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…

Mosel Riesling and conch ceviche, simply brilliant

conch cevicheMention to nearly anyone in the wine business that you’re heading to Las Vegas and she/he will invariably tell you that you must visit the Lotus of Siam, an otherwise unassuming Thai restaurant with a phenomenal Riesling-heavy list.

I’m not a gambler but my band has played Vegas a handful of times. And each time I’ve visited, I’ve been thrilled by the pairing of Riesling and the spicy flavors of the restaurant’s menu (and it’s actually the only place in Vegas, in my experience, where I can afford to get an interesting and satisfying meal).

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Lotus of Siam when I visited Caracol in Houston with a buddy on Thursday night.

grunhauser kabinett priceThe match of conch ceviche (in the top photo; one of the restaurant’s de facto signature dishes) and the 2011 Grünhaus Herrenberg Kabinett was simply one of the most brilliant marriages of aroma, flavor, and texture that I’ve experienced this year.

The wine, however youthful, was so pure in its white fruit notes and its elegant sweetness and delicate unctuousness played counterpoint to the measured acidity and supple chewiness of the thinly sliced conch.

tlacoyo chick peaOf course, I can never resist the tlacoyo de alberjón (above), a blue masa de maíz flatbread stuffed with puréed chickpeas (and another of the restaurant’s signature dishes).

My friend and leading Houston sommelier Sean Beck has put together a superb list of German-speaking wines at this “Mexican seafood” concept by Houston legacy chef Hugo Ortega.

I love LOVE this restaurant and it’s a place where Spanish is spoken in a spectrum of cadences that stretch from South to Central America by guests and staff alike, a perfect example of Houston’s cosmopolitan vibe and one of the reasons I love living here.

Chapeau bas, Sean, and THANK YOU for this awesome list…

Happy Fourth, an All-American burger & our daughter the Incredible Hulk

From the department of “life could be worse”…

best hamburger houstonHappy Fourth of July, yall!

This July is such a special month for us: we will be celebrating Lila Jane’s first birthday!

She and I are planning to celebrate together because our birthdays are just eight days apart.

Yesterday, I took the girls to the newly opened Bernie’s Burger Bus here in Houston.

It’s one of the city’s most popular food trucks and has finally opened a stand-alone location.

It’s pretty cool: the open kitchen is in a life-size yellow school bus right in the middle of the restaurant. And it’s not far from our house so I imagine we’ll be spending a lot of time there this summer.

That’s “the Bully” in the photo above: “Two of our signature burger patties both topped with cheddar, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, pickle, thin sliced onions, shredded lettuce, and slow roasted garlic tomatoes.”

The girls loved it, especially the sweet potato fries, as you can see by Lila Jane’s impression of the Incredible Hulk.

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

Baci e abbracci (kisses and hugs)…

—Parzen Family

Prosecco crisis: “We must work to build awareness of the Prosecco DOCG.”

prosecco docg map docAbove: Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, and Asolo are the three historic townships of Prosecco. Today, it’s increasingly challenging for Prosecco DOCG growers to compete with the DOC growers and bottlers in the planes of the Veneto and Friuli, where growing costs are significantly lower.

“Unfortunately, the uniqueness of the Prosecco DOCG has gone unrecognized and there are just a few brands that consumers identify with it and that they ask for by name. When Prosecco is perceived as a generic wine — ‘unbranded’ as they say in English — it focuses the competition solely on price. As a result, the value of the product is put at risk. We must work to build awareness of the Prosecco DOCG.”

—Matteo Lunelli, Cantine Ferrari president and 50-percent stakeholder in the historic Prosecco house Bisol.

Please click here to read my Prosecco editorial for the Bele Casel blog.

Groth, a supreme expression of Napa (or bromance is never easy)

milkweed beetles insectaryAbove: milkweed beetles in the insectary at the Groth winery in Oakville (Napa).

From Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon to Corison to Groth

As I led my bromance Giovanni Arcari and team sparkling wine on a tour of California wine country, we had visited the radical and the insider. And now it was time to visit one of California’s great legacy estates.

Why Groth? Because our friend and favorite Napa-based wine blogger, Joanne Farrell aka VinoGirl, author of Vinsanity, works there.

insectaryAbove: the winery’s insectary lies adjacent to the estate’s top vineyards.

As VinoGirl, one of the tasting room docents, led us on our tour, she told us that Groth was the first wine for which Robert Parker, Jr. awarded the elusive 100-point score, thus making Groth the Nadia Comăneci of Napa, as it were.

There is a tendency in the indy wine community to be distrustful and even disdainful of wines like Groth. And this is due in part to the way that the wine establishment (viz., Parker et alia) has embraced the wines.

Many among us assume that these wines are highly manipulated in the cellar and we often conjure images of lab-coat-donned technicians tinkering away, crafting gold-scoring wines like alchemists.

groth winery tourAbove: the Spanish-colonial-inspired architecture at Groth evokes power and opulence.

But as VinoGirl led us outside to walk through the winery’s top growing site, we learned that the winemaker’s focus is in the vineyard, where organic and conventional growing practices are applied in harmony.

VinoGirl holds a degree in viticulture from Napa Valley College and I was humbled as she and team sparkling wine compared notes on the finer points of grape growing.

groth oakville wineAbove: there is no official “reserve” designation in Napa, VinoGirl explained. But the term is often used to denote a winery’s flagship wine like the Groth Oakville Reserve.

When we sat down in the lovely tasting room, I was impressed, once again, by the caliber of the tasting room guides and their superb hospitality and congeniality. They seemed to make everyone, including us, feel like a rockstar.

VinoGirl was keen to pour us the 2004 Groth Oakville Reserve. And I have to say: I found the wine to be balanced and delicious. Its wood was well integrated and its red fruit evolved.

Even the hypercritical Italians liked it and they were not an easy crowd to please by any means.

italian winemakerAbove, from left: Giovanni, me, Nico, and Andrea in the Groth insectary. Photo by VinoGirl.

I must be honest: Groth isn’t exactly my speed in wine. The wines don’t align seamlessly with my personal taste.

But I was excited to learn more about this supreme expression of Napa and to share it with my fellow travelers.

In the wake of this experience, there’s no doubt in my mind that Napa is peerless when it comes to wine tourism. We were there as friends of VinoGirl, of course. But our tour, including the excellent presentation, was the same as that of other guests (including the jolly middle-aged lady who wished the Italians buon natale from across the room).

After the tour, VinoGirl led us to the Norman Rose Tavern in downtown Napa for beers, burgers, and fried pickles.

Referring to the prevalence of red wine production in Napa and citing a local aphorism, VinoGirl joked that “it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine in Napa.”

When we ordered, Giovanni asked me to get him a burger and to choose the type of cheese.

The burger arrived and when Giovanni took a bite and realized that I had ordered him blue cheese, he expressed his disappointment.

Bromance, I learned, isn’t always easy.

Thank you again, VinoGirl, for a wonderful tour of the winery-where-you-are-gainfully-employed and the delightful afternoon in your town.

Pinzimonio & grilled vegetables for summer supper

pinzimonio cruditesJust had to share these photos from last night’s supper chez Parzen.

The Levy cousins all came over for Prosecco Col Fondo and a vegetarian dinner (except for some grilled chicken breast that I made for the meat eaters).

grilled zucchini recipeGeorgia P had such a blast playing with her cousins.

And everyone took turns holding Lila Jane.

josie and georgiaThat’s Georgia, left, with her cousin Josie. They are so sweet.

Summer has arrived in Houston and the heat and humidity are finally here.

But man, life sure could be worse. It’s a really special time for me, Tracie P, and our girls.

Happy summer, everyone!

Pax Mahle in Houston, taking the town by storm

samantha_porter_sommelier_houstonToday, I’m taking a break from posting about last week’s California trip to share notes from my tasting yesterday in Houston with rockstar winemaker Pax Mahle from California (above, right).

The whole town was buzzing — literally and figuratively — with his visit.

I’ve posted this morning about my audience with him for the Houston Press.

It’s a whole new California and Pax is on the cutting-edge.

Thanks for reading and buon weekend yall!

First kiss in Napa: Corison

galen becker draceAbove: I was blown away by the superb presentation and tour of the winery by Corison Wine Club Manager Galen Becker Drace (right).

There’s a first time for everything.

As much as I regret it, I have to confess that I had never attended a tasting/tour at any of the Napa marquee wineries.

Yes, of course, while a student at UCLA, I had traveled to Napa and Sonoma with friends to taste. But that was long before my interest in wine had blossomed. And the wineries I visited were the usual suspects, for the most part forgettable (even for a wine neophyte).

So when it came time to set up an appointment for my tour last week with Giovanni Arcari and team sparkling wine, I reached out to Hawk Wakawaka, a favorite writer and friend who lives in Sonoma and follows California wine closely (in case you missed it, btw, yesterday she published a much-talked-about interview with Robert Parker, Jr.).

corison cabernet sauvignonAbove: the 2005 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon was a stand-out for me. Still in its youth, the wine was already beginning to show its depth and nuance.

When she suggested that she help me set up a tasting at Corison, I was thrilled: I first began following the wines in the early 2000s after reading about them on Alice Feiring’s and Eric Asimov’s blogs.

And I had actually tasted a lot of older vintages. Back the heyday of my French band Nous Non Plus, we used to rehearse around the corner from Keens, my favorite NYC steakhouse, where a vertical of Corison stretching back to the early 90s had been cellared unnoticed. Evidently, the prices hadn’t been augmented since acquisition and the bottles lay in affordable reach of me and my bandmates.

I had always been impressed by their balance and elegance.

corison kronos napaAbove: how not to be impressed by the 1998 Kronos, the winery’s flagship label? This wine was vibrant and delicious, with notes of earth and ripe and dried red fruit. The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon remained my favorite but this wine was also exquisite.

But the thing I wasn’t expecting was the superb winery presentation and guided tasting by the estate’s Wine Club Manager, Galen Becker Drace (above).

In the course of my career in wine, I’ve visited myriad wineries and tasting rooms. But I had never had the “Napa” experience.

Between the hushed tones and muted oos and aas of top clients who were tasting in the barriquerie, the talented Galen led us on one of the best tours I’ve ever attended. And his wine knowledge was rivaled only by his intimate relationship with each of the wines.

And when it came to explaining the wine club concept to my Italian counterparts, I could see their minds churning.

Outside of California, there’s really nothing like the Napa experience, where you are greeted by young, bright, enthusiastic wine professionals who find true joy in sharing the wines with you.

We tasted many other wines during our tour. But for a first kiss, this sure wasn’t bad.

Please stay tuned for more California dispatches and thanks again, Hawk Wakawaka, for setting this up!

Randall Grahm, Italophone & Italophile, a Virgil among grape growers

randall grahmA few months ago, when Giovanni Arcari and team sparkling wine asked me to lead them on a tour of California winemaking, my first email was to Randall Grahm (above), the pioneering winemaker who has reshaped the viticultural landscape there throughout this century and the last.

And so we headed from Los Angeles last Thursday to Santa Cruz where the tidy Bonny Doon offices and winemaking facility are sandwiched quietly between a brewery and a handful of winery tasting rooms (you can see some of Giovanni’s images from our drive here).

I knew that Randall was Italophile in his winemaking and that in the last few decades his interest has shifted toward Italian grape varieties. But I had no idea that he’s also Italophone: he conversed with my sparkling companions in their native tongue, just like grape grower and winemaker Thomas Jefferson, who famously spoke to Tuscan sailors in the language of Dante thanks to his knowledge of the Comedy.

Before we sat down to taste a selection of his wines, he showed us the demijohns he’s using to age some of his wines (in the photo above). He stirs their lees, he explained, with an inert, teflon-lined metal ribbon that resides in the demijohn. The cellar workers run a magnet along the side of the vessel, thus guiding the ribbon through the wine and stirring the lees.

champagne californiaIt was only natural that Randall would open the flight with one of his méthode champenoise wines, the 2006 “Riesling to Live” made with grapes from the Ca’ del Solo vineyard in Monterey (which Randall subsequently sold).

This wine made such an impression in my memory that I can still taste it as I write this: zinging acidity and bright white and citrus notes with a salty lemon finish. Now in its eighth year, this wine is full of life.

randall grahm cigare blancThe 2011 Cigare Volant white was another favorite of mine in the flight. Rarely do you taste California white wines with this depth and character. The stone and dried-fruit notes were enhanced by an “unbearably light” mouthfeel and a graceful unctuousness that really turned me on. Randall said you should be able to find this wine for around $25. Can you name a better value in Californian wine today?

randall grahm italian winemakerThere were many other standouts in the roughly sixteen wines that we tasted together (including the 2007 Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo, which was without a doubt the best Nebbiolo I’ve ever tasted from California, truly delicious and satisfying; also the 2009 Cigar Volant red reserve aged in demijohn, so rich and so alive in its flavor, a wine that I pined to drink with dinner that night). And of course, it was remarkable to see so many of Randall’s bottles lined up side-by-side and contemplate their wonderful labels and their idiosyncrasies.

But most compelling was Randall’s discourse on creating a vino di territorio, a vin de terroir, in California, where the youth of viticulture often casts the grape grower in Limbo.

As he explained his efforts in crossing grape varieties in the same vineyard as one of the means to create a truly unique bioscape, I couldn’t help to think of him as a Virgil, planting the semina vertatis of a terroir in fieri.

Gratias ago tibi magister agricola…

The best thing I ate in Napa (is not what you think)

best sandwich napaStill catching my breath after a whirlwind trip to Santa Cruz, Napa, and Sonoma to talk to some favorite winemakers there.

The Italian crew and I tasted some great wines, including many that surprised us and reshaped our perception of California winemaking.

I’ll be posting my “Napa dispatch” this week on the blog.

But in the meantime, as I get my feet back on the ground, I just wanted to share the best thing I ate in Napa: a [California] Veggie Sandwich at the Yountville Deli (above).

It’s was everything a [California] Veggie Sandwich should be (I write California in brackets because back in my native California, they just call it a “Veggie Sandwich”).

It was served on ciabatta from Bouchon bakery (delicious) and note the mandatory sprouts.

Of all the good things to eat there (and there are countless restaurants, from refined to homey, where the food is phenomenal), this is the one thing I’m still thinking about: it’s one of those simple pleasures of life that’s so satisfying and so easy to find in my home state.

I have so much to tell about our trip: the wines and the people were truly compelling. So stay tuned…

And wow, as we sat at the bar at the Oakland airport yesterday (below), it was amazing to see travelers cheer the U.S. on in the World Cup.

Soccer started early for kids growing up in Southern California like me. But I don’t ever remember seeing so much interest and passion for the game.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned…

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