Have Rossese, won’t travel: notes from the Ponente

Americans often claim that the wine just tastes better in Italy.

There are a variety of theories as to why this is (purportedly) the case: the Italians keep the good stuff for themselves; the wines taste better with the food there; the wines don’t travel well

As I drooled over his ample selection of Rossese, I was surprised to hear the sommelier of Bistrot I Torchietti in Finale Borgo (Liguria di Ponente) tell me that “you don’t find these wines in America because they don’t travel well. They need to be drunk here.”

Considering how few bottles of Rossese seem to make it to the U.S., he may have a point.

The enigma of the wine well traveled may never be solved… but Tracie and I thoroughly enjoyed the Cascina Praié Rossese Stundaio that he poured for us on Saturday night in the ancient city overlooking the riviera in western Liguria.

With zippy and balanced acidity and restrained alcohol, this wine was electric and lithe with bright berry fruit and Mediterranean scrub. Served room temperature, it paired gorgeously with the condiggiùn in the photo above (condiglione in Italian, the Ligurian niçoise). It was equally delicious with fried anchovies and fish stew.

I couldn’t recommend Ai Torchietti highly enough and I’m looking forward to trying the sister fine-dining concept Ai Torchi the next time we can visit.

Paganini Pigato was another wonderful discovery at Osteria Grotesque in the beachside village of Finale Ligure.

This food-happy wine had the mouthwatering minerality and classic muted yellow fruit and gentle almond notes that you find in old school expressions of the variety.

It was recommended to us by the young man who was running this popular restaurant on Friday night. He and the server working the floor of this tiny spot were so kind to our family. You don’t always find such nice people in jaded seaside towns brimming with tourists. These guys were the best.

Those are Osteria Grotesque’s antipasti above. We loved the place and we loved the people- and dog-watching (be sure to get there early to snag an outdoor table as we did; we ended up staying all night, with the girls playing with other children in the pedestrian-only street long after we finished eating).

All in all, Parzen family had a magical micro-vacation before returning sun-tanned and sandy to Bra in Piedmont where I have a heavy teaching load this week.

Finale Ligure, thank you! We can’t wait to see you again…

Passito di Pantelleria by Basile, one of the best I’ve ever tasted…

Tasting this superb bottle of Passito di Pantelleria “Prescelto” 2008 by Cantina Basile the other night, the expression “sticky wine” came to mind.

But not because the wine was sticky. The opposite was true: it was so lithe in the glass that it drank more like a classic white wine in terms of its texture. The alcohol and acidity were so well balanced that its sweetness never felt overwhelming or pervasive on the palate.

The other thing that really impressed me about this truly extraordinary wine was its spectrum of primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas and flavors (I know, I know… I don’t like those terms either and they sometimes mean different things for different people. But it’s really the best way to describe this remarkable wine).

As the Italians like to say, you felt like you were chewing the fruit, dried fruit, and almonds in this wine. It really blew me away. And it was made all the more special and memorable by our gracious hosts and the delicious meal they prepared for Tracie, me, and our girls.

What a wine!

In other news…

It’s been a busy week of seminars with my students in the Master’s of Wine program at the Slow Food University in Pollenzo (Piedmont).

It’s my third year here as an adjunct and I love the interaction with students and the high level of discussion and dialogue.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s post on “The Big Parkerization Lie,” published earlier this week on Wine Advocate, couldn’t have been more timely or relevant as we’ve discuss books by Lawrence Osborne, Eric Asimov, and Alice Feiring.

It’s incredible to think that more than 10 years after Alice’s book, the debate over Parker’s influence and impact still marches on.

The students really surprised me with the insights and experiences they shared. A really great group this year. But then again, each class of students seems to have its own unique take on the world of “wine communication” (one of the subjects I teach).

The other really fun thing this week has been watching our daughters as they discover the sights, sounds, and flavors of Italy.

They’ve both been really adventurous about trying new foods (although the snails didn’t go over so well last night!) and they’ve both been making a college effort to speak a little Italian.

It’s a dream come true for Tracie and me. We’ve been having so much fun and tomorrow I’ll take them to the beach for the weekend.

Living in Italy was such a profound experience for Tracie and me. It shaped the arc of our lives as adults and it’s how we ultimately met. It fills me with joyous wonder to think of how it will shape theirs…

For our vines have tender grapes: our daughters discover the vineyards in Italy

Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
Song of Solomon 2:15

Tracie and our girls have been with me in Italy for the last five days.

It’s been really wonderful to have them here. I’m teaching at the Slow Food University in Piedmont this week and next. They’re on vacation.

The food has been great and they’ve been having a blast. But the most rewarding thing has been watching our girls — ages 4 and 6 — explore a vineyard.

That’s Giovanni above, the most generous friend you could want and a brilliant grape grower and winemaker in Franciacorta (where we stopped on our way to campus). And that’s Lila Jane, our youngest, in his arms. She spent the better part of an afternoon with her sister Georgia picking flowers and chasing butterflies in his vineyard.

And that’s Tracie, showing Georgia and Lila an old wine press outside the winery at the Castello di Verduno. We had such a magical visit there, enjoying the garden and the view at the Real Castello.

“How do grapes turn into wine?” asked Georgia.

How do you explain a miracle to a child?

One of the words Tracie’s taught them is vigna. It’s been a fantastic trip so far and I know many discoveries and adventures await them.

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.

Barbera, the origin of the grape name (a philologist’s perspective)

Above: An early 16th century medical manual lists barberry lozenges as a commonly used cure.

In today’s world of hypercorrective ampelography, it’s hard to believe that people didn’t used to care as much about grape names as we do in the contemporary age.

Writers on agriculture didn’t began to record grape variety names on a wide scale until the latter half of the 19th century. And even those early modern ampelographers couldn’t rival today’s giddy obsessions with the etymologies of grape names.

Contemporary wine writers can’t seem to resist the urge to dip their toes in the etymological waters. And despite their access to Google Books and the growing legions of searchable encyclopedic resources available online, they continue to wax philologic (and errouneous) over the origins of ampelonyms like Sangiovese and Aglianico (even though the former doesn’t mean “the blood of Jove,” nor is the latter a cognate for Hellenic).

But in the case of Barbera, Hermes generously let the experts off the hook: Most concede that the origin of this grape name, which didn’t begin to appear in print until the 18th century, is unknown.

Ian D’Agata sums up the current state of Barbera philology in his landmark work Native Grapes of Italy (which I highly recommend to you).

    The origin of its name is unclear; Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti feels it’s a derivation of barbaro (barbarian) due to its deep red color, while others believe the origin is vinum berberis, an astringent, acidic, and deeply hued medieval drink. Vinum berberis is different from the vitibus berbexinis referred to in a 1249 document located in the archives of Casale Monferrato, which was most likely another variety, Barbesino or Berbesino, better known today as Grignolino.

For the record, vinum berberis was a barberry elixir. And medicinal barberry extract was more commonly applied on a lozenge (a troche, in English, trochiscus in Latin) than in a vinum or wine.

Even when we turn to a more authoritative source, our grand desire to uncover Barbera’s origin story remains unfulfilled.

The Treccani Italian dictionary (a benchmark of the Italian academy) offers two possible etyma.

The first is the Latin grape name albuelis, notably mentioned in Columella and Pliny. It’s a linguistic stretch, however possible (Barbera could be a metathetical reduplicative contamination).

Click here to continue reading my post today for the Barbera d’Asti growers association…

Au revoir, Oregon, until we meet again…

A week of Oregon and the Willamette Valley wine scene has really swept me off my feet.

Since arriving on Monday, my Slow Wine colleagues and I have tasted hundreds of wines and met so many cool people. And we’ve enjoyed some extraordinary meals, including an unforgettable dinner at Recipe Part Deux in Newberg where we’ve been staying.

The shot above comes from the biodynamic farm at Bergström. What pure and vibrant wines… One of the many highlights for me.

Today, Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio and I will head to Napa where we start all over again: hundreds of California wines await us for our 2019 guide panel tasting.

I’ll already be back in Texas by then but on Wednesday, June 6, the Fiorello Olive Oil company in Fairfield, California will be hosting a tasting of wines from our panel sessions from 6-9 p.m. All proceeds from the event will go fire-affected Sonoma and Napa residents and winery workers. Giancarlo will be presenting the walk-around tasting.

Here’s the link for details and registration info.

And back in Houston… I’ll be in Italy by then but on Wednesday, June 13, my wine friends Patrick Comiskey and Taylor Parsons (two of the U.S. wine pros I admire most) will be hosting a seminar and lunch featuring the wines of Georgia at one of the city’s favorite wine bars.

The event is open only to trade and media: reserve by emailing azarr@marqenergie.com.

What a week it’s been up here in the Pacific Northwest, where the forest meets the sea! Thank you, Oregon, for your beauty, your warm hospitality, and your delicious wines. I can’t wait to get back in February when we’ll present the new guide.

The amphora of the future is here (in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains)

What an incredible visit yesterday to Andrew Beckham’s pottery studio and winery in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountain AVA!

That’s Andrew above with the first full-size winemaking amphorae that he’s churned out of his kiln (above and below).

He’s produced a video about the project that you can watch on his family’s winery’s site here.

I had already tasted and admired some of the excellent wines that he and his wife Annedria produce there. And it was exciting to taste through their full line of wines, including their wines vinified in his smaller hand-thrown amphorae.

He may be the only amphora potter cum winemaker on the planet and it was fascinating to hear his insights into why the vessels make for such a unique winemaking tool.

Lovely people and extremely compelling wines.

The Slow Wine team has been on the ground here all week and today we have our big panel tasting. I’ve been blown away by the caliber and quality of the wines I’ve tasted over the last few days. And the hospitality and food have also been fantastic. It feels like Oregon, between its old and new guards, is poised to reshape the way the world perceives American wines. Andrew and Annedria are undeniable stars of that growing wave.

Writing in hurry this morning as I prepare for a BIG day of tasting. Wish me luck and wish me speed… Thanks for being here.

Don’t miss the tripe at Nick’s Italian Cafè in McMinnville #SlowWine #Oregon #Willamette

Posting on the fly this morning as we head out for another day of touring and tasting in the Willamette Valley.

It’s our second day on the ground tasting for the 2019 Slow Wine guide, which will include Oregon — for the first time ever.

Our day ended yesterday in one of Willamette’s wine epicenters, the wonderful little town of McMinnville where de rigueur we ate at the legendary Nick’s Italian Cafè.

I loved the restaurant and it was a true pleasure to get to chat with Nick himself. The tripe (above) was off-the-charts good.

We even learned Oregon wine pioneer David Lett’s favorite dish there. And man, our tasting at the Lett family’s Eyrie Vineyards was truly extraordinary! Thank you again, Jason, for a unforgettable visit!

So much to tell, so little time… Stay tuned!

Portland mon amour (the #SlowWine Oregon project begins)

What a fantastic American city…

Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio and I spent the better part of yesterday touring Portland with our senior editor for Oregon, Michael Alberty (one of my favorite people in the wine writing biz). We were scouting locations for the Slow Wine tasting that we will present here in February 2019. It will be the first guide to include the wines of Oregon and it will be the guide’s first time in Portland. We are super geeked…

One highlight for me was our visit and tasting at Jacobsen Salt Co. (above). Really cool stuff.

Of course, no visit to PDX would be complete without a stop at a coffee bar. We went to Coava, which was lovely.

The aperitivo hour found us at the newly opened Enoteca Nostrana (get the warm oyster dip). Owner Cathy Whims’ celebrated restaurant Nostrana next door was packed. But the hosts managed to squeeze us in a for a great dinner. It was my second time eating there. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in America.

For our night cap, we headed to Jeff Vejr’s amazing wine bar Les Caves.

All in all, in was a pretty awesome day in this west coast outpost for American food and wine culture (thank you, again, Michael, for arranging our visits and showing us around your wonderful city).

This morning we’re heading to wine country where we’ll be touring and tasting for the guide for the next three days.

Stay tuned… And thanks for being here.

Italy driving tips: beware the ZTL! The “zona traffico limitato” or “restricted traffic area”

Above: a typical “zona traffico limitato” or “restricted traffic area” sign in Montalcino (photo by my good friend Laura Gray of Il Palazzone, producer of Brunello di Montalcino). In some of the bigger cities, the zones are demarcated by LED signs that read “ZTL” (acronym for “zona traffico limitato”).

Monday’s post on driving in Italy (“Italy driving tips: speeding tickets, tolls, international driver’s permit, Waze, DUIs, wi-fi, etc.”) generated a lot of engagement on social media. I’m glad that folks have found it useful and I appreciate all the feedback and input.

A friend from my La Jolla High School days, Adriana, left a great comment on the post with tips on city driving in Italy (she lives and teaches English in Bologna where she and her husband have raised their lovely family). It’s chock-full of good intel.

A lot of folks on social media also shared horror stories about receiving tickets after inadvertently entering a “zona traffico limitato” or “restricted traffic area” in a city center.

The “zona traffico limitato” or “ZTL” is a delimited area within an urban center where only residents and authorized drivers are allowed to travel by car. They are monitored by cameras that report offenders to authorities. The fines can be steep and are often compounded by rental car processing fees and late fees for those who don’t pay on time (depending on the city, the office issuing the ticket may or may not be lenient with foreigners who only receive the ticket after the deadline to pay has passed).

There’s a lot of useful information on the internets about the dreaded ZTL.

This post by Auto Europe (rental car agency) is one of the best and it includes excellent maps.

It came to my attention via another really useful post by Italy Beyond the Obvious.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Siena claims to have been the first Italian city to implement a ZTL back in the 1960s.

The bottomline: don’t drive into city centers in Italy. Park in paid parking lot on the edge of the city (every city, including Siena and Florence have them) and then walk or take public transportation (a fat cab fare is always better than the cost and hassle of a ticket).

For my last night in Italy earlier this month, I had planned to meet my dissertation advisor, the Milanese poet Luigi Ballerini (more on that later), at his home in downtown Milan. I took my rental car back to the airport and then took a 30-minute-or-so train ride from the airport to the city center. No stress, no worries about parking, and I caught up on email on the train.

My advice is avoid city driving, especially when you visit the smaller urban centers, like Parma or Siena, for example. Take the train, a bus, or a taxi into to town. Removing that layer of stress makes the visit all the more enjoyable.

Thanks for all the great feedback, everyone! I’m so glad people have been finding the post useful.

In other news…

Wow, Philip Roth’s passing really hit me hard. It marks the end of an era in American letters.

He never wanted to be pigeonholed as a “Jewish” writer. But for many in my generation and the generation before mine, he gave American Jews a new vernacular to express our identity.

He was, first and foremost, an American. And he was also a model of the immigrant experience here and a role model for the American intellectual, socially and politically engaged without ever losing sight of literature’s greater purpose and human calling.

There have been so many great tributes published over the last 24 hours. But one of my favorites is this one by Roger Cohen for the New York Times.

“How [Roth] dazzled; how he delighted,” wrote Cohen today. “I often laughed out loud, not least at the speculation of Portnoy’s father on how he might overcome constipation: ‘I remember when they announced over the radio the explosion of the first atom bomb, he said aloud, “Maybe that would do the job.”‘ Laughter stood at the heart of Roth’s liberating gift.”

The passage says so much about my parents’ generation and it says so much about the world I grew up in. His humor taught us how to laugh at ourselves, even when the world seemed (and seems) to be crumbling around us.

Enjoy the Memorial Day long weekend, everyone! We’ll be playing music, drinking Bele Casel Prosecco Col Fondo, and raising a glass to Roth at our house if you care to join in… have a great weekend and a great summer. Thanks for being here.

Nature doesn’t refine sugar. But refined sugar goes into your sparkling wine.

Earlier this month, a group of leading Italian wine writers sat down to taste a flight of nine wines, spanning 10 years, with my friends Nico Danesi, Andrea Rudelli, and Giovanni Arcari. Beyond their own wines (Arcari e Danesi, SoloUva, and Vezzoli Giuseppe, a 2008-2018 retrospective), the three Franciacorta growers and producers also included current-release wines from three marquee Franciacorta estates, covered in foil, to be tasted blind that evening.

The idea behind the tasting and selection of wines was to highlight the differences between wines made using the classic method and wines made using what the three 40-something franciacortini call the SoloUva (SOH-loh-OO-vah) method or Just Grapes method.

The classic method is analogous to the Champagne method (the fundamental difference is that only wines grown and vinified in Champagne can be rightly called “Champagne method” or méthode champenoise wines).

A “base” wine or wines are produced as still wine or wines (non-sparkling). A sweetener and yeast are added to the wine (or blended wines) to provoke a second fermentation (the tirage). The wine is sealed in bottle. The CO2 resulting from the pressurized second fermentation gives the wine its fizziness. The wine is then allowed to age “on its lees” (i.e., the dead yeast, a solid that results from fermentation). At the appropriate time, the wine is “disgorged” of its solids. It’s topped off with a sweetener if desired (the so-called liqueur d’expédition or dosage). And the wine is resealed and labeled for release.

(The above description of the classic method is a simplified one. For one of the best overviews of classic method winemaking, see the introduction to Tom Stevenson’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine or the entry for “sparkling wine” in the Oxford Companion to Wine.)

The difference between the classic method and the SoloUva method (developed by my friends) is that the classic method calls for refined sugar to be added for the tirage and dosage (topping off) while the SoloUva method calls for reserved grape must to be used as the agent for the second fermentation and the topping off of the wines.

Among the wines that Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni selected from their own cellar for the tasting, there was a dichotomy: two of their wines had been produced using the classic method; the three “blind” wines from other producers were also made using the classic method; and the remaining seven wines were made using the SoloUva method.

As they tasted through the 12 wines before them, the Italian writers immediately noted the blaring difference between the two categories: the classic method wines had distinctive aromas of “brioche,” “yeast” (a canonical descriptor, however misleading), “toast” etc.; the SoloUva method wines had “fresh” fruit aromas.

The discussion that followed (on picking times, phenolic ripeness, and different approaches to sparkling wine production) was as interesting as it was provocative. But it was plainly clear to all present that the oxidative style of classic method wines was starkly contrasted by the fresh and ripe fruit style of the SoloUva method wines.

Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni are not the first to employ reserved grape must as a sweetener in sparkling wine production. But they may be the first to propose such a method as a “purer” expression of their appellation.

Why add exogenous (as opposed to autogenous) cane sugar from Brazil when you can use grape sugar from the very same appellation? they asked their interlocutors.

When they call into question the wisdom of centuries of classic method wines from France, they may be veering from the enological into the ontological. But over the course of the gathering, Nico changed the nature of the conversation when he pointed out that refined sugar doesn’t occur in nature. Only humankind produces refined sugar, he noted, and refined sugar is partly to blame for many of contemporary society’s health challenges.

Nearly all sparkling wine is produced with the addition of refined sugar (and not just classic method wines; Charmat, Martinotti, and even some ancestral method wines are made using refined sugar). Wines labeled dosage zero, brut nature, and pas dosé are also made with the addition of refined sugar (some may be surprised to learn this).

Only history will reveal whether or not Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni’s wines will represent a new era of sparkling wine production. I like their wines a lot. But take my opinion with a grain of salt spoonful of sugar because I am biased by our friendship. What I can tell you for certain is that their wines don’t contain anything that nature didn’t give them.

All they need is grapes…

Here’s a song I wrote for them a few years ago (MP3).

Mother nature is yours and she is mine
And the tender grapes she grows on the vine
She gives us the earth, the sun, the sky
But it takes humankind to make the wine so fine