The world according to Soldera

Above: Gianfranco Soldera, legendary, enigmatic, and paradigmatic winemaker, a Trevisan farmer turned Milanese industrialist turned Montalcinese winemaker.

Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to be invited to visit Gianfranco Soldera’s estate, Case Basse, in the southwestern subzone of the Brunello appellation will surely share my impression that his winery, vineyards, and contiguous botanical garden come together to form what is undeniably one of the most impressive estates in the world.

When he began looking for an estate to purchase in the early 1970s, the Piedmontese wouldn’t sell him a decent plot of land, he told me the other day when we visited. So he decided to to buy a parcel in Montalcino on the advice of a friend who had told him you could pick up a piece of land there for a boccon di pan, a mouthful of bread, in those days.

Above: The botanical gardens at Soldera’s Case Basse include a swamp (to create a maritime influence) and a white flower garden (to encourage nighttime pollination). “Ah, the white flower garden,” remembered wistfully my friend Dr. Lawrence O, the other day when he spied my visit on Facebook. Lawrence has visited there, of course.

When you talk to winemakers in Langa (Piedmont), many of the current generation still look to Soldera as a doktorvater (like Beppe Rinaldi, who told me that he often seeks advice and guidance from Soldera when the elder visits Barolo).

In many ways, it’s as if Soldera, when faced with the fact that he couldn’t make wine in Piedmont where he so obstinately desired to do so, decided to construct his own microclimate within the Brunello macroclimate. As he explains very openly, the remarkable botanical garden on his property (manicured by his wife) creates a unique ecological balance of plant and swamp life, including the “white flower garden,” so famous among wine insiders, intended to encourage pollination at night because the bright peddles attract the insects in darkness.

Above: “You find no vineyards with larger berries nor smaller clusters,” said Soldera proudly of his fruit. The attention to detail in his vineyard management is truly stunning.

Soldera has famously stated that he makes “natural wine.” Whether or not that’s the case is something I’ll leave that to the experts in the thorny field. He does seem to meet all the card-carrying members’s requirements: manual vineyard management, no chemicals in the vineyards, ambient yeasts in the cellar, no temperature control, lowest possible sulfuring. While I was in his presence a few weeks ago, he scolded one very famous winemaker in absentia for using cement vats for vinification, noting that wood is the natural vessel for winemaking. He also scolded another very famous winemaker for suggesting that it was okay to use a starter yeast when he had trouble initiating fermentation in his cellar.

But is it natural, I wonder, to build a botanical garden using mountains of manure (however organically prepared) in a place abandoned by sharecroppers because nothing would grow there anymore? I’ve leave that one to the exegetic forces of the rebbes and erstwhile Talmudic scholars in our field.

One thing we can all seem to agree on is that his wines are among the best in the world (and accordingly priced). I had the good fortune to taste the 2008 (extremely good) and 2006 (exceptional vintage, one of the best I’ve ever tasted) out of cask with him in the cellar. And at dinner we drank the 2003: an infamously and remarkably difficult vintage for any winemaker in Italy yet a harvest for which Soldera delivered lip-smacking acidity and gorgeously nuanced fruit aromas and flavors in his Sangiovese. These wines are simply life-changing, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring… It’s true…

Above: Soldera with Roberto Rossi, chef/owner of Il Silene, arguably the best restaurant in southern Tuscany. The drive up to Seggiano is worth it if only to taste Roberto’s olive oil. The food and service were amazing.

Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to be invited to visit Gianfranco Soldera’s estate, Case Basse, will tell you that Soldera keeps no secrets and he liberally shares his often salty opinions with those whom have been invited for an audience. (You’ll be surprised to find out that he has a website.)

Our conversation spanned many generations of Italian winemaking the other day when I visited him and you can imagine the controversial topics we covered. But the thing that stuck with me was what he said when I asked him what he saw for the future of winemaking in Italy.

“Commercial winemaking has come to an end in Italy,” he said referring to the recent Brunello controversy and rumors that the historic Barbi estate has plans to sell its property to Italian wine behemoth Zonin. “The nature of Italy cannot support industrial farming and commercial winemaking has run its course historically,” he told me. However many grains of salt there may be in the world according to Soldera, there’s certainly a grain of truth in this morsel of wisdom.

Above: Sunset at the Case Basse estate.

Another winemaker told me the same thing later on in my trip. Stay tuned to find out which one…

The new vintages of López de Heredia have arrived in the Groovers Paradise!

Making the rounds of yesterday’s trade tastings in the Groover’s Paradise (aka Austin, Texas), I was extremely fortunate to get to taste the current releases from one of our favorite wineries in the world, López de Heredia, Viña Gravonia blanco and Viña Tondonia rosado 2000. Ten-year-old white and rosé wines. I was impressed by how bright the fruit is in these bottlings, unusual (to tell the truth) for this house, where savory and salty notes always seem to dominate. Can’t wait to crack these with Tracie P, ideally over some ceviche and tacos al pastor at Fonda San Miguel.

It was great to catch up with everyone after being away for so long, like wine professionals April Collins, Jeff Courington, and Lolly Thompson.

Wine broker extraordinaire Susana Partida was rocking the Bastianich.

When I see these two dudes, Craig Collins and Mark Sayre, I always “smile like a fool,” as my friend Thompson likes to say.

Rob was in fine Forman: SO MANY killer Italian wines in his book (Inama, Marchesi di Gresy, Selvapiana, Tenuta Sant’Antonio) from Dalla Terra.

This Valpolicella from Degani is a welcomed new arrival in my Groover’s Paradise. It was fresh and bright, juicy and delicious, the way I like it. And it should weigh in well under $20 retail according to importer Enotec.

How does the song go, Flaco?

the guacamole queen is there
oh Lawd she’ll really curl your hair.
enchiladas and BBQ
oh baby whatch gonna do
come over here beside me
tell me baby how you been
I get through laying it on you
well you know that I’m back again

Groover’s Paradise
Groover’s Paradise
Groover’s Paradise

It’s good to be back…

Tracie P’s pici

In the wake of a comment on this blog by Tracie P (while I was in Tuscany) sharing her yen for some Tuscan pici (long noodles made with only flour and water), my good friend Federico aka Fred (export director for one of my favorite Montalcino wineries, Le Presi) appeared one day with two bags of dried pici by Panarese for me to take home.

Last night for dinner, Tracie P defrosted some of her excellent ragù and used it to dress a few nidi (nests) of the pici (also called pinci).

On the back of the label, the only ingredients listed are durum wheat flour and water. There’s something about pici, even when dried (and not freshly rolled out), that makes them ideal for meat sauces (or mushrooms). For all of their humility, the purity of the saltless flour and the texture of the noodles create a sublime pairing with the richness of the sauce. Simply delicious. We paired with a grapey, bretty, easygoing Valle Reale Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that was remarkably fresh and bouncy for an 06. A perfect Tuesday night dinner, catching up on the TV shows we missed (Tracie P sacrificed herself and did NOT watch the season finales of True Blood and Mad Men so that we could watch them together… THAT’S how much she loves me, she says).

How did I manage to get the pasta back without any breakage?

I used my cowboy hat, of course! I packed the bags of noodles on either side of the “crown” of the hat in my carry-on. It worked like a charm! That’s me, btw, above, outside the famous Osteria al Cappello in Udine, where hundreds of hats (cappelli) hang from the ceiling. (Photo by Joe Campanale.) The owner asked me if I’d give her my hat for her restaurant. “Un bel cappello,” she said. “A fine hat.”

“Naw,” I told her. “This hat will be riding home with the San Diego Kid back to Austin.” I’ll post more on the AMAZING MEAL I had at Osteria al Cappello in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, we’re sending lots of love to Pam and Melvin Croaker today. Melvin, you may remember, gave me my cowboy hat late last year.

Prosciutto bloggers unite!

Just had to share this link and send some blog love over to the Prosciuttificio D’Osvaldo in Cormòns (Friuli). That’s a photo I snapped of the D’Osvaldo collection of pigs the other day when I visited with the Ponca 10 (below, later that evening on the Gulf of Trieste). I’ll be posting about D’Osvaldo and what I learned, saw, and tasted there in a few weeks (but first Tuscany and the Veneto!). Stay tuned…

How do you like those jazz hands? ;-)

Gaja’s Santa Restituta restoration project fascinated me

This is the first in a series of posts culled from my recent trip to Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. While on the road, I was only able to post short snippets and highlights from my visits. Starting today, and in the weeks that follow (as time permits), I’ll be posting in-depth accounts of my conversations with winemakers and restaurateurs and what I tasted. Thanks for reading…

Above: Can you imagine my delight when I got to tour the Pieve di Santa Restituta restoration site in Tavernelle (Montalcino) a few weeks ago? The white bassi rilievi (bas-reliefs) are possible indications of the presence of a Romanic church on this site, i.e., a pagan temple that was converted and consecrated as a Catholic church in the Middle Ages.

When I tasted with Gaia Gaja back in the spring of this year in Chicago, one of the things I was most curious about was her family’s restoration of the Pieve di Santa Restituta and the church of the parish (pieve) in the Orcia River Valley, where her family makes Brunello di Montalcino.

I first visited the Orcia River Valley in Tuscany (perhaps the most photogenic and photographed swath of this beautiful land) in 1989 and have been fascinated ever since by the medieval hilltop towns and the rich ancient religious traditions that thrive here, like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (in Castelnuovo) or the Madonna di Vitaleta (in San Quirico).

Above: The medieval façade of the Chiesa di Santa Restituta.

The pieve and church of Santa Restituta are particularly remarkable because the site represents an entirely unique and anomalous tradition in the context of the Orcia River Valley: the church is the only one in Tuscany devoted to Santa Restituta, the patron saint of Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples, where Tracie P lived for nearly 5 years before we met.

Since Gaia (the fifth-generation winemaker in one of Itay’s most famous winemaking families) first told me about the church and her family’s restoration project, I’ve also been absorbed by the powerful legend of Santa Restituta. During my recent visit with her in Tuscany, she very generously photocopied an essay entitled “Una madre vegliarda: la Pieve di Santa Restituta (Montalcino)” (“An Old Mother: the Parish of Santa Restituta”)* and published in 1978 in Arezzo by a gentleman named Angelo Tafi, who spent the better part of the second half of the twentieth century documenting the many small parishes that dot the Tuscan countryside. On the plane ride home from Europe, I devoured this wonderful piece of writing, so generously given to me by Gaia.

Above: Many of the relics currently being cataloged in the restoration process date are from the nineteenth century, when this parish was populated by a vibrant community of sharecroppers.

St. Restituta was born in Africa during the rule of Diocletian (284 to 305). She is believed to be one of the Martyrs of Abitina (modern-day Tunisia). When she refused to worship Jupiter, the Romans ordered that she be covered in tar and burned on a boat. Miraculously, her captors’s vessel caught fire and her boat drifted away before they could set it ablaze.

Most scholars believe that her relics were brought to Naples by African Christians who fled persecution in the sixth century. Today, the Cathedral of Naples now stands where the Church of Santa Restituta was established at that time. Ultimately, the relics were transferred to the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia where a church devoted to her still stands.

Above: I don’t know if she planned to do so, but Gaia’s handsome outfit was reminiscent of a nun’s habit that day. The parish and the church have a truly magical aura about them.

Her feast is celebrated in May on the island, where the legend is re-enacted each year in a colorful and widely popular pageant. In the contemporary version of her story, her boat finds its way to the bay of San Montano in Lacco Ameno, where her body is discovered by Lucina, a local matron, who proclaims that a virgin has been delivered by the hand of God. Her cult on the island is so powerful that many families still name their daughters Restituta (as Tracie P can attest!).

No one really knows why the church in Tavernelle was devoted to Santa Restituta, although — as Tafi demonstrates — it’s unlikely that there is a relation to Latium’s homonymous Santa Restituta di Sora. The site was a well established state-owned farming community in Roman times and it’s possible that Neapolitan merchants settled there in the late Middle Ages: anyone who knows the coastal road from Fiumicino airport in Rome to Sant’Angelo in Colle (the southern outpost of Montalcino) will immediately recognize the strategic location of the Pieve di Santa Restituta with relation to Naples.

I simply cannot convey the electric sensation of touring this beautiful property. A team of artisans buzzed around us, delicately chipping away at a stuccoed wall to reveal the classic brown limestone of the Orcia Rivery Valley underneath.

Above: Tafi’s research shows that the Sugarille vineyards were already devoted to the cultivation of grapes by the fifteenth century.

In his research, Tafi discovered that certain parcels were already devoted to viticulture by the fifteenth century. Today, Gaja uses those same growning sites for its flagship Brunello, the vineyard-designated Brunello Sugarille (the vineyard of the cork trees, sugheri in Italian).

Gaja’s vineyards lie adjacent to those of Soldera (who, together with his wines, will be the subject of an upcoming post). Many consider these historic growing sites to be among the best in the appellation. My guess is that centuries of sharecropping ultimately depleted the soil’s nutrients, making the white and brown earth ideal for the cultivation of fine wine grapes (but more on that later).

Above: Gaia poured me a flight of wines that spanned 1996 through 2008.

Of course, I was also there to taste Gaia’s family’s wines and I will not conceal that I was thoroughly impressed by the 2008 Brunello Sugarille (single vineyard) and the 2006 Brunello Rennina (which is sourced from three different vineyards on the estate). As you can see from the color in the image above, the wines were bright and transparent, and I found them to be excellent expressions of Sangiovese Grosso and the Brunello appellation. The red fruit was balanced by good acidity and powerful tannin (still very youthful in the case of the Sugarille) and there was none of the woodiness that I’ve found in earlier vintages of this wine. Here, in this most western subzone, elegance and purity trump the earthier expressions of Sangiovese that you find in the central, southwest, and southeast areas.

In my limited experience with Gaja’s bottlings of Brunello (since I can hardly afford them), I’ve seen an evolution (and I think that Gaia would agree) bringing them more into line with the classic profile of great Brunello. I thought the most recent vintages were great.

But, most of all, I was impressed by this fascinating restoration project, adding yet another destination to the many sites on my list of places to take Tracie P the next time we’re there. Truly exciting stuff for geeks like me!

*The reference to the madre vegliarda is culled from the great nineteenth-century Italian poet Giosué Carducci’s poem “La chiesa di Polenta” (“The Church of Polenta”). The title alone is worthy of a stand-alone blog post but it will have to wait.

Security cam photo

Just had to post this photo, taken by an airport security agent using my camera on Sunday morning in Munich, Germany before I boarded for Washington, D.C.

When I went through security, he very courteously asked me if he could take a photo, using my camera. Yes, of course, I said. And so he proceeded to remove the camera from its pouch, its cap from the lens, and then he pointed and shot. The above photo is the result of his effort.

Isn’t it interesting to look at? Isn’t it fascinating to contemplate the semiotic implications of the composition and those posed by a gaze that cares only to see through the signifier but not to see the signified?

Needless to say, I was waived on through the check point with flying colors.

Congrats Mark Sayre, Erin and Nat!

You head outta town for a few weeks and all KINDS of stuff is bound to happen while you’re gone!

Congrats are due to our friend Mark Sayre (above), sommelier at one of Austin’s top dining desintations, Trio. He was recently named one of the top 7 sommeliers in the country by Wine & Spirits magazine. Nice going, bro!

And a heartfelt mazel tov to beloved Austin wine professionals Erin McReynolds and Nat Davis who were married yesterday. Tracie P and I wish you a lifetime of bliss and happiness!

Beauty (and ugly) in Italy

Above: A wasp feasts on newly picked Ribolla at Venica & Venica.

A quick post today, on this autumnal Monday back at my desk in Austin, comprised of photos from my trip, some of the most beautiful things I saw through my lens while in Italy. It was an incredible journey, replete with felicitous confluences, some serendipitous and delightfully unexpected, others grounded in epistemlogic contemplation and convex self-reflection.

Above: Pancetta offered to weary travelers, also at Venica.

In the days that follow, I’ll begin posting in-depth accounts of my conversations and tastings with winemakers and restaurateurs in Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. I am so grateful for all the comments, emails, Twitter mentions, and Facebook notes encouraging me and sharing insights into what I photographed, smelled, tasted, drank, and masticated over the course of the nearly three-week trip. And I am especially thankful for the incredible hospitality and generosity of spirit of my (literally) myriad hosts and guides.

Above: A view from one of the dining rooms at Trattoria al Parco in Buttrio (Udine).

Immense and extreme beauty is offered to the willful traveler of the Italic peninsula: from her generous landscape to her innate and intrinsic humanity (both historical and topical), Italy continues to inspire me (and hopefully you) by revealing some of the mystery and joy of life through her topographic, aesthetic, and sensual pleasures.

Above: A view from the Abbazia di Rosazzo in the Colli Orientali del Fiuli.

While I thoroughly enjoyed her bountiful intellectual and sensorial gifts, I was however acutely aware of the seemingly insurmountable societal and cultural issues and turmoil faced by the inhabitants (Italian and otherwise) of this profoundly gorgeous land.

Above: Hay for Chianina cows near Pienza, Tuscany.

Whether it’s Berlusconi patently using one of his media outlets (in this case, Il Giornale, a top national daily) to sling mud at his rival Fini (now embroiled in a sticky familiar real-estate scandal) or the impending expulsion of Roma (following the highly controversial and contested model employed by Sarkozy), Italy and her peoples find themselves in circumstances eerily however distantly reminiscent of the “era between the two wars.” When I commented on the recent changing of the guard in the political regime of the region where she and her family make wine, one winemaker observed wryly but not inronically, “we were better off with the fascists in power than the [newly instated] separatists.”

Above: Sunset in Montalcino (Tuscany), viewed from the estate of Il Palazzone.

Perhaps it’s this precarious balance of salt and sweet that makes Italy always taste so great and greatly on our tongues. Thanks for reading…

The Ponca 10 bid Friuli adieu

The Ponca 10* visited cult prosciuttificio D’Osvaldo yesterday in Cormòns: Matthew Turner (head sommlier, Michael Mina, San Francisco), Brent Karlicek (wine merchant, Postino, Phoenix), Jamie Garrett (sommelier, Sonnenalp, Vail), Bobby Stuckey (wine director, Frasca, Boulder), Steve Wildy (beverage director, Vetri, Philadelphia), Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (chef, Frasca, Boulder), Lara Persello (our handler, Turismo FVG), Shelley Lindgren (wine director, A16, San Francisco), Mario Nocifera (director of operations, Frasca, Boulder), Joe Campanale (beverage director, Dell’Anima, New York).

The group gave handler Lara a Hermès bracelet to thank her for her superb job herding cats.

The crudo at the Regione Friuli good-bye discothèque party was extreme.

Bobby (left) and Lachlan (right) posed on the red carpet with Colli Orientali del Friuli consortium president Pierluigi Comelli and his lovely wife.

Do Bianchi dug the musetto.

Kristian Keber’s Edi Keber Collio ROCKED!

A stroll through Trieste on a Saturday night was magical, electric.


*ponca, Friulian dialect, the unique sandy marl (flysch), Eocene seabed, typical of the Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli appellations.

Old-school frico at La Subida

Dinner last night at one of Italy’s greatest culinary destinations, La Subida in Cormons (Gorizia), included this old-school frico. That’s owner Joško Sirk.

Today’s my last here in Friuli. It’s been an amazing trip and I have many tales to tell of my adventures culinary and otherwise in Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. But now it’s time to head back to my wife, my life, and my love, Tracie P

Thanks so much to everyone for keeping up with the blog and following along. The comments and emails mean a lot to me and I’m so glad that folks are enjoying my posts. There will be more to come next week once I catch my breath…