Night song of a wandering shepherd in Asia (Sunday poetry)

A friend (and immensely gifted food blogger) in Houston, Chris, recently asked me about the origins of the inscription above. He took the photo in the Abruzzo countryside (his photostream here). The lines (in bold below) come from one of the great “songs” of 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, “Night-Song Of A Wandering Shepherd of Asia.” We don’t read a lot of Leopardi today but in 1888 the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica called this poem “one of the highest flights of modern lyric poetry.” Leopardi’s “style and melody,” they noted, “are unsurpassed.” In the poem, the “wandering shepherd” questions the moon about the “why” of life. (The stanza below is an excerpt and you can read the entire piece, in an excellent translation, here; read the poem in Italian here.)

The last years of my life have been the richest so far and I am blessed in the wealth of love I have found in Tracie P and my friends and family and the treasure of experiences we enjoy through enogastronomy and music these days. But the frailty of our human condition — whether the tragedy in Japan or a loved one facing a serious health crisis — often makes me rise early from our bed (as Tracie P slumbers, like today) and as I gaze over the internet through the computer screen (the moon to my shepherd?), I cannot help but ask “why?” Just like my nephew Oscar asks his grandmother Judy, why does the moon go away every night?

The opening lines of the poem echo Oscar’s quaestio:

Why are you there, Moon, in the sky? Tell me
why you are there, silent Moon.
You rise at night, and go
contemplating deserts: then you set.

Buona lettura…

Yet you, lovely, eternal wanderer,
so pensive, perhaps you understand
this earthly life,
this suffering, the sighs that exist:
what this dying is, this last
fading of our features,
the vanishing from earth, the losing
all familiar, loving company.
And you must understand
the ‘why’ of things, and view the fruits
of morning, evening,
silence, endless passing time.
You know (you must) at what sweet love
of hers the springtime smiles,
the use of heat, and whom the winter
benefits with frost.
You know a thousand things, reveal
a thousand things still hidden from a simple shepherd.
Often as I gaze at you
hanging so silently, above the empty plain
that the sky confines with its far circuit:
or see you steadily
follow me and my flock
or when I look at the stars blazing in the sky,
musing I say to myself:
‘What are these sparks,
this infinite air, this deep
infinite clarity? What does this
vast solitude mean? And what am I?’
So I question. About these
magnificent, immeasurable mansions,
and their innumerable family:
and the steady urge, the endless motion
of all celestial and earthly things,
circling without rest,
always returning to their starting place:
I can’t imagine
their use or fruit. But you, deathless maiden,
I’m sure, know everything.

Poetry in Friulian! Fantastic!

At last night’s COF2011 welcome dinner, Friulian journalist Adriano Del Fabro recited “Song of the Bells,” a poem in Friulian by Pier Paolo Pasolini and I read a translation by my friend, the great Italian translator Stephen Sartarelli.

Video by Nicolas Contenta.

I had written to Stephen last week asking him for permission to use one of his translations and he graciously and generously agreed.

I selected the poem especially because of the occasion — “strangers” coming to Friuli.

If poetry is the Devil’s wine, is wine the Devil’s poetry?

Colli Euganei, where Petrarch and great wine meet (and an unsung hero of the Veneto)


Above: Winemaker Luciano Gomiero of Vignalta (center), pioneer and unsung hero of one of my favorite appellations in the world, the Colli Euganei (Veneto). That’s my friend, the aptly named, Marco Tinello (right, the Veneto’s “best sommelier” 2008), who led our vinous journey to the Euganean Hills so beloved by Petrarch in mid-September.

There is no place in Italy that I feel more at home then the Veneto, where I spent many years at university and playing music. And there is no other place where my interests converge more mellifluously than the Colli Euganei, the Euganean Hills south of Padua, where my beloved Petrarch and great wines meet.

Petrarch took refuge in these hills toward the end of his life and it was here that he transcribed and edited his life’s work, including the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, his fragments of vernacular things, a songbook composed of 366 poems written for Laura.


Above: La Casa del Petrarca, Petrarch’s house in Arquà in the heart of the Euganean Hills, is adorned with frescoes inspired by the narrative culled from the Fragmenta.

Petrarch’s favorite poet was the Latin writer Virgil and there’s no doubt that Petrarch knew and appreciated the line so often repeated from the Georgics, Bacchus amat colles, in other words, Bacchus [the divine embodiment of the vine] loves hills.

To understand why Petrarch loved this immensely beautiful place and why it is ideal for raising fine wines, here are a few photos.


Above: That’s a view from the hills looking eastward toward Venice and the Adriatic.

The eastern plains leading to Venice are otherwise flat but south of Padua, the Eugeanean Hills rise up suddenly and violently from the flats.


Above: Petrarch wrote that the Euganean Hills reminded him of the Vaucluse where he met Laura.

The soil types range from volcanic to ancient seabed to calcareous clay and the different growing sites deliver rich mineral flavors in the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that have traditionally been grown there.


Above: Luciano ages all and vinifies some of his wines in recycled tonneaux and barriques — no new wood here! You could hear his 2009 Alpianae fermenting again (in other words, it had been fermenting on and off, depending on the temperature of the cellar, for more than a year!)

The Colli Euganei are best know for their red wines. Luciano doesn’t barrique his wines and you never find woodiness in them. His reds are defined by their rich, earthiness and minerality, tar and goudron notes. And while I’m not generally a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, I gladly drink his wines, which never show woodiness, and are extremely well priced (generally around $25-35 in the U.S.). I highly recommend them.


Above: The 2008 Sirio (dry Moscato) was stunning, with great minerality and fruit. BrooklynGuy would have loved it.

But the wines that truly fill me with emotion are his white wines, Sirio (dry moscato) and Alpianae (dried-grape Moscato Giallo) in particular. And the best news is that, like his reds, Luciano’s white wines are more than reasonably priced (the Sirio should cost about $20 retail).


Above: The name Alpianae actually came from a typo, Luciano told me. It was supposed be called Apianae, a reference to a name used by the Romans for sweet wines “belonging to the bees” (in the sense that bees are drawn to sweet wines, i.e., the best wines).

Luciano was the first to popularize dry Moscato in the Euganean Hills and he successfully lobbied the consortium and the Italian government to create the Colli Euganei Moscato DOC (previously you couldn’t write Moscato on the label). With the 2010 vintage, Fior d’Arancio (the local name for Moscato Giallo) will be the appellation first DOCG, also thanks to pioneer Luciano.

The Vignalta whites, including the dried-grape Moscato Giallo, are some of my favorite wines in the world. And I love how they are connected to a topos so imbued with cultural riches. Indeed, Petrarch’s transcriptions and collations during the last years of his life in Arquà (a stone’s throw from Luciano’s winery) are considered to by many to be the birthing of Renaissance humanism.

Like Bacchus, I love Euganean hills, too.

I posted on the fantastic lunch we had that day here.

Next up: my September trip to Italy continues with a series of posts from Friuli…

Angelo Gaja in Bolgheri: Oedipus and the winery as a work of art

Here’s another post from my recent trip to Italy during the second and third weeks of September, 2010. I’m slowly making my way through Tuscany, then the Veneto, and then Friuli. Thanks for reading!

Above: Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda winery “sinks” into the landscape.

Gaia Gaja drives fast. I could barely keep up with her… she in her Audi Quattro station wagon, me in my Renault Clio rental! After we finished our tasting and tour at her family’s Pieve di Santa Restituta property (a fascinating visit), we drove in tandem toward the coast, where we ate lunch in San Vincenzo at a restaurant that I highly recommend, if not for the food then for the cast of characters who await you). In the wake of our Fellinian repast, we headed from San Vincenzo toward Castagneto Carducci and her family’s Ca’ Marcanda winery.

Above: We stopped to chat with the vineyard manager whose team was picking Syrah that day (Monday, September 13).

I’ve visited some impressive wineries in my time as an observer of Italian wine and the people who grow and produce it (Soldera is at the top of that list, of course, and I’ll be posting on my incredible visit to Zidarich toward the end of this series). But Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda stands apart, a winery sui generis.

As a rule, winemakers design their wineries and winemaking facilities with functionality as their guide. Aesthetics are no afterthought but beauty is trumped by the business of making wine, the nuts and bolts, as it were, of presses, vats, casks, bottling lines, etc.

When Angelo Gaja conceived the Ca’ Marcanda facility, he turned this notion on its head: the germ was an aesthetic ideal and the functionality and process of wine came in its wake.

Above: Everywhere you turn in the winery, you find objets d’art, like these movable wood sculptures by Astigiano artist Sergio Omedé.

As we toured her family’s winery together, I noticed that everyone we met — from the receptionist to enologist Guido Rivella — had a smile on their face, a bounce in their step, and a kind word to share even in the industrious hum of their daily toil. This place — this enotopia (how’s that for a neologism!) — is so violently beautiful to look at, with something interesting to gaze upon at every corner. It’s no wonder the staff enjoys showing up for work every day.

Above: One of the many sculptures in terracotta by architect Giovanni Bo (Gaja’s longtime collaborator).

It occurred to me that Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda property, the third in the Gaja tripytch, is the fulfillment of an Oedipal cycle.

In Piedmont, Gaja inherited a winery built by his father. In Piedmont, Gaja the winemaker is the fourth generation in one of Europe’s most venerable winemaking legacies. In Piedmont, Gaja has always pushed the envelope of the appellation regulations and tradition but he never works outside of them.

In Montalcino, Gaja bought what may be the oldest continuously operating estate in the appellation, with a church that dates back to the 7th century C.E. There, too, he is bound by strict appellation regulations and an entrenched however youthful enologic tradition. There, he is painstakingly restoring the beautiful house of worship and making wines that do not attempt to redefine the place but rather sing the notes of Sangiovese to the tune of Gaja elegance.

In Bolgheri, Gaja built a winery from scratch, on an estate that never produced fine wine until he arrived. Here, he was free to express his creativity, quite literally and figuratively, in an appellation where the rules have yet to be written (all of the Ca’ Marcanda wines are Toscana IGT). Gaja’s own ars poetica was the only chain to bind him and like a great poet, he has created his own language, a brave and new idiolect. Truly fascinating…

Above: I regret that ability as photographer do not do justice to this amazing working space. That’s winery as seen from the backside. It’s virtually invisible to the outside world.

When Gaia showed me the main floor of the winery, where vinification, aging, and bottling take place in one open space, I noticed that the bottling line was enclosed in acrylic. Her father wanted one open space for the main room of the winery, she said, and so he had to devise an enclosure to ensure the hygienic integrity of the bottling line. Here, aesthetics once again had trumped functionality. I asked Gaia if her father had patented the system. No, she said. Why would he?

Come with me
And you’ll be
In a world of
Pure imagination
Take a look
And you’ll see
Into your imagination

We’ll begin
With a spin
Traveling in
The world of my creation
What we’ll see
Will defy

There is no
Life I know
To compare with
Pure imagination
Living there
You’ll be free
If you truly
Wish to be

Security cam photo

Just had to post this photo, taken by an airport security agent using my camera on Sunday morning in Munich, Germany before I boarded for Washington, D.C.

When I went through security, he very courteously asked me if he could take a photo, using my camera. Yes, of course, I said. And so he proceeded to remove the camera from its pouch, its cap from the lens, and then he pointed and shot. The above photo is the result of his effort.

Isn’t it interesting to look at? Isn’t it fascinating to contemplate the semiotic implications of the composition and those posed by a gaze that cares only to see through the signifier but not to see the signified?

Needless to say, I was waived on through the check point with flying colors.

My guiltiest pleasure: New York libraries

New York Public Library

It’s been a crazy week for me in New York City, rich with food and wine experiences, interesting people (friends new and old), and stimulating conversations, flavors, and aromas. I’m happy to be heading home to my beloved Tracie P but before I go I’m indulging in what is my guiltiest pleasure: New York libraries! I’m posting today from a reading room where I’ve spent many, many joyous hours (first as visiting grad student and then as a New York resident) at the New York Public Library (above).

Earlier in the week, I visited one of my other favorite haunts, the Butler Library at Columbia University (the reference room, above). (Nota bene: while the NYPL is open to the public, readership privileges are required at Butler so be sure to make the appropriate arrangements before visiting; it’s actually very easy and simple to get a day pass, but some legwork is required.)

What does this have to do with (Italian) wine? I’m doing a little research for an upcoming post on vineyard designation names (a few issues I wasn’t able to resolve with my reference library at home).

Aaaaahhhhh, if only I were a wealthy man, I’d spend my days in libraries, poring over old tomes, looking for forgotten words, parsing verses culled from Barbaric odes

I also indulged in another guilty pleasure this week: New York pizza!

Thanks for reading and sharing my guilty pleasures. See you back in Texas!

Sunday poetry: Dante’s “sweetness of the drink”

The below image (a postcard, I believe) reached me via friend and comrade Howard to whom it had been sent by his friend Amos, who’s living in Florence this year.


The image satirically parodies two of the last lines in Dante’s Puragtory, with a slight distortion (most probably inadvertent) of the text. The author of the postcard transcribes:

    io pur canterò in parte
    lo dolce ber che mai non m’avria sazio

Most scholars would take issue with the accuracy of the transcription (canterò, future, vs. the probably more accurate canterei, present conditional) but that’s no matter nor the point here.

The line is lifted from the famous closing tercets of The Purgatory, the second of three canticles in Dante’s poem, The Comedy. Here they are as translated by professors Robert and Jean Hollander.

    If, reader, I had more ample space to write,
    I should sing at least in part the sweetness
    of the drink that never would have sated me,

    but, since all the sheets
    readied for this second canticle are full,
    the curb of art lets me proceed no farther.

    From those most holy waters
    I came away remade, as are new plants
    renewed with new-sprung leaves,

    pure and prepared to rise up to the stars.

At the end of Purgatory, Dante, who is accompanied by the Latin poet Statius, is instructed by the mysterious Matelda to bathe in the waters of the Lethe river (one of the five rivers of Hell) to erase the memory of sins committed on earth) and then to drink from the Eunoe, a river of Dante’s invention, from the Greek, the eu (beautiful or good) noe (mind), which reminds the penitent of her or his good deeds on earth.

The famous lines would have been very familiar to the author of the postcard, who has parodied Dante’s dolce ber or sweet drink of the Eunoe, the river referred to in the closing lines of the canticle, as alcoholic. The triad Statius-Dante-Matelda also would have been familiar to the author, who probably created this image in the 1920s or early 1930s, gauging from the imagery

The image of Dante is taken from 15th-century painter Domenico di Michelino’s depiction of Dante, now in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence:


Here are the two Dantes, side-by-side:

I believe that the other male figure in the panel could be a parody of poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was at the height of his fame when this postcard was printed.

The lady with the tray of glasses completes the triad. To this day, scholars don’t know Dante’s inspiration for Matelda but she is described by him as la bella donna, not just a beautiful woman as in the contemporary Italian, but rather a beautiful noble lady in the Dantean lexicon. Here’s 19th-century French engraver Gustav Doré’s depiction of Matelda bathing Dante in the Lethe:

Of course, in Dante’s text, the waters of the Eunoe do not have any alcoholic content nor do they have any analgesic properties. In fact, the effects of alcohol were associated more with sleep than with forgetfulness in Dante’s time. The lines from The Purgatory are among the most beautiful in the canticle, for many reasons. But I don’t have any more space left here to go into all of that… the curb of art lets me proceed no farther

Buona domenica, ya’ll… thanks for reading!

Is marijuana the new wine? and a little raw sausage porn teaser

Above: A little marijuana porn, anyone? Click here for the big kahuna over at the U.S. DEA website.

It’s hard to believe that this is happening in my lifetime but it’s true. I had to pull over to the side of the road the other as I was driving home and heard a radio story on American Public Media Marketplace: the spokesperson for NORMAL was talking about the recent initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use in California and — get this! — turn Humboldt and Mendocino into Napa Valley-inspired marijuana tourism destinations.

I’m certainly not the only or the first to write about this is in the enoblogosphere: check out this post by Wolfgang, who asks wryly, “have I smoked too much Cabernet?”

As I head out (tomorrow) to my homestate of California, to speak about Piedmontese wines at Jaynes Gastropub on Saturday Sunday and to celebrate the Passover with my family on Monday night, I have to admit that I never thought legalized pot would happen in my lifetime (even though pot is woven deeply into the cultural fabric of my beloved California). But is weed the new wine? Humboldt County tasting rooms? Unbelievable!

In other news…

Above: I love the raw pork sausage that you typically eat as an appetizer in Piedmont. You eat it just like that, completely raw. We were served this excellent victual when we dined in the home of Giovanna Rizzolio.

I been showered by numerous requests to hurry up and post about the amazing private tastings that were organized for Tracie P and me by venerable Italian wine pundit Mr. Franzo Ziliani in Barolo and Barbaresco during our February trip there. One zealous fan of my blog writes of his “burning disappointment” that I still haven’t posted on our tastings at Vajra, G. Rinaldi, G. Mascarello, and Cascina delle Rose, “our lady of the deaf river,” as I will call the inimitable Giovanna Rizzolio, producer of one of Mr. Ziliani’s favorite Barbarescos and his close friend.

Frankly, I’m flattered by all the messages I’ve received and I promise to devote next week’s posts to my notes and impressions of these amazing wines and the truly amazing people who make them. And I can only reiterate my heartfelt thanks to Mr. Ziliani, as I wrote on Valentine’s day, in a post published not long after Tracie P and I returned from Italy: noble is the host… (the line comes from a stanza of an ode by 18th-century Italian poet Parini that I translated and dedicated to Mr. Ziliani).