Wineaux: Getting outside the comfort zone to find an exciting red

By From page A7 | February 20, 2014

A recent New Yorker carried a piece about countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and his mission to engage kids in music.

The story focuses on his visit to a Bronx elementary school, which he concludes by singing to the students a poignant Handel aria. The reporter describes the scene: “The children were rapt … a boy in a gray hooded sweatshirt leaned forward, his elbow resting on his knee and his chin resting in his palm, his eyes shining as if he bore all the sorrows of the world.”

I keep thinking about this, about people’s drive to share their passions, about talented educators who can translate that passion across race and class and culture and age. I’m always moved, for example, by the work of the garden-to-table folks, who — whether the garden is in a school, a prison, an inner-city neighborhood or a hospital — get both kids and grown-ups excited about good fresh food.

I spent much of my life trying to get high school and college students excited about my own passions, first of all books. And then, toward the end of my teaching career, about food, too, through the wonderful food writing of people like Michael Pollan and MFK Fisher. I guess I’m still engaged in that project in some ways, though my audience (readers) at this point are both older and more elusive (and often know more about my passion than I do).

And the particular food is wine — which I do think of as food, as part of a good meal. Sure, I occasionally sip some delicious sparkler on its own to celebrate a special occasion, but it always tastes better to me if I can simultaneously nibble on fresh-roasted almonds or a decadent cheese or a bit of good bread.

What I most want to excite people about, though, is that meal. The one that I sit down to with the expectation of sitting for a long while. The one served on a table from which all work-related items have been removed and cloth napkins have been set down. The one lit by a candle or two, the one that starts with a cork popping (or, more and more often, a cap unscrewing). And, of course, the one that consists of fresh, vibrant, lovingly made food and drink, even if it’s something simple like a bowl of soup, a loaf of sourdough and bottle of easy red.

The problem is that I’m finding that “easy red” more and more difficult to find, and I keep mentioning over and over again the under-$10 ones that I enjoy drinking, like the Portuguese Paseo, the Simas Family Capay Red (both at the Co-op) and the Tintero Rosso (Valley Wine Co.). But many of the ones I try in this price range, like a recent $7 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo I picked up at Nugget, taste to me like cheap California efforts, over-oaked and lifeless.

By spending a couple of dollars more, though, I come across some delightful reds that work beautifully with a wide variety of foods. I paired linguine (topped by a spicy red-sauce and beet-greens), for example, with a Montepulciano much more to my liking, the La Quercia (Nugget and Co-op). I’ve mentioned many times Seattle’s Small Vineyards importer — this is another of their gems.

Winemaker Antonio Lamona is, like his father, a farmer but the first in the family to bottle his own wine. In the ’60s, he started cultivating entirely organic (though not certified) vines, which he says, “is the way to obtain the highest quality while also respecting nature and human health.” From the grapes of low-yielding, carefully tended vines, this wine has layers of dark fruit and spice, firm tannins, and a good dollop of earthiness — more complex than you’d think from your initial sips.

Wine Spectator mentions its “snappy acidity” and Wine Curmudgeon calls it “an intense wine, without much fruit and very Italian in style, earthy and savory … anyone who likes California grocery store merlot will probably wonder why I’m so enthusiastic about it.” These comments (with which I agree) are by way of warning to those of you who prefer your wines fruit-forward and lush.

A package of Italian farro appeared in my Christmas stocking (Santa apparently knowing my love for things Italian) and inspired a dinner of farro cooked in vegetable broth and tossed with marinated sun-dried tomatoes (these from Everything Under the Sun at Farmers Market) and surrounded by all manner of roasted winter vegetables. I served it with a large dollop of parsley pesto and a bottle of Kris Pinot Noir.

Made from grapes grown in hillside vineyards in the Otrepò Pavese region of Lombardy, this cool climate pinot is fairly light, very dry, filled with dark berry and cherry flavors — and good tannins. Winemaker Franz Haas blends this earthy but subtle wine (though not particularly complex) from the grapes of several micro-climates of varying exposures and elevations for a unique red that’s both recognizably pinot and recognizably Italian. A good bargain at $13, I found it on sale at Nugget recently for $10. Even better.

On the recommendation of John at Valley Wine Company, I splurged on an imported pinot noir for twice the price — the August Kesseler 2010 Pinot N. And it was worth every penny. Kesseler, known as Germany’s greatest pinot noir producer, used for this wine grapes grown in the slate soils of a 35-year-old Pfalz vineyard. Said to have been planted 1,000 years ago (not with these particular vines, of course), the area’s vineyards are very highly acidic and naturally phylloxera resistant.

John says he decided to carry it as soon as he smelled it. And I can see why. Wild berries, violet, orange — and other elusive but enticing notes. It seems at first a simple wine, but after a few sips, a few bites and a little time, the layers begin to emerge. The flavors are even harder to pin down than the aroma.

One critic said, “tart red apple, black berried cassis, and orange peel. But then light cream and soft, buttery, shortbread cookies wash over the fruit … We dig deeper and find salt and savory blue cheese.” I just might have to get another bottle of this elegant, stylish wine to see if I can catch all those. I doubt it, but I’ll have a great meal in the process.

I served Pinot N with a lots of wild mushrooms — one of pinot’s favorite companions — on a sourdough pizza crust. But I can imagine it with all manner of winter-vegetable-based dinners— chick pea and onion stew, for example (with a few porcini thrown in for good measure). And it would make a parchment-baked filet of wild salmon, served with roasted potatoes and root vegetables, into a feast.

Like the La Quercia and the Kris, this is a far cry from most California wines and is a bit challenging — but, like a good book, rewarding and satisfying.

— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Susan Leonardi

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