MARCH 2011

March 28 Vinitaly Wine Competition
I get a call asking me to fill in as a judge at the wine competition. I do not like to do all 5 days as it comes just before Vinitaly and, frankly, 5 days of tasting from 9 to 5 is exhausting. I agree to do the last 2 and ½ days.

I receive emails congratulating me on my bella figura when interviewed by a Rai3 TV food and wine program. Hip hip hip hooray.

From March 25 to 27 Wines I liked from my visit to Piedmont
Frattelli Rabino Nebbiolo 2009. Bright. (The color is difficult to assess in the light of the tasting room). The fragrance is pure pleasure – elegant strawberry/blackberry fruit. The palate shows all that the nose promises: silky texture pleasant fruit. I am told that it sells for around 12 Euros in local shops. For me this is good value for money.

All the wines I taste at Rabino had clean, precise fruit; they were wines that gave pleasure. Notably among them: Arneis 2010, Roero 2008 (100% Nebbiolo).

You will not find a barrique in my cellar, says Andrea Rabino. “I am one of the few in the zone who can say that.”

Saglietti Nebbiolo Langhe 2009 (tasted at the Cantina Comunale di La Morra). Bright garnet/ruby. On the nose: Fine strawberry-like fruit, with an undertow of moist autumn leaves. On the palate very appealing, a vibrant acidity weaves through the firm velvety fruit.

Monfalletto Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo 2006 (tasted at the Cantina Comunale di La Morra) Pale garnet. Floral (light note of violets), warm, in the perfume there is a hint of musk. Elegant and pleasing. An idea of liquorish. Long, evolving finish. A good commercial Barolo for those seeking finesse.

Renzo Castello Dolcetto Diano d’Alba 2009 Blue tinged ruby. Closed on the nose at first. But on the palate a creamy note infiltrates the juicy berry fruit. A tannin tingle. A pleasing firm fruitiness on the finish.

Mascarello Giuseppe Dolcetto Diano d’Alba 2009 Bright fresh. Lively pleasing berry fruit. Very good on the palate: a tight weave of juicy and inviting flavor.

There were a few other decent wines but I tasted them much too hastily due to our Organizer’s “hurry up so that we can hang around outside waiting for…something to happen” leadership-style.

Now that the producers have read their names and left the site, let me tell you about this trip—myohmyohmy.

March 25 A Trip Back in Time (and not always in a good way).
We meet Luciano, the organizer (so to speak) of our tour in front of the motel. He looks like a guy who has his “office” at a back table in a Times Square MacDonald’s. His hair is unwashed, uncombed and unkempt. His clothes (jacket pockets stuffed with wadded up bits of paper and soiled business cards) have been slept in – recently and often. His big, hangdog face shouts “failure”. I instantly feel sorry for him. This impulsive emotion quickly wears away.

We see Francesco T., also a captive on this trip. He offers to let us ride in his car. The other journalists pile into their cars and we follow Luciano out on to the highway.

We come to a wide spot in the road, a sort of casual parking lot between a restaurant and high stone wall. Luciano’s car stops and the rest of us park and get out. We cluster on the side of the road. Luciano trudges over and lights a cigarette, takes a puff. The journalists eye each other nervously. The unspoken question – Why are we here? – hangs in the air. Luciano takes another puff and waves a hand toward a house a few meters up a dirt and gravel drive and tells us it used to belong to the Italian Royal Family. We stand silently waiting for more. There is no more.

“Come on,” says Luciano, throwing his cigarette onto the road. “We’ve gotto go or we’ll be late.” We silently get back in our cars.

We arrive at the Cantina Comunale di la Morra, a very attractive wine shop (www.cantinalamorra.com). The manager is well prepared and offers us interesting wines to taste. In the parking lot Luciano confesses that wine really isn’t his thing. “History,” he says. “is my real passion.” This phrase will be repeated at least twice a day for the remainder of the trip.

We arrive at a wine cellar where the manager is the world’s greatest living authority on everything. He expresses his superiority by shouting down even the most timidly offered opposition. He (who clearly speaks no English) knows more about the English wine trade than people who work in the English wine trade. He knows more about packaging that people who have successfully worked in the sector. He knows more about silicone corks than people who have actually experimented with them. To his credit: his winery is clean, his wines are decent. But they are not nearly as good as he thinks they are.

We drive to the restaurant and I teach Francesco (who happily and truthfully says he speaks no English) the word: shambolic.

Luciano falls asleep at the dinner table.

We drive back to the hotel and I teach Francesco the word Brouhaha.

March 26 Kerfuffle
We emerge from the motel at 8:30.
“Shambolic,” Francesco joyously shouts at me.
“Brouhaha!” I reply.

I try to teach him today’s word: kerfuffle. “But it’s easy,” I whine. “All the words – shambolic, brouhaha and kerfuffle – are loosely related in meaning because they all can be used when describing this trip.”

The new word is too much for Francesco who wants instead to have a colorful English phrase for “I’m parched.” At the next stop he steps up to Luciano and recites: “I. Want. To. Wet. My. Whistle.” Luciano (who, I believe, also speaks no English) give him a “Why-was-I-born-to-suffer” look and walks away.

Most of us clamber into the commune minivan and we set off with the Sicilian and Genovese journalists following in their car, as there is not enough room for all of us in the van.

We arrive at Priocca, where we are met by the mayor, a bright-eyed energetic soul. We stand in the sunshine next to a statue of Padre Pio.

“We have a lot of mixed marriage here,” says the major. “The women are Calabrese.”

It seems that in the 60s and 70s the local women did not want to face a life of drudgery on the farm, so they caught the bus for the Big City, where they subsequently married city slickers. This left a lot of desperate Piedmontese men, who ended up making arranged-marriages with Southern women. “They are hard workers,” says the mayor.

We visit a nice meat and cheese deli – Azienda Agricola Bricco del Prete. After admiring their wares, we are led around back to be given a tour of the abattoir. I don’t feel like standing next to beef carcasses in a windowless room and neither does the lady from Genova so we watch the horses in the paddock and take the sun.

The Butcher's Dog

Off to the summer residence of Carlo Felice. We are met in the main hall by The Professor. “We have to make this snappy,” he says, pointedly looking at his watch. “Because I’ve got to get back to the old folks home in time to give the codgers their lunch.”

He shows us some superb Chinese hand-painted wallpaper. There are evidentially only 5 other places in the world with such fine examples. “But the local philistines turned these rooms into a grade school for a while! And children being children, they defaced these priceless treasures,” says the seething Professor. Indeed, many of the figures within a child’s reach have penciled in mustaches, beards and glasses.

Off to a flash tasting at a very pretty place (Alla Corte degli Alfieri). Back in the bus and up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna dei Boschi in Vezza d’Alba. Where another mayor, Carla, and her crew have pitched in to make us a home-style lunch. It is a lovely, informal meal, served with gusto and goodwill. When we are heading toward dessert, the Sicilian starts pontificating on Sicily. He has done this at every stop.

After 30 minutes I think: I cannot stand another minute of this.

After 15 more minutes I have an epiphany: I do not have to stay!

I go outside, sit in the sun, close my eyes and listen to the traffic whizz by on the distant highway. Forty minutes later Michael rouses me and we head back to the bus.

We stop at The Natural History Museum of Roero, a room filled with taxidermied animals in glass display cabinets.

“Most of specimens are road kill”, Carla, the mayor, reassures us. There are also two drawers of insects brought in by school children.

Then another winery. This one is the dirtiest winery I have ever visited. The barrels are stained around the staves and rims. The doors of the empty stainless steel tanks are caked with wine stains. There are tiny daubs of white mold on the moist spigots of the tanks. There is water three inches deep in the lowest part of the cellar. That said, the wines themselves are not bad. But…I believe that good winemakers should follow the same rule as good chefs: clean as you go.

After a few photo opportunity stops we visit another winery. Great visit. Then off to the restaurant. Our minivan dutifully follows Luciano into another vast parking lot. Luciano leaps from his car and raps on the window of the van.
He flings his arm toward a distant building. “That’s the Università del Gusto,” he says. Then he mutters something about a jailbird’s wall. (muro di galiotto) “But we have no time to stop or we’ll be late!” He lumbers back to his car.

On the motorway Luciano’s car whizzes past the exit. He slams on the brakes, sending the driver of our minivan into a panic.

“Go on, you can’t stop on the highway,” he exclaims, as if Luciano could hear him. When it becomes clear that Luciano will not move, our driver nervously backs up to the exit.

“Luciano is not trustworthy on the road,” says a journalist who has known him for years.

We have dinner with two mayors, three producers and a mayor who produces wine.

March 27 Taradiddle
More hours of photo opportunities at foggy roadsides and producers who are never introduced and farewells that lengthen to the point of embarrassment. (Hurry! Hurry! Wait. Wait.)
We arrive home in the evening. Hooray.

March 16 Enoteca degli Alighieri (www.ristorantealighieri.com)
Our pal Ugo presents Caferro. We sit at a table with the owner of the estate, Daniele Ferasin and Damiano Peroni, the winemaker.

Spumante Rose 2010 The color of pale strawberry juice. Bright, fresh and lightly fruity on the nose. These characteristics are echoed on the palate, where I found a soft amalgam of strawberry, raspberry and blueberry fruit – very light. It reminded me of sorbet. The grape varieties: Merlot (80%), with Raboso (20%).

Merlot 2008 Soft fruit (brambles and blackberries). The fruitiness on the nose follwos though on the pale. Nice, pleasing. Medium finish. Excellent quality/price ratio.

I ask Daniele what his export markets are. He says: “The Cayman Islands and Montecarlo, and a bit in Japan.”

Never in all my years of asking this question have I heard such a surprising reply. The usual response is usually: “German, the USA, and a bit in Japan”.

It seems that by chance he met a very exclusive jeweler at a luxury goods trade fair, one thing led to another and now his simple, juicy wines are in Jet Set territory.

“Our goal,” says Damiano, “Is to make a 100% Raboso.”

In my book, Wines of Italy, I describe Raboso like this: “The name “Raboso” may be derived from rabioso, a dialect work used to describe fruit that is still a little acerbic. Raboso performs best in stony alluvial soils , and is most likely a descendant of a wild variety navtive to the Piave River Valley.”

March 14 Pizza Provencal & Caffetteria Fuoricorso (www.barfouricorso.it)
We walk Stanley down to the university district of Verona to visit Matteo’s bar for the first time. It is splendid. There is a small garden courtyard at the back which would be super on summer evenings. The décor is sleek but no slick. Matteo makes us each a Buck’s Fizz, with a splash of Cointreau. The wine list is small but perfectly formed and the prices are pitched at a student clientele, with 2.50 being the average price for a glass. I will recommend it to people looking for a quiet drink during Vinitaly. And I will most definitely bring out-of-town friends here.

I make the best ratatouille of my life. What makes the difference? Half a teaspoon of crushed coriander seeds. I put a layer of the ratatouille on a base of whole wheat bread dough crust. I drink a glass of Monte Santoccio Valpolicella 2007 with it. Nice match. This ripasso is very versatile when it comes to food and wine pairing.

March 13 Tasting Lessons for Matteo
I am preparing Matteo for his Wine and Spirit Educational Trust certificate exams. Every Sunday he brings two bottles of wine and his study guide textbooks, and we taste and go over his notes. I am chuffed because his on-line tutor complimented him for noting CO2 in the notes he has submitted to her. CO2, which manifests itself as tiny bubbles that cling to the bottom of the glass in still wines, is an indication that the wine has been held under a blanket insert gas (CO2). It is a technique often used in the production of fresh young wines.

Today we taste:
Mosel Riesling Dr. Loosen 2008. Slight CO2!!! Pale straw with greenish highlights. Clean. A light floral note and a sensation of lime-like acidity. Well balanced light sweetness. Persistent fruit on the medium-long finish. A touch sweetness on the back palate. Good commercial quality wine.

Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso Monte Santoccio 2007 Medium-depth ruby. Good acidity. Nice idea of cherries. Soft tannins an undertow of warm spice. Matteo serves this wine at his bar.

March 5 Bardolino-land
Off we go to Villabella. We have visited this producer of fine juicy wines many times in the past. But today will be something special. After years of painstaking renovation they have just put the finishing touches on Hotel Villabella Relais, a five star hotel. The rooms are impeccably and imaginatively decorated. The terrace looks onto a 16th century English-style garden.

We are here to witness a cooking demonstration performed by the hotel’s chef, Giuseppe D’Aquino. He shows us how to prepare fresh pasta (if you happen to have a professional kitchen mixer and electric pasta press) and a chocolate flan with a creamy center.

We then sit down to lunch. Along with the meal we drink Villabella wines. Among them:
2010 Bardolino Chiaretto A deep pink verging on pale rose. Nose: Uplifting acidity, freash a note of red berry fruit (raspberries, strawberries and cherryes). The palate follows the nose.

2010 Bardolino Chiaretto “Pozzo dell’Amore” Vibrant rose color, with a blood orange tinge. On the nose is a welcoming amalgam of red berry fruit. Vibrant, juicy fruit on the palate (strawberries and raspberries).

2010 Bardolino Classico Vigna Morlongo Soft, satisfying. A sensation of heavy silk on the palate.

Then off to Le Fraghe. Matilda Poggio is the owner/winemaker here. “I started the estate myself so I always had the freedom to make wine my way,” she says.

2010 Bardolino Chiaretto Rodon Very perfumed. A spritz of minerality infuses the red berry fruit. Very tightly knit. Macedonia. Fresh citrusy and the richness of berry fruit. A fine salinity on the finish.

“I think one could knock back quite a lot of this,” says Michael.

2010 Bardolino Vibrant ruby color. A spiciness. After 10 minutes it broadens into a pleasing bolt of ripe, crisp fruit. A sprinkling of black pepper on the finish.

We visit two other wineries. Both interesting in their way. At the end of the long day, we ride back to Verona with Monica and Clementina (2 wine journalists extrodinarire.) Deep Purple (smoke on the wah-tah/fy-urh in the sky-eeee) throbs from the CD player.

March 3 Trapped!
I am trapped at a winery on top of a steep hill in the middle of nowhere with nine interpreters for nine hours. It is not a pleasant experience. But let us draw a veil (drape, curtain, cloak) over the entire unpleasant experience.

When I get back to Verona I call Michael. He suggests that I meet him at the Osteria Carroarmato. I stand in the doorway of the osteria, press my palms against the sides of head and do a silent Evard Munch scream.

Annalisa sees me and says: “You need some belle bollecine.” She opens a bottle of sparkling wine. The three of us stand at the bar and eat anchovies and bread and let a couple of glasses of Marcato Durello wash the interpreters out of my head.