A natural wine list grows in my hometown. Great Italian wine and food at Marisi in La Jolla.

Among the La Jolla High School graduating class of 1985, many of my fellow alumni have had brilliant careers in the restaurant and wine business.

Most notable among them are the fisherpeople who stopped selling their catch to the big San Diego canneries and launched fresh fish-focused restaurants.

But I think it’s fair to say that none of us would have ever expected a great Italian restaurant to rise in our hometown. And if you added a great natural wine list to that mix, they would have told you to go cash in your marbles.

There has never been anything like that in La Jolla, a sleepy beachfront town known for its preppy look and its insular culture (I’ll just leave it at that). Until now…

Not only is Marisi, the newish Italian concept that’s located right in the heart of downtown La Jolla, one of the most beautiful restaurants you’ll find in southern California. It’s also one of the best Italian menus I’ve tasted over the last 12 months — hands down.

That’s the rigatoni with spicy tomato above. The richly flavored homemade pasta was cooked perfectly al dente and I loved how the kitchen went for bold heat in this dish.

When’s the last time you had a pesto trapanese outside of Sicily?

In Trapani township in the western part of the island, pesto is made with fresh basil and almonds (instead of the classic Ligurian pesto with pine nuts).

The word trottola means spinning top. It’s a shape similar to what we know today as fusilli (or as my daughters would say, curlicue pasta). I loved the way the pesto dripped from the twisty noodles. And the gently pickled cherry tomatoes gave this wine a creative pop that we all swooned over.

My friend Tony Vallone, the great Italian-American restaurateur who took Italian cooking to new heights in Houston, used to say that for Italian cuisine to be truly authentic, it has to be creative.

The above interpretation of carpaccio really blew both Tracie and me away. Italian purists would have scoffed at this dish. The concept is to feature the quality of the thinly sliced beef, they would say, with minimal adornment. But we were practically licking the plate as we fought for who would get the last bite. Here heat was robust but it didn’t eclipse the flavor of the well-marbled beef. Not traditional by any means. But 1,000 percent delicious.

Or should I say radical, to borrow a phrase from my youth.

The most radical thing about Marisi is its natural-focused wine list by Chris Plaia of Bay Area fame.

I can’t imagine that any of my foodie high school friends would disagree: La Jolla is still an unabashed “Cab” and “Chardonnay” town where “oakiness,” unbridled alcohol levels, fruit-driven, acidity-poor wines still shape the viticultural hegemony. “Natural wine” is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you mention dining in La Jolla (which was once famous for the bar where Raymond Chandler drank himself to death, no joke).

Chris has done an extraordinary job in putting together a list that you would be more likely to find in San Francisco or Silverlake.

Tracie and I went for Giovanna Maccario’s Rossese, a longtime favorite of mine (and Giovanna is one of the coolest winemakers I have met, bold in her support for the emarginated). But there were so many other lots we could have picked.

Before 2009 you could have been hard-pressed (excuse the pun) to find a list like this beyond SF or LA. But Chris has broken the glass ceiling in the most unlikely of places.

We were there on a chilly Wednesday night in January (not exactly the “on” season) and the restaurant was packed. It was a great time and it’s great to know that my hometown, once dissed by Tom Wolfe, has grown into a true fine dining destination.

I highly recommend it. Dulcis in fundo, that’s the tiramisu below.

Chianti 101: galestro and alberese soils.

Back in early September as the red grape harvest was just about to begin in central Italy, I visited the Montefili farm and winery in Panzano in the heart of Chianti Classico. It was a glorious and highly photogenic time to be in the vineyards. But the thing I was most interested in photographing was the rocks.

Disclosure: the estate is owned by my friend and former employer Nicola Marzovilla.

Those are classic examples of galestro above and alberese below.

Note how the galestro is almost yellow in color while the alberese is nearly white.

Philologists don’t entirely agree on the origins of the term galestro but some believe it comes from the French glaise meaning clay.

The word alberese, most agree, comes from the Latin alba meaning white.

Although these types of rocks can be found in other parts of Tuscany, Chiantigiana is where you’ll find their highest concentration. And while rocks similar to alberese are found in other parts of Europe, galestro seems to be unique to the Tuscany.

Alberese is generally defined as limestone, in other words, calcareous deposits formed in ancient seabeds.

The best definition I can find for galestro is that penned by wine writer and Tuscan wine expert Monty Waldin as “a rock formation of stone (mudstone or clay but not compact clay) and sand which will become clay, but has not yet reached the full clay stage.”

As the great Chianti-focused vineyard manager Ruggero Mazzilli writes, galestro is typically found at the highest altitudes in Chianti while alberese is found closer to the valley floors.

I highly recommend his excellent post “How changes in vineyard altitude within the Chianti Classico region affect climate and soil factors” where he discusses these and other Chianti soil types in great detail. (Scroll down for the English translation.)

In my experience, galestro soils tend to deliver wines with a more robust fruit character while wines made from fruit grown in alberese soils can be more mineral and savory.

One thing however is certain, as Mazzilli writes, “Sangiovese, as a varietal, has an enormous capacity to adapt its behavior based on the environment in which it is grown.” And as he notes, these soil types (and others present in Chianti) are an important element in shaping their unique qualities.

I still don’t have all the details but I will be leading a Chianti seminar at Vinology in Houston on Thursday, February 2. We’ll be tasting wines from different parts of Chiantigiana and talking soil types and growing conditions. It’s going to be a fun time for sure. Please save the date!

A visit to Smith-Madrone on Napa’s Spring Mountain felt like coming home.

Happy new year!

Sometimes wine is work. Sometimes it’s fun. When the two overlap, it’s always a joy. But when it’s pure fun, the experience can be truly transcendent.

That’s what it felt like when I visited the Smith-Madrone winery on Napa’s Spring Mountain in late December.

That’s Stu Smith, one of the founders, in the image above, with his new dog Tucker (both are sweethearts).

That’s a view of the northern tip of the Napa Valley as seen from Stu and his brother Charles’ property. They first planted grapes their in 1972. Today, their wines are one of California’s top wines. Think of that! 1972! Think how the world was different then and how different our perceptions of wine.

I was actually in wine country for an Italian client of mine, believe it or not (that’s another story for another time).

But I was long overdue to visit one of my childhood friends. And she happens to be married to Stu. When they learned I’d be in the “neighborhood,” they invited me over for delicious lasagne and Hanukkah candles. Julie Ann, who’s just a few years older than me, was my babysitter when we were children. Back then, we lived just a block away from each other in La Jolla where we grew up. Our parents were close friends.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the wines and I was stoked to get to spend some extended time with them when I worked on the Slow Wine Guide.

When you taste these expressions of Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon (“86.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 7.5% Cabernet Franc” in 2018, to give you an idea), the first words that come to mind are clarity of fruit, focus, balance, and that unbearable lightness of power that the Spring Mountain District and winemakers like Stu and his brother seem to capture more nimbly than farms and winemakers in other subzones of California wine country.

During our vineyard tour, we talked about training methods (he likes cordon for his Cabernet Franc), about row orientation (he’s done some interesting things with contour vs. non-contour planting), and fire prevention.

Stu and his brother have managed to avoid the worst of recent megafires thanks to their work to protect their farm. But it’s a constant struggle, he told me. And the worst part, he said, is their literally Herculean efforts “do nothing to improve the wine,” he said. They just keep the grapes and the people safe.

After dinner, I said to Julie Ann, “wow, that was like getting to have dinner with Bruce Springsteen!” It’s not every day that you are invited to sit at the table of one of the winemakers you admire most.

But then again, I had to remind myself, I’m just a lucky son of a… well… gun, who happened to grow up on the same block as Julie Ann.

It was a night I’ll never forget. And man, the lasagne and the Cabernet Sauvignon… off the charts good. Tasting the Riesling with Stu and his brother the next morning at the winery was one of the most magical experiences of my life in wine. It was just pure fun.

The world of Italian wine mourns the passing of Francesca Cinelli Colombini, “Lady of Brunello,” cultural icon and viticultural pioneer.

Image via the Fattoria dei Barbi blog.

Francesca Cinelli Colombini, grape grower, winemaker, and matriarch of one of Italy’s most iconic families in wine, has died. She was 91 years old.

After the passing of her father Giovanni in 1976, she took the reins as director of her family’s historic Fattoria dei Barbi winery and farm in Montalcino.

Under her leadership, the property became one of the first major Italian producers of fine wines to ship their wines beyond Italy’s borders.

In a time in the U.S. before the current Italian wine renaissance began to take shape, she envisioned an international future for the Sangiovese of Montalcino. She guided her family’s estate through a major shift in how Tuscan wine was produced and how it was perceived throughout the world. The early commercial success of her family’s wines in north America was a reflection of her talents as a winemaker. But it was also the fruit of her acumen as an entrepreneur.

By the time she stepped down from her position as director in 1990, Brunello di Montalcino was already well on its way to becoming one of the most coveted and collected wines in the world today. She is widely known — in Montalcino and across the globe — as the “signora del Brunello,” the “Lady of Brunello” (with a capital “L”).

News of her passing was reported by the Italian mainstream media. She was also remembered in a blog post by the Fattoria dei Barbi, today led by her son Stefano, and a Facebook post by her daughter, Donatella, owner of the Donatella Cinelli Colombini winery, also in Montalcino.

After stepping down from her role as director of the family’s estate, she authored a number of highly acclaimed books on her own life and times in Tuscany.

I only had the opportunity to meet her once (when, disclosure, I worked as a media consultant for her son Stefano). She was a truly “larger-than-life” character. My brief encounter with her reminded me of times I met Hollywood stars during my years as a student in Los Angeles. Anyone who ever met her would agree: she was one of Italy’s first “celebrity winemakers.” Her high profile was another way she revolutionized the Italian wine world. And she did it in a time when the trade was still rife with chauvinism — a trailblazer and a genuine original.

Sit tibi terra levis Francisca.

You are an inspiration to generations of Italian grape growers and winemakers.

Help us raise an MLK billboard over a newly built Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

Since 2018, Tracie and I have been organizing protests of the newly built Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas, where she grew up and where her family and much of her extended family still lives.

We will be at the site protesting on Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 16, 2023 (please stay tuned for event details).

Every year since the site’s completion in 2017, we have raised billboards across the road that feature Dr. King and a quote from his writings and speeches. The image literally looks down over the memorial.

The monument was conceived and built by the Orange, Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Interstate 10, just a few exits west of the Louisiana border.

Click here to see their flier promoting fundraising for construction (note that it contains offensive material).

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the people who built it intended for it to be an affront to the Black community in city that has a sordid legacy of racism and racist violence (just ask any Black Texan of a certain age and they will tell you how their parents told them to avoid Orange as they drove to or from New Orleans).

As in previous years, the billboard will begin to appear in the days leading up to MLK Day and throughout Black History Month (February).

We over-raised $910 in last year’s campaign and we have already applied that money to this year’s. The more money we can raise (in $1,000 increments), the longer the billboard will appear (it costs roughly $1,000 for four weeks). Currently, we are shooting for a total of $2,000 to reach our goal for this year. Right now, we only have $900 to go!

Any amount, no matter how small, matters. Even if you’re not able to donate, you can help to further our cause by sharing with friends and posting on social media.

There’s no legal means for us to get the Sons to repurpose the site. We can’t even get them to dialog with us. The site sits on private property and is protected by free speech standards.

But we have no intention of giving up our fight: at the very least, we will continue to show solidarity with the Black community in Orange and we will continue to remind the White supremacists that it’s no longer socially acceptable to display symbols of racism and racist violence. Their “Memorial of the Wind” is especially egregious because of how conspicuously it is displayed.

Please help us in our campaign by donating to our GoFundMe here. And please share with your networks. Every dollar, every share counts!

Thank you for your support and solidarity. We hope to see you on MLK Day in Orange!

Love letter to Brescia, Italian “Capital of Culture” 2023 and city of heroes.

Many will remember a dark period in spring 2020 when the Ospedale Civile in Brescia — the Brescia City Hospital — repeatedly appeared in the New York Times, often on the paper’s landing page. A Brescian nurse even appeared on the cover of the Times Magazine.

Brescia, a working-class city with Renaissance and ancient Roman origins in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, was among the earliest and hardest hit in the early pandemic. And it’s widely recognized today that it was the first Western city to bear the full weight of the health crisis.

“At one point that spring,” wrote Elisabetta Provoledo for the Times, “Brescia’s hospitals had more coronavirus patients than any other place in Europe.”

Today, I’m happy to report from my own experiences there, Brescia is experiencing a genuine renaissance — a rebirth. Its piazzas are packed with tourists who come to admire the Roman ruins and Longobard works of art and artifacts. And its restaurants, wine bars, beer joints are brimming with exuberant and joyful citizens who rarely remark on those dark times. They do, however, talk proudly and rightly about their resilience and courage in the face of ultimate tragedy.

In 2023, Brescia, together with its sister city Bergamo, also hard hit in the early days of the pandemic, will be the “Italian Capital of Culture.” It’s a program that the Italian government launched in 2014 to highlight the cultural legacies of the nation’s urban centers.

In the words of the organizers,

    The Bergamo Brescia Italian Capital of Culture 2023 project came into being as a sign of hope, pride and renewal. A necessary moment of beauty after the dramatic experience of the pandemic. The strong determination of the mayors of the two municipalities, together with all the institutions of their respective areas, embraced by the rest of the country. A high-profile project that serves to indicate possible answers to the great challenges of our time, which Bergamo and Brescia have identified and developed drawing from a shared cultural vitality. Bergamo Brescia Italian Capital of Culture 2023 bears witness to a possible renaissance through the conscious choice of culture as a central element for civil education, creating skills, employment and social and economic resilience.

My experiences on the ground there in recent months have been wonderful. The sense of freedom and joy there is deliciously palpable.

It’s one of those cities that few Americans visited in the years leading up to 2020 — an undiscovered country, to use a cliché. I can’t recommend it enough to you and I hope you will join me in following along as the Italian nation celebrates this culturally rich landscape and its people.

Thanks for checking it out.

Italian wineries begin to feel crunch of glass crisis.

The funniest thing happened on my last trip to Italy.

When I sat down last week to taste with Marina Savoia, one of the owners of the Coali winery in Sant’Ambrogio in Valpolicella, something didn’t add up.

The excellent wines were traditional in style, very old school but clean and focused. I liked them a lot.

There wasn’t a barrique to be found. All of their wines are aged in larger formats, casks that have been reused vintage after vintage, the way the old line producers there do it.

But when I picked up a bottle to reposition it for a photo, I noticed that the glass was extremely heavy and thick. And the punt was deep. The vessel had the classic “Napa Valley” shape, often used by producers of “important” wines that have American appeal for the American market. It didn’t align with the people that make these wines, the style, or the place where they are raised.

I asked Marina Savoia, above, why the odd choice of bottle format? After all, in my experience, producers like her and her family often like to use older, more classic formats, and they are keen to reduce their carbon footprint by using the lightest glass possible — the antithesis of the Super Tuscan craze of the aughts.

The answer was simple, she said. There were simply no other formats available. And she and her family were forced to use the one you can see in the photo at the beginning of this post.

Across Italy, winemakers are telling me that bottles are becoming harder and harder to come by and the cost is rising rapidly. Putin’s insanity-fueled bellic campaign is to blame, they tell me.

For sparkling wine producers, the problem is compounded by the rigid rhythms of vinification and aging. They can’t just let their wine sit another year in cask, like a producer of Valpolicella Ripasso, for example. When it’s time to bottle, it’s time to bottle and that’s it.

The major concerns, of course, are availability and costs. Demand is high and supply is lower than it’s ever been. The price hikes were are going to see next year will be owed in no small part to this critical issue.

And the fallout is also manifesting itself in surprising ways, as in the case of Marina’s wines.

You can’t just a book by its cover. And increasingly, you can’t judge a wine by its bottle.

I really loved Turin!

Even after all these years of coming to Italy for study and work, I had never really spent proper time in the city of Turin.

This week, I spent a few nights and more days there and just fell in love with the place.

Did you think I was going to come all the way to Piedmont and not eat vitello tonnato (above), arguably my favorite dish of all time?

I only had a little free time to stroll the city’s beautiful porticoes but I was blown away by all the rare book shops. I even found a vintage record store that specializes in classical — one of my recent collecting interests.

The Egyptology museum blew me away! As a dog lover, of course, I was drawn to the mummified animals section, purportedly one of the biggest collections in the world beyond Cairo. It was amazing. The whole thing was amazing. There’s even a “tomb” designed by Renzo Piano. Not to miss.

Car culture, as one would imagine, is big in Turin. I was told that the automobile museum is great. Next on my list. And it was cool to see some of the crazy cars that people drive in the city.

One of the things that I really dug was how the city has retained its old-school feel. There’s not just a sushi place and a Burger King on every corner. Those are tajarin al Castelmagno at Porto di Savona — SUPER OLD SCHOOL and wonderful.

Still so much to explore there. I can’t wait to get back.

Thank you again Michele for inviting me!

If you’re heading to Chianti Classico, don’t miss Osteria di Brolio.

I’m actually heading out again tonight for Italy to meet a new client (more on that later). And I still haven’t finished blogging about my early September trip!

That’s the fiorentina at the Osteria di Brolio, Ricasoli’s wonderful tavern on the grounds of the estate just down the road from the castle’s entrance.

My friend and colleague Maurizio Gamberucci, deputy director for the Italy-America Chamber in Texas and a native Tuscan, met me there for dinner on the very day that Ricasoli started harvesting its Sangiovese.

Beyond the steak — and wow, what a steak that was! — the menu there has become more creative and playful since chef Franco Sangiacomo returned.

Many east-coasters will know him from his celebrity turn as a chef in Washington D.C. where he cooked for a who’s who of American power players.

He’s brought a delightful contemporary touch to the classics at the osteria. Our dinner was fantastic.

It was one of the best and most memorable meals of that trip. I can’t recommend it enough.

I slept that night at Ricasoli’s “Agriroom,” a spartan but perfectly anointed bed and breakfast in the main piazza of the small village where the Ricasoli offices are located.

It was perfect and very affordable and the wifi works great. Breakfast in the morning at the “Agribar” on the first floor of the building.

Early the next morning, I headed up toward the castle for a daybreak run. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Friday night and Saturday morning in Chiantigiana.

If you’re heading to Chianti Classico this season, check it out. And the tour and museum — including a great survey of Chianti Classico soils — is so worth the price of admission. Francesco Ricasoli has done an excellent job of updating it and even the family’s private chapel in the castle is now open to the public. It’s stunning.

Next stop: Turin. Wish me luck and wish me speed!

Italy’s “best sommelier” competition open to Italian candidates working abroad.

From the department of public service announcements…

Earlier this month, the Italian association of wine shops, Vinarius, and its partner group, the association of Italian wine shop and wine bar professionals, AEPI (Associazione Enotecari Professionisti Italiani), launched the second annual Best Italian Sommelier Competition.

Qualified candidates include “owners and staff of classic wine shops and public-facing wine and spirits-focused businesses,” write the organizers on their website. Their goal is to “foster dialog and offer a platform where wine professionals can gain a deeper understanding of the challenges that the wine trade is currently facing.” It seeks to create an environment of “collegiality and inspiration that will help all members of the trade to grow.”

And like last year, the first in the competition’s history, there is a special category reserved for Italian sommeliers working abroad.

Given how many Italians are currently working in the U.S. wine trade, I encourage my U.S.-based Italian colleagues to compete. No pressure but… let’s bring it home to the U.S.!

Visit the competition’s website for rules, dates, and info.