Lunch at home with Maria Teresa Mascarello

italian gardiniera

One of the highlights of my November trip to Italy was a lunchtime visit Giovanni and I made to the home of Maria Teresa Mascarello in the village of Barolo.

That’s the gardiniera (above) her cousin made her. It was topped with hard-boiled egg wedges and crumbled olive oil-cured tuna. The combination of textures was wonderful, one of the best things I ate on this trip.

salame cacciatora

The butcher who makes this cacciatora is di sinistra, noted Maria Teresa, on the left side of the political aisle. And that was one of the reasons it was so tasty.

In the U.S., we rarely discuss the ideology of people whose food we eat. In many homes in Italy, such gastronomic scrutiny is de rigueur.

barolo vinegar mascarello

Of course, Bartolo Mascarello aged vinegar was offered to guests to dress their lettuces.

Conversation was dominated by the center-left primary elections (which would take place the following day). Maria Teresa was one of the polling organizers.

But it soon turned to the sticky subject of Natural wine.

Maria Teresa expressed her frustration with the Natural wine movement, noting that she doesn’t consider her wine a Natural wine by any means.

The obsession with “zero sulfur,” she lamented, was misguided.

luigi oddero

Maria Teresa’s partner David was geeked for us to taste a Barolo — the Luigi Oddero Rocche Rivera — that he’s keen on.

Traditional in style, this wine showed uncommon balance for a 2003. Its earth and tar prevailed over its fruit but its acidity delivered unexpected brilliance in the mouth. Gorgeous wine.

Conversation also touched upon the recent and ongoing Cannubi controversy.

Political discussion and cultural engagement at the dinner table are considered a responsibility in the homes of many Italians.

In the Mascarello home, of course, the di sinistra ideological legacy of Maria Teresa’s father Bartolo still resides warmly.

And in my experience, there is nothing that pairs better with great Nebbiolo…

Amazing meal at Miramonti l’Altro (Brescia)

From the department of “it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it”…

michelin restaurant brescia

Above: The octopus appetizer at Mirmonti l’Altro outside Brescia.

As tautologous as it may sound, it’s worth repeating: there are so many great restaurants in Italy.

From the glamor of urban Milan to the homey eateries of Langa wine country, from the classicism of Naples’ Angevin-inspired cuisine to Rome’s temples of molecularly deconstructed offal, the sheer number of fine-dining options is overwhelming.


Above: “Vineyard snails.”

But when you scroll the pages of the Michelin guide to Italy, you find that many of Italy’s top dining destinations lie in otherwise anonymous neighborhood, often thirty or forty minutes from the city centers (Le Calandre outside of Padua is one of the first that comes to my mind).


Above: This single-vineyard expression of Garganega from Soave, Pieropan’s Calvarino (the winery’s flagship wine), was stunning. So focused and so pure in its mineral flavors. Such a great pairing with the snails.

On my November trip to Italy, my good best friend Giovanni generously treated me to dinner at the two-star Miramonti l’Altro, in the town of Concesio (province of Brescia).

risotto funghi

Above: One of French Chef Philippe Leveillé’s signature dishes, risotto with mushrooms and sweet cheese.

Outer Brescia isn’t exactly the first place you think of when it comes to this level of dining. In fact, the span between Milan and Brescia, including the province of Bergamo, has one of Italy’s highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants.

rinaldi cannubi san lorenzo

Above: The 2006 Barolo Cannubi-San Lorenzo-Ravera by Rinaldi was absolutely gorgeous, however ungenerous with its fruit in this moment of its evolution. Where some would cry “infanticide,” I love following a wine like this — one of Italy’s greatest in my view — as it evolves. Definitely young but wow, what a wine!

The focus of high-concept dining there is due in part to the many weekend villas that dot the countryside here. They belong to Milanese and Lombard “industrialists,” mainly steel money.

But it’s also due to Brescia’s extraordinary tradition of agriculture and wine growing.


Above: The deconstructed “Milanese.”

By the sixteenth century, the city-state of Brescia, which had already been incoporated into the Most Serene Republic of Venice, was one of Italy’s central hubs for the production of fine wine.

The great Italian Renaissance agronomist Agostino Gallo (1499-1570) was born there and his legacy and contribution to agricultural science — he is credited, for example, with introducing rotating crops and new and highly effective techniques for irrigation — were key to Italy’s emergence as a farming power house.

cheese cart

Above: The cheese cart alone would have been worth the price of admission.

It was a remarkable evening and an unforgettable meal. And my discovery of Gallo — thanks to Giovanni — made the conversation even more delicious. (Gallo’s landmark tractate on Twenty Days of Agriculture, published in Venice at the height of the Venetian typography boom, is an often overlooked window into the world of Renaissance ampelography. What a fantastic find for me!)

Giovanni, thanks again, man, for such a great evening… And thank you for giving me Gallo!

How To Not Get Things Done in Italy by @TerraUomoCielo (@Intravino)

Today’s post is devoted to my translation of an article written and published today by my good friend Giovanni Arcari on the Italian wine blog Intravino. It was edited by Alessandro Morichetti, one of Italy’s leading wine bloggers.

umberto d

Above: Umberto D.

“How To Not Get Things Done in Italy”

A case study in vineyard registration in Alta Langa.

Premise: A love for classic method wines and for the Langhe Hills inspired me to partner with a Monforte d’Alba producer who wanted to produce Alta Langa [sparkling wines]. Unfortunately, nothing is ever as easy as it seems and the story that follows is as simple as it is demoralizing. There are appellation regulations to be observed and we followed them to the letter. The producer acquired land; he planted the right grapes (7,500 Pinot Nero and Chardonnay vines in Serravalle Langhe); and then he applied for the authorization to label the vineyard “Alta Langa.” From that point forward, the process was disastrous.

A week later, a message arrived in the form of a cold shower: “registration of vineyards for the production of Alta Langa is closed,” wrote the Classic Method Alta Langa Producers Association.

We asked for an explanation and resigned ourselves to our fate.

But then, by chance, we came across this brilliant declaration on September 5 of this year: “… the association is working to expand the planted surface area intended for the production [of Alta Langa]. This process will be carried out through a ‘targeted’ authorization of new vineyards in the growing zone. Its scope is that of favoring those projects where grape production already has a specific destination that will not inflate the grape market. The goal is to have more bottles on the market that make an even greater difference.”

Well, you might call this good news, especially in the light of the fact that we were asking for authorization for a sole hectare. We already have a project and the “destination” for our roughly 100 quintals of grapes is very clear: a fine, artisanal classic method sparkling wine. Case closed.

Nothing doing! We hear nothing from the producers association but on October 24, we discover that it has been taking applications when we read an announcement on the Coldiretti website. [Coldiretti is Italy’s national growers confederation.] Coldiretti isn’t exactly known for its lightening speed: the application process was opened on August 2 and today [November 30] is the last day.

But that’s not the real problem here.

Do you want to know the criteria by which surface area planted to vine will be expanded? In short, if you sell your grapes to commercial bottlers, you’ll be fine. But if you by land, plant it and sow the seeds of your dreams there, you’re screwed.

Authorization is granted on a points-based model. And it’s not entirely clear how you obtain “points, rights, and priority.” To have the maximum number of points, seven, you need to be a “professional agricultural entrepreneur who already produces and/or sells classic method sparkling wine or owner partner in a cooperative winery that already produces classic method sparkling wine.”

To obtain five points, you need to be a “professional agricultural company or entrepreneur that already owns vineyards with agricultural-environmental characteristics in conformity with the Alta Langa DOCG appellation regulations (but that are not suited for authorization) and that has an at least five-year contract for the transformation [vinification] of the fruit into Alta Langa DOCG that guarantees the total application of the grapes.”

Three points are award to a “professional agricultural company or entrepreneur who has obtained [land] rights, plants new vineyards intended for the production of Alta Langa DOCG, and who possesses an at least five-year contract for the transformation [vinification] of the fruit into Alta Langa DOCG that guarantees the total application of the grapes.”
And for a “professional agricultural company or entrepreneur different from the points above,” the association grants only one miserable point.

It sends a chill down your spine, doesn’t it?

Obviously, we were given only one point. Translation? A new winery CANNOT produce Alta Langa.

Why isn’t the grape market regulated so as to encourage the entry of new players who could enrich the appellation? Why is there such interest in Alta Langa to purchase grapes and not to have anyone else get in your way? Who profits from this?

This system stinks.

—Giovanni Arcari (via Intravino)

Giovanni Arcari

Above: Alessandro (left), Giovanni (right), and I had breakfast in Alta Langa on Sunday morning.

Natural wine: Italian government crackdown

Above: In late June, Italian authorities visited the Enoteca Bulzoni (one of the city’s oldest and most respected wine retailers) and cited the owner for the display of a sign that read “natural wines.” Many in Italy believe that the Italian government is poised to crack down on the use of the expression “natural wine” in the sale and marketing of wine (image via Google Maps).

While most in the U.S. took the last week off from blogging (myself included), a small news story in Italy exploded into a major controversy.

On June 25, Marco Bolasco (editorial director for Slow Food publishing) posted the follow story on his personal blog:

    A few days ago I received this email from [Alessandro] Bulzoni, an important Roman wine shop on Viale Parioli.

    “I’m writing you to let you know about what happened to me last week: two agriculture ministry officials came [to my shop] to notify me that the sale of ‘Natural’ wines on my shelves was illegal. They wrote me up and they will be fining me. They might even charge me with a crime. The issue was advertising the sale of wines without certification.”

Above: The fact that authorities chose to penalize Enoteca Bulzoni — a Roman institution since 1929 — has led to speculation that officials wanted to make an “example” of a high-profile retailer (photo via the shop’s website).

In the days that followed, myriad posts appeared, including pieces by high-profile blogs Intravino, Millevigne, InternetGourmet, and Terra Uomo Cielo, a blog co-authored by Giovanni Arcari, who brought l’affaire Bulzoni to my attention.

“If advertising a wine as ‘natural’ is a crime, I want to be arrested, too,” wrote blogger Fabrizio Penna in a post on Enotime.

It’s not clear whether or not this episode will mark the beginning of a new crackdown by government officials or whether it will be a singular incident.

But as Maurizio Gily points out on his blog MilleVigne, the fact that the officials didn’t hesitate to fine Bulzoni appears to indicate that they will be taking an aggressive approach. A request to remove the sign and a warning would have been more in line with current attitudes and trends, noted Maurizio.

In his post, Maurizio also reminds us that the use of the word natural in the labeling and sale of wines is not permitted by Italian wine industry regulation. Technically, Bulzoni was in fact guilty of having committed “consumer fraud,” a crime that Italy’s agriculture ministry and inspectorate take very seriously (consumer fraud is what spawned the Brunello controversy of 2008).

The production, labeling, and marketing of wine are highly regulated in Italy and the wine industry lobby is one of the agricultural sector’s most powerful.

And as Natural wine continues to emerge as a commercially viable category (the fact that a retailer like Bulzoni was advertising “Natual” wines is indicative of this trend), there are many powers-that-be who would like to curb its application.

I can’t help but be reminded by another analogous instance in the history of Italian vinography: in the 1980s, when Sassicaia and Ornellaia (among others) were still being labeled and sold as vini da tavola because they were not “authorized” by Italian appellation regulations, the English-language media — deux ex machina — coined the phrase Super Tuscan.

The origins of the expression Natural wine are surely French but the term has been popularized (read vulgarized) by the American wine media. And many would point to the vibrant interest in Natural wines in the U.S. as one of the factors that has prompted Italian winemakers, marketers, and retailers to embrace the epithet.

But the thought of Italian officials entering a beloved shop and fining the owner for the use of the term natural evokes images from an era when fascist linguistic “purists” (as they called themselves) tried to ban foreign terms in commerce (the word tramezzino for sandwich is a famous historical example of this).

Above: Umberto D.

Italians don’t enjoy the same freedoms of speech that we do in the U.S. but this move by the Italian government seems excessive (and is being closely followed by industry observers).

At a time when the financial crisis has led to an overarching reset in the Italian wine industry and when small producers and retailers continue to struggle to stay afloat, is there really any harm in a little sign on Viale Parioli?

Evidently, in the eyes of the Italian agriculture ministry, there is…

Mysterious case of the yellowed corks (SOLVED)

From the department of “keeping the world safe for Italian wine”…

Yesterday, Fabien Jacob, a good friend and one of the top wine professionals in San Antonio, sent me the following message via the Facebook.

“I need your help,” he wrote. “Have you ever encounter corks that are glazed and turned yellow at the bottom of it? This is happening with a wine from Abruzzo, the wine itself is not bad or faulty but the cork is very fragile and became glazed and yellow. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you.”

Nonplussed by the mysterious case of the yellowed corks, I asked Fabien to send me a photo (click the image above to enlarge) and then reached out to Giovanni, who swiftly answered (and I have translated here):

    It’s a silicon film that is applied to the top of the closures in order to stop the wine from coming into direct contact with the cork. It helps to ensure that the wine isn’t affected by cork taint.

    It has been applied to both the top and the bottom of the cork. In this case, it has yellowed because the bottle contains [wine made from] Montepulciano [grapes] or similar, a grape variety that that has a strong tendency to tinge. The film has been applied to the top as well but it’s still transparent.

Tonight I’m giving a seminar on social media and wine for the San Diego association of women wine professionals. I can’t think of a better example of how social media makes the wine world a better place.

Grazie, Giovanni! Evviva il bromance!

With @LouAmdur @SottoLA next week (and helping Italian earthquake victims)

Tracie P and I cried the day that Lou (above) announced the closing of Lou on Vine earlier this year.

Lou will be joining me (again) on Thursday, July 26 for tasting and conversation at Sotto where I curate the wine list (and Tracie P will be there, too).

Here are the details.

It should be a super fun night.

In other news…

The Non Ci Fermiamo (We’re Not Stopping) project came to my attention via Giovanni’s blog.

Based in the province of Mantua (Lombardy), in one of the areas most severely affected by recent earthquakes, the initiative seeks to connect donors with scores of families left homeless by the catastrophe.

As part of the campaign, the young people of the town Quistello (one of the worst hit) are also selling Mantuan foods like mostarda, local rice cultivars, and torta sbrisolana, the classic (and extremely delicious) almond cake.

Check out the site here.

A Michelin guide for Houston? @TonyVallone @TerraUomoCielo

Photo via Spread Some Awesome.

When I took Giovanni to eat at Tony’s last week, he turned to me mid-meal and asked discreetly, “how many stars does Tony have in the Michelin guide?”

When I explained to him that Michelin doesn’t have a guide for Houston (or Texas for that matter), he was genuinely surprised.

Today I posted my translation of his post on our lunch at Tony’s on Tony’s website (for the original in Italian click here).

In it, he makes his case for why Michelin should come to Texas and it’s a lot of fun to read his impressions of fine dining in the U.S.

Here’s the link.

Quintarelli Valpolicella & Lucy’s fried chicken (Giovanni’s Easy Rider tour comes to an end)

There was one sine qua non pillar of Americana that Giovanni had not yet experienced on his “Easy Rider USA Tour 2012”: fried chicken, the way its done in the South.

And so on his last day in Texas, we decided to take a ride to the south side of Austin to Lucy’s Fried Chicken, where irony and hipsterdom collide in a deep frier (photo above by Giovanni). We picked up a bucket of chicken, which, according to Lucy’s serves four but could easily accommodate a party of six (unless folks squabble over who gets the breast).

When we visited Houston on Tuesday, Giovanni had spied a bottle of Quintarelli 2000 Valpolicella, which he generously bought for us to share. As deep as our friendship may run, Giovanni — a top Italian winemaker — and I often disagree about wine. The “rough edges” of many of the Natural and old-school wines that Tracie P and I cherish preclude his nod of approval. He even turned his nose up at a bottle of 2006 Romangia Bianco by Dettori that we opened — one of our all-time favorite wines, showing gorgeously right now! Blasphemy at the Parzen residence!

But one thing we can all agree on is Quintarelli. And the superb bottle inspired an interesting conversation on the use of oxidation and filtration, with Giovanni pointing to Quintarelli as a master in both regards (where many Natural winemakers use excessive oxidation and don’t filter at all).

The richness of the wine (served slightly chilled) was simply brilliant with the fatty, juicy (and delicious) fried chicken and its dark red fruit ideal with the flavors of Tracie P’s mouth-watering fried okra (above) and mashed potatoes.

This morning I took Giovanni to the airport and he’ll be back in Brescia by lunchtime tomorrow. It was great to have him here and share our lives with him. (Italian-speaking readers, please check out his posts on Texas truck culture and his impressions of a Texan wine.)

Thanks again, Giovanni, for the visit and the Quintarelli! Travel safe, friend. As we say in the South, come back and see us, ya hear?

Nothing like lunch at Tony’s, a Napa Cab I actually liked and Aldo Sohm and Levi Dalton

From the department of “Jar, you’re just bragging now” says Jon Erickson

Above: Tony’s foie gras au torchon is one of his signatures and one of the dishes where simplicity and purity of flavor is offset by detail in the presentation.

How could Giovanni’s visit to Texas be complete without a meal at Tony’s in Houston?

Tony is my client (I curate his website and his media relations) but he’s also become one of my best friends in Texas and he is the architect and author of some of the most stunning meals I’ve ever had. Yesterday, Giovanni and I drove to Houston to meet Cousin Marty for lunch and a confabulatio that centered around… yes, of course… food and wine

Above: Orecchiette with seared mortadella cubes and runny quail egg.

The secret to the rich yellow color of his pasta, said Tony, is locally sourced, organically farmed eggs. “But it’s also the fact that I use only flour and mineral water imported from Italy,” he added. Some would argue that sparkling mineral water is key to super pasta like this. But Tony insists that still water (acqua naturale) is a sine qua non.

Above: Halbut and seafood medley “al Mare Chiaro,” named after the neighborhood in Naples.

Tony’s is the only place in Texas where we eat fine seafood (a category we reserve otherwise for our trips to California). This dish was simply stunning in its simplicity and presentation (and my camera didn’t do it justice, frankly).

Above: Lamb chops.

Tony likes to tease me, calling me the chiodo (the nail) because I’m so careful about what and how much I eat. Lamb chops would have been a bit much for me for a Tuesday lunch but Giovanni dove in with gusto.

Above: General Manager and wine director Scott Sulma’s selection was right on.

And the wine? A tall order considering the fact that one of Italy’s top winemakers was seated at our table. And let’s face it, my general disdain for the Californian style is well known to my colleagues at Tony’s. But it also seemed right to have Giovanni taste something from my home state. GM Scott’s selection, Palmaz Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, delivered acidity, earth and gorgeous dark fruit, and balanced alcohol and wood. It was superb with the Bucatini all’Amatriciana that I had as my second course, playing beautifully against the savory guanciale in the dish. Chapeau bas, Scott!

Above: Nobody does it better than Tony.

I can’t conceal my pride in sharing the Tony’s experience with my good friend Giovanni, who made the trans-Atlantic crossing to see, hear, taste, and feel what life is like in Texas, California, and America.

Above: Two of my favorite fressers.

Thanks, again, Tony for yet another fantastic meal and an unforgettable experience. Ti ringrazio di cuore…

In other news…

Question: What could be better than a conversation with one of my favorite New York City sommeliers?

Answer: An interview with one of my favorite NYC sommeliers conducted by one of my favorite NYC sommeliers.

Click here to listen to Levi Dalton’s conversation with Aldo Sohm (pictured above).

Franciacorta “reset” applauded by winemakers

Above: The gorgeous Lago d’Iseo (Lake Iseo) provides maritime influence for the vineyards of Franciacorta. The beauty of Italy’s topography is immeasurable.

“No inflated numbers this time. No triumphalism. And not even any orgasms during a ‘Ring Around the Rosie,'” wrote my good friend, winemaker, and Franciacorta superhero Giovanni Arcari on his blog yesterday. “Nonetheless, it feels like a good moment to celebrate a success, even if that success was generated by a problem.”

Giovanni was referring to newly announced Franciacorta appellation regulations that will lower yields, raise the minimum vineyard age, and help to raise production standards throughout the appellation, where Champagne-method sparkling wines are produced.

By all accounts, Italy produces more sparkling wine than any other country: at latest count, “400 million bottles with Euro 1.7 billion in sales.”

Despite the generally bleak outlook for Italian winemakers, these figures have resulted in robust chest-beating, fist pumping, and a surplus in funds devoted to marketing (the “triumphalism” to which Giovanni refers).

But Franciacorta, an affluent appellation created in the 1960s and funded by Italian steel magnates, has suffered the economic crisis more acutely than any other sparkling wine producer: as Franco Ziliani reported on his sparkling wine blog earlier this year, prices for Franciacorta — a luxury product — have reached alarming lows, with wines being sold in Europe for as low as Euro 4.

Above: One of the most interesting tastings I attended during the 2011 European Wine Bloggers Conference was a flight of nearly 30 Franciacorta crus at the Berlucchi winery. I think that many would be surprised at the diversity of growing sites in the appellation (but more on that in a future post).

The new appellation regulations were approved by an overwhelming majority (by Italian standards) of 80% of consortium members, reports Giovanni.

And the measures will deliver significant change in an appellation dominated by large commercial producers whose bottom line often trumps character and originality in the wines they bottle.

Of all the sparkling appellations in Italy, Franciacorta — there’s no doubt in my mind — has the potential to deliver truly great and original wines: even though very few of the top bottles make it to the U.S., I’ve tasted some stunning wines in Franciacorta, where fresh, clean, bright Pinot Noir and Chardonnay take on an intensely saline quality that pairs superbly with the fresh water cuisine of the Italian Lake District.

And the new appellation regulations, everyone seems to agree, are a step in the right direction. [We must] “improve to grow and grow to improve,” wrote Giovanni in the chiasmus of his title. And they are sure to do more than consortium president Maurizio Zanella’s recent appeal to the Italian media to stop using the term bollicine (tiny bubbles) when referring to Franciacorta.

Franciacorta and sparkling wines from Italy have been on my mind lately because I’ve been asked to speak on a panel devoted to the subject at the upcoming Viva Vino conference in Los Angeles.

The Holy Grail quest to produce sparkling wines has played an enormous role in shaping the history of Italian wine in general. And I’ll devote an upcoming post to my research.

In the meantime, if you want to get the discussion rolling, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

What is it, after all, that makes sparkling wine play such a powerful role in our vinous psyche?