The Lovers

The Lovers

will drink wine night and day.

They will drink until they can

tear away the veils of intellect and

melt away the layers of shame and modesty.

When in Love,

body, mind, heart and soul don’t exist.

Become this,

fall in Love, and you will not be separated again.

-Rumi

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Locking

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“One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize that there are six seasons instead of four.  The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time.  I mean, spring doesn’t feel like spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for autumn, and so on.  Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June.  What could be springier than May and June?  Summer is July and August.  Really hot, right?  Autumn is September and October.  See the pumpkins?  Smell those burning leaves?  Next comes the season called Locking.  That is when nature shuts everything down.  November and December aren’t winter.  They’re Locking.  Next comes winter, January and February.  Boy!  Are they ever cold!  What comes next?  Not spring.  ‘Unlocking’ comes next.  What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be?  March and April are not spring.  They are Unlocking.”

-from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1978 Freedonia State University speech, “How Jokes Work”

My grandfather, who was born and raised in the Albany area, always had a terribly optimistic line for not-so-fun situations.  Like, while scraping ice of his Oldsmobile windshield on skin-crackingly bitter cold days, he’d declare, Oh, the joys of living in the great northeast!  My mom likes to say that he had a lot of regional pride.

It’s been a little dismal here in the great northeast with short days, naked trees, and a chill that works its way to the center of your bones.  Clearly, we’re in the midst of the season of Locking.

On shivery days, I just want to fill my world with coziness.  Chili and Chinon, I say!

At least this new(ly named) season is less sticky than the one they dreamed up in Bartholomew and the Oobleck.  Ewww!

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Anyhow, below are some of my wine-drinking adventures during this first month of Locking.  They’re all pretty cheerful.

If you’re looking for some Thanksgiving wine inspiration, Eric Asimov pretty much says it all (and says it best), here.  “As far as wine goes, turkey is like a big, friendly pooch; it pretty much cozies up to anything you serve.”.

Happy Day!  Gobble, Gobble!

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“Pink” Pinot Grigio from Pullus in Slovenia.  Frizzante.  Copper-colored from skin contact- as it should be.

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Croci’s Gutturnio.  Emilia-Romagna.  Barbera & bonarda.  Frizzante.  Deep & refreshing.

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Valdigue from Hobo Wine Company in Redwood Valley.  California’s Gamay.

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Petite Rouge from Anselmet in Villenueve, Valle d’Aosta.  Light, pretty, sub-Alpine stink.

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Gamay from the village of Brouilly.  Chateau des Tours.

Empty Boxes

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Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is one of the most beautiful stories ever written.  Subtly and sweetly offering lessons on how to take care of your planet and your flower and your volcanoes.  How not to be a ruler, how not to be a narcissist, or a self-destructive drunk.  How duties and rituals are important.  How not to chase trains going nowhere, how to find great contentment in the things we earn, how to see beyond numbers, and how we can not really own the stars (or anything else for that matter), but if we take care of and tame and love things well enough they will be so special that they become ours.  How to feel the heartbeat of a desert, how to laugh, how to make a friend.

You know, lessons in matters of importance…like how to properly draw a sheep.

In the beginning of the story, when the little prince and narrator first meet, the little prince’s first words are a request.  “If you please- draw me a sheep!”  His request soon becomes a demand and the narrator does his best to fulfill it.

He comes up with several versions.  None are what the little prince had in mind…

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The narrator continues to try until finally he draws something and says, “This is only the box.  The sheep you asked for is inside.”

“That is exactly the way I wanted it!”  The little prince understands so many things that grownups do not.  Like how some things cannot be properly expressed through the means that we have at hand.

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Like the little prince’s sheep, the essence wine is not easily captured in a drawing, or with words, or anything of that sort.  Maybe the nearest form of the expression of a wine is music.  Both are complex, alive, multi-dimensional, folding us into layers of our mind and heart and moving us the way they do.

 As Exupery tells it, “Words are the source of misunderstandings.”  Well expressed here by John at SF Wine Blog and here by Whitney Adams for Punch, when it comes to wines, we can go to the ends of the earth to find comparisons for what we smell and taste- the cranberry, tobacco, orange peel, sandalwood, musky, smoked cardamon on the eve of winter solstice- but they don’t and can’t and never will fully describe the wine in the glass and on the palate and in the mind.

We all use them.  Especially in the wine business.  We must, but it’s challenging to do a wine justice with descriptions like these.  We will always try, but even the most naturally talented wordsmiths can sound boring/contrived/repetitive when traveling too far down this route.  Even when simply telling of a wine as we experience it.

I recognize and appreciate the importance of tasting notes.  They help us center in on and determine the home and story of a wine.  I’m not  against analyzation, but there is a time and place.  In the wrong time and place, they take away from the magic (or if it’s a boring wine, the hum drum) of the moment and connection and carefree enjoyment (and isn’t that the point?).

We cannot be blamed for attempting to capture, to hold onto with tasting notes, or whatever form of expression, the pieces we can recall of something like a wine that was  filling our world for a (wonderful clock-stopping) sliver in time.  Alas, it’s not easy to be as young and wise as the little prince.

Perhaps there are some wines that deserve their very own Taj Mahal.  But even for those, I think we will always and mostly appreciate the unwritten notes, the idea that was wine was enjoyed in the spirit of the moment, the picture in our mind of the bottle inside the empty box.

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Piemonte in June

Lately I haven’t been really great at finding words.

Words for all of the wonderful and new (and old) and tasty things that I want to tell you about.  A whole jumble of ideas in my mind that haven’t properly found their way out.

SO.  Instead of remaining silent for an even looooooonger time, here are some pictures from lately (ish).  They are part of a bunch that I took while traveling around northwest Italy during the last week of June with Vias, the company I work for.

A week of warm sunshine.  The Langhe gods were on our side.  We made it to Valle d’Aosta, Strevi, and Oltrepo Pavese too.

We were there in a moment a person can’t forget.  Among some of the greatest vineyards in the world.  Puffy shadows of clouds floated over endless hills green with summer vines.  Most wineries reported being about two weeks behind in harvest this year.  Good things come to those who wait.

Mostly away from phones and work and all that sort of stuff, I was surrounded by good old fashion conversation.  Food tasted better- tajarin! cioccolato! pomodori that melt in your mouth like candy!  Wines more fully understood in a quiet world with a quiet mind.  Such a pure place and enticingly simple life.  For a visitor, at least.

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Atrium in Torino

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Vines of Maison Anselmet in Villenueve, Valle d’Aosta.

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Mountain runoff water.  Pearly white from marl picked up on its way down the Alps.

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Giorgio Anselmet, winemaker, in the barrel room of Maison Anselmet.  Entire winery was built by Giorgio and his father, Renato.  A little bit of love and pride in every basalt tile.  You can taste it in the wines.

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Sunset over the hilltop village of La Morra.  View from Damilano winery on the border of Barolo & La Morra.

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Said border.

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Village of Barolo.

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Safe haven for dolcetto- Dogliani.  Snapped from Pecchenino Winery.

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Alba in the evening.

MORE TO COME!

Yesterday’s Gourmet

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In 1972 Italy’s appellation system was just about 10-years-old.  Wineries were beginning to bottle wines they’d been selling locally in town centers where people would fill jugs from taps and hoses.  These local specialties were in the process of becoming better and better and better.  This was the beginning of the wines of Italy that we are so fortunate to know today.

Toward the end of May I was able to spend some time with my grandmother who gave me a new old issue of Gourmet Magazine from ’72 .  This is my favorite one yet.  Among the amusing ads, dinner party plans, and refreshingly good writing was a piece by Hugh Johnson, The Wines of Italy- Part 1.  Reading through, I felt privy to a moment in time long after the land that became Italy began making wine and right around the birth of its quality wine production.

The piece begins with a point that, even with modern winemaking, I hope will always be true of most Italian wine, “Noble as their names are, and long as they have been cultivated, most of even the best Italian wines are still cottage industries.”  Though there are certainly regions and producers that are making downright good wines, part of the beauty of Italy is its diversity.  There are so many little towns and regions that are making individually special wines which fit their community and culture in specific and delicious ways.  It is not a question of whether these wines are the greatest in the world- Italian wine is so much more than that.  It is a question of if they are a soulful and enlivened expression of a variety and all that cultivates it.  It is a Schiava that is a Schiava, a Ciro that is a Ciro, an Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone that is exactly that.  They are interesting and contemplative and telling of a history of terroir, people, politics, patterns, cuisine, and all of the idiosyncrasies that follow along.

Johnson uses part one to bring his reader through the North, from west to east, making note of grapes, wines and, in some cases, producers on his path.  For example, he provides a rundown of Piemonte’s “reliable suppliers”: Fontana-Fredda, Franco Fiorina, Pio Cesare, Contratto, Bersano, Damilano, Marchese di Barolo, Borgogno.  And by hearsay: Giulio Mascarello and Francesco Rinaldi.  He says that everything about Barolo and Barbaresco is “massive”, which is an entirely apt descriptor, though I believe that the massiveness of then and the massiveness of now has probably transformed quite a bit.

 Not only are Barbera and Dolcetto mentioned as Piemonte’s other red varieties, but also Freisa and Grignolino, which we rarely hear about.  Such a shame because Grignolino is such a delightful light red; I would drink it any/every day of the week.

Johnson also mentions Spana and it’s homeland around Gattinara and Ghemme, “Though in tiny supply, is really often as good as good Barolo.”  Not to be forgotten!

Running up the road into Valtellina, Johnson talks about Sassella, Grumello, and Inferno, saying they are deep and dark and need to spend a long while in cask before even being considered ready for drinking.  They were not widely available then, and though they are not super available now, there are certainly more accessible and approachable versions of Valtellina’s chiavennasca on the market these days.  Oh how far we’ve come.

Johnson arrives in the Veneto and puts forth that Soave is “possibly Italy’s best white wine”  and that the “narrow green Soave bottle announces a thoroughly civilized experience”.  He acknowledges Valpolicella rosso’s usefulness as an everyday drinkable wine, even if a bit bitter on the finish, but cannot get down with Recioto, the “dark brown pride and joy” of the region.

In Modena, Johnson writes, “Lambrusco, the local specialty, will always remain rather a joke with me.”  I find it impossible to take fizzy red wine seriously.  THANKFULLY, after years and years of phonies, the dry, slightly tannic, palate-cleansing REAL lambrusco has made its arrival on the US market.  Its goodness cannot be denied.

There is more and more, I wish I could read it all to you; shall I?

It is in the introduction that Johnson hits the nail on the head.  That is the nail that, stubbornly, will never fully be hammered into place- the elusive enticement of Italian wine.  A beauty far better experienced and personally understood than explained.

“Can one say that any wine tastes Italian?  I think one can.  Although it seems improbable that a common thread of flavor should run through the produce of a country eight hundred miles long, and even of its offshore islands, there is something- it must be the culture of Italy expressed through one of its ancient artifacts- that Italy’s wines have in common.”

PS- Just a little song.  It’s a nice one for humming.

Schopenhaur’s Schnoz

It occasionally happens that, for no particular reason, long-forgotten scenes suddenly start up in the memory.  This may in many cases be due to the action of some hardly perceptible odour, which accompanied those scenes and now recurs exactly the same as before.  For it is well known that the sense of smell is specifically effective in awaking memories, and that in general it does not require much to rouse a train of ideas.  And I may say, in passing, that the sense of sight is connected with the understanding, the sense of hearing with the reason, and, as we see in the present case, the sense of smell with the memory.  Touch and Taste are more material and dependent upon contact.  They have no ideal side.

-Arthur Schopenhauer

We smell a smell and there it is.  The musty funky sweetness of Hawai’ian dirt, lilacs on chilly and dewy and promising Spring mornings, a hint of smoked meat and all the times and places and people we’ve enjoyed it with.  From there a “train of ideas” is roused.  I think Schopenhauer has it right about most things, including these words from his writings in Studies In Pessimism (excluding his chauvinistic way of completely overlooking womens’ intuitive, ever-capable awesomeness.  But, anyway…).

Scent is part of the way that people fall in love, how doggies get to know one another, how we can tell if a wine is sound or not.  Scent and memory are so connected.  Sometimes the connection is so powerful that I think it might be magic.  But it’s not.  It’s physics and science and amazing tangible stuff like that.  The connection is a beautiful gift that we shouldn’t, but probably usually do, take for granted.

Sight and taste of wines can be pleasing, and interesting, and can tell us many things- though it is the scent that carries us to worlds outside our present time and place.  Different people smell different things in different wines at different times.  Quite the quilt.  If you find a good wine, and if you’re paying it some attention, it can bring you on your very own sort of trip.

Sometimes when I taste a wine I get so lost in thinking about where and who it’s from, how it’s made, what it costs, where it would fit on a particular shop shelf/glass pour/ bottle list.  In the midst of trying to place a wine in a way that makes sense to me and customers, I forget to stop and pay it some mind.  To see what is going on, what it has to offer.  It doesn’t always have to make sense.  Sometimes there is not much there, sometimes it is pleasant but nothing special, and sometimes (the times that make it all worthwhile) I am moved.

It’s important to try, and important not to forget, and important to remember to sniff!

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Ancestral Spirit

I had the treat of tasting a few beautiful bottles of old nebbiolo around this time last month, thanks to the very kind (z)infidel who drowned a table full of cool folk in the riches of Burlotto and Conti Boca, the most stunning of which was Burlotto’s ’67 Barolo- one of the more complete and elegant wines of age that I have tasted in awhile.

We enjoyed some spectacular nebbiolo from the Langhe, but the lineup started out with old vintages from further north in Piedmont.  They were the ’64 Cantine Curti Spanna, the ’67 Francoli Spanna, and the ’64 Bertelleti Gattinara, Ghemme, and Spanna.  I found these wines to be pretty exciting, mostly because they are from little Piemonte appellations that have sort of been forgotten.  And as much as I love the new, the present, the fresh, I also hate to forget.  I wouldn’t say that these guys shone like the ’67 Burlotto, or some of the others, but they sure did sing their native song.  And I don’t believe we can ask for anything greater than that.

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These little regions- Ghemme, Gattinara, Sizzano, Boca, Carema were the winemaking regions back in the day of the kingdom of Savoy.  Scattered around the base of the Italian-Swiss Alps, the place is quite pure.  These were the wines of nobility before disease such as phylloxera came along in the late 1800’s and spoiled the vineyards.  Vines were replanted, but these regions never really regained their popularity.  The Langhe, a little further south, housing significant terroir such as Barolo and Barbaresco have come into their own and sort of stolen the show.

There are not a whole bunch of these guys on the market right now, but when you find them, know that they are almost always wines of excellent value.  They are made in viticultural areas with long history, old vines, deep roots, and spanna farming running through their veins.  Blending grapes such as Croatina, Vespolina, and Bonarda are usually found in these bottles as well- all sturdy varieties that could stand on their own in a respectable wine.  Tom’s Wine Line gives a nice rundown of wines and producers from these areas that can be found around the market, as well as his thoughts upon tasting them.

Source: http://allthingsd.com/20090219/the-little-engine-that-could-yahoo-paid-search-adds-video-and-pictures-trying-for-more-clicks/

As much as I love all of the wines of the Langhe, I’m rooting for these underdog regions to make a comeback in the next few decades.  It’s no easy task though.  Eric Pfanner explains in this recent piece on Northern Piedmont how difficult it is to attain even an 8 hectare plot of vineyards, or space to plant vineyards, because the land is so split up among so many landowners.  Sounds like a jungle full of paperwork and negotiations; but still, anything is possible.  If they try really hard, you know…like the little engine that could, I believe that northern Piemonte has what it takes to stun the world again.

And just because- here is someone else who belts out one hell of a native song.  With his banjo and suitcase kick-drum sort of setup, this is Morgan O’Kane, a voice from Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains.  I remember hearing or reading a description of his music as being played with ancestral spirit, which makes lots and lots of sense to me.