Why I love Italian wine in flyover country (my Palate Press post)

June 15, 2010

Above: I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Gaia Gaja, Angelo Gaja’s daughter, was super fun to hang out with. I interviewed her over Chicago redhots for my PalatePress piece on my encounters with 3 iconic Italian winemakers in “second-tier” American cities.

Alfonso likes to call it “flyover” country: that glorious swath of land, that sweep of the scythe, those amber waves of grain that span from Chicago to the Rio Grande, the Middle West, Mittelamerika, the Third Coast, the Second Cities. In other words, the America that the Left and Right banks often ignore when it comes to the purveyance of fine wine and dining.

I’ll concede that I probably drank more old wine, thanks to the generosity of collectors, when I lived in cities like New York and Los Angeles. But, honestly, my food and wine life has only become more stimulating and rewarding since I moved to Austin, Texas. (Well, everything has become more stimulating and rewarding since Tracie P née B came into my life.)

Above, at dinner in Austin, from left clockwise: Tracie P, Dave Meyer (Banfi, Texas), Mark Sayre (my super good buddy and wine director Trio, Austin), Wes Marshall (The Austin Chronicle) and wife Emily, Lars Leicht (Banfi, whom I’ve known forever), and Rudy Buratti (winemaker, Banfi).

When I realized that I would be having dinner and tasting with 3 iconic Italian winemakers in 3 different “flyover” cities, over the course of just 5 days, I thought it would make a good piece for PalatePress (and thankfully so did the editors!).

Gaia Gaja of Gaja in Chicago, Rudy Buratti of Banfi (and newly elected member of the Brunello producers association 15-person advisory council) in Austin, and Giampiero Bea of Paolo Bea in Houston.

Above: Another pleasant surprise was the 1999 Banfi Brunello (top vineyard) Poggio all’Oro, a wine I would not typically reach for (nor could afford). It was honest and delicious and it tasted like Montalcino. Great wine.

The fact is that top Italian winemakers are traveling more frequently to markets they’ve neglected in the past. I recently found out that Giorgio Rivetti (producer of the infamously created-just-for-the-American-market, jammy, syrupy, ridiculously concentrated Spinetta wines) visited Austin last month. “It’s not often enough that a true gentlemen like Giorgio spends time in Texas,” wrote one wine blogger/merchant.

This is certainly one of the reasons I’ve been lucky enough to have some interesting wine encounters lately.

But then again, as the jingle for the ol’ So Cal franchise Love’s Wood Pit BBQ used to go, when you’re in Love’s, the whole world’s delicious.

Special thanks to Palate Press editor Meg Houston Maker for believing in the piece and eagle-eye editor Becky Sue Epstein for whipping my piece into shape! :-)


Angelo Gaja, please call me!

April 24, 2009

From the “just for fun” department…

I like to call him the Giuseppe Baretti of Italian wine writing: my friend and colleague Franco Ziliani (pictured above holding two bottles of would-be [wood-be] Nebbiolo by Giorgio Rivetti) is one of the Italian wine writers I admire most and the feathers he ruffles with his excellent blog, Vino al Vino, often belong to the princes and princesses of Italian wine.

He reminds me of yet another great Italian writer, a Renaissance master of satire, Pietro Aretino: if anyone deserved to borrow Aretino’s motto flagellum principum (flagellator or flogger of princes) it would be my dear friend Franco.

Franco recently posted the above photo together with a post in which he lampoons a Nebbiolo producer (well, should we call him that? his wines don’t really taste like Nebbiolo at all) who — for Franco and for me — represents everything that is wrong with the world of Italian wine today: Giorgio Rivetti is a “wine wizard” and master of marketing who created wines expressly for the American market with little consideration for the great tradition and great people of the place where he makes wine. (You may remember my post on the Spinetta Affair.)

Not long after he posted the photo and satire, he received a phone call from the “bishop of Barbaresco” (who, incidentally, had recently anointed his disciple Rivetti as a member of a putative “national team” of winemakers who will lead Italy into the world cup of the future). Evidently, messer Gaja has forgotten the meaning of irony and satire — notions and literary figures cherished by the ancients and rediscovered during the renewal of learning and then again in the age of enlightenment.

This week, my partner Alfonso Cevola (aka Starsky) and I had some fun with it: Angelo, please call me!

In other news…

Yesterday, Franco sent me this photo, snapped in Maroggia, at the foot of the alps in the Valtellina, where Nebbiolo finds one of its finest expressions.

I moved to Texas for one very special lady only to discover there’s a little bit of Texas in everyone… Thanks, Franco!


1967 Barolo and an important book

January 26, 2009

The night of my bon voyage party at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego last month, Jayne and Jon gave me a bottle of birth-year Barolo to send me off in style: a 1967 Barolo by Borgogno. After driving my 1989 Volvo across country to Austin in mid-December, I let the bottle rest until the other night when Tracie B and I opened it for dinner. After we tasted and thoroughly enjoyed the wine and the experience, I turned to a tome that some (myself included) consider to be one of the most important works on Barolo and its history: Il Barolo come lo sento io, by Massimo Martinelli (Asti: Sagittario. 1993). The book was recommended to me many years ago by a restaurateur in Alba and it took me a long time to track it down. I simply can’t express its value in terms of understanding Barolo and its evolution: the vintage notes and analyses (stretching back to 1868!), the colorful anecdotes and vignettes of Barolo’s great personages, and Martinelli’s often poetic accounts of Barolo and its vicissitudes make it an indispensable tool in understanding the greatness of this wine. The title alone reveals the breadth (and passion) of Martinelli’s writing: Barolo, as I know (feel and taste it).* (I wish I had the time and resources to translate the whole book but, alas, with the state of publishing as it is and the narrow field of interest, this labor amoris will have to wait.)

Above: Please try this at home! Drink old wine with food! Don’t fetishize it. Respect it but don’t be intimidated by it. The people who made it intended it to be served with food. We served the 1967 Borgogno with pork loin chops, seasoned and dredged in flour, seared and deglazed with white wine. You don’t have to drink old Barolo with a fondue of Fontina and poached eggs topped with shaved white truffles (although that’s not a bad pairing either).

Martinelli ranks vintages as follows (for sake of clarity, my translation is slavish): exceptional, great, optimal, good, normal, mediocre, bad. His top vintages are 1947, 1971, and 1985 (some might be surprised by his assessment of certain vintages). Here’s what he has to say about 1967: “Majestic. Optimal vintage. Full, robust wine, with intense aromas” (again, a slavish translation). His drinkability prediction: “Wine with its full character: more than twenty years (1987…). Wine with its character still evident: more than ten years (1997…).”

Above: According to the newly revamped Borgogno website, the winery was founded in 1761. But 1848 is the date that accompanies the inscription on the label, “labore cum honore pro patria” or “made with honor for the nation.” I imagine the date refers to the year of the first war of Italian independence and is an indicator of Barolo’s historic significance in the birth of an “Italian wine nation,” as I have called it.

When I lived and worked in New York, I had the opportunity to taste a number of Borgogno “library” releases. According the label of this bottling, it was tasted, decanted, and rebottled in 2007, and had been topped off with wine from the same vintage. I’m not certain but my impression is that other library releases by Borgogno were topped off with young wine (a common practice for library releases, and not something that I oppose). The 1967 did not seem to have been topped off with young wine and despite its age, it was alive with perceptible acidity and eucalyptus and tarry notes, typical of old Nebbiolo.

Thanks Jayne and Jon! We thoroughly enjoyed this wine — nearly as old as me (since I was born during the Summer of Love while this wine was still in the vineyard)!

Post scriptum: In 2008, Borgogno was purchased by Italian food magnate Oscar Farinetti, who vowed to maintain the winery’s traditional style and not make it modern, even though he hired the duke of modernity, Giorgio Rivetti (the winemaker behind the rhinoceros), as a marketing consultant. In a recent post, Franco noted, however, that not much has changed at Borgogno, except for a “dusted off” website.

* In Italian, the verb sentire, from the Latin sentio sentire (to discern by sense, feel, hear, see, perceive, be sensible of) means to feel, to hear, to taste, to sense, to perceive (depending on the context). It’s akin to the English sentient.


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