You look wonderful tonight: how Lambrusco led to a meeting with Beatles and Clapton muse Pattie Boyd

Above: last month, Alicia Lini and her daughters hosted Tracie, our girls, and me at her family’s winery in Correggio (Reggio Emilia province). I’ll be pouring her family’s wines a week from Saturday at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego. Please join me. I’ll also be playing a show the night before (Friday) and attending the Nat Diego Grand Tasting Saturday morning. Click here for details.

The first iPhone had just been released two months prior.

And in just a few weeks the Financial Crisis would officially begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Earlier that year, a food and wine media consultant in the last year of his 30s had traveled to Italy in search of a classic method Lambrusco.

It seems like a lifetime ago.

It was back in 2007 that I first met and tasted with Alicia Lini (above) at her family’s winery in Correggio in the heart of Lambrusco country. A tip from the owner of a wonderful restaurant an hour’s drive to the east had led me to her doorstep.

New York City had been my home for nearly 10 years and my 9-to-5 was a gig as marketing director for a high-profile restaurant and wine imports group.

In August of that year, Alicia flew to New York where I had organized a series of tastings and meetings with top wine media. The highlight was her appearance on a WNYC talk show. The other guest that morning was Pattie Boyd, who had just published her memoir. When we met her in the green room, I discreetly whispered to Alicia (in Italian, hoping that the famous model wouldn’t pick up on how starstruck our handshake had left me).

“Do you realize who that is, Alicia???!!! It’s Pattie Boyd! George Harrison wrote ‘Something’ for her… Eric Clapton wrote ‘Wonderful Tonight’ for her.”

Alicia did great on the show and she and the wines ended up appearing in some of the top wine columns of the day.

I decided to leave New York later that year and return to California where I grew up. By the end of the following year, I had moved to Texas to be with Tracie.

The Financial Crisis devastated and decimated the New York restaurant scene. The upscale Italian where the above photo was taken closed not long after the bubble had burst.

But Alicia’s family’s wines had already been woven into the fabric of the city’s wine community. And Alicia and I stayed in touch, thanks in part to our fond memories of our work together.

When we met at Vinitaly this year, the Lini family asked me to come back into the fold. And we’ve set out to expand their presence in Texas and California, where the wines are now imported directly.

Back in 2007 when we first met, the wine blogging world had just begun to take shape. I had launched my own blog just a few months earlier.

It seems like a lifetime ago and it seems like yesterday.

Please join me as I pour four of Alicia’s family’s wines a week from Saturday at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego.

Look out world: here comes Alta Langa! Tasting notes from my visit with appellation president Giulio Bava

In May of this year, Alta Langa consortium president Giulio Bava graciously sat down with me at the Cocchi winery and distillery in Piedmont where we tasted 16 wines from the appellation.

Many American wine and spirits insiders know his brother Roberto, marketing and export director for Cocchi, a frequent traveler to the U.S. where the Cocchi Americano vermouth has become wildly popular in recent years.

Giulio and the third brother Paolo are the winery’s enologists. And Giulio is now in his second term as president for the Alta Langa consortium.

What a fantastic flight of wines he poured for me!

That’s Cocchi’s Alta Langa Brut Toto Corde 2012 in the photo above, a blend of 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay. The Latin expression toto corde, btw, means with all my [one’s] heart.

The wine, one of my favorites in the all-around great flight, really impressed me with its freshness on the nose and its glowing citrus in the mouth.

It was indicative of the fresh, fruit-driven style that Alta Langa has embraced. Of the 16 wines in the flight that day, there was just one label that veered off into the oxidative style that continues to prevail in Champagne.

As the world’s thirst for high-quality sparkling wine continues to grow, the Alta Langa consortium and its producer members are gearing up to expand their presence in Italy and abroad.

And they have a lot going for them.

There are 146 townships in Alessandra, Asti, and Cuneo provinces that can produce Alta Langa. Compare that with 19 townships in Franciacorta, Alta Langa’s main domestic competitor in the high-end sparkling market.

All of those villages lie to the east of the Tanaro river. In other words, they share the same soils, climate, and legacy of Barolo and Barbaresco growers. Many of the current and soon-to-be members of the consortium are already established producers of top Nebbiolo and many of them already have distribution networks in the U.S.

The Bera Alta Langa Brut 2011, also a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend, was another favorite of mine. Very fresh and clean on the nose with white floral and fruit notes that reappeared in the mouth. This wine also stood out for its gorgeous mineral character on the palate. Another great example of how Pinot Noir can perform in Alta Langa.

Another thing that struck me about the flight was the Alta Langa growers’ love of Pinot Noir.

Some of my all-time favorite classic method wines are made from Chardonnay (Satèn from Franciacorta and blanc de blanc Champagne, for example). In Alta Langa, producers have focused on Pinot Noir (at least gauging from the tasting Giulio put together for me that day).

There were a couple of great expressions of 100 percent Chardonnay in the flight but the real standouts were the vintage-dated Pinot Noir wines. They seemed to achieve the greatest complexity and depth of fruit.

But leave it to me to stay true to my heart: my top wine that day was the 2013 Roberto Garbarino Alta Langa Dosaggio Zero, which — if I’m not mistaken — is a 100 percent Chardonnay (I couldn’t find the wine on the winery’s website).

All Alta Langa must be made with hillside fruit (no valley floor allowed) and according to the estate’s site, its top Alta Langa is grown at 480 meters a.s.l. in vineyards planted 50 years ago (hey, wait a minute, wasn’t Gaja the first to plant Chardonnay in Langa?).

This wine had everything that I look for in classic method: freshness, focused fruit notes on the nose and richly vibrant fruit notes in the mouth, buoyed all the while by an elegant savory quality. I loved this wine. I also liked the estate’s 2015 Extra Brut.

I also have to give a shout-out to the Tosti Alta Langa Giulio I Riserva (below), 100 percent Pinot Noir. It had a touch of the pastry notes that you find in the French style of classic method wines but its glorious fruit had me coming back to the glass for another taste.

All things considered, I believe we are going to be hearing (and tasting) a lot more from Alta Langa in the near future.

After all, it has “Langa” in its name: how would you like to taste a classic method Pinot Noir from the land of Barolo and Barbaresco? The answer is yes, with all my heart.

Thanks again to Giulio for a truly fantastic tasting. And thanks also to consortium media relations director Mariana Natale who put it together.

Can a cloudy Barolo from the 70s still be good? Bartolo Mascarello 1974 tasting (and decanting) notes

Above: you can see the sediment on the side of the bottle. Despite Francesco’s expert care in decanting, the wine was still cloudy.

One of the most stunning wines I drank this year was a 1974 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello.

It was generously shared with me back in May by my good friend Francesco Bonfio (below), a leading Italian wine retailer, former winemaker, and co-founder of the newly launched Association of Italian Wine Shop Professionals, known as AEPI (Associazione Enotecari Professionisti Italiani).

The bottle’s provenance was nearly impeccable: it came from the cellar of Gianni Bortolotti, the famous Aosta Valley cheese expert and wine collector who passed away — I believe — in 2010.

Francesco decanted the bottle directly into our glasses: like me, he prefers not to decant old wine into decanters because he feels (as I do) that the less intervention the better.

As he poured the last glasses, you could clearly see the sediment in the bottle’s neck (and that’s when he stopped pouring).

Despite his expert care in pouring, the wine — from the first glass he poured — was still cloudy. And that was a bad sign. Clearly, the wine had begun to “disassociate,” in other words, some of the wine had returned to solid form.

We were doubtful but still hopeful when we first tasted. And then, wow, a miracle: the wine’s fruit was rich and vibrant and the acidity was still very much alive. In spite of the obvious defect, we enjoyed it thoroughly with our meal. Its rich red fruit flavors eclipsed the classic Barolo earthiness that you expect in a wine like this (especially from Bartolo Mascarello) but it drank beautifully. The fact that we drank the whole bottle was evidence of this!

Moral of the story: an old wine like this doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.

Thanks again, Francesco, for sharing this extraordinary bottle with me!

“There’s a Chianti Classico that’s just right for you.” Jeffrey Porter’s excellent Chianti Classico seminar and tasting.

Some of Houston’s best and brightest wine professionals came out yesterday morning to taste a superb flight of Chianti Classico with celeb sommelier Jeffrey Porter (standing) at the city’s swank Post Oak Hotel.

Seminars and tastings like this can be so long-winded, boring, and redundant. But Jeffrey, who seemed to enjoy the opportunity to speak in his native Texan, kept the discussion lively and fun.

And the wines, well, they spoke for themselves.

I was really impressed with the Fabbri 2015 Chianti Classico Lamole from Greve. What a stunning wine! Great balance and varietal expression, with that distinctive mineral note that you get from higher-elevation Chianti. A real discovery for me.

But all the wines were fantastic, something that’s unusual in consortium tastings like this.

And as Jeffrey put it, at once so plainly and so elegantly, when you look at the spectacular range of growing conditions throughout the Chianti Classico DOCG, you soon come to realize that “there’s a Chianti Classico that’s just right for you.”

It was also really fascinating to hear some of the producers discuss soil texture as opposed to soil composition (something I believe is too often overlooked in discussing Chianti).

And toward the end of our time together, one of the city’s top Italian buyers brought up the thorny question of single-vineyard designation and the Gran Selezione program. Not all of the producers agreed on the benefits or drawbacks of the appellation’s recently created pyramid hierarchy.

If you only bolster the tip, said one of the more outspoken panelists, you weaken the base. It’s the base that needs to be reinforced, she suggested — not just to the audience but to her fellow panelists.

The frankness and openness of the dialogue was compelling. It was clear that Jeffrey has developed a relationship with each of the producers participating in the tour. And that camaraderie seemed to create the right conditions for an honest — as opposed to marketing-minded — discussion.

Jeffrey will be leading the same tasting and seminar tomorrow in Washington D.C.

He’ll be doing it again in October in Portland. And he also told me they’re looking at doing it again in five or six American cities next year.

Subscribers can check out his Chianti Classico webinar for the Wine Scholars Guild here.

Thank you, Jeffrey and Chianti Classico, for bringing such a great group of winemakers and such a wonderful flight of wines to our city!

“Blacker than tar, faster than the wind.” Rest in peace, Doggynino. We tried our best to give you a home. We will always love you.

“Blacker than tar, faster than the wind.”

That’s how Petrarch described his friend Matteo Longo’s dog in August of 1351. Petrarch was a dog lover and even wrote a Latin poem about one of the dogs he loved.

The words came to mind this weekend as we laid to rest Doggynino, above, a stray that had followed Tracie home after she had been out for a run last Monday.
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Taste and rock out with me in San Diego, July 27-28 (Nat Diego natural wine festival too!)

Please join me in San Diego the weekend of July 27-28 where I’ll be playing a gig at a pretty rowdy bar (I’ve seen punches thrown there) on Friday, attending the grand tasting of the Nat Diego natural wine festival on Saturday morning (very psyched for that), and hosting a Lambrusco tasting at my our favorite San Diego restaurant (Tra and the girls will be with me there all afternoon and evening).

Music and a ton of great wine. Please come out and hang!

And special highlight: Dave Gleason, an amazing country guitar player, is sitting in with the Grapes on Friday night. We are playing two sets.

THE GRAPES
FRIDAY JULY 27

9 p.m. – 12 a.m.
FREE

2 SETS OF GROOVER’S PARADISE
featuring Dave Gleason on Telecaster

Beaumont’s
5662 La Jolla Blvd.
La Jolla CA 92037
(858) 459-0474
Google map

*****

LAMBRUSCO PARTY
SATURDAY JULY 28

3-5 p.m.
$15 per person

TASTE 4 WINES
with small bites by Jaynes

Jaynes Gastropub
4677 30th St.
San Diego CA 92116
(619) 563-1011
Google map

Stay tuned for wines…

Please email me to register (not required but encouraged).

*****

Also happening in San Diego that weekend, Friday-Saturday, July 27-28: Nat Diego, natural wine festival!

Wine in verse (a micro-podcast): translation and reading of Pascoli’s “To Ciapin”

From the department of “vinum daemonum”

Earlier this week, the adage that poetry is the Devil’s wine popped into mind because of a translation of a famous Italian poem from the late 19th century.

Here’s my translation and reading of “A Ciapin” (“To Ciapin”) by Giovanni Pascoli, originally published in 1899.

The Giuseppe (Pinotto) Galliano in the first and last stanzas is the colonial-era soldier for whom the liqueur is named.

The translation, including notes on some of the Ethiopian terms, follows the podcast.

Thanks for listening! It’s such a powerful poem. There’s so much to say about it. But for now, let’s let the words suffice.

“To Ciapin”

An ode by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912).

Originally published in 1899; reprinted in the anthology “Odi e Inni” in 1906.

Not a drop has been shared from that pure
vintage you stored in the cellar below
three years ago, for when Pinotto*
arrives on leave.

that vintage flowed from the oak
on the hill, I believe; it despised the soil;
because no other had so much of your iron,
ironclad Piedmont;

like Abba Garima’s red tide,**
that vintage simmered as it was
shaken by a gloomy pulse under
the first moon of March;

and now it’s kept in a sturdy bottle,
a silent but strong heart that holds back
yesterday’s wrath and the long, dreary
thought of revenge:

Trusty Ciapin, let that vintage shudder
in the darkened bottles marked
with cautious wax! Leave it be and let
that Barbera age!

Do not drink the wine of the hero who seeks
in his drink oblivion for his heart and
trembling legs! He lives: There he is, wandering
alone among the ambas.***

Save the wine of the hero, silent
but alive. Unknown constellations
watch him, as do the lions’ broad eyes
between the acacias

Save the wine of the hero who wants
what he wants, who remains at the post
where he will return like the sun, determined
and happy, when…

Save what he keeps still in his heart
when our morsels are like dogs
to the savage ghebbì**** and our honor
is like a servant…

Save your vermilion Barbera
for a day, not far off, when
all wrapped in his flag
Galliano returns.

* Giuseppe Galliano. Pinotto is a diminutive of Giuseppe.

** Abba Garima was one of the “Nine Saints” who helped to bring Christianity to Ethiopia in the 5th century. He and the other saints supposedly crossed the Red Sea from Asia (the Middle East) to Africa.

*** An amba is an distinctive Ethiopian landform, not unlike a mesa.

**** A ghebbi is a royal fortress-city.

Houston Wine Almanac: a new blog devoted to our city’s vibrant wine scene

From the department of “as if I didn’t already have enough to blog about”…

Above: Pascal Prunier-Bonheur Coteaux Bourguignon Le P’tit Bonheur by the glass last night at Brennan’s in Houston, one of the city’s top wine destinations. Note the vintage. Utterly delicious.

Week before last, Brennan’s affable wine director Marcus Gausepohl lamented the fact that Houston lacks a blog devoted to its wine community.

With the shuttering of the Houston Press weekly rag in November last year and the scant however noble ink devoted by the Houston Chronicle to sports writer Dale Robertson’s Herculean wine coverage in America’s fourth largest metropolis, the city needs imho a wider-reaching portal devoted to its wine scene.

And so today, I launched Houston Wine Almanac.

Its mission is to provide regularly updated coverage of the Houston wine scene. It’s intended as an editorial-free space where all community members are invited and encouraged to share information and news.

Publicists, please send me any and all press releases you care to share.

Sommeliers, please feel free to dispatch any info you’d like to disgorge.

Bloggers, please shoot me your link in case I haven’t already added you to the Houston wine resources widget.

And just to get the party started on the right note, here’s an awesome song, below, written and performed by Pappas Bros. Steakhouse sommelier Steven McDonald.

Until today, it lived only through a link on his Facebook. Today, it belongs to the world!

Click here to visit the newly launched blog Houston Wine Almanac.

Poetry is the Devil’s Wine: origin and meaning of the expression

In the 1980s, my high school’s literary magazine was called “The Devil’s Wine,” a reference to the ill-attributed and much misunderstood but often repeated proverb: poetry is the Devil’s wine.

Most dime-store quotation aggregate websites ascribe the quote to St. Augustine. So does the editor of “a compendium of… dark verse,” Tom Piccirilli.

In fact, St. Augustine did not conceive the axiom. Nor did Francis Bacon. But the origin story leads us back to the English critical theorist and scientist (above).

In his essay “Of Truth,” Bacon wrote: “One of the fathers [of the Church], in great severity, called poesy vinum daemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet it is but with the shadow of a lie.”

The word vinum means wine in Latin. The word daemonum id the plural genitive of daemon meaning demon (not devil).

A more apt translation from Bacon’s Latin would be the wine of demons.

Over time, some of Bacon’s editors have translated it as devils’ wine (note the English possessive/genitive plural), in other words, the wine of devils (and not Devil’s wine with capital d and singular genitive). I believe this is where the now colloquial expression was born.

Another important distinction: for Bacon, poesy, not poetry, is the wine of demons.

The term poesy, more akin to the Greek poiesis than the contemporary English poetry or poem, denotes not just poetry or poem but rather the art of composing poetry or a poem.

It’s a fine point, I concede. But there is a subtle difference that’s important here: in the context of Bacon’s essay, he’s arguing that literary artifice, the art of creating poetry, can obscure or bend the truth (read the essay here; it’s great, btw).

In his quote of the Church father, he’s probably blending — most scholars agree — a line from St. Augustine and a line from St. Jerome.

In the Confessions, St. Augustine wrote: “vinum erroris ab ebriis doctoribus propinatum” (“the wine of error poured for [me and my fellows] by drunken teachers”).

Like Bacon, who was inspired by him, he was discussing the ways words — literary artifice — can eclipse truth.

In one of his epistles to Pope Damasus I, St. Jerone wrote that “daemonum cibus est carmina poetarum” (“the poets’ verses are the food of demons”).

I haven’t been able to track down the original letter (yet). But I believe that St. Jerome is apologizing to the Pope for his use of a parable (literary artifice) to illustrate one of Christ’s teachings (according to descriptions of the letter, it describes and recounts the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

So the next time someone misattributes this erroneous quote, please correct them and tell them to pair the wine of error with the food of demons.

Thanks for reading.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Authenticity in the bottom of the bottle: the new wave of ancestral method Lambrusco

One of the more memorable tastings from my Vinitaly this year was with Alessandro Medici (above), the current generation of the Medici Ermete winemaking legacy.

If you follow Italian wine in the U.S. (and especially if you like Lambrusco), you probably already know his family’s wines. Medici Ermete is one of the Lambrusco powerhouses and its wines are nearly ubiquitous in the states.

But the twenty-something Alessandro wasn’t interested in showing me the estate’s popular Concerto, its best-selling wine. Instead, he wanted to pour me a wine that he has created and launched this year: Phermento, an ancestral-method Labmrusco di Sorbara.

Most Lambrusco (like Prosecco) is made using the Martinotti method (sometimes referred to, however erroneously, as the Charmat method). A still “base” wine is produced. The wine is then transferred to pressurized tank. A sweetener and yeast are added to provoke a second fermentation. The resulting CO2 is captured and contained by the sealed vat. The sediment (from the dead yeast) is separated from the wine using a temperature control system. And then the wine is bottled.

Some Lambrusco is made using the classic method (also known as the traditional method or Champagne method, although it’s illegal in Europe to call it the Champagne method except for when used in Champagne). A sweetener and yeast are added to the base wine in bottle. The bottle is sealed. A second fermentation occurs. The CO2 is trapped in the bottle. The wines are “aged on their lees” (the dead yeast) for shorter or longer periods depending on the producer. The sediment is disgorged by storing the wines upside down at a 45° angle, thus causing the solids to be concentrated in the bottle’s neck. The sediment is generally removed by freezing the neck and then allowing the pressure of the CO2 to expel it from the wine once the seal is removed (although there are other ways to disgorge the wine).

But more and more Lambrusco producers are using the ancestral method to make their wines these days. And Alessandro’s is the first to be released commercially by his family’s estate.

The ancestral method is as simple as it is challenging.

A base wine is produced and then a sweetener is added at bottling. Although not everyone in the wine world agrees on what exactly “ancestral method” denotes, most Prosecco and Lambrusco producers concur that the addition of the sweetener at bottling distinguishes the method from pétillant-naturel wines (known in the vernacular as “pét nat”) because the latter is bottled before fermentation is completed. In other words, pétillant-naturel wines only undergo one fermentation while ancestral method wines go through two.

Ancestral method wines like Alessandro’s are not disgorged. You can see the sediment in the bottom of the bottle above.

It’s challenging to make wines like this because, as many winemakers have told me, you have to get the amount of sweetener just right to obtain a dry wine. Too much sweetener will lead to unwanted residual sugar and an off-dry as opposed to dry wine.

I enjoyed Alessandro’s Phermento a lot: fresh and clean on the nose, with delicious primary grape flavors and some berry fruit — just right for a wine like this.

But it also struck me that this new entry from a winery like his family’s marks a new wave of commodification of what was once a wholly rural tradition.

Sometimes these wines are called rimosso, a term you could translate as re-animated or revived (not removed or repressed, as the term is sometimes translated depending on the context). They are reminiscent of the days when most country-dwelling Emilians grew their own Lambrusco and made their own wines (before the EU reforms that enticed them to grub up their vines). Grandpa or dad (and yes, it was the patriarch who made the wine, not the matriarch) would add a handful of sugar to the bottle to attenuate Lambrusco’s bitter character (most people don’t realize that Lambrusco is a highly tannic grape). I remember drinking wines like that in the early 1990s when I spent time in the countryside outside of Reggio Emilia.

Today, winemakers like Alessandro are trying to appeal to a revived interest in ancestral method and pétillant-naturel wines among young American (and to some extent Italian) consumers. Beyond the fact that it makes for a good conversation starter, the rimosso wines seem to convey a richer sense of authenticity.

Are they more authentic than Martinotti-method Lambruscos? Do they taste better? They certainly cost more because they are more costly to make.

I’m confident that Alessandro is going to hit a long ball with this wine. At the fair in April he told me he was heading to New York for an exclusive launch of the new label. The wine is delicious, the packaging is fantastic (he tracked down an elusive local artist to create it), and Alessandro has all the right energy to make this label a genuine success.

But would grandpa recognize a wine in a clear bottle, with an artist’s label, and a sensational name like Phermento (a hypercorrective paronomasia playing on ferment fermentation)? I don’t think so. But then again I remember people, inspired by California’s new cuisine, putting boiled corn kernels into their salads in Italy in the late 1980s. Grandpa looked over and said, “in my day, that’s what we fed to the chickens.”

In other Lambrusco news…

I’m dying to read Alice Feiring’s article on Lambrusco in the current issue of The World of Fine Wine.

Have a sparkling weekend, everyone! Thanks for being here.