Made it to Momofuku

Sunday evening, I finally made it to Momofuku Ssäm Bar in the East Village. I’d been inspired by two of my favorite bloggers. Winnie, a great food writer and friend, is an expert on all things pork in NYC and she has often remarked that Momofuku is one of her favorite places (I love the motto of her blog, ad astra per alia porci). The other is Lyle Fass, whom I really only know through the blogosphere and a few emails we’ve traded but whose wine knowledge I really admire and whose sometimes stinging straightforwardness and genuine humor I greatly appreciate.

I’d learned that Momofuku allows corkage (thanks to Lyle’s blog), and so Winnie and I made a plan to meet there, me with a bottle of 2003 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo by Edoardo Valentini in hand.

Above: spicy squid salad and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo… the wine held up well with the spiciness and intense flavors of the dishes we ordered.

Menu as follows (I asked Winnie to order):

steamed buns stuffed with pork belly

these were great, the buns warm and puffy, the hot pork fat melt-in-your-mouth gelatinous…

spicy squid salad

this was also very good, and, if I recall correctly, there was also some tasty baby octopus in this dish…

Mutsu and Macoun apple kimchi with crispy pork jowl and arugula

here we began to veer slightly into NYC too-precious foodland… the dish wasn’t exactly unforgettable and Winnie explained “kimchi” was a little bit of a misnomer since the apples weren’t really fermented…

báhn mì

from what I could glean, this is the classic Vietnamese sandwich and it was fantastic… highly recommended… it was billed as a “three terrine sandwich”… I’m not sure of all the ingredients but this is rightly one of the joint’s signature dishes…

chicken ballotine

underwhelming, flavorless, and hard to eat with chopsticks!

spicy honeycomb tripe with poached egg and frisée

I loved this dish and its harmony of flavors and textures — caramelized tripe, poached egg, and the crisp bitter frisée lettuce — came together gloriously…

Above: seems that tattoos are not required but encouraged for staff at Momofuku.

Our servers were polite and attentive and all sported impressive tattoos and piercings. The decor is modern downtown chic and the atmosphere is New York hip.

I’ve read on Lyle’s blog that he has opened old Nebbiolo there (even some 1950s Oddero). I’m not sure that I would go that route at Momofuku since the cuisine is so spicy and the stemware is cheap (the glasses arrived at our table warm, right out of the dishwasher).

If you’ve ever had Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, you know that this is no ordinary white wine. Its rich mouthfeel, its subtle tannin (yes, in a white wine), and its intense aroma and flavors sang out over the medley of ingredients that tap-danced their way to our table. Winnie said it was probably the best white wine she’d ever tasted and I believed her… it’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever had.

When we stepped out on to Second Ave., we were both surprised by how cold it is already (or suddenly) in NYC. Fall has finally arrived. Me? I’m California dreaming right now.


I’d be safe and warm
if I were in L.A.

— The Mamas and the Papas

sento solo freddo
sento tanto freddo
fuori e dentro me
fuori e dentro me
ti sogno California
sogno California
e un giorno io verrò

— Mogol

Massolino bottle variation


Above: Franco Massolino and I opened two 375ml bottles of Massolino’s Barolo “classico” and tasted them side-by-side at I Trulli.

When I posted the other day about a half bottle of Massolino that tasted strange to me (it was too alcoholic and concentrated, not in line with the style I knew), I contacted the importer and asked if — to their knowledge — Massolino had changed its winemaking approach. As it turned out, Franco Massolino was in NYC for the importer’s portfolio tasting and so we arranged for him to meet me at I Trulli where we opened two 375ml bottles side-by-side.

Franco is one the nicest, most easy-going, and personable Barolo producers I’ve ever met (uncommon in an appellation where there’s a lot of over-sized ego and a hold-your-cards-close-to-your-chest attitude). I told him about my experience. Some wine industry insiders, I explained, believe that he had begun to use new oak and other “modernist” techniques in the cellar. He said that, yes, in fact, he began to use new oak for one his crus, the Parafada (which I have never tasted). But he assured me that he had never used barrique for his classic Barolo, which is blended from different vineyards in Serralunga (one of the top-five townships in the appellation). As I wrote in my recent post, I had been disappointed when I tasted a wine that was so high in alcohol and so concentrated, nothing like the Massolino wines I had tasted in the past.

We opened the first bottle and decanted. This was the Massolino that I knew: earthy aromas and flavors, good tannin but an ineffable lightness that he always seemed to achieve with his classic Barolo.

But when we opened the second bottle, we were both unpleasantly surprised to taste a wine similar to that which I experienced at Park Blue. The wine was “hot” (too alcoholic) and concentrated, its red berry fruit too pronounced, and it lacked balance.

“We’ve been having some problems with corks,” he said. “And I believe that’s probably what caused this.” The wine wasn’t “corked” in a way that was immediately noticeable (it didn’t taste or smell like bad cork or have the “wet cardboard” aroma that typically corked wines can have). But something didn’t add up here. This was a classic example of “bottle variation,” where the wine in one bottle tastes different than the wine in another, even though the bottles contain wine from the very same vintage and vineyard, etc.

Was it possible, I asked him, that the wine had been tainted by bacteria present in the botti (the large oak barrels that are used over and over again, a fundamental element in the traditional vinification of Barolo)? Yes, he said, and in fact, the winery had experienced issues with bacteria. “When you bring new oak into a winery,” he explained, “the new wood sometimes contains bacteria that can affect the old barrels” (ah ha! another reason not to barrique any of your wines, I wanted to tell him, but I refrained).

There’s also a third possibility, namely that the wine was damaged, perhaps exposed to extreme temperature, during transport. Even if a wine arrives via refrigerated container (“reefers,” they’re called in the business), if not stored properly, it can be “cooked” after the fact, so to speak.


Above: I Trulli’s assistant sommelier Bill Rosser (left) and Franco Massolino.

We asked I Trulli’s assistant sommelier to taste the first bottle. Where, I asked him, would he place this wine in the traditional vs. modern scale? “It’s definitely traditional,” he observed, “but it leans a little toward modern.”

“Bravo,” said Franco, complimenting Bill on his palate. Franco explained that his classic Barolo is intended to be slightly modern in style, while his flagship wine, the famous Rionda cru, is vinified in an entirely traditional manner. “We do a shorter maceration time for the classic Barolo,” he said referring to the amount of time the winemaker allows the juice to “steep,” if you will, with the skins of the berries. By making a slightly less tannic wine, he told us, the wine is more approachable at a younger age.

I’ve always been a fan of Franco’s wines and it was great to meet and taste with him. To my mind, he represents the future of the appellation (or at least what I hope the future will hold): even though he has begun making a barriqued Barolo for the modern-wine-loving market, he continues to make a classic, approachable (and affordable) Barolo and he vinifies his most famous wine in a 100% traditional manner.

If only more producers of Barolo could achieve this balance in their portfolio (sigh)… we’d have more well balanced Barolo.

In other news, my friend Charlie’s house is still standing in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. “Char’s house is not charred,” wrote our friend Irwin by text. My brother Micah told me that everyone was coughing for a few days but everyone in my family is okay.

“Balance is the perfect state of still water. Let that be our model. It remains quiet within and is not disturbed on the surface.”

— Confucius

Rubulad 07

Rubulad, Halloween Party
October 27, 2007

Last night Nous Non Plus played our yearly Rubulad Halloween show. Like last year, it was pouring in Brooklyn but that didn’t stop the freaks from coming out. Rubulad has always been a great party but Halloween is the best.


Above: the back staircase at Rubulad. I can’t even begin to explain what Rubulad is. Every nook and cranny of the space is filled with something that stimulates the eye. You can tell that someone put a lot of work and soul into each installation.


This guy was running from some hoola-hoopers. I’m not sure why. They were nice.


A view of the stage in the upstairs room where we played. The band that played before us was scantily clad and scary.


Above: Bonnie Day (right) and Céline apply baby lotion to Jean-Luc. Last year we were the French national football team. This year we were tennis players.


My blonde strat didn’t really match my tennis whites but no one seemed to care.


I didn’t eat any of the candy offered to me but other folks seemed to be enjoying it.

Amphoras vini aperio: the band is back in town

Nous Non Plus has been back in town for the College Music Journal festival and the sexy sixsome played three shows (a showcase and a couple of parties). And we’ll be playing a Halloween show at Rubulad (undisclosed location in Brooklyn) on Friday.

Above: Our track “Lawnmower Boy” was just used in a TV commercial in Slovenia. The spot is a lot of fun…

In other news, bassist and singer Jean-Luc Retard (aka Bjorn Turoque) and our track “Château,” a song about the Château Marmont in Los Angeles, were recently featured in The Los Angeles Times (click to read).


Last night we took time out to enjoy steak and wine chez Céline. Our friend Patrick Woodcock, a former member of the French band Air and the founder of Mellow, was in town. Patrick is always very generous with us when we play in Paris, giving us a hand with gear and transportation, etc. We always try to do something special together when he’s in NYC (and he loves steak and red wine).


Above: Jean-Luc was in charge of searing the shell steaks. Like Patrick, the band likes its steak rare (although Bonnie Day is vegetarian).

Since my living situation changed this summer and I no longer have anywhere to store my wine, there’s really nothing left to say or do but to drink the wine.

We opened two bottles of one of my favorites, 2001 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco. This wine has many years ahead of it but was drinking great nonetheless. As Patrick noted, this very traditionally made wine had a wonderful “chewy” mouthfeel and its tannins cut right through the nicely marbled fat of the shell steaks. As go I through the “cellar” (essentially a bunch of cardboard boxes), I’ve stumbled across a few surprises, like the 2002 Giusto dei Notri by Tua Rita above. I know that Patrick likes wines from Bordeaux and everyone enjoyed this opulent Bordeaux-style Cabernet and Merlot blend from Bolgheri (Tuscany).

With all this recent talk of oak vs. no oak, I thought it only right and fair to open this modern-style bottle and reflect on the dialectic from the other side of the table, so to speak. Of the many famous Bolgheri producers, Tua Rita and Grattamacco seem more reserved in their style. I’ve met Rita at Vinitaly… she’s a nice lady.


Above: Céline and Patrick on Céline’s terrace.

The tannin and the wood on the Tua Rita weren’t entirely “integrated,” but I liked the goudron, tar notes on the nose. However you feel about oak and/or international grape varieties grown in Italy, no one can deny that Tua Rita’s wines are very well made. It’s only a pity it couldn’t have laid there forgotten for another 5-10 years in the back of the closet where I used to store my wines. But then again, there seem to be no certainties in life these days and while some people might advise carpe diem, my thought is aperi amphoras vini.


Above: you wouldn’t think it but Céline is an excellent cook and made fantastic mashed potatoes, roast carrots, and wilted spinach.

In other news, the fires in California continue to burn out of control. My family is fine but the air quality is getting really bad. My brother Tad and his wife Diane have been housing some evacuees and it’s still not clear whether or not my friend Charlie lost his house. I found this map, updated regularly, of the fires and evacuation sites.

Nelle botti piccole: good wine in small barrels?


Since Thursday, when Eric Asimov mentioned my blog in his, I’ve received countless emails and some interesting comments, including the following from winemaker and wine educator Eric Lecours, who wrote me from Burgundy (where he is working with Étienne Grivot at Domaine Grivot):

The catastrophe is in two wines in Italy: Brunello di M[ontalcino in Tuscany] and Barbera in Piemonte. With Brunello the trend seems irreversible, huge, fat and sweet. The Barbera though is heart-breaking. Probably the most versatile grape on the planet, the quality versions are drowned in oak. It reminds me of California SB [Sauvignon Blanc], anything above $10 a bottle has to be rich and oaked. Good for Sancerre I guess.

To paraphrase Neal Rosenthal: it’s worse than maquillage; you can take that off. Once you put this stuff on, you can never take it off. It touches the very soul.

Clearly, the question of new oak and Italy plays on the heartstrings of many. As much as I pine for the wines I tasted in the late 1980s and early 90s, before the use of barrique became so widespread in Italy, I was thrilled to see that there is a growing movement of wine lovers, enthusiasts, and winemakers (like Eric) who share my view that new oak masks the varietal characteristics of Italian grapes. I hope that Italian winemakers will take note.

Reflecting on the modern vs. traditional and new oak vs. botti dialectic, I remembered the Italian proverb nelle botti piccole sta il vino buono, literally, “there’s good wine in small barrels,” or figuratively, “good things come in small packages.”

The saying refers not to small, new French oak barrels (barriques) but rather to the Italian caratello or carrato, a small and sometimes elongated barrel used to store wine (possibly from the Latin carrus or “cart”; others believe the term derived from the Greek keration, a diminutive of kèras, or “horn,” because of the barrel’s shape). As early as the sixteenth century, small barrels were used in Italy to make sweet wines like Vin Santo and Sagrantino (the latter was not made as a dry wine until the 1970s) and there is evidence that small barrels were also used during the 1500s in a winemaking technique now called the governo method, whereby a small amount of sweet, dried-grape wine is added to dry wine (and in some cases, a second fermentation takes place).


Above: caratelli used to make Vin Santo.

Perhaps a more appropriate translation of the proverb would read: “coveted, sweet wine comes in small barrels.”

A propos wine in small packages, last night found me at Park Blue in midtown, a wine bar that specializes in half bottles, with roughly 150 different labels in its cellar (Per Se is the only restaurant in NYC, the owner told me, that has more half bottles on its list). Even though half bottles are not good for aging wine, they can be fun: especially at a place like Park Blue, with so many to choose from, the lower price point allows you to enjoy different wines in one sitting.

Among other wines, I was eager to try the 2001 Barolo by Massolino. I had never seen a Massolino Barolo in 375ml format and had yet to taste that vintage. I have tasted the 1996 and 97 on numerous occasions and I’ve always felt that Massolino was an excellent wine at an excellent price, a classic expression of the appellation. The wine was much “hotter” (higher in alcohol content) than the wines I had tasted previously and it didn’t taste as earthy as I remember for previous vintages.* It would appear that Massolino has abandoned its traditional style. On the other hand, Antonio Galloni just gave its flagship wine, the Barolo Rionda, a glowing review in The Wine Advocate, a publication that favors “modern” style wines. Am I wrong to begrudge Massolino when the winery seems to have achieved a new level of success with its current winemaking style? To borrow a phrase from François Villon, I miss the wines of yesteryear (as per my note below, I intend to retaste the wine and post new tasting notes).

Click here to read about my tasting with Franco Massolino.


Above: half bottles at Park Blue.

The service at Park Blue was uneven but our server did know the wine list very well. The small plates were just okay but the cheese selection was great. The atmosphere there (music, lighting, and seating) is very relaxing and I’m glad to have discovered a wine bar, with an interesting list, that stays open late in midtown.

In other news, my good friend Charlie George and his family were evacuated from their home in Rancho Santa Fe, California (not far from where I grew up). They’re all safe but, at the moment, he doesn’t know if his house survived the fire. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him.

I see your hair is burning.
Hills are filled with fire.
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar.

— Jim Morrison

*When I tasted the wine, I perceived notes of new oak but when I inquired, the importer assured me that winemaker Franco Massolino does not age this wine (from Serralunga) in new oak. I’m going to make a point of tasting again (this time in 750ml format) and will post new tasting notes. It’s possible that the wine was tainted by some bacteria in the botti in which it was aged. In any event, I will retaste the wine and post a new tasting note.

Dialogue in the Agora* and Kind Words from a Colleague

A few days ago, I was inspired to translate a few passages from Luigi Veronelli’s Catalogo dei vini d’Italia after I read a piece by Eric Asimov in The New York Times about misconceptions in the world of wine. His observation that “oaky is bad but oak is good” made me reflect on my immovable opposition to barrique (i.e., the aging of wine in small, new oak barrels). As Eric pointed out rightly in his post yesterday, the introduction of barrique in Italy was one element in the modernization of Italy’s wine industry and it needs to be viewed in the historical context of the evolution of Italian winemaking.

Eric also had kind — too generous, really — words about my blog. Check out his post to see what he said.

Toward the end of his post, he mentions one of his (and one of my) favorite traditionalist winemakers, Il Poggione, a producer of Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino in Sant’Angelo in Colle, in the province of Montalcino (they also make excellent olive oil).


Above: Sant’Angelo in Colle as seen from above (in colle means literally “on the hill”). Il Poggione and its vineyards lie at the highest point of the appellation in and around the town.

I’ve tasted Il Poggione’s wines going back to the 1970s and one of the best bottles of wine I’ve ever had was a 1978 Rosso di Montalcino (yes, a Rosso) on a freezing night in January with winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci and his son Alessandro. I’ll never forget that dinner. We had taken the bottles from Il Poggione’s cellar and walked across the square to the Trattoria il Pozzo.** It was so cold that Fabrizio put the wines on the mantle of the fireplace to bring the wine to room temperature. We also drank an excellent 1985 Brunello Riserva that night with our bistecca alla fiorentina (the Tuscan porterhouse), always served al sangue (blood rare).

Il Poggione is one of the original three producers of Brunello and was already making wine when Biondi Santi created the appellation in the late nineteenth century.

To this day, winemaker Fabrizio refuses to barrique his Brunello, nor will he pull out his olive groves and replant with vines (he could make the winery’s owner more money if he were to do so). He believes in “promiscuous” farming (where olive groves, fallow fields, and vineyards all lie side-by-side) and allows game to forage on the estate. “That’s part of the terroir,” he once told me, “that’s part of what makes the wine Brunello di Montalcino.”

Like Biondi Santi (the originator of the appellation and undeniably its greatest producer), Il Poggione only uses grapes grown at 400 meters asl and above (note the panorama in the image above). As Franco Biondi Santi has pointed on numerous occasions (Eric did a great piece on this last year in The New York Times), the Brunelllo or Sangiovese Grosso grape (a clone of Sangiovese) needs the altitude and its cooler nights to achieve its aging potential (the grapes are cooled in the evening and thus ripen more slowly).

Thank goodness for winemakers like Fabrizio who continue to make traditional wines while other labels (some of them at the bottom of the hill) produce the barriqued, block-buster wines that the ratings-based publications seem to prefer. As Eric points out rightly, there is a place under the sun for both styles.

*αγορά or agora, in ancient Greece, an open space (usually the public market) that served as a meeting ground.

a Montalcino (SI)
fraz. Sant’Angelo in Colle – piazza del Pozzo, 2
Tel. 0577/844015

Impossible Pairing: Sushi, Me, & NYC

Having grown up and come of age in southern California, I have had the opportunity to experience some of the best “sushi” and Japanese cuisine in the country. During the 1990s when I was a graduate student at U.C.L.A. (and when the sushi craze was rippling through the U.S.A., with its epicenter in Los Angeles), I was fortunate enough to dine at the now legendary Katsu (first in Los Feliz and then in Beverly Hills), opened by Katsu Michite who now works in Studio City at my fav LA sushi place, Tama Sushi (no website, unfortunately, see info below).* Then came Hirozen (in an unassuming strip-mall, still fantastic, a must), R23 (downtown, disappointing the last two times I visited), and one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, Thousand Cranes, which is supposedly returning to its former glory (the traditional Japanese breakfast there is worth a visit if you’re staying downtown).

Down in San Diego, where I grew up, Zenbu can be a lot of fun. So crowded and popular (and expensive) these days, it has its ups and downs but I still love their “aggressive” dishes like live prawns and giant clams (and by live, I mean literally). I also like the colorful cocktail menu inspired by local surf spots and surf lore. The lounge is very hip there and one of my best friends, Irwin, performs electronica there on some nights. The restaurant’s owned by another of my high-school friends, Matt Rimel, a huntsman and fisherman, whose fishing crew provides nearly all of the fish, working with eco-friendly and dolphin-safe fishing techniques.


Above: I felt like I was a tourist in my own city when I asked our sushi chef Mano, at Sushi Ann, NYC, to pose for a picture (with a beer we bought him in gratitude).

I had always found NYC sushi disappointing, even though I’d been treated to some of the finer and pricier venues in town. But now I have seen a new dawn on my NYC sushi horizon at the wonderful and very reasonably priced Sushi Ann.

The Odd Couple — that’s me (Felix) and Greg (Oscar) — dined there last night on the recommendation of friend and colleague, top NYC Italian restaurateur and wine maven, Nicola Marzovilla (who owns I Trulli and Centovini). We asked our chef to prepare whatever he liked — really, the way to go at the sushi bar — and we were delighted with each serving. The fish was fresh and he avoided the sushi stereotypes. One sashimi dish was tuna belly cubed (not sliced) and drowned in a miso reduction sauce (sinfully good). Mano, our chef, also liked to counterpose bitter and sweet, as he did in some rolls, which he served together, the one made with Japanese basil and pickled radish, the other with scallion.


Above: Mano offered me a leaf of Japanese basil, sweeter than the western variety.

Most of the fish seemed to be flown in from Japan (Japanese Red Snapper, Japanese Mackerel, etc.) and tasted fresh (didn’t have that freeze-dried taste that find in so many of the Lower East Side sushi joints). The restaurant was very clean (important for sushi restaurants, in my opinion) and the waitstaff polite and attentive.


Above: skewered octopus tentacles, raw but seared with a torch.

One of my favorite dishes was the seared octopus tentacles, dressed with just a little bit of lemon juice.

Greg drank a cold, unfiltered sake (which was a little too sweet for my taste, although our waiter said it’s very popular in Japan) and I stuck to beer. I’m sure we could have spent a lot more had we indulged in a bottle of fine sake — the list was alluring but it wasn’t the night for that. Our bill was very reasonable for an excellent experience in a high-end midtown neighborhood (51st between Park and Madison).

After ten years in this town (I got here in 1997), I finally found a great sushi restaurant. Who knows? After the recent crazy changes in my life, maybe I should stick around after all.**

*Tama Sushi
11920 Ventura Blvd
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 760-4585

**So all you newsy people, spread the news around,
You c’n listen to m’ story, listen to m’ song.
You c’n step on my name, you c’n try ‘n’ get me beat,
When I leave New York, I’ll be standin’ on my feet.
And it’s hard times in the city,
Livin’ down in New York town.

— Bob Dylan

Luigi Veronelli as Poseidon and a Trident Made of New Oak

Those who know me and read my blog are well aware of my distaste for “barriqued” wines, wines aged in small new oak barrels. And while there’s nothing worse to my palate than a barriqued Nebbiolo (a grape always ruined by barriques in my opinion), there are many wines — I must concede — where the use of barriques is a positive element.

Some of the famous reds of Burgundy, for example, benefit from barrique aging (oak, when used judiciously, allows gentle oxidation through the pores of the wood). Eric Asimov was 100% correct to point out, as he did in last week’s The New York Times, that “Oaky may be bad, but oak is good.” (Click here to read what Eric had to say about this post.)

When it comes to Italian wines, however, there is no doubt in my mind that Italy’s three greatest grapes — Nebbiolo, Aglianico, and Sangiovese — show much better when aged exclusively in large old oak traditional barrels, botti [BOHT-tee]. The question of barrique in Italy is a thorny one and generally inspires heated debate among Italian wine connoisseurs, lovers, and enthusiasts. Some of us begrudge Italian winemakers for abandoning traditional winemaking techniques. Many point to the popularity of the Californian winemaking style (which favors barrique aging) as their source for inspiration (and marketability), others cast their stones at Parker, The Wine Spectator, et alia, deriding them for favoring barriqued wines.

I recently came accross an original edition of Catalogo dei vini d’Italia (Catalog of the Wines of Italy, 1983), one of the first great modern encyclopedias of Italian wine, edited by the beloved Luigi Veronelli (1926-2004), enogastronome, publisher, and one of the architects of Italy’s current food and wine renaissance (it’s not its first, btw). I was stunned by what I read in the preface and the characters who appeared there. I believe the passage below (translation mine) to be an important document of the history and development of barrique in Italy. Read on and you might be surprised.

Veronelli writes in the preface:

    In 1982, just over a year ago, I made a trip to California for the purpose of “study” with Mario Schiopetto, Giacomo Bologna, and Maurizio Zanella – three names mandatory for those who love wine. We left on Friday May 20 and we returned June 6. As far as wine tasting was concerned, the trip was a pleasurable yet painful Way of the Cross. At every tasting (and I mean every one and there were many), we looked at each other in disbelief.

    It’s not easy to express the flood of emotion that engulfed us. We were bewildered by a reality very different from that we had imagined. We were surprised by the excellence of nearly every wine poured for us. We were embarrassed by the fact that we had to rein in and conceal our shared enthusiasm (in part, I must admit, in order to defend our own “interests”). But, above all, we were enraged: why did Italian winemaking lack (and where would it find) such young, bright, informed, and commercially minded enotechnicians with university degrees in enology?

    I had to force myself not to lash out and offend. But I did tell the three winemakers that they must take note (and documented my declaration by putting it to paper): “If we do not immediately change course, we will be ousted – in another ten years or less – from the fine wine market.”

    How should we change? The answer is sure to be long and is of extreme importance. I call upon all well-intentioned persons to partake in this dialogue. But I will limit my response by laying forth certain “provisions” that must not be delayed: first, serious study of enology; second, meticulous varietal selection (both in the selection of clones and their uses on a subzone by subzone basis); third, yields need to be cut in half; fourth, eradication of vines grown in the lowlands (excluding, it goes without saying, the so-called grave [gravelly or pebbly] plains and a few other suitable plains); fifth, vinification in barriques (small oak barrels). [boldface mine]

    Another result of the trip was a “moral conversation” – which I published in L’Espresso – between an enotheic [wine-worshiping] journalist and Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in Los Angeles.

    “After my stay in California and my visits to vineyards and cellars, thanks to you Piero, I would like to be not enotheic but rather Ennosigaios [“Earth Shaker,” byname of Poseidon, Gr., enosis “shaker,” gaïos “land”]. If I had Poseidon’s trident, I’d shake the earth.”* [boldface mine]

    “Don’t be silly: I receive excellent wines even from Italy.”

    “But they are too few: our history stretches back 2,000 years and these [Californians] have already outpaced us in ten short years. It goes without saying: I’m furious. If I had my way, I’d drown all those guilty of this crime, the authorities and the enotechnicians.”

    “Isn’t there a saying in the Veneto, Veronelli? Co l’acqua toca ‘l cul tutti impara a nodàr [“When the water touches one’s ass, one learns to swim.”] We [Italians] will learn to swim.”

    “If I had my way, I’d drown them all in their wines. They taste worse than water.”

    How is it possible – I ask referring back to the first and last “provisions” above – that after all these years our enotechnicians don’t know about the use of barriques? [boldface mine]

(Catalogo dei vini d’Italia, ed. Luigi Veronelli, Milan, Mondadori, 1983, pp. 8-9, translation mine.)

On May 20, 1983, he recounts in the following pages, Veronelli organized a seminar for winemakers and journalists at Palazzo Antinori in Florence: the featured speaker was the “dean” of Californian winemaking, Russian-born and French-trained, André Tchelistcheff, who introduced the use of barrique aging and modern winemaking techniques to Californian winemakers beginning in the late 1930s. In the final passage, he stridently declares that barrique aging is a “sine qua non” for long-lived wines and he notes, such wines will live side-by-side with Italy’s younger wines (and he makes a highly important distinction: wines intended to be consumed young should not be barriqued, while age-worth wines should be). He points to the following Italian winemakers who have already achieved success in their experimention with barrique aging: Incisa della Rocchetta, Antinori, Gaja, Ca’ del Bosco, Maculan, Ronchi di Cialla, Castelluccio, Abbazia di Rosazzo, Castello di Volpaia, and Podere Castellare. It’s interesting to note that he does not include his fellow traveler Giacomo Bologna in this list (since many believe that Bologna, with the famed Bricco dell’Uccellone, was the first to produce a barriqued wine in Piedmont).

In my time, I’ve drunk some great Super Tuscans, wines, which, by definition, have been aged in barriques.** I remember well my early years in Italy (1989-92) when I drank some famous vintages (notably 1985) of Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Pergole Torte etc., thanks to my friends the Marcucci brothers in Bagno Vignoni near Montalcino. Over the last few years, I’ve also had the chance to taste some of these wines again in NYC — now among Italy’s most collected and coveted. Although I don’t care for these wines, I believe that they paved the way for other Italian wines to make it to this country by showing the world that Italy could produce world-class Bordeaux-style wines. Is barrique so bad? The answer is no: historically, oak can be good when it is used judiciously, with the right grapes. Veronelli certainly saw the future of Italian wine and we certainly shouldn’t begrudge him for that.

Above: the beloved Luigi Veronelli, food and wine writer and historian, publisher, and a guiding light in the Italian renaissance of gastronomy and enology.

* Veronelli uses Nettuno or Neptune, the Latin name for Poseidon, in the original. I’ve translated it as Poseidon because the Greek name is more commonly used in English, especially when accompanied by the deity’s pseudonym, Ennosigaios.

** At least one Italian wine authority, Franco Ziliani, indicates that Nicolas Belfrage coined the term Super Tuscan (to denote fine Tuscan wines classified as vino da tavola or table wines) and was the first to use it in 1985.

Veronelli “subversive” editor and activist (just the facts)

Above: the jacket for one of the few extant exemplars of Pino Bava’s Italian translation of De Sade’s Historiettes, contes, et fabliaux with illustrations by Italian artist Alberto Manfredi, published by Veronelli in 1957. Veronelli was sentenced to prison for obscenity that same year but never served time. The book was one of the last burned publically in Italy (image courtesy of Veronelli Editore, Bergamo).

My October translation of Veronelli’s preface to Catalogo dei vini d’Italia (1983) inspired a few other bloggers, notably Eric and Alan.

Later in the year, when I met my dissertation adviser and sometimes collaborator professor Luigi Ballerini for a holiday drink, he reminded me that he was working at Rizzoli Editor in Milan in 1964 when Rizzoli published Veronelli’s now required-reading Cocktails. Luigi (Ballerini) has many fond memories of the congenial Veronelli, including a dinner hosted by Veronelli at his home in San Siro (Milan) to thank his editorial staff. “It was the first time I tasted Château d’Yquem,” said Luigi (Ballerini), who was 24 years-old at the time of their meeting, “Veronelli held it up to the light and showed us how it turned emerald in color.”

After Veronelli’s passing in 2004, many apocryphal anecdotes regarding his life have been published on the internet. Curious to find out more about his activism and his controversial publishing career, I recently contacted Gian Arturo Rota, president of Veronelli Editore in Bergamo, and submitted the following questions (in italics). I have translated Rota’s answers below.

Beyond being the architect of the Italian food and wine renaissance, Veronelli was also an editor who published poetry and literary works. What were his principle literary interests?

He began in the 1950s publishing works by De Sade, Anatole France, philosophical works (like Giovanni Emanuele Bariè’s concept of neo-trascendentalism) and political works (like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), and books on gastronomy (like Le ghiottornie di Gabriele d’Annunzio* and Apicius). He also published books on sports.

He published magazines as well: I problemi del socialismo (Problems of Socialism and Il gastronomo (The Gastronome).

Veronelli closed the doors of Veronelli Editore [his publishing company] in the 1960s because he wanted to devote himself exclusively to his work as a journalist and writer. His literary interests? A bit of everything, I would say, with a predilection for classical authors and for eighteenth-century France. He was a highly erudite man.

Veronelli was also politically engaged: what were the defining moments of his political life?

Inasmuch as he actively worked for a political party, his interest in politics didn’t last long. He worked for the Italian Socialist Party when – as he liked to say after the Tangentopoli scandal** – socialists were still serious. Keep in mind that he was a friend of Lelio Basso, one of the party’s founders and one of its most illustrious theoreticians, and a contributer to his magazine I problemi del socialismo.

Veronelli’s “occupation” of the train station at Santo Stefano Belbo and the translation of De Sade: on the internet, there are contradictory, apocryphal accounts. What were the facts?

September 19, 1980: Veronelli attended a rally in Asti (and not in Santo Stefano Belbo) where grape-growers and winemakers had gathered to discuss the then serious problems faced by Asti’s viticultural community. He had promised that he would speak on behalf of grape-growers only if those politicians responsible – in his view – for the situation would also attend. The politicians did attend and gave their patent answers without assuming any responsibility. The thousands of grape-growers who had gathered in the square begged him to speak. He did. In his harsh speech, he emphasized the fact that the grape-growers needed help and that their rights needed to be defended. Spurred by the crowd’s enthusiasm, the grape-growers took the stage and asked their colleagues to block the streets and occupy the Asti train station. Veronelli encouraged them to do so and he was later accused and convicted for aggravated obstruction of a public thoroughfare. He was granted amnesty four years later [and did not serve time in prison].

Regarding De Sade’s Storie, storielle, e raccontini),*** I know that it was one of the last – if not the last – books burned in a public square in Italy. The court of Varese [a town north of Milan] ordered it burned because the book contained texts and images that had been deemed obscene. Veronelli attended the bonfire and to protest his sentence, he applauded and laughed the entire time. He sentence to jail-time was however commuted and he was never imprisoned.


* Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863 – 1938) was one of Italy’s greatest poets, dramatists, and novelists. Known for his insatiable appetites (for food, women, and adventure), he often wrote about his culinary exploits and feats. Ghiottornie (from the Italian ghiotto or “insatiably hungry for”) can be loosely translated as “the oversized appetites” of Gabriele d’Annunzio.

** Tangentopoli or “bribesville,” the widespread political corruption scandal, unraveled by the Italian authorities’ Mani pulite or “clean hands” campaign in 1992.

*** Historiettes, contes, et fabliaux or “Stories, Tales, and Fables,” published in Paris as early as 1800 in Les crimes de l’amour or “Crimes of Love.”


See this informative obituary published in The Independent.

At Gemma, a Bartender Can Be Your Best Friend

The rain has finally started to fall in NYC and the city has turned grey as it does every year around this time. My heart is heavy and my life unsettled but I am trying to pick up the pieces in the wake of this summer’s tsunami.*

Friends have been reaching out, lending support, sometimes with an email letting me know that they think of me, sometimes with an invitation to dinner and/or a bottle of wine, checking in and catching up.

Ben Shapiro — an old buddy, a great drummer, and radio producer, cinematographer, and journalist — wrote me the other day and we made a date to check out one of the many new downtown places.

I wasn’t inclined to like Gemma. I figured it would be another Da Silvano, Morandi, etc. rip-off, yet another Disneylandish, faux trattoria. And frankly, The New York Times food critic Frank Bruni wasn’t too off the mark when he wrote that Gemma is “a cheat sheet of a restaurant whose proprietors take fewer risks than a hurricane-insurance agent in Nebraska.”


Above, you’ve seen it before: faux trattoria chic. It’s like dining in Fantasyland… Europe via Anaheim.

So, when I arrived (shortly before Ben), and sat at the bar where I chatted briefly with NYC restaurateur Chris Cannon (my only pseudo-star siting), I decided to get right down to business.

“Do you have any white wine that doesn’t see new wood?” I asked the bartender. And I was pleasantly surprised when he said, “Yes, of course, I’ve got a beautiful stainless-steel Sauvignon.”

He proceeded to pour a fresh and delightful 2006 Sauvignon Blanc by Poggio Salvi (who makes both barriqued and traditional wines, btw). You don’t commonly find bartenders with such wine knowledge in places like this, let alone someone who can appreciate that there are those of us who don’t like oaked wine. (In his column this week, The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov pointed out rightly that “Oaky may be bad, but oak is good.” I may have tempered that by saying “but oak can be good.” Nonetheless, I was glad to see such a widely read authority like Eric tackle such a sticky subject.)

Ben arrived and we decided to let our bartender order for us: excellent Quattro Stagioni pizzas and a simply gorgeous bottle of 1999 Brunello di Montalcino by La Torre, a winemaker you don’t see very often in the U.S. (I remember it from my days in Bagno Vignoni where I first learned about Brunello nearly twenty years ago with my friends, the Marcucci brothers). Traditional in style, this wine had natural fruit on the nose and in the mouth, bright acidity and tannins that probably could have used a few more years in bottle. Case, our bartender, insisted on decanting the wine for us and the aeration helped it to open up.


Above: the Quattro Stagioni pizza at Gemma, I have to say, was among the most authentic Italian pizza I’ve had in NYC. The crust was light but crispy and firm, the topping savory but not overly salty.

Truth be told, the list at Gemma isn’t exactly overflowing with wines that I like (at the end of the night, one of the sommeliers poured us a barriqued Aglianico del Vulture that tasted like industrial coffee syrup). But there are some true gems at Gemma, like a 2006 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi by Villa Bucci (one of my all-time favs).

But what made the night was a great bartender, who knew his stuff and who understood my palate from the moment I sat down. Maybe Frank should have eaten at the bar.


Above: Case Newcomb, a great bartender and this man’s best friend at Gemma. Pour me some Brunello and I’ll tell you some lies.

*This old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poor house.
It seems like this whole town’s insane.

— Gram Parsons