Arianna Occhipinti & Giorgio Grai walk into a winebar…

From the department of “public service announcements”…

How’s this for a premise? [hipster Sicilian Natural wine producer] Arianna Occhipinti (above) and [legendary winemaker, master blender, and race car driver] Giorgio Grai walk into a winebar in Siena… The two winemakers represent the antipodes of Italian winemaking in nearly every way (including geographically!). And they are two of the nicest and most intelligent people in Italian wine today.

I probably won’t be getting up at 3 a.m. (10 a.m. Italian time) on March 16 to watch the streaming of a conversation between Arianna, Giorgio, the original Italian celebrity chef Gualtiero Marchesi, Giuseppe Vajra (one of our favorite winemakers), and a few other Italian food and wine luminaries. But I’m hoping that someone will have the good sense to post a YouTube somewhere. The icing on the cake: one of my favorite Italian food bloggers, Stefano Caffarri, curator of Appunti di Gola, will be moderating.

My good friend Francesco Bonfio, president of Vinarius (the association of Italian wine shops) is the organizer.

Here are the details.

In other news…

One of the winemakers I admire the most (for the superb wines he makes and for his honesty and soulfulness), Angiolino Maule has announced the dates of the VinNatur conference and tasting at the Villa Favorita, March 24-26.

Of all the Natural and biodynamic wine fairs in Italy, VinNatur is perhaps the one that thrills me the most and its selection process is the most rigorous. Not only are producers required to practice chemical-free farming, but they are also required to submit soil samples to ascertain whether or not “residual” chemicals are present in their vineyards (resulting from runoff from their neighbors’s vineyards).

In past years, my very close friend and jazz guitar virtuoso Ruggero Robin has performed at the event (he and Angiolino — an accomplished musician in his previous life — are good friends, as well). I don’t know yet if Ruggero will be there but I hope so!

How to make unsulfured wine (one man’s method) and are pharmaceutical yeasts unavoidable?

Above: Angiolino Maule didn’t know us from Adam and Eve when I called him in January asking if we could visit his winery and vineyards. By the end of the visit, we had become fast friends (sometimes it helps to speak Italian with a Veneto accent!).

If you follow along here at the blog, you know how much we love the wines of Angiolino Maule. They’re delicious and they’re affordable. And, in the words of the winemaker, they’re made with the utmost respect for Nature (with a capital N).

The story of how he went from factory worker to pizzaiolo to winemaker to Natural winemaker has been told many times before. The only thing I’ll add to it is that in an earlier time in his life, Angiolino was a gigging saxophone player and he loves music. When Tracie P, Alfonso, and I went to taste with Angiolino and family recently, the house was filled with music — speed metal, on the day we visited, preferred genre of son Francesco. The Maule family loves music and nearly every member plays an instrument and there were musical instrument strewn about the house. And you imagine our shared delight when, over dinner at Angiolino’s brother-in-law’s pizzeria I Tigli, we realized that famous Veneto jazzer Ruggero Robin is a close mutual friend.

Above: A stone wall in Gambellara reveals the volcanic nature of the subsoil. Note the wide pores of the red stone.

Although he also grows a few red grapes (more for professional pride than for any other reason, he said), his estate is about Garganega (if you have trouble pronouncing the grape, click here for the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project). His farming practices and winemaking methods are impeccably natural and he went to great lengths to explain to us how his growing sites are regularly tested for the residual presence of farming chemicals. Not only does the farmer have to eliminate the use of chemicals in order to grow Natural wine, he explained, the grape grower must also ensure that there is no chemical runoff from adjacent farms. He exclusively uses vegetal (as opposed to animal-based) composts to “re-pristinate” the nitrogen and carbon balance of his subsoils and he is actively engaging the academic community in an attempt — the first, he claims — to provide scientific evidence of how Natural winegrowing works.

Above: “When you take something from the soil, you have to give something back,” said Angiolino as he explained the application of vegetal compost to revive the microorganisms needed to achieve balance in his subsoils. While no one truly understand how the Natural chemistry works, Angiolino is working with university researchers to provide new empirical insight.

“We [Natural winemakers] are like the prostitute who marries the most upright boy in the village,” he told us, using an old adage to explain his expanding relationship with academia. “We need to make sure that the husbands’ shirts are ironed and that the children get to school on time so that the townsfolk will begin to take us seriously.”

But perhaps the greatest revelation that day was his method for unsulfured wine, i.e., wine to which the winemaker adds no sulfites, using only the natural components in the wine (sulfur is a natural byproduct of fermentation, btw) to preserve the wine and prevent oxidation.

The secret? He bottles directly from cask, using a syphon (a “straw,” he called it). He introduces the syphon into the cask through the bunghole and then lowers it to the center of the cask. He then begins to draw off the wine and bottle it directly. In this manner, he explained, the wine does not come into contact with oxygen and thus oxidation is avoided. (I know another winemaker in Slovenia who uses this method for bottling, although with a much more elaborate setup; you can guess who.) When racking (moving wine from one vessel to another), the resulting oxidation can only be corrected using sulfites, i.e., engineered SO2. (Sulfuring in wine is not a bad thing, btw… Over sulfuring wine is the bad thing. 99.999999999% of the wine you drink, even the finest wine, is sulfured. The truth is that without the use of sulfur, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy fine wine today.)

The other secret? Angiolino sulfurs the wine that lies at the bottom of the cask: at a certain point during the bottling process, enough oxygen enters the cask to cause slight oxidation and Angiolino minimally sulfurs that parcel to stabilize the wine. He rigorously labels his wines with a reporting of the alcohol, acidity, and sulfur content on the back label. Only his unsulfured wines report “NON CONTIENE SULFITI” (“does not contain sulfites”).

Above: Angiolino’s life and winemaking are about honesty. He is open and upfront about everything he does, feels, thinks, and believes. He talks very frankly about why he broke away from Vini Veri, which he helped to found, and how he regulates his VinNatur group with an authoritarian spirit. His wines aren’t for everyone. We love them.

There was another revelation that has been the subject of a lot of debate and discussion in our home.

At a certain point, Tracie P asked Angiolino how a Natural winemaker can avoid contamination by pharmaceutical yeasts, especially in an appellation like Gambellara, where industrial commercial winemaking dominates the landscape. “Is it possible,” she asked in her Neapolitan-cadenced Italian, “for yeast from the Zonin winery at the bottom of the hill to float its way up to your cellar?” (As lovers of Natural wine well know, one of the main tennets of the category is the exclusive use of native (also called wild or ambient) yeasts in fermentation.) If you’ve ever looked into Tracie P’s beautiful blue eyes, you know that it’s impossible to tell her a lie.

Angiolino paused and said, “that’s a very good question.” He paused again.

“When I first started making wine, I used cultured yeasts in my winery. The truth is,” he said, “once you’ve used cultured yeasts in any environment, they remain present. They never go away.”

Wow, this was a heavy moment for all of us. It called into question everything that we’ve been taught by the cultural purveyors of Natural wine. If only on an epistemological level, this revelation begs the question: is it even possible to make a wine using only native yeasts when pharmaceutical yeasts are present all around us?

In other words, is there such a thing as a 100%, purely wild fermented wine? Does the residue from previous vinifications (even Beppe Rinaldi conceded that he’s used cultured yeast on occasion) eliminate the possibility of a 100%, purely wild fermented wine? Does the yeast residue that travels on the shoes of a cellar worker contaminate a cellar forever?

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a big difference between the use of “killer” yeasts that impart specific flavors through widespread application during fermentation (think California style) and neutral yeasts, applied sparingly and with forethought, to encourage and speed fermentation (Consider that Bruno Giacosa and Mauro Mascarello openly and regularly use neutral yeasts and Aldo Vacca uses a cultured yeast called “Barolo strain” that replicates the native yeasts of Langa — I’ve asked each of them directly.)

Do Angiolino’s wines meet the Natural wine dogmatists’s lofty requirements? I believe they do. Is truly Natural wine, as they define it, possible? I’m not sure anymore. Do Tracie P and I tend to like self-defined Natural wines more than others? Most definitely. Is Natural wine more about being conscious of how commercial and industrial winemaking changed the world of wine in the post-WWII era than it is about oxymoronic dogma? The answer surely probably lies somewhere between the Zonin factory in the village of Gambellara and the Biancara winery at the top of the hill, where Angiolino makes “magical music in a glass” (according to the importer’s glistening marketese).

The only thing I know for certain is that I admire Angiolino immensely and we love his wines. I love them because they taste real to me. They taste of rocks and fruit. They taste like my beloved Veneto. The speak a language that I understand. And when Tracie P and I share a bottle, we are happy — even happier remembering Francesco’s speed metal that day.

Vini Veri and VinNatur 2011 fair dates (public service announcement)

Above: Last year’s Vini Veri producers.

I’m still undecided as to whether or not I’ll be attending this year’s “Natural” and “Real” wine fairs but the lineup for both is always a who’s who of my favorite Italian producers.

Vini Veri will be held this year on April 7-9 at La Fabbrica AreaExp in Cerea (near Verona).

Here’s the link to the fair’s post (not exactly user-friendly for those of us among us who are not Italophiles).

Here’s a link with tasting details in English (thanks Marisa!).

VinNatur will be held April 10-11 at the Villa Favorita near Vicenza. Here’s the link, including ticket and location info (great site with excellent translations for the solely Anglophone among us). Hopefully my friend Ruggero Robin will be playing!

Playing guitar in Padua…

All work and no play makes the Jar a dull boy…

After a week of Colli Orientali del Friuli with the “Magnificent 6,” I took time out yesterday to catch up with some of my oldest and best friends in Padua — both of them extraordinary musicians in their own right and genre.

That’s Ruggero Robin (above) in his studio. Ruggero’s played with ’em all: Zucchero, Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and B.B. King, among many others. And his cerebral, dense style of jazz, jazz fusion, and jazz rock has made him one of Italy’s most admired musical artists (no shit). Ruggero was my “first friend” in Italy back in 1987: we met on the night of my first gig in Italy. And I learned from winemaker Angiolino Maule that Ruggero plays every year at VinNatur. Who knew? We listened to some of Ruggero’s mind-blowing tracks and he also played some tracks by his daughter Sara: she is going to be a huge star… I can just feel it… amazing chops, amazing (and remarkably mature) voice at 20 years old, and SO MUCH soul in her songwriting…

Later in the evening, I caught up with Gabriele “Elvis” Inglesi (above), one of the best friends anyone could ever wish for. The first time I made a real living playing music was with Gabriele (whom we used to call Elvis because of his obsession with life and work of Elvis Presley). We remembered how we played 28 gigs in February 1991 (I was 24 years old): 100,000 vecchie lire (about 60 bucks) per man per night and all the beer and food you could drink and eat… Man, we must have a played a thousand gigs together when I lived in Italy…

Elvis has an amazing voice and since those early days in both of our musical careers, he has become a virtuoso chicken picker, basing his style and technique on the category’s inventor and innovator, James Burton. Just ask McDuff, Nicolas, or Alfonso, who all got to meet Elvis and hear him play… he’s a phenomenal guitar player… we even got to hear a few of Elivs’s legendary jokes!

But dulcis in fundo

I finally got to meet Elvis’s son Ettore (above)… what a great kid…

Looking back on it all, I remembered how music got me through some of the most trying and difficult times of my life and how many rewards it delivered in happy times, too. And most of all, I thought, it brought so many wonderful people into my life, people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, love and friendship, solidarity and camaraderie… I wouldn’t trade any of those memories for all the gold in the world… they’re worth much, much more…

A new friend in Angiolino Maule and the future of Natural wine in Italy

Have you ever tasted a wine that thrilled you so completely and moved you so deeply that you felt compelled, as if by some magnetic force of the earth, to seek out the winemaker and vineyards where it was grown?

After first tasting his wines last year, that’s how I felt about Angiolino Maule and La Biancara, his family’s estate.

Two weeks ago, I called Angiolino out of the blue and asked him if I could bring Tracie P and Alfonso to taste with him (Alfonso arrived yesterday in Italy for the COF2011 project.)

Even though he didn’t know me from Adamo, he agreed to let us come and taste. Before we knew it, there was a sympathia and it didn’t take long to discover that we have a very close and dear friend in common, Veneto jazz great Ruggero Robin.

Angiolino’s wines are simply stunning, literally mind-blowing… We toured his growing sites, tasted, and talked about his new university research projects and his quest to bring hard science into the fold of the Natural wine world. And he revealed some of his breakthroughs in vinification without the addition of sulfites (more on that later).

Although the village is dominated by industrial, commercial winemaking, some of the upper slopes of the township of Gambellara in the province of Vicenza (above) are still blessed by gorgeous vineyards alternated with untamed woods. One of the most intriguing landscapes of my beloved Veneto.

So much to tell, so much to share… but it will just have to wait as Tracie P, Alfonso, and I head out for another day of tasting…