Giacosa and Mauro Mascarello spar over 2006

Above: A recent photo of iconic Langa producer Bruno Giacosa.

Over at VinoWire, Franco and I have posted a preview of Franco’s article on Bruno Giacosa’s controversial decision not to bottle his 2006 Barbaresco and Barolo (to appear in the February issue of Decanter Magazine). But you’ll have to click over to VinoWire to get it. It marks the first time that Giacosa has spoken directly to the English-speaking world on the polemic move. You might be surprised by what some of his peers and interlocutors have to say about the vintage.

In other news… from the “just for gastronomic fun” department…

It’s that time of year again when we spacciatori di vino (wine pushers) hit the streets and start showing our wares again. It’s been good to reconnect with a lot of folks I only see when I’m on the road, like my good friend Josh Cross, who always has something fun on the menu at his awesome restaurant Oloroso in San Antonio. Josh and I both worked in the New York restaurant scene during the better part of the last decade and so we have a lot of friends in common.

He’s open for lunch now and so he treated me to one of his lunch specials, a take on “pigs in a blanket” (above): housemade venison sausage, cased in a runza dough kolache bun, served with a fig mustard and piquillo pepper relish.

I really like his sous chef Ernesto Martinez’s take on the German and Czech historical presence in Central Texas. How’s that for fusion?

Today, I’m on my way from Dallas to Houston, where I’ll be speaking at a wine tasting tonight. In less than a week, my beautiful Tracie B and I will be leaving for San Diego and the final preparations for our wedding. I wish ya’ll could see the grin on my face as I write this from a Starbucks in Ennis, Texas! :-)

Bruno Giacosa and Bartolo Mascarello meet for the first time

Every once in a while you come across one of those amazing pieces of writing that makes you stop in your tracks, put down your coffee during breakfast, and focus all of your thought and imagination on the words on the page (or, as the case may be, screen) before you. A text where the experiential and the aesthetic sensibility combine to transfigure the words’s meaning and sound, revealing unexpected and welcomed clues to the mystery of life that surrounds us.

That’s what happened to me this morning during our daily breakfast ritual chez Tracie B, as I scanned The New York Times online and my Google reader feed.

I think the same thing happened to Franco, when the same text appeared in his inbox earlier today.

The below translation has been culled from an e-letter authored by Francarlo Negro, restaurateur, Nebbiolo and Langa afficionado, and owner of the Cantina del Rondò in Neive (Cuneo, Piedmont). Franco re-posted it earlier today on his excellent blog Vino al Vino.

It’s entitled, “The Smell of Money Guides the Evolution of Taste,” and in the first part, Francarlo recalls a meeting organized by his father between Bartolo Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa (their first!) in late July, 1967 (not long after I was born!).

After I read it to Tracie B this morning over coffee, she said, “You have to translate that!” By the time the words left her delicate lips, I had already begun… Buona lettura!

1967: Bruno Giacosa meets Bartolo Mascarello

At the end of July, 1967, with the hills inundated by a delicate, sultry fog, my father, who was a friend of Bartolo Mascarello from Barolo, organized a visit with Bruno Giacosa from Neive. I was 17 years old and I was excited: I didn’t want to miss a word of the conversation that I was about to witness.

Back then, there was no demand from the international market. It was difficult to sell fine wine, which, at the time, was only opened on special occasions. Adulteration was rampant: large wineries like Marchesi di Barolo inundated the market unchecked and dishonest farmers cut our wines with concentrated must that arrived from the South. Manduria in Apulia was the principal source of the supply.

Everyone knew of the case of a Fiat worker, originally from Neive, who would obtain this hodge-podge from a large local cellar and would proceed to fill his casks every spring and sell his “authentic wine” to his fellow factory workers.

Together with a few others, Giacosa and Mascarello waived the flag of authenticity high. With confidence, they identified the words authentic and local character with the purity and identity of the two great wines of Langa, the fruit of Piedmontese enological culture.

The cool air of Bartolo’s cellar greeted us when we arrived: we had traveled over 12 kilometers of asphalt at 35° [Celsius, 95° F.] in our Fiat 600 with the windows rolled down. The tall casks [botti] bulged around the waist, made from Slavonian oak. Some held 50 brinte (2,500 liters), others 100 brinte. In all, there was just over 15,000 liters of Barolo, from different vintages and different vineyards, all from hills in the township of Barolo.

Bartolo climbed up the ladder leaning against the casks, he drew off a little bit of wine, and handed us the glasses. And so the ritual of tasting began.

Despite Bartolo Mascarello’s repeated pleas that Bruno address him using [the familiar] tu, Bruno Giacosa addressed Bartolo using Voi, a sign of ancient respect for the authority of his interlocutor. The air was filled with great respect, between the men and for the wine. In silence, we delicately sipped the wine, as we aerated the small tastes in our mouths.

I remember that the 1964 Barolo leapt from the glass, the elegant, regal wine already releasing its full magnificence. The nose revealed subtle notes of violet and white spring flowers. In the mouth, you perceived the tart sensation of the small buds of the vine during blossoming. You could not taste any wood, as wood was not meant to be apparent. The cask — the botte — was intended to play one role alone: it was meant to accompany the Nebbiolo, sharp and brusque at birth, on its slow journey as it aged and became austere and elegant.

That’s all I had time for today, but, wow, what power in these 450 words! How much information — so many clues to the history and story of Barolo — in this dense text! I’ll translate more in the days that follow. But, wow, just ponder this passage for a few days. Stay tuned…

Suckling and Soldera on the Tuscan wine scandals

case basse

Above: One of the great maestri of Brunello Gianfranco Soldera and I tasted his wines together in September 2008 at his winery Case Basse in Montalcino (before Tracie B convinced me to go back to my au naturel hair style!). Photo by Ben Shapiro.

In an hour-long documentary on the Orcia River Valley, recently aired on the national-television Sunday show Linea Verde (it’s worth watching the show, even if you don’t understand Italian, if only for the cinematic beauty of the Val d’Orcia), the presenter asked Brunello maestro Gianfranco Soldera to share his impressions of the recent controversy in Montalcino regarding producers who allegedly added disallowed grape varieties to their Brunello (which, by law, must be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes).

“Luckily,” Soldera said, “the [Italian] treasury, the magistrate, and the anti-adulteration department did a great job in their investigation and they found some big problems. Millions of liters of wine were declassified in order to protect consumers and those producers who have always used only Sangiovese, as required by law, because this is what needed to be done.” Even though the quantity of wine declassified was significant, he noted, “only a handful of wineries” were implicated in the investigation. (The segment on Soldera appears at the end of the show and it is the only occasion that I know where the general public has been allowed to view Soldera’s “secret garden.” Definitely worth viewing.)

wine spectator

Above: The clairvoyant Swami shared his wine predictions for 2010, including a real whopper for Tuscany.

A week or so earlier, one of America’s premier wine writers, a world-renowned expert on Italian wine, and a resident and champion of Tuscany and its wines, the inimitable James Suckling published his predictions for the year in wine 2010 on his blog, including, this ominous premonition for Tuscany: “Tuscany will be embroiled in another wine witch hunt with the magistrate of Siena along the lines of a similar debacle in Montalcino over the past two years.”

This morning, I couldn’t help but share Franco’s indignation at Suckling’s admittedly “less than earth-shattering” prediction, expressed in a post entitled, American Wine Writers: Luckily they’re not all like James Suckling.

However ugly the recent controversy in Tuscany, it “needed to be done,” as Soldera pointed out. Everyone I’ve spoken to there (except for those implicated in the investigation) seems to share Soldera’s opinion.

Of all the things to predict for Tuscany in 2010 (eclipsing the rest of Italy, btw), how about something like this?

1) The Val d’Orcia DOC will emerge as one of the coolest new expressions of Sangiovese.

2) Tastings of the 2007 harvest will reveal that Tuscany was blessed with one of the better vintages in recent memory.

3) The high-cost of barrique and the emerging trend against oak-laden, concentrated wines will lead more and more producers to make traditional-style wines using large-cask aging and less manipulation in the cellar.

4) Thanks to more flexibility in labeling, the recently implemented EU Common Market Organisation reforms will allow Tuscan producers to regionally “brand” their international-style wines without encroaching on the Brunello and Chianti de facto trademarks.

5) Tracie B and Jeremy P will win the lottery and finally be able to move into the Ripa d’Orcia castle as their “vacation home.” (There are some beautiful shots of the castle in the Linea Verde show, btw.)

Thanks for reading. Tracie B and I will soon be heading to Montalcino on our honeymoon, where we’ll have our “nose in a glass” and our “ears to the ground.” Stay tuned…

Stand with Haiti at Vino Vino in Austin Tues. Jan. 26

If you happen to be in Austin a week from tomorrow, come hang out with me and Tracie B at Vino Vino, where local musician Kat Edmonson will be playing and owner Jeff Courington will be donating 50% of all retail sales to Partners in Health. Jeff has asked me to emcee at the event and I’m trying to get some interesting folks to out and share their experiences. Hope to see you there! Thanks for reading…

Photo by The New York Times.

Please join Vino Vino and local musicians on Tuesday, January 26, 7 p.m. to raise money for victims of the recent tragedy in Haiti.

Austinite Kat Edmonson will be joined by some of our town’s top local musicians for a special evening of songs, remembrances, and hopes for the victims of the earthquake and reconstruction.

On the night of the event, VINO VINO WILL DONATE 50% OF ALL RETAIL SALES TO PARTNERS IN HEALTH.

KAT EDMONSON AND FRIENDS
BENEFIT FOR HAITI
TUESDAY, JANUARY 26
7 P.M. – 10 P.M.
VINO VINO
4119 Guadalupe Street
Austin, TX 78751-4222
(512) 465-9282

Stand With Haiti

Some bbq porn from my very salacious bachelor party

bbq porn

BBQ ribs, dry-rub brisket, and smoked sausage… that’s about as salacious as my bachelor party got. My brothers have been in town and we’ve spent the weekend eating WAY too much food, seeing some great shows (including a SMOKING show with Gary Clark Jr. and the Greyhounds last night). The pièce de résistance was dinner at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Hill Country. Click on the photo for the “centerfold” shot. Mmmmmm finger-lickin’ good…

Salacious enough for you, Brooklyn Guy? And, Eric, as you well know, the Salt Lick is strictly BYOB, so, fyi, I paired with a Bohemia.

Texas is famous for its pecans and its beautiful women. Need I say more? Pecan pie at the Salt Lick comes à la mode (about as sexy as my bachelor party got!).

While my brothers were in town (Tad center, Micah right), they “had my back” when the San Diego Kid (that’s me) squared off with the Houston Coalminer at the Sicilian Showdown. But more on that later this week…

I’ve had a blast showing them “my Texas” and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my soon-to-end bachelorhood than with my brothers, who flew in from San Diego for the occasion. :-)

Thanks for dropping by! Ya’ll come back now!

Brother, can you spare a bottle for Haiti?

Brother can you spare a bottle and Palate Press have joined forces to raise money for Haiti by asking collectors to donate rare bottles. Click on either link to find out more and how you can help.

Wine Book Girl, who works as editor for UC Press, also recommends Partners in Health (she’s worked closely with its founder, Paul Farmer, a UC Press author, who’s already left for Haiti).

That’s a depiction of “Roman Charity,” above, by 18th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini.

The best seared foie gras ever (and an interesting discussion of Boccioni)

woodlands

Above: The best seared foie gras I’ve ever had, last night at Tesar’s in the Woodlands (Houston). Chef Tesar sears it so aggressively that the outside is charred while the inside becomes gelatinous. Before searing it, he studs it with a vanilla bean. Paired with Château Les Justices 2005 Sauternes, served by the glass by my friend Scott Barber, top sommelier AND art historian.

My line of work brings me into contact with some pretty interesting folks.

Yesterday afternoon, I headed down from Dallas toward Houston and met cousins Joanne and Marty at the relatively new and much-talked-about Tesar’s Modern Steak and Seafood in the Woodlands. Chef John Tesar is one of those young buck celebrity chefs who’s done it all: New York, Vegas, the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas (the most ostentatious city in the world)… And now he’s branched out on his own with a high-end namesake restaurant.

My friend sommelier Scott Barber had been raving about the food and man, I gotta say (and ya’ll know I don’t say this lightly), the food was kick-ass good.

woodlands

Above: Mediterranean-style octopus can be harder to prepare than it looks. Scott agreed that the secret (after tenderization) is patience: it simply takes a long time to achieve the desired tenderness. It was off-the-charts good, I gotta say.

But the star of the evening last night was Umberto Boccioni. Before getting into wine, Scott studied art history in Italy. The funny thing: neither of us were into wine at the time, but we both lived and studied in Italy during the same period (literature and paleography in my case). He has seen my post the other day where I incorporated one of my favorite Boccioni paintings, “La rissa in galleria” (“The Riot in the Galleria”).

woodlands

Above: The fetishization of beef. One of the signature dishes at Tesar’s is “side-by-side” where you taste grain-fed and grass-fed beef side-by-side. One could argue until one is black and blue in the face about which is better!

Boccioni is such an interesting painter and his work is fraught with tension — historical and aesthetic. I was THRILLED that someone appreciated the reference and why I made it. Our conversation drifted to the significance, cultural and sociological, of the painting’s backdrop, the Galleria of Milan, the famed 19th-century domed arcade of the Lombard capital. Marty pointed out that the Galleria lent its name and its arched dome to Houston’s consumerist mecca, the Houston Galleria.

But I digress… Food and wine are just a pretext to discuss aesthetics, no?

Tesar’s is not cheap but it really delivered: would you like a little Boccioni with your Fixin?

woodlands

Above: The 2004 Fixin by Mortet showed gorgeous, unexpected acidity and paired swimmingly well with house-made garganelli tossed with Parmigiano Reggiano and grated black truffles.

Thanks again, Joanne and Marty, for a wonderful dinner. And thanks again, Scott, for the Boccioni and the Fixin!

In other news…

The best news is that today I’m headed home to that super fine lady of mine… This lonely heart’s been away two days too long!

Yesterday, driving in the rain from Dallas to Houston, “Heard it in a Love Song” by Marshall Tucker Band came on. Man, what an awesome song. Can’t be wrong…

1970 Latour and Arkansas cornbread

From the “life could be worse” department…

les forts

On what many (myself included) consider one of the greatest recordings of the last century, the great American lyricist Snoop Dogg sanguinely informs the listener: “I, somehow, some way, Keep comin up with funky ass shit like every single day.”

I felt a little like Snoop yesterday: as an average (and frankly gray) workday traveling and hawking wine (the first of the new year) evolved into intriguing flavors and aromas, I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that there always seems to be something interesting to taste around the corner these days.

Yesterday, my friends D’Lynn Proctor (below) and company at Grailey’s, a wonderful not-to-miss tasting room in Dallas, poured me a glass of Latour 1970 Les Forts.

grailey's

A lot of folks like to “taste me” on their old Italian wines, but I rarely get to taste old French wine and I was thrilled to put my nose in this glass. Does anyone remember Baudelaire’s macadam? That’s what this wine smelled like: tar, pitch, goudron, asphalt… I’m not one for blind tasting but this is one of those wines, we all agreed, that you would pick out as Bordeaux from the nose alone. The wine was bright in the mouth, with nervy acidity that took me surprise and a balanced medley of spice and fruit. (Mazel tov, btw, to D’Lynn on his upcoming wedding AND his invitation to take the Master Sommelier’s exam in August!)

And as if a noble wine French wine from 1970 weren’t enough to call it an extraordinarily sensorially satisfying day, the real treat came over dinner in the home of my friend and colleague Sam and his delightful betterhalf Belinda (originally from Arkansas), whose cornbread — there’s no other way to say it — was sinfully good.

arkansas cornbread

Belinda wouldn’t reveal all of the secrets to her magical Arkansas cornbread but she did explain that she makes it by dropping dollops of the cornbread dough (as it were) into a hot iron skillet (greased with cooking oil). She then turns the small loaves and transfers to hot oven. As the loaves settle, they fill out the skillet in a nearly perfectly shaped pattern (making for ideal serving portions).

arkansas cornbread

She then slices each loaf lengthwise and dresses with butter. Crispy on the outside with an ever-softer and moist center as you bite through to the middle.

The best part? Bellinda wrapped up some leftovers for me to much on as I make my way from Dallas to Houston today.

As long as I don’t get stuck in the mire of the macadam, who can say what delights await? Stay tuned…

Mikey likes it: Brunello 2004 by Il Poggione

From the “on any given Sunday” department…

poggione

Above: Just to be on the safeside, we opened 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione last night at Trio in Austin. Photos by Tracie B.

Tracie B and I were both concerned when, the other day, we read that the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione had been eliminated from the top-ten wines in The New York Times recent blind tasting panel of 04 Brunello.

Blind tasting can be such a tricky business and in many ways, it removes wine from the terrestrial context in which we consume it (and the way it was intended to be consumed). In blind tasting, our experience becomes metaphysical, in other words, beyond the physical inasmuch as it treats wine as an abstraction. The intention is noble: blind tasting is intended to remove as many “extraneous” variables as possible and force the taster(s) to evaluate the wine purely on its sensorial attributes as an empirical expression of its intrinsic value. But wine, by its very (human) nature, cannot be reduced to pure science.

Even Eric, whose palate I admire greatly, was surprised that Il Poggione didn’t make the top-ten cut. “Some very well-known brunellos,” he wrote, “missed the cut in our blind tasting, including one of my perennial favorites, Il Poggione… A cautionary note about blind tastings: they are snapshots of a wine at a particular moment. I would never say no to a bottle of Il Poggione, even if I did reject it here.”

Never ones to say no to a bottle of Il Poggione, Tracie B and I went to Trio in Austin last night and asked our friend sommelier Mark Sayre to open a bottle of the 2004. Above and beyond our friendship, I turn to Mark when I want the proverbial “second opinion” (and his wine program offers the ideal setting for tasting fine wine in Austin).

Tracie B, Mark, and I all agreed that the wine is going through a very tannic moment in its evolution. We opened the bottle, decanted it immediately, and then tasted it immediately. Then, we put it aside and let it aerate for about 45 minutes.

tocai

Above: We also tasted Scarpetta 2007 Tocai Friuliano (bottled by Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey) with the shrimp croquettes. This old-school wine is one of those “not-for-everyone” wines but just right for me and Tracie B!

At first sip, the wine was overwhelmed by its tannin, but when we returned to it, it had begun to open up beautifully, showing that magical balance of tannin, fruit, and acidity that makes Montalcino (in my view) one of the greatest appellations in the world.

Not everyone made great wine in 2004. As much as the Tuscan wine industry would like us to believe that 2004 was a 5-star vintage, it simply was not: summer heat spikes plagued growers whose vineyards lie at lower elevations.

But, as father-and-son winemaking team Fabrizio and Alessandro Bindocci will tell you, Il Poggione’s vineyards lie at some of the highest elevations in the entire appellation, reaching 400 meters a.s.l. and thus keeping summer temperatures cooler during warm summer months.

I don’t think 2004 will be remembered as a great vintage in Montalcino but I do think a handful of producers made superb wines and Il Poggione was one of them. The wine has many, many years ahead of it in the bottle and will only get better with age. It’s a young buck right now and just needs some patience and aeration to temper the power of its youth.

The je-ne-sais-quoi moment came when Mark insisted that we pair the fried pork belly with the wine: the classic plum notes of the wine and its tannin attained an ethereal nobility when blended with gelatinous fat and caramelized flavors of the dish.

What happened with the bottle that Eric and the panel tasted in New York? We’ll never know: on any given Sunday, even in a laboratory environment, a bottle of wine can be affected by innumerable variables (including how it was handled by the many actors who “touch” it before it reaches the end user).

Our evaluation? In the words of Tracie B, “Mikey likes it!”

Pasta in bianco and a Calabrian white (and the story behind Pearl lager)

librandi

Above: “Pasta in bianco,” literally “pasta in white,” one of my favorite things to eat. Pasta dressed simply with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and chili flakes.

In the wake of holiday feasting and the unusually cold weather here in Texas (making it all the more challenging to head to the gym!), Tracie B and I have been indulging lately in one of our not-so-guilty pleasures: pasta in bianco, literally, pasta [dressed] in white.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and then add a heaping handful of kosher salt (“enough to make it taste like seawater,” is the way Tracie B likes to put it). Cook a short or long pasta to the desired firmness (some like it more al dente than others). And then toss with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and chili flakes (if desired). Sometimes I’ll throw some finely chopped flatleaf parsley in as well.

After bread and wine, pasta in bianco (which can also be made using butter in the place of olive oil), is one of G-d’s true gifts to humankind. And it’s also one of the most healthy things you can eat. South Beach diet? Atkins diet? Hogwash! If you want to slim down or just stay trim, avoid protein and meat. Eat easy-to-digest starches dressed with the “good fat” of olive oil. When I first lived in Italy (more than 20 years ago) and pasta and rice became the central ingredient of my diet, my health (and life) changed radically for the better.

librandi

Above: Librandi is a high-volume winery in Calabria that makes well-priced food-friendly wines. They’re highly affordable, clean, and delicious. Calabrian and Apulian wine represent some of the greatest value in the market today.

I got a lot of feedback from yesterday’s post on the Calabria riots.

Last night, with Calabria on our minds, we opened a beautiful wine from Calabria that we love, Cirò Bianco: Calabrian Greco vinified in stainless-steel by Librandi. Bright (but not tongue-splitting) acidity, balanced minerality, and low alcohol (and a more-than-reasonable price) made this wine an ideal pairing for our pasta in bianco.

In other news (from the “recommended reading” department)…

doug sahm

Eric did a wonderful post yesterday poking fun at the fine art of pairing fine with junk food, The Match Game.

His recommended pairing for Mrs. B’s Chex Mix was Pearl lager.

I imagine Eric knows the famous beer of San Antonio from his days as a grad student at University of Texas at Austin.

That’s San Antonio and Austin music legend Doug Sahm with a can of Pearl in the photo left (courtesy of Pogzilla via IWG). (I’m sure you know Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan as icons of the Texas music scene but locally, Doug Sahm is considered its über-hero.) The Pearl Brewery is in the midst of a veritable renaissance these days: the facility itself and the adjacent retail and restaurant complex has become one of the top food and wine destinations in Central Texas. Definitely worth checking out…

Thanks for reading! Ya’ll come back now!