January 2009

My job is to taste wine and food. Yes, yes, I know (everybody says it): it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it. As such, I am invited to dine out and taste fairly frequently. I have decided to share my uncensored notes on these occasions with you for the following reasons: 1) it will give you an insight into what the life of a wine taster-wine writer is like and 2) it will give me an opportunity to write about wines, foods, oddities, Italy and people in an informal way.:

January 2009

31 January

Amarone 2005 in anteprima
Venue: Giardini Giusti in Verona

This is an annual event. Because I wrote the first book ever devoted to Amarone, I am always eager to attend this tasting. When I was researching my book (1999) there were only around 55 producers who made Amarone in commercially viable quantities (6000 plus bottles). Then the boom came and suddenly everyone who had a back garden in Valpolicella wanted to become an Amarone producer. As a result the wine began to change its nature. (You can read me little tirade on the changes in Amarone in the Wine & Food section of this website. )

The things to look for when tasting Amarone are 1) balance (the alcohol must never seem like a separate element) and 2) the idea of cherries (when from Corvina is the primary grape) and ripe plums (when Corvinone is the predominant grape). Some 60 producers were represented at the tasting. I did not taste all their products but I did taste many.

Here are my favorites: Accordini (Stefano)

Amarone “Acinatico”: A full, satisfying, rich cherry fragrance that carries through on to the palate. A lovely expanding fullness on the finish. It is all of a piece – cherries from the first whiff through to the finish. This is simply superb.

“A good beginning, huh?” says Tiziano Accordini. “My wine has an advantage over some because it has been in bottle for 6 months and that helps. Bottle age is very important for this wine.”

Antolini (Pierpaolo and Stefano)

Amarone: Satisfying. Lots of Corvinone gives it a very ripe plum fragrance and flavor. Tightly knit. My favorite sommelier, Fabio Poli, took me to visit this estate a couple of years ago. “We have vineyards that are 40 years old,” says Pierpaolo. “People tell me to get rid of them and replant. But I say I’m not ready to do that. The vines still produce a very good product.” The most complex wines come from older vines.

Guerrieri Rizzardi

Amarone “Calcarole”: A linear but very concentrated quality. A warm, silky texture. More Corvinone than Corvina. “I prefer a wine that expresses territory to one that merely represents a production method, “ says Giuseppe Rizzardi. “That’s why we continue to also make a valid Valpolicella.” Hooray! Too many producers have stopped making Valpolicella in order to throw everything into their Amarone. Good for Guerrieri Rizzardi!


Amarone: A nice creamy sensation on the palate. Full-cherry fruit.

The company manages to make a good commercial product in large quantities (100,000 bottles – as compared to from 3,000 to 15,000 for the other producers in this list).

Venturini (Massimino)

Amarone: Cherries. Lovely controlled fullness. Attractive, well-balanced. Palate follows the nose. I like this wine. I ask the price in a shop…17 Euros!!! Wow, what a bargain. When I ask him how he manages to keep his prices so reasonable, Mr. Venturini says: “ Our company is a family business so we can keep are prices right. We have never had exaggerated prices.” Hooray for Venturini!!!

30 January

Venue: Monte Zovo Winery in Caprino Veonese

The very nice and capable PR person takes the circuitous and bumpy (though scenic) road through the hills to the spanking new winery. I arrive slightly carsick. Then fifteen journalists, Diego Cottini (the owner) and his son (Michele, the enologist) take us on a short stroll up to the slopes . For thirty minutes we stand in one of their vineyards. There is a nice cool breeze, warm sun (we have a Southern exposure) and we hear the short history of the enterprise. As new journalists arrive and wander up to join us, the story is repeated. After 25 minutes a plump and playful neighborhood cat strolls into the group and immediately captures the attention of 5 journalists, who eagerly abandon all pretense of listening and begin dragging twigs across the stones and tapping their shins in attempts to woo the cat.

We wander down and take a gander at the cellar. There are velvet drapes flanking the door to the ageing cellar. The gleaming floor is of red marble. Red marble Ionic columns. Large displays of dried flowers. Brocade or velvet drapes, with swags are at every doorway. I have never been in an ageing cellar like this. It looks like it could be used as a reception hall for a wedding party or as a ballroom. “Did you plan on using this space for something else?” I ask Michele. “My mother was in charge of the decorating,” he said. Mother is a fine decorator…she should be doing houses for the rich foreigners who buy places by Lake Garda. Her talents are (almost) wasted in a wine cellar.

A fabulous lunch is planned but I have to skip it in order to return home and do some work…slaving away in front of a hot computer. I taste quickly in a room where the fragrant lunch is being prepared. Not ideal tasting conditions. Diego promises to send sample to my home so that I can taste them in more tranquil conditions. My general impression at the wines is positive.

29 January

– The Missing Suitcase Saga continues…

American Airlines sends me a check for $200. This does not even cover the expense of buying a few clothes to get me through my seven days in New York City. Imagine arriving in a cold city and being expected to get by for a week with only the clothes you have been sleeping in on the plane. I wrote back pointing out that I had given my receipts to the baggage claim person at JFK (who gave me photocopies of them, thank goodness! ). Will this ordeal never end? I swear….all I want is to see my suitcase and its content again.

25 January

Venue: Ugo & Steffi’s on the occasion of Sterffi’s Birthday

An attractive and minerallyConte di Provoglio Franciacorta Saten to start, served with small pieces of lard and a savory potato and carrot strudel. Saten is a crement-style sparkling wine from the Lombardy region. The Castellare Chianti Classico 2006 is wonderfully rounded on the palate. Good cherry-near-the-pit flavor . Rich, fruit-filled finish. Broad unfolding warm fruit on the nose. A zesty minerality seems to spin through the whole and define the structure. It is served with slices of salami from Emilia-Romagna and Tuscan bread and bean soup. Baiocco Merlot from Ticino 2003, produced by Guido Brivio. Supple texture. Brambles and the idea of ashes. Light, clean. Served with roast beef, potatoes roasted with small pieces of lard and rosemary.

With the parmesan cheese: Masi 1988 Amarone. Still fresh and clean on the nose. A breath of fruit rises. The idea of incense on the nose that carries through on the palate. An attractive element. I put the cork back in the bottle between pours as the wine will not hold out much longer.

With a Grand Marnier infused cake, decorated with orange slices and gold- flaked pieces of chocolate: Donnafugata’s Ben Rye 2005. Golden tinged with orange. A fresh, full perfume of orange blossoms, mandarin oranges and acacia honey. These ideas carry through onto the palate. High toned. An idea of dried apricots. The richness is lifted and shaped by sprightly acidity. We score big points with Ugo for bringing this last wine. (Ugo, like most Italians, just does not “get” the pleasures of older vintages…and his lack of comment about the Amarone…spoke volumes). The Ben Rye brought comments like: “It has such elegance!” Ugo turned to Steffi and said: “Remember when I saw this wine at the restaurant in Trieste and I said: these people have good taste!”

“Is this a Pantelleria?” asks Steffi.

“This is Pantelleria!” replied Ugo, raising his glass. ***

We receive an SMS from Maz, who is in NYC representing a Veronese wine company at a trade fair. She is sending the message from Bone Lick Park. She and the Italian wine representatives she has taken there are having a fine old time!

January 17

Venue: The Osteria Carrormato

We take Stanley to the Carroarmato to see Annalisa. The music playing makes me want to dance. This is the first time I have wanted to dance in 11 days. The band that has shaken me back into a good humor is Gogol Bordello. Simone (a.k.a. Don Simone – because he is from Sicily., and D.J. Simone – because he often brings C.D.s to play at work) tells me that the members of Gogol Bordello are mainly Ukrainians, with a Chinese and an Ethiopian. They are based in…New York City. Of course.
January 16

I Campi di Flavio Pra Presentation of a new producer, followed by dinner
Venue: Villa de Winckels (Marsemigo di Tregnago, between Verona and Vicenza)

A fashion photographer from Milan has been hired to take pictures that will express the terroir of the vineyards. The music accompanying the slide show is Beyoncé singing “If I Were a Boy”. This is not a choice a native-English speaker would have made. When the slides are done the “fashion photographer” feels the need to explain each and every image. Here are two examples of his wisdom: “I imagined I was a nose with this one!” he crowed. And “The chair is a symbol of repose.” He mentions that he is a fashion photographer 5 times. He mentions that he is Sicilian 6 times. (Yes, I do keep count of these things.) The man cannot stop talking. The wine producer, Flavio Pra, stands politely to one side waiting his turn to speak. The fashion photographer seems to have forgotten that the event is about Mr. Pra and his wines. Now let’s eat.

The aperitif is a sparkling Durello. The snacks are superb. Two that I will insert into my own repertoire are: light spinach and potato puree balls and white brioche-like bread judiciously studded with pieces of hot pepper.

Our first course: a pool of soft yellow polenta, 2 small fans of sopressa sausage and 2 small braised radicchio leaves. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Excellent combination of textures. This is served with the producer’s Soave. Very nice. The wine has a palate cleansing minerality.

Then we are presented with a small mound of risotto al tartufo. Crunchy bits of black truffle in rice that holds its shape and gives the right amount of resistance. Then cheese gnocchi with grated smoked ricotta. I love the smoky, rich fragrance. This is served with Campi Prognare 2004 Valpolicella Superiore. The wine has a nice integration of wood…it is full, with a mulberry-cherry fruitiness. I like it very much. (I later find out the price and I curb my enthusiasm. 37 Euros strikes me as too much to pay for this wine. But price aside, it is a good wine.)

The main courses are Pastisada di cavallo (horsemeat stew is a specialty in these parts) followed by savory grilled lamb chops and roast potatoes. These dishes are served with the producer’s Amarone. The wine is just the right side of cough syrup. It is not bad but not among my favorites. (I later here that the price for this wine is 80 Euros. That strikes me as much too high. But then again, the producer only makes 500 bottles so I am sure he can probably find 499 clients.)

Then fresh green salad and a plate of Monte Veronses cheese, with a small dab of honey and three walnut halves. Very satisfying. This is followed by apple cake studded with chocolate chips served with a cooperative Moscato Fior d’Arancio from the Colli Euganei. The wine is just what it should be: fragrant, sweet and well balanced. Then a little something to go with the coffee: warm fritters filled with pastry cream.
January 13

I decided to stop in at a diner for one last New York breakfast before heading to the A train and the JFK Express.

“Poached eggs,” I say to the young man behind the counter.
“Poached eggs.”
“Huevos,” I say.
“Sandwich,” he asks, his eyes as moist and eager as a Central Park squirrel.
I decide I don’t want breakfast; I only want to go home.
I reach the airport 5 hours early in order to try and sort out my suitcase. I tour the vast and very full American Airlines lost luggage room. My suitcase is not there. While I am waiting for a form to fill out, 7 passengers come in to the Baggage Claim Center. All of them have had their luggage lost. I will not write that they lost their luggage because, of course, they did not lose their luggage. The Airline lost the luggage.
The return trip on Air France is uneventful (which is what you want in a flight), the cabin attendants are polite and helpful. If only my original flight had not been cancelled…. Did you know that Air France offered to buy Alitalia but were turned down!! Excuse me, I feel tears welling up. Deep breath!
Back into real life…

I return to find that my pal Simon Mawer has received a glowing review for his new novel The Glass Room. Simon and I are members of the English Writers in Italy group (see our wonderful website www.englishwritersinitaly.com ) I have also received my contributor’s copy of The Business of Wine: An Encyclopedia. The cover looks much prettier than I expected. Most reference books have austere covers in order to prove their seriousness.
January 12

I cry some more on the phone to the baggage claim people. I also cry when alone.
I call a Midtown restaurant that is modeled on a famous Verona Osteria. The manager of the Verona osteria (and daughter of one of the owners of both these places) has suggested that I give the NYC version a ring.
“Ask for Fabio or K.C.,” she says. “Tell them I sent you and that you are a Donna del Vino. Fabio loves Donne del Vino.”
I ring and Fabio gets on the line. I tell him that D…. suggested I call. The silence that follows that remark is deafening. Undaunted I use the Donna del Vino ploy. The response is more silence. I make a third attempt at starting a conversation. The response this time is: “What can I do for you.” I tell him that I would like to drop by and look the restaurant over (not saying that I write restaurant reviews for magazines.) His reply sounds wary.
When I hang up, I run the conversation through my built-in, shock-proof shit detector (as Hemingway calls it) and realize that there is a more than 50% chance that I will be treated like a worm if I show up at the restaurant. After my ordeal with the suitcase I am in no mood to be treated badly by a waiter. So instead….
Russell and I go booking (pawing though old books) at some downtown thrift shops. “It sorta make you think: what’s the point of it all,” says Russell. “I mean, you write a novel knowing that someday its gonna end up here.” We muse on all the names that used to turn up at thrift shops: Thorne Smith, John Collier, Thomas Tryon, Patrick Dennis, Peter DeVries. What happens to books once they are no longer even charity shop worthy? I love Peter DeVries, by the way, and there was a time when every book shop owner knew that Patrick Dennis wrote Auntie Mame.

Lunch with Russell
Venue: Stage, a hole-in-the-wall diner two blocks down from Union Square.
We squeeze onto two stationary stools next to the counter. A griddle sizzles with a pile of chopped potatoes, a couple of eggs and a hamburger. “Heros [in novels] all have to be so perfect these days,” says Russell. “They have to be the best at everything. I like a hero who is flawed.” Russell gives me a Tony Strycharz Memorial Golf Classic duffle bag in which to tote my few new possessions back to Verona.

Dinner with Mickey, Susan, Dore and Priscilla
Venue: Bone Lick Park Bar-B-Que Greenwich Ave. in the Village

I would highly recommend this place. The pork ribs are tender and not overly sauced. I try a forkful of Mickey’s macaroni and cheese that takes me right back to my childhood. An 8-foot long red neon Coca Cola sign hangs behind the bar. Because everything else in the restaurant (tin roof, walls, tables, chairs, etc.) is white, the looping flow of letters looks rather elegant. The service is friendly but not intrusive. I plan on suggesting it to all my New-York-Loving Italian friends. And I plan on returning the next time I am in New York in order to work up a review.
January 11

I call the airline. I want to know when to expect the bag. They haven’t got a clue as to where my bag is. The headache that has been shifting around my frontal lobe during this week suddenly expands into full blown pain. The Madeira I promised for the Watson Fund Charity raffle may never resurface. I feel I have let my friends down. I feel sick.
If we have indeed lived former lives, I am sure I must have been a mutt with a touch of Border Collie in my mix. I have a sense of duty and loyalty that can only be described as “dog-like”. I call Thom U. Unfortunately he could not make it into NYC for the Big Sherlockian Doin’s. Thom is wonderful: he calls me on every major holiday and many points in between. We commiserate.
Once roused, my Border Collie within starts to pace and whine. “It’s not your fault the bottle was lost,” all my friends say. But try reasoning with a Border Collie.
January 10

The Booksellers Room
Venue: The Algonquin Hotel

Vinnie Brosnan, a kind and generous man who deals in Sherlockiana – books and memorabilia – has kindly given me a corner of his table. Partly, I am here to sell copies of Ladies, Ladies: The Women in the Life of Sherlock Holmes and Bacchus at Baker Street. But the main reason I am here is to see all my friends who will not show up at the cocktail party later in the day. Guy M., drops by and says that the Sherlock Holmes Society of London is thinking of making a trip to Italy in 2012. I do my best to convince him to aim for Verona and Cremona. Over the last few years other Sherlockians have found their way to me. I still cherish the visit made by Vinnie, his wife Flavia and son Mike.

Vinnie’s daughter – Cella Blue in arte – comes to help out at the stand. She is a singer with a band called White Ghost Shivers and has just returned from a tour in Italy. She is just as intelligent, confident and kind as the rest of her family. Vinnie is one fortunate man! And while I am promoting bands, Scotland, the designer of this website, is a drummer with the ALSO in Los Angeles.

Baker Street Irregular’s Cocktail Party
Venue: New York Bar Association Club
Decent grub. Okay wine. Jolly waiters. None of the Italian Sherlockians have come but I find a nice nest with the Germans – Jan, whom I met a few days ago, and his pal Michael. I try to convince the other English Sherlockians (or Holmesians as they are called) who cross my path to come to Verona and Cremona. I will continue to lobby for this plan.
January 9

– I find a message on voice mail saying that “for some reason” Alitalia says it will put my bag on the Saturday flight (rather than the Friday flight) and American will deliver the bag to me on Sunday.

Lunch – The William Gillette Luncheon
Venue: Moran’s Chelsea Restaurant (10th at 19th Street)

Brick walls, some wood paneling and a blazing fire in the grate. The management is always very indulgent with their annual Sherlockian invasion. The food is just fine – it is never easy to serve a meal for a pack of 50 or so but the staff manages to do it unobtrusively. I get heaps of lost luggage sympathy from Susan V., Marilynn Mc. and Peter and Beverly B.

A Break with Randall
Venue: Petrossian’s Café in Midtown Manhattan

Lovely smells from the baked goods. Pleasant service. Nice looking sandwiches and, according to Randall my mid-town correspondent, the prices are good. I am sure there are those who pass this place by, fearing that they will be force-fed caviar and Champagne should they enter. (I can think of worse fates.) I will go back the next time I find myself in Midtown.

Dinner: With the Baker Street Irregulars
Venue: The Union League Club (East 37th Street)

I love this do. It is a chance to see most of my Sherlockian pals. However, I am exhausted from a combination of jetlag and bag-stress. I can barely keep my eyes open….the only thing that keeps me upright in my chair is the horrific vision of me slumped over my plate, my cheek resting on a slab of meat, mashed potatoes smearing my glasses. Whenever sleep seems imminent I bring this vision to mind and my head snaps back and my spine straightens. Fortunately the program is amusing…laughter keeps me awake. Quote of the evening (made by Mike W. – a.k.a. Wiggins): “The French Sherlockians are the looniest.” Italian Sherlockians try to reproduce English seriousness. French Sherlockians attempt to capture English eccentricity and end up being manic. The German Sherlockians I have met (all two of them) seem like nice, beer-drinking guys.

January 7

I spend the morning and early afternoon weeping on the phone to airline baggage operators.
Dinner with the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes
Venue: O’Casey’s

Wood paneling and filled book shelves – the right venue for a pack of Sherlockians. I see my old gang and I meet Jan, a nice chap from Germany. Lyndsay Faye, a witty young Sherlockian, passes round pictures of her new book cover.

The novel features Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. The publication timing is excellent as the new SH movie is soon to be released. It stars Robert Downey Jr. as Our Holmes and (Ugh!) Jude Law as Watson. “This will be good for attracting a younger crowd to Sherlock Holmes events,” says Russell. “I mean, Robert Downey Jr. just got through playing Iron Man.” I try for a full 15 seconds to imagine a fan of Iron Man plunked down in the middle of full Sherlock Holmes Mania. Everyone tells me that my bag will turn up tomorrow.

January 8

– I phone the airline and do a fresh job of sobbing; I cannot get out of the automated loop. Dear Miss Susan, who used to be a travel agent, finds the magic number to call in order to talk to a human being. Still no word on my case. I call Rhonda, who is in town just for the day. She and her husband may have a Diego Rivera painting and have taken it in to be appraised at Sotheby’s. OOO, if it is authenticated, the sale price could help send at least one of their three children to college. I have known Rhonda for around 15 years…in Verona. She moved back to the States last year. We have never seen each other in our native country. Unfortunately, my problems with the airline baggage people have eaten up time and I can only talk to her on the phone…no time to see her.
Dinner with Marry Ellen, Philip, Kate, Evelyn, John, and other Sherlockians
Venue: The Player’s Club
The club is in a brownstone near Gramercy Park. The atmosphere is perfect for the occasion – a rippling waver between grand theatricality and cozy comfort. The other patrons of the restaurant make me think of Damon Runyon types: an ageing platinum blonde, a 70-year old man dressed in black with a large red flower in his button hole, sleek youngish (in the dim light of the room) men who burst into song every now and then. The food is fine, the wine better than most New York clubs. The menu features things like Ethan Hawke Pot Roast, Timothy Hutton Filet Mignon and the Bogart Burger. We toast Irene Adler, Sherlock Homes and Mycroft, among others. A lovely evening.
January 6th

The Chaos Begins

It is 5:30a.m. I am standing in front of the train station waiting for the airport bus. Michael rings to say that he has just had an email from my pal (and Travel Queen) Mary Ellen, who has told him that my flight on Air France has been cancelled due to bad weather in Paris. At the airport I am re-ticketed on to Alitalia with a connection to American Airlines. A fist seems to clench around my heart. I look at my bag and think: I will never see this suitcase again.
I look deeply into the eyes of the Alitalia ticket agent and say: “This bag will get to New York, right?”
She rolls her eyes and exchanges an “oh-these-tiresome-passengers”-look with her colleague. “Certo, signora,” she says. “Look the tag says JFK. Don’t worry” There is no time to press the point as I must race to my new flight. I climb up the stairs to the plane and ask the steward if my bag will make the plane. “There is plenty of time, Signora. Don’t worry,” he says. He motions me down the aisle, his eyes already on the person behind me.
I worry.
I arrive at JFK to discover that my suitcase did not make the plane.
I go to Mickey and Susan’s apartment in the Village to pick up the keys to Evelyn’s apartment. While I have been in the air, emails, too, have been flying. I arrive to find that M&S have rustled up a tooth brush and some make-up samples, Kate has packed a bag of clothes for me, Evelyn has given me the run of her closets and Dore has offered anything and everything she has Others have written offering jewelry, petticoats and even shoes. I sit and bask in the joy of friendship. I let myself be convinced that I will once again see my suitcase, which is filled with all my favorite clothes and the bottle of rare Madeira I brought as a prize for the Dr. Watson charity raffle.
At 6 I head downtown to meet Russell at a book signing – not his. His detective novel –

Losers Live Longer – will be out in about 9 months. The cover is going to be used as an example of creative cover art in Publisher’s Weekly. OOO extra publicity! We are all delighted. Russell brings a six-pack of Dortmunder beer to the party and we drink a bottle in tribute to Don Westlake who passed away on New Year’s Eve. (John Dortmunder is a comic character in some of Don’s novels, who was named after the beer.) Many years ago I house-sat for Don at his brownstone in the Village. He was a vital, intense, intelligent man and to die quickly while preparing to go to a party is the right way for him to leave this world.

New Year’s Eve/January 1st

Venue: The kitchen of Ugo & Steffi’s apartment in Verona

We are guests of Ugo, Steffi and their 12 year old twins, Francesco and Giovanni. The other guests are Stefania’s sister and her two children – three and a half year old Tomaso and Greta (who is one and a bit and named for Garbo) – and Stefania’s mother. Ugo is cooking. We start with and apple and shrimp risotto, served with a dry sparkling wine. Then red mullet with a sauce made with grapes (which have been preserved in grappa), pine nuts and thinly sliced and then chopped onions – all sautéed in olive oil. Ugo has cajoled the recipe out of Marco, the chef at the Hosteria Vecchia Fontanina. This trattoria is one of Stanley the dog’s favorites because the cooks there often give him tit-bits of meat. I seldom cook meat at home so Stanley goes into paroxysms of joy whenever he sees one of these gents. He also get’s meatballs at Franco’s (a.k.a. Osteria Sotto Riva) and from Annalisa and Lara at the Osteria Carroarmato. This dog has one great life.

“Ugo, has been worrying all day about this recipe. Marco said to cook the onions until they were tramonte (stunned),says Steffi.

“How do you stun an onion?” We discuss this at length and decide it means to sauté until almost translucent.

With the red mullet we drink Cantaldi Castaldi Franciacorta Brut. Then out comes the Crémant le Bourgogne Rosé for the cheese platter (young Brie, Grana Padano ) served with a Quince jam made by Steffi’s mum.

“It’s snowing! “ The boys cry from the living room. “Come and look!” Snow in Verona is a rare occurrence. “É bianchisimo!” says Tomaso, transfixed by the sight. “Look, it’s staying on the roof tiles!”
We put on a DVD of Natalie Dessay performing her most famous stage roles. What a voice. At midnight the boys pass out sparklers and we watch the fireworks over the roof-tops. Ugo passes round glasses of Champagne (Heidsieck Monoploe Blue Top) then heads into the kitchen to heat up the cotechino (a pork sausage) and lentils. If you start the New Year with this meal you will have good luck and opportunities to make money. Then Ugo passes the grapes around. Everyone must eat exactly 12 grapes – a tradition that will no doubt also ensure more good luck for the coming year. The boys put on their jackets, grab the camera and head out to take photos of snow in the piazza.
At two we walk home. The pavement is made of hard, smooth (and slippery when wet) stone. There are a few people out marveling at the snow.