The Rock ‘n’ Roll Sommelier

While I was out in California, I attended the first-ever San Diego Gambero Rosso Roadshow tasting. My friend and old bandmate, Charlie George, owner of Cinehype, produced this fun video of my experience there entitled “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sommelier.”

It includes interviews with Darrell Corti, Daniele Cernilli, and Marco Sabellico.

For those of you who don’t know the music of my band Nous Non Plus, that’s us playing in the background.


In other news…

Sustainable Gram Parsons at Back Forty

Above: owner Peter Hoffman loves the Charlie Churchill oil painting that hangs on the backsplash of the bar at his East Village restaurant Back 40. The bird is a bittern.

I first met NYC chef and restaurateur Peter Hoffman in 2001 when I attended a Basque-themed dinner at his SoHo restaurant Savoy celebrating the publication of Mark Kurlansky’s book The Basque History of the World.

When I ran into him the other night at his relatively new East Village restaurant Back Forty, he explained to me that back 40 is a reference to the Homestead Act of 1862, whereby 40-acre parcels of land were allocated to settlers. The expression front 40 denoted the more prized parcels, while the back 40 were less desirable.

“We wanted to remind people where their food comes from,” said Peter. To the great extent possible, he explained, he sources all the ingredients from local farmers and farms, favoring sustainable foodstuffs over the commercial and industrial.

The prices were right at Back 40, the wine list solid, the beer well-draughted, the pork chop perfectly rare in the middle. But my favorite thing about my evening at Back 40 was the sustainable Gram Parsons: country music is the favorite genre there and they kept the Gram playing all night that night.

Fried whole shrimp with cilantro.

The best pork chop I’ve had in a long time.

Gram Parsons, one of my heroes.

Some nice Swedish guy, an intern at the U.N.

*****

And Lord knows that New York City’s got a lot to do with it…

— Gram Parsons

Big Mouth Blues

Oh, well, I was born in a little bitty tar hut
And they called me a man ’cause I couldn’t keep my big, big mouth shut
So what’s the sense of me sitting here leaving
When any ole day I might be even
And Lord knows that New York City’s got a lot to do with it
I wish someday I could find the way to get it out of my grain
This dirty old town’s gonna sink right down and I don’t want to go with it
Well I wish there was a way that
I knew to get even
A way to get a lick in
A-bobbin’ and a-weavin’
Any ole thing besides goin’ and a-leavin’
You can do on a train

Well, I once knew a man who sailed around the world twice
He would have made it three but he took a lot of bad advice
So you just tell me what’s the sense of mesittin’ here leavin’
When any ole day I might get even
And Lord knows New York City’s got a lot to do with it
I wish someday I could find a way to get it out of my brain
This dirty old town’s gonna sink right down and I don’t want to go with it
I wish there was a way that I knew to get even, way to get a lick in
A-bobbin’ and a-weavin’
Any ole thing besides goin’ and a-leavin’
You can do on a train
Oh, yes!

Well, I once knew a man who sailed around the world twice
But his motor cooled down and now he’s deliverin’ ice
Tell me what’s the sense of him sittin’ here leavin’
When any ole day he might get even
And Lord knows New York City’s got a lot to do with it
I wish someday he could find a way to get it out of his brain
This dirty old town’s gonna sink right down and I don’t want to go with it
I wish there was a way that I knew to get even
Way to get a lick in
A-bobbin’ and a-weavin’
Any ole thing besides goin’ and a-leavin’
You can do on a train
Oh, yeah

Wondrous Cabinets (or My Dinner With Darrell)

“…as a smell while it passes and evaporates into air affects the sense of smell,” wrote Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) in the tenth book of The Confessions, “whence it conveys into the memory an image of itself, which remembering, we renew, or as meat, which verily in the belly hath now no taste, and yet in the memory still in a manner tasteth; or as any thing which the body by touch perceiveth, and which when removed from us, the memory still conceives. For those things are not transmitted into the memory, but their images only are with an admirable swiftness caught up, and stored as it were in wondrous cabinets, and thence wonderfully by the act of remembering, brought forth.”

If there ever were an Augustine of the contemporary food and wine world, it is Darrell Corti. And there are no cabinets more wondrous than the shelves of his store Corti Brothers in Sacramento and the memories he generously imparted on a traveling amanuensis who happened to be passing through the California state capital last week.

The night I had dinner with Darrell at his home in Sacramento, he was reluctant to speak of his induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America. The night before, he had been honored at a gala event in Napa as a “Highly respected and often controversial, wine and food expert… at the forefront of the development and growth of the California wine industry since joining his family’s grocery business, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, in 1964… a catalyst in the re-evaluation and Renaissance of Zinfandel…” and mentor “to a generation of seiminal food and wine professionals…”

It’s not every day that you drink 1972 Louis Martini Zinfandel with a man who was a “catalyst… in the renaissance of Zinfandel.” The wine was light and vibrant, with subtle fruit and gentle acidity, a gorgeous complement to the béchamel and ragù prepared for the lasagne.

“It’s the acidity and the lightness of style that make this wine age so well,” said Darrell. There was no need to mention Darrell’s widely known opposition to the current hegemony of highly concentrated, high-alcohol-content wines.

The night of our repast, Darrell wanted to sample a new breed of beef, “HighMont,” a cross of Scottish Highland and Piedmontese (razza bovina piemontese) cattle. The lasagne were followed by a bollito of beef and salsa verde, paired with a 1999 Stoneleigh Marlborough (New Zealand) Rapaura Series Pinot Noir.

The coda to our meal was a bolo de mel, a Portuguese honey cake, which Darrell was also sampling as a potential offering at Corti Brothers.

Of the many memories that Darrell shared that evening, he revealed that he was among the first (if not the first) to sell Sassicaia in this country. “In 1972, we sold the first vintage of Sassicaia — 1968 — for $6.89,” he said.

After dinner, we retired to the living room where we drank port and perused Darrell’s collection of incunables (I was keen to see his editio princeps of Andrea Bacci’s Historia Vinorum).

Earlier in the day, I met Darrell at his office in the store and we chatted about a stack of tomes he recently received from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican’s publisher (I was particularly fascinated by America Pontificia, a collection documents pertaining to the New World issued by the Holy See; “There’s bound to be something interesting in there,” Darrell said). His phone rang and I eavesdropped as he patiently extolled the virtues of bergamot marmalade to the customer on the line. Twenty minutes later, a half dozen jars had been purchased.

O, what wondrous cabinets this man keeps…

Gambero Rosso in San Diego (or What Would Happen if All Tuscans Became Super Tuscans?)

Above: Giovanni Folonari pours his new Super Tuscan, Campo al Mare (Bolgheri) at the Gambero Rosso Tour in San Diego, California.

Does the world really need another Super Tuscan? This question plagued me as I tasted through the wines on display at the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center in downtown San Diego.

Otherwise useful as a directory of Italian wineries, the Gambero Rosso Guide to the Wines of Italy favors the big “lip-smacking,” luscious wines that seem do sell well in the United States. The three-glass scoring system used in the guide is yet another – however poetically veiled – points-based system, and while the same big-name wines seem to score well year after year in the guide, few small producers and even fewer lower-end wines make it up the ladder.

When I asked how the guide has grown in the 20+ years he’s served as editor-in-chief, Marco Sabellico told me, “the guide hasn’t grown because Italians are making more wines. The guide has grown because Italians are making more higher-end wines.”

It’s not really clear to me how the wines are chosen for the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” (held this year in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and for the first time San Diego). Its “Three Glass” tasting features only those wines that have won the guide’s top award. For the roadshow, it seems that Marina Thompson PR might have something to do with the selection. Marina happens to be Gambero Rosso president Daniele Cernilli’s wife.

What lured me to the event this year was the fact that it was held for the first-time in San Diego, California.

Above: Tim Grace of Il Mulino di Grace, a Chianti Classico producer in the township of Panzano.

I was asked by many presenters to taste this or that “new” Super Tuscan.

Giovanni Folonari had me taste his Campo al Mare, made from Merlot, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot (no Sangiovese). The estate, he told me, lies between Sassicaia and Ornellaia. The wine was well made, not overly woody, and not too high in alcohol. But does the world need yet another Super Tuscan? Maybe it does and since I’m not a fan of Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon in the first place, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. Giovanni told me it will retail for about $35 and that’s good news, I guess. Maybe the world does need a new reasonably priced Super Tuscan.

I also tasted a Super Tuscan (Gratius) by Mulino di Grace (Panzano, Chianti Classico). The Grace family’s Chianti Classico is a blend of Sangiovese with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet. I kinda liked its Chianti Classico, where the addition of small amounts of international grapes give the wine more color and forward fruit, thus making it more modern in style. But I really liked the Gratius, 100% Sangiovese, a wine that showed the balance of fruit, acidity, and gentler tannin, and the lightness in the mouth that you get with Tuscany’s Sangiovese. To my palate, the Gratius tasted the most like Chianti Classico of all the wines he was pouring (in fact, owner Tim Grace told me, the wine could have been classified as Chianti Classico DOCG).

Some believe that the term Super Tuscan was coined by Nicolas Belfrage and was first used in print in Life Beyond Lambrusco (1985), co-authored by Nicolas and Jancis Robinson. The early Super Tuscans were generally made with international grape varieties and the wines generally saw some time in new wood. Because the wines — most famously, Sassicaia and Tignanello — did not meet standards for any existing appellations at the time they were first released, they were officially classified as vini da tavola or table wines, even though they were marketed as high-end wines.

According to usage, a Super Tuscan is a Tuscan-made wine that 1) does not meet requirements set forth by local appellation laws (in many cases, this is due merely to the fact that a given wine uses grape varieties not allowed by the appellation); or 2) has been intentionally declassified by the producer (as in the case of Tim Grace’ wine). While barrique aging is often used for Super Tuscans, barrique is not a sine qua non.

One of the reasons why the term Super Tuscan helps winemakers to sell wines in the United States is the moniker itself: it just sounds good and it implies that the wines are somehow better, that they surpass the rest of the field. I certainly can’t blame Tim for declassifying his wine. Chianti is a confusing appellation for Americans and if declassification helps him to promote awareness of his wines, more power to him (and his wines are good and deserve attention).

But because the term Super Tuscan is now applied to wines made in Bolgheri (on the Tuscan coast), Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini (and other subzones), Montalcino, Montecucco, Montepulciano… and the list goes on… it has became a de facto über-classification that eclipses the personality of those places and the character of the persons who make those wines.

Tuscans are a highly diverse group of people and their language, their food, their traditions, and their wines change from city to city, town to town, from village to village (and from principality to principality, we would have said in another age). Just ask a Florentine what s/he thinks of the Pisans and you’ll see what I mean (and I won’t repeat the colloquial adage nor the often quoted line from Dante here). I’ve traveled extensively in Tuscany and have spent many hours in its libraries, its trattorie, and wineries. I would certainly be disappointed if the Tuscans, like their wines, all became Super Tuscans.

NOUS NON PLUS SLOVENIA DATES ANNOUNCED

Above: do you think Slovenia can handle Céline Dijon and Nous Non Plus?
(click the image to see the full-sized flyer)

Please excuse the shameless self-promotion…

Allo Allo –

A quick update on upcoming Nous Non Plus shows…

The NYC show on Sat March 22 has been changed to 11pm from midnight.
This means more time for drinking and french kissing afterwards.

Slovenia public shows will be April 9 and 10 in “secret locations” to be announced shortly. For all of you traveling to Slovenia in April, please stay tuned. We hear one show may involve playing on a stage that covers two countries.

In sum:

MARCH 22
NYC
CLUB MIDWAY

25 Avenue B, New York, NY
(Between 2nd and 3rd st.)
NNP @ 11pm
$6

APRIL 9 & 10
SLOVENIA!

Venues to be announced

Impossible n’est pas français.

I’m Drinking What He’s Pouring (or This Ain’t Circe’s Wine)

Above: despite his modesty, wine writer David Lynch is no second-string sommelier (center, with enologist Antigoni Karamvali and marketing director Valerie Tsakiris of Boutari).

It seems that Greek wines are in the air: Eric included a wine from Santorini in a post and column this week and I recently learned that the 2008 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen will include a seminar on Greek wine led by David Lynch — wine writer, top-flight sommelier, and all-around good guy.

Week before last, David and I attended a tasting of wines by Boutari (whose website is written entirely in Greek). Besides Boutari’s winemaker and marketing director, we were also joined by Mitch Frank of The Wine Spectator, a former political writer (whose insights into the current campaign were fascinating).

David likes to joke that he’s a “J[unior] V[arsity]” member among NYC’s top sommeliers but, let me tell you, this guy really knows his stuff: few can rival his knowledge of Italian wine and he’s tasted and poured with the best of them.

“95% of the value of a wine in a restaurant,” he said, “is the serving temperature and the stemware. Serve a $35 bottle of wine at the right temperature and in the right glass, and it’s worth twice that much.”

Above: of the whites, I really liked the Moscofilero (left) but the Santorini (center) blew me away.

While the higher-end blends of native Greek varieties and Bordeaux grapes were international in style and heavy on the wood, the lower-end bottlings were fresh, clean, and delightful. The Moschofilero (white) was distinctive, slightly musky, and delicious with grilled octopus and I really liked the Santorini, made from Assyrtiko grapes, a white with balanced mineral and fruit flavors.

As Eric mentions in his post, the vineyards on the volcanic island of Santorini are a sight to behold (I’ve never been but have seen photographs): the vines are trained in “bushes” (or baskets, as enologist Antigoni Karamvali called them). Bush training helps to protect the vines from strong winds (the same training methods are used in Sicily and Apulia). The bush training also allows the vine to “migrate”: Antigoni showed me images of vineyards originally planted in perfectly straight rows, where the vines had crept — at slightly different rates — to more humid parts of the vineyard. Drinking this wine, you really get that sense of place, that sensation that this wine could have been made no were else in the world.

The wine that surprised me the most, however, was the Nemea (a place name), made from 100% Aghiorghitiko (also known as Agiorgitiko) grapes: the wine was light in color and in the mouth, with wonderful red berry flavor, a perfect wine to serve slightly chilled on a summer’s eve with filleted branzino (otherwise known as Mediterranean sea bass). From what I understood, the price-point for this wine should weigh in under $20.

This was no wine of Circe.* And, hey, if David is pouring, I’m drinking.

In other news…

Thanks to everyone for the messages and positive vibes for VinoWire, which launched this week with a scoop about the changing of the guard at the Bruno Giacosa winery. I am proud to report that VinoWire was the first publication — Italian or English — to to break the story and to reveal the name of the new winemaker. Stay tuned to VinoWire for more…

* For [the painting] “The Wine of Circe” by Edward Burne Jones.

Dusk-haired and gold-robed o’er the golden wine
She stoops, wherein, distilled of death and shame,
Sink the black drops; while, lit with fragrant flame,
Round her spread board the golden sunflowers shine.

Doth Helio here with Hecatè combine
(O Circe, thou their votaress!) to proclaim
For these thy guests all rapture in Love’s name,
Till pitiless Night give Day the countersign?

Lords of their hour, they come. And by her knee
Those cowering beasts, their equals heretofore,
Wait; who with them in new equality
To-night shall echo back the sea’s dull roar
With a vain wail from passion’s tide-strown shore

Where the disheveled seaweed hates the sea.

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti

VinoWire, news from the world of Italian wine

It took a little bit longer than we had expected but Franco Ziliani and I have finally launched our new project, VinoWire.com, a “news wire” devoted to the world of Italian wine (click on the image above to view).

Franco (left) is one of Italy’s leading wine writers and one of its most respected wine critics. Those of you who read my blog know I consider his blog, Vino al Vino, the best source for cutting-edge Italian wine news (in Italian) undiluted by the Italian wine industry’s PR machine.

Vino al Vino takes its name from the Italian proverb, vino al vino, pane al pane, call wine wine, call bread bread. Franco is not afraid to call a spade a spade and his blog is at once informative, enlightening, and entertaining — and often controversial (as Italophones can gather from reading his comment threads).

Call it another one of my Quixotic adventures: Franco and I hope to fill a gap that we perceived in the English-speaking world by creating an unmitigated transatlantic news source (see our press release below).

Please have a look, send it to your friends, and add it to your blogrolls… Thanks!

For Immediate Release

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

VinoWire.com goes live.

Esteemed Italian journalist and wine critic Franco Ziliani and American writer, blogger, and translator Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D., announced the launch of VinoWire (www.VinoWire.com) today, a news wire devoted to Italian wine. VinoWire, conceived by Ziliani and Parzen, provides a “wire service” feed of current news and events from the world of Italian wine.

“Italian wine is now the number one imported category to America,” said Parzen, “and while North American and British editors do devote attention to Italian wine and food, relatively little news coverage reaches the English-speaking world directly from Italy. VinoWire’s primary goal is to offer English-speaking wine lovers an unbiased, direct, timely, and journalistic source of information on Italian wine, the people who produce it, and the places where it is made.”

What began as a trans-Atlantic virtual conversation between Italian wine writer and pundit Ziliani and food and wine historian and Italian translator Parzen has evolved into an online editorial collaboration, providing unfiltered, balanced news direct from Italy’s base of media and wine professionals.

“The goal is that of creating something different, a confluence of news, ideas, comments, recommendations, tasting notes, opinions, and much more – a site that helps wine enthusiasts around the world to come into contact with Italian wine, to understand it better and appreciate it even more,” said Ziliani. “We hope to open the eyes of American readers who wish to reach beyond the official vulgate of popular magazines with their glossy photographs.”

“Regrettably,” noted the VinoWire creators on their site, “much of the news that makes the crossing to North American loses something in translation: As a twentieth-century Italian poet once said, there is no greater misunderstanding than the Atlantic Ocean.”

In addition to VinoWire’s weekly coverage of Italian wine-related breaking news and events, it will include feature-length editorial addressing a broad range of issues, points-free tasting notes and guest opinion editorial by additional journalists.

VinoWire is hosted by Simplicissimus Blog Farm and was designed by Lorenzo Giuggiolini.

For more information about Franco Ziliani, click here.

For more information about Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D.: click here.

www.VinoWire.com

You’ve come a long way, baby.

“Americans have had a long-standing love affair with the cuisine of Italy,” write Nina and Tim Zagat in the preface to Zagat’s America’s 1,000 Top Italian Restaurants. “Americans say that they prefer Italian food to any other type of food — even American food — in survey after survey.”

Leafing through the new guide, I was impressed by the radical transformation of Americans’ perceptions of Italian food and how they have changed over the last ten years. When I finished my doctorate in Italian in 1997 in Los Angeles and moved to NYC, people still thought of Italian cuisine as “northern” or “southern” (the former being preferable at the time) and few Americans could tell you the difference between gnocchi and cavatelli.

The appearance of the Zagat’s national Italian restaurant directory comes ten years after The New York Times published two articles that — in my opinion — marked the dawn of a new era in Americans’ perceptions of Italian cuisine.

One was Ruth Reichl’s 3-star review of Babbo, “A Radical Departure With Sure Footing” (August 26, 1998), where she anointed Mario Batali as the new prince of Italian cuisine in the U.S. (Just two months earlier, on June 26, she had written of Mario’s previous effort: “I should probably start by telling you that I am not a big fan of Po. So when I heard that Mario Batali, its chef and owner, had taken over the old Coach House on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village…, I was not particularly impressed.”) At the time, 3 stars from The Times for an Italian restaurant were practically inconceivable.

The other was Amanda Hesser’s “A Southern Italian Renaissance; After red sauce, America is discovering the real thing” (October 21, 1998). Albeit not the first but certainly one of the earliest fans of genuine southern Italian food, Amanda wrote convincingly that southern Italian cuisine deserved the epicure’s attention. Her interest in Salvatore Anzalone’s Sicilian restaurant, Caffè Bondi, and Nicola Marzovilla’s Apulian, I Trulli, showed readers that serious food writers (and restaurateurs) were taking southern Italy seriously. Regional Italian cuisine had arrived.

“In the past,” write Nina and Tim, “Italian restaurants in America described themselves as either Northern or Southern, but in recent years more and more Italian chefs have proudly emphasized their regional roots. Thus, Americans are coming to understand the distinct tastes of the many regions of Italy.” [There are 20 regions of Italy, btw.]

The Zagats were among the pioneers of “user-generated content” and the success of their guides is testament to their vision. The downside is that the user-generated reviews are not always reliable. The 2008 Zagat NYC restaurant guide named Babbo — surprise, surprise — the city’s top Italian restaurant. Number 2 was Il Mulino, one of the city’s worst tourist traps and most disappointing landmark restaurants: last year, I had what was possibly the worst and most expensive (adding insult to injury) meals of my life there.

America’s 1,000 Top Italian Restaurants wisely omits a top-5 listing and it includes a useful (however poorly translated) primer to Italian food and wine and regional Italian cuisine.

Whatever your favorite Italian restaurant or regional cuisine, one thing’s for certain: North America’s taste for Italian food has come a long way.

Analog Wine in a Digital Age

Above: a vintage Neve “mic pre,” one of the microphone pre-amps developed in the 1960s that shaped the sounds of the recordings made then. I guarantee you that some of your favorite recordings were made using this technology (click on the image to read more about Neve consoles and mic-pres).

I really liked this post by Dave Buchanan, author of Wine Opener, where he writes about European winemakers who are pushing the envelope “in terms of getting their grapes ripe enough and using questionable winemaking techniques to produce wines that will mimic and sell as well as the full-throttle big reds first made popular in California”:

    That’s bad news to those of us who still seek those analog wines somehow surviving in a continually more digital world. We want wines that speak of their vineyards and their traditions, not of technological innovations designed to make them not simply drinkable but (more importantly to the winemaker) commercially successful.

The digital/analog analogy resonates with me: it reminds me of my experience in the recording studio with my high-school friend, über-producer and vintage-gear nut Mike Andrews, who taught me how to “record digitally” using “analog ears” when he produced a record I co-wrote and played on a few years ago (with a band I am a “former member of”). In the mid-1990s, producers and recording engineers began using digital technology in new ways to capture analog sounds. Mike was one of the trailblazers and he and the new generation of “analog ear” recording artists rallied around TapeOp magazine, published by my friend and gourmet John Bacigaluppi.

The post also made me think of something Jean-Georges’ wine director Bernard Sun said to me the other day when he had me taste a wine that he is making in California, III Somms, a Cabernet Franc-based blend that surprised with great balance, low alcohol, nice acidity, and even-handed fruit (Bernie, who is one of the nicest people you’ll meet in the wine trade, created the wine with two other sommeliers, hence the name, and he pours this food-friendly wine by the glass in the Jean-Georges group restaurants). “With all the wine trickery out there today,” Bernie said, “there’s no excuse to make an imbalanced wine.” He’s right: while so many are using “questionable wineamaking techniques,” as Dave points out, to make “full-throttle big reds,” they could be harnessing technology to make more balanced wine.

The records made during the golden age of recording — 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s — continue to shape the way music is recorded today. Recording and mixing music is a lot like making wine: it’s all about taste, texture, and balance. A glass of 1961 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino as we listen to that last take, anyone?