Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bordeaux 2009 ~ It’s Complicated

Out of the hotel room at 7:30AM to meet the group I am traveling with. We have a 9:00 appointment and the rain has become “la plunge.” In Texas it’s what we call a turd-floater.

First sense is that 2009, you are no 2005. But you might resemble 1982 more than we might know. That said, I highly doubt whatever I think about the relative stability of the situation will affect the outcome- there will be buyers for these wines at whatever cost the owners think they can get. As one young technical director of a winery told me over lunch, “The Bordeaux wineries are opportunistic. If they think they can get the money they want, they will ask for it.” And seeing as it is a “niche” market and there is only so much to go around, and after all, Bordeaux is still the center of the wine world carousel that goes round and round.

The eerie similarity between 1982 and 2009 refers as much to the economic conditions that surround the vintage as the quality of the harvest. In 1982, A young Robert Parker glowed over the results and America and the world swallowed the wines up. Now the wine world doesn’t need a Parker as much it did then, although they aren’t throwing him out of the game. On the contrary, his critical acclaim can build the momentum, augment the kabuki dance to a staccato frenzy. I saw it today, ever so slightly in the halls with the young buyers from Asia. One young couple I observed went so far as to employ that mise en place as a setting for their public foreplay. Bordeaux as way to channel their unchained sexual energy – it was strange, but in today’s world where so many cultures are converging, why should it shock?

For me the shock is more the one of the economic differences between the owners and the worker bees and the disconnect between the money and the labor. It still takes a force of pickers and laborers to bring in the grapes from the lowly Cru Bourgeois to the loftiest First and Super-Second growths. But the two factors often don’t share the same societies. I see it as I go from polished chateau to modern palace. The divide is glaring - a mirror to the culture that it comes from.

Where is the opportunity for any kind of convergence? If there can be a hope it will be with the generation that is coming up – those who are inheriting this mess. From the managers who run the estates to the souls in the shops and on the floors of the restaurants, men, women, European, Asian, American. Worker bees included.

You thought you were going to get tasting notes? Please, James Suckling does notes (and scores) so much better. And Parker is preparing. Along with all the merchants and masters who are crawling all over the place in the wine world that the whole world is watching for the next few days. Or for those on the wine trail in Italy, until Vinitaly starts after Easter.

Again, not many answers, many more questions.

Again, an 18 hour day. Sorry mom, this is no vacation.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bordeaux 2009 ~ On the Prowl for the Big Fish

What a lesson from the Masters it is - to stand before them and watch as they explain a miracle that finds itself inside a bottle. We’re talking those who are talented, really talented, the top of the world of wine, the center of the wine trade. In a way for me, usually found on the wine trail in Italy, it is a little like going to a mountaintop and not knowing the country or the world I have found myself in. But nonetheless there is a profound manifestation of a natural cycle. Then, it is also like watching the big cats as they prowl the savannah. One must be sure to remain alert so as not to become prey.

Those who know me, they know I don’t buy into Bordeaux just because it is – I am a very curious person by nature, albeit somewhat introspective. And that is really what this journey to France is – more about how I think about wine than how someone is going to sell me on another vintage of the decade. For sure the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux is special – I can see it in the gestures, the excitement, the light behind the eyes. But it is also like being inside a bubble, like rare tropical fish that have been captured and put into a special tank. No longer are the fish swimming in their original nature.

Bordeaux is a proto-natural situation, a kabuki dance of the wine world. They are very, very good at it. One with an open mind and an observant heart can learn from these who master the modern wine world.

Think back to the Ancient world, say, 2,500 years ago. We could have had this discourse over the wines from Campania, at the time the center of the wine world. What would we have considered from these winemakers for Caesar, the emperor of the Western world? Another time, another bubble, now dissolved and pushed off the stage for another play.

It really is a beautiful dance, the play between the winemaker, the chateau, the negociant, the wine shop and all the players in the middle, on the side and in the center of this current campaign.

What do I say to a winery that makes 20,000 cases of wine? What do they say to me? “We are a niche market,” is what I am told. “We do not need everyone to want us, just a few in the world, here and there.” Really an interesting idea, this world view. America, Japan, China, we have all become their consorts, desired but not loved. Nor should love be part of it; after all isn’t finding some of the best places in the world for some of the greatest grapes love enough? Think about it – you can find a perfectly decent Cabernet from Chile, for say, $15, and how could wine from that same grape fetch $50, $200, $1000 and be rationalized?

Well, it cannot be rationalized. Any more than Picasso’s abstract art can be seen as a representation of realism.

Art, commerce, agriculture, spin, mirrors, barrels, sweat – wine in a glass, meant to capture an essence – in the final racking, one could no more put a price on it, whether it be $5 or $5,000, that would change what its fundamental nature is.

And what, pray tell is it?

As we swim around in this bubble this week, I hope to find an answer or two.

Or better, more questions.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Duex De Pâques with my Pu-er-ile Peeps in Paris

A short stopover in Paris on our way to the 2009 Primeurs in Bordeaux. And while the reason for the visit is to taste the Bordeaux 9 and get a feel for the latest vintage of the decade, we had to stop in Paris, one of my favorite cities on this little green orb we call Earth.

But first, le acclimatation. And the only proper way is to drink a little wine, eat a little cheese and sample chocolate from two of the best sources in the world, Denise Acabo’s A l’Etoile D’Or and Jacques Genin’s eponymous and very tony chocolate boutique. Denise had the peeps that make all the rest shrivel in embarrassment for their lowly origin.

More on these two places soon, along with the wonderful (and way over-the-top) cheese plate served to our table at the venerable Restaurant Astier. Cheese, chocolate, wine and how to restore oneself, but with the rare and wonderful Pu Er, (a vintage 1998 harvest tea).

I am posting this on the fly; we have an early appointment with a barrel sample at Chateau Margaux.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ain't nothin' purdier than a spread of Texas BBQ

'cept maybe a plat of traditionnel Coq au Vin comme à Juliénas

After just getting up from a table filled with all sorts of French delicacies, from Croustade de Pieds de Veau aux truffles to Pissenlits, lardons et oeuf poché, Quenelles de brochet comme à Nantua to Tripes maison en marmite lute, traditionnel Coq au Vin comme à Juliénas to Poulet à la Crème, au Vin Jaune et aux Morilles, and I still cannot get that Texas barbecue out of my head. Two weeks ago we finished up our Wine Waltz across texas with Stefano Illuminati, and decided to throw a good ‘ol Texas meal in front of him to thank Stefano for a week worked hard. Some old friends, from Sausage Paul to Cheese Diva Paula along with a handful of old friend “in the biz.”

One of the old friends, Steve Conner, brought out some oldie but goodies from his wine closet, a 1995 Vieux Telegraph Chateauneuf du Pape, which was stunningly beautiful (Stefano’s favorite of the night). But to my mind the 1967 Avondo Spanna was a perfect wine for the food. Creamy, still filled with fruit, but a tawny, mature depth that matched well with the smoky quality of the ribs and the brisket. Jeff Miller and Stefano were in Ft. Worth on that day and secured the meats from The Railhead Smokehouse. Now we’re talking West Texas BBQ! Along with that Hank and Phylissa Rossi brought a beautiful potato salad and of course we had a spread of Paula Lambert's cheeses, including the Hoja Santa wrapped goat cheese, which was grown right outside the door where we were celebrating.

The kicker of the night was when I brought out my home made Jalapenos, which are hotter than Dante’s 9 layers of Hell. I tell you, I can barely eat them, and I love the things. Why else would I have put up 12 pounds of them last fall? But Stefano, he ate them like they were pickles, no pain. I earned a whole new level of respect for Stefano with that.

I’ll be blogging over the next several posts about the 2009 Bordeaux harvest, or what I like to call The Bordeaux 9. The center of the wine world has often been Bordeaux and there is a lot of interest in the harvest and in the moves the Bordelaise are going to make with this highly regarded vintage. James Suckling has already written that the "2009 Vieux-Château-Certan was just too good" right now out of the barrel. And there have been hints on Twitter and elsewhere that he is comparing the 2009 Mouton to 1982 and 1986 (100 point territory?). I’ll be tasting these wines too, and will Tweet as well as post here.

Why, one asked me? It isn’t Italian wine? Nor is Napa Cabernet. But it is the world of wine and both regions, Bordeaux, and Napa represent a luxury product in a troubled economic time. To see how they explain, or sell, or maneuver, is instructional for all of us. Besides, wine is a miracle, whether it comes from a Chateau or a Bricco.

Tonight I was sitting across a gentlemen I know. A lawyer. 72 years old. And I swear he was channeling Alice Feiring when he said, “ I am looking for wines that have terroir. I am tired of tasting wines that all taste international. They make me feel like I am starting out all over again, because I don’t know how to identify them.” You gotta feel for the old guy, because if he is saying it, then it isn't some teabag-fringe element that is behind it - wines with character and flavor and honesty about their origin is in the mainstream of concern.

And yes, Alice we were on our way to Le Verre Volé wine bar, but alas we ran into a bottle of Calvados and it got to be too late. Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


By now our wine waltz across Texas has taken us back to Dallas. In less than 100 hours we’ve gone from Dallas to Houston to Austin and back to Dallas. But as the proverb goes about the month of March which comes roaring in “like a lion”, so the wine biz is as well. Long hours- eating, tasting, meeting with clients, friends, little sleep, rush to another town, another appointment. Where did we put our guitars?

People say all the time, “Oh, what a great job you all have.” It is. And the hours are long. But the time spent is rewarding.

The time spent. Where do those hours, days, week, years go?

Almost 100 years ago, my grandfather Alfonso, and my dad Luigi, stood on the corner of St. Paul and Pacific in downtown Dallas. My dad was barely two and my grandfather was all of 22, running his shoe shop.

This afternoon Stefano Illuminati are I are standing 100 feet from the spot where they stood, waiting to go into a new restaurant to have lunch with friends and clients.

A couple of us go back, not quite 100 years, with the Illuminati wines and their history in Texas. Guy Stout, long time friend and colleague, has been uber-passionate about the wines of Abruzzo. Guy and Dino share a love for wine and the table. Both love to eat. And wine? Dino and Guy are legendary for their prowess in the drinking department. But all for the love of the grape.

In making appointments for Vinitaly, which is coming up soon, I am noticing that I’m going to be spending more time this year in the Abruzzo pavilion. Is this Abruzzo’s moment? Has the sun, which has shined on the Tuscan world all these years finally turning its light toward Abruzzo? If Illuminati and the other winemakers from Abruzzo are asked, they will tell you “it’s time.” I would say it’s about time.

But isn’t it all about time?

A generation ago, Stefano and I, lean and dark haired, stood outside the burgeoning winery in one of many trips to Abruzzo.

This collection of essays which have appeared here as part of what I call On the Wine Trail in Italy often take us back to Italy. But in real time I haven’t been to Italy in a year. This past year has been one to mark on the road, surely, but back in the trenches, in the American market, shoring up the business. The last year has been a tough one for business. There is a lot of fear - fear of loss. I’ve had my share of emails from winemakers, importers, managers that have expressed trepidation.

The harvest from fear doesn’t make a good wine. Looking back at the picture of my grandfather, I see his stained clothes. It tells me that it is time to stay busy; to get some dirt under the nails is not a bad thing. The harvest of many years of friendship and camaraderie produces a joy, an esprit de corps, that doesn’t improve from the centrifugation of anxiety.

And while it does look glamorous in a rock star kind of way, all this traveling, eating, drinking wine, fancy clothes, the whole panorama of the wine trail, the reality is (as my friend Sam Levitus likes to say) that for at least the next 100 weeks we have a lot of work to do to bring the markets back up. And that will involve a lot of sweat, a lot of dirt under the nails, to set the next generation, and the next 100 years, on a course where the waltz of life will harvest the Dream that America was, and still is, to this Italian soul.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stefano Illuminati's Big Night @ Sausage Paul's

I had never seen Paul DiCarlo so happy. He was bubbly. Bubbly! And giddy too - a sign that Spring is near. He was cooking for Stefano Illuminati and this was gonna be a Big Night.

As Damian Mandola is accomplished in his penetration of America with his brand of Italianism, Paul cuts a different swath. Fiercely proud, a single store operator. Always on duty. Family Man. Huge gift of a man to Italian wine and food. Paul really does keep the world safe for Italian wine. An Italian-American Ambassador Emeritus.

The place that he and his siblings run, what I call the Greatest Italian wine and food store in America, is one of a handful of places I have found in my life where the doors to things Italian, the work of my life, are wide open.

In a world filled with the daily pressures of competition, quotas and vast expectations, it’s a rare thing to have a place like Paul’s where one can bring their friends and their friend’s treasures from the Italian earth and celebrate them in such a simple and direct manner with the people of one’s community. It really does make it all worthwhile.

Grazie, amici.

Cooking for 40 people, 7 wines, multiple courses. Teamwork. All family on deck.

Precious, simply precious.

There goes the diet!

Day 4, wine dinner #2 - A full week - Stefano is a rock star!

Filling orders faster than we can take them

Final moments, the raffle and a nod to the Abruzzo flag

Just one order of many in a Sold Out Night. Stefano and Joe cart it out to one very happy (and lucky) client

Two more days to go.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

...and on the 2nd day of Spring


Dale Watson @Ginny's ~ Photo by Ike

A quick trip to Austin for a couple of meetings and work landed us smack dab in the middle of SXSW. Commitments at home had us heading right back to Dallas, but a huge storm delayed the return. Stuck in hill country, where my son is working, we decided to stick it out as long as we could and then braved the raging torrents. Little did we know we’d run right into another winter storm and more snow.

Thank goodness we got our fill at Cooper's in Llano; don’t know when we’ll dig ourselves out of this one.

One thing I know for sure, my schedule in a week looks like this and I’m gonna have to get back on the wine trail, snow or mo’ snow. I'll have the last installments of the Illuminati Chronicles before then.

In other news

This week in Austin, friends and clients had a little discussion around the dinner table over matching food and beverage. The place was Uchi, and we decided to order beer, sake and an Italian white, the unusual and wonderful Coenobium, to sample with the delicious tastes that showed up on our table. It’s all part of another big story, in another place. Just a little teaser and an exercise in drinking outside (and inside) the box.


Several of my dear friends have lost their parents this past week in Houston. Lynette Hawkins, who is a long time friend and has a wonderful restaurant, Giacomo’s, lost her father, Sheldon "Hawk" Hawkins. Lynette’s mother passed away a few years ago after losing a 30 year battle with MS. When her father became a widower, Lynette took her father in and made sure he was never alone. Lynette, I’ll say it for your dad now, He couldn’t have asked for a more loving daughter.

My other friends, the Mandola's, Vincent, Damian, Tony and their sisters Rose and Margaret Ann and their family lost their dear mother and matriarch of the Mandola family, Grace Testa Mandola. A lot of us thought of Grace as our second mother and loved her, so I can only say it with the deepest sorrow that she will be missed by her family and her friends for a long, long time. I am sorry I cannot be there tomorrow with the Mandola’s but I will remember my last visit with Grace a few weeks ago. She reminded me of my own mom, who is a year older than Grace at 95, both full of life and energy. Grace was sitting in the Vincent Mandola’s kitchen, snapping the ends off of beans. She still came to work several days a week, always with a zest for life. Grace, you were dearly loved and will be missed deeply as well.

We’ll keep a pit of suga on the stove and save a place for both of you at the table, always…

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Success in America, One Bottle at a Time

Stefano Illuminati "emphasizing" to Jeff Miller

The Wine Waltz across Texas with an Italian goes like this. Start in Dallas. Rent a mini-van. Drive (4 ½ hours) to Houston. Lunch appointments, meeting, dinner event. Next day, work the Houston market with salespeople, usually another lunch appointment with clients, sommeliers, buyers. Then a late afternoon sales meeting. Drive to Austin. Get to Austin late. Long days. Tired. Hungry. That’s where we found ourselves on this particular portion of the wine trail, rolling into Downtown Austin, near the Capitol, in search of some mighty fine pizza.

As we were driving from Houston to Austin we were rolling past one great BBQ place after another. I felt guilty because I know the Illuminati family love roasted meats. Anyone who has visited the Illuminati winery and been invited to eat at the Luperia, their on sight dining room, has had the pleasure of tasting great meats, (not to mention pasta, appetizers, you name it) with the wines of Illuminati. Great hospitality and the perfect way to show the wines of Abruzzo and their place on the gastronomic Italian proscenium

I’m not sure Stefano was thinking about his family’s place in the scheme of things that night. We were tired, we were hungry. He was jet lagged. We had close to a three hour drive and it had been less than 48 hours since he had landed in Texas with barely a moment to relax. “Alfonso, I need to buy my boys some gifts. Do you think we will have time?” Not yet Stefano, we have an appointment with a pizza oven.

Quattro Gatti on Congress in Austin was where we were to meet one of our salespeople. Well not just any salesperson, one who I met through the blogosphere, became friends, introduced to her husband, became their best man at their wedding. In other words, family. Added bonus, fluent in Italian, albeit with a Southern twang (Stefano commented on how she did not look like someone from Campania for sounding so much like one). Any way, the stars aligned, the oven was kicking out pizza, we were set.

A gorgeous pizza arrived, and then another one, the Montanara. A Bottle of Fiano from Mastroberardino appeared, and the Naples-Austin vortex started twitching. We are a few days out in front of SXSW, the annual gathering of musical talent combined with geekdome's most eloquent attenders. A little Burning Man, a little Haight-Ashbury, throw a love-in or two, and a high-speed conduit between the rest of the world and the current center of it, Austin, and, well, you just have to come to Austin to experience it.

Stefano ordered a pasta dish with clams. I was a little worried, because I know where he lives, San Benedetto del Tronto, and clams from there (and the pasta) are a true expression of la cucina Italiana. Yeah, yeah, we give it tons of lip service in the US, but in Stefano’s town, they walk the walk. But hey, the dish showed up and Stefano seemed pleased. I was too busy munching the pizza and anticipating the Branzino Al Forno.

And the Branzino? Well, take a look. It was perfect. Fish, salt, lemon, oil, parsley, five ingredients. Simplicity. Perfection. And with the Fiano? Austin is transmitting the signals from the Mother Ship with perfection.

After dinner (and the restaurant service) we finished up with a tasting of the wines with the owner, heading out around 10:30 to the hotel. The next day, Get up early get to a 9:00 AM sales meeting and tasting and then work the market, concluding with a stop at Fonda San Miguel, and finishing up out in Driftwood with a wine dinner for 80 people with Damian Mandola. Damian and Stefano have known each other for 25+ years. Damian was in Texas before heading out to his other home in Piedmont the next day. “Why don’t y’all come to the house for drinks, I'd love for the kids and my wife to see Stefano. “

Damian lives large. Big house. Lots of them. Big Family. Lots of them. Big restaurants. Lots of them. Big heart. Only one. Now spending half his time in Italy, his understanding of Italian food, especially how to present to America, has made him famous and wealthy. But we kind of remember him like we always have, a good guy with a big heart.

The dinner for 80 (at Trattoria Lisina) for 80 was spot on- great food, great wine, lots of friendly folk out in wine country. You have to experience it to believe it. The other day I got a call from my son wanting me to come out and visit him, near Marble Falls. “You won’t believe it, Pop, it looks like California or Italy out here in the vineyards.” I’m a believer, up until the point comes when it’s 100°F and humidity at 85% and snakes start slithering around between the vines.

Well, I have reached the 820 word point, so it’s time to wrap this one up. I’m sure I’ve lost the scanners and the folks who don’t read past the jump, and I can’t say I blame ‘em. I’ve been pretty wordy. And I’ve gotten a little mommy blogging lately. With Dr. P on the Barbera road, someone had to carry the torch. But he should be back by now, so I’ll get out of here real quick and pass the baton.

Stefano is a trouper. We hung with Damian till 10:30, another late night, and said our goodbyes. We have to get up and leave the hotel at 7:00 AM to drive to Dallas for a 10:30AM appointment. We’re waltzing two days on the road so far, with three more to go, before we skedaddle him back to Italy. More to come.

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