The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Pythagoras and the Geometry of Wine Politeness

It’s not all acute angles and dusty geometry

From the Wikipedia page on the Pythagorean Cup

From the Wikipedia page on the Pythagorean Cup

The name Pythagoras likely brings to mind geometry class. After all, this Greek mystic, philosopher and mathematician devised the theorem that holds his name, the Pythagorean theorem that states the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. But the teaching of Pythagoras the Samian, 570-494 BCE, wasn’t limited to just math.

He was also keen to teach people proper etiquette—wine etiquette, in fact. To this end, Pythagoras likely also invented a drinking vessel that bears his name, the Pythagorean cup. Shaped more or less like a bundt pan with a central spoke, the Pythagorean cup has an ingenious design that enforces wine politesse. If you’re greedy and pour too high, past the central spoke that leads from the foot of the cup to just below the cup’s rim, wine fills the two channels in the cup and spills onto the lap of the unsuspecting glutton. (Click here to see the Pythagorean cup in action.)

It might be simple physics—hydrostatic pressure creates a siphon that draws the wine continually out of the cup and out the hole in the foot of the glass—but it’s also ingenious. While there’s not a lot of historical writing that directly connects Pythagoras with the vessel, cups showing this ingenious design date back more than 2,500 years, and location suggests a strong correlation between Pythagoras and the cup that bears his name.

While enterprising souvenir sellers in Greece continue to replicate and sell the cup to tourists, you can actually fashion your own from a plastic wine glass, a straw, silicone glue, a plastic test tube and a box cutter. While IWM doesn’t condone the spillage of fine wine, we also believe in pouring wine to a polite level—and one that allows the wine to breathe. If, however, education through practical jokes is not your thing, you probably want to invest in some basic Brunello or Burgundy glasses for your wine consumption. You can always choose to educate through a superlative example.

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.

Expert Picks: Talenti and Capanna

Two expert selections from Garrett Kowalsky

Garrett_8.6.14_72dpiBurgundy and Pinot Noir, Rioja and Tempranillo, Barolo and Nebbiolo and, of course, Montalcino and Sangiovese Grosso. Indisputably great wines, these are some of the most renowned, respected and sought-after pairings of region and grape. Hundreds of years of winemaking experience has shown that these combinations bring their respective parties to great heights and produce wines of great grandeur. Today, I’m celebrating Montalcino and Sangiovese Grosso. The history of this place and that grape have been woven together for well over a hundred years, and Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino have become hot ticket items over the past decade or so. I’ve chosen one wine to drink now and one to hold for a bit, but both sure to make you smile.

Talenti 2013 Rosso di Montalcino $24.99

Over the past year, everyone has been loading up on 2010 Brunello, and rightly so. It’s a wonderful move that guarantees great drinking in the years ahead, but how about now? Talenti is year in and year our one of IWM’s best value Brunellos and the estate’s Rosso is no different. At $25 it drinks like a wine that costs 50% more. Harvested from the youngest of the vines on the estate it is ripe, vivacious and has a hint of herbs that adds balance and complexity. Drink now until 2020.

Capanna 2010 Brunello di Montalcino $54.99

For more than a half century, Capanna has been a part of the Italian winemaking landscape, and in that time has shown itself as a standard bearer for traditional Brunello that is elegant yet racy with an acidic backbone that breathes life and style into the bottles. Like all good Brunellos, there is more than just fruit, a touch of tobacco and earth to truly round this wine into form. This ’10 bottling is yet another great example that Brunello is the place to be when you want a $100 wine but would prefer to pay half of that. Drink now to 2025.

More Time to Stock Your Cellar!

IWM’s legendary Cyber Monday Sale!

Happy Monday! It’s IWM’s Cyber Monday event! Get up to 20% off your favorite wines–while they last.unnamed

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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