When a sommelier refuses to pour you a wine (go the winery): Poderi Colla, my top estate visit 2016

best-italian-pinot-noirIt had to have been 2003 when someone graciously offered to take me to dinner at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. At the time Per Se wasn’t online yet and Ducasse was New York City’s only three-Michelin-star restaurant (remember all those articles about whether or not Michelin-style restaurants would take hold in the city?). Even though the restaurant had been open for 3 years, it was still one of the sexiest and most difficult reservations to obtain. Henry Kissinger was in the dining room the night we ate there.

We were seated in the back, near the restroom, not that that mattered. It was a beautiful restaurant and there literally wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

I had been asked by the host to select the wine and when I spied the 1996 Poderi Colla Barolo Dardi Le Rose on the list for great price (around $130 if I remember correctly), I couldn’t resist ordering it.

barolo-soil-typesThe sommelier took my order but then returned to inform me that she wouldn’t be opening the wine for me.

“It’s too young,” she said, “and it isn’t drinking well. We’ve selected a different bottle for you instead.”

She had picked a new-barrique-aged Barbera d’Asti instead. It wasn’t the time or the place to make a fuss (in part because I was someone’s guest). And so, in the spirit of not interrupting the brio of the evening (we could hear Kissinger’s voice booming from the main dining room) and to go with the flow, I bit my tongue (an apt expression!) and didn’t say a thing.

best-italian-red-wineOne of my early mentors, the Italian wine maven Charles Scicolone, had first told me about Poderi Colla and the legacy of Beppe Colla, his brothers, and his family’s legacy as winemakers.

You don’t me to recount that story here. Many before me have written ably of Beppe Colla’s herculean contribution to the evolution of the Piedmont wine trade and the many benchmarks that he has set over the arc of a career well spent and a life well lived.

See, for example, Charles’ excellent post from earlier this year here. And see this wonderfully informed winery profile by British wine merchant John Hattersley.

What I will tell you is that until you tread the gorgeous vineyards of this farm and breathe in the salubrious air atop the estate’s Bricco del Drago (“Dragon’s Hill,” in the first photo above), you only know half the story of this magical estate and its enchanting wines.

beppe-collaWhen I visited in the spring, Tino Colla talked at length about organic farming and why his family doesn’t farm organically. It’s all about creating balance in the vineyards, he explained (just look at the flowers growing between the rows in the Bricco del Drago above!).

He laughed as he told our group about a recent visitor from California who was obsessed with organically farmed produce. When she was served an estate-grown peach at the end of a lunch at the estate, he said, she was horrified to find a worm on the piece of fruit. When he tried to explain to her that the worm was a sign of a healthy farm and the absence of pesticides, she wasn’t having it — figuratively and literally.

As he shared his bemusement over her misconceptions about organic growing practices, I remembered the disconnect (literal and figurative) between that first bottle of Colla and me. Looking back, I wonder: was the wine not ready for me or was I not ready for the wine in the sommelier’s opinion?

I hope that that sommelier someday makes it to Poderi Colla. Then she’ll realize that the people who make these wines make them to share with people who want to learn what Langhe wines really are.

I must have visited 20 wineries over the last 12 months and 9 trips to Italy in 2016. Poderi Colla was a visit of a lifetime. The luncheon, the eye-opening tasting, the winemaking museum, and the breath-taking hike through the vineyards. I can’t recommend the estate and the wines highly enough.

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When Donald Trump partied with Richard Nixon (at Tony’s in Houston)

Incredible to read this story in the Times after hearing my friend and client Tony Vallone tell it over dinner. I’ve tasted those cannelloni. They are delicious…

nixon-trump-houstonHOUSTON — They still talk about the Saturday night here 27 years ago when Donald J. Trump partied with former President Richard M. Nixon.

Dressed in tuxedos, they sang “Happy Birthday” to Texas royalty — former Gov. John B. Connally and his wife, Nellie, whose birthdays were a few days apart — as Nixon played the tune on a white baby grand piano. They dined at Tony’s, the “21” Club of Houston, and Nixon was so fond of the cannelloni pasta that he asked the owner, Tony Vallone, to write the recipe for him on a yellow legal pad. And when it was all over, Mr. Trump flew Nixon back to New York on his 727 private jet.

It happened one weekend in March 1989…

Click here to continue reading “When Donald Trump Partied with Richard Nixon,” from today’s New York Times…

10 wines for a Chrismukkah of a lifetime (when Christmas Eve and the first night of Chanukah fall are the same)

chanukah-hanukkah-christmas-eve-same-nightThis year on December 24, humankind will witness an epochal event of a lifetime (if you’re a millennial): The first night of Chanukah will fall on Christmas Eve. That’s only happened one other time in my lifetime (I belong to Generation X), in 1978. And it only happened one other time in the last 100 years, in 1940.

The first night of Chanukah has fallen on Christmas Day twice over the last 100 years, in 2005 and 1959. And Christmas and Chanukah (a historic festival and not a religious holiday for self-aware Jews) often overlap. But when the first night of the Jewish festival of lights aligns with the vigil for the birth of Jesus Christ, it just feels different — magical as if there were some type of confluence of cosmic forces. It can literally take a lifetime for the two to coincide (if you were born in the 80s).

The date for Christmas is determined by the Gregorian Calendar and the date for Chanukah, like all Jewish holidays and festivals, is determined by the Hebrew Calendar, a lunisolar calendar (based on the moon phase and the tropical calendar).

If you’re wondering how I figured this out, it was actually easy: I used HebCal.com.

Christmas and Chanukah aren’t historically related, even though they often overlap. Only in America is Chanukah associated with Christmas as a gift-giving occasion (a contamination of the Hallmark gift card military-industrial complex). In most countries, children may receive dreidels (dice with spindles) and coins for Chanukah. But gifts are not exchanged.

Sephardic Jews often make and serve donuts during Chanukah. That’s because donuts are fried in oil and oil is central to the Chanukah story: According to Jewish tradition, the amount of olive oil needed for one night during the rededication of the Second Temple (in Jerusalem in 165 BCE) miraculously lasted for eight nights.

Ashkenazi Jews serve potato latkes or potato pancakes, which are fried in oil. Many Texans will recognize potato pancakes as part of their own culinary tradition: Early German settlers in Texas, many of whom came here seeking religious freedom in the 19th century, also enjoyed potato pancakes.

And that’s why, in the spirit of coming together and sharing our rich cultural diversity in Trump America, my number one recommendation for wine this Chrismukkah (the bogus pop-culture intermingling of religious rituals) is German-speaking wine.

Click for for my 10 recommendations for the Houston market. Happy Chrismukkah, ya’ll! This only happens once in a lifetime (for most of us). So let’s make it a good one with a memorable bottle of wine!

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Why is it called pepperoni pizza (when peppers [seemingly] have nothing to do with it)?

This just in: Vietti winemaker Luca Currado and my friend and client Tony Vallone will be presenting Luca’s family’s wines on January 18, 2017 at Tony’s in Houston. I’ll be there. Please join me. It’s going to be a night to remember, for sure.

best-pepperoni-pizzaNew York-style pizza and pepperoni pizza in particular are among my greatest guilty pleasures.

In the decade that I lived and played music in New York City, I came to learn all the best spots for late-night Manhattan slices as my band’s drummer and I lugged our gear back uptown from our downtown gigs. Oh man, who doesn’t relish a hot slice at 2 a.m. after a night of drinking flat beer and strumming a Telecaster???!!!

best-pepperoni-pizza-new-york-sliceToday, the question of pizza and the existential question of pepperoni or regular? play a new and outsized dialectical role in my life: our youngest daughter prefers “cheese” while our oldest waivers between her allegiances to pepperoni and cheese.

The joy, alone, in hearing the word pepperoni uttered by a child, with its trochaic mellifluence, is truly priceless, btw: peh-peh-ROOOOOOH-nee.

best-pizzeria-new-yorkMy parental pondering of pepperoni pizza led me recently to reflect on the origin of the nomenclature. After all, in Italian, peperoni denotes what we call bell peppers in English. If you ordered a pizza ai pep[p]eroni in Italy, they’d bring you a pizza with bell peppers and not with thinly sliced, slightly spicy sausage.

A Google search prompted by my curiosity led me to a lovely 2011 article by Julia Moskin for the New York Times (our president-elect’s favorite paper!), “Pepperoni: On Top.”

In it she writes:

What, exactly, is pepperoni? It is an air-dried spicy sausage with a few distinctive characteristics: it is fine-grained, lightly smoky, bright red and relatively soft. But one thing it is not: Italian.

“Purely an Italian-American creation, like chicken Parmesan,” said John Mariani, a food writer and historian who has just published a book with the modest title: “How Italian Food Conquered the World.” “Peperoni” is the Italian word for large peppers, as in bell peppers, and there is no Italian salami called by that name, though some salamis from Calabria and Apulia are similarly spicy and flushed red with dried chilies. The first reference to pepperoni in print is from 1919, Mr. Mariani said, the period when pizzerias and Italian butcher shops began to flourish here.

Evidently, the sausage name is a corruption of the Italian peperoncino, as in the little peppers used to impart heat and color to the salami.

pizza-and-champagne-wine-pairingDigging a little deeper into my philological neuroses, I discovered that the earliest known printed reference to pep[p]eroni sausage actually dates back to 1888 (the year Nietzsche began to lose his mind) in the Times of London.

This early mention of pepperoni in a list of types of dried sausage leads me to believe that pepperoni might not be an Italian-American invention but rather a food product that is Italo-Britannic in origin (something that is highly plausible).

But I found an even more significant and telling mention in the United States government Yearbook of Agriculture for 1894 (published by the U.S. Government Printing Office), a mention that appears some 25 years before Mariani’s editio princeps.

The author of the entry for sausage wrote the following:

A mealtime and snacktime favorite of millions of Americans, sausages include a wide assortment of seasoned and processed meat products… Some sausages are dried during processing. Dried sausages like pepperoni, thuringer, and dry salmi are quite firm, very flavorful, and normally do not need to be refrigerated.

Herein lies the rub, as it were. Pizza, as we knew it in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s before the pseudo-Neapolitan pizza craze of the 2000s, probably emerged during the “Me” era (that’s the 1970s for you millennials). We think of pizza as an ancient food form. And it is. But the pizza of the 1960s probably didn’t resemble the pizzas pictured in this post, for example. It was the rise of canned tomatoes and processed cheese in the post-war boom of the 1960s that probably made pizza as-we-knew-it possible in the decades that followed.

The passage from the 1894 yearbook reveals that pepperoni sausage was already popular (at snacktimes and mealtimes) in the U.S. by the dawn of the 19th century, long before the great waves of Italian immigration began to take shape in north America. And its popularity was probably owed in some measure to the fact that it didn’t require refrigeration.

Ding! Ding! Ding! That’s probably why it became such a popular pizza topping: it was easy and inexpensive to store.

Regardless of its origins and its linguistic and cultural disconnect, pepperoni pizza is one of America’s great gifts to the world imho. There’s just nothing like a late-night slice after a gig and there’s nothing like the smile on a child’s face as she contemplates: cheese or pepperoni?

Master’s in Italian wine and food culture to be offered in English @UniSG (I’ll be teaching 3 courses)

Please click here for info on the UniSG Master’s in Italian Wine Culture.

And here for the Master’s in Food Culture & Communications.

Both programs will be offered in English for the first time next year.

campus-life-italyAbove: hanging outside the cafeteria on the University of Gastronomic Science campus in Pollenzo (Bra) in Piedmont. Honestly, it’s got to be the best college cafeteria I’ve ever visited. It is the university of food science after all!

It’s enough to make even my Jewish mother proud (since I’m the only one of her children who’s not a lawyer).

In my new role as an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont next year, I’ll be teaching three courses in the Master’s in Italian Wine Culture and Master’s in Food Culture & Communications programs: intro to English-language wine writing, blogging, and social media; intro to English-language food writing; and, dulcis in fundo, Italian wine culture and literature.

Honestly, I was surprised when the program director (and my good friend) Michele Fino proposed a course on Italian wine culture and literature. I immediately revealed to him that I’ve been quietly working for years on a project tracing wine’s role and function in Boccaccio’s Decameron. I’m thrilled that he liked the idea and I’m looking forward to publishing the seminar description and preview in early January (stay tuned… this is going to be fun!).

The other great news is that both programs will be offered in English next year. This year, I taught my class in Italian, which was great, but opening the program up to English-speakers will make it possible for more of my countrypeople to join me on this adventure.

The University of Gastronomic Sciences has always been part of the official university system. But next year the Italian ministry of education is expected to grant it full accreditation, which means that coursework will be recognized by every major university in the world.

To offer some background on the programs and why they’ve decided to offer them in English next year, I sent a few questions to Michele, who, beyond his role as program director, also teaches ancient Roman jurisprudence and contemporary food and wine law (here’s his bio page on the UniSG website).

Stay tuned for more info on the programs and previews of my classes. In the meantime, here are Michele’s notes. I hope you join us in Piedmont next year! Thanks for your support and thanks for being here.

Michele, please tell me a little bit about the university’s origins.

The University of Gastronomic Sciences was founded in 2004 following a major restoration of the historic farm where the university’s departments were combined together with a hotel, the Albergo dell’Agenzia, and the university’s Wine Bank.

The core building dates to the mid-19th century and it’s known as the Agenzia (literally, the Agency, but better rendered as the Farm). It’s been a UNESCO heritage designated site since 1997.

In May 2005, the Italian ministry of education officially recognized the university and make it part of the Italian university system.

And what about the Master’s in Wine Culture?

The Master in Italian Wine Culture was launched in 2014 and the first year of course work was in 2015. Up until now, the official language has been Italian. But with the launch of the third year of the program, we’ve decided to offer classes in English because the “Wine Tellers” we aim to create will be asked to share their knowledge of Italian wine history and the culture all around the world.

What inspired you personally to found/launch the Master’s program?

The university owes a huge debt to the wine producers of Italy: many of them provided financial support to the university and the first seminars we organized. So we wanted to do something to give back to the wonderful world of Italian wine in the year of our 10th anniversary (2014). So we gathered a bunch of internationally renowned winemakers and asked them what would they have expected from “their” university.

Their answer was that they wanted us to help them create ambassadors of Italian wine: not just limited to the brands and wines but rather as representatives of Italian wine as a whole. The idea is that “Wine Tellers” should know not only how wine is made but they should also be able to tell the story of the land where the wine comes from, the people that have built the Italian wine trade over generations, and the art of the Italian peninsula that is embedded in the liquid contained in each bottle of wine.

What prompted you to offer the Master’s in English?

Initially, we thought that the Wine Tellers would be working here in Italy with Italian wineries. But over the years, we realized that needed people to be able to share their experiences all over the world. And with the Master’s program in English, they will be able to reach a global audience.

Why isn’t someone importing this Greco di Tufo by Bambinuto? Wild Irpinia is an unmined treasure of delicious wines.

bambinuto-greco-tufoLast week, I wrote about what an incredible experience it was for me to tour Irpinia in early November with Daniela Mastroberardino, who really turned me on to what makes the wines from this otherworldly locus so special. The landscape shots, alone, were worth the price of admission.

Another one of the revelations from that November trip was tasting Marilena Bambinuto’s Greco di Tufo, above.

There are so many great expressions of Greco di Tufo out there but Marilena’s have what the Italians call a marcia in più, an extra “high” gear.

Beautiful focus and purity in this wine, with a gorgeous balance of acidity, alcohol, and fruit and mineral flavors that really danced in my mouth as we tasted the wines paired with her butcher’s sausage and boiled potatoes.

best-artisanal-sausageGreco di Tufo can be such a richly flavored wine and, at least in my experience, certain winemakers will go for a ripe style or an intensely mineral style of the wine. But Marilena’s really hit a sexy harmony of all the elements in this appellation, with a classic but fresh and electric interpretation of this incredible appellation.

It may not mean much to the casual wine lover but a stroll through her organically farmed vineyards (see the grassy rows below) revealed a lot about why the wine has such a magic buoyancy to it.

Why is no one bringing this in to the U.S.? It’s made by a small, family-run and owned estate. It’s organically farmed and only native yeasts are used in fermentation. The wines are a pure and purely delicious expression of the appellation. And Marilena, her family, and her wines couldn’t be a more authentic expression of wild Irpinia.

I owe this discovery to my friend and colleague Marina Alaimo, a writer, blogger, and sommelier based in Naples. Anyone who follows Italian wine, and especially southern Italian wine, knows Marina from social media (if you don’t, friend her here). And she graciously organized my visit that day (and a lot more that I will write about in an upcoming post).

Thank you again, Marina, for such a thoughtful choice of winery for me to visit and taste on my first trip to Irpinia. And thank you, Marilena, for the time and the wine. I can’t wait for someone to bring your wines to America.

To quote a Joni Mitchell song, I could drink a pallet of Bambinuto!

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Is being Mexican in Trump America a zero-sum game?

chicano-park-san-diegoOver the span of one week, conversations with two friends of mine, both of them middle-aged and middle-class American women of Mexican heritage, revealed a dichotomy in attitudes about Latinos living in the U.S. in the Trump era.

In Houston, the Texan of the two told me that she and her family are deeply concerned about how the president-elect’s immigration policies are going to affect them and the wider network of their community.

If Trump makes good on his pledge to deport 11 million Latinos from the U.S. and, in particular, if he revokes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, her extended family will surely be affected.

No one knows for certain what Trump will actually do but it’s highly likely that his newly implemented immigration policies will literally rip her family apart.

In North County San Diego, the Californian of the two told me she hopes that Trump acts on his vow to expel “undocumented” Latinos living in the U.S.

“Not another Mexican should ever be allowed into this country,” she said (verbatim).

I grew up in Southern California and called it my home until I was 30 years old.

Now 49 years old, I’ve lived in Texas since 2008.

According to the most recent data on demographics in the two states that I could find (notably here and here), roughly 40 percent of the people living in both states are Latinos. And in California, there are currently more Latinos than Whites. In Texas, the number of Latinos is expected to surpass the number of Whites by the end of this decade.

When I was a child, my caretaker was a Mexican woman (who is still a close friend of my family). I learned to speak Spanish fluently by the time I was 13 years old (long before I learned to speak Italian). My classes were filled with Mexican kids during my years of high school (La Jolla High) and college (U.C.L.A.).

When Trump announced his bid for the presidency in 2015, he said that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (Read the text of his June 2015 address here.)

Aside from my decade in New York and my years as a student in Italy, I’ve lived almost 40 years in states where Spanish is spoken regularly as a second language and where Mexicans and Whites live, work, study, and raise families side-by-side (as the demographics reveal, Texas and California are very similar in this regard). Gauging from my own personal experience, Trump’s remarks (in his opening bid to become the U.S. president) are as far from the truth as they are deeply offensive.

As a contributor to the Washington Post wrote about a month before the general election, “anyone… sold on the idea that Trump’s comments have simply been misunderstood or taken out of contest seems unable to grasp is that the act of declaring an entire group prone to illegal activity is about as close to a textbook example of bigotry and xenophobia as possible.”

In January when Trump takes office, we’ll see how he intends to implement his often repeated campaign pledge. Some states, like California, are already taking steps to protect their residents from Trump’s bigoted and xenophobic approach to immigration reform.

In the meantime, countless people who reside in our country are living in fear of what will come next.

It was only two generations ago that my family immigrated to the U.S. when my grandparents’ families fled religious persecution and economic subjugation in what are now Russia and Poland. All of my ancestors were Jews and nearly all of them were poor, disenfranchised, and “undocumented” migrants. According to our family mythology, my paternal grandmother came from a family of bootleggers. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that she was born into abject poverty. As the tide of history in Eastern Europe has shown, her family’s migration probably saved their lives and their biological legacy. My children are her great-grandchildren.

Trump claims to be a Christian and the majority of Whites who elected him identify as Christians (including Evangelicals’ nearly unmitigated support).

I often wonder how my White-Christian friends are sleeping the days, now that Trump is poised to become the leader of our nation.

I know for a fact that a lot of my Mexican-Christian friends have been losing a lot of sleep.

mexican-park-barrio-logan-san-diegoImages of Chicano Park in San Diego where I grew up via Peyri Herrera’s Flickr. See also the Wiki entry for Chicano Park.

Happy birthday Georgia Ann Parzen! You are the greatest birthday gift of all…

georgia-drummerHappy birthday, sweet Georgia P!

Your fifth birthday is actually on Monday but your birthday celebration begins today and your birthday party tomorrow — with your pink party favors and pink birthday cake that mommy is making for you — is sure to be a smash!

We have a whole bunch of presents lined up for you and your grandparents and your aunts, uncles, and cousins will bring more with them tomorrow for your birthday celebration.

But like every year when your birthday rolls around, I can’t help but think to myself that you are the greatest gift of all.

Your sweetness, yours sassiness, your empathy, your humor, your bright bright smile, your kisses and hugs, your love of music and singing, your love of drums, your love of rock ‘n’ roll, your love of Broadway musicals (like father like daughter!), your love of rhymes, your love of books… You have shared with us a joy I never knew could exist until you came into our lives.

All the birthday gifts in the world and a million more would never be enough to repay you for the blessings you have brought into my life and all that you have taught me about being a father.

And by the way, it is SO MUCH FUN to be your dad.

I love you. Happy fifth birthday, sweet girl!

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The wilds of Irpinia and Daniela Mastroberardino’s extraordinary wines (Terredora’s is a story yet to be told)

irpiniaAbove: Irpinia, the wild volcanic highlands of Campania where some of Italy’s most extraordinary wines are raised (click the image for a higher-resolution version.

Of the nine trips I made to Italy this year and the literally hundreds of wines I tasted, one of the most remarkable visits was with Daniela Mastroberardino, co-owner of the Terredora winery, who took me on a tour of her family’s vineyards in Montefusco township in Irpinia, Campania’s wild volcanic highlands.

Like many U.S.-based Italian wine professionals, I’ve logged countless hours of vineyard tours and winery tastings in northern Italy between Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and Friuli. And there are few Tuscan hilltop villages between Montalcino and Rùfina that I haven’t visited over the nearly 30 years that I’ve been traveling to Italy.

Of course, I’ve also tasted (and have drunk with gusto) more than my fair share of Irpinia wines: Taurasi, Fiano d’Avellino, Greco di Tufo are all appellations whose wines are increasingly available to American fine wine consumers like me. But until this year, I had never spent any time with those wines in situ.

What a revelation to tour these forgotten, untamed hills of southern Italy’s wine country! As we drove up and down the steep roads that lead to and from Montefusco village (one of the hubs of Irpinian viticulture), I remembered hearing Italian wine maven Charles Scicolone talking about his early visits to Italy in the 1970s, when Italian farmland was just beginning to be developed by big industry. “There were vines everywhere,” he would tell me, noting that the Italian countryside has been radically transformed since those years. Driving through Irpinia, I imagine that it resembles the Italy that Charles saw when he first visited some 40 years ago.

best-campania-winesAbove: the only industry in Irpinia is grape growing and winemaking, Daniela explained. These highlands, with their volcanic top soil, are bordered on every side by active and extinct volcano mountain chains. As you drive from Naples up into the hills and then past Avellino, your ears begin to pop from the change in altitude and you enter into a viticulture landscape seemingly suspended in the sky with volcanoes as its moorings (click the image for a higher-resolution version).

Although fine wine has been produced in Irpinia for millennia, the volcanic top soil — mostly the fallout from ancient eruptions on Mt. Vesuvius, I was told — played a fundamental roll in the development of the wine trade here in the 19th century: the tiny grains of volcanic sand that form the top layer of farmland here made it impossible for phylloxera to thrive. Echoing what grape growers told me in Santorini, for example, the little creatures simply can’t negotiate the fine soil (or as one winemaker put it, they can’t jump from one grain to the next, making it impossible for them to survive).

antica-trattoria-di-pietro-dal-1934Above: one of my top meals of 2016 was at the Antica Trattoria di Pietro dal 1934, where Daniela treated me to these Campania-style cavatelli (different from Puglia-style) dressed with tomato and wild herbs. This dish and the entire meal at Pietro alone would have been worth the journey. Di Pietro doesn’t seem to have a website but it does have a website but it does have a Facebook. Note to Italian gastronauts: seek this place out and you won’t be disappointed. And note to Italian wine connoisseurs: a deep-reaching cellar brimming with older vintages of Taurasi, including the 1998 Terredora that I enjoyed thoroughly.

The other revelation for me was tasting current and older vintages of her family’s wines with Daniela. As she opened an unforgettable flight of wines from the 2000s and even late 1990s, I was reminded of what a wise wine buyer told me many years ago in Austin: trust the wine, not the story.

Daniela’s wines have always been marketed and positioned as excellent restaurant-friendly expressions of Campania winemaking, with an emphasis on their modern-style and their appeal to modern sensibilities in wine tastes. And her family’s wines are immensely successful in the U.S., where you can find them on a wide range of wine lists.

But as we tasted over dinner and tasted through the wines, and then the next day, as she gave me and a pair of Milanese wine merchants a tour of Irpinia wine country, I realized that no one had every told me the real story of these wines. There’s a lot more soul in these bottles than I think a lot of people understand. To see the pristine wild areas where they are grown and to hear the tale of blood, sweat, and tears that the Mastroberardino siblings (the children of Walter Mastroberardino) shed as they built a winery from scratch in the earthquake-prone highlands in the 1990s, I began to wrap my mind around these wines and what they mean in the context of Irpinian viticulture.

best-taurasi-1998Above: this 1998 Taurasi was just one of the older vintages of her family wines that Daniela opened for me. What an eye-opening wine! Very fresh, with perfectly integrated wood and super vibrant fruit flavors. Tasting this wine and learning the story behind it, really helped me to understand what these wines are about.

I also really loved an older vintage of Fiano that she poured for me: with aging these wines achieve nuanced layers of fruit and mineral flavors, notes that you miss — I believe — when you taste the current vintages.

When I really took the time to learn more about the places where they are grown and to taste them patiently and in context (and not just wine a sales rep who’s pulled them out of a chilled wine bag on a hot summer day in Los Angeles), I realized that these wines have a lot more substance than their deep-punted California-style bottles reveal at first sight.

Both the 1998 classic Taurasi and the 2004 single-vineyard Taurasi Pago dei Fusi (which I don’t believe is available in the U.S.) really blew me away with their sheer beauty. Great wines with a great story that has yet to be told…

Thank you, Daniela, for the wonderful visit and the gracious hospitality. That was such an eye-opening and memorable visit!

This is just the first in my series of posts from Naples and Campania. Stay tuned and thanks for being here…