Quintarelli Bandito 90, one of his rarest wines

Last week, when I attended the John Mariani dinner at Tony’s in Houston (where John spoke about and signed copies of his new book How Italian Food Conquered the World), I had the great fortune to taste one of Quintarelli’s rarest wines, his 1990 Amabile del Cerè “Bandito” (thanks to a guest at Tony and John’s table).

This dried-grape white is made from the same blend that goes into Quintarelli’s dry white: “mostly Garganega with Trebbiano Toscano, ‘Saorin’ (Tocai), and Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in small quantities,” wrote Francesco Grigoli, Quinatrelli’s grandson, in an email the other day. The wine is made in extremely small quantities and the last vintage bottled was the 1990. It’s only made in exceptionally good vintages, said Francesco when we visited him in February.

While the 375 ml bottle at Tony’s didn’t report the poem that accompanies the 750 ml bottles of this storied wine, Francesco was kind enough to scan a label and send it to me.

The poem, composed by Quintarelli himself, reads: Sono nato nel 1990, sono cresciuto da bandito e in 5 anni ho raggiunto l’infinito (I was born in 1990/and was banished at birth/and in 5 years I reached infinity).

According to the Quintarelli family, the wine was made for the first time during the second world war and was hidden away out of the Germans’s sight (remember that the Valpolicella was a fascist stronghold and after Italian liberation in 1943, the fascists and nazis established the Republic of Salò on Lake Garda, not far from the Valpolicella). When the wine was recovered, the Quinatrellis were rewarded by their patience.

At nearly 21 years from its harvest and with 16 years of bottle aging, this wine was fresh and bright, with delicious nutty and caramel overtones, ripe apricot and peach flavors and aromas, and breathtaking minerality. One of the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted. (There are a few bottles left at Tony’s, btw, but for big spenders only!)

The most exciting news to come from Negrar is that next month, Quintarelli will be bottling the 2003 Bandito — nearly 8 years after it was harvested. A truly rare wine, from one of the world’s greatest producers.

Killer rosé from Grenache on what (already) felt like the first day of summer

Temps had already reached the mid 80s yesterday afternoon when I rolled into Houston. Luckily, my buddy Sean Beck has some AWESOME 2009 Mas de Gourgonnier rosé from Grenache chillin’ for me when I stopped by Back Street Café for an aperitif before meeting cousins Marty and Joanne for mussels and fries last night.

Sean just got some love from Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Robertson after snagging Houston’s Iron Sommelier title for the third straight year. This dude knows his shit! Mazel tov, Sean! Keep that wine cold! It’s gonna be a scorcher!

Dorona, a lagoonal wine (aàh Venezia aàh Venissa aàh Venùsia)

Above: The Bisol family is growing Dorona, a clone of Garganega, on the island of Mazzorbo, adjacent to the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon.

When Matteo Bisol passed through Austin the other day (and graciously posed and uttered grape and appellation names for my camera), he brought news of his family’s newest project: Venissa a cloistered vineyard and high-concept restaurant and agriturismo on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian lagoon (above).

For a few years now, the family has been growing Dorona, a clone of Garganega, a grape traditionally and historically cultivated in the Venetian lagoon for the production of urban — and in this case, lagoonal — wine (if you’re wondering how to pronounce the ampelonym Garganega, btw, you’ll find the pronunciation here).

Above: I wrote to Matteo’s publicist, who was kind enough to share this photo of Dorona. The ampelonym probably refers to the golden color of the berries.

Being a consummate Venetophile, I am entirely geeked to taste the wine (which will be released for the first time next year) but in the meantime I would like to make a clarification regarding the name of the estate and the project, Venissa.

Venissa is not an ancient name of Venice or the Venetian lagoon, as many complacent readers of press releases have erroneously claimed.

In fact, Venissa is an erudite paronomasia from one of the greatest works of dialectal poetry by one of the greatest poets of our lifetime, Andrea Zanzotto (from Pieve di Soligo, one of my favorite places on earth).

Above: The Veneto poet Andrea Zanzotto. Photo via Engeler.

It’s actually the name of a mythical figure from antiquity, a fictional daughter of the Roman emperor Claudius.

The name appears in Zanotto’s poem in Veneto dialect, “Filò,” composed for Fellini’s 1976 Casanova.

It is the second name in the triad aàh Venezia aàh Venissa aàh Venùsia, where Venice (Venezia) is likened to a temptress or evil woman:

    Eyes of a snake, eyes of a queen,
    head of fire that inflames the ice,
    we beg you: burst loose, break free,
    we implore you, everything implores you;
    show yourself above, rise up,
    let’s all pull together, you and us

    ah Venice ah Venissa ah Venùsia

Venùsia is the ancient name of modern-day Venosa, a city supposedly so-called because it was dedicated to Venus by its founder Diomedes.

(Here’s a link to a preview of the excellent translation of Filò, where the lines appear in the Veneto, Italian, and English. And here’s a link to some background on this work and its significance in the canon of dialectal poetry.)

With these lines, the poet partly alludes to Venice’s place in history as Western Civilization’s capital of prostitution.

I could go on and on (aàh Venissa, if only my professional life were devoted to poetry instead of wine!). But I’ll close this post and clarification with a wonderful passage that I found in a nineteenth century dictionary of Veneto dialect, in the entry for the word filò, which denotes an all-night gathering of women who stitch and sew as they gossip.

    Queste le xe cosse da contàr al filò!

    These are things [only suited] to be told at a sewing vigil!

Parzen Family Passover

Seder plate.

Wow, what a trip to celebrate the Passover and read the story of the Exodus and think about all the folks who are fighting for their freedom in the Middle East???!!!

Gefilte fish from Ziggy’s in Houston.

Tracie P and I had eight persons at our dining room table for a seder, which I led using this haggadah posted for all to use by the Jewish Federations of North America.

I roasted a leg of lamb for the main course.

Mama Judy taught me how to make her matzoh balls and her charoset. And I made my own horseradish sauce to serve with the gefilte fish and the lamb.

We drank three orphaned bottles from the Hippie Six-Pack — a gently sparkling Cortese and a still Barbera by Valli Unite and Tony Coturri’s Sandocino.

The Barbera by Valli Unite is one of the best wines I’ve tasted in 2011 and it is simply SINGING right now. Cannot drink enough of it. All of the wines were made using native, ambient yeasts… definitely not kosher for Passover (and we obviously don’t keep a kosher kitchen) but it was interesting to contemplate the role of yeast in the religion of Natural wine and Passover. If humankind’s use of yeast is the rational distortion of nature (as Lévi-Strauss interpreted it), Passover is the festival that removes yeast from our lives, instructing us to banish yeast from our homes. A rational distortion of a rational distortion? Of course, the Passover seder could not be complete or completed without wine. And so yeast is inevitably and invariably part of the ritual. (The best source for kosher for Passover wines, btw imho, is our favorite wine writer and one of our favorite people in the world, Alice Feiring.)

Three generations sat at our dining room table for our first Passover seder. As I led the seder and read the words, “It is because of what G-d did for me when I came out of Egypt,” I thought about the generation of my family who fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, before the Russian revolution, to make a better life for their children in the U.S. For all the headaches and troubles we deal with on a day-to-day basis, we sure have a good life and we sure are lucky to have each other.

Hag sameach, ya’ll!

Valdobbiadene: Italian grape name and appellation pronunciation project


Above: In February of this year, Tracie P and I visited the village of Rolle, which lies nearly equidistant from Valdobbiadene and Conegliano in the heart of Prosecco country. Photo by Tracie P.

As the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation project has expanded to Appellations, I couldn’t think of a more mispronounced appellation and Italian toponym than Valdobbiadene. Despite the immense popularity of Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene in this country (due, in no small part IMHO, to the fact that the grape name and appellation name Prosecco is relatively easy for Anglophones to pronounce), consumers and wine professionals rarely know how to pronounce Valdobbiadene correctly. When Prosecco producer Matteo Bisol visited Austin the other day, I seized the opportunity to film him pronouncing Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, Prosecco (the appellation and grape name), and Glera (a synonym for Prosecco, now favored by producers of the still relatively new Prosecco DOCG).

BTW, the toponym Valdobbiadene (a village) is a cognate of valle (valley) and the toponymic adjective Dubla(n)dino (from Duplavilis), which in turn comes from the hydronym Plavis, the ancient name of the Piave river. Thus, Valdobbiadene means valley of the Piave river.*

* You’ll note that in my transliteration of Valdobbiadene, I report only one b. This is due to the fact that the people of the Veneto do not pronounce double consonants. In standard Italian, the correct transliteration is VAHL-dohb-BEE’AH-deh-neh.

Fernet Branca shakerato, the only way I drink it

Above: Fernet Branca shakerato at Tony’s in Houston.

Mama Judy flew into Houston yesterday and we’ll be celebrating the Passover tomorrow evening in Austin. And last night, the Branch, Levy, Kelly, and Parzen families gathered at Tony’s for una cena da leoni — an epic meal.

And after such a sumptuous and rich meal (see below), I must have a Fernet Branca — shakerato (chilled, shakered, and strained), the only way I drink it.

My relationship with the storied and celebrated digestivo stretches back to my earliest days as a copywriter in the early aughts back in NYC. My first gig was as editor of the Fernet Branca monthly newsletter.

At the time (before the tragedy of September 11, 2001), Fernet Branca had just reopened its bottling facility in TriBeCa. It was an amazing space: until the 1980s, when the US FDA blocked the import of Fernet Branca because it was still being sold as a drug (!), it was so popular in this country that the company continued to operate its 1930s-era bottling facility in lower Manhattan. When the US government blocked its sale, Fernet Branca hastily abandoned and boarded up the place, leaving the entire operation in place. In the late 90s, they decided to reopen it as the headquarters for a relaunch of the brand (which, by that time, was coming into the country legally, classified and regulated as a spirit).

The most amazing part of the facility was the counterfeit detection laboratory. The brand was so popular — before, during, and after Prohibition, when it was marketed as a “tonic” and regulated as a drug — that the company devoted significant resources to its anti-counterfeit operation. The laboratory — like a set from Young Frankenstein — was a museum of Fernet Branca imitators and pirates. Cobwebs and a patina of nearly two decades of dust. An amazing sight…

During my tenure as the editor of the Fernet Branca newsletter (which ended when the tragedy of 2001 reshaped the landscape of that neighborhood), I traveled twice to the Fernet Branca distillery in Milan and it was fascinating experience to learn the secrets and study the history of this brandy infused with mushrooms and herbs — the restaurant and bartending professional’s digestif of choice in this country (just ask any bartender).

Highlights from dinner…

Tony’s famous “Greenberg” salad. (I must confess that besides writing a hit song, I also aspire to having a salad named after me.)

Gnocchi “Primavera” with fiddlehead greens and Washington state ramps. Delicious…

Whole, salt-encrusted Gulf of Mexico red snapper, filleted tableside…

And then dressed in a reduction of guineafowl jus and Barolo… This dish wowed our table of ten…

Tracie P was truly aglow last night… more beautiful than ever… Mrs. and Rev. B drove in from Orange just to see everyone and break bread together (photo by cousin Dana).

Cousin Marty is now more than halfway through his treatment (very tough, as you can imagine, but he’s soldiering through it). He rallied to be with us last night. It just wouldn’t be a dinner at Tony’s without Marty: “If I’m going out to eat,” he exclaimed the day before with the panache that I love him for, “it’s going to be at Tony’s!”

A wonderful, wonderful, unforgettable night… a table of ten, celebrating the lives of our families, remembering how lucky we are to be here and to be together, and dreaming of the future… at the table of a great friend…

Thoughts, wishes, and prayers for pizzaiolo Mark Iacono

Life was very different for me when I first discovered and wrote about pizzaiolo Mark Iacono and his amazing pizzeria Lucali in Brooklyn back in January 2008.

Today, as The New York Times reports, Mark is recovering after being stabbed not far from his restaurant in Carroll Gardens.

He is in our thoughts and our prayers…

Avocado fundido

Finally made it in for lunch at the much-talked-about Second (and Congress) Bar and Kitchen here in the River City (that’s Austin for all yall who’ve never been here).

That’s the “Avocado Fundido,” above, layered and baked cheese, mashed avocado, and crumbled chorizo (on the bottom) served with fried dough. Fan-friggin-delicious, folks.

Hoping that it might entice BrooklynGuy to come out and visit, I thought I’d post this snap of smoked sausage at one of my fav BBQ joints on highway 290 to Houston, Southside Market in Elgin. The sausage is always juicy and tender there and the sides fresh… Love that place…

Happy Saturday yall!

Sculpture Saturday: Mattiacci’s Eye of the Sky @UCLA

The entire “north campus” of my alma mater, U.C.L.A., is a wonderful sculpture garden, including works by Rodin and Matisse.

On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I visited with my putative father (as he likes to call himself), close friend, and dissertation advisor, Milanese poet Luigi Ballerini.

That’s Luigi, above, with the newest installation in the Murphy Sculpture Garden, “L’occhio del cielo,” by Eliseo Mattiacci, known for his seemingly impossible and often precarious pieces.

It was great to catch up with Luigi and stroll around the campus. The work by Mattiacci stands behind Royce Hall, just below the building’s chapel (which is used as a classroom by the Italian Department). Royce, the symbol of U.C.L.A., is inspired by Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, a place dear to Petrarch who lived, studied, and composed there.

A year in Southern Italian wine and the unknown etymology of Puglia

Above: The Salento peninsula is “big sky” country. I was thrilled to visit for the first time in February of this year. And I’m looking forward to going back in June. You don’t need to be a great photographer to capture beauty there. You just point and shoot.

My relation to Southern Italian wine stretches back to the late 1990s when I began working as a magazine editor in New York and you could often find me at the bar at the Enoteca I Trulli in Manhattan, chatting with Italian wine industry veteran and my good friend Charles Scicolone (who then ran one of the most popular wine programs in the U.S., with a focus on Southern Italy). I was thirty years old then and Charles became one of my Italian wine mentors.

This year, as it turns out, is my year in Southern Italian wine: I’ve authored an exclusively Southern Italian wine list for my friends at Sotto in Los Angeles, next month I’ll be leading seminars on Southern Italian wine at the Atlanta Food and Wine festival, and in June, I’m heading back to Apulia where I’ll be a member of the jury for the Radici Wines festival.

Above: I found this Renaissance-era map of Apulia on a somewhat scary but interesting website devoted to the Knights Templar.

Here on the blog, By the Tun asked me the other day about the origins of the toponym Apulia or Appulia, the name that the Romans used for this region (and the name that gives us the modern-day Puglia).

Many online sources report the erroneous and folkloric etymology a pluvia, which ostensibly means without or lacking rain. There are so many reasons why this etymon is improbable. I won’t bore you with the fine linguistic print but the thesis quickly falls apart when you note that a in this instance is used in a Greek context (a privative prefix, meaning without, as in apathy, without feeling) while pluvia (rain) is Latin. The other reason is that Apulia doesn’t lack rain. In fact, it is the unique combination of plentiful sunlight and precipitation that makes the Apulian peninsula ideal for farming (a fact not lost on the ancients, btw).

Others would have that Apulia and the ancient apuli (the ethnonym used for the region’s inhabitants) comes from ancient king Epulon (Aepulon or Apulo in Italian), an Illyrian ruler of Histria. But this etymology, as most serious scholars note, is equally unlikely.

According to my trusty UTET Dictionary of Toponymy, the name comes from the Greek Iapudes or Iapigi, a toponym or ethnonym that denoted a place or people on the other side of the Adriatic. The ethnonym Apuli appears before the toponym Apulia in ancient Latin and it’s likely that the name comes from pre-Roman settlers of the region.

The meaning of Iapudes is unknown… another beautiful mystery of this mysteriously beautiful place…

Thanks for reading and buon weekend!