First kiss: Produttori del Barbaresco 2010 Barbaresco (classic)

mortadella pizzaAbove: the food at Alfonso’s wine dinner at Dolce Vita in Houston was excellent. But the dish I couldn’t stop thinking about was the flatbread topped with perfectly sliced mortadella.

One of the highlights of my birthday week was my first kiss with Produttori del Barbaresco 2010 Barbaresco (classic).

(Please note that I would never call this wine “normale” as many erroneously do. It’s not “normal.” It’s exceptional. That’s why I always use “classic” when referring to the Produttori del Barbaresco bottlings that are not designated by cru.)

The occasion was a wine dinner led by Italian wine maven and good friend Alfonso Cevola at Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca in Houston.

The food and service were superb (the halibut crudo was a stand-out, as were the spaghetti with Roman broccoli).

But my “first date” with one of my all-time favorite wineries still trumps the rest in my memory.

Produttori del Barbaresco sales director “Aldo Vacca told me that the winery didn’t bottle its crus [single-vineyard-designated wines],” said Alfonso to the small group of wine lovers who shared the meal in the restaurant’s swank private dining room.

“Instead,” he explained, “they used all of their top fruit to make their blended Barbaresco.”

The last time Produttori del Barbaresco opted not to release its crus was in 2006. At the time of its release (2010), Aldo revealed to me that the decision was driven, in part, by concerns about the financial crisis. (See my post here.)

produttori barbaresco 2010 tasting noteAbove: it’s always a thrill for me to taste these wines for the first time. It’s like falling in love all over again.

I imagine that the winery’s decision to create a single cuvée for 2010 was guided partly by potential commercial issues. I say this because by nearly all accounts, 2010 was a good to great vintage in Langa where the wines are grown and made.

As in 2006, there were late September rains that disappointed the expectations of many growers and there were issues with mildew and vine disease (in particular, pesky and sometimes deadly grapevine yellows).

But Nebbiolo was the least affected by these and top growing sites were mostly immune.

To my palate, the 2010 Barbaresco was fantastic. It had all the hallmarks of the great wines from this cooperative winery (which I collect religiously): acidity, clarity of fruit, minerality, and distinctive Langa traits (mushroom, earth, and rose petal). Not quite as great as the 2008 but a wine that will be well represented in my cellar.

We may never now why the consortium of growers at Produttori del Barbaresco decided to bottle only a cuvée for the 2010 vintage. But in my view, it’s a blessing.

As much as I love (and collect) the single-vineyard bottlings (Asili, Rabajà, and Montestefano are my favorites), the cuvée is nearly always the wine I find the most compelling. Where the cru enjoy privilege of site and can often excel anomalously thanks to its isolation in a challenging vintage, the cuvée is an expression of the appellation as a whole.

I loved the 2010 and am entirely geeked that I will be able to afford to “put down” more than one case in my cellar.

nathan smith wine houstonAbove: Nathan Smith is not only the wine director at Dolce Vita. He’s also a musoid.

Thinking about that excellent dinner at Dolce Vita, I have to give a shout out to my buddy Nathan, who’s become one of my good friends since Tracie P, the girls, and I moved to Houston in February of this year.

He’s an Italophile wine lover like me. But he’s also a musoid, a musician’s musican. I finally convinced him to bring his axe over to my house and play on one of my songs.

He took the track to an entirely new level and we had a blast recording together. He’s super cool and he’s one of the top wine pros in our town.

Counterfeit wine scandal: who are the real victims?

italian wine scandalAbove: we see through a glass bottle but darkly.

More than seven months have passed since Rudy Kurniawan became the first person to be convicted of wine fraud in the U.S.

The story first broke in December 2009, when my friends and colleagues Peter Hellman and Mitch Frank began reporting it for Wine Spectator.

(Here’s the Rudy Kurniawan entry on Wikipedia.)

It’s not entirely clear to me why the story has begun popping up again on a wide variety of media platforms. A few weeks ago, I inadvertently stumbled upon an evening “news” show, on a major broadcast network, that devoted an entire segment to it. And just yesterday, I heard yet another story about it on one of my favorite public radio programs.

My suspicion is that this new “news cycle” on a stale story was borne out of a short Associated Press article on a wine counterfeiting ring in Italy that appeared at the end of May of this year. It was followed by two sensationalist reports, both by major mastheads, that erroneously linked the Italian story to Kurniawan.

Until all hell broke loose this month in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, there were no new major stories for the major mastheads to cover. It’s that time of year when the “summertime blues” takes over — the so-called “silly season” — and editors and producers search desperately for stories to report. Ultimately, less-than-newsworthy coverage rises to the surface (the Kurniawan reports are typical of this; the story hasn’t been “news” for more than a half of a year).

I’m deeply saddened by this.

Not because I feel bad for Kurniawan. Everyone I know who’s ever met the guy says he’s a real jerk.

Nor do I feel bad for Bill Koch, the billionaire who crusaded to put Kurniawan behind bars. Koch was featured, btw, in both of the stories (TV and radio) that I mention above.

Please click here to continue reading my post today for the Boulder wine Merchant.

Buon weekend, yall!

What Mayor De Blasio ate & drank yesterday in Sant’Agata de’ Goti

blasio italy menuYou may remember my post from January of this year on the label that winemaker Paola Mustilli created especially for NYC Mayor De Blasio.

In Paola’s words, “my dreams came true” when Hizzoner visited Sant’Agata de’ Goti yesterday and enjoyed a meal in the home of the town’s mayor, Carmine Valentino. The menu was created by chef Federico Petti, a native of Sant’Agata de’ Goti who currently works in Pavia.

That’s the Bill de Blasio label, above.

The Times covered the mayor’s spectacular “homecoming” here.

Mayor De Blasio’s grandfather was born there and “Sant’Agata remains at the core of Mr. de Blasio’s self-identity,” the paper of record reports. “It was a visit to the town as a teenager that prompted him to embrace his mother’s Italian heritage, at a time when his father’s alcoholism was tearing the family apart.”

Luciano Pignataro posted notes and more photos from the meal on his blog today.

And I just had to share this image and the menu (which Paola sent to me this morning).

mayor menu sant agata goti

Colfondo trademark owner Drusian says he will give the designation to Prosecco consortia

“Colfondo” trademark owner Francesco Drusian appears poised to give the designation to the Prosecco DOCG consortia, according to a report published today by the popular Italian wine blog Intravino.

“After twelve years,” writes Intravino contributor Giovanni Corazzol, “Drusian has expressed his willingness to give the trademark to the two consortia [Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and Montello-Colli Asolani]. The consortia will safeguard the trademark and they will incorporate the production method into their appellation regulations. By doing so, they will bring clarity to a field threatened by low-quality products that have been created using illicit means, often outside the DOCG area and often with different grapes.”

At present, the Prosecco DOCG (which applies to both consortia) recognizes and allows for Prosecco re-fermented in bottle as a sanctioned category. But the appellation regulations do not mention nor regulate the designation colfondo.

News of Drusian’s willingness to share the trademark arrived during a Prosecco producers conference organized in Valdobbiadene township last week by Turin university wine law professor Michele Antonio Fino.

Today, the editors of Intravino also shared Fino’s slides, including the following, which addresses the issue of how the term colfondo is used liberally by winemakers and even beer and wine-cooler producers outside of the Prosecco DOCG where it originated.

The Franciacorta designation Satén, created by the Bellavista winery and then given to the appellation’s consortium, offers a precedent, writes Fino.

Click here to continue reading my post today for the Bele Casel blog.

Chianti deserves better

In other Sangiovese news, please have a look at the new video by Fattoria dei Barbi owner Stefano Cinelli Colombini on the (short) history of Montalcino. Italian wine trade observers will note a few lacunae and the self-promotion is front and center. But the historic and contextual insight will surely surprise even the most jaded among Italian wine insiders and the production value is excellent (the film was produced by Cricket Productions in the UK).

wine folly best blogWine Folly is one of my favorite wine blogs.

It’s well written and beautifully composed. Its posts are informed and informative. And its entertaining entries always seem to hit the right balance of neophyte accessibility and street cred.

It’s in my Feedly and I often recommend it to newly minted wine lovers who ask me which wine blogs they should follow as they dive into the world of fine wine.

When I saw “A Poster Shows What’s Inside Famous Wine Blends” in my Feedly, I was eager to check it out.

But you can imagine my disappointment and dismay when I read the entry for the primary grapes in Chianti: “Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, others.”

(For the record, the traditional grape varieties in Chianti are Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Colorino. A wide range of “authorized” international grape varieties are also allowed. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most commonly used, especially in American-geared, international-style expressions of the appellation.)

I remain a loyal fan of Wine Folly and will continue to recommend the site. And I don’t blame the editors for this (sadly egregious) oversight.

chianti black roosterIn my view, the blame lies with a bottlers consortium that creates marketing campaigns like the one above.

Translated, the Italian copy above reads: “let yourself be seduced by the black rooster.”

The recently launched campaign hinges on a new tasting room in Radda in Chianti, “The House of Chianti Classico.”

Awkward English aside, this new “Chianti Classico center” is to be host to events, tastings, and seminars. (The English- and Italian-language calendars don’t seem to align and the site loads in different ways depending on whether or not the host sees your browser as English-speaking or not. It’s all very confusing and clumsy.)

If the ludicrous nature of this campaign isn’t immediately apparent, here’s what a Tuscan wine trade veteran wrote about it on the Italian-language blog Accademia degli Alterati (translation mine).

“We have a sense of humor,” noted Raffaella Guidi Federzoni. “We’re still applying ourselves to that end and every once in a while we make a great leap forward, as in this case.”

“Let’s hope that it doesn’t happen again. Let’s hope that for a wine and appellation like Chianti Classico, future campaigns are modern, yes, but not laughable.”

The powers-that-be at the Chianti Classico consortium really need to step up their game and take their marketing seriously.

Otherwise, who can blame the editors of a well-intentioned and otherwise well-informed site for such a grave misrepresentation of one of the world’s greatest wines?

See also Alfonso’s post on the misogynist tone of the Chianti campaign, “Sex and the Cittadella.”

Through a glass but darkly: notes on the recent New Yorker post on how expectations shape impressions of wine

My July 18 for the Boulder Wine Merchant…

best wine photographyAbove: isn’t that a super groovy wine photo? It’s by one of my favorite Texas wine bloggers, OurSommLife.

Earlier this week, New Yorker magazine psychology and science blogger Maria Konnikova published a post devoted to “what we really taste when we taste wine.”

The post was inspired by a recent “live-action” experiment by Columbia University neuroscientist Daniel Salzman.

“His premise,” explains Konnikova, “is that no event or object is ever experienced in perfect, objective isolation. It is instead subject to our past experiences, our current mood, our expectations, and any number of incidental details—an annoying neighbor, a waiter who keeps banging your chair, a beautiful painting in your line of sight. With something like wine, all sorts of societal and personal complications come into play, as well. We worry, for example, about whether our taste is ‘good.'”

Early Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.) wrote extensively (and some would say definitively) about this very issue when he described the role of memory in human sensation. He arrived at Salzman’s same conclusion. But that’s neither here nor there.

“Expectations,” writes Konnikova:

    can influence our experience in two interrelated ways. There is the conscious influence, or those things we are knowingly aware of: I’ve had this wine before and liked or hated it; I’ve been to this vineyard; I love this grape; the color reminds me of a wine I had earlier that was delicious. As our experience grows, so do our expectations. Every time we have a wine, we taste everything we know about it and other related wines. Then there are the unconscious factors: the weather is getting on our nerves, or our dining companion is; we’ve loved or hated this restaurant before; I’m mad at my boss over something he said this morning; the music is too loud, and the room is too cold. These can all affect taste, too, even though they are unrelated to the wine itself.

(Please do read Konnikova’s insightful account of participating in the experiment.)

The blog post was widely read last week in the U.S. fine wine community and the link found its way to my inbox via more than one e-list and RSS feed.

As I read it, I couldn’t help but think about something that American visitors to Italy often tell me: the wine just tasted so much better when I was in Italy. That observation is almost always followed by inquiry: why is that? and do the Italians simply keep the good wines for themselves?

The answer to the first question, especially in the light of Konnikova’s experience, is simple. When you’re on vacation in Italy, you’re probably (and hopefully) more relaxed; ideally, you are more well rested; you’re likely sharing the experience with someone you care about and feel close to; you’re surrounded by Italy’s natural and human-made beauty; you might even be getting laid.

But there’s an even more important element. In Italy (or France or Spain, for that matter), you’re probably eating more wholesome foods that have been prepared as part of a more balanced diet. You’re also pairing foods and wines that have been paired together — organically and thoughtfully — for generations. And ultimately, you’re not having a breakfast burrito in the morning, Mongolian beef for lunch, and “Italian” for dinner: if you’re dining well in Europe, you ought to be enjoying meals inspired by local agriculture and local culinary tradition.

Now, don’t get me wrong. By no means am I saying that the one or other approach to daily dining is better or worse. Personally, I like it both ways.

But the more “holistic” approach that you find at your favorite agritursimo (farm house restaurant/tavern) in Italy does make the wine taste better because the wine is consumed in a more organic (and perhaps more restful) context and environment.

The answer to the second question (do the Italians keep the good wine for themselves?) is more complicated.

It’s not that they keep the good stuff for themselves (although the Italian wine trade, like that of any nation, including our own, is inevitably driven more by profit than by altruism). The fact of the matter is that Italians prefer wines with lower alcohol, lighter body, and higher acidity. In enogastronomic context, those wines simply tend to taste better to most people — especially when they are tasted with no pretense or social pressure.

Aaaaaaaa… social pressure. Wine is, after all, a social experience (unless you drink alone).

“After the impressions and scores on our cards had been tallied and analyzed,” writes Konnikova, “it was time to reveal the ratings. I was nervous, since I knew I would have to report back on my accuracy.”

If there’s one thing I’d like to impart to readers through my blogging (and I am confident that Master Sommelier and Boulder Wine Merchant owner Brett Zimmerman would agree with me 100 percent), it’s that we should evaluate and appreciate wine within the personal and idiosyncratic context when/where it is tasted. If poolside under the hot Louisiana sun (as I hope to be next weekend), I’d probably give a light bright, 11 percent alcohol Moschofilero from Greece a 90+ score. If celebrating my birthday in the middle of summer (as I always do and recently did do), I’m going to drink a better-suited-for-autumnal-temperatures Barolo (which I did) because by golly, it’s my birthday.

Salzman and Konnikova are telling us the same thing that Augustine revealed some 1,600 years ago. And it’s as relevant now as it was then.

As you ponder the wine that you will drink with someone you love this weekend, the important thing to remember is that wine is good if it tastes good to you.

@VinoRoma: someone you should follow if you’re into Italian wine & food (via @CanteleWines)

vino roma hande leimerAbove, from left: Paolo Cantele, Hande Leimer, and Theodor Leimer, outside the Cantele winery in Guagnano, Lecce province (image via Hande’s Facebook).

I had a lot of fun this morning writing this profile of Hande Leimer and her husband Theo for the CanteleUSA blog.

If you’re into Italian wine and food, I know you’ll find her posts to be as compelling as I do.

Here’s the link. Buona lettura!

A Napa that blew the Italians’ minds: Cornerstone

hurleys restaurant napa yountvilleAbove: after our tasting, team sparkling wine had lunch with winemaker Craig Camp at Hurley’s in Yountville across the street from the Cornerstone Cellars tasting room. Even at a toned-down Americana restaurant like Hurley’s, the food is so thoughtful, wholesome, and delicious. That’s the amuse bouche.

I’ll never forget the first time I poured a Napa wine for an Italian wine connoisseur.

The year was 1990 and my friend Riccardo Marcucci from Bagno Vignoni in Montalcino had come to visit me in Southern California.

I was just beginning to learn about fine wine. Italian poetry was my focus then. Riccardo was the wine director for his family’s restaurant, where -aia wines were his focus: Sassicaia, Solaia, Ornellaia etc. Of course, he had a great allocation of Brunello as well. He did his mandatory military service with Giacomo Neri of Casanova di Neri. They were good friends and Riccardo loved (and continues to love) Giacomo’s wines. You get the picture…

When he asked me to pour him a Californian wine, I reached for a bottle of Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

He tasted the wine and laughed.

“Caspita!” he exclaimed. “Wow, they actually make good wine in California. What a surprise!”

“Of course,” he observed, “it’s not as good as Italian wine. But that’s because they haven’t been making wine there for as long as us.”

There were so many layers of irony in his hubris, especially in the light of the California-style wines that he liked so much, that I simply ascribed it to his Tuscan machoism.

You get the picture…

cornerstone cellars best wineAbove: the 2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc is one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted from Napa. It had vibrant acidity, clarity of fruit, genuine varietal expression and lovely freshness and drinkability. I loved this wine and can actually afford it.

The last stop on my recent tour of California wineries with team sparkling wine from Italy was at the Cornerstone Cellars tasting room in Yountville, Napa, where we tasted a fantastic flight of wines with winemaker and blogger Craig Camp.

It gave me immense pleasure to watch the Italian winemakers ooo and aaa over these wines.

Craig, who’s been a wine blogging colleague and friend of mine for many years now, has such a deft hand in interpreting Californian fruit. The “red thread” of his style is high acidity and restrained alcohol — the hallmarks of food-friendliness. And the wines are moderately priced for their value and quality.

The standouts for me were the 2011 Napa Cabernet Franc and the 2010 Willamette Pinot Noir, which really knocked me off my feet. I also really loved the 2011 Napa Sauvignon Blanc. It had just the right amount of cat piss on the nose and its aromatic profile complemented the elegant white and tropical fruit on the palate. Delicious, happy wines, all around.

But the thing that gave me the greatest satisfaction was watching the Italians wrap their minds around a “Napa” they hadn’t dreamed could exist.

bromance definitionAbove: me (far left) with team sparkling wine, from left, Giovanni Arcari, Andrea Rudelli, and Nico Danesi (photo by VinoGirl).

“Lean and irresistibly delicious,” wrote team leader Giovanni Arcari on his blog, “with well integrated wood in the fruit and alcohol that was never excessive. Wines with grand identity. If I were to see these wines on a list at a restaurant in Italy, I’d order them for sure.”

For Italian readers, check out Giovanni’s post here. English speakers shouldn’t miss Alder Yarrow’s recent profile of Craig on Vinography. And I also recommend reading Craig’s recent post, Dancing with Wine. In his thoughtful reflections on trends in fine wine today, he reminds us that deliciousness trumps profundity when it comes to sitting down for dinner with friends and sharing a great bottle.

It’s never easy to take Italians to California wine country. As the saying goes, you can take Italians out of Italy but you can’t take the Italy out of Italians. We tasted scores of wines on our trip and they were impressed by some and not as much by others.

I’d like to think that on this last day of our trip, abbiamo finito in bellezza… we ended on a high note.

Thanks again, Craig, and thanks to everyone for following along…