Syrahlandia (no matter where you go, there you are)

Above: Yesterday was devoted to a sprucing up of our patio for summer, including the purchase of a grill and the grilling of some pork chops and sausage. Tracie P made her classic penne al pomodoro and an amazing cilantro, avocado, and black-eyed pea salad. Palazzino Chianti Classico — grapey and juicy — paired nicely with all of the above.

When you go to Italy, do you order hamburgers, that quintessential dish of Americana? I know of at least one ex-pat blogger who has probably tried (perhaps inspired by nostalgia?) every hamburger in Rome. At nearly every instance, she emerges bitterly disappointed.

Last week, while working in New York City with some Italian colleagues, I was amazed at one woman’s continued bewilderment at the American convention of tipping. “Why should I tip? Why is it not already included in the bill like in Italy? It said ‘tip’ on the credit card receipt so I thought it was included?” It was a sort of cognitive dissonance: despite my assurance that tipping is a widely embraced convention of the U.S. restaurant industry (where her client hopes to sell its wines one day), she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the thought of leaving a tip.

As St. Augustine once said, in a observation about fasting schedules in Milan as opposed to Rome, when in Rome, order a hamburger.

My bewilderment at her bewilderment came to mind when a friend forwarded me a tweet from a man who needs no introduction here, James Suckling:

    Tasted some wonderful Syrahs! 2007 is a great year for Syrah in Tuscany!!

When in Tuscany, do as the Tuscans do: drink Syrah (???).

Last week I found myself bewildered at a quasi apology that Mr. Suckling offered for a wine he gave 92 points out of 100 (a hefty score in a world driven by score-based sales revenue): “Not a big wine,” he wrote of the wine made from 100% Sangiovese, an indigenous grape of Tuscany, “but balanced and pretty.”

Thinking of my colleague the reluctant tipper and the ex-pat in Rome who orders hamburgers, it occurred to me that — like Plato’s man in the cave — we all see the world as projected by the lens of our previous experiences.

It makes perfect sense that Mr. Suckling would apologize from the lighter-bodied style of Il Poggione’s traditional-style Brunello since he clearly loves the richer, “big” style of (international grape, traditionally grown in the Rhône valley) Syrah grown in Tuscany. (I know for example that he loves the wines made by my and his friend Cinzia Merli at Le Macchiole, where a 100% Syrah is vinified in a opulent, rich style, definitely a “big” wine.)

In Italian you say, paesi che vai, usanze che trovi. In other words, you will find different customs in every village or country where you go.

When in Syrahlandia, do as the Syrahlandians do. Drink Syrah.

Or, in the words of Buckaroo Banzai, Hey, hey, hey, hey-now. Don’t be mean; we don’t have to be mean, cuz, remember, no matter where you go, there you are.

Buona domenica, ya’ll!

“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.