Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Masciarelli Wine Company

"The most popular wine I have ever sold."  That was my sales pitch for Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo for what seems like decades before the pricing got a little out of whack.  Now it's back in here (along with the Trebbiano) at a nice $10 retail, which is one reason for this blogpost now.  The other reason is that Friday's tasting includes six other wines from the Masciarelli Wine Company and those are all from the wine importing side of the company.  There are, after all, two legs to the Masciarelli Wine Company trousers; one is the historic estate vineyards in Abruzzo, the other, the import house.

On hand for the event on Friday will be wine broker, Don Zimmerman of Zimcraft Wines Ltd., who actually introduced Masciarelli wines to this market back in the 1980s.  Zimmerman has remained active with the company through the years and even now makes regular business excursions to corporate headquarters in Weymouth, Massachusetts.  With that kind of historic reference on hand we should all learn how a small family-owned vineyard in Abruzzo thirty years ago could develop into the million case annual sales juggernaut it is today.

From their website I learned a couple of interesting factoids about each branch of the company:

     1.  Masciarelli is now the largest wine producer in Abruzzo with the Montepulciano accounting for the majority of that production.  Not satisfied with that stature, Masciarelli has moved into the undeveloped and much envied mountainous L'Aquila province in northern Abruzzo where they are  planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes which should yield a very special Italian red blend.

     2.  The import division, which began in 1987 with just French and Italian wines, now sells wines from five continents including production from both California and Oregon.  They are in twenty-seven states using thirty-one distributors including two in Atlanta.  Along with wines, the Masciarelli Wine Company imports liqueurs, Cognac, and olive oil!

Please join us Friday between 5 and 8pm for the tasting and become a follower of the blog before this thing becomes too popular and you can't get in!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Jam & Vinegar

So I'm sitting at my table when the server walks up and says, "Would you like a gob of jam on your food, sir, or perhaps a splash of vinegar?"  I'll take the vinegar, thank you.

Actually a drop of vinegar on practically any food improves the flavor of the dish and in some cases it changes the whole personality of the thing.  Like seafood, for instance.  In kitchen food preparation the same thing seems to happen, a drop of vinegar here and there performs a little gourmet magic sight unseen for those seated at the table in the next room. 

The best vinegar, of course, is real balsamic vinegar which is made from Trebbiano grapes in Italy and slowly aged over time.  That rich, complex, sweet, brown elixir is guaranteed to wake up any sleeping flavors in food but actually any quality vinegar that is aged like a wine will do something positive with its food application.

Jam, I'm not so sure of.

Now, I may be about to make a big mistake.  The last time I made a similar goof was when I compared Port to cough syrup.  Port sales rather declined with that sales pitch.

Here goes anyway...A recurring subtext here at the blogspot posits that new world wines offer forward fruit and often little in the way of a finish.  A word for that is "jamminess".  Old world wines are usually lighter and drier and all about long flavors with a lasting finish.  The operative descriptor there is "wininess".  New world wines are wonderfully enjoyable by themselves as a cocktail while old world wines are more food friendly and actually, part and parcel of the dinner table setting.  Moreover, new world wines go "snap, crackle, pop" and old world wines are more like "swoosh".  Just kidding about that last one.  I can see I'm digging a hole here.

Yet according to my good friend, because of their richness California wines actually go better with our lower fat foods than Europeans do so maybe I'm wrong and jamminess really does rock with food.  Me?  I'm with the other stuff, especially with soups, sauces, stews and busy meals in general.  Pasta?  Oh, yeah!

On Friday May 2nd between 5 and 8pm, Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage joins us with a presentation of some real special French and Italian wines.  Tommy is a knowledgeable wine trade veteran but can sometimes bring out the unseemly side of others at tastings.  Scuttlebutt at the last event had Tommy arranging an armored car heist with others in attendance with the intention of using the procedes to buy contraband which, of course, would set everybody up for life.  What a guy!  And he didn't offer me even a small part in the thing!  Please join us for the tasting and become a part of the next caper.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Grana Padano

We just got in a twenty pound cut (1/4 wheel) of Grana Padano, aged Italian cow's milk cheese, which we have learned is used in Italian-American restaurants everywhere as Parmesan because it approximates the same flavor at a lower price point.  Sadly, we bought the cheese for the same reason, which seems to reduce it's raison d'etre to a percentage of worth relative to it's superior.

Grana Padano received its DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) government sanctioned classification in 1996, which seems a little late considering there is written documentation of its creation in 1135.  As usual the monks get the creation credit here again.  This time its Cistercians near Milan who were motivated by their desire to preserve extra milk from dairy farmers.  By 1500 the cheese was famous and today it is Italy's best selling cheese worldwide.

Grana means "grain" and refers to the cheese's grainy texture; Padano refers to the Po River Valley and it is in these environs that we get our insights into Grana Padano's relationship with Reggiano-Parmesan.  Grana Padano is sourced from dairy farms in five regions: Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino, and Veneto.  Reggiano is sourced only from Emilia-Romagna and a small region in Lombardy. 

Reggiano is made from whole raw cow's milk; Grana Padano, from partially skimmed milk.  Both use a blend of morning and evening milkings for uniformity.  Both are then twice "cooked", carefully raising the temperature of the milk ultimately to about 55 degrees.  Grana is then aged nine months while Reggiano is given twelve.  After aging, both cheeses receive inspections from their respective consortiums for the purpose of grading the quality of the cheese.  Those passing inspection get their natural rind firebranded with a trademark or, if unsatisfactory, left unbranded.

Reggiano-Parmesan is crumblier, stronger, and more complex than Grana Padano so it seems Grana really is the lesser cheese than Reggiano both in price and quality.  Well, maybe.  There are actually three grades of Grana Padano: Grana Padano Fresco, the one described above, aged nine to sixteen months; Grana Padano "oltre 16 mesi", aged sixteen to twenty months; and Grana Padano Stravecchio, aged twenty to thirty months.  While I don't know the costs here, I'm betting they taste real good!

One last note here: both Reggiano and Grana Padano have the tyrosine crystals that everyone loves in aged cheeses.  Not only do they crunch with each bite but they sure taste sweet too!

This Friday at the weekly event (5-7pm) Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock Distributing rejoins us with a tasting of new Napa Valley wines.  Ca' Momi is the brand and they are made by Italians in California!  Guess we better set out some Grana for this one.  Please join us.

And how about becoming a follower of this here blog!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Flight 571

It was the 23rd of October 1972, eleven days since the flight left Montevideo, Uruguay, and the survivors had just learned there would be no rescue.  The word had actually gone out five days earlier but the lone transistor radio worked only intermittently.  At that point there were twenty-seven survivors left alive out of the original forty-five passengers and crew and they all now knew their survival depended on someone leaving their plane fusillage shelter to hike down the mountain.  Since it would be seven weeks until any Spring warming may occur, they also realized their only potential food would be the bodies of those killed in the crash.

On October 12th, the plane, carrying a rugby team with family and friends, had set down in Mendoza, Argentina due to the hazardous weather but the pilot soon decided to continue on to Santiago, Chile.  "Dead reckoning" is the practice of estimating distance using the usual time for a plane to get to a  destination.  In this case the navigator did not take into account the headwinds into which the plane flew.  Consequently, the pass through the Andes was missed by 100km with the plane clipping mountainsides, first tearing off the right wing, then the left, and finally, the tail section, leaving the survivors very much exposed in the battered fusillage at close to 12,000ft altitude in frigid temperatures.

On December 23rd the sixteen remaining survivors were rescued, seventy-two days after leaving Uruguay.  Books, feature films, and documentaries, including one on PBS, are available for a full accounting of the horrors and heroics of what has become known as the "Miracle of the Andes".

This post originally was to be about Concha y Toro Serie Riberas Gran Reserva Malbec, a wine we thought to be remarkable for its quality/price and for being Chilean, and not Argentine.  The back label of the bottle mentions the vineyards on the Tinguiririca River which flows down from the very active Tinguiririca Volcano which is the peak next to the mountainside where Flight 571 came to rest.  Santiago lay seventy-five miles to the northwest, the same direction the river flows.

Easter Champagne

What could be more symbolically appropriate than to open a bottle of great Champagne on Easter Sunday.  First off, you don't need any occasion to pop a cork, but come on, Easter begs the issue.  This is the acme of the Christian year and what says celebration like Champagne.  So I know what you're thinking; you're wondering just how should you enjoy your bubbly this time.  Here are a few suggestions:

1.  There is a reason why Champagne brunches are as popular as they are.  Is it because Champagne is less filling (like Miller Lite?).  I'd like to believe it's because the stuff is uplifting.  I guess we'll have to leave that one to greater minds than mine to figure out.  Hey, I say just enjoy it!

2.  I love Champagne by itself.  Toasts being optional, the wine becomes the event when it is poured separate from the meal and we all become entranced by those tiny bubbles scaling our wine flutes.  Even if you have just had it with a meal, open another after dinner just for the heck of it, and go ahead and make a toast!

3.  Here's a secret: Champagne goes with food!  Like with still wines, the acidity cuts through fat and there is something about the bubbles (and minerality) that work with salt.  So I'm thinking a light dry Blancs des Blancs Champagne with fried fish or chicken and a heavier, richer Blancs de Noir with steak.  Some of those wonderfully inexpensive Spanish Cavas could cover both!  Did someone say Barbecue?

4.  Speaking of Cavas, you know they have tapas over there so why not pop a cork over the afternoon snack tray.  I hear they do something similar in Italy so try a Prosecco if you want something less dry but equally satisfying.  Sliced meats, smoked fish, nuts, olives, and bruschetta are all historic combinations but what's wrong with chips, pretzels, popcorn, and the like.  Works for me!

5.  And then there's dessert!  I say match the sweetness of the Champagne with the sweetness of the dessert which probably means we're talking pretty sweet!  Or not!  Like we said earlier, the bubbly makes the event, so dessert becomes something special no matter which kind you pop open!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Chain Stores vs Independents

This past week I had two conversations with two different customers about the relative merits of buying wine from the grocery store vis-a-vis the small independent store.  Both of these fellas are good customers here, one having been a shopper here for the entire twenty years, the other for just a month or so.  The old timer shared with me that another one of my customers told him the grocery store nearby was selling better wines now.  Later in the week the newer customer had contrastingly asked, "Why would anyone shop there when you can get better wines here and at lower prices?"  These were separate conversations at different times, not a group discussion, which probably wouldn't have resolved the where-to-shop issue anyway.

So let's look at the two businesses.  The business of chain stores is mass marketing and to do that you have to find out what most people like and then mass produce that on an industrial scale.  The business of the little guy is to find affordable wines that express distinction in quality outside of the channels that stream mass market product to the chains.  The chains build a reputation using business school/insider trade savvy combined with advertising know-how.  (Martha Stewart wines?)  The little guy uses his accrued experience in the business and "shopping cred" built by customer referrals.  The chains use the wine industry lobbying arm, the Wine Institute in Washington D.C., to know what to stock.  The little guy avoids that approach at all costs and does the consulting and tasting himself.

On this end and having worn both hats, I can say that satisfaction lies with doing it yourself while being a corporate type is where the money is.  If a chain ever got the right balance of industrial wine with artisan production, the small retailer would be history.  If the retailer ever got the funding to buy the mass market wine deals, he still wouldn't succeed in that game because the fix is always in the favor of the chains.  But this discussion is irrelevant anyway because the small retailer has a different philosphical approach to what this industry is and the chain industry will always be about mass marketing.

This coming Friday, the 11th of April, between 5 and 8pm, Nan Harrison of Hemispheres Global Wines joins us here for a tasting of California wines and more.  Nan's effusive personality along with her product knowledge make this event a must-experience for everyone.  Please join us.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


In the January 11th edition of the Wall Street Journal, wine writer Lettie Teague urges all of us to reassess the place of Italian Barbera in the wine world.  She maintains there has been a renaissance of sorts in the production value of this quintessential Italian wine grape and my experience at this end of the business bears this out.  For the past ten years it seems whenever I am presented with a new Barbera the price-quality ratio is steeped more in the value direction than before.  I even thought the Renwood Barbera of Amador County, California which I tasted three years ago was better than it should have been.

So getting back to the WSJ article, Teague interviews a New York Italian restauranteur who calls Barbera "his Pinot Noir".  Being a Pinot junkie, I thought about that for a minute and going against my better judgment, I agreed with the premise.  First of all, it's an Italian restaurant.  Barbera, yes; Pinot Noir, no way.  Secondly, as stated in the article, price matters.  One can get way better fifteen dollar Barbera than Pinot Noir.  Thirdly, and this one builds on the first two, there is the matter of consistency and staying power in a wine's flavor and Barbera has that within the lighter wine style format while Pinot Noir is hit-or-miss.  Actually, Pinot Noir misses a lot.

Barbera is the third largest selling wine in Italy after Sangiovese and Montepulciano and it is every bit as food friendly as the other two.  Ampelographers believe its origins lie either within Piedmont or just outside in Lombardy.  Today there are three Barbera styles exhibited in the examples of Asti, Alba, and Monferrato of Piedmont.  Barbera d'Asti shows the esteemed Nebbiolo-like oak-aged product with complexity, intensity, structure, and ageability.  Barbera d'Alba limits the time in oak in order to show the inherently higher acidity of the grape and its abundant cherry/berry flavors.   Monferrato shows Barbera in a slightly frizzante style with a blend of up to fifteen percent other local varieties.  Of the three, Alba is the most popular and the style most imitated elsewhere.

In California, the Renwood mentioned above is most similar to Barbera d'Alba and the Amador County Sierra Foothills venue is the best for the grape in California.  Unfortunately because of its current limited commercial appeal, most Barbera plantings are in the central valley where the juice goes into inexpensive jug reds.  Barbera is also widely planted in Argentina and Australia and basically wherever Italian immigrants carried their vines.

So are we at least potentially on the cusp of a renaissance for Barbera in the wine world?  Of course.  Lost in the discussion is the fact that Barbera is a vigorous vine that does well in the hotter climes we are facing and interestingly enough, while losing vineyard space to Nebbiolo in Piedmont for commercial reasons, at the same time it gained popularity there and elsewhere.  That is telling.  In Piedmont ( and elsewhere) it is both the poor man's Nebbiolo and within the wine trade, the go-to everyday choice in Piedmont and elsewhere.  It's just a matter of convincing everyone else to give it a try.

This Friday, the fourth of April between 5 and 8pm, we will be tasting reds and whites from Argentina and Washington State along with a few surprises.  Please join us.  And feel free to become a follower of this blog so I can get rich and retire!