71 Gattinara Monsecco (Conte Ravizza), Lenny Bruce, and BrooklynGuy

One last “wines and the city,” killer wines I tasted last week in NYC…

Beyond the “farmed content” found on aggregate sties (which tries to get you to land on their pages in order to show you advertising), there’s not much info out there in the interwebs about the 1971 Gattinara Monsecco Conte Ravizza by Le Colline, Vercelli, which I got to taste last week thanks to the generosity of BrooklynGuy’s childhood friend Dan (who reminded me, in all the best ways, of my favorite Litvishe Jew, Lenny Bruce, and as it turns out, whose father represented Lenny Bruce is his legal battle against censorship! Incredible!).

The bottle we shared (thanks to Dan, paired with BrooklynGuy’s stunning bread-crumb- and marjoram-encrusted rack of lamb, above) had a strip label on the front that reported: “selected and shipped by Neil Empson, Milan.” On the back, there was a round label that reported: “Acquired from a private cellar [by] Acker, Merrall, & Condit,” the famed rare wine broker of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

In 1985, Sheldon Wasserman didn’t offer a tasting note for this wine in Italy’s Noble Red Wines, but he did write that “Luigi & Italo Nervi places 1971 among the worst vintages [for this appellation] and Travaglini puts it with the best! Antonio Rossi gave it three stars, Niederbacher, one. Obviously a controversial vintage. We never agreed with the three-star rating. Nevertheless, we find that all are too old now. At Le Colline they consider their ’71 Monsecco on a par with the ’64, so it should still be good.”

Dan mentioned that he had experienced some serious bottle variation in the lot he acquired but, man, this wine was off-the-charts good. Fresher than I would have expected on the nose (topped off? perhaps; the bottle was definitely reconditioned), with gentle berry fruit on the nose and on the palate, and wonderfully integrated tannin. I agreed with BrooklynGuy’s approach of not decanting this wine and opening it right before service (for the record, Dan had brought it over a few nights before and BrooklynGuy left it standing up right for more than 24 hours). Great wine…

Before we got to the Gattinara, BrooklynGuy reached into his cellar for a 2000 Moccagatta by Produttori del Barbaresco, which paired superbly with a savory mushroom flan that he prepared for our Brooklyn repast. Frankly, I was surprised by how tannic this wine was, especially considering the fact that Moccagatta tends to come around earlier than some of the more powerful crus (like Montestefano or Rabajà). At 10 years out, it seems to be closing down but with a little aeration we coaxed out some bramble and red berry fruit balanced by the mushroom and earth that are Produttori del Barbaresco’s signature. Killer wine…

This last trip to NYC was an intense one: after heading back through the sludge to the city, Verena and I wrote one more song before calling it a night… Someday, if that nowhere song for nobody ever gets recorded, I’ll play it for BrooklynGuy.

I didn’t get to do a lot of socializing or fancy eating this time around. But I was really glad to connect with BrooklynGuy, who’s become a super good friend.

I remember a time, not so many years ago, when he and I first met in person, in San Diego. Life then for me was good but didn’t have the direction and purpose it has today. At a taco shop in La Jolla (where Tracie P and I would later hold the rehearsal dinner for our wedding some two years later), BrooklynGuy — with the wisdom of a rabbinic Lenny Bruce — reminded me gently of the goodness in me and pointed out confidently that I would find my path again. He probably didn’t realize then how much those words meant to me. I hope some day I can return the favor…

New York Stories 5: 3 Jews, a Scot, a Piedmontese, a Turk, and 2 Swiss walk into a vertical of cult Barolo

One Manhattan evening, top New York sommelier (and I mean, king of the hill, top of the heap) Levi Dalton (center, standing, my personal Philip Marlowe of wine) did a true mitzvah: knowing what a wonderful thing it would be for McDuff (left), BrooklynGuy (seated, center), Lyle, and me to get together, he managed to finagle a seat for each of us at vertical tasting and dinner at swank Alto with Peter Weimer, German Swiss cult Barolo producer, owner of Cascina Ebreo (Jew Farm) in Novello (Barolo).

Peter’s importer was also there, Dino, a simpatico German-speaking Turk and New York wine scene character, who also brought of a bottle of Giacomo Conterno 2002 Monfortino (see Lyle’s notes on the Monfortino).

Peter’s Torbido! is an aggressively traditional wine, made with native yeasts and long maceration, unfiltered. I thought 1999 showed beautifully and the 2004, however youthful, promises to be a superb wine. The big hit of the evening was 1998, which I also loved.

It was thoroughly great to see the Jew crüe and speculation as to why the farm is called Cascina Ebreo led to colorful exegesis.

Peter and Dino took many smoke breaks during the event, prompting me to recall an old Italian joke: who smokes more than a Turk? Two Turks!

I was happy to see Dino (whom I’ve known for many years) and to get to chat and taste the wines with Peter.

And wow, whatta mensch, that Levi Dalton, for getting the gang all together…!!! It was, as Lyle put it, a “Mt. Rushmore of wine bloggers,” or, in the words of McDuff, a “meeting of the menches“…

New York Stories 4: amazing seafood lunch with BrooklynGuy

I had the extremely good fortune to be invited to Saturday lunch in the home of BrooklynFamily, where lucky guests are greeted with a glass of sherry.

Black Tuscan kale and watermelon radish salad.

Seafood for their home is sourced at the Grand Army Plaza weekly farmers market.

BrooklynGuy delivered his noodles al dente with the deft hand of a seasoned pro.

We joked about how when wine bloggers like us get together, it’s like when we were teenagers and went over to our friend’s house so said friend “could play his records” for us. An apt analogy!

Same-day catch flounder dredged lightly in fine cornmeal and flour and sautéed gently in extra-virgin olive oil, Savoy cabbage and celery root slaw on the side.

Dessert was utterly earthy and delicious.

BrooklynGuy’s blog is my number-one resource for finding great value in Burgundy and Champagne. If you’re not following, you don’t know what you’re missing!

Good Italian food and wine grow in Brooklyn


Above: The Bisci Verdicchio di Matelica was just one of the killer wines poured for me and BrooklynGuy by Albano Ballerini at his excellent restaurant Aliseo Osteria del Borgo in Brooklyn. Aliseo doesn’t really have a website (although it does have a FB). Trust me: just go there and ask Albano to bring you food and wine.

May is the most beautiful month in Brooklyn. When I visited with Tracie P, her gorgeous blue eyes sparkled in the springtime sunshine of Brooklyn Heights by the waterfront. And when I returned — alas, alone this time during my work week — for dinner with BrooklynGuy and Brooklyn Lady, I discovered that the sunny days of May and its temperate nights are ideal for fine wine and dining in this borough so often neglected by the gastronomically minded.


Above: This Colline Pescaresi 2008 Pecorino by Ciavolich was awesome. Originally from the Marches, owner Albano (an ex-fashion photographer) offers his patrons a tidy but impressive list of wines from the central Adriatic coast of Italy — probably the best representation of the Marches and Abruzzo I’ve seen.

I must confess that I loved everything about Albano Ballerini’s Aliseo Osteria del Borgo: the décor, the vibe, the food, and the excellent wine list. I can see why it’s become one of BrooklynGuy’s favorite haunts. Albano and chef Gustavo Fernandez seem to operate in perfect synchronicity and symphony.


Above: Handmade spaghetti alla chitarra tossed with herbs and fresh pistachios were off-the-charts good.

Who knows how many lives Albano has lived? He’s a real character (un vero personaggio) and an ex-fashion photographer who loves (and knows) great food and wine. When you enter his restaurant, you enter his world, you enter his stories, and you are bound (quite literally) to eat and drink well.


Above: Even something as simple as Gustavo’s grilled steak and pork loin was prepared and presented with such care and poetry that the experience (very reasonably priced) went from A to A+.

When I moved to Brooklyn back in 1997, there was no Al di là, Convivio, or Franny’s (these names will not be unfamiliar to anyone who watched Brooklyn’s culinary street cred grow in the late 90s and early 00s). Back then there was just Cucina on 5th Ave. (remember that joint?).

Albano is an amazing and ambitious gourmand and gourmet and a great host. His tidy wine list is probably the most interesting gathering of central Adriatic wines in this country.


Above: This 50% Montepulciano and 50% Merlot from the 2001 vintage was killer (and I do not use that term lightly where Merlot is concerned!). I’d heard of Serenelli’s wines but had never tasted them. I’d really love to taste the winery’s Rosso Conero (pronounced KOH-neh-roh btw).

Thanks again, BrooklynGuy and BrooklynLady, for hipping me to this excellent dining destination. Great stuff. Highly recommended.

Aliseo Osteria del Borgo
(no website)
665 Vanderbilt Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11238-3831
(718) 783-3400

osteria del borgo

On right health and good pleasure

Above: Pope Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina prefect of the Vatican Library, fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, c. 1477 (Vatican Museums). That’s Platina kneeling. Click the image for the entire fresco.

The title of today’s post is a play-on-words, a riff on the canonical translation of Bartolomeo Platina’s De honesta voluptate et valetudine, On Right Pleasure and Good Health (as translated, superbly, by Mary Milham in 1998). Italian humanist, gastronome, and literary consultant to some of the most important cultural and political figures of his time, Platina authored a treatise considered by many the earliest printed work on gastronomy. It was overwhelmingly popular in Europe from the time of its initial publication in the late 15th century through the 17th century, by which time it appeared in myriad translations from the Latin. (I know a little about Platina and his book since I translated the 15th-century Italian recipe collection by Maestro Martino from which Platina drew heavily).

In the mind of the Renaissance humanist, good health and right pleasure were inexorably linked. As food historian Ken Albala illustrated so eloquently in his 2002 Eating Right in the Renaissance, inhabitants of 15th-century Italy believed — rightly — that everything you put into your body affected your health, emotionally, intellectually, and physically.

Sumus quales edamus: we are what we produce (äfere), we are what we eat (lèdere).

I’m no Renaissance man but I do believe that right pleasure and good health go hand in hand, so to speak.

That’s why I’m thinking today about “right health”: President Obama’s signing of the new health care legislation (however flawed, however riddled by political posturing) marks for me the fulfillment of a dream (both personal and civic). As David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times today, “The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago… Speaking to an ebullient audience of Democratic legislators and White House aides at the bill-signing ceremony on Tuesday, Mr. Obama claimed that health reform would ‘mark a new season in America.’ He added, ‘We have now just enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care.'”

As a long-time self-employed translator, writer, copywriter, and musician/songwriter, health care has always been a primary issue for me. To my mind and in my heart as a member of American society, the inequality of health care in our country has always represented a tragedy in our affluent nation.

So today I ask you to consider a step forward in our country, toward an inalienable right that is guaranteed, however imperfectly, to citizens in most Western countries.

What’s next? Will we outlaw the death penalty? I’d certainly drink to that.

In other news…

Please read BrooklynGuy’s excellent post today, with its oxymoronic title, How to Buy Excellent Cheap Wine.

A post dedicated to mama Judy

From the di mamma ce n’è una sola department…

judy parzen

Above: That’s mama Judy visiting Christo’s Gates in Central Park in 2005.

Today is my mom’s birthday and so this post is dedicated to her. Last year, we held a special party for her in the La Jolla Cove Park but now that I’m living in Texas I can’t be there on her actual birthday and so I wrote a special arrangement of Happy Birthday and recorded it on my Mac using GarageBand and made a little slide show movie, with all of her children and grandchildren, including the newest arrival, little Oscar.

Mama Judy likes to drink wine when she throws her famous dinner parties. Like BrooklynGuy does for his parents, I keep her cellar (well, her closet actually) well stocked with good wine. Most recently, she’s been liking the Lini Lambrusco (the rosé in particular), Borgogno Barbera 2007, and her all-time favorite is probably the Chablisienne village Chablis.

Happy birthday, mom!

BBQ porn: the Salt Lick, Driftwood, Texas

I’ve been investigating the story behind the inexplicable Decanter post that appeared on Friday and I’ll hope to have some answers tomorrow. In the meantime, enough with this mishegas… it’s Sunday and time for something fun…


BrooklynGuy may give me a bad case of Pinot Noir envy, but when it comes to bbq, I got his number…

The Salt Lick
18300 FM Rd 1826
Driftwood TX 78619

My work situation has changed recently (and happily) and I’m back to my life as an amanuensis of wine. One of my new clients takes me down to Driftwood, in the Texas Hill Country (about 23 miles southwest of Austin), where there are number of locally owned wineries. After a meeting the other day, I FINALLY ate at the famed Salt Lick.

Folks are pretty serious about their barbecue out here in Texas and the Salt Lick is widely considered one of the best.

I ordered the mixed plate (in the photo above) and frankly, I was a little disappointed with the brisket, which, as the smoke ring reveals, was evenly smoked but was dry and not tender. But the ribs were — hands down — among the best I’ve ever had and so was the sausage. The former, done in the Memphis style, basted with tangy barbecue sauce as it was smoked, fell apart on the bone. The latter was juicy and tender and the casing cracked deliciously.

I loved the German-style potato salad and the coleslaw was truly homemade, fresh and crunchy and not too saucy. But the thing that takes the Salt Lick from A to A+ was the setting (above), in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. Driftwood retains that western trail, cowboy feel, and the staff was informed friendly and gracious, making the Salt Lick a must-visit. They allow BYOB as well. Nebbiolo anyone? Or maybe some Lambrusco before the summer ends…

Happy Sunday, y’all!

Facebook and oxidized stinky Fiano pair nicely

Above: Fiano d’Avellino grapes on the De Conciliis estate in Cilento (Campania, Italy).

Isn’t Facebook a trip? It gives us a view unto the personal lives and sometimes very intimate details of people whose lives would not ordinarily intersect with ours in the real-time world (as opposed to the virtual world). The vicissitudes we witness in this strange new medium are sometimes moving in ways — perhaps because of the degree of separation yet lack of alientation — unexpected and often welcome.

I had never met him, save for a phone interview I did with winemaker Bruno de Conciliis many years ago. After I tasted his 2004 Antece last year at Bacaro in Los Angeles, I looked for him on Facebook because I wanted to write him and tell him how much I liked this stinky, oxidized expression of Fiano d’Avellino, one of Campania’s most ancient grape varieties and one that has a enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades: it’s macerated with skin contact for 7 days, he wrote me, and, as he put it in a Facebook message, “we try for oxidation.” His approach is to “let what easily oxidizes oxidize. The rest is welcomed.” The resulting unfiltered wine (aged in large old-oak casks) is delightful, rich and aromatic, with some tannic structure. It’s a great example of natural wine. Bruno rightly calls it Antece or the ancients (akin to the Italian, antici; the penultimate syllable is the tonic): gauging from my knowledge of ancient winemaking (as described in Columella and Pliny), I believe that this wine is very similar to the wine produced in antiquity (and probably until the 18th century in Italy). (It reminds me of IWG’s excellent post, Interview with the Ancients.)

Bruno wrote that it’s his favorite wine he’s ever made and he sent me these photos. Facebook and wine seem to pair nicely together, don’t they?

In other news…

When is Brooklynguy gonna get a Facebook? Fugedaboudit.

Maremma, part 3: drinking from the holy grails

Ante scriptum: In keeping with a tradition established by Brooklynguy, a wine blogger whom I admire greatly, I feel obliged to make note of the fact that this is my 300th post. I can only echo his typically deadpan understatement, “It has been such a pleasure to write this blog, mostly because of the community of wine people it has given me access to.” Earlier this year, Vino al Vino and Do Bianchi launched a blog born through a virtual transatlantic conversation. Today, My Life Italian and Do Bianchi are driving up to Dallas from Austin to dine with Italian Wine Guy. There are truly remarkable people behind all of these URLs: Neil, Franco, Tracie B, and Alfonso are four people whose lives wouldn’t have intersected with mine if not for blogging, and there are so many others… I am truly thankful for all of them in my life…


Above: Sebastiano Rosa (left) gave me a tour of the storied vineyards where the grapes of his family’s Sassicaia are produced.

My September pilgrimage to the Mecca of Super Tuscia (how’s that for a neologism?) would not have been complete without a visit to the holy grails of Super Tuscandom, Ornellaia and Sassicaia. These wines need no introduction and a click-through to their websites and a Google search will give you plenty of information on their illustrious history and their presence in the market today.

Above: I visited the famed Masseto vineyard, where Ornellaia grows its top Merlot grapes, just days before picking began. While others in the area had already begun to harvest their Merlot, Ornellaia extended hang time to achieve riper fruit and higher sugar levels.

I’ve tasted these wines a number of times over the years and although I am not a fan (nor can I afford to be), they are among the greatest — if not the greatest and most original — expressions of the genre: elegant terroir-driven wines, made with French varieties grown on Tuscan soil, structured and nuanced, long-lived and highly coveted in the market.

My visit to Sassicaia was impressive for how unassuming the facility is. Sebastiano Rosa, whose family owns the legendary estate, is a dude about my age who studied enology at UC Davis. He speaks English like a Californian (like me) and his family’s winery has remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century. There is no vaulted-ceiling entrance or grand tasting room. And aside from the introduction of stainless-steel, the winemaking facility and vinificiation practices are pretty much the same as they have been since the wine was first produced in the 1940s (and first released in 1968). I tasted with Sebastiano and then we drove up to see one of the growing sites. He is one of Italy’s top winemakers and produces one of its most sought-after wines. But he struck me as a mellow guy with whom I’d rather drink a beer and roll a taco…

Above: as Ornellaia’s vineyard manager, Leonardo Raspini oversees some of the most coveted growing sites in the world, producing wines that command top prices on the world wine market.

Ornellaia is the polar opposite: as you drive through manicured estate and arrive at the corporate offices and winery, you are keenly aware that every detail has been scripted to evoke the same opulence and prestige contained in each precious bottle.

Above: the aging room at Ornellaia is a temple of barrique.

If you’re traveling to Bolgheri, I cannot recommend a visit to Ornellaia highly enough. From the winery and vineyard tour to the elegant tasting cottage, this was simply one of the most enjoyable, user-friendly, and informative winery visits you can make. And unlike Sassicaia, the winery is open to the public: you must reserve in advance and they will customize the tasting according to your palate and your price point (Ornellaia possesses an extensive library of older vintages). He’s not always available but if possible, request vineyard manager Leonardo Raspini as your guide. I was blown away by his ability to convey the artistry of state-of-the-art winemaking technology and philosophy and I was thrilled to shake the hand of the guy who grows the grapes for the first Italian wine to be sold in the Place de Bordeaux.

This just in…

Sue me, Summus. The Italian news weekly L’Espresso reports that nearly 50% of Banfi’s 2003 Brunello has been declassified.

The cork conundrum continues

Above: why don’t you just walk all over me? A zerbino (doormat) made out of corks by my friend Dana.

My post “Murder the Moonshine: Considerations on Corkiness” generated some interesting comments last week. I’ve made a selection below. Also, be sure to check out Brooklynguy’s excellent post on corkiness, where he speaks with candor uncommon in the world of wine blogging, and Craig Camp’s I’m-as-mad-as-hell frustration with cork taint in a favorite Chablis.

The bottom line? The issue of cork taint in “on-premise” (restaurant) sales remains a conundrum.* There’s no easy solution.


The practice of handing the recently disengorged cork to the customer is equally confusing, since no one seems to know what to do. Sniff it, squeeze it, taste it?


Many people will object to the sommelier tasting the wine first, especially at today’s prices. On whether the wine is corked, sensitivity to corkiness will vary among persons, if the sommelier isn’t especially sensitive to corkiness it presents a problem to a customer who is.


It would be nice to see some of the more ridiculous aspects of so-called wine etiquette erased from Western dining culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this problem only seems to occur in countries without a long wine tradition (e.g., the USA and the UK).


It always presents an odd situation when you are forced to determine, immediately after the bottle is open, while conversation at the table has stopped, to tell whether a bottle is flawed. Sometimes it’s immediately obvious, but many times not. I hate that feeling after I’ve “approved” a wine and then consumed 1/3 of the bottle only to have a serious flaw to appear with aeration. Of course knowledgeable wine staff will get it, but less experienced servers will undoubtedly be confused…

Tracie B.:

I say yes, isn’t this the job of the sommelier? BUT, in restaurants without one (read: most of the ones I patronize), I would certainly prefer to determine this myself. Waitstaff is typically sorely undereducated, much more than some of them seem to think.


I always feel like I am being asked to perform a slightly embarrassing role in this – I completely agree, anachronistic – ritual. The sommelier pours the wine, and I am expected to knowingly swirl, sniff, quaff, pretending to know what I am tasting for (I haven’t a clue) and the sommelier pretends to defer to my educated judgment (no doubt sniggering inwardly at my obvious confusion.) It is a useless exercise and I always imagine a laugh track somewhere in the background at my expense.


Bring back the classic tastevin!

* “At the time of the Enlightenment, the OED reports, the word gained a sense of ‘a riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a pun or play on words.’ In modern times, the punning sense of conundrum atrophied, unfortunately for wordplayers, leaving only the sense of helpless speculation. The meaning is now ‘a question whose answer can only be guessed at.’ Where in antiquity did Ben Jonson find the word? Lexicographers throw up their harmlessly drudging hands and say, ‘Origin obscure’; the etymology of conundrum can best be described by itself.”
— William Safire