Saturday, May 14, 2011

wines and whines

Recovering from the last week of this adventure took as much time as living it. The numbers outline the events: 189 wines in three days of technical tasting, jostling with 153,000 industry professionals,  followed by a painful passage at 35,000 feet.


I stepped off the train with suitcase, briefcase and mandolin in Desanzano del Garda, one of the charming lakeside resort towns west of Verona. Air temperature was in the 70’s with a breeze sweeping off the lake, freshening the long shadows of afternoon.  I met with my friend Chris Zimmerman, Northwest Regional Sales Manager for Vias Imports Ltd., which represents many of Italy’s finest family-run wineries, and which accounts for 90% of bottles on Tappi’s list. I was joining Chris and Vias’ U.S. sales team for three days at Vinitaly, the largest exhibition of wine in the world, where more than 4,000 producers host elaborate and elegant tasting booths to demonstrate their work. In the next 72 hours we would taste:
Cantele, 7 wines
La Lestra, 4
Produttori del Barbaresco, 5
Pecchenino, 8
Ca’ Viola, 7
Araldica, 6
Pietra Porzia, 3
Damilano, 12
Marenco, 6
Terradora, 11
Torre di Luna, 11
Statti, 4
Broglia, 3
Bisol, 6
Rocca di Franscinello, 5
Saiagricola, 5
Castello di Luzzano, 6
Elvio Cogno, 9
Nureghe Crabioni, 4
Feudo di Santa Tresa, 6
Colosi, 4
Ceuso, 4
Suavia, 5
Vie di Romans, 10
Tenuta Luisa, 7
Camigliano, 4
Istituto Agrario di San Michele All’Adige, 13
Maso Poli, 4
San Leonardo, 8
Standouts for me were the Cantele Brothers’ Chardonnay ’10, Negro Amaro Rosato ’10, Primitivo and Amativo, both ’08;  Produttori Del Barbaresco’s Torre ’07 & ’08; Orlando Pecchenino’s Siri di Jermu Dolcetto ’08 and the La Coste Barolo ’07; Araldica’s Rapido Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese, ’10; Damilano’s Barbera d’Asti ’09; Terradora’s Falanghina and Greco di Tufo, ’10, and their Taurasi ’04 (Barolo of the south); Broglia Gavi Meirana ’10; Bisol Cartizze; Giovannella Fuggazza’s Castello di Luzzano Seta, Magot, Bonarda Frizzante, Carlino and Romeo; Valter Fissore’s Elvio Cogno Dolcetto d’Alba ’10, Montegrilli ’09 & Cascina Nuova Barolo ’06; Feudo di Santa Tresa organic biodynamic Purato Nero d’Avola; and Istituto di San Michele’s entire lineup.

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Once in a great while I taste a wine that transcends all previous experience. On the plains of northeast Italy, against the backdrop of the Julian Alps of Slovenia, I had such an encounter: white wines that are every bit as complex, as beautiful and elegant and delicious as the most sophisticated and elevated red I’ve ever had — the varietals produced by Gianfranco Gallo at the winery Vie di Romans, in Mariano del Friuli.

On more than a hundred acres of family ground, Gallo has been building his winery since 1978. He is a sophisticated student of geology and climate, as all serious estate winemakers must be. His 50 hectare property spans four DOCs in the Isonzo region, long known for its production of whites. The farm cultivates Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Rhein Riesling, Gew├╝rtzraminer, Pinot Grigio, Malvasia Istriana, Friulano, and a small crop of Merlot, bottling 12 labels in all. The vineyards stand between the Mediterranean climate, which produces fatter, structured ripe fruit, and the Continental climate, which accounts for minerality and acidity. Caught between the drying cold winds from northern glacial fields and the warm moist breezes up from the Adriatic, the farm experiences the high temperature differentials day to night that contribute to the wines’ complexity and long lives.

Gianfranco doesn’t release his wines until they are two years old,  a rare and dramatic statement in itself since most whites are most prudently consumed within two years of production. And even more impressive, he measures expected cellar life for his wines up to 20 years, with most bottles capable of more than 15 years in the cellar.

Interestingly, at the edges of the republic — Friuli and Sargedgna — at least two other producers are extracting ever-more complexity from whites: Alessandro Dettori’s Vermentino di Sardegna and Josko Gravner’s Ribolla Gialla and Breg. In fact, these three producers have been responsible for three of the most powerful wine drinking experiences I’ve had; wines so complex, so profoundly nuanced and so radically different from all the whites commonly tasted that, I’m willing to bet, if they were served at cellar temperature and poured blind to you while you yourself were wearing a blindfold, they would stand up powerfully to the noblest dolcettos, barbarescos, and even barolos.

In the cantina on the day of harvest, Gianfranco precipitously drops the fruits’ temperature from 28C on the skins to 5C in airless tanks. With the oxygen removed, the fruits’ aromatics and colors are fixed. His pinot grigio, labeled Dessimis, is a rich coppery rose, the startling result of preserving the grape’s true characteristics. Taste this wine and you might agree with my friend Chris: this is the best Pinot Grigio he’s ever tasted.

Vie di Romans wines will be available at Tappi for summer. Preliminary estimates suggest a cost at the table of around $65. For guests who truly appreciate artistry in wine, a bottle of Vie di Romans will be a very satisfying experience.

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Nightmare at 35,000 feet

I started the morning at 4:30 with a coffee at the hotel kitchen with the night clerk. Rain fell steadily through windswept darkness, and the taxi ride to the airport gave me a chill. The Verona terminal is small, with less than ten gates in one well-lit building. Even at that early hour, the interior felt like the town square with people milling about, chatting over coffees like old friends, happy to be together at that hour with wind and rain outside.

After I passed through security, I found a quiet corner in an empty section of airport seats, snapped open the case and played softly; it’s a solitary practice with a sound track, a conversation with my old friend the mandolin. The mild discomfort at the base of my sternum seemed like slight indigestion, probably from the thick espresso less than an hour before.

The discomfort grew. I put away my mandolin and walked around the terminal, with a feeling of pressure building steadily below my ribs. Within thirty minutes it was subsiding; I chalked it up to coffee and travel jitters.

Two hours later, running for my gate at Charles De Gaulle for the long final flight back to Seattle, my mind was wrapped up in not missing the plane. I was one of the last passengers to board.

My briefcase and mandolin and coat stowed above, I settled into my seat, suddenly hungry. As soon as we gained altitude, lunch arrived and I ate every bite. The flight was full, and the attendants aboard Air France 306 were pleasant and busy. I found a pillow and a blanket, turned my watch back nine hours, reclined my seat and closed my eyes. Then I felt it again, the unpleasant pressure below my ribs. I stood up and walked the aisle. Didn’t help. Got worse. Less than thirty minutes later, I was hiding in the tail around the aft galley. The flight attendants, bless their hearts, eyed me with concern as they went about their work. I was perspiring. One of the crew, the attendant in my seat section, looked into my eyes and asked if I was okay. I smiled weakly. She waited. I shook my head.

We tried antacids from the first aid kit. I sat down in a crew jump seat. I tried walking again.  I leaned against the bulkhead, and groaned. I doubled up, and slid to the floor. They called for a doctor.

Three people showed up: Mark, a psychiatrist, Tobias, an emergency room nurse, and Robert, a Marine medic. I was on my back, doubled up with pain. I passed out. I wanted to pass out.

For two or three hours I was on the floor of the aft galley, an I.V. bringing fluid and morphine into my right arm, as a solitary gall stone shouldered its way through a tight biliary tract to the top of my small intestine. I spent the next five days, sleeping, my sister Angela’s house in Seattle. Now, after blood tests, ultrasounds and CT scans, I am back at work feeling 100% better, stoking the pizza oven four nights a week, pouring wine and watching the rain.

I hope to see you soon.