Frank Cornelissen & the “zoo of Natural wine” @SottoLA

We had a truly epic dinner at Sotto last night with Frank Cornelissen (above with chef Zach Pollack, left, and chef Steve Samson, right).

Even though I’ve followed the wines for years, I’d never met Frank, who was visiting the U.S. for the first time with his wines (he had visited before he started making wine many years ago).

With all the mystery and aura that seems to surround him, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I discovered that he’s a super cool dude, very approachable and just fun to talk to.

We spoke at length about what he calls the “zoo of Natural wine.”

“Natural wine hasn’t been defined and so we really can’t call wine Natural,” he said, noting that he doesn’t care for the term.

I was thoroughly impressed by his concept of “high definition” wines and I admired the respectful tone with which he spoke of his neighbors on Etna.

He speaks impeccable Italian, btw.

Levi always gets mad at me for doing this but I’m so slammed today (while on the road in southern California) that I’ll have to post my complete notes, including Lou’s thoughts, when I have a moment to catch my breath…

In the meantime, the seared tuna with raisins, pinenuts, and bread crumbs was INSANE (first food photo). And the squid ink spaghetti with uni was possible my top dish for 2012… amazing… And wow, what a thrill to finally get to taste the (declassified) Magma.

Levi, I promise to post all my notes asap!

Stay tuned…

Why Cornelissen is on our list @SottoLA

Frank Cornelissen came from Belgium to Etna,” wrote Eric the Red in a recent New York Times piece, “where he makes extreme wines unlike almost any others on earth, which people tend to love or hate.”

Cornelissen’s supremely polarizing wines are a wine director’s worst nightmare. Because they are entirely unsulfured, there is extreme bottle variation in any allocation and secondary fermentation (and the resulting spritz) is more common than not. Because they are unfiltered and unfined, the wines are cloudy and have all kinds of nasty looking bits floating around in them. And the volatile acidity in the wines — there’s no way around this — can make them smell like shit when you first open them.

So why did I put them on my list at Sotto in Los Angeles (where I’ve been curating the carta dei vini since the restaurant opened on March 5, 2011)? And why did the general manager, Dina Pepito, agree to let me, against her better judgment?

It’s a lot easier to serve Cornelissen’s wines at home, where you have all the time in the world to let them rest upright and let their sediment fall to the bottom. When we’ve served them in our home, we made sure to give them ample time to repose and we’ve drunk them over the course of an entire evening, following along as the wine changed from first glass to last.

When I worked the floor at Sotto on Saturday night, there were ninety people on the waiting list trying to get in. It’s one of the hottest A-list tables in LA right now. And in all that hustle and bustle (between the CAA dick-waggers and the Chardonnay-drinking housewives of Beverly Hills), a sturdy Gaglioppo works great while a delicate Etna blend tends to be unsettled by the roaring din of the rich and famous.

And even though the allocation we managed to get certainly doesn’t meet the criteria for “fine wine,” we store the bottles with our verticals of Taurasi, Cirò, and Graticciaia because the wines need to be handled with the same gentle tenderness.

When the wines became available to us thanks to Amy Atwood Selections, I put them on the list because I wanted to offer our guests Natural winemaking in its most extreme expression. From the Natural wine police to the consumerist hegemony of wine punditry in the U.S. today, everyone agrees that 1) these are impeccably Natural wines; and 2) they represent, to borrow an expression from Roland Barthes, “wine degree zero.” These are wines to which literally nothing has been added. Nothing, zero, zippo… (If you don’t know the wines, read this profile by Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator, of all places!)

And of course, I wanted our wine list to reflect the renaissance of winemaking that’s taking shape on the northern slopes of Mt. Etna.

I sold a couple of bottles of the wine over the last weekend (when I was visiting for staff training and to “work the floor”).

One was to a table of wine geeks who had read a preview of the list in one of LA’s sea of food blogs. It was amazing to watch their eyes light as the stink blew off and they slowly nursed the wine. “I’ve never tasted anything like this,” said one. “The wine is slightly sparkling,” noted another.

I sold another bottle to super glam Eastern European lady (Hungary?) who sported a Farrah Fawcett hairdo and who was in town to visit her daughter, who was dining with her.

“I cannot drink wines with sulfites,” she told me. “I break out if I drink wine with sulfites. I can only drink natural wine,” she added, clearly unaware of what the volatile term natural can mean to wine professionals these days.

“As it just so happens,” I said, “I have a wine to which, I am 100% sure, no sulfites have been added.” (We actually have a couple on the list.) And I opened the Contadino (the same as in the photos above).

She wasn’t entirely thrilled by the wine but she didn’t send it back. She was normally a “Merlot drinker,” she told me. And in one of the most bizarre moves I’ve ever seen, she ordered coffee after dinner but kept nursing the wine with her coffee. (Disgusting, right?)

I don’t think the wine made much of an impression on her. But I’m assuming, since she didn’t call to complain, that she didn’t break out the next day.

And in our small little way, we made the world a little safer for Italian wine…

Stay tuned for my next post about my recent visit to Sotto: “The Racism of Corkage.”

Tracie P’s new blog, heading @SottoLA, and Give Greece a Chance

In case you hadn’t already seen it, Tracie P has a new blog called Sugarpie where “mommy maximus” reflects on what it’s like to be a first-time mother and our experiences as new parents. I’m so glad that she’s blogging again and that she’s been applying her irresistible humor to the ups and downs of parenting… I love her and Georgia P so much and her humor, spirit, and beauty are an antidote to the often overwhelming challenges of being a first-time parent.

In other news…

On Friday and Saturday nights, I’ll be working the floor at Sotto in Los Angeles where we’ll be launching our new wine list for 2012. There are a lot of the old favorites on the new carta dei vini but there are also a bunch of new lots as well, like the Cornelissen Munjebel Bianco.

In today’s New York Times, Eric the Red wrote that Cornelissen’s wines are “unlike almost any others on earth, which people tend to love or hate…” Bring it on!

If you happen to be in LA this weekend, please come and see me and I’ll pour you something great!

And on a more solemn note…

With everything that’s been going on “on the ground” in Greece, it’s been really difficult to find inspiration to write about Greek wine for the Boutari Wines Project this year.

Evidently, my blogging colleague Markus Stolz — author of Elloinos, the world’s top Greek wine blog — has been suffering from the same aporia and he, like me, posted today about the Give Greece a Chance project: it’s a print media PR campaign spearheaded by Greek business leaders who are trying to raise awareness of the human suffering that’s happening there.

I highly recommend this page: it provides some background and some basic information on the grave situation there.

See also what Markus has to say.

Markus lives with his family in Greece and is watching this tragedy unfold firsthand.

“A lot of real human suffering,” he wrote to me today in a tweet. “I like initiatives like the one we both posted about, builds community and leads to change.”

Let’s hope so… And let’s not forget our sisters and brothers in Greece. Una faccia, una razza…

What is not: a simpler manifesto for Natural Wine?

Last night, as Tracie P and I were sitting on our living room couch, watching our Sunday night TV (gangsters and zombies, please), munching on an excellent potato and leek torte that she made, and sipping Cornelissen’s 2007/2008 Rosso Munjebel 5, it occurred to me that one of the most tormented aspects of the tortuous quest to define “Natural Wine” is the fact that its definition is, by its very nature, a definition of what is not.

In many ways, the art and science of producing Natural Wine are defined by what the winemaker does not do: no chemicals in the vineyard, no pharmaceutical yeast in the cellar, and no manipulation of the vinified must (or as little as humanly possible, because human intervention is required on some level).

The Natural Wine Authorities seem to agree that Cornelissen’s wines are impeccably Natural (and I certainly do not want to descend into the abyss of the Natural Wine debate here). I’m sure even the Grouchy One would agree that Cornelissen’s wines are Natural (even though he’s probably pissed that he doesn’t import them).

In any case, Cornelissen’s “Natural Wine” credo, as published on his label (above), seemed to me a succinct and excellent way to define what Natural Wine is by describing what it is not. (Check out Cornelissen’s site here.)

O, and the wine?

For however difficult they are to track down and buy, Cornelissen’s wines are not prohibitively expensive.

Although the wine was slightly “hot” on the nose (as we say in the biz, denoting high alcohol content), we loved it: bright fruit, bright acidity, light in body, and a rich grapey meatiness that was fantastic with Tracie P’s torte.

Is it a wonderful wine? Yes. Is it a life-changing wine? I’d have to say no. Tracie P noted that it reminded her of the vino paesano that she used to drink when she lived in Ischia.

We enjoyed it thoroughly with our gangsters and zombies and we remembered that sometimes the simplest things in life are the best.

Indisputably Natural in San Diego: Cornelissen, Dettori, López de Heredia

N.B.: Jaynes Gastropub does allow corkage, for a reasonable fee, for wines not offered on their wine list.

Chrissa, her husband Dan, Rikkers, and I opened a memorable flight of indisputably Natural wines last night at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego. I write “indisputably Natural” with a capital N because any mention of Natural wine these days seems to spark the ire of some of the more cranky among us here in the enoblogsphere. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the community of wine bloggers who have laid claim to this precious and widely coveted epithet would agree that the three wines in question fulfill the criteria prescribed by even the most rigorous enforcers of Natural wine doctrine and dogma.

Perhaps nowhere has more been written about the wines of Frank Cornelissen than at Saignee and, ubi major minor cessat, I will defer to Cory’s excellent blog for a treatment of Cornelissen and the cult that has taken shape around him.

The wines, raised on the slopes of Mt. Etna, are not easy to come by in this country and I was thrilled to finally get my hands on some. Together, we tasted the 2007 Munjebel Bianco (native yeast, skin contact, no SO2, no filtration). Munjebel is dialectal toponym for Mt. Etna, btw (akin the Sicilian Muncibeddu or the Italian Mongibello, meaning monte bello or beautiful mountain).

The synthetic cork bulged out slightly from the lip of the bottle’s neck and the shoulder was very high. I believe this was due to a second fermentation in the bottle and the wine had a slight spritz to it.

I don’t have time today to go into the epistemological implications of this wine, which I find fascinating (the wine and the implications). But I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed it (bright acidity, bright citrus fruit, balanced alcohol). I believe the wine has not yet stabilized (it had rested for about a week in my wine locker in San Diego before we opened it last night). I’m looking forward to opening the other bottles in my allocation: this wine is alive, IT’S ALIVE, as Dr. Frankenstein might say.

The 2006 Bianco by Dettori? This was simply one of the best wines I’ve ever had in my life. Not a great vintage for Dettori but sure to be a 20+ in its cellar life. Tannic and rich, bright bright acidity and a crunchy mouthfeel. It took some time for this wine to open up but it was purely sublime.

We also ordered the 1998 López de Heridia Tondonia Rosado from Jayne’s list. The oxidative wine was a perfect closer after the thought-provoking, intense whites (orange wines, really), and was a fantastic pairing for my schnitzel and spaetzle (recommended by Jayne). Anyone who visits Do Bianchi regularly knows just how much Tracie P and I love LdH — anytime, anywhere.

After dinner we went to a new club on El Cajon Blvd. to see Jon’s band the Fairmounts play their blend of 60s soul.

That’s A.J. Croce (yes, Jim Croce’s son!) on keyboards… how cool is that? They completely rocked the house…

Wrapping up this quick San Diego trip (to ship and deliver wine for my wine club, I just had to share this photo of my awesome nephews Abner and Oscar (brother Micah and sister-in-law Marguerite’s children).

Abner is holding a photo of his great-great-grandparents, mama Judy’s grandparents. It’s so remarkable to think about how far we’ve come from Russia, Poland, and Austria. And how radically the world has changed since then.

Would they have ever imagined that their progeny would be drinking unyeasted wines from the slopes of Mt. Etna on the far-flung shores of California?

The monkey drinks the wine and gets dessert.

Above: I FINALLY got to taste one of the Cornelissen wines from Mt. Aetna in the home of total strangers, the lovely Lars and Kelly of Chicago, the other night! That’s the Susucaru, a field blend, as it were, of red and white grapes. Utterly delicious… Bibulously Yours brought that bottle.

Your probably wondering about the title of today’s post. It comes from a promise. A promise made in Chicago to Lars and Kelly’s sleeping twins.

I promised them that I would use their translation of the anisette poster (left) that resides in their bathroom as the title of this post: “The monkey drinks the wine and gets dessert.” As an accomplished translator of Italian with a doctorate in Italian and a few university press titles under my belt, I wholly endorse their rendering of the text into English.

Let me explain.

You see, wine blogging — despite all of the haters’s attempts to ruin it for everyone else — is really about bringing like-minded, nice folks together. And that’s exactly what happened the other day when Bibulously Yours (a Chicago wine blogger and wine lover whom I’d never met and with whom I trade emails and notes occasionally) wrote me the other day saying, “Welcome [to Chicago], and congrats on the new gig. Hope you’re having a nice trip. I’m sure you’re busy with work, but please let me know if you have any spare time while you’re here. I would love to meet up for a drink.”

Above: 1998 Valpolicella by Quintarelli. Lars got it on a close out and it showed splendidly. Do you ever say no to Quintarelli?

Since Bibulously’s son was ill that evening, we ended up in the home of his lovely friends Lars and Kelly who so graciously invited me to their home and so generously opened fantastic bottles of wine for me to taste with them. As it turns out, Lars and Kelly and I have a great deal in common since we have all been involved in the indy music scene and Lars even saw my old band play once in Detroit!

Above: This 500 ml bottle of 2002 Radikon Ribolla was opened at what might have been the perfect moment in its evolution, although I would guess it still has many years ahead of it. Brilliant wine. Simply brilliant.

Honestly, I was so thrashed from 3 days of eating way too much food and way too many tastings and meetings that I was entirely stoked to just hang out with the coolest folks, drink awesome wine, nibble on cheese and salame, and just shoot the shit and laugh my ass off.

As Anthony said the other day, I wish folks would stop drinking the “hatorade.” THIS IS WHAT WINE BLOGGING SHOULD BE ABOUT. Sharing wines, sharing experiences, learning and giving, having fun, and fueling our curiosity and minds with interesting wines and enriching our hearts with generosity and kindness.

Above: Bibulously’s wife stayed home with their kid. But she sent over this excellent savory cake. She said “the cake was plain and simple,” Bibulously wrote me the day after, “olive oil and preserved oranges.” It was off-the-charts delicious.

Everyone who knows me knows that I rarely eat desert. I was chubby as a kid and so I only eat desert when I REALLY LOVE it.

That night in Chicago, the monkey drank the wine and he got desert, too!

Thanks again, Nathan, Lars, and Kelly. You guys R O C K! And thanks for reminding me what it’s all about