road in the early morning. The ground is still dewy from a late night rain storm. A woman is cleaning the windows and turns to stare at you. She resembles a woman you once loved but who has aged 30 years beyond your age. She calls out your name and asks to you come over to her. But you just keep walking, picking up a stick and hitting rocks on the ground as the sun rises.

You have your first job as a waiter in a family style restaurant. The first customers are a family who resembles your uncle and aunt and cousins. They ask about vegetarian dishes and you tell them the burger and fries would be a good choice. They ask you if you have an Australian Merlot from Italy and you tell them you have a reserve with a llama on the label. They order the wine and ask you to serve it ala mode.

Photographs by Richard Vesey

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Texsom 2008 ~ Session Notes

There never seems to be enough time for it all. Put a handful of master-somms and an ersatz Italian together and give them 90 minutes to talk about 8 wines? Not enough time for disambiguation. No time for the bang, not even for a whimper. Press on, press on.

There is something exhilarating about being in a room with a set of high energy wine gurus. Rising tide kind of thing. We had two sessions on Italian wines, Italy being a darling of the mutant set of somms currently working their way around the airports and boardrooms of the halls of power in the wine biz. Make no mistake about it folks, the big boys in the industry know what is at stake and they have lined up some of the best and the brightest to sell the message down to the platoon level.

In our sessions, day one (Northern and Central Italy) we had:
Moderator: Brian Cronin MS

Laura DePasquale MS
Brett Zimmerman MS
Larry O'Brien MS
Joe Spellman MS
Alfonso Cevola CSW

Day two (Southern Italy and the islands) we had:
Moderator David Glancy MS

Laura DePasquale MS
Reggie Narito MS
Larry O'Brien MS
Brett Zimmerman MS
Alfonso Cevola CSW

I would love to accompany a couple of these folks on a wine blast through Italy, or anywhere for that matter. Guys like Larry O’ Brian (above) always seem to be working through the wine, constant students of the grape. Brett Zimmerman, working for a small importer, his path on the Italian wine trail, treading and tasting, working his way up that insurmountable mountain we call Italy. How about that new salesperson in the audience looking at this and wondering how they’ll be able to get to base camp? I’m telling you, sons and daughters, we’re all trying to get to base camp. And on to the ascent.

Teaser: The article in the latest Sommelier Journal from my last trip to Piemonte just a little avvinare (taste). Subscribe and support David Vogels valiant effort to bring intelligent writing about wine to the young sommeliers and all the rest of us.

On one of our sessions, The Central Italy part, we had two wines from Tuscany. I hadn’t realized it until I tasted the wines but there was some thread of similarity, even though the two wines were as different as concrete and balsa wood. The wines, Castello dei Rampolla’s Chianti Classico 2004 and the Argiano Solengo 2004, both had the imprimatur of Giacomo Tachis, albeit from a now historical whisper. Time, time, bang, bang, whimper, whimper.

The Rampolla spoke to me in a simple, pure and direct way. The spirit of the place, Panzano, was erect and present. Wild horses tied to a wagon heading towards a sunset on the coast, in no particular hurry. Gorgeous, golden, wild, velvet, young-first-love-Michele-in-1965. Holy mother of God, how did they do this?

The Argiano, with those gypsy grapes of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah (aren’t these the grapes that could get a winemaker in trouble in Montalcino?), preening and prancing about the glass. “Last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain.” I’m at a loess for words. I don’t want to like this wine, want to prefer the Sangiovese in purezza. But the two wines have this astral thread that connects them. Is it the Dali Lama of Italy, Tachis, from his cave in Sardegna, sending out his influence over the waves, out-Milarepa-ing Milarepa?

Soil, servitude and the fortune of territoriality. Two wines, two apparently different styles. Our house is a very fine house, with two cats in the yard. Dottore Tachis, now everything is easy ‘cause of you.

And this is the way the week ends. Not with a bang, but a conga line.

Photos courtesy of Texas Sommelier Conference 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Texsom 2008 ~ Hill Country Ho-down

Julie over at D-Magazine is doing a live-blogging feed, for more information. She's even got a Quicktime dance video of the Master Sommeliers in action. Too much going on to put it all down right now. Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shiner Bock, ribs, cobbler and dancin'. See some pix after the jump.

Texsom in Austin 2008

Salt-lick smackin' good ribs!

Blackberry and peach cobbler

Ray Wylie Hubbard singin' the blues

Kim Stout looking after husband Guy Stout, M.S. and Larry O'Brian, M.S.

Drew Hendricks, M.S. lovin' that cobbler ala mode

Fred Dame, M.S., and Travis Goff doin' some dirty dancin'

Texsom founder James Tidwell payin' the band

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