Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009

Vinitaly 2009 Day 3:  Giro d’Italia
Brandy Falconer

batasiolobf.jpgIn preparation for the Giro d’Italia cycling race, which starts May 9 with or without Lance Armstrong, I thought I would take my own “Tour of Italy” via the pavilions at Vinitaly today.  Already day 3 and I have only seen one third of the pavilions, so I decided to at least walk through as many as possible in order to get a closer look at how each province sees itself.   Starting in the north east of Italy, we have Trentino, whose pavilion has a fun burgundy and white wine bottle graphic exterior.  Inside the stands are like little wood ski chalets, and again I am reminded of the Matterhorn ride’s alpine decorations and costumed operators. (Yes, I will TRY to make this my last Disneyland comparison)  In the Eastern portion of the country lies Emiglia Romana, where you will find Modena, famous for Tortellini, Pavarotti, Balsamic Vinegar and of course Ferrari.   For you Lambrusco lovers out there, this is where you will find your treat.  Heading all the way south, we finally stop in Sicily’s pavilion for some tasting.  I started with a small winery that makes only three wines, Morgante.  Carmelo Morgante was kind enough to talk me through their IGT selections of Nero D’avola wines, beginning with their entry level Nero with its cranberry tartness, then on to the velvety Don Antonio.  The most interesting selection was what will be called “Zamara” which is translated to the agave plant.  I’m sure it was the power of suggestion, but this mellow Nero’s herb flavors reminded me of tequila.  A quick sip of their soft and enjoyable Grappa made from Nero with some almond cookies and I am ready to continue my journey.

I stayed in the Sicily pavilion to meet Francesca Planeta and her cousin Alessio, the winemaker for Planeta.  Though a large production label, the concept here is more artisan, with five estates and six boutique wineries that are close to the vineyards.  The results speak for themselves as the diversity of the wines produced in no way infringes on the quality and craftsmanship.  I think this is due to the fact that they are passionate about cultivating indigenous grapes with planetabf.jpgrespect to their terroir, and maintaining environmental sustainability.  Of the whites, the well-balanced chardonnay stood out for me, with its freshness and acidity owing to the malolactic fermentation in the casks rather than before going in the casks.  The Syrah rose deliciously bridged the gap from whites to reds with strawberry aromas and a nice juiciness without being the least bit sweet.  My favorite red was the Nero d’Avola Cru 2006 Santa Cecilia, which celebrates its 10th vintage this year and also won the “3 glasses” award from Gambero Rosso.  There are licorice and plum aromas, and a nice balance of acid and tannins that make this fresh wine enjoyable and drinkable.   We finished the run of 12 wines with the surprisingly fresh and acidic Passito di Noto from Moscato Bianco grapes, which I am told is varietal that dates back to the Phoenicians, and I’m wishing that I had taken a few more almond cookies from Morgante

Heading back up the front of the boot, I stop in Campania for a taste of my long lost friend, Fiagre at Antonio Caggiano.  Known for their Taurasi(s), like Macchia dei Goti DOCG, I am impressed by their whites.  The Fiagre is a wine comprised of perfumey Fiano di Avellino and the minerally Greco di Tufo.  The result is something best described as “tasty” and definitely enjoyable with and without food.

To complete my “Giro,” I will make an important stop in Piemonte to Beni di Batasiolo, another friend lost in the export shuffle.  Introduced by my friend Mike Grulli at Vinottimo, I batas_vini.jpgenjoyed their Dolcetto, Barbera(s) and Barolo(s) while in Naples, but have since lost touch.   Riccardo March, the US export manager greets me and makes introductions while buzzing from table to table.  I sit down with Paola to start tasting the whites like Serbato Chardonnay, aged in stainless steel only, and my favorite the Gavi di Gavi with its soft mineral taste and peach aromas.  We were lucky enough to be joined by the winemaker when I began to taste the reds.  I was excited to compare the Barbara d’Alba with the Barbera d’Asti and discover that I prefer the softness and fruitiness of the Alba.  We move on to the grape, which has mystified my taste buds for years, Nebbiolo, and its wines, Nebbiolo, Barolo and Barbaresco.  These wines offer more tobacco and spice flavors and tannins that stand up to complex dishes.  My favorite was the 2004 Vigneto Cerequio Barolo, made from the grapes of one of the most historical vineyards in the Barolo region.  With wild berry flavors and just a hint of tobacco, this is a well-balanced and friendly Barolo.

I am lucky to say that my virtual tour of Italy turned into a real tour of Verona as I was invited to the Batasiolo dinner that night at a wonderful restaurant in the center of the old city, “I Masenini.”  This was an incredible experience, not just because I was getting to taste these wines in their native environment (i.e. with complex dishes like Amarone risotto and slow roasted veal), but I was also able to meet and enjoy the company of a fun and vibrant group of people.  So fun in fact that we headed to a club afterwards for some dancing!  I found Club 59 in Verona to be a great alternative to the highbrow ultra lounges in Las Vegas.  This was a party, with people dancing, laughing and drinking and simply enjoying life.  I forgot about being tired and joined in, but in the back of my mind wondering how all of these people would be ready for another early morning tomorrow.  I decided that one of my hosts, Riccardo definitely has a little plutonium source somewhere in his jacket, and the others as well simply enjoy what they are doing.   And in a small way, I can understand what keeps Lance Armstrong wanting to continue to race, and to be ready to tackle the Giro d’Italia next month, it is simply the passion for living life and living it well.

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009

Day 2 at Vinitaly – The Day of Good Fortune

Brandy Falconer

vinitaly2bfa.jpgMy four-leaf clover brought me all kinds of luck today, that or the stars were aligned for this normally stressed and stubborn Aries.  Maybe it was because, instead of rushing to the expo, in the rain, straight from the house, by bus, I decided to have a proper Italian breakfast at a bar with my host, Piero.  The sun was out which meant that I got to ride on the scooter, and also meant a nice warm brioche and fabulous cappuccino.  We stood at the counter of course, as the bar is not really a place to dilly-dally, and even though the process of ordering, eating and paying only took 5 minutes, it was truly a break.  Two minutes later I was wishing I had a “helmet cam” for the drive to the expo.  We dodged in and out of stopped traffic, and as we came within centimetres of the other vehicles, all I could think of was “keep your arms and feet securely inside during the ride.” This may not have been as fast and furious as Space Mountain, but it was just as intense.

I headed to the VIP lounge to do some writing and check email, then noticed in the day’s program that there was an organized group tasting and lecture on Umbria’s gem, Sagrantino, kind of a forgotten favorite of mine since it is hard to find in the states.  I quickly finished up and headed to the lecture rooms and when I arrived, heard the receptionist telling another guest that the tasting was full.  When I approached, she suggested that I wait to see if there were any no-shows, and I did.  A few minutes later, I was asked for my card, and about Grapelive, and then was given entrance to the tasting!  A stroke of luck, because at the tasting I learned much more about the area, the characteristics of the wine, and tasting in general.  I sat with six glasses in front of me arranged on a paper mat, a full bottle of water (yeah!) and a little opaque plastic spitting cup.  There was also a beautiful folder full descriptions of each wine and notepaper and a brochure of the consortium for Sagrantino.  A panel of three gentlemen talked us through each wine, and though it was in Italian, it was understandable and enjoyable.

Afterward, I found a quiet spot and called my friends Mike and Mary Grulli of Vinottimo, who represent fine wines to the stores at overseas military bases.  I met Mike about eight years ago when I lived in Naples, and immediately learned to trust his every suggestion.  He guided me and many enthusiasts through the regions of Italy via their wine, and I was fortunate enough on a couple of occasions to have bottles signed by the winemakers because of special appearances that he had set up.  Luckily, I caught them at just the right time before a busy afternoon, and we met up at Tommasi where I was re-introduced to the owner, jovial Franco whom I remembered from a spectacular wine dinner he presented in Naples years ago.

nipozzano.gifDetermined to stay on course with appointments, we all rushed off, and I headed to Marchesi de Frescobaldi, whose estates include Pomino, Nipozzano and Castelgiocondo, and whose collaboration with Mondavi created the Luce and Lucente wines.  Mike had warned me not to get my hopes up of meeting one of the family members, and when I approached the two-story stand, which was larger than my last apartment, I could see crowds trying to get past the velvet ropes.  When I gave the receptionist my card, I caught the eye of a beautiful young woman with olive skin, green eyes and fabulously curly black hair, and it turned out that she was my contact.  Agnese had seen my photo on Grapelive and recognized me, and within seconds I was behind the velvet rope.

”Where are the flashbulbs?” I thought as I looked back at the eager crowd, looking for paparazzi.  As we headed upstairs, Agnese stopped suddenly and introduced me to Tiziana Frescobaldi!  What an honor this was for me, and another example of my good luck gone wild.  We found a table on the open deck upstairs and began tasting from the Pomino estate: Pomino Bianco (Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco), Pomino Benefizio (a Chardonnay Cru), and the Pomino Rosso (Pomino Nero and Sangiovese), which was my favorite.  While writing my notes, I wrote that I simply wanted to keep drinking this wine.  There were fresh aromas of cherry and fruit and a ruby color that continued all the way to the edges.  It was dry and tannic, but still allowed the fruity raspberry flavor to emerge, and then finish with a slight bitterness, which I liked.  vinitaly2b.jpgOn to Nipozzano estate and its namesake wine, a 2006 Chianti Rufina Riserva, then Montesodi, a 100% Sangiovese Chianti Rufina Riserva, and finally the Mormoreto, a “Super Tuscan” Bordeaux-style wine, and one I remembered bringing home from Italy and enjoying with a special occasion dinner a few years ago in Hawaii.  I think the occasion was the Kona earthquake, and since there was no power, we decided to not chance the Mormoreto going bad in the wine ‘fridge.  Uh huh.  This was my favorite of these three, with its enticing dark purple rather than ruby color, and the aroma of spices, particularly clove and red berries.  In the mouth, this wine goes through phases, the tannins, then a balance of acidity, then the full-bodied feel and then a long finish of spice.  This is a wine to drink and enjoy, and every sip will reveal something new.  Pulling away from the focus of these impressive wines, I noticed the other groups tasting and how they were talking and enjoying themselves thoroughly, like it was Saturday afternoon by the sea, not a frantic convention.  At this point, Tiziana joined us and we talked about my future visit to their estates.  I was told that this was just a preview of what I would experience there, and I cannot wait.  Worth noting is their Saltagrilli Rosato, a rosé from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon aged in stainless steel then six months in the bottle.  This is a very drinkable wine, with strawberry flavours, fresh taste and a simple finish, perfect for summer.

vinitaly2d.jpgI fought the urge to return to the sanctuary of the lounge and headed to Feudi di San Gregorio, a winery that I knew well in Naples, and that I have watched grow over the last eight years.  Alessandro welcomed me inside their stylish booth done in black and yellow, and again I could have been in any little bistro in the world.  My favorite wines in Naples and the Campania region in general are Greco di Tufo and Taurasi, and this winery excels at both.  This winery is excited about expressing the terroir of their region and the indigenous grapes.  To do this, they employ a winemaker who spent years as a local farmer in Campania, someone who knows the land, the climate and the plants that grow here.  This is a particular source of pride for them, Alessandro tells me.  After tasting their three new sparkling wines, then the entry-level Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, we moved on to their more refined cousins, two of which have been designated DOCG in recent years.  The Serrocielo Falanghina DOC had aromas of apple and caramel, and intense complex flavours that sat full and round in the mouth.  The Pietracalda Fiano di Avellino DOCG showed off this grape’s heavy perfumed aroma that reminded me of Hawaii’s tropical fruits.  The taste was round with some nice acidity and ripe guava flavours.  The award-winning Cutizzi Greco di Tufo DOCG had mellow aromas of minerals and fresh cut grass, and the taste was like chewing on a piece of mild lemongrass on a sunny day.  This is a fantastic wine with fish and a signature dish of the region, linguine with clams.

vinitaly2a.jpgMoving on to the reds, this tasting train was only gaining momentum.  We tasted the four Aglianico reds chromatically, something I had not yet done.  The 2007 Rubrato IGT was first, with its cherry, mushroom and spice aromas, ripe cherry, tobacco flavours and tannic finish.  Second was the 2005 Taurasi DOCG which had a nice velvety feel and the signature chocolate aromas and graphite on the tongue at the finish.  The 2002 Piano di Monte Vergine Taurasi Riserva DOCG was full of pepper, vanilla and smoke aromas and a cherry jam flavor with a tobacco finish, all in a velvety package.   I enjoyed the butterscotch and fresh tobacco aromas of the 2005 Serpico Irpinia Aglianico IGT, which was a very chewy wine with intense fruit and toasted almond flavors.  It was a treat to get to taste the 2005 Patrimo Merlot IGT, a dark, inky ruby color with its coffee and berry jam aromas and long fruit and spice finish.  At this point, a nice piece of Neapolitan pastiera, a traditional Easter pie reminiscent of cookie dough was offered to me, perhaps because my eyes had glazed over by this point…but what would go better with pastiera than the Privilegio Fiano dessert wine?  I don’t know, but I’m thinking water at this point.  However, this dessert wine surprised me with its refreshing acidity and intense, fresh flavors due to the grapes being shriveled inside the winery and not in the sun.  It complements the flavorful and (not too sweet) pastiera beautifully.

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009

Vinitaly 2009 Starts: Live From Verona

Brandy Falconer

9_mastro3.jpgIf Las Vegas is the “adult’s Disneyland”, then Vinitaly is the wine-lover’s Disneyland.  With cleverly created stands that look more like enticing mini bistros, some with two stories, and all decorated to represent the characteristics of the region or winery, this is definitely an e-ticket adventure.  There are no fewer than 16 exposition halls, for the wineries alone at this enormous convention centre, just 5 minutes south of Verona’s ancient arena.

As I write this, I hardly remember that it was pouring rain all day long, conveniently starting when I went to the little dry cleaners down the street to pick up my dutifully pressed shirt, and continuing as I walked the bus stop and made my way to the convention centre.  The size of the crowds matched the enormity of the expo halls, and I was grateful to have purchased and printed my ticket online before arriving.  The chaos at the entry was that wonderful, crazy Italian kind of chaos…that is better left to the Italians of past the entry, I was suddenly swept up by a crowd of police who were surrounding a well-dressed, Italian, and with the numbers of cameras flashing, I estimate this to be some government figure.  So, rather than swim against that stream, I just went along pretending that I was supposed to be there, and will see if I can recognize his face in the news later.

With 30 minutes before my first appointment, I decided to detour through another pavilion and was thrilled to see a winery that I recognized from a trip through the Veneto years ago, Guerrieri Rizzardi.  Not familiar with the proper etiquette, I simply presented myself and told the gentleman that I had visited their tasting room previously and enjoyed their wines.  Luckily he spoke English, which made the tasting experience, my first of the expo, a smooth one.  Giuseppe, a member of the family, began pouring white wines to taste.  My favorite was the 2008 Costeggiola Cru Soave Classico DOC, which has a little more chardonnay that regular soave, about 30%.  This wine was delightful, with apricot aromas, and ripe peach and almond flavours with a lingering finish.  I was already thinking about lunch, which is normal for Italian wines, as they just get better with food.

9_stand.jpgWithout progressing to the reds (I will return later), I headed over to another pavilion to find Vignalta and meet Lucio Gomiero.  After discovering that we are not only neighbors in Carmel Valley, but also business neighbors in Salinas where he farms radicchio, we got to tasting.  11 wines later, and much discussion, I was thoroughly impressed with the span and quality of their wines.  Lucio reminds me of my father, always tinkering, wondering how to make it better and even create something new.  For example, he is expecting to receive DOC classification this year for a new varietal, Manzoni, born from Pinot Bianco and Riesling.  The most surprising white I tasted was the Sirio moscato as moscato is something I tend to avoid because of the sweetness and characteristic flavor, but Lucio told me I’d be surprised..  The aroma was distinctly moscato, what else? And it reminded me of honeysuckle flowers.  Then the taste, it was an explosion, just as he said with intense flavor and a wonderful bit of tartness that kept it from being too sweet, and it wasn’t, it was absolutely dry with a long, dry finish.  Impressive.

The story of the reds is very interesting, as there are two different types of soil as a result of the volcanic activity in the area.  One is decomposed lava, and the other limestone that was pushed to the surface by volcanic pressure.  Two wines composed of Merlot and Cabernet, Arqua, and Gemola, named for their respective neighboring but different areas produced wonderfully different results.  My favorite was the 2005 Arqua composed of 65% merlot and 35% cabernet sauvignon.  Lucio describes this as “the Bodybuilder” wine, and I agree.  At 15% alcohol, it is well balanced in its abundance of acid, tannins and alcohol.  I learned that the high alkaline limestone soil creates high acid grapes, which is one reason for the difference between the two wines.  This wine, he tells me is the perfect expression of the specific terroir in the Colline Eugani, and he says it will inspiring pride.  I am a fan, and so is Gambero Rosso, as it bestowed the 3-bicchiere award on this wine last year.

We move on to dessert wines, and I am grateful for the little spittoon and the encouragement by friends in the business to learn how to use it.  I can still concentrate.  Of the three dessert wines, a late-harvest Moscato, a “Fior di Arancio” and the Moscato Nero, my favorite is the award-winning Fior di Arancio, or Orange Flower, a type of ancient moscato.  This is one of the most surprisingly interesting wines I have ever tasted.  I usually choose something like Vin Santo over sweet dessert wines, but this one I would gladly enjoy again and again.  These grapes grow in loose clusters and are actually shrivelled inside the winery, not on the vine, so the concentrated flavor is fresh and bursting, and not “cooked.”  The aroma to me is all orange blossom, and the taste is caramelised, but fresh with honey and apricot and orange peel.  This is a stunner, and I can’t stop saying “wow!”  Lucio tells me he hears that a lot and just laughs.

We have enjoyed so much time tasting that I leave the stand and make a beeline to the sandwich stand I saw on the way in.  It is like stopping at a packed Autogrill on the Italian Autostrada but I manage to get my order in for a warmed Panini of bread, ham and cheese and a much-needed bottle of water.

9_mastro.jpgMastroberardino, one of my favorite wineries in the Campania region, from when I was living in Naples, was next.  The stand was busy, but since I had an appointment, I was seated and the English-speaking assistant, Laura chatted with me over the first taste of Sannio Falanghina until the winemaker, Massimo arrived.  It is such an honor to have the opportunity to hear the winemaker talk about his wines, and this was a treat for me.  He described the next wine, the Fiano di Avellino, which is rich in minerals from Mt. Vesuvius as an “expression of the philosophy of this grape” This wine’s aroma is intensely perfumey and floral, as if it were just wafting through the air, but the taste is substantial and different with fresh grass, mineral and light fruit flavours.  We moved on to the Greco di Tufo, a favorite of mine, especially with shellfish, like linguine with whole clams.  As the director of the winery, Dario Pennino joined us, I was enjoying a fun surprise – the Lacrimarosa, or “pink tears”, a fantasy name which is a common occurrence in the south of Italy.  This rose is 100% Aglianico and complex with a perfectly dry finish.  We instantly switched the topic to Neapolitan pizza, as this wine would certainly be great with it, especially in the summer.  Onto the real Aglianico(s) we went, the bold reds of the region, which are designed to accompany the roasted lamb and complex meat dishes of the region.

The Taurasi is made by combining batches aged in toasted smaller barrels and larger raw barrels, which gives it many layers of flavors like vanilla and coffee, then rosemary and tobacco.  The aromas of tobacco and leather reminded me of the acres of tobacco drying in the summer sun that surrounded the military base where I lived in Naples.  When I told Mr. Pennino and the winemaker that I still had one bottle left of their special label “Historia” aglianico from 1997, he asked me to wait and told me he had a surprise for me.  He returned and presented their prize bottle, a 1999 Aglianico Riserva special label called “Cento Trenta” or one hundred thirty, to mark the 130th year of export of the wines.

The three progenitors of Mastroberardino grace the label, and I was given the story of Angelo’s travels through South America at the turn-of-the-century and the correspondence between him and his family that still survive in the cellars.  This was the first time I had experienced the taste of graphite in a wine, and it was pronounced, like having a pencil in your mouth.  Ripe with aromas of licorice, cherry and spice, which become the intense flavours, this wine is the perfect accompaniment to the roast lamb with rosemary.  I really look forward to visiting Naples again at this point, and I will definitely be visiting the winery when I do.

After a visit to the VIP lounge (thanks to my ticket) for a glass of water and some peace and quiet, I head home.  All in all it was an excellent day despite being completely drenched in water by a passing car while walking to the bus!  Thanks to the generous and kind workers at a food stand who gave me a handful of paper towels to dry off with, I can forgive the water today, and focus on the wine.

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

soif07.gif2007 Maxine-Francois Laurent “Soif Il Fait” Cotes-du-Rhone, France.
This ripe and perfumed Cotes-du-Rhone shows amazing Syrah intensity and depth with lush textures and full body. The nose is lofty with violets, white flowers, cassis and compote leading to a huge palate of plum, grenadine, blueberry, cherry liqueur and black currants. This is a wonderful and complex wine that has flashes of lavender, dusty earth, white pepper and grilled meat, finishing long and lively. The famed Kermit Lynch imports this Cotes-du-Rhone and it is a rare beauty, so search it out and discover a super value.

($25 Est.) 92-93 Points, grapelive

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009 (Preview)

Verona at Last
Brandy Falconer

78_riverb.jpgThis is where the adventure starts. (Verona, Veneto) I leave the comfort of my friends’ guesthouse (in Lucca, Tuscany) a little bit hazy from the night before (can I blame it on the sulfites?) and board the first of 3 trains to Verona.  5 hours goes by very quickly and I’m comfortable enough to nap occasionally.  Upon arrival in Verona, I follow Rick Steves’ directions to get a bus ticket and within 2 minutes, the bus arrives and takes me through downtown to the apartment where I am renting a room through an incredible site called I can’t disguise being a tourist at this point because I keep smiling at the beautiful architecture here.  That, and the “stupid American” grande suitcase that makes it looks like I’ve smuggled a few friends into the country.  I must learn to travel lighter, though my excuse this time is a bottle of wine and litre of my friends’ olive oil in the suitcase for my new host.

He arrives on his scooter just as I reach the front door, and by the time we have entered the apartment we have used no fewer than 4 keys.  Though we have never met, we have exchanged messages on Facebook after the initial contract to rent through the room rental service.  My apprehension soon dissipated once I found I could understand and communicate with my new host, and I started unpacking.  After a short nap, I am offered an espresso and a tour through the city via the scooter.  I think this is the perfect Italian experience, so I accept and off we go, zooming through the little streets and alleyways with Piero, my host, pointing out the beautiful churches, the arena and the walkway along the Adige River.

We stopped at his friends’ bar, where in the morning one would go for an espresso, and enjoy an aperitif creation of Aperol, sparkling white wine and an orange slice.  I enjoy these light, bitter and sweet concoctions, especially with some hot bites of pizza, which magically appeared on our table.  For a first-night treat, my host cooked pasta with tuna and capers, which we enjoyed with 78_vinob.jpga delicious wine from Verona, a 2006 Pasqua Villa Borghetti Ripasso Valpolicella Superiore.  The color is dark ruby, but not inky, with soft aromas of raspberry and dried herb.  The first taste makes me say “Italy” because to me this is typical Italian wine.  The fruit is subtle, with dried cherries and then a hint of bitterness in the finish.   With medium body and excellent balance of acid and flavor, it was hard not to take a sip with each bite of food.  I like that.
After dinner I spent about two minutes on the Internet, and then was ready to crash, and instantly noticed how grateful I was to be in someone’s quiet, safe home rather than in a stale hotel room.  I slept like a worn-out tourist.

Today is the first of April, and the Italians also see it as a day for jokes and call it “pesce d’Aprile,” Happy April Fish Day!  I opened my balcony door and looked out on the other apartments and the hillside beyond where the ancient wall that once completely surrounded Verona stands.  A little to the right, I can see the peaks of snow-covered mountains.  I leave the house and head straight to a little dry cleaner to beg them to iron my shirt for the expo tomorrow.  My little clover is working and the lady does me a favor, Grazie!  Then, on foot I set out for the center of town to do a walking tour as prescribed by my favorite no-nonsense travel guide, Rick Steves.  The sun starts to come out finally and I visit two churches, the largest in town, Sant’ Anastasia, and the town’s cathedral, or Duomo, both with beautifully decorated interiors, redwood-sized columns and famous frescoes.

78_danteb.jpgDespite Steve’s typical frugality when it comes to eating, the recommended lunch spot was incredibly expensive…but delicious.  I enjoyed pumpkin ravioli (one of my favorites), and slow-cooked veal bites with polenta.  No wine to report at lunch (I need a break!) but the list was impressive.  This trattoria was tranquil, a worthwhile indulgence after maneuvering through the crowds of Italian and American students queuing up for Juliet’s house.  This is, of course, the home or at least setting for Romeo and Juliet.  Apparently, any and all letters addressed to Juliet’s house in Verona will be answered.  It might be worth a try if you find yourself looking for romance advice, but Caveat Emptor, and consider the source!

Tomorrow, VinItaly commences, with 4,000 wineries and vendors all divided by region.  I have appointments with several wineries; so stay tuned for tasting notes.  I intend to be there with pressed shirt (assuming the lady at the dry cleaner’s wasn’t April fooling me!) and white teeth, and a secret stash of gluten-free crackers to keep my stomach full.

I will spare you a photo of my purple teeth tomorrow, but suffice to say that I’m searching the cupboards for some baking soda – this could be brutal on the smile.

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009 (Preview)

VinItaly Preview: Lucca, Let’s Party, Today is My Birthday!
Brandy Falconer

brandyf.jpgIf I were 8 today instead of..However old I am (don’t ask).. The theme for my birthday party would be Barbie, like “Fantasy Birthday Barbie” of yester-year, as opposed to “Way-Too-Cool Tattooed Barbie” of today who, frankly, scares me.  No, today’s color was pink which meant pink “buon compleanno” (happy birthday) balloons greeting me at the front door of my friends’ house, pink roses that we bought at the market and of course delightfully tinted pink Brut Rose champagne by Pommery in a shiny metallic pink case!  Barbie’s got nothing on me today simply because she’s too young to enjoy this champagne! (Plus, that Ferrari just won’t fit on these tiny roads, and I’d never get out of first gear..)

We started the day with my first real cappuccino since my arrival, at my hosts’ favorite bar.  “Bar” here describes any place to get an espresso, which usually has fresh pastries and an assortment of liquors in case one needs a “Caffe Corretto” (corrected with liquor) to stay motivated.  I really do love this place!  My friend and I looked over the “birthday pink”-colored sports section which was mostly dedicated to the Formula 1 race the previous day, and were unhappy to see that the Italian 3rd place finisher was penalized and stripped of his podium finish and points.  Too bad our reading proficiency didn’t allow us to completely understand the reason; this would require some Internet research and likely a call to my dad later for the scoop.

We headed out to the first grocery store, a French chain called Carrefour which carries everything from socks to electronics to cheese that smells like socks.  Don’t make the mistake of mentally comparing this to a Super Wal-Mart, it’s more like Whole Foods and a little mall all rolled into one.   They have a lovely selection of wines and champagnes and while we were trying to choose between bubblies, the pink metal bottle-shaped can housing Pommery Brut Rose caught my eye.  I’m not normally a fan of rose champagne in general, but I recalled trying Laurent Perrier Brut Rose at a Rancho Cellars tasting many years ago and loved it (and it wasn’t just because it was Pete Sampras’ favorite…really. )

6_brunellob.jpgWe stopped at the favorite workman’s lunch, Pinzo’s for a quick plate of Lasagna to warm us up, then headed up the hill to the house.  While taking the dog for a walk, I dilly-dallied, trying to find a 4-leaf clover to celebrate my birthday amongst the 4 or 5 different kinds of clover that grow there.  I was determined because I knew I’d be talking to my best friend later and this was one of our shared childhood passions.  At the entrance to their olive grove, I finally found one, all leaves the same size, so good for at least a year of good luck!  When we got up to the house, the sun was finally shining and we decided to sit outside for 5 o’clock cocktail hour.  The California state flag on the yardarm and the country music blasting from the outside speaker was a signal (to everyone on the hill) that the party had started.  We opened the Pommery Brut Rose and immediately liked the platinum-pink color and the streaming columns of tiny bubbles.  The aroma was minerally, which I love, and fresh, and the first taste was flavorful and crisp, much different than the various fuller-bodied proseccos that we had consumed in the past days.  I tasted pineapple in addition to the currant / dark berry, and found that a refreshing change.

6_tavolob.jpgSo much for eating early, we went inside when it started getting dark to prepare dinner and appetizers.   For the 2000 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino that was currently breathing heavily, we set out the goat and sheep cheeses (substituting for Humboldt Fog, a delicious pairing for Brunello) and I made my truffle, mushroom, and black olive bruschetta.  By the way, it must be noted that you can’t buy Portobello mushrooms at the local grocery store here!  The first glass of Brunello was amazing, the color was bright ruby to garnet, and the lighter aroma of cherry gave way to intense aromas of licorice and earthy mushroom. The wine’s layered flavors, when combined with the bruschetta’s mellow truffle flavor became something new altogether: savory, rich and absent of tannins, which is something I notice in this wine more than others.  The tanginess of the pecorino sardo gave an altogether different flavor and we noticed the long, flavorful finish this time.  The aged chevre goat cheese turned out to be a fair substitute for Humboldt fog, and again mellowed the intensity of the acid and red fruit flavors, but amplified the earth- and spiciness.

We decided to switch to the 2005 Avignonese Vino Nobile di Montepulciano for comparison with the appetizers, but it was not met with as much enthusiasm from my hosts, though I do love it’s forest-floor earthiness.  For all of you wincing out there, I admit it was an unfair comparison after the Brunello, though I couldn’t help it, I’m still learning.  Its color was more clear ruby than garnet, and the most noticeable aromas were cooked or dried fruit and savory herbs.  On its own, the smoky, black cherry flavor was more heavy than bright, but was enjoyable with the aged goat cheese with some spiced fig jam.  The salt and tanginess of the pecorino was the best combination though.

1971_vs.jpgThe Brunello shined as the perfect accompaniment to the Bisteca Fiorentina, that heavenly Tuscan steak, prepared in traditional style with only pepper and salt and olive oil as seasoning and served with chopped lettuces on top. The smashed whole potatoes had also been lightly brushed with truffle oil before grilling, and again were delicious with the Brunello.  We finished with some store-bought but very fresh pastries like cream puffs and fruit tart, which we enjoyed with the last of the Pommery Rose.  Too bad we had already consumed enough, because that dusty 1971 Frescobaldi Vin Santo that I had seen earlier in the garage racks would have been calling me at this point.  (I hope to have tasting notes on that one before I leave, hint, hint…) By this time it was 10:30, and though we typically pooh-pooh the late dinners in Italy, we had no excuse as we did the cooking!  Unfortunately, there was no time for card playing, since it would be an early morning to get to the train station to head to Verona.

We took the dishes to the general vicinity of the sink and just before heading upstairs to go to bed…somehow got into a juggling competition.  Sure, that’s totally illogical, but it was also strangely compelling.  Plus it was Barbie FANTASY Birthday, and I was sure I could juggle at this point with the 4-leaf clover at my side.  Not giving in to birthday privilege, Orlando out-juggled me, but I DID manage to drive the dog crazy in the process while Mary armed herself with the camera.  Was this our litmus test to be sure we didn’t overindulge, or simply a result of overindulgence?  We may never know or care…but I do know that, wine or no wine, I’m not a very good juggler… but at least I didn’t knock anything off the walls…

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009 (Preview)

Rainy Days in (Lucca) Italy
Brandy Falconer

hill_house_2648.jpgSaturday was a lazy day thanks to the (rainy) weather.  However the Formula 1 qualifying in Australia over breakfast had such exciting results (Though not so happy for Italy’s loved Ferrari team) that we were inspired to brave a Saturday trip to the grocery store down the hill, (similar to a small grocery in the US) for something fun for dinner.  It was packed, so much so that the checkers were even commenting that it must be Christmas Eve or something.  Grocery stores are open Christmas Eve in Italy?  What is the world coming to?

After arriving home, we took the dog for a walk down the windy, narrowly-paved hill, and were further race-inspired by the Ferrari racing flag that was waving to us from the flagpole as we came up the driveway.  But not only the Ferrari flag, but also the Italian and the California flag in my honor, how cool!  I am in Italy, of course, and the home of Ferrari, Modena is just a couple hours away.  It was time to cook dinner and discuss the possible outcome of the race based on the qualifying performances.  We enjoyed a dinner of Grilled herbed chicken with potatoes and asparagus, salad and some goat cheese drizzled with rosemary-infused olive oil (from their own grove of 150-year-old trees) This all went beautifully with a wine my hosts had never tried, but one of my favorites for light meals, Bardolino.  We opened a 2007 Bardolino from Guerrieri Rizzardi, a winery near Lake Garda I had visited about 4 years ago while enjoying the drive between Milan and Verona. It was very light in color, and had enticing aromas of sour cherries, dried apricots, and savory herbs. The first taste was slightly effervescent, but it blended nicely with the herbed chicken and potatoes, though we wondered if it was really too fruit-forward to be taken seriously.  The pleasant surprise came when pairing it with the rosemary olive oil-soaked goat cheese, which really brought out the savory flavors of the wine, rather than the ripe fruit, and altogether negated any acidity we tasted previously.  This combination particularly surprised and impressed my gracious hosts, which for me was validation for why I like to keep trying new wines and new pairings.  We all learned something new and had fun in the process.  I am almost embarrassed to admit what I paid for the wine but since it is from a reputable winery I will, E4.50 or $6.00

flags_2671.jpgSunday morning at 7:15am we were all piled in the couches, including the dog, to watch the first race of the Formula 1 season from Australia.  There is nothing like watching the races live, and the summertime weather in Australia looked gorgeous.  Personally, it was one of the happiest races I have ever seen because a brand-new team (though made up of veteran racers and engineers) managed to finish 1 and 2!  For the first time in 55 years, they said, a rookie team won the first race of the season, congratulations to Brawn GP and their sponsor, Virgin Airlines.  “Does everything Richard Branson touch turn to gold?” asked my host.  Well, he sure seemed happy and what a great thing for this team if that is true, especially because my favorite driver, Jenson Button won, something he hasn’t been able to do in a while.  But what about the BUBBLY?  In Formula 1, the champagne sprayed by all podium finishers is Mumm’s Cordon Rouge.  The team owner of the winning cars was also on the stand, and quickly used his new shield-shaped trophy to deflect the heavy spray coming from his drivers’ two magnums of Mumm’s. Hopefully the presenting authorities didn’t take offense, and saw the positive:  It was an effective tool, how many trophies can boast that?  I should mention the third place driver, also someone who has struggled to make it to the podium during the last few years, Italian, Jarno Trulli.  I mention him not only because he is Italian, but also because he is a partner in a winery in the south of Italy, called Podere Castorani. I checked out the website today when we went to a friend’s house to get online for a few minutes, and I look forward to tasting their wines at Vinitaly this week.  These American friends down the road were nice enough to enhance our Internet experience with a tall glass of prosecco, as it was “close enough” to 5 o’clock – thanks to the time change last night! Which reminds me, if any of you are searching for an excuse to enjoy a mimosa or Bloody Mary some weekend morning, just remember, we’re 9 hours ahead here, so we’re your “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” for the 8am thirsties.

Ciao amici!

Grapelive Lastest

schultzes.jpgI was one of many that happily poured into the “Pinot Paradise” tasting put on by the Santa Cruz Mountains Growers and Vintners Association. The tasting was to showcase the different terroirs in the region and it did provide a great insight and education into what they were and how they differed, and the range of flavors and quality amazed me. There were a bunch of sublime wines and equally plenty that failed to make the grade. This may seem at first to be disappointing, but it really makes the great wines stand out and that is what I took away from the event.

For me the usual suspect rose to the top and with only one exception the best of the Pinot Noirs from the Santa Cruz Mountains came exclusively from the Coralitos gap, especially Windy Oaks Estate, Alfaro Family Vineyards and Big Basin Vineyards who made a wonderful 2007 Pinot from fruit he got from his buddy Richard Alfaro. The only real stand out not from down that way was the remarkable 2005 & 2006 Mount Eden Estate offerings, with the 2005 taking most peoples votes, though I went for the 2006 for the prettiness and structure it had. I think among my group, the was no question that Windy Oaks Estate was the overall best of show, just ahead of the Mount Eden, with Alfaro Family Vineyards and Big Basin putting in great efforts and making strong showings.


bradleybrown.jpgBradley Brown, of Big Basin Vineyards, who is gaining cult status for his rich and intense Syrahs, showed off his Pinot loving side with two wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. I really enjoyed both, but I must give the nod to his Alfaro Family Vineyards 2007, which will be released later in the year and available to his mailing list, so I would recommend checking out his website and don’t be shy with his Syrah offerings as they are amazing wines.




Reviews of Alfaro Family Vineyards and Windy Oaks Estate by



me06pn.gif2006 Mount Eden Estate Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains.
Though the 2005 was richer and sweeter in fruit, though I love the 2006 with its lovely delicate flavors and perfect balance, making picking either a tough choice indeed, so why not get both for your different moods. This is a Pinot lover’s wine and a true to Burgundy style with silky layers and bright acidity. This Pinot shows pure and classic fruit, cherry, light raspberry and spicy plum with mineral, sage and vanilla as well. The oak is smoky and toasty, but all well focused and stays in the background. This wine should fill out and age well, but will never be a big wine or a blockbuster, so enjoy it young and drink it with food or cheese. There is some lingering berry, earth and truffle that give depth. ($45 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive


bigbasin07pn.gif2007 Big Basin Vineyards Pinot Noir “Alfaro Family Vineyards” Santa Cruz Mountains.
This pre-release sample is all ready showing great character and depth, but I’m sure there is lots more to come from this young and intense Pinot. Bradley Brown, winemaker, sourced Richard Alfaro’s fruit to make this wine and he captures the terroir and still stamps his own style on it. He uses whole berry fermentation and a long cold soak, which adds a bit more color and tannin. This is why Bradley wants to wait to release this one, to give it time to fill out and for it to smooth out, though I liked it very much now. This Pinot has lush texture and full body with loads of fruit on the palate. The mouth feel is wonderful with red and black fruits, sweet oak shadings, mineral and briary spices all in good solid layers. I can’t wait until it has a few more months of age and I really can’t wait to get myself a few bottles! ($NA) 91-93 Points, grapelive

*Not yet released.

Big Basin Vineyards

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009 (Preview)

VinItaly 2009 Preview: Milan to Lucca
Brandy Falconer

bf2.jpgSparing the details of the myriad conversations with British Airways and American Express who told me my bag was anywhere from “no where to be found” to “on the flight the following evening”, I will skip to the conclusion that my bag was in fact waiting for me at the Milan Malpensa airport the next morning.   Bag in hand, I walked downstairs to the car hire office and picked up the keys to my Fiat Panda, which luckily held all of my luggage.  With shockingly accurate directions to the nearest commercial center (mall) I headed out to get my new Italian phone number.  After just a few minutes at the cell phone store (which sold tiny Crocs cell phone holders), I had my new phone number courtesy of Vodafone, my obvious choice because of their sponsorship in Formula 1 racing (how else would you choose between them with names like Tim, and Wind?)

Dispensing with my usual logistical preparations, I headed south to Genoa, then down the west coast towards Pisa until turning inland in the direction of Florence for Lucca.  For all of you with granite or marble carrara1.jpgcountertops, you can be sure that the stone in your kitchen has visited Carrara, just south of Genoa, for cutting. The marble for Michelangelo’s greatest works is from here, and in fact that quarry just gave its last block of marble…after 500 years.  It was sunny, and a perfect day for a drive, but especially a drive close to the coast with peeks of the Mediterranean on the right and snow-capped peaks at Carrara to the left.  After about four hours, I was driving alongside the famous medieval wall that surrounds Lucca, heading just north to the hills to my friends’ “Villa Alba” or House of the Dawn.

74barolo.jpgI stopped at the local grocery store to buy something to eat, and wasted several minutes gawking at the enticing wine prices.  I bought a bottle of Prosecco, with that cute hand-tied string holding in the cork, to celebrate, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to buy a bottle of Avignonese Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (one of my favorites) for less than $20.  I love this place!  When I presented the wine to my friends to open with dinner, the response was “oh, no, that’s too good for tonight, let’s look for something here in the racks” the result?  We took a little trip to the garage cellar to pull out an incredibly dusty 1974 Castiglione Falletto Barolo, just to see if it was still good, of course.  Though the logic escaped me, I was excited to have the chance to taste this wine, and despite its cloudiness, showed some initial promise.  Overwhelming aromas of dark chocolate and dried tobacco just encouraged a taste, and amazingly, you could still tell it was a Barolo.  Incredible, considering the story of this bottle, moving from one man’s cellar down the hill to various family members, then to my friend’s garage wine rack!  Though we didn’t drink the bottle immediately, we decanted it to check its progress toward drinkability, and eventually thought leaving it until the next morning might give it the chance it deserved.

guesthouse_andchurch.jpgAfter a comfortable sleep in the guesthouse, the next morning comes and it is a Formula 1 weekend!  The first race of the season is in Australia, which made us grumble because that meant it would be on at 2:00 in the morning, and begged the question, will we decide to be up at that hour just to watch the first race of the season?  And … will we be having the compulsory champagne to go with it?  We left the question to simmer while we ran errands (mostly for me, having forgotten a few things) and enjoyed a quick coffee and treat at a pastry shop with beautifully made cakes and confections (including a marzipan Mr. Potato Head!) just in time for Easter.  Lunch was out of the ordinary for us Americans, choosing a small trattoria for a “workman’s lunch” which meant not only that we were the only women in the place, but also that the food was hot, hearty and delicious…and inexpensive.  To fill up on veal scalloppine and roasted potatoes with salad set us back a whopping 13-euro for the two of us.  The afternoon was spent visiting with nearby cousins until the church next door rang the bells with a special song to mark 6:00pm.  After driving further up the hillside to enjoy a pizza with nearby American friends, we returned home for a “digestive” drink (something to burn up whatever one just ate) and contemplated the day’s earlier dilemma.  Conclusion:  We’ll be up watching the first Formula 1 race of the season with glass in hand…and I’m sure enjoying every minute of it!

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

ojaichar07.gif2007 Ojai Vineyards Chardonnay “Bien Nacido Vineyard” Santa Maria Valley.
This wine is a rare beauty, and it is a sublime example of this noble grape. It is hard to find a Chardonnay as pure and as pretty as this one, I am a fan of Adam Tolmach and his stylish wines and this one has to be one of my favorites so far. Ojai Vineyards, long known for their lovely Pinots and intense Syrahs has been turning out wonderfully crafted Chardonnays as well, wines that show elegance, class and focused balance. With a Chablis like charm and Puligny like depth this Chard has layered flavors and subtle oak that lifts the pretty and super clean fruits, which include pear, apple, white peach and meyer lemon, with zesty acidity, river rock, liquid mineral and hazelnuts lying nicely in the background. This white will age well and drink great now, filling out in body over the next 2-3 years. The finish is fresh, but has wonderful length with hints of smoke, sweet fruit and a class you’d find in a vintage Champagne. ($28 Est.) 93+ Points, grapelive


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