Scenes from Franciacorta in Austin and Chianti Classico tasting at Chris Cannon’s new restaurant next week in NJ

Click here to check out my notes from the super fun Franciacorta tasting I led this week in Austin.

It was great to catch up with River City wine folks and it was exciting to meet lifestyle writer and fragrance expert Alyssa Harad. She’s super cool.

Thanks again to Vino Vino owners Jeff Courington and Kelly Bell, Jr. for letting me hold the tasting at their swell joint.

And thanks to Buckley Wineholt for the swell photo above.

It’s been a busy week over here at Do Bianchi Editorial but I’m looking forward to the weekend with my girls and my trip next week to the east coast.

I’ll be speaking on Tuesday night at Chris Cannon’s new restaurant, Jockey Hollow, in Morristown NJ (among other events I’ll be attending).

Giacomo Mastretta (above) from La Porta di Vertine, my client, and one of the grooviest growers and winemakers in Chianti Classico will be pouring and speaking about the wines.

Click here for event details.

Should be a good time. The wines are awesome and Giacomo is amazing.

Thanks for being here this week!

Buon weekend, yall!

Is Luc Morlet the future of high-end California?

From the department of “nice work if you can get it”…

best foie gras recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s foie gras torchon with “pear cracklings,” crispy pear skins.

Last night found me a guest of my friend and client Tony Vallone at his flagship Tony’s for a wine dinner featuring the wines of Morlet Family Vineyards.

After reading up his California estate, I was impressed by the glowing praise and the across-the-board astronomic scores the wines have received from all sides of the wine writing establishment.

Robert Parker, Jr. has called him a “genius.” Honestly, that doesn’t really score a lot of points with me personally. But then when I saw that Antonio Galloni also wrote about Luc’s wines with superlatives like “off the charts” and scores to match, I began to inuit that Morlet has resonated broadly with the California wine intelligentsia.

I’d tasted a few of Luc Morlet’s wines previously at Tony’s but I had never tasted his top wines and I was very curious meet Luc and taste with him.

ma douceAbove: Luc’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay Ma Douce illustrated his deft hand at barrel fermentation and barrel aging. He talked at length about the importance of not filtering. This isn’t a wine that I can afford but I thought it was gorgeous and enjoyed it immensely. Parker called a previous vintage “staggering.”

Luc, who was born and raised in Champagne, where his family continues to produce barrel-fermented wines, didn’t seem keen to talk about the fact that he is one of the premier cooperage brokers in California today. Understandably, he wanted to keep the focus on his wines and he wanted to connect with the well-heeled crowd that gathers at Tony’s for dinners like this.

But it’s abundantly clear that his experience in Europe and his expertise in cooperage has set a high new bar for the use of barriques in California, where, historically, winemakers have often favored oakiness in their wines.

Luc’s Sonoma Chardonnay Ma Douce and his Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Côteaux Nobles were both fantastic. And they perfectly illustrated how restrained, thoughtful use of oak can deliver wonderful balance and extreme elegance. I liked the wines a lot.

(Luc will be speaking about cooperage and pouring barrel samples today at the Houston Sommelier Association, btw. It should be a fascinating tasting and he’s a great speaker.)

crescent island duckAbove: Tony and his chef Kate McLean are geeked about the Crescent Island duck they’ve been serving at the restaurant. I loved its balance of gentle fattiness and earthy flavor. It was a great pairing for Luc’s Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Mon Chevalier.

In the short time I got to speak with Luc intimately, he was eager to talk to me about the Knights Valley AVA where he is growing Cabernet Sauvignon.

It lies in between Napa and Sonoma and the community there has resisted heavy investment in viticulture.

But there are a few growers who have planted to vine there and Luc is one of them.

It’s on the west side of Mt. Saint Helena, he explained, the highest peak in the area, and so it has the ideal elevation and temperature variation for the cultivation of Bordeaux grapes.

I liked the Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Mon Chevalier a lot but I think the wine will benefit from more bottle aging. Here the oak was evident and not yet entirely integrated into the wine, which is from Luc’s 2011 harvest. I hope I’ll have a chance to revisit it in a few years: with great acidity and earnest, classic Cabernet Sauvignon flavors, there’s no doubt this wine will represent yet another great effort from Luc’s cellar.

As he talked to me about Knights Valley, I became more and more convinced that Luc and his approach to winemaking could very well be the future of high-end wine in California.

Whether he’s raising wine in a little known appellation tucked between Napa and Sonoma or whether he’s illustrating the expert application of cask fermentation and aging, he seems always to be one step ahead of his contemporaries.

As the “new California” has begun to reshape the viticultural landscape there, Luc and his “old world” sensibilities align nearly seamlessly with the tastes of current-generation collectors and winemakers.

Very interesting wines. I just wish I could afford them!

You’re a better man than I am, Master Sommelier candidate! Houstonians head to Dallas for theory exam

david keck houston sommelierI admire but do not envy them: the three dudes to the right, Travis Hinkle, David Keck, and James Watkins are heading next Monday from Houston to Dallas where they will be seated for the Court of Master Sommeliers theory exam, which, according to the court’s website has a 10 percent pass rate (holy smokes!).

I had the chance to taste Austrian wines with them last week when my friend Master Sommelier Jesse Becker came to town to lead a guided tasting from Winebow’s portfolio. That’s Ben Roberts to Jesse’s left. He’s also a Master Sommelier candidate but has already passed the theory exam.

As I was reading up on the grueling exam for my Houston Press post today, I was reminded of my years as a grad student prepping for my orals. It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. But, man, I’m glad I don’t have go through that again!

Check out my post here.

Master Sommelier candidates: you are better men than I am!

In bocca al lupo! That’s what you say in Italian in this situation: may you go into the wolf’s mouth.

Is biodynamic farming the new religion of Italian winemaking? Tasting Alois Lageder in Houston

urs vetterWhenever possible, I always try to meet up and taste with Italian winemakers when they come to Houston.

And so yesterday early evening found me with Urs Vetter (above) who’s worked for more than two decades as the sales and marketing director for legacy Alto Adige grower and winemaker Alois Lageder.

In my experience, Lageder’s entry-tier wines are always clean, focused, and very approachable and they represent great value. But it’s when you get into the higher tiers that the wines really start to take on character and depth imho.

alois lageder moscato gialloI loved the 2013 Moscato Giallo Vogelmaier, with its show-stopping aromatics, balanced alcohol (12.5% according to the winery’s website), and elegant white fruit. Urs said this wine should retail for around $25 in our market. Great wine…

It was fascinating to hear Urs describe Lageder’s evolution as a biodynamic grower and the “snowball” effect that it’s had in the appellation.

Magrè, the village where the Lageder is located, he told me, has been transformed by the ongoing process of conversion of both estate-owned growing sites as well as vineyards owned by other growers who sell to Lageder.

Currently, he said, roughly fifty percent of Lageder’s wines are Demeter biodynamic certified and the winery is moving toward 100 percent certification.

He also mentioned that Lageder’s popular Summa wine fair, now in its seventeenth year, is leaning more and more toward biodynamic farming as its focus.

The fair includes roughly fifty producers, he said, and while “old friends” will never be excluded, the organizers are making biodynamic farming a priority in selecting new wineries to be included.

One of the things that always impresses me about Italians winemakers’ attitudes toward organic and biodynamic farming is that they often embrace it not only as a means to achieve greater quality but also as civic and even moral responsibility.

Hearing Urs describe the many grape farmers who have “converted” in recent years and Lageder’s own conversion made me think about how biodynamics has become the new “religion” of Italian winemaking. And I mean that in both figuratively and literally.

Most young and middle-aged Italians that I know are agnostic. And I can only think of three Italian winemakers (in my personal orbit) who are practicing Catholics.

But when I hear Italian growers — young and old — talk about biodynamic farming, I often get a sense that they perceive it as a higher mission that fills a spiritual gap and fulfills a basic human need to give meaning to things that lie beyond our comprehension (even though I believe that some are more self-aware in this perception than others).

When I asked Urs about this, he said that yes, most definitely, there is a “spirituality of the land” that has emerged in the village of Magrè where Lageder grows grapes and vinifies its wines.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

That verse from Matthew often pops into my mind when I think about what life will be like for our daughters after we are gone.

Will it be the earth as G-d created it? It would seem that more and more Italian winemakers are working to make it so. And no matter where you stand, that’s a good thing.

On dinosaurs and astronauts: Houston’s wonderful cultural resources

hello kitty astronautAbove: yesterday’s outing was to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where I couldn’t resist buying Georgia P a Hello Kitty astronaut. Georgia, who’s now 3, calls the space center “the real astronauts.”

It still happens all the time.

When I’m on the road and people learn that I live and am raising a family in Houston, many respond with a knee-jerk reaction like o, I’m so sorry or Houston? How’s that going? or even — and this came from a relative — how can you live around all those awful people?

There’s no getting around it: Houston, like Texas in general, has a horrible reputation beyond its city limits.

Sadly, the hard-line republicans from Texas have given their state a bad name in the American consciousness. And it’s a real tragedy for the rest of us because Houston is actually a very liberal and ethnically and culturally diverse city.
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Can a sommelier be trusted? If you need to ask, then you have no business dining out.

From the department of “I know I already wished everyone a good weekend but I just couldn’t help posting one more time this week… This really pissed me off!”

best cork screw boulder coloradoI’m just going to cut to the chase here.

Paul Sullivan’s ridiculous “Wealth Matters” column (“Reading Restaurant Wine Lists, for Blockbusters and Values”) for the New York Times this week really pissed me off.

In it he observes and asks: “At the end of the day, though, the sommelier is a salesman. Can he be trusted?”

Let’s disregard the inherent chauvinism of his rhetoric. Yes, it’s true that for many generations, men dominated cellar management in restaurants in the U.S. and Europe. That’s all changed now and many of the country’s leading sommeliers are women.

Would Sullivan have asked such an offensive question if he’d visited enough U.S. restaurants to discover that the patriarchal world that he cherishes, covets, and champions is rapidly disappearing? Probably not.

Beyond Sullivan’s latent misogyny, his misplaced and misinformed attitudes about sommeliers are a reflection of his manifest misanthropy.

It reminds me of my great uncle Ted, who was so convinced that every waiter was trying to rip him off that he often contested bills that were perfectly correct. If he didn’t make a fuss, he believed, he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. He’d get so worked up every time he took me out to dinner when I was in college at U.C.L.A. (he was a successful Beverly Hills commercial realtor), I wondered if he enjoyed going to restaurants at all…

Please click here to continue reading my post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant.

Food, memory, and magic: calf’s tongue with Marsala and porcini jus

recipe braised tongue italian styleIt’s been more than three years now that I’ve worked with Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone (I’m the media director for his restaurant group).

Tony is one of the most extraordinary and intriguing culinary figures that I’ve ever known and I cherish our friendship immensely.

He began cooking Italian food here in 1965 when he famously had to buy his calamari at bait shops because they were the only place he could get them.

It was the time before FedEx could deliver burrata from Puglia to your doorstep overnight.

Today, his flagship restaurant Tony’s remains one of the top dining destinations in a city where the food scene has literally exploded over the last five years.

And it’s the number-one venue for the competitive-dining oil and gas crowd.

But beyond the A-5 grade kobe, the Alba truffles, the foie gras torchon, and the caviar, Tony always includes a more humble dish or two from his childhood on the menu.

When he and I met this week for a weekly kibitz, he had me taste his lingua napoletana (above), which he plated atop a bed of wilted spinach and topped with a Marsala and porcini jus.

He talked about how his grandmother taught him how to clean calf’s tongue and the different ways she would prepare it.

We talked about the role that tongue plays in Italian and eastern European cookery traditions.

And as we tasted it together, it was as if, perhaps through osmosis, I were sharing a memory of his youth.

It was a truly remarkable and magically delicious experience.

Food and its ability to evoke memory are so powerful. As we continued to chat that day I couldn’t stop thinking about the nature of gastronomic narrative in the post-post modern era.

A dish, like a poem or a novella, is a text, a gathering of threads that when woven together transcend their individual meaning.

Tony’s lingua has many, many stories to tell…

Thanks for reading. Buon weekend a tutti!

The fascinating history of green manure in Italy (sovescio)

cover crop sovescioAbove: the term “sovescio” has a long history in Italian agricultural studies. It’s properly translated as “cover crop” or “green manure.” But “sovescio” denotes, in particular, cover crops that have been sowed by breaking the soil and planting the seeds at different depths below the surface, depending on type of seeds and the desired effect. Not all cover crops are planted in this manner. The etymology of the term is uncertain but most philologists speculate that it is derived from the spoken Latin “subversiare,” meaning to “turn under” (image borrowed from a post by my client Bele Casel, an organic Prosecco producer).

Every time I fall down a rabbit hole like this one, I am reminded of a famous aphorism by the twentieth-century Austrian essayist Karl Kraus: “The closer you look at a word,” he wrote, “the more distantly it looks back” (see this note on a word’s “aura”).

It all began yesterday when California-based importer of Italian wines Justin Gallen wrote me suggesting that I add an entry for sovescio to my Italian Wine Glossary.

The term sovescio is rendered in English as cover crop or green manure.

As Justin noted in an email, these days “you can’t talk to an Italian wine grower without them mentioning that word.”

The practice of planting cover crops to replenish nitrogen levels in farmland soil dates back to Roman times.

“First consideration belongs to the lupine [a legume],” wrote Columella in the first century C.E. (De re rustica), “as it requires the least labour, costs least, and of all crops that are sown is most beneficial to the land. For it affords an excellent fertilizer for worn-out vineyards and ploughlands; it flourishes even in exhausted soil.”

But the practice of planting cover crops as a means to improve soil “health” became a hot button issue in early nineteenth-century Italy when Piedmontese chemist Giovanni Antonio Giobert published his revolutionary research on sovescio and its farmland application. His experiments centered on the use of rye for green manuring (crop rotation was another focus).

His work was met with unbridled disbelief in some quarters. After his greatest detractor, Count Carlo Verri, issued his response refuting Giobert’s findings, one of their contemporaries noted that their dialectic represented the dawn of a “new era” in Italian agriculture.

Ultimately, Giobert’s theories were embraced by hundreds of Italian farmers according to the anonymous author of an 1820 report on Verri’s polemic.

Today, as Justin observed, the popularity of green manure among Italian grape growers is growing rapidly as more and more of them embrace organic and biodynamic farming practices.

That’s good news for all of us, at least in my book. But it seems that the novel technique isn’t as new as some would think.

Thanks for reading… and thanks, Justin, for suggesting the entry.

Italian wine glossary UPDATED and state of emergency in Puglia


italian wine terms translation glossaryA ritocchino?

A giropoggio?

Please see below my updated glossary of Italian wine terms translated. I’m always trying to add new entries and I’m always happy to receive requests and suggestions. And if you catch an error or typo, please let me know.

Thanks for reading and thanks for speaking Italian wine! I hope you will find the glossary as useful as I do.

In other news…

The Italian government has finally declared a state of emergency in Puglia: there are fears that, if left unchecked, the alarming and widespread outbreak of Pierce’s Disease could threaten agriculture beyond Puglia’s borders.

Please see this post that I published yesterday for my client Cantele.

a giropoggio east-west row orientation
a ritocchino north-south row orientation
acciaio [inossidabile] stainless-steel [vat/tank]
affinamento aging
alberello head-trained [vines]
allevamento training
argilla clay
arresto di fermentazione stuck fermentation
assemblaggio blend
barbatella grafted cutting
barrique barrique [small French oak cask]
bâtonnage stirring on the lees
biodinamica biodynamics/biodynamic
biologico organic
botte traditional large cask
bucce skins
Cabernet [Sauvignon] Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Franc Cabernet Franc
calcare/calcareo limestone/calcareous [limestone-rich]
cappello sommerso submerged cap maceration
chioma canopy
cordone speronato cordon-trained spur-pruned [vines]
cru vineyard designation/single vineyard
cuvée blend
délestage rack and return
deraspare/deraspatrice de-stemm/de-stemmer
diradamento pruning/thinning grapes/dropping fruit
DOC DOC [designation of controlled origin]
DOCG DOCG [designation of controlled and guaranteed origin]
DOP PDO [Protected Designation of Origin]
doppio capovolto double-arched cane [training]
esca esca [alt.: black dead arm or black measles]
escursione termica [diurnal] temperature variation
fementazione arrestata stuck fermentation
femminella lateral shoot
follatura punching down
galestro galestro [a marl- and limestone-rich subsoil unique to Tuscany]
giropoggio east-west row orientation
grappa grappa
grappolo cluster/bunch
Guyot Guyot
IGP PGI [Protected Geographical Indication]
IGT IGT [typical geographical indication]
leccio holm oak
lievito naturale native/ambient/indigenous/wild yeast
lievito selezionato cultured yeast
limo silt
macchia mediterranea Mediterranean maquis [shrubland]
maestrale (vento di maestrale) north-westerly wind
malolattica malolactic fermentation
marna/marne marl
millerandage millerandage [alt.: shot berrieshens and chicks, or pumpkins and peas]
monovitigno single-grape variety [wine]
mosto must
oidio oidium [powdery mildew]
peronospora peronospora [downy mildew]
pied de cuve pied de cuve [native yeast starter]
pigiatura pressing
portinnesto rootstock
quercia oak
rimontaggio pumping over
ritocchino north-south row orientation
sabbia/sabbioso sand/sandy [sandy soil]
Sauvignon [Blanc] Sauvignon Blanc
siccità/stress idrico hydric stress
sistema di allevamento training
sottosuolo subsoil
stralciatura deshooting
stress idrico/siccità hydric stress
sulle bucce skin contact [macerated on the skins]
sulle fecce nobili lees aged [aged on its lees]
sur lie lees aged [aged on its lees]
terreno/terreni soil
tignola della vite vine moth [Eupoecilia ambiguella]
tralcio shoot/cane
tramoggia hopper/feeder
tufo tufaceous subsoil [porous limestone]
vasca vat/tank
vento di maestrale north-westerly wind
vigna/vigne vine/vineyards
vigneto vineyard
vinaccia/vinacce pomace
vite vine
vitigno grape variety

West coast port dispute creates wine drought, Lacryma Christi’s blasphemy, and good food in LA

nagila best falafel los angelesAbove: the falafel combination plate at Nagila Meating Place in LA’s modern orthodox neighborhood. Maybe it’s because the climate is more mediterranean but west coast falafel always takes first place over east in my book.

Usually when I return from my weeklong west coast late winter swing, I post a shortlist of the standout wines that I’ve tasted for Sotto’s spring wine list update (I’ve been co-authoring the wine list there for nearly four years).

But this time around, a number of my sales reps either cancelled on me or had no new wines to show.

pan drippingsAbove: I finally had a chance to taste the famous “pan drippings” at République. As silly as the dish sounds, there’s a reason why it’s so popular. The quality of the bread alone was worth the price of admission. République isn’t just one of the best restaurants in the U.S. right now. It’s also the apotheosis of how a highly profitable and overwhelmingly satisfying food and wine program can be run today.

The current longshorepersons labor dispute has begun to have a sizable impact on the west coast wine scene. (Here’s the LA Times most recent update on the dispute, the best account I was able to find on the internets.)

At least four of my wine purveyors at Sotto told me their containers were stuck in Oakland, the port where most European wine comes into California.

italian wedding soup recipeAbove: Chef Steve Samson’s “Sicilian Wedding Soup” with barley, lamb meatballs, pecorino dumplings, escarole, and egg drop. His cooking at Sotto (where I co-author the wine list) is better than ever. Just look at that color of that egg! I should have some exciting news to share about my work with Steve in a few months.

At Sotto, we’ve already had a couple of by-the-glasses drop off our list because of the European wine drought and reps have been telling me that the problem is much more widespread and worrisome than our microreality at the restaurant.

I’m going to have to make a second ad hoc trip in March because we simply weren’t able to taste enough new wine.

lacrima cristi bianco bestAbove: Italian wine nerd alert! The main grape in this Lacryma Christi Bianco is Caprettone.

Of the few new wines my colleague and Sotto’s wine program manager Christine Veys and I were able to taste, this Lacryma Christi Bianco by Cantine Olivella was a wonderful standout. Great acidity, great balance, and lovely white and white stone fruit and healthy, although not robust, minerality.

When you talk to consulting enologists in Italy today, they tend to be dismissive of Lacryma Christi, noting that it’s an overarching, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink appellation with not a lot of direction or character.

Regardless of its disfavor today, the appellation was wildly famous by the end of the nineteenth century. And it’s often referred to as one of Italy’s most celebrated wines (outside of Asti) in travel journals of the time.

One of its great ironies is that its name is a blasphemy and not an unlikely allusion to Christ’s tears dropping to earth around Mt. Vesuvius as He ascended to heaven (as many would tell you).

To the ears of a nineteenth-century European, the mention of Christ in reference to something as mundane as wine was wholly sacrilegious and many of the early reports of the wine observe this fact.

The art of blasphemy is still very much alive in Italy and the irreverent etymology makes perfect sense: grape growers had a lot to gripe about during the age of Italy’s Risorgimento. But that’s a bigger story for another time.

cantico gostolaiAbove: I’m consistently blown away by nearly every white produced by Sardinian winemaker Gostolai.

Another stand out was this late-harvest Barbagia Bianco called Cantico by Gostolai. It’s made from Vernaccia and Moscato and its delicate sweetness danced like a swan over the waters of its fresh minerality.

I really loved this very soulful, thoughtful wine.

Of course, with a name like cantico (KAHN-tee-koh, meaning canticle, it already had a prosody-loving wine guy like me at hello its incipit.

So much to tell, so little time… Thanks for reading this prolix post!