Italian women who make wine

God knows I love Italian women and Italian wine. At the Louis Dressner trade tasting in Chicago on March 23, I had the opportunity to chat up a few Italian winemakers. Just to say their names aloud makes it seem as if you are singing: Sonia Torretta,  Nadia Verrua, Alessadra Venturini, Elisabetta Foradori, and Arianna Occhipinti. It also sounds like a poem or an Italian dinner menu or an angry parliamentary debate in Romae. What I loved about these women were their faces, each one unique and expressive. The wines were equally so.

Nadia Verrua of Cascina Tavijn doesn’t take any crap.

The first table we met Nadia Verrua of Cascina Tavijn and Sonia Torretta of Cascina degli Ulivi. I was a big fan of the Ulivi Gavi Filagnotti from Western Market and a dinner Putnam Weekley had done at El Barzon in Detroit, truly a funky cold medina of a white wine. Sonia had brought the Gavi and Semplicimente Bianco which are made from white Cortese grapes farmed biodynamically. They are aged in botti or large acacia wood barrels until Spring. The Gavi is a great apertif wine with fruity tones while the Semplicimente favors the minerally and has no sulfur dioxide added. There were two reds as well, another Semplicimente Rosso and a Monferrato Dolcetto Nibio. The Rosso is a blend of Barbera and Dolcetto grapes with no sulphur added. It ages on the skins in French oak barrels. Quite a nice early sipping red and great with food for those who are so inclined to pair the two. The Dolcetto is from a plot of red clay and limestone and ferments on the skins for 40 days. This is a very traditionally made wine with great aromas and tanins for long lasting lushness. Nibio is local dialect for the dolcetto grape which has been hanging in the hills of Piemonte and Liguria for at least 1000 years.

No sulfur dioxide added, now that’s pretty semplicemente.

Sonia had on some sweet yellow Asics shoes and she and Jarred hit it off because he had worn his Asics of many colors. I, for a change, was wearing grown-up leather shoes (at least they had pointy toes).  She was making me thirsty and hungry talking about her biodynamic farm with its bed and breakfast, fruit trees and local produce. She is truly dedicated to biodiversity.  She grows ancient varieties of grains, including spelt, and raises heritage chickens and cattle for cheese and beef.  She and I bonded over my tales of trips to Piemonte in the days when we imported Lavazza coffee.    We discussed my coffee roasting and trips to Lavazza’s massive coffee roasting facility on the outskirts of Torino.  I know Detroit Mayor Bing went to Torino to see how the city survived after the economic tides turned on Fiat and its manufacturing base there.  Here’s a thought: more Piemonte wines and free appetizers at the local bars.  And by appetizers, I don’t mean chicken wings.  Soon enough, Sonia had produced a demi-tasse of Lavazza espresso.

Lavazza in Sonia’s tazza.

There was no time for espresso now, even as espresso as it is.  We had Italian wines to drink and more invitations to b & b’s in the Italian hinterlands to collect.  Nadia Verrua had brought two wines from Cascina Tavijn: a Grignolino d’Asti and a Ruche de Castagnole Montferrato. Much like the name Tavijn, these grapes were of a distinct local dialect.

Bottles to marry a native for.

The Grignolino d’Asti is a really light red.  It has a pale rose color and could almost be a rosé except that there was more going on, a lot more.  This is a wine you want to drink immediately with a plate of cured coppa while wearing really loud colored sneakers.  I made coppa for the first time this year and I’ve got the sneakers covered. Let’s party.  But is that also some earth and pepper? Some orange blossom? What the devil did she do to make this wine? It was putting a hex on me.  This is also a full-on chill and chill wine.  The Ruché may be slightly more well-known grape than these offbeat native varieties, but not by much.  It is pronounced Rue-K and sounds like a Japanese baseball pitcher.  If you put Ruché in the game, chalk up a save.  Ruby red bordering on a Prince-like purple, Tavijn Ruché is no shrinking violet.  Well, it does have some very flowery aromas but with 30 days on its skins, it has some serious structure.   Who wouldn’t want skin in this game?

americano is the sheeit still life with rene mosse

Nadia also sells some grignolino grapes to Mauro Vergagno who uses them in his incredible non vintage Vino Aromatizzato Americano chinato.  In this case, unlike the coffee game, Americano doesn’t refer to something stupid like adding water to espresso, but to the bitter (amer) aspect of the drink.  Just to give a small measure of respect to the fellas, we did spy Marc Olivier shlurping down a special cocktail Mauro Vergano made: chinato with sparkling water, ice and orange peel.  This may be the best and most simple cocktail I’ve ever tasted. Yeah, dog!

After the super animated duo of Sonia and Nadia, Alessandra Venturini of Monte dall’Ora was positively demure.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Sometimes Italians are so Comedia dell’Arte that we are shocked at an Italian who is subdued and serious or just shy.  Monte dall’Ora had three Valpolicellas and an Amarone.  I had to refocus a bit on the wines and not the personalities I had been so enjoying.  Rustic is what hit me at first, then authentic.  I have not tasted too many Valpolicellas so I was at first without a frame of reference. I tasted, took some notes then came back again.  Alessandra explained that the vineyards, organically farmed, face the city of Verona in the Veneto.  Jarred and I were if not normally, very gentlemanly as we imbibed.  The Valpolicella Classico Saseti was very cherry with notes of wet grass. It is a blend of local natives: 40% Corvina, 30% Corvinone, 20% Rondinella and 10% Molinara and Oseleta. At 12% alcohol, I could drink this wine all day and all of the night.  The Ripasso is made in the tradional manner of a secondary fermentation of the Classico on the skins in the March following harvest. Like coaxing the inherent sweetness from coffee by concentrating polyphenols, this wine is concentrated and could be considered the little brother of Amarone.  My tasting notes for the Amarone said semplicemente, “f’ing amazing.”


From Verona north to the Dolomites, I met one of the stars of the Italian women winemakers constellation: Elizabetta Foradori.  Just to repeat the name Foradori is an exercise in the romance languages. This woman is positively charming, elegant.  Elizabetta was conversing with another taster so I began by tasting through her portfolio while waiting for an audience.  You could see her passion both in the way she was using her hands while talking as well as in the bottle.  Instead of in a dream or on a website, there was a magnum of Teraldego Sgarzon just waiting for me on the table.  Dream or reality, I reached for the bottle and poured out some wine for myself.  Tonnerre de Dieu.  I don’t even know how you say in Italian, thunder, madness, wonderment.  Who is John Galt?  All the talent of Atlas Shrugged squirreled away in some mountain retreat in the Dolomites instead of Colorado, this wine was revolutionary.  Sgarzon is a gravelly parcel in the cool climes of the mountains.  The grapes are vinified on the skins, open fermentation in clay anfora for eight months. Fleshy, fruity, acidy, soft tannins, Elizabetta how do you do?

grande dame of the dolomites

When you talk to Elizabetta, no one else is in the room.  The thing I like about the Louis Dressner  tastings is to see the different faces of the winemakers.  These people live their work.  You can see it and taste it.  Relationships sell wine, nothing else.  You cannot improve on that.  Everything else is a commodity based on price.  She explained that the poverty of soil helps grapes develop a certain character. Why date the static prettiest girl when you could date a lively girl with character and longevity. Remember this is a post about Italian women winemakers.  The Fontanasanta Nosiola proves this thesis.  It is from a small two hectare plot, fermented in open anfora followed by 2 months ageing in acacia and oak: traditional but dynamic. Before we had finished talking, I was planning to take her up on an offer to visit the Dolomites.

vini foradori deliciosi

The finale was of course Arianna Occhipinti.  Her wines, and those of her uncle at COS, from Sicily have been coveted among our crew for some time.  SP68 while it sounds like a sunscreen rating, could have been the highway between Chambers Street Wines in NYC and several Gourmet Undergrounders here in the Detroit area.  Instead it is a highway in Sicily which runs past the vineyards where Occhipinti performs her transformative winemaking from vineyards hugging the slopes of Mt. Etna.

party juice

Il Frappato sounds like you might experience a karate chop to the sternum.  You might after I’ve had a glass or two. This wine has an acidity that is positively baller.  It has notes of raspberry and a distinct earthiness. The wine is fresh and pure.  Arianna was also featuring a line of wines, Frappato included, made for a wine bar called Tami which are now available in the Detroit area at a lower cost.  Tami has become a clarion call for natural wines.  She farms biodynamically and whether you get it or think it’s bunk, the wines are so expressive they will hug you into submission.

no way you’re getting a hug dude
the eyes have it

The great thing about wine tastings is the afterparty.  It’s hard work to talk and pour wine all day.  I can only imagine the repetitive and inane questions that flow from our gobs as we gulp down wine after wine.  I gained a couple insights in this regard.  For the Italians, many of whom are from out of the way locales, the big cities like Chicago, NY and San Fran are full of things they haven’t seen before.  Often they haven’t even tasted each others’ wines.  It was my distinct pleasure to introduce Nadia Verrua to Marc Olivier’s sans soufre (no sulfur added) Bulles Petillant.  At 9.5% with no added sugar, this wine is a party starter.  We gathered in the main room after consolidating all the open bottles and chug-a-lugged the petillant naturel or pet’nat sparkling melon de bourgogne.  It is a fresh, fruity quencher, a veritable vin de soif, more sincerely embracing than a two handed handshake.

the real wine deal

The other revelation was that after drinking so much wine, the logical progression was Mexican beer.  All the winemakers crowded into a booth and ordered Tecates for all their friends.  Friends, faces, now that’s refreshing.

All pictures taken by @jarred_ stealth photographer and gentleman of leisure.


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Romanian families, drinking and making art. No beginning and no end.

Paradis atipic

While my dad and I were in Romania in April and May, two of the artists whose paintings we import were having shows.   Ana Ruxandra Ilfoveanu and her husband, Sorin Ilfoveanu are each distinguished painters. It is only natural that our family would be attracted to this family of artists.  They have two sons and my parents had just me and my brother, although mom calls us numbers one and six.  We are almost 10 years apart and it appears she wanted more.  God was gracious to her by limiting it to us.

Ana Ruxandra Ilfoveanu

Ana’s exposition was called Paradis Atipic or Atypical Paradise and was held at the Galeria Veroniki Art in Bucharest.

"angel playing autumn"

bird trainer

It explores the themes of the nearness of Paradise, whether in the guise of strips of hills in traditional villages a cherished yet falsified and hard to identify world or in the animal trainers, fragments of a universal narrative with no end.  The themes of Paradise reference, of course, Milton, the Bible but also Michael Cunningham’s “A Home at the End of the World.”  Ana Ruxandra Ilfoveanu’s works are pretexts, transporting the viewer to register his or her favorite depictions, stories that do not belong to any place or any particular area, but are rather a constant present time, bits of life, metaphors of detachment from the immediate world.

Well, enough of that interpretational jargon.  The Ilfoveanu family is an incredibly talented lot.   Younger son Nicu Ilfoveanu is a photographer and graphic artist.  Check out the film Chicago Loop on his site.  I want to play it on a loop at our cafe when it opens.  Older son, Adrian is an accomplished sculptor and also designed one of Romanian winery Davino’s wine labels.

Ana did the Rotenberg label. Adrian did the Davino.

Sorin Ilfoveanu is one of the most highly regarded Romanian painters of his time.  I first discovered his work while drinking a bottle of wine from Davino winery and asking the owner, Dan Balaban, who had drawn the label.  Drinking leads to great ideas. Sorin contributed pen and ink drawings for the Reserva bottlings from Davino, arguably the most impressive wines in Romania.  He only drinks Davino wines, a bit of extravagance among his otherwise quotidien surroundings.  Ana has designed a number of wine labels for Rotenberg winery.  Rotenberg is a gravitational winery specializing in old vine Merlots.

Sorin is the eminence grise of the Romanian art scene and rarely exhibits any longer.  His expo was at the European Art Galleryin Bucharest on May 19, 2011.

Sorin Ilfoveanu expo materials

Although the text is in Romanian, there is a nice photo gallery at the bottom.  We first visited his studio in 2010 and it was like stepping into a Cezanne still life.  Sorin greeted us in house slippers, floating through the room almost like a ghost.  There was only a bowl of fruit, a coffee pot and Bach playing in the background.  He had large format paintings stacked everywhere and a small day bed for napping.  Drips of paint covered the weathered herringbone floors.

studio Sorin Ilfoveanu

When we visited the Ilfoveanus at their house in May, Sorin was dressed in a three piece tweed suit.  He and my dad have beards full of experience and wisdom.  Along with Ioan Nemtoi’s beard, a glassblower whose works we also import, these are beards to which I aspire.  I trust men with such beards.  There is a recognition factor for Romanian men with beards which is like Larry David running into another bald man. Traditionally in Romania, only priests wore beards.  My dad is often mistaken for a priest.  I usually get the emaciated terrorist comments.We sat down to tea, freshly picked strawberries and acacia honey.  Romanians love to talk about honey. There is a sort of unofficial countryside AOC for the nectar of the bees.  Sorin and my dad immediately began telling stories while Ana, Adrian and I went through the kitchen into a courtyard where some of Adrian’s sculptures were on display.  There were sculptures positioned along every available wall and wild grape vines with shoots wrapping around every available surface.  It was so fucking inspiring.  My mind and pulse were elevated.  I wanted to capture it with a photo but it didn’t make sense.  Live the moment was all I could think.  Adrian showed us a weathered wood sculpture which was meant to be Eve at 900 some odd years.  He is enthralled by the creation story of the Old Testament.  Artists create.  He had removed the head and a leg to make it less about a particular woman than women in general.  Adrian casts in different media for each piece.  Eve was also done in bronze and as Carnaciorul de Plescoi, or Romanian local sausages from Plescoi in Buzau.  Postmodern rebellion commentary, Botero-esque grotesque obesity,decandent hyperconsumerist nonconformist? Who can say?  Did someone bring mustard?

She eez a fat.

Just so I wouldn’t be left out of sausage society, I whipped out my iphone and showed them a picture of the meatsnake that I had made with Brian Merkel and John Schoeniger of Porktown Sausage at Supino Pizzeria in Detroit.  This sausage was Berkshire pork from an Ohio farm, but the sausage I made was from a Romanian farmer Tinu Bucu who raises pigs in Avoca, Michigan and sells them at the Eastern Market.  He is from my grandmother’s village in Serbia, Ecka. Ecka is a mixed Serbian/Romanian village near the border.  I showed this picture off to many people on the trip and the best response was from some cousins in Timisoara:  “Next time you come, we are going to kill a pig.”

mother of all meatsnakes

You would think that segueing from art to sausage and back again would be difficult but not for a Romanian.  Sorin Ilfoveanu is aware of the nautilus shape of the meatsnake as evidenced by his series of paintings called Metamorfoze, Metamorphoses.

Metamorfoze, I think I am a meatsnake.

No beginning and no end.  My grandparents left Romania and Serbia but the spirit of those places has not left me.  I see it in the art of the Ilfoveanu family.  I taste it in the wines of Davino.  I feel it in me.  My dad dreamt of Romania as a child.  He learned to love it as an adult.  He is dreaming it more and more as he gets older.  We will display the paintings of both Ilfoveanus and the blown glass of Ioan Nemtoi at our cafe & bar opening in Midtown in early 2012.  We are also bringing in Davino wines and other Romanian wines to serve there.  Will there be sausage?  There will be no end to it.


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