They came for the pizza and stayed for the Champagne: a Houstonian on top of the world in Manhattan

roman style pizza recipeThe pizza at Marta in Manhattan last week was awesome: authentic Roman-style, with perfectly seasoned and fired crust and classic and creative toppings (the Carbonara with potatoes was the biggest hit at our table).

But the thing that impressed me the most was the wonderful wine list and wine director Jack Mason’s grace, ease, and affability on the floor.

To my mind, he is the apotheosis of the modern sommelier: an extremely informed, highly able educator and immensely gracious host.

I first met Jack a few years ago when he was just starting out as a sommelier at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston. Today, he and his aggressively priced short list of wines from Champagne are at the center of the wine universe.

I phoned him earlier this week and interviewed him for the Houston Press.

He is the nicest guy. And let me tell you, folks, we need more wine pros like him.

Check out my post here. Thanks for reading!

Is Charlie Bird the best restaurant in the U.S.? It’s my current favorite…

razor clam recipeThe meal at Charlie Bird in lower Manhattan was so good the other night that I felt like I was cheating on my wife by eating there without her.

Yes, yes, I know. It’s ridiculous to talk about “the best restaurant” anywhere. I’m a devout anti-listiclist but my experience at Charlie Bird was so thrilling that I’m just going to go ahead and blurt it out like a schoolboy: it’s my favorite restaurant in the country right now.

That’s the crudo we were served, above, razor clams and bay scallops (I wrote up nearly all the dishes over on the Cantele USA blog; the dinner was the culmination of a week in NYC with my super good friend and client Paolo Cantele, who treated me to this extravagant repast).

barbaresco santo stefano giacosaYes, it’s true: the bottle of 1998 Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano didn’t hurt.

Man, what a wonderful vintage of this wine to drink right now! I’m sure it has many years ahead of it but it was an extremely thoughtful (and generous) selection by Paolo, for its elegance, grace, and drinkability. Perhaps more than any other producer, Giacosa’s wines capture the “unbearable lightness,” the ineffable balance of power and litheness that make Barbaresco such a unique expression of Italian viticulture.

Between 1999 and 1998, the former is arguably the better vintage. But this wine drank at what might be the peak of its performance. Simply stunning wine.

roulot tillets mersaultLike nineteenth-century amanuenses, Robert Bohr and Grant Reynolds transcribe their reserve list by hand. How cool is that? Very, in my book.

And every wine on their handlist can be ordered by the half bottle (they pour the rest of the wine by-the-glass on the same night).

I recently hung out with Robert and Grant and they are both such down-to-earth, genuinely nice guys (despite the flurry of media attention they’ve received in recent years).

It’s not hard to understand why everyone in the wine trade wants to eat at their spectacular restaurant (apologies for the superlatives but I just really, really loved this place).

Paolo, thanks again for this truly unforgettable experience. We had a great week together in New York and this was a real treat.

Grant, thanks so much for taking such great care of us and the fantastic wines you shared. The Roulot was so spot-on and a breathless pleasure for me. Your restaurant and wine list are super cool.

On the food: Charlie Bird’s menu is confident without arrogance; it is self-aware without cockiness. That may sound like a weird thing to say about a gourmet experience. But how many dishes are served in Manhattan every night with a side of affectation? Too many to count… Check out my write-up of the food on Paolo’s U.S. blog here.

Taste Franciacorta with me Feb. 4 in Houston and a note on the Montalcino scandal

houston somelier associationAbove: the Houston Sommelier Association is one of the coolest and most friendly wine “study groups” in the country. The mood is always convivial but serious and everyone, even laypersons, are always welcomed with open arms.

First the good news…

I’m thrilled to share the news that I will be leading a Franciacorta tasting week after next at the weekly meeting of the Houston Sommelier Association.

Here are the details:

Franciacorta “Real Story” Tasting
Wednesday, February 4
10:30 a.m.
Camerata
1830 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77098
(713) 522-8466

It looks like we will have wines from each of the five Franciacorta wineries currently available in Texas.

And we will also have a number of wines that are not sold in Texas.

It should be a super fun event and if you are in town, please join us.

It’s part of a bigger project that I will tell you about in a few weeks. But for the time being, I’m very excited about getting to share one of my favorite appellations and an Italian wine that I feel deeply connected to.

Please join if you can/want: everyone is welcome at the Houston Sommelier Association gatherings and it’s a very friendly environment where camaraderie is the order of the day. I’m thrilled that they agreed to let me taste with them.

And now for the awful news from Montalcino…

To say the least, I was as dismayed to hear the news from Montalcino this week.

I didn’t attend the Benvenuto Brunello tasting here in New York City (where I’m working this week). But there’s no doubt that the lurid details arriving from Montalcino cast a long shadow over the gathering.

My connection to Montalcino stretches back more than 25 years and I know a lot people there, including some of the people who have been allegedly implicated in this mess. A lot of people have been messaging me from Italy and here in the U.S. I only know as much as what has been said in the Italian media.

In another and now distant chapter of my life, my family was involved in a local, “small-town” scandal that received international attention.

It was all very ugly and it was one of the toughest times in my life (I was eleven years old when it all unraveled).

As I’ve read the Italian media reports from Montalcino, I’ve thought a lot about those years of our lives.

It’s hard to “avert our eyes” when we see things like this in the feed. But it’s important to remember that — no matter what truth emerges — the people affected by this are real people.

Montalcino is a strange place, at once one of the world’s most beautiful and one of its most lonely.

Today, my heart is with my friends there…

tuscan cypress trees montalcino

A great night at Marta Who was that strange man humping me last night at Marta?

nossing kerner marta new york wine listAbove: German-speaking Italians are the “it” wines right now in NYC. I loved this Manni Nössing Kerner that Jack Mason poured last night at super sexy Marta.

Holy cow! It was a who’s who of the international wine scene at Marta last night, where Paolo and I had a 9 p.m. reservation.

I finally got a chance to chat with Elisa Scavino from legacy Nebbiolo producer Paolo Scavino. She was staying at Nomad, not too far from Marta, and she had stopped in for dinner for one at the bar. I was so glad to meet her and she was super nice and fun to talk to.

And at the table next to ours? Yes, you guessed it , the hardest working man in the wine podcast business, the inimitable Levi Dalton, once hailed as the Philip Marlowe of the wine world by an obscure wine blogger.
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Nüsserhof Blatterle was such a wonderful surprise at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria

nusserhof BlatterleWhen we sat down for dinner last night at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in lower Manhattan, there was no debate over which white wine to start off with: the Nüsserhof B[latterle], made from the rare Blatterle grape in German-speaking South Tyrol.

Honestly, I’d never heard of the variety before and was entirely geeked to try it. I loved its low alcohol (at around 12 percent), freshness, and its easy-going spearmint note on the nose. It was a fantastic wine to go with the charcuterie, pickled beets, and lettuces that came out first from the kitchen.

Italian wine is a never-ending mosaic of grape varieties, styles, tastes, peoples, and places. And this wine was just the umpteenth reason that it never gets boring.

1985 rinaldi tasting notesFor our second bottle, my friend Jamie Wolff, founder and owner of Chambers St. Wines, the current “best wine shop in the world” (vis-à-vis JancisRobinson.com), generously treated us to a stunning 1985 Barolo by Giuseppe Rinaldi (corkage).

Man, this bottle sang in the glass! It had an ethereal balance of savory earth and fruit flavors and although it was still muscular and deliciously chewy in body, its ineffable litheness — a hallmark of the greatest expression of Barolo imho — prevailed in the mouth.

Jamie had double-decanted the wine earlier in the day and its vibrancy left everyone at the table speechless and very happy.

It was so wonderful to see my good friend, Il Buco’s resident wizard, Roberto Paris, who mentored and encouraged me so early on in my career. He is such a lovely man and we couldn’t help but re-stoke the memories of the late nineties and very early aughts before tragedy silenced irony in Manhattan for a time.

All in all, it was a great way to become re-acclimated to my old stomping grounds.

Please stay tuned… More enogastronomic adventures await me in my near future here in NYC…

Sangiovese research breakthrough

best sangiovese tuscany montalcinoAt Bush on my way to NYC today.

But wanted to share a small breakthrough I made in my ongoing Sangiovese research last week.

It’s well known that Baron Bettino Ricasoli grubbed up his vineyards and replanted his Brolio estate (mostly) to Sangiovese in the second half of the nineteenth century.

His decision to embrace and champion Sangiovese as Tuscany’s primary grape variety became a blueprint for the generations of growers and winemakers who followed.

But I’ve been challenged to find ampelographers who describe Tuscan viticulture and the grapes planted there in the decades that followed his move.

Last week, searching and scrolling through Google books, I stumbled across a wonderful survey of Tuscan farming published in 1882 in Florence (Paggi), Tuscan Agriculture: on the state of farming and farmers by Carlo Massimiliano Mazzini.

“It would take too long to list all the grape varieties cultivated in Tuscany,” writes Mazzini. “Their extremely high number represents the principal defect of local viticulture because it prevents [winemakers] from standardizing the types of wine produced there.”

“But in recent years, notable progress has taken shape. In all of the new plantings, the following prized and dependable varieties have come to prevail: Sangioveto, Canaiolo, Mammolo, Trebbiano, and Malvasia. The first three are red, the other two white.”

I posted my notes, along with my original translation of Baron Ricasoli’s famous letter to Cesare Studiati, over at my client La Porta di Vertine’s blog last week.

I hope you find my small discovery as exciting as I did.

Like I said, I’m heading to NYC today for a week of meetings, eating, and drinking. See you on the other side…

Prosecco DOCG just $6.99! Unfair pricing practices undermine small Prosecco growers (& my op-ed for @WineSearcher)

best price value prosecco costcoOn Monday, a colleague and friend in California sent me this image above and the one below.

He snapped it at one of the myriad “big box” stores that dot the landscape of my childhood Southern California.

To some, $6.99 for a bottle of Prosecco DOCG may seem like a great bargain for a high-quality wine.

But to Italian wine trade observers, the notion of an under-$7 Prosecco DOCG reeks of unfair pricing practices.

According to WineSearcher.com, the average retail price of a bottle of Prosecco DOCG from an established bottler in California is around $17. And I can tell you anecdotally that you should be able to find a great bottle of the DOCG there for somewhere between $13-16 — twice the big box price.

costco wine pricesWhen I asked a Prosecco grower and bottler how such a low price could be possible, he told me that the grower and bottler of the big box wine were probably making just cents on the dollar for the wine.

Why would growers and bottlers sell their fruit and their wine at such abominably low prices?

Prosecco DOCG has to be made using hillside-grown fruit from the townships of Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, and Asolo.

Prosecco DOC is made from fruit grown on the valley floors of Treviso province or the entire region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Vineyard management costs for hillside growing areas are higher than those for the valley floors. And that’s one of the reasons, although not the only one, that Prosecco DOCG costs more than DOC.

But because consumers seem to make no distinction between the higher-quality DOCG and the DOC, sales of Prosecco DOCG are being eclipsed by the cheaper and lower-quality DOC. As a result, many smaller and mid-tier DOCG growers are sometimes forced to sell off their fruit at bargain-basement pricing.

It’s a problem that plagues other DOCGs as well, including Franciacorta, Brunello di Montalcino, and even Barolo.

But in Proseccoland, where the Prosecco boom shows no sign of slowing, its impact is acutely felt by smaller growers who see their livelihoods being undercut by big business and big box Prosecco.

And the unsustainability of this tenuous situation (read Marxist notion of boom and bust), is exactly what I wrote about yesterday in my op-ed for WineSearcher.

Thanks for reading…

A man who helped make Prosecco an international phenomenon and the challenges he faces

primo francoAbove: in late 2014, legacy Prosecco producer Primo Franco celebrated thirty years since he took over at his family’s winery, Nino Franco.

“The Italians are a victim of their own success,” said British Prosecco bottler Daniel Spinath in an interview published today by Harpers. “And they have created this problem for themselves. Prosecco has become the generic word to talk about sparkling wine which is not a bad thing for the producers or for the industry.”

He was referring to the fact that many of his customers in England sell his keg-packaged wine as “Prosecco” even though EU law forbids them from doing so.

According to the Prosecco DOCG, which was created in 2009, only wines sold in glass bottles can be marketed as “Prosecco.”

And while Spinath doesn’t label the wine as “Prosecco,” he contends that he cannot stop pub and restaurant owners from presenting it as such. Currently, oustide Italy, Prosecco growers and bottlers have no recourse when it comes to “on premise” marketing as it is called in the trade. They can sue bottlers and packagers of Prosecco but they do not have a means to stop restaurateurs from marketing the wines as Prosecco.

prosecco vintage tastingAbove: some of the Veneto’s leading winemakers and a number of marquee-name wine writers came out to pay tribute to Primo and taste a vertical of his wines stretching back thirty years.

The bottom line: Prosecco has become bigger than Prosecco. Like Xerox for photocopies or Kleenex for tissue paper, it has become an antonomasia for sparkling wine throughout the world.

Fifteen years ago, were you to hand a layperson a glass of Prosecco at a cocktail party, she/he would often respond by saying, “Champagne! How great!”

Today, when you hand someone a glass of Champagne, it’s not uncommon to hear them say, “Prosecco! I love Prosecco!”

Harpers isn’t the only media outlet talking about the mislabeling of keg-packaged Prosecco.

See yesterday’s post by Alfonso. It was prompted by a BBC interview he did on Sunday morning. The subject was the “illegal” sale of on-tap sparkling Glera that has been labeled as Prosecco.

By his estimation, Prosecco sales were up by 50 percent in 2014 in the U.S. with respect to the previous year.

I’ve read reports that claim Prosecco sales are up by as much as 70 percent in Britain.

best prosecco tastingAbove: it was impressive to see how Primo’s wines have aged over the last three decades. They were surprisingly fresh and only showed slight signs of oxidation.

Reading Alfonso’s post yesterday and the article today in Harpers, I couldn’t help but think of a wonderful evening I spent on a chilly night in Valdobbiadene in October of last year with Primo Franco and his family, owners of the Nino Franco winery.

Primo is a friend and I had the great fortune to be invited to his fabu party celebrating his thirty years making wine for his family’s label.

Leading Italian winemakers where there (Anselmi and Maculan among them). Top English-language wine writers were there (Steven Spurrier from Britain, wow!, and Alan Tardy, an American who lives in Italy).

They were all their to pay homage for “brand” he created. As more than one wine luminary noted, Prosecco was one of the appellations that helped to reshape English-speakers’ perception of Italian wines in the 80s and 90s.

Thirty years ago, Primo wasn’t alone in his quest to make Prosecco a popular wine in English-speaking countries. But he was one of a small group of bottlers who packed their bags and headed across the ocean to teach Anglophones about Prosecco’s wonderful freshness, food-friendliness, and versatility at the dinner table.

As one young, über hip Prosecco grower once said to me, “every Prosecco producer should give Primo ten cents for every bottle sold.”

But when it comes to Daniel Spinath’s claim that Italians are victims of their own success, I call bull-shit.

The Prosecchisti are victims of the unbridled greed of unscrupulous bottlers, packagers, and marketers like Spinath, who prefer to shrug their shoulders when it comes to sourcing, pricing, and marketing their products.

And honest Prosecco growers and négociants are penalized by the fact that the Prosecco DOCG Consortium has done virtually nothing to protect their brand by promoting education for trade and consumer awareness.

Primo is one of the most respected people in the Italian wine trade and he is truly one of the loveliest as well. A soul of great learning and humanity and one of the men who turned the world on to the delightful wine that they grow in the hills of Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, and Asolo.

I am proud to call myself his friend and I am his unabashed fan. But I know that he faces an uphill battle in defending his family’s legacy and the Prosecco that he and I both love so much.

Charlie Hebdo wine labels: goûtez la différence!

charlie hebdo wine labelsHonestly, I’m still reeling from the news of last week’s tragedy in Paris, a city to which I feel a strong connection because of my many visits there, the times I’ve performed there with my French-language band Nous Non Plus, and my many friends who live there.

The attacks affect all of us, no matter where we stand. They cut to the core of our ethos — whether eastern or western — and they surely represent a turning point in how the west will view and deal with the growing threat of terror.

As a Jew, I’m also deeply troubled by the anti-semitic nature of the super market massacre and by the fact that the French government has been obliged to mobilize its armed forces to protect Jewish sites. Yes, sadly and tragically, it’s come to this.

But this morning I was struck by a delightful however bittersweet note of levity as I scrolled the morning feed and discovered a wonderful post devoted to wine labels drawn by Charlie Hebdo contributors on Intravino, the popular Italian wine blog.

Intravino editor Antonio Tomacelli has put together a digital collection of hilarious and often bawdy labels, many culled from Professeur Choron’s journal Hara-Kiri.

All five of the vignettists who perished last week, he notes, had also drawn wine labels.

Here’s the link to Antonio’s fabulous post.

Tomorrow, I’ll pick it up here on Do Bianchi once again.

À bientôt

Solidarity with our sisters and brothers in France: vive la France! et vive l’ironie!

paris in winterYesterday’s vicious attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo resonates and reverberates far beyond Paris, where the very notions of free speech and freedom for all people were enshrined during the great Age of Enlightenment.

As we have read the coverage from Europe, including reports of Italy’s heightened sense of vulnerability, I can’t help but thinks about one of the journalistic trends that emerged during the months that followed the Tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001.

“Is irony dead?” asked many writers and critical theorists at the time.

In the wake of what happened yesterday in Paris, it’s more important than ever for us to embrace irony.

The despicable men who committed this atrocity are so convinced of their misguided, evil beliefs that they — quite literally — held no quarter for irony and the satirical medium employed by the editors of Charlie Hebdo. And where and when irony were to be eliminated, there would be only totalitarianism.

Without irony and without negation (as the critical theorists would call it), there can be no truth because truth cannot exist in the hermetically sealed world of totalitarianism. And that’s what the attackers want more than anything.

I can’t think of more urgent moment than now to shout at the top of my lungs, vive l’ironie! and vive la France!

To our French sisters and brothers, know that we stand with you!

The photo above was taken in February 2009 when Tracie P and I visited the City of Lights for a tour with my band Nous Non Plus.