Sunday, October 12, 2008

Marfa ~ We Say Chianti & They Say Chinati

My faith has been restored. In Texas. In Italian Wine. In Italian wine in Texas. In Restaurants in Texas. And in the whole chasing after windmill exercise that we do when we attempt to bring the Word of Wine to the outer edges of civilization. I finally got my groove on, and in Marfa, Texas, no less. Word to Sancho: Flyover country has been secured and made safe.

There’s something about the simplicity of the desert that cuts right to the essential. Maybe it’s the access to ingredients. Or perhaps it is just that once you strip it down to what you really need, you really don’t need all that much. When you’re staring at yourself in the mirage and you are forced to look at whatever you can manage to make from your memory and your imagination, then one is compelled to stare down the demons and make sense of it. Here in Marfa, they call it A.R.T.

My background in the arts didn’t have me getting all wiggly and wobbly as we spent some free time strolling among the buildings at the Chinati Foundation. There is something about the way an artist can challenge you to look at your own doodlings in life and ask you if what you have been doing these past 20 years has any more relevance than what he has put up on these walls.

In that sense, the art on those walls forced me to think about these things. And with the unsolicited quiet of the desert, the lack of distraction, this created an unavoidable encounter with my “inner” Marfa Lights.

Cochineal (no web site, don’t Google it, you wont find one) was a perfect launching into the future of food in Texas. Not cutting edge, no not-that-in-your-face. More like simple ingredients without towers, truffle oil or turpitude. Take it or leave it.

We met Chef Paul Peterson, of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, at Cochineal. He and his wife had managed to get a night off and left offspring with family in Alpine, half way between Marfa and Marathon. Paul is one of those chefs that, if you dropped him in Austin or Park Slope, would easily transition toward the top of the scene. Easy going and mellow, with an edge. Kind of like a Chianti from Querciabella. In fact, we opened a few bottles that night, thanks to Cochineal owners Tom Rapp and Toshi Sakihara. Eventually they sat down with us as we worked late into the night. Among other things, we had a Carbonara that anyone, anywhere, would be proud of.

Walking out into an early autumn night in the desert, stars are jamming the skies; rush hour in Rome is light by comparison.

Maybe we should start a Chianti Foundation. Because of the interest in Italian wine in this little west Texas town. It would fit right-tight into the matrix of Marfa.

A new day, and we find ourselves in front of Chef Maiya Keck of Maiya’s. While we were talking about wine, I was thinking, “She really likes Italians.” The restaurant is Italian inspired and along with a perfectly delicious looking high ceiling dining room straight out of the WPA, I couldn’t wait to come back in the evening.

In the meantime she sent us across the street to the Food Shark, a mobile food stand at the farmers market. It seemed everyone in town was heading for the Food Shark, as scads of young people were working their way through the interesting menu.

As I was cogitating what I would order, a woman stepped up to get her to go order. When I heard her voice I said to myself, “That is the voice of Isabella Rossellini.” I then looked to her and made eye contact. Were those the eyes of Isabella Rossellini? It wouldn’t be out of the question that someone like her would be here, seeing as this was the week for the Marfa annual Open House. I looked her over and she seemed to resemble Isabella from one of the scenes of Blue Velvet. I would encounter her later in the day, when perhaps that little mystery would be solved.

The falafel at the Food Shark was one hellatiously good lunch choice, though the Falafel Forage might be a little more difficult in these parts.

A block away was the Pizza Foundation, Maiya’s sister, Saarin, runs it. Thin pizza, not over worked. I asked Ronnie the pizzaiolo how it was to make pizza at this elevation (appx 4800) and he explained that he had gotten the recipe down to deal with the elevation, the heat and the dry conditions. He did.

That evening we had a wine tasting/ reception at the old bus station , home of Shelly and Harry Hudson. Shelly’s son, Jules, runs a neat little place in Dallas, Nonna. The family has the good taste gene in spades.

We set up the wines, Italian and otherwise. As the folks rambled into the tasting we were able to talk to folks a little more in depth. Isabella came up to me and we had a little talk about opera. She was from Germany: not Isabella. Or was she in some kind of character for the evening. I‘ve seen too many David Lynch films.

One lady, Virginia Lebermann, who has all kinds of things going on in Marfa, was in the process of building a new venue for art and music with a lounge attached. “How would you like to curate the wine selection?” she asked. We set a time to visit the next day. Curate a wine list, they never asked me to do that in Dallas or Houston.

That evening, after the reception, we headed over to Maiya’s to meet a client for dinner. We walked into a warm room with enormous ceilings; the place was inviting and hopping. Plenty of the young folks from the arts foundations were settling in at the bar, just like NY, LA or Firenze. In this little old west Texas desert town. All very Rod Serling-like.

Maiya sent out plates of food; grilled radicchio, tartlettes, frisée, plates of pasta, profiteroles, and dense chocolate tortes. And we brought out wine after wine to taste with the client and Maiya. They liked us, they really liked us. I wasn’t in New Orleans or Napa, where I do get treated like I actually know something about Italian wine. I wasn’t in Dallas or Houston, where I have to often deal with a lowest common denominator routine. We were in Marfa, Texas, and they got it, from Kerner to Taurasi to Brachetto.

Next morning we met up with Virginia Lebermann to look over the new Thunderbird Lounge. Fire pits and adobe, tongue-and-groove and sharp, clean lines. They want me to curate the wine selection here? Let’s give it to them, see just how far we can push the envelope with Vermentino.

After all, we don’t come here looking for some worn out windmills. We came out to see what was in store for us in the future, here in flyover country. In a bright, stark, clear-cut way, we were shown what might be in store for us. If we keep our eyes, and our minds, open.

In the words of Bobby Z, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wine blows."


Tracie B. said...

there's that old entusiasmo!

Joe Manekin said...

You definitely captured the essence of Marfa, or at least what I remember from my 2 day experience there a few years back. I look forward to returning to Marfa, visiting my uncle (he lives in Donald Judd's old house), eating decent falafel and finding a a host of well curated Italian wine selections.

Tony McClung said...

I'm always in a Marfa state of mind

Anonymous said...

I was there, it is all that you report, and in the middle of nowhere.

Russ Kane said...

Very interesting....

If they are interested in Chianti, their interest may carry over to Sangiovese the base grape of Chianti.

You can keep you wine-dollars local, reduce food miles and carbon footprint and have a good bottle of wine as well. Try the Sangiovese from Barking Rock (Yes, Barking Rocks Winery) in Granbury, Texas.

For more info, check out the links below:



Alfonso Cevola said...


Dr. Vino would be proud

Anonymous said...

i need to make my way out there. a little bit of desert love is what i really need

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