Holy Mole: fish tacos and Barolo?

Above: Holé Molé in Hermosa Beach doesn’t serve mole (traditional Mexican chili pepper and chocolate sauce) but the fish tacos are a dollar a piece on Tuesdays. Note the ubiquitous and obligatory Prius in the parking lot.

Fish tacos and Barolo? Where’s Dr. Vino when you need him? Hey, Dr. Tyler, give us some love and help us out with this impossible food pairing (I’m a huge fan of Dr. T’s sometimes hilarious and often unlikely food and wine pairings).

Seriously, I didn’t pair fish tacos and Barolo but I did discover a great little fish taco joint in Hermosa Beach on Tuesday after I helped out my friend Robin Stark with a cellar management job she was doing in Long Beach, CA.

The tacos at Holé Molé are prepared using the traditional small-sized corn tortillas like the ones you find at a taquería in Mexico.

After an afternoon of cataloging some rich dude’s cellar, we grabbed a taco at Holé Molé, a gimmicky but delicious taquería in Hermosa. I am a sucker for reduplicatives* and so we just had to stop there.

Fish tacos are said to have originated in Ensenada (Baja California, Mexico) and were popularized by the San Diego-based franchise Rubios. They generally consist of battered and fried pollock rolled in a corn tortilla and topped with a light lime- or lemon-infused mayonnaise sauce and lettuce and/or cabbage (north of the border, cole slaw is often used instead of lettuce). Many restaurants also serve fish tacos made with grilled mahi mahi and tuna these days and in fact, when I traveled in Baja California as a teenager, fish tacos were always served with grilled (as opposed to battered and fried) fish.

Above: A classic fish taco at El Indio, an old-school San Diego Mexican eatery. There are many great places to find excellent fish tacos throughout southern California but my heart always leads me to my beloved Bahia Don Bravo in Bird Rock (La Jolla) where I generally order the grilled Mahi Mahi fish tacos.

After we got our taco on, Robin and I headed to Brix (above), a new and rather soul-less high-end winebar and enocentric restaurant and wine store also in Hermosa Beach. Brix is located in a mall together with the obligatory health club and candle shop. I did enjoy an excellent glass of 2005 Ribolla Gialla from Teresa Raiz but was disheartened to hear the bartender tell me, “yeah, Ribolla Gialla… it’s kinda like Pinot Grigio.” The star of the evening was a 1997 Barolo by Anselma that we bought at the wine store and opened and decanted for $20 corkage. Anselma is a traditional producer who makes powerful but nuanced, elegant wines. Hey, as the great Lee Evans used to say, life is too short to drink bad wine…

In other news…

In the wake my post of the other day on Bad Food, but Good Music and Wine in the Studio, my friend and engineer Bryan Cook hooked me up with a tasty grilled mahi mahi tuna melt from Blairs while we were recording guitar overdubs yesterday back at Kingsize Sound Labs in Eagle Rock, CA. I stand corrected: there is much good take-out to be had in Eagle Rock! Rock on…

* Other examples of linguistic reduplication: hanky-panky, helter-skelter, and, one of my favs, pell-mell.

The World’s Best Sommelier (and other virtual news)…

My friend Aldo Sohm — one of the nicest persons you’ll ever meet in the highly competitive world of wine stewardship — has been named the “best sommelier in the world” by the Worldwide Sommelier Asssociation. You may remember a post I did late last year on him and New York’s Best Kept Secret: the Bar at Le Bernardin.

Held in Rome this year, the final competition included the following examinations: blind tasting, editing a wine list, pairing, and service. For the service test, a restaurant environment was simulated on a stage, with celebrity chef Gianfranco Vissani, television personality Gioacchino Bonsignore, RAI TV sommelier Adua Villa, and noted food writer Clara Barra as guests at the table.

Aldo (above, left) won the competition as an “American” sommelier (and indeed, he has worked in New York for many years) but he is actually Austrian. Check out this Washington Post profile from last year and the Herculean effort it takes to compete and become the “world’s best sommelier.”

In other news…

Good news from Montalcino: the U.S. government has agreed to postpone its deadline for answers to its request for information regarding the Brunello controversy. Italy’s new minister of agriculture, Luca Zaia, has opened talks with U.S. officials and a U.S. delegation will travel to Rome and Siena for meetings on June 8. You can read all about it at VinoWire.com.

My friend and collaborator Franco Ziliani and I have both signed the Petition for Authentic and Traditional Brunello and I have translated the petition text here.

In other other news…

It hasn’t been officially announced but it seems that my friend Alice Feiring, author of The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization will be doing a Q&A at Lou on Vine on June 19 in Los Angeles. I’ll be in town then since Nous Non Plus will be performing the next night at Bordello in downtown.

Hope to see you then!

Back in the studio: good music, bad food, and some kick-ass wine

Just added: Nous Non Plus will be performing at Bordello in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, June 20 with fellow French rockers Tour de France. June 21, daytime show at the the Alliance Française in San Francisco (details to follow).

Nous Non Plus recently headed back into the studio to finish work on our upcoming release (working title, “Nous Non Plus: Deux,” fall 2008). Engineer and wine lover Bryan Cook manned the dials at Kingsize Studio Sound Labs in Eagle Rock, CA (check out the studio’s site… it’s kinda cool).

When you’re in the studio, you’re working hard (usually 10-12 hour days) and you don’t really have a lot of great food options (the section of Eagle Rock where we recorded looked like a scene out of the Lethal Weapon franchise). We did make some groovy music and we managed to drink well.

Tradition dictates that food writing should be positive… that we should write only about good food. But in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, even when the music is great, the food usually sucks.

Here’s a little photo essay of our session…

Bad: reheated Mexican food.

Bad: flavorless Thai food… hey, you know, sometimes you have to eat cause you’re hungry!

Good… actually, very good: 32-channel Neve 8068. Man, that desk sounds warm and rich…

Good: early 1980s Fender Super Reverb and Fender Champ (I believe they were post-1982 since that was the year that Fender started making them again). I also played through the Supro behind the Champ. When you turn those little amps up to 10 they sound fantastic.

Fun: the guitar selection at Kingsize is colorful… among other axes employed on this record, the Gretsch G1626 Synchromatic Silver Sparkle Jet with f-hole (second from right) sounded awesome on some of the more rocking numbers. It was made for only a few years and now is almost impossible to find. The main guitar I played was my custom John Carruthers “Johnny Rivers” model telecaster. Also played a beautiful vintage Fender Jazzmaster with tremolo.

Excellent: 1982 Salomon library selection Riesling was off-the-charts delicious.

Nice performance: Jean-Luc Retard (aka Dan, bass, vox) opens a bottle of one of NNP’s officially favorite wines, Movia Puro Rosé. In the photo, Dan is disgorging the sediment from the bottle in a sink full of water (the plates and cups on the bottom served as a stopper for the drain; Kingsize is a great studio but the plumbing is, let’s say, creative).

Hits the spot: after the wine is disgorged, it’s totally clear.

Good company, bad food: from left, our friend Joachim Cooder, Céline, Bryan, and Jean-Luc and I “grind out” on some mediocre Mediterranean.

Magazine sitings and writings

My friend Lawrence Osborne gave me a shout out in the current issue of Men’s Vogue (June/July 2008), in an article about a wine that means a lot to me: Lini Lambrusco. I can’t say that I mind being called “a wine connoisseur and Italian scholar extraordinaire” by the Accidental Connoisseur himself.

Alicia Lini and I first met in February of 2007 when I traveled to Italy in search of metodo classico or méthode champenoise Lambrusco (i.e., double-fermented in bottle). She and I became good friends and it’s great to see her (with her cover girl looks) and her wines get the attention they deserve.

I also made an appearance in the Spring issue of Gastronomica with a piece on the history of pasta, Risorgimento Italy, and pasta’s role in the Italian national identity.

Ed-in-chief Darra Goldstein had asked me to write a review of a CD devoted to pasta-inspired music and she generously let me turn the piece into short essay.

In case you can’t find a copy of the mag at your local newsstand, I made a PDF (downloadable here).

Giuseppe (Mauro) Mascarello: the accidental natural winemaker

So many great wines and so little time… Between my April trip to Italy and Slovenia and my recent stays in New York and Los Angeles, I’ve had the chance to taste so much great wine this spring.

One of my most memorable spring 2008 tastings — a truly extraordinary experience — was a vertical dinner at Mozza in Los Angeles hosted by winemaker Mauro Mascarello of the Giuseppe Mascarello winery (Langa, Piedmont), where he poured bottlings spanning back to 1958.

I’ve had the opportunity to taste older Giuseppe Mascarello before but never had I seen such a remarkable collection of his wines. In fact, the tasting itself — open to the public — was a remarkable event: when it comes to “rare” wine (and I’ve attended and even poured at comparable however private tastings), rarely are so many exceptional vintages offered for public consumption. My friend David Rosoff, wine director and general manager at Mozza, orchestrated the dinner and pours with extreme grace and elegance.

The tasting spanned “six decades” and included the following wines:

1958 Barolo, 1961 Barolo Riserva, 1964 Barolo

The Mascarello family bought and moved the Monprivato estate and began making wine labeled simply “Barolo” in 1904. In 1919, Mascarello acquired an ice warehouse in Monchiero, with vaulted ceilings, said Mauro on the eve of the tasting, a storage space that later proved ideal for aging Barolo because of its natural cooling system. In 1922 (the year Mussolini marched on Rome), Mascarello grafted the vines with the Michét (mee-KEHT) Nebbiolo, a less productive but more structured and more age-worthy clone (Mascarello’s website reports 1921 but Mauro said 1922 was the year of the newly grafted vines; I find it interesting that these two milestones — the acquisition of the ice warehouse and the grafting of Michét — occurred between the two world wars, a time of hope, a time when Italians were happy for the end of the Great War and the peace that followed yet unaware of the tragedy that would follow Mussolini’s rise to power). In 1952 Giuseppe Mascarello began experimenting with Slavonian oak. He had served in the Italian military and Slovenia and had discovered that the more compact wood was better for long-term aging of his wines. In 1962, he started to experiment with the Michét clones, selecting those best suited for his vineyards.

This first flight — 1958, 1961, and 1964 — represented the end of the first era of Mascarello’s history and laid the ground work for what many consider one of the most prolific names in Barolo. The 61 and 64 were oxidized unfortunately, but the 1958 — a very good year for Langa — was gorgeous, very much alive with fruit and acidity.

1970 Barolo Monprivato, 1978 Barolo Monprivato, 1982 Barolo Monprivato

The second flight also marked a landmark in the winery’s history: 1970 was Mascarello’s first cru (single-vineyard) bottling of the legendary Monprivato growing site (Mauro Mascarello began making the wine at Mascarello in 1967 and he would later purchase the entire growing site making it a monopole).

Mascarello’s wines are so powerful and are made in such a radically traditional and by-the-way natural style that they often turn off those accustomed to drinking modern-style Nebbiolo. These wines — the 1970, nearly 40 years old — were drinking beautifully and even the modern-leaning guests were blown away. You really need to experience aged traditional Barolo to appreciate what more recent vintages of the wines will become. The 1970 and 1978 were incredibly, nuanced and poetic, with the indescribable lightness that old Nebbiolo takes on as its tannins began to mellow naturally.

The tasting also included: 1985 Barolo Monprivato, 1989 Barolo Monprivato, 1990 Barolo Monprivato, 1996 Barolo Monprivato, 1997 Barolo Ca d’Morissio, 1999 Barolo Monprivato, 2000 Barolo Monprivato, 2001 Barolo Monprivato, 2003 Barolo Monprivato. The 1989, 1999, and 2001 were stunning and the 1997 Barolo Ca’ d’Morrisio, made from select parcels within Monprivato in top vintages, was still just a young, powerful thoroughbred colt, showing no signs of opening up yet (as many less traditional producers’ wines in this hot-summer Wine Spectator-friendly vintage).

The Ca’ d’Morrisio is named after Maurizio Mascarello, Mauro’s grandfather (literally, Maurizio’s house, so called because Maurizio resided there among the vines). One of the things that strikes me about Mauro (above) is that when you hear him talk about winemaking, he talks like a “natural” winemaker. He’s a gentle, reserved, soft-spoken man, extremely humble and painfully modest. Like his wines, he is a traditional man, with a traditional Langa beard, always dressed in toned-down brown, grey, and blue suits it seems. He has none of the flair of the young generation of natural winemakers but to hear him speak is to hear an ardent supporter of natural winemaking — not as a new fad or wave of the future but rather a tradition that he continues to carry forward because it makes for the greatest expression of his land and his fruit.

When I tasted barrel samples of his 2004 Santo Stefano and Villero at Vinitaly this year, I asked him how he manages to maintain such a distinct style in his wines. “Because I let nature do her work,” he told me with his thick Langa accent. “I try to let the earth express itself through the fruit. I try to do as little as possible in the cellar,” said Mauro, accidental natural winemaker. No natural wine manifesto could have said it better.

The mystery of the White Lady resolved

When Céline, the band, and I returned to La Dama Bianca on our way back to Venice to lunch with our friend Marco Fantinel, we were served these delicious paccheri (homemade ring-shaped pasta) with shrimp and squid.

My post the other day on La Dama Bianca in Duino (Italy Day 7) generated a tide of comments, including a number of messages from fellow fans/lovers of the the restaurant/hotel: it’s one of those truly magical places and once you’ve been, you count the days until you can return (Céline Dijon liked it so much that we decided to stop there for lunch on our way back from Slovenia).

Céline (left), the band, and I met Marco (right) on our way back to Venice. The weather was beautiful and the food… ah… the food at La Dama Bianca always puts you in a good mood.

Pierpaolo from Trieste wrote:

    The name “Dama bianca” came from a legend, inspired by a white rock that, seen from the sea, it seems a female figure wrapped in a long veil. The legend tells of the evil owner of the old castle of Duino (today only ruins) during the Middle Ages, who threw his wife from a precipice and God, moved to mercy by the shouts of the “pure” lady, transformed her into stone before touching the water.

Thanks, Pieropaolo, for resolving the mystery.

Simona author of Briciole also pointed me to this Wikipedia entry on Duino.

I’m not quite sure the origin of paccheri (see photo at top), although I know that some believe the pasta shape was created to smuggle garlic cloves. Maybe Simona can help us to resolve the paccheri mystery…

Pouring Wine for a Good Cause and Reflections on Brunello

Saturday night I poured a couple of my favorite wines at the ElderHelp gala fund raiser at the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown San Diego. ElderHelp is “a social services agency dedicated to helping low-income seniors live independently in their homes.”

My brother Micah serves as the executive board’s president.

The wines — Chapoutier 2006 white Côtes du Rhône “Belleruche” and Il Poggione 2005 Rosso di Montalcino — were generously donated by the Terlato Wine Group.

The event was a smashing success and I got to talk to a lot of great folks (more than 600 persons attended) about my favorite subject: wine.

In other news…

My friend and collaborator Franco Ziliani, author of Vino al Vino and co-editor of VinoWire.com, interviewed me about the fallout of the Brunello controversy for the Associazione Italiana Sommeliers (Italian Sommeliers Association or AIS) website.

Click here to read the interview in Italian.

For those of you who haven’t followed the Brunello controversy (you can read about it in detail at VinoWire.com), the Brunello appellation is in crisis: last month, the Siena prosecutor’s office revealed it was investigating at least five wineries for adulterating their wines by adding grapes other than Sangiovese, the only variety allowed by appellation regulation. According to some reports, at least one winery is being investigated for excessively high yields (yield is based on the amount of grapes produced per vineyard surface area; for high-end wines, yields are generally kept low).

I have made a point of not writing about the controversy here at Do Bianchi but rather pointing readers to VinoWire.com, where Franco and I have taken a “just-the-facts” approach to news from the world of Italian wine.

My love for wine was born nearly twenty years ago when I first traveled to Montalcino (I was then a student at the Università di Padova). Thanks to the generosity of my friends, the Marcucci brothers and their families (who live in a magical village just south of Montalcino named Bagno Vignoni, or bath amidst the vines), I had the opportunity to taste a lot of fantastic wine and Brunello remains one of my favorite wines to this day.

The appellation has changed greatly since that time. In 1989, Riccardo Marcucci took me to taste the wines of a friend — let’s just call him G — with whom he had performed his obligatory military service. G had just begun to make high-end wine on his father’s estate. Today, G regularly wins top scores from the Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate. The last time I was in Montalcino, he had just snagged the coveted Wine Spectator wine-of-the-year award for his 2001 single-vineyard Brunello.

Here’s what the Spectator‘s James Suckling had to say about the wine:

    Dark in color with intense blackberry, chocolate, and lightly toasted oak. Full-bodied and ultravelvety, with tannins that caress your palate. Vanilla, chocolate and berry. Goes on for minutes. Mind-blowing. Best after 2010.– J.S.

When I tasted G’s wines in 1989, they tasted more like fruit than ice cream. Let’s just say a lot has changed in Montalcino since that time.

There are 256 members in the Brunello producers association. While more than 1 million bottles have been impounded by Italian authorities, they represent a small group of big producers. Because the Italian judicial system works on a civil rather than criminal model (i.e., you are guilty until proven innocent), the investigation has essentially placed a stranglehold on the entire appellation. The Brunello producers association (Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino) has made things worse by shirking the transparency its office ought to foster. The good news is that producers are beginning independently to submit their wine for voluntary testing.

The confusion resulting from the controversy has created a sea of misinformation. Here are some facts to keep in mind:

  • to date, only 5 producers (of 265 total) have been implicated (not convicted) in the investigation;
  • the American government has officially requested information on the situation from the Italian embassy in Washington and has threatened to block imports if information is not provided by June 9 (we’ll see what happens over the next few weeks, but no action has been taken to block U.S. imports);
  • the issue is whether or not a handful of producers added grapes other than Sangiovese to the wine;
  • there are absolutely no health concerns and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the wine was made in strict accordance with appellation regulations;
  • bureaucratic hand-wringing and lack of transparency by the producers association are more to blame than the few bad apples who cut corners in a very hot vintage (preceded by a washed-out, rainy vintage).
  • I encourage everyone to continue to believe in Brunello, especially at a time when many honest, hard-working people — producers and their employees — are suffering because of a relatively small group of bad apples, so to speak (it only takes one, indeed, to spoil the whole barrel… pardon the pun).

    I wish I could take you all back in time to Montalcino when I first tasted Brunello. The appellation wasn’t as score-driven then and the leading Italian wines in the U.S. market were the prototypical Super Tuscans — Sassicaia and Tignanello first and foremost among them.

    Please continue to swirl, smell, and taste: there are a lot of great wines from the 2003 vintage and the upshot of the otherwise regrettable controversy will be bargain prices for a generally high-cost wine.

    2003 will ultimately be remembered as a great year to buy Brunello.

    I have a lot more to say on the subject of Brunello and the continuing modern vs. traditional debate but will wait until the controversy has subsided.

    I may not be a rock star…

    but sometimes I get to hang out with rock stars.

    Megan Hickey aka The Last Town Chorus the other night at the Bellyup Tavern in Solana Beach, CA. Megan’s unique over-driven, space-echoed lap steel tone is mesmerizing.

    Megan Hickey aka The Last Town Chorus and her music were introduced to me a few years ago by our mutual friend (and her manager) Michael Nieves. I used to perform with her in Manhattan and Brooklyn and did some recording with her for her current album, Wire Waltz.

    Megan’s a true original: she plays over-driven lap steel, dripping in sexy psychedelic space echo, and her vocal melodies meander beautifully and often hauntingly over rootsy, edgy countrified chord changes.

    She gave me a shout out the other night during her excellent show at the Bellyup Tavern in Solana Beach, CA (my favorite venue to see live music in the San Diego area, a great-sounding wood-paneled room replete with old-school surfer paraphernalia). She’s touring solo, accompanied by an Ipod mix. It was a trip to hear myself play from the audience!

    Besides rocking it, she infuses her show with irresistible personality and humor: she likes to be introduced as “the Grammy-award-wanting The Last Town Chorus.”

    If you happen to be reading from the west coast, she’s coming soon to a town near you.

    Megan is one of the nicest folks I’ve met in the business. I had a blast recording with her for her current release, Wire Waltz. I may not be a rock star but…

    Yes, that’s me in the NY Times Dining section (at 81) or How My Friend Saved the World from Parkerization

    Yup, that’s me at 81 (seated at the banquet in the background). Click the image to read Frank Bruni’s review from yesterday’s paper.

    During my recent, crazed trip to NYC, I did have a chance to take a time out for some fine dining at Ed Brown’s 81. The night I was there, Governor Paterson was there (he drank grapefruit juice and green tea, my waiter told me), foodie celebrities Patricia Wells and Mark Bittman were there (dining together at a large table), and I was the guest of another food and wine world luminary, my friend Alice Feiring, whose new book — The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization — is being published by Harcourt next week.

    I’ve known Alice for many years and have always been impressed by her passionate “battle” to spread the gospel of natural wines. She’s a polemical figure in the wine world and her new book is making waves around the blogosphere (just Google Alice Feiring and Parkerization and you’ll find myriad reviews, threads, and opinions about her and her book).

    A review of the book from me would be biased and so I’ll spare you my panegyric. I did like an alternate title that one reviewer proposed: à la richerche du vin perdu. Her madeleine is a bottle of wine tasted long ago but not forgotten.

    If you do get a chance to read it, you might recognize one of the characters. Buona lettura!

    Italy Day 7: Words cannot describe the way I feel…

    …about La Dama Bianca in Duino near Trieste.

    Scallops on the shell were divine. Note how they chef left the scallop’s tasty “foot” attached.

    On Monday, April 7, Céline (vox aka Verena Wiesendanger), Bonnie (vox, violin aka Emily Welsch), and Jean-Luc (vox, bass aka Dan Crane) arrived at the Venice airport and we headed north to Duino, a little lost-in-time village just south of Trieste along the Adriatic coast. We had a reservation for dinner and an over-night stay at what is simply one of the most delightful hotel/restaurants I have ever had the pleasure to experience.

    La Dama Bianca (The White Lady) is a family-owned seafood restaurant with just five single rooms on the second floor: the father does the fishing, the mother does the cooking, and the son serves as sommelier (and his list is a wonderful romp through Carso, Collio, and Colli Orientali).

    Lost in time: the Dama Bianca has remained seemingly unchanged since the 1960s, as has the village of Duino. The rooms, each with a sea-view terrace, were spartan but immaculately clean and after six days of traveling and wine fairs, the gentle rhythm of the tide against the breakwater lulled me to sleep like a baby.

    One of the chef’s signatures was the combination of two types of seafood in every dish, like these sautéed shrimp served with baby sea scallops.

    When I told Dario that we wanted to drink a Vodopivec Vitovska with our our main course — scorfano (scorpion fish) in cartoccio (en papillote or in parchment paper) — he produced no less than four vintages. On his recommendation, we drank the 2003, which was beautiful, oxidized, with fruit notes as golden as the color of the wine (below).

    2003 Vodopivec Vitovska.

    It was dusk when we arrived at the small breakwater and harbor. A gentleman was fishing and enjoying the “golden hour.”

    An auto-timer of Jean-Luc, Bonnie, Céline, and me (Calvino di Maggio, detto Cal d’Hommage).

    Albergo Dama Bianca
    Frazione Duino, 61/C
    34011 Duino Aurisina (TS)
    040 208137

    Stay tuned for Slovenia Day 1!