Angelo Gaja for president?

April 15, 2013

angelo gaja new york

Above: I took this photo of Angelo Gaja when I met with him in June 2012. He’s in his 70s and looks great. Angelo Gaja for president? Why not?

“The most important battles to fight,” once said traditionalist Barolo producer Teobaldo Cappellano, “are those which you know you cannot win.”

Surely there was a quixotic spirit behind this utterance (he was referring to the traditionalist opposition to Brunello’s inevitable slide into modernism).

But he was also embracing a notion — very Italian at its core — that taking a stand, even when a last and inconsequential stand, has an indisputable intrinsic value that may transcend the stakes in play (does anyone remember the Alamo?).

In the wake of two weeks that our family just spent in Italy (eating and drinking, playing music, and attending the wine fairs), one thing has become abundantly clear to me: Italians have their backs to the wall. The financial crisis, the Euro crisis, and the Italian frugal spirit have the Italian everyman everyperson in a chokehold.

Everywhere I went, winemakers and restaurateurs repeatedly began their discourse with the expression, con i tempi che corrono (in times like these). People simply aren’t spending the money that they used to. I watched one of the richest men in the Veneto sit down at one of the best restaurants in the province of Treviso and order an Euro 8 bottle of wine.

Extreme times call for extreme measures. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise when I received a press release last week from Vinarius, the association of Italian enoteca owners, in which the authors put forth Angelo Gaja as their candidate for President of the Republic.

birreria pedavena brewery

Above: While in Italy, we visited the beer garden where my band used to play in the 1990s before the Tangentopoli bribe scandal. The mural depicts Italian history through the fascist era, when the gesso was painted. Today, the main dining room is used for “lapdance” evenings (note the pole).

Italy has had pornstar politicians (most famously Staller) and today its “kingmaker” anti-establishment and anti-status-quo Five Star Movement party is headed by a comedian.

So why not a winemaker? After all, the role of President of the Republic (largely ceremonial and not to be confused with the executive Prime Minister or “President of the Council”) has been previously fulfilled by a winemaker (and iconic economist), Luigi Einaudi, Italy’s second president.

According to the president of Vinarius, Andrea Terraneo, who issued the press release last Thursday:

    Gaja represents all Italians inasmuch as he is a citizen, a worker, and a symbol of excellence. He is a leader in the world of agriculture and in the view of Vinarius, his candidacy would be a true resource in an extremely complex economic moment…

    [He] is by far one of the world’s best known Italian wine world personalities. He possesses extraordinary moral and empathetic characteristics and he has the charisma needed to perform such an important role.

While Italian politicians hardly seem to have taken notice, Italian wine industry observers have set about commenting the implications of a Gaja candidacy (just Google “Gaja” and “presidente” and you’ll find all the links, including posts that have appeared in some of the country’s leading wine blogs and mastheads).

However ceremonial the office, the President of the Republic is the only one who can dissolve parliament and call for new elections. (The current president, Napolitano, who is at the end of his seven-year term, cannot call for new elections because the Italian constitution forbids him from doing so in the last six months of his tenure.)

The austerity and financial crises are only exacerbated by the fact that Italy hasn’t had a government since February elections failed to produce a coalition (according to reports today, Berlusconi would be the next PM “by a hair” if the vote were held today).

And beyond the technical issues that the government-less nation faces, there is also the issue of morale in a Europe that increasingly looks to Italy as one of the sources of its financial ills (the Euro crisis was what forced Berlusconi out of power last year).

Gaja for president? It could only do the country good. The only problem, as Franco Ziliani noted the other day on his blog (one of the most popular and most controversial wine blogs in Italy), is why would anyone who is already King [of Barbaresco] accept a demotion to president?


Upcoming events, wine and music, Texas, California, and Italy

March 6, 2013

Concerts in Proseccoland April 5 & 6

jeremy parzen shawn amos charlie george circa 1993

The biggest news is that my old American cover band is reuniting for a few shows in Proseccoland on Friday and SaturdayApril 5 and 6, the days leading up to Vinitaly.

Back in the early 1990s when I was in my 20s, my good friend, roomate, and bandmate Shawn Amos (above center) and I fronted a cover band that toured the Veneto artisanal and unpasteurized beer circuit for three summers.

I don’t have all of the details but shows will take place in Cison di Valmarino (a stone’s throw from Valdobbiadene) at the Villa Marcello Marinelli and the old Birreria in Pedavena.

Check out Shawn’s site. He’s a pretty interesting dude.

More details soon but these will be SUPER fun shows and the band is smoking…

Pouring wine at Sotto in Los Angeles
and Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego

Thursday March 14 and Friday March 15

jeremy parzen

Thursday, March 14, I’ll be at Sotto in LA (where I co-curate the wine program) for the launch of our new spring list.

Friday, March 15, I’ll be pouring a flight of wines Italian and otherwise at Jaynes Gastropub and later in the evening, our San Diego-based band The Grapes (above) will be doing a set on the back patio.

Sunset magazine just named the Jaynes Burger the “best in San Diego.” That’s what I’ll be having, paired with a glass of Cantele Salice Salentino.

Wine Dinners in Houston & Austin
March 19 and 20

seafood houston texas

I’m very geeked about the White Wine and Seafood dinner where I’m speaking at Ciao Bello in Houston on Tuesday, March 19.

Chef Bobby Matos has been doing amazing things with his menu there and we have a super groovy flight of white and orange wine lined up.

And on Wednesday, March 20, I’ll be presenting winemaker Tracey Brandt of Donkey & Goat at a dinner featuring her wines at Vino Vino.

Please come out and taste and rock out with me!


Zanotto Prosecco Col Fondo is here! (and my band circa 1993)

August 2, 2012

Above: Zanotto Prosecco Col Fondo is the Prosecco that I tasted back in the early 1990s when I was living in the Veneto. Bottle fermented, lees aged, unfiltered, salty, crunchy Prosecco made from 100% Glera. That’s the traditional glass, btw, for real Prosecco. No flutes please!

The story of how Zanotto Prosecco Col Fondo got to the U.S. stretches back to the early 1990s when I was the band leader of a cover band touring the Veneto during my summers off from graduate school.

Above, from left: me, Shawn Amos, and Charlie George circa 1993 in the village of Pedavena (Feltre).

After I found success doing a piano bar act in the many pubs and beer houses that line the Piave river, the owner of one of the venues, Renato Dal Piva (who later became one of my best friends in Italy), asked me if I’d be interested in doing a summer residency at the historic Pedavena beer garden just outside of Feltre.

Above, from left: My super good friend and amazing guitar player and all-around musician Gabriele “Elvis” Inglesi and the rest of us at the façade of the Siena duomo. We also played a one-night stand in Montalcino in the village of Bagno Vignoni, a night of fried wild-boar liver and Sangiovese.

That was an amazing and unforgettable time in my life. I was in my twenties, studying Italian philology and cinema, living on the many scholarships I won (including a Fulbright), and playing in a cover band at beer festivals (many of them celebrating unpasteurized beer) throughout the Veneto during the summers.

Above: I believe that this article was published in Il Mattino di Padova. If you really want to read it (in Italian), click the image for a PDF (very large file!).

Fast forward to 2010: I get a Facebook message from Riccardo Zanotto who used to come every summer to see us play and drink many, many beers with us.

In early 2011, on the occasion of my trip to Italy with Tracie P, he organizes a tasting of a small group of brave young producers who are making REAL Prosecco, the wines that I used to drink during my years there in an era before the consumerist hegemony of yeasted, banana-candy large-vat fermented Prosecco (you know the brands).

Here’s the link to our tasting notes.

Riccardo’s Prosecco Col Fondo is bottle fermented, lees aged, unfiltered, and unsulfured.

It’s being brought to California by a Los Angeles importer: I’m making it available for sale retail through my wine club and we’re doing a public tasting of the wine in San Francisco at Ceri Smith’s excellent shop Biondivino on Friday, August 17, 6-8 p.m.

I couldn’t be more thrilled… if only because we love these wines and we want to drink them!

And some story, huh? See, mom? All those years of rock ‘n’ roll actually delivered some great rewards… and they just keep on giving…

Thanks for reading, yall!


A new Prosecco category emerges: colfòndo

November 18, 2010

Above: Costadilà is a member of new group of winemakers who make “Prosecco colfòndo.” Note the sediment at the bottom of the bottle (photo taken on our dining room table).

Thrilling news of a new group of Prosecco producers who make their wines colfòndo (con il fondo, i.e., aged on their lees and thus with sediment) came to my attention via Mr. Franco Ziliani’s brand spanking new blog devoted to the world of Italian sparkling wines, Le Mille Bolle (A Thousand Bubbles).

In many ways, Prosecco is the wine that started it all for me so many years ago when I started writing about wine. Back in 1998 when I got my first gig as an enojournalist, it was with a feature story on Prosecco. I know the appellation well because I spent three summers touring the provinces of Treviso and Belluno with a cover band.

To my palate, lees-aged Prosecco is the real Prosecco (not the yeasted banana candy crap that we see too often in this country). Lees-aging gives the wine the saltiness that makes Prosecco raised in Valdobbiadene stand apart from the crowd. I love it and am dying to taste more.

Above: That’s me in the middle rehearsing in the famous Birreria at Pedavena where we played 4 sets a night, 3 nights a week (no kidding). I was in my 20s and the music and beer (often unpasteurized, btw) flowed all night long. How do you like the hair?

Dulcis in fundo (pun intended): one of the producers, Riccardo Zanotto, used to come hear us play back in the day and we shared more than one beer together…

Che bei ricordi! What great memories of rock ‘n’ roll with the Dolomites as our stage and salty, gritty, utterly delicious Prosecco!


Vintage anti-Berlusconi propaganda and other relics

September 4, 2009

Above, from left clockwise: “I have to stay outside,” “You’re poor? It’s YOUR damn problem,” “We are voting for Berlusconi” (they’re dressed as Freemasons), and “this car has been de-Berlusconi-ized” (a play on denuclearized). These stickers were printed by Cuore (a magazine supplement to the leftist daily L’Unità) in the early 1990s during Berlusconi’s first campaign to become Prime Minister.

When I first traveled to Italy in 1987 for my junior year abroad as part of the University of California and Università di Padova exchange program, Italy and the outlook of Italians seemed much different than it does today. When I attended my first academic year there (and there would many years to follow, later at the Scuola Normal Superiore in Pisa, study at the Vatican Library, three summers in the Dolomite Alps where I earned my keep playing cover tunes, and summers in Montalcino where I first began to appreciate wine), the Italian Socialist Party still dominated Italian politics. In spite of the inconveniences posed by the legendarily lethargic Italian bureaucracy, health care was free for all (that first year, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was amazed when I wasn’t even presented a bill at the emergency room) and a year’s tuition at the university cost roughly 300,000 lire, about $250 at the time (in 1989 I returned to Italy and re-enrolled at the Università di Padova).

Above: My junior year dorm room at Monte Cengio where I roomed with Steve Muench. We’re still close friends today (scroll to the bottom of this post).

That was before the Mani pulite investigation and the subsequent Tangentopoli scandal that brought the Socialists to their knees. And it was before the rise of Italy’s richest man Silvio Berlusconi as the most powerful politician to emerge in post-war Italy. Berlusconi famously told journalist and historian Enzo Biagi (think of him as our Walter Cronkite) that he entered politics because existing laws did not allow him to make even more money. If the law doesn’t allow me to grow richer, he decided one day, I’ll just rewrite the law.

Today in Italy, vigilante posses comb the streets at night harassing immigrants; doctors have been asked to report illegal immigrants (extra-communitarians, as they are called) to authorities when they request medical care; there have been cases where emergency health workers have allowed immigrants to die at the scene of accidents by delaying medical attention; Berlusconi’s agricultural minister has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants; and Lucca has outlawed “ethnic” food in its center… The list goes on and on.

It’s a different Italy than the one first encountered by a bright-eyed U.C.L.A. junior who had a knack for languages in 1987.

Above: The last summer I played at the Birreria di Pedavena, my band and I stayed in the mountain pass village of Croce d’Aune.

I recently found the stickers and the photos in a shoebox that arrived last week in Austin from a storage space in Manhattan. They brought back memories of a time when the outlook of most Italians I knew didn’t seem rosy but was certainly instilled with a resilient humanitarian and humanist spirit. That attitude endures among most of the Italians I know but a dark cultural hegemony has taken hold there in the Berlusconi age.

Yesterday, an article in The New York Times reported how Berlusconi forced the resignation of the editor of the Italian Bishops’s Conference daily newspaper. He did so by publishing front page features in his own newspaper detailing the editor’s rumored sexual preferences. He did so because the editor had written an editorial about Berlusconi’s widely publicized (and in many instance self-propagandized) lasciviousness.

What’s this world coming to?

In other news, Agnelli heir and playboy Lapo Elkann has publicly announced that he is converting to Judaism.

What IS this world coming to?

Boccaccio’s tale of the conversion of Abraham comes to mind…


Italy Day 1: Chianina and pisacan with old friends

April 16, 2008

Above: the Castello di Zumelle rises above the historic town of Mel nestled at the foot of the Dolomite Alps. Zumelle is the ancient name of Mel (in the province of Belluno, about an hour and a half south of Cortina d’Ampezzo). It means “two twins” in Bellunese dialect. According to legend, the castle was built in the 700s by twin brothers whose sarcophagus still resides within the castle walls.

So here goes: Italy Day 1…

I arrived in Venice on April fool’s day, picked up my Fiat Idea, and headed toward the hills. My first destination was the Castello di Zumelle, lunch, dinner, and sleep over with some of my oldest Italian friends, the Dalpiva family. I first met Renato and Lucia (left with their son, Nicola) in 1989 when I was in my second year at the Università di Padova and was making a living by playing blues and covers with my good friend Elvis (more on him later) in the many pubs and beer gardens that line the Piave river. At the time, they ran the Casa Rossa, one of the most successful venues, and in 1991, they were asked to manage the famous Birreria di Pedavena, a beautiful 1930s beer garden and botanic garden, where I spent three summers playing six nights a week with a cover band comprised of friends from California (including Charlie George, John Krylow, Ted, and Shawn Amos).

Today, they live atop a hill in a castle… yes, a castle, just like in fairy tales. A few years back, after they had retired (at a very young age, I might add), Renato won the local competition to open a restaurant in the town’s medieval castle. Not only did he build a beautiful restaurant there, but he also refurbished the living quarters and the family moved in. The ever-industrious Renato also created a medieval re-enactment walking tour for children: three or four times a week, he dons his medieval garb (as in the photo above) and teaches school children how to make chainmaille and medieval dumplings, he lectures, accompanied by music, on life in the Middle Ages.

For dinner, Renato threw some fiorentine on the grill (Tuscan porterhouse steaks, butchered from Chianina cows). Note how he chars the top of the steaks before grilling them — a sine qua non.

After our steaks, Lucia served a salad made with tarassaco (Taraxacum), a local variety of dandelion green known in Veneto dialect as pisacane or dog pisser. The name is not very appetizing but the bitterness of these tasty greens was offset by a drop or two of balsamic vinegar.

The castle armory is a highlight of Renato’s tour. He’s like a kid in a candy store…

A diorama of the castle as it appeared in the Middle Ages.

Sunset in the valley as seen from the castle tower.

Next post: a visit with Maria Teresa Mascarello, Bartolo’s beret, and the mystery of his Che Guevara star…


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