Beyond the yellow brick road

I have a lot of respect for Lyle over at Rockss and Fruit: he’s got a great palate, has a lot of interesting insights into wine, and every once in a while, he simply posts YouTube links and lets the world know “Just how I feel now.”

Today’s been a f*#$ed-up day and this is just how I feel now… “This boy’s too young to be singing the blues.” Check out some Elton vintage ’73.

The cork conundrum continues

Above: why don’t you just walk all over me? A zerbino (doormat) made out of corks by my friend Dana.

My post “Murder the Moonshine: Considerations on Corkiness” generated some interesting comments last week. I’ve made a selection below. Also, be sure to check out Brooklynguy’s excellent post on corkiness, where he speaks with candor uncommon in the world of wine blogging, and Craig Camp’s I’m-as-mad-as-hell frustration with cork taint in a favorite Chablis.

The bottom line? The issue of cork taint in “on-premise” (restaurant) sales remains a conundrum.* There’s no easy solution.


The practice of handing the recently disengorged cork to the customer is equally confusing, since no one seems to know what to do. Sniff it, squeeze it, taste it?


Many people will object to the sommelier tasting the wine first, especially at today’s prices. On whether the wine is corked, sensitivity to corkiness will vary among persons, if the sommelier isn’t especially sensitive to corkiness it presents a problem to a customer who is.


It would be nice to see some of the more ridiculous aspects of so-called wine etiquette erased from Western dining culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this problem only seems to occur in countries without a long wine tradition (e.g., the USA and the UK).


It always presents an odd situation when you are forced to determine, immediately after the bottle is open, while conversation at the table has stopped, to tell whether a bottle is flawed. Sometimes it’s immediately obvious, but many times not. I hate that feeling after I’ve “approved” a wine and then consumed 1/3 of the bottle only to have a serious flaw to appear with aeration. Of course knowledgeable wine staff will get it, but less experienced servers will undoubtedly be confused…

Tracie B.:

I say yes, isn’t this the job of the sommelier? BUT, in restaurants without one (read: most of the ones I patronize), I would certainly prefer to determine this myself. Waitstaff is typically sorely undereducated, much more than some of them seem to think.


I always feel like I am being asked to perform a slightly embarrassing role in this – I completely agree, anachronistic – ritual. The sommelier pours the wine, and I am expected to knowingly swirl, sniff, quaff, pretending to know what I am tasting for (I haven’t a clue) and the sommelier pretends to defer to my educated judgment (no doubt sniggering inwardly at my obvious confusion.) It is a useless exercise and I always imagine a laugh track somewhere in the background at my expense.


Bring back the classic tastevin!

* “At the time of the Enlightenment, the OED reports, the word gained a sense of ‘a riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a pun or play on words.’ In modern times, the punning sense of conundrum atrophied, unfortunately for wordplayers, leaving only the sense of helpless speculation. The meaning is now ‘a question whose answer can only be guessed at.’ Where in antiquity did Ben Jonson find the word? Lexicographers throw up their harmlessly drudging hands and say, ‘Origin obscure’; the etymology of conundrum can best be described by itself.”
— William Safire

The ashes of Dante: exile rescinded but Count Serego Alighieri refuses Florentine Golden Florin

You may remember my recent post about Dante Alighieri and the Florentines’ attempt to bring his remains back to their city by rescinding his exile. According to a report published today in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the motion to rescind the exile was approved by the Florence city council but Dante’s descendant, winemaker Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, has refused to accept the Golden Florin, the city’s greatest honor. Dante (left) was exiled in 1302 and died in Ravenna, where his tomb remains a popular tourist attraction.

“When I see things like this, I pray to heaven that they will leave poor Dante in peace,” said Serego Alighieri, the 20th and current generation of Dante Alighieri’s family. “That’s why I thought the Florence ‘full rehabilitation’ initiative was good. But even on that front, things didn’t go so well: at the city council meeting where they were supposed to rescind the 1302 banishment decree, the measure passed with just one vote. It was approved but by just a small margin and it was immediately sullied by base controversies that touched even me — and I have nothing to do with the whole affair. It got to the point that I decided not to accept the Golden Florin.”

Italophones can read the entire account here.

Required reading: Dr. V’s Wine Politics

What I like even more than the title of Tyler Colman aka Dr. Vino’s Wine Politics (UC Press) is what the binomial title implies: “wine is politics” and “wine is — by its nature — political.”

In North America, where we consider wine a “luxury product,” we are apt to forget the historically political significance of wine and the wine trade. Over at Divino Scrivere, one of my favorite Italian wine blogs, the authors recently reminded their readers that “il vino è politico” in an eloquent post on one of the world’s most poetically engagé winemakers, Bartolo Mascarello, whose “No Barrique, No Berlusconi” labels continue to inspire the enlightened among us.

The leader of the first generation of critical theory Theodor W. Adorno wrote famously that “under the aegis of cultural industry… art and ideology are becoming one and the same thing.” In reading Dr. V’s book, I couldn’t help but think of Adorno and make an analogy to the contemporary world of wine, driven by a new “cultural industry.”

Few winemakers are as overtly political as B. Mascarello, but today more than ever, the act of winemaking and the act of wine writing are inherently ideological and therefore political. More than ever before in the history of humankind, the acts of vinification and vinography are intrinsically ideological and political expressions, whether it’s the Gallo family concocting wines for the “misery market” or Mr. Bob “the difference with me is the impact is worldwide” Parker dictating which French winemakers will be able to sell their wines this year. (Oops, sawwy Mark Squires!)

From his account of the 1960s “‘magic chef’ who could transform bad grapes into good wine” (p. 69) to his excellent Keynesian approach to the hegemony of American wine writers, Dr. V provides meticulous historical background and astute insight into the powers that drive wine trends and sales in our country:

    “As John Maynard Keynes noted in his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, to try to predict the winner of a lineup of one hundred contestants in a beauty contest, the best tactic is to ‘favor an average definition of beauty rather than a personal one.’ Reviews by a powerful critic can organize the wine market into good, better and best, and prices will follow suit. But they may also steer consumers away from wines they might otherwise prefer.” (pp. 118-19)

Europeans are acutely aware of the political nature of wine: just last week, one Italian politician compared himself to a politically charged wine, Brunello, while another snubbed a famous Italian wine with historically political connotations, Lambrusco. Unfortunately, American wine lovers have remained in the political dark and know little about why they drink and even prefer the wines the find in their wine stores and supermarkets. I applaud Dr. V for this excellent scholarly work, sure to become “required reading” in any serious wine education program.

In other news…

Do Bianchi did not publish a review of Alice Feiring’s new book simply because my friendship with Alice precludes me writing an entirely unbiased assessment but I cannot recommend it more highly. Do check out Leonardo Lopate’s recent interview with Alice: I really liked the definition of “natural wine.”

In other other news…

Check out this 1970s Gallo ad for “Blush Chablis”: “It’s what happens when a white wine decides to blush.”

Slovenia Day 3: Ljubljana rocks

The tales of my April Italy/Slovenia trip have been interrupted by other pressing posts. Here’s a short photo essay of gig day in Ljubljana where we played one of our most fun shows ever to an adoring crowd.

Ljubljana is a beautiful city and the people are very friendly there.

It seemed that everywhere we went, they were expecting us with open arms.

We ate goulash in a medieval re-enactment restaurant that had been recommended to us. It looked really touristy but the food was actually very good. Goulash is not a very sexy dish to photograph but it was delicious and warmed our bellies on this rainy April day.

The girls autographed copies of our CD for fans who had won a radio contest to get their pictures taken with us. They also won a Nokia phone, courtesy of Mobitel, the Slovenian cellphone company that used our track Lawnmower Boy in a TV commercial.

They looped the commercial on the flat-screens at the club (click image to view, in case you’ve not seen it and are so inclined).

The changing face of Europe: the check-point is no longer manned at the border crossing. We headed back to Italy the next day.

Murder the moonshine: considerations on corkiness

The food and wine blogosphere went a little nuts a few weeks ago after Christopher Hitchens wrote this rant on wine service at Slate and Frank Bruni chimed in over at Diner’s Journal. Their core lament, it seems, is that waiters refill their wine glasses at inopportune moments or overly enthusiastically. I must confess that I share their frustration, mainly because when a glass of wine is topped off, the process of aeration is interrupted: I like to linger over my wine and observe how it changes with aeration. The other night in a very fancy Los Angeles restaurant, a waiter actually poured water into my wine glass (but that’s another story). As one commentator noted on Frank’s blog, this issue can be resolved simply by politely asking the waiter not to top off the glasses.

It’s another issue that concerns me most: the age-old practice of having the patron taste the wine to determine whether or not it’s “corked.” Corkiness is a delicate subject and I’ve seen it lead to heated arguments between wine professionals — the one claiming a wine is corked, the other claiming it’s not. And corkiness can be so subtle that its virtually undetectable. In fact, the lack of fruit on the nose of a wine (and in the mouth) can be the first tell-tale sign of cork taint and it often takes considerable aeration for the corkiness to reveal itself fully.

Above: a bottle of 1967 Produttori del Barbaresco. The cork crumbled as I pulled it but — with patience and my favorite wine key — I was able to extract it entirely. A crumbled cork is not necessarily a sign of corkiness and in fact, this wine was in great shape and drank beautifully.

Why then, I ask, do we force the average patron — who generally lacks the experience needed to detect corkiness — to make that evaluation? The other night in a San Diego restaurant, a sommelier poured tasting pours of a red wine for a married couple. The wine had just been opened at the bar for the by-the-glass list. The couple told him that they liked the wine and the sommelier poured them each a glass from the same bottle. Halfway through their meal, they called the sommelier over and asked if the wine should smell so “corky.” I offered to smell the wine and it was indeed very corked.

This all could have been avoided if the sommelier would have tasted the wine before he brought it out on the floor.

“Murder the moonshine,” Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti once exhorted. It’s time to do away with the anachronistic, obsolete practice of having the patron determine whether the wine is corky or not. How is she/he to do that — on the spot — when she/he is distracted by her/his dining companions’ conversation, the unfamiliar surroundings and smells of a restaurant? It’s generally accepted that up to 8% of bottles are corked. Check out the results of this study. The waiter should present the bottle, pour her/himself a tasting pour, evaluate its fitness, and then serve it.

What do you think?

Above: the 1967 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco (classico) was paired with a roast leg of lamb last Easter Sunday.

Camaronillas and Cornas

Here’s a little photo essay of Sunday night 2004 Chablis by La Chablisienne and sunset and then 2001 Les Méjeans Cornas by Jean-Luc Colombo and camaronillas at Bahia Don Bravo in Bird Rock. Salvador and Roberto have been really cool about letting me bring my own wine and the other night they turned me on to a dish I’ve never had there: camaronillas — grilled corn tortillas wrapped around jumbo shrimp and then deep fried. The camaronillas are then dressed with shredded cabbage, lettuce, fresh salsa, shredded cheese, and a light mayonnaise sauce. Salvador explained that camaronillas is a cognate of camarones (shrimp) and quesadilla (a tortilla stuffed with cheese). Salvador said that it’s a specialty of his home state Guerrero.

Bahia was packed when we got there so we walked down to Calumet Park, broke out our stemware and 2004 Chablis by Chablisienne and watched the sunset.

The point you see in the distance is Bird Rock, the surf break that gives Bird Rock its name.

We shared a glass of 2001 Les Méjeans Cornas by Jean-Luc Colombo with this foxy lady.

Camaronillas are my new favorite dish at Bahia and they paired well with the rich Cornas. The mouthfeel of the fried shrimp, in particular, went well with the meatiness of the excellent wine.

I love Dora: she’s the chef at Bahia. She’s not there every night, but, man, when she is, look out!

Berlusconi and Brunello

To read my translation and commentary of Emilio Giannelli’s political cartoon above, click on the image.

Italy’s controversial prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, probably appears in at least one political cartoon every day, but Saturday’s vignette in the Corriere della Sera was different: Brunello di Montalcino, it seems, has become a political metaphor (click the image above to read my translation and commentary at

Berlusconi and the Bush administration made the English-language newswire (and headlines in Italy) a few weeks ago. On the occasion of the G8 Summit in Japan, someone at the U.S. State Dept. plagiarized an unflattering profile of Berlusconi word-for-word and printed it in the U.S. government’s “background” briefing materials for press.

According to the bio and our government, Berlusconi is “one of the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for governmental corruption and vice… regarded by many as a political dilettante who gained his high office only through use of his considerable influence on the national media until he was forced out of office in 2006.”

The Bush administration promptly apologized for the gaffe. Bush and Berlusconi consider themselves “good friends” and Berlusconi was a vocal supporter of Bush’s war in Iraq.

In case you’ve never seen Mascarello’s famous “No Berlusconi, No Barrique” label, check out Wolfgang’s post over at Spume.

Mixing Bollinger?

Above: Jean-Luc Retard (aka Dan Crane) and Céline Dijon (aka Verena Wiesendanger) relax after mixing the first track from our new album.

Nous Non Plus celebrated the mix of the first track from our new album (work-in-progress title Ménagerie), “Bollinger,” with a bottle of the eponymously named Bollinger (NV, Special Cuvée) that I had picked up earlier in the day at my favorite Southland wine store, Wine House (great Italian selection, a really cool enomatic tasting room, and an excellent cheese monger as well).

We’re such fans of Bollinger that we were inspired to write a song (about some lovers who love the wine). Bollinger will also make another appearance in one of our more sexy tracks (but you’ll have to wait until we disgorge the album to hear it…).

Above: It’s quite a scene at Colorado Wine Company’s Friday night tastings in Eagle Rock.

After we finished tweaking the track and listening with our friend, engineer, and fellow wine lover Bryan Cook at Juice Monster studios in Eagle Rock, we headed over to Colorado Wine Company for their Friday night wine tasting. When I asked the dude at the register what the theme was, he said “After a while, we just ran out of ideas so there really is no theme” to the flight of wines they serve. This week’s tasting was dubbed “Under the Covers” because “we’re playing only cover songs” on the house stereo, he told me. It’s quite a scene (read “singles”) over there at Colorado Wine Company and for $15 you get 5 generous pours — nothing to write home about but it helps to “break the ice.”

My night ended with mezze lune ravioli stuffed with eggplant and scamorza over at what’s become my LA late-night hangout, Mozza, where I believe they serve until about 10 or so. GM David turned me on to a wine I’ve never tasted before (and imported to the U.S. for the first time only recently), 2006 Sella Coste della Sesia DOC Rosato “Majoli,” 100% Nebbiolo rosé, fresh and bright with a perfect touch of tannic structure, a great pairing for the flavors of my ravioli.

Life could be worse…