Out of Balance

Is it me, or was that kind of a nasty summer? I’ve been trying to keep a positive mind but then circumstances seem to conspire and throw everything out of whack – either personal or some wider social context. Between notable deaths, ongoing wars, economic anxiety, that tea-bagging/town hall silliness and a host of other issues, it’s enough to make you want to cocoon up and not leave the house.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of shit throws me way off-balance. It’s even affected the way I taste wine, which feels weird to say, but why not? It is my livelihood after all, therefore important.

This latest round of frustration comes via Italy, where two letter bombs were thrown at a crowd of young people gathered outside a gay bar just up from the Coliseum. There’s a report in English here. As Towleroad observes, there’s been a string of anti-gay/homophobic attacks in Italy recently; beyond the letter bombs, there was an arson attack on Rome’s popular gay club Muccassassina (the club was closed at the time), a stabbing outside of Rome’s summertime gay festival and an assault in Naples. Not that the US is a shining example, but Italy has a nasty case of homophobia and this news doesn’t help. A bright spot: The attacks have been widely condemned, and there have been public protests.

Here’s a report (in Italian) following the bomb attacks in Rome (via Towleroad):

I’m reminded of the terrible incident earlier this summer in Israel when a gunman attacked a gay and lesbian youth center in Tel Aviv, not far from where some friends of mine live. I didn’t see much coverage of the attack in the American news (why doesn’t that surprise me?) but the BBC has good coverage, including reports of subsequent protests, here.

I know, nothing to do with wine. But then again, we’re talking about being out of balance, and that has everything to do with wine.

Of course, it’s tempting to just say to hell with it all, turn to the bottle and drink up.

Grumble, grumble.

Onward into the Fall, may better times lie ahead.

VinItaly 2009: Some Impressions

There’s a new post up at Wine & Spirits with some of my impressions from the recent wine fairs in Verona, including VinItaly and Vini Veri. It’s a q&a format although how I managed to squeeze in time to answer everything during a recent marathon tasting of Italian wine in New York is beyond me. Anyway, one of the things that struck me most during this past trip to Verona is that the region in early April is a lot like the Edinburgh during the Festival and Fringe, which I had a chance to experience during my university days at St. Andrews (just up the coast from Edinburgh).

The Festival was once a singular theater/opera event happening every year in August; over time a festival Fringe developed that has since become larger than the original Festival. The net result is a massive cultural happening — mostly theater but really every kind of performance, including music, film and even bagpipes — that takes over the entire city for two weeks at the end of summer.

Verona is now sort of a vinous equivalent, with the natural wine fairs Vini Veri (which was greatly expanded this year) and Vin Natur, as well as Summa, which happens about 90 minutes outside of town in Alto Adige. A busy time to be sure, but also an amazing opportunity to taste some incredible wine and talk directly with producers, making it well worth the effort to get there.

(Click here to read the post at Wine & Spirits.)

Amarofest in Verona

One of the great things about VinItaly is that producers often have a little something special at their stands beyond the latest vintage. Sometimes there are older wines, other times it’s a full-service lunch (which is most welcome). And for some producers, the secret stash includes an exotic amaro.

I love amaro: From the power of Fernet Branca to the herbal complexities of Braulio, it’s obvious that I’m a fan. And Italy’s full of the stuff, most of which isn’t available in the US (nor the rest of Europe or the various Italian provinces), so on recent trips I’ve taken to bringing a bottle or two home in my suitcase.

(I rationalize this from a practical standpoint based on the simple fact that a bottle of amaro last much longer than a bottle of wine, hence it’s worth the effort to schlep it home.)

Here’s one of Italy’s great amari, available only from where it’s made at Abbazia di Novacella in the far north of Italy, just near the Austrian border.


Kloster Bitter is made from the cones of tiny Alpine pines that have been macerated in a neutral spirit and then distilled. Unlike most amari it’s neither colored nor sweetened, and so it feels lighter in texture. As you can see, too, it’s awfully pretty in the glass. I bought a bottle last November at the winery; that’s nearly finished and happily I picked up a new one on this last trip.

Another find was the Dolce Amaro, made from an infusion of 12 herbs and then sweetened with honey, all from the island of Favignana (part of the Isole Egadi), north of Sicily. It’s a side project at Statti, based on a recipe developed by Dr. Umberto Rizza. Wild suff, with pungent aromas of thyme and camomile, and a lasting peppermint flavor that totally cleared the jetlag out from my sinuses. Perhaps a little harsh to drink, it could have benefited from an ice cube.


*Note: For a primer on various Italian amari, check out this article I wrote last year for the SF Chronicle.

*Double Note: Jon Bonné, with whom I nearly killed off my last bottle of Kloster Bitter, suggested that we start a Twitter campaign to get the stuff imported to the US. Abbazia di Novacella is brought in by Vias Imports, so hopefully they’re reading this.

Pic Post: VinItaly, ViniVeri & Verona

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or at least a glass or two of wine…

Tuscan pavillion

Above: An aerial shot of the Tuscan pavilion, always one of the most busy — and ostentatious — at VinItaly.

le presi 2009 t shirt

Above: Brunello producer Le Presi makes a new t-shirt each year for the fair. This year, the theme capitalized on Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes, we can!”, modified to reflect the traditionalist approach in Montalcino. Note the card referencing, well, female admirers. It’s common at winery stands during VinItaly to employ models in swimsuits to promote wine; I chose to think of this note as a comment on that behavior at the fair, though for all I knew, these guys were serious.

(Check out last year’s t-shirt here.)


A much needed refreshment following the Vini Veri tasting. Glassware by this point was difficult to come by, but the pinot gris was tasty all the same!


Natural wines: A blurry photo, but two delicious Italian wines not so widely available in the US.


Somehow I got my hands on a magnum of the excellent 2006 Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Cos, which we drank at dinner after a long afternoon at Vini Veri. Delicious!

waiting for campari spritz

Waiting for our round of Campari spritz the morning after several days at VinItaly and Vini Veri. The spritz — usually with Campari or Aperol mixed with soda — was everywhere in Verona this year, and it proved to be a reliable pick-me-up when fatigue set in.

banks of the adige

From the banks of the Adige in Verona: “Irene ti amo”

Whoever she is…

Too Many Vs

VinItaly+ViniVeri+VinNatur = VVV, wasn’t that a Vin Diesel movie?

Take this as an out of office message of sorts because I leave tomorrow for Verona (another V), and the chaos that awaits me there. If you’re a wino and looking for ways to kill time online, the I suggest spending a while checking out Peter Liem’s new Champagne MegaSite. It rules!

Oh, I’m also in the Twitterverse and so if you *really* have nothing else to do and want to kill some time, I’m more likely to post there than here for the next several days. 140 characters has its advantages after all. Follow me here (I’m @spume).

A presto!

Wine Blogging Wednesday: Piemonte

(For background on Wine Blogging Wednesday, hosted this time by David McDuff, go here)

I’ve not done one of these before but since it’s about a quarter to midnight on the west coast–and thus just under deadline–what the hell? At the moment I’ve got a raging fire to my left and a glass of riesling in my hand. But this post isn’t about that wine, but instead the 1999 Barolo Massara from Castello di Verduno, a traditionally-minded producer located in the commune of Verduno at the northern end of the Barolo appellation, just before the Langhe hills stop at the Tanaro river.

Massara is a relatively young cru of nebbiolo, planted in the late 80s and early 90s in calcareous sand and limestone laden clay common to this Barolo subregion. Nebbiolo from here is often more approachable at an earlier age than say, Serralunga or Monforte, although we’re not talking about lightly structured wines. This is drinking well now, and you can get it for the relatively inexpensive price of around $40 at Arlequin Wine Merchant in San Francisco (about the only place in the US to carry this wine, or at least this vintage).

massara(Silly me, that’s the label for the ’01 vintage…)

Anyway, a tasting note: Aromatic, with notes of dried rose and cherry, this feels fine and elegant on the palate, with a lasting stony quality. It finishes bright and firm, the structure there for another 4 or 5 years in the cellar. Although it kicked ass with fresh potato gnocchi (gotta love my new potato ricer) topped with a wild mushroom ragù. Yum.

Arlequin has more of this by the way…



(Above: The Catinaccio, or Rosengarten, dolomite formation rises beyond a narrow valley that runs northeast from Bolzano in the Alto Adige. It takes its name from the pink color of the rocks during sunset.)

Back from a lovely trip to Italy’s Alto Adige region where, besides developing an (un)healthy addiction to speck and knödel — canerderli in Italian, a flavorful bread dumpling — I managed to meet at least one Italian speaking Wolfgang a day. Perhaps I’ve found my spiritual home?

Renowned for both precise, minerally intense white wines and a range of reds that runs from light (schiava/vernatsch) to elegant (pinot nero) to inky and grippy (lagrein), Alto Adige is easily one of Italy’s more compelling wine regions. I’ll be writing more about the region’s wines soon at Wine & Spirits; for now, Jordan Mackay has a thoughtful article at Chow.com where he makes the case that Alto Adige, for all of its diversity, is the greatest white wine region in the world. Talk amongst yourselves.

More on music and wine. A subject I love. Eric Asimov profiled violinist David Chan in his NY Times column yesterday, which turned into a small discussion about the appreciation of wine and music and where the two overlap from both a philosophical and sensory perspective.

But the real meat of the piece, I feel, is Chan’s observation that great music, preserved and ‘weeded out’ over 100 or more years, is like terroir. I won’t claim to possess a great knowledge of Western classical music, but there’s some sense to this idea — especially when you consider that the notion of terroir is rather difficult to define in words.

From the article:

Mr. Chan sees parallels between music and terroir: “Music that has lasted 100, 200, 300 years, there’s a reason for it. Mostly, we’ve weeded out the music that isn’t worthy. But there’s more: they bring pleasure, they make you think about it, and they bear the stamp of the composer.”

Great composers are like great vineyards, he says. Both require a particular sort of selflessness to bring them to life. “If you seek to only be yourself, that’s what you get, but if you seek to faithfully bring the composer to life, that will happen, and your personality will enter the picture because you’re performing the task,” he said. “I think the same thing happens in wine. If you try to faithfully capture the terroir, inevitably you enter the picture, whereas if you’re not careful, it results in a house style.”

Bumper Sticker Brunello

The other day a colleague of mine expressed his surprise to me when I mentioned that there had been, and continues to be, a scandal of sorts in Montalcino. I meant to get back to him on the subject but owing to the most current and vicious deadline of our publishing cycle, I totally forgot. Fortunately now I don’t have to, because my fellow italophile Jeremy Parzen has given an excellent summary over at the always enjoyable Do Bianchi. And not just a summary, mind you, but an engaging account rooted in the fresh perspective of an inquisitive and concerned americano who loves that whole Italian wine thing.

My favorite part of the post, what I feel people should take away:

Now, more than ever, Brunello and the folks who live in Montalcino — and especially the honest producers of Brunello, traditional and modernist alike — need our support. As summer comes to an end, get out that BBQ one more time, grill up a mean piece of meat, and decant that Sangiovese.


So thanks, Dr. J, now I can just forward a link to my colleague and be done with it. And then fire up the gril and bust out that decanter…

Remembering Genoa

(Above: The heavy boots of the Italian military police. Image courtesy of Indymedia)

Yesterday marked a grim anniversary of sorts. Seven years ago on July 21, during the tumultuous G8 conference hosted by Italy in the Ligurian city of Genoa, Italian riot police stormed the Diaz Petrini school which had been officially designated a housing center for visiting activists, independent journalists and various protesters. Somewhere between 150 and 200 carabinieri, clad in body armor and carrying night sticks and shields, thrashed the unarmed people inside the school, most of whom were either already in their sleeping bags or preparing for bed. Dozens and dozens of people were seriously injured and then hauled off to prison.

Those arrested were later released for lack of charges, and an inquiry into the raid was launched. On July 14 of this year, fifteen police officers, guards and medics were convicted for their roles in the violence. Although as this shocking article in the UK’s Guardian points out, none of them are likely to ever go to prison due to Italy’s complicated appeals system.

Also unresolved–and it will likely remain this way–is who directed the brutal police response (One of Silvio Berlusconi’s cronies and cabinet ministers, Gianfranco Fini, the leader of Italy’s right-wing National Alliance, was allegedly at police headquarters that night). Tellingly, evidence the police claimed justified the raid was later declared false; other evidence reported confiscated during the raid was found to have been planted at the scene; it has subsequently been ‘mislaid’.

(Go here for some of the Guardian’s coverage of the violent riots and damage to Genoa during the G8 summit)

(Click here to read Nick Davies’ article about the legacy of the Diaz Petrini raid)

This all comes to mind after reading Jeremy Parzen’s posts over at Do Bianchi and VinoWire about a recent political comic parodying remarks made by once-again prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at a recent farmers’ union conference:

“I am proud of having gathered together a splendid team of young ministers,” Berlusconi told the group of commercial farmers on Friday. “But an old man’s experience was also needed. I can be compared to Brunello di Montalcino, which, as you know, gets better with age.”

A lot of room for improvement, clearly (Fini is currently the president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies). Of course as we all know, nothing in Italy (nor elsewhere for that matter) is ever quite what it seems, even the Brunello.

You would think that state sanctioned brutality, whether explicit or implicit, is something we’d move beyond in the West in the 21st century. But as the events in Genoa in 2001 demonstrate–and, perhaps much more damning–the actions of the United States during this decade, from wiretapping and domestic spying to extraordinary rendition and sanctioned torture, we’re clearly still stuck hard to a violent and brutal past.

Side note:

Below, the list of world leaders in attendance at the 2001 G8 in Genoa. It’s quite the cast of characters…

Pigato & Pesto, or, The Future of Our Past

(Above: an Italian poster for Elio Petri’s 1965 film, “La Decima Vittima”, or “The 10th Victim”)

I love Saturdays. Even in the middle of a crazy busy deadline period (and a trip to Seattle early this week for the second installment of Wine & Spirits’ Hot Picks event), there’s just something magical about Saturday. It helped, too, that this particular Saturday in San Francisco was the fishtail end of an extraordinary heat wave–the sun was hot but a cool wind blew gently from the Pacific, suggesting that SF’s famous fog was on its way to relieve the sweltering city.

I took a break from work and headed over to our neighborhood wine store with Simon, where, feeling somewhat inspired by Terry Hughes’ Friday post on what to drink with dinner, as well as Simon’s declaration that he was making fresh pesto, I picked up a bottle of 2006 Pigato from Bisson. As with its well-known sibling vermentino, pigato grows in Liguria, especially in the area around Imperia in western Liguria near the French border. Dry and full, it’s a wine that tastes a kind of salty and herbal–in other words, it’s not too far off from the flavors of fresh pesto. Little surprise, really, when you consider that Liguria produces excellent olive oil and pungent, flavorful basil. Anyway, together, pigato and pesto rock. Bisson’s version, an IGT Colline del Genovesato Bianco, is aromatic and savory, with a fine minerally acidity. Delicious.

To make the night even more Italian, we watched Elio Petri’s culty B-movie classic, “La Decima Vittima” starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress. It’s a great film, totally entertaining and rather biting with its satirical look at western society’s love of violence (and violence in love?). And, as a look at the ‘future’ as seen from the past, it’s a lovely example of “the future of our past.”* I found an article with a summary and brief analysis of the film by Paul Di Filippo on SciFi Weekly. Here’s his description of the opening sequence:

New York City, sometime in the near future: Across a construction site, a fashionably clad woman is being chased by an Asian man who fires wild pistol shots at her. Remarkably, no bystander or policeman intervenes. For as a thin, feverish spokesman tells us, these two are engaged in the “Big Hunt,” a socially sanctioned killing game. Every participant must alternate as either Victim or Hunter, and rare is the person who makes 10 kills, thus becoming an honored “decathlete.” The woman Victim lures the would-be killer into the Masoch Club, then disappears. Cut to Caroline Meredith (Andress), busy doing a strip-tease-cum-audience-flagellation act. Lulled by the sexy atmosphere, the killer relaxes—at which point, Meredith—Victim gaining the upper hand—nails him with twin guns concealed in her bra.

Behold, the genesis of the Fembots in “Austin Powers”!

*as said by Simon once we’d watched the movie and finished both the pesto and the pigato.