Al pomodoro please: red, white & Nebbiolo for the 4th

pasta al pomodoro

Mommy and daddy had hotdogs and burgers with all the trimmings for a quiet Fourth of July celebration at home as we continued to wait for the big day to arrive.

We’re now nine days away from Baby P 2013′s expected due date.

Georgia P came nine days early. So mutatis mutandis… Our bags are packed and ready to go.

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Scavino vs. Produttori del Barbaresco: a political allegory

One of the cool things about what I do for a living is that wine (sales) reps will often offer to “taste me on” their wines.

Last night, I was catching up with one of my clients here in Austin and a rep asked me if I’d like to taste the 2010 Langhe Nebbiolo by the “father” of modern Langa, Paolo Scavino.

It just so happened that I was drinking the 2010 Langhe Nebbiolo by Produttori del Barbaresco, one of the stalwarts and standard-bearers of traditional Nebbiolo.

Even though I can’t say I’m a fan of the Scavino style, I thought that both wines were showing great.

The Scavino had that trademark cherry cough syrup note (easy to identify even when tasting this wine blind) and I was surprised by how tannic it was (citing second-hand sources, the rep told me that Scavino is declassifying some of its best fruit, otherwise destined for its Barolo, and using it for this wine; after tasting the wine, I believed him). It was elegant and focused and it had good acidity. While I just can’t get around that cough syrup flavor, I can see why people like this wine and why it does so well in restaurants.

The Produttori del Barbaresco was all classic, all the way. Bright and light on the palate, this wine leaned more toward berry fruit with a balance of earth and the cooperative winery’s signature acidity keeping all the other elements in check. Tasting it side-by-side with the Scavino, I couldn’t help but note that the Produttori del Barbaresco has very little tannin in it. This softness, combined with the acidity and clarity of fruit, is one of the reasons why this wine does so well among restaurant-goers (not to mention the affordability).

I’m not sure how it happened but the conversation shifted to politics. The rep is a Romney supporter and a diehard republican.

As they sat there on the bar, the wines became — in my mind — an allegory of our deeply divided country.

It’s a facile analogy, I know, but it just leapt out at me: on the one side, a nineteenth-century cooperative of farmers united by a priest in a hilltop village, a bottle of earth and berry fruit, ever true to its original mission; on the other side, an old Langarola family who had led the charge of modernism in the 1990s, abandoning the traditions of a bygone era and delivering a hearty, tannic wine that tasted of cough syrup, slick, polished, and refined, well intentioned and honest no doubt, but detached from the place whence it came.

“I guess you don’t like cherries,” said the rep when he noted that I preferred the Produttori del Barbaresco with my meal.

“Cherries are fine,” I said, “but the wine’s just not my speed.”

“Fair enough,” he said.

As far as I know, he made a “placement” last night.

I guess that in Austin — the little blue town in the big red state — there’s room for both.

Ready or not: 07 Produttori del Barbaresco Asili vs. 07 Chiarlo Tortoniano

Unfortunately, it happens all the time: you find yourself at dinner with a good friend (in this case, a best childhood friend) who is new to the wine world and who insists on tasting you on a wine that they’ve discovered with no regard for your personal tastes or palate (how could she or he know?).

It’s exactly what happened when Yele and I visited a restaurant in La Jolla the other night with a close high school friend of ours (a Hebrew school friend for me; that’s how far we go back). I had a bottle of 2007 Produttori del Barbaresco Asili in my bag: however young in its evolution, I wanted to taste a bottle from my allocation just to check in with the wine, see where it’s at in its development, and indulge in one of my favorite wines of all time.

Said friend, who had eaten at said restaurant a few nights earlier, wouldn’t listen to our gentle admonitions and he insisted that he allow him to buy our table a bottle of Chiarlo 2007 Barolo Tortoniano in 375ml.

The 2007 Asili was extreme in its tannic expression and frugal with its fruit. California, where I maintain my cellar, gets a smaller allocation of Produttori del Barbaresco crus and I’m thrilled that I was able to get a case of this wine. I probably won’t revisit it for another few years but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to become one of the gems of my collection. The practically winterless 2007 vintage in Langa has delivered some of the most muscular, opulent expressions of Barbaresco that I have ever tasted (remember when Tracie P and I tasted the 07 Asili with Bruno Giacosa on our honeymoon?).

My experience with Langaroli wines from 2007 was a stark counterpoint to the bright cherry cough-syrup fruit of the 2007 Tortoniano by Chiarlo. There’s no doubt that this is a well made wine but it’s just “not my speed,” as I like to tell folks when I politely decline to taste a given wine. The tannin was well-balanced in the wine but I just couldn’t get past its yeasted quality and its softness. It wasn’t bad (in fact it was very elegant). But it simply didn’t reflect the appellation or the vintage. It tasted more like a high-end Russian River Pinot Noir than it did Langa Nebbiolo — at least to me.

Having grown up in San Diego, I often find that my peers took paths in life widely divergent from mine — in wine tastes and ideology. Actually, I should say the opposite: I spent my entire adolescence leaving Las Vegas La Jolla, heading to Mexico, to Italy, to New York, and now Texas.

It’s often hard to taste wine with them. But ready or not, I love them just the same.

Carema: violent beauty and stunning wines (best Thanksgiving wine for 2011)

Tracie P and I won’t be heading to Orange, Texas for Thanksgiving this year because we’re about 5 weeks away from our due date! We’ll miss Thanksgiving with Mrs. and Rev. B but I made sure that they have some good wines for their holiday meal. Back here in Austin, this is what we’ll be drinking…

Earlier this year, when my friend, publisher, and wine industry insider Maurizio Gily suggested that we visit the village of Carema before heading to the European Wine Bloggers Conference, it was hard to contain my excitement. As a devout lover of Nebbiolo, I have sought out and drunk Carema whenever and wherever I could: known for its intensely tannic nature, the bottlings of 100% Nebbiolo grown in the hillsides of this pre-alpine village, with its morainic mountains that pop up in the landscape with a beautiful violence as you drive north from the freeway (moraine: “A mound, ridge, or other feature consisting of debris that has been carried and deposited by a glacier or ice sheet, usually at its sides or extremity; the till or similar material forming such a deposit.”—Oxford English Dictionary)

Before we headed to the Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema vinification facility and tasting room in the middle of the village, Maurizio, his colleague Monica, and Italian wine marketer Wineup and I hiked the trail that leads from the town up through the pergola-trained vineyards — yes, pergola-trained! (Check out Wineup’s excellent photos here.)

Pergola training has thrived here for a number of reasons, explained Maurizio. Because of the appellation’s unique geographic and topographic elements (i.e., elevation combined with violently steep slopes, extreme temperature variation, and healthy ventilation thanks to the morainic valley), the pergolas help to keep the fruit cool (thanks to shading) under the warm sun of summer and to keep the grapes warm in the case of early frost.

You really have to see the village and its vineyards to understand how it works…

You can click on the image above for a larger version: as you can see, the terraced, pergola-trained vineyards (planted exclusively to Nebbiolo) are situated on the eastern side of the valley, where the sun beats down in the late afternoon. This combination of the nutrient poor morainic soil, excellent exposure, good ventilation, and the local grape growing tradition is what delivers these incredible, age-worthy wines. (That’s the village of Donnas, Val d’Aosta, in the distance, btw.)

The other reason that pergola training has endured here is the fact that the terrain itself restricts the use of machinery: the vineyards are literally sculpted into the side of the mountains and the only way to work them is by hand. The pergola also allows the growers to employ integrated farming and it wasn’t uncommon to see other crops planted beneath the canopy. Italy’s top wine blogger Franco Ziliani calls the viticulture of Carema “heroic.” This is land where, until the advent of modernity (in the 1960s), life survival was extremely difficult and the terrain challenging. Every grower needs to exploit his vineyards, explained Maurizio, to the greatest extent possible.

Once we made it back to the village and the winery, I wasn’t surprised to find large-format, Slavonian oak casks (like this 1,550 liter beauty). Although the winery does age some wine in barriques (say it ain’t so!), the greater part of ever vintage is destined for large-cask and stainless steel aging.

Growers association president Viviano Gassino had double-decanted an amazing flight of wines for us to taste: 87, 90, 95, 99, 00, 03, 06, and 07.

The 1987 was beautiful: A bit of disassociation, slightly browning (I wrote in my notes), but very alive and tannic; rich fruit but still very tight.

The 1999 stunning: Gorgeous acidity, really bright, with an amazing balance of body and tannin united around rich berry fruit. Maurizio and I both noted more focus in the winemaking style from 1999 onward.

The 2006 was another highlight for me and reminded me of the 1999 in a younger expression. This is what we’ll drink for Thanksgiving this year, at Aunt Holly and Uncle Terry’s house here in Austin.

Simply put, Carema is one of the most amazing appellations I’ve ever visited: for its violent beauty, for its unique confluence of geographic and topographic elements, for its perfectly viable anachronism, and for the outstanding wines it produces.

But the most incredible thing is that you can find the 2006 Carema by Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema in the U.S. for under $30 (2007 is the current release but there is still some 2006 in the market).

I love love LOVE these wines and they are my Thanksgiving pick for 2011 (even though they’re not available in Texas, I’ve managed to evade the authorities and sneak a few bottles in).

Thanks for reading! To get a better sense of the topography of Carema, here’s the slide show that I hurriedly created the week of my visit just over a month ago…

Ratti old school Nebbiolo, worth the extra bucks in Texas

It’s the times we live in: connectivity and virtual media have leveled the playing field for wine pricing in our country.

Sommelier Rory and I see it all the time on the floor at Sotto in Los Angeles: a guest is seated, she/he looks at the wine list, and then immediately compares the prices of the wines with their retail price listings on WineSearcher.com.

Like combing your hair on the floor of a restaurant, comparing wine prices while out for dinner is one of those things that is regrettably tolerated in society today.

I’ve been spending a lot of time browsing WineSearcher these days (at home and not in restaurants) because I’ve been writing about mostly under-$25 wines for the Houston Press food and wine blog.

A quick search this morning for one of my favorite expressions of young Nebbiolo — Renato Ratti Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti — reveals that here in Texas I pay up to $10 more per bottle than my friends in California (my friend Ceri Smith, super cool Italian wine lady, sells it for $21 at her shop Biondivino in San Francisco; $28 is the lowest I can find it in Texas).

Other than the fact that the virtual monopoly of the big distributors and the greed of the Texas wine brokerage system often adds to the cost of favorite wines, there’s really no reason why we should have to pay more here in the Lone Star state. But I love this wine so much it’s well worth the extra ten bucks.

The other night, Tracie P and I brought a bottle over to friends Misty and Nathan’s house (remember Nathan’s ribs paired with Nebbiolo, back when Tracie P was still Tracie B?).

Nathan had marinated some skirt steak, giving the beef a tangy note that played beautifully with the earthy, salty undertones of the Ratti Nebbiolo, which made from 30-year-old vines grown in the sandy subsoils of Roero and macerated for under a week (according to the winery’s website), giving the wine gentle tannic structure.

Where Produttori del Barbaresco Nebbiolo d’Alba (a top under-$25 wine for me) tends toward bright fruit (especially for the 2009), Ratti’s always leans toward earth and mushroom. They’re both old school expressions of the variety but Produttori del Barbaresco’s can be more lean and show brighter red and berry fruit while Ratti’s digs in with a little more muscle and a lot more barnyard. I love them both…

These days, it’s hard to imagine the pre-WineSearcher world and it’s hard to resist the urge to compare prices around the country. But when it comes to Nebbiolo, I just can’t compromise for the sake of bargain hunting. Pork chops at half price still ain’t kosher…

01 Barbaresco Pora and the best friend of my brother who died

Every five years or so, I get an email from Professor Wilkins (above) and before email, I’d get a letter or a phone call. “I want to know how you’re doing and what’s going on in your life,” he’d say. A million happy questions would follow, with him wanting to know every detail of the vicissitudes of my life, studies, work, etc.

You see Professor Wilkins — David — was the best friend of my eldest brother, ten years my senior, Aaron Louis Parzen, who died in 1972 when he was fifteen in a car accident not long after my family moved to San Diego from Chicago, where he and Aaron both attended middle school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Today, David — Professor Wilkins (here’s the Wiki entry devoted to him) — is one of the leading law scholars in the country, with a chair at Harvard, and he moves and works within some of the most rarefied circles of our country (“the first lady was a student of mine,” he told me last night). A celebrity in his field, he was in San Diego last night to give a private lecture to a law firm.

I hadn’t traded messages with David for some time and although I began writing about wine more than 13 years ago, he and I never made the connection to his interest in wine until he stumbled upon my blog. As it turns out, David began collecting wine in the mid-1980s, before the crush of wine culture seethed in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. “I read [Robert Parker's] Wine Advocate when it was still a photocopied report,” he joked.

Wanting to share a special bottle with him, I reached deep into my San Diego wine locker yesterday and grabbed a bottle of 2001 Pora by Produttori del Barbaresco (above). The wine was remarkably tight for this regularly more generous cru but as it opened up and began to reveal its fruit, it sang stupendously in the glass. As much as I oppose the fetishization of old wine (and those who cry “infanticide!” when you open “young” Nebbiolo), I have to say that the wines of Produttori del Barbaresco only get better over time and this wine was still extremely youthful — like a teenager full of energy and promise and brilliance and power — however cut short by life’s vicissitudes.

My memories of Aaron are fleeting and distant. I was five when he died. I believe that I see Aaron in David the same way that David sees Aaron in me. Not that I’m as brilliant or handsome or athletic as Aaron was (and he was): we see Aaron in each other because that’s where he lives — in our memories, in our hearts, and in our dreams. When he died, I became the “middle child” and as cliché as it sounds, I have followed the path of the middle child, pursuing music and writing, while my brothers have enjoyed immensely successful careers as lawyers and now in public service. However unlikely our bond, Aaron’s memory links me to David and as it turns out, the vicissitudes of life have formed an unexpected and equally happy bond between us — through wine.

As we chatted last night over dinner and ten-year-old Nebbiolo, David told me the same stories about Aaron that he tells me every time we connect. And like every time, they brought tears to my eyes and laughter to my heart as the bitterness of the tannin and the sweetness of the fruit danced in our glasses.

Nebbiolo: Grape Name Pronunciation Project

CLICK HERE FOR ALL THE EPISODES.

Video by Tracie P.

Aldo Vacca from Produttori del Barbaresco was in town last week and he graciously agreed to appear in the seventh episode of the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project. (You can read about Aldo’s Texas adventures here on Alfonso’s blog).

Thanks again to everyone for submitting videos and audio recordings of grape names. I promise I will post each and every one of them!

71 Gattinara Monsecco (Conte Ravizza), Lenny Bruce, and BrooklynGuy

One last “wines and the city,” killer wines I tasted last week in NYC…

Beyond the “farmed content” found on aggregate sties (which tries to get you to land on their pages in order to show you advertising), there’s not much info out there in the interwebs about the 1971 Gattinara Monsecco Conte Ravizza by Le Colline, Vercelli, which I got to taste last week thanks to the generosity of BrooklynGuy’s childhood friend Dan (who reminded me, in all the best ways, of my favorite Litvishe Jew, Lenny Bruce, and as it turns out, whose father represented Lenny Bruce is his legal battle against censorship! Incredible!).

The bottle we shared (thanks to Dan, paired with BrooklynGuy’s stunning bread-crumb- and marjoram-encrusted rack of lamb, above) had a strip label on the front that reported: “selected and shipped by Neil Empson, Milan.” On the back, there was a round label that reported: “Acquired from a private cellar [by] Acker, Merrall, & Condit,” the famed rare wine broker of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

In 1985, Sheldon Wasserman didn’t offer a tasting note for this wine in Italy’s Noble Red Wines, but he did write that “Luigi & Italo Nervi places 1971 among the worst vintages [for this appellation] and Travaglini puts it with the best! Antonio Rossi gave it three stars, Niederbacher, one. Obviously a controversial vintage. We never agreed with the three-star rating. Nevertheless, we find that all are too old now. At Le Colline they consider their ’71 Monsecco on a par with the ’64, so it should still be good.”

Dan mentioned that he had experienced some serious bottle variation in the lot he acquired but, man, this wine was off-the-charts good. Fresher than I would have expected on the nose (topped off? perhaps; the bottle was definitely reconditioned), with gentle berry fruit on the nose and on the palate, and wonderfully integrated tannin. I agreed with BrooklynGuy’s approach of not decanting this wine and opening it right before service (for the record, Dan had brought it over a few nights before and BrooklynGuy left it standing up right for more than 24 hours). Great wine…

Before we got to the Gattinara, BrooklynGuy reached into his cellar for a 2000 Moccagatta by Produttori del Barbaresco, which paired superbly with a savory mushroom flan that he prepared for our Brooklyn repast. Frankly, I was surprised by how tannic this wine was, especially considering the fact that Moccagatta tends to come around earlier than some of the more powerful crus (like Montestefano or Rabajà). At 10 years out, it seems to be closing down but with a little aeration we coaxed out some bramble and red berry fruit balanced by the mushroom and earth that are Produttori del Barbaresco’s signature. Killer wine…

This last trip to NYC was an intense one: after heading back through the sludge to the city, Verena and I wrote one more song before calling it a night… Someday, if that nowhere song for nobody ever gets recorded, I’ll play it for BrooklynGuy.

I didn’t get to do a lot of socializing or fancy eating this time around. But I was really glad to connect with BrooklynGuy, who’s become a super good friend.

I remember a time, not so many years ago, when he and I first met in person, in San Diego. Life then for me was good but didn’t have the direction and purpose it has today. At a taco shop in La Jolla (where Tracie P and I would later hold the rehearsal dinner for our wedding some two years later), BrooklynGuy — with the wisdom of a rabbinic Lenny Bruce — reminded me gently of the goodness in me and pointed out confidently that I would find my path again. He probably didn’t realize then how much those words meant to me. I hope some day I can return the favor…

Unbelievable risi e bisi and other good stuff we ate and drank at Tony’s

Cousin Marty (above with Tracie P) and I often remark how remarkable it is that two schlubs like him and me ended up with such jaw-droppingly beautiful women. I guess it just runs in the family.

Last night, as their wedding present to us, his better half Joanne and he treated Tracie P and me to dinner at Tony’s, the hottest see-and-be-seen table on any Saturday night in Houston. Judge Manny and wife Betty joined us for what, I think it’s fair to say, was one of the most glamorous nights of our year so far: federal judges, U.S. ambassadors, bank execs, top radiologists, and throw in a sports celebrity or two — everyone came by our table to say hello to Judge Manny.

Tony, himself, presided over our table. Knowing our love of regional Italian cuisine, he answered my request for a great risotto with an improvised risi e bisi, a classic dish of the Veneto (where he knows I lived) and a favorite dish of Italian Jews. It was fantastic.

It had been preceded by a burrata drizzled with honey and a balsamic reduction and then topped with freshly grated Alba truffles (SHEESH!).

The tip-to-stalk ratio in the asparagus with Pecorino Romano gave the dish just the right balance of bitter and sweet.

Tracie P’s halibut was served over a sea urchin sauce.

My lamb chops were served over a cannellini “humus” and topped with a crumbled green falafel. Can you humus a few bars?

Sommelier Scott Banks surprised us with a Nebbiolo we’d never tasted, this Colline Novaresi by Fontechiara (Borgomanero, Novara). Extreme value on an otherwise high-roller list, grapey and with bright acidity, fresh on the nose and earthy on the palate, perfect for the wide variety of foods set before us.

Joanne and Marty, thank you for such a wonderful dinner… a dinner-event, really! And thanks, from the bottom of our hearts, for all the support you’ve given me and Tracie P, in this first year of our marriage, as we’ve begun building a life for ourselves in Texas. I can’t tell you how much it means, on so many levels, to both of us. We have so very much to be thankful for and are truly blessed to have you as part of our lives. And who knew my relatives were such fressers and machers?