71 Gattinara Monsecco (Conte Ravizza), Lenny Bruce, and BrooklynGuy

One last “wines and the city,” killer wines I tasted last week in NYC…

Beyond the “farmed content” found on aggregate sties (which tries to get you to land on their pages in order to show you advertising), there’s not much info out there in the interwebs about the 1971 Gattinara Monsecco Conte Ravizza by Le Colline, Vercelli, which I got to taste last week thanks to the generosity of BrooklynGuy’s childhood friend Dan (who reminded me, in all the best ways, of my favorite Litvishe Jew, Lenny Bruce, and as it turns out, whose father represented Lenny Bruce is his legal battle against censorship! Incredible!).

The bottle we shared (thanks to Dan, paired with BrooklynGuy’s stunning bread-crumb- and marjoram-encrusted rack of lamb, above) had a strip label on the front that reported: “selected and shipped by Neil Empson, Milan.” On the back, there was a round label that reported: “Acquired from a private cellar [by] Acker, Merrall, & Condit,” the famed rare wine broker of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

In 1985, Sheldon Wasserman didn’t offer a tasting note for this wine in Italy’s Noble Red Wines, but he did write that “Luigi & Italo Nervi places 1971 among the worst vintages [for this appellation] and Travaglini puts it with the best! Antonio Rossi gave it three stars, Niederbacher, one. Obviously a controversial vintage. We never agreed with the three-star rating. Nevertheless, we find that all are too old now. At Le Colline they consider their ’71 Monsecco on a par with the ’64, so it should still be good.”

Dan mentioned that he had experienced some serious bottle variation in the lot he acquired but, man, this wine was off-the-charts good. Fresher than I would have expected on the nose (topped off? perhaps; the bottle was definitely reconditioned), with gentle berry fruit on the nose and on the palate, and wonderfully integrated tannin. I agreed with BrooklynGuy’s approach of not decanting this wine and opening it right before service (for the record, Dan had brought it over a few nights before and BrooklynGuy left it standing up right for more than 24 hours). Great wine…

Before we got to the Gattinara, BrooklynGuy reached into his cellar for a 2000 Moccagatta by Produttori del Barbaresco, which paired superbly with a savory mushroom flan that he prepared for our Brooklyn repast. Frankly, I was surprised by how tannic this wine was, especially considering the fact that Moccagatta tends to come around earlier than some of the more powerful crus (like Montestefano or Rabajà). At 10 years out, it seems to be closing down but with a little aeration we coaxed out some bramble and red berry fruit balanced by the mushroom and earth that are Produttori del Barbaresco’s signature. Killer wine…

This last trip to NYC was an intense one: after heading back through the sludge to the city, Verena and I wrote one more song before calling it a night… Someday, if that nowhere song for nobody ever gets recorded, I’ll play it for BrooklynGuy.

I didn’t get to do a lot of socializing or fancy eating this time around. But I was really glad to connect with BrooklynGuy, who’s become a super good friend.

I remember a time, not so many years ago, when he and I first met in person, in San Diego. Life then for me was good but didn’t have the direction and purpose it has today. At a taco shop in La Jolla (where Tracie P and I would later hold the rehearsal dinner for our wedding some two years later), BrooklynGuy — with the wisdom of a rabbinic Lenny Bruce — reminded me gently of the goodness in me and pointed out confidently that I would find my path again. He probably didn’t realize then how much those words meant to me. I hope some day I can return the favor…

Sauvignon Bianco: the basics

Although Sauvignon Bianco (Sauvignon Blanc) is not an indigenous variety of Friuli, it had to be included here because of its prevalence and popularity in the region. I rarely reach for international grape varieties cultivated in Italy, but when it comes Friulian Sauvignon Bianco, I can’t agree more with Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, who likes to call Sauvginon Bianco “Friuli’s secret weapon.”

The following post is my abridged translation of the entry on “Sauvignon Bianco” in Vitigni d’Italia, le varietà tradizionali per la produzione di vini moderni (Grape Varieties of Italy, the traditional varieties for the production of modern wines) by Antonio Calò et alia, Bologna, Calderini, 2006. This is the second in an educational series on the grape varieties of the Colli Orientali del Friuli, posted in conjunction with the COF 2011 aggregate blog.

Synonyms (documented and/or otherwise plausible): Bordeaux Bianco, Pellegrina, Piccabon, Spergolina, Blanc Fumè, Fumè, Surin, Fiè, Sauternes, Sylvaner Musqué, Muskat Sylvaner, Fegentraube, Savagnin Blanc, Savagnin Musqué.

Erroneous: Champagna, Champagne, Marzemina, Sciampagna, Sèmillon, Spergola, Spergolina Verde, Tocai Friulano.

Origins (Historical Notes): Sauvignon is cultivated in Bordeaux, particularly in the Sauternes. It probably came from this region to Italy, where it is has found suitable growing conditions in many areas and where its cultivation has been favored by growers. There is no doubt that the name Sauvignon originally meant “wild plant” (Bonnier e Levadoux, 1950). And indeed, its traits are similar to those found in the Lambrusca family. According to Molon (1906), its French origins are not certain, even though it has been cultivated in France since the 19th century. In France, two distinct types of Sauvignon are grown: Sauvignon Grosso, also known as Sauvignon Verde, and Sauvignon Piccolo, also known as Sauvignon Giallo. The only morphological differences between the two are in the fruit. The Verde or green-bunch biotype is Sauvignanasse, which is as widely planted in France as it is in Italy. In Friuli, it is called Tocai. There is also a pink or red clone of this variety, noted for its intense aroma and grown in warmer regions like Chile.

Environment and cultivation: Medium-low, dependable production. Slopes with dry conditions and stony soils are ideal for its cultivation. It thrives when pruning is not overly aggressive. Guyot and Cordone Speronato [i.e., cordon-trained, spur-pruned] are the recommended training systems for this variety. Because of its early ripening and hard-to-control acidity levels, temperate-cool climates are best for its cultivation where there is a higher synthesis of pyrazine and methoxypyrazine which are responsible for its elderberry and tomato leaf aromas.

Sensitivity to Disease and Other Issues: sensitive to peronospora, oidium, esca, very sensitive to botrytis and acid rot. It cannot tolerate spring freezes or hydric stress but has good tolerance for windy conditions.

Alcohol Content: 8.9-15%
pH: 2.6-3.6
Acidity: 3.9-9.3 grams per liter

Sauvignon Bianco makes a fine, food-friendly white wine, golden yellow in color with intense ripe fruit and floral aromas. Soft and velvety, lightly aromatic, warm, with good body, and delicate. Suitable for short-term aging. With the right conditions, it can be subjected to noble rot and late-harvested.

The variety is used exclusively for vinification. It is commonly grown in the Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Emilia, and Lombardy. It is used in many DOCs, including: Alto Adige, Colli Berici, Colli Bolognesi, Garda, Oltrepò Pavese, Bagnoli, Breganze, Isonzo, Terlano, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Collio Goriziano, Trentino, Erice, Corti Benedettine del Padovano, Pomino.

02 Joly at Alice’s Restaurant

More “wines and the city”…

While in NYC last week, I was so busy between writing sessions and meetings that there were no memorable restaurant experiences on the island of Manhattan (beyond white fish salad). But I did get to enjoy one of those wonderful late-night repasts at Alice’s Restaurant (ya’ll know whom I’m talking about), just like in the old days when I lived in the City and we’d often regroup chez Alice in Soho, bantering and listening to music until all hours of the night (who’s guitar pick was that on the WC floor?).

As Alice noted, there is so much bottle variation in Joly, you never quite know what to expect. But the stars aligned on a slushy, freezing night, and the bottle was fantastic (see Alice’s tasting note above).

Stinky cheese, crusty bread, some brined olives and roast kale and 02 Joly… You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant…

Crazy good wines tasted in New York last week

Not necessary in chronological order…

The legacy of the canicular 2003 vintage in Europe continues to express itself in fascinating ways (the fallout of the Brunello controversy is probably the ugliest manifestation of the ripples it sent through the wine world). It was one of those challenging vintages when the honest and true made interesting wines nonetheless.

While in New York, a colleague gave me a sample bottle of the 2003 by Bollinger, an anomaly for a winery that only vintage dates its Grande Année releases.

Tracie P and I are huge fans of Bollinger and drink it every chance we get. This wine was most definitely not in the classic “yeasty” and “toasty” style that is the winery’s signature. I’m not sure what went into the assemblage but this wine was crisper and brighter than the traditional “Special Cuvée” and it drank beautifully.

I was told that the winemaker decided to release this “second label,” vintage-dated wine because the estate’s 03 crop was not destined for the classic bottling. (For the record, I always find that Champagne blended from different vintages tends to be more complex and interesting to my palate.)

An anomaly and a curiosity from one of our favorite estates, it made for a wonderful and refreshing aperitif at a good friend’s house.

Next up: 2002 Joly at Alice’s Restaurant.

Groovin’ to Radikon (FINALLY!) in Austin

Above: The rainy 2002 harvest was not a great one in northeastern Italy and so the Radikon family decided to bottle their entire crop that year in 500 ml bottles. Because they made so little wine, the unusual format (for them) allowed them to release a great number of bottles. I’ve tasted the wine a number of times now and it’s stunning — a great example of what a great winemaker can do in a challenging vintage.

Over the weekend, I took Tracie P out to dine at Austin’s newest “white table cloth” dining establishment, Congress, a swank and high-concept dining experience with a wildly ambitious menu (sure to be the hottest table to snag during the upcoming SXSW music festival when a tide of rock ‘n’ roll celebrity rolls over this central Texas town).

I was THRILLED to experience our friend June Rodil’s much anticipated list and OVERJOYED to find one of my favorite wines in the world: Radikon (the first time I’ve seen it here in Texas).

Above: “Wild Arugula, Artichoke Confit, Mozzarella, Holiday Grape Agro Dolce” at Congress. I wish folks would abandon the “truffled olive oil” mania around here. It’s one of the world’s greatest misunderstandings. But I have high hopes for high-concept dining in future at Congress.

Most people (including the Radikon family) point to Radikon as the winery that started the loosely knit orange wine movement in Italy when they began to ferment their Ribolla Gialla with skin contact in the 1990s. I tasted at Radikon back in September of last year and am a HUGE fan of these wines.

Above: A photo I shot of Radikon’s 2010 Ribolla Gialla, not long before harvest. Heavy rains in northeastern Italy during the fall don’t bode well for this vintage — in many ways, similar to the 2002 vintage. The fruit was beautiful (as you can see) but last-minute rains during the harvest ruined a lot of the crop.

I disagree entirely when people say that these wines aren’t for everyone. In fact, everyone SHOULD taste these wines so that they can begin to explore the magic of the place where they are made and the amazing people who make them — founders of the Natural wine movement in Italy and some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in this business.

The 2002 Ribolla Gialla (in 500 ml bottle) was brown and crunchy and salty, with bright acidity and loads and loads of ripe and dried apricot and peach flavors… utterly delicious. What a thrill to see these wines on a list (at a fair price, btw) in a town that — ready or not — needs to learn what great Natural wine can be. Chapeau bas, June!

We drank the Radikon after dinner, with the chef’s cheese selection. With dinner, we ordered this 1999 (!) Mersault by one of my favorite Burgundy houses, Grivault. Normally, a wine like this would be out of our range but June has it at a more than reasonable price on her list (a reflection of her pricing strategy, sharing good deals she receives with her clientele). Lots of wonderful savory flavors in this wine, which has had more than a decade to evolve (and has many years ahead of it)… RUN DON’T WALK…

According to The Wall Street Journal, “the Brookings Institution recently found the capital of Texas to be the country’s most popular destination for the 25-34 demographic.”

I’m glad to say that we also have some kick-ass wines and kick-ass sommeliers ready to turn on all the hipsters arriving daily in the Groover’s Paradise!

Amarcord (I remember): Tonino Guerra honored by WGAW

Above: A still from Fellini’s 1973 Amarcord, screenplay by Tonino Guerra (image via Verdoux).

As if by some seaside romagnolo-infused magical realism, a press release found its way to my inbox this morning. It recounts how one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, Tonino Guerra (below), is to be “fêted” by the Writer’s Guild of America West: “Iconic Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra has been named the recipient of the WGAW’s 2011 Jean Renoir Award for Screenwriting Achievement, given to an international writer who has advanced the literature of motion pictures and made outstanding contributions to the profession of screenwriter.”

    “Tonino Guerra is by any standard one of the great writers of our times. His medium is the screenplay. He has written or co-written more than a hundred films, among them L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, Red Desert, Blow-Up, and Zabriskie Point for Antonioni; Amarcord for Fellini; Nostalghia for Tarkovsky; Landscapes in the Mist for Angelopoulos; and Exquisite Corpses for Rosi. Guerra’s work is the brave and moral thread that runs through the fabric of modernist cinema. He is a breathtaking poet, a generous collaborator, and is possessed of the largest heart. We are fortunate to have him among us and thrilled to honor his astonishing — and astonishingly influential — body of work,” said WGAW Board of Directors member Howard A. Rodman.

Comrade Howard’s list of Guerra’s credits reads like my personal list of all-time favorite movies. IMHO the Antonioni tetralogy L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, and Red Desert is the greatest work of cinematic art ever achieved. Chapeau bas, WGAW!

That’s comrade Howard, above, fêting us at our wedding nearly one year ago today! (Just wait to see where we’ll be spending our anniversary, btw.)

Watch the whole trailer below… you won’t be disappointed… I promise… and I remember…

Writing nowhere songs for nobody

While in New York City, I spent some intense sessions writing songs with my super good friend and writing partner Verena, aka Céline Dijon of our band Nous Non Plus. She and I began writing together in 2000 (!) and if you watch TV and/or movies or listen to college radio, you might have heard some of the songs we’ve written and recorded together with our bandmates.

These days, I write so much: for my own blog, for VinoWire, and for so many other blogs to which I contribute openly or anonymously as a ghost writer. Everything I write is published almost immediately.

The process of songwriting is the exact opposite: we come up with an idea, we play around with it, we improvise melodies and discuss the subject, and we flesh out the lyrics. In our case, I usually have a riff or a song structure and then Verena writes the melodies and lyrics. But that’s just the BEGINNING of the process. We then record the demo and start fine tuning it. If we decide that we want to release a given song, we will rerecord it and then set into motion all the elements that go into a release: rehearsing, recording, mixing, mastering, artwork for the album, and ultimately a new record — a process that takes months and months. In the meantime, these works are just nowhere songs for nobody (although I always play them for Tracie P).

Recording technology is so accessible these days. All you need is a decent computer and relatively inexpensive software and hardware (a tube-powered microphone preamp, a digital-to-analog interface, and a decent microphone). When I started working the recording arts at 19 years old (some 24 years ago), we used expensive 24-track tape machines that used 2-inch-wide reels of tape!

We took a break from the intense process of songwriting for a visit from the newest member of the Nous Non Plus family, Vivian, with her dad (and NN+ drummer) Harry Covert.

Buona domenica, ya’ll! Have a great Sunday…

The importance of being white fish

Back in my graduate school days, I once delivered a paper where I mocked one of the inane catchphrases so popular in the sophomoric critical theory of that era: “Exile Egg Salad and the Exile Egg Salad of Self in Italian Literature.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love egg salad. But while I could probably live the rest of my life without eating another egg salad of self sandwich, I could not live without white fish salad.

Early yesterday morning, as the city that never sleeps continued to slumber and a snow storm covered the cityscape in white, I visited the legendary 2nd Ave. Deli.

The 2nd Ave. Deli may not be what it used to be. It’s not even on 2nd Ave. anymore. But, man, that white fish salad was awesome.

The crummy weather on the east coast yesterday left me stranded last night at the Baltimore airport on my way back to Tracie P. But, hey, when life gives you lemons you make lemonade, right?

As the saying goes, when life gives you crabs, make crab cakes.

According to the owners, Timbuktu is so-called because at one time, it lay so far from the center of town that it might as well have been as far away as the Sahara desert.

Since I moved to Texas, I’ve had a lot of great crab cakes in the Houston area. But I’m here to testify: the crab cakes at Timbuktu take the cake. The best I ever had. The creamed crab soup was also excellent on a packed Friday evening in one of the restaurant’s two immense dining rooms (there was no room in the bar, the hostess told me).

I’m not sure I would make the trip to the outskirts of Baltimore for the sake of a crab cake: thankfully, Timbuktu’s crab cakes can also be ordered frozen online.

Happily headed back to Austin and warmer weather this morning. More New York stories to come…

Nutella: first contact in 24 years

Above: Nutella-mascarpone served on a savory crostino at Dozzino in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Ever wonder what makes the Piedmontese so nutty? No, it’s not the Nebbiolo, folks. It’s the NUTS!

Sissignore, it’s the hazelnut, nocciola in Italian, Piedmont’s most significant agricultural product and the fundamental ingredient in Nutella, a chocolate paste that would make Pietro Ferrero a very, very rich man after he introduced the creamy, purportedly aphrodisiacal stuff back in 1964 (according to the Wiki).

Above: Dozzino also does a Nutella-ricotta spread, made with locally produced cheese.

Like many young Americans who traveled to Italy for their U.C.L.A. junior year abroad, I experienced Nutella for the first time at the tender age of 19 years.

Sadly, its moreish properties led to a Nutella binge that ended badly. Very badly…

After consuming that first jar of Nutella in its entirety, I haven’t touched this form of Turkish delight since (remember Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?).

My Nutella abstinence ended yesterday at pizzeria Dozzino in Hoboken, New Jersey, where owner Marc Magliozzi (below) served it folded into locally produced mascarpone on a crostino. It was delicious. And this morning, I am happy to report no major international disturbances (if you get my drift…).

What was I doing in Hoboken, New Jersey, you ask? I’ve been in New York this week for some intense and productive meetings (more on that later) and I spent yesterday on the other bank of the Hudson river with an important client whose office is located there.

Does Hoboken need another pizzeria? Just about as much as Tracie P thinks I need another guitar!

Above: The Margherita at Dozzino was great, slightly undercooked and mushy in the middle, a litmus test for good pizza in my book.

I thoroughly enjoyed my working lunch at Dozzino where the owner and staff were super friendly, the food fresh, clean and wholesome, and the feel and design of the space inviting and fun.

About to head into another meeting in the City right now but I’ll begin posting shortly on the amazing wines I tasted this time around (1971 Gattinara Monsecco, anyone?). Stay tuned…

Vote for my sommelier

Above: Team blogger from left, “facilitweeter” Kay Marley-Dilworth, sommelier Jason Huerta, and photographer Aimee Wenske.

Contests are not really my thing. But when Austin food and wine patroness and lovely lady Diane Dixon asked me to participate in her food and wine pairing competition, “Wine Ride,” last Sunday, how could I say no?

Diane has done wonderful things for the Austin food and wine community and her events are always fun affairs where young food and wine professionals get to taste together and compare notes.

I was assigned to write a post about Dallas sommelier Jason Huerta. You can vote for him here and you can vote for my post here.

No matter what the outcome, the winners are the young food and wine professionals of Texas. Chapeau bas, Diane!