Dante inspires a wine and gets a welcome (?) home after 700 years

Dante made the Italian news wire the other day — yes, Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321; how’s that for a boldface name?), author of La Commedia, an autobiographical and politically charged allegorical poem written in terza rima, or rhymed tercets, divided into three canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), in which he recounts his exile from Florence (1302) and his journey through the center of the earth (with Virgil as his guide) to heaven where he is received by his beloved Beatrice, who in turn guides him to the Virgin Mary and his salvation. Earlier this month, only 700 years after the fact, Florence rescinded Dante’s exile, thus allowing for the poet’s remains to be returned to the city on the Arno river. The back story: the Florentines want to wrest the body back from the city of Ravenna, where Dante died and his tomb is a major tourist attraction, most likely because they’d like to see those tourist dollars (and euros) spent at home. (For a concise overview of Dante’s life and work and details of his exile, please do not use Wikipedia; use the excellent Princeton Dante Project and for closer reading of La Commedia, use the Dartmouth Dante Project.)

In the light of this news, I was all the more intrigued by a wine I came across the other day called “Bello Ovile.” The expression il bello ovile (the fair sheepfold) comes from Canto 25 of the Paradiso, and is a metaphorical reference to Dante’s youth in Florence:

    Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,
    to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
    so that it has made me lean for many years,

    should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
    of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
    foe of the wolves at war with it,

    with another voice then, with another fleece,
    shall I return a poet and, at the font
    where I was baptized, take the laurel crown.

    (Par. 25, 1-9)

Next to his lifelong quest to free the Italian city states from the yoke of papal power and to restore imperial (temporal) power, Dante desired nothing more than a glorious return to Florence and his laureation there, i.e., his crowning with a laurel and recognition as poet laureate (in fact, he never returned). “The font [spring] where I was baptized” refers to the famous Baptistery of San Giovanni (left) that you surely remember from your Renaissance Art History 101 for its gilded doors (and the competition to cast them, won by Ghiberti and lost by Brunelleschi). After he was exiled from Florence, Dante found his first “welcome” and “refuge” in Verona under the protection of the Veronese seigneur Cangrande della Scala. In the Paradiso (17, 70-72), Cacciaguida (his great-great-grandfather) tells Dante:

    You shall find welcome and a first refuge
    in the courtesy of the noble Lombard,
    the one who bears the sacred bird above the ladder.

In 14th century Italian, Lombard denoted an inhabitant of Northern Italy and the “sacred bird above the ladder” is a reference to Cangrande della Scala’s coat of arms, a ladder (scala) with a black eagle (an imperial symbol) atop. Dante’s son Pietro Alighieri settled and remained in Verona: today, Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri continues to make wine there, in one of the oldest historically designated vineyards of Valpolicella, Armaron (many believe that the toponym Armaron is the etymon of Amarone; I’m a fan of Alighieri’s Amarone, which he ages in cherry wood).

When Serego decided to buy an estate and begin making wine in Tuscany, he viewed the move — rightly — as a return to his ancestor’s “sheepfold” even though the wine isn’t made anywhere near Florence: it’s made in Montecucco, a wonderful, undiscovered and still undeveloped part of Tuscany, to the west of Montalcino toward the sea, where you’ll find all sorts of artisanal pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) producers, grape growers, and fantastic norcini or pork butchers (when I was there year before last, I had some amazing head cheese near the village of Paganico).

It will be interesting to see how the fight over Dante’s remains plays out and in the meantime, I’m glad to see that Count Serego decided to use indigenous grapes in his homage to his ancestor Dante: Bello Ovile [BEHL-loh oh-VEE-leh] is made primarily from Sangiovese, with smaller amounts of Canaiolo and Cilliegiolo (it retails for under $20). The wine is done in a modern style, fruit forward, but judiciously enough so that it still expresses the grape variety.

Bello Ovile would have tasted foreign to Dante: in his day, Sangiovese was not considered a grape variety for fine wine and wines were much lighter in color and body. Of Italy’s three “crowns” of the Middle Ages — Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio — Petrarch wrote more and most famously about wine. There’s a famous passage in Dante about Vernaccia and the eels of Lake Bolsena, but I’ll save that morsel for another post.

Some clarification on the title of La Commedia…

  • Dante called the poem La Commedia but he never called it “divine”: Boccaccio, one of Dante’s greatest commentators and the author of an early biography of Dante, called it “the Divine Comedy.”
  • In the context of Dante’s poem, the title Comedy does not denote humor but rather the fact that poem has a happy ending (as opposed to tragic) and — most importantly — is written in Italian rather than Latin. In a letter to Cangrande della Scala, presenting the poem, Dante wrote: “in the conclusion, it is prosperous, pleasant, and desirable,” and in its style “lax and unpretending [undemanding],” being “written in the vulgar [vernacular or Italian] tongue, in which women and children speak.”
  • Father of the Italian language…

    Dante is often called the “father of the Italian language” because the immediately and immensely popular Comedy became one of the primary models for literary Italian and ultimately — together with the Italian writings of Petrarch and Boccaccio — became the basis for the national language of Italy (which first emerged only in the late nineteenth century).

    Dante in translation…

    The most recent translations have been published by top Dante scholars Robert Durling (Oxford University Press, 1996 [2003]) and Mark Musa (Indiana University Press, 1996 [2004]. For readability, I’ve always been a big fan of the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1892-1893). From a purely exegetic point of view, I always prefer Charles Singleton (Princeton University Press, 1970-75). Allen Mandelbaum’s excellent translation (Bantam Books, 1980) is one of the more inspired renderings in my opinion and Robert Pinsky’s “verse translation” of the Inferno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994) was an interesting experiment in “translation as performance.”

    Breaking (good) news: Antinori’s 03 Brunello released by Italian authorities

    It’s not entirely clear what went on “behind the scenes” but Marchesi Antinori has become the first Brunello producer — of the 5 officially known to be suspected of adulteration — to announce that its 2003 Brunello will be available for sale as early as next week. Read the whole story at VinoWire.

    Although the question of when Brunello producers will be given “guarantee” letters by the Italian government remains unclear (nor is it clear which arm of the government will issue said letter, now required by the U.S. government for Brunello imports), the news of Antinori’s green light seems to be a very positive step in the right direction.

    I, for one, am very relieved to see that the Brunello controversy is beginning to subside and I look forward to drinking 03 Brunello by all of my favorite producers.

    In other news…

    Above: Grilled Mahi Mahi tacos and 1989 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia at my favorite taco shack, Bahia Don Bravo, in Bird Rock (La Jolla), CA. Click on image for centerfold.

    I finally convinced my favorite taco shack to let me bring my own wine: last night Irwin and I opened 1989 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia (white) with our grilled Mahi Mahi tacos. Irwin was really blown away by the Lopez de Heredia, noting that “there’s nothing about this wine that I don’t like.” It was showing very well, with nice acidity, nuanced fruit, and judicious alcohol — perfectly balanced.

    Bahia was packed last night and we were lucky to find a table for two. Irwin really dug the Viña Tondonia, saying that it was “the best white wine I’ve ever had.” I have to say that it is one of my all-time best white wines, too.

    We also drank a 2003 Vignalta Gemola, a Bordeaux-style blend made in the Euganean Hills outside Padua, where Petrarch spent the last years of his life compiling and editing his life’s work. It didn’t show as well as other bottles I’ve opened.

    Bahia Don Bravo
    5504 La Jolla Blvd
    La Jolla, CA 92037
    (858) 454-8940

    Asimov wins Veronelli prize

    New York Times wine columnist and author of The Pour, Eric Asimov, has won the prestigious Premio Veronelli (Veronelli prize) for “best food and wine writing in a foreign language.” Also nominated for the category were Michelle Shah and Gilles Pudlowski. Eric was the only American to receive an award at the third annual Premio Veronelli ceremony held in Milan last week.

    Last week, Veronelli Editore announced the winners of the third annual Premio Veronelli or Veronelli prize, an award inspired by the life and career of Luigi Veronelli (1926 – 2004) — the architect of Italy’s current food and wine renaissance, and one of Italy’s most controversial and influential food and wine editors and writers.

    Although not nearly as commercial in scope, the Premio Veronelli is the counterpart of the U.S. James Beard Foundation Awards. Its 16 categories include prizes for best restaurateur, winemaker, olive oil producer, distiller, and food and wine writing among others.

    The Veronelli prize committee praised Eric for “courageous independence” in his writing and his “profound knowledge of Italian wine”:

      Writing “from the prestigious platform of The New York Times, food and wine critic Eric Asimov has maintained courageous independence in his opinions, which often lie outside the mainstream. Although not a wine writer in the strictest sense, he has shown profound knowledge of Italian wine. And he has voiced his greatest appreciation when, unhindered, it expresses the terroir where it was born.”

    Widely read in Europe, Eric’s column in the “paper of record” became a hot topic earlier this year in Italy when he was mistranslated by an Italian newswire service: according to the erroneous report, he had called Barolo the world’s “sexiest wine.” An article in Italy’s national daily La Stampa compounded the misunderstanding when it asked noted winemakers to comment on a declaration never uttered by Eric. Click here to read my post on the Sexy Barolo affair.

    Congratulations, Eric! It’s great to hear that the voice of American wine writing (and wine blogging) makes a difference on the other side of that great misunderstanding that we know as the Atlantic ocean.

    TTB guidelines for Brunello importers

    This morning, my friend, top Italian wine blogger Alfonso Cevola (On the Wine Trail in Italy) sent me a link to the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade bureau’s new guidelines for Brunello importers. According to the circular, importers must now submit a statement from the Italian government “attesting” that the wine meets Italian appellation regulations. It’s not clear how U.S. importers will obtain required documentation for Brunello coming in after June 23 (that’s Monday!).

    Check out Alfonso’s insightful, futuristic (post-apocalyptic, really) post on Brunello.

    In other news…

    My friend Alessandro Bindocci of Il Poggione (one of my favorite Brunello producers) just launched a blog called Montalcino Report “devoted to the vines, wines, people, and life in Montalcino and Sant’Angelo in Colle.”

    “History has yet to be written in Bolgheri”

    Above: Winemaker and owner of Le Macchiole Cinzia Merli — producer of one of Italy’s most talked-about wines — at Fraîche in Culver City, CA last night.

    Last night found me in one of the most talked-about restaurants in America together with one of Italy’s most talked-about winemakers, Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole.

    Ever since Frank Bruni included Fraîche (Culver City, CA) in his top 10 list of restaurants that “count coast-to-coast,” friends (from the left bank and right) have raved to me about its food. One of the guests at dinner last night told me you need to reserve four months in advance (although another noted, “we didn’t need Frank to tell us how good Fraîche is”).

    It’s unlikely that I could ever get a reservation there but Cinzia Merli certainly can: her winery has been touted (pun intended) as the new Super Tuscan supreme and at least one of her bottlings has attained a Midas-touch 100-point score (conferred by the sole arbiter of such accolades). Her high-end, handmade wines retail for upward of $250 these days.

    Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am generally not a fan of Super Tuscans — wines by definition aged in new oak. But who could resist an invitation to dine with Italy’s newly anointed megawatt star at one of the hottest tables in America?

    Above: Branzino with escargot tempura at Fraîche. I regret to say that the the restaurant was disappointing. I was expecting simpler, locally driven fare. But escargot tempura? The service was excellent but more than once our table had to send back stemware that smelled like a sewer (I’m not kidding). When you’re pouring $250+ bottles of wine, you’d hope that someone would pay attention. There didn’t seem to be a sommelier on duty that night. The vibe of the restaurant felt like a scene from Altman’s 1993 film “Short Cuts.”

    Conversation with Cinzia was truly fascinating and all in attendance were keen to discuss her preference for monovarietal (single-grape variety) wines in an appellation that has historically favored Bordeaux-style blends.

    “I believe that monovarietal wines are the greatest expression of Bolgheri’s terroir,” said Cinzia. “In the past, Bolgheri winemakers have felt that blended wines best expressed our terroir. But today the same producers who weren’t so thrilled about my monovarietal wines are now lobbying to change the appellation regulations and allow monovarietal wines [to be classified] as DOC.” (The Bolgheri DOC currently does not permit monovarietal wines.)

    “Even though we have very important models for winemaking — Sassicaia and Ornellaia — the history of Bolgheri has yet to be written,” she told us.

    Some notes from the dinner…

  • The name of Cinzia’s Paleo (today made from 100% Cabernet Franc) comes from a Tuscan word for tarraxacum, a dandelion that grows wild in Bolgheri. She does not weed her vineyards, thus allowing naturally occurring grasses and weeds to flourish. Tarraxacum was prevalent during the first vintage (1989). Paleo was originally made from a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese but became 100% Cabernet Franc with the 2001 harvest.
  • Messorio (her 100% Merlot, the most famous of her wines) is an archaic term for wheat farmer. Before Cinzia’s family planted their land to grapes, wheat was the most important crop grown there.
  • Her 100% Syrah is called Scrio, a Tuscan word for pure: Scrio and Messorio were first produced in 1994 and have always been vinified as monovarietal or “pure” wines.
  • It is believed that Le Macchiole, the name of Cinzia’s estate, comes from the Italian macchia or maquis, the dense scrub or brush that defines the landascape of Maremma (the Tuscan coastline).
  • Of all of her wines, my favorite is the Paleo because the bright acidity of her Cabernet Franc makes it her most food-friendly wine. The 2005 Messorio and the Scrio were opulent, rich with flavor, and they showed great minerality and depth. It will take some time (5-10 years?) for the wood to integrate in these wines but this vintage of Le Macchiole is clearly destined to be a benchmark for Bolgheri in years to come.

    My feelings about oak and the history of barrique aging in Italy continue to evolve: hopefully, my path will cross once again with Cinzia and I will get the chance to taste these powerful wines when they have had a chance to evolve.

    Breaking news: TTB backs off from Brunello lab analysis demand

    I just received news that the TTB has backed off from its demand for laboratory analyses from Montalcino. In April, the TTB or Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade bureau had requested a list of Brunello producers implicated in the current Brunello controversy. In May, after the Consortium of Brunello producers and the Italian government had failed to respond, the Americans informed them that unless they received the list by June 23 (the original date was set for June 9), they would block imports of Brunello unaccompanied by laboratory analysis certifying that the wine was made from 100% Sangiovese. Evidently, following meetings last week between the Italian Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, and his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, the Americans have agreed to lift the requirement.

    This is great news. It came to me via a letter circulated by the National Association of Beverage Importers.

    Click here to read it.

    Frankly, I feel that the whole issue had been blown out of proportion by a series of misunderstandings and mishaps.

    I’m writing from the road today (stayed in Vegas last night) but will post more tomorrow on what this will mean for Brunello and for us Brunello lovers (an association of which I am a card-carrying member!).

    Nous Non Plus in LA, SF, Germany, and revelations from Montalcino

    Above: Nous Non Plus performed this spring in Slovenia. That’s me stage left (on the right). Click here to read an interview with the band published in this week’s H Magazine.

    Nous Non Plus will be performing this week in Los Angeles (Friday night) and San Francisco (Saturday noon, free show). Click on cities for info. We also learned that we will be performing at a Green Party event in Frankfurt an der Oder (about an hour outside Berlin) on Saturday, August 30.

    In other news…

    Il Sole 24 Ore reported yesterday that it was the discovery of ghost vineyards that led to the current controversy in Brunello. According to the story, winemakers were releasing more wine than their vineyards could produce. The current investigation began not because the Italian treasury department suspected winemakers of adulteration but rather because wineries allegedly over-reported surface area “under vine” or “planted to grape,” as they say in the wine world. It’s possible that the wineries were reporting false information because they were applying for bank loans using their vineyards as collateral.

    Click here to read about it in VinoWire.

    Il Sole 24 Ore (literally, “The Sun 24 Hours [a Day]” or “Sun Around the Clock”) is Italy’s most highly regarded business newspaper. It’s Italy’s counterpart to The Wall Street Journal.

    Colorado Day 6: Aspen, under the big top

    Thanks everyone for checking in this week. When I get back to California, I’ll post on some of the tastings I attended. In the meantime, here are some images from opening day at the 2008 Aspen Food & Wine Classic…

    The first session of tasting seminars at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic

    Under the big top: a view of one of the main tents at the festival.

    Martin Foradori (owner Hofstätter) and New York restaurateur Danny Meyer share a laugh after Danny led tasters in a chorus of “Alto Adige” to the tune of Mel Brook’s “High Anxiety.”

    Ran into Ed McCarthy and Mary Mulligan, the first couple of the U.S. food and wine scene.

    Celeb sommelier Richard Betts wanted me to try his new Mojito at the bar at the storied Little Nell hotel.

    Drank 1996 Jacquesson for lunch.

    My friend Aldo Sohmthe best sommelier in the world — poured me some great Rieslings.

    1988 Massolino Vigna Rionda Barolo was fantastic. Note the clear, brick color of the wine, a standout for me on this trip.

    Evening found me in the home of collector. The views in Aspen are amazing.

    Colorado Day 5: Aspen Celeb Watch! (or my new career as paparazzo)

    paparazzo (1961), the name of the character Paparazzo, a society photographer in F. Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960).

    The selection of the name Paparazzo (which occurs as a surname in Italy) for the character in Fellini’s film has been variously explained. According to Fellini himself, the name was taken from an opera libretto; the comment is also attributed to him that the word “suggests a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging”. It is also used as the name of a character by G. Gissing in By the Ionian Sea (1909), which appeared in Italian translation in 1957 and has been cited as an inspiration by E. Flaiano, who contributed to the film’s scenario. (For further possible expressive connotations of the name, it has also been noted that in the Italian dialect of Abruzzi, where Flaiano came from, paparazzo occurs as a word for a clam, which could be taken as suggesting a metaphor for the opening and closing of a camera lens; the Italian suffix -azzo).

    Oxford English Dictionary, online edition

    Sommelier Carlos “Charlie” Arturaola and celeb Chef José Andrés at the “must be seen at” Wines of Spain party.

    Chef Andrés made a pork sausage paella for the overflowing crowd at the party, held this year in a private home (chef Andrés was assisted by chef Terri Cutrino).

    Culinary legend Jacques Pepin looked fabulous as always at the Food & Wine Classic welcome party. How do the French do it?

    Celeb Chef Tom Colicchio kept a lid on it as he did an interview.

    Importer Bartholomew Broadbent and tele producer Josie Peltz (the better half of celeb sommelier and wine writer David Lynch).

    American Express head honcho Ed Kelly and my buddy Ray Isle, Deputy Wine Editor at Food & Wine, on the other side of the velvet rope.

    Restaurateur and wine world star Brian Duncan and winemaker Danilo Drocco lunched in town yesterday.

    Life isn’t treating this paparazzo so bad: I drank a 1990 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande at a private dinner last night.

    Which red wine? And cool Italian-related stuff to do in NYC.

    An article on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times reported that “New Hints Seen That Red Wine May Slow Aging.” According to the article, pharmaceutical companies are investing unspeakable amounts of money to try to recreate the health-enhancing properties of red wine in the hopes of discovering a would-be fountain of youth.

    Europeans have long believed that red wine is part of a healthy diet and life and that red wine can help people to live longer (I remember a 90+ year-old lady I knew in Pieve di Cadore in the Dolomites who poured a glass of red wine in her soup every day; she claimed that it was the secret to her longevity and the quality of her life and lucidity at such an advanced age).

    But which red wine are we talking about? Certainly not high-alcohol, concentrated wines, out-of-balance, with fruit created by technology, so viscous you could use them to oil up your Harley Davidson.

    No, those aren’t the red wines that the old folk drink. It’s unfortunate when headlines like that appear because they don’t contextualize the health-enhancing properties of wine (red or white): wine is healthy when it is drunk in moderation as part of a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle.

    Time for me to stop pontificating now…

    I did, however, like Eric’s article on Burgundy.

    In other news…

    Blow-by-blow, day-by-day, minute-by-minute, mano-a-mano, tête-à-tête, vis-à-vis coverage of my Aspen trip begins on Monday. So stay tuned…

    In other other news…

    Here are some cool Italian-related things going on in Manhattan in June.

    My friend Keith de Lellis, collector extraordinaire of vintage Italian photography, is exhibiting a show entitled “La Strada,” featuring 1950s original black and white prints of street life in Italy. Years ago, I helped Keith research his buying trips to Italy and I was fascinated by the people we met, the stories they told, and the out-of-the-way places Keith travels to find this amazing photography (the prints aren’t cheap, btw). Between the second world war and Italy’s economic miracle in the 1960s, photography became an inexpensive and popular hobby there and even amateur photographers seemed capable of creating neorealist works of art. All of Keith’s prints date back to the 1950s and when you seem them in person, the quality of the paper and the printing techniques give the photos an ineffable aura (think Walter Benjamin’s aura, à la “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”).

    Through June 14.

    Keith de Lellis Gallery
    1045 Madison Ave at 80th St.
    (212) 327-1482

    Another friend of mine, Caterina Bertolotto, has just mounted a show of her couture, “Dresses of Transportation,” at the Italian American Museum. Born in Piedmont, Caterina is one of the most colorful New Yorkers I’ve ever met, a true original, an artist, whose entire life — and it’s not an exaggeration to say this — is a work of art. She’s also the author of an Italian language instruction manual and a great Italian instructor. She has taught at the New School and also teaches privately.

    Through June 30.

    Italian American Museum
    28 W 44th St between 5th and 6th
    (212) 642-2020