Archive for the ‘Contributors’ Category

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‘Sno(w) Joke: A Tale of Barbera, Barriques, and Hard Winter in Asti

March 16, 2010

I love Barbera. I think it’s one of the world’s greatest, most versatile food wines. Its juicy acidity and vibrant cherry fruit enable it to partner happily with any number of dishes. I was really looking forward to the Barbera Meeting, an annual March event in Asti for journalists, this year disconcerting everyone with an unexpected foot of snow.

Winter was hard: cold vineyards photographed from inside a warm room.

This year’s meeting also had a new feature: an online, live, by-the-moment feed to its own blogsite, barbera2010.com. The Barbera Boys (and one comely woman), a group of young American bloggers collected by Jeremy Parzen, would do their best to keep up with the flow of wine and news all week long.

They even stirred up a lot of local interest, not least by saying plainly how unhappy they were with the oakiness of most of the wines. La Stampa reported this aspect of the event for two days running. That oak constituted Asti’s second great disappointment, after the relentless snowfall. Where was my beloved Barbera juiciness and raciness? Where did all this oak come from? (The answer to that was all too obvious.)

The perturbation of the bloggers on this point was very welcome to me and my New York colleague, Charles Scicolone, who might otherwise have seemed lone voices crying in the wilderness. (If Jeremy and his gang were the Barbera Boys, Charles and I must have ranked as I Babbi di Barbera, or maybe even I Bisnonni.) But I’m getting ahead of myself: First you need to know a little about the occasion.

The whole Barbera Meeting was orchestrated by the wonderful women of Wellcom (Thank you, Marinella prima e seconda, Annalisa, Federica, and Marta, for all your help) and sponsored by the Asti growers’ Consorzio. A battery of sure-handed Italian sommeliers presented the guests (ungrateful ones, as it turned out) with 35 to 65 wines each morning in a blind tasting.

Most of us are looking out at the snow, waiting for the sommeliers to start pouring.

Each such session was followed either by visits to various wineries in the differing Barbera zones – Asti, Nizza, Monferrata, Alba – or by presentations about Barbera by enologists and producers. Each day concluded with a stand-up tasting with the producers of the zone visited, followed by a frequently delicious but always overlong dinner – so we got back around midnight, with blackened teeth and tongues, to the hotels we’d left that morning at 8:45. It takes guts – in many senses – to be a wine journalist.

As I said, I had looked forward to this Barbera Meeting with almost cliché-keen anticipation. I’ve loved Barbera in all its forms, from the simplest quaffing version to the more complex, single-vineyard, low-yield, carefully barriqued specimens that the Braida estate pioneered with its now-benchmark Bricco dell’Uccellone. Unfortunately, there is now increasing interest throughout the whole Barbera kingdom in turning the wine into something bigger and more substantial, into – to use the word we heard endlessly during the meeting – an important wine.

This meant that the wine most producers sent to the blind tasting, for us to sample at our breakfast of champions, was not their simple Barbera but their “important” one – and what quickly became clear to us all was that, in Asti, the road to importance winds through a forest of oak. Now, it is a fact that Barbera, because it has so few tannins of its own, can deal with barriques better than most Italian varieties can. But barriques, which are a recently-arrived technology in most Italian wine zones, need very careful management. A little oak can ruin a lot of wine, and we tasted a lot of ruined wines in Asti. Oak should give structure and nuance to a wine. It shouldn’t replace the grape as the primary flavor component. Unfortunately, in the blind tasting most mornings, we smelled oak on the nose, tasted oak on the palate, and chewed oak in the finish. It wasn’t Piedmont Barbera: it could have been any wine from any grape made anywhere.

Worse: when various journalists – both bloggers and the quill-pen brigade – asked the producers about “all that oak,” we were answered with first evasions, then denials – one winemaker told me that I couldn’t, couldn’t, taste any wood in his wine, when that was all I could taste – and even hostility. Commendable passion and pride, perhaps, but mighty poor public relations – and a wasted opportunity to hear what a knowledgeable segment of its audience was telling them.

Whiteout: the snowstorm at its worst.

Fortunately, there is a brighter side to the story. When we had the chance to sit down with winemakers one by one and taste through their whole line of wines, we invariably found that they all had that gorgeous, juicy Barbera we were looking for. It was almost always the wine they showed us almost apologetically as their “basic” Barbera, their “entry level” wine. When pushed, they also usually admitted that this was the wine they themselves drank all the time; the one we were getting in the morning was the one they made “because the market wants it.” Since we journalists represented the international market (we were from all over the US and the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Russia, Croatia, and a half dozen Asian countries) and we hated those wines, there seemed to be a major disconnect here.

Happily not all the producers were so perversely market-mad. Fabrizio Iuli, who is a craftsman of Monferrato Barbera, probably keeps his wines in barriques longer than anybody else in the zone – but you can’t taste the wood in his wines, just gorgeous Barbera juice. That clearly shows that it isn’t the oak that’s at fault, but the hand that wields the oak. Iuli’s answer to a question about that should be engraved on every winery wall in Asti: “It is a very trivial idea to think that oak makes a wine important.”

Fabrizio Iuli in his Barriccaia.

In defense of the traditional Barbera that we all love as opposed to the internationally-styled, heavily-wooded Barbera that supposedly the market wants, Jeremy Parzen posed a simple, devastating question. “If Italian food conquered the world,” he said, “why can’t Italian wine?”

I think it could, if the makers would simply let it be Italian and not francocalifornicate with it.

—Tom’s Wine Line

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The Barbera 7 say good-bye (but don’t touch that dial!) and our official charity

March 14, 2010

Tired but well-fed and happy, The Barbera 7 left Asti today. But don’t touch that dial: we’ll begin posting again tomorrow, with tasting notes, thoughts, impressions, and a lot of posts from other Barbera Meeting bloggers, writers, and journalists.

In the meantime, we ask you to contribute to The Barbera 7’s official charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, by contributing to Barbera Meeting member Worcester Sauce’s “London Bridges Walk for Haiti.”

Thank you again, Asti, for showing us such a wonderful time and such a wonderful (and delicious) series of events and tastings.

Stay tuned… more to come!

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Barbera blogger team unites in Asti

March 7, 2010

Brunellos Have More Fun, Worcester Sauce, and Bigger Than Your Head enjoyed pizza tonight at Pizzeria Francese in Asti tonight (highly recommended).

Bigger Than Your Head, Worcester Sauce, oenologic, and Jaynes at Hard Café, locals only bar (also highly recommended, especially for the free Sunday happy-hour nosh).

—Do Bianchi

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Worcester Sauce: Lazing on Sunday afternoon… in Asti

March 7, 2010

This morning (7 March) I had a painfully early start to catch a 7am flight from Stansted to Turin. But there are some things that are worth getting up early for…

I am in Asti this week to attend the Barbera Meeting 2010. Such an early arrival meant that I had a few hours to kill before meeting up with my fellow bloggers this evening. I was told that there was probably only one restaurant open in Asti today, so off I went to Ristorante Aldo di Castiglione in Via Giobert.

Aldo is hidden behind an innocuous door that also leads to several private apartments. One has to press the buzzer to obtain entry – quite daunting on a cold Sunday afternoon in Asti! A brusque “si?” preceded a more welcoming entry into the restaurant.

I was seated by the delightful Franca Masoero, who with her husband and sister (or was it daughter?) runs this quintessentially Italian restaurant. Did I want antipasti? No thank you. A warm starter, then? Yes please. Signora Masoero brought me a plate of gnocchi with a salso di pomodoro e basilico. The gnocchi was beautifully soft, just the way I like it, and the sauce wonderfully fresh – especially for March.

My primo piatto was guancio di vitello in a red wine sauce (Barbera, I think), accompanied with mashed potato. It was tender, not too fatty, really tasty and as simple and unadorned as the restaurant’s bare brickwork and unostentatious lighting. With this I drank a half-bottle of 2008 Coppo Barbera d’Asti l’Avvocato – supple, medium-bodied, bright Barbera fruit and a tickle of VA, but to criticise it for that would be to miss the point. It was perfect with the vitello and surprisingly good with the dessert of bonèt, a Piemontese speciality of eggs, sugar, chocolate and amaretti. It was not all that sweet so was an effective abbinamento with the Barbera.

An espresso braced me for the walk back to the hotel. Offers of grappa or more wine were declined in the knowledge that Tom Hyland had organised a pizza evening for us tonight!

—Worcester Sauce

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And the bloggers trickle in…

March 7, 2010

Jaynes and oenologic arrived in Asti earlier today. Bigger Than Your Head and Do Bianchi met up at Malpensa this afternoon and shared a car in.

Worcester Sauce has been here since early this morning and beat the rest of us to the punch with this post on his lunch and afternoon in sleepy Sunday Asti.

Saignée missed his connection at Heathrow. Seems he only had 10 minutes to make his flight and as Pameladevi pointed out on Facebook, “10 mins isn’t enough time to get to the nearest restroom in Heathrow airport…” But Saignée’s just fine and he’ll be arriving later tonight…

Brunellos Have More Fun should be here any minute.

We’re meeting up for an aperitivo before heading over to meet Reflections on Wine for pizza at a pizzeria he’s been raving about.

I’m feeling blogilicious already! More later…

—Do Bianchi

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La Stampa: “The bloggers have landed!”

March 6, 2010

Above: The Torino local edition of La Stampa published this article today on Barbera Meeting 2010 and the novelty of having a group of American bloggers present. Click image for a PDF of the article or become a fan of Barbera Meeting on Facebook for the whole text.

There was an inherent dichotomy drawn in the opening line of an article published today in the Turin edition of the Italian national daily La Stampa. “The blogger-tasters have landed,” read the title, “and live wine scoring has arrived.”

Gone are the “excellent palates” and their insiders-only tastings, wrote journalist Fiammetta Mussio in the opening line: “Goodbye to tastings attended by excellent palates and ‘trials’ behind closed-doors. The bloggers have arrived in the Barbera vineyards.” It would seem that the latter, according to Ms. Mussio, precludes the former.

The department of shameless self-promotion informs me that I should be thrilled to hear myself called “una delle ‘penne’ vinicole più pungenti d’America” (“one of the most pungent wine ‘plumes’ in America”). I wonder if that means I stink. Or perhaps it means that my writing stings its subject matter. Either way I’m flattered.

As hard as it was to say goodbye to Tracie P (not a month since our return from our honeymoon and just a few weeks after our move into our new home together), I am truly excited to think that the trip and adventure that lie ahead of our group of American wine bloggers are being treated a something of a novelty in Italy. The organizers of the event and our sponsors have told me that this is the first time American wine bloggers have been invited to an event of this size and importance in this capacity: we’ll be blogging the tasting is quasi-real-time.

Writing from the Austin airport… more once I arrive in Europe…

—Do Bianchi

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Barbera Boys (and Girls) and Barbera news…

March 3, 2010

Photo by Asti photographer Giulio Morra.

One of our favorite American wine bloggers, McDuff’s Food and Wine Trail, has dubbed our merry band the “Barbera Boys (and Girls).” Thanks McDuff for the shout out and link love: we’re looking forward to your Barbera post over here at Barbera2010.com.

McDuff is SO right on about Barbera when he says, “One of the great things about Barbera is that it need not be profound to be eminently versatile and enjoyable.” Blog (and rock) on McDuff!

In other news…

The complete list of participating producers is available here (click to download PDF version).

The official tasting site is now live: please check it out and become a fan on Facebook and share your thoughts on Barbera.

Stay tuned… the adventure begins shortly…