On the third day in Barolo, tears poured out of my heart

I cried on my third day in Italy.  I cried hard in the shower after a full day of tasting the most delicious wines of Piedmont during Ian D’Agata’s 3iC course on Piedmontese food and wine.

Why?  It wasn’t because I was sad, or was suffering from jet lag or being overwhelmed by the material, or from being homesick.  It wasn’t from having too much to drink.  I was absolutely delighted to be there in Barolo, surrounded by the beautiful vineyards that make the wine that the world talks about. The place is so otherworldly.  Somehow I felt like Piedmont was a sort of Brigadoon – foreign, suspended in time, secretive, magical.  I was immersed in culture, language, tradition, delicious food and wine.  I was surrounded by people with passion.

The emotion I felt in the shower was purely from the connection that I had made. Finally.  You see, my experience with wine has always been by way of the what’s in the glass.  It’s a vessel that virtually transports you to another place.  And if you’re aware, with each sip you can imagine the place, the soil, the air and humidity, and get a sense of the culture and the people who make this magical juice.  To me, this is the ultimate beauty of wine.  It’s what I often call a sip trip.

The stained glass windows at G.D. Vajra

What I wasn’t prepared for was to actually go there.  By that third day, I had the pleasure of tasting wines that I’ve been reading about in a hefty 600 page book entitled Native Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata.   I indulged in foods that friends have told me I would for sure be trying …Bagna Cauda… Vitello Tonnato … Tajarin… hazelnuts… And on that afternoon, I visited two wineries.  I had no idea where I was going until I got on the bus, but when I found out, my heart was full before I even arrived at the wineries.

The first was G.D. Vajra.  Already feeling emotional because it was the first single vineyard Barolo  I ever had (Ravera). It was given to me by a very dear friend. Since then I had tasted other Vajra wines and one I was particularly looking forward to tasting again was the ethereal Bricco delle Viole (hill of violets) Barolo, as I had enjoyed this wine and written about it in the past. We spent the afternoon with the lovely Francesca Vaira. Her sweet, passionate and thoughtful demeanor was infectious.  We stopped to visit the blue stained glass windows that illuminated the fermentation room. She spoke of the importance of these works of art to her and family; it captured my heart.  As we continued the tour, Bricco delle Viole appeared in more ways that one, the first of which was a framed label hanging on the wall, then a child’s drawing displayed in the tasting room, in liquid form during a tasting among other Vajra wines, and finally when a colleague shouted, “Look over there, that’s Bricco delle Viole.”  I was immersed in joy.

The next visit was at Poderi Gianni Gagliardo. Again, special because it was the first Favorita I ever had. And I just opened this bottle on the first hot day of the year two weeks prior to coming to Barolo.  The time with Stefano Gagliardo was memorable – touring the wine cellar, tapping into still-aging Barolo, tasting the generous offering of wines from him and other producers and finally tasting the Favorita – a touch spritzy, refreshingly crisp and once again, a crystal clear connection to something that mattered so much to me. 

The point here is, what matters to me doesn’t have to matter to you.  I don’t expect you’d understand.  But on this third day, I felt a connection and emotion that I never felt before.  How could something like wine do this?  The answer is that it’s not just the wine.  It’s the people, the places, all your senses all working in harmony, the gatherings, the friendships, it’s the slightest realization of something during conversations that took place years ago, it’s the celebrations, it’s shared experiences,  it’s noticing what’s around and keeping it in your memory bank, then all of a sudden, it’s discovering the true meaning of it all. It’s an emotion that overwhelms with happiness. It conjures, evokes, re-creates. It’s about reminiscence, recollections and reflections.

Wine has the capacity to not only take you to place, but like a friend has told me more than once, they can be “fascinating, beguiling, and hauntingly beautiful experiences. They are like drinking pure emotion.”

Now I know.

 

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller.

Road trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina: The spiritual land and the spirit of wine

Shaped like a boomerang of sorts, Croatia twists around the small land of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this strangely-drawn boundary provides the joined countries with access to the Adriatic Sea. From the town of Kaštela along the Dalmatian Coast, we left early in the morning, drove into the rough, limestone-rich hills of Croatia and passed through the border crossing in Croatia to enter into Bosnia and Herzegovina. While most border agents speed this process along, travelers from outside of the European Union inevitably slow things down because passports are taken for inspection (and, stamping!).

Medjugorje
We first stopped in Medjugorje, a small town not far from the Croatian border in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Medjugorje is notable because in 1981 six children “visionaries” were said to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary while playing on a nearby hill.

Commonly referred to as “Our Lady of Medjugorje,” Catholics believe the apparition of the Virgin Mary continues to bring messages to the visionaries.  This makes Medjugorje a major pilgrimage site for Catholics all over the world to experience what is undeniably a very spiritual spot, comparable to Lourdes and Fatima.

We attended a Catholic mass at 10 am.  Father was from Chicago and alongside him on the alter were six to eight other priests – each presumably from other parts of the world. He talked about his “calling,” which came at a time when he said he appeared to look nothing like the church-going type: Hair down his back, cigarette in mouth, playing music on the streets and nurturing a long-distance girlfriend in France. His casual nature was welcomed by all and his message was strong.

The church itself is sizable, but not that much larger than one found in a major city.  However, because of the potential crowd that it draws, the mass is also broadcast over loudspeakers into the town and the immediate area surrounding the church can hold an estimated 5,000 people.  The largest group of individuals who visit are from Italy.  They have the Vatican there, but Medjugorje has the sightings and also the largest number of confessionals.  Once the 10 a.m. mass was over, another mass started around 11:15, this time in Italian.

Brkić: Herzegovina wines

It’s quite clear that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina are deeply vested in their land… and the wines in an almost spiritual way. But that doesn’t mean that tradition and convention is for everyone.  After visiting Medjugorje, we drove a little ways to visit the winemaking family by the name of Brkić.   The wines of Brkić are about as far-removed from conventional as one can get. Located in the small town of Čitluk, a mere speck at the heart of Herzegovina wine production, Josip Brkić and his twin sons are producing fermented juice made of of Žilavka (white) and Blatina (red) that are not only as close to truly representative of the region, but also delicious and unique.

We sat down in his comfortable winery to taste several of the Brkic wines and listen to Josip and his sons tell their story.

Over 15 years ago, during a trip to Italy, Josip learned about biodynamic practices and Steiner’s farming philosophy and fell in love with the concept, which changed the course of his winemaking for good.  Brkić is probably Herzegovina’s only biodynamic grower at the time of this writing this post.  Going against all conventional wisdom, Brkić converted the family’s four hectares and set out a new path. According to Josip, being one with the land, means to be thoughtful and and to fully embrace one’s surroundings. He said something to the effect that all he needed were his hands and grapes [to make wine].  Of course, he understands that organic and biodynamic farming is risky, and not for everyone but it makes complete sense to him, thereby he creates a spirit that revolves around his wines and he radiates his belief in confidence.

Josip Brkic specializes in the indigenous white aromatic Žilavka and rustic red Blatina from his region of Čitluk in Bosnia/Herzegovina. Utilizing organic and biodynamic principals and the lunar calendar, Josip respectfully fulfills the responsibilities to the land with his desire to make wines of terroir. Greda is the name of the plateau vineyard where the Blatina fruit was sourced. Fermented by native yeast in local, Bosnian oak to soften the angular nature of the grape it is an understated  red of elegance, style with a little rusticity.

Mjeseċąr, which means the moon walker in Bosnian, is Josip’s first wine made in a complete biodynamic way and supported by the power of the moon. Moon walker is an “orange wine” (made from white grapes with extended skin contact).  All  the work in vineyard was performed according to the moon phases, from pruning, harvesting, grape selection, to the wine itself. Tasting it was like tasting passion.

The winery itself is comfortable and inviting.  Outside and in the back and down the stairs is the wine making facility and cellar. Nothing fancy, but impeccably clean and with a feeling that their life’s work all happens here and in their nearby vineyards.

Herzegovina is spiritual in more ways than one and the feeling of connection is strongly magnetic. Coming here was a pilgrimage that satisfied and nourished all the senses.

 

While in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, look up www.travel-medjugorje.com. 

Who do I see and taste in a glass of Ruchè?

Here I am getting ready for another upcoming wine tasting/seminar and I’m already thinking about what my notes will reveal.  Will I see a person in one of those wines next week?  Now that I’m fully aware of this “thing” that happens every now and then I think I’ll do a brain dump on the last person I saw in a wine before I get a pile up of people 🙂  By the way, I’m still trying to figure out if I associate a type of person with a varietal.  So far nothing, but I’ll keep putting my thoughts down, but if you think this content is strange, move onto the my last post about Santorini.

A few weeks ago, my pal Kirk Peterson brought over a bottle of Ruchè (La Miraja Ruche’ Di Castagnole Monferrato) , which is a grape grown in the Alto Monferrato  in Piemonte, Italy.  I’ve never had this varietal before, so naturally I was excited and interested.

Handing me a glass, he said, “Here, try this. It’s rrrrrrukay!”

Delighted by his enthusiasm, I immediately gave it a swirl and took a sniff. Right away, I took in its extraordinary and magnetic floral intensity, which started to present a person. But who was she?  Part of me ignored the vision of this girl from an Eastern Europe, dressed in a rust-red velvet tea-length dress with flat smooth, satin slip-ons.  The other part of me just wanted to savor this wine, re-join the conversation and forget about the girl because really, who cares?

But, back to the girl.  The vision always presents itself as a still image of a person in some form of action.  This girl is sitting at her piano, which  isn’t the jet black shiny type. Instead, it’s crafted of distressed marled wood of sorts and the setting is not at a concert hall, but rather a practice room either in a basement or music school.  This is a girl with long and thick mahogany hair is probably playing  Baroque but could also be playing rock ‘n roll from a legendary British band for variety, which could be why her talent is slowly getting recognized and taking her outside of her tiny speck of a  town.  I’m just guessing this, as I don’t actually hear anything.

Her eyes are green with lots of dark pigments of earthy-brown and ochre.  She has a small mouth with a dab of semi-sheer tint of red on her bee-stung lips. Her hands are youthful and skinny, but her fingers are long and strong, precise and determined. I was intrigued by how delightfully aromatic this wine is and how unique and funky it is on the palette. Certainly, a contrast from nose to palette.  I’m not certain it’s a wine for everyone’s taste, but I think she is a delicious experience.

Enjoying La Miraja Ruche’ di Castagnole Monferrato at Otto inside The Venetian Las Vegas.

Then I had the opportunity to taste her again this past weekend. She was much more pronounced this time – 17 and half years of age to be exact, from Eastern Europe, like I thought earlier – either Bulgaria or Romania.  She’s the only child of older parents.  The family’s hope is for her to become a well known concert pianist.  She’s not as concerned about it, though.  There is some tension in the family. Not sure why I see this – perhaps something tragic happened in the past?  I sense there is some complexity in her history, and it shows in her hands. And I’ll just leave that alone right there.

As for the wine, I’m not sure if it has any correlation to the person, but it’s a light to medium bodied wine, young, pretty, nervy, gutsy, mysterious, passionate, vibrant, yet melancholic at times.  Downright delicious.

See?  I told you I can’t describe wine like the somms.

And oh, I saved the original bottle (empty since that day) Kirk gave it to me and just took a sniff. Roses.  My son described it like the crushed pink rose petals that are inside the sachet bags.  Yep.

NOTE:  When I took a picture of the bottle for this post, I noticed the girl on the label. I knew she was there all along, but I never paid much attention until today.  Admittedly, she’s not quite the person I see, but I’m going to contact the producer and find out who the girl on the bottle is.

When I drink wine, people show up

He’s 40ish, Peruvian (maybe), dressed in slouchy indigo jeans and a chambray shirt, standing in broken-in Birkenstocks. And, he is stressed from a recent marital breakup. While this sounds like a person, in actuality, it’s typical of how I describe a wine sometimes. I see people when I taste wine.

Looking back, I think my earliest recollection of describing a person when tasting wine is when I wrote a short piece on amarone and described her as a beautiful woman from Veneto. I suppose others would agree that my attempt to “humanize” amarone was pretty accurate. However, at the time I wrote it, I wasn’t aware of seeing anyone in particular; this was just a creative writing exercise and I just felt like describing amarone that way. But, since then I’ve been increasingly seeing images of people in my mind when I taste wine. Could this be a form of synesthesia?

I’ve told a few people about what I see when I drink wine, just to examine their reactions, and I’ve generally received positive remarks with a little wonder of “is this girl loopy?!@*#” in the backs of their mind. I get it, because rather than coming out with a description like “lemon peel, crushed rock and saline,” my descriptors are “freckle-faced, youthful 15-year-old girl, whose parents own a bakery specializing in fruit tarts.” I  do think it’s rather bizarre and almost embarassing, so and I’ve been banishing this reality for fear that I’d get dismissed as crazy and, you know, scrutinized.

But the reality is, I do see people – from all walks of life, people I’ve never met –  appear when I taste wine.  So I thought, “why not?” Let me just pour my self-conscious thoughts of wackiness (hardly sophisticated like my wine peers) in my personal blog.

So here I was sitting with all these sommeliers at a German riesling tasting last month.  And like a good journalist, I was taking notes of the presentation and describing the flavors and aromas of each wine.  Admittedly, I’m not the best at identifying these things yet, so usually my notes are sparse followed by a number of question marks (still need help with this, friends). Anyway, I was enjoying this lovely tasting and at the end of the hour, I noticed that some of my notes were descriptions of people, not the wine’s flavors and aromas. Stunned by my scribbles, I carefully flipped the page so that nobody else would notice.

A  little nutty, you say? Because I think it is.  And, I really don’t know where this is coming from.  I don’t experience this with other beverages or foods, and I don’t need to have any background on the wine that I’m tasting before someone appears in my mind.  As long as it hits my palette and my olfactories, she/he is there – with a least half the wines I taste.

So when you ask me what I’m tasting and smelling in a wine, I’ll struggle to come up with an acceptable description, like “passion fruit, banana, lemon curd and slightly effervescent…” But, don’t judge when I say she’s is in her mid-40s, tan or olive skin, former surfer, but now mother of three who lives in a beach house provided by her husband who is never, ever home.  Once extremely frustrated, she’s now rejuvenated and resilient, pouring her emotions into her new love – oil paining.  By the way, that was the Pfeffingen Scheurebe Trocken 2016 from Pfalz.  And, yes, she was vividly delicious!

So yeah.

Recipe: English Lavender Chicken

This past Easter, Craig’s aunt, Charlene West, prepared lavender chicken during her stay with us.  For many years, Charlene ran a catering company.  Then, for the past 18 years, she owned a flower shop.  Now retired, it seemed fitting to celebrate her visit with this delightful dish that infuses the essence of English lavender with the common poultry.  It’s deliciously fragrant and very easy to prepare.

RECIPE:
4-5 lavender stalks
8-10 chicken pieces (trim excess fat)
6 cloves of garlic (rough chopped)
Extra virgin olive oil (enough to coat bottom of pan and chicken)
salt
pepper
Extra lavender for garnish

Brine chicken in salty water in refrigerator for 24 hours.

Coat the bottom of a 9×13 pan with olive oil.  Tear lavender leaves into pieces. Add chicken, garlic, lavender leaves and flowers, salt and pepper, then coat with more olive oil.  Roast in oven at 400 degrees for 1 hour or until done.

 

Growing up with whisky

Dad loved whisky so much that he named his German Shepherd, Whisky. And when his beloved canine crossed the rainbow bridge, he named the next dog Whisky, too. As you can imagine, I was around Whisky a lot – the dog(s) and his favorite spirit.

As an only child, I was carted around to many social functions with my parents.  Dad was an advertising executive in the 60s and early 70s, working for a mega agency, J. Walter Thompson, out of the Tokyo office. (And if you ever want to know what that lifestyle was like, just watch an episode of Mad Men.)

As a result, I was around a lot of adults, adult foods and adult drinks. I was also exposed to many brands, but the one that stood out most from those days was Suntory, Japan’s first whisky distillery.

In Japan, the whisky highball was the drink. Because whisky was mixed with a great deal of club soda and ice,  it was easy to enjoy many glasses of them. And so as the night went on at these gatherings, I’d hear giggles, then bursts of laughter, quick exchanges in both Japanese and English languages, and of course, the ice clinking against their glasses. It must have been refreshing.

Thirty-five years later, I hadn’t given this drink a second thought, until I attended  Now Drink This Live, a series of immersive spirits-tasting experiences on the Las Vegas Strip, hosted by award-winning spirits writer Xania Woodman with special guest educators.

This particular evening her guest, Suntory’s U.S. brand ambassador Johnnie Mundell, took us on a virtual tour to Suntory’s first distillery, Yamasaki, located in the Osaka prefecture. He taught us everything we wanted to know about Japanese whisky, the history, the culture and the brand. He also introduced us to Toki, Suntory’s newest groundbreaking blended whisky.

By the end of the evening, I was completely enchanted. Not just from sipping Japanese whisky, but from the overwhelming resurgence of the fondest memories I had of my dad.

Ironically, the word “Toki” means “a connection in time” in Japanese. Whoa, I’ll take it as a sign!

The quality of the ice and water make all the difference.

The next day, I visited my mom’s house and I took notice of all the Suntory bottles she had saved over the years.  According to her, these were very rare and special gifts given to dad during his days in the advertising business.

750 ml. Released in 1989
An incredibly rare, “60 month old” Yamazaki single malt from Suntory bottled for the Japanese market. Circa 1970s

Indeed, that night was very special for me. I always embrace these educational experiences, as they further my education and appreciation for the field of food and beverage writing. But I had no idea, it would offer such a convergence of intensity and harmony. Needless to say, the next time I come up to the bar,  I’ll be ordering a whisky highball and having that drink that dad and I never had a chance to enjoy together. I know he’ll be there in spirit.

How to make the PERFECT Japanese Highball (courtesy of SeongHa Lee, lead bartender, Zuma in The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, who was a bartender at a Suntory Bar  – Keihan Kyobashi Hotel, Osaka, JAPAN)

  
Danielle DeBruno Photography

  1. Fill a clean highball glass with ice to chill the glass
  2.  Discard the ice and melted water
  3. Fill the glass with GOOD (clear, not cloudy) ice
  4. Add 1.5 oz of Suntory Whisky
  5. Stir 12 and a half times
  6. Add club soda along the glass to the top
  7. Stir 2 and a half times
  8. Say “Kanpai” and drink with friend

Bocce & Bottles 2016

For a long time, the game of bocce was purely for old Italian men. They wanted to get away from the wives and kids so they could smoke, cuss, scratch themselves when they wanted to … you know, the court was where they could do this all freely.   After all, women would just take the fun out of everything, right?

balls

These days the game of bocce has evolved to gather all ages, all genders, all abilities, making it one of the most social games, and it has truly become a personal favorite of ours. With a glass of wine in one hand, a ball in the other, it’s a symbiotic relationship that fosters hours of entertainment and laughter.

marisa

Finally, this year, we hosted our first annual “Bocce & Bottles” tournament.  The games got quite exciting!  Those with even the most minimal experience were able to get right next to the pallino. More vengeful players strategically knocked their friends’ balls out of the way. And when two balls were in question, we’d unravel the string from the copper cup to determine whose ball was closer. Yes, so much fun!  We are so fortunate to have such wonderful friends. Times like this is worth capturing and sharing. Here are photos (taken by Shawna Quenneville) to re-cap the event…

THE PLAYERS:group-shot

(L-R): Ada Feliciano, Craig Finetti, Eduard Ajdini, Marisa Finetti, Lisa Ajdini, Alison Bradley, Bill Bradley, Michelle Tenazas, Jared Cooper, Corinne Leo,  Liz Davar, Henry Davar, Kirk Peterson and Allison Bernhardt (George Chambers and Mini not pictured)

kirk

dinner

img_1579

craig

cup
“Cup the ball” with our homemade measuring device.

img_1593

cooper

gathering

scoreboard

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alison
Looks like victory!

michelle

group

THE BOTTLES:

wine-on-table

the-bottles

more-wine

opening-bottle

glasses

Egly-Ouriet, Brut Tradition, Grand Cru NV
Wind Gap Trousseau Gris 2013
Giovanni Rosso, Barbera, Donna Margherita 2014
Contratto For England Rosé 2008
Contratto Millesimato Extra Brut 2010
Jean Foillard, Morgon, Cuvée Corcelette 2013
Chateau Tourans Saint-Émilion 2010
Nigl Grüner Veltliner 2005
Unanime Gran Vino Tinto 2012
The Prisoner 2014
Contadi Castaldi Rosé Franciacorta
Chateau Touran Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2010
Portal Reserva Douro 2010
Leeuwin Estate Riesling 2010

THE FOOD:
An array of delicious food brought by friends, plus local restaurant favorites, like Daily Kitchen’s family meal, which included Brussels sprouts, macaroni & cheese, Mary’s all-natural rotisserie chicken, Certified Angus tri-tip beef, kale salad and flourless chocolate cake.

dinner2

daily-kitchen-chocolate-cake

plates

eating2

eating

Chicharonnes from China Poblano
Chicharonnes from China Poblano

THE WINNERS:

medals


1st Place – Liz & Henry Davarimg_1586

2nd Place – Lisa and Eduard Ajdini
eduard

3rd Place  – Yours truly – Marisa & Craig Finetti

 

Photos:  Shawna Quenneville