“Lou Iacucci, I remember the night he died…”

Lou Iacucci, I remember the night he died so well,” said thirty-something Edoardo Falvo, scion of the Avignonesi family and co-owner, with his brother Alfredo, of the Masseria Li Veli winery in Puglia.

The glamorous Edoardo and his effervescent wife Alessia Nebuloni were in Austin, working the market with their wines from Salento and my good friend, Master Sommelier Craig Collins, regional sales manager had asked me to join them for dinner.

In case you don’t know who Louis “Lou” Iacucci was, just ask anyone who worked in the New York wine business back in the 1970s and 80s: as the owner of Gold Star Wines and one of the founders of Vias Imports, Lou started importing fine wines from Piedmont and Tuscany before anyone could imagine the renaissance of Italian wines in our country that emerged in the 1990s. Every New York-based Italian wine professional over the age of 50 remembers Lou (whom I never met) as the great pioneer of the contemporary era of Italian wine in our country. The legendary wine cellar at Manducatis in Long Island City, Queens was shaped by his palate and the then unknown wines he imported — particularly from Piedmont.

“I remember that night very well,” recounted Edoardo. “Fabrizio Pedrolli [his partner in Vias] called to say that there had been an accident. He was crying and he told us that they had been driving in two separate cars. Fabrizio had passed a truck on the road and Louis followed him. Fabrizio made it but Louis had a frontal collision. They were driving from Siena to meet my father [Alberto Falvo] at the winery [Avignonesi].”

I imagined that Edoardo would remember that night because a number of people who knew him had told me that he was driving to Avignonesi when the accident occurred.

Lou was taken to the hospital in Siena where he died the next day, said Edoardo.

Even though I never met him (and he passed long before my time), Iacucci sits supremely in my mind’s vision of the Italian wine Olympus. And his hagiography is as fascinating (at least to me) as the Nebbiolo he brought to this country in a time before the American media reinterpreted the iconic wines of Italy — just ask Charles Scicolone, Alfonso Cevola, Livio Panebianco, Francesco Bonfio et alia

Edoardo’s reminiscences of the evening sent goosebumps traveling across my skin… The night that Lou Iacucci expired was, in many ways, the day the music died.

(BTW, Googling around before I composed this post, I came across this excellent and superbly detailed account of the recent sale of Avignonesi and its new owner and her biodynamic conversion of the estate. Fascinating reading imho.)

In other news…

Yesterday wine legend Christopher Cannan (above) was also in the River City (that’s Austin to the rest of yall) at the best little wine bar in Texas, Vino Vino, pimping his new project, the Clos Figueras (Priorat).

He seemed most geeked to taste me on the white he produces on the newish estate, a blend of stainless-steel fermented Viognier with smaller amounts of cask-fermented Grenache Blanc.

“They were supposed to send me Cabernet Sauvignon [rootstock],” he told me, “but they sent Viognier instead. And so I decided to plant it.” The wine was fresh, with bright acidity, and I was impressed by how the Viognier’s unctuous character was kept in check by the wine’s overall balance. It was delicious.

To all those folks who were worried about me not having any good wine to drink down here in Texas, not to worry. We do alright… ;)

Susumaniello, what a sususurprise! (and Georgia P’s photo shoot)

Honestly, I really didn’t know what to expect from a 2010 IGT Tarantino Susumaniello (100%) by the Poderi Angelini winery in Manduria (west coast of Puglia).

The craze for indigenous varieties has inspired a number of producers to deliver monovarietal bottlings of grapes that were used strictly for blending in the past.

In the entry for Susumaniello in the landmark Vitigni d’Italia (Grape Varieties of Italy), last revised in 2006, the editors underline the fact that “the grape is never vinified on its own” and is used strictly to produce vino da taglio, i.e., blending wine (employed historically to beef up otherwise “thin” wines).

Unfortunately, some of the well intentioned efforts to champion such indigenous grapes has been misguided (Uva di Troia in purezza, anyone?).

But Angelini’s 2010 Susumaniello was delicious last night: bright and surprisingly light on the palate, with the acidity that we crave, high but balanced alcohol, and juicy, chewy red berry fruit. I loved it, as did the group of wine professionals with whom we tasted it.

Inspired by our tasting, I went into the stustustudio and dug out some footage of my good friend Paolo Cantele pronouncing the grape’s name for us. Phil Collins ain’t got nothing on this baby!

In other news…

Georgia P went to one of her first photo shoots (I am such a stage father!) yesterday with our good friends and AWESOME photographers the Nichols here in Austin yesterday (remember when they shot our wedding?). Here’s a preview… WE LOVE HER SO MUCH! :)

Looking for the ethos of southern Italian wine…

Above: A scene from last year’s Radici (Roots) Wine Festival in Apulia (photo by Brunellos Have More Fun).

My year in southern Italian wine continues as I prepare to head back to Apulia in a few weeks for the Radici (Roots) Wine Festival in the province of Bari, where I’ll be tasting literally hundreds of wines made from native southern Italian grape varieties.

I’m going to be seeing some old friends and making some new ones. And as tired as I am from too much travel and too much time away from the love of my life Tracie P, I accepted a spot on this trip because I believe in the festival’s mission of promoting awareness of native Italian grape varieties.

Above: I’d rather be here, holding Tracie P tight and smelling Texas springtime bluebonnets!

Believe me: as glamorous as these trips sound, they are a complete drag (ask Alfonso, a 30-year veteran of what we call “death marches” in the trade, and he will tell you the same thing). You begin tasting scores of wines at 9 in the morning and you taste all day with just a short break for lunch. You have to listen to every local fat cat bureaucrat give the same speech (and the subsequent poorly and slavishly translated version in English, “We wish to valorize the territory” etc.). The wifi never works (the Atlantic Monthly reports that “Internet penetration is only around 50 percent” in Italy, thank you very much Mr. Berlusconi). And ultimately, you are a prisoner of the festival organizers: you eat when and what they tell you to eat (although I have become a master of politely moving my food around my plate so that it looks like I have consumed some of it).

But when Italy’s top and most politically charged wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani asked me to join him and an international group of colleagues in Apulia later this month, I gladly accepted out of solidarity and camaraderie with those who share my belief that Italy’s greatest wines are made from native grape varieties by people who believe that wine is a cultural and ideological expression.

There will be foreign buyers there: they’re looking for new wines to import and distribute. There will be some of the usual suspects who continue to live on the gravy train of Italian wine press junkets: some of our older and hard-on-their-luck colleagues will be there looking for a meal ticket. But there will also be some of us — observers (writers/bloggers) and actors (winemakers/grape growers) — who are looking for the ethos of these wines: their characteristic spirit, prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community (definition from the OED online edition).

Stay tuned and I’ll let you know what I find (the trip begins in early June)… Thanks for reading…

A year in Southern Italian wine and the unknown etymology of Puglia

Above: The Salento peninsula is “big sky” country. I was thrilled to visit for the first time in February of this year. And I’m looking forward to going back in June. You don’t need to be a great photographer to capture beauty there. You just point and shoot.

My relation to Southern Italian wine stretches back to the late 1990s when I began working as a magazine editor in New York and you could often find me at the bar at the Enoteca I Trulli in Manhattan, chatting with Italian wine industry veteran and my good friend Charles Scicolone (who then ran one of the most popular wine programs in the U.S., with a focus on Southern Italy). I was thirty years old then and Charles became one of my Italian wine mentors.

This year, as it turns out, is my year in Southern Italian wine: I’ve authored an exclusively Southern Italian wine list for my friends at Sotto in Los Angeles, next month I’ll be leading seminars on Southern Italian wine at the Atlanta Food and Wine festival, and in June, I’m heading back to Apulia where I’ll be a member of the jury for the Radici Wines festival.

Above: I found this Renaissance-era map of Apulia on a somewhat scary but interesting website devoted to the Knights Templar.

Here on the blog, By the Tun asked me the other day about the origins of the toponym Apulia or Appulia, the name that the Romans used for this region (and the name that gives us the modern-day Puglia).

Many online sources report the erroneous and folkloric etymology a pluvia, which ostensibly means without or lacking rain. There are so many reasons why this etymon is improbable. I won’t bore you with the fine linguistic print but the thesis quickly falls apart when you note that a in this instance is used in a Greek context (a privative prefix, meaning without, as in apathy, without feeling) while pluvia (rain) is Latin. The other reason is that Apulia doesn’t lack rain. In fact, it is the unique combination of plentiful sunlight and precipitation that makes the Apulian peninsula ideal for farming (a fact not lost on the ancients, btw).

Others would have that Apulia and the ancient apuli (the ethnonym used for the region’s inhabitants) comes from ancient king Epulon (Aepulon or Apulo in Italian), an Illyrian ruler of Histria. But this etymology, as most serious scholars note, is equally unlikely.

According to my trusty UTET Dictionary of Toponymy, the name comes from the Greek Iapudes or Iapigi, a toponym or ethnonym that denoted a place or people on the other side of the Adriatic. The ethnonym Apuli appears before the toponym Apulia in ancient Latin and it’s likely that the name comes from pre-Roman settlers of the region.

The meaning of Iapudes is unknown… another beautiful mystery of this mysteriously beautiful place…

Thanks for reading and buon weekend!

Awesome stuff I ate in Puglia (part I)

On the Sunday in mid-February that Paolo and I drove from Bologna (where he had been working the market) down to Lecce, he had some personal business to attend to and I was my own for dinner. He advised me to go to the Joyce Pub, one of the only decent places, he said, to eat in downtown Lecce on a Sunday night. Wherever there are students in Italy, there are pseudo-Irish pubs (hence the name Joyce). Evidently, this place has evolved into a popular restaurant as well but you can still get a decent pint of Guinness there.

My dinner-for-one began with minchiareddi al pesto leccese (above), finger dumplings with an arugula pesto. Arugula is ubiquitous, it seems, in Apulian cuisine and this dish was delicious. (I couldn’t help but wonder the next day: are minchiareddi “little minchie,” i.e., “little dicks”? But a little bit of philological digging back in the States revealed that minchiareddi are probably so-called because they are like “little fingers” or “pinkies,” mignolo in Italian from the Latin minimus as opposed to minchia from the Latin mingere, to urinate.)

The meatballs are the big attraction at the Joyce and were highly recommended by Paolo. Most guests (on that crowded Sunday evening) ordered meatballs and French fries (cut like steak fries), dipping the potatoes into tomato sauce. To my mind, great meatballs are all about the balance of firmness and tenderness. These balls had the right stuff! I almost ordered a second helping.

For dessert, sheep’s milk cheese studded with peppers and accompanied by walnuts and honey.

I washed it all down with a rosato from Negroamaro by Vigne e Vini. I didn’t know the producer or the wine but my server was kind enough to let me taste it before ordering (on her recommendation). Saignée-method (or Salasso method as it’s known in Italy) rosé wine from Negroamaro is IMHO one of the greatest values and surest bets when it comes to value-driven food-friendly wine. This wine was fresh and clean, low in alcohol (12.5%), and had just enough tannin to pair well with the meatballs as well as the dumplings. Negroamaro is probably the greatest Italian grape variety for rosé and I’m on a personal campaign to convert my rosé-avverse countrypeople to a belief in its virtues. (We serve Paolo’s rosato from Negroamaro by the glass on my list at Sotto in Los Angeles.)

More awesome stuff I ate in Puglia on deck… stay tuned…

My olive bread gas station epiphany in Puglia

Above: In Apulia (Puglia), they don’t call it “Pugliese Olive Bread.” They just call it “bread.”

There’s a saying in the South East of the United States of America: if you can’t play guitar better than the gas station attendant one mile outside of Nashville, don’t bother going in.” Well, I’m here to tell you that the same holds for sandwiches at gas stations in Apulia.

One of the great gastronomic experiences — unforgettable, really — of our February trip to Italy did not happen at a Michelin-starred restaurant, lunch in the home of top distillate producer, or at an avant-garde pizzeria (although there were great food and wine experiences in those contexts as well). It happened at a gas station. Yes, a distributore di benzina, where I ate the mortadella sandwich, above.

Above: Gas station food in Apulia can be excellent, folks, I’m here to tell you. Note how there are vineyards and an olive grove behind the gas station. In Apulia, it as if G-d planned an eternal Garden of Eden.

Aside from the gas station and bar above, there are not a lot of food options in the vicinity of the Cantele winery, where I visited in February with my friends (marketing director) Paolo and (winemaker) Gianni Cantele. No, there’s not much — just olive groves and vineyards, as far as the eye can see, one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen. O yeah, and there are also controversial solar panels.

That sandwich was a true epiphany for me. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in 2011 and I went back to the counter for a second sandwich. The crusty bread was perfectly crunchy on the outside but delightfully firm and savory on the inside. The olives were a glorious balance of sweet fruit and savory brine and the combination of flavors and textures — including a few leaves of fresh arugula, a thin slice of provolone, and a spalmata (schmear) of mayonnaise — culled the delicacy from the mortadella (a northern food product that became a stable of central and southern Italy in the period immediately following the second world war).

Pasolini couldn’t have written it better: set against the backdrop of Apulia’s administrative dilapidation and its sun-drenched baroque lethargy, the glory of its materia prima — wheat and olives (more grains and olives are grown there than anywhere else in Italy) — spoke to me nobly in this forgotten gas station, filled otherwise with lottery tickets and tasteless tchotchkes. Writing this, I am as overwhelmed now as I was the moment I first bit into that sandwich and tasted its wholesomeness and goodness.

Does anyone remember the Corrado Guzzanti sendup of Antonello Venditti about the gas stations along the Grande Raccordo Anulare (freeway system) circling Rome?

E se nasce una bambina poi la chiameremo… PUGLIA! (If we have a girl, we’ll call her Puglia.)

That sandwich was T-H-A-T good!

Negroamaro: Italian grape name pronunciation project


This week is going to be “Apulia” (“Puglia”)* week here on the blog: after Tracie P and I traveled to the Veneto and to Friuli in February, I headed — for the first time — to Apulia where I spent a few days with my friend and client winemaker Paolo Cantele. That’s Paolo’s voice above, speaking the grape name Negroamaro.

When Paolo and I met for the first time nearly two years ago (when we first became friends), we had a long discussion on the etymology of the ampelonym Negroamaro, which Paolo and I believe means black black and not black bitter as subscribers to the grape name’s folkloric etymology often report. Here’s the post on Paolo’s thought and my treatment of the grape name’s etymon.

When I met with Paolo in February, it occurred to me that one of the most commonly mispronounced Italian appellation names is Salice Salentino: SAH-lee-cheh SAH-lehn-TEE-noh. I asked Paolo to pronounce it properly for my camera and hence was born the “Italian Appellation Pronunciation Project.” Note that Salice is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable of the word. (BTW, I’ve composed an overview of the origins of the toponym Salice Salentino here, for Paolo’s blog.)

Even though I’ve studied the grapes and wines of Apulia (and I even worked for 3 years as the media director for an Apulian restaurant in NYC, I Trulli), I’d never traveled to the region until recently. The thing that impressed me the most was the ubiquity of olive trees. I’ll have a lot more to say about olive groves and the wonders of Apulia this week (“Apulia Week” at Do Bianchi!). But in the meantime, you’ll note that in the videos above, the olive groves are endless as Paolo and I drive from Lecce along the highway to the airport in Brindisi…

* Even though editorial convention in the U.S. has popularized the usage of Puglia, the proper English toponym for the geographical district that forms the “heel of Italy’s boot” is Apulia (from the classical Latin Apulia or Appulia).

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.