Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Aldo Sohm podcast interview is now live!

Recently I got a chance to sit down with Aldo Sohm - the Head Sommelier of the famed Le Bernardin restaurant in Manhattan - and talk with him about wine, his long career thus far, how he approaches the service at Le Bernardin, and why he always puts on some Bling before heading out to the dining room. You can catch that interview and more to come on a just launched podcast site dedicated to long form discussions with the good folks of the wine business. You can also check it out on iTunes.

Aldo is genuinely inpiring, both as a person and a sommelier, and I was deeply honored that he took the time to share with me so much of his thinking. Thank you, Aldo.

Don't miss the interview. Aldo is one of the most dedicated people working as a sommelier today, and if you care about wine this is a voice that you absolutely should hear.

And if you want to keep up with Aldo beyond the interview be sure to check in with his own blog.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Like with likes

When I was a kid I used to think that it would make more sense for museums to specialize. Not that it would make more sense for some of them should specialize, but that they all should. The thought was that it would best for all of the works of Degas to be in one place. And in another place there would be Velazquez. And somewhere else the Rembrandts. I mean all the works, the entire production of the artist, in total. A small city might support the Whistler Museum. A large city might have the Picasso Foundation. Everything, every etching, every mural, every sculpture, and every oil on canvas from a particular artist would be in one geographic location.

Think about it. All the works would be in context. Wanted the progression of a theme through an artist's work? There it would be. Wanted to know how many times he painted a particular model? All the canvases would be there. Changes in technique, or in formal concerns? You would see them and when they started. Wanted to learn a little or a lot about a particular artist? You'd know where to go. Wanted to speak with every expert who had written a book on that artist? You'd know where they worked. The people who knew the subject in depth would be there, and so would all the works, so that you could learn from them to whichever degree you decided was best.

They look like they would be absolutely charmed to be joined by all of their friends.

Of course it wouldn't work for art. It's all too expensive now, and there is no way to get all the pieces moved around the global patchwork of museums in a way that would link them up all together. But I am ready to say it would be better for wine if a similar scheme were in effect for restaurants.

Imagine it for a second. The Jayer restaurant. The Raveneau restaurant. The Mascarello restaurant. Each restaurant in the world could choose one producer of white and one of red. A menu would be designed solely with those wines in mind. A menu which could cut across culinary boundaries, just so long as the food was designed for those house wines. Whole Dover sole on the menu of the Raveneau restaurant? Sure. But also crudo. A fresh Chevre might also be offered, not far the simple linguine tossed with lemon bread crumbs and clams. Any dish that might complement the wines, nothing that wouldn't.

A staff that knew the wines expertly, inside and out. No one off bottles. No guesses. This is what they do, they open up Lopez Rioja. They can tell you precisely how a 1968 is drinking, because they have opened five already this week, and two of them were with that dish, actually. A sommelier who wants to learn about the wines of Gouges? He goes to stage at the Gouges specialist for awhile. He works with a team that knows all about Gouges. Young Gouges, old Gouges, red Gouges, white Gouges. Gouges decanted, Gouges from a cradle. They do it. Then maybe that sommelier writes a paper up about Gouges, something for the community to read, before moving on to assume lead sommelier duties at the Simon Bize restaurant.

Think about it. It could be wonderful. You plan. You save. You go to the Rousseau restaurant for your anniversary. You are guaranteed of provenance. The buyer there knows the labels of Rousseau like he knows his own face in the mirror. This is his profession, the wines of Rousseau. Nothing out of place makes it in. Rousseau family members stop by now again to taste in the cellar, to chat with the chef about ideas, maybe drop off some of the latest late release. This is the restaurant that represents them to the world, of course they take a strong interest in what happens there. So does every producer with their own respective venue.

Want something different? Tired of drinking at that same Madiran place near your house? Bring in corkage. But don't say it isn't nice to drink in context.

Really, it's not so silly.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tasting is listening

Imagine wine is speech.

Imagine you are listening to a dude and he is witty, a bit irreverent, entertaining. Maybe there is some scatalogical humor. It's all very much fun. A nice time.

Now imagine Immanuel Kant has you over for a talk. A lecture, really. He wants to prove something, something deeply important, but he isn't just exactly sure how. Of course he doesn't say so. He lays out the thinking before you. There is a precision that is palpable, each moment in which the clock ticks there is a plan. You feel the answers have been provided for you, but also that maybe this isn't the book you thought you had been reading from. There is a sense of purpose behind the reach and the placement of the words. You maybe had not expected that. Maybe you don't want to dismiss the casual in so sweeping a fashion, but when you hear it done just so it does seem, well, IMPRESSIVE. There it is. Impressive.

Or maybe on another day William Carlos Williams comes over. And you listen to him for a moment. And you had never seen the terrace outside your window in just that way before. The importance of that view, until he told you about it. What was out there. He said only a couple words but that was enough. Everything seemed simple until it wasn't.

Churchill elects to join you. "Don't you realize other lives are valuable or your own isn't?" He asks you point blank. Well, yes, yes, you had. "Then do something about it. And doing something about it isn't just sitting there, is it?" And then you go about to something you didn't know possible. Not really.

There are many kinds of speech. Each is appropriate for a different time. For a different you. If you decide to listen to only one, well, that's a shame.

Wine is speech, by the way.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Growing up different

Lithops are plants that take on the appearance of stones. The leaves of a lithops plant grow mostly below ground, and what appears on the surface is grey or brown, not the green color you might expect from a plant. In those grey brown hues lithops take on the look of pebbles and rocks, resembling the geological features of their native place. This is recognized in their name, which derives from the Ancient Greek words lithos ("stone") and ops ("face").

Lithops display at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
The little signs, which are neither plants nor rocks, are not usually found near lithops in the wild.
Lithops can only flourish in environments with very little rainfall, and exist in the wild across stretches of Southern Africa. It is said that their appearance as stones once helped protect lithops from predators, but as rare plant collectors now seek them out for their novelty, their population in the wild has become more scarce.

Sometimes I encounter people who are confused by the concept of minerality in wine. They don't know what it is, or how to define it. How should this liquid contain stones instead of fruit? How does a vine plant produce that?

Minerality in wine is what happens when plants grow up like rocks.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Dear Castiglione,

I miss you.

Levi with an i

Returning to Brovia

We arrived back at the Brovia cantina, and with high expectations. It had been a tremendous first visit a year ago, and at that time I had come away thinking that Brovia had produced a more solid range of 2007 Barolo than anybody. We had tasted a few hundred 2007s at Nebbiolo Prima before that visit and Brovia had been the real highlight, across the board. I was especially curious to see where those wines stood a year later.

The 1995 was the first vintage of ca' mia that was released by Brovia.
I have a great deal of respect for what Brovia has achieved in recent years, and yet it seems like their reputation broadly is not yet at the level of the actual wines. The ca' mia in particular I think can stand with most any Barolo produced, as a bottle of 1995 consumed on this trip confirmed.

We again sat down with Alex Sanchez, who strikes me as both thoughtful and generous. Alex has a quiet personality, and speaks about the wines in an open ended fashion, leaving room in his thought for the changes and future epiphanies that follow a complex beverage. Alex doesn't so much declare, as examine. For example, Alex mentions that the Brovia 2000s and 2006s are still putting on weight, "still growing" in palate density as they mature inside the bottle. He contends that 2008 is "maybe a vintage that is a little bit different to understand, but the potential is there." He tells us that while 2008 production levels were in line with the quantity levels produced by Brovia in 2007, 2010 had a lower quantity resulting from 2010's shift to complete organic viticulture at Brovia.

Looking back to benchmarks, Alex mentions that 1998 showed "a perfect picture of each cru - each show's its character." It is beyond interesting to taste the four cru Barolos of Brovia in any vintage, because each is vinified in the same manner: spontaneous fermentation in cement tanks, a 3 week maceration of the skins achieved through pumping over, and ageing in wooden botti of the same size. The means used are the same for each of the cru bottlings: Garblet Sue (which is from Bricco Fiasco), Villero, Rocche, and ca' mia. So it really is the vineyard that shows the difference in any given vintage. Of course it is hard to sum up those differences in words, at least for me. I found it noteworthy that Alex said in his opinion Rocche is the cru that changes the most in flavor profile from vintage to vintage.

The ca' mia, based around Serralunga fruit from the Brea vineyard, does often seems like an outlier from the rest of the group, as all three of the others are in Castiglione Falletto. Sometimes when I drink ca' mia the closest cognate for me is actually Cappellano, whose Rupestris is also from Serralunga fruit.

Brovia's 2008 ca' mia Barolo.
On this trip we tasted all four cru Barolos of Brovia from 2008, amongst other wines. The 2008 Barolos had been bottled this past September. Amongst my notes the words "control" and "compact" tend to crop up quite a bit, testifying to what I generally think of as a Barolo vintage this is a bit turned in on itself at the moment. I myself imagine that 2008s will be retiscent for a bit as 1998s were, and then show very open if a bit rustic, earthy, and herbal around the edges, as again 1998s often do today. 2008s can in general show muted aromatics at the moment. For especially that reason I myself do not plan on opening a lot of 2008 Barolo bottles right away. I like to take in the aromas, rather than try to hunt them down.

We also tasted from cask a couple of 2010 Barolos from Brovia on this visit (the 2010 ca' mia is spectacular, btw), a 2009 ca' mia, and returned to a host of 2007s in bottle. Perhaps because I had liked the 2007 Brovia Barolos so much amongst the context of other 2007 Barolos, I had high hopes. I was thinking that perhaps the wines would have quieted down over the course of the year, lost some of their tutti frutti character, and become drier and you know what? I was wrong. That didn't really happen. Perhaps because we tasted the 2007s after the 2008s, the fruit of the 2007s seemed expansive, and still somewhat facile, at least in the case of the Villero and the Garblet Sue. But it is still early days, and we are talking about long ageing Barolo for heaven's sake, so maybe I should wait for more than just one year to make pronouncements. I sure did think that the 2007 ca' mia made a strong argument for the greatness of ca' mia, even when from a vintage that I just don't really care for. I'd still hazard to say that the 2007s from Brovia are some of the better Barolos from that year, so far as that goes.

Tasting and copious note taking over, we headed out to see Brovia's Rocche cru. And wouldn't you know it but the batteries of my camera died just as we were getting out of the car and into the vineyard. So I have no pictures of Rocche at all. Luckily, the great Gregory dal Piaz was also there, as he was at all the visits that I made in the Piemonte this year, and he has allowed me to use here some of the photographs that he took of Rocche. In the above shot you can see Rocche in the distance, from the Monforte side. There is the Castle of Castiglione Falletto in the right of the picture, and the hillock of Ceretto's Bricco Rocche rising above the road on the left hand side. Below that road is Rocche di Castiglione.

This is the view at the top of Rocche, from the road. Many of Brovia's Rocche vines were planted back in 1966, although there is a spectacular terraced parcel at the bottom the vineyard that was planted only 5 years ago. That bottom parcel also belongs to Brovia. This is an important cru for the estate, as it is the cru they have been working with for by far the longest period of time. If you have had an old bottle of Brovia Barolo you most likely drank a wine from Rocche.

And here is a shot looking down the slope of Rocche. Unfortunately you can't see from this shot just how steep the vineyard is. It is actually nasty steep. Like wicked, nasty steep. I really had no idea until I myself walked all the way down to the bottom of the vineyard. Or more like held on till the bottom of the vineyard, as I kept grabing the vine row posts on my way down there, afraid I was about to fall. No joke, and this is true, there was somebody's broken tennis shoe in the dirt down there. Like somebody had lost a shoe sliding down the slope and had never gotten back to recover it, but had just tried to crawl out of there as best they could, lucky to escape with some bruises.

This is the other reason I don't have any pictures of that bottom parcel for you: trying to take a picture down there would be perilous. You are at a disadvantage just trying to stand up straight. But let me tell you, there are some low trees and bushes and then a clearing opens up and it looks like an old Roman terraced vineyard. And it looks like a sun trap. At any rate, it is pretty cool. If you can make it down there, definitely check it out.

Which is what I would say about Brovia in general: check it out. This a producer turning out some tremendous wines.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bottling Day

A message from Isabella Oddero at Poderi Oddero just arrived in the inbox. The news from Santa Maria.

Today we are bottling the 2008 Barolos. Manhattan is here, and so is my grandfather.

The recent history of Rionda

Last summer, in 2011, I took this picture of the Vigna Rionda cru in Serralunga (Vigna Rionda is in the middle distance).

A month ago I took the above picture of the same vineyard, Vigna Rionda. As you can see, there is now a large lacuna in the vineyard.

What happened? I thought you might like to know why a large swathe of one of the most famous Barolo vineyards has gone missing.

Vigna Rionda is not only a famous vineyard, it is also a large one, and several growers control different pieces of it.

In this grouping of Rionda, still planted today, are the parcels (if I am correct) of Poderi Oddero, Luigi Oddero, and Luigi Pira. Feel free to let me know in the comments if I am wrong about that.

While over there, past the seemingly vacant space, is the parcel controlled by Massolino. The Massolino holding is pretty big, at over 2 hectares of vines.

In between those groupings is what until recently was the Canale parcel: a large 2.2 hectare collection of vineyard rows the majority of which have now been ripped out. This was the parcel that grew the grapes used for Bruno Giacosa's Collina Rionda, which was the wine that more than any other drew fame and attention to this vineyard. The last vintage of the Giacosa bottling that was made was the 1993. Subsequently, Roagna produced a Barolo from this same parcel. The last vintage of Roagna labelled Rionda produced was the 2006. Both Giacosa and Roagna purchased what was used in those bottlings from the Canale family, first Aldo Canale, and then from 1998, Aldo's only son Tommaso Canale. The vines in the Canale family parcel had been planted as far back as 1946.

Canale labelled bottles at the Giovanni Rosso cantina.
In December of 2010 Tommaso Canale unexpectedly died, leaving neither a direct descendant nor a will. His large parcel of Vigna Rionda was then divided between three distant relatives: Guido Porro and Sergio Germano each received a bit less than half a hectare, and the remainder of the Canale holding, a bit more than a hectare, went to Davide Rosso of the Giovanni Rosso winery.

What happened next is that most the Canale portion of Rionda was ripped out. It is in the process of being replanted. The logic was that the Nebbiolo vines there were very old, sometimes diseased, often interplanted with Dolcetto and Barbera, and had seen little care in terms of modern trellissing or training.

At any rate they are gone now, except for a small portion of old vines at the top of the vineyard slope which Davide Rosso has decided to keep.

The view from the top of Vigna Rionda, looking down into what was the Canale parcel. To the left are the vines that Davide Rosso has preserved.

The old Canale rows still in place at Vigna Rionda.

And which are in full view of the Castle of Serralunga.

Giovanni Rosso will bottle a small release from the grapes grown here starting with the 2011 vintage. Eventually the vines that are being planted now will come on stream and Giovanni Rosso will have more volume of production from their complete parcel in Rionda. The Giovanni Rosso winery is also finishing the maturation of the Barolos made by Tommaso Canale from the Canale parcel (the entire parcel, before most of it was ripped out) in the 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages.

The 2009 Vigna Rionda from Tomasso Canale is currently finishing its maturation in the Giovanni Rosso cellar.

Before Tommaso Canale's death in 2010 the Giovanni Rosso winery did not control any vines in Rionda, and neither did Ettore Germano or Guido Porro. Now each has what might be considered a slice from the tenderloin of Rionda.

Sergio Germano of Ettore Germano has been quoted as saying that his first Barolo from Rionda will probably be from the 2017 harvest.

Guido Porro, pictured above, told me that he specifically wanted his parcel to be at the bottom of the vineyard, because of his feeling that the top portions of Rionda see higher temperatures and conditions that are very dry.

The Guido Porro cellar, above, will eventually play host to wine from the Vigna Rionda cru.
When I asked Guido Porro what the character of Vigna Rionda as a vineyard was, he said that he did not yet know, but hoped to find out. I and the many other fans of the Rionda cru must for now wait on the new answer.

Please note that some informational details given in the above text were gleaned from here, here, here, and here. Those who might wish to learn more are recommended to those sources for further information. - i man

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Finding Super Barolo at Cappellano

I love the eccentricities of old bottle labels. Somehow you knew just walking in that there would be some super special old label like this one in the Cappellano tasting room. A nice rendering of the Serralunga Castle on there.

There was some mixup with the timing, so there was plenty of opportunity to snap pictures while we waited. I took my camera eye along pretty much every inch of the place. If anyone ever needs in the future to reconstruct the Cappellano tasting room from photographs, perhaps for a museum of Pie Franco installation, do contact me.

The lively ball of white fur in the picture above is Marta that cat, who kept us company while we waited.

There were the diplomas and official citations.

And there was the sheet music.

There were the old labels.

And the photographs.

And the paintings.

And there were the books.

And then there was Augusto, who met with us and led us around the cellar.

While Marta surveyed the scene.

The cantina is expanding, and in fact there was a big crane working on the roof when we arrived. Because of the construction, things were a bit more packed in close together than normal in the cellar.

We got a chance to taste this Barolo Rupestris 2007 a bit later in our visit.

The big, sturdy fruit of Gabutti with the soft around the edges of 2007. It was a good wine, and a highly credible 2007.

Of course Baldo wasn't here, but of course he was everywhere. There is a certain traditional minded stylishness about the place that you can tell he desired.

But then you can tell from the labels that the Cappellano family has long had an eye for style.