04 Barbaresco Montestefano by Produttori del Barbaresco, a wine Gramsci would approve of

Above: I love it when you drop in on someone and they just happen to be opening single-vineyard designated Produttori del Barbaresco!

Yesterday, while meeting with Tony in Houston, one of his clients asked me, “if you could only choose one Italian red wine to recommend for value and quality, what would it be?”

Anyone who follows our enological adventures knows that I didn’t skip a beat in answering Produttori del Barbaresco.

It’s a winery that truly speaks to me and Tracie P: its traditional-style bottlings of Nebbiolo — Langhe Nebbiolo, classic Barbaresco, and single-vineyard designated Barbaresco — are wonderful expressions of earth, fruit, and acidity. And thanks to the agricultural cooperative social experiment launched by a Barbaresco priest in the 19th century and carried forward into the 21st by winemaker Aldo Vacca and his team, the wines remain extraordinarily affordable. In our modest library of wines that we’re cellaring (appropriate for a couple with middle-class means), Produttori del Barbaresco is our flagship. A luxury wine even Gramsci would approve of!

Above: Winemaker Aldo Vacca vinified his crus separately in 2009, as he regularly does in vintages he deems good enough. Whether or not he will release it as a cru-designated wine is another question. I snapped this photo in March 2010 when I last visited the winery.

When I rolled into Houston town Tuesday night, early for a holiday cheer appointment with friend and blogger colleague, Food Princess, who now writes for the new Houston Chronicle aggregate lifestyle blog 29-95), I stopped by Backstreet Cafè to see if my friend, sommelier Sean Beck was around.

As it so happened, he just happened to be opening a bottle of Produttori del Barbaresco 2004 Barbaresco Montestefano to enjoy with friends. (I love it when that happens!)

After the classic Barbaresco (a cuvée sourced primarily from Ovello with fruit from crus as well), Montestefano and Rabajà are my favorite bottlings by Produttori del Barbaresco. They are among the most powerful and the richest in terms of their earthiness and savory flavors.

At 6 years out, the Montestefano is very, very young and has many, many years ahead of it. But its balance is already beginning to emerge, with the fruit still relatively muted. Back in April 2009, I asked Aldo if he would compare his 04 to the now legendary 1989 vintage. He said that yes, in fact, even though he had initially thought it more similar to 90 (in his early reports on the vintage), he agreed: 04 has that classic harmony that these wines can achieve in great vintages — earth, fruit, and bright acidity.

However young, with still attenuated fruit, the 04 Montestefano was brilliant on Tuesday night, very much in line with what I imagined it would be and brighter, in fact, that expected. Sean, next time you open a bottle, you know my number! Thanks again dude! You rock…

95 B. Mascarello and Alba truffles, a marriage made in heaven

Within the gentle heart Love shelters him,
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in Nature’s scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.

(the incipit of “The Gentle Heart,” by Guido Guinizelli, 1230-76)

You can keep your DRC, your Bond, your Pétrus… No, those wines are not good enough and do not deserve to touch the lips of the one I love. No, their aromas and flavors are not worthy of her noble nostrils and chaste tastebuds.

No, when I dine with my wife, my signora, my lady, my dame, my donna, my domina… such wines will not suffice.

When I share a special repast with Tracie P, bring me Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello.

Many great wines have been opened, tasted, and drunk in 2010, but perhaps none thrilled us more than the Bartolo Mascarello 1995 Barolo that we shared on Saturday night at Tony’s in Houston. Over these last two years (my first two in Texas), Tony has become a friend and now a client (I write his blog). Over the weekend, he generously treated Tracie P and me to dinner in celebration of our first year as a married couple.

Sometimes a wine is only as good as the person you share it with… Tracie P had never tasted Bartolo Mascarello and it was high time that this travesty in the annals of enological history was rectififed!

Bartolo Mascarello is one of the great icons of Nebbiolo, a steadfast defender of traditional winemaking, producer of one of the greatest wines in the world, and more recently, a founder and promoter of the “real wine” movement in Italy. Like many of the great houses of Langa, the Mascarello legacy began with a grape broker, Bartolo’s father Giulio, who intimately knew the best growing sites for Nebbiolo, as his granddaughter Maria Teresa explained to me the first time I tasted with her at the winery in 2008. Today, their Barolo is still made from grapes grown in four vineyards purchased by Giulio: Cannubi, San Lorenzo, Rué, and Rocche. Extended submerged cap maceration and large-cask aging are still employed at the winery today, a tradition that now spans three generations.

The pairing of great Nebbiolo and shaved Alba white truffles is no cheap date but it’s one of those gastronomic experiences that will literally change your life (and when done correctly, is worth every single penny).

Tony had captain Vinny shave us truffles over a perfectly cooked white risotto by chef de cuisine Grant.

95 was a classic although not great vintage for this wine and at 15 years out, it was drinking stupendously. Bartolo Mascarello has all the hallmarks of great Barolo: the savory tar and earth flavors. But to my palate, its sottobosco flavors, notes of woodsy underbrush, are its signature. Gorgeous acidity and IMHO perfectly evolved tannin for this vintage, although this wine could certainly age for another decade or more.

Regrettably, B. Mascarello is tough to find in this country and Tony is the only restaurateur I know in Texas who features the wines on his list (in a mini-vertical no less!). Thanks to my line of work, I’ve been fortunate to taste a lot of B. Mascarello and I was thrilled to share this bottle with the love of my life.

What else did we eat?

We were disappointed that we missed Tony’s bollito misto (with bollito cart!), but he had reserved a poached capon studded with black truffles just for us. Utterly delicious…

And a night like that just couldn’t end without chef Grant’s soufflé, expertly sliced and served by captain Vinny.

What a night!

Some guys have all the luck and Nebbiolo and truffles are some girls’s best friends. I am one lucky dude to be married to one such lady.

Thanks again, Tony! That was one of the most memorable meals of our life together! We had a blast…

Banfi, Brunello, and the Wall Street Journal

Above: When I made my annual pilgrimage to Montalcino in September of this year, I took time out to visit the monument at Montaperti, commemorating the 1260 battle there between the Guelphs of Florence (the Papacy) and the Ghibellines of Siena (Holy Roman Empire).

In her recent interview on the Wall Street Journal wine blog, “Co-CEO” of Banfi Christina Mariani states that the Brunello controversy of 2008-2009 “was just to make the press… Everyone was cleared, including us.”

When Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani (and co-editor of our blog VinoWire) reposted the interview on his blog last week, another top Italian wine blogger, Gian Luca Mazzella, posted links to two entries on his blog in the comment thread of Franco’s post: as he points out in his comment and one of the referenced posts (published by the Italian national daily Il Fatto Quotidiano on October 19, 2010), widely circulated accounts in Italy’s mainstream press reported that Banfi accepted a plea agreement in the Italian treasury’s “Operation Mixed Wine” investigation (where authorities alleged that certain Brunello producers had adulterated their wines, adding unauthorized grapes). It’s worth noting here that Il Fatto Quotidiano is one of Italy’s leading national newspapers.

The only wineries that were officially “cleared” were Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia (a fact also widely circulated in the Italian mainstream press).

In fact, even Banfi’s current managing director, Enrico Viglierchio, told the Wine Spectator that the company had agreed to declassify some of its wine in an agreement with investigators (note that the title of the article is “Banfi’s Brunello Cleared”; the wine, not the winery, was “cleared” after the company agreed to declassify certain lots).

The Ghibellines won the battle but lost the war. Ultimately, the battle’s outcome consolidated the Pope’s power in Tuscany and a new era of Florentine and Papal dominance began.

You’ll note that I am merely reporting what has been written in Italy — before and after Mariani’s recent interview (if so inclined, please click on the links above and read my translations of Italian news reports and the report in the Spectator).

Out of respect for Ms. Mariani (and for a good friend of mine who works closely with her), there is no note of sarcasm nor sardonic editorial here.

I would like to address, however, one of her statements. In the interview, she tells wine writer Lettie Teague (one of our country’s most popular enojournalists and author and a super nice lady whom I know through our professional correspondence and tastings we’ve attended together): “If it’s not a health issue, it’s not an issue for consumers…”

She’s right: the appellation regulations that require Brunello producers to use only Sangiovese in their wine were written and approved by the producers themselves to protect the producers and appellation — not the consumer. In other words, the regulations were conceived to protect those producers who play by the rules in an appellation where 80% of the wine was being made with the addition of unauthorized grapes, according to producers association current president Ezio Rivella who served as Banfi’s managing director until 1999 and left the company after working in Montalcino since 1977 (and with the Mariani family since 1961).

The battle and the events and political turmoil that followed (particularly the papacy of Boniface VIII) are central to Dante’s poem, the Comedy, and the overarching mission of his life — to achieve separation of temporal and spiritual powers in Europe, a notion dear to the forefathers of our country (did you know that Thomas Jefferson, a winemaker, spoke and read ancient Italian and could quote the Comedy from memory?).

Why did I incorporate images of the pyramid at Montaperti in this post?

I don’t get to Montaperti every year. In fact, I hadn’t been there in probably 10 years or so. I studied the Battle of Montaperti when I was a graduate student and have been fascinated with it since then. The 1260 battle there is central to Dante’s poem and its political themes. It marked the beginning of Siena’s decline as a world power and an era of political and human upheaval in Tuscany and Italy. (Montalcino is in the province of Siena, btw.)

As for the Sienese Ghibellines who won the battle at Montaperti but ultimately lost the war, their micro-state (city state) was ultimately absorbed by the greater power of Florence. I’ll let the reader infer any analogy that can be made here.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up where we left off, posting about family get togethers and great wines we’ve been drinking with loved ones during the holiday season.

Vogliatevi bene… Love one another…

My friend Marisa from Friuli, who recently celebrated her 70th birthday, wrote me the sweetest holiday message the other day.

“Auguro a te e alla tua Signora,” she wrote, “tanta felicità per ogni giorno della vostra vita! Vogliatevi bene!!!! Buone Feste!!!”

I wish you and your wife every happiness for every day of your lives! Love one another! Happy holidays!

I asked Marisa if I could borrow the above photos from her Facebook: on the left, her parents on their honeymoon at the Colosseum in 1937; on the right, her mother, with their family’s vineyards behind her.

Her parents returned to Rome for their 25th wedding anniversary, she wrote me. Just think of all that happened in Europe between 1937 and 1962!

Marisa’s words reminded me of our great fortune to live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. Even with the financial struggles so many of us are facing, we still have a lot to be thankful for.

During the holiday season, I can’t think of better way to honor the generations that have come before us than by loving one another… vogliatevi benelove one another… That’s what the holidays are for, aren’t they?

97 G. Mascarello Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio and great food at Tasting Kitchen LA

The Schachter factor was in high gear on Tuesday night at The Tasting Kitchen in Los Angeles. Good friend David Schachter reached deep in his cellar for a bottle he knew would thrill me (as it would anyone who knows the great wines of the world): Giuseppe Mascarello 1997 Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio, Mauro Mascarello’s top bottling, from one of the great if somewhat maligned vintages of the twentieth century.

The 1997 harvest was and remains a classic example of semiotician Harold Bloom’s “misunderstanding,” what he would have called the anxiety of influence (@Comrade Howard, I know it’s a stretch but I think you would agree!). Similar to what happened for 2000, many American wine writers (and you all know whom I’m talking about) praised the warm 1997 vintage for the fruit-forward, hot (read highly alcoholic) wines it delivered. In the view of most Piedmont producers, 97 was a good vintage… not a great one. Wines from this harvest, in their view, were not “classic” expressions of their territorio. They were good and sometimes great but not worthy of the hype that they attained in their trans-Atlantic crossing.

Winemaker Mauro Mascarello’s bottling of his Ca’ d’ Morissio vineyard (above, visited by me and Tracie P and top Italian wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani in February 2010) was an exception to this paradigm: thanks to the unique microclimate of this deservedly famous growing site (owing to exposure and elevation), Mauro is able to obtain Barolo benchmarks even in hotter vintages. In fact, to my knowledge, he was the only Barolo producer in the five core townships to produce his flagship single-vineyard wine Ca’ d’ Morissio for the extremely hot 2003 vintage (that’s the Ca’ d’ Morissio, “Maurizio’s house,” at the top of the hill, btw).

Mauro Mascarello is a remarkable man, a 19th-century man, a man whose spiritual integrity and wholesome warmth are expressed in his warm, sturdy handshake and personal manner. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and taste with him three times now (each thanks to Mr. Ziliani) and I am always as impressed by the man himself as I am by the incredible wines he produces. Many Barolo insiders point to his winery as the most recently canonized member in the pantheon of the truly great producers in the appellation.

One of the hallmarks of traditional Barolo is large-cask aging: Tracie P snapped the above photo of me when we visited with Mr. Ziliani to show how large “large” is at Giuseppe Mascarello! Mauro’s father was in the lumber business and he built the cask in the photo as an experiment in dimension, said Mauro. (For a fantastic English-language profile of G. Mascarello, I highly recommend this excellent post by my blogging colleague Gregory dal Piaz who knows this winery and its wines perhaps better than anyone else in the U.S.)

I am very fortunate to have tasted a lot of fantastic wine this year (and many of the highlights have been in the last few weeks) but 97 G. Mascarello Barolo Monprivato Ca’ d’ Morissio? An astounding wine. Layers and layers of nuanced fruit and earth on the nose, with this fantastic black licorice, almost menthol note that is always a signature in wines from this vineyard. Rich tar and mushroom in the mouth, with harmonious red berry and red stone fruit. But it was the acidity, tongue-splitting acidity, as Tracie P would have said — even in the warm 1997 vintage! — that took this wine over the top. In Italian wine parlance, you often say that the acidity is a “backbone” that “supports” the flavors of the wine: this wine was the embodiment of this notion.

O, and the food at the Tasting Kitchen (yesterday named 4th best new restaurant in the U.S. by Alan Richman in GQ)?

Buckwheat bigoli with lamb and anchovy ragù was my favorite.

I also loved Chef Casey Lane’s unabashed use of heat in dishes like this tagliolini with baby squid (the fact that my WordPress spellcheck knows tagliolini is remarkable, no?). We spoke to Casey before our meal: he is a super cool, mellow guy (unusual for chefs of his caliber) and he’s from Texas! Awesome dude…

Housemade chorizo and roast pork loin were FANTASTIC with the Ca’ d’ Morissio.

Thanks again, David! And congrats, Casey! An amazing meal and an UNFORGETTABLE wine…

Sérgio Mendes favorite wine last night (with Sérgio!)

From the “I shit you not” department…

It was while Brother Anthony (as he has been duly dubbed by Comrade Howard) and I were doing a little wine bar hopping last night in LA that we bumped into bossa nova, jazz, and funk giants Sérgio Mendes and Gracinha Leporace. We literally saw Sérgio from the street through the window of Osteria Mozza (where we had just left the bar) and he insisted that we come back in and taste his wines (brother Anthony recently recorded with Sérgio, who was having dinner with Gracinha and their agent).

What’s it like to drink Chapoutier 2004 Ermitage [sic] De L’Orée with Sérgio? Unbelievably crunchy and salty and utterly delicious. Sérgio and his entourage were super cool and friendly and fun to hang out with (and he was geeked to see brother Anthony and had high praise for him). I love the white wines of Chapoutier and rarely get to drink them. It was such a thrill to taste such an amazing bottling with Sérgio! Thanks again, Sérgio!

But the wine I can’t stop thinking about this foggy morning in LA (there’s a fog upon LA…) is the 2009 Langhe Bianco by Cavallotto, made from Pinot Nero. Not much of this wine is produced, said my fav LA sommelier and GM at Mozza David Rosoff.

I’ve had some great Langhe Bianco this year, notably from Vajra, Cogno, and Ettore Germano, but this wine simply floored me with its structure and nuance.

In keeping with our tradition of Holocaust humor (one of my all-time favorite posts here at Do Bianchi), I greeted David with a heil myself! I love David and one my new year’s resolutions for 2011 is to spend more time tasting with him. This guy deserves a medal for what he’s doing with Italian wine: his list is the top all-Italian carta dei vini, hands down, in the City of Angels.

Next we headed over to see more Jews at my favorite wine bar in the world, Lou on Vine. Lou is a true rebbe of natural wine and is another one of those folks I just wish Tracie P and I got to see more often.

The squid (above) at the Monday night supper was brilliant.

The rabbit was divine.

I just love everything about Lou on Vine.

How do you like my LA stories? It’s been a long time since I’ve posted in the “de urbe angelorum” category!

Bertani 1986 Amarone della Valpolicella, that’s what friends are for

Tracie P was just reminding me of a time in my life, not so long ago, when I needed a little help from my friends. Well, last night one of those friends, Yele, needed a little help from me and Erickson… I mean, you can’t drink 1986 Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella by yourself, now, can you?

What a mind-blowingly amazing bottle, with such bright acidity in a wine more than two decades old! Drank a lot of great, old wine in 2010 but this bottle is a real stand-out: it had that unforgettable “nerviness,” that “backbone” of acidity that Italians use in their canon of wine descriptors. I would have always reached for the 88 with Bertani (also a great and unforgettable wine, tasted most recently in February 2009), but the 86 was better IMHO.

The best part, though, was that wide, familiar, contagious grin on Yele’s face when we were perusing the cellar at Third Corner in Ocean Beach, California, and he pulled me away from the 02 La Turque to show me his find. That’s what friends are for, right? 01 Musar white was stunning as well and the grandfathered retail sales program and corkage policy at Third Corner always make a splurge like this so much more palatable.

Keep smilin’, keep shinin’
Knowin’ you can always count on me, for sure
That’s what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for

In other news…

Just had to share these images from clients and friends Dan and Chrissa who invited me in for some holiday cheer when I dropped off their Do Bianchi Christmas Six-Pack.

Chrissa’s wonderful zuppa maritata (named, btw, not because it is served at Italian weddings, a folkloric etymology, but rather because it is a “marriage” or pairing of ingredients).

Dan’s homemade pork sausage for the meatballs.

Chrissa’s homegrown escarole for the soup.

Chrissa’s lemon cake. Damn, those two can cook!

A shout out to Brunello and Do Bianchi in the “Journal”

Check out Lettie Teague’s Wall Street Journal interview with Cristina Mariani, co-ceo of Banfi who says that the Brunello controversy was “just to make the press.” (I’m not sure what that means.) Lettie also gives a shout out to Do Bianchi and VinoWire. Read the interview here.

And for my latest dispatch from Montalcino, read my post Sunrise with a Brunello Master here.

Gary Jules and me sing a song under the dome, a “night at the museum”

Photo by my childhood friend and doppelgänger Jeremy Farson.

Gary invited me up on stage to sing a song last night at the museum. It always brings back so many memories to see Gary and to get to play with him was such a treat. We always fall right back into it like we were teenagers again… “I’ve just seen a face. I can’t forget the time or place…” So much fun…

Gary played all my favs of his, like “Barstool” and “No Poetry.” Gary is such an amazing lyricist and performer…

And, of course, he played his mega hit “Mad World,” which appeared originally in the Donnie Darko soundtrack and went on to become a UK #1 Christmas single.

But the song that really got me was “Close Your Eyes” by James Taylor, which Gary dedicated to brother Micah, a song the three of us used to listen to when we were teenagers and our whole worlds and hearts were being torn apart by the trappings of modern society. I could barely hold back the tears that welled up in my eyes.

“I don’t know no love songs and I can’t sing the blues anymore…”

Brother Micah, director of Museum of Man, did a fantastic job running the auction to raise money future exhibits. It was great to see how excited his staff is about the new energy there.

And it was wonderful to catch up with so many of my high school friends. We all remembered the many school trips we made as youngsters to the museum, a true diamond in the rough.

We’re all looking forward to the programs that brother Micah has in store for next year… Stay tuned!