Frank Cornelissen & the “zoo of Natural wine” @SottoLA

We had a truly epic dinner at Sotto last night with Frank Cornelissen (above with chef Zach Pollack, left, and chef Steve Samson, right).

Even though I’ve followed the wines for years, I’d never met Frank, who was visiting the U.S. for the first time with his wines (he had visited before he started making wine many years ago).

With all the mystery and aura that seems to surround him, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I discovered that he’s a super cool dude, very approachable and just fun to talk to.

We spoke at length about what he calls the “zoo of Natural wine.”

“Natural wine hasn’t been defined and so we really can’t call wine Natural,” he said, noting that he doesn’t care for the term.

I was thoroughly impressed by his concept of “high definition” wines and I admired the respectful tone with which he spoke of his neighbors on Etna.

He speaks impeccable Italian, btw.

Levi always gets mad at me for doing this but I’m so slammed today (while on the road in southern California) that I’ll have to post my complete notes, including Lou’s thoughts, when I have a moment to catch my breath…

In the meantime, the seared tuna with raisins, pinenuts, and bread crumbs was INSANE (first food photo). And the squid ink spaghetti with uni was possible my top dish for 2012… amazing… And wow, what a thrill to finally get to taste the (declassified) Magma.

Levi, I promise to post all my notes asap!

Stay tuned…

incredible dinner @SottoLA last night with my ladies

Georgia P has so much fun in restaurants… she LOVED Sotto last night in Los Angeles (where daddy works).

Involtini di melanzane, classic eggplant rolls cooked in tomato. Chefs Zach and Steve are really reaching new and even greater heights with their cooking these days…

Fusilli di grano arso al ragù di coniglio e porcini, toasted wheat fusilli with rabbit and porcini ragù. This dish was tough to photograph but amazing, balanced in its flavors and textures, and the pasta cooked perfectly al dente. This might be my top dish for 2012.

Rapini (cime di rapa) con collatura, broccoli raab with garum (anchovy sauce), so simple and so delicious.

Sardinian pane frattau, classic Sardinian pane carasau (crunchy, thin, savory flatbread) that has been soaked in water, layered (in this case) with pork innards, topped with an egg (look at the color of that yolk!), and baked. This dish will definitely go in my top dishes of 2012 post at the end of the year.

Many erroneously believe that frattau means fretta or hurry in Sardinian. But it’s more likely that it means grated, possibly akin to franto.

Amazing meal… truly amazing… a note on the wine will follow later today… stay tuned!

@EvanDawson on corkage @PalatePress @SottoLA (& note on Ah So)

Above: We may never know the true etymon of the brand name “Ah So” but I’m working on it! See below (image via Bonanza).

My good friend and super cool dude Evan Dawson gave me and Sotto (the Los Angeles restaurant where I curate the wine list) a shout out today in his excellent post on corkage for Palate Press.

Corkage is such a delicate and often emotionally charged issue in our country. That may sound like an overstatement but it’s really true. As Evan notes in his piece, when someone brings in a bottle of Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino to Sotto, shows it to me or Rory, and asks us (with an air of condescension, of course) if we are “familiar” with this wine, it’s like a punch to the gut. Does it not occur to them that our heart and soul has gone into the selection of wines to pair best with the chefs’ food? Of course, we just smile and open their shitty, overpriced barriqued wine for them. They might as well be drinking KJ (and they often do). But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. It just means that we’re professionals.

Check out Evan’s piece here.

In other news…

Image via kooky kitsch.

I’ve been working on a magazine piece on Italian wine basics, including a note on corkscrews. The gig led me back to an etymological conundrum that I have yet to resolve: the origin of the name “Ah So.”

In my research over the weekend, I discovered that the reason why we call pronged corkscrews Ah So in this country is that the “butler’s friend” (as it is often called) was first marketed in the U.S. by a German company, Monopol, who called it the Ah So. The Ah So was one of many names used by Monopol, who had also called it the “Ah-Ha.” Another German company in the 1930s had called it the “So So.” And the Atelier Saint-Germain had marketed another version around the same time as “A.S.”

It just so happens (sorry for the paronomasia) that the Monopol was the one that became so popular in the U.S. The earliest mention I’ve discovered is in a November 1970 issue of The New Yorker, where it is referred to as a new product in the U.S., used by European sommeliers.

My philological hunch tells me that Monopol was trying to imitate the proprietary name of another successful marketer of the device.

My dissertation advisor didn’t call me the bloodhound for nothing!

With @LouAmdur @SottoLA next week (and helping Italian earthquake victims)

Tracie P and I cried the day that Lou (above) announced the closing of Lou on Vine earlier this year.

Lou will be joining me (again) on Thursday, July 26 for tasting and conversation at Sotto where I curate the wine list (and Tracie P will be there, too).

Here are the details.

It should be a super fun night.

In other news…

The Non Ci Fermiamo (We’re Not Stopping) project came to my attention via Giovanni’s blog.

Based in the province of Mantua (Lombardy), in one of the areas most severely affected by recent earthquakes, the initiative seeks to connect donors with scores of families left homeless by the catastrophe.

As part of the campaign, the young people of the town Quistello (one of the worst hit) are also selling Mantuan foods like mostarda, local rice cultivars, and torta sbrisolana, the classic (and extremely delicious) almond cake.

Check out the site here.

Picking a wine for Alice…

Bringing a wine to the home of Alice Feiring is like bringing owls to Athens or coal to Newcastle.

But when I spied a bottle of 2005 Fatalone Primitivo Riserva yesterday afternoon at Astor Wines, I just couldn’t resist… and I lived to tell my tale!

Ever since I tasted the wines of Pasquale Petrera, I grab them wherever I can (they’re not available in Texas, sadly, but we offer three of his labels on our list at Sotto, where they are among the staff’s favorites).

Hanging in Alice’s kitchen is one of the things I miss most about living in NYC…

And, of course, who can pass up a chance to use New York City’s most famous toilet?

Stay tuned for more New York stories…

Un naso straordinario (a date with Lou Amdur @SottoLA)

If you follow along here, Lou Amdur (above) needs no introduction. He’s one of the most beloved and respected professionals working in the wine world today. After closing Lou, his now legendary Natural wine bar in Los Angeles, he’s been taking time off to travel and do research before opening Lou 2.0. He’s currently visiting Sicily, including many of the wineries featured on our all-Southern Italian wine list at Sotto.

On June 21 (details below), he’ll be joining wine captain Rory and me for a guided tasting of Natural Southern Italian wines.

Seating is limited but it should be a super fun event…

Sicily, Italy’s Wild Frontier
a tasting with Lou Amdur
(formerly of Lou on Vine)
Sotto Wine Director Jeremy Parzen
& Sotto Wine Captain Rory Harrington
Thursday, June 21
7 p.m.
$40 per person (plus tax and gratuity)
limited availability

To reserve, please email General Manager Nastassia Johnson:

Please note that tickets are transferable but non-refundable.

Join Natural wine trailblazer Lou Amdur (formerly of Lou on Vine), Italian wine expert and Sotto wine director Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D., and Los Angeles restaurant veteran and Sotto wine captain Rory Harrington as they taste a flight of Natural wines from Sicily — including COS, Occhipinti, and Cornelissen — and discuss Lou’s recent trip to the island.

Lou Admur is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures on the Los Angeles wine scene today. He literally changed the way Angelenos understood wine when he opened the city’s first and only Natural wine bar six years ago. After closing the doors of his restaurant earlier this year, he has devoted his time to research and travel and will have recently returned from Sicily where he plans to visit Vittoria and Etna.

Carlo Ferrini and me (so many great wines & so little time)

Love him or hate him, legendary and often controversial Tuscan enologist Carlo Ferrini and I sat next to each other on the Sparkling Wine panel at the Viva Vino conference yesterday in Los Angeles.

We had a chance to speak for a few minutes before the panel and he was exceedingly forthright in his answers when asked about Montalcino, his association with Casanova di Neri, and what he considers his legacy and contribution to the history of Italian wine over the last few decades.

I don’t have time to post notes from our conversation today but will offer the following nugget.

When I asked how he feels about the fact that so many in Italy and beyond associate him with Merlot (many in the industry call him “Mr. Merlot,” using the English title mockingly), he said, quite frankly, “I don’t understand why people say that of me, when, in fact, it’s Cabernet [Sauvignon] that I like so much.”

I have to say that I admired his friendliness, style, and earnestness and I plan to visit with him this fall when Tracie P, Georgia P, and I head to Tuscany.

In other news…

It was a blast to connect with the newly formed consortium of Oslavia (Collio, Friuli) producers who visited Los Angeles for the conference and trade events (after stopping for two days in Vegas where they partied their asses off).

That’s Max Stefanelli of Terroni (kneeling, left) and his wife Francesca behind him with six of the seven producers from the village (can you guess the single producer who didn’t come? I’m buying a glass of wine tonight at Sotto for anyone who can!).

Here are the wines they poured for me and a handful of industry folks who attended a late night dinner and tasting at Terroni.

In other other news…

I connected yesterday with Lou (who needs no introduction here) and my new BFF Taylor Parsons, wine director at Osteria Mozza and Tuesday night I had dinner with Anthony and David at Mozza, where the conversation spanned an arc of Mel Brooks Hitler humor, the art of mixing (records), Anthony’s father’s incredible musical legacy (“he’s conducting better than ever at 93,” he said), burrata, anchovies, and Verdicchio.

So many great wine and so little time… So much more to tell but I have another slamming day and evening ahead of me here in Los Angeles.

If you happen to be in town, please come and see me at Sotto where I’ll be pouring wine on the floor from 6 until 9 or so…

Corkage and Racism

Corkage and racism… These aren’t two words you’d expect to find in a binomial expression. But they are the words that flashed like burning embers in my mind the other night at Sotto in Los Angeles when two couples (right out of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, facelifts, fake tans, shiny teeth and all) sat down and plopped a magnum of a wine that rhymes with joke (you know what I’m talking about), a Brunello I’ve never heard of, and a pack of Marlboro Lights on the table (no joke).

Before I get to explaining my thought process, let’s begin by revealing how offensive it is when restaurant goers do not follow the etiquette of proper corkage.

Lettie Teague wrote this excellent corkage guide a few years ago. And I also really like this guide by Jack Everitt on his site Fork and Bottle.

When it comes to corkage, there are three things that everyone seems to agree on: 1) find out what the corkage policy is before you visit the restaurant; 2) bring something truly special and ideally rare (not something readily available) and offer the sommelier a taste; and 3) order a bottle comparable in value from the list (and leave a generous tip for your server who’s check is reduced as a result of the corkage).

The couples that came the other night already knew that we have a two-bottle limit. They thought that they could get around this by bringing a magnum (two bottles in one) and a 750ml. (It reminded me of a story about an undertaker who got a ticket for using the carpool lane with just him and a cadaver in the van.) It was as if they were saying (and in fact, they were shouting at the top of their lungs): we love the food (and the A-list celebrities) here but we think the wine list sucks and we can’t drink your crappy wine…

And here’s the part where their attitude became racist in my view.

Our wine captain informed them that the magnum counted as their two bottles of wine and so they were forced to order something from our list. Otherwise, how could they get their drink on between smoke breaks?

A server brought them the list and I approached the table and asked the hair-plugged gentleman who seemed to be in charge of alcohol consumption, very politely, “may I answer any questions about the wine list for you, sir?”

He looked up at me and said dismissively, “no, I think we’ve got that covered.”

He ordered a glass (yes, just a glass!) of Lioco 2009 Indica (Carignan and Grenache blend from Mendocino by one of my favorite Californian winemakers, Kevin Kelley).

It was then that I realized that his fear of “the Other” — in this case, southern Italian wine — overwhelmed any ounce of civility that his parents may have imparted to him during child rearing.* (In case you’re not familiar with the concept behind our wine program at Sotto, it’s devoted to southern Italian wine, with a short list of Natural wines from California.)

On the one hand, here was this slick angeleno, with his trophy wife and his Santa Rita Pinot Noir. On the other hand, our wine list must have conjured every southern Italian stereotype in the western canon.

Granted, our list is esoteric by any measure. Even Italian wine professionals will tell me that they don’t recognize many of the wines I have sourced for the list.

But his gesture was a sweeping dismissal: it was abundantly clear to me that in his view, there was no wine from southern Italy that he could possibly drink.

And that, my friends, is racism in flagrante delicto.

When you work in a restaurant, you have to de-sensitize yourself to rudeness. It’s part of the deal. But this is where I draw the line…

Thanks for reading and please treat your servers and sommeliers well!

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as constituent in self-consciousness. He wrote of pre-selfconscious Man: “Each consciousness pursues the death of the other”, meaning that in seeing a separateness between you and another, a feeling of alienation is created, which you try to resolve by synthesis. The resolution is depicted in Hegel’s famous parable of the master-slave dialectic. (Wikipedia)