A slice of Emilia in LA…

Traveling today and am slammed with work.

But just had to share at least one image from last night’s Emilia dinner at Sotto in Los Angeles, where I’ve spent the week tasting and rebooting our wine list.

More to come. But in the meantime, a slice of Emilia…

best slicer prosciutto parma

Ray Isle features my friend & client Paolo Cantele in Food & Wine

paolo cantele wine pugliaEver since we met in 2009, Paolo Cantele (above, right) and I have been close friends.

We bonded over our shared interest in Italian literature, our left-leaning politics, and our appreciation of life’s sensorial pleasures. All it took was a mention of Pasolini for our friendship to click (if you every meet Paolo, ask him to tell you his fantastic Ninetto Davoli story).

A few years ago, I began working with Paolo’s family’s winery in Guagnano (Lecce province, Puglia) as a content creator for their English-language online media presence.

It’s been a lot of fun working with Paolo, his brother and cousins. And so you can imagine my joy when I learned that Ray Isle, one of the leading wine writers working in the U.S. today, featured them in the current issue of Food & Wine.

But the coolest thing is that Ray’s piece, “Does Italian Food Really Pair Best with Italian Wine?,” isn’t just a mere winemaker/winery profile.

In the story, he takes a close and thoughtful look at the nature of food and wine pairing in globalized culture.

“In the U.S.,” he writes, “we can drink everything, from anywhere. In supermarkets, bottles from Germany bump up against bottles from New Zealand, and so on around the globe. We’re overwhelmed with choice. By contrast, there on the terrace at Cantele, everything I had cooked and everything we were drinking (with the exception of my transcontinental additions) had come from just down the road. Maybe believing in an affinity between the wine and food of a region is just romantic foolishness. On the other hand, elusive as those connections may be, I’d rather think they’re the whole point.”

Damn, I wish I would have written that!

It’s a really great piece of writing and you may be surprised by Ray’s experiment and his findings.

Click here to read Ray’s piece on the CanteleUSA blog.

Boulder Burgundy Festival, a new & very fun project for me

rajat parr sommelier burgundyAbove: Rajat Parr (right) is just one of the super groovy celeb sommeliers who will be pouring at this year’s Boulder Burgundy Festival. How friggin’ cool is that?

Being an Italian wine blogger has its perks. Italian wine collectors have been extremely generous with me and over the years, I’ve had the chance to taste many old and rare bottles from my favorite producers.

The downside in Italian wine blogging is that French collectors aren’t always as eager to let me taste with them.

That’s just one of the reasons I was thrilled that Master Sommelier and Boulder Wine Merchant owner Brett Zimmerman asked me to create a blog for the 2014 Boulder Burgundy Festival (November 21-23).

Yesterday, we launched the new blog (click here to view). I’ll be posting there regularly as we lead up to the event. And in November, I’ll be heading to Boulder to attend the tastings and dinners and “cover” them for Brett’s new blog.

I met Brett many years ago through the wine trade and this spring, he asked me to become a contributor to his wine shop’s blog. He’s one of the most down-to-earth and most talented guys in the business.

The driving concept behind the gathering is that it’s an affordable Burgundy event and Brett tells me that the festival, now in its fourth year, sells out quickly. And the proceeds go to charity.

As I’ve said many times, Italian wine is my signora but Burgundy is my mistress…

Thanks for reading and clicking!

Our favorite Abruzzo wine & an 03 Allegrini (yes, I liked it)

best wine abruzzoWe drank a couple of interesting wines over the weekend.

The 2013 Cirelli Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is a wine that only recently found its way to Texas. I’ve known and loved the wine for some years now and used to ship it to myself in Texas from California where it is easy to find.

I was overjoyed when I found it on the shelves of the Houston Wine Merchant the other day. Light in body and alcohol, with a fantastic balance of slightly oxidative fruit and minerality, it’s one of our favorite wines here at casa Parzen.

We pay slightly more for it in Texas, in part because of higher alcohol tax (odd for a red-leaning state like ours, isn’t it?).

But the few-dollars difference doesn’t bother me when it lands here at $20 retail.

This wine is so great for so many reasons. But here’s the thing: it’s really and truly everything that Tracie P and I want a wine to be. Slightly oxidative but still fresh, low alcohol and good balance, and wholesome tasting. This is Wine with a capital W at our house.

If I had to pick just one favorite wine for 2013 (and I’ve already tasting some stunning wines this year), this would be it.

allegrini amarone best vintageThe 2003 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico was another standout.

Yes, I know, this isn’t the type or style of wine you’d expect to find here. But I can’t tell a lie: it was good.

I looked up Antonio Galloni’s note from his Wine Advocate days back in 2007.

“It is a decidedly opulent, racy wine loaded with dark fruit, but the balance is impeccable,” he wrote, giving the wine 92 points. “In the style of the vintage, the tannins remain a touch firm, but there is more than enough density in the fruit to provide balance. This is an impressive effort in what was a very difficult growing season.”

His review was spot on although I thought the wine was a little bit hot, i.e., alcohol-heavy right out of the gate.

But as the alcohol blew off, it came into focus and the balance of its rich components emerged.

It’s not my style of Amarone. I’m a diehard traditionalist when it comes to this appellation.

But with eleven years behind it, its opulence and raciness, as Antonio put it so well, have mellowed and traded some of their braggadoccio for elegance and nuance.

Cousin Marty had bought it on release and he’d been wanting to open it for some time. And so I’m glad he brought it over. Maybe not what I would reach for myself (especially at that price) but I can’t deny that it was delicious and that cousin-in-law Neil, Marty, and I drank the whole bottle on Saturday night when we got together for a family dinner with all the kids (who love playing together).

That’s it for today. Just a couple of stand-out wines that we opened over the weekend.

Scrambling today to get ready for my first trip of the fall 2014 season. Oy…

If you had told me ten years ago that my work would take me all over the U.S. and Italy because people wanted to pay me to pour, taste, talk, and write about fine wine, I’d have said, “get out of town!”

Now that I have three beautiful girls at home, the last thing I want to do is get out of town.

Thanks for reading… see you on the other side…

Why a bad vintage is good, Super Tuscans @WineSearcher & a special dinner @SottoLA

chef steve samson sotto los angelesAbove: my good friend from college, chef Steve Samson at Sotto in Los Angeles, is going to recreate an Emilian feast next Wednesday in celebration of his parents’ Brooklyn-Bologna wedding fifty years ago. There are still seats available for the late seating. I’ll be there pouring the wines I’ve selected for the dinner. Here’s the link for more info and the story of how it came together.

Man, what an insane week it’s been!

The “umpteenth Brunello scandal,” as one Italian wine writer called it, trumped all of the week’s news.

It eclipsed, among other things, my first contribution to the WineSearcher.com blog wherein I take a look at Super Tuscans beyond the -aia wines. I had a lot of fun writing the piece and it’s been great to work with Wink Lorch, the current editor there. She’s an amazing writer and a wonderful editor.

Alfonso also published his first piece there, a fantastic overview of Etna wines.

The Brunello coverage also kept me from responding to an important comment here by Sicilian winemaker Marilena Barbera.

In response to my translation of Luciano Ferraro’s post on Italy’s “black harvest 2014,” she lamented that my Italian colleague was being overly dramatic.

I’ve rectified this with my post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant, Why a bad vintage is good.

The great Tuscan winemaker Piero Talenti supposedly once said that “there are no bad vintages. There are just vintages when we make less wine.” I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in the aphorism, even if Talenti never said it.

Click here to read my post.

Thanks for being here and have a great weekend! I’ll see you next week.

Brunello counterfeit update, the name of the “consultant,” and the good news…

best sangiovese tuscany montalcinoIn a blog post yesterday, Wine Spectator editor Bruce Sanderson set the record straight regarding the recent seizure by Italian authorities of “approximately 180,000 liters—potentially 20,000 cases of [fraudulently labeled Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino] from the 2008 to 2013 vintages, with an approximate value of $3.87 million to $5.16 million.”

According to Brunello consortium president Fabrizio Bindocci, who was interviewed by Sanderson, the wine was still in tank and had not yet been bottled.

Previous accounts from Italy, including the Siena prosecutor’s press release regarding the seizure and investigation, had reported that the vintages were 2011-13 and had not specified that the wine was still in “bulk” form.

Early reports had also called the culprit an “enologist.” But, as Sanderson clarifies in his post, the counterfeiter was a “consultant” who “provided administrative and business services to numerous small producers.”

Although neither the Brunello consortium nor the Siena prosecutor have revealed the names of the wineries involved in the scheme, Italian media outlets have named Alessandro Lorenzetti as the author of the crime.

The good news is that the Brunello consortium has embraced an active and even aggressive role in ferreting out counterfeiters. As the Siena prosecutor revealed in its press release two days ago, its investigation was sparked by a tip from the consortium.

“Unfortunately, the Brunello brand is too tempting,” said Bindocci in an interview published earlier this week by Tuscan wine writer Carlo Macchi, “and people who want to steal will go where the money is. For this very reason and to guarantee transparency for consumers, a few months ago, we approved a rule that requires all wineries who want to sell grapes or wine to another winery to declare the sale to the consortium at least forty-eight hours in advance.”

(Translation by DoBianchi.com)

Counterfeit Brunello: “largest agricultural fraud ever attempted” says Italian official

tuscan cypress trees montalcinoIn what Italian authorities say was the “largest agricultural fraud ever attempted,” an unnamed winery consultant in Montalcino has been accused of falsifying vineyard compliance documentation. The counterfeit wine was seized by Italian treasury officials before being sold.

The individual allegedly responsible for fraudulently labeling more than 220,000 bottles of Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino was not an enologist, as previously reported.

“The author of the crime,” writes Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro on his blog today, “was a sort of jack-of-all-trades consultant who was used by tens of small wineries in the appellation. The grape growers entrusted him with bookkeeping and bureaucratic compliance, tasks that can be difficult to deal with for small farmers. Taking advantage of their trust and the free hand he had been given, he doctored the production amounts.”

According to Ferraro, the counterfeiter “augmented the amount of wine that was actually produced, making sure that the number of hectares [planted to vine] and producible hectoliters [of wine] aligned. The real wine remained at the winery. The extra wine, which existed only on paper, took the form of tanks of liquid that had nothing to do with Brunello or Rosso di Montalcino but was given to other wineries as authentic.”

“It’s the largest agricultural fraud ever attempted,” according to Luca Albertario, Siena Province commander for the Italian treasury department, who is quoted in Ferraro’s post.

Ferraro notes that the wine was seized before being released into the market.

Translations by DoBianchi.com.

220,000 bottles of counterfeit Brunello & Rosso seized by Italian authorties

Errata corrige: subsequent reporting of the seizure has revealed that the wine in question had not yet been bottled and was still in tank.

mt amiataAbove: Mt. Amiata, as seen from Castelnuovo dell’Abate (Montalcino).

Italian media outlets have reported this morning that more than 220,000 bottles of counterfeit Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino have been seized by Italian treasury authorities.

“Investigations to date have allowed [authorities] to discover and seize 165,467 liters of wine (roughly 220,600 750ml bottles),” write the editors of the Italian national daily Il Sole 24 Ore, “including 75,620 liters of Brunello di Montalcino and 89,847 liters of Rosso di Montalcino worth at least €1 million.”

(Translation by DoBianchi.com.)

According to the authors of the report, which was based on a statement issued by the Siena prosecutor’s office, the wine had been fraudulently labeled by an unnamed consulting enologist, who worked with multiple Montalcino bottlers.

The prosecutor’s statement describes the individual as a “serial swindler,” who also engaged in an elaborate money fraud scheme using electronic banking transactions to steal approximately €350,000 from his victims.

The investigation was sparked by a tip from the Brunello di Montalcino consortium.

“The operational synergy between monitoring groups and certification authorities has made it possible to stop the fraud from affecting yet more consumers,” said Italian agriculture minister Maurizio Martina in a statement cited by the Sole 24 Ore report. “And it has put an end to odious, unfair competition faced by honest producers.”

The counterfeit wine, which authorities believe was purchased on the black market, was falsely labeled as Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages.

The wineries victimized by the counterfeiter are not named in the Siena prosecutor’s statement, which has been reposted by a number of regional Italian mastheads and wine blogs this morning.

Read the Siena prosecutor’s press release in its entirety here.

Italy’s “black harvest” 2014: enologist association’s bleak forecast

italy grape harvest data 2014Above: you can read the Italian association of enologists (Assoenologi) forecast for harvest 2014 in its entirety on Luciano Pignataro’s site. Click image above to enlarge. The data above represent the 2014 yield forecast compared with yield data from 2013 and average yields over the last five years.

“The year of the black harvest,” wrote Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro on his blog on Friday, a forecast of a “30 percent decrease” in some appellations.

He was referring to report issued by Assoenologi, the Italian association of enologists and eno-technicians circulated by the group last week.

Disastrous snow storms in Abruzzo in November 2013; an accelerated growing cycle prompted by an otherwise extremely mild winter throughout Italy; intense hailstorms in the spring in northern Italy; incessant rainfall in July throughout Italy and an unusually cool August in northern and central Italy.

There will be some bright spots, write the authors of the report, but the outlook is bleak for most growers and winemakers.

In his post, Ferraro synopsized the forecast region by region and I have translated his notes below.

*****

Piedmont

Major hailstorms and peronospora [powdery mildew] in Barolo. Overall production will be good, with some spots in great condition but few excellent [wines].

Lombardy

Rainfall for 90 days out of 151. Gray rot has affected 15 percent of the bunches. In Valtellina, if the weather gets better, growers can hope for an interesting although late harvest.

Trentino-Alto Adige

Widespread damage from peronospoora, wind damage for Marzemino. Lower alcohol levels for Chardonnay in Trentino. Things are better in Bolzano province, where the wines will have lower alcohol levels.

Veneto

Vineyards have been affected by vine diseases because of rainstorms and low temperatures. Amarone production within the norm. Glera grapes (for Prosecco) will have interesting acidity levels.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Slow ripening of the grapes because of cold. Decrease in production of Pinot Grigio, Friulano, Chardonnay, Cabernet France, and Merlot.

Emilia-Romagna

Widespread cases of acid rot and botrytis in hillside vineyards. The health of Trebbiano is relatively good.

Tuscany

If September and October will be favorable, the vintage will be interesting. Otherwise, there will not be great spots nor excellent [wines].

Latium, Umbria

July rains have compromised the health of the vineyards in all areas. In Castelli Romani and Orvieto province, harvest will not take place until the end of the month.

Marches

The overall quality of the grapes is relatively good. Harvest of Verdicchio, Trebbiano, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano will come a week late.

Abruzzo

Enormous damage because of the snowfall last November but there is hope for an extremely interesting vintage for DOC wines.

Campania

The harvest will be completed in November when the Aglianico is picked. Late harvest with excellent promise for the grapes’ aromatic expression.

Puglia

Primitivo harvest will begin next week. Good levels for the grapes, with yields restored thanks to August weather. In any case, the forecast is for a 20 percent drop in quantity.

Sicilia, Sardinia

In Sicily, the production will be 70 percent of 2013’s harvest [but] quality could be interesting. In Sardinia, the quality of the grapes is excellent [and] quantities have returned to the norm.

BLASPHEMY: sea urchin carbonara @TonyVallone & earliest known mention of dish

carbonara best recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s new “Spaghetti alla Carbonara” is as blasphemous as it is delicious.

It was a thrill for Tracie P and me to take our Australian friends, the newly engaged Lydia and Stefano, to Tony’s, the flagship restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone in Houston.

The couple is touring the states, dining their way through our country’s metropolitan culinary hotspots (New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, etc.). So when I learned that they’d be visiting Houston, it was with no small measure of pride that I suggested a double date last night at Tony’s, where Tony and his chef de cuisine Kate McLean (another friend) are putting out some of the best food in the nation imho.

Kobe grade a5 beef is always a joy ride as was a spectacular risotto alla milanese. But the star of our evening was Tony’s new and blasphemous spaghetti alla carbonara, made with pecorino (no Parmigiano Reggiano), lightly sautéed pancetta, crispy guanciale, and raw sea urchin.

To my palate, the dish was a study in savory, delicately briny texture, with each of the “salt-delivery” components delivering a unique and distinct, nuanced layer.

But the addition of the raw urchin gave the housemade spahgetti alla chitarra an ethereal marine note that took the dish into an even higher realm of hedonist fulfillment. It was that good.

Our dinner and enogastronomically driven conversation reminded me of a gastro-philological nugget recently shared with me by my colleague and good friend Chris Reid, who writes — among other things — about barbecue for the Houston Chronicle (you may remember Chris from his 2012 New York Times piece on Texas barbecue outside of Texas).

0044_01_1950_0176_0003Above: an article culled from the July 26, 1950 edition of the Italian national daily La Stampa may represent the earliest known mention of spaghetti alla carbonara in print. Click here for a PDF of the entire page.

A number of people on both sides of the Atlantic (including me) have used the Google Books search engine to find early mentions of carbonara, where the term refers to the famous Roman dish (and not its many other meanings in Italian).

But Chris has found what may be the earliest known mention in print in the newly available digital archive of the Italian national daily La Stampa.

The article describes the Pope’s visit to the Festa de’ Noantri, the colorful summer festival held each July in Trastevere.

In a paragraph devoted to the neighborhood’s top trattorie, the author mentions “Cesaretto alla Cisterna — to name one of the most well known [restaurants] outside of Italy — who boasts ancient origins, being that his osteria rose from the ruins of another famous eatery in the time of Fabio Massimo [Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus]. It was this tavern keeper who first welcomed American officials who had come to Trastevere, many years ago now, in search of spaghetti alla carbonara.”

The passage is interesting for a number of reasons but chiefly because it associates the renown of carbonara with American military men.

American forces first arrived in Rome in 1944 and the fact that the author claims that Cesaretto (literally, little Caeser) was the first to serve American officials would seem to imply that he was the first to popularize the dish if not the dish’s inventor.

Is it possible and even probable that carbonara was inspired by American soldiers’ love of bacon and eggs? The passage above seems to give weight to the American influence theory.

We may never know the origins of spaghetti alla carbonara but I can’t imagine that we will ever stop looking for it, just like the American officials who headed to Cesaretto in search of the dish.

In other news…

Assoenologi, the association of Italian enologists, has published its early harvest forecast and the numbers are grim. After one of the rainest years in our lifetime, some regions will see a 30 percent drop in production. I’ll post about it on Monday.