Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Last Time I Saw Vegas

The last time I saw Vegas, it was so long ago, the memory of it isn’t even a blip. Which isn’t all that unusual, for many people’s memories of the last time they were in Las Vegas. My story is a little different. I wasn’t gambling; I wasn’t drinking, at least not from a liquor bottle. I wasn’t staying up all night, even though my sleeping pattern, I am told, was erratic. I wasn’t stumbling, hell I wasn’t even crawling.

That’s because I was maybe all of three months old, and my family was on the only vacation we ever took. Too bad I can’t remember it.

Not that there was that much in Vegas, in those days. An occasional puff of smoke in the sky from nearby atomic bomb testing. Other than that, Vegas as we now know it hadn’t been imagined. Imagine that?

Growing up on the other side of that desert, in Palm Springs, California, it wasn’t like we didn’t have our own little pre-Vegas party going. A lot of the folks who made their fame and fortune in Las Vegas lived quieter lives in Palm Springs. The Village, folks liked to call it. It was quiet, at times. It was more of a global village, in that there were people from all over the world living there. I enjoyed it. Hell, I loved it, as a kid. Even on Saturday nights during the height of the season, when I swear I could feel the collective orgasm of thousands of shaking, wiggling bodies, in the hotels, cars and pools, grinding to the post-war beat of the 50’s and 60’s.

But Vegas, that was another story. I had managed to avoid the place, for fun, for business, all these years. Not that I consciously went out of my way not to go there. I just had other priorities. Like Italy, San Francisco, New York, France, Sicily. Ya dig?

And so when the plane finally took me and plopped me down into the 2010 Vegas landscape, can I tell you, it was a bit of a moment for me. Actually, 150,000 moments.

This is my take on Vegas, from the wine trail in Italy perspective. It was also Nevada Day, Halloween weekend and World Series time, so the town was packed. Bustling. Smoking. Walking through the casinos, I feel like I inhaled a carton of cigarettes.

So where to start? How about with Mario Batali? It was rumored he was walking around the hotel I was staying in, the Venetian. No surprise there, he has two restaurants in it and the hotel was hosting the Wine Spectator weekend, the reason why I was in Las Vegas. Work. Got it? Anyway, one in our group suggested we go to B+B for lunch. I still had my watch on Texas time so I drug myself out of the room, after a 90-minute conference call, and hightailed it down to the restaurant. Only to find it was only open for dinner. No problem, little sister restaurant, Enoteca Otto, upstairs, in the Venetian's Piazza San Marco, could accommodate our group.

After walking around the casinos, staring, looking, seeing people sitting in the same slot machine chairs for 5,6,7 hours, my batteries were a little scorched. Lungs too. So when I took the escalator up to the so-called Piazza San Marco, and saw the staged lighting (lovely, actually) and the open space (sans gaming tables) I breathed a smoke-free breathe of relief. I wasn’t in Italy, but it was a very reasonable facsimile. A colleague found me and suggested we have a pre-lunch drink. I spotted a bottle of Aperol and ordered Aperol Spritzes. Perfect way to wait for the rest of the group to join us. At this point I am finding a way to be at peace with Vegas.

Aperol, salumi, a wine list that has Italian wines on it that I like. Even a sommelier who is pleasant to talk to. He knows Italian wine well, knows I know Italian wine well, has read my blog, and starts bringing my attention to the cool wines on the list. Coenobium, the intriguing white from Monastero Suore Cistercensi. Frank Cornelissen’s Monjibel Rosso, you name it. Not just a list of Super-Duper Tuscans (Yeah, Masseto and the usual suspects were on it, this is after all, Vegas, where they might sell). Someone put together a list of really nice wines, and some good prices.

About then, Drew Hendricks and his crew walk in. Drew heads up the wine program at Pappas Bros in Texas and is also one of the founders of TexSom. Great, this gives me an excuse to order some more wines and taste them, pass them over to their table. How about some Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Valle dell’Acate? Now, we’re in a Vegas of my own choosing, now I am liking it so much more. No dark, chilly rooms, no smoke, just a plate of house-made mortadella (they sold out of culatello) and more wine. Yeah, my kind of town.

The Wine Spectator event, the reason I was sent there. Weird, just plain freekin’ weird. I went up to Christophe Baron of Cayuse. I thought I recognized him. “Are you a blogger?” I asked. “No” he answered abruptly as he reluctantly poured me a glass of his Syrah. “Are you a winemaker?” I asked. “No! I am a vigneron!” And he pulled the wine bottle back and announced for us to come back later as he wasn’t pouring any more wine. Maybe he was afraid of the Italian suit. I wasn't drunk. I wasn't being rude. I was merely asking friendly questions. Dude, I was just trying to find put more about you and your wines. No, Christophe, you aren’t a blogger. Or a winemaker. But a world class bonehead, that you are.

Thinking this had to get better, I headed over to see Randall Grahm. He recognized @italianwineguy from Twitter (that happened a lot, Facebook too) and he shared a taste of Le Cigare Volant with me. Nice guy, nice wine. Thanks, dude. Proved all Bio-dynamic winemakers aren’t jerks.

Not much Italian-centric for me to report from that event, but Vegas was an epiphany for me. All these years, in flyover country, feeling like this missionary work just wouldn’t ever end. Or at least end with a victory. Well, Italy has conquered the desert, and Vegas. And maybe it is a little caricature-ized in a grandiose and ramped up way.

I mean, is Mario Batali a God in Vegas? Perhaps. One of many, though, if he is. Vegas blows it up, magnifies it and puts a spotlight on it, for all to see. And if that comes off good, it is a good thing for all my friends and family back in Sunny Italy. In that regard, I think Vegas has been a good thing for Italian food and wine. And hopefully, in respect to things Italian, maybe what happens in Vegas won’t have to stay in Vegas.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Salone del Gusto 2010: Saffron, not Opium

Friends Hank and Phillissa Rossi are on one of their round the world trips again. Hank has a list of places in the world he wants to see and he’s been checking them off at an enthusiastic clip. The guy has wanderlust like no one else I know. Fortunately he likes to share his pictures and his travels. His travel blog is updated from his recent trip to South Africa and Italy.

I asked Hank to send a dispatch from the Slow Food Salone del Gusto, held every other year in Torino. Tierra Madre sounds wonderful; someday I hope to be in Italy at the right time. This last trip to Italy I was a few days away from being able to stay, after all it’s O-N-D time in the U-S-A. And I really have to craft a post to respond to all the emails I have been getting from winemakers, Tuscan and otherwise, who still think the American market is just standing there waiting with open arms for their wine. It’s in the works, and it will be a doozy, I promise you.

But in the meantime let’s hear from Hank:

While perusing the Salon del Gusto map of international vendors, I noticed that there was a booth selling Afghan saffron and wanted to visit. Imagine my surprise to find it not manned by Afghanis but two female soldiers of the Taurinense Alpina Brigade. They were selling the saffron to raise money for Afghanis to develop saffron as a cash crop to replace opium. Not Italians for good food but for good deeds.

A few days before we went to Torino to attend Salon del Gusto, we were watching the news and saw the nationally televised funeral of four members of Italy's Alpini killed in Afghanistan. The Alpini are Italy's elite mountain regiment. They have fought in every war Italy has been involved in since their founding in 1872. They are the oldest active mountain infantry in the world. The Alpini are permanently engaged in Afghanistan, as is our 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, NY. The Italians stopped, united as a country, to mourn the four slain Alpini. Let's raise a glass of Italian wine to the slain Alpini and their efforts to make a difference in Afghanistan, and remember their service and motto, " Di qui non si passa" They may not pass.

Grazie, Hank! Keep ‘em coming. And don’t forget to bring me some of that hot sauce from the Marche.

Enrico “Hank” Rossi on patrol in the Khyber Pass in 2007

Sunday, October 24, 2010

But deliver us from evil

On July 18, 1942, 73 young Jewish children started their journey to safety. They would end up in Nonantola, a small town near Modena. Their new home would be Villa Emma, and thanks to the courage of many, they escaped the horror of the concentration camps.

There are many stories like this told in the Italian countryside, especially in the south. But in the richer, industrial north, closer to the seat of power and in the path of the German army, to shelter 73 young Jewish kids was an act of courage that put so many lives at risk.

Walking through the villa, now part shrine and part working balsameria (a place where balsamic vinegar is made) there are all manner of emotions that jump out, even to the casual tourist. This day we were visiting the Giacobazzi family and their balsamic vinegar operations. They now own Villa Emma.

We had been to an olive oil factory, to a Prosciutto plant and to a dairy where they made Parmigiano. We had been to a winery, and as we were driving towards the Villa Emma I saw the name Giacobazzi and thought of the 1970’s when so much of their Lambrusco invaded the American shelves. That era of the business is over now, but the vinegar business is stronger than ever. In fact, in America it is often hard to find vinegar that doesn’t have the name balsamic on it. A sad note that most vinegar labeled balsamic is a ghostly shadow of the real thing.

We stopped at the Fattorie Giacobazzi near Modena and tasted their products at a nearby restaurant with food. I normally do not like the sweeter style of vinegar, but we were in a center of traditional production and it made all the difference in the world. The wines and foods and vinegars paired beautifully on that day, from appetizer to dessert. But that doesn't seem too important right now.

This post isn’t about wine or food or even vinegar. No, it’s about the Italian spirit that created a space for young lives to continue. The same space that fosters grapes into vinegar, become something greater than the wine it might have been destined to become. Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, along with a few other native grapes, Sorbara, Salamino, Ancellotta. Their lives transformed.

The upper floor is quiet, serene, like a chapel, filled with ancient kegs of vinegar, from a family that has been keeping it up for more than 200 years. It was like walking through a living mausoleum of family history. The hands of the grandparents and great grandparents, still in evidence in the rooms. The closest thing to life beyond our sentence of 50-70-90 years. Immortality? No. But something greater than just a few moments in the spotlight. And with something to show, to share, for those who come after.

The Jewish survivors, who are no longer young, come back to Villa Emma. They bring their children and their grandchildren, to show them a place, and a time, that honored their beliefs and their lives. And this place lives on to honor the traditions of the elders who toiled in those rooms at the top of the villa. The same villa that sheltered 73 young, scared, homeless, children who had lost most of their family in a war and a sin against humanity. Now they come back to celebrate the victory of good over evil. And toast the victory with the sweet balsamic of the ages from the villa.

Note: this post was written as a result of being on an invited tour of Emilia and Tuscany by the Italian Trade Commission

Friday, October 22, 2010

I ♥ Lambrusco

I must have driven through the region a hundred times. Never stopped. Always on my way to somewhere more important. Alba, Montalcino, Fiumicino, Ciampino. It was often a spot on the highway where I’d zone out. It was flat. It was boring. I was tired. We’d already been to too many places for Italian wine.

And then I spent a few days in the region. No Brunello, no Barolo. I remembered back home, my pal Paul and his love for the stuff. He had people driving all the way from Beaumont, Shreveport, and Abilene to Dallas to get the fizzy wine from him. I didn’t pay any attention to it. Figured they were people who just hadn’t developed a taste for Italian wine and were stuck in a genre. Boy, was I wrong.

I had just finished a very long meeting with Italian apparatchiks, listening to their boring speeches and then listening to the translations. And then having to listen to the Italian speaker correct the translator as to the way she incorrectly translated him. It was long. It was tedious. Staring at the ceiling. Here I was again in this area, not on the highway this time, but the same sensation. Boredom. And then someone announced that lunch was being served and everyone came to life.

I don’t remember ever having had a meal standing up in Italy, except for at an Autogrill or Vinitaly. There was an array of foods from the area, cured meats, cheeses, some over béchameled lasagne, a scant few greens. And over in the corner there was some radioactive looking green fizzy kiwi juice and a bucket of wine. A winemaker came up to me and started pouring me his sparkling Malvasia. Nice. And then his sparkling rosé that he named after his beautiful wife. I liked his wife better. And then he poured me his Lambrusco. And the lights went on.

This was the kind of wine I wanted when I would go into a restaurant in my hometown. I’d probably never find it, though. It wasn’t cool enough for Dallas. Not big and voluptuous with lots of poofy hair and mammalian charm. It was a little subtler than that.

It was tasty. I sucked the first glass down. I feared the afternoon of headache from drinking red wine syndrome. It happens to me. I didn’t need that, what with the nose bleed syndrome that was cramping my style. But I went in for another glass. Wow, this was an epiphany!

Several days later we were at a dairy/bar/salumeria and the same wine popped up. I had a glass. And then another Lambrusco showed up. And I had another glass. After my last two-glass-of-red-wine-lunch-with-no-headache I wanted to test the waters. And the wine was sooo good. I was hooked.

A day or so after that lunch we were in Modena at Antica Moka and another Lambrusco was being poured, strange looking bottle. Looking big. Looking important. Lambrusco di Sorbara “Vecchia Modena” by Cleto Chiarli. I gave it a try. Wow, it was even better than the other two I’d had.

I had this as we were heading out of Emilia towards Lucca and Viareggio. So my little Lambrusco affair was over as soon as it had started. But I will return. This is too good to let another 20 years pass by. I’ll be back.

I ♥ Lambrusco

Note: this post was written as a result of being on an invited tour of Emilia and Tuscany by the Italian Trade Commission

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Speed-dating in the Maremma

Love means never having to say you're Syrah

On my last trip to Italy, a colleague asked me to sit in for him at a B2B in Grosseto. Mind you, my dance card is full when it comes to Italian wines, but hey, I was there and so I said, "Sure, why not."

After a very late night on a path from Parma to Modena to Lucca to Viareggio (in one day), we headed out very early down the sunny West Coast. This area is growing on me, seeing as I get there more often, lately, than my home state of California. So I pretend I am going from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, but with really good Italian restaurants along the way. It makes traveling easier, especially with hard beds, flat pillows, haunted rooms and any number of improvised showers one finds in Italian hotel bathrooms.

So we arrive to the hotel for the B2B, and a few sleepy eyed producers of wine are setting up their tables and opening wines. My two young Italian handlers, Michela and Giovanna, amble up to me with a list. "Here are your appointments today, Mr. Cevola." Fifteen appointments with producers of Morellino, Montecucco and any number of fantasy Tuscan wines, red and white. I gaze at the list and know this will be a long day, a marathon, something akin to speed dating with potential wine partners.

It wasn't my first rodeo with Morellino

The first one is a bright young lad; he represents one of the first producers of Morellino in the area. Little does he know, when they shoot out dates, that I have older bottles of Morellino in my closet back home, standing like Etruscan sentries, frozen in time and probably art this time, as lifeless as the statues in the nearby archeological museum.

Fifteen minutes later I head to the next table, a sunny and tanned young man, about 35, who makes 6,000 cases of wine. He has a young wife one son and a daughter on the way. He is the future, having been inspired by his nonno to live the life of a farmer. I kid him that his Ferragosto tan still looks fresh. He laughs. "Yes I wish. The harvest, we just finished it. This is the life." I know. I know.

The next, a couple, has an unusual setup. They look out of place, but not uncomfortable, in this setting. I taste their wines. They are brilliant. No oak, no steel, no manipulation. They have been reading from the same chapter and verse as many of the young, up and coming winemakers from around the world. In my time, they would have been called hippies, but they are brighter, and have that yoga-glow from peering into their future and setting their course. They make very little wine, but this is the kind of wine I want to drink. I give them the name of a friend in NY who really needs to talk to them, and they hand me their brochure with their agriturismo. How I would love to spend a few days there.

But their 15 minutes are up and I must move to the next table. A young man, looking a little like John Candy is pouring me his wine, as bulk offering. He looks nervous, sweat is pouring off his forehead.

His wine: the nose stinks of sulfur. I mention to him the bottle might be off. He opens another. It isn’t as bad, but I notice a thread in his style. Too much sulfur. My already suffering nose is twitching inside; I am fearing another nose bleed. I make quick work of this visit. No further dates will be necessary.

Next table, an older man, he says something to the interpreter, and she turns beet red. He recognized her, and she was startled. I look at his hands, the hands of a farmer, cracked nails, with dirt and stones wedged between the fissures. I don’t know why but I ask him if he has always been doing this. He looked the part, after all, but I was interviewing my "dates" so the questions started coming out a little more spontaneously. Seems he was a computer person in his last life, in Torino (of course) and was responsible in the very beginning of the computer age for setting up the computerized power grid for the city. His wines were rustic in a Tondonia way. But I just couldn’t relate to them. Or the prices.

Morellino, in its basic incarnation, is a lovely wine. Think simple Beaujolais with a sunnier disposition and a little less spice. All along this trip the wines that have resonated with me have been on the lighter side. The Lambrusco from Sorbara I had in Modena. The Etna Rosso we opened in Grosseto later that night. And Morellino that wins my heart, or at least another dance, has lightness in the taste that isn’t heavy, isn’t brooding. There are people who recognize the nature of Morellino and aren’t trying to Brunello-super-size it.

Mind you, there is still too much Merlot and Cabernet and Syrah and Petite Verdot in the Maremma for my taste. Next table.

Another young producer is in love with the Super Tuscan model. I ask him, again a spontaneous questioning, how Merlot and Cabernet found their way to the coast? "Oh, it has been here all my life."

It has been here all my life. That is how these things get their start. Someone, centuries ago, from another tribe and in another language, on this spot said the very same thing about the Ansonica.

The Green Mile

I head to another table, a young woman she is ruddy-faced, looking more Irish than Tuscan. She makes Montecucco, both the Sangiovese and the blends (with those intl grapes). But her Sangiovese Montecucco, again, is a more authentic expression, you can smell the land, the touch isn’t heavy, there are not oversaturated flavors from Cabernet or wood.

And so it goes, for 10 hours, with a short break for lunch.

At the last table, I am exhausted. My nose is shot, my back is sore, my feet are swollen from sitting and Sangiovese and salt from too many cured meat tastings. I want to go home, drink water, put my feet up and listen to some Bob Wills. Fat chance, Leroy, for there is a wine bar and a box of samples from one of my "steadies" waiting for me at the haunted hotel we will check into. It's going to be a long night, with more crazy stuff for another post, or two.

Piazza Dante in Grosseto: the inspiration for the Dr. Zaius character

Note: this post was written as a result of being on an invited tour of Emilia and Tuscany by the Italian Trade Commission

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Profuse & Pulchritudinous Parmigiano Porn

Photos from the "Say cicciolata" collection"

Cheese is my heroin,” is a phrase I often use, especially when I am faced with a mountain of Parmigiano. I have gotten over my affliction in the last year, now it is less an addiction than an indulgence. Recently, in Medesano at Azienda Agricola Bertinelli, Mohammed came to the mountain. Feast your eyes on the prize.

Godiamo, la tazza, la tazza e il cantico,
la vorgna abbella e il riso;
la vorgna questo, in questo paradiso ne scopra il nuovo dì.

The Drinking song from La Traviata Lyrics by Giussepe Verdi,who was born near where these images were taken

A little cheese, a little salumi, a little Lambrusco, you get the idea

Once again with the lovely protective clothing

Nicola Bertinelli, the animated proprietor.

What's life without a little cicciolata once in a while, eh?

Note: this post was written as a result of being on an invited tour of Emilia and Tuscany by the Italian Trade Commission

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pardon me, if I'm sentimental

I just got back from little 'ol Ittly and I knows y’all wants me to ante up on this here Eye-talian trip. I promise all y’all I’m fixin’ to unload a whole kettle full of memories (My pix here if ya just can't wait). But for them of you who never made it to Dallas in the fall for the Great State Fair of Texas, shame on ya!

In the meantime, enjoy the absolutely awesomest pictures ever made at the best fair in the whole wide world. Teresa Rafidi is a great shooter and a friend and she gave me permission to post these pix from yesterday. But don’t y’all steal them without giving her due credit, ya hear me? See more of her work here. It oughta be against the law to be as good as she is, but I'm glad she is.

The food, the crowds, the weather, and just being back home, home where I feel the best in the world. Even with all this gol’darn pollen.


Pardon me, if I'm sentimental
When we say goodbye
Don't be angry with me should I cry
When you're gone, yet I'll dream
A little dream as years go by
Now and then there's a fool such as I

Lyrics from A Fool Such As I by Bill Trader

Photography by Teresa Rafidi © All rights reserved

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