Kings of the Carso. @winestories

Benjamin Zidarich and his Vitovska

Friends of mine are going to the Carso soon.  I am ecstatic for them because, even as this is a place I have not yet seen in person, I feel like I know it already.  There will be a stiff breeze from the Adriatic and an electric, razor-sharp quality to the sunlight here.  There will be lots of wine, cured pork, lovely cheeses.  Bright red soil crunching under your feet.  A salty brine- electricity in the air.  

The wines from the Carso are authentic.  There’s no other word for them.  They are stone and sweat and dirt and rainwater.  They’re not orange wines because it’s hip to make orange wine.  Skin-contact is a necessary tool for ensuring native fermentation- not a political statement.  Color is secondary to the very nature of the wine. Stick your nose in a glass of Vitovska and you won’t care about the color anyway- it’s beguiling and smells of jasmine and tea leaves and sea-spray.  There’s acidity like a lightening bolt and a lingering umami that clings forever on your palate. The Carso is calling you!

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Bubbles by Benanti

Benanti Bubbles 1-1

I had the pleasure of tasting this bottle, Benanti’s Noblesse, a few weeks ago after we found it thanks to Dan Pirelli, at the Wine Hotel in Los Angeles.  100% Carricante grapes, 100% Etna.  Who says great sparkling is only made with Chardonnay?! Crisp and yeasty with a great acidity- this wine is masterful and will age well for many years. Although it’s not uncommon to find producers in Italy who work mainly with still wines, conducting sparkling wine “experiments” on the side, this bottling is clearly way more than a side project.   I love finding first-class bubbles in unexpected places!

When Giuseppe Benanti saw my picture posted to Facebook he was happy to comment:

“26 years ago, when I decided to take up this Ancient Family Passion of wine-making, I gave myself a goal: To make wine on Etna, from Etna, and to protect the great capacity of the terroir of our mountain!  …We stayed straight on this path, and we took no shortcuts.  Having been a pharmacist for 42 years prior, I can assure you of the time and effort we took to research and analyze various techniques- all of which were very familiar to me. Continue reading

Take me where I can see the Mountains. #valdossola #prünent

View of valleyA view of Val d’Ossola in Piemonte.

Wines are emotional for me- some more than others.   Cantine Garrone makes some of the most potent wines I know- effectively pulling at my heartstrings anytime I taste them. This obscure winery is the result of winemaker and visionary Mario Garrone’s unflagging love for his land.

vineyard management

Mario Garrone and Diego Meraviglia in the vineyard.

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Italian White Wines Can Age. #truth

Bisci 2003


I posted this picture on my Instagram and Twitter feeds last week and got a number of surprising responses. “Was it still good?” and “Does Verdicchio last that long?” and “Where did you find that? It’s so old!”

Yes!  Italian white wines can age!

I don’t know where or why the rumor that white wines (especially from Italy) should only be consumed when fresh and young was started, but it needs to be squashed- now.  Most of my epiphany-moments with Italian wines have been with older whites.  Benanti’s Pietramarina from Etna, Emidio Pepe’s Trebbiano,  Fiorano’s whites… the list is long, my friends.

For example, this Verdicchio di Matelica from classic producer, Bisci, is gorgeous with 10 years of bottle age.  The steeliness of youth found in some Verdicchio di Matelica wines is fleshed out by  the long, slow, micro-oxidation of the wine through its cork.  A wine that might have been overtly bright and cheerful in its youth become more brooding- complex, aromatic, and oilier on the palate.

For the record the pairing of this Verdicchio with savory, slow-grilled peaches and yogurt with basil and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar was just about the most perfect food-and-wine pairing I can remember.  (Bravo, Geoff and Amber!) Now that’s my kind of dessert.

Valentini Trebbiano


Not every Italian white wine can age.  However you will find greatness  more often than not, especially with the combination of the right grape varietal, vinified by an experienced producer.  Verdicchio, Trebbiano, Soave, Fiano are all great places to start if you’re looking to taste some older whites wines from Italy.  These varietals all seem to have the backbone and the acidity to evolve with time.  Check out this great podcast by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth at the Guild of Sommeliers.  You’ll start to understand what it takes to produces truly great white wines (that can age).

Open your mind.  Don’t be an ageist- talk to your favorite retailer and ask them when they have in the back of the shop.  My guess is, you’ll be happily surprised by what you find.


*By the way, that Bisci is available at the Wine House in Los Angeles (they ship everywhere) for only $27.99.  I would happily pay twice that for this level of deliciousness.

Ciso: Lambrusco a Foglia Frastagliata

Ciso 2010Half of the frustration for American wine consumers when faced with new Italian wine varieties is usually pronunciation.  This is most certainly the case with one of my new favorite geeky finds, this beautiful bottle, Ciso, made from Lambrusco a Foglia Frastagliata grapes.  Say that ten times fast.  Say it at all!

Ciso “chee-soh”  Lambrusco “lam-broo-skoh” a Foglia “ah foh-lyah” Frastagliata “frah-stahl-yah-tah”  There.  That wasn’t so bad, was it?Avio in Trentino

This wine comes from a very interesting group of producers in the Trentino region who call themselves “i Dolomitici” (loosely translated to “people of the Dolomites”).  There are 11 producers in this group, all with their own vineyards and wineries.  The Ciso wine is the only project they farm and vinify together, but it say the most about who they are and the work they do.

The Dolimitici favor a more natural approach to winemaking, focusing on authenticity and a sense of place in the wines and respectful, conscious, healthy methods of farming.  Ciso is a wine born of this vision.  It’s name comes from the name of the farmer who granted them these vines, Narisco, who went by the nickname “Ciso”.  His wise, age-old farming practices ensured a healthy vineyard, co-planted with biodiversity and soil-health in mind.  The vineyard is ungrafted, and over 100 years old- a testament to his mastery of farming the land.Avio, Castello Sabbionara

The Ciso vineyard is in the southern-most part of Trentino inside the town of Avio.  It contains 727 vines of Lambrusco a Foglia Frastagliata, which is a very old local grape that they use to produce an expressive, deep purple, dry still red wine.  This variety is probably related to Lambrusco, perhaps most closely to the Lancellota clone, but it is a completely separate, unique variety.Foglia Frastagliata

“A Foglia Frastagliata” means “with a leaf that is jagged or indented“.  As you can see from the picture, this is a marker for the variety.  Difficult to pronounce perhaps, but aptly named.

Lambrusco a Foglia Frastagliata

I love stumbling on wines like these- Italy is full of them.  Long-lost heirloom varieties and beautiful stories about the local personalities who farmed the land and kept tradition from fading away with technology.  Don’t be afraid of the things you can’t pronounce.  Just find an Italian friend to help you stumble through, or use an online pronunciation guide.

Better yet, don’t pronounce them at all- just taste them and let the wines speak for themselves.



The New California Winemaker… #PenvilleProjects

Penville ProjectsI clearly have a passion for Italy and Italian wine, but as an American, I am pretty darn proud of our country too.  In all my years in the wine industry, one major theme with most European wine estates is History.  Established Chateaux. Royalty even.  It’s common to meet a winemaker whose family dates back hundreds of years, whose property and winery are family heirlooms and whose vineyards were inherited by multiple generations.  If you’re not born into this particular situation, it’s a lot more difficult to establish yourself in Europe as a winemaker- to be allowed to purchase the vineyards, to find the space or facility to make your wine.Grenache

This is one more reason to love the USA and it’s sense of Free Market Economy. You don’t need your own vines to make terroir-driven wine in California any more.  You don’t even need your own winery.  You can rent space in an “Urban Winery” in Lompoc.  You can buy grapes from stellar growers like Stolpman Vineyards.  And you can be proud of how you work, and which grapes you select, like Liquid Farm does on their website, happily listing “Vineyard Partners” as a seal of pedigree for their wines.  Long Live California and the USA.  Home of the Free and the Bravely-Making-Wine.  If you dream of making wine, this is the place to be.

I love finding new projects started by young winemakers in California who, as Jon Bonne put it in his book The New California, “… are rewriting the rules of contemporary winemaking [in] their quest to express the uniqueness of California terroir.”  People like my dear friends Patton Penhallegon and Michael Villas at Penville Projects.

These two  crazy kids met while working at Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach (about a 2 hour drive from Santa Barbara wine country).  They decided it was time make their dream a reality and they began researching grape growers, vinification methods, and concrete eggs.Egg Baby

Yes, Concrete Eggs.  Concrete can handle cold and heat.  It stabilizes temperature naturally.  It’s porous, so it allows for the transfer of oxygen like wood, but without the transfer of unwanted flavor or aroma.  It’s also highly re-useable and sustainable.

Patton and Michael chose the egg-shaped vessel because it harkens back to the ancient amphorae used to ferment wine thousands of years ago. With no corners, the wine is free to circulate naturally during fermentation.  You can actually watch the wine move during this process of constant self-stirring. The egg shape also forces more of the cap to remain submerged during fermentation, reducing exposure to oxygen and the need for “punch down”.Egg-cellent

I can’t wait to taste the first 2014 vintage of Penville Projects.  I understand this will be a Grenache Rose- bright and happy and a celebration of all things wine lovers adore, just in time for the Spring rose season of 2015.  Patton and Michael

If you want to support Patton and Michael (and why wouldn’t you, really?!), click on THIS LINK and vote for them to win a grant from Wells Fargo to help them buy more concrete eggs, or a little more fruit for future vintages.

Support the future of California Winemaking!

Finding Mount Etna in Denver, Colorado @theKitchen

FessinaTenuta Fessina’s “LaEneo” at The Kitchen in Denver, Colorado.

I remember the first time I tasted these wines.  My good friend Giampaolo Gravina sent me over to the Sicilian Pavillion at Vinitaly to find Federico Curtaz at the Tenuta Fessina booth.  I arrived with high hopes- Giampaolo has impeccable taste and a talent for sniffing out the best wines in the ocean of Italian wine.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The Fessina wines are the pure expressions of Mount Etna.  Silty and dusty with that grippy hint of volcanic ash- embossed into the wines by years of clinging to life on the edge of the world.  Rocky soil below, molten lava threatening to spill over and decimate from above, and the salty blue sea spread out like a looking glass all around.  I especially love Fessina’s “LaEneo“- 100% Nerello Cappuccio, and one of the only mono-bottlings of the varietal I have ever tasted (aside from Benanti’s bottlings, which are also superb).

Notes VinitalyImage from tasting with Federico Curtaz, Vinitaly 2012.

Nerello Cappuccio is the secondary grape in the Etna Rosso DOC blend.  It has a deeper flavor profile than Nerello Mascalese- less red cherries and more black fruits, warm spices, roasty depth.  A few years after this first fateful tasting I was thrilled to be reacquainted with the wine in the least suspecting of all places- Denver Colorado!ETNAA view of Etna.

I was checking out the wine list at The Kitchen and there it was- staring me in the face like a long-lost friend you find in the most surprising place.  The wine was a gorgeous as I remembered, stunning in its simplicity and terroir.  Once you’ve stood in the vineyards along the hillsides and terraces of Mount Etna you will never forget the feel of the place.  The way it smells like wildflowers and asphalt and wet earth.  The way the unforgiving sun shines tirelessly and seems to warm you from the inside.  The vast expanse of vineyard that embraces every curve, right up to the edge of the road.  That’s what you’ll find in the glass.

When you meet Federico and talk to him about wine-making you’ll understand why these wines have such true expressions of place.  This quote from his website is a perfect example of the philosophy required to make such honest, truth-telling wines.Fessina MeetingMe and Federico Curtaz in 2012.  Happy Nerello-drinking people!


“I am a Humanist of wine. I have a firm belief that wine is a sign and expression of civilization, encompassing humanity’s memory and reflecting its complexity. Because behind the product, there is the soul of the place and the man who created the wine.”

What a beautiful surprise to find a little piece of Etna (and Federico!) in downtown Denver, Colorado.