The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Battling Conflict at the Restaurant

Or: The Night of Faux Risotto

I grew up around food; I grew up around amazing food, actually. My dad is an Italian-born chef and I’m now a trained chef. My expectations are usually high when it comes to food, and they’re even higher when it comes to white tablecloth restaurants. However high my expectations, I’ve come to realize that living in Westchester has made me understand that some restaurants are just average. Still, I believe in the conviction that if you charge $35 for entrees and serve your guests on white tablecloths, then it is your obligation to bring it!

Recently, my girlfriend Melissa and I went to a local Italian restaurant (for reasons soon to become clear, I’m opting against naming it). We’d been there a few times previously and enjoyed the food. The owner is a nice guy who’s really into wine. Naturally, he and I get along.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a nicely dressed hostess and a suited gentleman. We were seated right away, and our jackets were removed by the host and manager.  We were presented menus by the server, and the manager followed with a wine list. The list was 100% Italian, a big plus for me because there’s nothing that bothers me more than going to an Italian restaurant that offers more Californian than Italian wines. The owner and I decided on a 1997 Giacomo Borgogno Barbaresco, an absolute steal at $50 a bottle. I was happy. Everything seemed to be going so well.

When dining at restaurants of this caliber, I usually don’t like to order; I generally leave it in the hands of the manager or server. This time was no different for me, and I told the manager, whose judgment is usually spot on, to order for my girlfriend and me.

The first course was Mozzarella di buffalo with roasted peppers and an eighty-year-old balsamic vinegar. This was fantastic—simple but fresh. The mozzarella was actually buffalo and the peppers actually roasted in house; the eighty-year-old balsamic was a nice touch. Nothing makes me angrier than going to a restaurant, ordering Mozzaralla di buffalo, and discovering that they’re calling Polly-O string cheese Mozzarella di buffalo! I was pleased to see the genuine article.

The second course was also wonderful: Prosciutto di San Daniele with baby eggplant salad. The Prosciutto was sliced thin and fresh. The eggplant was perfectly cooked with a little crunch to it. I love eggplant, though if it’s mushy, we have a problem. This eggplant was delightful in every respect.

I’m happy so far. The Barbaresco is starting to open up. The nose is beautiful. Bright rose petals and fall leaves start to blossom in the glass. The wine is perfectly balanced with a slightly sweet note of balsamic. Melissa and I are smiling; it’s a wonderful food and wine synergy so far.

The third course was risotto with wild mushrooms and truffle oil. And that was when the bombshell dropped.

As the waiter crossed the room with the risotto in his hand, I could see that the dish didn’t look right.   Closer, closer he walked, and my apprehension grew. The waiter approached the table. I looked around in anticipation for the manager, hoping he would intercept the dishes and send them back to the kitchen. He was not to be found. Melissa loves risotto and looked at me with dismay. Disappointment showed on her face.

The “risotto” was not risotto. It wasn’t that gloriously relaxed ooze of Carnaroli, wafting truffle and glowing with a sheen of butter. Instead it looked like nothing as much as Uncle Ben’s cooked in a risotto style. I almost fell off my seat! I felt embarrassed, conflicted and anguished. Should I say something? Should I send it back? I didn’t want to make the owner feel bad or make a scene in this small restaurant. Everything had been going so well. And now… this plate of faux risotto. I was gobsmacked.

Melissa convinced me to eat it, and it actually tasted good for commercial boxed rice, though eating the dish did nothing to convince me that what was on the plate before me had any connection to risotto other than its name.  The rest of the meal was a blur to me. I couldn’t get over the risotto catastrophe. I found myself looking around the restaurant seeing if anyone else ordered the faux risotto dish. There was a part of me that wanted to walk over to the table in the corner and tell them they were eating a box of Uncle Ben’s. Did they know too? I kept trying to make eye contact with them. The entire meal had become a punch-line to a really bad foodie joke.

The problem was that I liked the restaurant. I liked the manager. In fact, I still like both. I keep on wondering, should I have told him of this kitchen disaster? Is it possible he wasn’t aware? Or is it possible that even he thought that what the chef had sent out that night was actually risotto? Part of me cannot fathom the idea that a chef worthy of a salt grain of integrity could send a dish out like that, and another part of me can’t fathom the idea that a chef in an Italian restaurant would call that dish “risotto.” And then one last part of me still can’t get over the fact that they charged me $25 for the boxed rice disaster—and that I paid it.

Still conflicted, I wonder, what would you do? Would you go back? What do you do when you have a seriously mixed restaurant experience at a place you genuinely, and generally, like?

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Wine as the gift of love

I was privileged to grow up with parents who loved wine, and I effortlessly weaseled my way into tasting a multitude of selections early in life. When I was young, I would sample whatever was on hand, but with age has come a propensity for special orders. I’m not alone either; all five of us kids developed an appreciation for wine early on, a treat from our parents who generously shared their interest with all their children. Now that we’re all adults, my siblings are as ready as I am to instruct our parents when they’re heading to the wine store. Shouts of “Berger Gruner!” and “Mark West Pinot!” trail our parents as they drive down the street.

Since I headed off to Cornell four and a half years ago, my parents’ house has started to resemble Grand Central Station more and more with every passing year. The five kids are constantly coming and going, occasionally bringing along the odd guest or four. Christmas is perhaps the most hands-on time of the year for us. Each family member has to come up with six original gifts and help out in the kitchen in some way or another.

Last year, we decided to combine our forces and resources to get a collaborative gift for our parents. We came up with a present that was just the right size for both of my parents: the beginnings of a wine collection. We selected a mixture of bottles they could drink soon and some that they could let age—along with the promise that they were the only ones who could drink these age-worthy beauties. We each contributed; one of us purchased a storage system and the rest of us selected wines.

The gift was, of course, a huge success and something our parents never saw coming. We’re not sure how we’re going to top the Wine Spectacular of 2008, but we’re going to do our best.

Winebar, Burger, and Recent Wines of the Night (WOTN)

Plus, New York Wine Tips

At the recommendation of Melissa, our Creative Director, and in the service of finding  Manhattan’s next amazing wine bar, I stumbled onto an even more elusive find: a great burger and an incredible red.   It was an “OMG,”  “WOTN” and “w00t” discovery, all rolled into one.

I experienced what many of us wine enthusiasts look for –that moment when a little patience is rewarded, and that time when the primary and secondary flavors of a wine have evolved and meshed to create a spectrum of tastes.  The wine in question was a 1996 Sociando-Mallet, and thanks to Bar Henry’s new Marketplace approach, you don’t have to pay the full bottle price to have a glass of vintage wine.  Typically, it’s prohibitive to enjoy a respectable thirteen-year-old Bordeaux by the glass at a restaurant. However, when you order half of a bottle of the Sociando-Mallet, Bar Henry opens a fresh bottle, pours half to satisfy your order and then places the remaining half on their “Marketplace” board for others to enjoy. In essence, you are sharing the cost of buying a full bottle of wine. It’s not a bad idea, especially if you are coming in to retrieve the second half after it has had a little time to breathe and open up.

Wine and burgers at Bar Henry

Wine and burgers at Bar Henry

To accompany this unclassified and often unsung wine of Bordeaux’s Left bank, we ordered the La Frieda Burger (named after Patrick La Frieda, the meat master behind some of Manhattan’s landmark burgers at joints such as Shake Shack, Minetta Tavern, among others).  Bar Henry provided a tasty and sizeable burger:  fresh, juicy, perfect for some vino, and a welcomed change from the 2:00AM Corner Bistro-Bud combo. From the Sociando-Mallet, we moved on to the 2006 Tempier Bandol, which could use a decade of aging, some German beers and more. However, this night belonged to Sociando-Mallet; it’s a wine that’s currently peaking and joins my list of value performers or “WOTN” for the month.

The WOTN List:  Value Wines of the Night (December)

1. The 1999 Fontodi Flaccianello: While everyone is focused on buying the 2006s from this Tuscan estate—and with good reason—I have been pouring the 1999. With ten years of age, the wine can be better described as a masculine Brunello. I poured this wine in the company of aged Barolos and single vineyard Pinots for a group of eight enthusiasts two weeks ago.  On tasting the Flaccianello, three of the eight stopped what they were saying, stared backed down in their glass for a second take, and then returned their attention to me to say, “I will take a case of that.” This wine is simply on.

2. The 2001 Castello di Cacchiano Chianti Classico Riserva: It’s the little wine that’s capable of changing the perception of Chianti. While most of us consume the Tuscan red within five years of the vintage date, this is a great example of a Chianti Classico showing maturity and providing tertiary notes of mushroom, underbrush, and cherry.  We poured this wine at a tasting event for 100 guests outside of Philly, with emphatic responses like “what is that?” and “that’s Chianti?” I completely recommend this wine.

3. The 1996 Chateau Sociando-Mallet: Thanks to Bar Henry, I was able to share a half bottle of this with a friend without a premium, and I am now in the process of asking our Wine Acquisitions Director Christy for some bottles to enjoy at home.  This is a classic Bordeaux blend and one of the great values in the overpriced region. I also think this 1996 is great example of how the rating and point system can dissuade enthusiasts from experiencing a great bottle.  This wine over-delivers in price and reviews.  Visit Bar Henry and try this wine while it’s in its moment, and be sure to ask Patric the bartender-sommelier for his well-prepared and seasonally appropriate Tom and Jerry cocktail. It’s the perfect ending for an evening of wine and burgers.

Popping Corks

Ready to Drink Italian Classics

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been popping corks on some older wines—in spite of my desire to let them age.  My wine refrigerator has long been maxed to capacity, and professional wine storage in New York isn’t cheap.  Wine is made to enjoy, I’ve been reminding myself, and I’ve been wondering if some of my wines were ageing as well as I thought they might. Thus far there hasn’t been one that I’ve opened much before its time; it has been exciting to see that my palate and instincts served me well.  Unfortunately, I only bought one or two of most of them (I’ve aimed for breadth, not depth, of selections), so I’ll not have the chance to truly “follow” the wines as they age.  Interestingly, they’ve all been Italian wines that I purchased when I first worked at IWM.

The first I reached for was the 1999 Palari Faro, a Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio blend from Sicily.  Still deeply colored, the nose was fairly closed until it woke up after half an hour in the decanter and showed dried plums, dusty earth and spice rack deliciousness.  Then I popped the 1997 Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico Riserva. The warmth and concentration of the red cherry fruit so typical of Sangiovese impressed me. This was the most fruit driven of the wines, something I’d expect from a warm and sunny year, and I was surprised how the usually sandy tannins of Sangiovese were so ripe and well-integrated.

Then there was the 1998 Fanti San Filippo Brunello di Montalcino that I took to Apiary last Monday (check out their corkage fee-free Monday nights!).  No brick notes had edged into the rim, and the aromas were just giving up the first whiffs of development with leather and dried leaf.  Comparing the 1997 to 1998 Tuscan wines, I still prefer the more reserved 1998s.

Finally, there was the stately 1998 Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Cappella Santo Stefano.  This is a wine I carried back from my visit to the winery in 2002, when I hauled the original wooden case right past the customs officials. This single-vineyard Barolo was probably the most promising of them all, yet it is still reticent to express all its aromatic nuances and its firm tannins have yet to fully meld into the structure. I think I’ll put the rest of these bottles at the back of the fridge and forget them for four or five years.

The reward of cellaring has paid off so far, though I admit it’s tough to resist the temptation to fill up the space I’ve freed up in my storage.  Still, I think I hear some 2005 Barbaresco clamoring. Nature abhors a vacuum—it’s only space, and I might as well fill it.

Open Up the Windows

It’s time for Latkes!

After living in Florida for 24 years this is my first holiday season with an actual season. To kick off this Chanukah my roommate Brette and I are throwing a potluck with some of our closest friends. As both of us are Jewish and away from our families this season, we’ve decided the holidays should be spent with our friends. In throwing together this shin-dig we discussed the two Chanukah staples, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). I told Brette I’d provide the latkes since my mom passed down her amazing recipe to me, and that she could provide the doughnuts.  What she doesn’t know is that I’ll also be providing a delicious surprise of Sentieri  Ebraici Spumante Brut, a kosher wine from Le Marche, that will complement our favorite holiday occasion.

Latkes are probably the best part of this entire holiday; the only difficult part is making them. If you know what you’re doing, then you know you’ll need a food processor, because there is no way to grate all those potatoes by hand, unless you literally want to be a part of them.  To calculate just how many potatoes you’ll need,  consider how many people are coming and how much they can eat. The recipe breakdown is as follows: two potatoes for each person; for every four potatoes one onion and one egg is required;  and for every eight potatoes one cup of flour is needed.

The calculations aren’t the worst part; it’s the smell of the fried potatoes that gets you. Everything from the hair on your head to the inner sole of your shoes will be permeated by all the fried-potato goodness. There is no way to avoid the aroma, so the only thing to do is open up all the windows and carry on.  So that is my plan this weekend. Although my mom won’t be here to make the most delicious potato pancakes, I will be thinking about her and hearing her voice in my head nagging, “don’t forget to open the windows.”

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