The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

In Praise of Olive Oil

Why olive oil is good for the heart

An Il Palazzone olive tree

An Il Palazzone olive tree

Last week, I got my yearly bottles of olive oil from Il Palazzone, which is always a reason to rejoice and to remember the time that, moved by the romance of Montalcino, I once picked and ate an olive off a tree. Later, I told Laura Gray, the Estate Manager at Il Palazzone, that I had.

“Did you regret it?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Immediately and for about a half hour thereafter.”

In their raw, unpressed, unfermented state, olives are rich in oleuropein, a phenolic compound that makes eating a raw olive not unlike stuffing your mouth with antiperspirant. It is disgusting. So disgusting, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that something as delicious as olive oil could come from something that inherently repellent. Jonathan Swift famously said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” One could easily say the same about the first man who squished a bunch of olives in the hopes of making something palatable.

Olive oil is as ubiquitous, essential and telling as wine or bread in Italy. I imagine that the same holds true in other prized olive oil capitals of the world—Spain, for instance—but I speak from experience in Italy. Just about every winemaker also makes olive oil. Like making wine, crafting olive oil is a painstaking process that requires a lot of manual labor and no small amount of finesse. Makers of olive oil take great pride in how long it takes for the olive to go from tree to press; the longer the time, the more bitter the oil, and the shorter the time, the sweeter. Il Palazzone prides itself on getting the olives from tree to pressed oil in a matter of hours. A look at the estate’s webpage on its olive oil gives you a fairly comprehensive idea of precisely how exacting the creation of olive oil is.

Some olive oils make us cough, and this visceral kick comes from TRPA1, a cluster of proteins at the back of your throat. Some time ago, NPR published an interesting piece on TRPA1 and extra virgin olive oil (known, apparently, as EVOO, which looks to me like the name of a villainous organization from Get Smart or Austin Powers); scientists hypothesize that sitting at the back of your throat, TRPA1 is the last best place to alert you to breathing in noxious fumes–if you cough a lot, you’re going to get out of there. Interestingly, this irritation might also be the source of EVOO’s salubrious anti-inflammatory effects.

Il Palazzone's olive trees in bloom

Il Palazzone’s olive trees in bloom

Olives, as everyone who pays attention to nutrition knows, are excellent sources of monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. The Mayo Clinic notes that MUFAs can help lower total cholesterol  levels, aid with blood clotting, and possibly help stabilize insulin levels and control blood sugar. All of this means that olives and olive oil are more than just tasty–they’re good for you.

To anyone who has eaten an olive off the tree, pressing olives might seem like a radical act, but what a luscious, pellucid, peppery, gorgeous thing a squished olive (or several thousand squished olives) can make. Like wine, olive oil is the product of both where its raw materials grow, and how its maker treats those raw materials. Unlike wine, olive oil is best very fresh. The fresher it is, the more aromatic. A fine olive oil glows an incandescent green. It seems like something that belongs at the bottom of the sea. It’s otherworldly and ethereal, as much as it’s earthy and visceral.

And if it’s a seriously good olive oil, you don’t heat it; you don’t cook with it; you drizzle it on vegetables or bread and you enjoy it as its makers intended: slowly, thoroughly and while dreaming of Montalcino.


Visiting the Veneto, from Amarone to Prosecco

The many, splendored, and often appassimento wines of the Veneto

Venice at night

Venice at night

The setting of several Shakespearian works, the Veneto also delivers great performances in its vineyards, offering a range of wines that star in both casual and refined settings. In each of the three principal wine categories, the Veneto provides a fairly famous offering that essentially defines its respective genre. The leading sparkler (Prosecco) and red (Amarone) of the Veneto region provide a consummate study in contrast, with the distance between the two placing them at opposite ends of a broad stylistic spectrum. The dominant presence in the sparkling category is Prosecco, a light and simple Charmat-method sparkler derived from the eponymous grape. While mass produced, the DOC status for the crafting of Prosecco, Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, is well suited to the production of sparkling wine. Simplicity is, perhaps, its hallmark virtue, though more substantive versions are produced in the prime vineyard areas of Cartizze.

The Veneto’s most well-known still white wine is Soave, a designation that has been compromised through both viticultural and vinification methods and the enlargement of the zone. While Soave is not the only white DOC, the others, Lugana and Gambellara, primarily involve the same varietals. The former (which is shared with Lombardia), privileges Trebbiano di Soave, and some bottlings realize a substantive aromatic presence. With respect to the latter, Garganega exercises its dominance, as it represents a minimum of 80% of the blend. The category also includes several varietally labeled wines that are fairly simple in character.

Valpolicella is, in many respects, the red counterpart to Soave, as its image has suffered from mass production. However, unlike Soave, it operates a stylistic hierarchy: Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore and/or Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella, and Recioto della Valpolicella generally comprise the grape trio of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Valpolicella Classico (Classico denoting a wine made in the inner, superior Valpolicella zone) is the simplest expression of the Valpolicella quartet. At the Superiore level, Valpolicella must achieve higher alcohol content, receive longer aging, and display more body and structure than the simple Valpolicella. To realize these qualities, many Superiore are treated via one of two techniques: “governo alla Toscana” or ripasso. Under the “governo alla Toscana” method, producers blend the finished Valpolicella with a small percentage of Amarone remaining from a previous batch. Others employ the ripasso method, enriching the Valpolicella wine through direct contact with (or passing through) the Amarone’s lees.

Whatever the degree of extraction realized, however, a Valpolicella Superiore offers but a modest suggestion of Amarone, the intensity and depth of which is achieved through the appassimento process. During this regimen, during which winemakers spread out carefully selected grapes in single layers to dry on straw or plastic mats for 60 to 100 days. During this time, the grapes lose a substantive amount of water weight, dramatically concentrating their sugars. Thereafter, the raisined grapes are crushed and fully fermented into a dry, full-bodied wine marked by high alcohol. The Veneto’s drama is at its most intense in Recioto della Valpolicella, the sweet member of the Valpolicella quartet that dates back to the Romans, who are credited with having developed theappassimento process. The sweetness derives from an arrested fermentation, a procedure that stops the conversion of sugar into alcohol, thereby leaving residual sugar. It is in this mode that the unexceptional Soave finds an empathetic medium, achieving a substantive upgrade in a reserved sweetness.

While Valpolicella may seem to dominate the red wine landscape, winemakers outside Verona are achieving notable success without relying on Italy’s own, privileging Bordeaux’s famed triumvirate of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. In fact, it is believed that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot actually hold a fairly traditional place in zones such as the Colli Berici and Colli Euganei.

Reflections on First Visiting Italy

How there’s nothing like visiting yourself

IMG_1647Almost exactly five years ago, I visited Italy for the first time. I had never been to Europe. I didn’t speak Italian. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. And the time I spent there was probably the most rewarding four months I’ve ever spent anywhere.

Living in Italy was not without its challenges. I spent about forty minutes in a supermarket aisle trying to figure out what you call “dish soap” in Italian. I learned to cope without hot-and-cold running Internet, which is difficult when you work remotely. I found myself grasping at a language with a toddler’s grubby fists when I tried to ask for the simplest things. Separated from my friends, my family and my pets, I got pretty lonely. And let’s just say that the dollar was not as strong in 2011 as it is today, which added another layer of anxiety to life on the Euro.

IMG_1842But all that stress was worth it. I saw a lot of Italy, and I saw it intimately. I ate life-changing meals—not just at Michelin-starred restaurants on the Maremma Coast or at tiny chic places on Mt. Amiata, but also from street pizza joints in Rome and hole-in-the-wall Tuscan cafés at towns so small I’m not even sure if they have a name. I learned the fine art of buying produce on market day, and I picked up enough Italian that by the end of my stay people were asking me directions in Venezia, and I was able to answer. I took a lot of trains and I walked on a lot of cobblestones, and it was all worth it.

IMG_1200The thing about Italy is this: while reading books and watching movies makes you think you understand its beauty, you’re wrong. What you glean from books and movies—and even bottles of wine—is like the shadows on the cave walls of Italy’s beauty. The best that books, paintings, movies, and even wine can capture is a kind of chiaroscuro, a picture in brights and darks, and thus a limited, if dramatic, view of Italy.

IMG_0999There is nothing better than drinking a bottle of Italian wine in Italy, except for drinking a bottle of Italian wine in Italy with its maker, and I had the rare opportunity to do that many, many times. I’m not talking about standing in the cantina and barrel tasting, something that’s important and not necessarily lacking in poetry; rather, I’m talking about sitting down with the maker and some wine, and letting the conversation burble and flow with naturalness and without purpose.

IMG_2066I got the opportunity to drink amazing wine with the amazing people who made it. Ornella and Lionello Cousin opened up bottles of Cupano and their home to me. After showing me Castello dei Rampolla, Luca di Napoli shared a bottle of his estate’s wine with Eleanor Shannon and me. I broke bread and drank wine with Gianfranco Soldera, whose Italian I incomprehensibly understood, a rarity for me. Il Palazzone’s estate manager, Laura Gray, was like my sister across the Atlantic. I’ll probably die babbling about Brunello.

IMG_2390I’m lucky that my work has taken me some exceptional places, and in visiting and drinking and seeing and smelling the air around me, I’m better able to understand the wine I write about. Still, I know that however captivating my writing is, no matter how well I am able to convey the scent of Giacomo Conterno’s cantina, the sinuous undulation of Barbaresco’s hills, the feel of the lemon light of Chianti Classico hitting your face, my writing will always be lacking. The best I can do is to write well enough that it prompts you to go to Italy yourself. All roads lead to Rome, where, if you go, tell me: I know this amazing little pizza place.

Wine Gifts from the Heart

It’s the feeling that counts

Spring at the biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla estate in Panzano.

Spring at the biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla estate in Panzano.

Marcel Proust had a point when he bit into that madeleine. Our human sensory experiences sit inextricably twisted with our personal histories. That’s why, for example, I can’t smell a solid Brunello without being transported to this beautifully wabi-sabi stone villa I lived in for a month in Montalcino in 2011. Wine, like bread or salt, bonds the disparate elements in a meal, raising them to a higher plane than the components alone deserve. But unlike bread or salt, wine alone has the faculty of making company sparklier, words more meaningful, feelings more manifest, and people closer. For this reason, to give wine is akin to giving books: the best gift is steeped in sentiment.

Il Palazzone grows its grapes and its olives naturally

Il Palazzone grows its grapes and its olives naturally

Sentiment is why I once gave my dad a bottle of 2000 Il Palazzone Brunello. My dad had read my rapturous descriptions of Brunello and had responded as I’d intended: he wanted some. However, he’s a stolid, level-headed, frugal Vermonter, not given to buying hundred-dollar bottles of wine for himself. So he bought one for a friend as an anniversary gift. I sent him one for himself because he deserved to enjoy it, because I have spent many glorious days at Il Palazzone, and because its estate manager, Laura Gray, is both a friend of mine and shares the same birthday as my dad and myself. It’s kind of a mille feuille of feelings.

It’s pretty easy for me to pick out the wines I’d give as gifts because they’re the wines that make me clap my hands with glee. Anyone who knows me knows that this is something I don’t do often. This is why I would pick wines from Josko Gravner. The first time I had Gravner Breg and Gravner Ribolla Anfora, I was in Verona with IWM Founder Sergio Esposito for VinItaly. We had dinner with Filippo Polidori, one of Sergio’s close friends and the sales manager for Josko Gravner, at this café that was very clearly the industry spot. I can’t separate the heady, textured feel of drinking these wines from the glittery Verona night, its spectacular romance and the sense that the air was buzzing with everyone wine.

I’d give Castello dei Rampolla because I visited the estate on this insanely gorgeous April day, a visit that culminated with Lucca di Napoli drinking a bottle of wine with Eleanor Shannon, my guide at the time, and me. We didn’t even look at the cantina. We just toured the fields, talked for a couple of hours and drank. Every wine tour should be so generous and lovely. The wines are forever linked with spontaneous friendship.

Lionel Tondini of Cupano

Lionel Tondini of Cupano

I’d likewise give Cupano because its makers Ornella and Lionel are inspiring, beautiful, magical people, and their wines reflect their family’s fairytale existence. And Bodega Chacra, especially its entry-level Barda, because Piero Incisa della Rocchetta embodies a citizen-of-the-world glamor to which I can only aspire. I’d give Grattamacco because I fiercely love its unabashed geeky aesthetic, and Le Macchiole because Cinzia Merli spoke to me with such passion about understanding her wines as her children, and Bartolo Mascarello Barolo because Maria Teresa Mascarello is one strong, upright, forthright woman; an unmitigated badass, she commands instantaneous respect.

Having visited Italy, I have a rosy set of experiences from which to draw. But all wine-lovers have wines that they’ve come to love because of the people they drank them with, or because the wine was so glorious that it made a bad situation at least tolerable, or because they stumbled on the wine in some serendipitous way. These are the wines that make the best gifts because in giving them, we’re giving a piece of ourselves and our memories. And with these wines of sentiment we can make more memories—or help others, and that’s really what giving is all about.

For more suggestions, please leaf through IWM’s 2015 Holiday Gift Guide.

How to Do Thanksgiving in Italy

A remembrance of festa del tacchino past

386845_10150404091932746_1447547647_nRiding shotgun in an old truck with Marco Sassetti, general manager of the Il Palazzone estate on one late November afternoon, I was privy to a conversation between him and an old friend.

Dove vai?” his friend asked, shouting across the narrow dirt road. Where are you going?

Festa del tacchino!” Marco responded with a chuckle, and even I with my limited English had to laugh. What else would an Italian call Thanksgiving but the “Turkey feast”?

It’s tough to be an ex-pat on national holidays. In late November 2011, I was in Montalcino, in Tuscany, where I lived for two months stretching from just before Halloween to early December. I had been staying at this ramshackle seventeenth-century villa rented by Lauren Cicione, an Italian-American who’d rented it and then unexpectedly found herself working in Piedmont, and I got to experience the glory of the tiny town of Montalcino as late fall crept towards winter. I watched the leaves on the trees and on the vines turn gold and fall off; I felt the air turn crisp and then cold.

308276_10150404094157746_1607559015_nNational holidays elicit nostalgia. The fourth Thursday in November creeps up on the calendar, and just about every American will find his or her tongue twitching for cranberries. There are no cranberries in Italy. Cranberries are a purely American thing. Turkeys originated in North America, but while they are flightless birds, they have managed to make the leap to Europe. Still, they are strange to Italians. Italians are not big on turkey, and, really, it’s difficult to make an argument about why they should be. Turkey, removed from the warm fuzzy feelings and the accouterments has little to recommend it. Thanksgiving celebrates the mythic roots of America, after all. How could it be anything but foreign to Italy?

The year I was in Italy, Thanksgiving came and went—it was just another work day for Italians, after all, but on the following Saturday, Lauren pulled together a Thanksgiving feast for about three ex-pat Americans and a sprawling company of twenty or so Europeans, most Italians. The table groaned under a huge toddler-sized turkey, sides both traditional (stuffing, green beans, carrots, mashed potatoes, gravy) and not (pasta, risotto, sautéed wild mushrooms, polenta). There was copious wine, mostly Brunello, as you’d expect, and the Italians drank freely—I think “tacchino” is an acquired taste. There were pies too; they looked and tasted a bit like they’d passed through a long game of recipe telephone on the way to their creation. I was thankful for it all.

As this Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself thinking of that festa di tacchino, the ragtag bunch of people gathered at a villa perched on the side of hill trying to recreate a meal that was alien to most of them. We spoke no fewer than five languages at that table, but it didn’t really matter. The company was gracious, the food was abundant, the wine was excellent, and we were united in gratitude.

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