Archive for Diary
28, 29, 30 September Off to the Hills Once Again
I went to the Colli Euganei (a.k.a. The Venetian Hills) to visit the sites with Francesca Salvan (President of the Strade del Vino) and Franco Zanovello, my favorite winemaker. Why is he my favorite winemaker? Because he makes satisfying and elegant wines (which also just happen to be organic). I think of them as Audrey Hepburn wines. I also like him because he actually reads poetry! And those of us who like to read and who enjoy poetry are duty bound to stick together.
A few of the places we visited:
The garden at Villa Barbieri-Pizzoni. Armando Pizzoni came loping up the path to show us around the vast grounds. He is wearing shorts, a T-shirt, a ball cap and around his waist is a utility belt with secateurs and other handy devices tucked into its pockets. I ask him about it:
“Oh, I always wear it,” he said. “With a garden this size there is always something that needs to be done.”
We are shown around Praglia Abbey by Brother Mauro. We see the formidable library and the immaculate wine cellars.
Because the springs are located within the confines of the Regional Park, there can be no new building. This means that the common rooms of the hotels often retain the ornate elegance of days gone by, with gilt mirrors, marble flooring and Turkish carpets. This touch of grandeur goes a long way in creating the sensation of timelessness that is fundamental to the spa experience. They are also often family-run affairs, which leads to a reassuring continuity of commitment.
Standing in the cool night air watching vapor rising from a grid of thermal pools fed by the hot springs leaves a lasting impression.
“When I was a child, the water level was higher and you could see vapor like that at all the fountains in town… and even coming from the drains along the streets. It was like living in a fairy tale,” says Ida Poletto, whose family owns the Albano Ritz. (www.abanoritz.it).
I have a massage. In place of the irritating New Age Elevator-Music usually played during such occasions, the masseuse slaps on a Leonard Cohen album. I haven’t listened to an entire Leonard Cohen album since 1972. And then I only did so to impress a new boyfriend with my intellectual cool.
We (Franco Z., Giorgio and Rosanna Salvan) have lunch at La Montecchia, which is run by the Alajmo family. (www.alajmo.it)
The food is simply sensational – imaginative, tasty, an experience.
I did not take notes on the food because I simply enjoyed what was placed in front of me.
“Dining here is like going to the theatre,” says Franco.
Among the wines we tasted was a 1997 Merlot Riserva from Salvan that is still fresh and flavorful and a 2000 Merlot from Villa Alessi (Zanovello) that is juicy and elegant. These wines are proof of the level of quality and longevity that is possible in the Colli Euganei.
25 September L’Ambasciata di Quistello
This restaurant, in the little town of Quistello (not far from Mantua), is a landmark in Italian dining. We, along with some 10 other journalists have been invited to lunch as part of a re-launch of the restaurant. For fans of the place let me assure you: Nothing has changed, the chef is the same, the food is still superb, the service impeccable and the décor remains as it ever was.
The dining room reminds me of a rich child’s playhouse decorated with the castoffs of Grandmama, the Duchess: Turkish carpets, silver serving platters, candelabras, china teapots, mammoth floral arrangements and stacks of books.
On the way home Diego, who kindly took us to the event, said that they are looking for a young chef who would like to apprentice there, with an eye to eventually taking over kitchen responsibilities. If you know any talented young person who would like to live in the Mantua area….this is a golden opportunity.
17 September Venice and the Canova Competition
A moment of genuine laughter with Tiziana Ravanelli on the Grand Canal on our way to a press conference for the Antonio Canova Sculpture Competition, sponsored by Guerrieri Rizzardi. I love this event because it offers young artists a significant opportunity to gain recognition for their work.
The press conference is held in Palazzo Fero Fini in a room whose walls are covered in hand-tooled leather. It is a bit like being inside a rich man’s humidor. (The question arises: do poor men have humidors?) The ornate, white glass chandelier is the size of a Volkswagen. Two former winners – Daniele Salvani and Alberto Gianfreda – are there, along with Agostino Rizzardi (son ofi Maria Cristina Rizzardi, who conceived the idea of a prize to support young sculptors).
After the conference we wandered back toward Stanley J. Dog’s favorite osteria: Bacaro da Fiore. Who should we see upon entering the bacaro but Agostino Rizzardi. Clearly this place appeals to a vast range of clients.
I told the woman behind the counter that we returned because everyone had been exceptionally nice to our dog – and to us – the last time we were there. She said it was because everyone who works at the bacaro has a dog. She then confided that dogs were much easier to deal with than children. “I don’t know what it’s like in other countries,” she said. “But here in Italy…parents come in and start talking on their cell phones, and pay no attention to their children.” Foreigners, she believes, at least insist that the children stay in their chairs.
14 September Talking on the Phone
I called Roberto Cipresso, intrepid flying winemaker and owner of a the La Fiorita wine estate and luxury B&B in Montalcino, to get a bit of clarification about the conman who tried to sell false Brunello. I learned the word furfone…which means scoundrel.
We then head out for the Colli Euganie for a visit to a country house and Villa dei Vescovi (a national treasure). And – the main event – a ride in a canal boat. The organizer kindly agreed to let Stanley and Michael come along.
Here we are on the boat trying to imagine what it would be like if we weren’t cold and damp. The answer of course is: It would be wonderful….the strange lunar-landscape of the Colli Euganei…the magnificent villas….
10 September Scandal in Montalcino
I interview the President of the Montalcino Consortium, Fabrizio B. about the recent scandal (cheap wine in bottles labeled Brunello) for wine-searcher.com. It was the consortium who tipped off the police. Their quick action nipped the scam in the bud before any of the fake bottles reached the market.
7-8 September Soave Versus
This year Soave Versus, the annual Soave thrash, was held in Verona’s Grand Guardia. This stately building is in Piazza Bra, across from the 1st century Roman Arena.
Here are the names of some of the producers whose wines I tasted and enjoyed: Coffele, Vicentini, La Cappucina, Gini, Le Albare, Portinari and Le Battistelle. There were other wonderful wines on show but we didn’t have time to taste everything.
What I liked about these wines was their freshness and structure. Very nice Soaves!
6 September The Venice film Festival
“It is a world of pretty young things and scruffy old men,” said Michael as we sat nursing cold beers at the Venice Film Festival.
We hear waves of girlish shrieks and go investigate. The exception to Michael’s pronouncement is beaming from the Red Carpet – a nattily attired (though shorn) James Franco. He is surrounded by paparazzi. I snapped his picture.
We saw three films – all of them mind-numbingly earnest…two of them prize-winning.
We go to Ugo’s annual Bisato d’Oro (The Golden Eel) Awards Ceremony. It is held at Tiziano Wine Bar on the Lido. The owner has prepared what looks like a seafood buffet but is in reality a series of marzipan and cake creations. He is very proud of his work. I will admit to being a bit sadden that those nice fat, gleaming muscles are really compressed almond paste. There is of course the traditional platter of eel. The wine for this evening’s festivities was provided by the excellent Soave producer Agostino Vicentini and his wife Terresa Bacco. I like Agostino: he always says exactly what he thinks….no holding back. Therefore he is always good fun.
In August many Italians take the entire month off from work and devote themselves to getting a tan and eating spaghetti alle vongole in a trattoria on the beach. This mass urge to frolic in the sun can be traced directly to Italy’s pagan past, although some Italians try to pin the work stoppage on the Virgin Mary and others think it has something to do with workers’ rights.
In 18 B.C. the Roman Emperor Augustus decided to gather up all the rituals and celebrations devoted to the harvest gods and place them in the month that bears his name. What better tribute to himself than officially establishing a continuous eating, drinking and orgy binge? In the fifteenth century the Roman Catholic Church began to absorb pagan rituals into their own rites by tying them to an existing Christian celebration. The fifteenth of August had been designated, since the sixth century, as the date of the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven. Hence, the harvest festivals metamorphosed into a celebration of the Virgin Mary. The fifteenth is now a national Italian holiday called Ferragosto. And thus, thanks to Augustus, the lazy tail end of summer is still given over to holiday-making.
I, however devoted my August – in equal measure – to writing a book and lying in the hammock on the front balcony and watching the clouds change shape.
In the middle of the month I received an email asking me to write a news follow-up on a flooding incident that occurred in the Prosecco zone. Fortunately I have the private cell phone numbers of a couple of producers and was able to get quotes – not an easy thing to do in Italy in August. And, as with all news stories, it had to be written immediately.
Then the WSET (The Wine and Spirits Educational Trust) sent me an email asking if I could suggest someone who could translate their course work into Italian. I had a bit of time tracking down the person I wanted to recommend – she was on vacation, of course. But I found her and all’s well that ends well.
Shortly after this, I got a call from a voice from the past telling me that a book project that I had given up for dead, had a chance – after six (yes, 6) years – of being resuscitated. How nice if this actually comes to pass. But I no longer get excited by these offers. I save my excitement for when my payment check clears.
We went to dinner at Silvio’s…on the roof of his building. It has the most beautiful view in Verona. We weren’t supposed to dine on the roof because the condominium contract clearly states that it can only be used for drying laundry. But once the tenants had seen the view (particularly at sunset) tables and chairs began to appear. I brought a bottle of Bucci Verdichhio 2011 to the festivities. I love this wine. Order it should you see Bucci on a wine list.
In September we are off for a day in Venice – the film festival and Ugo’s prize giving ceremony. But for now, I think I will watch the clouds roll by.
JULY 7 SPEAKING TO CHINA
I went to a conference called Italia in China. It was held at Ca del Bosco for about 100 journalists and wine trade professionals from China and Hong Kong. It was organized by a couple of big quality wine groups. These groups are run by intelligent men. BUT once again, the Italians missed the boat.
The one and only speech was delivered by the publisher of a famous Italian wine magazine. He showed slides for most of the regions of Italy, and supplied pointless little facts about them. Example: Val d’Aosta makes light floral wines and is worth a visit. (Yes, think about that for 30 seconds….light, floral wines…yeah….but the only one that anyone in the wine trade could name is certainly anything but light. For those not in the wine trade I am referring to a wonderful Chardonnay from Les Crêtes. www.lescretes.it ) He then gave some meaningless statistics about the number of DOCGs and DOCs given awards by 6 Italian wine guides. At the end he asked for questions. No one had any, except for one astute member of the audience who questioned the methodology of the statistics.
The Italians had a room full of people who work in the wine trade and they didn’t ask them (the Chinese and Hong Kong wine trade professionals ) for their thoughts on what was needed to be successful in China and Hong Kong. Nor did they outline their plans for entering the Chinese market, a move that might have yielded some interesting remarks from the guests.
We road home with Sandro Boscaini, Vice President of the Masi Foundation (www.fondazionemasi.it/, and sometimes referred to as Mr. Amarone. (He said: “I have a car that is worthy of your hat.”). He too thought the speech about regions was a lame move.
Summary: The Ca del Bosco Sparkling wine at the buffet was wonderful.
JULY 21 OVER-DUBBING – A TRICKY PLACE BETWEEN DUBBING AND NARRATION
Michael and I head for a recording studio in the suburbs of Verona to over-dub a press conference/wine tasting about Santa Sofia’s Amarone Goiè (www.santasofia.com )
We had participated at the tasting, which was held during Vinitaly, the annual wine trade fair held in Verona. The older vintages showed exceptionally well.
We slip on headphones and step into a tiny padded room and off we go…. It is fun. I will meet with the producer next month to help him insert the English language voice track over the original Italian track.
Hooray. I love doing voice-over work.
JULY 23 through 27 THE SAN GIO VIDEO FESTIVAL
Our pal Ugo created this event and continues to see it through despite a budget of practical nothing. www.sangiofestival.it
No entry fee is charged for the videos that pour in from the Europe, Asia and North and South America. Each evening’s viewing is free to any who cares to stop and watch. Ugo is scrupulous about not charging. In Italy the minute money changes hands, rumors about its provenance begin to circulate. The need to imagine underhandedness and trickery is part of the delicately woven Italian psyche.
Accommodation for visiting members of the jury and the cost of printing the programs and posters comes in the form of grants from various local government bodies. The lavish food and wine laid on to nourish the bodies and souls of the jury and assorted hangers-on is usually provided free of charge by the many osterias and wine producers that Ugo frequents.
Ugo also arranged for the jury to visit local wineries
This year I visited 2 wineries with the group.
We had a tour of the Cesari (www.cesariverona.it ) estate in Bardolino. Among the wines that won me over was the Lugana 2013 (95% Trebbiano di Soave and 5% Chardonnay). Bright and fresh, with floral notes. And their 2005 Bosan Amarone, with its tweedy texture and ripe cherry approaching jam fragrance and flavor.
The following day we visited Tenuta Laca (www.tenutalaca.it/). It too is in the Bardolino area, and is simply beautiful – lush, well-tended vines surrounded by blue mountains that hide the view of Lake Garda.
The winemaker is Damiano Peroni (son of Flavio Peroni). His wines are crisp, vibrant, pure and flavorful. He made a Pinot Grigio (don’t roll your eyes and grimmace) that was simply the best I have ever tasted – and just a few weeks ago I was on a jury that tasted more than 100 PGs. Damiano also consults for other estates around Verona
JULY 28 SPEAKING IN TONGUES
We go to a studio to record some text for an in-house (Zonin) presentation for the prestige marketing department. Great fun. At the end, the owner of the studio said that he would like to present an audition from Michael to a client who was looking for a male English speaker. OOOOO, I hope this works out.
I love doing narration and over-dubbing. I started talking on the radio when I was 16.
My mother had insisted that I get a job afterschool as a simple character-building exercise. Had I applied at the supermarket as she imagined I would, my life would have turned out differently. Instead a school friend took me to the radio station owned by her father. He said I had a good voice and hired me on the spot. For a few hours every afternoon I recorded commercials in a small beige room and on Saturdays I read the local news into a microphone the size of a prizefighter’s fist. This led to other jobs in radio and television.
I paid my university expenses by announcing. Two afternoons a week I assumed my breathy voice and recorded the lead-ins to music for a late-night radio show. “You’re listening to jazz in the night time,” I would purr, elongating the “a” in jazz until it sounded like a moan. I would then hop in my car and drive to a television station where I recorded the tag lines for commercials. “Put a smile in your voice,” the station manager urged. “It comes in Harvest Gold and Avocado Green, batteries not included!” I would exclaim with a perkiness bordering on the giddy.
From this job I developed into a substitute for the technical staff: audioman, cameraman, grip, gaffer and technical director. I eventually became a director and a documentary writer before moving to London to study wine tasting.
June 26 GT(almost)Os at Maternigo
Those of a certain age will recognize GTOs as meaning Girls Together Outrageously.
My favorite Verona journalists/sommeliers (Clementina, Maria Grazia, Antonella and Monica), and a very nice photographer named Elisa, and I met up with Sabrina Tedeschi at her family estate Maternigo in the Mezzane valley.
The 84 hectare estate – of which 50 are devoted to woods and 31 to vines, with the rest given over to olive groves – is immaculately maintained. Before the Tedschi family bought the estate the land around the collection of farm buildings had been used mainly as pasture. Now the steep hills are covered in straight, lush rows of vines.
Before the tasting we sample some cheese, meats, vegetables and mostarda from I Sapori del Portico (firstname.lastname@example.org). Pure bliss.
Now to the serious work at hand – tasting.
Among the 7 wines offered – including vintages from the 1990s – here are two that particularly stood out for me.
1998 Monte Olmi Amarone Bruised plum color. Nose: distinct cherry fruit. Palate: Very full velvety fruit. Fine long finish. There is the incense-y quality that I find in mature Amarone.
During and after the tasting we had a very nice natter about biodiversity, the fact that cypresses and gingko trees could be either masculine or feminine, the difficulty of being a woman when it comes to managing a consortium, wine guides and the warring factions in Valpolicella. The prevailing viewpoint on this latter topic was that negotiation and opening a dialogue was more important that being right. After this we all agreed that it was nice to be just women tasting and talking.
Valuable tip: Do not brush your teeth immediately after tasting Amarones – you must wait at least 2 hours. Brushing before that time can damage your enamel.
I teach Clementina the word punkin (a diminutive of pumpkin). She asks me what the word means because when I talk to the skinny little dog who roams the estate and lonely horse in the paddock behind the house, I call them punkin. Yes, I always start a conversation with animals who happen to pass my way.
June 18 through 20 Pinot Grigio – In Friuli with Stanley J. Dog.
Pinot Grigio has become the magic name at Italian restaurants around the world, and its subdued aromas and flavors allow it to move easily from the bar to the table. It is little wonder that it is now the biggest selling Italian white wine in many export markets. Styles range from fresh and supple straw-colored wines, through barriqued versions; and on to splendid copper-colored wines (called ramato – rama means copper in Italian)
The difference in color and structure are determined by the length of time the juice remains in contact with the dark-colored skins of the grape before fermentation. It is sometimes forgotten that Pinot Grigio is, indeed, a red grape, a mutation of Pinot Noir.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I was asked to be one of 24 judges at the Pinot Grigio International Challange held in Friuli. A few days before the 3-day event was to take place, my husband Michael had to leave for England on family business. I rang the organizers and told them that it would be impossible for me to participate because, among other things, I had to stay home with my dog. Having met Stanley, they very kindly said I could bring him along.
We boarded the train for Venice (where we would meet the bus that would take us on to Friuli with the other judges). Children came down the aisle to pet Stanley and have their picture taken with him. Other passengers smiled at him and told me about their own dogs.
His reception on the journalist bus was not so enthusiastic. I could feel the cold emanating from the other passengers when the saw him. Noone made eye contact. They were probably afraid that this would encourage me (and the dog) to sit down beside them.
However, Stanley behaved impeccably. Three days of: on-the-bus, on- the-train, in-the-car, lying quietly under the table while I tasted, trying to get some rest during press conferences, which were interrupted by applause. Stanley interpreted this noise as something along the lines of gunfire. But still he didn’t bark. He only got to his feet ready to run should the need arise.
In fact throughout this whole adventure he never barked, he never got in the way, he never begged at the dinner table, never ran around getting under people’s feet. Almost everyone was won over by him because there really was absolutely NOTHING they could complain about.
Now back to the Competition. We tasted Pinot Grigios from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia and other Italian regions.
The wine that I gave my highest marks to was Pinot Grigio Venezia Giulia IGT 2013 “Gossip” made by Di Lenardo. (www.dilenardo.it) It was a pale copper-colored wine, with personality!
I happened to meet Mrs. Di Lendardo and her son before the prize-giving ceremony. At that time we did not exchange names because we were busy chatting about our dogs. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that these unabashed animal lovers also produced the wine that I most enjoyed. By the way, Mrs. Di Lendardo’s dog is a little ragamuffin named Lili, who has even gone to St. Tropez with her mistress.
The overall winner of the competition was from Alto Adige: Pungll AA Sud Tirol Pinot Grigio DOC 2013 made by Nals Margreid. ( www.kellerei.it) It received my second highest vote and was a fresh and fragrant white. Third place went to Pinot Grigio Friuli Grave Doc 2013 from I Magredi winery (www.imagredi.com), which was also considered to be the best value for money. Once again, it was a fresh and fragrant wine.
We also tasted some Alsace Pinot Gris out of competition. Top in this small section was a superb AOC Alsace Pinot Gris 2013 Cuvée Sainte Catherine from Domaine Weinbach (www.domaineweinbach.com) A luscious mouthful.
Dinner at La Subida (www.lasubida.it ) was wonderful as it always is. They love dogs and the food and hospitality are beyond compare.
Here is a picture of one of Friuli’s signature dishes, fricco, as interpreted by La Subida. Yes, it is fried cheese on a stick.
June 12 Sherlockians from Canada
I am so pleased that Verona has become a stopping point for Sherlock Holmes lovers on their European holidays. Peter C., his gracious wife and their friends stopped by. We ended up – as always – at the Osteria Carroarmato.
June 11 My speech to the Veneto Wine Roads Presidents
I go to a little place near Padua to give a speech about how to improve the promotion of Veneto Wine Roads based on my study of wine roads in the USA, South Africa, Australia and Canada. I give those present a look at how two South African wineries increased their overall on-site sales by 30 and 45%, respectively, by simply modifying their website home page and by thinking about ways to make life easier for their visitors – such as parallel tea and juice tastings for designated drivers and children who may have accompanied the wine taster.
At the end of the day, one President raised his hand and asked: “But what’s the point of hearing about what they do in South Africa, we’re in the Veneto.”
It was one of those times that I thank my stars that I cannot speak impulsively in Italian. Had this all been in English, I might not have kept my patience. Let’s see….yes, why should Veneto producers try to treat their visitors better? Hummm, let’s see? 45% increase in on-site sales, perhaps?
June 7 The Autographed Book
We delivered the book that Andrea Camilleri signed for Susanna during the interview I did with him a few weeks ago. What a nice man. Susanna made a Sicilian lunch in honor of the author and the dedication he wrote in her book.
June 1 Chievo Soccer Club Fan Fest in the beautiful little town of Bure
June 1 – 3 Richard and Sue from Kansas via Texas
A high school pal and his very nice wife (Richard and Sue) arrive in Verona and look us up. Their last visit was around 12 years ago. They are lovely people. Our pal Roberta has arrived from the UK to attend a film conference in Bologna and has also stopped by to visit. And a good time was had by all.
May 27 I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille
Aldo called last night and asked me to come out to Soave. I am not sure why. He said something to Michael about me talking about Soave to someone…. “Oh, and bring your hat,” said Aldo.
We arrive to discover that a film (feature-length, they say) is being shot in the beautiful vineyard of Borgo Rocca Sveva. I (and Giovanni and Alessandra) have been cast (by Aldo) in the role of expert sommeliers. I am seated next to one of the main characters of the film.
I soon learn that there is no script…everybody just wings it. During each take the actor turns to me and starts talking….saying different things each time and I reply. He is lucky to be seated next to someone who can Wing It! The director and crew are from Argentina, the actor is Italian, the motor of the production is, I believe, a world-class sommelier from Miami named Charlie.
30 wine tasting extras, the 4 sommelier judges (dats me and the gang) and the actors sit at our places and wait. The sky darkens as we shoot a scene. Rain falls softly on my hat. In no time big fat drops of rain pelt down. The director mutters stop. We pick up our chairs and run for cover. The sun comes out. We troop out and sit down and watch time pass. We feel the wind as it pushes the fluffy clouds away. The sky grows dim. We start filming again.
My hat is a big success.
May 27 I love Andrea Camilleri
My interview with Andrea Camilleri is up on the Publishers Weekly site. Hooray!!! Below should be the link. If not, just type Under the Sicilian Sun: Andrea Camilleri into Google and the interview will pop up. I am indescribably happy.
May 26 Cheivo Fans at Venturini (www.viniventurini.com)
I have always liked Venturini’s Amarone – juicy, elegant, firm backbone, satisfying.
I took the opportunity of a Chievo fan club outing to tag along and visit the new winery. 40 fans were fed some swell grub and served some very satisfying wines. His Valplicella was lush and appealling. It was a pleasure to try these wines again.
May 21 Stanley at the vets
We take Stanley and a vial of his pee to the vets. We wait for 2 hours. In the waiting room are two big, growly, teeth-baring dogs, whose ancient owners occasionally whine the command “Sit” at them.
I feel that as the dogs ignore the “Sit” command. They are highly unlikely to obey the “Release your grip on the neck of the little brown dog” command.
I suggest that Stanley sit under my chair and I prepare to fling myself into harm’s way should one of the Big Dogs get loose from its ineffectual owner.
May22 & 23 Soave Frolics
We go to the Vicentini winery where we meet up with a pack of very nice German journalists and wine buyers. As readers of this diary already know, I like Vicentini Soaves very much. Fruity, floral, elegant.
We arrive at the Villa Aldegheri for dinner. This very beautiful house and garden is a B&B for the fortunate few who know that it exists. “We don’t advertise, “ says Luisa, the owner. “We depend upon word of mouth referrals.”
Even people who lived in the zone were impressed by the view.
The following morning, accompanied by Stanley, we met at the Coffele winery for a tasting of Soaves from various subzones.
One of my favorite wines of the day is from Pra. The wine is called Otto and is everything a Soave should be.
We visit Filippo Filippi. He is just up the hill from Coffele. His place is idyllic. Bees hum, brilliantly colored flowers at every turn. His vineyards are surrounded by thick woods. His wines sell very well abroad. They are not typical Soave but they are interesting wines.
May 15, 16, 17, 18 Venice with Stanley
We go to Venice to stay with Michelle Lovric, (www.michellelovric.com ) who writes books (for adults and also ones for children) that feature Venice. She has invited Stanley to join us. She also suggests that I write Stanley’s Diary of the trip. You can find this in the Writers & Writing section of this website.
I had never written as Stanley before, although I did write for our dog Ed for many years.
Ed got his first byline in Decanter, a well-known British wine magazine. I had already contracted to write about the first wine fair ever held in Brazil for another magazine when I got the call from Decanter. My byline could not appear over both stories, so the editor and I agreed to assign the second one to Edmund Cane (a.k.a. Ed Dog), my alter ego. From there Ed’s career blossomed until he had contributed to every major British wine publication. Each time his byline appeared I would whisk his copy of the magazine down to Annalisa at the Carro Armato and she would give him a meatball for being such a clever dog.
I never thought of Stanley as a literary dog. He surprised me when I sat down to write his diary.
Here is an excerpt for those who are not in the mood to press a button and read the whole diary:
“On Saturday we go to the fish market and buy plates of fried fish and glasses of wine. We take our vittles to the quayside and sit on the stone pavement to eat our lunch. Seagulls swoop overhead. One drops something into Michelle’s plate. Every molecule in Michelle’s body seems to draw tight and shimmer for a moment. She offers the remainder of her fried squid to me. I love al fresco dining.”
May 6 Kafka Springs to Mind
I find myself in a very large castle in a very small town (a few hours from by train from Verona). I am here to be part of a jury that will be tasting a particular indigenous variety with an eye to giving out prizes to the “best” ones. There are around 9 other jurors, plus two event organizers who will taste the 40-some wines blind. In this case blind tasting means that the wines are presented without the tasters knowing the name of the producer. .
I learned a new word. Personalità. This evidently means “bad winemaking”.
How do I know this? After the first flight of 6 wines, one of the organizers who was tasting with us said. “Wow, that number 6 has loads of personality.”
Then he asked the question I was dreading: “What do you think of the wine, Patricia?”
I said: “It is cloudy. It is a faulty wine, with off-odors that I believe are linked to a fermentation problem.”
He said: “But it’s made in an amphora! It’s traditional.”
I think: “Yeah, even the Romans realized that wines made in amphorae were not great – that’s why they added spices and sometimes heated the stuff up…”
At dinner one of the organizers tells a racists joke.
I have been asked to let them know when I write about the event. I don’t believe that I will be writing about the event.
April 23 A Chieveo lunch and a Chievo dinner.
Chievo is the name of the soccer team that Michael supports. He goes to every home game and occasionally climbs on the bus with other local fans to go to away games. The team is composed mainly of good-natured young men who are happy to pose for photos and sign autographs for the children. Going to a Chievo lunch or dinner is like travelling back in time…I love these goofy, sweet, simple, happy occasions.
A party for me
April 15 A visit to a Real Contardino, Elio Fedrighi
We arrive at Negrar by bus. Tiziana R. picks us up and takes us to visit Elio Fedrighi and his family. We drive up a narrow winding road and emerge into a spot that can only be described as idyllic: the air is fresh and fragrant with Spring growth, the sun is bright, and the farm dogs are sweethearts.
“This is the real Valpolicella,” says Tiziana. “Not the area on either side of the main road – filled with houses and shops.”
Elio is a grape grower, par excellence. He has supplied the fruit for Masi’s Mazzano Amarone for decades. And unlike many who own renowned vineyards, he has no desire to make wine. He is content to produce the best, healthiest grapes possible from his high, hill-side vineyards and leave winemaking to others.
“The grapes up here ripen later than those lower down,” says Elio. This longer growing cycle means that the grapes are often richer in the polyphenolic substances that gives flavor, fragrance and substance to a wine.
We taste 2004 Mazzano. Dark, austere cherry. We leave our glasses and take a walk in the vineyards. Thirty minutes later we return to our wine. It has opened up. Fine, sprightly cherry fruit surround by a mist of mocha.
“It has an earthy quality,” says Michael. “The Mazzano was the benchmark by which I measured Amarone when I entered the wine trade.”
“There are not many true farmers like Elio anymore,” said Tiziana. “Today to sell wine you’ve got to travel all over the world – stay in the best hotels. Young wine producers are losing contact with the land.”
April 13 Monica’s Turquoise Party
We met Simone Butturini (www.simonebutturini.it) at Monica’s birthday party. I like his paintings.
April 6 through 9 Vinitaly
Below you will find descriptions of some of the wines that I particularly liked this year (in no particular order), and a selection of dark but jolly photos of producers and winemakers. I must get my camera fixed…
I went to a vertical tastingof Gioe Amarone from Santa Sofia (www.santasofia.com– a very interesting opportunity. My favorite among the wines was the 1998, fresh, full, satisfying, ripe cherry fruit. It continues to evolve in the glass.
I visit the stand of Paolo Passini, owner of the Azienda Agricola San Giovanni (www.pasiniproduttori.it ), every year. Paolo’s estate is located in the small wine zone of Valténesi.” (For the proper pronunciation of this word imagine Natasha, the Russian Spy from the Bullwinkle cartoon show, saying the word to perky little Rocky J. Squirrel. “Vahl-ten-eh-zee.” I have no idea whether this will improve your pronunciation of the word but it does provide a pleasing image.)
His Chiaretto Valtenesi: Vibrant antique rose color. Fresh, distinct notes of raspberries and melon on the nose. A lovely burst of soft ripe berry fruit shaped by salinity. Most of this wine is sold in New York, he tells me.
Another annual visit is to Cristina Geminani owner/winemaker at Fattoria Zerbina, Her 2012 Bianco di Ceparano (100% Albana grapes) is crisp, with a fragrant, citrusy nose. On the palate it is tangy with a sprightly minerality. Serving suggestions from Cristina: charcuterie, asparagus and eggs and soft cheese.
I found out that this wine is available at the Jet Rock Bar and Grill at La Guardia Airport…next time you are waiting for a plane ….
Yet another annual visit is to Bortolotti www.bortolotti.com, this company really does make the best Prosecco. I described it in on a website report from Vinitaly as the Rolls-Royce of Proseccos. The basic Brut N.V. (100% Glera) is very forward peach/pear fragrance, a fine salinity on the finish. Exceptionally elegant and appealing.
Pietracupa Fiano. Simply the best Fiano I have ever taste. Older vintages continue to have firm structure and fine, enticing fragrances.
Donnafugata (www.donnafugata.it ), Lighea (100% Zibbibo – a.k.a. Moscato di Alessandra) grown on the island of Pantelleria. On the nose the wine bursts with sweet, ripe fruit (apricot, a sweet grapiness). Some drink this as an aperitif. For me the nose is too potent for that use, instead serve it at table—the sweet flesh of lobster or crab might make a good pairing.
I drop by for my annual visit to the Bucci (www.bucciwines.com ) stand. I like Mr. Bucci. Fortunately I also like his wines. They are elegant, smooth and built to last. Particularly appealing this year was 2012 Villa Bucci Verdicchio – elderflower fragrance and rich and lively on the palate. A broad but supple fabric of fruit. Mr. Bucci suggests serving it with the summer dishes – chicken in aspic or vitello tonnato.
Damilano (www.cantinadamilano.it). I taste through several of their wines and note a fresh, zippy house style. Their Cannubi Barolo 2009 has an elegant nose, on the palate it blooms with soft but precise fruit, alongside a smoky undertone. Silky texture. Very nice appealing wine.
- I was willingly pulled into the Nino Franco tasting area and tasted through some of their wines with Annalisa Franco. My favorite wine was the Primo Franco Prosecco (100% Glera). Lovely, forward nose. Ripe pear on the nose and palate. Long, fruit-filled finish. English chef Rick Stern paired this wine with Goan Lobster Curry. OOOO, what a good idea! Annalisa also showed me the brochures for her stately guest house Villa Barberina. www.villabarberina.it
More sparkling wine. We (Michael and I) taste through the range at Bellavista (www.bellavistawine.it). Franciacorta is a small zine in Lombardy that produces top-notch sparkling wines using the Champagne method of second fermentation in bottle. Fabio, the agronomist, pours for us. “I would like to ask the signora to taste again and make your description just with your hands,” he says, referring to the fact that when I am trying to find a word I automatically find myself miming the sensations. I can’t help myself.
My favorite wine 2006 Riserva Vittorio Moretti. (Pinot Nero, plus some Chardonnay, old vines) A broad, uplifting nose – like silk rising on a puff of air. On the palate the same image forms in my mind: silk on a breezed.
On to Berlucchi (www.berlucchi.it), where Mr. Ziliani (whose family owns the Berlucchi winery) suggests matching the company’s 61 Rose Franciacorta (60% Pinot Nero, 40% Chardonnay) with crustaceans, prosciutto crudo or risotto. “Rosé is a type of wine we have experimented with a lot,” he says. “I personally like rosé, it combines the elegance and freshness of Chardonnay with the body and texture of Pinot Nero.”
Final stop of the fair: Villa (www.villafranciacorta.it) in Franciacorta. Brut 2009 Emozione (85% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero, 5% Pinto Bianco). Very smooth, ideas of delicate fruit. “Almost a touch of earthiness,” says Michael.
My favorite quote from the fair: The World is small, but Vinitaly is large. If there is someone that you do not want to see, you can be sure to run into him at Vinitaly,” said our pal Franco, owner of the Osteria Sottoriva in Verona.
I went to a large Gala Dinner during the Vinitaly wine fair. There were 6 of us at our table, 3 of whom immediately whipped out their cellphones and peered intently into their glowing screens. They stayed in this position during the starter and managed to eat a few spoonfuls of the soup, while glancing at their little phones. They did not speak to the other diners. I wondered if it would be considered bad manners for me to pull out my pen and Sudoku magazine and begin filling in squares. I decided it would.
5 April Canova’s Garden
Italian wine producers are always trying to link their product to Art. Seldom do they actually seem to be truly interested in the subject. It’s like people who go to fancy dinners in order “to be seen” as opposed to going to a dinner to chat with people and enjoy an evening out.
The financial and organizational support that the Guerrieri Rizzardi wine company gives to the annual Canaova Prize is one of the very few collaborations in which the motivation is art and not just “being seen” to support Art.
The Prize goes each year to a young Italian sculptor/sculptress, and includes the opportunity to show his/her work at the Museo e Gipsoteca Antonio Canova in the tiny town of Possagno, in the province of Treviso. Though the town is small (some 2000 inhabitants) the number of visitors to the museum runs into the tens of thousands.
The museum itself is located in the family home of Canova and surrounds a wonderfully fragrant garden filled with exotic trees and bright flowers. “I love this place,” says the Contessa Guerrieri Rizzardi, as we walked down the gravel path. “It is like another world here. I lived not far from this museum when I was a girl and I remember coming here and being enchanted by the place. This is Canova’s garden.”
The artist featured this year was Alberto Gianfreda, he entitled this collection of his work: Earthquake Museo. My favorite piece is: Earthquake Mano.
Later we visited the Cemetery where Canova is buried.
March 29 Happy Birthday Francesco and Giovanni
We head to the Osteria Carroarmato to celebrate the 18th birthday of Ugo and Steffie’s twins. Twenty some friends and relatives at a long wooden table. Plate after plate of sliced meats, vegetables, polenta, gorgonzola, lots of happy chatter. It felt wonderful to live in Italy at that moment.
March 26- 30 Tasting at the Vinitaly wine Competition.
I decide to share this honor with Matteo, one of my tasting students. He will take two days and I will do the rest. The idea of 4 full days of tasting from 9 to 5 just does not appeal to me at the moment. Thank goodness they use electronic tablets and spare us judges the fatigue of adding up columns of figures and filling out forms.
We average around 44 wines a day, with 3 to 4 minutes for each wine.
Here is the tip I gave Matteo: Place the glass that you want to be filled on the right hand side of your table and put your hand lightly on the base of the glass. That way the sommelier can fill it without having to lean over the table and sort through the confusion of your 12 glasses. The sommelier will appreciate this courtesy.
I met a fan! Another judge had read and appreciated one of my books and told me so. It never fails to please me when someone says he likes what I have written. I invited him along to my pal Annalisa’s osteria, the Carroarmato, for a book presentation and we stayed for dinner.
I have taken a look at his website and now I am his fan! Here is the address of his blog: www.AlfonsoCevola.com. Wonderful photographs and gentle, interesting commentary. A lovely and amusing man.
March 21 Interviewing Andrea Camilleri
Camilleri, for those who may not know, is Italy’s best loved author and the creator of the wry and observant Sicilian commissario, Salvo Montalbano. I interviewed him for Publishers Weekly at his apartment in Rome.
Here are two rather nice quotes from Camilleri that I won’t put in my article:
“When I don’t have any ideas I might write a letter, for example, to a man I’ve just encountered at a kiosk. It’s a letter I know I’ll never send, but it serves as an exercise. Without that, you get stuck. What’s behind writing? It’s not that the artist writes when he gets inspiration — it’s the work of each day.”
“Two great masters for me are Hammett and Chandler. Perhaps Hammett above all because of his behavior during the Communist Witch Hunt in the 1950s. He ended up going to jail for his views. Now, this was a man who drank nearly a bottle of whisky a day. So going to jail for him was like having a double sentence. It took a great deal of courage.”
Camilleri very kindly signed books for Stefania (who made her family take their last vacation to Sicily so that she could visit all the sites where the Montalbano TV series is filmed) and for Susanna (whose favorite book is Il birraio di Preston.)
Susanna was very pleased when I told her that that book was very significant in the development of Montalbano. In fact without it there might have never been a Montalbano. You see, Camilleri was stuck when writing Il birraio di Preston so he decided to set himself a “creative exercise”: writing a mystery novel. He wanted to see if he could write a linear plot – going from chapter one through to the end and linking each chapter logically. So there you have it, Montalbano started out as a remedy for writer’s block.
March 20 Candy for Camilleri
My husband went to a small hand-made chocolate shop to buy a box of candy to take to Camilleri. (I had done my homework and discovered that he had not drunk wine since 1947 – yes, 1947.) The shop assistant asked my husband if the chocolates were for a woman and he told her they were for Andrea Camilleri.
Shop Assistant (in awe): He’s one of those people that you think don’t really exist.
Michael: You mean like a mythological creature?
Shop Assistant: Yes, exactly!
We take the bus to the airport to see the unveiling of the giant posters advertising Soave that the Consortium has put up. Michael and I helped them tidy up their English slogan. Here are photos of 2 of my favorite Italian Journalists/bloggers. Carlo G. and Maria Grazia, who looks rather fetching in her new purple glasses. Her site: www.soavemente.net
March 16 Dancing to the Tune of Bardolino
The annual Bardolino thrash. Great fun, good band, nice eats, swell people.
March 11 Greek Fans – Wow!
A couple of years ago I got an email from Anistasia K., a teacher at the Iiona School of Music in Greece. She was bringing some students to the Veneto and wanted to meet with me. She uses my wine articles in her English classes. I was unable to meet them on that occasion. BUT SHE’S BACK! She is bringing another group and we agree to meet in Verona. She told me one of her students is writing a thesis comparing Chateau Yquem and Amarone. My mind boggled, particularly when I was introduced to the 14 year old who is writing the piece. What a lively, intelligent boy. All of the students were enthusiastic and polite. It was a real pleasure to meet them.
March 8, 9, 10 Tergeno IGT Ravenna Bianco 2012 from Fattoria Zerbina and Lunch
I drank a glass of this blend of indigenous white varieties (and just a touch of Chardonnay) with my lunch three days running.
It has the body and delicately fruity flavor to go with: a salad of dry, shredded meat, olives and artichokes dressed with lemon and oil; rice salad with ham and peas; and breaded chicken cutlet. A very satisfying wine. The back label suggests that is goes well with seafood and some kinds of raw fish, liver-based dishes and cheeses, or as an aperitif. All of this sounds right to me.
Tidying my office I came across my cigar box of significant letters. Among them was one from Marvin Epstein (ancient Sherlockians may remember him). It was written from Paris where he and his wife were vacationing and were soon to leave for London and a dinner with Lady Jean Conan Doyle. Among the love and after-love letters I found one from a boy on whom I had a crush in High School and with whom, 15 years later, I had a brief but intense affair. I reread the letters written to me by my friend Helena during the months leading up to her death. We exchanged letters once a week and tried to keep things witty and wry. My goal was to make her laugh. She was gallant right up to the end.
I put the letters away and suddenly felt a great wave of pity for all the people under 40 who will never have a box of letters like mine, who will never know the visceral pleasure of holding that piece of lost time in their hands.
February 28 Annalisa’s unbirthday
She was born on the 29th of February. We stop by the Osteria Carroarmato, which Annalisa owns, to wish her well. Other old pals show up and she sits us down at table 1 (the staff table) and heads down to the cellar to start the parade of old bottles which we will taste together. (1994 Quintarelli Valpolicella, Alzero 1996, among others.) “I have a theory,” says Annalisa.” Before 2000 the focus was on making wine, after that time the focus was on making money.” She may have a point.
February 24 The Ceramics Museum in Faenza
During the night my flagging cold has rallied. I go to a lovely room in the museum where a tasting is to be held. It is a perfect venue: white walls, natural light, silence. I pick up the tasting sheet that lists around 100 wines.
My survival instinct kick in and I put the tasting sheet back on the table and walk to the nearest dark room. I sit on an upholstered love seat until I felt better. Then Michael and I have a nice leisurely stroll through the fabulous ceramics museum. It is inspiring, it is beautiful, it is thought provoking. I love this museum.
We then went outside and sat on a park bench in the sun for an hour: warm sun, cool breeze, bird song.
February 23 Romagna Sangiovese
I have the pleasure of attending a brief seminar about the newly designated sub-zones in the Region of Romagna. This is followed by a tasting of older vintages.
1994 Fattoria Zerbina Torre Ceparano. Sangiovese. Bright, vibrant ruby, with deep rose highlights. Clear, fresh, with a waves of ripe fruit on the nose: black currents, sour cherries. Rich, ripe and round on the palate. A candied cherry touch on the long finish. After 20 minutes in the glass the wine is still fresh and appealing. After 40 it is still giving pleasure.
“I have a lot of affection for this wine,” says Cristina Geminani, the owner and winemaker of Fattoria Zerbina. “When I planted this area I used the albarello training method. It is our first wine made with Albarello. The 1994 was made from 5 year old vines.”
“This is the first vintage realized by the Fiores,” says the moderator of the tasting.
1993 Zerbina Pietramora. Bright, softly-diffused deep rose over ruby. Nose: clean, warm, soft cfruit – chrries – rising on the nose. On the palateL elegant, firm fruit shaped by sill sprightly acidity. All of a iece.- like a bolt of silk unfurling.
After 20 minutes; still firm and fruity.
1979 Nicolucci Vigna del General (Riserva) Diffused browning ruby, clear rim. Still a note of freshness bursts through a slight oxidation. The wine is old BUT a pleasing fruit persists. Final verdict: an interesting experience rather than a pleasure-giving one.
1998 Giovanna Madonia Ombroso Nose: fresh with an undertow of ahses and a burst of decent cherry fruit. Vines planted in 1993.
Tasted and appreciated at dinner. 1998 Fattoria Paradiso Sangiovese di Romagna. I took no note but the wine left a good impression.
1996 Fattoria Zerbina Scaccomatto A sweet wine made from Albana grapes. Fresh, hazelnuts on the nose with a undertow of botrytis cinerea. Fresh a round swirling of fresh, apricots, candied apricots, green tea, tinned apricots, autumn leaves, figs, candied yellow plums. It is like a magician pulling a seemingly endless series of brightly colored scarves from his sleeve.
February 19 Wonderful Bucci
When the weather is on the cool side, I like to have a glass of red wine. Ampelio Bucci has sent some samples of his new vintages. I open a bottle of Bucci 2011 Tenuta Pongelli Rosso Piceno and serve it to 4 nascent winemakers (or more precisely wine making students.) None of them have ever had a wine from the Marche region before. It is a revelation for them. It is deep ruby, with purple highlights. On the nose it has hints of violets, spicy cloves and cherries. Dry, mouth-cleansing acidity. Medium-bodied. Soft tannins. A lovely wine.
February 18 Writing, writing writing
I finish the essays on Italian cheese, pasta, regions and life in Italy. These will appear in a booklet destined for the Singapore market. They were fun to write.
February 17 I begin to emerge from my congestion-filled miasma.
I searched for a wine to renew my interest in daily life and chose Notturno, a 100% Sangiovese IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) from Romagna produced by the Drei Dona family. I made the right choice. It is a wonderful wine, one that can be matched with vegetarian cuisine as well as the traditional red meat and cheese pairings. Ah, satisfaction. What I want in this condition is a wine that has style and substance but which is also easy to drink. Hooray for Drei Dona. For my animal-centric pals, the Drei Dona family also has a nice pack of dogs (many of them strays) and some fine horses and a donkey.
First part of February: A Descent into Toxic Hell
For a number of unfortunate reasons I found myself in the nastiest of environments – mold spores, rising damp, horrible smells. The only way I could breathe was to sit next to an open window while a vicious storm raged outside.
28 January A Discussion with Maria Grazia
I 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
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.
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.
This 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
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
I 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:
SHALL I OPEN A FLASK?
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
Precious, 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.
Italy’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.
The 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
We 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
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.
We 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.
We 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.
“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.
In 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.
Lucy 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
At 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.