Why Cornelissen is on our list @SottoLA

Frank Cornelissen came from Belgium to Etna,” wrote Eric the Red in a recent New York Times piece, “where he makes extreme wines unlike almost any others on earth, which people tend to love or hate.”

Cornelissen’s supremely polarizing wines are a wine director’s worst nightmare. Because they are entirely unsulfured, there is extreme bottle variation in any allocation and secondary fermentation (and the resulting spritz) is more common than not. Because they are unfiltered and unfined, the wines are cloudy and have all kinds of nasty looking bits floating around in them. And the volatile acidity in the wines — there’s no way around this — can make them smell like shit when you first open them.

So why did I put them on my list at Sotto in Los Angeles (where I’ve been curating the carta dei vini since the restaurant opened on March 5, 2011)? And why did the general manager, Dina Pepito, agree to let me, against her better judgment?

It’s a lot easier to serve Cornelissen’s wines at home, where you have all the time in the world to let them rest upright and let their sediment fall to the bottom. When we’ve served them in our home, we made sure to give them ample time to repose and we’ve drunk them over the course of an entire evening, following along as the wine changed from first glass to last.

When I worked the floor at Sotto on Saturday night, there were ninety people on the waiting list trying to get in. It’s one of the hottest A-list tables in LA right now. And in all that hustle and bustle (between the CAA dick-waggers and the Chardonnay-drinking housewives of Beverly Hills), a sturdy Gaglioppo works great while a delicate Etna blend tends to be unsettled by the roaring din of the rich and famous.

And even though the allocation we managed to get certainly doesn’t meet the criteria for “fine wine,” we store the bottles with our verticals of Taurasi, Cirò, and Graticciaia because the wines need to be handled with the same gentle tenderness.

When the wines became available to us thanks to Amy Atwood Selections, I put them on the list because I wanted to offer our guests Natural winemaking in its most extreme expression. From the Natural wine police to the consumerist hegemony of wine punditry in the U.S. today, everyone agrees that 1) these are impeccably Natural wines; and 2) they represent, to borrow an expression from Roland Barthes, “wine degree zero.” These are wines to which literally nothing has been added. Nothing, zero, zippo… (If you don’t know the wines, read this profile by Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator, of all places!)

And of course, I wanted our wine list to reflect the renaissance of winemaking that’s taking shape on the northern slopes of Mt. Etna.

I sold a couple of bottles of the wine over the last weekend (when I was visiting for staff training and to “work the floor”).

One was to a table of wine geeks who had read a preview of the list in one of LA’s sea of food blogs. It was amazing to watch their eyes light as the stink blew off and they slowly nursed the wine. “I’ve never tasted anything like this,” said one. “The wine is slightly sparkling,” noted another.

I sold another bottle to super glam Eastern European lady (Hungary?) who sported a Farrah Fawcett hairdo and who was in town to visit her daughter, who was dining with her.

“I cannot drink wines with sulfites,” she told me. “I break out if I drink wine with sulfites. I can only drink natural wine,” she added, clearly unaware of what the volatile term natural can mean to wine professionals these days.

“As it just so happens,” I said, “I have a wine to which, I am 100% sure, no sulfites have been added.” (We actually have a couple on the list.) And I opened the Contadino (the same as in the photos above).

She wasn’t entirely thrilled by the wine but she didn’t send it back. She was normally a “Merlot drinker,” she told me. And in one of the most bizarre moves I’ve ever seen, she ordered coffee after dinner but kept nursing the wine with her coffee. (Disgusting, right?)

I don’t think the wine made much of an impression on her. But I’m assuming, since she didn’t call to complain, that she didn’t break out the next day.

And in our small little way, we made the world a little safer for Italian wine…

Stay tuned for my next post about my recent visit to Sotto: “The Racism of Corkage.”

Pig’s head ragù, the most important ingredient @SottoLA

What’s the most important ingredient in pig’s head ragù?

Nomina sunt consequentia rerum.

Chefs Zach and Steve carefully carve all of the tender meat around the pig’s head and then grind it for their ragù at Sotto in Los Angeles where I curate the wine list together with my friend and colleague, the inimitable Rory.

I usually have the classic pizza margherita (my favorite) when I finish my shift. But last night I decided to mix things up a bit and had the housemade sausage and broccoli raab pizza with freshly chopped red hot chili peppers. It paired unbelievably well with the Nanni Copè, the new and supremely sexy (read ACIDITY) Pallagrello Nero from Caserta, with the earthiness of the wine holding the spice of the pizza in check.

I’ll be at Sotto again tonight: please come on down and see me and I’ll pour you something great…

Best white from Puglia? Fatalone’s Gioia del Colle Greco Spinomarino

The first and only time I met young winemaker Pasquale Petrera at the Radici Wines festival in Puglia, June 2011, I was immediately impressed by his belief in Natural winemaking (chemical-free farming and native yeast) and by what a simpatico and easygoing guy he was. I knew the wines and I was thrilled to taste with him: as the leading historical estate (some say it was an atavic of his who first bottled 100% Primitivo) in the only hilly appellation of the otherwise flat Apulian peninsula, there are many who would argue that his Fatalone Primitivo is one of the best if not the best from the region.

In the meantime, we’ve featured the wines on my list at Sotto in Los Angeles and they are a favorite of both the staff and the patrons (especially the riserva).

On the occasion of this post dedicated to his Greco (below), I couldn’t resist translating the following passage from his website:

    We consider the vine to be on the same level as a human being. And we give the vine all the best things that we could desire ourselves. Attention and care by the constant, loving presence of the human hand and respect for true artisanal tradition; a cool and comfortable, sound-proofed space with climate control; tranquility and harmony through the playback of classical music enhanced with the sounds of nature, intended to encourage micro-oxygenation and the micro-flora activity present in our natural wine – a living being, sensitive to musical therapy. This is the key to our success.

It never ceases to amaze me how Natural winemakers rely on humankind technology to cull the precious liquid from our fruity counterparts. I hope that — at least — he’s playing vinyl as opposed to digital records for his wines… But, hey, it’s definitely working for him… and for me…

Tracie P and I recently opened a bottle of his Greco Spinomarino, named after the Spinomarino “village road” where (I’m assuming) it’s grown.

The wine was bright and fresh, although gently oxidative in style, a balance of intense salty minerality and white and stone fruit flavor with a kiss of citrus. We loved it… probably the best white wine I’ve ever tasted from Puglia… The last glass, consumed the next night, was even better, richer in body and augmented by a gentle nutty note. And it weighs in for less than $20. Our kinda wine…

In other news…

The best restaurant in LA @SottoLA (and yes, another baby photo)

I just couldn’t resist sharing this photo of our “little connoisseur”…

*****

2011 has been such an amazing year for us. And among the many “firsts” in this Parzen vintage, I wrote my first wine list for Sotto in Los Angeles.

Learning that the restaurant had been named “best new restaurant of 2011” by Los Angeles Magazine on Friday was the icing on the sweetest cake.

It’s been such a rewarding experience to be part of the restaurant’s talented team and I can’t conceal my pride in the all-Southern-Italian wine list that we put together there.

Here’s a post on Sotto from June of this year… I can’t wait for Georgia to try Chefs Zach and Steve’s Neapolitan pizza (see my note at the end)…

Chefs Steve and Zach literally combed the Malibu foothills foraging for wild fennel flowers — finocchietto — to complete their pasta con le sarde, traditional Sicilian noodles with sardines, pine nuts, raisins, and — de rigeuerfinocchietto.

The occasion was a wine dinner at Sotto in Los Angeles in honor of my good friend Giampaolo Venica who wrote on the Twitter today What a great pasta with sarde last night @sottoLA, probably best ever had.”

Tracie P and I simply adore Giampaolo and Chiara, who are celebrating their first wedding anniversary on Sunday! Mazel tov! :) Photo by Alfonso, who also joined us.

Things behind the bar were getting steamy last night. Amazing cocktails…

I just had to ask the parents of these happy children for permission to snap their photo. Pizza is a wonderfully universal dish, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like pizza?

Now that Tracie P and I are expecting, I find myself thinking all the time about nutrition and Baby P. It was great to see these super polite kids enjoying the wholesome Neapolitan stuff!

Amarophilia across the USA…

Above: Fernet Branca shakerato, the way I drink it.

My colleague at Sotto in Los Angeles, mixologist Julian Cox, got a nice shout out from wine writer Ray Isle in an article on amaro in this month’s issue of Food & Wine. Julian’s amaro list at the restaurant features around 20 labels on any given day.

There’s no two ways about it: amarophilia (amaro fever? amaro mania?) is one of the new waves in mixology these days.

When I traveled to Friuli in October with a troika of über-hip mixologists, the barpeople wanted to duck into every wine shop they could in the hope of discovering a label unknown to Americans.

Above: That’s super cool Sam Ross of Milk & Honey (NYC) fame with the fabu Nonino sisters, an image I snapped on our trip to Friuli. He uses Nonino’s amaro in his cocktail, “the Paper Plane.”

When Ray — a friend and colleague from my NYC days — called to interview me for the article, we talked about the differences in the way that amaro is perceived and applied in the U.S. and Italy, historically and currently.

I recalled a Neapolitan-American friend of mine, Giovanni, now in his 50s, whose mother used to give him an espresso spiked with a shot of Fernet Branca and an egg yolk every morning before school.

There was a time when Italians used amaro as a tonic. And today, even though it’s no longer applied as a household remedy, Italians still serve it as a digestive. At any given bar or restaurant, you might find 3 or 4 different labels but no one would ever think of offering guests an amaro list (with 20 labels!) or using amaro as an ingredient in a cocktail.

Another expression of that great misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean…

Alice Feiring in Austin Sunday & Monday

It seems like a lifetime ago that Tracie P and I met Alice on our first trip to Europe together. Tracie P and I were in Paris to play with Nous Non Plus and Alice was there to write a piece on Natural wine and our paths happily crossed.

I’ve known Alice for more than 10 years and she’s one of our dearest, dearest friends. A big sister, a mentor, and one of the most fun people to be around on this planet, no matter what mischief we’re up to.

Alice has a new book, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, and she’s coming to Austin for a few readings: Sunday at Whole Foods Market on Lamar and Monday at Vino Vino. Both events are being presented by the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas.

Tracie P and I will be at both events, of course, and I hope you can join us to hear Alice read from her new book and taste some Natural wines with us.

Beyond our deep friendship, I support Alice in her cause to spread the word about Natural wine not just because I enjoy Natural wines but because I believe that Natural wines and the people who make them (and drink them) can save the world from the ills of our increasingly industrialized food chain.

In other news…

I’m making one last trip before Baby P arrives: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings of next week, I’ll be pouring wine on the floor at Sotto in Los Angeles where I’ve curated the wine list this year.

We’ll be debuting one last flight of wines for the fall before I take a break for daddy duty, including one of the best wines I’ve tasted this year… More on that later…

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

My first wine list gets the thumbs up from LA Times

Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times.

You can imagine that it gave me great joy to read that restaurant reviewer S. Irene Virbila gave my first wine list the thumbs up in today’s LA Times review of Sotto in Los Angeles.

Click here to read the review.

Sotto’s pasta con le sarde stopped the show last night

Chefs Steve and Zach literally combed the Malibu foothills foraging for wild fennel flowers — finocchietto — to complete their pasta con le sarde, traditional Sicilian noodles with sardines, pine nuts, raisins, and — de rigeuerfinocchietto.

The occasion was a wine dinner at Sotto in Los Angeles in honor of my good friend Giampaolo Venica who wrote on the Twitter today What a great pasta with sarde last night @sottoLA, probably best ever had.”

Tracie P and I simply adore Giampaolo and Chiara, who are celebrating their first wedding anniversary on Sunday! Mazel tov! :) Photo by Alfonso, who also joined us.

Things behind the bar were getting steamy last night. Amazing cocktails…

I just had to ask the parents of these happy children for permission to snap their photo. Pizza is a wonderfully universal dish, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like pizza?

Now that Tracie P and I are expecting, I find myself thinking all the time about nutrition and Baby P. It was great to see these super polite kids enjoying the wholesome Neapolitan stuff!

Taste with me tomorrow and next Wednesday…

Taste with me tomorrow evening at Ciao Bello in Houston, where I’ll be leading a tasting of Italian wines together with Chef Bobby Matos who will be preparing pasta table-side and sharing Italian cooking tips with guests. Should be a super fun event and evening…

Next Wednesday, I’ll be presenting one of my best friends in Italian winemaking today and producer of some of my favorite wines, Giampaolo Venica, who will be leading a wine dinner featuring five of his wines (including his Magliocco from Calabria and four of his family’s legendary white wines from Friuli) at Sotto in Los Angeles.

Hope to see you there!