This August I took a handout *** from the region to come and experience it. Where? The bubble-centric Franciacorta. That's in Lombardia, Northern Italy.
Had I been pedaling my own bicycle, I might have found more people interested in wine and not in its brand. ( I tried to sneak in a visit to Ca' del Vént, but just couldn't make it happen.) Because Franciacorta is a brand first, and a wine second.
The pre-Alpine regions goes back to mentions in Pliny. They were certainly a big deal in the Middle Ages. Somehow they segued from that heritage to making their first sparkler in 1957 and received their DOC in 1967. By the late 80s they were positioning themselves as the Champagne of Italy, trying to compete not with Selosse but with Moët.
I hadn't expected the region to be so very stunning. It's nestled into a ring of hills, Lake Iseo to the north, Mount Orfano to the south and it didn't hurt that I landed in the brilliant sun, the moment that the vivid heat had subsided. Most were in the middle of harvest, a few others were waiting for the grapes to fully ripen-- to lessen their need for added sugar. I walked the vines looking for the past.
I constantly asked, were there any native grapes left or was it all pinot nero, chardonnay and pinot bianco? The answer was almost no. Few could remember the past when the region hadn't been a reinvention.
It was only at my first stop Il Mosnel that I heard there was life before bubbles. The red of the area had been in the marzemino family, an Alpine grape that is particularly perfumed and lovely--especially in the hands of Eugenio Rosi in Trentino. Note to Franciacorta: Revival Time! Bring it back!
The good news? The DOC is 50% organic. I found myself wishing that the growers would use that and focus on wine and expressing place. That is what they must do if they're going to find their true selves and be taken seriously by a new group of enthusiasts, and warrant more than a half a column in books, such as in Jancis Robinson's newly updated Oxford Companion of Wine. In that way, by imitating and not finding their soul, they are out of step with the rest of the world to put brand first and wine second.
I'm waiting. It will happen. It has to. Someone will do their research, find out which grapes had once flourished, which ones had been grown there for centuries and plant some illegal sticks of vines and see what happens. After all Champagne made its fame by turning lemons into lemonade. Bubble wine was what they could excel at, not just produce it because the technology was there to do so.
There was a taste that confounded me, a chemical bitter aftertaste in many of the wines. I like bitter, but in many, this taste was off-putting. I could not nail the reason why it was there. But nevertheless, some were able to sidestep this pitfall. Who? Barone Pizzini. SoloUva (push it further, Giovani and Nico!) Il Mosnel and Ca' del Bosco.
Actually, the aging potential of Ca' del Bosco was impressive. The region absolutely has the goods to do better.
So, where are the vignaolis stripping away the glitz and getting down to work?That doesn't mean it can't make a fine sparkler, but for me to eagerly drink them, there needs to be something else going on. The region has potential. So, where are the vignaolis stripping away the glitz and getting down to work?
But that said, the place is beautiful. It is relatively inexpensive. And the figs?
I had the fig of my life from the vines of La Boscaiola. As I slurped them down I thought it had to be clues to what could be in that terroir.
That there's one biodynamic producer (Barone Pizzini).
That the land, embraced by Lake Iseo is gorgeous and has a tempering effect on the microclimates.
The morainic terroir deserves more serious exploration.
Also memorable was one of the wildest examples of tech companies imaginative ways of separating wineries from their euros.
It's a grape jacuzzi.
And I found it in Franciacorta.
The creator of this expensive gadget goes as far to say there's more toxic chemical on organic grape than conventional...as with the use of copper.
As I know many producers who even in areas like the Beaujolais that have much higher botrytis and powdery mildew stress, who go for years without using any copper, I have to wonder about unnecessary spraying. If you're going to be a little sloppy with vineyard practices, perhaps the spa is a good thing. However, I can't imagine any producers like Francis Boulard or Prévost going in for this, or even someone with larger plantations like Béreche of Larmandier-Bernier.
Nevertheless, here's the process I was able to observe at the Ca' del Bosco winery (1,000,000 case production.)
The process? First you select the grapes.
Then it's a citric acid bath.
Give it a good scrub
Then it heads to the cool air sauna for a good drying off.
What do I think? If you'relooking for a vintage and terroir reflective wine, this is not the way to go. The key is to work well in the vineyard, and intervene less in the winery. Yes, put the $ there.
*** Thank you Franciacorta, I appreciate the chance to discover your region. There's stuff there for sure, now go out there and break some rules!
Ever wanted to be part of the most eccentric, exclusive, particular and rare wine 'club' ever? You can now, because enrollment in the society is open for the next six subscribers.
Why is it open now?
I couldn't refuse a few new recent sign ups. That forced me to order another case of each wine I am sending out. The end result is that six spots are available. I'm not sure when enrollment will open up again.
Why is this so exclusive?
Well, it's not snooty or anything, but if we get too big I can't offer the extremely hard to find wines that I do. Sometimes I can only snag a few cases. It's simple. I started the Society to help my readers experience the wines I write about. #TFLS is more of a service than a profit model.
Hell, it really is special.
No one has dropped out of the #TFLS since signing on. Some members have even ordered two places on the list. We have members in about 15 different states. Even Florence Fabricant at the Times thought enough of it to write it up.
Why is it eccentric?
For $75 a month (+ shipping) I promise you anywhere from one to five bottles of wine. ( I haven't yet exercised my one bottle option yet, but I will.)
They are wines that I believe you need to know about or you need to drink.
They are wines that I am crazy for, or that I deem---for your education--you must experience.
This month the crew is getting two spectacular burgundies that I believe are demonstrative of why people fall for pinot. Last month the members were off the charts in the chat room with praise. What did they get?
E. Sclavus Efranor from the Aeolian islands
Lo-Fi Chenin Blanc from California
Alfredo Maestro's a glou-glou wine Ribera del Duero, El Ray Glam
For the fine print, head over to Christy's site, as she's the one who makes all of these legal!
2015 is the International Year of the Soil. Did you know? And as the creator of The Feiring Line newsletter, I was asked to help celebrate the soils of the world at the Ballymaloe House Literary Food and Wine Festival.
The festival started with an idea from visionary, Darina Allen. From a grain it turned into a beach. Where many festivals are full of glitz, this one is filled with heart. It matters.
Above? That's the coffee wizard Tim Wendleboe in such awe of Darina, the air almost lit up.
I think I was involved with four workshops. A few of them were my ideas, including, "What is terroir and can you taste it in the glass?"
I got my wines together.
Gorgeous ones. Chenin from Anjou Noir and also a lovely ditty from Georgia. But I was dismayed. The wines that I presented were not just natural but organic. On the other hand, all of my wine-writing colleagues brought conventional wines from conventional soils and winemaking.
What is it with this persistent schism between food and wine? Why do we insist food be local and organic but when it comes to wine? No.
Why for that matter do chefs who care about their ingredient, allow wines that are processed and irrigated and poorly farmed on their list?
A wild paradox, no? With those questions in mind, I raced to what would prove to be a thrilling presentation over in the big house.
What's happening in our soil panel discussion was the last event of Saturday and in that eager crowd there was not one Roundup Ready person.
Initially, I had been asked to sit on the panel, but when I saw the experts assembled, such as Patrick Holden and Roger Phillips, I begged off. So instead I sat in the audience itching to ask when was the chef and the consumer going to understand that wine is food and farming matters there as well? I was eager to share the wisdom of the best grape farmers I know and share their obsessive dedication. I wanted to show them that there were people in viticulture who shared the same beliefs. I wanted to ask how many people in that room choose wine on price rather than on naturalness? I wanted to know if this disconnect was there for the consumer or just the wine writer and chef.
I said to myself; that's the last time I decline an invitation for feeling unqualified. The motto for the future? Courage.
But being in the audience was worthwhile. It was there I heard for the first time the profound notion that soil is the earth's gut. "The key concept that has changed my thinking on farming," Patrick Holden said, "is to understand that the soil surrounding a plant’s root zone is effectively its digestive system, or ‘stomach’."
The idea is that we should be concerned about our gut health, with probiotics etc., just as we should be concerned about keeping all of that life and diversity in the soil.
The soils is our earth's digestive track.
Of course it is.
At the end of the talk questions were taken. The most memorable came from a young and local farmer who talked of his devotion to the soil and his responsibility to steward it into health. His statement was sincere, impassioned, committed--and powerful. The meaning that he drew from working the earth, was almost filled with a religious devotion and moved half of the packed audience to tears. Sitting in that room, it was impossible to feel cynical about the world --at least in that moment I had faith in goodness. This could have been the biggest bomb of a bore for the weekend, but in the end the panel was charged with emotional talk brimming with intellectual and emotional fervor. It made me even prouder to have been included in that heartfelt literary festival.
That's co-chair Rory O'Connell. Next to him on the left is Roger (in brilliant crimson) and I believe Roger's wife--whooping it up in the evening.
Open to consumers, if you want a food festival of a wholly different kind, one with soul, head to Cork, May 20-22, 2016.
It was a stop and go, was I leaving or not? A reservation had been mysteriously cancelled---the tricks of Mercury in retrograde? A plot to keep me stateside? Then, the word came, quick, head for the plane.
I ran for the A train to Iberia, forgetting important items back home. Once through security, waiting for the plane, I flipped through Food and Wine magazine and what do you know?
There it was. The Feiring Line recommended as a must read for those interested in organic and natural wines. So if you're not a subscriber ...correct that!
Recognition is sweet. I admit it. I like attention as much as the next guy. We all need pats on the back and affirmation. The TFL really shouldn't be a secret and this should help. So tell your friends and local co-op, wine shop, wine bar and help spread the word.
Fueled by that good news, I want to send you all greetings from Haro in the heart of La Rioja where pig is considered a vegetable.
When a waiter heard that I was a vegetarian, she explained: "The minestra only has a little bit of chorizo, and the soup only has bone, which one will you have?"
"I won't have anything," I answered to her confusion. That's okay. I can stand to lose a kilo or two, and anyway, I more than made up for it with the wine.
After all, I flew here for a tasting of older Rioja to celebrate the first annual Haro Station , where the historical cantinas of Haro open their doors to visitor.
Probably the most sensational wine was the 1964 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia.
That was the wine in my glass when this picture was taken with me and Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia. Obviously we were trying to solve the problems of the wine world (or love, I can't remember which.) It all seemed possible with that Tondonia Gran Reserva 1964. How, I wondered, could a wine taste so evolved but be so very young and vibrant? Mostly 75% Tempranillo, with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo full of cocoa and leather and zingy acidity, so very vibrant and full of under-leaf yet plumptuous? Age-defying glory.
Other great moments were walking the vines of Contino, Lopez de Heredia and Muga, finally getting a grasp of the soils in this complex region.
This brings me to an odd segue.
My next book, For the Love of Wine, my odyssey into the world's most ancient wine culture ( I know, a mouthful) has a pub date!
Look for it March 1st.
Hot off the presses; another book will be on its tail. That book might be called The Dirty Wine Guide, or even Dirt. Helping me will be super-sharp sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier. The two of us will serve up what we aim to be a groundbreaking beginner wine guide. For sure, there's nothing else like it.
Tomorrow, an early morning flight, then a long layover in Madrid so I can sneak in a quick visit with Fabio Bartolomei (Vinos Ambiz).
We'll march through his vines, switching out the limestone of Rioja for the granitic hills of Sierra de Gredos. It's only an hour drive from the airport, so should all be doable in time to get back for my plane and then flap my wings across the Atlantic.
Lastly, a new essay of mine is up on the New York Times's Opinionator site, The End.
So, that's it for now, hope all is well with you.
"Give me back my bottle!"
How many times have I felt like that anguished infant when caught in sommelier turf wars about bottle control? Too often.
I don't get combative. Instead I put my hand up and say, "Thank you, but I'd rather do it myself."
But I never thought my pouring my own bottle could be taken as a sommelier's failure until back in May when hanging with my friend David Fields who was up from Philly. We were at Rebelle on the Bowery, taking the first sips of the Richard Leroy 2012, Clos des Rouliers.
The person behind the bar tried to refresh our glasses. I flashed up my hand up, signaling, no. David had the same impulse. He asked that we remain be in charge of pouring our next fills.
Seeing us handle our bottle, the sabering champ sommelier Patrick Cappiello, came over, he was smiling but was perturbed. "I hate when I see this," he confessed. He then picked up the bottle to pour. But--but...we tried to say, and he explained, "If I'm not pouring, it means I'm not doing my job."
But we argued, you are. You are letting us enjoy our bottle our way. You are doing your job.There are times when two people are not interested in splitting the bottle evenly. There are times you want to make sure you keep track of what you drink. There are all sorts of reasons that a diner could want to take charge.
He pushed back. He knew the indignities. He knew sommeliers who over pour, accelerating the speed which a drinker goes through a bottle. He knew the too much in a glass syndrome. He knew the difficulty in having a sommelier hover, when the diner wants them to disappear. But it was his job to determine how to play the situation correctly, with all of the variables. And with Patrick, I trust him enough and I've a good enough rapport with him, that I usually relinquish my bottle to him, as I have done and happily so, on other occasions.
But whether high service or low service, I don't get how it's possible to intuit all of the drinking eccentricities at a table. Let's take low.
Last week I was out to dinner with friends at a newish French place on the Bowery.
We were allowed corkage and my generous friend had brought two stellar bottles, one of them a crush-worthy, acid on the head 1996 Krug, (Oh, for the old days of glorious Krug.)
Early on in the evening another friend joined us for a quick apero. The waiter came over and poured him way more than he wanted--he needed to run back to his restaurant and take charge there. I looked at the glass thinking, oh my, what a waste. That hurt. Then as usual, the person who drinks fastest got topped off. In fact the waitress basically emptied the entire bottle into her glass, as if the 1996 Krug could easily be replaced. While we were in the hands of a waiter and not a trained wine person, I've yet to see the wine pro who didn't mess up on the top off, at least some of the time.
Eduardo Porto Carreiro (of the new Untitled at the Whitney) said ten years ago he might have been offended if a customer wanted to take charge, now? He just understands and informs his staff. Aldo Sohm says he usually gets this request for religious reasons, so he of course obliges (why orthodox Jews would be dining at Le Bernadin is another question.)
The most involved response came from Erin Scala who now works in Virginia at Fleurie.
"While I want diners to trust me to pour correctly and intuitively for them, when I am on the other side of the table, I'll take matters into my own hands if I need to. I'll ensure whoever is pouring is aware of any oddities at the table (i.e. "my grandma doesn't drink that much and is only going to have a sip"). I'll give every staff a chance, but the moment they lose my trust I will politely request to pour my own for the rest of the night. Winemakers work too hard for their wine to be left in glasses at the end of the night because a server over-poured someone who didn't want to drink that much. I have been over-poured at many restaurants by unintuitive servers, or by up-selling servers who pour out the whole bottle before making it around the table. It's really not that difficult to ration wine equally from a bottle. If someone can't do it, they are either inexperienced or doing it on purpose. And I can't just sit back and watch as someone messes up the distribution of a prized bottle I have just paid good money for! "
That evening at Rebelle, we commandeered our bottle back from Patrick. I mean, it's not personally. Patrick can pour for me any time, but in all these years of drinking out, it's a trust issue and I've been burned more times than it's been good. Trust gets tougher and tougher, not easier.
The thing is, from Eduardo to Erin to Aldo, all feel a twinge of damn, when they can't interact with the table and the thought that perhaps they failed. The only reason Patrick made his feelings known so honestly was because he knew us.
I'm glad he did because I learned something that evening; when I ask for control of the bottle, a wing of an angel falls to the ground. So, the next time, I'm going to execute my request with a little extra softness. After all, it might be in the sommelier job description, along with sensitivity, but having ESP is really not.
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The event (fantastic by the way) has passed but, the store lives on.
If you're stuck out on Sag Harbor or that part of Long Island and need wine, this is your spot. The wines are incredible. And what's better when i was there someone came in and said, "I need a rosé, but not Whispering Angel." Boy, were they in the right place. Trying to remember what Olivier sold her, La Boutanche? Pradeaux Rosé? What's on the shelves? Rateau! Georgians! Tripoz! Roccalini! This place is a real find and what's more, it's going to be a game changer out there.
89A Division Street. And the cheese shop it's attached to is divine.
and the wines are........
Escoda-Sanahuja Conca de Barbera Nas del Gegant 2013,
Okro's Rkatsiteli 2010
Didimi Krakhuna 2013 ...
Rateau Hautes Cotes de Beaune Rouge 2013
La Boutanche Rose of Grolleau from Massale
+ a little Tripoz here and there..