Sunday, March 16, 2014

Great Fast-Track Resources to Learn More About Italian Wine

Sara Maule of Nino Negri at Caracol in Houston w/wine director Sean Beck
In the past week, while on the road with Sara Maule of Nino Negri, we encountered many questions about Valtellina wine and Italian wine in general. Sommeliers, wine lovers, retail store managers, the list goes on. People ask me, all the time, what they can do to get a clearer picture on Italian wines. Here are some ideas

First, go to as many public (or trade) events as possible to talk with the winemaker and taste their wine. Just like anything, practice is paramount. Taste everything you can. Make notes and find a way to catalog them. In Houston, two wine buyers, Antonio Gianola and Sean Beck, have taken their wine notes to a high level. In the case of Antonio, he has a photographic memory. He keeps his notes in small booklets and refers to them when needed. Sean, who oversees wine programs at four restaurants in Houston, now takes his notes on an IPad. He uses key words so he can search back on them when he is looking for some specific wine. These two gents have set an example worth following. And while not all of us are blessed to have a memory like Antonio or an insatiable curiosity like Sean, again, the key word is practice.

Sara Maule (L) pours Vigna Fracia to Mai Pham (R) at
Houston Wine Merchant (w/Antonio Gianola in background)
With someone like Sara Maule, whose family rewrote the history of Valtellina wine in the 20th century, this is a chance to focus in on a pretty esoteric region. Sara took two sommelier groups through the Valtellina in words and in wine, last week in Dallas and Houston. Hers was not a fluffy presentation, although by the enthusiasm and energy Sara displayed one might have thought she was merely cheerleading. What Sara does is very clever. Her energy is contagious. But her knowledge is deep. She is one of a new generation of Italian who will take us well into the 21st century. But she does it with maps, with full knowledge of the terrain, the laws, and the minute details. If you are studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Society of Wine Educators or for the WSET, Sara’s information is relevant and will help you answer some of the question those institutions ask on their tests. But she also imbues a love for the wines of Valtellina, which are uncommonly wonderful. By the way, these are not just for the wine trade. Most people can join these groups is the desire is there.

Photo - courtesy of Italian Wine Central
I have been touting the wine site, Italian Wine Central, for a while. Geralyn and Jack Brostrom offer a no-drama approach to learning more about Italian wine. Do you need to know about the grapes, the appellations, upcoming changes, the real grit of Italian wine laws? Look here first. When I'm looking for more information in the English language, Italian Wine Central is my first stop.

Photo - courtesy of Michael Horne's Dall'Uva
Michael Horne’s Parla Vino? How to Pronounce Italian Wine Names. On his Dall’Uva site, Michael provides a pronunciation primer. This is also easily accessed on an iPhone and iPad, so if you are somewhere and need a fast answer, you won’t be paying for higher bandwidth charges for video viewing. It’s short, sweet and to the point. Both great sources for the non-Italian speaker.

 Guild Somm's "The Wines of Barolo and Barbaresco"
@GuildSomm is making beautiful videos about Italian wine country. These are not too long (about ten minutes) and are wonderful in that they offer escape and instruction at the same time. Currently three Italian videos are offered, The Wines of Tuscany, The Wines of Barolo and Barbaresco and The Wines of Alto Adige. Not to be missed. Let me say this again: Not to be missed. Great visual work, team!

If you want to get visceral and do some actual work in the fields, there are opportunities. One special one coming up in a few weeks is part 2 of the Scuola pratica di antica viticoltura Etnea - School of applied traditional Etnean viticulture that Salvo Foti and Maurizio Pagano hold on Etna. The course is divided into three modules, January- Module 1: Preparation and Regeneration/March- Module 2: Rebirth/June- Module 3: Preparing for Fruition.

Salvo Foti and Maurizio Pagano lead the Etna viticultural sessions
Each module costs €1,150 or €3,200 for all three, and does not include transportation to Etna or accommodations. While this might be an economic challenge to many, the opportunity to work on La Mutagna with Salvo and Maurizio is the chance of a lifetime. I would love to do at least one of these modules.

What the hands on experience offers is the visceral connection. You are in it, on it, it’s all around you. You are steeped in the terroir and that leaves a lasting impression. Etna isn’t the only place, but this is full immersion in a way one can only dream of.

This is just the tip of the many opportunities one can have to learn more about Italian wine. Consider these few suggestion from my list of shortcuts to getting to understanding Italian wine better.

So often I hear people lament that they just cannot understand Italian wine. My response is “Does the fact that you look at a piano or guitar and don’t know how to play it confound you? If it does and you want to know more, then you must embark upon a course in which you learn to play the instrument.” Italian wine is similar. It’s isn’t as confusing as it is complex. It takes time and it requires patience. And practice. But the rewards are great.


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