Sunday, January 31, 2010

Big Week On the Wine Trail

This is going to be one crazy week. Going from the sunny seashore of Southern California to the Vino 2010 events in NY, where the forecast is for cold and snow and more cold and more snow. I’ll think about my coastal run this morning when I am trudging through the canyons of Skyscraper National Park.

But it should be fun.

I will be moderating the panel on Gaglioppo, with a handful of winemakers from Calabria alongside the esteemed Attilio Scienza. I am a huge fan of the work Dottore Scienza has done in the Maremma with my friends at Petra and on the island of Pantelleria , where I have spent some time. Dottore Scienza is one of the great wine gurus of Italy and this is a dream of mine to share the time promoting the wines of my dear Calabria. My mother’s family came from Calabria and settled first in Texas and then on to Sunny Southern California, where I am sitting right now looking at the Pacific Ocean, sharing the sunlight with a family of seals.

To properly prepare for the event, last week I sat down with James Gunter, who is a wine giant in the company I work for (and a friend) and Guy Stout, who is our Master Sommelier on staff, also an old friend. We tasted through some Calabrese wines to “prime the pump” for the event next week in Manhattan. I have to say the folks down in sunny Southern Italy will have some surprises in store for the attendees of the seminar, which I am told is “Sold Out.” Needless to say, I am “pumped!”

Before getting to La Jolla, I spent a day with my 95 ½ year old mom in Newport Beach, where she lives. We spent a great day together and she cooked me her signature manicotti. I paired it with an Illuminati Montepulciano d’Abruzzo “Ilico” 2005 – it was, in the words of Dr.P, “a killer combo.” My mom is famous for her manicotti – when we lived in Palm Springs when I was a kid, my dad would bring home all kinds of Hollywood royalty for Mom’s Meatballs and Manicotti. She was an icon of Italian cooking long before Mario Batali, at least amongst Hollywood's Golden Age Glitterati. Way to go, Mom, I sure love your cucina casalinga!

That’s all from here- more later in the week when things aren’t so hectic. Raise a glass to those who are starting a new life, and to those who cannot be here with us, who have gone before and are waiting for us at the gates.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Montalcino: What a Difference a Generation Makes

In 1984 Montalcino was a sleepy little hamlet
Sometimes, it seems I don’t throw anything away. There are some who would say I never let things go. From the tossing and turning the other night (was it the buffalo steak or the stake in the heart?) I couldn’t argue. But, with the grace of patience and the hope of wisdom, some of the bumps on the wine trail might eventually smooth out. This has been a long, arduous month. I thought after Christmas we’d get a respite. But the history of January, in my life, hasn’t been one of rest and reflection. More like throw some more wood on the fire, let’s crank it up in here, 'cause we aren’t through yet. So, there we are.
Chef Croci with his favorite plate of pasta, surrounded by Tuscan wine and women
Earlier this week I had arranged to meet a salesperson out in Ft. Worth. The rodeo and stock show season is on and the town is busy. We arranged to meet at an old friends place, Bella (Italia) West. (Pietro) Carlo Croci has been buying wine from me since the early 1980’s and I hate to tell you what great wines he has gotten from me, usually for a song. But he is a generous guy and will share his wines and his stories. Carlo comes from Tuscany, but for some reason I have always kidded him that he was really the child of forgotten prisoners that were left on the Elba Island. Of course he kids me about being from Africa, because of my noble Sicilian roots. Years ago I sold him a ton of ancient wines, from the 1968 Sassicaia (first year released) to some very rare 1937 Capezzana Carmignano. So it was only fitting that we share a bottle of the 2006 Carmignano to see how the wines are doing in the new century. Odd, that behind him was visiting from Tuscany Violante Gardini; the grand daughter of Francesco Colombini Barbi.Violante has her own Brunello wine from the Cinelli Colombini estate of hers. She represents a strong line of woman winemakers in Tuscany, dating from the times when her grandmother had to run an estate in a day and age when grown men were not used to taking commands from a young lady. But she persisted and now it is part of the history of Montalcino. Violante is carrying on in her grandmothers steps. Why odd? Because the very next day I would be out in the market, “blitzing” with the representatives of the Barbi Colombini estate, Violante’s grandmother’s wines.
Cellarmaster and yours truly in 1984
I first went to Barbi in April of 1984 (about 4 months before Violante was born) to taste the 1979 -1983 Brunellos at the source. In those days Montalcino was a sleepy little hamlet and quite rustic. I loved the local dialect of the people with their soft c’s (like an “h”) and their sturdy nature. My colleague, then and now, Guy Stout was on the wine trial in Italy with me on that trip, the first of many adventures we have had.
Cellarmaster and future Master Somm, Guy Stout, in leaner times
The billiard table in the cellar doubled as a staging area for the bottling line in the early days
Joey the Weasel (aka Joe Strange Eye) with Sausage Paul and Pietro Cavalli
The long time Barbi manager, Pietro Cavalli, with Marcello Mastrioanni good looks (and a genuinely nice person as well) was running the route with me. Pietro and I had some good conversation in the car as we went from account to account tasting the wines from Montalcino.
The Barbi, along with the Dievole wines, are now imported into the USA by Pasternak
Along the way I got nervous that we wouldn’t have enough wine for lunch, so I stopped off at home and picked up a bottle of the Barbi riserva red label 1997 to try with Sausage Paul and Joey the Weasel (aka Joe Strange Eye). What a good move that was! The wine was supple and ready, 12 plus years old and, maybe because of the hot vintage (or the less than stellar cellar conditions that we have to deal with here in the infernotti of Texas). But whatever, the wine was jumping for joy into our glasses. It was interesting to compare the 1997 with the 2004 Brunello from the same estate.
The Barbi cellar (and sales room) in the heady days of the 1980's
I noticed that the 2004 had a similar structure in that the wine was full-fruited. There is talk of the 2004 vintage being compared to the 2001; several of us in my circle think that comparison is odious at best. During the 2004 vintage there were recorded heat spikes, creating mixed results around the appellation. Last year at Benvenuto Brunello I tasted many 2004's and was surprised by the variation. So, another 2001? I don’t think so. 1997? I hope not. No, I think the 2004 is going to be a good wine for restaurants, better than the 2003 or 2002, but to me more similar to the 1980. Barbi, Pietro tells me, still stick to their traditional methods, and they produce a large amount of Brunello (about 1/5 of what Silver Oak makes – 20,000 cases). I remember last year when we opened the 1978 (a classic year) and it was a perfect example of normal Brunello – no steroidal oak or magical vineyard blend. And I have had some great older Brunellos; the 1964 Costanti comes to mind as one of the great ones alongside the 1955 Biondi Santi and the 1971 Il Poggione. So there is some history there, from the first time I was in Montalcino, one short generation ago. But what a difference that generation has made. And now the young tribe, with the likes of Violante and her peers, gives me high hopes for the rehabilitation of Brunello. I know it's a long row to hoe, but everyday I find there are people who don’t want high octane, Cabernet wannabees Brunellos - they are seeking out authenticity. Isn’t it once again about time for the recalibration of intent, not just in Montalcino, but all over McItaly?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Italian Wine Guy Diet

Ten weeks ago, I made the decision to “lighten up.” It was before the holidays, and it just seemed a good idea to get out ahead of things. The goals were varied: I wanted to take some pressure off my knees, I wanted to be able to fit into my Isaia suit, and I had an image of myself that I had wanted to achieve 3 ½ years ago and didn’t. I don’t know really how it came about – I think I hit a wall and just wasn’t going to keep hitting it. My head was sore. So I started on the Italian Wine Guy Diet. 10 weeks later and 20 pounds lighter, I look back and wonder why I took so many years procrastinating over it. Yes, it was hard work, and no, it isn’t finished. But now I look at food and wine through a different lens. I feel like I have been given some years back.

So what is the Italian Wine Guy Diet? First, I started keeping a log of everything I ate and drank. Everything. There are systems that can calculate them into some form of measure. I use an online program that works with my laptop and Blackberry, so I can always know where I am at. The key is to be accountable and to look at your intake realistically. In my job I spend some time analyzing numbers, looking for patterns. I have the kind of mind that can spot a trend or a spike. If I can do it with millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of outlets, surely a few pounds in a few months is doable. And lately the analysis in this economic basin is an exercise in less is more. So why not embrace that aspect in personal terms, something that actually produces a result that actually gives one something to show for it, even if that something to show is less?

Foods I am eating more of? Black beans, peppers, garlic, spices, cauliflower, yogurt, whole grain tortillas. Chicken, not more of, but in place of other proteins like salmon and steak. Mussels, soups, salads, carrots, broccoli, spinach.

Foods I am eating less of – all of them – portion control – like the Italians or the French do.

Foods I am not eating very much of, if at all? Steaks, salmon, cheese, bread, pasta, ice cream, avocado, counter prepared meals in markets (who knows really how they make them?) and butter.

Eating out is not as big a challenge as one might think – finding the quality of food like I do when I forage for it myself is more of a problem. Where does their chicken come from? How much oil do they really use (usually too much), and did they slip a little butter in that recipe? Or cream? I have found out that cooks use fat, way too much, to flavor foods. Now I see cardamom and nutmeg and peppers as a substitute for the big flavors that less creative (or lazy) cook types haven’t yet embraced. Amazing what those spices and a tiny drop of oil on a cut-up head of oven-roasted cauliflower can do to make such terrific flavors. Or Greek-style, nonfat yogurt in a baked potato in place of cheese, butter and sour cream. Smoked paprika, a little Greek seasoning, some strategically placed Calabrese pepper sauce and voila, a meal that is so filling that it is hard to finish the whole thing.

So, Italian Wine Guy, and what about wine? Yes, let’s talk. Because my idea about wine has changed a little. I’ll give an example from last night. I had two bottles, samples, to try this weekend, one was an Aglianico blended with non-indigenous grapes from Basilicata, the other was a Negroamaro from Puglia. This is how my taste on the wine trail in Italy is going. The first wine was all wood and fruit and alcohol – it was like a 24-ounce porterhouse that had been cooked in butter. I rook one sip and recalled the glasses from the room. The Negroamaro, on the other hand, was also fruity, but like a date, not a pile of pineapple. The acid was bracing but balanced and wood, what wood? The Negroamaro was magical – the wine suited the time. And for me it was a more correct expression of an Italian wine, the kind that won the hearts of millions around the world. So it fits with my regimen and my philosophy. We’ll see how it plays when I try to preach this gospel at Vinitaly in April.

The reality of the past 10 weeks has been for me an exploration into a new future for this vessel that carries around my heart and my mind. It is leaner, but not any meaner. But it is measured, and it is looking at how we measure the quality of things in our world. My world, revolving around the carousel of Italian wine and culture, is looking for those things that blend harmoniously with my findings. I think the world, especially those of us who live in the developed areas where we don’t lack for food, water and shelter, have a responsibility to “lighten up” on what we take for our share to live on this beautiful planet.

Art by the Futurist from Calabria, Umberto Boccioni

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Under the Prodigal Sun

You've been warned: This is a long one

“Why is it again that you don’t like air travel, Ace?” my friend Hank would ask me. Hank, christened Enrico, grew up in a rough and tumble time of scratching out a living doing something he hated, but persisted, for the sake of keeping food on the table and a roof over his family’s head. He made a tidy amount of money and was in the process of indulging himself over travel. This week he was in Vietnam, eating noodles in Ha Noi.

“I don’t know Hank, my legs are too long. And I always seem to get the fellow who, as soon as the plane lifts up, he drives his seat back as far as he can for the duration of the flight.”

And so it was on my recent trip to the West Coast. I had the obligatory knee-cruncher in front of me. The dark stars aligned for this flight, and I had a yappy Chihuahua woman seated next to me, all the while barking out orders to her elderly father two rows ahead of us. To my left was a large young man with a sensitive stomach who specialized in projectile vomiting. And to round out the Four Horsemen of the American Airlines Apocalypse, there was spawn of Satan, who practiced his blood-curdling screams all the way from Dallas to San Francisco, and as soon as we landed, proceeded to fall asleep (renewing his strength to accompany me on the return flight, I kid you not). Something special in the air, oh yes, I would say.

Fair enough answer for my amico Enrico as he slurps his pho and blogs far away from the wine trail in Southeast Asia?

Once I was on the ground and away from the circus of distractions that particular airline has become, my native state took me under her wing and tried to soothe her prodigal son.

San Francisco will always be a place of my youth. It exudes health, vigor, excitement, possibilities. I was in the mood for oysters and Muscadet, so I proceeded to dispatch a slew of the briny creatures before heading up to wine country. The oysters shined, but the Muscadet needed to go into assisted living. As I passed the endless vapors of chocolate from the Recchiuti brothel of cacao, I resisted their siren charms in the hopes of finding a good espresso.

A young Italian at the bio-organic counter brought me back to equilibrium. Recalibrating. Back on track.

The past few days I have had some incredible food and wine. Almost by accident. I couldn’t plan this kind of thing back home. But Northern California is more like Italy to me than Texas. Always will be. My tribe headed West for a reason. And why was it I went to Texas? Oh yes, the “f” word. Freedom. I had nothing but time to lose, 30 years ago.

Highlights of the food
The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma. If this restaurant were a woman, I would beg her to let me marry her. I would give up wine to eat the chicken they served me. Fortunately I found a California wine from a pal, Pellegrini Carignan, to see me through. One of the best chickens I have ever eaten and I loves me my chicken. First I set my allocation of calories by ordering the heirloom radish salad. Subtle. Crunchy. Filling. Spicy. The anchovy butter was a naughty but nice touch. The Makers Mark Manhattan was a bit of a gunfight with it, but it worked. Everyone lived.

Under the chicken, a bed of roasted squash, carrots, parsnips. Dessert to me. The bird was sex, drugs, satori, and salvation. I would rob a bank to pay for it. I would give up chocolate. Or blogging.

A day later, at the little Italian spot on the other side of the square, Della Santina’s, a cup of tortellini in brodo was as good as any I have had in Italy. I reckon I still need to eat at someone’s home in Emilia Romagna before I throw down that gauntlet. A glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo was bright and steely. That wine would have been good with those oysters two days before. Somewhere else I have noted the Greco and the Grenache. Read back on them if you missed it.

Sardegna and Corsica, Sicily and the Marche, were the drivers at the impromptu bachelor(ette) party I had with my Cheese Diva, Paula, and her lively entourage. Some days I am Italian Wine Guy and sometimes I am Hoja Santa Farmer. Who says we have to be one thing?

But back to the Girl and the Fig. And the guy and the girl

I was seated at a little two-top in the corner, a perfect perch while I nursed my bourbon. In they danced. The server sat them at this little table in the middle of the room. Front stage and center. They didn’t object; they were happy to sit there. The woman was glowing. Her date, a man in his mid-50’s but elderly looking, didn’t seem the right match for her. But she would have nothing to do with anyone else’s ideas of who she should be with. She was smitten. She laughed, was giddy and pleasable. She gazed at this man as if he were a god. She was head over heels in love with him. Observing this couple would be my dessert. She touched his hand, looked him in the eyes. He was her true love. But the guy? Had he seen this before? Was this just one more love in a lifetime of loves, no lesser nor greater than the preceding love? Or the next one to come along? I have no idea, I wasn’t looking at him. The woman was youngish, mid-30’s tall, dark haired, Asian. She ate, she drank, but she feasted on her love. It was quite wonderful to watch. And it paired so well with the Carignan.

Good-bye Sonoma - Onward through the rain to the City
Washed out roads took me on a back-run jaunt through fields and hills until the sun poked out and 101 popped back into sight. An aging poet-rocker throbbed about her life on the radio. I had no pressing appointment, just responding to some emails and setting up appointments for the next month.

My bubelah from Dallas, Dave, called. Dave grew up in the Bay area, and he was the shadchen who got me and my wife Liz together, back in the day. He “felt” I was in California and wanted me to stop by O’Flynn’s place in the Marina to pick up some rare Pinot Noirs. As luck would have it, the shop had a sign, "back in an hour." I wouldn’t wait.

That evening, my Cheese Diva sends me an email – meet @ La Ciccia @ 7:30. Driving through the Noe Hill neighborhood reminded me of a time long ago when I knew a woman who lived there. She pursued me to the point of stalking me. I looked around as I parked, hoping she was a faint memory. Still, a tingle from the darkness of a city that took me from an all too serious childhood to a reluctant adulthood. Inside the little trattoria, a table waited with plates of fregula with tuna heart, pasta with bottarga, pane carasau and baby squids in vinegar and oil. The Cheese Diva had arrived early, and she and her entourage were getting their drink on, starting with a Vermentino. Soon, bottles of Pecorino and Nerello would clatter with the dishes and the cacophony of the crowd. Everyone was talking to everyone else. Glasses of Prosecchi were handed around, and the faint dialects of Cagliari and Sassari wafted from the long tables. I couldn’t have found a better place if I had been looking for it, but the Cheese Diva has the knack for food, for adventure, for early adaptation. Once, in Italy, I showed up at her place in Montalcino with a case of Chianti (oh, the blasphemy). Her response was to cut up a slew of rabbits with wild mushrooms (is there any other kind in the area?) and create a feast into the late hours of the night. I know with food, cheese and wine, I’ll never go hungry around the Cheese Diva.

This night, Sardegna was in full bloom. Sardegna was the missing sunlight that had been absent from the Golden State for some days now. The wine, the cheese, the pasta – all was bright and shiny now.

Pouring out of the balmy café into the steely saber of night, I took a deep breath. “Ladies,” for there were three of them and one of me, “let’s take this sorry bachelor(ette) party for a fallen friend to the wine bar and drink on.” And so, with the aid of a smart phone and a dry car, we plunged through the Mission district towards Terroir.

Inside, the proprietor unearthed a bottle of stinky Corsican red. Perfect. Wild grape tattooed with bitter amaro attitude. Sting was bleating on the speakers. This wasn’t a slammer – lentamente.

Many folks have told the story of Terroir better than I can. They had just reopened, and the place was rustic and simple and perfect. The stinky red – forged from a French-influenced mindset that makes a Sardegnan look low-key – exuded an isolation that doesn’t often reach the outer world. My friend, Eugenio once said, “Alfonso, you know those islanders,” as if I knew right then and there what he meant. I didn’t. But I do now. I am an islander – many of us live on islands of our own making. But this wine, the Patrimonio, twelve hours later I am still tasting it. I am so glad I didn’t order a Barolo or even a Barbaresco. No, the final act of the wine guy lost on the trail in the sunless sunshine state was best left by accepting this mysterious slow-churning red wine.

Can a wine love? If it can, could it love the way the woman loved that man at the Girl and the Fig? If he was unaware of it, couldn’t we be as unaware as well? Would that not be a tragedy to have a wine reach over and touch one and to not be touched by it?

I must be more sensitive to that possibility. There are so many wines waiting to open up and share their light. And their love.

If not, I’ll always have the Girl and the Fig. And the guy and the girl. And the chicken, that marvelous chicken.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Knack for the Abstract

Little more than 7 hours in California and they have sunk their talons in me. Even though it now more resembles a Vegan-Disney gone to Singapore, the raw, naked beauty of the territoriality mystifies me.

Two wines tonight at a local hot spot, Rosso, in Santa Rosa. The first a Greco from San Francesco in Calabria, the Fata Morgana; old vines, bush trained, dry farmed and hand tended. The barkeep popped a fresh one and the flavors were crisp and chalky. A huge difference from the diffident Muscadet I'd had earlier with a dozen oysters @ Hog Island in the City. The only shape shifter was the French wine, heading south to the land of syrup. Post haste. The Greco was a perfect wine for the salad, a modified Caesar with the hot Calabrese chili sauce. It worked – and this is the gift Italy and the wines give to us: low expectations - high returns. No one would ever expect from a Greco what they would from a Muscadet. But the Greco was lithe, while the Muscadet was being wheeled into the ICU.

Not content with that, I ambled towards the Margherita. It’s Sunday, after all, pizza night in Italy. But no beer, while watching the Chelsea game on the big screen. No, not a Rosso Piceno, which I was salivating over. Here I was in Sonoma, how about a local wine, to be true to trying things in their place. Nearby a woman was asking about a Grenache and the server pedaled a Montepulciano from the Marche on her. In keeping with the contrary nature of a Californian in exile, I asked her about the Quivira. “It’s fab – try it.” Same thing she said about the modified Caesar, The hair on my back was standing up but I wasn’t paying attention. The earlier chair massage in the hotel had diverted my suspicion mechanism,. “Ok, let 'er rip, pour me a glass of the Dry Creek, dry farmed, organic, Grenache.”

Dr. P. would have been in stink-heaven. The wine had a balmy garrigue and culatello pungency- not that I was bothered by that – I was hoping for a Lambrusco moment, in lieu of beer. The Grenache was almost too much of a statement – but this is California – the spawning ground of possibilities, even as it turns into a Ridley Scott third world vision.

Somewhere in the world it's always hula night.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Extreme Makeover ~ Wine List Edition

Ziff & Dale are back!

Over the past month, with holidays and traveling, I have been in my share of restaurants. Usually we are in an Italian place, but not always. But inevitably I get handed the wine list. “Pick something,” I am told. If only life were that simple.

I have not always made the best choices in life, but a wine list shouldn’t be a life shattering experience. And while there are many more things worthy of our serious attention, this is the life I have chosen, and so, I wonder while I wander on the wine trail in Italy.

During this time period, I was sent a wine list from a restaurateur who wanted my input on his list. He’s a chef, has a wine warden, but I get the feeling they aren’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye these days. I could easily guess from looking at the wine list and the menu together. The menu is this graceful elaboration of small and thoughtful plates, utilizing seasonal ingredients, often sourced locally. The salumi, cured in house, is fresh and direct. One of the items I had, a ciccioli, was just a bite (The banquet is in the first bite, as Pollan likes to say) but was an explosion of wonderful, harmonious flavors. The chef knows food.

The wine list, however, was a mine field of overpriced, spoofulated wines, with the usual suspects from Tuscany and Piedmont. Really a shame these two never got on the same page. With a little luck, the wine warden will move on to a steakhouse. Soon. In the meantime, for this little place and for all Italian places that are looking to makeover their wine lists, here are some wines I would put on if it were my place.

Malvasia Bianca "Donna Marzia" from Conte Zecca – 2008 - A bright, slightly fat white from Puglia. Just enough body to favor cured meats pork, or a scallop dish with a smoked cauliflower puree. I have turned my friends on to this white wine since last summer. Giorgio Marone, who studied under Tachis, consults with this estate. I met Marone years ago at Illuminati and liked his laid back approach. The wine is fruity, fresh and sells in retail shops for under $10. In the right restaurant it should fly off the wine list for under $30. From Mionetto USA Imports.

Tramin Chardonnay – Alto Adige – 2008. Stainless steel. No oak. I was telling Damon Ornowski about it the other day. When I first got into drinking wine there were scads of inexpensive white wine from the Maconnais. Those days are gone, but I still like to get my drink on with a nice crisp chardonnay. Willi Sturz fashions such a creature from pre-alpine vineyards. I do not know why this wine isn’t on every Italian wine list in America, at least from the Mississippi river heading west. In stores it sells for under $15. On my wine list I would notch it at under $35. From Winebow.

Basilicata Bianco – Re Manfredi – 2008 - From Terre degli Svevi, who make a massive old school, Aglianico. Their white is another world. A blend, (grown in Basilicata, mind you) of Traminer and Muller Thurgau, grown at elevations of 1100 feet on volcanic and harsh slopes, just the place to build character. I find this wine to be a gulper, but I have to get it on a list first so more people can have that pleasure. It’s an odd confluence of grapes and locality, but these little miracles happen all the time. Now if we could just get the good Lord to put His hands over the small placements and let them multiply. In the retail wine shops it should be findable for around $20. I’d love to see it on a wine list for $39, but if someone asked $42 I’d sign up on the spot. From Frederick Wildman.

Gaglioppo - Statti – 2008- The other night we found ourselves in a classy place, Craft, with a wine list that was interesting enough to find more than one wine for the night. Kudos’ to the somm and the salesperson (and probably the importer) for getting this wine onto the list (now, if we could just get it onto an Italian wine list or two?). From Calabria, this wine is pretty direct – light color, delicate spice on the nose, good body, balanced flavors. This unassuming Gaglioppo is one of the perfect little wines that make a night out part of a great dining experience. Found in the stores for under $20, on Craft’s wine list it sold for $48. I can handle that. From Vias Wine Imports.

Barbera d’Asti “Villa Lisa” – Cascina Bruni 2008 – looks like a pattern here – 2008 vintages all of them so far. I reluctantly embraced this wine, as experience indicated that Barbera wines do not sell. But we got this onto the floor of the greatest Italian wine and food store in America and over the past 4 months they sold 100 cases of this wine. People loved, love, love this wine. One somm I showed it too poo-poohed it, “Too light,” “Not enough extraction,” “I like bigger Barbera’s.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, the little people like it. And I’m one of them. It’s the perfect Italian red wine for everyday. No romance, not even a sleepover. But you can get some satisfaction with this bright and cheerful red wine. It reminds me of my son's cat, who likes to wait at the door for people who come to his house. He's ready to play and jump around and have fun, and this Barbera is ready and attentive. And, at the end of the day, it’s a pussycat of a wine. A lap cat. Cuddly and warm and not too complicated. In the retail world it sells for way under $15. So, on a wine list it should be selling for $30 – max. From Tricana Imports.

Last one –

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Vigna Nuove – Valle Reale – 2008

Folks who read these posts know how much I like Montepulciano from Abruzzo. The Illuminati’s are like second family to me. Maybe I am not as crazed as Sausage Paul, who has 15+ on his racks (way to go Paul!), but I do like me some Monty! This one, from Valle Reale, just rolled into my life and I can’t get enough of it. It is dense, nutty, a solid quaff. I do not know why more folks (i.e. young aspiring somms who want to make a career in the wine business) don’t pull their head out of their amphoras and dedicate themselves to giving pleasure to their customers. On the East Coast, Montepulciano is all over the place. West of the Mississippi, who knows what the hold up is? What I do know, is that one can make a career starting with one wine. If I were a young buck, I’d do it all over again and swing on this star. In the little Italian stores you can find this wine for under $15. Same as the Barbera above. From Winebow.

Do you see a pattern? Value? Quality? Drinkability? No barriques. No Spoof. No Testosterone.

So there you have it - my Six Picks- Extreme Makeover ~ The Wine List Edition. Read ‘em and weep. Good luck finding them. Most likely online they are readily available. Tell your friends. Tell your local restaurateur. These are wines worth seeking out.

"Take my wine — please."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lady Corvina ~ The Back Story

I got a call from a friend. “Are you alright? Everything OK?” Well, everything is OK and everything has fallen into chaos. As it always has been. But for the sake of reassuring my friend, I asked him why he was so concerned. “Well, because, that last post about Lady Corvina was a little out there, AC.” So perhaps a little back story might be appropriate, if for no reason other than to illustrate the creative (?) process that ameliorates my ratiocination.

For those of you expecting a wine blog post, this ain't gonna be one.

I was cleaning my house and running the vacuum cleaner. As I move through the various rooms, there are emotive markers in them. In one part of a room there is always a thought that comes up about a friend who I haven’t seen in years. In another part, I will think of a cat I once had. And so on. Non-linear.

The day before I was visiting a friend of mine that lives nearby, who has been battling major health issues (to put it mildly). He lives right up the street where my wife spent the last month of her life in another battle many years ago. On Feb 17, 2001, she left us. During this time of the year, I think about that month, when we would spend hours sitting outside, if it wasn’t too cold, in the sunlight, looking at the trees. Or if it was, we would sit by an inside bird cage filled with scores of little chirpers. It was a bittersweet time, because she was dying and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

Back to the vacuum.

As I was vacuuming I heard this voice inside my head, the muse. She wanted to tell me a story. I wanted to finish cleaning the house. We compromised. I finished up quickly, with the inner deal being that I would sit down and make some notes for another time.

Well I finished, and sat down. And that’s when Lady Corvina sat herself right down next to me.

The only similarity Lady Corvina has with my wife was their initials (L.C.) and a shared anguish. In the case of Lady Corvina, she became one with the huge lake of Amarone that took her essence and joined it with the other grape souls waiting their time for immortality. This time of the year when the grapes sit and wither I often tell the story of those grapes waiting in the cold and the dark for their moment. But over the years they have become anthropomorphized within my cosmogony of the world as seen through the lens of the vine and the grape. It happened often in ancient Greek stories and in old Italian folk lore tales. I probably read too much of that in the last 30 years. Anyway, that was how it played out. I only hope my wife is at peace. I dreamt about her last night, for the first time in a log time. She didn’t speak, she just looked at me, smiled, and shimmered.

I do think of my dear Liz, often, but especially this time of the year when it was so witheringly cold and dark back then, and we had to wait out the last days in those bitter times. Like I told a colleague who just lost her husband before Christmas, there is never closure. You just get closer to the end of the tunnel, where there is more light and, hopefully, warmth.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Lady Corvina’s Lost Notebooks ~ The Final Months

In the last months of her life, Lady Corvina was said to have gone unhinged from the pressures of life. Will we, on this side, ever really know? Recently unearthed notebooks from the Terrre di Fumane archives show that she agonized until the last moments. And then it was as if she underwent a transformation of epic proportions. The following excerpts have been culled from the once thought lost notebooks of Lady Corvina of Fumane.

What are they doing to me? Where are they taking me?

Who are all these others? Why are they keeping us here?

Where are all my friends and cousins? My sisters? Brothers?

What is that nose, it sounds like a party somewhere down the hall. What are they celebrating? What is that intoxicating aroma coming from down there?

Why are they opening the windows? It’s so cold outside and the wind is blowing so hard.

I feel so dry and depleted. Thirsty. Hungry. Dying.

Who’s that? Why has he come for us? Where are they taking us?

What are those familiar voices? They sound like someone I once knew, but a chorus of them, humming, singing some song, mysteriously familiar. The sounds are getting louder, closer, the room is getting warmer.

What is this pressure I am feeling? Why are we all pressed in so close together, can barely breathe. But it is warmer, moister.

Now its getting darker, it looks like the sun is setting, slowly getting darker, more pressure; I feel like I'm going to burst. I’m so tired, cannot fight it, cannot hold up any longer.

Where is this place, what happened to me? Who am I? What is that bubbling sound, its coming nearer, nearer, like a wave, a tsunami of red and sweet and moist and I feel like I am dying. But it feels alright, everything is going to be alright. It’s just a matter of time.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Ring, the King & the Fire

In the course of a few days I have witnessed an almost complete 180° of emotions in the play of events around me. Yesterday was the end of the year, in the wine biz, and one could sense that in this past holiday season, we pressed that squeegee until there was no more to extract. Bone dry. Every last drop. And that’s what we do.

The good news? French wines in December made a huge rebound. Not Bordeaux, but definitely Champagne. And Italian wines? Are we celebrating yet? Yes and no. Yesterday was the Epiphany and in the world in which I revolve around, one of our colleagues brought a Rosca de Reyes, the ring of the king cake. Consider it the Latin equivalent of the Panettone, complete with a little baby Jesus inside for some lucky soul to capture and have good luck.

In these parts, the Italian sensibility is a bit more exotic and removed, so I have gladly latched onto some Latino customs. I am after all putting up scorers of jalapenos. Jalapalooza we called it. The Fire.

I am on fire. After a selling season it is hard to come down. The curtains have closed and the lights are dimming, but I am just getting my groove on. People are coming to think of Italian wine as something in their daily lives.

Flash back a generation ago, when I was just getting my bearings here. I’d go to Italy and come back home and couldn’t even find a decent espresso. Things in Italy haven’t changed that much since then – there still is a consciousness of quality, especially when it comes to food and wine and design. Sure, Italy is evolving and even regressing in some societal ways, but it isn’t difficult to find food and wine to bring one to one’s knees, on a regular basis.

The Epiphany – the tree comes down now – the little angels that my aunt and my mom made, go back into the boxes for another year.

Here, I am finding the pull of the local, the indigenous, that draws me in. My jalapenos are curing and through the cold months they will provide me with warmth and light.

There I was with a mountain of jalapeno’s and a free afternoon. I had to set the mood, so I put on a Nino Rota cd of music he composed for Fellini movies. Why not?

Cutting jalapenos to the sounds of “Suite dal balletto La Strada" or "Via Veneto E I Nobili" it was a Heaven and Hell scenario. I loved the music, but my eyes were tearing up from the pungency of the peppers. Rota also composed music for the film version of Visconti’s “Gattopardo”, Zeffirelli's “Romeo and Juliet” and Coppola’s “Godfather”, so I have grown up with the music of Nino Rota in defining moments of my life.

Odd that the music, which has been running through my head the past few days, has been a sort of a soundtrack for my life too. It has defined some of the ways I see Italy, been my sonic filter to an Italy imagined. In no way does the Italy in my head exist. But then, did Fellini’s Italy really exist? Or di Lampedusa’s? And so it goes, I lived life the past 40 years with an idea of Italy that is not real. So why should Italian winemakers listen to me when I tell them what America wants or needs? I grow Hoja Santa for my local cheese maker and put up fiery hot peppers to eat, peppers which the average Italian stomach cannot digest?

Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Montepulciano. Panettone, Rosca de Reyes and Kings cake. Christmas, Valentine’s day and Mardi Gras. Everything merges into everything.

Yes, it has been a long holiday season. Yesterday was the 37th of December, the end of a long cycle. Happy New Years. Finally.

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