Lucky to be alive and a lot to live for

The rain just didn’t want to stop falling as Étienne, John, and I made our way from Austin to Dallas yesterday for business meetings and a tasting of Étienne’s family’s wines. My friends and family know that I am a very cautious, prudent driver, even to the point that some will tease me. It was one of those bad Texas rain storms, a “white-knuckle” tempest as some would say, and so I maintained a pretty steady 60 mph as we headed north on I-35. It wasn’t long after my habitual pit-stop at Italy, Texas, about 30 minutes outside of Dallas, that a gold Mercedes spun out of control about 150 yards ahead of us, bouncing off the median divider and sliding lengthwise across the highway directly in our path. I swear, and John, who was in the front passenger seat, told me that he had the same experience: everything seemed to appear in slow motion, despite the celerity with which events unfolded. I didn’t want to break too hard because the road was wet. We were in the middle of three lanes. My instinct told me to swerve right to avoid the oncoming car but I glanced in my right-side mirror and saw there was an 18-wheeler behind me in the far-right lane. It seemed that we were going to collide with the Mercedes head-on.

In that moment, I thought I was going to die.

But then a miracle happened: the Mercedes seemed to bounce off of the front bumper of my Hyundai, like a billiard ball, and it kept moving, colliding with the truck that had passed me on the right. It then flew back across the freeway in front of us and finally stopped moving when it hit the median divider. By this point, I had managed to stop my car.

We were lucky to be alive. The driver of the Mercedes was alive and conscious and the emergency team arrived swiftly and took him away.

The right side of my bumper had been dislodged but a tap put it back into place. There’s barely a scratch on my car. A miracle.

Beyond the adrenaline rush, Étienne, John, and I were 100% fine.

Later, that night, following long meetings and a tasting, Alfonso hosted us all for dinner at his house. We paired his chipotle-chili-marinated, grill-fired pork and baked potatoes with the Étienne’s Domaine de Montille 2006 Volnay 1er cru Les Mitans and a Produttori del Barbaresco 2001 Barbaresco Pora. Étienne told me with a big smile, “you can write on your blog that I love Barbaresco!”

We were lucky to be alive.

We got back to our hotel around 10 p.m. and retired and I was finally able to call Tracie B, who shared the wonderful news that her childhood friend Jennifer had posted our engagement photos on her blog. (Click the photo above to see them all, if you like.)

I don’t know that everything happens for a reason, and even though I believe in God, I’m not sure there is a divine plan. I do know that I love Tracie B with all my heart and all my soul and the joy that she has brought into my life is the greatest miracle anyone could wish for. To imagine my life without her is to imagine a life without meaning, direction, or purpose. I can’t say that “my life passed before my eyes” in the moment of the crash. All I could think about was how I’ve finally arrived at this moment after a life that has certainly been interesting but never entirely fulfilled: I have the love of the sweetest, most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, I have my health and my mind, both of our families are with us and healthy and soon will share the joy of our union. And there was even one of Tracie B’s savory oatmeal cookies left in my wine bag for breakfast this morning…

The story behind La Licenziana vs. Vicenziana Barbaresco

Silvio Giamello 2005 Barbaresco Vicenziana, made from grapes in the Ovello cru of Barbaresco. Vicenziana is a named place (a lieu-dit, in French) in the cru and lies in the northernmost area of this famous growing site. Photo by Tracie B.

We depend so much today on the immediacy of the internet for information and today, more than ever, there is so much information available to consumers on wines, wineries, and wine prices — via blogging, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and subscription archives like WineSearcher and CellarTracker.

I was thoroughly impressed when I tasted the 2005 Barbaresco Vicenziana by Silvio Giamello the other day but deeply disappointed when my Google search for info about the wine proved fruitless. So I figured I’d do things the old-fashioned way: I decided to call Silvio and looked for his number at PagineBianche.it. But this dude’s not even in the phone book!

I finally found another Giamello who owned an azienda agricola (literally a farming estate or farming company) and called him in the hopes that they were relatives (there are a lot of Giamellos in Piedmont!). He didn’t have Silvio’s number but he gave me just enough geographical information to find the winery. Sheesh!

So here’s the story behind this wine…

The estate, Silvio told me, is called La Licenziana. It was planted to Nebbiolo and Dolcetto by Sivlio’s grandfather and it lies in the northernmost part of Barbaresco in Ovello (one of the famed Barbaresco crus), just a few rows in the western part of the cru, with south-eastern exposure. Silvio’s father used to bottle small amounts of the wine but sold most of the fruit to Langa négociants and also made some bulk wine. About ten years ago, Silvio decided to start bottling Barbaresco and when he researched the origins of his family’s growing site, he consulted municipal records and discovered that the name Licenziana was a dialectal corruption of Vicenziana. In antiquity, the estate was owned by a Roman noble named Lolio Vicenziano (I was able to find some info on Lolio but not much and I imagine his Latin name was Lollius, but I’ll have to get to the bottom of that later). According to Silvio, the estate was called Villa Gentiana in antiquity: villa means farmhouse in Latin and my hunch is that the designation gentiana might have been derived from gens, which means race, clan, or house, and often denotes Roman upper-class Roman citizens. In other words, it probably meant noble farmhouse. Somewhere along the way, Villa Gentiana became Vicenziana, according to Silvio.

I liked the wine so much that I bought a bottle and Tracie B and I drank it last night with a little sausage ragù that I made.

This wine was all earth, mushroomy and savory, my favorite style of Barbaresco, what I like to call “rustic.”

Silvio told me that he employs integrated farming practices and vinifies (no surprise here) in a traditional style (large old-oak cask aging).

His maximum production is around 5,000 bottles and he made roughly 3,000 of the 2005.

When I mentioned to him that there is very little info available about his wines on the internet, he said that he likes it that way: “I’m in no hurry to let people know about my wines,” he told me. It reminded of the story that Maria Teresa Mascarello told me about how her father, the legendary Bartolo, didn’t want a phone in their home. When the young Teresa complained, Bartolo finally relented and told her she could have a phone but it had to be registered in her name.

Silvio does have an email address and he promised to send me info on the 2009 harvest… but only when they’re done picking the grapes. I guess I’ll just have to wait!

Great wine, highly recommended for the pricepoint.

Celebratory 2001 Pora and Walter Benjamin: reunited with my library

“Unpacking My Library” is the title of one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous essays. On the surface, it is an entertaining essay about a harmless self-indulgence of one of Europe’s leading literary minds between the two world wars. But the underlying text is a study of the nature of book collecting and how our understanding of literature and culture is shaped through the very medium by which they are transmitted to us. Ecce textual bibliography and the study of how the medium (the signifier) affects the meaning (the signified).

Walter Benjamin famously “fished for pearls” in his legendary library. The depression that he suffered when he fled from the Nazis and was separated from his precious books is as tragic as his senseless death by suicide on the Spanish-French border in 1940 — a day away from freedom.

I’m no Walter Benjamin (by no means) and I am blessed to live in a time and place of relative prosperity and stability and freedom of thought and speech.

Yesterday, after two years of separation, Tracie B and I began unpacking my library after it arrived from my storage space in Manhattan here in my new home, Austin, Texas.

I cannot tell you my joy at being reunited with my Petrarchs, my Pasolinis, my Benjamins, my dictionaries (my Goldoni dictionary edited by Gianfranco Folena! my Cortelazzo etymologic dictionary!), and my countless tomes on food and wine.

There is so much information available today on the internet and the Google Library project is a promising if controversial initiative. But… books, books! Nothing can take the place of these glorious little information-delivery machines!

And the dulcis in fundo was a little sedicesimo of poems and songs on wine written in Neapolitan dialect. My lovely Tracie B curled up on the couch as I continued to unpack and read me sweet rhymes on wine with her soothing Neapolitan cadence. Today, she shared some of our Sunday afternoon with a translation of one of the poems on her blog.

To celebrate last night, we ordered pizza (please don’t tell Franco, but we were beat after a day of unpacking!) and drank a bottle of 2001 Barbaresco Pora by Produttori del Barbaresco (I picked it up for a song in a closeout sale here in Austin). The wine was rich and almost Barolo-like in its power, unusual for Pora which is generally softer and rounder among the Produttori del Barbaresco crus. The 2001 — a great vintage for this wine — is closing up right now and I’m putting my two remaining bottles away, to be revisited in a few years and maybe more.

Pondering my copy of Benjamin’s Reflections which now lives happily again on my desk, I couldn’t help but think of Pora and Barbaresco as a terroir and a text, a text delivered to our palates via the medium of Nebbiolo.

Tonight, I won’t bore Tracie B with my collection of essays on the history of punctuation or my introduction to old Occitan. She’s promised to make me something out of the cookbook by nineteenth-century Neapolitan noble Ippolito Cavalcanti! :-) Something having to do with escarole, eggs, and Parmigiano Reggiano… mmmmmmmm…

Happy Labor Day, y’all!

Birthday-anniversary week part I: 99 Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano

NEWS FLASH This just in: we’ve posted the list of wines we’ll be pouring at the first-ever San Diego Natural Wine Summit on August 9 at Jaynes Gastropub. On Weds. and Thurs. next week, I am the guest sommelier at Jaynes. Please come out to see me and taste together if you’re in town!

Above: My favorite way to enjoy great Nebbiolo is with cheese. At Central Market, a block from my apartment, I found Robiola, Toma, and Castelmagno (each from Piedmont) and a Val d’Aosta Fontina. The Castelmagno hadn’t been handled properly but the others were good, especially the Robiola. It’s remarkable to think that these moldy creations find their way to central Texas.

Tuesday night’s birthday celebration centered around a gift of 1999 Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano (white label) that my true love gave to me for the occasion. She saw me eyeing the bottle a few weeks ago in a San Antonio fine wine shop. I hate to give away one of our best-kept secrets down here in Texas but, as Italian Wine Guy noted the other day, there are lots of shops here and in the Midwest where wine connoisseurs have collected great European wines without the inflated New York, Los Angeles, and Napa/Sonoma/San Francisco prices (I actually know a great place in San Diego, too, but I’m going to keep that best-kept secret to myself!). At this particular retailer in San Antonio, you can find a lot of older Nebbiolo at prices only marked up slightly from the release price (like a 2001 Faset by Castello di Verduno, one of my favorite producers, picked up for a song). The other element that makes things interesting is that few — if any — of these shops put their inventory online (in part because — and I don’t mean this in a disparaging way — they are Luddites when it comes to anything intraweb-related and in part because anachronistic blue laws prevent/impede them from selling their products online or via email). As a result, the inventories are not picked over by internet surfers: you have to visit the store in situ to peruse the wines.

The day that Tracie B and I happened to visit the store in question, everything in the store was 20% off (in fact, the owner gives 20% off on the entire stock every Friday and Saturday). I’m not saying this to attenuate the value of the wonderful gift she gave me but let’s just say — moral of the story — that we didn’t have to break the bank to enjoy a truly extraordinary bottle of wine.

Tracie B made me a blueberry pie with fresh blueberries for my birthday, a tradition started a long time ago by mama Parzen.

I have always detested the Mao Squires/Parker disciples who squeal and scream that opening a bottle like this is “infanticide.” That’s just hogwash. It’s always interesting to open great Nebbiolo and see where it is in its evolution and it’s ridiculous to think that we all have to be like them and drink wine in freezing wine bunkers (the way they do, hence their blue blood) and wait for every single bottle to be at its peak when we drink it. This 10-year-old beauty (made in a vintage when Giacosa didn’t make a Santo Stefano reserve) was stunning. It was one of those wines that left both of us speechless, with gorgeous fruit and earthy flavors. (Btw, Ken Vastola authors an excellent registry of the wines of Giacosa here).

It’s been such a special week for me and for me and Tracie B — with all the well wishes and congratulations. Thank you, everyone, from the bottom of my heart…

@Trace B thanks for sharing such an incredible bottle of wine for my birthday. I already felt like the luckiest guy in the world… :-)

On deck: Part II, 1991 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant… amazing wine and a crazy story of how we got it… stay tuned…

Gone fishin… Giant squid taco anyone?

Above: Tracie B gave me a pair of Fender Stratocaster head-stock cuff links as an early present for my birthday this year. The last year has been one of the best of my life… Meeting Tracie B and moving to Austin… but more on that tomorrow… :-)

Today is my birthday and so I’m taking the day off… goin’ fishin’, so to speak.

In the meantime, I’m going to relish every last drop of anticipation for the 1999 Barbaresco Santo Stefano by Giacosa that Tracie B is treating me to tonight to celebrate…

In other news… holy giant squid taco Batman!

In all my years growing up in La Jolla, I never saw anything like this. The video below was shot just a stone’s throw from where I lived as a kid and not far from where my mom and brother and his family live still. Amazing…

Drinking great at the G8? No great moment in history without Spumante

tony the tigerYou might remember my post White, Green, and Red All Over: Obama to eat patriotic pasta at G8 from a month ago. The G8 summit began today in L’Aquila in Abruzzo and the Italian press is relishing the Obamas’s every move with great gusto.

As Franco pointed out today at Vino al Vino, there was even a post today at the ANSA (National Italian Press Association Agency) site that includes not only the official schedule for today but also the official bottles of wine and spirits to be given to Italy’s “illustrious” guests. G8 members will receive a “magnum of Amarone Aneri 2003 in a wooden box on which the initials of each of the presidents or prime ministers present has been engraved. All official lunches will begin with a toast with Ferrari spumante, [a wine] which is never missing at great appointments with history [sic; can you believe that?]. As an official gift for the illustrious guests, a highly rare ‘Ferrari Perle’ Nerò has been chosen [sic; the wine is actually called Perlé Nero], together with ‘Solera’ Grappa by the Segnana distillery. 1-3 p.m.: working G8 lunch on global economy.” (The post at ANSA’s English-language site did not include the wines or plugs.)

The American press doesn’t seem to be taking the G8 Summit and Silvio Berlusconi’s carefully choreographed hospitality as seriously as the Italian press corps. “Inexcusably lax planning by the host government, Italy, and the political weakness of many of the leaders attending, leave little room for optimism,” wrote the editors of The New York Times today.

With more humble tone, I was forwarded an email from the Dino Illuminati winery announcing that one of its wines had been chosen as the official wine for the luncheon and another for the closing dinner tomorrow. “We are sure You’ll like to enjoy,” it read, “the very good news with us: Our wine ZANNA Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG 2006 has been choiced as official red wine for the G 8 lunch of Wednesday July, 08. Besides, our wine LORE’ ‘Muffa Nobile’ will be the dessert wine for the G 8 dinner of Thursday July, 09.”

I guess Dino didn’t make the ANSA deadline.

In other news…

Check out our post today at VinoWire: Barbaresco producers speak out on Giacosa’s decision not to bottle his 2006. Giacosa claims that the rains of September ruined the vintage but our post reveals other points of view.

Barbaresco and Barolo producers respond to negative reports in English-speaking press

Please read my translation of a press release issued just moments ago by the Barbaresco and Barolo producers associations.

I’m running out the door to do an Italian wine seminar in San Antonio (why do these things always get scheduled for the morning???!!!) and I will post more on this later — an issue that commands every Nebbiolophile’s attention!

In other news…

Today is Alice’s birthday. Happy birthday, Alice!

It’s also Randy’s birthday. Happy birthday Rev. B! (We all celebrated with him at his church yesterday in Orange). :-)

I had a great time in Orange for 4th of July weekend. Thanks again!

Giacosa responds to Ziliani

Giacosa 2006

Above: Tracie B and I tasted the 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba and 2006 Barbera d’Alba by Bruno Giacosa the other night with our friend and top Austin sommelier Mark Sayre. We all agreed that the wines showed beautifully. (photo by Tracie B).

Today, on his blog, Franco has posted a message he received from the Giacosa winery, signed by Bruno and Bruna Giacosa. My translation of the letter follows. The message was sent in response to Franco’s recent post on “the events surrounding Dante Scaglione” (see below).

    Dear Mr. Franco Ziliani,

    A few months ago, when it was decided (and certainly not without a heavy heart but after many tastings) that our 2006 vintage of Barolo and Barbaresco would not be bottled, no one thought that such a decision could give rise to so much controversy on behalf of certain persons.

    We believe that it is the full right of a winery to choose its own strategy with complete autonomy and serenity, especially when with the aim of maintaining the high level of quality of the winery’s products.

    In doing so, we had absolutely no intention to denigrate or demonize the 2006 vintage in general. We are sure that many wineries will put excellent products on the market. But in our opinion, the Giacosa winery’s 2006 wines — even though good in quality and entirely respectable — do not reach the excellence in quality to which our clients are accustomed.

    In regard to events surrounding Dante Scaglione, no one has ever dared to question his technical abilities. We all admire him and recognize what he has done as our able collaborator.

    We hope that we have definitively clarified any doubts in this regard because much has been said and much has been written — perhaps too much — often without deep-reaching knowledge of all of the details, especially with regard to the relationship between the winery and its collaborators. It is best for certain details to remain within the confines of “domestic walls.”

    Looking forward to the future, we hope to receive you soon as our guest at the winery to taste the new vintages of Barolo and Barbaresco together. It would be our pleasure.

    Best wishes, Bruno and Bruna Giacosa

Mourvèdre envy (and more on Giacosa)

Mourvèdre envy in Freudian psychoanalysis refers to the theorized reaction of a wine lover during her or his oenological development to the realization that she or he does not have access to old Bandol. Freud considered this realization a defining moment in the development of palate and oenological identity. According to Freud, the parallel reaction in those who have access to old Mourvèdre is the realization that others have access to old Nebbiolo, a condition known as Nebbiolo anxiety.

Above: Tracie B and I drank the current vintage of Tempier Bandol Rosé — made from Mourvèdre — by the glass with our excellent housemade sausage tacos at the Linkery in San Diego. Jay Porter’s farm-to-table menu and his homemade cruvinet are hugely popular. The food is always fun and tasty. Jay was one of the first San Diego restaurateurs to use a blog to market his restaurant.

Tracie B and I have had our share of great Mourvèdre lately: we were blown away by the flight of old Terrebrune Bandol — rosé and red — we got to taste last month in San Francisco at the Kermit Lynch portfolio tasting. As the Italians might say, we’re “Mourvèdre addicted.”

Above: Jayne and Jon serve Terrebrune Bandol Rosé in half-bottles at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego — a great summer aperitif wine and a fantastic pairing with Chef Daniel’s scallop ceviche. I was first hipped to Terrebrune by BrooklynGuy: it shows impressive character and structure and costs a lot less than Tempier.

So you can imagine how I began to salivate like Pavlov’s dog when I read BrooklynGuy’s recent post on a bottle of 1994 Tempier Rouge that he had been saving. Like Produttori del Barbaresco, Tempier represents a great value and the current release of the red is generally available at about $50 retail — the upper end of my price point ceiling. In other words, it’s a wine that even the modest wine collector can invest in with fantastic results. Despite the acute case of Mourvèdre envy that he gave me, I really liked BrooklynGuy’s profile of this “natural wine” producer and his tasting notes.

Nota bene: BrooklynGuy and I are both slated to appear in Saignée’s 31 Days of Natural Wine series. My post is schedule for June 20 and you might be surprised at what I had to say. Thanks again, Cory! I’m thrilled to get to participate with so many fantastic bloggers and writers.

In other news…

Above: That’s my lunch yesterday at Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana on the Texas-Arkansas border. Chicken fried chicken steak and tomato aspic stuffed with mayonnaise. Tracie B is gonna kill me if that gravy doesn’t… They sure are proud of their tomatoes in Arkansas and tomato season has nearly arrived.

So many blogs and so little time… I’m on my way back to Austin from Arkansas (where I’ve been hawking wine) and I wish I had time to translate Franco’s post on Bruno Giacosa’s decision not to bottle his 2006 Barolo and Barbaresco, the infelicitous manner in which the news was announced by the winery, and how the news was subsequently disseminated. Upon reading Decanter’s sloppy cut-and-paste job, one prominent wine blogger tweeted “note to self, don’t buy 2006 Barbaresco.” My plea to all: please know that 2006 is a good if not great vintage in Langa and please, please, please, read betweet the lines…

The “seventh” bullet in my wine bag

Adam Spencer

Above: Adam Spencer aka “Adam Spence,” one of the Clanton Cowboys Gang and one of the meanest sommeliers ’round these parts, faced off with the San Diego Kid (that’s me) in the outskirts of San Antonio yesterday at Saloon Pavil. He was ready for me but he didn’t count on the “seventh bullet” in my six-shooter wine bag.

Dusty and tired after a long day hawking wine in San Antonio, the San Diego Kid had a harrowing brush with death at Saloon Pavil where Adam “Spence” Spencer nearly sent him to his grave. Spence is one of the fastest hands around these parts and one of the best sommeliers the Kid’s ever met on the mean streets of Texas. His wine list is compact, studied, intelligent, original, and surprising. And his palate is as sharp and his wine service as polished as they come. The Kid’s French bottlings were no match for Spence but the Clanton Cowboy wasn’t counting on a 2001 Barbaresco Ovello that the Kid happened to have in his six-pack wine bag — the “seventh bullet.”

Cooper's BBQ

I cannot tell you how good that wine tasted — it had been open all day — with the tender pork loin and pork ribs at Cooper’s. The tannin, the fat of the meat, the gorgeous fruit, and the tanginess of the BBQ sauce made a long day of hawking wine all worth while.

Boy, was the San Diego Kid lucky to get out of San Anton’ alive! Delivered from danger once again by the skin of his teeth and the seat of his pants, he headed out to Cooper’s Old Time Bar-B-Que in New Braunfels where they allow outside wine “but no hard liquor.”

Cooper's BBQ

Above: Cooper’s in New Braunfels. Folks say that the Cooper’s in Llano, Texas is the best one but this one was purdy darn’ good.

The San Diego Kid then made his way to I-35 and sure was glad to get back to the loving arms of his Squaw in Austin.

By now, he knew the way from ol’ San Anton’ to Austin. Riding north from central Texas on his trusty horse and faithful companion Dinamite, he couldn’t help but hum a lil’ new country diddy he’s been working on:

GPS may get you where you wanna go/but it sure as hell don’t get ya’ into heaven…

In other news…

If you visit Do Bianchi, you know how much I love Produttori del Barbaresco. I’ve been collecting my Produttori del Barbaresco posts in a new opera aperta or open work blog called “My Own Private Produttori del Barbaresco”: if you’d like be a contributor, just send me an email and I’ll make you an author (you’ll need to register with WordPress.com first). The idea is that it will be an open blog where we can collect stories, anecdotes, tasting notes, and reflections on Produttori del Barbaresco. Content doesn’t need to be new, either… Thanks for reading!