Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Well I’ve never been to Heaven but I’ve been to Bufalina"

Frank Cornelissen's Etna Harvest 2013 wrap party in Austin

Etna Nov 11 - Photo:
Is wine and pizza a divine combination or a marriage of convenience? That debate is ongoing while America is enjoying a pizza renaissance as evidenced by landmark places like Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Spacca Napoli in Chicago and Kesté in New York. And while I personally enjoy a good beer with pizza, there is a surge of dedication to matching the best pizza one can make with some of the best wines on the planet.

Little old Texas, always a few years behind the trends, has been doing a fabulous job of catching up. One of the rising stars on the pizza (and wine) scene is Bufalina in Austin. Bufalina has a limited (but pristine) menu of pizza and a noteworthy wine list, which focuses on wines from Italy, France (yes, France) and California producers who hail from the natural wine school. Proprietor Steven Dilley is building a reputation as one of the most serious pizza meccas in Texas, if not beyond.

Yesterday, while in Austin for business, I was invited by Ian McCaffery (the local distrib) to Bufalina for a wine trade tasting with Frank Cornelissen. One of the high priests from the sacred mountain of Etna (to any good Sicilian boy like me) and chance had it that my ongoing Etnean fixation would be further fueled without having to go to the mountain.

Etna is in an active stage lately. The internets are fueled with images and (great) videos of recent paroxysms at La Mutagna. I asked Frank about it. “I think we are just used to it. It happens this time of the year. After the harvest it’s like the mountain is relieved to get through the harvest and is blowing off some steam.”

With that he handed me a glass of Munjebal Blanc 9, a blended skin-contact wine from Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe. Frank had finished the 2013 harvest and was on a two week jaunt across America, his importer Zev Rovine’s pop-up version of a wrap party. Very rock-star like, but as with most things that emanate from Etna, this was ultimately a grounded version.

I’m going to say this here. One only has to look into Frank’s eyes to see he was born to make wine on Etna. He has the fire in them. I’ve seen them in the eyes of indigenous winemakers from Etna, Salvo Foti and Maurizio Pagano. And while Frank is newer (and still, an outsider) one can tell he has an openness, a willingness to let life's evolution (and the mountain) take him on an amazing journey. His wines are compelling and they bring up a certain thought process, not unlike wines I’ve had from the Mosel, but in an entirely different taste profile. It is as if we aren’t really talking about the flavors of wine here, more as if the wine is a vehicle for transcendental meanderings. The Trappist nuns from the Monastero Suore Cistercensi right now, if they were to speak, would probably be hushing me and pushing me outside to go clean a vineyard, knowing full well the hole I am teetering over. But like one of my ancestors, Empedocles, I too, fling myself into the chasm, fully and willingly.

OK. Where were we? The wines.

Frank’s importer, Zev Rovine, was on hand, to curate the process. The other wines they brought were the Contadino 10, which is an entry level red blend, two Munjabel Rosso wines, the 9 and the 8, and the Susucaru 5 , a rosé.

All of the wines were showing well on this day. Steven was tending the pizza oven and sending out steaming Margherita and another pizza, Bianco with Taleggio and sausage. I thought of the smoke rings that Etna is blowing out these days, as the pizzas winged their way oven to the tasting table.

Some of Austin’s wine gentry crowded the table for sips and bits. Lewis Dixon from La Cruz de Comal, was on hand with his limited production, hands-on, natural wines for Frank and the crowd to try as well. I caught a glimpse of the two winemakers deep in conversation and mozzarella. Amazing how compelling pizza and wine bring people together.

The rosé, the Susucaru 5, took me back to June and the mountain. Not exactly the same as the Vinudilice from I Vigneri, but in spirit, yes. Again, Maurizio’s words ringing in my mind when he showed me his hands. “You cannot make wine by sitting at a desk and punching a button. You need these!” We were on our way then, as well, to get pizza from the forno. Ha!

One fellow took a sip of one of the wines and declared, “Is this wine done? Has it died?” Frank, far from being offended, replied, “There comes a time one must die, or else, what is the value of life?” As I said, some wines lead into other trails. I find all of this stimulating, as I’m standing in a pizzeria in hip East Austin, with an amazing list of wines, probably the best I have ever seen in a pizzeria in Texas. All this while Etna sent us Friar Frank.

I couldn’t help but think about all the activity on the mountain right now and ultimately the effect it has even on souls as far away as Texas. The sparks fly, and fall to the ground. They become the living soil, and the vines pull some force, their energy from it. The grapes turn into wine, and we all share in the cool liquid, what was once molten. I think of it as a miracle. Sent to us from a mountain that is simultaneously terrifying and wonderful.


Thanks to Steven Dilley and his crew at Bufalina, Zev Rovine, Ian McCaffery and Frank Cornelissen.

written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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