El mejor Tempranillo (one of the best bottlings of Tempranillo I’ve ever tasted)

Some of the great U.S. wine impresarios “fly over” Texas each year, ignoring a large state and lucrative market where the big distributors’s chokehold on the flow of wine makes it difficult for the smaller guys to get a word in edgewise.

Some of them come every year, cultivating relationships and building brand recognition for European wines that our countrymen hardly know or know how to pronounce.

It was fascinating to sit down the other day at Vino Vino in Austin with the dynamic André Tamers (above, left), who has built one of the best Spanish portfolios in the U.S.

He was “working the market” (as we say in the biz) with three of his core producers, winemakers whose products have shaped his career over the last fifteen years as one of the leading importers of European wines in the U.S.: from André’s left, Florentino Monje (Luberri), Gerardo Méndez (Do Ferreiro), and Jesús Gómez (Viña Sastre).

What a thrill to taste their wines and chat (in my passable Spanish) with these men — all of them growers.

I liked the wines across the board but I couldn’t resist telling Florentino that his Orlegi Tempranillo was one of the best I’ve ever tasted: partial-whole-cluster-fermented Tempranillo vinified in a light, fresh youthful style (a “return to the traditional,” writes André on his site). Lip-smackingly delicious, low-alcohol, food friendly and inexpensive wine.

There’s a lot of great old-school Tempranillo out there and available in our country (and you don’t need to tell you the producers if you follow along here). But this wine really surprised me. I love, love, loved it…

Chapeau bas, André. See you this time next year back in Texas.

Venetian Origins of Mardi Gras

Did you know that the condom was invented in Renaissance Venice, then the European prostitution capital, to stop the spread of syphilis that the Conquistadores brought back with them from the New World?

My post today for the Houston Press on the Venetian origins of Mardi Gras.

Los Pilares: Not so Natural but delicious in San Diego (it’s a small world after all)

it’s a world of laughter, a world or tears
it’s a world of hopes, it’s a world of fear
there’s so much that we share
that it’s time we’re aware
it’s a small world after all

I used to love that song as a kid (and still do) and I would sing it over and over and over again… my favorite ride at that twentieth-century experiment in social engineering otherwise known as Disneyland…

It was only natural (small n) that I would get a call asking if I’d like to taste the first bottling by Los Pilares in San Diego after our friend Alice Feiring wrote about the wine glowingly on her blog the same week that Tracie P, Georgia P, and I were visiting my hometown (La Jolla High School Class of ’85).

When the call (and connection) came, our friend — cancer survivor, author, local radio personality, and vibrant life force — Chrissa Chase informed me that she wanted to set up a tasting and a meeting with one of the winemakers, a nice gent named Michael Christian, a retired lawyer who, like many in his generation, grew tired of drinking concentrated, overly oaked, and excessively alcoholic Californian wines.

In the wake of the excitement that followed Alice’s post (and calls expressing interest in representation from the Garagiste and from one of the top distributors of Natural wine in California, said Michael), the San Diego folks began calling the wine a “Natural” wine.

But when I sat down with Michael — a super nice guy — I discovered that, in fact, the grapes had been sourced from local growers whose “Natural” credentials would surely be questioned by the Natural wine elite (had they been consulted). And of course, the wine had been inoculated for malolactic fermentation — a red flag among the self-appointed Natural wine auditors.

After a thirty-minute discussion on the Natural wine dialectic, the Natural wine elite in our country (a club I don’t belong to because as Groucho Marx once noted, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”), and what makes a wine Natural (as per Eric the Red’s recent op-ed in the Times), I turned to my host and her guest Michael and said, “who the hell cares if it’s a Natural wine or not? Let’s just taste it!”

I thought the wine — a blend of San Diego-grown Grenache and Carignane — was delicious: bright and fresh, with a lot of cinnamon and spice in the initial impression, giving way to ripe berry and red fruit flavors. And like Alice (I hadn’t yet read her review when I tasted it), I loved the low alcohol content (12.5%). Michael noted that the cool 2010 harvest in California allowed him and his partners to achieve the ripeness they wanted without the high alcohol. I liked the wine so much that I convinced Michael to sell me a bottle ($24) to taste with Tracie P at dinner the next night.

Maybe the folks in San Diego have come to the Natural wine discussion a few years late… Maybe the word itself Natural is just too sexy to resist. Ultimately, whether a wine is Natural or not is now irrelevant, especially considering the vitriol that the discussion has generated (the exact opposite of what Natural wine should mean, in my view).

In the end, the important thing to remember is…

There is just one moon and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone.
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It’s a small small world…

California sunset (heading back to Austin), 2010 Tempier, 2006 Vodopivec

Our trip to California has come to an end. Today we head back to Texas…

We’ve had a lot to celebrate out here in the land where I grew up: Georgia P met her grandma Judy and her Parzen cousins, my band Nous Non Plus had a super fun mini-tour, and it was great to get back to work at Sotto in Los Angeles (where I’ll be launching a new wine list early next month).

Last night, together with Jayne, Jon, and daughter Romy, we celebrated our BFF Yelenosky’s umpteenth award as “best Southern California sales person 2011” for Southern Wine and Spirits. Yele is the sweetest guy and the bestest friend and we love him a lot. Mazel tov, Yele! You rock…

To commemorate the occasion and our trip Jayne and Jon opened one of our favorite wines from their awesome list at Jaynes Gastropub, the 2010 Tempier Bandol Rosé. Still so young and tannic but drinking gorgeously… so fresh and just slightly oxidative… delicious…

Yele treated our party to a bottle of 2006 Vitovska by Vodopivec, one of my favorite wines in the world. So tannic and so glorious and with so many layers of dried fruit and nutty nuance… An unforgettable treat for us…

And little Georgia held her daddy’s hand all through dinner… She’s such a miracle and we love her so much.

Arrivederci, California! We’ll miss you!

Notes from Santorini

I read the news today o boy: Greece’s “jobless rate for people ages 16 to 24… is 48 percent”; and on Monday “After violent protests left dozens of buildings aflame in Athens, the Greek Parliament voted early on Monday to approve a package of harsh austerity measures demanded by the country’s foreign lenders in exchange for new loans to keep Greece from defaulting on its debt.”

Honestly, I wasn’t planning on posting again this week on the Boutari blog.

It seemed like it would be in bad taste to post about things as frivolous as wine and winemaking when our sisters and brothers in Greece are facing some of the hardest times since the end of the of the second world war.

But then, this morning, I received the following, simple however deeply moving message from Santorini…

    Location: Santorini Megalochori
    Date: 2/16/2012, early morning

    The sun is rising, the sky is taking a marine blue color and the vine is still sleeping.

    The vine grower has already removed the unavailing branches. Now remains the time that vine grower will come and weave the young branches into a shape of basket.

    Petros Vamvakousis
    Winery Manager

They’ve been growing grapes using bush/basket training on Santorini since the Middle Ages and beyond. And come what may, the vine grower will come and weave the young branches into a shape of basket.

I love the wines that they grow on Santorini and thank goodness for them.

Click here for the Boutari blog.

Georgia P’s first Valentine’s @JaynesGastropub

Georgia P wore her new flower-power headband for her first Valentine’s Day at Jaynes Gastropub last night in San Diego.

Seven-and-a-half-month-old Romy, Jayne and Jon’s daughter, showed her the ropes of her new favorite restaurant.

How adorable is that?

Mommies and daddies enjoyed a SUPERB bottle of 2008 Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets by Pousse d’Or (Landanger), still very tight, but rich with savory and fruit flavor and bright, bright acidity, delicious with the bacon-wrapped filet mignon.

Ezio Rivella: “Tradition is a ball and chain.”

Above: Remember this image? Scanned from a 1982 edition of Wine Spectator (via Alfonso). I posted about it here.

On Monday, Ezio Rivella — Brunello’s deus ex machina and futurist of Italian wine, creator of the Brunello brand and propagator of the California dream — spoke before a group of Langa’s top winemakers in Piedmont. He had been invited their by the government-funded body Strada del Barolo (Barolo Wine Roads) to speak about the current crisis in Italian wine (the five-part series is entitled — and I’m not kidding here — “Feel Sorry for Yourself or React to the Crisis?”).

According to wine blogger Alessandro Morichetti, who attended the seminar, nearly the entire arc of Barolo was there: Maria Teresa Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Angelo Gaja, Enzo and Oreste Brezza, Cristina Oddero, Federico Scarzello, Lorenzo Tablino, Eleonora Barale, Davide Rosso, Enrico Scavino, and Michele Chiarlo, among others.

I’ve translated the following quotes from Alessandro’s report on the talk…

“Tradition is a ball and chain. At best, it serves as historical anchor.”

“The market fluctuations following Brunellogate? Rants by masturbating journalists.”

“Quality is what people like. Those who sell [their products] are right. There is nothing to learn from people who[se products] don’t sell.”

“Blogs are [a form of] self-flattery. The people behind them are incompetent.”

And all this time, I thought that Rivella didn’t read blogs! Go figure!

Reacting to Alessandro’s account of the event, Italy’s top wine blogger Franco Ziliani wrote: “Rivella chooses the path of insults…”

If you don’t know the backstory, here’s the thread of my posts devoted to Rivella and his self-appointed mission to refashion authentic Italian wines as expressions of Californian winemaking for the U.S. market.

As a manager and winemaker at Banfi from the 1960s through the 1990s, he credited Robert Mondavi as one of the inspirations for the behemoth Brunello brand that he created with the backing of the Mariani family, the Long Island-based importers who decided nearly 50 years ago that they would make Montalcino a household name in the U.S. (initially by producing sparkling white wine, btw).

Since returning to Montalcino to gerrymander his second coming as Brunello growers association president in 2010, he has patently conceded that “80% of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese” (an egregious transgression of appellation regulations and Italian law). And in doing so, he tacitly expressed his support for using “improvement” grapes like Merlot in traditional Italian wines made historically with indigenous varieties. He has repeatedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to lobby for the passage new appellation regulations that would allow for the blending of international grape varieties in Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino. Twice he has called votes and both times the body governed by him has remained unswayed by his industrial Brunello complex.

My friends who live and work in Montalcino tell me that he doesn’t even reside there. He lives full time in Rome, governing from afar, uninterested in the workaday lives of the homegrown montalcinesi.

He is also the author of Brunello, Montalcino and I: The Prince of Wines’ True Story (2010).

What will come of the legacy of the self-proclaimed Prince of Brunello?

Perhaps he should take the advice of a Tuscan, Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote (chapter 3, “On Mixed Principalities”): “It is quite natural and ordinary for a Prince to want to expand his rule, and when [Princes] do, if they can, they are praised and not blamed. But when they are unsuccessful, but still want to do it, here lies the error and the fault.”