28 January A Discussion with Maria Grazia

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI put a shorter version of the following (25 January) listing up on Facebook.  Maria Grazia replied that Amarone was not the opulent joy of my memories and that producers slimmed it down to suit the requests of the customer.

Here is my reply: We do not agree. The wine to serve at table should have been Valpolicella. Amarone should have remained a special product. By making Amarone into a wine to serve at table producers undercut and de-valued Valpolicella. Not every wine has to have a universal appeal. There is enough room in the wide world of wines to accommodate wines that do not fit into the “serve with red meat and mature cheese” category. The wine world has ample space to accommodate vini da meditazione. I thought way back in far off 1999 that the intelligent thing to do would be to start a vino da meditazione movement. Let consumers understand that Amarone is special and to help them understand the ritual of a vino da meditazione. I still think this is a good idea.

If you study marketing you will know that the customer does not always know what he wants…it is up to you (the producer, seller, journalist) to help explain what he wants. If consumers have no experience with vino da meditazione, then they will NOT want it. If you explain it, explain the ritual, explain the coolness (fico-ness) of it you can indeed induce consumers to try it. Thus Amarone would have maintained its allure and Valpolicella would have stepped in as the wine to serve at table.

25  Amarone Anteprima 2010 vintage – Tasting and Musing on Amarone

Maria Grazia
Maria Grazia

In 1999 I tasted all (yes all) of the commercially available Amarones. There were around 50 of them.  In those days Amarone was a niche wine.  Producers only took the time and trouble to make Amarone if they loved the wine.  

Then the boom came and greed stepped in to take the place of common sense.  Now there are a vast number of producers pumping out wines they label as Amarone. These wines far removed from the original style.  You could compare tasting them to looking at a xerox (photo copy) of a xerox of a time-faded fax.

The reason I mention this ancient technology is this:  there are now young winemakers who have never lived in a world where all Amarones had the distinctive rich and evocative style that made them so highly sought after in the first place.   Since these winemakers are unclear about what the objective is they can’t possibly reproduce it.

At the annual Anteprima Amarone tasting I stood before a young winemaker who was very proud of his “slimmed down” Amarone.  It was his first vintage after taking over from the previous winemaker.  (I will admit to having a great fondness for the previous winemaker – an intelligent man who wore his heart on his sleeve: he loved and respected great wine.)  I looked into the young winemaker’s smug face and thought: “He hasn’t a clue as to what made this wine special.  This company producers dozens of wines that are slim and elegant; what they need is a wine that is joyously opulent and old-fashioned.”

Satisfying Amarone still exist, but to find them a wine buyer must become familiar with the characteristics of individual producers.  

The Zanonis
The Zanonis

Here are a few of my favorites, producers who, year after year, have made good wines.  The list is in no particular order. This is, I hasten to add, a partial list and it is also a personal list.  I like Amarones that offer evocative perfumes and interesting textures on the palate.  That said: Viviani, Marion, Zanoni, Roccolo Grassi, Speri, Zyme, Accordini Stefano, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Cesari, Corte Sant’Alda, Quintarelli and Dal Forno.   

Again, before you producers out there start getting cranky, this is a partial list and I will happily write about other Amarone producers as the occasion arises.

January 23 Villa De Winckels Amarone Tasting

I arrive back in Verona from New York at a little after ten a.m.  At five p.m. we are on our way to the annual Villa de Winckels Amarone tasting.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a superb event: well organized, producers who do not participate at other tasting are happy to present their wines in this venue (such as Romano Dal Forno), the food is exceptionally good, there is an opportunity to mingle and talk to the producers. 

It is open to the public and worth every penny of the 40 Euro ticket price.  I spoke to a couple of the guests at the Villa De Winckels hotel who had purchased tickets.  They were delighted to have this unique opportunity and told me that they now arranged to come to Villa de Winckles every year at this time just to attend the tasting.

Cà Dei Frati produced its first vintage of Amarone 2008.  The wine was fresh, bright, with a satisfying flavor of cherries and tar.  The fruit undergoes a very long appassimento (the semi-drying of the grapes before pressing). Extremely pleasing wine.  I will be interested to see how it develops. 

That this wine was excellent comes as no surprise because the Cà Dei Frati has been making outstanding white wines for decades.  

I also tasted the 2008 Dal Forno Amarone. Bright, deeply-colored ruby. Rich, full pleasing mingling of cherries and spices. Surprisingly silky texture. Long fruit-filled finish.  The Price should you care to know: 250 Euros.

January 22  Slogging through the snow

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI call the airline to confirm that my new flight will indeed fly today. I tell the Air France lady my flight number and she tells me that no such flight exists. 

I don two pair of tights, two pair of socks, my warmest trousers, three sweaters, a jacket, an overcoat, two pairs of gloves, three scarves, earmuffs, a hat and a heavy shawl and haul my suitcase the 20-some blocks to Mickey and Susan’s apartment.  (all the cabs are already taken). Mickey has been unable to find the flight listed on the company’s website.  I call again and get a nice woman who assures me that the flight does exist – it has been especially organized to take the passengers whose original flights to Paris was cancelled. Whew.  Mickey and Susan open the Champagne (Perrier Jouet) and we wait for the Super Shuttle that will haul me to JFK.

January  13 to 21  Sherlockian Shenanigans

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI am off to New York City for the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner….and the ASH (Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes) Wednesday dinner, and the BSI cocktail Party and the Gillette Luncheon and…to the Frick to see Vermeer’s Girl with The Pearl Earring and Franz Hals portraits with Priscilla and to go to the theatre, and to stomp around Chinatown sniffing teas with my pal Randall and to have a slap up Chinese lunch with my pal Shelia and to….). 

The Frescobaldi wine company has kindly offered 6 bottles of Frescobaldi Chianti Nipozzano to the Doctor Watson Fund Auction.  A very nice man, whom I happen to be sitting next to, buys the lot and then kindly re-donates 5 bottles, which are immediately auctioned off to other generous Sherlockians.  I thank him profusely. 

I had asked the Frescobaldis for the wine because in my book Bacchus at Baker Street I deduce that the Chianti mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories is indeed from Frescobaldi’s Nipozzano estate.

A terrible snow storm hits New York the evening before my flight home is due.  My flight is cancelled. It snows all night. The wind howls and moans.  The wind chill factor reaches Arctic levels and the television weather people gleefully tell us that if we are out in the cold for over a few minutes we risk permanent damage to any exposed skin. Oh me, Oh my.

Here are photos:




The Cellar Of Mr. Thaddeus Sholto


“May I offer you a glass of Chianti, Miss Morstan?

Or of Tokay? I keep no other wines.”

Mr. Thaddeus Sholto

The Sign of Four


16Precious, opulent Hungarian Tokay’s place in the heart and cellar of Mr. Thaddeus Sholto is easily understood but the gentleman’s choice of Chianti may seem obscure.  However, his criteria for selecting these two wines is the same: both have long and illustrious histories, have enjoyed prestigious patronage and both have bona fide medicinal value.


The towns of Florence and Siena, in the heart of the Chianti zone, have for centuries been centers not only of wine production but also of culture, art and politics. When Michelangelo was at Rome, he often wrote to his nephew to send him flasks of the wine from Florence. In the mid-fifteenth century Chianti wine inspired Leonardo da Vinci to design the distinctive straw basket that covers it’s flasks. Geothe sipped the wine on his Italienische Reise and Robert Browning made Elizabeth merry with tumblers full of the wine which she described as “an excellent kind of claret.”

 As early as the 9th century the great Medical School at Salerno advised it’s patients: “Wine, if pure, gives you many benefits: it comforts the brain, soothes the stomach, removes noxious vapors from your body, relaxes a full belly, sharpens your wits, nurtures your sight and clarifies your hearing, strengthens your body and makes your limbs robust.”  Of particular interest to the valetudinarious Mr. Sholto, the school recommends patients suffering from chest pains (angina pectoris) take a glass of red wine at intervals throughout the day.

But not all red wines are created equal. Bordeaux wines, the natural choice for an Englishman’s cellar, when destined for Britain were often adulterated with flavoring agents and with stronger, darker wines and spirits. Whilst this satisfied the demands of the market it would hardly suit Mr. Sholto’s need for purity and desire for salubrity.

17Italy’s established vineyards succumbed to the ravages of phyloxera after those of France. Italians quickly grasped the opportunity fate had presented them and profited from France’s woes by planting vast tracts of new vineyard sites.  From 1870 to 1890 Italy’s wine production doubled. In 1880 80% of the population made its living from vine-growing, winemaking and trading. These newly planted areas satisfied the demand for plonk whilst the established wine regions of Italy, with illustrious histories to preserve, maintained their traditional high standards. In Chianti, the most prestigious of the many excellent houses were (and are) Brolio, Antinori and Frescobaldi. It is from amongst these three producers that we shall find Mr. Sholto’s Chianti.


Baron Bettino Riscasoli, a true noblesse d’epee, inherited the Brolio estate in the heart of Chianti Classico in the mid-19th century. He zealously set about perfecting his wine and promoting international commerce.  However, Brolio wines did not line Mr. Sholto’s cellar, for the Baron’s political aspirations supplanted his interest in oenology.

When he became prime minister of Tuscany in 1860, royalty and diplomats flocked to the region, many of whom subsequently developed a taste for Chianti.  Mr. Henry A. Lagard, a minister in the service of Queen Victoria was amongst them.  He wrote to the Antinori family from Venice in 1876:  “Tell the Marchese Antinori that my friends and I prefer your wines to all the wines we’ve found here, including those of Bordeaux.”

The Antinori family has traded in wine since the 14th century and has owned vineyards in the Classico zone from the 16th century.  The firm – in the modern sense – was created in 1895. Although the wine was not commercially available, Mr. Sholto could have imported it through a member of the diplomatic corp.  But it was not an Antinori wine that he offered to Miss Morstan. 

19The house of Frescobaldi is as ancient and respected as that of Antinori. The family dynasty was founded in the 14th century; it’s fortunes derived from the lucrative trade in fabrics and from money lending. The Frescobaldis owned the Florentine bank that financed King Edward II’s lavish wedding celebration in 1307 at which, it must be added, 1,152,000 bottles of wine (Bordeaux) were consumed.

Frescobaldi di Nipozzano was the wine Mr. Sholto sipped and savored.  This wine is different from the others we have discussed.  It does not come from the Classico zone but rather from Rufina, the smallest sub-district of Chianti.  Wines from this tiny area east of Florence are given equal status with those of the larger Classico zone, and, what’s more, they have a delicate traces of violets on the nose and palate that would undoubtedly appeal to Mr. Sholto’s refined taste.  Further, the wines of Nipozzano were singled out in the 1800’s by Doctor Paola Mantegazza who advised convalescents to drink this tonico genuino.

Chianti and Tokay, therefore, form a perfect pair. In common they share an appeal to the sensual nature of poets and artists, a noble heritage, and each is imbued with exceptional medicinal qualities. Yet their flavor, weight and style offer quite different and distinct pleasures. Mr. Thaddeus Sholto chose his wines with supreme logic. They satisfy him completely – body and soul.  Indeed, he need keep no other wines.







31 New Years Eve With Artistes and Stanley Dog

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWe arrive at the apartment of an Italian/Austrian couple to celebrate New Year’s. We bring a magnum of Villa Rosé 2008 (Franciacorta) and a Bianco di Custoza Amedeo 2011 from Cavalchina. The rosé is wonderful…it goes well with the sushi and the salmon starter, the Cavalchina Custoza  -one of the best I have ever had –is excellent with the soup.  Our hostess requests that everyone visiting her apartment leave their shoes in the hall.  This gives me the opportunity to wear my Champagne socks in public for the first time in two decades.  They were knitted for me by my pal Evelyn H.  Table-talk: art, what is an artist and poetry.  A good time was had by all.     

28 December Happy Birthday Cinema

We go the deconsecrated church where Ugo shows a silent film – The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford.  Afterward there is cake and wine for all.  We take 2 magnums of Zamuner Rosé that go down a treat.  People are lining up at my end of the table for more.  This makes me happy.  I love sparkling wine…but it is very hard to find occasions to open magnums.

26 December Boxing Day Tea with the Ladies (Michael is Tea Master)


13 December How I Hitchhiked into the Wine Trade

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMy pal Lucy and her husband, Toni, arrive from Scotland today for a flying visit.

I met Lucy, a spare, taciturn English Quaker over broken butter-cookies and watery tea at a Quaker meeting in Paris. In a certain sense it was this chance meeting that propelled me into the wine trade.  Here is how it all began that early autumn in Paris some 31 years ago.

That she had worked as a chambermaid at ski resorts and as a cheese-maker on a dairy farm impressed me, and my ability to sort out the intricacies of city life had the same effect on her. 

“If we traveled together,” said Lucy “We could hitchhike and save some money.  Just don’t ever tell my dad.”

We met at the Gare de Lyon station the next morning. Our travel plans consisted of buying a ticket for the destination with the prettiest or most intriguing name. My appreciation of fine mustard led us to Dijon.

5We arrived in the late morning of a gloriously sunny autumn day. After a tramp around to get our bearings we stopped to take the sun in a public park. A young man lounged on the grass beside his backpack, turning the final pages in a book. When he finished it he walked to a dustbin by the footpath with the clear intention of dumping the book so as to lighten his load. Desperate to read something in English, having just finished off Travels With a Donkey, I swooped down on him and he offered the book to me. The word “wine” stood out in large black letters across the cover. I started to read. The author, Hugh Johnson, wrote in an appealingly witty way about wine and I found myself seduced by his writing style and by the topic. He mentioned causally that the village of Avize in the Champagne region produced Chardonnay grapes. It was harvest time and the village was less than an hour away. It seemed kismet. We headed out to the main road, flagged down a small flatbed truck and set off for Avize.    

The driver pulled over to the side of the road and let us off just outside the village.  I hoisted my small suitcase, Lucy slung her knapsack over her shoulder and we walked into the deserted lanes of Avize. All able-bodied residents were working in the vineyards that surrounded the village. At Lucy’s suggestion we headed to the church. “Our things will be safe here,” she said, lifting a curtain that covered the back of the confessional. When I shoved my bag underneath the priest’s chair I felt the spasm of guilt that betrays a person with no religious upbringing. I knew I had committed a sacrilege of some kind but the precise spiritual details escaped me. 

6We walked into the nearest vineyard. The workers bent low over the vines and continued to pick the pendulous bunches of pale golden-green Chardonnay grapes. Only an old woman in a straw sun hat acknowledged us.  She removed her work gloves and whipped her hands on her apron.

Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” She asked.


“It’s hard work,” she said.  Her eyes narrowed as she sized us up. We must have looked strong and hearty or perhaps we just looked hungry. “Okay,” she said. “We’re about ready to break for lunch anyway. Come with me.” 

We followed her along the narrow lanes of Avize to the winery. Waiting for us with other members of the family was a young matron. From her chic yet casual clothes, city shoes and the carved arabesques that decorated her spectacles, I rightly guessed she would rather be in Paris than visiting the wine estate at that particular moment.

“Nice glasses,” I said, admiring her elaborate wooden frames.  “I looked at a similar pair in Paris.” And I named a trendy optical shop.

She gave me a reflective stare. I watched thoughts pass across her broad, handsome face.  First she recognized that Lucy and I had recently been in Paris. Then the notion that we might not be typical farm laborers flitted by.  

6a“Wait here,” she said.  She walked to a cluster of other family members and a whispered conversation ensued. There were enough guarded looks in our direction for us to realize that our fate was being decided.

“Come this way,” she said, leading us toward the family home, while our co-workers headed off to wash up for lunch. We followed her up the stair to a small sunny room at the top of the house. Lace curtains hung at the windows and soft duvets made from cotton imprinted with pastel flowers covered the beds. From our window we could just make out the barracks where the other workers bunked. 

Being granted special privileges did not endear us to our colleagues, nor did the speed and accuracy with which we picked. A quick harvest meant fewer hours work and therefore less pay.

At the end of our first work session an overseer praised our conscientiousness, going so far as to suggest that the others should follow our example. The French pickers took this as an open declaration of war. Healthy bunches of grapes would be stealthily tossed under our already picked vines in order to create the impression that our speed was due to sloppy work. Leaves and stones were dumped into our baskets should we chance to leave them unattended. We sussed out these ploys fairly quickly and we reacted by scrupulously policing our rows a second and sometimes a third time, by keeping our baskets by our sides and by remarking casually but loudly that the origin of the word sabotage was French…and little wonder! Thus we robbed them of the pleasure of reporting us to the overseers. At the time I don’t think we fully realize the existential crises we created in the minds and souls of our French fellow workers.

That first evening, after a long day laboring in the vineyard, we settled down to our place at the workers’ dining table set up in the tasting room of the winery. Muscles aching, I felt as if I had earned my hunger.

Glasses of some rough and ruddy vinegar were placed beside each worker’s plate of meat and two veg. I took my glass to the lady with the trendy glasses and said, “I think there is something wrong with this wine.” Again she gave me that hard stare before taking the glass from me. “You are quite right,” she said. I went back to my place and she soon returned with a fresh glass of darker, richer colored wine.  I tasted it. Flashes of my first sips of wine danced across my memory: rich but elegant, fruity yet graceful. Fine Burgundy, I realized was my equivalent of Proust’s madeleines.  

I went to the kitchen and thanked her. She looked furtively toward the kitchen door to make sure there was no one around then opened a cupboard and showed me a bottle of Vosne-Romanée from, as I was to learn much later, an excellent vintage. From that point on, the color of my wine always matched that in the family’s own glasses. 

Lucy would pick one side of the row and I would work the other. The vines are trained relatively low in Champagne, so we were on our knees most of the time. To while away the working hours we told each other the plots of Fred Astaire movies, enriched by a few snatches of songs. Dancing Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t It Romantic, They All Laughed.  The fruit was round and ripe, the sun shone. There was only a little rain on the last day of picking. Even with safety secateurs – the other workers had those dangerous looking needle-nosed jobbies – Lucy and I managed to cut our fingers.

8In the middle of the harvest Grace Kelly’s car sped off a cliff on a winding road near Monte Carlo. Beautiful, blonde Grace Kelly epitomized movie-star chic for us.  She could swirl into Jimmy Stewart’s life in Rear Window and give him a slow-motion kiss infused with Hitchcock’s eroticism. She could ignite Cary Grant’s passion while fireworks lit the sky. That evening Lucy and I walked down to a little bar not far from the winery and ordered small glasses of Cointreau. Looking at our hands, covered in cuts, sticky grape juice still under our nails, we thought about elegance and glamour and all the times our hands had been kissed by French boys trying hard to assume savoir-faire. How long, we wondered, would it take for our hands to heal? 

Our picking team had two overseers: Raymond, the nice one, and Mini H., so dubbed by Lucy and standing for Little Hitler. The only other foreign pickers were four exceedingly tall Dutchmen with children’s faces. Picking was much more difficult for them: even on their knees they had to bend double to reach the bunches. We called them John, Paul, George and Ringo. These nicknames allowed us to talk freely about them without arousing too much interest. I am sure that remarks like: “Paul is really cute,” followed by furtive glances in young Dieter’s direction went completely unnoticed.

The final day of picking ended in a party. All the horrible things we had wished on Mini H. vanished into vapor when we met his wife. Poor old Mini H. had his Hell on earth. Mrs. Mini vamped into the tasting room in tight black slacks and a leopard print bodysuit. She swayed up to pink-cheeked Dieter and grabbed his arm. “Oh, you are so strong,” she said rubbing her bosom against his midriff. She then gripped Frank’s hand and walked her fingers up his sleeve, “Oh, you are so tall,” she said, looking hungrily into his ever-widening eyes. Raymond, the nice overseer, also had the wife he deserved – charming, attractive and clearly in love with her husband. Sometimes there is justice in the world.

9aLucy and I continued to ramble around France.  As Christmas neared Lucy returned to her family home in England and I returned to New York to earn more money for my next trip to Europe. We vowed to meet up for future harvests. We suited each other as traveling companions. We shared the rare ability to appreciate silence. Neither of us felt the need to state the obvious and we were not complainers. When our random rambles left us in the mud we just carried on, knowing that around the next bend things would be different and, perhaps, better.  

There you have it: How I hitchhiked into the wine trade.

9 December  My WSET  Tasting Students

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAt 9:30 a.m. yesterday morning my WSET tasting students arrived to blind taste the 4 wines I had prepared for them: a generic Burgundy, a Mersault, a Chardonnay from Sandro de Bruno and a 2003 Tergeno (an Albana and Chardonnay blend produced by Fattoria Zerbina).  This latter wine is made from late harvest grapes and often has a touch of botrytis.  Its freshness and liveliness on the nose and palate blew the boys away.  I then gave them some tips that my tasting tutor had given me lo those many years ago and sent them on their happy way.   I studied blind tasting for three years in London with Maggie McNee, M.W.  She was a revelation. I only hope I can transmit to my students the energy, enthusiasm and knowledge that she gave to me.   

Early December

Cantina di Soave Annual Lunch - Excellent Sparkling Durello
Cantina di Soave Annual Lunch – Excellent Sparkling Durello
Annual Meat Fest at the Sandro de Bruno winery
Annual Meat Fest at the Sandro de Bruno winery


Dinner at Geppy and Germana's
Dinner at Geppy and Germana’s
Ugo declaiming
Ugo declaiming