Friday, January 28, 2011

The Last Waltz

I have to share....

Yesterday, here in New York and certainly on Long Island, was an absolute mess of a day for the weather. Slushiness, snow piled high, that dark brown/black ice sludge that gets thrown everywhere from people, cars, and trucks pushing and plowing their way to move just a little. It was a day to stay home...

I didn't. I got in the Prius and headed out into the great white adventure land to see some clients, taste some wine, and generally be out there telling the Indie story. After my first stop, a great friend and client- Mr Sean Gantner, Wine Director for the Mill Pond House group- texted me to confirm our afternoon appointment per the bad weather.

"Yes!", I replied- en route that afternoon! But it turned out that after my first stop I was actually right around the corner from his house. "Taste Chez Gantner?" I asked? Sure he said, and I drove over.

Sean is a music lover- a collector, really. He has acquired the single greatest collection of Grateful Dead music I have ever seen. Spools I tell you. Any concert, anywhere, with a catalog that will tell you the exact set list, date, details, etc...

So, I entered his home and there on his large flat screen was playing The Band's The Last Waltz directed by Martin Scorsese. Surround sound on, and honestly it was like almost turning back the clock and being front stage. We got out the Riedels and took our time tasting through the eight bottles I had brought.

The tasting went amazing. Unrushed. Alternating between talking about the wine, life, food, and then stopping for minutes on end just to marvel at the great piece of music history that was playing before us. It was the way a tasting should be.

Big thank you to Sean Gantner for his hospitality and opening his home. And yes, I downloaded The Band's Bink Pink album from 1968 as soon as I came home.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Market

I think I almost died twice...

I have never been more attached to my GPS than this week, bobbing and weaving my little golf cart-like Prius through the backstreets of Brooklyn in search of this store and that store I had read about online. GPS firmly in my hand, placed front and center in my visage above the wheel, I was turned around more often than not (sorry, but satellite signals are not absolute), and after a long but good day I drove home back across Long Island. The ride allowed me to think a lot about my time management, but more importantly about Indie Wineries, about selling Indie, and about the correct path we want to take in growing the business.

Many clients have asked me where I see the wine market going in the near future, and the more I think about it, I see a very clear polarization happening.

One side of the businesses are moving heavy toward a franchise, or in-house franchise mentality. They're systematizing their business, drilling down on every cost to become more efficient, and squeezing more out of what they have by simplifying. In their wine, price has moved up to first or second place on their categorical list of what's important when buying. And what they bring to market is a view of wine that is the tried and true, at the best price, with a sale executed quickly, efficiently, and a service side based primarily on convenience.

I'm not knocking this way. It's very good business. It offers great value to the end customer, and the business is very sustainable with little to no waste. For Indie, it gets our wines into many hands and allows them to drink them- our overall most important goal: Taste the wine!

The other side of this polarization, is what I'll call "the little bookstore / custom coffee shop" mentality. Brick and mortar. One shop or restaurant, usually. Filled with oddities and intricacies in their product line. A staff that is driven by an eclectic passion for wine. An almost "all in the family" level of relationship that's built with each customer. This side of the polarization is not homogenized; it has crannies and contours, personalities, and spunk. The wines it offers are intellectual, and if not intellectual then they are certainly not commodities by any means. Although many owners of these businesses are highly efficient, there's an actual beauty in the non-system based operations they've set up.

I'm not saying that this is a better way to do business. But, in walking into these shops and restaurants the soul factor definitely feels higher; you easily get a feel that these businesses are as much about creating relationships as they are about selling wine.

Both businesses can move both quality and price based wines. So, which path is better? More important to Indie, where do I spend my time growing Indie? After that long ride, I came upon the answer: both.

Indie Wineries for both Summer and I is entirely about building relationships through the exploration of wine. It would be easy for us to say- we only deal with tiny, hand-sell based shops, but that would leave out many incredible relationships with people who are growing in a more systematized way. Long and short of it, if there's a connection, a respect, a shared energy, a passion for quality...that's where we're going to place our eggs. Fantastic, sounds easy, no?

No. The hard part of deciding to take that path is that it takes time to build relationships of that calibre. No one becomes a great friend in two 30 minute visits. Great, mutually respectful relationships take years of visits, and support. They are a commitment, as equal as the commitment that all of our producers have taken to working their vineyards and making great wine.

Yes, that stresses the business of Indie in the short term, but that's fine by me. We believe in turtle speed and a strong cornerstone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Mixed Boiled Fat Oxen Season

There are the classics; foie gras and Sauternes, oysters and Champagne, sushi and sake… and then there is Barabba and Bollito Misto!

"Il Stagione di Bollito Misto di Bue Grasso," or in English as the title states, "The Season Boiled Mixed Fat Oxen," ladies and gentlemen, it is that time of year… and this past December 2010 marked 100 years celebrating the festival in Carrú (near Barolo) dedicated to this animal and dish. I was lucky and unlucky enough to take part…

What is BOLLITO you ask, and then very quickly it comes to mind, and exactly what is a FAT OXEN. Both are 100 point, perfectly valid questions. Here it is:

Bollito Misto:

(The traditional, ‘official’ recipe)
  • 7 Pieces or ‘cuts’ of Lean meat; Breast, Brisket, Thigh, Shank Muscle, Shoulder, Flank, and another shoulder cut called ‘Priests hat’. These are approximate because the cuts and butchering is completely different here in Italy compared to the names and cuts we are used to in the USA.
  • 7 Pieces of Ammennicoli (which means the less valuable parts) which are; tongue, cross cut of the head with the nose, tail, hoof, rotallato (rolled parts), gallina, and cotechino (which is a very fatty sausage made with the rest of the parts)
  • 7 Sauces or bagnetti (baths) to dip meat in; rustic Green Sauce (base of anchovies, olive oil, garlic, capers, vinegar and parsley), rich Green Sauce (the same as the rustic recipe with the addition of hard boiled eggs), red sauce, mustard, honey sauce, cugna (made with grape must, figs, quince, pears, cinnamon, cloves and hazelnuts), cren (horseradish sauce).
The Piemontese LOVE this dish… there is ‘Fritto Misto’ and ‘Bollito Misto’, so everything fried, or everything boiled.

Bue Grasso: This is the ‘work’ oxen of Piedmont. We say work oxen because at one time that is what they were used for, as well as for meat and milk. The Bue Grasso a pure white cow that is of the ‘Piedmont race’. These animals are prized and appreciated not only for their size, muscles and beauty, but of course the incredible meat they produce. Hence, born the ‘Bollito Misto’ from the Bue Grasso.


This is great you say, and makes sense… using this prized ‘Bue’ to make this dish, where every part of the animal is utilized. December is the month when the animals are all butchered, and a plate of warm boiled meat in the cold winter is a perfect match, hence born this ‘fair’ of the Bue Grasso. The fair itself (born in Carrú) is essentially a market where the animals are auctioned off, and win prizes in various categories (size, beauty, ect.). Then after this market, everyone sits down to eat a big meal of ‘Bollito’. Sounds cute right. Well the catch is that the fun all starts at 5:30AM!! So I dragged myself out of bed, grabbed my camera, and told myself it was going to be worth it.

The animals were in fact extremely impressive, and the energy was unreal. Everyone huddled and crowded inside this open-air market side by side with these gi-normous beasts (with no barrier between them and us), one of which, every 5 minutes, would ‘panic’ (and rightly so, it was early for them too). The handler of that particular Bue would yell and wave his arms, and the entire crowd would go screaming for cover. The handler would then calm down the Bue by hitting him in the head with a small stick (doesn’t that sound calming), and everyone slowly trickles back into center of the market, only for the same thing to happen again with another animal and another mass panic.

Did I mention ‘OPEN AIR’ market. Yup, this was all going on before sunrise on the coldest day we had seen yet. So before 8:00 I had run for my life at least 10 times, could no longer feel my hands, nose or toes, and was at the same time considering adoption of a ‘Bue’ because they are such stunningly beautiful animals.

Then the best part, we decide that we have had enough, and want to save our exposed faces from frost bite, and our own lives from being trampled by Bue and go to ‘lunch’ at a famous restaurant downtown Carrú. The place was packed. I looked at my watch, 8:30AM. At the table next to me they are finishing up … they arrived around 6:30AM to start eating ‘carne cruda’ (raw meat) and bollito misto, and were now on dessert, coffee and of course grappa. It was almost unbelievable. The crowd however was an enthusiastic one; happy, singing and drunk, it was surreal. For them this ‘Bollito Breakfast’ has been going on for 100 years, and was all perfectly normal.

We decided, if you can’t beat ‘em… well… you know the rest. We ordered a bottle of Barabba, and each one of us had the fixed menu of three courses of ‘Bue’ prepared in three ways; raw, with pasta, and then of course the famous Bollito. There was a line out the door of freezing people waiting to eat, and everyone was behaving as if it were 8:30 or 9:00pm AT NIGHT. By 10:00AM we had finished, were full and slightly ‘buzzed’ ourselves, paid the bill and piled back into the car to head home. I was collapsed in bed by 11:00AM, and was somewhat traumatized by this event for the rest of the week.

Previous to this Bollito Breakfast, we did a dinner with Bue Grasso and a verticle of Barabba (Fabrizio’s top Barbera), which was MUCH more my style; eating dinner at night rather than the morning that is. Needless to say we hope to repeat the Iuli Bue Grasso dinner, but I will NOT be attending the 101st annual festival of the Bue Grasso at Carrú.

All of this to say, a great food and wine pairing; Bollito Misto and Iuli Barabba!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Nebbia" -olo, This is Why...

This is the view from out my kitchen window today...

...and sitting here at the table this is what I see:

Complete 'FOG-OUT'!
As all good wine geeks know,  Nebbiolo is the famous Piedmont varietal that is the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco, and in northern Piedmont; Gattinara, Carema, and Ghemme (there is also Valtellina in Lombardy which produces incredible wines from 100% Nebbiolo).  The word Nebbiolo is derived from the Italian word 'nebbia' which means fog... ahhhhhh, you say, this is what she's getting at.

Yeah yeah, we've all heard it said, "It's very foggy in Piedmont."  Although we've all heard it said, very few have actually seen it.  Most non natives and tourists visit Piedmont in the spring or better yet in the early fall; for harvest, beautiful weather and colors, and of course the stinky little super star of our region... the white truffle.  There is very little 'tourist' traffic here in the winter months, so most don't get to experience this other face of Piedmont.

Driving up the hill home this morning after grabbing some groceries,  the fog was so thick that I almost ran into the back of an 'Ape' (which is a funny little three wheeled vehicle that is a cross between a super tiny car and a motorino, or vespa, these are somehow legal to drive on the road with other normal sized people cars.... but that is a whole other blog and story).  Driving in this foggy stuff is super dangerous, and people that have lived here their entire lives get lost in their own neighborhoods when the fog is draped this thick, and at night - forget it, stay home!

I must say though, that there is also something very uniquely special and mysterious about this intense Piemontese fog... it has been around for as long as there have been inhabitants in these hills, and she silently glides in covering everything in a thick misty blanket, and somehow gives me the sensation to slow down, and relax.  It could be because it's Sunday, it could be because we have no choice but to slow down because you can't see anything, or it could be something else untangible which is just another reason why life moves slower here in Italy...

So the obvious decision is to cook soup, and stay inside for the rest of the day :)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Vendemmia Part II "Turning Fruit into Wine"

Well, this is more of a journalistic piece than it is a blog post... but hopefully there is some info here that you may have always wanted to know, and maybe thought you already should know, and so never asked - that's what happened to me in writing it! So sorry for the length, but enjoy, and I promise these 'blog' things will get shorter - if they don't, Peter will fire me!

Winemaking is a very complex, and at the same time simple job. What I mean by this is that wine is a natural process that will happen on it’s own, with little to no interference of man, here is the simple equation:

Sugar + yeast = alcohol + carbonic gas + heat

The science of this process is called enology. It can be said that there are different 'schools' of wine making. There are those that are separated into two roles; the viticulturist, who is specialized in vine growing and harvesting, and who then passes the torch onto the enologist or winemaker who will then control all of the chemical and scientific processes during the winemaking as well as the ageing. Then there are the winemakers/viticulturists, who do not have a degree in enology and will follow the wine themselves its entire journey, from vine to bottle. The 'Indie Wineries' all fall into the latter category. The winemaking of the latter is generally less 'lab dependent' and scientific, and instead uses more traditional methods. This article is a very brief description of wine making that just brushes the surface of the process, and intended to give you all a better idea and general overview of how the grape turns into the glass of wine we love to enjoy! This is also an overview of red winemaking which differs from white wine making, rose and Champagne.

  1. Within a day or two of arriving in the fermentation vessel, which in our case are stainless steel vats, but can also be in some cases wood fermenters, the gently crushed fruit will create a 'cap', which consists of the skins, seeds and pulp, rising to the top and separating from the 'juice' or liquid, and fermentation begins.
  2. Fermentation normally begins at 20 – 32 degrees Celsius, and is caused when the yeasts start to 'eat' the sugar naturally present in the grapes. These yeasts are naturally occurring on the skins of the grapes, as well as in the wine cellars themselves. Some winemakers use 'selected' or 'cultivated' yeasts to have more control over the fermentation, and even adding different taste profiles to the wine. Other natural winemakers will utilize the naturally occurring yeasts striving for a more natural and terrior driven wine.
  3. At the point when fermentation begins the winemaker will begin to intervene, using pump over or punch down, which are two of the methods to reincorporate the cap into the liquid. In essence this is to keep the skins wet and extract color, tannins and flavoring compounds. All of these important parts in a red wine come from the skins, and the immersion of the skins will help 'melt' the skins to bring these factors out, and is referred to as the maceration. This process lasts anywhere from 15 to 20 days.*
  4. When the sugar is all transformed into alcohol, it is time to pull the wine off the cap and the lees (the lees are the dead yeasts that have precipitated to the bottom of the tank). The sugar level can be measured in a lab analysis, or in our case, we use a simple tool called the 'babo'*, in addition to simply tasting the wine.
  5. Pulling the wine off the cap consists of pumping out the liquid, and then putting the cap into a 'balloon' press. This balloon expands inside a cylindrical, perforated, horizontal tube that presses the skins and seeds allowing the last bit of juice to flow out to a receptacle under the press. This juice that is extracted from these skins and seeds is very important because it is the juice that will help to trigger the malolatic fermentation. This wine is added to the rest of the wine that has already been removed, and the skins are bagged and sent to a distillery to become grappa.
  6. After 15 days, or even up to a month of secondary fermentation, the malic acid naturally present in the wine (the 'hard' or 'unpleasant' acids as in green apples), turns to lactic acid (softer, more pleasing acid as in milk). At this point the chemical-physical part of the wine making is complete.
  7. At this point each wine maker will decide what kind of 'ageing' process he or she will use.

The steps above are more or less standard for RED winemaking, and will vary only depending on how a producer uses yeasts, and the amount of time the wine ferments, as well as the type of pump over or punch down the producer does. The more artistic part of the process that makes each producer and each WINE unique after the obvious variables of terrior and variety, is how the producer will age and refine his wine.

Here are just a few examples:
  • Stainless Steel vs. Barrel (size of the barrel and type of wood varies from winemaker to winemaker, and region to region) vs. cement
  • Period of ageing; months, or years
  • Whether the wine will be kept on it's 'lee's' or filtered and/or fined
Too scientific? Not to worry, that is what our talented wine maker friends are for, this is just a small glimpse into the world of winemaking, and all the variables, hard work, and patience that goes into that wonderful glass of wine.

*This year at the Iuli estate the fermentation was slower and lasted longer than normal… some tanks up to 25 days. For us this is a positive thing because the longer fermentations can produce more elegant wines. Producing wines naturally without or little temperature control and without selected yeasts, there is little to no control over the fermentation lengths or no real solid reason why some tanks ferment slower and some other tanks faster. It is all part of the magic of winemaking…