Cinzia Merli, single mother, singular winemaker of Le Macchiole

Above: Cinzia Merli, owner Le Macchiole, with her enologist, former rugby player Luca D’Attoma, September 14, 2010.

There are few winemakers I know who possess the moral fortitude and spiritual clarity of Cinzia Merli, owner of Le Macchiole (Bolgheri), whom I met for the first time a few years ago when I was asked to interpret for her at a series of wine events.

And there are few human beings on this earth who possess such genuine and pure humanity. And she’s just a lot of fun to be around.

Above: Seafood in Bolgheri (in the upper Maremma) is fresh and plentiful. Cinzia and I had lunch at Nonna Isola (literally, Grandma Island) in Castiglioncello, a wonderful small seaside community, deliciously forgotten in the 1960s.

You certainly don’t need me to tell you about her famous wines, the astronomic scores they’ve garnered, and the regal prices they command. Ubi major minor cessat: Tom Hyland has written perhaps most amply on this winery and it wines. (Check out this post but also see this thread and the many tasting notes.)

Above: I was captivated by the sight of this 60s-era cinémathèque in Castiglioncello. Just imagine all the stories that have played out on and off the screen there!

There are many before me who have told the incredible story of Cinzia’s family: how she and her dynamic husband Eugenio transformed a small family vineyard, jug wines, and a tavola fredda (cold table) restaurant/café into one of the most coveted and collected labels in the world and how he then suddenly, unexpectedly, and tragically left this world for another.

The story not often retold is how the community around her expected her to sell or to fail after the loss nearly ten years ago. In the chauvinist world of Italian wine, few imagined that she would succeed as she has, raising her brand to the highest levels of American and Asian connossieurship and collectability.

Above: Cinzia often calls her wines her “children.” I got to taste through her current vintages and I am convinced that 2006 was a great vintage for Cinzia and her family. The Paleo (100% Cabernet Franc) was stunning in this vintage. I was impressed also by the acidity and (what seemed to me a) greater amount of Cabernet Franc in the 08 Bolgheri DOC and I wonder if she’s reclassified some of her 08 Paleo (not an easy vintage in Tuscany). This wine might represent the greatest value in a world of wines that I simply cannot afford. Tuscan Syrah is not what I personally or typically reach for but I know collectors will be rewarded by the unusually bright acidity and generous fruit in her sure-to-be-show-stopping 06 Scrio.

The story rarely retold is that Cinzia has achieved indisputable greatness in the world of wine while raising two boys on her own. The loss of her husband left her not only with their wines to look after but also two preteen youngsters, who have both now grown into happy, healthy, handsome young men (the elder has decided to pursue a career in wine).

The gorgeous fall day we had lunch (following a tremendous downpour the previous evening, not a good sign for 2010), Cinzia excused herself from the table to take a phone call. “It would seem that I need to get NASA involved,” said Cinzia, complaining about how long it was taking to fix a broken water heater in her home where she lives with her boys.

If only l’acqua calda (as the Italians like to say) was as easy to obtain as James Suckling’s 100-point score for her 2004 Messorio (100% Merlot).

In other news…

On the subject of Tuscan Syrah, be sure to taste Alfonso’s recent reflections on Tuscany.

And be sure to leaf through his Prosciutto Porn (where have I heard that before?), if only for the interview.

Maremma, part 2: bistecca panzanese at Osteria Magona in Bolgheri

Above: Omar Barsacchi and Gionata d’Alessi, chefs at Osteria Magona, the coolest joint in Bolgheri.

Osteria Magona
57022 Bolgheri (LI)
Piazza Ugo, 2/3
tel. 0565 762173

Whey they hear the toponym Bolgheri (pronounced BOHL-geh-ree), many think immediately of the Maremma coastline where Italy’s famed Super Tuscans are produced. But the appellation gets its name from Bolgheri the beautiful borgo medievale (medieval township), a village with delightful summertime nightlife, music, wine bars, and a handful of family-run osterie.

I had the good fortune to visit Bolgheri at the tail end of the summer this year to have dinner with Cinzia during my stay in the Maremma.

She, my buddy Ben Shapiro, and I met up at the Osteria Magona, run by Omar and Gionata, above, two young chefs who show great verve in their traditional Tuscan cooking (Gionata’s name is pronounced JOH-nah-tah and is a calque of the English Jonathan). Both young men consider themselves quasi-disciples of celebrity Tuscan butcher and poet Dario Cecchini of Panzano in Chianti Classico (I liked this profile of Cecchini.) Cecchini gained notoriety a few years back when he composed an ode to the bistecca alla fiorentina, bemoaning its ban by the European Union during the mad cow scare.

During that period, he developed a cut of beef, which he called the bistecca alla panzanese, named after his natio loco, Panzano, carved from the thigh (pictured above at Osteria Magona). It resembles the fiorentina but has no contact with bone and, thus, was acceptable under EU rules.

That night, we paired a gorgeous panzanese with Cinzia’s 2001 Messorio, a bottling with great emotional significance for her. I was honored that she shared it with me. Her Messorio is her most famous wine and has received high marks from U.S. wine writers in recent years. But sometimes a great wine isn’t about its fame, rarity, or even the physical pleasure derived from it. Sometimes it’s more about the people who made it and the people with whom you share it. Thanks, Cinzia. It’s a bottle I’ll never forget.

On deck: tasting at Ornellaia and Sassicaia… stay tuned…

Maremma, part 1: an unforgettable evening at La Pineta

Above: enologist Luca d’Attoma, restaurateur and chef Luciano Zazzeri, and winemaker Cinzia Merli at La Pineta in Marina di Bibbona (Maremma, Tuscany).

La Pineta
57020 Marina Di Bibbona (LI)
Via Cavalleggeri Nord, 13
tel. 0586 600371

The celebrated Trattoria La Pineta in Marina di Bibbona (Maremma) needs no plug from Do Bianchi. No visit to this stretch of the Tuscan coastline is complete without a meal there. I had the good fortune to dine there in September with my friend Cinzia Merli and her enologist Luca d’Attoma, one of the industry’s hottest and most colorful characters and a former rugby player.

The crudo — so fresh — rivaled the best sushi I’ve had in California and included “extreme” entries, like whole, melt-in-your-mouth raw shrimp.

The baby moscardini were perfectly tender and their savoriness was wonderfully balanced, as if chef Zazzeri had used sea water to season them.

Cinzia graciously treated us (my buddy Ben Shapiro was with us, too) to a bottle of Leflaive 2005 Bâtard-Montrachet, opulent and decadent (especially considering its youth).

You can also rent cabanas and beach chairs etc. during the day at La Pineta (and they have a classic 1960s-era snackbar). Ben and I had a walk around before sunset and I did some thinking about la dolce vita.

Up next: bistecca alla panzanese in Bolgheri… stay tuned…

La dolce vita, after all

Above: a pensive moment at dusk outside La Pineta, a fantastic seafood restaurant where I dined with Cinzia Merli and Luca d’Attoma last week, in Marina di Bibbona, on the Tuscan coast (photo by Ben Shapiro).

Strappo is sure to remind me that Fellini’s labyrinth of semiosis often led him to revise his explanations of signifier and signified in his films. But I believe the great Romagnolo director was telling the truth when he said that the expression la dolce vita referred not to the glamour of the Via Veneto but rather the sweetness that we find in life, even in our darkest moments of existential crisis.

[SPOILER: if you’ve not seen La dolce vita, I am about to reveal the final sequence!]

As Ben and I were waiting to meet our dining companions, Cinzia and Luca, the other night at La Pineta in Marina di Bibbona on the Tuscan riviera, I took a stroll alone and gazed out at the sea in one of those “what’s it all about, Alfie?” moments.

Just over a year ago, my life fell into turmoil when my mid-life crisis hit me like a freight train and I wished that I had gone straight but was side-swiped by a simple twist of fate. Today, I find myself in the Munich airport, on my way back to the States, exhausted but invigorated, excited about music and work, thankful to have so many wonderful folks in my life — some of them my oldest friends, some of them my newest.

Marcello turns his back on Paola, the young girl he met one day in a seaside trattoria. But before he returns to the party, he looks back and sees her irresistible smile — sweetness in his otherwise bankrupt existence. Maybe it’s the sweetness in a young girl’s smile, a plate of wholesome pici with ragù, a bunch of Greens dancing to Nous Non Plus in a forgotten border town along the Polish-East German border, or maybe it’s the waters of March. I believe there is a sweetness in life, to be revealed when you least expect it.

You don’t need to speak Italian to enjoy the clip below. Marcello has been partying all night with a lascivious crowd and the revelers find their way to the beach shortly after dawn…

In other news…

Yes, you can now add R.D. to my post-nomial Ph.D.: I was recently ordained as a Rock Doctor in the Universal Life Church and I’ll be officiating at the wedding of Jayne and Jon next Saturday.


What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
then I guess it’s wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,
what will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
and you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.

— Hal David and Burt Bacharach

“History has yet to be written in Bolgheri”

Above: Winemaker and owner of Le Macchiole Cinzia Merli — producer of one of Italy’s most talked-about wines — at Fraîche in Culver City, CA last night.

Last night found me in one of the most talked-about restaurants in America together with one of Italy’s most talked-about winemakers, Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole.

Ever since Frank Bruni included Fraîche (Culver City, CA) in his top 10 list of restaurants that “count coast-to-coast,” friends (from the left bank and right) have raved to me about its food. One of the guests at dinner last night told me you need to reserve four months in advance (although another noted, “we didn’t need Frank to tell us how good Fraîche is”).

It’s unlikely that I could ever get a reservation there but Cinzia Merli certainly can: her winery has been touted (pun intended) as the new Super Tuscan supreme and at least one of her bottlings has attained a Midas-touch 100-point score (conferred by the sole arbiter of such accolades). Her high-end, handmade wines retail for upward of $250 these days.

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am generally not a fan of Super Tuscans — wines by definition aged in new oak. But who could resist an invitation to dine with Italy’s newly anointed megawatt star at one of the hottest tables in America?

Above: Branzino with escargot tempura at Fraîche. I regret to say that the the restaurant was disappointing. I was expecting simpler, locally driven fare. But escargot tempura? The service was excellent but more than once our table had to send back stemware that smelled like a sewer (I’m not kidding). When you’re pouring $250+ bottles of wine, you’d hope that someone would pay attention. There didn’t seem to be a sommelier on duty that night. The vibe of the restaurant felt like a scene from Altman’s 1993 film “Short Cuts.”

Conversation with Cinzia was truly fascinating and all in attendance were keen to discuss her preference for monovarietal (single-grape variety) wines in an appellation that has historically favored Bordeaux-style blends.

“I believe that monovarietal wines are the greatest expression of Bolgheri’s terroir,” said Cinzia. “In the past, Bolgheri winemakers have felt that blended wines best expressed our terroir. But today the same producers who weren’t so thrilled about my monovarietal wines are now lobbying to change the appellation regulations and allow monovarietal wines [to be classified] as DOC.” (The Bolgheri DOC currently does not permit monovarietal wines.)

“Even though we have very important models for winemaking — Sassicaia and Ornellaia — the history of Bolgheri has yet to be written,” she told us.

Some notes from the dinner…

  • The name of Cinzia’s Paleo (today made from 100% Cabernet Franc) comes from a Tuscan word for tarraxacum, a dandelion that grows wild in Bolgheri. She does not weed her vineyards, thus allowing naturally occurring grasses and weeds to flourish. Tarraxacum was prevalent during the first vintage (1989). Paleo was originally made from a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese but became 100% Cabernet Franc with the 2001 harvest.
  • Messorio (her 100% Merlot, the most famous of her wines) is an archaic term for wheat farmer. Before Cinzia’s family planted their land to grapes, wheat was the most important crop grown there.
  • Her 100% Syrah is called Scrio, a Tuscan word for pure: Scrio and Messorio were first produced in 1994 and have always been vinified as monovarietal or “pure” wines.
  • It is believed that Le Macchiole, the name of Cinzia’s estate, comes from the Italian macchia or maquis, the dense scrub or brush that defines the landascape of Maremma (the Tuscan coastline).
  • Of all of her wines, my favorite is the Paleo because the bright acidity of her Cabernet Franc makes it her most food-friendly wine. The 2005 Messorio and the Scrio were opulent, rich with flavor, and they showed great minerality and depth. It will take some time (5-10 years?) for the wood to integrate in these wines but this vintage of Le Macchiole is clearly destined to be a benchmark for Bolgheri in years to come.

    My feelings about oak and the history of barrique aging in Italy continue to evolve: hopefully, my path will cross once again with Cinzia and I will get the chance to taste these powerful wines when they have had a chance to evolve.