The monkey drinks the wine and gets dessert.

Above: I FINALLY got to taste one of the Cornelissen wines from Mt. Aetna in the home of total strangers, the lovely Lars and Kelly of Chicago, the other night! That’s the Susucaru, a field blend, as it were, of red and white grapes. Utterly delicious… Bibulously Yours brought that bottle.

Your probably wondering about the title of today’s post. It comes from a promise. A promise made in Chicago to Lars and Kelly’s sleeping twins.

I promised them that I would use their translation of the anisette poster (left) that resides in their bathroom as the title of this post: “The monkey drinks the wine and gets dessert.” As an accomplished translator of Italian with a doctorate in Italian and a few university press titles under my belt, I wholly endorse their rendering of the text into English.

Let me explain.

You see, wine blogging — despite all of the haters’s attempts to ruin it for everyone else — is really about bringing like-minded, nice folks together. And that’s exactly what happened the other day when Bibulously Yours (a Chicago wine blogger and wine lover whom I’d never met and with whom I trade emails and notes occasionally) wrote me the other day saying, “Welcome [to Chicago], and congrats on the new gig. Hope you’re having a nice trip. I’m sure you’re busy with work, but please let me know if you have any spare time while you’re here. I would love to meet up for a drink.”

Above: 1998 Valpolicella by Quintarelli. Lars got it on a close out and it showed splendidly. Do you ever say no to Quintarelli?

Since Bibulously’s son was ill that evening, we ended up in the home of his lovely friends Lars and Kelly who so graciously invited me to their home and so generously opened fantastic bottles of wine for me to taste with them. As it turns out, Lars and Kelly and I have a great deal in common since we have all been involved in the indy music scene and Lars even saw my old band play once in Detroit!

Above: This 500 ml bottle of 2002 Radikon Ribolla was opened at what might have been the perfect moment in its evolution, although I would guess it still has many years ahead of it. Brilliant wine. Simply brilliant.

Honestly, I was so thrashed from 3 days of eating way too much food and way too many tastings and meetings that I was entirely stoked to just hang out with the coolest folks, drink awesome wine, nibble on cheese and salame, and just shoot the shit and laugh my ass off.

As Anthony said the other day, I wish folks would stop drinking the “hatorade.” THIS IS WHAT WINE BLOGGING SHOULD BE ABOUT. Sharing wines, sharing experiences, learning and giving, having fun, and fueling our curiosity and minds with interesting wines and enriching our hearts with generosity and kindness.

Above: Bibulously’s wife stayed home with their kid. But she sent over this excellent savory cake. She said “the cake was plain and simple,” Bibulously wrote me the day after, “olive oil and preserved oranges.” It was off-the-charts delicious.

Everyone who knows me knows that I rarely eat desert. I was chubby as a kid and so I only eat desert when I REALLY LOVE it.

That night in Chicago, the monkey drank the wine and he got desert, too!

Thanks again, Nathan, Lars, and Kelly. You guys R O C K! And thanks for reminding me what it’s all about

Zombies and 1988 Quintarelli Bianco Amabile

From the department of “unabashed umami blogging”…

Tracie B and I stopped by the Highball last night for an aperitif before the zombies closed up the bowling alley/bar/restaurant/karaoke club for their zombie party. 2009 seems to be the year of the zombie, doesn’t it?

Our friends Juliet and Michael Housewright had invited us to tag along to a Halloween party in the home of some collector friends of theirs. A lot of great wine was opened, some lovely older Gigondas and vintage Gimonnet in magnum, but the wine that blew me away was a Quintarelli 1988 Bianco Amabile.

Tracie B and I have become somewhat obsessed with the show True Blood (Juliet came dressed as Sookie, complete with a Merlotte’s t-shirt!). Between all this talk of zombies and vampires, I’ve been thinking a lot about the living dead and how we talk about the “life” of a wine and how we say a wine “has life” or “is dead” in the glass.

I’ve had the good fortune to taste a lot of Quintarelli over the years, in Italy and here in the U.S., but I’d never tasted his Bianco Amabile. This wine is a trace, a clue to the past, an almost forgotten oxidative style of winemaking that was intended to give the fruit of the vine remarkable longevity. I couldn’t help but think of the Romans’s love of dried-grape wine and their high regard for grapes that could stand up to long-term aging. Valpolicella, where this wine was made, and Soave were known for their production of fine dried-grape wine, acinatius, in antiquity. The wine was very much alive in the glass, a marriage of nutty overtones and apricot and caramel flavors.

I was certainly feeling very much alive last night with the lovely Tracie B on my arm: I revived my deceased character from my faux French rock days, Cal d’Hommage, pencil-thin mustache and all. And Tracie B was my number one groupie!

Thanks for reading, ya’ll. I hope everyone had a fun and safe Halloween! Tracie B and I are off to pick out some dishware… :-)

Quintarelli’s putative son

luca fedrigo

After a year in Texas, you’d think that I wouldn’t be surprised by the vinous talent that comes out to see us. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to chat with Luca Fedrigo, above, owner of L’Arco in Santa Maria di Negrar, whose wines I’d never tasted. “After I started making wines in the late 1990s,” he told me, “my first sale in the U.S. was here in Austin.” The Texas market’s loyalty to his wine has brought him back ever since.

Just as Texas holds a special place in Luca’s heart for the sweet memory of that first sale, so do the wines of Valpolicella in mine: I first tasted great wines from “the valley of alluvial deposits” when I went to study at Padua in the late 1980s.

Franco has written about the regrettable “Amaronization” of Valpolicella that has taken place over the last decade: the region is sadly over-cropped and too many producers are making Amaronized expressions of fruit that would be better destined for Valpolicella Classico.

Luca is part of a small but determined movement of winemakers who remain true to the origins of the appellation. I really dug his traditional-style Valpolicella and Amarone, classic expressions of the appellation, aged in large old casks. I even liked his Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which showed great minerality and acidity (I think I’m going to use this wine for my Veneto class on November 3 as an example of the tradition of Bordeaux varieties long present on Veneto soil).

As it turns out, thirty-something Luca left school at the age of 14 and went to work for the “father of Valpolicella,” Giuseppe Quintarelli, who, in turn, became his putative father (I won’t go into the personal details, but let’s just say that Luca is practically a member of the family). For years, Luca studied winemaking with the great master of the appellation and ultimately became his vineyard manager. Quintarelli, he told me, helped him (and many others) to branch out on his own and create the Arco label. A gift that keeps on giving: thank goodness for Luca and the preservation of the traditions of this truly great appellation. “Valpolicella without Quintarelli,” Luca said, “is like a family without a father.”

The wines are available at The Austin Wine Merchant.

In other news… a savory oatmeal cookie…

oatmeal

After three months of scraping by on writing and teaching gigs, I’m thankfully back to hawking wine. This early morning finds me in a hotel in Houston, where I “showed” wine all day on a “ride with,” as we say in the biz, with a famous French winemaker. It’s only my first day back out on the road and I already miss her terribly. But like manna from heaven, her savory oatmeal cookies somehow found their way into my wine bag and made for an excellent breakfast with my coffee.

Proust had his madeleine…

White Nero d’Avola? Come again?

From the “life could be worse” department…

Last night found me off duty after an afternoon of appointments in Houston. So I met up with cousins Marty and Joanne and Aunt Lillian at Marty’s favorite restaurant Tony’s. Marty and Joanne are regulars there and are close with owner Tony Vallone, who always sends something special over to their table. Last night’s special treat was sautéed sea urchin tossed with mushrooms, tomatoes, and long noodles.

Sommelier Jonathan Hoenefenger paired the dish with Tony’s house white: a Nero d’Avola vinified as a white wine (Tony is Siculo-American). Frankly, I had never heard of such a thing (and neither had Italian Wine Guy when I asked him about this morning on my way back from Houston). In my experience, vanity bottlings like this rarely deliver more than novelty, but this wine was fresh, with bright acidity and minerality, and a surprising tannic note that found a worthy dance partner in the tender, meaty bits of urchin.

With our main course, we opened Quintarelli’s 1999 Rosso Ca’ del Merlo (an IGT for you DOC/DOCG/PDO/PGI buffs and a great example of how some of Italy’s greatest wines are not DOCGs). Man, this wine was killer: still a baby in the bottle, tannic and rich, with a seductive chewy mouthfeel, excellent with my Brooklyn-style thick cut pork chop. And the price was unexpectedly reasonable.

We took Aunt Lillian home (she’s 94) and retired to Marty and Joanne’s place, where we discussed Parzens and Levys, bubbies and zaidis, and even indulged in a little talmudic banter (Marty’s a law professor, after all).

Thanks, again, Joanne and Marty, for a wonderful evening!

Life could be worse, couldn’t it?

The Italian DOC/G system does (and doesn’t) matter

Photos by Tracie B.

A number of folks have posted recently about the Italian appellation system, bemoaning the fact that there is no “official” comprehensive list of DOCs and DOCGs. Back in NYC, my friend and colleague James Taylor posted at the VinoNYC blog: “as is the case with most things governmental in Italy, the system for classifying its wines can be apparently simple but deceptively complex, and can oftentimes cause a headache.” (In case you are not familiar with the Italian appellation system, see the note following this post below.)

Out here in Texas, Italian Wine Guy recently updated his list of DOCGs. His is the most comprehensive list that I know of. (Considering how much Italian wine he “touches,” as he likes to put it, as the Italian wine director for behemoth distributor Glazer’s, you’d think the Italian government would give this dude a medal. He certainly deserves one.)

It’s remarkable to think that neither the Italian government nor its Trade Commission, nor the Agriculture Ministry, nor the Italian Wine Union publish an online, comprehensive, definitive, exhaustive, up-to-date list.

But does a list really matter? Especially now?

IWG notes that while some might wonder why such a list is really necessary, it is important “because sommeliers studying for their tests want and need this information [and] anyway, it is kind of fun trying to figure a way through the labyrinth of Italian wines on that (or any) level.”

The point about sommeliers studying for their exams is a valid one: as Franco and I reported the other day at VinoWire, none of the three finalists in the recent AIS sommelier competition recognized a Langhe Bianco DOC (and one of its producers is no less than the Bishop of Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja!). Needless to say, the award was conferred to one of the contestants despite this glaring lacuna. The fact of the matter is that in the U.S. we perceive these regulations in an entirely different perspective — one that reveals our pseudo-Protestant and quasi-Progressivist tendencies and predilections for precision and accuracy.

One of our (American) misconceptions about the Italian appellation system is that it was designed to protect the consumer. In fact, as Teobaldo Cappellano pointed out in last year’s Brunello Debate, the DOC/DOCG system was created to protect “the territory,” i.e., the production zone and the people who live there and make wine.

On August 1, 2009, the DOC and DOCG system was essentially put to rest by newly implemented EU Common Market Organization reforms. August 1 was the deadline for the creation of wine appellations by EU member states and from that day forward, the power to create appellations passed from member states to the EU. The deadline created a mad rush to create new DOCs and DOCGs in Italy. Beginning with the current vintage, all wines produced in the EU will be labeled as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). The new designations will recognize and allow labeling using the members states’s current appellation classifications. But from now on, no new DOCs or DOCGs will be permitted.

It’s important to note that the DOCG does denote a higher standard of production practices: generally, lower yields, longer aging, and a second tasting of the wine by local chambers of commerce (after bottling but before release), thus conferring the “G” for garantita (guaranteed). But even though the DOCG classification has been used historically as a more-or-less deceptive marketing tool (like this pay-to-play press release on the just-under-the-wire new Matelica DOCG), it does not necessarily denote higher quality. Think, for example, of Quintarelli’s 1999 Rosso del Bepi Veneto IGT, his declassified Amarone. A few years ago, when I called him to ask him about this wine, Giuseppe Quntarelli told me that he thought it was a great wine and wanted to release it but he felt it wasn’t a “true Amarone” and so he declassified it. (Yes, I hate to break the news to you, Bob Chadderdon, you’re not the only person in the U.S. allowed to speak to Quintarelli. He complimented me, btw, for my Paduan cadence!)

The rush to create new appellations (and in particular, new DOCGs), has created a great deal of confusion and in some cases commotion. I’ll post more on the subject later this week: self-proclaimed xenophobe, racist, and separatist agriculture minister Luca Zaia truly stirred the pot with the creation of a Prosecco DOCG. Stay tuned…

*****

Currently, the Italian appellation system has three basic classifications for fine wine: DOCG, DOC, and IGT.

Acronymic articulations and translations:

DOCG: Denominazione d’origine controllata e garantita (Designation of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin)

DOC: Denominazione d’origine controllata (Designation of Controlled Origin)

IGT: Indicazione Geografica Tipica (Typical Geographical Indication)

There are wines still labeled VdT, i.e., Vino da Tavola or table wines but few of them make the Atlantic passage. In other words, few cross that body of water otherwise known as the “great misunderstanding.”

A guilty pleasure: Quintarelli 1998 Valpolicella

There was one day during my stay in Verona for Vinitaly when I managed to escape the prison walls of the fairgrounds and enjoy a stroll down the main street of a small Italian town, eat a sandwich, have something refreshing at a the counter of a bar, and chat with the owner of a fantastic charcuterie and wine shop, Francesco Bonomo (above).

The town was San Martino Buon Albergo (on the old road that leads from Verona to Vicenza). Alfonso Cevola (above) and I stopped there for a brief but much-needed hour of humanity on an otherwise inhumane week of too much travel and too many wines. That’s Alfonso munching on a panino stuffed with Prosciutto di Praga, baked and smoked ham (that we bought at the first food shop we visited).

One of the more interesting bottles displayed on Francesco’s shelves was this bottle of 1973 Barolo by Damilano. Now just a collector’s bottle, its shoulder was pretty low and Francesco agreed that the wine is surely sherryized. Francesco let me photograph the bottle using my phone (I didn’t have my camera with me) but he was careful not to disturb the bottle’s patina of dust, of which he was particularly proud.

I wish I could have taken a better photo of this wines-by-the-glass list at the little bar on the main square of San Martino: Cartizze, Verduzzo (sparkling), Soave, Fragolino, Bardolino, and Valpolicella by the glass? All under 2 Euros? The answer is YES!

Francesco presides over a modest but impressively local collection of fine wine, including an allocation of 1998 Valpolicella by Giuseppe Quintarelli, the gem of his collection. I rarely bring wine back from Italy these days but the price on this wine was too good to pass by.

However coveted and mystified in the U.S., Quintarelli is one of the most misunderstood Italian wines on this side of the Atlantic, in part because its importer is one of the most reviled purveyors in the country (his infamously elitist, classist, snobbish, monopolistic, extortionist attitude are sufficient ideological grounds for not consuming the wine here).

I’ve interviewed Giuseppe Quintarelli on a number of occasions by phone and his daughter Silvana is always so nice when I call (and, btw, they happily receive visitors for tasting and purchase of their wines). I love the wines and was thrilled to get to taste this 10-year-old Valpolicella with Tracie B on Saturday night: she made wonderful stewed pork with tomatoes and porcini mushrooms for pairing (with a side of mashed potatoes). The wine’s initial raisined notes blew off quickly, giving way to a powerful, rich expression of Valpolicella. I tasted the wine repeatedly in 2004-2005 and I was impressed by how its flavors and aromas has become even more intense.

Francesco was so proud of his Quintarelli. He told me that he sells it at just a few Euros over cost because he just wants to have it in the store and wants to be able to share it with his customers. It was great to bring back a little Valpolicella to Austin and my Tracie B, direct from the source and sourced from someone who understands it for what it really is.

Post script

Alfonso gave me this nifty “wine skin” to transport the bottle back stateside. It seals tidily, so even if the bottle breaks in your suitcase, you don’t risk leakage. Happily the bottle made it back intact.

In the olden days, you used to be able to take bottles on the plane and you even used to be able to bring your own wine for drinking. Alice developed this system for smuggling natural wine on to the plane (happily, no Cavit Merlot for her!).