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…

Cecilia Mangini’s lost films resonate powerfully today. Don’t miss the opportunity to stream them.

Above: Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini in Rome in 2020. She died in January of this year. Her films are now being rediscovered by a new generation of cinephiles (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

Honestly, until my good friend Ben Shapiro (a noted filmmaker himself) brought them to my attention, I was unaware of Italian director Cecilia Mangini’s wonderful pseudo-documentaries, which have recently been rediscovered, restored, and are now being streamed for free by Another Screen.

Her oneiric and highly lyrical depiction of the Italian proletariat (omg, did I just out myself as a Marxist?) in the 1950s and 1960s resonates powerfully today as the pandemic has drawn a stark line and divide between the world’s disenfranchised and the management class.

(A few days ago, a Galveston woman had to be escorted out of a bank after she refused to wear a mask despite the business’ requirement that patrons wear a mask. A police officer was tasked with getting her out of the bank in what became a tragicomic scene. Some will see a parallel between the police officer and the southern Italian Carabinieri who had to face off with bourgeois protesters in 1960s Italy. Pasolini, a Mangini collaborator, wrote extensively about them at the time.)

I highly recommend checking out the link on the Other Screen site. It makes for great viewing and I believe it’s free only until Monday (I also encourage you to donate to Another Screen to support their efforts in preserving film archives).

See this Times profile of Mangini from last year (how did I miss this?).

Buona visione. Enjoy the films. You won’t regret it.

Wine bottle “product photography” using only natural light (even an amateur like me can do it).

Credit owed where credit is due: I developed my approach to naturally lit wine bottle product photography using this educational video by photographer Karl Taylor.

After a business partner of mine recently asked me lend a hand in creating wine bottle photographs for a new website they are launching, I set about watching instructional videos on how images like that are created.

With the skill set of an amateur photographer (emphasis on amateur), some low-cost tools of the trade, and my iPhone 11 Pro Max, I was able to shoot the bottles successfully without the use of professional lighting.

That’s my rig, above, in our kitchen dining room. See the video in the link for how it works.

The white poster board (purchased from a local arts supply store) was ideal for creating my “light box.” But the key to getting the “clean” shots was a used Lastolite 33″ Tri-Grip Diffuser that I picked up curbside from a local camera and photograph shop. You can see the diffuser to the right.

Another key element was eliminating any light from behind the camera. I did that by covering the window in our kitchen door with a blanket.

As per the video, I changed the aperture on my iPhone camera and used my Apple Watch to trigger the shot (that made a huge difference in the final product). In the video, Taylor uses a professional-grade trigger. I found that my Apple Watch, “paired” with my phone, worked great for this.

As Taylor writes in his blog post: “No studio lights? No problem!”

One last crucial element was creating the right “table” for the shots. I did that using a smaller piece of poster board (luckily my library, the possession I’m most proud of, offered an ample selection of books for setting up my rig and mounting the table).

Ever since online platforms and digital media became a sine qua non tool for wine marketing and sales, bottle photography has been one of the field’s greatest challenges for wine professionals. The lack of professional training (as in my case) and the high cost of professional lighting and the skills needed to implement said lighting have been seemingly insurmountable obstacles in my quest to obtain clean, professional-looking “product” photography. Until now… I hope others will find this post helpful.

Be sure to check out Taylor’s blog post and video.

Beyond wine: Nadia Zenato’s photography show in Milan was a highlight of my latest trip to Italy

From the department of “why do art students always wear black?”…

When Nadia Zenato reached out to me a few months ago asking me to give her a hand with some translations, little did I know what I was getting myself into.

It’s only natural that leading Italian winemakers like her want to update their brochures in time for Vinitaly, the Italian wine trade’s annual fair in Verona. A slew of wine fact sheets were expected, received, and promptly and aptly rendered into English.

But then I got a call from her.

“Would you mind translating a catalog about an art exhibit I’m organizing in Milan?” she asked.

“Pane per i miei denti!” I told her, using the Italian expression, the [perfect] bread for my teeth, in other words, that’s right up my alley, I said.

The next thing I knew, I found myself awash in essays on contemporary photography and the accompanying and mandatory reflections on critical theory (literally right up my alley from my days as a graduate student between UCLA and Italy).

Nadia had asked the director of the master’s program in photography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera — the Brera fine arts academy in Milan, one of the country’s most prestigious — to summon five top students for a series of wine-inspired works of photographic art.

The result was the show “Wine: Beyond Objects” hosted at the über-hip Bottega Immagine (not far from Milano’s enormous municipal cemetery, on the north side of the city).

Nadia graciously invited me to the opening of the show on the Friday after the fair had ended. The scene could have been taken straight out of a contemporary Fellini movie: young photographers, artists, and students — nearly all dressed in black — milled around the smartly mounted images, sipping on Nadia’s family’s wine and occasionally congregating outside the gallery’s entrance to chain-smoke.

Even the cloud of tobacco was a breath of fresh air to me.

The gathering brought me back to my days when poetry, art works, music, novels, and essays on critical theory (and too many cigarettes) were the oxygen we breathed. None of us had to make a living back then. We just lived…

I thought the show and the works were brilliant.

But the thing that impressed me the most about the project and the event was that Nadia and her lovely mother Carla hadn’t invited any famous wine or food writers. No celebrity bloggers were in attendance (and believe me, Milan, Italy’s cultural epicenter these days, is full of them).

No, just a handful of professors, a bevy of black-clad chain-smoking students, and a couple of the family’s closest friends huddled before each piece in the show, whispering and murmuring critical thoughts on aesthetics and poetics.

Nadia and her mom (the only ones wearing white) beamed with joy.

We in the wine world get so wrapped up with our work that we often fail to take time out to smell Italy’s roses, as it were, to run our toes through its leaves of grass.

I miss those days when going to an art opening had urgency. Those were times when you felt compelled to be among the first to hear a poem recited or view a painting because a work of art — new or old — was an occasion to reflect on your humanity.

And you always met the coolest people at art openings, too.

Thank you, Nadia, for reminding me why I first became fascinated with Italy and Italian art in the first place. Wine tastes good and it pays the bills. But this is the stuff we should live for.

Well done.

Pinot and fig porn and still some grapes in dem der hills

pinot noir pornWhen I finally reached Franciacorta on Sunday morning, I was disappointed to discover that I had missed the grape photo ops that I had so longed for.

But yesterday, my crew and I made our way up to the hamlet of Favento in the northwestern zone of the appellation where, at 200+ meters a.s.l., some growers have been holding out.

Feast your eyes on those Pinot Noir babes!

chardonnay pornThe appellation has been harvested for the most part. A hot July and early August prompted most to start picking on the earlier side of the norm (roughly mid-August).

But those growers who waited were rewarded this week by abundant rain on Tuesday and Wednesday.

How about that Pinot Chardonnay (as it once was called in this neck of the woods), dripping with morning rain water???!!!

fig pussy pornAnd in other fruit porn news, I just had to share these fig shots, taken yesterday in the southernmost zone of the appellation in Cologne township on the south side of Monte Orfano.

Growers there began picking in early August. Wineries on the south-facing side of the mountain are always the first to harvest in Franciacorta because it’s the warmest part of the appellation.

fig pornThese figs might very well have been the best I’ve ever had.

They were so tender and rich in flavor, sweet and fragrant on the palate.

I’m posting in a hurry this morning as my colleague and I head out for another day of Franciacorta tastings and winery visits… stay tuned!

1971 Monsecco (Gattinara) and Rock ‘n’ Roll Baby G

A couple of my favorite rock stars were over on Friday night, to meet Georgia P and to share a special bottle of a wine.

The 1971 Gattinara Monsecco by Conte Ravizza was vinified the same year that David Garza was born: David (above, center) is one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever had the fortune to work with and he played on our last album “Freudian Slip.” And he’s also just a super cool dude to hang with.

Céline Dijon (right, holding Georgia) currently calls New York (not Paris anymore) her home and she was in town because we’re working on material for our new album. (BTW, our band Nous Non Plus playing in San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles this week, Thurs.-Sat.; click here for the show details.)

I had saved the 1971 Monsecco for David. It had been given to me by Brooklyn Guy’s good friend Dan when we visited in Brooklyn in January 2011 (when we tasted a bottle of it together; here are my complete notes together with the research I did on the bottling).

After a Texas summer in my home cellar (the hottest on record), I wasn’t sure how the wine was going to stand up but we were all impressed with how bright the wine was, with healthy acidity and gorgeous fruit — thoroughly delicious paired with Tracie P’s risotto al radicchio veronese served all’onda. It just goes to show that even in tough vintages, great producers can make great wine (I reported Wasserman’s notes on the harvest here).

David was so sweet: he taught me how to play a new lullaby he wrote and he sang it for Georgia… too cute for words…

If you’re in California this week, come see me and Céline at one of the shows!

Here’s another shot from Georgia P’s recent photo shoot (by the amazing Nichols family):

The ugly beauty of Italy

Happily and thankfully, I made it back to Austin last night (on my last two trips back from Europe, I was marooned in Newark). On the plane ride home, I collected some of the more beautiful images I captured with my camera on the trip. Thanks for reading!

Rain clouds spotted from the home of my friends Laura and Marco, Montalcino.

In the nearly 25 years that I’ve lived, studied, traveled, and worked in Italy, I’m always amazed by its awe-inspiring beauty and its often revolting ugliness.

Cypress trees, between the villages of Torrenieri and San Quirico d’Orcia (Montalcino).

During my trip over the last two weeks, Berlusconi tried — as usual — to distract media attention from his political and legal problems by joking that he planned to rename his party Forza Gnocca, literally Go Pussy or Pussy Party (gnocca means knuckle in Italian and is used euphemistically to refer to the female anatomy). Politician Alessandra Mussolini said she thought it was a good idea, adding that it would bring people together.

Bistecca fiorentina with my friends, father and son Fabrizio and Alessandro, Sant’Angelo in Colle (Montalcino).

After he failed to pass his budget (in what should have been a routine parliamentary vote), Berlusconi and his cabinet dodged a bullet when they survived a confidence vote. My friends in Italy say that he will continue to govern until 2012.

Gently botrytized Picolit grapes in Percoto.

Berlusconi didn’t need any help, however, finding media distractions: the so-called Black Blocs thrashed Rome in an otherwise peaceful demonstration by the Indignados. (Here’s the NY Times coverage.)

Frico served in the garden of Elisabetta’s home, Percoto.

But the thing that seemed so unreal — so unnatural, so far-fetched and unbelievable that I wondered if I was having a nightmare — was a television advertisement introducing a new sandwich at McDonald’s created by one of the greatest Italian chefs of all time and one of the architects of the 20th-century renaissance of Italian food, Gualtiero Marchesi.

Vintage bicycles in a show commemorating 50 years of the Brescia design firm Borsoni.

Blogger Massimo Bernardi called the move Marchesi’s “betrayal.” (See Massimo’s post for images of this tragedy.)

Distant Church Bells at the Monastery of Santa Giulia, Brescia.

But on the last day of the bloggers conference in Brescia, after I had ducked out of the last session to prepare my notes on the grand tasting for a talk I was supposed to give, I was stopped in my tracks by the Monastery of Santa Giulia set against a clear blue sky and the distant sound of church bells ringing.

And I remembered why the ceaseless beauty of this country has never lost its hold over me…

Thanks for reading!

Soave and summer farro salad make a bleak world seem brighter

Tracie P really outdid herself yesterday night for our dinner, making a gorgeous summer farro salad with fresh and lightly blanched vegetables and fruits and hard-boiled egg. It’s a good thing she did because by the time dinner rolled around at our house, I was depressed.

After reading the dismal news about Italy, the economy, the fall of Western Civilization, and the riots and looting in London (one of my favorite cities on earth), I couldn’t help but think about the last market crash in 2008 and the days that followed the tragedy of the Twin Towers in 2001. Those were tough times for the wine (and restaurant) industry and I hope they are not returning in the wake of the current crisis.

But as Tracie P reminded me, no matter what happens, we’ll have each other and we’ll have Baby P when she arrives later this year. And for the first time in my life, as bleak as the world seems right now, my anxiety about the future is assuaged by Tracie P’s wonderful smile and her warm embrace — and a little girl growing inside her.

And as bad as things may look, we all found joy and solace in some of the simplest pleasure in life: a bright summer dish and a bright, fresh bottling of Garganega by Suavia.

We were also joined last night by Alfonso, who was in Austin on business. And it was great to be together, just the three four of us…

After dinner, we settled into the living room and watched Pasolini’s Decameron on Netflix streaming. And I think all of us thanked our lucky stars for the small pleasures that life delivers…

Here’s one of the most beautiful sequences from the film… Buona visione

Natura morta and Pinot Grigio

In Italian, still life is called natura morta, literally, dead nature, in other words, inanimate nature.

Yesterday, Tracie P and I visited the San Diego home of friends and wine club clients Chrissa and Dan, where we took these photos.

After winning her battle with cancer, the couple decided to devote their lives to homesteading: they grow nearly all the produce that they consume and they slaughter and butcher all the meats that they consume (check out their site and educational program here).

All of the fruits in these photos were grown by them in their garden.

At a time when most of us urbanites place blind faith in the so-called “organic” choices at the specialized super markets, these folks — he a software designer, she an interior designer — have embraced the homesteading approach to self reliance (o that wonderful American ideal!) with a gusto and vibrancy that inspire me.

I brought over a bottle of 2009 Pinot Grigio Jesera by my friend Giampaolo Venica. Look at the wonderful ramato (copper) color of this true Pinot Grigio (a red grape, btw). We raised a glass of this delicious salty wine and remembered the grape growers in Collio (Friuli) whose vineyards were devastated over the weekend by a terrible hailstorm.

I also took a few shots in the garden — natura viva. I loved the red veined sorrel.


Thanks for reading!