Two new books on Italian cocktail culture, one of them coming to Houston next week

From the department of “it’s good to have friends in highball places”…

baiocchi spritz huff aperitivoTwenty years ago, before there were a Babbo or an Eataly, you would have been hard-pressed to convince me that the world would see monographs devoted to the Italian traditions of aperitivo and spritz, enogastronomic phenomena that I discovered as a student in Italy and largely took for granted.

But, o, how the world has changed since then!

Two friends of mine and two wine-and-food writers whom I admire greatly, Marisa Huff and Talia Baiocchi, have recently and respectively published Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy (Rizzoli) and Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail (Ten Speed).

Both of them are currently on tour in the U.S. promoting the books and I’m happy to report that Talia will be coming to Houston and Austin next week.

I previewed her Houston event (Wednesday, April 27) yesterday for the Houston Press and I’ll be attending as well. Houstonians, I hope to see you there!

And as far as the rest of you are concerned, I will join one of my favorite wine bloggers in wishing you bottoms up!

Vinous aromas of yesteryear: Italy’s 2013 vintage reminds many of a pre-climate change era

grape pomace grappa marc

Above: That’s Hawk Wakawaka, one of my favorite people on the wine blogging scene. She’s dwarfed (and she’s not a short person) by a hill of grape pomace at the Nonino distillery in Udine province in Friuli.

Borrowing a line from my wife, Tracie P, who couldn’t have said it more brilliantly, grappa is the ultimate expression of the grape.

In other words, the grape’s very last gasp is its distillation into a spirit.

When I visited the Nonino distillery in Udine province a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that pomace brandy is also the ultimate expression of the vintage.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of Italian distillers, the Noninos only distill once a year — during harvest.

As Elisabetta explained to the group of writers with whom I was traveling, one of her parents’ great innovations was that they were the first to work directly with growers to ensure the freshness of the pomace that arrived at the distillery and to distill as quickly as possible in order to retain that freshness.

The Noninos — one of the great Italian success stories of the 1990s and one of the most recognizable “made-in-Italy” brands — need no introduction or endorsement from me. In Italy and abroad, their products are considered benchmarks for the category. And they essentially created the category when they launched their distinctive bottles and monovarietal grapps in the early 1980s. And they are largely responsible for grappa mania in the U.S. in the 1990s.

I always have a blast and learn something new when I visit with them. And I know my wife will forgive me for the huge crush that I have on matriarch Giannola. She — one of the most glamorous women in Italian viticulture and a genius marketer — always has me on the edge of my seat with her tales of Marcello Mastroianni kneeling before her in a theater in Rome in the 1960s.

But the thing that I couldn’t get out of my head as we visited over a day and a half was what one of their vineyard managers, Denis Cociancig, said to me when toured their famous Picolit and Fragolino vineyards (where they grow their own grapes destined to become Nonino monovarietal grappas).

“The vinous aromas that are coming out of the cellars” across Friuli, he said, reminded him “of the harvests of another era.”

The “aromas of the courtyard,” as he put it, “are like the ones I remember from my childhood.”

nonino sisters

Above: It’s not a stretch to say that the Noninos are the nuttiest people I’ve ever met in the wine and food trade. Those are sisters, from left, Elisabetta, Cristina, and Antonella Nonino, with Cristina’s husband Tony. They are always so sweet and energetic. Every time I visit, I learn something new…

Across Italy, yields are lower than they have been in recent years but that “courtyard aroma” has returned.

And he wasn’t the only grower/winemaker who told me that. In the Veneto and Tuscany, I heard cellar masters say exactly the same thing.

And you could smell it everywhere we went. It’s a brilliant aroma of fresh, young wine that literally seduces you.

Most attribute those aromas to the fact that the vintage was a “classic” one: the late spring rains and cooler temperatures made for a more balanced vegetative cycle and pushed back harvest by roughly two weeks. More than one grower noted that she/he hadn’t harvested this late since the 1980s, an era before climate change — whatever its cause — delivered a nearly uninterrupted string of warm, bountiful crops.

Like their winemaking counterparts, the Noninos are expecting to produce less this year but they are thrilled by the quality of the materia prima that arrived at their distillery with this harvest.

When we began to see the 2013 wines in the market, it will be interesting to taste them and remember the aromas of my recent trip. And when I sip a Nonino grappa from Fragolino (my personal favorite) after dinner, I’ll remember that visit to the Nonino vineyards where the yields were low but offset by the rewards of the “courtyard aromas of yesteryear.”

In unrelated news…

One of the winners of the prestigious Nonino prize for the arts and sciences in 2013, physicist Peter Higgs, also became a Nobel laureate this year.

Those crazy Noninos: I don’t know how they do it, but they always seem to be one step ahead of the rest of us.

Fernet the way it was meant to be drunk (the great misunderstanding aka the Atlantic Ocean)

fernet branca history

The photo above comes from the Facebook of my friend Giovanni Contrada (left), born in 1957 and raised in Boston by his mother (right) a seamstress from Naples whose first language was Neapolitan.

That’s a bottle of “Fernet” on the counter and the setting is breakfast before getting off to school.

“My mother used to give me an espresso with a raw egg yolk [folded in] and a shot of Fernet,” Giovanni remembers.

By the time Giovanni was school-going age, there were literally scores of Fernet Branca imitators and counterfeiters. As late as the mid-2000s, if you visited the food shops that dotted 18th Ave. in Bensonhurst (Brooklyn), you’d still find a few of the labels on the shelves. I remember seeing some at Trunzo when I lived in Brooklyn and shopped there frequently.

In Italy to this day, Fernet Branca and the many popular amaro and “Fernet” brands are considered and consumed as tonics. And in an era before a Duane-Reade on every corner and a pill for every malady, amaro and Fernet in particular were employed and applied as cure-alls — and not just for indigestion.

Giovanni’s photo and remembrance are examples of how Italian migrants brought this tradition with them. And many of Italian-American friends in their mid-50s have similar recollections of Fernet as a tonic given to them by their parents.

Americans’ attitudes about Fernet and amaro began to change in the 1970s when Fratelli Branca began to reposition the Fernet Branca brand as a recreational drink. That all went away in the 1980s when the FDA noticed that Branca was still importing the brand using a medicinal license, a bureaucratic nugget that dated back to the Prohibition era when the brand was openly sold as a tonic in Italian neighborhoods in the U.S. Jägermeister ultimately took its place.

Giovanni’s mother passed away last year. I can’t imagine that she would recognize the Fernet of her youth in the festishization of amaro that has emerged here in the U.S.

I’ve really been enjoying Levi Dalton’s excellent series of posts “On the Amaro Hunt in Italy.” And it’s been exciting to watch brands like Nonino become so popular among the legions of mixologists who use amaro as an ingredient in their ars miscendi spiritus destillatos.

But like Virginia Slims, we’ve come a long way, baby

Off topic, Giovanni is the stylist behind the Imp of the Perverse, a fashion line you’ll find on the racks of upscale retailers like Fred Segal in West Hollywood. He regularly posts images of his new work and the many celebrities who sport his jackets via his Twitter.

Celebrity sightings at Forbes 30 Under 30 DeJoria estate #SXSW

From the department of “and they called me Zelig”…

john paul dejoria

Last night found me at the super swank Forbes magazine SXSW 30 Under 30 party on the scenic Lake Austin estate of billionaire John Paul DeJoria.

That’s John Paul (center) with Freya Estreller (left) and Natasha Case (right, a 30 Under 30), partners in life and partners in CoolHaus ice cream. John Paul and his wife Eloise are super nice, down-to-earth folks.

governor rick perry

Check out Governor Rick Perry laying low and getting his Patrón on (John Paul owns both the Paul Mitchell hair products and Patrón brands).

Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O’Neal stands out in any crowd.

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@Levi_opens_wine visits Romano Levi distillery

levi dalton

Once again, I feel compelled to direct your attention to a superb and extraordinary post by Levi Dalton — the “dude of dudes of wine blogging.”

In it, the Philip Marlowe of the international wine scene visits the Romano Levi distillery in Piedmont.

Buona lettura e buona domenica a tutti!

Amarophilia across the USA…

Above: Fernet Branca shakerato, the way I drink it.

My colleague at Sotto in Los Angeles, mixologist Julian Cox, got a nice shout out from wine writer Ray Isle in an article on amaro in this month’s issue of Food & Wine. Julian’s amaro list at the restaurant features around 20 labels on any given day.

There’s no two ways about it: amarophilia (amaro fever? amaro mania?) is one of the new waves in mixology these days.

When I traveled to Friuli in October with a troika of über-hip mixologists, the barpeople wanted to duck into every wine shop they could in the hope of discovering a label unknown to Americans.

Above: That’s super cool Sam Ross of Milk & Honey (NYC) fame with the fabu Nonino sisters, an image I snapped on our trip to Friuli. He uses Nonino’s amaro in his cocktail, “the Paper Plane.”

When Ray — a friend and colleague from my NYC days — called to interview me for the article, we talked about the differences in the way that amaro is perceived and applied in the U.S. and Italy, historically and currently.

I recalled a Neapolitan-American friend of mine, Giovanni, now in his 50s, whose mother used to give him an espresso spiked with a shot of Fernet Branca and an egg yolk every morning before school.

There was a time when Italians used amaro as a tonic. And today, even though it’s no longer applied as a household remedy, Italians still serve it as a digestive. At any given bar or restaurant, you might find 3 or 4 different labels but no one would ever think of offering guests an amaro list (with 20 labels!) or using amaro as an ingredient in a cocktail.

Another expression of that great misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean…

Putto with amphora

“The greatest thing my mother taught me,” Giannola Nonino told me at lunch today, “was how to love things that are beautiful — whether a flower in a field or a work of art.”

Giannola — the matriarch of the Nonino family — is such an amazing lady and I loved chatting with her today about her family’s close ties to Luigi Veronelli.

I couldn’t resist photographing the putto (above) with amphora outside the home of Elisabetta (one of Giannola’s daughters) where Team Nonino and I had lunch today.

As chaotic and troubled as Italy can be at times, its beauty — even in the smallest details — is always unrivaled.

I’ve posted some more photos from the trip over at the Nonino blog this afternoon and I’ll be posting in more detail in the days that follow.

Tomorrow we head to Milan for a cocktail tour of the big city.

Stay tuned…

The AutoGrill and the Free-Range Chicken

After landing early this morning in Milan, Team Nonino headed for Udine, where we’ll be staying for the next few days before heading back to Milan where we will be checking out the cocktail scene there.

But, as all travelers of the wine trail in Italy will tell you, the first stop is always an AutoGrill, the roadside diner and cafè (what the Italians call a bar). The AutoGrill is as commercial as McDonald’s or Burger King but the food is actually pretty good. The sandwichs are generally fresh and made with wholesome ingredients (I had simple salame on a baguette and it was delicious).

The clip below is set in a 1960s AutoGrill. It’s entitled “The Free-Range Chicken” and is part of an episodic film called Ro.Go.Pa.G., a collaborative work by some of my favorite directors.

Even if you don’t understand Italian, check it out. It’s not about the dialogue. The story is told through the images.

Stay tuned: I’ll be posting updates from the trip in quasi-real-time over at the Nonino blog! Thanks for following along!

When a song makes you cry (leaving for Italy again)

Driving back from seeing a client in Houston this week, John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jetplane” came on in one of my mixes and I just couldn’t hold back the tears. I knew that in a few days I’d be packing my bags and leaving again, heading back to Italy.

As we head into the last trimester of our pregnancy, it’s just so hard to say goodbye to Tracie and Baby P. (I was only supposed to be away for a week but the trip was extended when the Nonino family asked me to lead a group of celebrity mixologists on a cocktail tour of Friuli and Milan.)

This year has been a happy one for us, with our healthy pregnancy, business going well, and family and friends here in Texas who support and love us. Becoming close with all my long-lost Texas cousins has been such a blessing for me. The other day at Rosh Hashanah lunch, I told the Rosenbergs how much it means to me and they all just smiled and said, “that’s what Texans do.”

We have so much to be thankful for but saying goodbye to “my girls” this morning nearly broke my heart… I love them so, so much…

All my bags are packed I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’ it’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’ he’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome I could die

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go

The lost art of the aperitivo

When my good friend and one of the top wine professionals in the state Fabien Jacob poured me a sweet white vermouth as an aperitivo the other night at Dough Pizzeria (one of my favs) in San Antonio, I was transported back to my university days in Italy in the 90s when no meal started without an aperitivo…

Today, I wrote and posted a fun piece about vermouth and its role in Americana cocktails over at the Houston Press.

Buona lettura e buon appetito!