@OsteriaMozza in LA a lesson in wine service (& respect)

mozzarella three ways

Above: The mozzarella sampler with scamorza, burrata, and classic mozzarella di bufala.

Last week, while I was visiting Los Angeles and tasting wines for the new list we’ll debut at Sotto in a few weeks, the owners of the restaurant (where my bromance Rory and I have been writing the list for nearly three years) offered to buy dinner for Rory and me as a thank you for the success of our program.

There are so many great places to eat in LA these days as the restaurant and wine scenes continue to expand and explode.

But Rory and I both wanted to go Osteria Mozza. In part because the Bastianich-Batali-Silverton collaboration is a great restaurant (and a celebrity sighting is nearly guaranteed). But mostly because it’s one of the favorite hangs of the Italian wine scene there (the night we were there importer Vinity was hosting a vertical tasting of one of my favorite expressions of Nerello by Palari and the estate’s winemaker Salvatore Geraci was speaking in the private dining room).

sperino nebbilo rose

Above: Sperino’s rosé from Nebbiolo, another example of how Nebbiolo is one of the world’s greatest grape varieties.

The food was awesome, of course.

But the thing that really blew Rory and me away was the truly superb wine service. From the waiter who pointed us to some sparkling wine as soon as we were seated to the floor sommelier whose wine service was nearly impeccable, we were thrilled with caliber of the restaurant’s execution and the stunning breadth of the wine list.

When I noted the many new vertical flights that now appear on the all-Italian list, general manager David Rosoff — my good friend and one of the most talented people in the LA restaurant scene — told me that “instead of broadening the list” to incorporate more wines from more regions of Italy, wine director David Vaughn’s approach has been to achieve “more depth.”

There were so many wines that I would have loved to have drunk that night.

roagna pira 2005

Above: I’ve followed the wines of Roagna for nearly fifteen years now and I’ve watched the style evolve from the classic, intensely tannic style of the father to the more elegant — but equally genuine — hand of the son, who’s transformed the winery into one of Langa’s most significant expressions of chemical-free farming.

But we ended up doing the 500ml 2002 Oslavje by Radikon (drinking so well right now, one of the best bottles I’ve ever had from this vintage), a glass of the rosé from Nebbiolo by Lessona producer Sperino (chosen by David Rosoff, a favorite of his and mine), and the 2005 Barolo La Pira by Roagna (which showed stunning elegance and nuance and was a lot more approachable than I imagined it would be, considering its youth).

Great wine service adds so much to the experience of fine dining.

But our evening at Mozza also made me reflect on how wine professionalism is swiftly evolving in our country, with Mozza as one of its beacons for Italian wine.

The staff’s attitude and performance spoke to me, as if saying, we express our respect for the wonderful mosaic of Italian wines through our smart dress, informed and intelligent service, and keen interest in them. That respect — that reverence — added a brilliance to our experience.

We’ve come a long way from the ice-cold Garganega and the straw-flasked Sangiovese, haven’t we?

Chapeau bas, David R. and team! I enjoyed every moment of my dinner in your (literally) super restaurant.

Tornado (supercell) in Friuli! And Collio harvest update

supercell italy

Our very close friend Giampaolo Venica sent me these amazing photos today from Friuli (his ears must have been ringing because his Pinot Grigio was the wine everyone was talking about last night at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego where I led a guided tasting and dinner paired with Italian wines).

Here’s what he had to say…

I am sending a few pictures of a [weather] phenomenon called supercell (similar to a twister). It’s very rare in Friuli but it allows you to witness how weather becomes unpredictable and capricious.

supercell 2

The 2013 vintage was difficult. Low temperature during flowering and a rainy spring lowered the crop in some vineyards. Later, heat during summer was manageable but overall the weather becomes more and more strange every year.

supercell 3 friuli italy

The good news is that concentration is good this year and chilly nights during September — which we have not seen in ages— will provide a leaner style to the wines like years ago. Or at least this is my prediction and wish.

I’m so lucky to do what I do for a living, writing about wine and food and traveling between the U.S. and Italy.

But one of the greatest gifts my career has given me is our friendship with Giampaolo and his family.

In him, I’ve found a true friend and intellectual comrade. Tracie P and I are thinking of Giampaolo today…

Solo nella tradizione è il mio amore.

Move over Napa Cab: an extraordinary Italian wine dinner in Austin, Texas

piero alberto do bianchi

Above, from left: Alberto Chiarlo of Michele Chiarlo and Piero Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido.

Something remarkable happened in Austin, Texas last night.

Not just one but two of Italy’s marquee-name wineries presented their wines at a dinner held in their honor.

It may not seem so extraordinary to some.

But when I first came to Austin more than five years ago, the thought of jet-set winemakers like Piero Incisa della Rocchetta and Chiarlo scion Alberto working the market here and presenting a high-end wine dinner was not even on the horizon.

I’ve written recently about the new Texas wine scene and how more and more groovy European wines are becoming available here.

The sight of Piero and Alberto under the same roof, speaking to a glitzy crowd of roughly sixty guests, struck me as a new milestone for Italian wine in city once considered a faraway outpost in “flyover” territory.

sassicaia do bianchi

Piero and Alberto were here with the Kobrand (importer) tour, an EU-subsidized marketing campaign.

My friend Suzie, who works for Kobrand in their marketing department and who attended last night’s dinner, sent me the following list of producers who were in the city last night (and they all spoke at dinners in Austin).

Alberto Chiarlo – Michele Chiarlo
Piero Incisa della Rocchetta – Tenuta San Guido
Roberto Pighin – Pighin
Giovanni Folonari – Ambrogio e Giovanni Folonari (Nozzole)
Emilia Nardi – Tenute Silvio Nardi
Giovanna Moretti – Tenuta Sette Ponti
Sandro Boscaini – Masi Agricola

That’s no b-list of Italian wine!

cerequio do bianchi

It was really great to watch Piero, whom I’ve met before, talk to the “Napa Cab” crowd about low alcohol content and elegance (as opposed to power) in his family’s historic wines.

And I was thrilled to hear Alberto, whom I’d never met before, speak about large-cask aging and traditional style Nebbiolo driven by acidity and earthiness.

Privately, he and I talked about how importers in the 1980s and 1990s exerted considerable pressure on producers to make their wines more “American friendly.” Restaurateurs also played a role in this trend, he said.

“It’s not just the writers’ fault, after all!” I said. And we shared a laugh.

I thought the 2009 Barolo Cerequio showed beautifully. It had brilliant fruit and that “nervy” acidity that many Nebbiolphiles look to as a hallmark of great Langa wines.

And I have to note here that I fully enjoyed my glass of 2010 Sassicaia with Chef Harvey’s roast Angus beef ribs. The wine had zinging acidity and its signature minerality and goudron.

It’s a great time to be an Italian wine lover in Texas these days.

Move over, Napa Cab. This town ain’t may not be big enough for the both of us…

I’ll be speaking at an Italian wine dinner in San Diego tonight at Jaynes. There are a few spots left if you happen to find yourself in America’s Finest City.

How a bag of weed launched the biodynamic movement in California

robert kamen wine

Wax on, wax off. Yes, Robert Kamen (above) is the dude who wrote the iconic line. He’s also written numerous screenplays that have been made into Hollywood blockbusters.

Yawn. That’s the least interesting part of the story.

In my view of the world, what’s really fascinating about Robert is that he inadvertently and unwittingly financed California’s biodyanmic movement.

Robert comes to Texas every year to speak a wine dinner at the swank restaurant Tony’s in Houston, owned by my friend and client Tony Vallone.

He’ll be there next week, doing his song and dance for the petroleum crowd, but I’ll be in Italy doing a job for a client of mine (the event is already sold-out btw).

So I called him the other day and asked him about how, why, and when he decided to hire Phil Coturri — the father of California’s biodynamic movement — and if he had intended to play the role of the movement’s financier.

The story’s been told many times. Back in 1980, Robert sold his first screenplay and went up to Sonoma to party in celebration. A few weeks later, using the money from the script, he purchased the property that would ultimately become his Kamen Estate, now famous for its “mountain Cabernet” and a line of wines that commands respect among wine professionals who might otherwise write off yet another Northern Californian wine produced by a “Hollywood guy.”

But don’t use the binomial “Hollywood guy” around Robert. It really gets under his skin.

“Look at the wineries owned by ‘Hollywood guys,'” he said to me, obviously ticked off. “They planted vineyards. I planted a farm.”

“We don’t just grow grapes here. Six months of the year, Phil grows grapes. The other six months of the year, he grows cover crops.”

“When I hired Phil [in 1980],” said Robert, he wasn’t “thinking in terms of the future. I just didn’t want to do things that were deleterious to the property.”

At the time “Phil’s rap was so compelling. And it was just fortuitous because the organic movement was just picking up then.”

I asked if he saw himself as pioneer in organic and biodyanmic farming in the Northern California wine community.

Yes, he said, “but I’m not a proselytizer. I’m not a crusader.”

Today, he told me, the Kamen estate in Sonoma (replanted in 1996 after a fire destroyed the vineyards) is the model that Phil uses to show other grape growers who are interested in converting to organic and biodynamic farming.

His farm “was the laboratory” for the biodynamic movement. Today “it is the showcase,” said Robert.

So why, I asked, did he hire Phil in the first place?

“After I sold my first script and came up here, we partied all night long on the property” that he would buy a few weeks later.

“I wanted to meet the guy who grew the pot we smoked… because I wanted to buy more. It was that good. And that guy was Phil.”

I asked Robert if it was okay for me to post this information on my blog. He said, sure, go ahead.

I can’t post the words that he reserved for our president and the federal government’s attitude regarding the states’ legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana. But that’s another story.

And although it really has nothing to do with this story, I just have to share one last nugget.

When I asked Robert where Phil learned to grow grapes, here’s what he said.

“Phil’s a farmer — an Italian farmer. In 1974, he went to work his first harvest at Mayacamus. And the guy who taught him was named Joe Miami. I’m not making that up.”

When a Hollywood New York screenwriter tells you that he’s not making shit up, you KNOW it has to be true.

Sublime elegance in Clos Rougeard (thank you from the heart @adamjapko)

From the department of “some how, some way, I get to taste funky-assed wines like every single day”…

clos rougeard cabernet franc

Collectors generally want to “taste me” (as we say in the biz) on their Italian lots. Thanks to their generosity, I’ve had the opportunity to taste many Italian wines that would otherwise be out-of-reach for a bourgeois like me.

Occasionally, someone will break out some bottles from their French collection for me. And that’s what happened when a blogging colleague of mine, the inimitable and brilliantly dynamic Adam Japko, thoughtfully brought two bottles of the extremely rare Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny to Austin last week.

My tasting note: wow WOW!

I had never had the chance to taste the wines previously and it was clear, from first sip, why so many great tasters and writers hold this wine to be the greatest expression of Cabernet Franc from the Loire valley.

Here’s Dressner’s haughty backgrounder on the estate.

To it, I’ll only add that these wines are the apotheosis of what I like to call the “unbearable lightness” in wine, where richness and power find a graceful and willing dance partner in elegance and nuance.

cubi valpolicella

Adam also tasted me on the Valentina Cubi Amarone della Valpolicella, a gem of a wine and wonderful discovery that he made by chance on a business trip to Verona.

One of the signatures of biodynamically farmed wines like this is their Technicolor fruit and electric acidity. And when you combine those elements with “typicity,” you are guaranteed a winner.

I liked the wine a lot and loved its food-friendliness. So many expressions of overcropped Valpolicella go for “big” and “bold” and “muscular” these days. It’s great to see a “gentlewoman” farmer like Valentina embrace the traditional style and deliver wines that can be enjoyed at the table.

I’ve made so many wonderful friends through wineblogging. And my newly sparked friendship with Adam is such a great example of how blogging creates vibrant networks of like-minded and similarly spirited people.

We had so much fun that we would have stayed to close the joint if I didn’t need to get back to my girls and he didn’t need to get some rest before his talk the next day.

Adam, thanks, again, man, for the generosity, friendship, and solidarity… Know you have a friend in Austin and there’s always a seat at our dinner table for you…

But, then again, you already knew that… :)

family portrait & shout-out 2 @FourSeasons @TRIOAustin @MarkDevinSayre

jeremy parzen marriage

Above: The garden on “Lady Bird Lake” (actually the Colorado River) at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin is one of our favorite spots in town. The superb staff takes the experience there from A to A+.

Granted, I’ve spent so much time at Trio (restaurant) at the Four Seasons in Austin, Texas since I moved here five year ago that I know most of the staff by name.

I first went there back in 2008 when I wanted to take Tracie P on a romantic date and share a great bottle of wine (Vosne-Romanée by Mongeard-Mugneret, I still remember well).

The restaurant’s wine director, Mark Sayre, one of the top wine professionals in Texas, has been a good friend ever since (and he loves to tell the story of how I “interviewed” him over the phone when I called to inquire about the list).

Since that time, it’s become my go-to spot for business meetings, professional wine tastings, and family outings (it’s where Tracie P and I courted in the eighteen months that led up to our union).

Last week, I took all of my girls there for a margarita for Tracie P, a glass of wine for me, and snacks for Georgia P.

We couldn’t have been seated for more than two minutes before Georgia P had a popover (see the video below), a coloring book, and crayons.

The Four Seasons brand is well known for its extreme hospitality and the hotel and restaurant here in Austin are flagship examples of how earnest graciousness is so key to a fulfilling restaurant experience.

Chapeau bas, Four Seasons! Trio is such a wonderful asset in the Austin wine community.

Harvest update from Ornellaia’s Masseto & points beyond

masseto merlot ornellaia

Yesterday, my friend Leonardo Raspini, vineyard manager at the Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, sent me the photo above. The grapes in the photo are from the estate’s famed Masseto vineyard.

As one of the most manicured growing sites in the world (according to WineSearcher, the average retail price for the 2009 [current] vintage is $517 but if you look around, you can find a bottle for around $350), Masseto is a benchmark for any vintage. And because Merlot is always picked before Sangiovese, it gives a good indication of the harvest outlook.

Here’s what he had to say…

“The grapes you see in the photo belong the central part of the vineyeard, where the clays are abundant [in the subsoil], giving the Merlot bunches a particular shape and quality.”

“The harvest began on September 9 and it’s moving ahead well, with a 10-15 day delay [with respect to recent vintages], which originated during budding and flowering.”

“Ripening is ideal thanks to a sunny but cool climate. Yesterday, we were harvesting in the high part of [the] Masseto [vineyard] and the grapes couldn’t be in better shape.”

Yesterday in Montalcino, my friends at the Tenuta Il Poggione began picking Sangiovese for their rosé wine “despite some light rainfall.”

And earlier this week, my super good friend Laura at Il Palazzone (Montalcino) posted this excellent harvest update, including predictions for the vintage and comparisons, by some leading experts, to 1979.

harvest prosecco 2013

Up in the Veneto, my friend and client Luca Ferraro began picking his Glera grapes for Prosecco on Saturday.

He reports — with his usual candor — that unexpected rainfall is “cause for concern.”

Tracie P and I are keeping our fingers crossed for them.

In the Castelli di Jesi in central Italy, our friends and clients Alessandro Fenino and Silvia Loschi’s Verdicchio harvest is in full swing.

And down in Puglia, my friend and client Gianni Cantele is elated about the quality of his Negroamaro grapes.

eggplant parmigiana recipe best

But what he’s really got us thinking about (and craving for) today is his mother’s eggplant parmigiana.

“My harvest exile in the cellar continues,” writes Gianni, who, like all winemakers during this period of the year, literally lives at the winery without being able to return home. “I’m beginning to miss my bed and the comforts of home. But I will stoically carry on.”

“There are two things that give me the strength not to give up: Negroamaro grapes worth shouting about (a great vintage!) and my mother’s eggplant parmigiana.”

All in all, Italian grape growers are hoping for a great vintage this year, despite some inclement weather that’s affecting northern and central Italy.

I’ll be in the Veneto in a few weeks and will report back then. And I’ll also be in Montalcino, where they should be gearing up for the Brunello harvest.

L’shanah tovah, everyone. I’ll see you in a few days. May your fast be easy and may your new year be sweet and filled with joy and health…