Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Category: Italian Wine

Barolo Bodies Forth

When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say,
Barolo is the king of wines, & wine of kings: hooray.
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year,
And those that are must might’ly strive
To keep its memory bright and clear.
–Col. Pesto

In other words, Barolo has lost its gleam. Piemontesi resting on their truffles have been outpaced by the folks Curzio Malaparte called i maledetti toscani. While Piedmont was preoccupied with Fiat’s 500s, Olivetti’s Letteras, Pirelli’s tires  and Ferrero’s Nutella, The Cursèd Tuscans rebuilt Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile, invented SuperTuscans, revived Scansano and ignited Brunello di Montalcino to the point that the market’s thirst and pocketbook had to be appeased with Rosso di Montalcino, its fratellino or baby brother. Brunello even got its own scandalo—the mark, in Italy, of having truly arrived—in the inevitably named Brunellogate of fragrant memory. [Kerin O’Keefe is brisk and lucid on this in her excellent Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines, just out from University of California Press.]

‘But you digress!’ cries my nextdoor neighbor, the punctilious Fussy Galore.* ‘Get to the point!’ Fussy is right as usual, so revenons à nos moutons, as the French may still say: our subject is not While Piedmont Slept but Why.



Cascina Adelaide, beneath Barolo’s castle.

Leonardo LoCascio, founder of Winebow, says one reason is cultural: ‘There are many small producers. They have a natural reserve and sometimes a bit of a Burgundian attitude: we make the wine, and if you want it you can come and get it.’ And small production, sometimes less than one bottle per vine, means high prices. ‘So Barolos,’ he adds, ‘can have the status of collector’s items. The producers have lost the battle for everyday consumption, but I’m not sure the situation is all bad, since the market has lately become truly international.’ The Chinese, for example, thirst immoderately for Barolo and, having more money than Warren Buffett put together, can afford to. LoCascio adds that ‘The Nebbiolo grape is high in tannin, and the wines are hard on release,’ so it’s hard to tub-thump for wines that won’t be opened for two decades. Unlike the competition: ‘Sangiovese wines are pretty much ready to drink—even Brunello.’

Barolo’s challenges are seen in the Roberto Voerzio quintet LoCascio imports. Voerzio makes fewer than 50,000 bottles a year. His Brunate, Cerequio and La Serra fetch more than $200 a bottle, and his Riserva Capalot and Sarmassa sell only in magnums at well over $400. OK, Voerzio has cult status. But still. Thus it was gratifying to see Barolo emerge recently from what Henry James called the edge of the glittering ring to resume what he also called dancing in the central glow. Suddenly, dal blu, several producers have bodied forth here in Manhattan, where burning Sappho loved and sung.

Marchesi di Barolo’s event at BLT Prime on E. 22nd St., featured the Abbona Quartet: owners Anna and Ernesto and their successors-elect, Valentina and Davide. All of them hard-working and handsome. Especially Davide, who hypnotizes enough bevies of fainting pre-teens to make Justin Bieber wail disconsolately, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’]

We opened with their Riservas of 2000, 2001, 2003, 1990, 1980 and 1970, then floated to lunch on the 2007 Sarmassa, Cannubi, Coste de Rose, and Barolo di Barolo. For lagniappe, a little Rosso Arneis, a touch of Gavi di Gavi, a whiff of Zagara Moscati d’Asti, and a few glicks of the digestivo Barolo Chinato [made with cinchona bark, hence its quinine sting]. A glick is what the bottle says when you tilt it—and the amount thus poured. Were they good? Is Justin Bieber chopped liver?

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Davide                             Chopped Liver

The estate was the manger of the first Barolo Revolution, in the mid-1800s, when, Valentina said, ‘Barolo was a sweet wine.’ Of course: Piedmont is cold, high and alp-ridden, given to stopping fermentation early and leaving much residual sugar behind. Accounts vary, but it was either the Marchesa Giulietta Falletti or her neighbor, the Count of Cavour, or both who summoned from France one Louis Oudart. He was turned loose in the Marchesa’s cellars to good effect. His merthods soon spread, notably to the cellars of nearby Fontanafredda. As that was a property owned by King Vittorio Emanuele II, the ‘Wine of Kings’ tag stuck.

Something more than a century later came Renato Ratti’s revolution, which was more of an evolution, actually. Renato aimed at eliminating oxidation and other defects, and at softening Barolo’s billy-club tannins without resort to heroic aging. His innovations won some converts but not wholesale conversion, thus dividing the producers into two camps: the traditionalists/fossils and the modernists/renegades, who argue to this very day. His son Pietro’s credo for his Barolos—Marcenasco, Conca and the new entry, Rocche, which were poured and inhaled at a portfolio tasting—‘is the same as that passed to me by my father . . . lavish great care on the vines to obtain the best grapes possible, then respect the grapes in the cellar. Balance, elegance, refinement, complexity: these are the characteristics that I wish for my wines: every day, at every vineyard, in every wine.’

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzratti  Pietro Ratti and crew. Smiles and clean clothes suggest this photo was taken before work began.

Well, OK: everybody says that, but when does change go from improvement to loss of identity? ‘It’s wine all right, but is it still Barolo?’—that’s the Bone of Contention, the Apple of Discord, the Fruit of the Loom. Much like cosmetic surgery, come to think of it. And so traditionalists/fossils insist on protracted fermentations and aging in huge botti and bottle far beyond DOCG minimums. The hottest issue in the style wars is, as in Montalcino, the Mod/Ren idea adding other grapes to what has ever been a 100% varietal wine. Trad/Fos are outraged: Per la vergogna! This is as it should be. Wine, the ineffably twee Kay Carino reminds us, is a thing of nuances and distinctions in its very soul.

Like most of his fellow producers, Pietro goes beyond Barolo. His Barberas, d’Alba Torriglione and d’Asti, were on the table with his Dolcetto d’Alba Colombé and Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti. But no luck on his Villa Pattono SuperPiedmontese, a Barbera-heavy blend with Cabernet and Merlot.

Fiorenzo Dogliani threw a lunch in the wine cellar of Tony May’s SD26, which like Duffy’s Tavern is ‘where d’leet meet t’eet’, especially when Fiorenzo is pouring a passel of his Beni di Batasiolo wines. Food-friendliness is a hallmark of BdiB, and Fiorenzo and I happily agreed, despite having little common language, that the table is where wine truly belongs: it is its true terroir. BdiB’s line goes beyond normale, riserva, and five single-vineyard Barolos to whites, including Roero and Gavi di Gavi; sparkling wines; and other soldiers marching in the Piedmont Parade.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzfamiglia Dogliani Dogliani family in the ‘70, when Beni di Batasiolo was founded. At center, Papà Antonio, inseparable from his hat, white shirt and tie, faithful dog, wife and eight children, in more or less that order.

I will say that we did all of them proud, but to me the most interesting was the new Moscato Spumante Rosé. Yes, amici, a rose-red Moscato, tinted with a red-cheeked Moscato clone grown in Trentino-Alto Adige. It’s the newest of Fiorenzo’s range of bubblies, which include Asti [as if by law], Moscato d’Asti Bosc dla Rei, Spumante Metodo Classico Dosage Zero, Pinot-Chardonnay Spumante Brut and Brachetto Spumante. And it comes just in time: Prosecco looks like conquering the casual bubbly category, and so I’m rooting for the success of Moscato Rosé. It’s fizzy and light and pretty as a smile. It’s sleekly sweet and summer-ready as a string bikini.

The biggest Barolo bash in Manhattan was the work of the newborn Accademia del Barolo, under whose gonfalon 14 producers have united [yes, united!] to promote their flagship wine. The event was held at Del Posto, which it is OK to go to now that management has ceased skimming tips and will fork over 5+ million in makeup bucks to the help.

Backstory: In the early ‘70s, Gianni Gagliardo, son of a near-teetotal family, married a wine grower’s daughter and then wine itself, becoming head of his own house** about a decade later. He instituted his annual Asta [auction] di Barolo in 1998 and his son Stefano, now in charge, fostered the Accademia. Not easy, Stefano says: ‘the Piemontesi are mountain people; they are tough and stubborn and extremely independent. No one tells them what to do. You can’t recruit these people.’ zzzzzzzzzmartinetti.bmp The Accademia came about organically; morphing itself into being ‘based on a virtual group already existing when the Barolo Auction was held last year.’ That independent streak is why Stefano [left] says that when it comes to the idea of adding other varieties to Barolo, ‘You know, in our area there at least 350 producers, and so you can listen to 350 points of view on any question. So I don’t believe that a proposal of that kind would have a chance to succeed’.

Ten of 14 Accademia soci or members presented their 2007s: Gianni Gagliardo, Azelia, Cordero Di Montezemolo, Damilano, Franco M. Martinetti, Michele Chiarlo, Paolo Scavino, Pio Cesare, Luigi Einaudi and Prunotto. [Not present: Monfalletto, Vietti, Voerzio and Conterno Fantino]. The witty Anthony Giglio lightly led the guided tasting, which was followed by an unguided buffet tasting of oldies dating to 1990—all of them crus, several in magnum, some riservas. Producers who were braced on the style wars were clearly pretty sick of it. Michele Martinetti said ‘Sometimes people like to wear our clothes for us. It’s not a question of modern or traditional. The question is Do you like it?’ Alberto Cordero added ‘Are you traditional? Are you modern? I hate that question. There is only Barolo.’ Stefano Gagliardo would not be drawn; instead he offered his favorite pairing: ‘Chocolate and old Barolo!’ ‘Nuff said.

Other Barolos showed and shone here and there about the same time: Sobrero, Aldo Conterno, Carretta, Cerretto, Elvio Cogno, Fratelli Revello, Palladino, Gaja, Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello, Castello di Verduno , Giuseppe Rinaldi, Guido Porro, Luciano Sandrone, Luigi Pira, Paolo Scavino and Vietti. All in all, a rewarding group. Such a mitzvah to have Barolo’s flag planted so firmly here again. Salute!

Travel Notes

Piedmont is a beautiful, region, easy of access from Milan and the Lakes, and if at first glance it suggests Tuscany with taller mountains, more Italians and fewer Germans, it’s also more workaday and less prettified. Unlike Tuscany, it hasn’t been groomed and manicured—Hoovered, as the Brits put it—into something that’s more diorama than domicile. Wedged between French and Swiss alps to the west and north, and the Ligurian Apennines to the south, the region is well named: Piemonte [Piedmont] means “foot of the mountains.” Turin is the Big Truffle, busy with business and industry, although not quite so much as formerly. The Le Meridien chain and the peerless Renzo Piano have turned Fiat’s Lingotto plant—an enormous avant-garde structure that opened in 1923 as the world’s largest and most advanced factory—into a stylish hotel with shopping, music, theater and convention facilities. It doesn’t make Fiats anymore, and its unique rooftop test track, where once Fiat Topolinos and other models puttered bravely round, is now off-limits to the internal-combustion engine. On the other hand, it’s wide open to joggers.

Then there’s the Piedmont of yesterday, which lives in the countryside and doesn’t run panting after the new and the novel but instead looks to its history and traditions. It is a landscape of mountain-backed broad valleys slashed by glinting Alpine streams, of spiky hilltowns that are never lovelier than when seen looming above pale carpets of gauzy harvest fog. This is nature’s Piedmont, rich in parks and nature preserves and home to an earthy gastronomy of clear, assertive flavors, undiluted and untampered-with. Matt
Kramer calls it “Italy’s most glorious regional table.” I have misty memories of the old woman who wouldn’t sell me a cheese until she’d picked out one that satisfied her and wrapped it in vine leaves before my eyes. And then there was a tiny restaurant called [and in] Madonna della Neve, where they served my tiny delicious ravioli del plin in semi-traditional  style. That is, not on a napkin on a plate, but just on a napkin on the table. [Real traditional style dispenses with the napkin.] 


La Signora wasn’t willing to sell me a cheese unless she’d wrapped it herself.

Of course, there are the white truffles, hunted at night by cagey peasants called trifolai with their hounds. Imagine: Piemontesi were once ashamed to eat such stuff as  fungi grubbed from the dirt, even as New Englanders back in the day were disgraced by their lobster suppers. They were signs of backwardness and shameful poverty. Now that truffles are $100 an ounce and more, the stigma has rubbed off to such an extent that the Chinese are faking them as fast as they can. [One sure way to tell: the fakes have almost no smell; the real ones stink most heavenly.] In October and November the annual fair dominates Alba, the wine country’s metropolis and oomphalos of truffledom. During the fair I like to saunter the length of the Via Maestra, Alba’s main drag, greedily inhaling as shop doors open to expel rich, reeky gusts of truffles’ rank, decadent, intoxicating aroma.

Excellent and plentiful agriturismo lodgings range from modern and spa-like, such as Beni di Batasiolo’s Il Boscareto, to romantic, castle-like havens on the order of Renato Ratti’s Villa Pattono, which dates to the 1700s. Some are small as Fratelli Revello’s and Cordero Montezemolo’s while Castello di Verduno manages to be fairly large but still intimate. All have dining on-site, as do Marchesi di Barolo [Il Foresteria] and Gagliardo [La Vineria del Barolo]. The simplest thing to say about these places is that no one ever wants to leave. And so, here’s where to find the agriturismi: ilboscaretoresort.it, villa pattono.com, revellofratelli.com, castellodivedrduno.it, corderodimontezemolo.it.

I’ll offer just one alternative to agriturismo: the Castello di Novello, in the town of that name, just a few miles south of Barolo. Huge but with just 11 period rooms, it is a castle that is frankly beyond belief: a 19th Century Victorian neo-gothic extravaganza offering vast valley panoramas and gloriously decorated with towers, pointed-ogive windows, crenelations Juliet balconies, grand stairways and enough other bits of architectural foofaraw to suggest Lucille Ball in a fright wig and a touch of Charles Addams. It is, as the Italians say, suggestivo, by which they mean evocative, romantic and thrilling. And not to be missed. It even has reasonable rates. Find details at icastelli.net.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzcdnovello2124  Castello di Novello: Extravagance meets confection.

Buon viaggio! 


*Fussy is one of a sororal quintet that includes the cowardly Wussy, brassy Hussy, bed-haired Mussy and the off-rhymed Tushy, who describes herself as ‘statuesque and steatopygic.’

**No power on earth can make me say eponymous.

Paddy and Pazzo: Double Cause for Celebration

Well, yes, we are late here at PWP, but we have excus-es, as usual: a] we have two holidays to deal with, b] although they are called days we celebrate them here as months and c] the dog ate our homework.

So here’s the deal: March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, a.k.a. St. Pat’s and Saint Paddy’s. (What’s this St. Patty’s Day I read of latterly? Is there some girl saint I don’t know about?) March 17 is also Italian Unification Day: the 150th anniversary of the day in 1861 that Italy ceased to be what Prince Metternich called [correctly] a ‘geographical expression’ and became a nation. (So far as was possible for Italians, who seldom speak with one voice unless gli azzuri, the national soccer team, are in the World Cup.)

In any event, a double holiday lasting a month: doesn’t that call for a drink? The question is rhetorical, and in any case, we’ll have a couple, Irish and Italian.

Irish whiskey has returned from the Vale of Desuetude thanks to both cocktail culture and increased interest in whiskies of taste and character. This has done a power of good for the likes of Bushmills, Midleton and both Johns (Jameson and Powers), as well as Kilbeggan, The Tyrconnell, and Tullamore Dew. Newcomers like Con-nemara, Knappogue Castle, Clontarf, Michael Collins, and The Irishman sip awfully well too, as does Irish grain whiskey, which the Irish take far more seriously than the Scots do theirs. Although there’s just the one —Greenore—it’s bottled at 8 and 15 years. Greenore Limted Edition 15years 70cl 700ml The 15-year-old (left) has won top grain hon-ors at the Worlds Whiskies Awards three years running. So make yourself a Shillelagh (pronounced shi-LAY-lee), which is named for a traditional black- thorn walking stick, homemade back in the day (before anyone knew it was artisanal) and used to support the in-firm and to discipline the impertinent. (In extremis, a hurley may be substi-tuted. Combine the concept of rough justice with ‘giving it to ‘em with the bark on’ and the result is shillelagh law, an ancient religious rite. 


Fill your rocks glass with ice and equal parts Irish whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream; stir. And there you are. The drink is a simple one, not to be confused with another, called the Irish Shillelagh, which will would you with chasing after overproof white rum, sloe gin, peach schnapps and other stuff. If you tire easily, you can stop at the glass and the whiskey—the stuff is won-derful sipped neat. Adding the Bailey’s honors Irish in-genuity: It was created in the 1970s, when whiskey vet-erans Tom Jago, James Espey and Peter Fleck learned of enormous new tax breaks being offered to commercial users of Irish dairy products. Buying cream by the long ton, they applied the ’just add alcohol’ approach with notable success.

And so recently (while I should have been writing this, in fact) I unlimbered the crystal barware and adminis-tered the sacraments aided and abetted by my nextdoor neighbor Upton O’Goode, an relentless prankster from County Donegal, who dropped in with his two rascally brothers Doone and Compton. Together we toasted the memory of Mulligan, Stu, a punctilious librarian and pedant who was killed in a duel over the proper cata-loguing of Lafcadi O’Hearn.

The Italian counterpart of St. Patrick is San Pazzo, who drove the snakes out of the countryside and into elect-ive office. As for Italian drinks, I’m going to preen my-self on my own inventions—the Red Priest and the Si-cilian Vespers. Both are based on Prosecco, for which the world has been going crazy for some few years now. Too crazy, if you ask me. With Prosecco raised to DOCG status, its vineyard is being expanded, which bodes ill for quality. So before exploitation does to Pro-secco what it has done to Pinot Grigio, Soave and Fra-scati, get some and chill it, and some cherry juice and Sicilian blood-orange juice, too, to 45 F./7 C.

 mionetto IL labelonly JEIOlabel
Perfect Proseccos for your Red Priest and your Sicilian Vespers, to say nothing of your Bellinis.

Mionetto Il and Bisol Jeio Prosecco are available al-most everywhere. The Sicilian Vespers requires blood oranges, which are available fresh in some markets be-tween October and March. Beware: blood oranges are ugly little things, nothing like your standard California products, which are big and cosmetically perfect, like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. And equally tasteless. They’re very pulpy, so juicing can be a messy business. Bottled juice is fine (it’s usually a blend of Sicilian San-guinello, Tarocco and Moro oranges. It’s available on-line and off-, but I often sneak mine in from Italy in my luggage. [Yes I’m deranged; why do you ask?]

Sicilian Vespers

5 oz. Bisol Jeio Prosecco
2 oz. Blood-orange juice

For the Red Priest you substitute cherry juice. Making it is a real project, so you might want to start with the bottled juice and see how it goes.

Red Priest

5 oz. Mionetto Il Prosecco
1 oz. Plymouth gin
1 oz. cherry juice
1 tsp. lemon juice
Optional garnish: a cherry, preferably sour.

Mixing and Glassware

Prosecco’s effervescence is fragile, so pour the (thicker) juice into the (thinner) wine: the resulting self-stirring effect requires little or no help from your bar spoon. (I admit that others counsel the exact opposite, but with-out explanation.) My nextdoor neighbor Louie DiNuo-vo, a relentless pest and freeloader, recommends add-ing some muscle: an ounce of Gran Gala or Cointreau, or Cherry Heering, as appropriate. Serve both of these drinks in flutes, Collins glasses, or one of the tall nar-row column glasses that are the cynosure of all eyes at these days at Colicchio & Sons on Tenth Ave., where deleetmeetteet.

Bar-Bet Background: The Red Priest is named for An-tonio Vivaldi, the Venetian composer called il prete ros-so for his red hair. The Sicilian Vespers recalls March 30, 1282, when enraged Palermitani revolted against their French masters. Verdi’s opera I Vespri Siciliani uses the ringing of the Vespers bell—the call to evening prayer—as the signal for the revolt to begin, but many historians believe was merely coincidental with the ris-ing, which was more spontaneous than plotted. Either way, the French screamed bloody murder.

Sláinte and salute!

©2011 Bill Marsano

Valentine Wines: When Beauty Whispers Low Thou Must the Youth Replies I Can

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” may be Tennyson’s most famous line, but his timing is suspect. For one thing, the British poet laureate came late to pitching woo, be-ing a ripe 27 before making cow eyes at his beloved and 41(!) by the time he married her. And in picking spring he was late in the calendar, too. Proposals limp along at some 6,000 a day in the U.S., then jump to 200,000-plus on V-Day itself. Now it’s that time again, so let’s broach the bubbly in glad salute.

But there are problems to solve (modishly known as issues to address). What bubbly? What to do, and not, if proposing? What about Relationship Issues?

As for which bubbly, I say almost any except Cham-pagne. Most Americans have it too seldom—when celebrating New Year’s Eve, say, and christening ocean liners—to develop a taste for it; they recoil from aggressive acidity. Unaccustomed to the stuff, many men will knock theirs back with a grimace and many women will simply ‘wear’ it, like a prop or an accessory, then abandon their seldom-sipped flutes unobtrusively, even furtively after the toasts. For both sexes, then, Champagne is often more of a gesture than a pleasure.

The solution is Italy’s gentler, sweeter, low-alcohol sparkling wines, which also happen to be quite inexpensive most of the time (often enough they’re under $10, one of the last times romance will comeJEIOlabel cheap). Prosecco, which comes from the Veneto, has become an American favorite in recent years. Asti or Asti Spumante), the best-known of Italy’s sparkling wines, comes from Piedmont, which also gives us (in far smaller quantities) Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui (a.k.a. Acqui). Leading names in Prosecco include Bisol (left)  and Mionetto, and there are many others. Generally, the least-expensive bottling of any given brand will do splendidly. As for Asti, a.k.a. Asti Spumante it’s still sweet but no longer the gooey, cloy-ing stuff of yore. Martini & Rossi and Cinzano are every-where; other notables include the like of Ceretto, Nando, Bosca Ver-di, Nino Franco, Villa Rosa, Elmo Pio,  Zardetto and Borgo Reale.

Moscato d’Asti is half as sparkly but twice as good. Its Durante Nose offers one of the great moments in the history of human nostrils, so do not, not, not use a flute, lest you stifle the fragrance. Generous, big- bowled, goblet-style glasses like the Italian coppa are required. A list of notable producers would in-clude Contratto, La Serra, Cascinetetta, Michele Chiarlo, Bosio, La Corte, ceretto_26Saracco, Castello del Pog-gio and Ceretto (again). But note that total output is very small, so you’ll be wise to grab almost any bot- tle that you are lucky enough to lay hands on.

Brachetto d’Acqui, red and relatively rare, is full of straw- berry aromas and tastes, and
I could swear that it’s just made for love and choco-late—dark chocolate especially. 

It too is from Piedmont, and it comes from a vine that is  Rosa_Regale_Bottle HRcantankerous, ungenerous of yield and rather picky  about growing sites. Small wonder it was nearly extinct only a few decades ago; equally small wonder that it was saved: Italians have a soft spot for desperate causes. And grazie tante for that, because the wine is a delight even if the vine it-self is a pain, or what used to be called a pill. You’re most likely to find Banfi’s Rosa Regale in its  dis-tinctive trumpet bottle (left) at retail; others in the market include Coppo, Marenco, Sant’Evasio and Rinaldi. Here too, limited production means taking what you can get when you can get it.

So, as the British say, there you are: the Sweet Swain of Valentine’s Day, ready to see which of you will be first to go weak in the knees. And pay no mind, by the way, to all those who cock a snook at sweet wines and the Thirsty Readers who love them. Sweet, sort-of-sweet and extremely sweet wines are produced in all wine-making countries and have been since Moses was a pup. Those who sneer at the “American taste” or “Coca-Cola palate” are snobs, mere and mean. They should be hunted for sport.

If, on the other hand, you are a Champagne devotee, see whether you can pass the test:

The PWP Champagne Challenge

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same . . . as they say and sing, all too often, on Sesame Street

josephperrierlprectperrier-jouet2oerrier waterimagesCA6OB0UM

OK, kids! The answer is Lower Right! That’s the label of Perrier water. Forget that. (The knockout red-head was supplied for sales appeal. Eventually it was realized that a better way to sell bottled water was with a combination of high prices and spurious health claims, especially if the product has to be shipped from somewhere obscure and ridiculously far away, like Fiji or New Zealand.)

And so, if you are what Jane Austen called with her radar-targeted perception, a single man in possession of a good fortune, knock yourself out. But if you flunked the test, then buy and bury yourself in a copy of Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies. And don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to get up to speed by V-Day. It won’t happen, so you, like the Mets, must wait till next year.

So now that you’ve got the girl (you hope) and the ring (I hope), you must at last cause the twain to meet. Which is not so easy, the whole business being stressful. As a fretful colleague put it, “She could say no. Or she could say yes. Pretty scary either way.”

There’s a mania for proposals in extravaganza mode these days: swains sky-diving from airplanes, beaux proposing on the big screen in Times Square, dolts popping the question while driving the Zamboni machine out to center ice in a noisy arena filled with complete strangers. If that’s what you’re thinking of, I’m not talking to you. Ever.

No. You want a nice, pleasant and above all familiar place or ‘venue.’ Your usual restaurant should be fine—you’re regulars there and they know you; all will seem normal. There’s only one thing about this night that should be different from all other nights, so don’t tip your hand by booking some fancy new place. (Odds are she’ll know what’s coming anyway and has practiced for hours feigning surprise, shock and fly-me-to-the-moon, but she’ll play her role and you must play yours).

Order lightly—you may want to skip one course—but otherwise proceed as usual. You’ve ordered the wine ahead of time; have it brought with or in lieu of dessert, and make your move. Hands across the table is fine, but if you want to take a knee be sure you first scope the aisle for, say, incoming busboys. It’s pie-easy, and she’ll love you for it.

There’s just one really important DON’T here: Don’t slip the ring into her glass. At best she’ll have a wet, sticky ring that’ll have to be washed before wearing. At worst—well, there’s nothing remotely romantic about a bride-to-be being doubled over and Heimliched in a crowded restaurant.

And if you think you can save the situation with a lighthearted ’One day we’ll look back on this and laugh,’ think again.

© 2011 Bill Marsano




















Chianti, Ma Non Classico

Also riding the value train these days is Chianti, trailing confusion for more than a few consumers. (It’s Italian, remember?)

With Chianti and Chianti Classico, confusion follows as the night the day. Chianti’s very name seems like shorthand, as Cab and Cabernet are for Cabernet Sauvignon. Moreover, Chianti Classico rules the shelves while the other is seldom seen. Both are DOCG, entitled to wear the distinguishing pink necklace [shown below], which doesn’t help a bit (and some prefer to go naked, adding to the confusion), and some producers make both wines. zzantinoripeppoli
The names of their ruling bodies–Consorzio Vino Chianti and Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico—are too close for comfort, and while the former has been on the shy and retiring side, not so the latter. Indeed, when people marvel at Tuscany’s genius for self-promotion, it’s often the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico that they’re goggling at. And so it is that–what with this and what with that, as Beatrice Lillie used to say–some consumers can’t tell them apart and others may be inclined to doubt or even deny the existence of a Chianti that is other than and separate from the Classico.

Commence we now to sort things out and set things straight, Thirsty Reader, to ‘prune th’encircling vines,’ as it were, because some people are missing a good wet bet.

Chianti Classico is grown and produced within the zone of that name (I hope you weren’t expecting me to say eponymous), which sprawls over 173,000 acres between Florence and Siena. Just over a tenth of this is, as we like to say, ‘under vine.’ The zone has widely varying soils, elevations ranging from 660 to 2600 feet, and a large corps of producers that includes innovators, purists and traditionalists. Their wine can be 100% Sangiovese but must be at least 80%, the remainder to be local grapes (Ciliegiolo, Canaiolo and Colorino) or international varieties (Cabernet & Co.). 

Chianti Classico lies between Florence and Siena

Trebbiano and Malvasia had been added for centuries because white grapes helped make the wine palatable by spring, which is when the peasants who made it intended to drink it. They did not ‘lay bottles down,’ Thirsty Reader. They emptied them. But gradually over decades the fou-fou types and connoisseurs and intellectualizing types had their say and got their way, declaring that wine had to be ‘great’ and that ‘great’ wine had to be ‘age-worthy’ and ‘capable of marked longevity’ and the like. And so the whites were steadily reduced from their traditional portion (up to 30%) to risible levels, then finally banned. Since the 2006 harvest, all have been declared uva non grata.

Classico producers include some notable names–Castello di Volpaia, Poggerino, Panzanello, Coltibuono, Ruffino, San Fabiano Calcinaia, Isole e Olena, Nittardi, Vignamaggio and Ricasoli among them—and their individual prominence has boosted the general. And the Consorzio has done more than organize promotions. One of its most important efforts was the Chianti 2000 initiative, whose aim was nothing less than identifying the best clones of the Sangiovese grape.

Still, the biggest reason for Classico’s dominance admits of neither argument nor excuse: Classico’s percentage of top-quality wine is higher, year in and year out. It DOCG discipline requires, among other aides to quality, requiring slightly more Sangiovese in the mix, and denser planting and significantly lower yields in the vineyards.

‘But on the other hand, not so fast,’ says my neighbor Bella Lugosi, a toothsome Italo-Romanian vamp and struggling bit-part actress. What she means to say is that Chianti—the plain sister, if you will—has had a bum deal for quite some time and a bum rap for even longer. Result: in the end or, as J.K. Stephen put it, when the Rudyards cease from kipling and the Haggards ride no more, Chianti is unknown to too many American wine-lovers.

Chianti became beloved in the U.S. after World War II. GI’s who’d had the real thing (in Tuscany) brought back fond memories (the unlucky ones felled by Dago Red and Sneaky Pete in Naples and Sicily, did not). In the 1950s the Sunny Italy Era of tourism began (and most Americans went by boat. Imagine that.) College boys discovered it too. Back in the day a quaint and appealing straw-covered fiasco cost about $1.49 a bottle, maybe $3 at a red-sauce restaurant.

Then came imitators and adulterators. The former were anybody and everybody, even Australians; the latter, Italians greedy or desperate or both using any grapes from anywhere, Sicily included. ‘I always though of that stuff as DayGlo Red,’ says my neighborhood pest and freeloader Louie DiNuovo. ‘It would light you up something awful.’

Classico’s consorzio, then known as Gallo Nero, got busy and did an excellent job of spreading the gospel that a Black Rooster on the label meant good wine in the bottle. Chianti’s own association then tried to popularize its wine, branded Putto (a cherubic son of Bacchus), but with less success. Customers heard and heeded only the first shout, and that was Classico’s. Moreover, most accepted that as final and immutable, and never mind that over the decades since Chianti has improved steadily. Any that is exported is almost certain to be very good—and some is excellent, on a par with Classico. To dismiss it wholesale is, literally, a costly mistake. More than that, it’s self-denial without reward, like fasting in honor of Zeus or Apollo.

The Consorzio held a tasting of Chiantis recently in Manhattan’s Michelangelo Hotel. The speaker at or leader of the tasting was Daniele Cernilli of Gambero Rosso, the Italian wine/dine magazine: one of the 50 most-influential men in winedom. He noted that over-priced, over-oaked wines were declining in Italy, with more producers returning to simpler, drinkable wines that reflect terroir and belong on the table. Such words get under my skin a bit, because I’ve heard self-important folks using ‘food wine’ dismissively—meaning palatable but hardly worthy of attention. That’s not Daniele’s attitude: He knows as well as anyone that wine belongs with food. It is the table’s civilizing grace. Yes, there are times that call for curling up alone in the wing chair to think dark and brooding thoughts over a dark and brooding wine—the kind Italians call a vino di meditazione—but I’m pretty sure that they aren’t sufficient to sustain life.

Well, enough of that.

Chianti often costs a lot less than its upscale brother. Some of those tasted were at/below $10 a bottle (one only $7); those that were more were not much more. (Oh, OK, one hit $20.) Perfect for these times. Overall, Chianti represents more than value for money. It very often gives more than you pay for or expect.

Here’s how to identify them, subject, from time to time, to the Italian Exception (i.e., there are rules, and there are rules).

There are seven Chiantis, six geographic and one trans-geographic, all based on the same rule for grape varieties and percentages thereof: a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, up to 10% Canaiolo Nero, up to 20% other authorized red varieties (indigenous or international) and up to 10% white Trebbiano Toscano and/or Malvasia del Chianti.

The wine’s regions or subzones cluster more or less around Florence and its Colli Fiorentini. My favorite, east of Florence, is Rùfina, source of Villa di Vetrice, Selvapiana and Frescobaldi’s Nippozzano. Continuing clockwise: southeast is Colli Aretini; due south is Colli Senesi; Montespertoli is southwest; Colline Pisane, far west; and finally Montalbano (northwest, around Prato and Pistoia). Producers are entitled to name the zones on their labels, but many don’t, just as some ignore the DOCG necklace. Rùfina producers almost always label the zone, as do many in Colli Senesi. Roberto Giulio Droandi of Mannucci Droandi told me that he is particularly proud of his zone’s heritage and terroir, and so his labels were the first to be labeled ‘Chianti Colli Aretini.’ Too few others, there or elsewhere, have followed his lead; thus there are unspecified zone Chiantis mixed in with the transgeographic Chiantis, which are made from grapes grown in any two or more zones.

Chianti’s many subzones: Colli Aretini: pale green; Colline Pisane: light blue; Colli Fiorentini: orange; Rùfina: blue; Colli Senesi: apricot; Montalbano: gray; Montespertoli: lavender; Classico, like a good steak, is pink in the middle.

The wines tasted were San Fabiano; Melini San Lorenzo; Piccini; Ruffino; Poggio Bonelli Villa Chigi; Guicciardini; and I Veroni (all 2008); Giannozzi; Guerrini 2007 Forteguerra and Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva (all 2007); and the 2006 La Cignozza. Any one of them will make you happy. Any two will make you happier. But why settle? For my part, I hold with the Wisdom of Pikachu. A teacher and guide whose spirituality is so refined he makes Yoda seem sleazy as a BP spillmeister, Pikachu always counsels ‘Gotta catch them all!’