Oxidative Clairette and octopus at Marea

From the department of “life could be worse”…

What a thrill to dine last night at Marea with Alice Feiring and Paolo Cantele, two of my favorite people in the world.

The food was spectacular and I was surprised to see that they’ve expanded their list greatly to include an impressive French selection (the first time I visited the focus and concentration was purely Italian).

Alice’ choice was 2007 Château Simone white, my first taste of this extraordinary expression of Clairette. It took a while to open up and I reserved a glass to drink at the end of the meal, when its fruit really began to show brilliantly.

The pasta at Marea has been consistently superb in my experience there. The long noodles with shellfish and calamari was great.

My selection was the 2001 Pepe, still very tannic and dark but utterly delicious, with that rich mouthfeel unique to Pepe’s wines.  I’ve tasted a lot of Pepe lately because we currently offer a vertical at Sotto in LA (where I curate the wine list) and these wines always inspire me.

Tonight we’re heading to Joe Campanale’s new restaurant L’Apicio and then to visit one of my best friends in the NYC wine and food scene… Stay tuned… 

My favorite New York City steakhouse & Petrarchan Merlot

porterhouse steak new york

There are three regions of Italy where great Merlot is produced: Latium (Lazio), Friuli, and the Veneto. Yes, there are many famous bottlings of Merlot from Tuscany, many of them very expensive and many collectible. But when it comes to what I like to drink, these are the regions that deliver the minerality and the tar and goudron that I look for in expressions of Merlot.

These three are also the only regions where Merlot has a tradition that stretches back to the early post-war era. Remember: Sassicaia, originally produced in the 1940s and first released commercially in 1968, was and is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blend; Tignanello was a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend that appeared in the 1970s. Ornellaia and its Masseto came later.

Merlot was widely grown especially in Friuli and the Veneto in the years that followed the second world war. When you ask the people who live there why their parents planted Merlot? they invariably tell you that Merlot had always been grown there (at least as long as they can remember).

One of my all-time favorite expressions of Italian Merlot is produced by Vignalta in the Colli Euganei in the province of Padua. I feel an especially deep bond to the wines because they are produced in the area where my beloved Petrarch spent his last years (and where he transcribed the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, the subject of my doctoral thesis).

Here’s my post on our visit to Vignalta a few years ago.

Last night Greg and I shared a bottle of the 2007 Vignalta Colli Euganei Rosso (mostly Merlot with a smaller amount of Cabernet Sauvignon) over a meal at my favorite New York steakhouse, Keens.

The wine, aged in old tonneaux, was showing brilliantly last night and its acidity gave it a freshness that really took our enjoyment over the top. So good with the rare porterhouse.

Keens was wonderful as always and it was such a treat to bump into manager Bonnie as we left.

I’ll be eating my way through the city this week… stay tuned…

Garganega pairs well with Vietnamese (Thank you! @Femme_Foodie & @TonyVallone)

Above: Writer Mai Pham and restaurateur Tony Vallone, two of my favorite people on the Houston food and wine scene.

When the occasion is BYOB at an Asian restaurant, my friends expect me to bring something Natural and stinky, crunchy and funky — a delight for those who like the adventurous and unexpected and a conversation piece for the more conventional among us.

But unforeseen events last night made it impossible for me to dip into our cellar before joining my friends Mai Pham, her wonderful husband Michael, and my good friend and client Tony Vallone and his top staff for dinner at the amazing Jasmine restaurant in Chinatown, Houston.

There aren’t a lot of retail wine options on Sunday in Texas (where wine is not sold until after 12 p.m. on Sundays). And so I figured my best bet was an upscale supermarket, the Kroger on Buffalo Speedway (Kroger is actually a large commercial chain, but it’s Buffalo Speedway location is a “flagship” outpost).

Above: Real wine for under $15? Pieropan delivers.

Honestly, there’s not a lot of wine at Kroger that I can palate. And the European selections are limited to the usual suspects.

But what a fantastic surprise to find Pieropan — Garganega with a smaller amount of Trebbiano di Soave — for $13.99! And they had it already chilled…

The wine — with its zinging acidity and that unmistakable volcanic minerality of classic Soave — was ideal with the fattiness of fried whole catfish.

Above: Mai and Michael showed us how to roll the catfish with carrots, cucumber stalks, and mint in large rice wafers that had been softened in warm water. Catfish doesn’t have a much nutritional value, noted Michael, but it’s delicious.

Great value and great flavor in this wine… and great versatility (the saltiness and fattiness of the catfish reminded me how well this wine would pair with whole fried goby from the Venetian lagoon).

BTW, if you’re having issues with the pronunciation of Garganega, you’ll find it among the grape varieties in the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project.

Mai and Michael, thanks again for turning us on to Jasmine.

And Tony, thanks for treating us to a great dinner.

Angelo Gaja’s vintage notes 1958-2011

Above: Each one of the Gaja wineries is also home to an art collection. I snapped the above image in the foyer of the Piedmont cellar the last time I tasted there.

The following post recently came to my attention: Angelo Gaja’s vintage notes 1958-2011, anecdotes, insights, and reflections (many in hindsight).

I can’t conceal that I found it to be a fascinating document and I wanted to share it here.

my contributions to La Cucina Italiana’s wine issue @LCI_Magazine

There are two publications that you will find in nearly every culinarily-aware Italian home.

One is late-nineteenth-century masterwork La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) by Pellegrino Artusi.

The other is La Cucina Italiana, the historic “National Geographic” of Italian gastronomy, founded in and continuously published since 1929, renowned today for its high editorial standards and superb photography, and widely viewed as a leading authority on Italian cuisine today.

When you visit an Italian home, there’s a high probability that you’ll find a dog-eared and well worn edition of Artusi (because the recipes are as relevant today as they were when he published the landmark tome) and a complete vertical of La Cucina Italiana, lined up the same way that we collect and display National Geographic here in the States.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when wine and spirits editor Ian Wolff contacted me earlier this year and asked me to write an “Italian 101” for this year’s “wine issue.”

And of course, I’m thrilled that my byline appears next to those of Robert Camuto (who profiles Elisabetta Foradori), Anthony Giglio (who checks in with top Italian wine professionals in the U.S.), and Ian (who delivers a great firsthand reportage of harvest in Carso).

You’ll also find glosses from some of my favorite people in the business, like the inimitable Steve Wildy who works with Vetri in Philadelphia.

The issue literally overflows with on-the-ground information and resources (including maps, links, and myriad tasting notes).

It’s a great issue and I highly recommend it to you.

Chapeau bas, Ian, for a job superbly done and an issue of the magazine that is sure to be a reference in the homes of myriad Italian wine lovers!

A chat with Denman Moody, the Advanced Oenophile

Being a wine writer does have its perks. One of them is the access granted to otherwise out-of-bounds destinations.

Last night found me, a guest of one of the members, at the Westwood Country Club in Austin for a guided tasting and pairing by one of Houston’s wine icons, Denman Moody (above).

The affable and approachable Moody and his lovely wife Marijo were in town to present his recently self-published guide to the wines of the world, The Advanced Oenophile. And I won’t conceal that I was thrilled to get the chance to brush shoulders with them.

In the few minutes I managed to corner him and glean a few nuggets from a lifetime in the rare circles of fine wine collecting, I asked him how he’s seen the American palate evolve since he first began collecting.

“No one in their 30s drank wine” until a few decades ago, he told me.

“All the wine bars that were opened in the 1980s failed,” he said, “because young people didn’t drink wine.”

“If you went to steakhouse, people ordered a Scotch or a martini before dinner and then they sat down and ate their meal and that was it.”

What changed it all? He surprised me with his answer.

“Lambrusco,” he said. “Lambrusco, [Gallo’s] Hearty Burgundy, and Blue Nun,” brands introduced to Americans in the 1970s. “Those were the wines that first introduced Americans to wine drinking.” Later it was the explosion of “Italian restaurants and French restaurants that first gave young people access to wine.”

I remembered an acidified and highly sulfured Frascati that I drank in a chichi restaurant on Cañon Drive in Beverly Hills in the 1980s when I was a freshman at U.C.L.A. in the 1980s. I also remembered my grandfather who always drank a Scotch (just one) before dinner at his favorite steakhouse. Denman was right on…

I haven’t had a chance to dig into his book but leafing through it, I find that it’s teeming with juicy anecdotes from a career of tasting with the wine world’s brightest and best.

Chapeau bas, monsieur Moody, for the new book, for the graciousness with a disheveled wine writer, and for sharing your lifetime in wine with us.

Click here for an excellent profile of Denman by my Houston Press colleague Carla Soriano.