Apulia in New York and a visit with Obi-Wan

Above: the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Italian wine world, Charles Scicolone (left), with Tom Maresca, another one of New York’s great wine experts and writers and an authority on Italian wine.

As the newest member of the New York Wine Media Guild, I was asked to help organize and co-chair last week’s tasting of Apulian wines in New York together with my good friend and mentor, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Italian wine world, Charles Scicolone. What an honor for me to get to present Charles! He has been working in and writing about Italian wine since the 1970s, when few connoisseurs were collecting or drinking fine Italian wine. Together with two other now-legendary names in our field, writer Sheldon Wasserman and retailer Lou Iacucci, Charles played a starring role in what can now be called the Italian wine renaissance in this country. Whether selling, consulting, lecturing, or simply tasting, “it’s always a pleasure” Charles is one of the most recognized and respected faces in Italian wine in the U.S.

Above: top wine blogger Tyler Colman and agent provocateur Terry Hughes share a moment for my camera. Also in attendance, a who’s who of New York wine writers: John Foy, Paul Zimmerman, and Peter Hellman, among others.

Charles and I have known each other for more than 10 years: I first met him when I wrote about him and his wife, cookbook author and Italian food authority Michele Scicolone, for The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana. Later, I had the great fortune to work with Charles when he was the wine director at famed Italian wine destination I Trulli in New York. (Although he never won, Charles was nominated eight consecutive times for the James Beard Wine Professional award.)

Charles is known for his passionate defense of traditional winemaking and his distaste for new oak aging, especially when it comes to Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico. “They’ve gone to the dark side,” you’ll hear Charles say, referring to once-traditional Italian winemakers who switch over to California-style vinfication and high-alcohol, overly extracted, oaky, jammy wines. Hence, my cognomen for Charles.

Above: we were also joined by Francesca Mancarella, export director for Apulian winery Candido, and Gary Grunner, another Italian wine industry veteran.

One of the things that impresses me the most about Charles’ palate and his knowledge of Italian wines is that he tasted many of the twentieth-century’s great vintages on release and he has witnessed the evolution of the Italian wine sector during its most vibrant periods of renewal and expansion.

Charles, may the force be with you!

See also Off the Presses’ tasting notes from last Wednesday’s tasting.

Above: more than 30 wines were tasted that day, including this show-stopping dried-grape Aleatico by Candido — the only DOC Aleatico passito produced, an “idiovinification” (how’s that for a neologism?). Francesca explained that the wine’s freshness is owed to Apulia’s excellent Mediterranean ventilation.

Invincible Charbono (NY Wine Media Guild tasting)

Above: winemaker and ex-football coach Dick Vermeil and Sports Illustrated writer and wine expert Paul Zimmerman (seated, right) reminisced about pigskins and old Charbono at the Wine Media Guild’s Charbono tasting this week.

Larger-than-life celebrity visited this week’s Wine Media Guild of NY tasting in Manhattan: legendary NFL coach and owner of OnTHEdge (Calistoga), Dick Vermeil (above) — one of the most down-to-earth megawatt personalities I’ve ever met — presided over a tasting of 28 bottlings of Charbono — including a rosé, a “Charbera” (Charbono/Barbera blend), and a fortified wine. Winner of the 1999 Super Bowl, Vermeil was portrayed in the 2006 film Invincible, the story of his ground-breaking 1976 “open” tryouts for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Charbono, you say? Erroneously thought by many to be a relative of Dolcetto (or even Barbera), Charbono is a rustic-tasting, tannic, but fruity and food-friendly grape that Italian immigrants favored in late-nineteenth-century California. Today almost entirely forgotten (there are only “84 tons of Charbono grown in the state” of California, according to enologist and man behind the Opus One project, Paul Smith of OnTHEdge), Charbono is a distinct cultivar grown by a small but devoted group of California wineries (the tasting included wines by Pacific Star, Oakstone and Obscurity Cellars, Shypoke, Robert Foley, Jospeh Laurence, Duxoup, On the Edge, August Briggs, Chameleon, Summers, Turley, Tofanelli, Schrader, Fortino, and Boeger).

A wide variety of styles — from the luscious and modern to the more lean and traditional — were represented at the tasting. My personal favorites were old bottlings of Charbono by Pacific Star, including a 1990 and a 1994 (above).

Because many of the vines are 70-80 years old, Charbono can be a late-ripening grape and “only 60% ripens fully,” noted winemaker Sally Ottoson, of Pacific Star, who first made Charbono in 1989. “That’s why it needs extended aging” in cask (she prefers neutral, large-format barrels) and in bottle, she said.

In his colorful address to the group, Wine Media Guild senior member Paul Zimmerman fondly remembered tasting Inglenook’s Charbono in the 1960s and observed that the tannic wines “tested your manhood.”

In other news…

The Brunello saga continues. Check out today’s post on VinoWire.