Monthly Archives: February 2012

Two families, a countess, and a gardener: the story of Ciacci Piccolomini, as told by Mollie Lewis

{Although the story is about Tuscan wine, these grapes were found post harvest at Clos de Vougeot, France.}

When people ask me why I’m reading so much about wine, I almost always answer that I love the stories that go along with the grapes. To some it may seem to be a silly explanation, since stories don’t really account for the drinking. But when you delve into the history and the tradition associated with many Old World wines, you find much more than just viticulture. I’ve found philosophy and principle and love, together with intrigue, mystery, and cut-throat competition. Families joined and divided. Religious implications and papal blessings. Deceit and heroism. Legends. It’s all very interesting for someone who likes to write.

Now, I’m a rookie when it comes to Italian wine. That is my disclaimer. But it’s not going to stop me from telling you a story about Italian wine – or, rather, an Italian vineyard gardener. It’s a tale I heard at a tasting last week, and although I might add that the aroma of the wine is still fresh in my memory, the charm of this account might just stick with me longer.

Let me set the stage.

It’s almost closing time at the wine shop. People are flooding into a back tasting room, claiming chairs at one of four rows of thin long tables, set up in lecture hall fashion. Each place seating is equipped with two wine glasses, a booklet with technical information and maps of Italy, and a plate for cheese and crackers. Sara, who invited me to the tasting, and I rush up to the front of the room, eager to eye the bottles. We claim our places at the first table.

Five minutes later the room quiets. Introductions are made, and Mollie Lewis comes forward to present the evening’s wines. Tall with red hair and not a hint of makeup, Mollie is poised to speak from a font of experience that seems impossible to have attained at her age. She can’t be more than thirty, and yet she must be. She began studying wine at 25, working her way up from restaurant sommelier positions to distribution in California before winning a job that would take her to Italy for five years. Her beauty resonates in the grace of her words as much as in the breadth of her smile, and she speaks with calm assurance about the aromas hidden in each glass and the history of the vineyards she represents.

A half hour into the tasting we move from the Piedmont region to Tuscany: to the wines of Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona. We lift glasses of Rosso di Montalcino (100% Sangiovese Grosso) to our noses and Mollie purrs.

“A good Rosso is what I like to call a baby Brunello,” she says, referring to one of Italy’s best known and most expensive wines. “Doesn’t that just smell like Italy?” Continue reading



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Big horses, cautious toes, and what it means to be à cheval

A cheval. On horseback.

On the edge of the pasture, saddle in one hand and frayed cotton rope attached to horse in the other, I position myself to hoist the former onto the latter’s back. My feet are planted deliberately between the front and back hooves of the giant draft so that, in plunking the saddle down I resemble a yogi stretching from the core, reaching toward the horizon as I leave my lower half firmly planted out of harm’s way.

I’ve been stepped on before, but not by the likes of these horses, who not only might unintentionally do serious damage, but could also be quite long in budging a gigantic hoof if ever one were to break out in hysterics under the pressure of a ton of horseflesh. It’s a double-edged sword with Satine’s breed: more docile and gentle than the lightest and flightiest Thoroughbred, these horses are incredibly massive and powerful. I have one toenail that grows oddly because of a run in (or run-over?) with a Thoroughbred. If the same happened with Satine, I might not have a toe at all.

So, I mind my distance. As I struggle to tighten the girth around a very stout belly, I point my toes inward, transforming from yogi to duck.

“You okay over there?” Mélie shouts from the shoulder of her other horse, Utique. “She giving you a hard time with the girth?”

I smack Satine lightly on the belly. “Suck it in, girl,” I say. Then, to Mélie: “I’ve got it!”

With the same attention to my feet, and hers, I lift the bit to Satine’s mouth. Then, all straps buckled, I lead her to the opening in the barbed wire fence, resisting the urge to announce that such a barrier would never effectively retain a Thoroughbred. In the middle of a one lane country road I swing my leg over Satine’s back and heave a sigh of relief. It’s safer up here than on the ground with all those car tire feet.

A cheval. On horseback. I was born here, and now that I am in the irons again I feel secure. I reach forward and stroke the caramel coat under Satine’s mane as she marches slowly and methodically along the road. Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop. Mélie instructs from the back of Utique.

“We’ll turn left onto the trail up ahead. Satine knows the way.”

And so does Satine’s foal, Baya, who intermittently trots along behind or canters ahead beside the road. This is the Franche-Comté region of France, where people drive their cars with the knowledge that they share the road with animals – mostly cows, but sometimes horses. Mélie is not concerned. When a little beat up Renault rounds a corner, she marches Utique out into the middle of the road and holds her hand up, signaling to be aware of the little one. The car scoots cautiously past a very nonchalant Baya.

Into the woods, what looks like an old logger’s trail opens up before us and I turn in my saddle to tell Mélie how much it reminds me of home.

“It’s just like this behind my house,” I say. “The tunnel of trees, deer trails, and moist, hilly terrain. I could be out here with my dad right now, but it’s you behind me instead!”

We talk about pony club and trail riding and the psychology of little girls and their horses. The reins are loose as I look over my shoulder at Mélie, who nudges Utique to catch up with Satine’s longer stride.

When we emerge from the woods, we’ll find the winding road that leads to Mélie’s village.  Approaching their big farm house – one that in another age contained the cows under the same roof as the owners – we will be greeted by her children’s voices. “Satine, Utique, Baya!” they’ll sing, exiting the house at a run. The horses won’t be fazed by the serenade, nor will they balk when the kids run right up beside them, reaching to stroke their soft muzzles and grasp their cream colored manes.

A cheval. As I sit at my computer, thousands of miles from Satine, Utique, and Baya, I look out my window and see two sleek bay Thoroughbreds in the pasture below.

In France, you can be à cheval when your feet are literally in the stirrups and you are “on horse.” You might also be à cheval sur les principes, which means you are a stickler for principles. But, most fittingly for me, you can be à cheval entre hier et demain, with one foot caught in the stirrup of yesterday and the other in that of tomorrow.

Today that’s where I am. Looking back, looking forward, looking to France.


Filed under Adventure, Cool Characters, Horses

Celebrate every occasion and drink bubbly all the time! But how?

Why not crack a bottle of bubbly before Sunday brunch? Or how about letting the pop of a cork harmonize with the crackle of corn on the stove before a movie? Why not buy a couple bottles for girls’ night or to drink on game day?

Most of you will be glad to tell me why not. I can hear the unified cries now: “Champagne is too expensive for the everyday!”

Did I say anything about Champagne?

Check out my article on E-Romantic Hotel’s site for how to turn bubbly into an old faithful friend instead of the stuffy acquaintance you only see at New Year’s.


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St Valentine’s in October (or how to replace a lost photo)

An hour and 38 minute. That’s how long I have spent looking for one photograph.

Remember when we had boxes of prints and they’d either be roughly organized by year, separated into bundles of 24 or 36 as the roll allowed, or they’d be scattered haphazardly in a big  container, where you might find a baby picture in with the sweet sixteen shots? Before I learned how to organize my digital albums, they resembled the old school “miscellaneous picture” box quite accurately. Everything miss-marked, no dates to distinguish the first years of college from the last. A mess.

This is what I was up against today, and, being the photo lover I am, I’ll estimate I had about 5,000 photos more than anyone else in a similar predicament.

The photo in question was taken on the first Valentine’s Day I spent across the ocean from my beau. Having received a giant box full of chocolate candies and buttery French biscuits delivered to my college post office box, I displayed them all on my dorm room bed and proudly took a picture.

(Now that I am writing this, it seems silly I wasted my time looking through every single random album for an image of chocolates. You don’t need to see it; I’m telling you, there were dozens of chocolate bars. You believe me, right?)

What I suppose I was grasping for was the memory, which I’ll always have whether or not I find that darn photo. Like some of the chocolate bars strewn across my bed, the recollection is bittersweet. I am across the Atlantic from him now as I was then. Envisioning his note — “Let’s not be apart for Valentine’s Day again” — I feel a tinge of frustration, as if somehow I’ve broken a pact.

Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t find the picture. Looking unsuccessfully for it gave me the chance to find dozens of other photos from the beginning, including this one, taken the day after we met:

This was one of the first (silly) pictures we took together, and I don’t even remember why we linked arms. (Was it our first unspoken pact?) Out to dinner with new friends on a weekend trip to Bordeaux, my American girlfriends and I remember that the restaurant was packed and understaffed and we had to finagle our way in. Geoffroy and Louis saved the day by offering to cook their own meals. The chef threw up his hands and tossed them each an apron. Cook their own meals they did!

On that same weekend, we “redecorated” Mickael’s van when he was away:

Then we climbed the Great Dune of Pyla, the tallest sand dune in Europe. Dipping our toes in the Atlantic, we waved toward our homeland…The boys even produced a flag for us to fly in America’s direction as they belted out their best rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

That was a good trip.

I certainly feel happy now that I’ve shared these photos and memories with you, even though they aren’t really pertinent to Valentine’s Day. Maybe not as a picture of dozens of chocolate bars strewn atop a bed would have been.

But to me, this is better.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Hope you’re with your honeys!

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Filed under Adventure, Gratitude, Laugh it off, Travel

Talking point: Wine Au Naturel

I’ve been reading a lot about so-called natural wine recently and I’m trying to make up my mind about it. Some people think it’s a sales gimmick, others are quick to point out that all  wine requires human intervention, and still others draw attention to the shady “marketing by denigration,” which natural wine proponents seem to use in comparing their wine to “conventional wine.”

Some people who genuinely care about the process of making wine, the importance of not interfering and of letting the character or terroir  shine through are nonetheless up in arms against the Natural Wine Movement, which they see as extreme.

Benjamin Lewin makes a good point on his blog:

If by natural wine, we mean a wine that has the minimum of intervention – no synthetic treatments in the vineyard, no addition of sugar, acidity, or anything else during fermentation – then that’s fine; but recognize that the wine may not be so good as if some intervention had been allowed.

But then the French natural wine organization Better than Organic’s view is that:

“Natural winemaking will always produce a better, more individual wine than conventional methods used on the same site…A natural winemaker is a genuine artisan. Natural winemaking requires skill, patience, nerve, and hard physical labour. In most cases it brings small financial rewards. There is more money, less risk, and far less work in making wine conventionally.”

There are so many questions about what is natural and what isn’t. Barring the obvious herbicides and pesticides from the discussion, there is still the problem of sulfur, which is considered by many as an absolute minimum additive to prevent bacterial growth and subsequent conversion of the wine to vinegar. Another issue is yeast: should winemakers use only the naturally occurring yeast, which can produce unpredictable results in fermentation, or be allowed to add a pure yeast culture which will dominate the natural yeast but produce more reliable results? After fermentation, what is the most natural form of storage? Barrels or tanks, or neither?

At a wine tasting last night I spoke with the young Sara Martinez-Lagos, whose family owns Zuazo Gaston vineyards in Rioja, Spain. Making an effort to be discreet, and hoping she would elaborate on their winemaking philosophy, I asked her how they addressed the problem of weeds. Her brown hair danced in its loose bun as her arms flapped to demonstrate the use of a handheld tiller. “What’s the word?” she asked.

“By hand,” I said.

There is definite charm in knowing that there are people who are still committed to the land and the soil and to as little human fingerprint as possible in the making of their wines. At the same time, as Kermit Lynch says, in his experience many of the most lovingly produced wines seem to share certain qualities of their vigneron. Hardiness or finesse, roughness or delicacy, straightforwardness or coquettish mystery. There is something to be said for the mark of the craftsman too.

Take a look at the video above and let me know your opinion. What do you think?

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Winemaking 101: Bottling Day

You can take the girl out of France, but you can’t take France out of the girl. Sort of. This Saturday’s wine bottling adventure proved to be trés Americain despite the presence of French blood (compliments of Arnaud, Marc, and Patsy). In a Uof L red basement, where wine bottles mingled with year-round Halloween decorations and quirky monkey masks, a group of us bottled wine from the 2011 Kentucky harvest. Yes, we apparently have vines in Kentucky, and although the terroir is anything but Burgundy, there are certain grapes that seem to do well here.

Take Traminette, for instance. I had never heard of it before, but I got to know it pretty well over the course of the afternoon, as I heaved the arm of the corking machine and secured dozens of corks in the bottle necks. It’s a cross between a French-American hybrid and the German grape Gewürztraminer. Made around 1965 at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign, Traminette has become Indiana’s signature grape because of its ability to thrive in this region’s climate and soil. Unlike many other grape varieties, Traminette is very resistant to fungus (important in our humid area) and can withstand colder weather than Gewürztraminer. It also does well in strong and direct sunlight — something Kentucky and Indiana can proudly boast.

Let me be clear for all of my Burgundian friends who are reading this: we are far from being able to flaunt even a tenth of your magic. But I must admit it was really fun to be a part of the process and learn a thing or two along the way!


Le B-A BA du vigneron : la mise en bouteille

Tu peux sortir la fille de France, tu ne peux pas sortir la France de la fille. Enfin presque. En dépit de la présence de sang français (merci Arnaud, Marc et Patsy), l’aventure de la mise en bouteille de ce samedi s’est révélée très américaine. Dans un bâtiment rouge de l’Université de Louisville, où les bouteilles côtoient les décorations annuelles d’Halloween et d’étranges masques de singes, un petit groupe mettait en bouteille le vin de la récolte 2011 du Kentucky. Oui, apparemment nous avons des vignes au Kentucky, et même si le terroir n’a rien à voir avec la Bourgogne, certains cépages semblent se plaire ici.

Prenez le Traminette, par exemple. Je n’en avais jamais entendu parler jusqu’à présent, mais j’ai appris pas mal de choses au cours de cet après-midi, en poussant le levier de la machine à bouchonner, mettant ainsi en sécurité des douzaines de bouchons dans le goulot des bouteilles. C’est un croisement entre un hybride franco-américain et le Gewürtzraminer allemand. Créé vers 1965 à l’Université de l’Illinois Urbana/Champaign, le Traminette est devenu le cépage de l’Indiana par excellence en raison de sa capacité à prospérer sous le climat et sur le sol de cette région. Contrairement à beaucoup d’autres cépages, le Traminette est très résistant aux champignons (important dans notre zone humide) et plus résistant au froid que le Gewürtzraminer. Il supporte également bien un ensoleillement intense et direct – dont peuvent se vanter le Kentucky et l’Indiana.

Mettons les choses au point pour tous mes amis Bourguignons qui lisent cet article : nous sommes à des lieues d’exhiber ne serait-ce qu’un dixième de votre magie. Mais je dois avouer que c’était vraiment amusant de prendre part au processus et d’apprendre une chose ou deux en chemin !


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