“Wonderful Tonight”: Alicia Lini, Leonard Lopate, and Patti Boyd

August 31, 2007

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Above: Alicia and I did a tasting for Wolfgang Weber, who covers Italian wine for Wine & Spirits, on Wednesday at Centovini.

It’s been a long and arduous week and I have to admit I’ve seen brighter days. But yesterday brought professional reward and an unbelievable surprise.

Back in February of this year, I traveled to Reggio Emilia, Italy with my colleague Jim Hutchinson in search of a new Lambrusco for Domenico Valentino Selections (he’s the import manager and I do some consulting for them). After lunching at one of my all-time favorite restaurants in downtown Reggio, Da Canossa, we headed out to the countryside where we tasted at a number of wineries but didn’t find what we were looking for. We spent the night in Pieve di Cento where we dined with my old friends Dindo and Puddu at my friend Gilberto Buriani’s restaurant, Da Buriani.

The next day we headed to our last appointment at Lini, where we met the lovely Alicia Lini and her father Fabio. And it was there that our quest was fulfilled: Alicia’s wines were fantastic and she and her father were thrilled at the prospect of doing business with Domenico Valentino. In the end, the company decided to import her white Lambrusco (very unusual, a white wine made from red Lambrusco Salamino grapes), a classic Lambrusco Sorbara, a classic Lambrusco Salamino, and a méthode champenoise Lambrusco, in other words, a Lambrusco double-fermented in bottle, just like the wines of Champagne — also highly unusual. Although the wines wouldn’t arrive until June, I began a press campaign for the brand in April.

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Above: Alicia and Leonard Lopate in the WNYC studios yesterday.

We generated a lot of great press for Alicia (including write-ups by some of NYC’s top food and wine writers) but the crowning achievement of the campaign was Alicia’s appearance yesterday on the Leonard Lopate Show (click the link for the archived webcast). Leonard wasn’t around when Alicia came out in the spring for a week of dinners but he and I dined one night earlier this summer at I Trulli where we tasted her wines and, after I discovered he is a lover of northern Italian master paintings, we argued over the fine points of Mantegna (his favorite) and Lotto (mine). I have always been Leonard’s fan and my dinner with him was truly fascinating (not always the case with food and wine journalists). Alicia had a great interview and the arc of a six-month campaign had finally come to a close with one of my greatest coups. After all, Alicia can now count herself among a small and illustrious group of Italian winemakers — Angelo Gaja and Maurizio Zanella are the others — who have been granted audiences by this king of radio.

Leonard covers many different subjects on his show, always topical but often eclectic. Yesterday, besides segments on Alicia and Sri Lanka, he interviewed Patti Boyd, the famed 1960s model and actress, wife of George Harrison and later Eric Clapton, and the inspiration for what are arguably the greatest love songs of the 1970s, Something, Wonderful Tonight, and Layla. She was there to speak about her new memoir, Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me.

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Above: Patti Boyd (left) took George Harrison to India for the first time and introduced him to transcendental meditation. The rest is history…

I simply couldn’t believe it when I realized that Alicia and I were waiting in the hall with her. And when Wonderful Tonight came on (you can hear the show in the hallway), Alicia and I both got goose bumps… literally.

My friends know me to be a diehard Beatlemaniac. The experience of getting to meet Patti Boyd is rivaled only by the time that my band opened for Ringo at the Bottom Line in the Village the year that the club closed and the year that the current war started.

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Above: Alicia Lini looked “wonderful tonight” at dinner last night at Centovini where we raised a glass to celebrate her Lopate interview.


“Like my parents’ marriage…”: ’83 Jordan

August 29, 2007

Lately life has been topsy turvy, helter skelter, and pell mell and I haven’t posted in a while. But hopefully things will be calming down soon. So many of my good friends have reached out to me, including Alice, who had me over for dinner the other night and opened a Viña Gravonia 1994 Lopez de Heredia (so good) and a famous but new-to-me Gamay, Morgon 2003 Louis-Claude Desvignes. I know next to nothing about Beaujolais and I was impressed by the meatiness and tannin in this wine, although it was a bit jammy (which Alice attributed to the hot 03 vintage in France).

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The band has also been really supportive during this period of sweeping changes in my life. Jean-Luc is heading back to California after finally closing up his beloved apartment in London Terrace. He had a few bottles of wine that needed to be drunk, including a Cabernet Sauvignon 1983 by Jordan that had been part of his parents’ divorce settlement. So we got together the other night to open them.

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Above: I don’t know what Bonnie (left) and Céline were making in the blender.

Jean-Luc didn’t seem to remember why the wine was stored in a pseudo-ukelele case but it added to the allure of this 24-year-old bottle.

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To our disappointment, the wine — although not corked, nor cooked — had passed. Frankly, I don’t know that California Cabernet can last that long (and in all fairness, Jean-Luc admitted, he hadn’t done the best job of cellaring it). I’ve tasted Jordan wines and I have liked them. They seem less overblown to me than most. But this wine was just dead. “Just like my parents’ marriage,” Jean-Luc observed wistfully.

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The other bottle he brought was a wine he had bought on a trip to Umbria with his now ex-girlfriend: a 2000 Sagrantino by Paolo Bea, one of my favorite producers and a fantastic vintage. For those of you who don’t know Gianpiero Bea, he’s one of the founders of the Vini Veri movement in Italy and is one of Europe’s leading natural winemakers. The wine drank beautifully.

A broken marriage and an ex-girlfriend… a wine too old to revive… and a wine still very much alive, a wine and “a love that should have lasted years…”

A relationship that ended so long ago that we really can’t remember when…

…and another that ended not so long ago, remembered to us by a bottle found while cleaning out a now abandoned apartment.

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Above: Jean-Luc, Céline, and the Professeur on Céline’s rooftop. There had been an eclipse of the moon that night.


White Zin, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir

August 12, 2007

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Southhampton, Long Island was the destination yesterday. A few colleagues and I went out to the Hamptons to pour wine at a glitzy fundraiser: megawatt celebrities and trophy wives, blue blazers and loafers, khaki pants and flowery prints, perfectly sculpted bodies and botoxed lips, painted smiles and Hamptons drips, but no White Zin, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir.

Jane Fonda was in attendance, as was Sarah Jones, who gave a wonderful performance (her impressions/accents are amazing!) but didn’t get many laughs when she quipped that she was from Queens, “the other tip of Long Island.” My personal celeb moment was a siting of The New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham who furtively flitted through the crowd (see pic below).

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Above: a beautiful sunflower field surrounded the party tent.

An age-old proverb: You can lead a horse to vino but you can’t make her drink.

Although there were a few guests who expressed some interest in the wines, we were bombarded by a litany — a Jeremiad, really — of “Chardonnay? Pinot Grigio? Merlot? Pinot Noir?” and the occasional “White Zin?” In all fairness to this palateless crowd, I heard no one ask for a “Cab.” I guess — to borrow a Hamptonsesque phrase — “Pinot Noir is the new Cab.”

Forgive them for they know not what they do. Of course, my colleagues and I were not pouring any of the above hegemonic, consumerist choices. We were pouring wines which must have seemed terribly esoteric and unpronounceable to the 350+ partygoers: Erbaluce, Malvasia, Montepulciano, and Pelaverga (just try explaining this last one to a white-haired martini-quaffing gent!). These days, people seem programmed to expedite the wine line process by asking for something familiar, something sanctioned and endorsed by their peers, something safe and reliable in situations where appearances are everything and substance refers not to character but to intoxication.

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Above: New York Times social-pages photographer Bill Cunningham flitted furtively through the crowd… He’s cool.

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Above: We ate lunch at this fish shack (Captain Who’s?), picturesque but the food was just okay.

In other news, I am so bummed that The New York Times has changed paper size. Even the Old Gray Lady herself wrote that this money-saving move would lead to “fewer words” in the paper. Conan O’Brien said it best — quoted in the Times — when he observed:

The New York Times reduced the size of their newspaper; they cut the paper’s width by an inch and a half. The move was announced with the headline, ‘‘Big Changes at The New York Tim.’’


It’s official: Bollinger Sponsors Nous Non Plus…

August 10, 2007

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Above: in the greenroom at Mercury Lounge, I discovered — to my surprise — that Bollinger tastes good in a plastic cup.

Sexy chanteuse Céline Dijon was upstaged at Nous Non Plus’ Mercury Lounge show last night by a bottle of our favorite champagne Bollinger. About halfway into our set, bassist and chanteur Jean-Luc Retard called for a small celebration of our recent French tour with a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvée.

I have always been a huge fan of Bollinger and the new Nous Non Plus disk will feature a song that we’ve written about our favorite Champagne (out in Spring 08?). For my birthday this year, the band gave me a bottle of Grande Année 1999.

Good stemware is hard to find in rock clubs and so plastic beer cups served as a substitute for crystal flutes last night. At first I was disappointed to see how the fizziness exploded and lost its concentration in the wide-mouthed drinking vessels. But I was pleasantly surprised when the wine reached my lips and the aroma hit my nose: the expanded diameter of the plastic chalice seemed to intensify the classically yeasty notes of the wine.

My current day gig working as marketing director for the restaurant group that owns and manages Centovini Restaurant and Bar in SoHo has brought me into contact on numerous occasions with SoHo interior design guru Murray Moss, owner of the eponymous store, the restaurant’s designer and one of the partners, and undeniably one of the nicest taste-makers I have met in my time in NYC. On those rare nights where I have had the chance to sit down with him over dinner at the restaurant (usually in the company of a writer or two), the conversation has often turned to a discussion of the merits of aesthetically pleasing stemware over “technical” stemware. Murray often challenges conventional wine-wine glass pairings and many of the wines at Centovini are served in stemware that transgresses standards complacently embraced by the wine industry.

My experience last night made me question the wisdom of the obligatory flute and think that Murray is right to lament the absence of the coupe à champagne, simply called a “coupe” in English (some believe that the coupe was modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breasts, a apocryphal legend that is surely false but fun to consider nonetheless).

Click here for a Newsweek article featuring Murray subtitled “It’s not about the glass is half full or half empty—it’s about the glass itself” (you have to click on the image of Murray to get the article to load).

Maybe it was the steamy August night, maybe the hot stage lights at Mercury Lounge… but, man, the Bollinger tasted great in those plastic cups.

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Above: Prof. Harry Covert (Greg Wawro, center left) and Céline Dijon (Verena Wiesendanger, center right) pose with fans after our show last night at Mercury Lounge (photo by Gary Wexler).


Tasting 05 Chianti with friends at Michelina (Hoboken)

August 9, 2007

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Above: Miro and Marisa at Cafè Michelina.

One of my closest and oldest friends in the wine biz, Mary Anne Sullivan (head of PR for Terlato Wines, one of the biggest importers of Italian brands), called me last week asking if I’d like to take part in an “under-$25 2005 Chianti tasting” at Cafè Michelina, a wonderful old-school family-owned BYOB Italian restuarant in Hoboken where we often gather (Mary Anne, her husband Miro, and their daughter Mara live nearby in Jersey City Hts.).

We were also joined by Slowfood friends Amy Thompson and Cecily Upton (click her name to check out her blog), Marisa Huff (who works in the food writing biz) and her friend Veronique Colaprete (Marisa and Veronique, it turns out, went to highschool together at Bishops in La Jolla where I grew up), and my friend and fellow French rocker Dan Crane aka Jean-Luc Retard aka Bjorn Turoque.

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We tasted nine 2005 Chiantis, all under $25, including the soon-to-be-released-in-this-country Santa Margherita Chianti Classico, which Mary Anne’s company will be launching shortly. Mary Anne wanted to see how the wine would show compared with other brands on the market. Earlier in the week, we had purchased the other wines from Astor Wines & Spirits where they currently carry eight 2005 Chiantis.

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Above: Amy and Cecily.

Cafè Michelina is a small and delightfully classic checkered-tablecloth Italian restaurant run by a very nice Palermitan family who lives across the street. Highlights from our meal were the sine qua non “antipast” (perfectly sliced prosciutto, salame, and mozzarella with freshly sliced tomatoes), Penne served with Sautéed Zucchini and Fresh Mozzarella, and a beautiful Veal Carozza (breaded veal scaloppine layered with eggplant rounds that had been dipped in egg and then fried, topped with a tomato sauce).

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Above: the “antipast” would surely have made Hoboken-hometown-hero Frank Sinatra proud.

The informal winners in this very casual and super fun tasting?

At a disadvantage because it was the first wine tasted, the Ruffino Chianti Classico was a bit anonymous but showed the “sour”, “tart mouth” notes that — to my palate — are indicative of honest Chianti when the Sangiovese is allowed to muster its bright acidity. “Smooths out once it hits all the points in my mouth,” wrote one taster.

The Chianti Borghi d’Elsa by Melini (which, I believe, comes from vineyards in the province of Florence) surprised some of us, receiving comments like “very smooth + easy going. me likey” and “very classic Chianti.”

Fèlsina’s Chianti Classico was arguably the most traditional-style wine in the flight: “complex nose… well-balanced”, “good acid”, and “most complex” (my personal favorite).

For some of us, the Chianti Classico by Santa Margherita was the favorite: “big nose. chocolate. black cherry… yummy!”, “earthy”, and “hangover in a glass!” (this last observation intended to express the taster’s delight).

I was very curious to try the Santa Margherita, which is a 100% Sangiovese aged in new wood. I genuinely liked it but found it more of a Super Tuscan (i.e., more modern) than a Chianti Classico: it was very tannic (to drink in a few years?) and concentrated, very big in the mouth. It is a well made wine (although too modern for me). In a blind tasting I would have placed it in a price point higher than $25.

The losers?

A straw-flasked Banfi earned comments like “cough syrup”, “jam!”, and “awful”.

Gallo’s Da Vinci: “Something unpleasant about it”, “too jammy”, and “too alcohol-ly”. It’s a travesty, really, that they’ve named this wine after Leonardo.

The wind-up? There’s a lot of Chianti out there… some good… some — not surprisingly — bad… I have always been impressed by the Italian wine program at Astor Wines & Spirits and I applaud the buyer there for offering a wide selection of wines at good prices, some of them true bargains. Although the better Chiantis tend to be a little too fruit-driven for my palate, there are some well-priced options that show balanced acidity and fruit, perfect for pairing with wholesome, tasty Italian American cuisine prepared by a nice Palermitan gent whose lives across the street from his neighborhood-favorite Cafè Michelina in picturesque Hoboken with his wife and two daughters (all of whom work in the restaurant with him, the mother in the kitchen, the daughters on the floor).

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Above: Dan Crane aka Jean-Luc Retard aka Bjorn Toroque is also known affectionately as “Snackboy Jr.” for his inimitable ability to snack out. We have shared many an excellent meal and bottle together, whether on the road with Nous Non Plus or at our favorite NYC steakhouse Keens.

In other news, I was Bar Mitzvah 27 years ago today.


To the Emperor’s Censor: Parole in Libertà!

August 7, 2007

I was appalled but not surprised to learn that my friend, natural wine champion and excellent writer Alice Feiring, had been kicked out of the Robert Parker chatroom when she joined a charged discussion/thread that took shape in the wake of Lettie Teague’s recently published and already much-talked-about piece on Barolo.

Evidently, the chatroom’s policy does not allow wine writers to weigh in when another writer is already participating — directly or indirectly — in the thread. See Alice’ post on the episode here.

The good news is that Lettie Teague has launched a very positive dialogue on Barolo. In her article, she addresses a highly contentious and often divisive issue or, rather, body of issues: can Barolo be consumed young? if it can’t, what’s the point of buying it unless I can cellar it for 20 years? what defines Modernist vs. Traditionalist Barolo? and, after all (and here’s where it gets really tricky), where does the line of tradition end/begin? and what does tradition mean when we see that winemaking styles are constantly changing? Whether or not you agree with Lettie and/or you appreciate her research and tasting notes, she has sparked a hypertext that will certainly help to enlighten would-be Barolo collectors and/or lovers.

In some ways, the current dialectic is analogous to that of Postmodernism, wherein any discussion on the nature of Modernism and Postmodernism has to be prefaced by a discussion of where the historical avant-garde ended (and what, if anything, can come after Postmodernism???!!!). The discussion becomes even more complicated when you consider that (as the erudite Darrell Corti recently pointed out to me) Renato Ratti radically changed the nature of Barolo with his 1971 bottling. Did the “tradition” of Barolo begin only in 1971? Does Ratti’s approach to Barolo mark the birth of Modernism in Langhe? Does this make Paolo Scavino a Postmodernist producer? More on this in another post…

The bad news is that once again, the Emperor of Wine has sent his censor into the αγορά or agora, the “marketplace” (where thinkers, writers, and, in this case, nebbiolophiles gather to contemplate sensation and its meaning) to stifle our dialogue.

Granted, Alice is well known for her strong positions on winemaking and her critical eye and absolute and fierce devotion to the wines she loves have more than once bruised the ego of a peer and/or colleague. But shouldn’t Robert Parker — of all people!!! — encourage positive and meaningful dialogue on wine, wine collecting, and wine appreciation? The Parker chatroom should celebrate her superb wine knowledge, reason, and wisdom… if not for anything else than for the love of wine.

Borrowing a phrase coined by the father of the historical avant-garde, F.T. Marinetti, I have three words for Parker and his censor: parole in libertà! “words in freedom!”


Last night I ate my fork.

August 4, 2007

Braving the sweltering heat and collective grouchiness that pervade NYC streets this time of year, I had a quick bite and beer last night after work with a colleague at what instantly became my new favorite burger joint, Stand, on East 12 St.

Miniburgers, onion rings, fries, potato salad and house-cured pickles and beets on the side, microbrews (man, that beer tasted good after a long hot week in Manhattan!), and a colorful cocktail list. Didn’t get to peruse the wines but was told that they are selected by natural-wine aesthete and NYC wine über-hipster Byron Bates, wine director at Bette. Each table at Stand also sports a plastic jar of Bertman’s Original Ball Park Mustard, imported expressly from Cleveland, OH.

But what completely blew me away was the bio-degradable packaging the restaurant uses for its take-out. The straws were made from corn, the sandwich boxes from sugar, and the utensils fashioned from potatoes. I put the fork in my mouth and started to chew. While the fork was more than firm enough, I could feel it give way to the pressure of my teeth when I bit down. “It probably doesn’t taste so good,” said manager and co-owner Ray Pirkle, “but if you drop it in hot water, it turns into a noodle.”

For the Benjamin Braddocks out there contemplating a career in reduce-your-carbon-footprint take-out packaging… I want to say one word to you. Just one word: potatoes.

In other news, I really liked Dr. Vino’s recent post on billionaires.


Sharing a meal with a favorite writer.

August 2, 2007

Last night found me at Centovini where I was lucky enough to dine with one of my favorite wine writers, Lawrence Osborne, whose excellent 2004 book on wine and taste, The Accidental Connoisseur, offers what is arguably the best explanation of why international tastes for wine are shifting toward the American “modern” palate (which seems to favor extracted, high-alcohol content, “jammy,” fruit-driven wines).

We were also joined by his friend, the truly lovely Elizabeth Spiers, who charmed the table with anecdotes from her career as a gossip-blogger-writer-fashionista. She also offered insight into the career of her friend and colleague Perez Hilton, who had been featured in last week’s NY Times Style Section.

I can’t reveal what we tasted because Lawrence is writing a piece on the flight we shared for one of his regular columns.

While I often attend tastings with noted wine writers, occasionally I get to taste as both professional and fan: I read Lawrence’ book when it came out and was immediately impressed by his quasi-Gramscian approach to the globalization of wine and the — to borrow a Gramscian phrase — cultural hegemony of the modern American palate for wine.*

I was pleased to discover that Lawrence shared an experience as graduate students in Italian (he at Harvard) and that we both enjoy the filmography of Antonioni, to whom we raised a merry glass. Reflecting on the obituary in the NY Times of that morning, we both noted that critics and scholars often forget the abundant humor in Antonioni’s films.

… a truly memorable evening in this city that I’ve come to love.

*N.B.: While I don’t endorse Wikipedia (and often see it as a promulgator of factoids, urban legends, and in some cases outright falsehoods), I liked the entry on Gramsci.


Antonioni’s Ellipse and Eclipse

August 1, 2007

Wednesday is the only day of the week that I don’t read the front page of the Times first since Wednesday is the Dining section day.

When I finally got around to unfolding the front page, I felt my heart sink as I read the news of Antonioni’s passing. In my first year post-BA, I studied Antonioni’s films in Padua with film critic and Professor Giorgio Tinazzi. I’ve read Seymour Chatman’s book on Antonioni, The Surface of the World, over and over. And I did meet Antonioni once at UCLA in the 1990s. Pier Maria Pasinetti, Antonioni’s brother-in-law and a collaborator on Le signore senza camelie, was one of my professors at UCLA where I took his 19th Century Italian Lit class (and on many occasions he spoke about his relationship, personal and professional, with the master director). Antonioni was among my favorite subjects to teach when I taught Italian Cinema at UCLA as a grad student.

As we witness Antonioni’s eclispse, I can’t help but think of L’eclisse (or “The Eclispse”), the third installment of the 1960s Trilogy. Many don’t remember that the title — like so many things Antonioni — was intended as a wonderful paronomasia: the Italian eclisse means both “eclipse” and “ellipse” (from the Latin ellipsis in turn from the Greek elleipsis, from the root leipo or lipo, “to be or to go missing”). Today, I’d like to think that Antonioni’s life and work have not been eclipsed but rather that he has given us yet another ellipse that makes us think about the spaces and surfaces of the meaning of our lives.


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