On the eve of Vinitaly, a push to create a Montalcino DOC (and reflections on a year past)

March 31, 2009

Above: Franco Ziliani (left), my friend and co-editor of VinoWire, and Mauro Mascarello, winemaker and producer of one of the greatest expressions of Nebbiolo, Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo. We tasted at Vinitaly last year together. This year, Franco and I will be tasting together at Vini Veri.

Passover and Easter will shortly be upon us and the who’s who of Italian wine is preparing to descend on the province of Verona for our industry’s annual trade fairs: Vinitaly (the largest and most commercial), Vini Veri (a gathering of natural winemakers and the most interesting in my opinion), and VinNatur (an assembly of winemakers who broke away from Vini Veri some years back). I’m particularly excited for Vini Veri because this year’s tasting sees the unification of Vini Veri with the Nicolas Joly biodynamic and quasi-biodynamic tastings, Triple A and Renaissance du Terroir (Return to Terroir).

Above: The Banfi Castle at last year’s Vinitaly. There were rumors — unfounded and untrue — that Banfi’s wines were seized on the floor of the fair last year. I am looking forward to tasting the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Banfi. Charles Scicolone and Tom Hyland — whose palates I respect greatly — have both told me that it’s classic Brunello, 100% Sangiovese, and one of the best wines Banfi has ever produced.

It’s remarkable to think that at this time last year, the world of Italian wine was gripped by the breaking news of the Brunello scandal: at least five major producers were accused of adulterating their wines from the 2003 vintage. A year has passed, a large quantity of wine has reportedly been declassified, and no indictments have been issued by the Siena prosecutor who supposedly launched the investigation in September of 2007.

It’s not surprising, however, that there has been a new push — albeit weak — within the association of Brunello producers to create a Montalcino DOC. Last week, a proposal to create such an appellation was put to the floor at the consortium’s assembly. (I haven’t been able to find out the results of the vote but according to most observers, it was unlikely that it would be ratified.)

Above: I am always geeked to taste Paolo Bea Sagrantino with Giampiero Bea at Vini Veri (I snapped this photo at last year’s fair). Tracie B and I have been enjoying his Santa Chiara 2006. It’s radically different than his 2005 and I hope to ask him about the vintage variation. (Is it the result of climatic differences or differences in the cellar? I imagine — knowing Giampiero and his radical belief in natural winemaking — that the former is the case.)

Currently, Montalcino producers must label their wines as Toscana IGT or Sant’Antimo DOC if they contain grapes other than Sangiovese. If approved, a Montalcino DOC would allow them to exploit the Montalcino “brand” in their labeling of so-called Super Tuscan wines. The proposed DOC is part of a greater push to create new Italian appellations before OCM reforms take effect in August 2009 and the power to issue new DOCs shifts from Rome to Brussels.

Above: This year, the world of Italian wine mourns the loss of Teobaldo Cappellano (photo courtesy of Polaner). Baldo, as he was known fondly, was one of the founders of the Vini Veri movement and one of Italy’s most zealous defenders and promoters of terroir-driven wines and natural winemaking. He was a truly delightful man and is sorely missed.

There’s a reason why the fairs are held at this time of year: historically and traditionally, the spring marks the moment when winemakers unveil their cellared wines. Long before the hegemony of the Judeo-Christian canon, spring was observed as Mother Nature’s moment of renewal and rebirth.

The ancient allegory — and it is an allegory, not a metaphor — could not be more apt this year.


The San Diego Kid vs. Coalminer Mark, part II

March 28, 2009

To decant or not to decant… that was the question…

It was a damn good thing that Sheriff Houston was there when Coalminer Mark “the best sommelier in town” and the San Diego Kid (that’s me) squared off the other night over a 1999 Barbaresco Pajé by Roagna and a 2001 Barbaresco Pora by Produttori del Barbaresco.

My preference is nearly always not to decant. Yes, I know the 2001 Pora was going to be “tight,” as we say in wine geek parlance. The 2001 harvest was a fantastic, classic vintage for this wine, one of the greatest in recent memory, and this young colt has powerful tannins that currently overwhelm the beautiful fruit that is sure to emerge with its evolution. Coalminer suggested we decant it for the sake of aeration and he was right to do so: as the tight or “closed” wine came into contact with the air, it began to oxygenate and age more quickly, thus gently coaxing its fruit to come forward.

But being the diehard old school Nebbiolophile that I am, my preference is to pour the wine without decanting and aerating: I want to experience it in its evolution at that very time and place, capturing a moment of its life and its story on my palate. Of course, 2001 Pora is a wine I am sure to experience many times over the course of my and its lifetime.

Luckily, Sheriff Houston intervened, a decanter and plate of house-cured charcuterie in hand. We did decant the 2001 Pora and it was delicious, as was the 1999 Pajé with its crazy eucalyptus note.

Tracie B and I retired to our room and read Gideon’s Bible. And the world was still safe for Italian wine…

Above: Coalminer Mark (Mark Sayre, foreground) and Sheriff Houston (Ryan Mayces) played bocce at April and Craig’s crawfish boil a few weeks ago.

From the “just for fun” department…


Perks of the wine trade and NN+ in SF and LA in May

March 27, 2009

Who could resist the colors in the frame above, between the Tempier Rosé and the heirloom beets offered on the forgivably precious menu at York Street in Dallas? It’s one of the perks of working in the wine trade: getting to dine at top restaurants and getting to bring your own wine. Members of our trade are accorded such liberties — a common courtesy extended to defenders of good wine.

If you don’t know the Provence producer Tempier, you should: its rosé is considered by many to be the best in the world (that’s not an exaggeration). Everyone from BrooklynGuy to Alice to Eric to Alder to Dr. V to Ray to Genevelyn would agree (Alder, wouldn’t you say that it’s the “best rosé in the world”?). I consider myself lucky to represent the winery here in Texas.

Sharon Hage of York Street has been nominated this year by the James Beard Foundation for the best Southwest Chef (together with Texas fellow Andrew Weissman of Le Rêve in San Antonio. Her “Bacon and Eggs” above are pretty darn precious, but, man, are they good.

Other perks include getting to taste some kick-ass wines, like this label-damaged Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande 1988 that überhip sommelier D’Lynn Proctor poured me the other day at Graileys, also in Dallas. I have thumbed my nose at Bored-oh before but not this one… Not one of the greatest vintages of my lifetime but the wine is showing beautifully right now. 20-year+ Bordeaux is always fun to taste.

The greatest perk of all is the wide variety of fine wines I get to taste these days (yes, there is life beyond Nebbiolo and Chenin Blanc) and the many interesting people and palates I connect with during my travels.

Speaking of travels, NN+ will be performing in San Francisco and Los Angeles in early May. If you’re around, please come out and support our music:

MAY 7
San Francisco CA
The Rickshaw Stop
http://www.rickshawstop.com/

MAY 9
Los Angeles CA
Spaceland
http://www.clubspaceland.com/

In other news…

Check out Tracie B’s awesome post on pastasciutta. On occasion, I have been known to be the beneficiary of her fine cooking (another benefit of being in the wine trade!).

Does anyone remember this line from Hemingway’s short story, “Che ti dice la patria”?: “The pasta asciutta was good; the wine tasted of alum, and we poured water in it.”


Rules are rules: a California Chardonnay I actually like

March 25, 2009

I’m a loser. As Franco often points out, the rules are the rules and I have to ‘fess up, come clean, and admit that I lost a bet with the man above, Mr. Elton Slone (who has to be the smoothest-talking, slickest hand-shaking, baby-kissing salesman I have ever met — watch out if this dude ever decides to go into politics). I bet this man that there wasn’t a California Chardonnay that he could get me to drink (If loving Chardonnay is wrong, then I don’t want to be right, says Tracie B, btw).

Yesterday, he poured me his 2007 Robert Craig Chardonnay, sourced from the elite Durell vineyard in Sonoma (of Kistler fame). So many Californian winemakers say that they are “tired of oaky, buttery California Chardonnay” and that they make “a mineral-driven, no malolactic fermentation, food-friendly Chardonnay,” but so few deliver. Well, these guys do. Unfortunately, this stuff ain’t cheap and not a lot of it is made.

Is there terroir in California? I’m still not convinced. But as Alfonso and I bantered back and forth the other day after he returned from a Lodi, California wine festival, the conundrum occurred to me: is the absence of terroir itself an expression of terroir?

Man, I’m tired. I’ve been on the road all week and I won’t see Tracie B until tomorrow. I gotta say it’s not easy being a wine cowboy, traveling and hawking wine for a living (I’ve been in Dallas all week). But life is good and every once in a while, after you’ve visited 8 accounts in one day (starting at the un-g-dly hour of 8 in the morn’!), and you finally get to sit down for dinner and enjoy a glass of wine with your fellow travelers (around 9), a song on the juke box reminds you that even though you miss her so much it hurts, you’ll get to see her the day after tomorrow…


Is it spring yet? Rosso di Montalcino, tuna bruschette, and rock ‘n’ roll

March 23, 2009

Friday brought the spring equinox and so Sunday night, Tracie B decided to lift her yearly moratorium on fresh tomatoes and made us bruschette topped with chopped yellow and red tomatoes, cannellini beans, olive-oil-packed tuna, kosher salt, and extra-virgin olive oil (the oil courtesy of our friend Ginevra Pesciolini of the Ghizzano winery in the Colline Pisane).

A bruschetta (pronounced broo-SKEHT-tah, plural bruschette, broo-SKEHT-teh) is literally “burnt” or grilled bread, always dressed with olive oil and often topped with a combination of the above ingredients. Most believe the word and the preparation originated along the central Adriatic coast of Italy.

We paired with one of my favorite expressions of Sangiovese, 2006 Rosso di Montalcino by Canalicchio di Sopra. Canalicchio’s wine is traditional in style. It showed some of the stinky volatile acidity that you get on old-school Sangiovese like this but it quickly blew off, giving way to delicious, bright, food-friendly acidity and red, plummy fruit.

In other news…

Also on Friday, we managed to get into my friend Inara’s packed showcase with her band The Bird and the Bee at the SXSW festival. Inara rocked it! (picture taken with my phone.)


Holy cannolo (and Franco’s thoughts on EU reform of the Italian DOC system)

March 20, 2009

Miracles appear in the strangest of places…

It may be hard to believe but I had what was probably the best cannolo I’ve ever had in… yes, you won’t believe it… in Little Rock, Arkansas where I was traveling for business (cannolo is the singular of cannoli, btw). For me, the cannolo is all about the buccia, the shell. It needs to be firm but light, crunchy but consistent, sweet but not too much so, with just the right amount of savoriness to balance the richness of the cream filling.

I’m not quite sure how they got there, but Santo Sacca (left) from Messina (the front of the house) and chef Rosario Patti from Palermo run a fantastic little Italian restaurant in Little Rock. Some may come close, but their cannolo cannot be beat.

Rosario seasons his excellent pasta mari e monti (sea and mountain) with saffron. It was delicious.

Vesuvio Bistro
1501 Merrill Dr
Little Rock AR 72211
501-225-0500

Holy cannolo Bill Clinton! Now it’s time for me to get my butt back to Austin for some holy mole at Polvo’s.

In other news…

A lot of people have asked me about upcoming EU Common Market Organisation reforms whereby the Italian appellation system will be absorbed by the EU, to take effect on August 1. The names and classification of Italian appellations won’t change but the power to issue new appellations will pass from Rome to Brussels. I’ve translated and posted Franco’s editorial at VinoWire, including some useful links. Other alarmist bloggers have claimed erroneously that the CMO reform will wipe out the Italian system. The real question is how EU bureaucrats will deal with requests for new appellations starting in August.


The best restaurant in Texas?

March 19, 2009

Above: A furtively photographed bottle of 2004 Potel Les Epinotes, well-priced and served with grand style by Fabien Jacob, sommelier of Le Rêve in San Antonio.

A good friend of ours (a reputable wine writer and wine blogger of note) remarked to me the other day that “there is nothing good to eat in New York.” She exaggerated for effect, of course, and I think her bleak assessment was partly affected by the gray, drab late winter months, when the snow-lined shop windows of yesteryear’s Christmas have been usurped by the sludgy grime of Manhattan’s slow unthawing. However hypertrophic, her lament made me think about how the island of New York is a culinary utopia (in the etymologic sense of the word), a “non place,” a locus where restaurateurs attempt to recreate the food of other places: on the same block of E. 27th St., you can eat at Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke (a southern BBQ joint) or Nicola Marzovilla’s I Trulli (featuring the cuisine of his native Apulia); around the corner myriad Indian restaurants dot Lexington in the high 20s and the “falafel nazi” (how’s that for an oxymoron?), Kalustyan, resides between 27th and 28th. I love all of these restaurants and recommend them highly but when you visit them, they take you somewhere else, beyond the island of New York.

Above: The “foie gras club” at Le Rêve. My low-light photography doesn’t do justice to this brioche-layered sandwich of foie gras, tomato confit, and mango. (I didn’t want the flash to encroach on the intimate mood of the low-lit room.)

One of the things that has struck me about living in the South is how people here are connected to local culinary tradition and ingredients, whether the gulf oysters I enjoyed the other night in New Orleans or the mudbugs of an impromptu crawfish boil last Sunday (not to mention home-smoked ribs on one of my first trips out here).

Above: “Hydroponic lettuces” at Le Rêve, garnished with candied Texas pecans. I’d never tasted a great pecan until I first came to Texas. Hydroponic lettuces? Not the sticky icky kind.

On Saturday night, Tracie B and I had dinner at Le Rêve in San Antonio, a restaurant called by many the “best in Texas,” a perennial winner of top accolades. Whenever a venue is so hyped, my inclination is to disbelieve (and, truth be told, how many times do Michelin stars disappoint?). But Le Rêve lived up to its name with every oneiric mise-en-place: a truly world-class dining experience, four-star service, a superb and well-manicured if small wine list with great pricing (wine directors, please take note), and genuinely inspired haute cuisine that didn’t need to lean on the crutch of affectation to transcend its place and time.

Chef and owner Andrew Weissman’s cooking is muscular but not angular, refined but not precious, honest but never apologetic. My main course was Texas-raised venison, blood rare loin and a rack of ribs so tender that no steak knife was required to slice the lean, flavorful meat. (Dulcis in fundo: I also loved Andrew’s signature raw honeycomb served with the cheese course.)

Andrew clearly belongs to the Admiral’s club of aggressive, extreme, highly competitive American chefs but the fact that he presides over a world-class cuisine in an unlikely locale seems to give him an unbridled freedom of verve and choice in his ingredients and creativity. It’s not because he’s off the beaten track. It’s because he beats his own drum and embraces the frontier spirit of a place where only a handful are so ambitious.

Above: Tracie B and I stayed the night and visited the Alamo the next day. I’ll remember the Alamo and I’ll remember Le Rêve.

San Antonio is the culinary destination that has impressed me the most since my arrival in Texas — more so than Houston and Dallas — and you might be surprised by what I’ve found there… stay tuned…


Par condicio: enthusiastic tasting notes on 2004 Brunello by Banfi

March 17, 2009

Above: A political cartoon poking fun at Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi who called a fan a “ball breaker” at a rally last year.

The Latin expression par condicio is used in contemporary Italian to denote “equal air time.” (See my explanation of its origin here.)

In keeping with our “fair and balanced” policy of reporting Italian wine news, Franco and I have published this enthusiastic review of the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Banfi by our friend, respected colleague, and Italian wine authority Charles Scicolone at VinoWire. Charles called it “classical” in style and “the best Brunello that Banfi has ever produced.”

I haven’t tasted the wine yet but am looking forward to tasting it at the earliest opportunity and I will promptly post my tasting notes.

Another authority on Italian wine, Kyle Phillips, also gave the wine a good review in his excellent overview of 2004 Brunello. I really like what Kyle had to say about the annus horribilis in Montalcino and how the 2004 bottlings tend toward “garnet” in color as opposed to the opacity favored by certain producers in the past:

    It is quite possible that those who in the past bent the rules, adding other things to make their Brunello more appealing to the international markets before bottling it (while some people to blend wines made from several varietals at the outset, many prefer to keep the varietals separate until bottling, because doing so allows them more control over the wine) decided to forego the practice, and I cannot but view this development favorably, as I think that a well-made Sangiovese has no need of crutches. I also think it is sad that it took the concrete threat of criminal investigation to deter the practice, and can only hope that garnet will continue to be as prevalent in future vintages as it was in this one.

I, too, hope that “garnet will continue to be prevalent” and — to borrow a phrase from James Suckling — that Montalcino producers will continue to “let Brunello be Brunello.” (For the record, Suckling liked the 04 Brunello by Banfi as well and gave it 93/100 points.)


My first crawfish boll (boil)

March 16, 2009

From the “ain’t this living?” department…

The weather’s still cold here in Texas but folks are already beginning to hold their annual crawfish bolls (boll is Texan for boil). The crawfish boll is a true convivium, in the etymologic sense of the word, a “feasting together” or “living together.” Although the crawfish are sometimes served on trays after being bolled (boiled), most folks spread them out on a table over newspaper and everybody eats standing, shelling and sucking the crawfish communally. Yesterday, I attended my first crawfish boll ever at the invitation of my new friends, wine professionals Craig Collins and his lovely wife April.

Baby onions, whole bunches of garlic, mushrooms, corn, sausage, and spices are set to boil in a large pot. Then, the crawfish are dumped live into the cooking water. Crawfish or crayfish are also called “mud bugs,” said Tracie B.

They simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes. When asked if it was okay that the pots were boiling over, Chef Drew Curren said, “actually, it’s preferred.”

The crawfish are strained and then seasoned again with hot spice.

The crawfish are then distributed over newspaper (we finally found a good use for Dorothy and John’s article on money-saving wine list tips!). As in a bollito misto, the flavors of all the ingredients intermingle. As the crawfish cool, they purge their savory juice, which is sopped up by the baguettes. So tasty…

You twist the crawfish at the top of their tails. You suck the head and then peel the tail.

That’s April and Craig in the foreground, right. What an awesome way to spend an afternoon. Tracie B and I brought Camillo Donati Lambrusco, which showed beautifully with the spicy flavors of the boll.

The wine cowboy drank beer, the lady sipped Riesling.


Showdown with the Best Sommelier in Town

March 14, 2009

Round these parts, they call me the San Diego Kid. You see, I’m a cowboy… a wine cowboy, and I ride a silver Hyundai with a six pack slung across my back. It’s a tough job keeping the mean dusty streets of these towns safe for Italian wine. But someone’s got to do it.

Last night, me and my lady Tracie B were at the hoe down when Mark Sayre showed up. Some say he’s the “best sommelier in town” and I knew the moment of Nebbiolo truth had arrived.

He drew a 1999 Pajé by Roagna and said “reach for it, mister!” Me? I reached in my holster for my trusty Produttori del Barbaresco… Luckily for me, I happened to have the 2001 Pora on me. Bullets began to fly and charcuterie was served…


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