2 March

Gusto in Scena
A gray scrim hangs over Venice. There is a vaporetto strike and we walk to the stop where the hotel launch makes its hourly pickups. Streets I have never seen before shimmer out of the fog. We are here to visit Gusto in Scene, a food and wine fair organized by Marcello Coronini, an amiable and enthusiastic man who loves his job.

The event is held (and we stay at) the Molino Stucky Hilton, a colossal brick pile on the Giudecca.

We run into Beppe and Egle, a nice a couple journalists from Genoa who turn up at every single food and wine gathering. I trust their recommendations completely. Beppe takes us to try a culatello, the most delicate part of a prosciutto crudo. The meat is aged for 26 months. The rose-pink slices are transparent. There is a delicately nutty undertow in the flavor.

“This,” says Beppe “is poetry.”

The first wine I taste is from the Franciacorta producer Villa. The 2006 Villa Rose Brut (40% Pinot Noir, 60& Chardonnay) is wonderful. A vibrant orangey salmon color. The nose is firm, creamy and clean with a fine hush of delicate fruit scents. Raspberry, wild berries – merge into something distinct and unique. The palate follows the nose. Very elegant. Flavorful long finish.

“We tried experimenting with the percentage of Pinot Noir,” says Paolo Pizziol. “But we found that increasing the Pinot Noir led to a loss in elegance.”

I said to Michael as we walked away: “If we win the lottery, I want a glass of this wine everyday with my lunch.”

Other wines we tried that particularly appealed to me:

Le Vigne S. Pietro 2008 Custoza Apricot-y fruit. Nice weight in the mouth.

A representative of the winery says: “I believe that our Custozas have the structure to last.” He also says that the winery will be presenting its first Amarone at Vinitaly this year. I will swing by and try it on that occasion.

One of the most intriguing white wines I have come across in a long time is the 2009 Palistorti Bianco from Tenuto di Valgiano. It is a blend of Vermentino, Trebbiano and Chardonnay. A fine tallow gold to a clear rim. Apricot fused with green gauge plums. A crisp minerality. It has energy – undulating acidity. An exceptionally attractive wine. I will try it again when an occasion arises.

I spoke with Laura di Collobiano of Tenuto di Valgiano. She told me that the grapes for some wines are still pressed by foot. “I’ve done it myself,” she said.

The other two wines we tried here were of excellent quality: 2007 Palistorti Rosso Soft ruby color. Very soft on the middle palate. A long finish. Almost thick with dark berry fruit. A gentle undertow of tar.

I have made it a policy to only name the good to great wines that I taste. However, I will include some notes (without identifying the producer) on wines that do not fall into that category. Here comes one now.

We wander up to the end of a table. A man rushes out to greet me. “You visited our cantina last year, Signora,” he says. I have no memory of this. We parry for a while and determine that I visited the winery in 2008. The memories come rushing back when I taste the wines again. They are too soft. They lay – flaccid – in the mouth.

Think about what it is like to shake hands with someone who places his clammy paw in yours and does not participate in the handshake. Think of the creepy feeling that experience leaves you with. Well, that is the impression these wines give me. The raw material is excellent. The packaging is excellent. But this winery needs some human being who will come in and let what personality these wines may be capable of to show itself.

Back to nice wines…

We stop at Tessere, a producer from the Piave. Her dry 2004 Raboso spends 24 months in tonneaux. A lovely, round “furry” (in a pleasing way) sensation. A soft burry fruit, a brambly warmth, an idea of spice rather than a firm sense of it. Intriguing.

“We serve this wine with venison accompanied by chocolate-based sauce,” says owner of the estate.

Tesseres also makes a Piave Raboso-based sweet passito wine called Rebecca that is very appealing.

We meet at the Daniele Hotel for before dinner drinks. The barmen at the Daniele are Real Pros. They are offering Rossini (Strawberry juice and Prosecco) and Vespa Martinis (2 parts Gordon’s Gin, 1 park Vodka and a dash of angostura bitters, garnished with a curl of lemon peel). This drink was invented decades ago when Casino Royale was being filmed here.

Alessandro, the barman, has worked at the Daniele for 14 years. “I love my job,” he says. “You have to love this work because when the rest of Italy is on holiday you have to stay and work.”

A man next to us nods towards the perfect rows of glasses, each garnished with a slice of strawberry. “Notice how each strawberry is exactly the same size and width –now that’s professionalism,” he says.

Then we – some 70 people – troop off to dinner. All of these people have been attending a food and wine event. All of them are professionals in the trade – as journalists, publishers of wine and food magazines or as exhibitors. I will not name the restaurant we went to.

If you have read these diary entries or any of the restaurant reviews I write for magazines – or if you actually know me! – you know that I love to describe good food and that I always take notes when I am dining out in a professional capacity. I try to take notes at this meal but my descriptions for the first three dishes include things like: “too much salt” and “unfocused”. So I gave up. And then there is The Incident of the Imperious Sommelier .

The first wine offered is an entry level wine from a producer that we know well. (An entry level wine is the least expensive wine in a producer’s range.) I taste it and it is not as it should be. There are no chemical faults but the wine seems tired and dull. Since I like this producer and admire his wines I want the wine presented to our table of Italian wine writers and publishers (and one Real Paparazzo!) to show at its best.

I ask the sommelier to bring our table another bottle as the wine did not display its usual freshness. To which she replies:

“We know this producer.”

“So do we. We taste his wines frequently,” I say.

“Three of us have tried the wine,” she says. “And there is nothing wrong with it.”

“I am not saying the wine is corked. But I am saying that the wine is not as fresh as it should be.”

She straightened her spine and says haughtily: “I am a campionessa of (Something, I frankly do not remember the competition that she won because I was still amazed at her condescending tone.) And there is nothing wrong with this wine.”

“I too am a campionessa,” I said. I must confess to experiencing a certain pleasure as I watched her bite back the impulse to shriek: “No you aren’t!” (I figured: I’ve won prizes – haven’t we all?.) “I have also studied enology and worked as a sommelier,” I said. (And I have.) “I am not saying that the wine is corked. I am merely saying that this particular bottle is not showing as well as it should.”

She huffed away.

Now let us examine this little drama. I was asking her for another bottle of a wine that costs the restaurant under $7. I know this price because I know the producer and I have seen his price list. We were not asking her to rip the cork out of another bottle of 1961 Lafite or a rare vintage of Sassicaia. All she had to do was be gracious.

My first evening on the job as a sommelier (at a very chic restaurant in New York City), the head sommelier said: “Our job is to make sure that every customer leaves this restaurant with a smile on his face. Our job is theatre. The protagonist is the client. You are only a supporting player – there to make sure that everything goes well for the client.” Our restaurant’s policy when a client decided to send a wine back was to smile and remove the bottle and bring the client what he/she asked for. If we thought the wine was really in good condition, we would bring it back to the kitchen and give the cooks and wait staff a chance to taste an excellent wine. Everybody was happy.

This incident gave my Italian colleagues a chance to vent their ire at the growing Sommelier Cult in Italy.

“Sommeliers think they are wine experts,” says Otmar. “They are not!”

“They don’t realize that they are there to be wine waiters,” adds Alberto.

At many of the national and international sommelier competitions the participants are quizzed on their knowledge of wine regions, grape varieties, decanting techniques, etc. All of this information is important. However, there is another fundamental aspect of a restaurant sommelier’s job that is often ignored. A good sommelier must be able “to read” a table. He or she must be able to recognize when to offer assistance and when to shut up and serve. This requires sensitivity and grace. Both are qualities to be admired and respected.

5 March

The Castellane di Soave do Corot

I am a proud and happy Castellana di Soave. This means that I was awarded a certificate and the “key” to the town of Soave at a really swell ceremony held in courtyard of Soave castle. Castellane are selected for their active appreciation of Soave wine.

A bus load of some 50 ladies and 8 gents (spouses) arrived in Verona. Michael and I met them at the Gran Guardia and we trooped up the colossal white stone staircase to an exhibition called “Corot e l’Arte Moderna”.

We met up again at the Il Bersaglio for dinner. Leo Ramponi, the boss here, loves people, food and wine. The food is good and rib-sticking. Leo chooses every wine himself – he knows his wine cellar intimately. This ensures that a customer will get good, reliable and sincere advice. The restaurant has an olive oil list that describes the flavors and olive varieties used in each oil. He has a sprits list that includes whiskies, scotches, rums, calvados and more obscure items. Again, Leo knows them all and can help the client make an informed decision.

And guess what wine our group of Castellane is served? The same wine that created “the incident of the Imperious Sommelier in Venice (see March 2 entry in this diary). Vicentini Soave. The wine was Fresh, bright, floral with a zippy acidity.

As we are leaving we spot a Wurlizer jukebox. Buttons indicate Hocus Pocus by Focus (I had this album.), Barry White, Bryan Ferry, Vanilla Fudge, Grand Funk , Roxie Music. Wow! A blast from my past. “ The jukebox dates from the 1960’s” says Leo but the music is the last batch of records the company provided. They date from around 1975.”

6 March

Bardolino on the Lake & Abandoned at an Un-locatable Address

We get up early, take Stanley (the dog) to Peschiera where the dog sitter picks him up. Then we board a public bus to Lasize where we plan to taste Bardolino wines at the annual Banco d’Assaggio.

The bus leaves up off by the side of the highway. We check when the last return bus leaves – 7:30 p.m. We cross the road and enter the lakeside town.

“Lazize is the loveliest town on the lake,” says Michael. The sky is blue. The breeze is cool and the sun is brilliant.

I see Paola, one of the organizers, and ask if anyone from Verona will be going back to the city after tonight’s dinner.

“Oh, yes, probably,” she said eagerly, if abstractly. This should have been a clue.

I taste all of the Sparkling Chiarettos first. Chiaretto refers to a rose wine made in the Bardolino zone. Some of the labels for the Chiarettos remind me of Paris Hilton’s Bedroom (as seen on MTV). Their Hello Kitty Pink clashes with the actual color of the wine, which teeters between rose petal pink and orange.

The color is derived from the grape variety. The primary one in the Bardolino blend is Corvina. This grapes is also part of the blend of Valpolicellas and Amarones.

The Bardolino production zone, generally speaking, lies between Lake Garda (Italy’s largest lake) and the Valpolicella zone in the Veneto region. For those who may have trouble spotting the Veneto on a map of Italy – it’s the region that includes Venice.

Around Lake Garda, Sparkling Bardolino is often paired with grilled freshwater trout. It also, of course, makes a nice, fresh drink-party pour. Here are some of my notes for the sparkling Bardolinos:

Fulvio Benazzoli Chiaretto Spumante 2009 A vibrant rose-pink. Fresh. Floral nose. A crisp vibrant acidity lifts the wild berry fruit. Clean finish. After 10 minutes in the glass it is still firm and fresh.

Cantina di Castelnuovo del Garda Chiaretto Spumante Orangey-rose. Very lively color. On the palate: soft, undefined (but not unpleasant) fruit. A nice vibration on the palate. A cream soda (in a good way) undertow on the finish.

Costadoro Chiaretto Spumante An attractive orangey-pink. Fresh. An idea of mustard bursts on the middle palate. This is a surprise – to say the least. But once I identify it – it is rather nice. It livens up the soft fruit flavors (mulberry, raspberry).Satisfying finish.

Monte Oliveto Chiaretto SpumanteOrange with a rose scrim – a soft wad of fresh berry fruit held in shape by a fine net of acidity.

Villabella Chiaretto Spumante Soft but firm fruit. Appealing. A touch of dry caramel on the finish, which is not unpleasant.

Monte Saline Chiaretto Spumante This is the only wine to be made with the Champagne Method. This means that the second fermentation – the one that creates the bubbles – occurs in bottle rather than in a tank. A lovely vibrant pale orange dominates the rose petal-pink color. It is the color of a wine that could be served on the Starship Enterprise. A firm, appealing fragrance of strawberries. Very silky entry. Nice texture. Clean flavorful finish.

I then taste through the still Bardolino Chiarettos. Here are a few of my notes:

Natale Castellani 2009 Bardolino Chiaretto Nice saturation of rose. Very pleasing, nicely balanced – an elegant wine. The fruit flavors – an amalgam of raspberry, mulberry and wild berries – merge seamlessly.

F.lli Zeni Bardolino Chiaretto Vibrant pink to clear rim. A fresh yet soft nose. Round yet firm fruit. The words “a workman-like job” come to mind. This is not a bad thing. A client ordering this in a restaurant would be satisfied.

Guerrieri Rizzardi Bardolino Chiaretto Soft nose. On the palate, the firm yet easy fruit indicates that the wine can be served on its own. I can see this as a popular “drinks party” wine.

Le Fraghe Bardolino Chiaretto. Pale scrim of rose petal pink with a touch of orange. A nice mouthful of soft fruit that is surrounded by a firm, fine net of acidity. This very elegant wine has a screw cap. I hope more producers make the decision to switch to this type of closure with wines that are not intended for decades of cellaring.

Le Tende Bardolino Chiaretto A fine, elegant mouthful. An appealing wine.

Monte del Fra Bardolino Chiaretto Pale. An obvious softness on the nose. Soft, round, easy. I really need not say more.

Michael and I take a break from tasting and stroll along the promenade by the lake. I conclude that every tasting should have an intermission like this.

We return and taste some 2009 Bardolinos. I will be tasting some of these wines again in April and prefer to wait until then to describe them.

Lunch at Taverna da Oreste, right by the harbor. We sit at a table with Maria Grazia (a blogger who turns up frequently in these diaries. She says to find her blog you must type in soavamente wine blog in Google Search.) and her beau Mario. The food is well prepared – lake fish and polenta. We finish with a crisp lemon sorbet.

Since I have been up since 6 a.m. and have finished the my tasting assignments – I ask Angelo, the main organizer of the event, if I can go directly to the venue for the reception-dinner planned for the evening – a health center cum luxury hotel- Principe di Lazise. Swimming pool, steam bath, meditation rooms, tisans, all of these sound good to me. He agrees.

Mario kindly volunteers to take us there. He sets the GPS for the address of the Spa and is told that it does not exist. He punches in a more general request for the road and off we go. The massive hotel spa is set in the middle of a beautiful but isolated (by my city criteria) area. Very relaxing. The staff is friendly and just attentive enough. Excellent facilities.

7:30 p.m. – the departure time of the last bus ticks away. The aperitif hour (that lasts for nearly 2 and a half hours) begins. It is all very jolly – journalists and consorzio members all stripped to their swimsuits and padding around in bathrobes and flip flops.

The president of the consortium, holding a glass of wine and flanked by two girls in bikinis, sits on a ledge in the swimming pool. Bubbles from the hydro-massage froth around him. A journalist in swim trunks stands in the water, points a video camera at the president and conducts an interview. A genuine You-Tube moment. Very nice.

A tip for party organizers: Once 50 journalists have removed their clothes they become very difficult to herd.

Paola breezes in after 8 p.m.. “Who are we going home with,” I ask.

“Oh, no one,” she replies blythely. “You will just have to stay here.”

I stand rooted to the spot. Inside I am shrieking: Why didn’t she tell us this two hours ago when we still had a chance to organize another way out of this, according to the GPS, un-locatable place?

She senses my dismay and says: “Lucia (of the Soave Consortium) is coming later. See if you can go back with her. Otherwise, I just don’t know.” With that she wanders away.

We see Lucia. I ask her if she will take us to Verona (she lives in the city). “No.” she says. I feel like I have been hit in the stomach. “There is not much room in the car,” she explains.

Her friend (and owner of the car) says: “Do you have any baggage?”

“No,” I wail. “We only wanted to come for the day.”

“Well, in that case, you can squeeze in the back. It’ll be tight but we can manage.”

Hip Hip Hip Hooray Oh Frabjous Day Calloo Calai

We go up to dinner. The chef has reconstructed one of the local Veronese specialties: Bollito Misto. This dish consists of various boiled meats – tongue, beef, chicken, sausage, etc. In restaurants the meat is wheeled to the table on a serving trolley so that the client can select from among them.

“The problem with this,” says Leandro Lupi, the chef. “Is that the meat is cooked to perfection when the trolley is first prepared but as the evening wears on the meat loses its succulence and flavor.” His solution is to layer thin slices of the various meats in a timbale and boil them. The meat indeed is indeed superb. He serves it with a tiny dollop of mustard ice cream on the side.

12 March

Medieval cookies with Recioto di Soave

We attend a press conference-tasting at the Loggia di Fra Giocono in Piazza dei Signori in Verona. Our pal Lorenzo has been studying ancient recipes and after years of trial and error has created a cookie that is ideal for serving with Recioto di Soave (www.svevi.it), the sweet wine made from passito grapes in the Soave zone. The principal ingredients in the cookies are almond paste and rose essence. Very nice.

We then taste through Recioto di Soaves. Of the many attractive wine these are the ones I found particularly intriguing.
2003 Villa Erbice. Like grape juice infused with a bracing acidity.

2007 Vicentini A vibrancy on the palate. A rounded citrus note. The fruit linger on the finish.

2006 Gini A fresh citrusy acidity lifts the elegant (pineapple-tinged) fruit.

19 March

1995 Brunello – yum.

I spend the morning trying to organize my wines. I come across a 1995 Brunello di Montalcino “La Casa” from Tenuta Caparzo. Bright soft, plum color. Fresh on the nose and palate. Ideas of very ripe plums that again show firmly and appealingly on both nose and palate. A fine evolving finish.

20 through 29 March

A series of trips hither and thither

We visit Juliet’s castle in the province of Vicenza.

“Boy, those Veronese were sharp. They staked their claim to Juliet before we did even though Vicenza has a stronger tie with the story,” said a wine producer from Vicenza. But then practically everyone from Vicenza says the same thing.

How did this castle come to be dubbed “Juliet’s”? Well an Italian gentleman (Luigi Da Porto, I believe) wrote an epic tale inspired by a local story that mentioned the castle. In fact, citizens of Vicenza say he wrote at least a part of it while staying at the castle. The work was then read by William Shakespeare who transformed it into Romeo and Juliet.