Colorado Day 3 (bis): brush with celebrity at Frasca

Above: Jesse Becker of Frasca is one of Boulder’s 6 — yes, count ’em — master sommeliers. He turned me on to a fantastic Verdicchio di Matelica (Colle Stefano 2006).

Boulder is some town. By my count, there are currently 6 master sommeliers working here. The food — from the tripe tacos to the hakuri turnips — is fantastic. The air is clean, the folks friendly.

The affettati (charcuterie) at Frasca are served with a rafano (horseradish) sauce. The San Daniele prosciutto was perfectly sliced (not too thin, not too thick) and I have to say that the domestic Fra’ Mani salame toscano was very good. The grissini (bread sticks) were the best I’ve had outside of Italy.

I’ve had some amazing enogastronomic experiences in the few days I’ve been here, including a brush with food and wine celebrity: I got to taste some wine and chat with master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, whose excellent Friulian-themed restaurant Frasca just won an 08 Beard for best chef in the South West (for chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson; Bobby was also nominated for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional).

Above: no Friulian menu would be complete without a frico, in this case, a frico caldo (a warm as opposed to fried frico), made with potatoes and Friulian Montasio (cow’s milk) cheese.

Above: mandatory tuna tartare is often dull and unimaginative but Frasca’s Hawaiin Big Eye Tuna “Crudo” with Pickled Ramps and English Peas was great. The Verdicchio di Matelica (more fruit- and mineral-driven than its neighbor Verdicchio di Castelli di Iesi) made for a perfect pairing.

Colorado Day 3: competitve taco-eating in Boulder

Boulder’s reputation for great Mexican food had to be tested and so I ate lunch at not one but two Mexican restaurants yesterday. The food was just too good to resist… So little time and too many tacos!

Carnitas (roast pork) and lengua (tongue) tacos at La Ranchera.

La Ranchera Taqueria
2690 28th St
Boulder, CO 80301
(720) 565-0497

Buche (marinated tripe) taco at Pupusas.

Tamale at Pupusas.

I also had pupusas (thick, griddle-fired tortillas) at Pupusas… one stuffed with chicharron (pork belly) and cheese and the other with loroco (fiddle head ferns) and cheese.

Washed it all down with taranjo (grapefruit) soda by Jarritos. No corn syrup here.

Pupusas Sabor Hispano
4457 Broadway St
Boulder, CO 80304
(303) 444-1729

Colorado Day 2: my dinner with Bruce (from lowbrow to the high)

Above: “family meal,” as they say in the restaurant biz, at The Kitchen in Boulder, CO. I have never met a restaurant staff who seemed to enjoy its work as much as the team at The Kitchen, where family meal takes place at the end of the night.

Although it began with a lowbrow culinary exprience (see below), yesterday certainly ended with a high: a truly memorable dinner at The Kitchen in Boulder, CO, a restaurant considered (rightly) by many to be one of the top dining destinations in the U.S.

Above: a bottle of Yarra Yering Number 1 from Victoria Australia, a Bordeaux blend, recommended by Bruce, impressed me with its low alcohol, restrained fruit, and earthiness.

“Boulder is really at the center of the U.S. natural food industry,” explained sports and wine writer Bruce Schoenfeld, who had graciously agreed to meet me for dinner. “And The Kitchen is all about sourcing from local purveyors.” Either wall of the spartan dining room is adorned with a blackboard reporting the sources for nearly everything on the menu.

The pork chop at The Kitchen was excellent, both in terms of the quality of the meat and the primary flavors of the “chard gratin, fresno chilies, lemon juice.”

Excellent “prosciutto” by La Quercia wasn’t from Italy but rather Iowa: a quick visit to the producer’s website this morning revealed that the mid-west company produces a wide range of Italian-inspired charcuterie and also imports cured meat from Italy. (La Quercia’s Prosciuttopia is a imaginative if somewhat misguided linguistic creation, a colorful title for their accolades page. The liberties the U.S. food industry takes with Italian never cease to amaze me.)

Earlier in the day…

Yesterday ended on an haute note, but it began with a drive through Grand Junction, CO wine country and a lunch stop in Glenwood Springs.

Above: Grand Junction wine country is full of colorful old buildings like this fruit and honey stand.

Above: no need to ask Dr. Vino for a pairing… I drank a beer with my Mountain Oysters at Doc Holliday’s Restaurant and Saloon in Glenwood Springs. Yes, those are fried bull’s testicles.

Above: I can’t say that I recommend the Mountain Oysters at Doc’s but the Green Chili was great.

Song lyric of the day…

“I was Mogan David wine, she was Chablis fifty-nine.”

The Cowboy and the Lady
— John Denver

Rainin’ fire in the sky

Writing today from Grand Junction, Colorado on my way to Boulder… Here are some images from the road…

A fireworks field outside Las Vegas, Nevada.

In 1849, Brigham Young commissioned Cove Fort to protect the Mormons when he was building his temples in Salt Lake City and St. George, Utah.

They’re not kidding when they say that the tap water in Beaver, Utah is the best tasting in the United States. It won the title in 2006.

Seems that nowhere in our country is immune to “bomb scares,” at least according to the Richfield Reaper (I believe the term “reaper” in this case refers to farming).

Utah landscapes and horizons are literally breath-taking.

Currently playing…

Rocky Mountain High
John Denver

He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door

When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hangin’ by a song
But the string’s already broken and he doesn’t really care
It keeps changin’ fast and it don’t last for long

But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high (high in Colorado) rocky mountain high (high in Colorado)

He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say that he got crazy once, and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept his memory

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forests and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
You can talk to god and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high (high in Colorado) rocky mountain high (high in Colorado)

Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky mountain high

It’s a Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high
Rocky mountain high (high in Colorado) rocky mountain high (high in Colorado)
Rocky mountain high (high in Colorado) rocky mountain high do de do

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

Slovenia Day 2: forbidden mussels, winemaker not required

The name and location of the tavern where Nous Non Plus ate dinner on April 9, 2008 cannot be revealed: suffice it to say that the band’s metallic-gray van somehow found its way to a small village in the hills of Brda.

On the menu that night: a tide of scampi (Nephrops norvegicus, Norwegian lobster, adored by Céline Dijon aka Verena Wiesendanger, left) and forbidden date mussels (Lithophaga lithophaga, a long and narrow rock-boring mussel that uses an acidic secretion to chisel its way into the reefs of the northern Adriatic). The fishing of date mussels, I’m sorry to say, has been prohibited in Europe since 1992 because the reef has to be broken in order to extract the mollusk (in Italy, the sale of date mussels was outlawed in 1998). But in Slovenia (an EU country, btw), it seems delicacy trumps delinquency (I’ve heard that they’re easy to find in Apulia and other parts of Adriatic Italy as well).

Above: the delicious date mussels were cooked in white wine and garlic. They didn’t serve Aleš’ wine but the house Ribolla (Rebula) made for an excellent pairing.

Above: The scampi seemed to dance on this mixed seafood platter. Céline goes crazy for scampi. I’ve never seen her eat so much!

Earlier in the day (and frankly, the day didn’t start so early since we had stayed up all night long playing Beatles songs camp-fire style after NNP played two sets at the winery), Aleš had fulfilled his promise to explain the secret behind Movia’s Lunar, a wine he makes — as I discovered — from the free-run juice of unpressed, whole bunches of Ribolla using a unique system for carbonic maceration. He calls it Lunar because he follows the cycle of the moon for its production.

“Before man made a job for himself as a winemaker,” said Aleš, “the grape made the wine itself.” The grape berry “has a natural valve at its top,” he explained. When a grape drops to the ground, the naturally occurring yeasts on its skin migrate into the pulp and begin to ferment its juice. The valve at the top of the berry, “lets the carbon dioxide out without letting any oxygen in.”

So, when Aleš decided he wanted to make a wine with no intervention whatsoever, he used the grape as a model: he designed a barrel with a hole proportionate to the size of the aperture at the top of a grape berry. To plug the hole, he created a spring-loaded cap that releases the CO2 when pressure builds within the vessel without allowing any oxygen to enter. In essence, he built a large grape berry. He fills the “berry” with whole bunches of grapes and then seals it and lets nature do her work.

Above: Aleš always decants Lunar because it is unfiltered and contains a great deal of sediment.

He then concocted an elaborate system of tubes that allow him to draw off the wine without letting it come into contact with oxygen. But he also had to calculate “where” the wine would be in the barrel, since some of the solids fall to the bottom during fermentation while the skins float to the top. In a diagram he showed me, the “layer” of wine lies somewhere in the middle of the vessel. The wine is siphoned off into a larger stainless steel vessel from which he can then bottle the unfiltered wine.

Lunar isn’t cheap but it is one of those life-changing wines. When you taste it for the first time, you immediately experience its purity and integrity (and by integrity, I mean the etymological sense of the word, its wholeness, its untouchedness, from the Latin in- + tangere, to touch). Later in the trip, Aleš dubbed NNP the first “bio-dynamic” band: it was great to see my bandmates get turned on and tuned in to natural wine.

Required reading…

There’s a great article about Slovenian wine and Movia in the current issue of Fine Wine by
Bruce Schoenfeld
. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page where you can download a PDF’d version.)

I’ve become a fan of Bruce’ writing. I recently came across this passage in a piece he wrote in praise of a Patagonian Pinot Noir (which, he pointed out, doesn’t try to imitate Burgundy):

“I’m not sure why, but I hold Pinot Noir to a higher standard than I do other grapes. I come across far too many Pinots made in slavish imitation of Burgundy. These wines aren’t bad, just uninteresting. I mean, I love the Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,’ but I don’t ever need to hear Elton John sing his version again.”

I couldn’t agree more: I love Elton John but his version of LSD just doesn’t do it for me nearly the same way the Beatles’ does.

Slovenia Day 1: Movia (my barrique epiphany)

Just added…

Taste and chat at Jaynes: Thursday I’ll be pouring wine all night at Jaynes Gastropub in University Hts. (San Diego). Please stop by. Hopefully Chef Daniel will be serving his Alaskan halibut special…

Above: Aleš Kristančič draws off a barrel sample of his 2005 Pinot Noir. Note the size of the barrels. Aleš ages his wine exclusively in barrique.

My once immovable feelings about barrique (small, new oak barrels — French or Slavonian — used for aging wine) began to change last year when I read this article by Eric Asimov. With Socratic nuance, Eric pointed out that “Oaky may be bad, but oak is good.” Later that month, in response to a post I did on Luigi Veronelli and Italy’s historic relationship to new oak aging of wine, Eric authored a post in which he cast the use of barrique in judicious perspective. (If the wine blogosphere were a Renaissance court, Eric would be its wise and just prince: he brings an even-handed tone to a world prone to rants and extreme points of view. He was recently nominated for the Veronelli Prize for “best food and wine writing in a foreign language.”)

When my band Nous Non Plus arrived at the Movia winery in Brda, Slovenia on Monday, April 7, 2008, where we played a private party that evening, I had an epiphany of sorts: I discovered — to my surprise — that my friend Aleš Kristančič, whose wines I love and have enjoyed on many occasions, ages all of his wines in barrique.

Frankly, I was blown away. My friend and collaborator Franco Ziliani (known for his tell-like-it-is style) often points out that rules are rules: I have to confess that I had never detected oakyness in Aleš’ wines and Aleš gave me a proper schooling in situ as to how new oak can be used with the context of radically natural and undeniably biodynamic wines like his own. Ignoscetis mihi: as Franco says, if you taste something blind and you like it, you have to admit it.

Above: Aleš rocks out with his Soviet-era Tajfun bass (see headstock below). He played bass in the Yugoslav military band. Aleš became a fan of Nous Non Plus after he saw our Mobitel commercial and he invited the band to play a gig at his winery and later that week in Ljubljana.

“Oak is like the sheets of a bed,” said Aleš using a politically incorrect but apt simile, “when you break up with a girlfriend, you need to throw away the sheets and put new ones on the bed.” In his view, the yeasts and bacteria that grow on old oak barrels (and in particular, large oak barrels) can give unwanted flavors to the wine (other winemakers would argue that those flavors are elements in terroir expression).

One important element is the toasting of the oak. Aleš uses only gently toasted oak: “the staves are toasted by the cooper to shape the barrel,” he said, “not to give flavor to the wine.” (Many modern-style winemakers use heavily toasted oak to impart vanilla, chocolate, and tobacco and similar notes to their wines.)

But, most important, he explained, is the amount of time the wine spends in cask. “Many winemakers want to accelerate the aging process by using new oak for aging,” he said. “I’m not using the oak to soften the tannin. I am using it to oxygenate the wine slowly and gently.” (The pores in the new wood allow small amounts of oxygen to come into contact with the wine.) Where other producers age for 12 or even 18 months, Aleš often ages for up to 5 years in cask before bottling.

The other important element, he told me, is that he adds no sulfur whatsoever to his wine. “Even fine winemakers add very small amounts of sulfur in order to stabilize the wine more quickly. I don’t need to do that: I let time stabilize my wines. I’m not in a hurry,” Aleš said. The addition of sulfur, he explained, can cause the oak to impart some of its flavor to the wine.

Alder Yarrow just did a great post on Slovenia and Movia’s current releases over at his excellent blog Vinography.

I’ll be posting more on my stay and our shows in Slovenia and the wines we tasted and food we ate over the next few weeks. Look for my post on Movia’s Lunar: during my stay, Aleš revealed the secret of this 100% Ribolla Gialla that he makes from the free-run juice of whole bunches. He essentially fills a barrel with the grapes — stems and all — and lets the wine make itself. But there’s a trick to it: Aleš learned it all from a grape…

Slovenia is not as as developed as neighboring Friuli and its beauty is literally breath-taking. This shot — believe it or not — was taken from the toilet at the Movia guest house.