The Way We Were…

Above: 1971 Prunotto at the wine bar at I Trulli.

Do you remember 1971? I turned four-years-old that year. Who knew then what life had in store?

I did me some thinking about 1971 the other night when my friend Frank Butler treated me and another friend to a bottle of 1971 Prunotto Barolo at I Trulli.

The above wine was one of the finest I’ve ever had: very much alive with earthy flavors and aromas, gorgeous fruit in the mouth and a finish that I’ll never forget. It was a superb example of traditional winemaking and the longevity of Nebbiolo when vinified and aged in botti (large oak barrels).

The 1971 vintage in Piedmont is considered by many to be one of the greatest of the twentieth century.

That same year marked a major crossroads in the history of Italian wine: in 1971, the Antinori winery bottled the first vintage of the now famous Tignanello, creating what would become the second — after Sassicaia — ground-breaking “Super Tuscan.” Conceived in 1970, Tignanello — a modern-style, “declassified” Chianti — proved to be one of the greatest marketing coups in the wine industry. Unlike the limited-production Sassicaia, Tignanello flowed into the market and changed the way the world (and Americans in particular) viewed Italian wine. I remember well drinking 1985 Tignanello in the late 1980s, when it had already become a highly coveted wine in the U.S. I don’t care for Tignanello, nor the Super Tuscan style, but there’s no denying these early vini da tavola (table wines) paved the way for the Italian wine renaissance we are experiencing today.

Few outside the wine industry know that in 1987 Antinori purchased Prunotto and in the mid-1990s, the Antinoris introduced barrique aging and began to change the style of the house’s wines. Danilo Drocco, now winemaker at Fontanafredda, worked at Prunotto during this period of conversion and he remarked to me (the other day at the Fontanafredda vertical tasting in NYC) how he watched the wine go from a traditional- to modern-style wine.

Today, Prunotto makes a concentrated wine, with forward fruit flavors, a wine that can be drunk at an earlier age but a wine that I doubt will age as gracefully as that ’71.

If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we? could we?

Click here to read about what was going on in the world in 1971.

In 1971, just before I turned four-years-old, my family moved from Chicago, IL to La Jolla, CA.

Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time re-written every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? could we?

Alan and Marilyn Bergman

Andy Warhol at JG Melon

Above: Andy Warhol at JG Melon. Campbell’s is the secret ingredient.

Snapped this pic late last night at JG Melon, the classic Upper East Side haunt, famous for its burgers and Bloody Marys. The bartender explained that the beef broth is used in Bull Shots and Bloody Bulls — variations on the Bloody Mary.

JG Melon
1291 Third Ave.
at 74th St.
New York, NY 10021
212-744-0585

NNP News from Slovenia

Above: a billboard from the Mobitel campaign that features a song by my band Nous Non Plus. The pic was taken by my old friend Steve Muench while on vacation with his family in Slovenia (click on the image to view the video and all the comments by Slovenian kids).

This photo was sent to me by Steve Muench, one of my oldest and best friends. He was my roommate during my first year at the Università di Padova. He lives in Padua (Padova) today with his wife Sita and their children. Steve is one of the brightest and funniest persons I’ve ever known — and a great friend.

My Dinner with Piero

Above: “Orietta Incisa Hunyady with Ribot, after his second victory in the Arc de Triomphe, 1956.” (Sassicaia, the Original Super Tuscan, Firenze, Centro Di, 2000, p. 32)

Piero Incisa della Rocchetta is at once everything you would and would not expect him to be. On the one hand, he is the scion of one of Italy’s most historically significant families, an Italian noble, the face of one of Italy’s most important wines, and one of his country’s leading “cultural ambassadors,” as it were. On the other, he is a thirty-something Italian, extremely hard-working yet very easy-going and personable, self-deprecating and sensitive to the people around him, keenly aware of his station in life yet down-to-earth, funny, and fun to be around. When we sat down for dinner the other night at Babbo, I wasn’t sure if he’d be interested in talking to someone like me — especially in the light of the fact that his family’s wine is the most famous barriqued wine in Italy and that I am an outspoken (however unimportant) critic of the use of new oak in Italy.

I believe we were both surprised by the other: he, to meet an Italophone American who knew so much about other aspects of his family’s history beyond the famous wine; I, to discover a winemaker acutely conscious of the role his family’s wine has played in Italian wine history but also a wine lover who despises the overblown, overly concentrated, and extracted style of some of his would-be peers.

“My grandfather [Mario] planted Cabernet,” Piero told me, “because he grew up drinking wines from Bordeaux and he wanted a wine to pair with the rich French and Piedmontese food he was accustomed to eating.” People always think of his family as being Tuscan, and, of course it is in part, he explained, but the male line comes from Rocchetta Tanaro in Piedmont (historically, Piedmont, once ruled by the house of Savoy, has always been Francophone and Francophile). So it was only natural his grandfather would plant Cabernet and experiment with making a Bordeaux-style wine (Mario Incisa della Rocchetta began to manage the now legendary estate in Tuscany after he married Florentine Clarice della Gherardesca, whose family once ruled the Tuscan coastline).

When we touched upon the thorny issue of new oak, he flatly told me that he can’t stand the jammy, concentrated, highly alcoholic style of most Super Tuscans and he pointed out that only in 2003 did Sassicaia’s alcohol content creep above 13.5%. The figure, he told me, represented the warm vintage and not anything they had done differently in the cellar. We agreed that many of the overblown Super Tuscans are impossible to drink with food and he remarked that Sassicaia was conceived as a wine to be consumed at the table.

Sassicaia is a misunderstood wine, he said, especially in the United States. “Most Americans consider 1985 and 1997 [in which warm temperatures prevailed] to be among of the greatest vintages for Sassicaia,” he told me. “But years like ’88 and ’98 really brought out the delicate bouquet in the wine.” In fact, he revealed, his grandfather hoped to achieve superior bouquet and not the forward fruit that other Super Tuscans have become so famous for.

Piero’s eyes lit up when I asked him about Ribot, his family’s legendary race horse, trained on their estates in Piedmont and Tuscany, arguably the most famous race horse in history. “Most people don’t realize,” he said, “that winemaking is just one small part of what my family does.” During the 1950s, when a still war-torn Italy was trying to put itself back together (literally and figuratively), Ribot and his triumphs were a point of pride that all Italians could share.

Piero divulged that trainer Federico Tesio never thought that Ribot would be a winner. “He didn’t believe that Ribot was handsome enough,” he said. It was his grandmother, Clarice, who knew that the stallion would be a champion.

Just as Ribot bolstered Italian pride at a very delicate moment in the country’s history, Sassicaia laid the groundwork for the current Italian wine renaissance by showing the international community that Italy could produce world-class wines. In 1968, when it was first released commercially, Americans thought of Italy as a land of straw-flask and fizzy quaffing wines. Today, Italian wines have nearly eclipsed French dominance in the American market. I can’t say that I am big fan of Sassicaia (those of you who read my blog know I prefer the indigenous grapes of Italy and that I don’t like barriqued wine). But my little brush with history that evening revealed that the people who make it care deeply about their wine… and their country.

Birth-Year Barolo

Although working as a food and wine writer in NYC is not always as glamorous as it may seem from the outside, there are certain perks that come along with this otherwise hazardous occupation.

Yesterday, one such occasion presented itself with an invitation to taste a “vertical” of Fontanafredda Barolo stretching back to 1967, my birth year. Some of NYC’s top wine writers and sommeliers were in attendance and all were thrilled to take part in such an illustrious tasting.

Some believe Fontanafredda to be the oldest producer of Barolo and its estate was once the hunting ground of King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy (Italy’s first king, hence, the overly cited chiasmus “Barolo the wine of kings, the king of wines”). It is one of the the appellation’s largest producers and is currently refashioning its image: for many years, winemaker Danilo Drocco explained, the winery focused on the production of commercial sparkling wine. Although the winery consistenly produced and released Barolo (except for in particularly bad vintages), vinification of Barolo was not its “priority,” as Danilo put it.

Chronologically, the flight we tasted was divided into four subsets (my designations, not Danilo’s):

– the current era of the winery’s evolution, 2001, 2000, and 1999 (Danilo began making wine there in 1999)

– the “sparkling wine” era, 1998, 1997, 1996

– the “post-DOCG” era, 1990, 1982

– the “post DOC” era, 1974, 1967

Each of the wines we tasted were made from Fontanafredda’s cru, La Rosa, except for the 1967, which was a “classic” Barolo, blended from multiple vineyards.

In 1933, the Italian government (then Fascist) passed legislation defining the zone for Barolo production in the following townships (roughly the same as today): Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, La Morra, Verduno, Grinzane Cavour, Diano d’Alba, Cherasco, e Roddi (the five most important, where the most famous and long-lived wines are produced: Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, and La Morra). The Denominazione d’Origine Controllata (Controlled Origin Appellation) for Barolo was created in 1966 (and it became DOCG, i.e., Garantita or Guaranteed, in 1980).

Danilo noted that Fontanafredda began making a single-vineyard (cru) wine in 1967 (there are too few bottles of 67 La Rosa left, he said, and thus we would be tasting the classic, blended Barolo for that vintage).

Highlights:

The 67 and the 74 were fantastic. These traditionally made wines showed the power of large-cask aging and — I would imagine — extended submerged cap maceration (in the old days, they used a grill to keep the cap of grape skins submerged during maceration; today modern winemaking calls for punching down, where the cap is submerged repeatedly, thus accelerating and intensifying the process). Captivating complexity, aromas, and acidity that was very much alive. Beautifully mellowed tannins. Among the best wine I’ve ever had.

The 1982 was excellent and showed the characteristic tobacco flavors that this “dry” vintage produced.

The 90 was very good and is ready to drink, all agreed, and had aged nicely in the magnums from which it was poured (Danilo remarked that magnum aging helped this warm vintage, noting that he had recently tasted it in 750ml).

The 96-98 wines, made during the years of “neglect,” if you will, were actually not so bad, if like me, you appreciate “rustic” style Barolo. The pronounced tannins in the 96 were great and many of us agreed that the fantastic vintage, when vinified in a straightforward however unrefined style, showed beautifully. The 97 was out of balance (too tannic and no fruit), the 98 flaccid.

Of the current-era wines, the 1999 — which is done in a judiciously modern style — showed beautifully and was appreciated even by Charles Scicolone — the venerated NYC Italian wine maven, who campaigns vigorously against modern winemaking and in particular the use of new wood.

Danilo later remarked to me that he uses new oak for gentle oxygenation (about 30% of the wine is aged in barrique he said) so that the tannins mellow. But he is careful, he said, to make sure that no wood flavors are imparted. The wine was elegant and well-balanced (reminiscent, to my palate, of Aldo Conterno’s wines).

Above: when he learned that ’67 was my birth year, Fontanafredda’s winemaker Danilo Drocco, right, poured me a glass as we chatted before the tasting.

The year 2007 C.E., my fortieth on the planet, may have been the year of my mid-life crisis, but I was glad to find out firsthand (I had never tasted ’67) that I was born in a good year for Nebbiolo. As I enter into the new phase of my life, I hope I’ll “show” as well.

In other news: look for my article on Roman holiday cooking in the December issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine (hits newsstands soon).

Petrini’s Repentance (or “Carlin is growing on me”)

A little behind on my blog reading, I finally got a chance to digest Franco Ziliani’s post on Carlo Petrini’s recent bombshell (October 27) at the Salone del Vino, entitled “Wine Guides Are Obsolete! Thus Spoke Carlin Petrini” (Franco Ziliani’s blog, Vino al Vino, is probably the best Italian wine blog out there and I have always respected his frankness, his elegant and erudite writing style, his balance and honesty).

The Salone del Vino (literally “Wine Fair”) is an important consumer and trade event, held each year in Turin.

Evidently, Carlo Petrini (the president of Slow Food) made the following statement and stunned the crowd of Italian publishing luminaries gathered to hear his address:

“Our guide,* like the one published by Gambero Rosso,** uses an approach obsolete in its profound essence…

There shouldn’t be guides for A-series wines and guides for B-series wines. The time is right to begin reasoning in a new manner — a way that doesn’t include merit rankings but is based on the quality of those who have a correct approach to wine…”

Winemakers, he said, should listen to their “conscience”: “When your products are released into the market, take care that your wines are not influenced by trends of the moment. Your wines should be an expression of your identity as winemakers.”***

Ziliani has rightly dubbed this bombshell “petriniano pentimento” or “Petrinian repentance.”

As France is mired in the Parker and Parkerization morass, Italy seems to have found its own stick in the mud (check out Alice’ post on Agostini and Nossiter).

Carlin is beginning to grow on me…

Notes:

* Slow Food’s Guida al Vino Quotidiano or “Guide to Everyday Wines.”

** Gambero Rosso’s Guida ai Vini d’Italia or “Guide to the Wines of Italy.”

*** I have translated from Ziliani’s account.

The Day After: 1996 Produttori Pora

Above: me, pretending to work.

During dinner out with a friend last night, my phone rang. It was my roommate Greg (who has been SO cool to let me crash at his pad after this summer’s catastrophe). He asked if he could open a bottle of wine and I said, “sure, open one of the bottles of ‘classic’ Barbaresco 2001 by Produttori del Barbaresco.” Something got lost in translation and he inadvertently opened the last bottle of 1996 Pora, one of the winery’s famous crus. It’s totally fine by me: as I sit here and work on a translation, I am sipping a leftover glass. Greg opened the bottle, drank about a half of it, and then simply re-corked it. And frankly, the wine is drinking beautifully at this moment: nice fruit, even acidity, mellowed tannin, and all those earthy flavors you get in traditionally made Nebbiolo. The vintage for this wine is so powerful and the vinification method so honest and real, I wouldn’t be surprised if this wine will still be alive tomorrow.

One reader writes in: “oh sh*&. he opened up a 1996? ouch”.

Above: the sky was beautiful over the Hudson yesterday early eve, the lights and headlights of Chelsea menacing, as I headed over to the storage space where my books, CDs, and a computer had been deposited.

Il Poggione Photos

My living situation has been so crazy since this summer when I had to scramble to find a place to stay. I haven’t had access to all my stuff but recently was able to retrieve these photos that I took when I visited the cellars at Il Poggione in Sant’Angelo in Colle (Montalcino) back in May, 2005. Click here to read my post about that experience.

Above: the oldest bottles are conserved in sand. The glass used decades ago was not as sturdy as it is today. The sand helps to support them gently and to absorb liquid if they break.



Above: the night of our dinner, Fabrizio (below), grabbed a bottle of 1978 Rosso di Montalcino from this stash and we crossed the tiny town’s main square to the Trattoria Il Pozzo (so-named because it stands behind a well,
pozzo in Italian).

Above: Fabrizio Bindocci’s family has been making wine for the Il Poggione estate for generations. His son Alessandro has already completed his degree in enology and currently represents the estate abroad. They are among the nicest people I’ve met in the business and they are steadfast defenders of traditional-style Brunello di Montalcino. Note the large barrels behind him, used for aging Brunello.

Above: a two-hundred-year-old olive tree on Il Poggione’s estate. Fabrizio is a firm believer in “promiscuous” farming; olive groves lie side-by-side with vineyards and he allows game to forage there; these elements, he explained, are fundamental to the terroir-expression of his wines.

Bretty

Above: Brett or Bretty, depending where you come from.

After reading my post on Massolino, a winemaker friend of mine wrote the following from Italy:

“Bacteria can nest in new barriques. In barriques that have already been used, Brettanomyces — a fungus, not a bacterium — can develop. It gives wine a smell that is often described as leather or ‘horse sweat.’ People call it ‘Bretty’ for short.”

In English it is called “Brett.” I find it interesting that its diminutive is feminine in Italian, while in English it’s masculine.

A quick Google search revealed that Italians tend to consider Brettanomyces masculine, while it’s feminine in French and Spanish.

Italian Lessons

Above: the upstairs bar at Accademia di [sic] Vino. “Talk to my agent before you take another one,” snapped the bartender after I snapped this pic. “Don’t quit your day job,” I thought to myself.

It is my steadfast conviction that food and wine professionals have a responsibility to divulge and disseminate correct information. Just as practitioners of medicine take the Hippocratic oath, practitioners of the culinary arts enter into a social contract with restaurant-goers, a Gastereic vow, if you will, whereby they swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth (to borrow from Brillat-Savarin’s tenth muse, Gasterea).*

And while none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes (myself included), egregious transgressions of this unspoken pact are committed freely on a nearly daily basis by insouciant restaurant owners, chefs, sommeliers, maîtres d’hotel, and waiters.

The Accademia di [sic] Vino in Manhattan seems to bill itself as a would-be “Italian Wine Academy” (at least that’s what I’ve read in The New York Times. I can’t seem to find the academy’s website). Evidently, they offer wine classes and seminars there and the space itself is dressed as a classroom: the walls of this beautiful restaurant are adorned with wine-related images and their Italian translations and there are chalkboards in the bar and the dining rooms with explanations of the Italian appellation laws etc.

There’s only one problem (two, actually): the name of the restaurant. In Italian you don’t write/say “accademia di vino.” You correctly write/say “accademia del vino.”

And it gets worse. Last night, when I sat down for a glass of wine with a colleague in the downstairs bar, I was handed a wine list that read: “vini a bicchiere.” I hate to be a stickler but… in Italian you correctly write/say “vini al bicchiere” (“wines by the glass”).**

It reminds me of a joke from the 1999 parodic mafia movie, Mickey Blue Eyes, where Hugh Grant’s character points out to his fiancée that her father’s restaurant is called “The La Trattoria,” or “The the trattoria.”

Although our hosts were exceedingly gracious (and the overwhelmingly gorgeous space was jam-packed with patrons), I’m sorry to report that the diced prosciutto on our grilled, “seasonal” pumpkin pizza was so hard I thought I was biting into stone.

The wines-by-the-glass list offered a wide range of price points and I had a glass of Inzolia by Valle dell’Acate and my friend a glass of Pinot Bianco by Hofstätter and the pours were generous, I must say.

The Accademia had been on my list of new places to try for a while. But when I got off the 6 train at Hunter College and walked down to 3rd Ave. and 64th St., I just couldn’t believe my eyes when my gaze fell upon the restaurant’s marquee: ACCADEMIA DI VINO.

Ask me “what’s in a name?” and I will tell you that a “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”***

But “Accademia di Vino”? Give me a break.

Notes:

* Brillat-Savarin’s “tenth muse,” Gasterea, first appeared in 1825 with the publication of his Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (The Physiology of Taste; Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy):

“Gasterea is the Tenth Muse; the delights of taste are her domain.

The whole world would be hers if she wishes to claim it; for the world is nothing without life, and all that lives takes nourishment.

Her chief delight is to linger on hillsides where the vine grows, or the fragrant orange-tree in groves where the truffle comes to perfection, and in regions abounding in game and fruit.

When she deigns to show herself, she appears in the guise of a young girl; round her waist is a flame-coloured girdle; her hair is black, her eyes sky-blue, and her figure full of grace; as beautiful as Venus, she is also extremely pretty.

She rarely shows herself to mortals.”

Brillat-Savarin, Jean-Anthelme, The Physiology of Taste, translated by Anne Drayton, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, Penguin, 1994 (1970), p. 287.

** del and al are articulated prepositions, di + il and a + il, respectively. The usage of articulated prepositions is always tough for students of Italian (I remember well from my days teaching Italian language at UCLA). In many cases, usage is idiomatic. In the instances cited above, however, the definite article is necessary because the terms vino and bicchiere refer to wine and stemware as general concepts.

*** Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily, 1913.