Ceri Smith’s Biondivino as if in a dream of Italian wine (hag urim sameach yall!)

rocche del gatto pigatoAbove: the Rocche del Gatto Pigato blew me away with its freshness and rich minerality. It was such a stunning pairing for the takeout Vietnamese that Ceri treated us all to on Wednesday night. This wine was a lovely discovery for me.

It’s hard to describe the emotion that I experience when I visit Ceri Smith’s amazing Biondivino wine boutique in Russian Hill, San Francisco.

The walls of the shop are lined with a literally oneiric selection of my favorite Italian wines and a smattering of wines that I’ve never seen before and am thirsting to taste.

Cappellano, Castell’in Villa, Giacomo Fenocchio, Cavallotto, Crociani… Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?

best georgian wine san franciscoAbove: the nose on the Orgo Rkatsiteli was like a stroll through an apricot orchard. Ceri has been to Georgian wine country and has been instrumental in turning San Francisco on to these stunning wines.

But the most incredible thing about the shop is its wonderful salon character.

After our Bele Casel Prosecco tasting on Wednesday night, Ceri and Zach Zito, who helps her manage the busy store, kept the shop open and continued to receive wine shoppers as we drank Pigato and munched on delicious Vietnamese takeout.

Some would stop and have a glass of wine. Others would grab a bottle and hurry on to their holiday party.

It’s simply a magical place for Italian wine and Italian wine lovers.

Of course, our dinner and confabulation had been preceded by an entirely brilliant pairing of Bele Casel’s Prosecco Col Fondo with the Brescian caviar that was served as I poured the wines for guests.

Thank you again, so very much, Ceri and Zach, for hosting me and Bele Casel’s wines. I LOVE your shop…

In other news…

hanukkah candles 2014 houstonI managed to make it home yesterday from the west coast in time to light candles with the girls.

I lit the three candles as I said the prayer and Georgia P asked me why we don’t blow out the candles like we did on her birthday.

The candles represent something that happened a long time ago, I told her. It was a really special moment for me as I watched her watch the candles burn.

Tonight before we sit down for dinner, we’ll light four candles (the photo above is from last year when we were still Austin).

Tomorrow, Tracie P is going to make us all her awesome latkes.

Happy Hanukkah, everyone! Hag urim sameach!

All you need is groovy wine and love: wine list back on track @SottoLA

best wine list los angelesSo much to report from my trip this week to California, including a super fun evening and fantastic wines, caviar, and conversation last night at Ceri Smith’s amazing Biondivino wine boutique in San Francisco.

But as I’m getting ready to board this morning for Houston from Oakland, I’m extremely happy to report that the wine list at Sotto is now back on track.

That’s the server crew at the restaurant (above), including the wine program manager Christine Veys (seated back, right), who co-authors the list with me.

Over the last few months, Christine and I have been working hard to bring the list back into focus.

best trebbiano abruzzo naturalAnd here’s the funny thing: now that we’ve eliminated the banal “crowd pleasers” and “dick waggers” that had insinuated themselves into our selection, we’re actually selling more wine!

It goes to show that groovy wine and love is all you need.

That’s the amphora-raised Trebbiano d’Abruzzo by natural producer Francesco Cirelli (above), which we currently serve by the glass (one of my personal favorites).

2015 will be the fourth year of our list at Sotto and I’m really psyched about what we’re working on for the new year.

Christine, you’ve done an extraordinary job and your ability as a taster is awesome.

To everyone at Sotto, thanks for believing in my crazy idea that we could turn LA on to groovy, crunchy, funky, soulful southern Italian wine.

You rock my world…

Absurdist EU wine marketing regulation & why Prosecco Col Fondo matters more than ever

giuseppe beppe citrico rinaldiAbove: Giuseppe Rinaldi at his winery in Barolo in 2010. Aggressive enforcement of EU regulations and the prospect of steep fines are forcing him to change the names of his wines.

Across the Italian wine world, producers and trade observers have been loudly protesting and denouncing new European Union regulations that restrict what wineries can and cannot say about their products on the internet and in other marketing materials.

I posted about it here a few weeks ago and leading Italian wine writer Luciano Ferraro wrote about it for the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera just last week.

Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini wrote an editorial about it some weeks ago for Slow Wine. In his piece, he robustly endorses the Italian Federation of Independent Grape Growers’ call for civil disobedience in the face of fines by authorities.

Basically it comes down to the following.

Although regional references are allowed in labeling (as long as the text is in accordance with highly detailed specifications for what can appear on the label and its font size etc.), they are not allowed in promotional materials.

As a result, a producer of Barolo (the appellation), whose winery lies in Barolo (the township), cannot write that her/his winery “is in Barolo” in her/his marketing materials.

In his article for the Corriere, Ferraro cites another potential example of a seemingly nonsensical restriction offered by Montalcino producer Donatella Cinelli-Colombini.

If a Tuscan winery property includes a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast and/or restaurant, she notes, said winemaker cannot use the word “Tuscany” in marketing materials. The results, she noted, would be devastating for the winery, who otherwise rightfully can lay claim to Tuscany and all that it evokes in marketing her/his products and services.

The EU marketing restrictions include other counter-intuitive measures as well. In one instance, the legacy Barolo producer Giuseppe Rinaldi (above) was forced to remove the reference to two vineyards on a single label for a blended wine. Even though his family has been bottling a blend of these two crus for generations, only one vineyard name is allowed by the Italian legislation modeled after EU regulation.

There is a logic to the restrictions, however misguided (and perhaps abused).

If a winery is located in Barolo township but doesn’t produce Barolo wine, the strict regulation of marketing verbiage prevents an unscrupulous winemaker from writing Barolo in marketing materials that could potentially confuse or mislead consumers (at least this is the logic that I was able to find in my research on the subject; see this abstract of an article from Wine Economics and Policy by Florence-based wine economics researchers).

Of course, there are dishonest bottlers out there and every time I visit an American supermarket, I am reminded that end users of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco are often deceived by less-than-earnest marketing practices.

But the damage being done in Italy, in my view, greatly outweighs the harm to my 80-year-old mother when she goes wine shopping. Wine trade oversight is intended to protect the producers first and foremost. After all, without them and their well being, we wouldn’t have the honest wine in the first place.

The new regulations have actually been in place since August 2009. But authorities have only now begun to enforce them fully.

And that’s why everyone is talking about it now: because authorities have begun fining winemakers and these nonsensical applications of the law are coming to light.

Small Italian wineries like Rinaldi’s have become the Davids to the European Union’s Goliath wine marketing regulation. But there’s a lot more at play than just wine marketing.

The Great Recession and stark austerity measures have led to growing discontent and disillusionment among European Union citizens. Today, there is a widespread feeling among regular people that Brussels (the synecdoche EU capital) doesn’t hold their traditions and aspirations in high regard.

And this is why I believe that wines like Prosecco Col Fondo matter more than ever.

The Prosecco Col Fondo movement emerged right around the time that the new EU policies came into effect.

Its epicenter was a small group of likeminded and mostly youthful growers and winemakers who wanted to revive a generational tradition of winemaking that had all but disappeared: bottle-fermented, undisgorged, ancestral-method Prosecco, a style that was eclipsed by the Charmat method in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Over zealous enforcement of poorly conceived, however well intentioned, policy will stifle the spirits of young winemakers who want to preserve the legacy and continuity with the past.

Anyone who follows Italian wine — and anyone whose ever spent time in Italy, for that matter — will tell you that unique local tradition is what makes Italian wine so special.

As an expression of that youthful embrace of artisanal tradition, Prosecco Col Fondo represents a vital element in Italy’s future as a producer of wine that transcends its mere value as a luxury product.

It would be a tragedy to see such spirit disappear from the horizon of Italian wine.

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week, please come out and taste with me at Ceri Smith’s amazing shop Biondivino. I’ll be there tomorrow, pouring one of my favorite expression’s of Prosecco Col Fondo by my client Bele Casel. Please click here for details.

1982 Cabernet by Giorgio Grai, one of the best bottles I drank in 2014

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week, please come out and taste with me at Ceri Smith’s amazing shop Biondivino. I’ll be there on Wednesday, pouring one of my favorite expression’s of Prosecco Col Fondo by my client Bele Casel. Please click here for details.

giorgio grai winemakerLong before we looked to Tuscany for high-profile bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, German-speaking Alto Adige (South Tyrol) had established itself as one of the greatest producers of so-called “international grape varieties.”

In fact, they weren’t “international varieties” back then. In an era before the emergence of the “international vs. indigenous” and “modern vs. traditional” debates, they were just grapes.

Generations before the Marquis Incisa della Rocchetta replanted his San Guido estate in Bolgheri after the second world war, grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Riesling (among others) had been grown there and raised in South Tyrol to be shipped toward Vienna and points northward.

On my recent trip to Italy, thanks to the immense generosity of my good friend Francesco Bonfio, I had the great fortune to taste one of the best wines I had all year: the 1982 Kehlburg Cabernet by Giorgio Grai, one of Italy’s most renowned winemakers and blenders and mentor to scores of current-generation winemakers.

I’ve been thinking about that wine ever since.

It came to mind when I was in Boulder in November for the Boulder Burgundy Festival.

giorgio grai wineryIn the “old and rare” tasting sponsored by the Guild of Sommeliers, Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher made a controversial comment when he noted how many older wines may “still be alive,” i.e., with healthy acidity and tannin, but they often lack the vibrant fruit that we look for in the world’s great wines.

“If you’ve got a cellar full of 1982s,” he told the well-heeled crowd, “I got news for you: the wines probably haven’t aged as well as you may have thought.”

This wine was an clear-cut example of the opposite: here the fruit was vividly present, with notes of fresh red fruit and gentle, nuanced hints of citrus zest.

And one of the most remarkable things about tasting it was not the fact that it was still “alive.” There are no apologies necessary from Giorgio Grai’s wines. We expected it to be great and it delivered on every level.

The wine came to mind again last week when a small northern Californian wine importer wrote me and said that he’s just met with Giorgio and will probably be bringing his current wines into the states.

Thank you again, dear friend Francesco! We’re keeping our fingers crossed and are looking forward to seeing more of Giorgio’s wines here in the U.S.

Happy birthday Georgia P! I am the luckiest daddy in the world

happy birthday georgia pMy goodness, Georgia, today is your third birthday!

Happy birthday, sweet girl!

I picked the photo above for your happy birthday post because it really captures your personality.

You are always smiling and so playful and you love to be outside. And you love playing in the park.

You LOVE the color purple and you love picking out the clothes you wear.

You’re a healthy, bright little girl and now that you are talking all the time, it’s so much fun to talk about the world and read books and play games with you.

But the thing that fills me with more joy than any other is how much you love to sing!
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Robert Bohr on what it means to be a sommelier & the quiet before the storm

robert bohr charlie birdAs I was preparing to head up to Colorado last month for the Boulder Burgundy Festival, one of the persons I was most exciting about seeing was Robert Bohr (above, right).

Yes, he’s one of the most dynamic people working in the wine trade today. And he and Grant Reynolds (above, left) run one of the sexiest wine programs in New York at Charlie Bird.

But Robert and I shared a unique experience many years ago that I knew he would remember as fondly as I did.

Back in 1998, before Ruth Reichl reviewed it for the New York Times, before anyone could imagine the explosion in interest in Italian wines across the U.S., Babbo was just a small à-la-carte Italian restaurant opened off Washington Square by two ambitious New York restaurant professionals.

I’ll never forget the first time I dined there that year and met Robert, who was the restaurant’s very first wine director.

He and I were both starting out in the business, he as a sommelier, me as a wine writer, and neither of us could imagine the wine revolution that was going to take shape.

The first thing he said to me when we met up at the festival was: “I remember that night you came into Babbo. Isn’t amazing how much changed since then?”

It was the quiet before the storm.

Robert is a super cool dude and I loved chatting and tasting with him at the festival. And it was amazing to hear him speak at the D’Angerville seminar.

Click here to read a short interview with him that I posted over on the Boulder Burgundy Festival blog.

Do Bianchi Christmas Six-Pack 2014: happy holidays yall!

Taste Bele Casel Prosecco Colfòndo with me on Weds. Dec. 17 in San Francisco at Biondivino, one of my favorite wine shops in the U.S. Please click here for details.

best rosato italyAbove: sometimes we forget that one of the coolest things about wine is how beautiful it is. That gorgeous hue is just one of the reasons why I love to serve my friend Paolo Cantele’s Negroamaro rosé at Christmas.

Do Bianchi Christmas Six-Pack 2014

Belisario 2012 Verdicchio di Matelica Vigneti
Laimburg 2013 Riesling
Cantele 2013 Negroamaro Rosato
Il Falchetto 2011 Barbera d’Asti Scorrone
Produttori del Barbaresco 2012 Langhe Nebbiolo
Marenco 2013 Moscato d Asti Strev

$116 plus tax, shipping & handling
($19 average bottle price)

PLEASE CLICK HERE TO ORDER.

Wines will ship via FedEx on Monday of next week
in plenty of time for delivery before the holiday.

California residents only.

I regret that I no longer accept AMEX.
But you can pay by Visa, MC, check or Chase QuickPay.

One of the things that people don’t realize about my wine club is that I hope I don’t sell out the wines: I want to drink some, too!

Seriously, the wines that I include in my six-packs are wines that Tracie P and I drink at home. We prize wholesomeness and food-friendliness in our wines and especially with Tracie still nursing, it’s so important to us that the wines we drink at home are not just good but also good for us.

As with previous offers, the wines are ordered in the way I will serve them at Christmas (and believe me: this is what we will be drinking in Orange, Texas, on the Louisiana border, at my in-laws Rev. and Mrs. B’s house — unless of course the wine sells out!).

Belisario 2012 Verdicchio di Matelica Vigneti

Verdicchio is one of the sexiest categories of Italian wine right now. In the last six-pack, we did an older Verdicchio from Jesi, near the Adriatic coast. This one is from Matelica, a valley that lies inland in the mountains. With higher elevation and cooler summer evenings, Matelica delivers wines with more nuanced floral notes than Jesi, where fruit tends to dominate. Belisario is an organic grower and this wine is as wholesome as it is delicious.
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Just the right Ruché di Castagnole di Monferrato

crivelli ruche castagnole monferratoThe memory is so clear in my mind: a spring day in 2000 in New York when I woke to read Howard Goldberg’s note in the New York Times on “the obscure, rustic… Ruché di Castagnole di Monferrato.”

Babbo had just hit its full stride and September 11 was yet to bring dark days to the city.

I was living in Brooklyn and it felt like a revolution in Italian wine was happening: every day, it seemed, a new indigenous Italian grape variety was being introduced to Americans.

I was reminded of Goldberg’s “Wine Under $20″ column last night when Tracie P and I opened a stupendous bottle of 2012 Ruché by Crivelli, one of my favorite Piedmont producers.

It had been sent to me by the California importer, a client of mine.

Some people like to say a wine is “alive in the glass.”

This wine was electric in the glass, with zinging acidity and gorgeous, juicy, bright red fruit. It paired wonderfully with a inch-thick porterhouse pork chop that I served in its jus after deglazing the pan with white wine.

This is a really special wine, folks.

I tasted with Marco Crivelli (below) some years ago in Piedmont. He’s a nutty and brilliant guy. I love that he’s used a self-portrait as Bacchus on the label of his Ruché.

marco crivelli

One of the more remarkable things I saw in Italy: the Villa Collazzi

pietro porcinai architettoAbove: the pool at the Villa Collazzi designed by Pietro Porcinai, a pioneering landscape architect, active in Italy from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Enogastronomy has become my professional focus over the last fifteen years or so.

But every time I return to Italy, I am reminded by what first drew me there: the Italians’ rich cultural and artistic legacy and the country’s many extraordinary works of art and immense natural beauty.

During my November trip, I took a break from the wine and food trail to visit the remarkable Villa Collazzi just outside of Florence.

villa collazzi florentine rentalAbove: a shot of the pool with the villa in the background. Note how the villa façade is reflected with perfect symmetry in the body of water.

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