Ramontalcinos say no to Merlot

April 30, 2009

Above: They say “no” to Merlot. Federico Marconi (left) handles marketing and Gianni Fabbri is the winemaker at the Fabbri family’s winery, Le Presi, one of my favorite Brunello producers. I tasted with them and snapped these photos at the Italian wine trade fair, Vinitaly, earlier this month.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Merlot per se. I’ve tasted great Merlot from all over the world — Bordeaux, Trentino, Friuli, Tuscany, California. I can’t say that I’m a fan of most it but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it.

The problem, as Alice pointed out in her post today, is that Merlot is a grape Zelig: “Why does everyone has to grow merlot? Because it’s a grape Zelig? Merlot, like mint, takes to most places.”

Merlot has been grown in Tuscany for centuries, but it was during the 1980s and 90s that it became increasingly popular there, as the Super Tuscan craze began to emerge and Italy began to sell more wine in the Merlotophile American market. Behind his back (and with an acute dose of disdain), many Italian winemakers call Tuscany’s leading wine wizard “Mr. Merlot” — a distinction bestowed upon him because of the ubiquitous Merlot in his award-winning Chiantis and his alleged use of Merlot in Brunello di Montalcino, where appellation regulations require the wine be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes.

Yesterday, when I wrote “just say no to Merlot,” I was addressing and appealing to producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, who are considering an increase in the amount of international grape varieties allowed in their appellation.

My friend, artist, poet, musician, and marketing director for old school Brunello producer Le Presi, Federico “Ramontalcino” Marconi, had this to say:

    The Fred Man too says No to Merlot! Let’s defend a precious little thing called “heritage”… Why are they so short-sighted and unable to recall the nasty backlash of last year’s “Brunello-gate”? I don’t get it: what does these people have against a Good Ol’ Sangiovese!? And let me tell ya: I am a Sangiovese “fan to the bone”. Gabba Gabba Hey!

Above: Federico created this “Old School” t-shirt to reflect Le Presi’s traditional approach to winemaking. Even though the winemaker and his team are young, the wines are as old school as it gets — natural fermentation and aging in botti, large old, neutral oak barrels. Wolfgang was the first to post on this great marketing idea.

When I met Federico and we became friends, we decided we would start a band called the Ramontalcinos (we owe the name to Josh Loving of Vino Vino fame, an accomplished classical guitar player, who will also be part of the act).

I wish more Italian winemakers could be like Federico and Gianni: they marry a punk rock sensibility with a respect and passion for their heritage. They are wise to see that they can better market their wines not by changing their nature but rather by infusing their image and perception of their brand with youthful energy and verve.

Gabba gabba hey.

Ringo says no to Merlot, too. Check out this clip of Ringo singing the “No No Song” with the Smothers Brothers. The best part is the gag at the end (with Ben Einstein)!


Just Say NO to Merlot!

April 29, 2009

In case you haven’t read Franco’s editorial at VinoWire, “Vino Nobile producers: just say no to Merlotization,” please check it out (translation by yours truly). Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is one of the greatest terroir-driven expressions of Sangiovese and it would be a pity to see it dumbed down by higher percentages of international grape varieties. Please comment if you feel so inclined.

Patrizia Castiglioni and Dora Forsoni make my favorite Vino Nobile at Sanguineto. Tracie B always notes that “if Willie Nelson had an Italian sister, it would be Dora.” They are truly lovely folks and when I took this photo of them, Dora smiled sweetly at Patrizia and said, “no one has ever taken our picture together before.” Their wines are natural and stinky, just the way I like them. You won’t find any Merlot here.


1968 Monfortino I need say no more

April 28, 2009

From the “life could be worse” department…

The other night found me and Tracie B in the home of our dear friend Alfonso, who treated us to one of the best bottles of wine I’ve ever drunk in my life: 1968 Barolo Monfortino by Giacomo Conterno (steaks by Alfonso, photo by Tracie B). It was one of those truly life-changing wines, a miracle in a bottle and a wonder in the glass, at once light and lithe, powerful and awesome. I’ve tasted — tasted, mind you, not drunk — 55, 58, 61, and 71 (some of the greatest years for Langa in the 20th century). Martinelli calls the 1968 harvest “good” (not great) and the wine did have some vegetal notes that I believe were product of the vintage. But quality of the materia prima (there is superb fruit in nearly every vintage, sometimes less of it than more) and the winemaking approach (aged 10 years in botti before bottling according to the back label!) made for a wine that I will never forget.

Need I say more? Check out Tracie B’s tasting notes.

Carissimo Alfonso, grazie per una serata indimenticabile!

In other news…

The other day at Bistro Vatel in San Antonio, I enjoyed one of the best meals I’ve had since I moved to Texas (save for daily dining chez Tracie B!). Owner Damien Vatel is a descendant of legendary 17th-century French chef François Vatel.

The resulting photography is pretty darn sexy, if I do say so myself.

In other other news…

I’d like to mention two series of ampelographic posts that I’ve been following: the one by Alessandro Bindocci at Montalcino Report, who asks “Is Sangiovese Grosso really Grosso?” and the other by Susannah Gold at Avvinare, who is writing an English-language dictionary of Italian grape varieties.


Nous Non Plus (the band I play guitar in) in SF, SJ, and SF

April 27, 2009

Do you know the way to San Jose?

Oh, LA is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star

Above: My friend François Gourveneur snapped this photo of a poster advertising our show at Spaceland on May 9 in Silver Lake (Los Angeles), one of my all-time favorite clubs.

In case you haven’t seen the review of our semi-new album Ménagerie in Blender Magazine this month, here’s a snippet:

    [NNP's] music evokes ’60s Parisian cocktail pop to construct a comforting, sophisticated respite from the coarseness of modern life — flutes and strings augment acoustic guitars as soft and buttery as a croissant. Underneath the sumptuousness, though, nervous romanticism does battle with a prankster streak.

The shows in San Francisco at Rickshaw Stop (May 7) and Los Angeles at Spaceland (May 9) will probably sell out, so please buy your tickets in advance (click links for ticket sales). I’m really looking forward to getting back to California, playing some good music, and reconnecting with friends there. (And Tracie B will be at the LA show.)

The show in San Jose at Nickel City (May 8) probably won’t sell out but here is advance ticket sales info anyway. I don’t know why our manager booked us at a all-ages video arcade, although in all fairness to him, teenagers do like our music. I just googled San Jose and the city’s motto is: “San Jose, the fun never stops.” Who knew?

Hope to see you at the shows!

*****

Do you know the way to San Jose
I’ve been away so long
I may go wrong and lose my way
Do you know the way to San Jose
I’m goin’ back to find
Some peace of mind in San Jose

LA is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parkin’ cars and pumpin’ gas

You can really breathe in San Jose
They’ve got a lot of space
There’ll be a place where I can stay
I was born and raised in San Jose
I’m goin’ back to find
Some peace of mind in San Jose

Fame and fortune is a magnet
It can pull you far away from home
With a dream in your heart you’re never alone
Dreams turn into dust and blow away
And there you are without a friend
You pack your car and ride away

I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose
Do you know the way to San Jose

Oh, LA is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parkin’ cars and pumpin’ gas

I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose, oh…oh…
Do you know the way to San Jose, mmm…mmm…
Can’t wait to get back to San Jose


Double-take: Italy, Texas

April 26, 2009

From the “double-take” department…

Given my chronic case of Italophilia, “my new life Texana,” and my philological (and toponomastic) leanings, it was inevitable that sooner or later I would have to investigate and address the origins of the toponym Italy, Texas (the “two boots” of Italy and Texas, left, reside side-by-side on a shop-window on main street, right next to the Uptown Café in Italy, Texas). Tracie B and I stopped there yesterday on our way back from Dallas (where our dear friend Alfonso hosted us for dinner and opened a few truly unforgettable bottles — but you’ll have to wait for Tracie B’s post for more detail). Italy lies about 40 minutes south of Dallas along I-35 (which leads south from Dallas to Waco, Waco to Austin).

In his lectures and essays on memory, the contemporary Italian philosopher Remo Bodei loves to cite another noted homonymous place name in Texas — Paris, Texas, celebrated in film by the great director Wim Wenders. Why, he asks in his lecture “The Traumas of Memory,” have European emigrants named their settlements in the New World after their place of origin? “To create a transitional object? A soft landing in the flight from the known to the unknown? I believe that something analogous happens even in traumas connected to loss. In effect, monuments and burial rituals are carried out to remember and forget simultaneously. When objectified, pain hurts less.”

Above: The water tower in Italy, Texas.

As it turns out, Italy — locally pronounced IT-lee — was not named after its settlers’s country of origin but rather — at least, according to local legend — by a late-nineteenth-century post master who believed the climate of Texas was similar to Italy’s.

Above: The picturesque main street of Italy, Texas has remained virtually unchanged since the 1930s.

One of the reasons we wanted to stop there was to eat at the Uptown Café, an eatery called one of the “best small town Texas cafés” by Texas Monthly Magazine. But when we got there the proprietor, a very nice lady, told us “Ever’ Tom, Dick, and Harry dun’ came in here and ate everythang.” So we ended up eating at the Texas Best Smokehouse, the flagship restaurant and novelty store of a small, locally owned chain. They smoke their own jerky there (for all of their locations, I was told) and they also make pistachio pudding. The Texas Best Smokehouse is located on Dale Evans Dr., in turn named after one of Italy’s most famous daughters.

Above: I couldn’t resist the pistachio pudding, which is made — I believe — with Cool Whip, Jello mix, and pistachios. Metabolically, it was probably a bad decision, as was the bbq sausage sandwich. But, what the hay? You only live twice, right?

Double-meanings, paronomasia, puns, and — in this case — a homonymous place name, are the source of endless fascination for me. (One of these days, I’ll do a post on the origins of the place name California. I know of at least two towns in Italy named California.)

The other day, Franco sent a wonderful photo, snapped in the Alps, of the Italian and Texan flags flying together. As it turns out, there’s a little bit of Italy in Texas, too.


Call me crazy: white clam pizza and Nebbiolo

April 25, 2009

From the “life could be worse” department…

Above: Call me crazy but I paired cherry stone clam pizza and Nebbiolo the other day at Nonna in Dallas. It was delicious. The fruit in the 2005 Produttori del Barbaresco is showing beautifully right now and shows no signs of wanting to close up.

The San Diego Kid (that’s me, your resident wine cowboy) found himself in Dallas the other day, dusty and tired after a day of showing wine, with a six-pack of wine still slung around his back, his trusty companion Dinamite (the Silver Hyundai) beaten but not broken, and a bottle half-full of 2005 Produttori del Barbaresco still to be drunk. So he moseyed on over to the nearest saloon and parked his chaparreras at the bar at Nonna, where owner Julian Barsotti insisted he have the white pizza with cherry stone clams.

Above: Rock star owner and chef Julian Barsotti of Nonna makes some of the best pizza in Texas. He spent a season in Naples where he studied at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.

Julian opens the cherry stone clams first, reserves the juices, and then slowly wilts Vidalia onions with their juice and some cream until the onions literally melt and the cream and clam juice reduce to a thick sauce which he seasons with a mix of finely chopped herbs. Before firing the pizza in a wood-fired oven, he dresses the pizza with the clams, sauce, and a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano. I’m still a big fan of his Margherita but the white clam pizza was the best I’ve ever had this side of New Haven, Connecticut.

The pairing was as decadent as it was delicious. In Italy, I still pair my pizza with beer (as tradition dictates) but here in the Wild West, crazy things can happen.

In other news…

I couldn’t be there this year (but I was last year): the first couple of Italian-American food and wine Michele and Charles Scicolone hosted their second “bygone wines” dinner in New York. Check out Eric’s post here.

In other other news…

Today (April 25) is Liberation Day in Italy, commemorating the partisans’s triumph over fascist and Nazi rule in 1945 (Milan and Turin were liberated on this day).


Angelo Gaja, please call me!

April 24, 2009

From the “just for fun” department…

I like to call him the Giuseppe Baretti of Italian wine writing: my friend and colleague Franco Ziliani (pictured above holding two bottles of would-be [wood-be] Nebbiolo by Giorgio Rivetti) is one of the Italian wine writers I admire most and the feathers he ruffles with his excellent blog, Vino al Vino, often belong to the princes and princesses of Italian wine.

He reminds me of yet another great Italian writer, a Renaissance master of satire, Pietro Aretino: if anyone deserved to borrow Aretino’s motto flagellum principum (flagellator or flogger of princes) it would be my dear friend Franco.

Franco recently posted the above photo together with a post in which he lampoons a Nebbiolo producer (well, should we call him that? his wines don’t really taste like Nebbiolo at all) who — for Franco and for me — represents everything that is wrong with the world of Italian wine today: Giorgio Rivetti is a “wine wizard” and master of marketing who created wines expressly for the American market with little consideration for the great tradition and great people of the place where he makes wine. (You may remember my post on the Spinetta Affair.)

Not long after he posted the photo and satire, he received a phone call from the “bishop of Barbaresco” (who, incidentally, had recently anointed his disciple Rivetti as a member of a putative “national team” of winemakers who will lead Italy into the world cup of the future). Evidently, messer Gaja has forgotten the meaning of irony and satire — notions and literary figures cherished by the ancients and rediscovered during the renewal of learning and then again in the age of enlightenment.

This week, my partner Alfonso Cevola (aka Starsky) and I had some fun with it: Angelo, please call me!

In other news…

Yesterday, Franco sent me this photo, snapped in Maroggia, at the foot of the alps in the Valtellina, where Nebbiolo finds one of its finest expressions.

I moved to Texas for one very special lady only to discover there’s a little bit of Texas in everyone… Thanks, Franco!


Negro Amaro, false friends, and folkloric etymologies

April 22, 2009

Above: Paolo Cantele and I poured wine and spoke at an Italian wine dinner last night at Jimmy’s in Dallas, where Paolo’s wines were featured. I highly recommend Paolo’s wines and Jimmy’s for its Italian wine and Italian food selections.

For the last few days, I’ve been “riding” with Paolo Cantele (center) of the Cantele winery (Apulia) in Austin and Dallas. Every once in a while, the wine trade brings you in contact with folks you genuinely enjoy hanging out with. Beyond his wines (which are fantastic, btw, and very well priced; his family’s Fiano, Rosato, and Salice Salentino are my favorites), we discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dario Fo and Pasolini, and he told me the funniest story about meeting Ninetto Davoli in New York in a food shop last week. (Paolo bears a striking resemblance to actors Gary Oldman and Edoardo Ballerini, the latter, a good friend of mine.)

One of the more interesting conversations that came up, was the origin of the grape name Negro Amaro. If you’ve followed my blog, you most likely have seen one of my posts where I marry my interest in philology with my passion for ampelography — the latter meaning, literally, the writing of grapes. (Check out my posts on Aglianico and Valpolicella, where I conjugate my love for philology and toponymy.)

Many believe that the origin of the grape name Negro Amaro derives from its literal meaning in contemporary Italian, black bitter.

While Calò, Scienza, and Costacurta (Vitigni d’Italia or Grape Varieties of Italy, Calderini, Bologna, 2006) concede that the origin of the name is unknown, they point the dialectal binomial niuru maru “due to the black coloring of the berries and its rich tannins which impart a bitter flavor to the wine or perhaps nero-mavro which could back [the theory that its name derives from] the black character of its skin” (p. 590).

Partisans of the nero-mavro camp believe that the name comes the Latin niger (black) and Greek mavros (black). The idea would be that the grape was named in Latin and Greek because of confluence of Greek and Roman culture in Salento (at the very tip of the heel of the Italian boot, at the top of the Mediterranean basin).

It’s important to note that mavros meant Moor in ancient Greek and that it denoted an inhabitant of North Africa and/or his language. As in other romance languages, moro in Italian ultimately came to denote the color black (probably by the 16th century, when many modern forms of grape names took shape in Italian).

But Paolo introduced a theory that I’d never heard before: that the binomial niger mavros could be due to the fact that Salento was a cross roads between the Byzantine (Greek-speaking) and Western (Latinate-speaking) empires.

The names of many grapes are early forms of wine marketing. For example, Primitivo (which was not cultivated until the modern era in Italy) is so-named because it is early-ripening (primitivus means simply early and was used to denote “first-fruits” in Latin). It’s likely that it was given that name by someone who wanted to encourage its use (i.e., this is a good grape because it ripens early, and hence, you will be able to harvest early avoiding potential bad weather during the later months of fall).

I don’t believe we’ve solved the conundrum of Negro Amaro’s etymon but I do think that its origins could lie in the fact that in antiquity it was cultivated in a place where Greek was the koiné or common language, adopted by all for expediency sake.

I have always thought that black bitter was what we call in linguistics a “false friend,” i.e., a reading based superficially on the immediately apparent meaning of word (for example, magazzino does not mean magazine in Italian in the sense of publication or weekly; it denotes a warehouse or store of military provisions). Why would anyone call a grape bitter? Historically, names were given to grapes for pneumonic or commercial value and not to encourage people not to grow them or consume them. My philological sensibility tells me that black bitter is a folkloric etymology and that the dialectal phrase noted by Calò et alia probably comes from a superficial reading of the grape name.

Either way, I’m happy to have found in Paolo a true friend and interlocutor.

Carissime Paule vale!

A propos good friends, Paolo and I have a good friend in common, Filena Ruppi, who produces a fantastic Aglianico del Vulture together with her husband Donato d’Angelo (for whom the winery is named). I caught up with Filena at Vinitaly, where she posed for my camera with her husband and an image of Mt. Vulture in the backdrop. Their Valle del Noce is one of my favorite expressions of Aglianico.


An Apulian winemaker and a chicken cross a road…

April 21, 2009

On Sunday evening, following the Texas Hill Country Food and Wine Festival, where Tracie B and I had a blast tasting, schmoozing, and pouring wines, we took our friend Paolo Cantele to our FAVORITE Austin honky tonk, Ginny’s Little Longhorn (above), where we played chicken sh*& bingo.

Check out this fun post I did over at the blog to which I contribute for Mosaic Wine Group.*

* Warning: contains graphic image!


A guilty pleasure: Quintarelli 1998 Valpolicella

April 20, 2009

There was one day during my stay in Verona for Vinitaly when I managed to escape the prison walls of the fairgrounds and enjoy a stroll down the main street of a small Italian town, eat a sandwich, have something refreshing at a the counter of a bar, and chat with the owner of a fantastic charcuterie and wine shop, Francesco Bonomo (above).

The town was San Martino Buon Albergo (on the old road that leads from Verona to Vicenza). Alfonso Cevola (above) and I stopped there for a brief but much-needed hour of humanity on an otherwise inhumane week of too much travel and too many wines. That’s Alfonso munching on a panino stuffed with Prosciutto di Praga, baked and smoked ham (that we bought at the first food shop we visited).

One of the more interesting bottles displayed on Francesco’s shelves was this bottle of 1973 Barolo by Damilano. Now just a collector’s bottle, its shoulder was pretty low and Francesco agreed that the wine is surely sherryized. Francesco let me photograph the bottle using my phone (I didn’t have my camera with me) but he was careful not to disturb the bottle’s patina of dust, of which he was particularly proud.

I wish I could have taken a better photo of this wines-by-the-glass list at the little bar on the main square of San Martino: Cartizze, Verduzzo (sparkling), Soave, Fragolino, Bardolino, and Valpolicella by the glass? All under 2 Euros? The answer is YES!

Francesco presides over a modest but impressively local collection of fine wine, including an allocation of 1998 Valpolicella by Giuseppe Quintarelli, the gem of his collection. I rarely bring wine back from Italy these days but the price on this wine was too good to pass by.

However coveted and mystified in the U.S., Quintarelli is one of the most misunderstood Italian wines on this side of the Atlantic, in part because its importer is one of the most reviled purveyors in the country (his infamously elitist, classist, snobbish, monopolistic, extortionist attitude are sufficient ideological grounds for not consuming the wine here).

I’ve interviewed Giuseppe Quintarelli on a number of occasions by phone and his daughter Silvana is always so nice when I call (and, btw, they happily receive visitors for tasting and purchase of their wines). I love the wines and was thrilled to get to taste this 10-year-old Valpolicella with Tracie B on Saturday night: she made wonderful stewed pork with tomatoes and porcini mushrooms for pairing (with a side of mashed potatoes). The wine’s initial raisined notes blew off quickly, giving way to a powerful, rich expression of Valpolicella. I tasted the wine repeatedly in 2004-2005 and I was impressed by how its flavors and aromas has become even more intense.

Francesco was so proud of his Quintarelli. He told me that he sells it at just a few Euros over cost because he just wants to have it in the store and wants to be able to share it with his customers. It was great to bring back a little Valpolicella to Austin and my Tracie B, direct from the source and sourced from someone who understands it for what it really is.

Post script

Alfonso gave me this nifty “wine skin” to transport the bottle back stateside. It seals tidily, so even if the bottle breaks in your suitcase, you don’t risk leakage. Happily the bottle made it back intact.

In the olden days, you used to be able to take bottles on the plane and you even used to be able to bring your own wine for drinking. Alice developed this system for smuggling natural wine on to the plane (happily, no Cavit Merlot for her!).


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