98 Poggio di Sotto unbelievable & the “dinner of dinners” @TonyVallone

Last night, I had the great fortune to be invited to speak at Tony’s in Houston, the namesake and flagship restaurant of my good friend and client Tony Vallone.

He had billed the event as the “dinner of dinners” for 2012 and he didn’t disappoint.

After the welcome wine, we paired 2001 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello with Alba truffles over tagliarini, my first truffles in this year of drought-impacted foraging.

The 2001 Bartolo Mascarello is simply one of the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted and has many, many brilliant years ahead of it. It had been opened a few hours prior and while it wasn’t entirely generous with its fruit, its elegance and balance are unrivaled.

But the wine that really wowed me was the 1998 Brunello di Montalcino by Poggio di Sotto. I’d been very lucky to taste this wine many times in the past and I was surprised when I saw Antonio Galloni’s tasting note in which he advised that it was in decline. (Antonio’s my favorite Italian wine writer, btw, and while his word is not sacrosanct, I do find his palate to align nearly perfectly with mine when it comes to traditional-style wines.)

This wine had what the Italians call grinta, real grit and spunk… Beautiful acidity and the vibrant dark fruit that you expect from classic expressions of the Castelnuovo dell’Abate subzone of Montalcino.

Tony and his general manager Scott Sulma paired with this medley of guinea hen and Taleggio-stuffed tortellini in brodo.

And wow, I just feel like I need to add a chorus of dayenu as I recount this epic meal. As if the previous two dishes weren’t enough to make his guests swoon, Tony thrilled the room (which reacted with a unanimous gasp as the beef enter the room) with a platter of nearly two-month-aged prime rib.

Dessert — sweet zeppoli stuffed with torchon de foie gras (how’s that for fusion!) paired with 1990 Recioto della Valpolicella by Quintarelli…

I like to joke that Tony’s is an oil moguls commissary. On any given night, you’ll a handful of billionaires in his restaurant — at the very least.

How I ever found my way to a seat at that table, I still don’t really know.

As I sit this afternoon, on the outskirts of Houston in a Starbucks using the free wi-fi and listening to Christmas music as I type and type and type at the keyboard for my clients, I can’t help but take a deep breath and contemplate the extraordinary counterpoints of life.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

How I ever got here, I’ll never really know. But I sure am thankful for the many gifts life has given me…

Colonization of Cannubi Continues in Barolo

mascarello barolo cannubi

Above: A drawing of “La collina dei Cannubi” (“Cannubi Hill”) by Eugenio Comenicini, 1981 (reproduced from Martinelli’s monograph Il Barolo come lo sento io, 1993).

When Giovanni and I visited the home of Maria Teresa Mascarello and David Berry Green on Saturday for lunch, conversation was dominated by two topics: the primary elections for Italy’s center-left Democratic Party (held on Sunday) and the Marchesi di Barolo’s continued efforts to redefine which vineyards in Barolo can be called “Cannubi.”

For some time now, Marchesi di Barolo has been trying expand the designation, to include adjacent vineyards. Its application to extend the historic vineyard’s reach was thwarted when a group of eleven producers and owners of rows Cannubi successfully petitioned to block the move in June of this year. (Walter Speller delivered this excellent post on the events that lead up to the showdown.)

As Marta Rinaldi — daughter of Giuseppe Rinaldi, one of the eleven wineries who contested the redesgination — reported in this moving post on Intravino, it took a court order to stop the Marchesi di Barolo, whose motive to remap appellation subzones is rooted in desire to exploit the most recognizable crus of Barolo for financial gain.

Cannubi is considered by many to be one of Barolo’s greatest vineyards and one of its most historically significant growing sites. This fact, coupled with foreigners’ ease in pronouncing the toponym (kahn-NOO-bee), have made it one of the most popular (and lucrative) vineyard designations in the appellation.

ferdinando principiano

Above: Giovanni and I drove from Brescia to Barolo on Saturday morning.

In October of this year, the Marchesi di Barolo filed an appeal with the court to lift the injunction against them. And its outcome is uncertain.

“On the ground” in Barolo, there is even greater concern regarding the vineyard’s future because the Ceretto and Damilano wineries recently partnered with James Suckling to make a documentary about Cannubi (it was shot during harvest this year). And the movie is to be incorporated, Maria Teresa told me, in a marketing campaign to promote the sale of wines labeled “Cannubi” in the ever growing Asian market, where the thirst for high-end wines seems to know no bounds.

As an owner in Cannubi and one of its most well known producers, Maria Teresa was approached by marketers to participate in the program.

“A campaign like this shouldn’t move forward until the question has been resolved,” she told me. “I’m not going to partner with my quote-unquote enemy… the Marchesi di Barolo in a promotion like this,” noting that the Marchesi di Barolo is planning to be part of the campaign.

Above: Will the color of traditional Barolo be sullied by the green of avarice?

It’s not clear when the court will rule on the Marchesi di Barolo’s appeal and the stakes are extremely high.

As David wrote on his blog last year, “Ernesto Abbona, President of heavyweight Barolo producer Marchesi di Barolo (1.6million bts), is cast in the Machiavellian role making a final desperate grab for vineyard rights. Pitted against him are a band of small growers – let’s call them partisans! – defending the honour of an historical site, Cannubi, row by row, bunch by bunch.”

I’ll be following along closely and will report news as it arrives from Langa. In the meantime, a Google image search for “Cannubi” will deliver a number of photos and maps of this historic vineyard if you’re interested in learning more.

I’ve got so much to tell about my recent trip to Italy, including more on my lunch with Maria Teresa and David. But this was most urgent. Stay tuned…

1998 Bartolo Mascarello tasting notes (no cause for alarm)

When I tasted the 1998 Bartolo Mascarello last month in Houston, I was frankly disappointed by the amount of sediment in the wine, probably due to recent diassociation rather than issues at bottling. I’ve followed the wines for years now and have visited and tasted with Maria Teresa Mascarello on a number of occasions. These are wines conceived and produced for long-term aging and my suspicion is that the wine I had tasted in Texas had been damaged in some way (possibly heat exposure?).

When I went to California in August, I grabbed one of the few bottles of 1998 Bartolo Mascarello that I have in my cellar (I keep my wine locker in San Diego, where it’s less expensive to store wine and where I have access limited by distance, thus precluding and preempting impulsive visits!).

I’m happy to report that the wine (as can be seen in the photo above) showed beautiful and is still very young in its evolution. No issues with sediment whatsoever.

I snapped the above photo when I visited the winery a few years ago. In my view of the world, Bartolo Mascarello’s wines are a benchmark in Langa wines, where steadfastly traditional growing and winemaking practices align seamlessly with elegance and depth.

The 1998 is still very tannic in character but is already revealing some of its gorgeous fruit. I plan not to revisit my remaining (and sadly dwindling) allocation for at least another five year.

But no regrets here, coyote. Just keeping the world safe for Italian wine… thanks for reading…

My photo in Forbes and 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva tonight @TonyVallone

Stranger things have happened: last week Forbes contacted me asking if they could use a photo (above) from the blog for the magazine.

Here’s the link to the piece.

The image comes from my of the “most memorable meals” of 2011, a dinner in the restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone.

Here’s the link to my post on the repast, wherein 98 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 98 Quintarelli Amarone, and 90 Quintarelli Bandito (!!!) were all consumed with great joy.

Tonight at Tony’s, we’ll be opening the 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva: I’ll be speaking about the wines at a dinner for forty persons.

Stay tuned…

Taste Mascarello & Quintarelli with me on July 19 in Houston

I never had the fortune to meet Bartolo Mascarello before he passed. But over the years, I’ve become friends with Maria Teresa Mascarello, his daughter (above). We’ve visited at the winery and I taste with her every chance I get (and a few years ago I was thrilled to buy a single-edition collection of Arabic poetry on wine that she and Baldo Cappellano had had translated from the original into Italian, a wonderful book that I cherish).

I love the wines and I love the family and I love all that they stand for — the wines and the people. There is perhaps no winery where ideology and winemaking align so perfectly, delivering wines that truly express the land and the people who grow and vinify the grapes while remaining true to the ideological purity of the people who sacrificed their lives to keep Italy free in the face of fascism (before, during, and after the war).

Above: Large format bottles in the Bartolo Mascarello cellar.

My friend Tony in Houston knows how much I appreciate these life-changing wines and so whenever Tracie P and I visit him together, he always opens something from his deep cellar and picks something special from his ample stash of Bartolo Mascarello wines.

Tony has asked me to host a dinner at his restaurant in Houston on July 19, where we’ll be opening a few wines by Bartolo Mascarello as well as a 1990 Recioto della Valpolicella by Quintarelli (another one of my personal favorites).

The price of admission isn’t cheap but it’s worth every penny considering the flight of wines we’ll be enjoying. And of course, I’ll be speaking about my experiences at Mascarello and Quintarelli.

Here are the details…

Best meals 2011: Quintarelli and Mascarello at Tony’s (Houston)

Curating Tony’s website and serving as his media director has its perks. This dinner, in August, was one of them. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it!

From the department of “dreams do come true”…

When we sat down for dinner last week, Tony Vallone looked across the table at me and matter-of-factly said, “I have some special wines picked out for you tonight. I know you’re going to like them.” He wasn’t kidding.

I’ve been curating his blog since October 2010 and our weekly meeting has evolved into a familial kibitz where we talk about everything under the sun, alternating between English and Italian. (Long before Tracie P and I announced that we were pregnant, Tony had intuited that we were with child. “I can read it on your face,” he told me. And, all along, Tony said it was going to be a girl. He was right.)

The occasion for our dinner was an interview with one of the top wine writers in the country and Tony had asked me to join them.

After an aperitif of light, bright Colle Massari Montecucco Vermentino, the first wine in the flight was 1998 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello (above).

I’ve tasted this wine on a number of occasions and it’s extremely tight right now, favoring its tannin and jealously guarding its fruit.

But when the server arrived with a porcini risotto topped with Umbrian truffles shaved tableside, the wine started to open up and its delicate menthol note began to give way to wild berry fruit tempered by mushrooms and earth. The acidity in this wine was singing and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Angelo Gaja’s antithetical comparison of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Cabernet Sauvignon is like John Wayne, I once heard Gaja say: he who stands in the center of the room and cannot help but be noticed. Nebbiolo is like Marcello Mastroianni: he enters the room and stands quietly in the corner, waiting for you to approach him. (There’s a punchline that cannot be repeated in polite company.)

The acidity in the 98 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico was equally vibrant and its melody played a counterpoint against the delicately marbled fat of a Kobi fillet. While I’m sure that the 98 Quintarelli has many, many years ahead of it, this wine is in a moment of grace. Generous fruit set against rich structure and mouthfeel. Here, I couldn’t help be reminded of Cassiodorus’s description of Acinaticum: “On the palate, it swells up in such a way that you say it was a meaty liquid, a beverage to be eaten rather than drunk.” In this wine, meaty ripe and overripe red fruit alternated with savory flavors. An unforgettable wine in one of the most remarkable moments of its life.

And dulcis in fundo, Tony had selected a wine that he had seen me covet. A few months ago, a collector and frequent guest of Tony’s poured me a taste of the rare 1990 Quintarelli Bandito (I wrote about it here). Knowing that I longed to “drink” this wine in the context of a meal, he surprised us at the end with a 375ml bottle. This wine — last bottled by Quintarelli for the 1990 vintage — is one of the greatest expressions of Garganega I’ve ever tasted: rocks and fruit, minerality and stone and white stone fruit, dancing around a “nervy backbone of acidity” as the Italian say.

This was paired with some housemade zeppole and a dose of playful nostalgia.

Carissimo Tony, ti ringrazio di cuore per questi vini straordinari!

No Berlusconi but sadly still Barrique

Bartolo Mascarello’s famous label, “No Barrique, No Berlusconi,” a now iconic image that empowered wine as an ideological expression. Photo via Spume.

The great 20th-century novelist, poet, essayist, and politician Leonardo Sciascia employed Sicily as synecdoche for Italy in his novels Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl, 1961) and A ciascuno il suo (To Each His Own, 1966). The works were parables of what he would later call the “Sicilianization” of Italy: a phenomenon whereby the Sicilian model of bureaucratic and political bankruptcy and clannish self-interest had contaminated the entire Italic peninsula as the nation first tasted the sweetness of prosperity thanks to the “economic miracle” of that decade.

Today, as I joyously read the news that Berlusconi has pledged to resign, I am reminded of Sciascia’s parables. In many ways, Berlusconi’s 17-year tenure as Italy’s leading politician is a parable of the Italian nation’s overarching abandonment of the social ideals that emerged in the period immediately after the second world war, when social and economic equality, dignity, and liberty were paramount in the hearts and minds of Italians who had suffered through the tragedy of fascist and Nazi domination. The memory of those wounds was still vibrant in 1994 when Berlusconi first took power. Today, the generation that embraced the humanist ideals of Italian post-war communism has greyed. And the greed and moral bankruptcy embodied by Berlusconi will remain as the legacy that has reshaped Italy and swept away the renaissance of Italian greatness — in design, technology, fashion, cuisine, etc. — of the decade that preceded his reign.

His tenure corresponds neatly to the tragic Californianization of the Italian wine industry that took shape in the 1990s when scores of Italian producers abandoned the values of the generation that had made wine before them.

Berlusconi may be on his way out. But, sadly, barriques are here to stay.

In the face of the European debt crisis and the social and economic turmoil that has gripped Italy (my first love) and Greece (my new love) — “Crisis in Italy Deepens, as Bond Yields Hit Record Highs,” New York Times — it’s been difficult to write about wine here on the blog.

Tonight Tracie P and I will raise a glass of traditionally vinified Nebbiolo to Italy’s future… and tomorrow I’ll pick it up again…

Sophie’s Choice: 06 Produttori del Barbaresco

This wine may be my favorite bottling yet, but not for the reason you think…


Above: Summertime isn’t exactly ideal for Nebbiolo but, after so much talk of this wine, I couldn’t resist opening a bottle of 2006 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco last night. Can you blame me? Dinner last night chez Parzen was cannellini dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and a kiss of red wine vinegar, wilted spinach and boiled potatoes also dressed with evoo, and some fresh feta.

Between Bruno Giacosa’s controversial decision not to bottle his 2006 vintage in Barolo and Barbaresco and Produttori del Barbaresco’s much misunderstood decision not to bottle its 2006 single-vineyard designated wines, the 2006 vintage may very well be one of the most talked-about vintages in Langa in recent years.

Let’s get one thing straight: most folks agree that 2006 was a classic, solid vintage, with a relatively balanced growing season (if not for rains in September). It wasn’t GREAT (in all caps) but it was good to very good. And while Giacosa’s decision appears outwardly based on the personal setbacks Bruno suffered that year, the decisions by Giacosa and Produttori del Barbaresco were probably based on economic reasoning: in a tough market, it’s easier to sell a more reasonably priced wine. In fact, Aldo Vacca (winemaker at Produttori del Barbaresco) said as much in a comment he left on Do Bianchi.

I tasted the 06 for the first time in New York in the spring: it was a ringer in one of the blind Greek tastings. But last night, after reading one too many blog posts about the 2006 Produttori del Barbaresco (which is now in the market), the mimetic desire kicked in and I caved and opened a bottle.

While I continue to kick myself for not cellaring more 2004 (especially) and 2005, my negligence has been rewarded by this amazing bottle of wine, which is a cuvée of all the Produttori del Barbareso crus.


Above: I tasted all of the 2005 single-vineyard (cru) designated wines in March at the winery with Aldo. I’ll post my notes on these, which have also just hit the market, next week.

I have always been a bigger fan of the cuvée, i.e., the classic Barbaresco blended mostly from the Ovello cru, with smaller amounts of other crus depending on the vintage. But the 2006 classic blended Barbaresco is something truly special.

Antonio Galloni, one of the top 3 palates for Nebbiolo in the world IMHO, was a fan of the otherwise “average” vintage when he tasted the first bottling of the 06 (before the decision was made not to bottle the crus): “If the regular Barbaresco holds this much power,” he wrote, “I can only wonder what the Riservas might have in store. Simply put, this is a marvelous effort.”

The wine we tasted last night was fantastic, with all the earth and all the red fruit I dream for, extremely powerful and rich, more so than other classic vintages like the winery’s 99, 01, 04, and 05.

My only misgiving about this wine is that it’s one of the few instances where I will tell you to let it age in your cellar for a few years before approaching it. I believe that with the addition of grapes from crus like Montestefano and Montefico (the most tannic), the wine has a tannic power that will only reward the patient collector.

It’s not that this wine is “better” because “better” fruit went into it, as many sales people are however earnestly but erroneously saying. The crus are not “better.” They are just different among one another.

What’s special about this wine is how it shows that terroir is also about people and where and how they decide to grow and raise things. This wine is a true collector’s item from Produttori del Barbaresco: it’s an anomaly, a rare occasion where Aldo had a better vintage than many, but decided not to bottle single-vineyard wines.

In some ways, this wine is the best bottling of my enosentient lifetime. Keep in mind that the cru system began in the late 1960s (and 1967, the year of my birth, to be exact), when Gaja, Vietti, and Produttori del Barbaresco were inspired by the French cru system to bottle single-vineyard designated wines. Ultimately, whether it’s Aldo’s cru vs. cuvée or Vajra’s Barolo Bricco delle Viole vs. Barolo Albe, or even Gaja’s Sorì-designated wines vs. its Barbaresco (to use three different stylistic examples), I always find that it’s the classic, blended wines (like Bartolo Mascarello, who has never made a cru) that keep calling me back. They don’t express a growing site: they express a vintage, an appellation, and a way of life.

So in a way, the 2006 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco is the financial crisis’s little gift to us: a wine that harks back to an era before the advent of Barbaresco’s Francophilia.

In essence, for survival’s sake (and the sake of all those who depend on him), winemaker Aldo had to make a “Sophie’s choice.” I’m glad that he chose well.

Had any good 03s from Italy lately?

Above: Tracie P tasting at Giuseppe Mascarello with winemaker and owner Mauro Mascarello, on a crisp winter day in February 2010. We were invited to taste there with Italy’s inestimable wine blogger and wine pundit Mr. Franco Ziliani.

However lost in translation, my post on Monday led to an earthly discussion of who bottled good expressions of the 2003 vintage in Italy and a metaphysical dialectic on whether or not one should drink 2003 at all, when stellar vintages like 1999, 2001, or 2005 are within hand’s reach.

Above: Perhaps an anomaly, perhaps the child of a superior growing site and excellence in winemaking, Mauro Mascarello’s 2003 Barolo Monprivato was no fluke.

Was 2003 a forgettable vintage in Italy? Questions of taste literally aside, the wine punditry on both sides of the Atlantic has spent a lot of energy and time talking about the 2003 vintage (in part because of the controversy it stirred).

Above: Only a handful of winemakers made their top wines in 2003, but, man, what wines they were! Like this 2003 Brunello di Montalcino Paganelli by Tenuta Il Poggione (Tracie P and I tasted it over dinner with winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci in February).

Of course, 2003 was a poor vintage because of the aggressive heat that year, almost across the board throughout Europe. But that also means that many winemakers, who didn’t make their flagship wines, used their top fruit for their other wines. As Gary put it so well, “I think that 2003 presents an interesting opportunity to pick up some amazing bargains at the peak of their drinkability, but one must be very picky, and try before buy.”

I’m certainly not stocking my cellar with 03s but over the last months (and even the last few days), I have had some great 03s: like the Oddero Barolo the other night, 03 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco, 03 Barolo Monprivato by G. Mascarello, 03 Brunello di Montalcino Paganelli by Il Poggione, and 03 Barbera del Monferrato Perlydia by Valpane (the last three are all “flagship” wines, btw). While not all of these are going to cellar as well as 99, 01, and 05 (and 04 IMHO), they are by no means wines I’d turn down if someone happened to open one in my presence. In fact, they are more approachable and drinkable (as Gary points out) than their more cellar-worthy counterparts.

Have you had any good 03s lately from Italy? Please share so that I don’t have to feel so alone… ;-)

Is marijuana the new wine? and a little raw sausage porn teaser

Above: A little marijuana porn, anyone? Click here for the big kahuna over at the U.S. DEA website.

It’s hard to believe that this is happening in my lifetime but it’s true. I had to pull over to the side of the road the other as I was driving home and heard a radio story on American Public Media Marketplace: the spokesperson for NORMAL was talking about the recent initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use in California and — get this! — turn Humboldt and Mendocino into Napa Valley-inspired marijuana tourism destinations.

I’m certainly not the only or the first to write about this is in the enoblogosphere: check out this post by Wolfgang, who asks wryly, “have I smoked too much Cabernet?”

As I head out (tomorrow) to my homestate of California, to speak about Piedmontese wines at Jaynes Gastropub on Saturday Sunday and to celebrate the Passover with my family on Monday night, I have to admit that I never thought legalized pot would happen in my lifetime (even though pot is woven deeply into the cultural fabric of my beloved California). But is weed the new wine? Humboldt County tasting rooms? Unbelievable!

In other news…

Above: I love the raw pork sausage that you typically eat as an appetizer in Piedmont. You eat it just like that, completely raw. We were served this excellent victual when we dined in the home of Giovanna Rizzolio.

I been showered by numerous requests to hurry up and post about the amazing private tastings that were organized for Tracie P and me by venerable Italian wine pundit Mr. Franzo Ziliani in Barolo and Barbaresco during our February trip there. One zealous fan of my blog writes of his “burning disappointment” that I still haven’t posted on our tastings at Vajra, G. Rinaldi, G. Mascarello, and Cascina delle Rose, “our lady of the deaf river,” as I will call the inimitable Giovanna Rizzolio, producer of one of Mr. Ziliani’s favorite Barbarescos and his close friend.

Frankly, I’m flattered by all the messages I’ve received and I promise to devote next week’s posts to my notes and impressions of these amazing wines and the truly amazing people who make them. And I can only reiterate my heartfelt thanks to Mr. Ziliani, as I wrote on Valentine’s day, in a post published not long after Tracie P and I returned from Italy: noble is the host… (the line comes from a stanza of an ode by 18th-century Italian poet Parini that I translated and dedicated to Mr. Ziliani).