Serge Hochar of Musar will be sorely missed

best photo of serge hocharThere’s not a lot that I can add to the many wonderful tributes that have been published since Lebanese winemaker Serge Hochar (above) died last week in Mexico.

See Eric Asimov’s obituary for the New York Times.

See also Jancis Robinson’s post, where she describes a visit to Musar in September of 1980 at the height of the Lebanese civil war.

I had the good fortune to meet Serge on a number of occasions, including our first encounter at Aspen Food & Wine back in 2008, where I was writing a story for a trade publication.

The photo above was taken at a party in a suite at the Ritz Carlton Aspen reserved by importer Domaine Select who represented the wines in the U.S. [Broadbent is the U.S. importer, I’ve been told since I posted this.]

It’s not the greatest photo but it does capture his ability to command a room’s attention to the convivial delight of all those present.

You can read about his unrivaled charisma, his indefatigable presence on the international wine scene, and his (inmho) superb wines in the myriad profiles published since news of his passing broke (just Google him).

But the one thing that many have overlooked is the fact that Serge didn’t just travel to top markets to sell his wines.

As early as 2011, before Texas and the Texsom conference had established themselves as mandatory stops on the wine sales routes, he was here, working the marketing and the crowds with the ease and grace that only he could muster so readily. (See this post by Alfonso Cevola on his Texsom tasting.)

I’ll never forget when, in 2012, Master Sommlier Drew Hendricks, then wine director for the swank petroleum-crowd Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, added a vertical of Musar to his list. Stretching back to 1967, it was an unlikely addition to the otherwise big-hitter, mostly Napa Cab and Bordeaux selection there.

I wrote about it for the Houston Press here.

And that’s the thing about Serge that I’d like to add here.

When he visited places like Texas, he didn’t come solely to sell his wines (and in fact, his wines didn’t really sell that well at Pappas, at least according to one young sommelier I spoke to at the time).

He came to make young wine professionals feel special and to help them understand that they were members of a greater, broader, and wonderfully dynamic international wine community.

He taught young people that wine was a gateway to a deeper awareness of the world and that it can bring them into contact with people, like Serge, who will enrich their lives not just through wine but by means of culture and knowledge. After all, that’s the greatest thing, to my mind, about working in and with wine.

Sit tibi terra levis Sergie.

In other sad news…

Today, the sensuous world also mourns the loss of another larger-than-life figure, Pino Daniele, the great Neapolitan guitar player and songwriter, who fused Campanian music with jazz, blues, and Latin rhythms.

He shaped a generation of Italian rock, jazz, and pop musicians. And he was one of the most influential Italian artists to crossover into the international music scene in the latter half of the twentieth century.

I really love his music and know he will be missed by so many of my friends in Italy, in Campania and beyond.

My good friend Anna Cortese, who was born and raised on the island of Ischia (Naples province), posted the below photo on her Facebook this morning.

pino daniele concert

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.

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.

Continue reading

Op-Ed: the Venice roller suitcase ban & why it makes sense

best hotel venice grand canalWriting in a hurry this morning as I head out of Boulder on my way back to Texas.

But I did find time to post my op-ed about the Venice roller suitcase ban and why it makes sense over on the Bele Casel blog.

It’s been an incredible weekend here at the Boulder Burgundy Festival. I’ll be posting more images and notes after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Thanks for being here and please stay tuned…

Fantastic Roman ruins in Brescia, once a hub of the Empire

capitolium brescia brixiaI just had to share these photos of the fantastic Roman ruins at Brescia, which was once a major hub of the Empire.

That’s the Capitolium or Capitoline Temple, above. It was constructed under Vespasian (first century C.E.). It sits today on the city’s Via dei Musei or Museum Row. It’s part of a UNESCO Heritage designated site, “Longobards in Italy: Places of Power.”

Brescia is arguably more famous for its Longobard artifacts (which can be viewed in the superb Santa Giulia Museum there).

But its Roman ruins, including the Capitolium, Forum, and Theater, are considered northern Italy’s most important Roman archeological site.

roman inscriptions bresciaDuring my recent stay in Brescia, I had the great fortune to be led on a guided tour by my friend Laura Castelletti, the city’s deputy mayor and superintendent of culture.

Over the course of her tenure in city government, Laura has worked tirelessly to reopen the ruins to the public. It’s one of the achievements she’s most proud of, she told me.

That’s the lapidarium, above.

teatro romano theater brescia brixiaThat’s the theater, above.

Brescia isn’t always the first destination that comes to mind when planning a “grand tour” trip to Italy. But I highly encourage you to check it out next time you’re in that part of the country.

It’s a very easy city to navigate, medium in size, with a beautiful city center (the Via dei Musei lies on the northern edge of the historical center).

Check out the Brescia Museum Foundation website, which includes an excellent English-language version.

The All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger: Italy’s love affair with the hamburger

Today’s post is the first in a series devoted to my recent trip to Italy, the wines I tasted, foods I ate, and people I met.

best hamburger bresciaAbove: Arianna Vianelli’s “All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger,” a masterwork by any international standard.

Italy’s current love affair with the hamburger shouldn’t be surprising to Italian food and wine cognoscenti.

After all, think of how many pillars of Italian gastronomy have been borrowed and adapted from other cultures and places.

Tomatoes, corn meal, and potatoes: all of these foods came from the New World. Can you imagine an Italy without spaghetti al pomodoro, polenta, and gnocchi di patate?

cipolla di tropea recipeAbove: not just any onions but EU-designated cipolle rosse di Tropea from Calabria. Arianna sautéed them with aromatized balsamic vinegar.

Anyone who’s read the footnotes to Pellegrino Artusi’s late nineteenth-century landmark tome La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) knows that eggplant, a transplant from the Middle East, was just beginning to catch on at the time.

Where would pan-Italian cooking be without melanzane alla parmigiana?

italian baconAbove: Arianna explained to me that Italian butchers have begun to slice pancetta the way that bacon is sliced in the U.S. The curing process hasn’t changed. Only the way it’s sliced has.

And when the food scholar looks more closely at pasta — the crown jewel and sine qua non of Italian cookery — she/he learns that the Italians learned how to make dried pasta from their Arab neighbors. At the zenith of Arab culture during the Middle Ages, when Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II invited Arab mathematicians and philosophers to his court, it’s very likely that they also brought with them techniques for drying pasta in the “August moonlight,” as Maestro Martino wrote in his Libro de arte coquinaria (The Art of Cooking, probably composed around 1450).

Where would the world be today without pastasciutta?

how to cook hamburgers on a griddleAbove: the thing that sets the Italian burger apart from the rest is the quality of the ingredients. Pasture-raised Chianina beef, artisanal cured pork belly, heirloom onions, and wholesome freshly baked bread. It takes the art of this American classic to a new level.

So it’s only natural that Italians would embrace the hamburger with gusto.

Italy’s Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 after McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Rome at the foot of the Spanish Steps. I traveled to Italy for the first time in 1987 and I remember those years well.

To many, the thought of an icon of American imperialism in the heart of the Eternal City was blasphemy.

At the time, Italy already had a fast-food burger chain. It was called Burghy (it was purchased by McDonald’s in the 90s). Like McDonald’s, the quality of the beef was atrocious.

Before Burghy, the ground beef patty was called a svizzera di carne in Italian gastronomic parlance, “Swiss beef.”

Today, hamburger culture has come full circle in Italy and it now aligns seamlessly with the Slow Food ethos (as you can see from the burger above).

Italian food blogs abound with hamburger ratings in Milan and Rome, the hamburger movement’s epicenters (see this post, for example, on Dissapore). And a new restaurant category has emerged, the hamburgheria or amburgheria. Even Eataly in Rome has a hamburgheria and I’ve been told that guests go crazy for the hamburger served at the Bastianich restaurant in Friuli, Orsone.

And invariably when you order a hamburger in Italy, when you’re asked whether or not you want bacon, you’ll note that the waiters use the English word for pancetta to denote the way the cured pork is sliced and griddle-fired.

giovanni arcariAbove: Arianna Vianelli, left, creates and executes menus for many of the Franciacorta consortium’s tastings and events. Giovanni Arcari, right, is my bromance in Brescia, the city that’s become my Italian home base in recent years.

On our last night in Italy last week, my traveling companion Ben Shapiro and I were treated to Arianna Vianelli’s superb hamburgers in the home of my good friend Giovanni Arcari in Brescia.

Arianna had made our first proper meal in Italy a few weeks earlier: spaghetti dressed with dried fresh water sardines, toasted breadcrumbs, and olive oil. The sardines came from nearby Lake Iseo in the heart of the Franciacorta appellation.

It seemed only fitting that she would send us back home to America with bellies full of All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburgers and Franciacorta wine.

Thanks again, Arianna and Giovanni, for taking such great care of two weary American travelers!

Does pizza cause cancer? Italy’s big pizza kerfuffle

italian pizza cancer report raiAbove: the last pizza I ate in Italy in Lecce in October 2013, a “napoletana” with salt-cured anchovies and capers.

Every Italian food and wine blog that I follow posted yesterday on a controversy sparked by a Sunday evening news program aired by RAI 3, one of Italy’s three national television networks.

The show, “Report,” is analogous to “20/20″ on ABC or “48 Hours” on CBS, a “gotcha” news program that generates views and clicks by means of pseudo-investigative reporting.

In Sunday night’s show, entitled “Let’s not burn our pizza,” the producers contend that because Italian pizzaioli (pizza makers) do not properly clean their pizza ovens, the resulting “hydrocarbons” in “burnt pizzas” can cause cancer.

pizza report rai 3Image via the RAI 3 site, where you can view the entire show online.

The residual burnt flour that discolors the bottom of the pies, says one University of Venice toxicology professor interviewed by the producers, is similar to the exhaust that you breathe on the freeway.

The producers make other outrageous claims as well: the use of oils other than olive oil, low quality flour, and even the boxes for delivery pizza can also be cancerogenic, they report.

Between yesterday and today, Neapolitan journalist Luciano Pignataro — one of Italy’s leading wine and food bloggers — published seven posts on his blog in response to what one of his contributors calls “hygienic terrorism.”

In a press conference yesterday organized hastily by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (the Authentic Neapolitan Pizza Association), Professor Antonio Limone, commissioner of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale del Mezzogiorno (Experimental Veterinary Prevention Institute of Southern Italy), stated flatly that “the amount of hydrocarbons found in a burnt pizza is less than that found in mussels” (source: Luciano Pignataro Wine Blog).

“We cannot stand for attacks like this against [the region of] Campania,” said Antonio Startita, a “historic” pizzaiolo who works in the Materdei ward of Naples, during the conference. “We must defend our treasures. A Neapolitan pizza not cooked in a wood-fired oven is unthinkable.”

(Translations by DoBianchi.com.)

Furor in Italy, Mueller disavows himself of NY Times olive oil cartoon

best italian olive oil

Above: ribollita, “twice-cooked” Tuscan bread soup drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Italy’s community of wine and food writers, Italian olive oil producers, and Italian politicians are still reeling in the wake of Nicholas Blechman’s sensationalist cartoon, “Extra-Virgin Suicide: the Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil,” published by the New York Times on January 24, 2014.

In an editorial published today, the editors of Il Parlamentare, a weekly magazine that covers politics in Italy, write: “This is how the New York Times ‘makes fun of Italy.'”

The cartoon erroneously reported that up to 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. And although the cartoon was later amended, it also incorrectly reported that oil from other countries could be legally labeled as “Italian” despite the provenance (see below).

[Today, the final panel of the cartoon reports that “an earlier version of this graphic contained several errors,” including those cited here.]

The cartoon was purportedly based on data gathered by journalist Tom Mueller, who authors the blog Truth in Olive Oil. He is also the author of a Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (Norton, 2013).

On January 29, Mueller appeared before the Italian parliament’s Chamber of Deputies (akin to our House of Representative) to answer questions about his research. During his appearance, he disavowed himself of the cartoon, which made explicit reference to his work.

“There is no connection to me,” said Mueller of the cartoon, “nor is it my work.” It is made up of “humorous images that incorporate fact but also — and above all — include glaring errors. They reflect a biased approach that ignores quality and focuses only on fraud.”

According to the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera coverage of his appearance before the chamber, he expects the Times to publish a retraction.

On January 31, Italian blogger Olga Mascolo published an interview with Mueller on the popular food blog Dissapore.

The following is an excerpted translation of the interview (to my knowledge, Mueller has only made these comments in Italian and they have not been published in an English-language forum; translation mine).

*****

“There are two principal errors” in the cartoon. “The first is approximation. I wrote 200 pages on this subject documenting the problem of olive oil adulteration. But I also brought attention to those who are doing good work… The overwhelming majority does good work. There are just a few rotten apples who make life difficult for everyone.”

“In regard to the New York Times, it’s a cartoon, fifteen panels that give the impression that all of Italian olive oil is evil. But that’s not the case. The fact that such an authoritative newspaper has reported this makes it all the worse. This is not Home Simpson making silly declarations.”

“In particular, there is a vignette that claims that 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. That’s not the case. The figure is based on a California study that shows that, at most, the oil is not extra-virgin. But that doesn’t mean that it is adulterated.”

Sources: Dissapore; DiVini (Corriere della Sera).

*****

The following line in the New York Times cartoon was amended in a subsequent version:

“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy.)”

The current caption reads as follows:

“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy — although the source countries are supposed to be listed on the label.)”

Source: Intravino.

Il miglior fabbro: mourning the passing of the great Italian translator William Weaver

pasolini ragazzi di vita

Above: William Weaver is remembered by many for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino. But to many Italian literature cognoscenti, his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works by Carlo Emilio Gadda and Pier Paolo Pasolini (image via Barnes & Noble).

It was with great sadness that I read the news this morning (published over the weekend in the New York Times) that the greatest Italian translator of our generation William Weaver has passed at age 90.

I never had the opportunity to meet him but his work had a huge influence on my career as a translator and my intellectual life (and two of his students were mentors of mine).

Many American college graduates and literary buffs will remember him for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino.

But his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works from the twentieth century by authors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Carlo Emilio Gadda.

Weaver brilliantly translated the title of Pasolini’s 1956 Ragazzi di vita — a novel written in urban Roman dialect — as A Violent Life. The title alone (ragazzi di vita — which, slavishly, means the boys of life — is a colloquial expression that denotes street hustlers) marked a new era for Italian translation and translators. As in this case, he often abandoned accuracy for the verve and ethos of the original. And this bold approach set a new tone and a new benchmark for the generation of translators who would follow in his footsteps.

When I frequented literary circles during my New York years, Weaver’s name was invoked by translators from all fields — poetry, prose, French, Spanish, etc. He was a Virgil for many of us. And he taught us — in theory and practice — that the fact that translation can never be perfect does not stop translation from being great.

If you are so inclined, please read this essay (very short but indicative of Weaver’s work) which he published as an introduction to his translation of Gadda’s Acquainted with Grief (again, another brilliant rendering of a challenging title).

He was il miglior fabbro (the best smith [of the mother tongue])