Pinot Noir’s spiritual homeland in Italy: the extraordinary wines of Valeria Radici Odero’s Frecciarossa.

Like many American wine professionals, I had only ever tasted the classic method wines of Oltrepò Pavese pioneer Frecciarossa. But that all changed during the lockdowns thanks to a mid-sized importer of Italian wines in Texas.

I had called Doug Skopp, the owner of Dionysus Imports, to ask him if he had any wineries that would like to take part in the virtual wine dinner series I was moderating each week at Roma restaurant in Houston. He was eager to suggest “it kid” Italian flying winemaker Cristiano Garella and the wines of the legendary Oltrepò estate. But when I told him that we didn’t normally use sparkling wines for our weekly events, he was quick to point out that he imports only the winery’s still wines.

Not only was Cristiano one of the most compelling speakers in our series. But the wines, and in particular the Pinot Noir vinified off its skins (as a white wine), really impressed me with their depth, nuance, and originality.

After my first week of teaching at Slow Food U. in Bra, Piedmont (my first time back in Italy after more than a year and a half), I hopped in my rented Fiat 500L and made a beeline to the other side of the Po River in Lombardy (Oltrepò means literally on the other side of the Po [river]; Pavese is a toponym that denotes Pavia province).

Those are the some of the cows (above) that Valeria Radici Odero uses for compost on her organic farm (certified as of the 2020 vintage). She is the granddaughter of Giorgio Odero, the man who first begin making fine wines there. She is also one of the most brilliant winery owners I’ve ever met, a true wine professional with fantastic communications chops and a razor-sharp palate.

She had graciously squeezed me in with a group of young Piedmontese wine lovers who had reserved a tasting and tour with her that day (thank you again, Valeria, you are awesome!).

Her 2016 Pinot Nero dell’Oltrepò Pavese Giorgio Odero floored me with its rich flavor profile and lithe character. What a stunning wine, with great freshness on the nose and incredible lift in the mouth. It made me reflect on Italy’s wildly diverse mosaic of terroir: while I’ve tasted great still Pinot Noir from Trentino, Alto Adige, and Friuli, few wines have moved me the way this one did.

Frecciarossa’s wines remind me of why I keep doing what I do for a living: the endless viticultural adventures and discoveries that Italy shares with us as we explore the country’s myriad natural and human-made treasures.

Valeria, who speaks impeccable English, has promised me that Houston is going to be one of her first stops as soon as Italians are allowed to return to the U.S. I can’t wait to introduce her and share her wines with our guests back in Houston.

We left our hearts on Lake Iseo. A new favorite restaurant. #bromance

It wasn’t until day six of my first trip to Italy in more than a year and a half that I was finally able to sit down with my bromance Giovanni Arcari for a proper dinner.

We went to our favorite restaurant in Franciacorta, Dispensa Pani e Vini, where we literally laughed so hard that we cried. Man, it had been so long since that had happened. It felt great.

The next morning we headed up to Lake Iseo for an aperitivo before I headed back to Piedmont to teach the next day at Slow Food U.

And it was there that Giovanni turned me on to one of his favorite spots: Darsena 21, a converted boathouse (darsena means dock in Italian).

What a magical spot!

Those are anchovies from Cantabria, Spain. They are all the rage at the moment in Italy. Nearly every day I’ve been here, I’ve eaten them in one form or another.

Darsena 21 owner Daniele Scotti prides himself on using olive oil-cured Cantabrian anchovies. He said that most of the filets you get are cured in sunflower oil. I have to say that these were the best so far. He served these with a side of stracciatella di Andria, the chunky filling used for the famous burrata of Andria, Puglia. Wow… That dish was incredible.

The “Pès and Chips” is made with fresh cod (pès is Brescia dialect for pesce or fish).

Super.

I’ll probably never be able to wrap my mind around the fact that the American club sandwich has become ubiquitous in northern Italy. The difference between theirs and ours is that they use much higher quality ingredients. The bread, bacon, and mayonnaise alone would be worth the price of admission!

Delicious. Great hangover comfort food (not that we were hungover!).

And dulcis in fundo, some geese stopped by to say hello and forage for a French fry or two.

Daniele is a legendary mixologist around those parts. The next I’m up that way, I plan to hit up the brunch and his Bloody Mary.

If and when you make it to Lake Iseo in Franciacorta (and I sincerely hope that you’ll make the trip because it’s worth it), check it out. You won’t regret it. Tell ’em I sent you!

Cascina Baricchi: the best Barbaresco you’ve never tasted.

Only a few savvy insiders in America know the wines raised by the amazing Natale Baricchi on his family’s farm, Cascina Baricchi, on the eastern edge of the Barbaresco appellation.

Partly because of wine but more so because of our shared passion for guitar (he’s got an amazing collection of handmade acoustic guitars, including some Spanish gems), Natale Baricchi, his wife Francesca, and I became good friends two years ago when I was teaching in Piedmont at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra.

Yesterday, the couple hosted me and my Franciacorta bromances Nico Danesi and Giovanni Arcari for dinner and an informal tasting of their Cascina Baricchi Barbaresco (accompanied by guitar, of course!). That’s Nico, Franciacorta winemaker of acclaim, in the photo above.

Francesca and Natale live in the commune of Neviglie, just to the east of the Barbaresco appellation. But their vineyards are in the Barbaresco DOCG. Because Natale’s father began making wine there decades ago, they are “grandparented” into the appellation (their case is an exception but for most producers the grapes have to be transformed into wine within the appellation borders). Natale’s dad was super tight buds with Angelo G., who helped him early on when he was first planting Nebbiolo there.

Natale likes to hold his wines back. His current release is Barbaresco 2014 (most producers have already released their 2016). We also tasted the 2004. Both wines were extraordinary. The 04 was one of the best wines I’ve tasted this year, nearly fully evolved and drinking gorgeously.

It was all accompanied by Francesca’s homemade vitello tonnato, a little bit of insalata russa, freshly cut tomatoes, a wedge of farinata, and a slice of crusty bread. Superb!

Natale and Francesca are in the processing of changing U.S. importers. I think a lot of people will be very happy with the results in terms of availability moving forward.

And when I see you in person, I’ll tell you a voce about some of their noteworthy clients. Once you taste the wines, you’ll understand why so many Nebbiolo greats collect these.

Man, it’s great to be back in Italy again. Seeing my friends, tasting new releases and vintages, and remembering what makes my world go around.

Thank you Natale and Francesca! I love you guys! (Thanks also for letting me play you the new song I wrote for Tracie! That meant the world to me.)

Feels like the first time: heading back to Italy after more than a year and a half.

Breakfast with the family this morning brought on an emotion not felt in more than 30 years: this erstwhile Medieval poetry and now wine scribbler is heading back to their spiritual homeland since being away for more than 18 months.

And it feels like the first time.

As the girls were getting ready for summer camp, an old and addled box of photographs found its way to my desk.

That’s a photo of me, above, in Ostia (the Roman coastal city) in 1987 during my first academic year in Italy on the University of California Education Abroad Program, the only curriculum at the time that allowed students to study side-by-side with Italians — with instruction in Italian.

That experience forever shaped my professional and personal life.

By year’s end, my first piano bar gig came along.

That’s me, above, playing my very first show at the Bar Margherita on Piazza della Frutta in Padua.

The person in the lower right-hand corner is Ruggero Robin, one of Italy’s top jazz guitarists. He would become my first friend in Italy and we would play countless gigs together when music was the income that kept me afloat during my studies.

This guitar player was way out of their league when they they played with Ruggero but the money was always decent and we would always have a blast together. (If you’ve ever been to VinNatur, you might have heard Ruggero play. He’s super tight with the Maule family.)

In normal years, this Italy-bound traveler would go to their spiritual homeland six times a year, between teaching, researching and tasting, trade fairs, and client visits. There was one year when I made nine (!!!) trips to Italy in less than 12 months.

But after being separated so long from my signora, this one feels different. It feels big like that first time, that first contact, that first kiss with the country that would become my lifeblood in so many ways. It even made for the connection between me and my life partner, Tracie, mother to our children.

On Sunday, I leave for three weeks of teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont. There will be some good eating and drinking, too. And maybe even some music.

Sister Italy, my alma mater, where would I be today without you???!!!

I can’t wait to leap into your arms and feel your embrace!

Wish me luck and wish me speed. See you on the other side…

You say Prosecco, they say Prošek. Croatia unlikely to prevail in trademark claim over world’s most popular wine.

You may have already seen the scandalous headlines in the Italian mainstream media: “Prosecco under attack” and “The latest assault on Prosecco.”

If you’re reading this, it’s more likely that you’ve seen a headline or two in the English-language press: “Croatia and Italy renew feud over Prošek and Prosecco wines.”

“Croatian winemakers have leapt to the defence of their centuries-old dessert wine, Prošek amid a renewed Prosecco identity war,” wrote Angela Giuffrida for the Guardian earlier this month.

    Italy said it would defend Prosecco at all costs after Croatia applied to the European Commission for special recognition of Prošek [a Croatian dried-grape wine].
    It is the second time Croatia has moved to get the trademark recognised after Italy succeeded in blocking a first attempt in 2013, arguing that the name Prošek was too similar to Prosecco. Croatian winemakers agree that the two words sound similar, but they argue that consumers can easily distinguish between the two.

“This request,” wrote the Prosecco DOC consortium in a statement responding to the move by the Croatians, “could undermine the entire appellation system in Europe.”

But the Croatians’ efforts are unlikely to succeed.

As leading Italian wine writer and trade observer Maurizio Gily notes in his newsletter this week, Italian growers of Prosecco were the first to use the trademark Prosecco beyond Italy’s borders. In accordance with EU trademark law, this gives them the “precedent” and the right to use the name commercially.

Perhaps more significantly, Gily writes, Prosecco has come to be recognized as a place name thanks to the Prosecco consortia’s efforts to associate the name with the geographic area where Prosecco is grown and vinified (the recent designation of the Prosecco DOCG as a UNESCO heritage site bolsters the consortia’s claim).

In the light of this, Croatian producers of the dried-grape wine Prošek will most likely be denied the right to use the name commercially. It would only create confusion in the marketplace, lawyers for the Prosecco consortia will argue.

You may remember that in 2007, the European Commission ruled in favor of Hungarian producers of Tokaji who wanted to bar Italian growers from using the name Tocai on the labels of wines to be sold outside Italy. It was the inverse of what will happen in this case, writes Gily. In this instance, the Hungarians could rightly lay claim to the trademark because they were the first to use it in international commerce. This precedent will undoubtedly help the Italians in their claim.

It’s worth pointing out that Prošek is also the Slovenian name for the village of Prosecco in Trieste province. There, in the semi-autonomous region of Friuli, street signs are written in both Italian (“Prosecco”) and Friulian dialect (“Prosek”), as in the image above. It comes from the Slavic prošek meaning clear-felled, in other words, a place cleared of trees. Some believe that the village was once a transit hub. It’s origin as a place for commerce may be the reason, some argue, that the toponym came to be associated with the wine.

In other (unrelated) news…

As Gily notes in his dispatch, the current “Prosecco war” has nothing to do with Putin’s unrelated (absurdist) efforts to claim the name “Champagne” for sparkling wines in Russia.

Image via the Gambero Rosso forum.

Falling In Love Again, a new song for Tracie P by Parzen Family Singers

It’s been a great summer for our family so far and it’s been a magical time in our lives as we can get out again and our work is thriving.

And… I’m falling in love again.

“I’m Falling In Love Again”
written, performed, recorded, and produced
by Parzen Family Singers
Baby P Studios
Houston

Do you ever wonder
How the stars aligned
Strangers passing in the night
Honky tonks and wine

What was it that caught your eye
When I happened to pass by
Was it just that note I wrote
In a long ago July

Every little bit of sunshine
Every little bit of rain
Every little bit of joy and laughter
Every little bit of tears and pain

Every little bit of sunshine
Every little bit of rain
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again

When I was a little kid
They told us a fairytale
All you had to do in life was to
Set your ship to sail

Find the perfect lover
Then it may come true
What makes the world go round & round
When I first looked at you

Every little bit of sunshine
Every little bit of rain
Every little bit of joy and laughter
Every little bit of tears and pain

Every little bit of sunshine
Every single day
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again

Who could ever know
How much our love would grow
Who could ever see
What our love could be

And as you look at me
It’s no mystery
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love

Snap your fingers and ship your wine to America! Sorry, Italian winemakers: I love you but it doesn’t work like that.

It’s begun again.

Two messages arrived in my inbox yesterday asking me to provide a list of potential American importers for the authors’ friends’ wines from Italy. One came from a friend of mine, the other from a friend of a friend of mine.

Before the 2020 lockdowns, I’d receive at least two messages like that per month. Sometimes more. They stopped for a while. But now that things are opening up again on both sides of the Atlantic, the missives — “help me find an importer for my clearly superior wine although I have no intention of paying you for your services nor would I even consider that given how good my wine is” — are beginning to appear again.

They are generally accompanied by a collateral message: “my wine is obviously so stinking good that American importers will undoubtedly be lining up and fighting for the opportunity to work with me despite the fact that I don’t speak English, have only ever visited New York and San Francisco on vacation, and have no idea how the U.S. wine market works or what market conditions are.”

Snap your fingers and ship your wine to New Jersey! Sorry, Italian winemakers. I love you but it doesn’t work like that.

The messages bring to mind a 1982 New York magazine article by legendary wine writer Alexis Bespaloff where he features three then relatively (at least in America) Italian winemakers: Gaja, Antinori, and Mastroberardino. They were all trying to break into the U.S. market at the time.

In the piece, Antinori explains to him why his family has abandoned traditional winemaking conventions: “‘We came to the sad conclusion that simply following the classic Chianti varietal mix, we couldn’t produce the finest wines from our vineyards,’ Antinori explained, discussing [Tignanello’s] evolution.'”

The first Super Tuscan — quite literally ante litteram — was born!

At the time, the 1978 “Tignanello… a complex Tuscan red,” wrote Bespaloff, was “readily available” and cost about “$13.” (!!!)

It’s incredible to think that these three winemakers (and I would add producers like Primo Franco and Maurizio Zanella to this early 1980s list) were hitting the streets and hawking wine. My friend Craig Camp, wine writer and now Oregon winery manager, remembers, for example, doing work-withs with Angelo Gaja when Craig was starting out in the wine trade as a sales rep.

What I’m getting at is this: these guys — titans of Italian wine today — were busting their asses to build their brands in the U.S. And history would prove them to be visionaries of their craft. Just think how much Tignanello costs today and show me the high-end steakhouse that doesn’t have it on its list. In 1982, it was an unknown wine that, as Antinori explains in the article, he created in the hope of opening up new market possibilities. Piero Antinori and today his daughters still come to the U.S. regularly (before the lockdowns, of course).

There couldn’t be a more challenging time for a small Italian winemaker to break into the U.S. market today. Massive consolidation of distribution channels, continuing supply chain and shipping disruptions, and shifts in consumers’ tastes and attitudes are making it difficult for single family-run estates to break into U.S. importing game.

Despite the herculean task that lies ahead of them, I always write back the same thing.

My advice is to spend as much time in the U.S. market as you can (even if your wines aren’t here yet). Try to make connections with young American wine professionals. That’s the key to building your brand here. Try to figure out whether or not your wines are relevant here. Think about how your brand fits into the American wine trade paradigm.

I can point to myriad Italian winemakers who have done just that. They cultivate the friendships and professional contacts that ultimately lead to success here.

Have you ever attended one of Angelo Gaja’s lectures where he talks about the countless scallop-and-lamb-chop dinners he’s attended in the U.S.? That’s called paying your dues, folks!

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule. Neither Bartolo or Maria Teresa Mascarello had any desire to come to America (she told me as much once when I complained to her about her asshole importer from Oklahoma). Yet their cultish brand is undeniably popular here. You could say the same about Quintarelli. But those are both examples of wines that had already become undeniable classics, icons of Italian winemaking before they even touched U.S. soil. Neither of them had any trouble selling all their wine each year and the U.S. represented and represents a means of expanding their profitability.

For most Italian winemakers trying to break into the U.S. market, you need to be here. Showing up is literally 50 percent of the equation.

Wines are like songs. Even if they are the best songs ever written, they will have no meaning or commercial viability until someone hears them. And getting people to hear them takes grit, determination, luck, and — I hate to say it but it needs to be said here — investment. I’m not a winemaker but I am a songwriter. I’ve written a ton of songs but the commercially successful tracks were the ones that happened at the right time and in the right place and with the right support. It was about being there: showing up and playing every gig my bandmates and I could until someone finally started paying attention.

To every Italian winemaker or friend of an Italian winemaker who’s hoping to make their wines a big hit in the U.S., please come see me in Houston. I’ll take you wine bar hopping and will introduce you to all the cool young sommeliers and wine buyers (I’m a wine buyer in Houston, too; I’m just not young!). The first round is on me — for real, I mean that. The rest is on you…

Images via Google Books.