No spring tasting trip is complete without a meal at Dal Pescatore, one of the greatest restaurants of Italy. I’ve eaten at all of Italy’s Michelin 3-star restaurants (there’s only 4 or 5, sheesh) and this one is hands-down my favorite. It is possibly my favorite place to eat in the world – not only for the amazing cuisine, but the care and graciousness of the staff and family. The old maxim about great service making your meal taste even better is, in my experience, true. I’ve written about the importance of the general mood and tenor of a restaurant’s staff, and what I wrote about Casa Bleve applies here doubly. There is a sense of joy and pride here that I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere. What happens when you take otherworldly food and combine it with great and caring service? Your taste buds are off-planet, definitely.
One of my favorite producers in Barolo is Giuseppe Rinaldi; he's traditional to the point of reactionary, is smart as hell and loves to talk about everything except his wine. Much better to start a conversation about jazz or old cameras - those hold his interest. But wine - he shrugs his shoulders a bit and mumbles "eh" ... "just taste it; what's in the glass tells far more than I could say." Maria-Theresa Mascarello is his cousin and they constitute a historical memory of Barolo: in a way, they help keep everyone else honest and not forget how far they have all come. Beppe's nickname is "Citrico" for good reason ... he does not suffer fools gladly, if at all.
Pic above: Beppe next to reproduction of one of Bartolo's original hand-colored labels; possibly these guys are not fans of the current Prime Minister?
There are LOADS of sucky wine sites and LOADS of sucky wine blogs, but I have to give the cake to decanter.com. I subscribe to the decanter news feed, a daily email of wine news, and it is impossible to read anything here - the site is overwhelmingly busy, each part clamoring for attention, lots of moving ads and a popup for the print subscription that pops up every time no matter how many times you have clicked the "don't show again" button.
Congratulations, decanter.com, for your success in having the most obnoxious, poorly designed and frankly illegible site. Your race to the bottom shows you have no peers in lack of design couth and you stand alone at the bottom of the heap - or bottom of the page, if you will.
Funny, I subscribe to the print edition and like it, even if it does have a sort of upper-crust snootiness to the writing and editing voice. The articles tend to be well-researched and extensive, and the "travel supplements" are really useful. So the problem is not the writing, per se. I just opened another decanter email with an interesting-looking article on Michel Bettane's opinion (he's a favorite French wine critic and responsible, along with his editorial partner Thierry Desseauve, for making "La Revue du Vin de France" such a great publication until 2004) on the 2009 Sauternes, took one look at the page that popped up, and said "enough."
My solution? Readability. Putting this link in your browser bar and clicking it while at a particularly obnoxious site strips out all the ads, popups and most of the clutter. A Godsend! (Thanks to David Pogue of the NYTimes for pointing this out!)
Friday morning dawns foggy and rainy. We meet for a quick breakfast, then off to Tiefenbrunner in a sprinkling rain. This is an estate I’ve wanted to visit for ages; I’ve really enjoyed their wines (and sold them at both my restaurant and wine store). This producer is a negociant: some of the vines are estate, the balance are growers who have long-term contracts with the Tiefenbrunner family. This allows them to better control what goes where, and how it is farmed. Keeping track of a few hundred vineyard sites is no easy task. As with most wineries here, the products are divided into three lines: Classic, Castel Turmhof, and Linticlarus, the top line.
The hamlet of Entiklar, about two klicks from Kurtasch/Cortaccio, is tiny – a few dozen houses huddled together about a hundred feet above the valley floor on the side of the alluvial fan. Castel Turmhof is the name of the old “castle” – really it is a big fortified farmhouse, charming as hell on a rainy day. Cristof Tiefenbrunner greets us as we arrive. We take a quick tour through the ageing cellars and winery. There have been experiments with rotofermentors, but most fermentation seems to be done in upright tanks, some with automatic punch-pown hydraulics built right into the apparatus. It all looks very sci-fi from a 1950’s movie – in a good way. And as we shall see, this winery has an amazing little bit of history that was very sci-fi when first brought online.
Bolzano – Bozen in German – is a different world from the rest of Italy. The principal language is German, the surrounding terrain alpine, the cooking a mélange of Italian and Germanic influences, the people reserved. The region, Alto Adige or Südtirol, has been tossed back and forth between empires and countries before settling – a tad uncomfortably - into Italy after the First World War. For me, the Germanic vibe makes me feel instantly at home: it has a familiar rhythm and the language was my second, from going through first and second grade in Switzerland. We have left pasta country! (Pasta here is practically inedible after the glories of the past week – though still better than in the US. In the Alto Adige, knödel or spatzle are the side of choice.)
A note about wineries in the Alto Adige (also called the Südtirol). White wines rule, though reds are gaining in importance. Aromatic whites are the best known of the region, led by Gewurztraminer, which takes its name from the village of Tramin, about 20km south of Bolzano. Typically, a winery will have a lot of different selections: up to 25 or 30 in some cases. Most production (70%) is operated by village cooperatives, then negociant houses (25%); only 5% of the production is by small grower-producers. Quality is generally high: the co-ops are, for the most part, well-run and put out big quantities of admirably high-quality product. Many larger producers organize their wines into three tiers of quality. At some wineries we taste 25 wines – so only the standouts are mentioned.
Got home last night to Denver before the spring snow hit - when I woke this morning there was an inch of fresh snow on the ground. 23 hours awake! I left Monforte at 6.30, drove to Torino, caught a flight for Frankfurt, then direct back to Denver (almost 10 hours, ugh), arriving late afternoon. I made it up to 10pm that night!
I thought I would grab a burger at Jax next door before heading to bed, but I wasn't hungry enough to make it out the door - besides, I would have probably pitched face-down asleep in the fries. The Jax burger, by the way, is excellent (I would never have guessed given that they are a fish place). When I get back from Europe, I usually have cravings for burgers, Tex-Mex and sushi. This time is no different.
It is good to be home.
There's something about the first day back, though. Completely disorienting. Something about part of your being still far away - Amie once described it as "the molecules not catching up," which somehow describes it perfectly for me. My body thinks it is still in Italy, time-wise, and when I woke up this morning, the Union Station neon glowing red through the snow, i was discombobulated and completely confused. "Where am I?" ... always a good question! (Especially for a philosophy major, ha!)
There's a slight sense of panic waking up that first morning in the pre-dawn light and not having any idea where you are ... kinda like after a night out in college. I realize that I'm home, my cozy apartment, 4 floors up, the snow is gently falling, the city feels muffled, as if noise can't travel through the soft, wet falling snow. Up and at 'em! There's laundry to do, unpacking, bills to pay, and my girlfriend is coming up from Manitou to visit tonight. We'll eat at Twelve, one of my favorite places in Denver. More later.
Leaving Verona is always sad. It’s a city I love, visit as often as I can, and I wish I could spend more time in it. Onward and upward.
We head directly east on the awful A4 autostrada to the town of San Bonifacio in the Soave zone for a visit with Stefano Inama, arguably the most entertaining and interesting character I know in the Italian wine business. He’s deeply smart, entrepreneurial and committed to making a great bottle of wine from a long-underappreciated wine region. Stefano is a no-bullshit guy – everything is directed at making the best possible wine from what he has at hand. His winery is a brutally efficient piece of machinery made for one thing only – making high-quality wine. There is no pretty barrel room, no vaulted tasting room – only rows of gleaming tanks, impossibly clean, and rows of barrels in an open temperature-controlled warehouse, so as to make cleaning, racking and topping off as easy and efficient as possible.
“All these wineries building beautiful structures, renovating, making an “architectural statement,” paving the cellar with hand-cut Tuscan marble,” he says. “Does this really make the wine better?” Good question. Ostensibly, how can it? The truth is in the bottle.
Up and at ‘em early as we have an hour to drive to Breganze. Fausto Maculan’s winery is always a highlight on the trip as the winery is both nice-looking and a very efficient workplace, and the wines are delicious. Angela, Fausto’s daughter, takes us through the winery – Fausto’s remote-controlled hydraulic punchdown machine is the usual hit, and cellar is gorgeous – the off to the offices for a tasting. One of my favorite white wines in the world is his Vespaiolo, made from the grape of the same name. It is an amazing honeyed blend of citrus, flowers and ripe fruits wrapped around a core of melons and honeysuckle – balanced by incredibly refreshing acidity. I buy a case to leave at my apartment here. Also excellent this year is the Altura, a barrique-aged Pinot Noir, Crosara (100% Merlot, and I love it, go figure), Fratta (Cab-Merlot blend), all the sweet wine offerings, the Pino & Toi, the Ferrata (Sauvignon Blanc). The only one I don’t completely love is the Costadolio, a rosé of Merlot, which has a touch of that grape’s green pepper and not enough bright strawberry to make me love it completely. A great visit!
Day 1 of tasting. (In the interest of clarity and brevity, I only mention the highlights of our tastings. If you’re curious about other wines, drop a note in the comments section at the end of the post.)
Our usual stops on day 1 are with Valpolicella producers. First stop is Allegrini, in the town of Fumane, where Christian takes us up the hill to the La Poja vineyard – gorgeous in the swirling clouds coming off Lago di Garda – and then down to the “Palazzo della Torre” property where the family is busy restoring the historic property. La Poja is a unique wine – it is made from Corvina, the same grape as Amarone, partly dried (raisined) and then fermented to full dryness (despite its name, Amarone usually contains a bit of residual sugar). The La Poja vineyard was carved out of the top of a hill, and has incredible sun and air – the grapes stay healthy, get plenty of breezes to combat rot and help cool them down at night, and are harvested at incredible levels of ripeness. The La Grola vineyard is just below this and only slightly less well-exposed. At less than half the cost of a bottle of La Poja, the La Grola bottling is an incredible value. We taste through the lineup back at the winery with Christian – standouts are the La Grola, La Poja and the Recioto, and amazing and balanced red dessert wine. Overall, I consider Allegrini to be a modern winery – they vinify for bright fruit, relatively low acid, and are not shy about the use of new French barrels – and this visit confirms this opinion. The wines are uniformly delicious and drinkable.
I arrive in Torino on Thursday afternoon, grab the luggage and rent a car, and head down to Barolo. As I head south from the city, the clear weather over the alps (great views from the airplane) becomes overcast and hazy. From Alba on the haze is so thick I can’t make out the hills from the main road. I get to my apartment, unpack and repack for the next 10 days, clean up a bit, refamiliarize myself with the space … good to be back. I have an indifferent meal and a few good glasses of wine at the only open restaurant I can find (La Salita) and head to bed.
Friday morning – I awake to white. It started snowing in the night and there are 15 cm fresh snow on the ground. I hustle to get out before the steep roads become impassable. The town of Barolo, usually an easy 10-minute drive, is now a hair-raising 25-minute sliding odyssey. But I make it! I stop at the Sandrone Winery to say hello and head for Verona.