The stars came out for Piero Selvaggio’s 40th at Valentino

best italian los angeles

Above: When Piero Selvaggio finally sat down to dinner last night at my table, he couldn’t wait to dig into the schiacciata alla siciliana (front, center), one of the forty dishes his chefs and guest chefs created to celebrate his fortieth anniversary last night. “This is one of the dishes of my childhood,” he said.

What a thrill for me to be asked to speak last night at the fortieth anniversary celebration of Piero Selvaggio’s landmark restaurant Valentino in Los Angeles!

I first met Piero long before I ever dreamed of writing about Italian wine and food.

One of the top benefactors of the Italian department at U.C.L.A. was a close friend of Piero’s. When I was a graduate student there in the 1990s, I had the great fortune to dine in his restaurants thanks to his generosity to the department and his support of Italian cultural events.

Above: Piero is from Sicily and his executive chef Nicola Chessa is from Sardinia. The enogastronomic theme of the evening was wines and cuisine from their resepctive regions.

I’ve followed Piero’s career ever since. He’s one of the earliest pioneers of regional Italian cuisine in the U.S. and he was among the first to open a fine-dining establishment devoted exclusively to Italian cooking.

darrell corti

Above: Piero, left, with Darrell Corti, my friend and inspiration for my own career in the scholarship of Italian wine.

Of course, the other thrill was the chance to catch up and taste with the Darrell Corti, one of the great wine and food personalities of our generation.

Darrell was the event’s keynote speaker and it was great to watch as he and Piero, along with the many wine and food professionals in attendance, reminisced and reflected on how Americans’ perceptions and appreciation of Italian gastronomy has changed over the arc of their lives.

In my world, they are giants — generous of spirit and ever ready to share their trésor of knowledge with the curious and enthusiastic (like me).

Above: Woflgang Puck was just of the many LA food celebrities who stopped by to pay homage to Piero. He arrived late in the evening and Piero promptly presented him with a doggy bag.

Chef Steve Samson, co-owner of Sotto (where I curate the wine list), began working with Piero in the 1990s and he ultimately became the executive chef at the flagship Valentino before launching his own restaurant. (Steve and I met in 1987 on our junior year abroad in Italy and have remained close friends ever since; he’s a daddy now, too!)

Piero had asked him to prepare some of the dishes and he had asked me to speak about Natural wines from Sicily (Cornelissen) and Sardinia (Dettori).

Above: There was a lot of great wine poured last night but my top wine of the evening was the 2008 Etna by Passopisciaro. What a stunning wine!

At the end of the night, when it came time for hugs and goodbyes, I thanked Piero again for asking me to be part of such an extraordinary event. And I thanked him for his generosity. I couldn’t help but think to myself how Piero — one of just handful of Italian wine and food pioneers in our country — literally made my career possible.

For that, I can’t thank him enough.

A couple of wine dinners I’ve got coming up…

From the department of “it’s a tough job but someone’s got to keep the world safe for Italian wine”…

gaja brunello houston

That’s the flight of wine (above) I’ll be talking about when I speak at Tony’s in Houston on Wednesday, November 28. Tony and I have so much fun working together and I’m thrilled that he asks me to do these dinners. 1990 Recioto by Quinatrelli? The answer is yes.

And this Sunday, November 11, I’ll be presenting Frank Cornelissen at Sotto in Los Angeles. The most valuable nose in this business, Lou Amdur, will also be on hand to speak.

Alice Feiring was going to join us on Sunday but “nature conspired” against her trip, as she put it: Sandy made it impossible for her to get here from NYC.

I’ll also be pouring Sicilian and Sardinian wine on Wednesday, November 14, with Piero Selvaggio and Darrell Corti at Piero’s Valentino in Los Angeles. Chef Steve Samson will also be cooking for the event. I can’t wait to see Darrell!

a boysenberry jam frat party shit storm

Above: I included the Copain Pinot Noir Tous Ensembles in my recommendations for the Houston Press today. The alcohol content — 12.9% (YES!) — is reported in lettering so small and faint that you’d think the winemaker was embarrassed by it.

I never thought in a million years that I’d find myself writing regularly about American wines.

But then again, I never imagined in a million years that I’d have an editor that would allow me to write things like “a boysenberry jam frat party shit storm” (thank you, Cathy! you rock!).

I didn’t write the line in reference to the Copain Pinot Noir (above). It was inspired by a sales rep that tried to hard sell a wine to Darrell Corti one day when I was visiting him in his store (Darrell is one of the people in the world I admire most and whose friendship I cherish most dearly).

When Darrell courteously asked the gentleman to leave the bottle for his weekly staff tasting, he responded saying, “you’ve got to taste this wine: it tastes like boysenberry jam!” After he left, Darrell showed me the label, pointing to the 16 percent alcohol. He just shook his head, as if to say they’ll never learn.

A few months later (I was in Sacramento on that occasion making a record at The Hangar), the earth-shaking story about Darrell prohibiting 14.5 percent Zinfandel broke in the blogosphere.

The editors at the Houston Press have been very supportive in my efforts to write about American wines with candor and honesty and in keeping with my steadfast belief that wines with high acidity, low alcohol, and wholesome (as opposed to chemically manipulated) flavors and aromas are the key to healthy and happy enjoyment of wine (and good pooping)… And while I can’t say that Tracie P and I serve the wines regularly in our home (where Italian prevails, pervades, and precludes, and French and Natural Californian appear more than occasionally), I can say that I only review wines that I’ve actually tasted and wines that I genuinely respect (and of course, I’m limited to wines that are available in the Houston market).

Click here for my “Top 5 All-American Red” recommendations today in the Houston Press.

Aglianico from California? I loved it (and Darrell Corti is always right)

In 2008, when I attended the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium to hear my friend (and a man who has greatly inspired and informed my career) Darrell Corti deliver the keynote address at the meeting of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, he suggested that Aglianico could be an alternative to California’s ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon, noting that the Italian grape variety was better suited to California’s climate. (Here are my notes from his talk; I’ve written a lot about Darrell Corti here but this is my favorite post devoted to him.)

Darrell’s talk came to mind yesterday when sales rep and true wine connoisseur Tom Hunter of Revel Wines opened a bottle of Aglianico by the Giornata winery in Paso Robles.

In my view, the legacy of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in California is the result of an epochal misunderstanding — a ripple of an “anxiety of influence,” to borrow a phrase from Bloom. A generation ago, when rich white men planted these grapes in Napa, they did so inspired by the wines that rich white men on the other side of the Atlantic drank and not with a mind to propagate varieties suited for the Napa Valley climate, topography, and subsoils.

Cabernet Sauvignon shows well in the cool climate of Bordeaux. Chardonnay is its most expressive in the cool climate of the Côte de Beaune.

Anyone who’s every visited Burgundy or Bordeaux will find little in common with the terroir of the Napa Valley floor, where these French grapes have been grown and vinified so famously for the last forty years.

In more recent memory, Central Coast growers have been inspired by the renaissance of Italian wines. I’ve tasted Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, and even Teroldego grown there. And while the wines are sometimes good (and the intentions of the winemakers genuine), their efforts — in my view — are as misguided as those rich white men who came a generation before them.

I can’t conceal that I was skeptical when Tom pulled the Paso Robles Aglianico from his bag but my colleague Rory (with whom I co-curate the wine program at Sotto) and I were blown away by how good the wine was. And unlike the myriad bottlings of Barbera and Nebbiolo that seem to lose their varietal character in the California soil and sunshine, Giornata’s Aglianico tasted like Aglianico, delivering those dark fruit and earthy notes that I love in wines from Vulture, Taurasi, Taburno, and Cilento.

I loved the wine and I’m thrilled that we’re going to be pouring it by the glass at Sotto.

Posting from the plane on my way back to the Groover’s Paradise. Can’t wait to wrap these arms around those girls of mine! :)

Folks in Sacramento know how to live well

On my way back to ATX today following my annual pilgrimage to Sacramento, in the heart of California farmland and wine country. Folks out there sure know how to live well. Here are some quick highlights…

Darrell Corti graciously treated me to a quick lunch today at One Speed after our morning meeting and before I headed out to the airport. Seafood risotto and 14-year-old Australian Sémillion from his cellar. I had never had an Australian wine that I liked until Darrell first shared some of his gems with me. This wine had gorgeous fruit and a rich mouthfeel, 11% alcohol, and acidity that Darrell aptly described as “sprightly” (Tracie B would have called it “tongue-splitting”).

Produce in Sacramento is unbelievably good: marinated artichokes, braised fennel, and roast peppers at One Speed.

The night before, I was the dinner guest of Darrel’s delightful neighbors, Joe and Deb. Deb’s tomato bisque with panzanella salsa paired superbly with Darrel’s Bert Simon 2005 single-vineyard Riesling. Deb and Joe are both superb cooks. I guess you have to be if you live next to Darrell Corti! Joe and Deb were so gracious to have me over and they throw a fantastic dinner party… Joe, a lobbyist, told a great story about meeting Ted Kennedy and how he loved to talk baseball.

2007 Nebbiolo Martinenga by Marchesi di Gresy. 2007 is going to be such a killer vintage for traditional-style Nebbiolo. Like the 07 Produttori del Barbaresco, this wine shows some serious, brawny tannin. It went great with whole chickens that Joe stuffed with cheese (I believe goat’s milk) and then grilled whole. The breast was as moist as the thigh.

This morning I gave Darrell a hand organizing wines for a tasting at his legendary store Corti Brothers. Darrell is the reason why I come back to Sacramento every year… to peruse his wondrous cabinets

It’s only been three days since I said goodbye to my lovely Tracie B. Feels like a lifetime but that ol’ Southwest Jetliner is carrying me back home where I belong tonight, not a minute too soon for this aching heart…

Eating tripe with Baron Ricasoli

Above: From left, Francesco Ricasoli and his father Bettino Ricasoli, the great-great-grandson of Iron Baron Bettino Ricasoli (in the oil on canvas), an architect of Italian unification, Italy’s second prime minister, and winemaker who reshaped the history of Tuscan winemaking by replanting the vineyards of his Castello di Brolio estate with Sangiovese.

As I write this, the world of Italian wine mourns the loss of Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the namesake and steward of one of Italy’s most illustrious winemaking families. He was 87 and his funeral is being held today in the church of the Santa Trinita in Florence (the name of the church is pronounced TREE-nee-tah, btw, with the tonic accent on the first syllable, because the Florentines use Latinate pronunciation in this and similar instances, e.g., Santa Felicita pronounced feh-LEE-chee-tah).

Above: The library at the Castello di Brolio.

Six years ago I went to visit Baron Bettino, who was one of the nicest, most generous, and most gracious hosts who has ever received me. I wanted to browse the library at the Brolio Castle and leaf through the reprinted, bound collection of his great-great-grandfather’s letters and thanks to my connections in the wine trade, I was able to contact him. I visited in January when the castle was closed and he traveled expressly that day from Florence to spend the day with me. He, personally, led me on a tour of his family’s castle and then let me spend the afternoon in the library there. It was an amazing and truly unforgettable experience.

His ancestor and namesake, the Iron Baron Bettino Ricasoli, reshaped the history of Italian winemaking when he replanted his vineyards “exclusively” with native Italian varieties in the second half of the 19th century. Franco and I have published my translation of the famous letter in which he describes his experiments and his decision to replant at VinoWire.

Many uninformed wine writers claim that the Iron Baron composed a “recipe” or “formula” for Chianti with exact percentages. This is simply not true. What he did do was to establish that fine wine could be made in Tuscany using native Italian grape varieties (viz., Sangiovese or Sangioveto, Canaiolo, and Malvasia). He replanted his estate with those varieties (inspiring other winemaking estates to abandon international varieties), and he developed techniques (modeled after what he had seen in Bordeaux) for stabilizing his wines and thus making them suitable for shipping. The culmination of his efforts and achievements was that Tuscany and a newly unified Italy established themselves for the first time as a world-class producer of fine wine that could be shipped beyond its borders.

Here are a few anecdotes from the day I spent with Baron Bettino…

We ate stewed tripe in the Florentine style at a wonderful little trattoria called Carlino d’Oro near the Brolio Castle. I highly recommend it.

He told me a story of how the Iron Baron decided to leave Florence after another man asked his fiancée to dance at a ball. Evidently, the Iron Baron was prone to jealously and so he swept his betrothed away to the Brolio Castle and began his studies on winemaking. In the end, it was a woman behind the first renaissance of Italian winemaking!

I sat at the edge of my seat as he told me about the German occupation of the castle in the last years of the second world war. The German soldiers used its turrets as mounts for their artillery and Baron Bettino was among the Allied soldiers when they liberated his family’s castle. Because he knew the terrain so well, he was able to help mount their attack. How cool is that?

It was thanks to Baron Ricasoli that I met Darrell Corti, who became an unwitting mentor to me. But that’s another story…

To be continued…

In other news…

I’m picking up the pieces after ten days on the road and ten different cities between wine, one fine woman, and song. Starting a week ago last Thursday, I have visited and eaten meals in San Francisco (twice), San Jose, Los Angeles, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Sedona (AZ), Jerome (AZ), Napa Valley, and Sonoma.

It’s good to be home where I belong and I have lots to post about so please stay tuned…

Wondrous Cabinets (or My Dinner With Darrell)

“…as a smell while it passes and evaporates into air affects the sense of smell,” wrote Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) in the tenth book of The Confessions, “whence it conveys into the memory an image of itself, which remembering, we renew, or as meat, which verily in the belly hath now no taste, and yet in the memory still in a manner tasteth; or as any thing which the body by touch perceiveth, and which when removed from us, the memory still conceives. For those things are not transmitted into the memory, but their images only are with an admirable swiftness caught up, and stored as it were in wondrous cabinets, and thence wonderfully by the act of remembering, brought forth.”

If there ever were an Augustine of the contemporary food and wine world, it is Darrell Corti. And there are no cabinets more wondrous than the shelves of his store Corti Brothers in Sacramento and the memories he generously imparted on a traveling amanuensis who happened to be passing through the California state capital last week.

The night I had dinner with Darrell at his home in Sacramento, he was reluctant to speak of his induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America. The night before, he had been honored at a gala event in Napa as a “Highly respected and often controversial, wine and food expert… at the forefront of the development and growth of the California wine industry since joining his family’s grocery business, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, in 1964… a catalyst in the re-evaluation and Renaissance of Zinfandel…” and mentor “to a generation of seiminal food and wine professionals…”

It’s not every day that you drink 1972 Louis Martini Zinfandel with a man who was a “catalyst… in the renaissance of Zinfandel.” The wine was light and vibrant, with subtle fruit and gentle acidity, a gorgeous complement to the béchamel and ragù prepared for the lasagne.

“It’s the acidity and the lightness of style that make this wine age so well,” said Darrell. There was no need to mention Darrell’s widely known opposition to the current hegemony of highly concentrated, high-alcohol-content wines.

The night of our repast, Darrell wanted to sample a new breed of beef, “HighMont,” a cross of Scottish Highland and Piedmontese (razza bovina piemontese) cattle. The lasagne were followed by a bollito of beef and salsa verde, paired with a 1999 Stoneleigh Marlborough (New Zealand) Rapaura Series Pinot Noir.

The coda to our meal was a bolo de mel, a Portuguese honey cake, which Darrell was also sampling as a potential offering at Corti Brothers.

Of the many memories that Darrell shared that evening, he revealed that he was among the first (if not the first) to sell Sassicaia in this country. “In 1972, we sold the first vintage of Sassicaia — 1968 — for $6.89,” he said.

After dinner, we retired to the living room where we drank port and perused Darrell’s collection of incunables (I was keen to see his editio princeps of Andrea Bacci’s Historia Vinorum).

Earlier in the day, I met Darrell at his office in the store and we chatted about a stack of tomes he recently received from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican’s publisher (I was particularly fascinated by America Pontificia, a collection documents pertaining to the New World issued by the Holy See; “There’s bound to be something interesting in there,” Darrell said). His phone rang and I eavesdropped as he patiently extolled the virtues of bergamot marmalade to the customer on the line. Twenty minutes later, a half dozen jars had been purchased.

O, what wondrous cabinets this man keeps…