This is why wine blogging is so cool…

From the “it’s Friday” department (more on Sir Robert’s blogging to come next week)…

Above: Friend John Rikkers brought me and Tracie B this bottle of 1996 Fleury to celebrate our engagement. He knew that I liked it so much because he had read my post on drinking it with BrooklynGuy, who had turned me on to this killer wine. We opened it last month at Jaynes.

Today is a special day. Money is tight, times are tough, and I’m struggling, just like a lot of friends of mine in the food and wine biz. But today is a special day. I woke up today and was reminded of all the good things and goodness I have to be thankful for.

Thinking about the events of the summer, I remembered that a friend I made through blogging brought me and Tracie B a bottle of 1996 Champagne by Fleury to celebrate our engagement when she and I visited San Diego last month. I had first tasted that wine when another friend I made through blogging brought a bottle of it to our first (and only) in-person meeting a year ago last August. (The wine was fantastic both times, btw, toasty and nutty, with white fruit and caramel flavors, a great vintage and a great value from a great producer, a “grower producer” of Champagne, or so I’ve been told; but don’t quote me to the Grower Champagne police!)

Above: Me and Tracie B earlier this year at one of our favorite spots to watch the sunset in Austin. We both have a lot to be thankful for: the love and support of our family and friends and a good, happy, and healthy life here in Texas. And who would have ever dreamed that a beauty like her would fall for a schlub like me? We met through wine blogging, too!

Tonight is the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. The Jewish calendar follows a lunar cycle and the new year begins at the time of harvest. Just as in the cycle of life, this is a time for new beginnings and starting anew. May your names be inscribed in the tablets of heaven and may your new year taste as sweet as apples and honey.

L’shanah tovah ya’ll!

Check out this really cool story I read this morning with my coffee about a soldier turned cantor on the battlefield in WWII.

The origins of Zibibbo (closer reading part 2)

pant1

Photos of Pantelleria by Alfonso Cevola.

In response to my post on Sir Robert the other day, both Charles (friend, mentor, venerated palate, and husband to Italian cookery authority Michele Scicolone) and Tracie B (my soon-to-be better and definitely better looking half) asked about the origins of the grape name Zibibbo.

In 1605, Sir Robert writes of white Tuscan grape “Zibibbo,” which is “dried for Lent.” It is highly likely that he is referring to the Tuscan tradition of Vin Santo. One of the unique things about Vin Santo, beyond the winemaker’s intentional oxidation of the wine, is that it often undergoes a second fermentation in the spring when temperatures begin to rise and my hunch is that the reference to Lent has something to do with vinification practices (but that’s another story for another post).

Today, we know Zibibbo as the white Moscato used to make the famed wine of Sicily, Passito di Pantelleria. But in antiquity, the word meant simply “dried grape,” from the Arabic zabib, akin to the Egyptian zibib. As it turns out, it was only recently that the term began to denote specifically the grapes used for the famous wine of Pantelleria. It’s not clear which variety Sir Robert is referring to but he’s clearing referring to a dried grape wine (especially in the light of his reference to Lent).

pant2

When I was a grad student, my dissertation adviser used to call me the segugio, the blood hound or sleuth: this morning I did some snooping around and found and translated the following passage by one of Italy’s greatest philologists, Alberto Varvaro, professor at the University of Naples (o what a joy to be reunited, finally, with my library!). I love what professor Varvaro has to say in his conclusion, i.e., that part of the reason why we’ve come to know Moscato d’Alessandria as Zibibbo is because Palermitan shopkeepers adopted the term as a designation of higher quality in order to charge higher prices.* I also love Varvaro’s Sicilian style and humor in describing this linguistic phenomenon — all the while in a highly erudite and scientific context. Varvaro was born in Palermo in 1934 and is one of Italy’s leading experts in dialectology.

    Everyone knows Zibibbo, the excellent white table grape variety, grown for the most part in Pantelleria (hence the name)… Many are quick to say that this has always been its name and that the connection between the name, meaning, and referent-object has ancient and undisputed origins.** But this is not the case: the Arabic zabib, which with all likelihood gave the name to our grape, was a dried grape and was probably the meaning of the term when it began to be used in Sicily (according to [anthropologist] Alberto Cirese, its meaning remained unchanged in outlying areas and as far away as Central Italy). Even if this were not true, there is no disputing the fact that dictionaries in the 1700s and 1800s unhesitatingly define the term zibbibbu as a red grape and therefore, there is no doubt that the word’s meaning has changed only recently. Lastly, it is worth noting that the grape’s history in Pantelleria is proof of this recent change. Apart from its past history, it is useful to consider the present state of things: as if to play a trick on Linnaeus [the father of modern taxonomy] and surely motivated by profit and self-promotion, most of the shopkeepers in Palermo make a clear-cut distinction between zibbibbu and uva: if you use the word uva [i.e., grape] when you ask for zibibbo, the shopkeepers will correct you, perhaps because they suspect you wish to pay less. Thus, we have a case in which the solidarity of the name, meaning, and referent object has been broken in relation to a change in the referent-object as well as in relation to the linguistic articulation of the meaning.

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If I keep up this scholarly Sicilian sleuthing, ya’ll might have to start calling me Dr. Montalbano!

Thanks for reading…

* In Grape Varieties of Italy, Calò, Scienza, and Costacurta list these synonyms for Zibibbo: Zibibbo Bianco, Moscatellone, Moscato di Pantelleria, Salamonica, Salamanna, Seralamanna, Moscato di Alessandria [Muscat d’Alexandrie, Muscat from Alexandria, a reference to its Egyptian origins], Muscat [in French].

** Referent or referent-object is a term used in linguistics to denote “The entity referred to or signified by a word or expression; a thing or person alluded to” (OED). In this case, Varvaro is using a classic triangular model of linguistics, articulating the word itself (the name or signifier), its meaning (the signified), and the actual object to which it refers.

A closer reading: “The vine is the greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy.”

This just in: taste old Australian Semillon with me at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego on Saturday, September 26… yes, Australian wine, can you believe it?

Above: At the time of Dallington’s visit to Italy (1596), Bacchus was often depicted with Ariadne, his wife, as in this painting by Guido Reni (1557-1642). Today, we think of Bacchus (or Dionysus) as the god of wine. In fact, he was the god of luxuriant fertility, which was symbolized by the vine in antiquity, and so by association he became the god of wine. In ancient Italy, he was associated with the indigenous god Liber, who was celebrated with joyous abandon during the time of the grape harvest.

My post the other day on an “earlier Tuscan sun” and the description of grape growing and viticulture in late 16th-century Tuscany elicited some interesting comments and questions. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read and comment.

Simona, author of Briciole, brought up an important point: in the first line of the passage, Dallington uses the term Italy.

    The Vine.. without comparison is the greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy

Italy, as we know it today, was unified for the first time for a brief period in the modern era under Napoleon (1805-1814). Only in 1861 did Italy — as a nation — achieve independence from foreign domination. Until that time, the Italic peninsula was divided among its principalities or microstates, which often aligned themselves in league with foreign powers but never achieved a confederation defined by Italy’s natural geographical boundaries.

According to the OED, the toponym Italy begins to appear in the English language toward the end of the sixteenth-century, the same time that Dallington made his trip to Tuscany. (The terms Italy, Italian, and Italo, derive ultimately from the Latin Italia, in turn from the Latin Vitalia from vitulus, meaning calf; the ancient name Vitalia was owed to Italy’s abundant cattle.)

Even though the notion of the Italian nation and the term Italia had distinctly emerged by the 14th century (think of Petrarch’s song 126, Italia mia, ben che’l parlar sia indarno [My Italy, although speech does not aid]), the citizens of the Duke State of Tuscany encountered by Dallington would hardly have called themselves “Italians.”

Simona was right on: it’s truly remarkable that Dallington uses the term Italy and implicitly refers to an Italian nation. But what I find even more remarkable is the fact that he calls the vine the “greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy.”

More than two centuries had passed since Petrarch reproached the gluttonous cardinals of Avignon for their immovable love of Burgundian wine, asking them, “Is it not a puerile ambition to malign the many types of wines, so plentiful, found in all parts of Italy?” (See my post on this famous letter by Petrarch to Pope Urban V here.) The papacy was returned to Italy in 1378.

More than two centuries later, a foreigner arrived from Elizabethan England, and called the vine “Italy’s greatest commodity” — a preview of how viticulture would become a sine qua non of the Italian nation and Italian national identity.

This is the first in a series of “closer readings” of the Dallington text inspired by visitors’s comments. Next up: the origins of the term zibibbo. Stay tuned…

Yeaster me, yeaster you, yeaster day

Above: In some parts of the world, the “yeasting” of wines is common practice and is considered a genuinely positive aspect of human intervention, as evidenced in this post by Vinogirl. I don’t know much about Vinogirl but I love reading her blog and her posts about harvest in Napa are wonderful.

Ever the Solomon of wine bloggers, Eric posted Friday on the sometimes “strident” tones tossed about in the debate over natural wine and its definition.

I greatly appreciated Eric’s observation:

    I think that too much effort is spent coming up with a precise definition. Making wines “naturally,’’ after all, does not mean the wines are any good. All things considered, I prefer wine that would fit a rough definition of natural. But I don’t think the dividing line between natural and — what, unnatural? — is always that clear. Certainly, it is not if you are trying to characterize a winemaker.

Above: I tasted with Produttori del Barbaresco winemaker Aldo Vacca this year at Vinitaly. He is one of the most earnest and forthright winemakers I’ve ever met and I love his wines.

It does seem that the one thing that all natural wine lovers — from enthusiast to dogmatist — agree on is that “ambient” or “native” yeasts (i.e., naturally occurring yeasts) are a key if not the key element necessary to be allowed into the natural wine pantheon.

The delicate issue of yeast was illustrated Eric’s account of winemaker Roumier who “tries to make wine as naturally as he can, but he told a story once of having a batch of wine that had gotten stuck in mid-fermentation. The only way he could get it going again was to add yeast, a cardinal sin among many natural wine devotees.”

It made me think of what Produttori del Barbaresco winemaker Aldo Vacca recently told me when I called him to transact some other business but couldn’t resist asking him about the practice of “yeasting” at the winery.

“In a great vintage, we do not add yeast,” he said, “because the fermentation does not need any help. But in many vintages, we use a yeast called ‘Barolo strain’ that was developed based on yeasts that occur naturally in our terroir.”

According to the results of a quick Google search, the Barolo strain was “selected from 4 year study by University of Torino from over 600 isolates taken from 31 wineries of the Barolo region. The selection goal was to find a dominant natural yeast from Nebbiolo that is able to retain and enhance color.”

I never have and never would call Produttori del Barbaresco a “natural wine,” even though I believe the style of the wine jives with the wines of producers who subscribe to the natural wine movement. And I wonder if any of those winemakers have ever used a cultured yeast in a challenging vintage (like Roumier).

Throughout the debate, many have asked rhetorically, would the coinage of an expression other than natural wine offer an umbrella for those wines that aspire to the ideals of natural winemaking but don’t quite achieve its sanctity?

Founder Teobaldo Cappellano dubbed the Italian natural wine movement Vini Veri or Real Wines and added the epigram, wines as natural intended them.

Perhaps we should call these wines “humanist” wines. After all, all wine is made by humankind for consumption by humankind. In the end, I find that the wines I like the best are the ones that take into account not nature but rather “human scale,” as Guilhaume Gerard put it (in his remarks at the Symposium).

We can discuss natural wines and their definition until we’re blue in the face, but in the end, we are human — all too human.

Forget natural wine: the Texas weather will put the fear of G-d in you. I snapped this photo yesterday as Tracie B and I were strolling across the Colorado River. Click the photo for the full-sized image.

Super Texans: tasting Texas with the Austin Dream Team

Above: The Austin Dream Team. From left, Craig Collins (Central Texas Sales Manager for Prestige Cellars), Devon Broglie (Southwest Regional Wine Buyer for Whole Foods Markets, which was founded in Austin), and June Rodil (recently crowned “best sommelier in Texas,” sommelier at Uchi in Austin, a world-class and cutting-edge Japanese restaurant in land-locked central Texas).

This was no run-of-the-mill focus group. It was an Austin Texas USA dream-team of young sommeliers gathered by the PR firm that reps the Texas Department of Agriculture to taste some Texan wines blind.

Folks in Texas are serious about their wine (Texans love to drink locally) and when it comes to marketing of local products, they don’t kid around: these top young somms had been asked to give their honest no-holds-barred opinions of the wines (each flight included a ringer, not from Texas) to help gauge which wines to present to food and wine writers and pundits etc.

Frankly, I haven’t taken Texan wines very seriously since I moved here nearly 10 months ago but — as Franco rightly reminds me — rules are rules: when you taste blind and you taste something you like, you have to admit it (even when you weren’t expecting to like it) and frankly, I tasted more than one wine I liked in yesterday’s degustation.

And there was another surprise as well.

I had never heard the term Super Texan before and when I wondered out loud why so many Texan wineries are Italophilic as opposed to Francophilic (like their Californian counterparts), one of the more interesting theories was proposed by June, who noted that Texas is a predominantly Republican state and has a historic distaste for Francomania.

Above: Also in attendance was wine writer David Furer who came to town especially for the tasting and who was lucky enough to taste Tracie B’s farro salad the other day at our impromptu Labor Day picnic.

In the first flight of red, we tasted a number of wines made with Sangiovese (monovarietal or blended) and varietal expression was clearly evident. The wine that impressed me the most was the Llano Estate Newsome Vineyards High Plains Viviano, a “Super Texan” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. The wine was real, it was elegant, it had natural acidity, honest fruit, and genuine freshness (although I’m not sure I would reach for it at $40 a bottle).

In the same flight, however, was a wine that the panel didn’t seem to like because of a green, herbaceous quality. When asked my opinion (and frankly, I was out-classed by these top somms in their superior ability to taste and describe blind, ubi major minor cessat), I asked the other participants “to cut it some slack,” as it was also one of my favorites in the flight. Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised at the laughter in the room (Devon and Craig and I have tasted a bunch of times together) when it was revealed that my ugly duckling was Italian.

But to my great surprise, it was a wine that I never would have thought I’d like, 2006 Chianti Classico by Badia a Coltibuono, a high-volume winery that has enjoyed wide success in the U.S. thanks to aggressive, intelligent marketing. According to the website, 170,000 bottles of this wine are produced every year, but, frankly, I could really taste place in this wine: it had that characteristic Sangiovese plum note and I liked its food-friendly herbaceousness. For $25, I like it. There you go: rules are rules and there’s a lot to be said for tasting locally.

In other news, another taste of Texas…

Tracie B snapped this slice of Texan life last night outside the Broken Spoke where I played a gig. I gotta say that I love living in Austin… not that the lovely Tracie B has anything to do with it… ;-)

Italy: Birth of a Wine Nation

From the “a Ph.D. has got to be good for something, doesn’t it?” department…

Jeremy Parzen

I am thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching a six-part seminar on Italian wine starting a month from today, every Tuesday at 7 p.m., at The Austin Wine Merchant. The title of series, “Italy: Birth of a Wine Nation,” was inspired by the vision of Italy’s first two prime ministers, Camillo Cavour and Bettino Ricasoli, both winemakers in their own right. As Italian independence and the Italian monarchy began to take shape in the second half of the nineteenth century, Cavour (in Piedmont) and Ricasoli (in Tuscany) envisioned the production of fine wine as a loadstone of the nascent Italian economy, identity, and nation. If only they were alive today to experience the renaissance of Italian wine!

Please join me in October and November for one or more of my classes and tastings (6 wines will be tasted during each session in one-ounce pours). Participants may reserve for individual or multiple sessions.

ITALY: BIRTH OF A WINE NATION

A 6-class series on Italian wine, past, present, and future with Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D.

Tuesdays in October and early November, staring at 7 p.m.

The Austin Wine Merchant
512 W 6th St.
Austin, TX 78701-2806

To reserve, please call: (512) 499-0512.

Italian Wine 101 — October 6 — $25

Introduction to Italian wines, an overview of Italy’s most important grapes and major wine production zones, and the secret to unlocking the mysteries of Italian wine labels. Taste 6 wines from 6 different regions.

Jeremy Parzen

Tuscany — October 13 — $37.50

Learn what makes Super Tuscans so super (you might be surprised at the answer), experience Italy’s quintessential red grape Sangiovese in its greatest expressions (modern and traditional). Taste six wines including Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico.

The “Other” Piedmont — October 20 — $25

This is the Piedmont your mother didn’t tell you about: Moscato d’Asti, Gavi, Freisa, Dolcetto, Barbera, and “outer borough” Nebbiolo. Taste 6 wines that the Piedmontese produce and drink regularly.

Jeremy Parzen

Piedmont’s De Facto Cru System — October 27 — $37.50
(recommended for wine professionals and collectors)

Learn the difference between the east and west sides of the Barolo to Alba road and explore the nuanced distinctions between Tortonian and Helvetian subsoils. Debunk the feminine vs. masculine myth in the Barbaresco and Barolo debate. Taste 6 noble expressions of Nebbiolo.

Jeremy Parzen

The Enigmatic Wines of the Veneto — November 3 — $37.50

Unlock the mysteries of Valpolicella, Amarone, and Recioto della Valpolicella, taste one of Italy’s most ancient noble wines, Soave, and learn why Venetians love their Prosecco so much. When in Venice: taste 6 ombre as the Venetians say!

Jeremy Parzen

Italian Wine and Civilization — November 10 — $25

Read 6 passages from Italian literature and history and taste 6 related wine selections. Readings include Dante, Machiavelli, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, Camillo Cavour (above, far left, 19th-century Piedmontese winemaker and Italy’s first prime minister), and Bettino “Iron Baron” Ricasoli (above, far right, 19th-century Tuscan winemaker and Italy’s second prime minister).

To reserve, please call: (512) 499-0512

Celebratory 2001 Pora and Walter Benjamin: reunited with my library

“Unpacking My Library” is the title of one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous essays. On the surface, it is an entertaining essay about a harmless self-indulgence of one of Europe’s leading literary minds between the two world wars. But the underlying text is a study of the nature of book collecting and how our understanding of literature and culture is shaped through the very medium by which they are transmitted to us. Ecce textual bibliography and the study of how the medium (the signifier) affects the meaning (the signified).

Walter Benjamin famously “fished for pearls” in his legendary library. The depression that he suffered when he fled from the Nazis and was separated from his precious books is as tragic as his senseless death by suicide on the Spanish-French border in 1940 — a day away from freedom.

I’m no Walter Benjamin (by no means) and I am blessed to live in a time and place of relative prosperity and stability and freedom of thought and speech.

Yesterday, after two years of separation, Tracie B and I began unpacking my library after it arrived from my storage space in Manhattan here in my new home, Austin, Texas.

I cannot tell you my joy at being reunited with my Petrarchs, my Pasolinis, my Benjamins, my dictionaries (my Goldoni dictionary edited by Gianfranco Folena! my Cortelazzo etymologic dictionary!), and my countless tomes on food and wine.

There is so much information available today on the internet and the Google Library project is a promising if controversial initiative. But… books, books! Nothing can take the place of these glorious little information-delivery machines!

And the dulcis in fundo was a little sedicesimo of poems and songs on wine written in Neapolitan dialect. My lovely Tracie B curled up on the couch as I continued to unpack and read me sweet rhymes on wine with her soothing Neapolitan cadence. Today, she shared some of our Sunday afternoon with a translation of one of the poems on her blog.

To celebrate last night, we ordered pizza (please don’t tell Franco, but we were beat after a day of unpacking!) and drank a bottle of 2001 Barbaresco Pora by Produttori del Barbaresco (I picked it up for a song in a closeout sale here in Austin). The wine was rich and almost Barolo-like in its power, unusual for Pora which is generally softer and rounder among the Produttori del Barbaresco crus. The 2001 — a great vintage for this wine — is closing up right now and I’m putting my two remaining bottles away, to be revisited in a few years and maybe more.

Pondering my copy of Benjamin’s Reflections which now lives happily again on my desk, I couldn’t help but think of Pora and Barbaresco as a terroir and a text, a text delivered to our palates via the medium of Nebbiolo.

Tonight, I won’t bore Tracie B with my collection of essays on the history of punctuation or my introduction to old Occitan. She’s promised to make me something out of the cookbook by nineteenth-century Neapolitan noble Ippolito Cavalcanti! :-) Something having to do with escarole, eggs, and Parmigiano Reggiano… mmmmmmmm…

Happy Labor Day, y’all!

The San Diego Kid’s First Texas Gunfight

I’ve played a lot of crazy gigs in my life and shared bills with some pretty unusual acts. But never — I repeat, never — have I played on the same bill as a Confederate-era re-enactment.

Yesterday, I played a set at the fair grounds in Johnson City, Texas, birthplace of Lyndon Baines Johnson, in the Texas Hill Country about an hour west of Austin.

We went on after the re-enactment and the San Diego Kid (that would be me) saw his first Texas gunfight.

Texans are known for their hospitality and the folks in Johnson City sure didn’t disappoint. They fed us as part of our compensation.

Happy Sunday y’all!

Recipe for Picchiapò (we all loved each other so much)

My depressing post yesterday made think of the Roman dish Picchiapò and the great scene from the 74 Scola film C’eravamo tanto amati (We All Loved Each Other So Much) when the three main characters (an intellectual bourgeois, a rich bourgeois, and a proletarian) realize that they have lost touch with the ideals they fought for together as partisans during the Second World War. Italian leading man Vittorio Gassman fantasizes his own death and utters the famous line, our generation really stinks!

The clip is in Italian but you don’t need to understand Italian to watch it. Picchiapò plays an important role: it’s one of the great Roman “recycled” dishes, a dish born from necessity but a delicacy because of its very nature.

I should leave the recipe writing to Simona and her excellent blog Briciole but feeling inspired this morning after Tracie B’s brioche French toast, I went online and found and translated this recipe.

Picchiapò

Ingredients

l lb. leftover boiled veal or beef, cut into small pieces
2-3 onions
2 cups tomato purée
rosemary (basil is sometimes used and cinnamon can be used as well)
salt and pepper
2 cups white or red wine
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Slice the onions into rounds and then wilt with a drizzle of the olive oil in a pan. When they have lightly browned, deglaze with the wine.

Add the tomato purée and spices and simmer until the sauce thickens.

Add the meet and let it absorb the flavor of the sauce.

Serve hot with potato purée or boiled potatoes or seasonal vegetables.

The Scola classic film is a commedia all’italiana but it is also a stinging social commentary and a moving film about love and country. It is also a meta-film — a film about film — and includes a cameo by Marcello Mastroianni and Fellini and a number of timeless Italian film clips. I highly recommend it.

Vintage anti-Berlusconi propaganda and other relics

Above, from left clockwise: “I have to stay outside,” “You’re poor? It’s YOUR damn problem,” “We are voting for Berlusconi” (they’re dressed as Freemasons), and “this car has been de-Berlusconi-ized” (a play on denuclearized). These stickers were printed by Cuore (a magazine supplement to the leftist daily L’Unità) in the early 1990s during Berlusconi’s first campaign to become Prime Minister.

When I first traveled to Italy in 1987 for my junior year abroad as part of the University of California and Università di Padova exchange program, Italy and the outlook of Italians seemed much different than it does today. When I attended my first academic year there (and there would many years to follow, later at the Scuola Normal Superiore in Pisa, study at the Vatican Library, three summers in the Dolomite Alps where I earned my keep playing cover tunes, and summers in Montalcino where I first began to appreciate wine), the Italian Socialist Party still dominated Italian politics. In spite of the inconveniences posed by the legendarily lethargic Italian bureaucracy, health care was free for all (that first year, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was amazed when I wasn’t even presented a bill at the emergency room) and a year’s tuition at the university cost roughly 300,000 lire, about $250 at the time (in 1989 I returned to Italy and re-enrolled at the Università di Padova).

Above: My junior year dorm room at Monte Cengio where I roomed with Steve Muench. We’re still close friends today (scroll to the bottom of this post).

That was before the Mani pulite investigation and the subsequent Tangentopoli scandal that brought the Socialists to their knees. And it was before the rise of Italy’s richest man Silvio Berlusconi as the most powerful politician to emerge in post-war Italy. Berlusconi famously told journalist and historian Enzo Biagi (think of him as our Walter Cronkite) that he entered politics because existing laws did not allow him to make even more money. If the law doesn’t allow me to grow richer, he decided one day, I’ll just rewrite the law.

Today in Italy, vigilante posses comb the streets at night harassing immigrants; doctors have been asked to report illegal immigrants (extra-communitarians, as they are called) to authorities when they request medical care; there have been cases where emergency health workers have allowed immigrants to die at the scene of accidents by delaying medical attention; Berlusconi’s agricultural minister has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants; and Lucca has outlawed “ethnic” food in its center… The list goes on and on.

It’s a different Italy than the one first encountered by a bright-eyed U.C.L.A. junior who had a knack for languages in 1987.

Above: The last summer I played at the Birreria di Pedavena, my band and I stayed in the mountain pass village of Croce d’Aune.

I recently found the stickers and the photos in a shoebox that arrived last week in Austin from a storage space in Manhattan. They brought back memories of a time when the outlook of most Italians I knew didn’t seem rosy but was certainly instilled with a resilient humanitarian and humanist spirit. That attitude endures among most of the Italians I know but a dark cultural hegemony has taken hold there in the Berlusconi age.

Yesterday, an article in The New York Times reported how Berlusconi forced the resignation of the editor of the Italian Bishops’s Conference daily newspaper. He did so by publishing front page features in his own newspaper detailing the editor’s rumored sexual preferences. He did so because the editor had written an editorial about Berlusconi’s widely publicized (and in many instance self-propagandized) lasciviousness.

What’s this world coming to?

In other news, Agnelli heir and playboy Lapo Elkann has publicly announced that he is converting to Judaism.

What IS this world coming to?

Boccaccio’s tale of the conversion of Abraham comes to mind…