Back to natural Vinos Ambiz gets me back in the groove

May 10, 2013

vinos ambiz

Just in case you were concerned that I had lost my way among the rich folk back in the big New York City, I’m happy to report that I found my way from James Suckling’s Wednesday night tasting in midtown to Alice’s place downtown where I recharged my sanity drinking some crunchy wine from Vinos Ambiz in Spain.

The folks there are an “organic vineyard, winery and natural wine company. We practice sustainable viticulture, and make natural, authentic, good quality wines that express the terroir. We improve the fertility of the soil, don’t use chemicals or additives and we recycle our bottles.”

The Suckling tasting was impressive but the carbonic maceration Airén, unfiltered, unclarified, and with no added sulfites by Vinos Ambiz — let’s just say — was a little more my speed.

pickled herring salad blau gans

And just to remind myself what I love about the borough of Man-atan, I met Brooklyn Guy the next day for lunch at the Blaue Gans in Tribeca where I thoroughly enjoyed the pickled herring salad.

The service there may not be what it once was at this Teutonic casual, but the food is always great, the wine list tidy and solid, the beers appropriately bitter, and I love the Zabriskie Point poster in the toilet (worth a visit to the head by any means).

My short visit to New York is about to come to an end but not before I go taste a buttload of old Nebbiolo (you are not going to believe the sick flight of wines that await me at lunch). Stay tuned…

In praise of James Suckling & 07 Giacosa Rocche del Falletto Red Label

May 9, 2013

james suckling

Last night in Manhattan, wine writer James Suckling spoke from the pulpit of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal church at his Great Wines of Italy event.

I can’t say that his taste in wine always aligns with mine but I will say that the event he orchestrated and hosted was remarkable not only for its breadth and ambition but also for the marquee names that gathered for the two-day affair.

Bruna Giacosa, Giacomo Neri, Francesca Planeta, and Marco Caprai were just some of the celebrity Italian winemakers who came to New York to pour and talk about their wines. And there were many others…

st barts cathedral new york

I was in town to pour and speak about the wines of friend who couldn’t be there.

As a lover of Italian wines, I can only offer my greatest praise for James and this landmark event. The model is, of course, the Wine Spectator New York Wine Experience. And there are other annual NYC events, like the Gambero Rosso guide presentation, where scores of top Italian winemakers show their wines.

But, to my knowledge, there’s never been such an ambitious high-end, consumer event devoted exclusively to Italian wine: it cost roughly $200 to attend last night’s event and tickets to tonight’s dinner are $275.

I was also really impressed by the guests’ level of wine knowledge and many grilled me about vintage characteristics and growing sites.

Chapeau bas, James. The tasting set a new and higher bar for Italian wine in this country. An event like this would have been unimaginable in 1998, the year that the Italian wine renaissance began to take shape in this country.

rocche falletto

Bruno Giacosa 2007 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto (red label) was the wine I was most thrilled by, poured by Bruna herself!

Wow, what a wine… no one can rival the elegance that Bruno Giacosa achieves in his Barolo. And where so many 2007s are dominated by the power of their tannin (in part due to the odd winterless vintage in Langa), his already shows gorgeous balance (even at this early stage of its evolution).

I had tasted the wine at the winery back in 2010 when Bruno hadn’t yet decided whether he would make a red label for this designation. Tracie P and I were on our honeymoon and we tasted the Rocche del Falletto out of cask.

Here are my notes from that tasting.

The other highlight was hearing Isabel Suckling, James’ daughter, rehearse for the performance she will give at tonight’s event.

She’s a truly electric performer and I’m looking forward to her main event at tonight’s dinner.

More New York Stories to come… Stay tuned…

For the love of matzo by @mgwine

May 3, 2013

An old friend from NYC is making a documentary about the Streit’s matzo factory on the Lower East Side. He asked me to share news of the film and I’m glad to do it.

During the years I spent in the city (97-07), I watched the Jewish culture of the Lower East Side be swallowed up by the neighborhood’s yuppification. The Streit’s factory is one of the last outposts of Yiddish life there.

big city girl (on our way to Italy)

March 28, 2013

We’re on our way to Italy tonight… see you on the other side!

on the subway

War is over if you want it: my date with Ringo, 10 years later

March 23, 2013

ringo starr george harrison song

Above: Ringo Starr appeared at the Bottom Line in New York and the Tonight Show in Los Angeles the week the Iraq war began, ten years ago. My band opened for him in New York. Here’s a link to the NY Times article above, dated March 23, 2003 (the photo was taken at his LA show).

“Iraq War’s 10th Anniversary Is Barely Noted in Washington,” reported The New York Times this week.

On Wednesday, March 20, 2013, we marked ten years since the war began.

I remember that week in 2003 like it was yesterday.

On my way to sound check at the Bottom Line on West 4th St., I had to cross a protest parade on 5th Ave. A few days prior, my band’s manager had called to let me know that we would no longer be headlining the bill: Ringo Starr had replaced us and we’d be opening for him.

It was a surreal moment for me. At once, the world seemed to be falling apart (world war three was about to begin) as I was fulfilling a lifelong dream (to share a stage with a Beatle!).

As Ringo and his band rehearsed “Yellow Submarine” during sound check, nostalgia for the Summer of Love — when I was born and when youth culture embraced a utopic “imagine” vision of the future — was palpable in the room: outside you could hear the chants of the anti-war protesters as Ringo walked his band through tweaks to their set.

If only the Washington regime had given containment peace a chance…

Thanks for letting me share this memory with you and let’s hope and pray that Georgia P’s generation will know many decades brighter than the last…

Arlington Club steakhouse with a fabu friend #NewYorkStories

March 11, 2013

best new york steakhouse

Above: Dinner at Arlington Club opened with spare rib bánh mì and sashimi.

There’s been so much going on that I still haven’t had a chance to post about all the places I visited on my February visit to NYC.

Another one of the highlights of my trip was dinner at the city’s newest entry in the dick-wagging steakhouse category, Arlington Club on the Upper East Side, Laurent Tourondel’s most recent oeuvre.

best vouvray

Above: The still young 2011 Clos du Bourg by Huet showed nicely, although a little tight.

I could never have dreamed of getting a reservation at this immensely popular restaurant (when I arrived at 8 p.m. there was a three-person-deep wait at the bar). But I had the good fortune of being the guest of one of the top wine writers in the world, who has a little more pull than most. Let’s just say that his reservation streamlined our experience on an otherwise impossibly packed night.

steakhouse new york

Above: I love the New York steakhouse paradigm and just had to have the Caesar salad. It was solid but not exceptional. But that’s what a Caesar salad should be, n’est-ce pas?

The wine list was predictably Bordeaux- and Northern California-heavy. But there were also some interesting Italian entries beyond the healthy however youngish selection of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese lots. We went for an older Bordeaux but the 2006 Refosco by Ronchi di Cialla for $85 was inviting (I imagine its juiciness would have worked well with the steak).

arlington club new york

Above: The porterhouse for two, the ultimate expression — in my view — of the NYC steakhouse paradigm. I liked the panache of the mise en place.

My generous host was intent on drinking something with some age on it (and I wasn’t complaining).

He chose the Château Langoa-Barton 1998, which showed beautifully, especially as it opened up. I love drinking traditional-style Bordeaux when it’s in its prime like this (at more than fourteen years out), its acidity singing and its fruit vibrantly muscular. I know that some would prefer it with even more age (and I imagine that this bottling has many rewarding years ahead of it). But these wines, when vinified in the traditional style, pair so well with charred beef when adolescent.

best bordeaux steak

Above: If I remember correctly, the alcohol on this wine was reported as 12.5%. Now THAT’s my kind of Bordeaux! Gorgeous wine and a real treat for me to get to taste.

Laurent was at the restaurant that night and it was great to receive the royal treatment as the guest of such an illustrious dinner companion.

In my experience, New York is the only U.S. city that rivals London and Paris in the field of competitive, see-and-be-seen dining. And that cold, misty night on the East Side was one for the books. I’ll never forget tumbling back into anonymity as I hailed a cab on Lexington, my belly full and my spirit fortified.

Thanks again, fabu friend, for such a superb evening!

Thank goodness for Liz Nicholson wine director @Maialino_NYC

February 12, 2013

liz nicholson maialino wine

It’s no wonder that Eric the Red includes Maialino wine director Liz Nicholson (above) in the Times tasting panels devoted to Italian wine: she’s got one of the most ambitious Italian wine lists this country has seen in more than a decade. (The other Italophile wine professional he always includes is the inimitable Levi Dalton; check out his great post today in Eater on the evolution of the contemporary wine list.)

My last day in New York (earlier this month), I visited the bar at Maialino on Gramercy Park because I wanted to check out her new Fiorano (whites) tasting flight, reaching back to the 1988 vintage of the prince Buoncompagni’s Sémillon and costing only $50 for a half pour of four of the wines (check out Eric the Red’s post on the wines from way back in 2004).

Liz got the last allocation of these storied wines, which captured the imagination of the New York wine scene in the mid-2000s.

fiorano white wine

Oxidative, orange, and in some cases tending toward brown, these wines are not for everyone (and I had to ask the bartender to replace one of the younger wines because it had turned to Marsala).

I’m also not convinced that the Enomatic cruvinet is the best vessel to store these old, delicate wines.

But I love that Liz is sharing their last gasp with people like me, who have followed the wine with great interest since they first landed in NYC nearly ten years ago.

Her wine list has a great selection of Langa Nebbiolo and a good balance between traditional and modern styles.

But she also has a fantastic Franciacorta list, my favorite Lambrusco (Rinaldini), and all kinds of cool stuff (Dessimus by the glass, sparkling Valtellina by the glass, etc.).

It’s the kind of list that I love to just leaf through as I sip the 1992 Sémillon (which, in my tasting, showed best in the flight of the Fiorano).

Chapeau bas, Liz! I’m so looking forward to following your career and your lists to come!

Where the cheap wine is the best: dinner at NoMad NYC

February 11, 2013

olga raffault

Above: Olga Raffault 2001 Chinon Les Picasses, one of my favorite wines and only $65 (yes!) at NoMad in NYC.

It was the night of two dinners.

“Order any wine you want,” said restaurateur Tony, my friend and client who was treating me to dinner.

We were at NoMad, a newish and very hot NYC restaurant that Tony’s chef Grant had recommended. We were eating our way through New York and Tony, who’s always overly generous with me when it comes to the wine selection, told me that “the sky’s the limit.”

roast chicken nomad

Above: The famous roast chicken at NoMad, as presented before service.

The wine list at NoMad is phenomenal and the European selections are stuff of dreams for me (we started with Alfred Gratien rosé by the glass).

I was tempted to take Tony up on his offer. I believe that both Bartolo Mascarello 1997 Barolo at $375 or Produttori del Barbaresco 1970 Barbaresco (classic) at $400 would have drunk brilliantly (and look, I wasn’t going to do Giacomo Conterno 1971 Barolo Monfortino at $3,200, however much I would LOVE to drink that wine).

But I also knew we were going to be tasting at least half of the menu and so I craved something extremely food friendly that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the myriad flavors.

Twelve years in its evolution, the 2001 Chinon Les Picasses at $65 (!!!) was ideal (the 1989 at $125 would have been great, too, but I wanted to go with a younger wine that would have the versatility to stand up to the flavors that were heading in my palate’s direction).

chicken plated

Above: The the roast chicken mise-en-place.

Schmuck! I hear you say.

I know, I know… After all, I do a great job for Tony and we’ve become close friends. Back home in Texas, he’s opened more than one bottle of Quintarelli 1990 Bandito and 1990 Recioto for me (among other crazy labels).

But the 2001 Picasses was just right for the speed of the evening and the truly perfect pairing for the restaurant’s famous roast chicken.

tony vallone houston

Above: Tony (right) uses his phone to take pictures of dishes he likes. Between Doug (left), Tony, and me, we were tweeting up a storm.

We were joined that evening by my new bromance Doug Cook (my fellow Italophile and oenophile and super cool and brilliant dude).

“Bring anyone you like to dinner,” Tony had said, his largesse rivaled only by the amount of fun we were having the two evenings we spent dining our way through the city.

We ended up staying to close the place and I had a blast chatting with the sommeliers about their list (they proudly showed me emptied bottles of old B. Masarello and Soldera that had been brought in by a mutual friend and one of the top Italian collectors in the city and they treated us to 1996 Oddero Barolo by the glass).

The best news is that that bottle of Produttori del Barbaresco 1970 Barbaresco Pora at $450 will probably still be there when I return east in the fall.

Madonna’s favorite Barolo & Antica Pesa (Williamsburg) #NewYorkStories

February 5, 2013

Austinites! Please don’t miss my band’s first appearance in the River City, this Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Parish Underground, 9 p.m. sharp. Click this link for details. FREE SHOW!

marinated skate

Above: Marinated skate and escarole.

It was the night of two dinners.

I was the guest of my friend (and client) Tony from Houston, a restaurant maven and culinary legend in Texas. He’s been in the business since 1965 and he had asked me to join him and his wife Donna as they ate their way through New York City (if you work in or around the restaurant business, you know that restaurateurs and chefs often partake in such indulgences otherwise known as “research”).

An ante litteram gastronaut, Tony has been traveling to Italy since the 1970s and he and Donna are huge fans of Rome’s historic Antica Pesa, a restaurant opened the same year that Mussolini marched on the capital and took power from King Victor Emmanuel (it was also the year of Pasolini’s birth in Bologna).

baccala alla romana

Above: Manager/partner Gabriele Guidoni’s mother is from Vicenza and his father from Rome. This dish was a fusion of baccalà alla vicentina — gently stewed salt cod — and classic Roman semolina gnocchi. Not very photogenic but one of the top dishes of my week in NYC.

Last year, it found its way into the tabloids as the backdrop for some of Madonna’s lavish parties. But as Tony pointed out, he became a fan long before Madonna ever knew it existed.

A U.S. outpost of Antica Pesa opened a few months ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and it was at the top of the list of Tony’s places to check out.

pasta e fagioli

Above: This version of pasta e fagioli, which I liked very much, was reminiscent of a style found in the Veneto, where tomatoes are omitted.

Not every dish wowed me but I’ve posted photos of my favorites here. Some were outstanding (like the baccalà alla [vicentina] romana).

Predictably, the wine list was Super Tuscan- and modern-Langa-heavy. Manager/partner Gabriele told me that he’s launching an entirely new list soon and I wonder if it will try to cater to a clientele beyond the Ornellaia crowd.

I was impressed however with the restraint and balance of the 2008 Barolo Brunate by Elio Altare. Not really my cup of tea but drinkable nonetheless and an expression of the new generation of misguided Langa progressivists who are beginning to see the light of a world without oakiness, excessive concentration, and high alcohol.

The best part of the evening was watching Gabriele and Tony banter about cooking techniques and favorite dishes.

spaghetti cacio e pepe

Above: This classic expression of spaghetti cacio e pepe, however simple, was as close to perfection as you can get. If l’Antica Pesa had a better wine list, I would go back just for this. According to the tabloids, Madonna “adores” the version served at the restaurant in Rome. Who would have ever thought that she and I have something in common? (For the record, I adore her music.)

I couldn’t resist prodding Gabriele to give me a nugget about Madonna.

Recently, he told me, she tasted the 2002 Barolo Dagromis by Gaja over dinner at the restaurant in Rome. The next day, he said, he received a 6 a.m. call from her staff, pleading that he procure and send a case of the wine to her right away. A frantic series of calls to the Gaja winery in Barbaresco followed and by midday, the wine had been shipped.

Where did it go?


You can imagine a concierge’s horreur when Italian wine arrived at the gate.

O, and, where was the second dinner of the night, you ask?

Stay tuned for more #NewYorkStories…

Best vitello tonnato, best pizza slice & Brunello resource #NewYorkStories

February 4, 2013

Austinites! Please don’t miss my band’s first appearance in the River City, this Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Parish Underground, 9 p.m. sharp. Click this link for details. FREE SHOW!

best vitello tonnato

I’m still catching up on last week’s whirlwind NYC trip, which included some epic meals with my friend Tony, a visit to the city’s hottest new steakhouse, some memorable tastings, and assorted visits and glasses of wine.

I’ll be posting on all of it.

But today’s getting-down-to-business post is devoted to two of my NYC highlights, a visit to what is — in my mind — the most authentic Italian culinary experience in NYC, Sant’Ambroeus in the west village (above), and Mariella on 3rd and 16th (below), one of the last classic pseudo-Neapolitan pizzerias in the city where they still speak Italian.

Sant’Ambroeus may not have the flash or the sparkle of the city’s many innovative and creative Italian food celebrities. But it always delivers Italian classics exactly the way you’d get them in Italy — from the vitello tonnato (above, probably the best in the U.S.) to the espresso.

It’s expensive but consistently lands squarely on the mark. And you’re guaranteed a celebrity sighting. (Last time it was Ricky Martin and this time Matthew Broderick.)

Great place and also dear to me because of my association with Sant’Ambrogio (Sant’Ambroeus in Milanese dialect) in Milan, the model for Royce Hall at UCLA (my alma mater) and site dear to my beloved Petrarch.

best pizza slice new york

One of the things I never miss during my Big Apple sojourns is a visit to a classic pseudo-Neapolitan pizzeria, sadly a dying breed in Manhattan these days.

I managed to pop into what is probably my favorite, Mariella, downtown (it’s worth it to click through to the pizzeria’s website, if only for the landing page photo).

Italian is still spoken there and the slice is everything you want it to be — greasy, fatty, sweet, and satiating. Love this place.

It’s not related (at least as far as I know) to Mariella on Lexington uptown, another destination for an old-school slice, the way it used to be.

Do you remember a time when pizzerias in the city were named after their owners’ mothers? (Mariella is a diminutive of Maria.)

Mariella downtown was opened the same year that Ed Koch took office. And it sells beer by the bottle.

And in Brunello news…

alessandro bindocci brunello

Although the annual Benvenuto Brunello preview tasting of the 2008 Brunello took place in Houston and New York last week, the event’s U.S. organizers do not have a website devoted to it (wouldn’t it be cool if they could get it together to put a discoverable site on the web with information on the tasting like where and when?).

I was very geeked to see that my friend Alessandro Bindocci posted a link on his blog today that allows you to download the EXCELLENT Brunello presentation created by the Brunello bottlers association.

I believe that it’s the same document that scrolled on the screen at Kevin Zraly’s bizarre tasting, although he made no mention of it, nor did he refer to it.

I found it to be extremely useful.

Thank you, Ale!

Here’s the link…

Ok, stay tuned for more #NewYorkStories and please come to my band’s shows this Saturday in Austin, Thurs. Feb. 14 in LA, and Fri. Feb. 15 in SF.


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