Worth reading: “Monty Waldin lets off steam about Brunellopoli”

Monty Waldin’s recent and extraordinary post at the Jancis Robinson subscription site has been making the rounds among wine bloggers: my partner over at VinoWire, Franco Ziliani, wrote to Jancis who graciously gave us permission to repost it here. Monty’s insights as a winemaker living in Montalcino are fascinating and he pulls no punches in this piece. A must-read for anyone who’s trying to wrap her/his head around the greed that led to the controversy now known as Brunellopoli or Brunellogate.

Thank you, Franco, for making that happen!

A virtual conversation: I am such a fan of Franco Ziliani’s blog Vino al vino that one day I wrote him and said, “why don’t we start an English-language blog devoted to the world of Italian wine where I can translate posts from your blog?” Three months later — without Franco and I ever meeting in person — we launched VinoWire, a blog devoted exclusively to the world of Italian wine. Franco is one of Italy’s top wine writers and — without a doubt — its most polemical. He reminds me of Italian literary figure Giuseppe Baretti (left), one of the great writers of the Italian Enlightenment: in the same spirit as Baretti’s critical journal La frusta letteraria or The Literary Whip, Franco’s excellent blog combines erudition, wine and travel writing, and an expertly critical approach to the field — where, too often, so-called wine writers are too timid to call a spade a spade. The title of Franco’s blog, vino al vino, comes from the Italian expression, pane al pane, vino al vino or call bread “bread”, call wine “wine”, in other words, say it like it is.

“Thank you Northern League, thank you minister Zaia.”

Historically and traditionally, Tuscany is one of Italy’s “red” states. And “red” in this case, does not denote “republican” but rather “communist.” (Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s other traditionally “red” region.)

So it came as something of a surprise to many when Montalcino residents draped their village with the following slogan on the occasion of Agricutlure minister Luca Zaia’s press conference last month, where he announced the “resolution” of the Brunello crisis: “Thank you Northern League, thank you minister Zaia.” That’s Zaia, pictured left, in his “I saved Brunello” press photo. Note the green pocket square — a symbol of the Northern League — and his black tie, a powerful and ideologically charged statement in a region where many still remember the thuggery of Mussolini’s camicie nere or black shirts.

Italy’s separatist Northern League is a secessionist, xenophobic political movement, led by anti-Italian, racist Umberto Bossi. Bossi, pictured left, recently caused a furor in Italy when he began flipping off the Italian national anthem. He has also said he believes the Italian flag should be used as toilet paper. The humor in the video below may be lost on some of you who don’t speak Italian but watch it anyway. You’ll notice Zaia in the front row at one of Bossi’s speeches. The Lega is part of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s current center-right coalition and when Berlusconi returned to power in May 2008, he made Zaia agricultural minister (no doubt, payback to the Lega for its support).

In nearly every one of Zaia’s press releases and statements on the Brunello controversy, he has been quick to accuse Italy’s center-left coalition, led by Romano Prodi, of inaction and ultimately has laid blame on his predecessor for the current crisis (whereby a local investigation of Brunello producers suspected of adulterating their wines has led to a U.S. block of imports from Montalcino).

So it must have come as a great surprise to Montalcino’s neighbors up in Montepulciano when they learned Friday that the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has now blocked imports of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. According to a report published by my friend Mitch Frank over at The Wine Spectator, the TTB made the move after receiving no response to requests for information on the current investigation of Vino Nobile producers (who are also suspected of adulterating their wine).

In the meantime, Zaia has been working to improve perception of Italian wine abroad by authorizing the bag-in-box packaging of DOC wine. I guess he thinks that Sangiovese will be easier to market in a box. He just needs to remember to open the mail from America first…

Nice going, Zaia! Thank you Northern League and thank you Minister Zaia!

Italian Wine Guy did this fantastic post on Zaia in July. I only wish Zaia could speak English well enough to understand the paronomastic parody!

I’m not a fan of Wikipedia but this entry on the Lega Nord is informative.

Per Bacco! The virtual sommelier

Last night found Mr. Bianchi on the floor of Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego, where I’ve been working as a sommelier on Friday and Saturday nights (we’ve been having a lot of fun with the wine program down there). During service, I received a text from a college friend, Beth, who was dining at Perbacco* in San Francisco with her boyfriend (they live in Santa Barbara): “What wine should we order?” I slipped into the back office, went online, and within moments was viewing the wine list. I’ve never dined at Perbacco, but I have to say I was impressed with the carta dei vini, both for its breadth and the reasonable prices. There were a number of excellent options. Massolino 1998 Barolo Rionda (left, photographed by Beth using her phone), I wrote back, “have the sommelier taste it for you and then have her/him decant it.” It was a romantic getaway for them and they wanted to drink something memorable. At 10:50, she texted me back: “Loved it!” 1998 is one of those “sleeper” vintages, often overshadowed by 97 (overrated but very good), 96 (one of the greatest in recent memory for Langa, still too tight for their palates), and 99 (also a classic Langa vintage). 98s can drink really well right now and so I knew with a little aeration Beth and her beau would dig it (and I wanted the onus of tasting the wine to lie on a sommelier since she is a wine lover, not a pro). Gauging from their list, I’m sure that the somms at Perbacco are top-flight folks. But wouldn’t it be cool if everyone could text a “virtual sommelier” from their table and get a personalized wine recommendation? Hhhhmmm…

*Perbacco! or per Bacco! is a euphemistic blasphemy, for Bacchus’ [sake]!, akin to our for goodness’ sake! It’s used to express surprise or wonderment. Vietti makes a Langhe Nebbiolo called Perbacco. It’s a declassified Barolo, winemaker Luca Currado told me. He uses it as a “loss leader,” a wine that he can sell at a lower price point to turn people on to his brand. The 2004 was insanely good and the 05 — on the list at Jaynes — is also showing really well right and represents one of the best values on any wine list.

Aspen revisited: it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

It wasn’t easy and frankly, I’m not sure how I survived the harrowing ordeal: please click here to read my “notes from the road” (PDF), tales from my Aspen trip published this month in The Tasting Panel.

I met restaurateur Brian Duncan in New York last year but I had never heard him speak. He really brought the house down with his “Wines that Love Food” seminar. And 1988 Massolino Barolo Margheria? Simply and awesomely unforgettable…

Guest blackberry blogger: David Lynch at 3,251 meters a.s.l.

Check out these canederli, consumed at 3251 m atop “piz boa” high above Corvara!
A presto

If anyone would appreciate the attached photo of truly ridiculously good AA porcini, it’d be you — last night we had these bitches every which way!!!!

Canederli (knödel in German) are bread dumplings, typically stuffed with speck, traditionally served in South Tyrol.

Fungi porcini (Boletus edulis) or swine mushrooms are so-called because in antiquity they were not prized as they are today.

David Lynch is one of our country’s top sommeliers and wine writers and just one of the nicest (and funniest) folks I know in this dog-eat-dog business. His intro to Italian wine seminar is one of the most popular at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. Check out this preview of David’s new book, The Wine Snob’s Dictionary (Random House, October 2008). Whatever David is pouring, hey, I’m drinking…

Par condicio: Pian delle Vigne 2003 sample sampled

Par condicio is a Latin expression used historically by the Italian legislature and subsequently by the Italian media to denote, among other things, “equal [air] time” for Italian political candidates (it’s modeled after the expression par condicio creditorum or as per agreement with creditors).* It’s an Italian political campaign convention much criticized by the hegemonic Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party and its leader Silvio Berlusconi, who happens to own and control a majority stake in Italian national television — private and public. (Silvio made The New York Times today for his prudish — yes, prudish! — attitudes. See below.)

When my buddy Lance invited me to attend an Antinori tasting over at Wine House in West LA, I felt a sense of moral obligation to swirl, sniff, savor, and spit. In particular, I was curious to taste the 2003 Pian delle Vigne, Antinori’s controversial, once-impounded, and now-cleared 2003 Brunello. (See this recent interview with Antinori winemaker Renzo Cotarella here.)

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am not a fan of modern-style Brunello and frankly, Pian delle Vigne is not a wine that I drink. But in the spirit of “fair and balanced” coverage, I am compelled to report that, judging from the color of the wine and its flavors and aromas, it was 100% Sangiovese (see the bright, clear color of the wine in the photo above). And although it was wooded, it did taste like Brunello: frankly, I found it to be more traditional-leaning than other bottlings of Pian delle Vigne. In all fairness, it’s a very well made wine.

One question remains, however: why were we tasting hand-labeled “samples” of the 2003 Brunello when the wine was presented in the U.S. as early as January 2008 with printed Antinori labels? There are certainly bottles of 2003 Pian delle Vigne in this country — many undoubtedly shipped before the April controversy, when Siena authorities impounded the wine. The wine has since been “cleared” by the Siena magistrate (as has Banfi’s, as of yesterday). So, why the need for “samples”? Food for thought…

Americans continue to adore Antinori’s wines and gauging from the stampede for the Guado al Tasso, Solaia, and Tignanello last night, the Marquis has not suffered from the recent Brunello controversy. It’s remarkable how much wine he makes and in how many regions. I had no idea, for example, that he makes a nice Franciacorta (Montenisa) and I was really impressed by his La Brancesca 2006 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Santa Pia, traditional in style, for under $40 retail.

In other news…

Separatist Italian agriculture minister Luca Zaia approves bag-in-box packaging for DOC wines. See this report.

In other other news…

Tiepolo’s titties tethered by Italian chieftain in “The Truth Unveiled by Time” tela!!!

In an unusual act of prudish countenance, the Berlusconi government ordered the nipples in Tiepolo’s “The Truth Unveiled by Time” covered. The painting appears in the backdrop of the Italian prime minister’s press conferences. See this report in The New York Times.

* “One of the cardinal principles governing the liquidation of insolvent estates is the equal treatment of creditors—the classical par condicio creditorum. Debtors on the eve of bankruptcy, either of their own volition or under pressure, may accord preferential treatment—by way of payment or security—to certain creditors.”

Source: “bankruptcy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Blogging from Beijiing: scorpions for lunch

Greg Wawro, aka Harry Covert (drummer, Nous Non Plus), guest blogs from Bejiing…

Harry Covert here, guest-blogging from Beijing. I decided to make a pre-Olympics visit at the invite of friends Steve Carter and Kelly Miller. Steve is doing the design and construction of the studio sets for NBC, which has meant relocating his family to Beijing for four months.

This is my first visit to Asia, and one of my main motivations for the trip was the food. I think on the grand scale, the Chinese food you get in New York is pretty mediocre. Don’t get me wrong; I love dollar dumplings at Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry in Chinatown, really miss Hong Kong cakes from Mosco Street, and appreciate the availability of broccoli and peanuts in brown sauce in the wee hours at Ollie’s in my neighborhood. But I don’t think the higher end Chinese restaurants in NYC (not counting the Momofuku empire) really distinguish themselves and many of the establishments are downright wretched. I’ve had way better experiences with Chinese food in San Francisco (particularly at the recently deceased Firecracker in the Mission). However, having never eaten Chinese food in China, I couldn’t claim that my opinion was particularly well-formed.

My first night here, we went to Li Family Restaurant in the Houhai District. This is one of the highest rated private-dining establishments in the city. Our party of four had its own room in a hutong house and a very attentive team of waitresses. We ordered a prix fixe dinner that consisted of about eight dishes. I was concerned that maybe my palate was too accustomed to Americanized Chinese food, as nothing really stood out from this meal. The flavors were on the bland side and the presentation and consistency of some of the meat dishes was a tad off-putting (e.g., gray pork belly floating in a sour broth). The highlight of the meal was the whole fish, which was delicious but so boney what it was difficult to enjoy.

Things started to look up when Kelly and I went to Din Tai Fung for lunch. Some regard the dumplings and buns here as the best in the world. The original restaurant is located in Tapei and was ranked among the top ten in the world by The New York Times in 1990 (an accolade that is still prominently referenced on the restaurants menus and placemats, although the date is not mentioned). They have several locations throughout Asia, three in Beijing, and even one in L.A. I have to say, the dumplings here live up to the hype. The pork dumplings have soup inside them, although in my opinion they completely blow away the soup dumplings you get at Joe’s Shanghai and Grand Sichuan International in NYC (two places that are known for this dish). The soup in Din Tai Fung’s dumplings is subtle and doesn’t overwhelm the pork-scallion mixture that it surrounds. The other thing that makes these dumplings superior is that they are served at the perfect temperature. The soup dumplings I’ve had in NYC have way to much juice in them and are cooked at a ridiculous temperature. You either have to wait forever for them to cool or you risk scalding your mouth as well as your chin because there is so much soup in them that if you try to bite them in half, the liquid gushes forth uncontrollably. Din Tai Fung prepares them differently. One of the ways to get the soup in the dumplings is to freeze it into blocks, wrap those in the skin with the pork mixture, and then steam them to melt the soup and cook the pork.

Perhaps the chefs at Din Tai Fung (who look more like lab technicians) have figured out a way to inject the soup into the dumpling rather than freezing it beforehand. Or maybe it’s that since they use a more modest amount of broth, they don’t have to steam the hell out of them. In any case, these are not to be missed.

Another amazing dish here is the fried pork chop with noodles and broth. The boneless chop is pounded thin, breaded, and lightly fried. It is sliced and served on top of the noodles and chicken broth. Somehow, the lab techs have figured out how to keep the pork from becoming soggy as it soaks in the broth and becomes more flavorful.

My Beijing food experience really took off with dinner at Yuxiang Renjia, which came recommended as one of the best Sichuan restaurants in the city (like most of the best restaurants in Beijing, they have several locations). I was really interested in checking out authentic, traditional Sichuan dishes because of my love of spicy food. Located on the 5th floor of an office building, the decor was faux Sichuan village meets Ikea–a little cheesy, but thankfully the food overwhelmed any interior decorating missteps.

The menu was the size of a monograph, divided into easy to navigate chapters (cold dishes, seafood, noodles, soups, etc.) with lots of pictures and unusually typo-free English. Our English-speaking waitress was extremely helpful as we attempted to order a broad sampling from the menu. We stayed away from some of the funkier dishes involving ox-blood, chicken toes, and fish lips and went deep on the heat.

We ordered mapo doufu (tofu with ground pork), kung pao chicken, twice-cooked pork, fried strings beans with garlic, pork ribs encased in sticky rice, cold bean-curd Sichuan style, smoked duck with pickled vegetables. The portions were huge and we had enough leftover for a lunch for two the following day. The duck dish was a delightfully innovative of combination of smoky and sour, unlike any Chinese dish I had eaten before.

Although all of these dishes save the ribs had spicy ratings of two to three chilis, it was a different kind of heat than what I had experienced previously with spicy dishes, Chinese or otherwise. The dishes produced a tingley numbing sensation on the lips and tongue, which was incredibly pleasurable and did not overwhelm the nuanced flavors of the dishes. You definitely feel the heat, but it’s not of the unpleasant set-your-whole-mouth-ablaze-and-cause-your-nose-to-run-profusely variety. This was a truly unique experience and one that I would kill for to have in NYC.

One of the biggest and best surprises of the meal here though, were the dumplings, which were stuffed with fried garlic, scallions, and pork. The bottoms were dipped in sesame seeds and then lightly fried so that the seeds were a bit toasted. The dough was halfway between a standard bun dough and a thinner dumpling dough–a perfect consistency. If someone could duplicate this dish in NYC, they would rival the popularity of the pork buns at Momofuku. All of the food, plus several bottles of Tsiangtao for cooling off the fire came to about $60!

After a half day visit to the Forbidden City, I headed to Wangfujing Snack Street, which is touted as a destination for those seeking to get a little adventurous food-wise. To this point, I had been a fairly timid about unusual meat dishes, and there are a lot of far out things (for a Westerner) on Beijing menus. The government had asked restaurants to take dog off their menus in order to avoid offending tourists in town for the Olympics. At one dive restaurant where we had delicious pork biscuits (think pulled pork inside of flatbread that was like a mixture of pita and motzah), they had put a single line of ink through their dog offering. Since there were other items on the menu they had been removed with white-out, I couldn’t help but think that this was some kind of mild protest, since the word “dog” was still clearly legible. Anyway, Snack Street consists of about a dozen kiosks, mostly offering various items grilled on skewers.

The skewers are displayed in cases and there’s very little English guidance as to what you are actually eating. I could make out various parts of cow, pig, chicken, and squid. But what I had really come for was to check out items with exoskeletons–grubs, sea-horses, and scorpions. I did a quick reconnoitre to check out what all was on offer, and all had pretty much the same dishes.

I chose one kiosk which had a unique marketing ploy: they’re scorpions were still squirming on the skewers. However, these are not what you receive when you order. They take a skewer that looks like it’s already been cooked through and toss it on the grill for reheating. So much for freshness.

As I took my hot skewer to find a place to sit to enjoy it, the looks I got from the locals indicated that this is something that really only tourists consume. The scorpions were covered in something akin to mild cajun spice. The tail and the claws were crunchy, natch, but not very flavorful except for the spice. The abdomen had more of a pungent flavor, much like when you eat a piece of shrimp where the vein has not been properly removed. An older Chinese man remarked to me that what I was eating was very healthy for me, so at least it’s got that going for it. He also noted that 15 Yuan (about $2) was too much to pay for these. I ate most of the four scorpions, but not having either been rocked like a hurricane or satiated, I decided to try candied plums on a stick (pineapple and grapes were also available). These were delicious–similar to candied apples although with a more complex combination of sweet and sour. In the end, the whole experience was kind of Disney-esque. Snack street is a small hutong surrounded by a massive modern shopping development, which includes a very high end mall. Steps away from scorpions wriggling on skewers, you’ve got KFC, McDonalds, and Starbucks. It seems like the street is being preserved just so that tourists like myself could have this experience. Many of Beijing’s hutongs are being leveled to make way for commercial development and while I’m thankful that this one is being preserved, it’s not clear whether this is an actual part of real Chinese culture or just part of the rampant commercialization that has taken over the city post-Mao.

My last dinner in Beijing was at Made in China in the Grand Hyatt Hotel. This place is known for its Beijing duck, which must be ordered when you make your reservation. The open kitchen offers the opportunity to watch the chefs cook whole ducks in an apricot wood-fired oven, a fairly labor intensive endeavor. Final preparation of the duck is done table-side. The chef masterfully slices the skin from the breast, the breast meat itself (sans skin), and then the leg meat (with its skin/fat), and neatly arranges them on three different plates (the head of the duck is sliced lengthwise and placed on the plate with the breast meat). Steamed pancakes, plum sauce, soy sauce, and a bowl of sugar are brought to the table to go with the duck. The skin is dipped in the sugar, which when combined with the crispiness and fattiness of the skin makes your taste buds go wild. This was hands down the best duck–and possibly the best poultry–I have ever eaten. The breast and thigh meat was perfectly tender and juicy and it seemed almost a crime to combine it with any of the other fixings. But wrapping the meat with the sliced scallions and dipping it in the plum sauce only heightened the experience.

As far as wine goes, there really wasn’t much to speak of on this trip. My general take on wine with spicy food is that it’s kind of a waste. It’s difficult to find wine that isn’t completely dominated by the spice, and since Chinese dishes have been perfected over hundreds (maybe even thousands of years) without Western style wine, pairings can be difficult if not impossible. While in Beijing, I did get word of a tasting that promised to provide instruction on pairing China’s most celebrated regional dishes with wine, but decided to pass when I learned that all of the wine would be from Australia. The Chinese are producing their own wine–the Great Wall label is ubiquitous–but one wonders whether this is part of the Chinese tendency to want to be Western without giving serious thought as to whether the West has much to offer them along these dimensions. I did try Yunnan rice wine (mi jiu) at a restaurant called South Silk Road, which specializes in dishes from Yunnan province (China’s southernmost province bordering Thailand, Vietnam and Laos). This was very similar to nigori sake, although a tad more yeasty. It was served in a tumbler with ice and was quite refreshing, pairing well with dishes involving wild mushrooms and fried goat cheese from the region.

All in all, Tsingtao or Beijing Beer (but not Yanjing Beer) were pretty satisfying companions with just about all of the dishes I ate. Perhaps on a future trip to China I’ll get more adventurous with local wine. I wonder which would go best with fried scorpions.

Italy Day 8: prosciutto porn

Above: Brigitte Bardot probably wouldn’t approve but Céline Dijon posed with the prosciutti at my friend Marco Fantinel’s prosciuttificio in San Daniele del Friuli.

My trotter shots may not be as hot as the one posted the other day by Alice, the pork Picassos often published by Winnie, the ones found in harangues on ham by Eric, or the onslaught of slaughtered swine over at the amazing blog Culatello. But I can’t resist publishing these photos, taken in April when our band Nous Non Plus stopped for a visit at my friend Marco Fantinel’s prosciuttificio, Testa e Molinaro in San Daniele del Friuli, on our way back into Italy following our Slovenian appearances.

Not as sweet as its cousin down in Parma or as smoky as the Speck found in South Tyrol, Prosciutto di San Daniele has a distinctive slightly more piquant flavor that sets it apart in the pork realm and it is distinguished by the presence of the bone and hoof, traditionally not removed in San Daniele. Of all of Italy’s cured pig thighs (remember Prosciutto di Carpegna and Prosciutto Toscano, and there are many others as well), Prosciutto di San Daniele is arguably the most terroir-driven of the bunch. As for all prosciutti, naturally occurring enzymes “ferment” the pig thigh from within, trigged by changes in temperature. But in the case of Prosciutto di San Daniele, gentle sea breeze from the nearby Adriatic will cause the flavor profile of the prosciutto to vary with each “vintage,” making it more sweet or spicy depending on the timing of warmer and cooler weather. Pig thighs, salt, and terroir: these are the only three ingredients in Prosciutto di San Daniele, according to the lab-coat technicians who oversee the wondrous transformation of pig flesh into delicate prosciutto.

Above: Salting the pig thighs with coarse salt.

Above: The different aging rooms at the prosciuttificio simulate the changes in the seasons but the last phase of the process requires the naturally occurring breeze. The technicians literally open the windows and let Nature do her work.

Above: Following our visit to the prosciuttificio, Marco treated the band to lunch, including an obligatory antipasto of perfectly sliced Prosciutto di San Daniele.

Above: The show stopper at lunch was gnocchi dressed in Montasio cheese and prosciutto, served in a nest of fried Montasio (a frico) and paired with Marco’s excellent Tazzelenghe, an indigenous grape of Friuli — tannic, powerful, and fantastic with the rich dish.