Recently overheard in the agora

Last week’s posts generated some interesting comments, including the following note on Charbono from Wine & Spirits senior editor and wine blogger Wolfgang Weber:

    Ah, charbono. There’s a picture somewhere around my computer (and even online I think, gulp) of me and an empty 3-litre bottle of 1981 Inglenook Charbono in a rather compromising position. Anyway, the wine was delicious, subtle and complex, with a savoriness that perfectly matched the braised lamb shanks we ate that night. It had aged beautifully despite spending many years on a closet floor in suburban Napa. A true testament to the old (dry-farmed?) charbono vines that were planted at Inglenook for much of the 20th century. I’m sure it’s all grafted, or replanted, to cabernet now–that terroir instead going towards the lofty Rubicon rather than an earthy old schooler like charbono. Although I’ll admit to quite liking Rubicon, it’s fun to imagine what prime Rutherford charbono would be like these days.

North Carolina wine maven Scott Luetgenau added:

    Coturri makes a good Charbono. I remember reading that it may have originated in the Savoie region of France and had previously been called Douce Noir.

I’d like to get my hands on a bottle of the Coturri Charbono.

Messere Alfonso Cevola also weighed in on the “to irrigate or not to irrigate” question. I think that he’s 100% on the money when he asks rhetorically, “Maybe they shouldn’t plant vines where vines are not meant to be?”

    Not sure I agree with allowing irrigating in the Brunello DOC. We’ve seen producers in other low lying land (Napa Valley floor, for instance) who have access to irrigation, with resulting vines producing a shallow root system that isn’t drought resistant. So in light of the current situation, I don’t think that would help to steer Brunello back in the right direction. Maybe they shouldn’t plant vines where vines are not meant to be?

Lastly, Mark Fornatale, whom I met for the first time this year at Vinitaly, sent me a correction for the record. For those of you who followed the thread generated by my Squires Paradox post, Mark pointed out that it was not he but rather another Squires chat room regular who posted erroneous information about Dante Rivetti and Borgogno:

    Allow me to set the record straight. I never posted that Rivetti would have a hand in the winemaking operations at Borgogno. Ralph Michels, a small client of Borgogno in the Paesi Bassi [Low Countries] had suggested as much on the board, and I immediately saw to it that he correct himself, which he did.

As a result, Franco and I posted an errata corrige for the record on VinoWire.

In other news…

Speaking of the Agora, can anyone help me to attribute the following ingenious wordplay?


Sì, sollo.

Sassi per tutta Atene.

Sail On or Chips and Salsa

Editor’s note: The events and characters depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons living or dead, or to actual events, is purely coincidental.

Above: 7:19 p.m. chips and salsa at Bahia Don Bravo taco shop in Bird Rock, La Jolla.

Sail on down the line
About half a mile or so
And I don’t really wanna know ah
Where you’re going

Maybe once or twice you see
Time after time I tried
Hold on to what we got
But now you’re going

And I don’t mind
About the things you’re gonna say
Lord, I gave all my money and my time
I know it’s a shame
But I’m giving you back your name
Guess I’ll be on my way
I won’t be back to stay
I guess I’ll move along
I’m looking for a good time

Sail on down the line
Ain’t it funny how the time can go
All my friends say they told me so
But it doesn’t matter
It was plain to see
That a small town boy like me
Just I wasn’t your cup of tea
I was wishful thinking

I gave you my heart
And I tried to make you happy
And you gave me nothing in return
You know it ain’t so hard to say
Would you please just go away

I’ve thrown away the blues
I’m tired of being used
I want everyone to know
I’m looking for a good time
Good time
Sail on honey
Good times never felt so good
Sail on honey
Good times never felt so good
Sail on sugar
Good times never felt so good
Sail on

— Commodores

Invincible Charbono (NY Wine Media Guild tasting)

Above: winemaker and ex-football coach Dick Vermeil and Sports Illustrated writer and wine expert Paul Zimmerman (seated, right) reminisced about pigskins and old Charbono at the Wine Media Guild’s Charbono tasting this week.

Larger-than-life celebrity visited this week’s Wine Media Guild of NY tasting in Manhattan: legendary NFL coach and owner of OnTHEdge (Calistoga), Dick Vermeil (above) — one of the most down-to-earth megawatt personalities I’ve ever met — presided over a tasting of 28 bottlings of Charbono — including a rosé, a “Charbera” (Charbono/Barbera blend), and a fortified wine. Winner of the 1999 Super Bowl, Vermeil was portrayed in the 2006 film Invincible, the story of his ground-breaking 1976 “open” tryouts for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Charbono, you say? Erroneously thought by many to be a relative of Dolcetto (or even Barbera), Charbono is a rustic-tasting, tannic, but fruity and food-friendly grape that Italian immigrants favored in late-nineteenth-century California. Today almost entirely forgotten (there are only “84 tons of Charbono grown in the state” of California, according to enologist and man behind the Opus One project, Paul Smith of OnTHEdge), Charbono is a distinct cultivar grown by a small but devoted group of California wineries (the tasting included wines by Pacific Star, Oakstone and Obscurity Cellars, Shypoke, Robert Foley, Jospeh Laurence, Duxoup, On the Edge, August Briggs, Chameleon, Summers, Turley, Tofanelli, Schrader, Fortino, and Boeger).

A wide variety of styles — from the luscious and modern to the more lean and traditional — were represented at the tasting. My personal favorites were old bottlings of Charbono by Pacific Star, including a 1990 and a 1994 (above).

Because many of the vines are 70-80 years old, Charbono can be a late-ripening grape and “only 60% ripens fully,” noted winemaker Sally Ottoson, of Pacific Star, who first made Charbono in 1989. “That’s why it needs extended aging” in cask (she prefers neutral, large-format barrels) and in bottle, she said.

In his colorful address to the group, Wine Media Guild senior member Paul Zimmerman fondly remembered tasting Inglenook’s Charbono in the 1960s and observed that the tannic wines “tested your manhood.”

In other news…

The Brunello saga continues. Check out today’s post on VinoWire.

The Bartolo Mascarello-Che Guevara mystery resolved.

Above: me and my friend, top Italian wine blogger Alfonso Cevola at Terroir in the East Village.

When in New York, do as New Yorkers do: go to a wine bah.

Making the most of my New York sojourn, I met up with top Italian wine blogger Alfonso Cevola the other night at Terroir — New York’s first self-proclaimed “punk rock” wine bar.

Owner Paul Grieco and I had finally exchanged emails about the Bartolo-Che mystery and he generously offered to give me a few tees to send to Maria Teresa Mascarello.

Here’s what Paul had to say (in email) about the Bartolo-Che photomontage:

    The image of Bartolo came off of the web and we did a little correction to make it pop from the shirt. The beret is actually Che’s from his famous/infamous t-shirt. If I had a picture of Bartolo in a beret I would have used it. The original idea for the shirts (and there are 4 more Terroir-ists to be featured) came from my son’s Che shirt. I began to wonder why there were not any cool wine shirts and paraphernalia.

I didn’t get a chance to chat with Paul that night (he was “in the weeds,” as they say in the biz) but one of the wait staff told me that Terroir will soon offer its customers an entire line of enopunk-inspired stickers. (Dare say, have I coined a neologism? Enopunk?)

Given the chance, I’d like to ask Paul why Terroir doesn’t offer Bartolo Mascarello on its growing list of terroir-driven wines. But I fear I know the reason: from what I hear, the importer doesn’t share Terroir’s anarchic spirit.

Food for thought: are enopunk stickers the future of wine writing?

Italy Days 5 and 6: South Tyrol

Above: no, those ain’t no matzoh balls… they’re canderli at Santlhof, a rustic tavern that shot immediately to the top of my all-time great restaurant experiences. Canederli or knödel are speck-filled bread dumplings served in broth, a classic South Tyrolean first course.

On Saturday April 5, five days in to my trip, I spent the morning and better part of the afternoon tasting at Vinitaly. The highlight that day was Il Poggione, a traditional-style producer of Brunello, who has emerged unscathed by the recent Brunello controversy. One of the most fascinating insights that winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci shared with me was his belief that mandatory dry farming is one of the appellation’s biggest problems. “If producers in the lower-lying [and consequently warmer] areas of the appellation were allowed to irrigate in 2003,” said Fabrizio, “they wouldn’t have had as many problems dealing with warm temperatures in summer.” If used judiciously, he explained, “irrigation could be a positive change for Brunello.” He also noted that many growers have vines that “are too young” and as a result, the roots can’t find the water table when the weather is excessively warm. While many have proposed that Brunello producers be allowed to use grape varieties other than Sangiovese (a change vehemently opposed by Fabrizio), irrigation, he said, could help to resolve some of the appellation’s current problems.

Above: Speck at Santlhof. Speck is a smoked prosciutto, a classic of German-speaking Italy. It’s spicier than its cousins in San Daniele in Friuli and Parma in Emilia and it pairs beautifully with the fresh white wines they make up there. (Look for an upcoming post on my visit to a San Daniele prosciutto producer.)

I had been invited to an industry party to be held Sunday night at the Hofstätter winery in Tramin (Termeno, in Italian). Late Saturday afternoon, I headed out of Verona toward the alps and checked into a hotel that I highly recommend — a little 3-star called Tirolerhof, where the rooms were beautiful, clean, and reasonably priced, and the Teutonic breakfast spread was worthy of a 5-star hotel in Vienna (the hotel also has a covered, heated pool).

Above: my main course at Santlhof was eggs, bacon, and potatoes accompanied by owner Georg Mayr’s estate-grown and vinified Schiava.

After a simple dinner and a much needed restful night, I awoke to a panorama “alive with the sound of music”: the stunning beauty of South Tyrol — a verdant, vine-covered Alpine valley — sings a soothing melody, a balm that helped to allay the humdrum din of Verona and the wine fair still ringing in my head.

On the recommendation of winemaker Martin Hofstätter, I headed to the nearby Santlhof, a rustic tavern and favorite Sunday biker stop where I enjoyed a leisurely, delicious, four-hour Sunday lunch, complete with wines that simpatico owner Georg Mayr grows and vinifies on his estate (which dates back to the 16th century). His white — a blend of Chardonnay, Kerner, and Traminer — was killer, totally natural in style, fresh and clean. I could definitely get used to the sound of this music.

Above: shredded cabbage salad side at Santlhof.

Above: simpatico owner Georg Mayr takes a load off after a slamming Sunday.

The above view is with my back to the tavern. You can see the flat vine-covered valley in the distance. The vines you see before you are Georg’s whites (the red lie behind the restaurant at a slightly higher altitude). His chickens forage among the rows.

More on ciuppin and South Tyrol on the way

Above: Santlhof in South Tyrol, where I had a fantastic four-hour Sunday lunch (I’ll do a post on it in the next day or so).

In case you’re wondering why no posts of late, it’s because I’ve been preoccupied with taking care of some business and getting my personal affairs into order. But stay tuned for “Italy Day 5: South Tyrol.”

In response to my post the other day, my new blogger friend, Signora Placida, posted a note on the origin of ciuppin and she points out that the word comes from the Ligurian suppin or zuppetta in Italian, a humble soup (zuppa is akin to the English sops, the same word that gives English its soup).

I was introduced to Signora Placida by Simona, whose excellent blog Briciole has become one of my daily reads.