Thursday, July 30, 2015

Barbera: A Spit Bucket Primer

The workhorse of Piedmont is one of the most versatile Italian varietals. It has come a long way since its days of relegation as blending buddy for Nebbiolo. Almost half of the region’s production is dedicated to Barbera 70,000 acres (28,000 ha) as of 2000. It is the 3rd most widely planted red grape in all of Italy. It’s known for its deep ruby color, bright cherry flavors, sharp acidity, and near absence of tannin. Depending on where it is grown and the winemaker’s practice in the cellar, the grape may show itself to be fresh and approachable, slightly rustic, and even a substantive wine that is a force to be reckoned with. It is considered to be native of Monferrato, in Southeastern Piedmont near the hilly Asti and Alessandria, but also grows in Alba, Rubino, Gabiano, and the Colli Tortonesi. The vigorous-growing vine requires constant pruning to prevent excessive yields, which, if not kept in check, can dilute the quality of the wine. Sandier soils help lessen its rigor though the grape tends to show best in chalkier and loamier soils. Fortunately, Barbera is blessed with a high level of acidity which helps maintain crispness and structure. Because it ripens a couple of weeks earlier than Nebbiolo, in late September or early October, the grape has historically been viewed as a cash crop for growers in the region. Recent DNA studies suggest Barbera may be related to Mourvèdre. How you like them apples (or berries really?) The jury is still deliberating.

A lease agreement from the mid 13th century, belonging to the cathedral in Casale Monferato refers to a bunch of vineyards planted with de bonis vitibus barbexinis (the name from antiquity). The first written proof of vinification dates back to the 17th century and is kept in the town of Nizza. In 1798, Count Giuseppe Nuvolone-Pergamo of Scandaluzzo, deputy director of Società Agraria di Torino, included Barbera on the first “definitive” list of Piedmontese varieties. Around that time, Barbera wines were relished by officers of the Savoy army who claimed the wine gave them courage on the battle field.

By the early 1900s, Italian immigrants brought vine cuttings along with them as they set sail for the Americas. Barbera set its roots in both in the Central Valley of California and Mendoza, Argentina. For a while, it spent time consigned to the bulk wine or blending category. In Italy, Barbera d’Asti received DOC status in 1970 and it was right at this time that the infamous Emile Peynaud encouraged winemakers to use smaller barrels and a carefully monitored oxygenation to soften the astringency and the potentially reductive quality of Barbera. By the 80s, Giocomo Bologna decided to give the varietal the royal treatment, growing single-vineyard Barbera called Bricco Dell’Uccellone. His Braida cellar increased concentration and extraction, aging his wine in French barrique thus creating a “Super Barbera.” For good or bad, this pioneering move created a paradigm shift and a wave of disciples cranked out burlier wines.

In recent years, Barbera has evolved into a Zeligesque wine that evokes myriad styles based upon mood and context. It is both worthy for everyday consumption and cellaring. The grapes great versatility, ranging from wines with fresh fruit and laser-beam sharp acidity, to plusher wines with dried berry flavors, medium-bodied, to the bigger, bolder wines, that show a smokier, leathery character. Some growers have also been extending the harvest later to reach higher sugar levels and offer crowd-pleasing fruit-bombs.

Barbera d’Asti DOC

Since Nebbiolo is not planted in Asti, Barbera is given the best vineyard sites and thus has a chance to thrive in this zone where it often produces brighter red berry fruit with mouthwatering acidity, a perfect food-pairing companion. The town of Nizza is the warmest area of the appellation and makes the ripest, most approachable wines. According to DOC law, a minimum of 85% Barbera must be used, the remainder may consist of any combination of Dolcetto, Freisa, and Grignolino. The wine requires at least 11.5% alcohol and must be made before March 1st, immediately following the harvest.

Barbera d’Alba DOC
Often described as more robust and ageworthy than its northern neighbor from Asti, it is sometimes vinified for early consumption, but offers a darker berry flavor, is generally, although not always lighter in acidity. The soil type is mainly limestone-rich, chalky, and the growing area runs through the rolling Langhe hills, including the famous Barolo and Barbaresco.

Other Appellations include Barbera Delle Langhe DOC, Barbera Del Monferrato DOC

DOCG Status
In 2008 both Barbera D’Asti Superiore and Barbera Del Monferrato Superiore got bumped up to DOCG status. Both require an additional minimum of 1% alcohol and need an additional 14 months of aging

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Got Tar? Or Just Plain Erbalicious

(originally appeared in Appellation newsletter 5/1/12)

Barolo ranks forth on my delicacy index. Big deal. But, consider this, my other three cravings all hail from Piemonte. And let me make this perfectly Teflon-clear. I’m lumping Barbaresco, Gattinara, Ghemme, Carema, and anything vaguely Langhe Rosso into the same rudderless boat. So what beats out the King of wine? Black Truffles, White Truffles from Alba, and Nutella.

Let’s get down and dirty. Shall we? My patience and pocketbook have both gotten paperclip-thin through this period of austerity. As such, I want more opulence, and yet I want more finesse. Am I pazzo or I am hedging my true ribald desire? I take the fifth.

To quell my appetite for earthy and ethereal elegance I hunt, regularly and rigorously for Langhe Nebbiolo. On a most recent hunt, I stumbled upon something that blew my mind— Erbaluna. The thing is, I’ve had their “Plain Jane” Barolo before and their single-vineyard ‘Vigna Rocche’, which I’ve always loved and reminds me of what I’d imagine the lovechild between Elio Attare’s ‘Albiona’ and Bruno Giacosa’s ‘Le Rocche Falleto’ might be like if such Daliesque dreams materialized.

Pilgrims, I tell you, Erbaluna is a mountain biker’s paradise, replete with undulating slopes, castle-topped hills, and the scent of truffles. There are approximately 10 hectares of vines on the crumbly-clayish Tortonian marl and sandstone. Brothers Andrea and Severino Oberto live in the midst of their vines. Grape-growing is in their roots and has been for over one hundred years. Andrea and Severino took over in 1985 and right from the get-go decided to go organic. That’s right while you were grooving to “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” the Obertos were going green.

Erbaluna’s Langhe Nebbiolo smells like geraniums and tar and mushrooms. The soft side of La Morra offers approachability and great depth. To my mind, Erbaluna has much more in common with Bartolo Mascarello than with the hyper-modern Roberto Voerzio. The Langhe Nebbiolo, doesn’t smack of tannins, but is grippy. Ample choke cherries and raspberries are supported by a solid spine of acidity and tangy tannin. Serve it with braised rabbit and risotto with chestnut shavings. Try it with fontina or Gouda, and if time and weather permits, honey-dipped Gorgonzola and black truffles.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


They sure need a break. Don’t they? It’s a long and grueling season, an emotional rollercoaster. It can wear you down. I mean, how many grounders can a guy take? And think of all those calluses and splinters from BP.

You know who hates the break? Anybody working on a streak or climbing out of a slump.
It used to be shorter. So was the season, half of Rollie Fingers’ mustache. Now they hail
Mr. November and instant replay.

I’ll tell you who really needs the break. The grounds crews. Boy, do they ever. The way they pull that tarp to keep the infield from flooding during a downpour. Hats off to the hotdog, peanut, and beer vendors. Have you ever hupped stairs with a keg on your back?

Wait, how many days off? In a row. That’s a lot. How do I fill the time? Maybe I should mow the lawn or spruce up the den. My Bobbleheads need dusting. Let’s face it, the All Star Break is a long stretch, but those dugouts need a major league hosing.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

An Open Letter Regarding My Chia Pet Molly


Dear Sir or Madam,

It never occurred to me before, but raising a Chia Pet is so small fete. I’ll have you know that I’m the proud owner of a happy basket of baby’s breath, a perky cactus, and a mercurial bonsai. Whenever I get the chance, I stuff apple pits into soil-filled Styrofoam cups. My next door neighbor, Delores, helped me turn my fire escape into a hanging garden. Old Babylon, you got nothing on us! It only takes a week or so for the little apple buds to work their magic. Now I’m not the mushy type, but I learned from Delores that you must flirt with your plants. It builds their egos.

What I don’t get is this stubborn Chia Pet of mine, Molly.

She’s got the whole sanctuary of my cable box to herself, where the light flitters in through my open blinds. I’ve done just about everything imaginable, including giving her Fiji bottled water and a daily backrub.

A startling revelation hit me the other day after I was feeling a bit lonesome while reading Penthouse. Now I’m sure you’re thinking that nobody bothers reading such smut, but I’ve seen so many skin mags in my lifetime that frankly the pictures just don’t do it for me anymore. So I’ve turned to the randy little letters that people write-in, and this does the trick for me, although I tend to toss a newspaper over Molly because it makes me sort of uneasy knowing that she can see me getting all jolly by myself in the rocker.

I guess what I’m dying to share is this. Call me crazy, but I think Molly has grown a pair of boobs. Maybe she’s taking my relaxation technique as a form of competition. It’s gotten so I feel funny chatting with her the way I used to and now I find myself oddly aroused by these leafy boobs she’s grown.

I know it seems like I should be sharing my exuberance with her, but I’ve never done anything so kinky. I’m not looking for the greenlight, but just was wondering if any other Chia Pet owners have had a similar experience. Maybe there’s some sort of support group I could attend that could give me the moxie I need to face this head on.

Truly, I would appreciate any advice you can give. Something tells that I’m not the only one.

Graham Greenethumb

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Interview with Danny Herrera

Today I am very lucky to have an opportunity to chat with a rising star, humorist writer, Danny Herrera. Sit back, relax, and hang onto your helmets. You can learn more about him here on his blog

JG: Welcome to Papercut. Thanks for taking the time to sit and chat with me. Tell us a little about yourself.

DH: It's a pleasure— thanks for the opportunity John. I was born and raised in the westside of San Antonio, TX. I've bounced around a little: I went to college in Iowa, and lived in Denver for just about 2 years. But I've been living in New York City for 3 years now. My problem is that if I get too comfortable somewhere I get all this existential anxiety and feel the need to leave that place. But with New York it's different— between the rats, the constant stench of urine in the subway, and all of the eccentric humans that live here— it's hard to feel too comfortable here. The city really pushes you to your limits and it just feels right for me. It's home, for now.

JG: You write non-fiction. When you go back and recall these past events, how do you maintain the accuracy of things that were said and the rest of the details?

DH: Keeping a diary helps. Often, I'll take note of a piece of dialogue or an event/thing/person that strikes me and then later on I'll transfer it into my diary. I'll usually revisit a diary about a year after the date I started it. I've written a lot about my family and my childhood and luckily because most of my family is still around, I can ask them about how they remember a certain event/person and that will sometimes trigger new memories in my mind. But man, there are just some things you'll never forget. Like the time my cousin Rudy pulled down my shorts in front of my entire family and I wasn't wearing any underwear.

JG: When did you start keeping your diary?

DH: I started keeping a diary in high school. Ms. Hood was one of my teachers. She stood at 5ft 4 inches and weighed well over 300 pounds. She taught "Health and Wellness." And although she didn't lead by example, the habit she instilled of writing things down has stuck with me ever since.

JG: How often do you update your diary now?

DH: Daily. My goal is to write one sentence each day and usually I write more than that.

JG: Do you blog? Do you enjoy blogging?

DH: I took a writing class while living in Denver. One of my class assignments was to create a blog and upload work. So I've kept up with that but I don't really enjoy it. Just the verb 'blogging' makes me nauseous. I never liked the idea of blogs and I still don’t. Themed blogs are the worst. Either way, by virtue of having a blog I put myself in the company of this weird virtual world. A friend of mine recently said that the blog is like the literary equivalent of a “selfie.” I think that's a good way to put it. But I've kept up my blog for 3 years now and one of the good things about it is that I imposed a weekly deadline for myself and created new work every week. That led to some of my essays getting published which was new for me and felt good. Nowadays I update my blog a few times a month. I like to think of it as my creative compost. Not everything on there is good but sometimes a really good essay will come from that compost.

JG: I’ve had the great pleasure of hearing you read your essay “Biddie Biddie Bom Bom”. It’s funny and poignant. Would you like to share the inspiration behind that piece?

DH: That essay started with the image of me as a 10 or 11 year old singing “No, Señor” by Johnny Z. I remember my mom smacking me over the head when I sang that song because some of the lyrics were filthy. So I started with that memory and built upon it. That then led me to questions about my cultural identity and the essay just naturally evolved into this theme about what it means to be a Mexican-American that didn't grow up speaking fluent Spanish. Like sometimes I was made to feel like I wasn't “Mexican enough” because I wasn't born in Mexico. And then other times I felt like I wasn't “American enough” because I've been called racial slurs in the past. It's a weird in-between state and I still think about it. Race is one of those things here in America that is constantly talked about and I think it's important because the “American experience” is constantly evolving and as we move into the future, it's going to continue to be more and more diverse.

JG: Who are your writing influences?

DH: Hunter S. Thompson because of his courage to implicate himself in the journalism that he creates. David Sedaris for being able to blend humor and insight. Toni Morrison for her wisdom and being a master storyteller.

JG: What do you like to read? What are you reading now?

DH: I like to read a lot of fiction and non-fiction. I'm currently reading Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. It's about the history of Harlem and how it became a slum/ghetto. I like it because I live in Harlem and I want to know its rich history. Recently, I also read Bill Buford's Among The Thugs which was a great read. If you want to read about English hooligans who drink way too much and start riots at soccer games, I highly recommend it.

JG: How long have you been living in the city? Give me your impression of it. How do like it compared to other places you’ve lived?

DH: I've lived in New York for 3 years. I lived in Astoria for a year and now I've been living in Harlem for 2 years. I like New York because it's the cultural capital of the world. New York is a city of extremes and whatever you're into, you'll likely find it here.

JG: You’re billed as a humorist. How does this shape what you write? Do you consider yourself to be naturally funny or have events in your life helped pave this way?

DH: I think being a “humorist” shapes my writing insofar as I always try to paint an image in the reader's mind. Some of the funniest things are images you can see in your head. So that helps to shape how I write. I always try to imagine how it looks and then I try to translate that by creating a vivid atmosphere for the reader. I think there's humor in everyday moments and I really try to lock in on that. For example, while on the train recently, a man was standing next to me with his phone out. It started to ring and the contact on his phone read, "Dickhead." "Hi mom," he answered. "Yeah, almost there."
Now that's not profound, but it's funny. And who knows, maybe one day I'll find a place for it somewhere in one of my essays.

JG: How do you like to write? What mediums do you use (ie; laptop, notebook, napkin, cell phone)? Do you have a preferred medium?

DH: I make notes on my phone and at the end of the day I'll expand on those notes in my actual diary. Since high school I have used paperbound diaries and I still do. I go through a couple every year and at this point I have many completed diaries which becomes a problem when I move. So I'm actually considering starting to keep my diary on my laptop. It would save me some time and space, that's for sure.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

DH: I work full-time so I usually write at my desk at night.

JG: When you are not writing, what are some of things you enjoy doing with your time? I go to the movies often. I listen to a lot of podcasts (my current favorites are Fresh Air, Radio Ambulante and This American Life).

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

DH: Well, in terms of my “professional” career, I'm starting graduate school this fall. I'll be getting a Master's in Urban Policy Analysis. So I hope to be able to do future work that helps disadvantaged populations. But creatively, I hope to be the author of a book(s) of essays.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

DH: I'd invite Francois Truffaut, Toni Morrison, Conan O’Brien, and the President.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Book Review: The Mismatched Braid

Namou’s follow-up to The Feminine Art is an absolute gem. Set in a present day Athens, Greece, the story is about two twenty-something first cousins who are falling in love, but are at the same time trying to find themselves. Namou offers a fresh take on the coming of age/love story, sharing her abundant insight into the cultural complexities of the Chaldean Iraqi community. Her gorgeous prose is heightened by the tense situations she places her characters into.

Our protagonist, Amel, is boxed into an awful predicament. He longs to be reunited with his family in Iraq, but at the same time wants to begin a new life in America. The story opens with his Visa being denied, and Amel must continue to whittle away his days hammering at planks of wood in a foreign land.

Things change when his beautiful cousin, Dunia, arrives in Athens to study for the summer. She is the quintessence of prima donna, but Amel has had such an enormous crush on her since childhood he will do anything to make her happy. Even though they are both cousins, and members of the same Chaldean community, they couldn’t be more different. Dunia is well-read, witty, cunning, ambitious, and a bon vivant while Amel is hardworking and loyal to a fault. He is gullible too and really knows nothing about women. His devotion to his cousin is the real agitprop, both frustrating and exciting Amel, but when Dunia herself begins to fall for Amel the plot really thickens. Namou does a wonderful job blurring the boundaries of emotion so that just as we might question our own feelings we get sweaty-palmed as Namou’s characters put their hearts on the line.

The Mismatched Braid is as much about love as it is a search for identity and purpose. Dunia and Amel both evolve as characters and neither seem to be comfy with the changes that ensue. To Namou’s credit, her characters grapples with their respective identities, and these in turn are further complicated by other mercurial family members.

This is a character-driven story for readers who crave travel, culture, romance, and food. Foodies will love the myriad references to savory dishes both Greek and Iraqi. The sounds and smells of daily life and landscape are seamlessly integrated into the plotline, enriching this modern classic.


To learn more about Weam Namou and her works please visit her website.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Two Fingers of Romanée-Saint-Vivant

On January 22nd, 2013 I had a belated birthday lunch with the folks. We dined at Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s midtown bistro. We started off with braised pork then moved onto caviar. For our mains, Mom and Dad shared chicken while I gorged myself with bacon-wrapped Scottish Salmon. Love my nitrates. Washed it down with a Spanish red.

We were having a spirited conversation about Joyce Carol Oates’ new book when Mom took another peek at the wine list. She was sniffing out port possibilities. Then she stumbled upon it. A mischievous grin widened on her face, and she implored me to have a special treat. No, not the scrumptious, syrup-doused Bosc pear gooped in warm chocolate (although I eventually succumbed to that too). She was referring to a libidinous libation, a two-ounce pour of trophy wine.
Who hadn’t read Florence Fabricant’s “Legendary Wines, Sold in Sips” piece in the NYT Dining Section? It sent every pocket-friendly winenut into a hyperactive state of euphoria. For a mere $45 bucks, you could taste a bit of Bordeaux’s Promised Land. How democratic?

Yes, I’ll admit my superficial side came gushing out. For shame. I thought I’d grown out of the trophy-hunter phase, but apparently not.

“Go for the Pétrus,” Mom dared.

That hedonist sentiment had been whispering in my ear sotto voce from the moment I took my seat. What better way to celebrate than to taste one of this mudball’s most lauded reds. Naturally, I wouldn’t have thought of letting my folks crack open a whole bottle, and of course, they weren’t daffy enough to indulge my Pomerolian prurience, but a two-finger pour? Why not? Except that the 1992 vintage was a big wash, and although Merlot fared better than the Cabs I had my reservations. I'm not a point man at all, but what I'd read about the '92 vintage had dripped into my subconscious. Was I going to go for the gusto and be disappointed or be forced to extrapolate what might be the stuff that made Pétrus the rock star of reds?

I was an enophile, a professional. The heavenly Pomerol was on every wineaux’s bucket list. I considered it my duty as a wine professional to drink it. But wait a second. Hold the cork. I mean, hold the coravin (thank goodness for the miracle gadget). My palate was craving a gem, but when I reflected on the fact that I’d tried all five 1st Growths and myriad 2nd , 3rd, 4th, and 5th Growths my top-heavy record of Bordeaux tasting left a gaping hole in that critical wine wonk zone, Burgundy.

If I was to truly become a wine wizard, Burgundy would have to receive greater consideration. So with this in mind, I decided to shoot the works with my first DRC, Romanée-Saint-Vivant. Benoit offered two fingers of the 1996, a very good, but not outstanding vintage. In recent years, I’d been leaning more toward Burgundy anyway. My palate had been changing, more inclined to that Burgundian style by way of Barolo and Barbaresco if you’ll pardon my cliché comparison, which is somehow useful as a cross-country analogue. Both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo are thin-skinned varietals. They’re both infamously fickle grapes, and, even in the best circumstances, may not show their full potential. There, I said it.

The real question was whether or not I was deserving of two fingers of DRC? Was I in it for the right reason? What I’m driving at is this. Since I cut my teeth with Bordeaux, logging in so much time with their superstars, unsung heroes, etc., my experience had been shaped by Bordeaux. Was I justified in making such a leap to DRC when I hadn’t logged in enough time, brooding over the differences between Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Morey-St. Denis, and Echézeaux? Forget about grand cru Burgundy, I hadn’t really had enough Fixin, Volnay, or Bourgogne Rouge.

I considered this, drumming my fingers for added effect. I could’ve ordered a full glass of Echézeaux, Pommard, or even Chambertin. If I was genuinely interested in making a commitment to Burgundy, this probably would have been the noblest route, but I had another agenda. I wasn’t wetting my toes, I was taking a head-first plunge into two-fingers of DRC. A little drumroll please. My first whiff of the 1996 Romanée-Saint-Vivant teased me into believing there’d be sweetness. Then it gave way to an earthier late Fall, forest floor. It had quiet brilliance like Stan Musial, the St. Louis Slugger who had actually passed away the day before. Initially, tangy chokecherry with a touch of vanilla soon blossomed into a strawberry field with notes of licorice, a hint of pipe tobacco. It tangoed me across a ballroom floor of tight-grained oak, and impeccable structure. How vibrant and bright in its Sour 17th Year. It had surprisingly good acidity for its age and supple tannin, silkier than a Hermès shawl.

Birthdays can heighten your sensibility, and sometimes add undue pressure. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity, and I wished that I could say it was life-altering, but alas it wasn’t. Maybe because there was too much expectation riding on it. Maybe it was because the grinning lady, sitting next to me had her own set of expectations weighing on me too. She was smart enough not to get under the microscope and have her a swig analyzed, and yet she wanted me to be gobsmacked with unbridled glee.

I will definitely say this though. My two fingers of Romanée-Saint-Vivant was a much more welcoming experience than my first swig of Sassicaia. That was a long time ago in a galaxy far far away (You like hyperbole, no?). Truthfully, I couldn’t tell you with any certainty what my impression of that Sassicaia was because there was so much hoopla associated with it. I was also a hopeless newbie at one of those behemoth tastings that no pro wants to be a part of unless he or she is on the clock. I had to elbow my way over to the table that was kind enough to share its Tuscan royalty for all the heathens lining up. I remember it being a stunning, ruby-colored wine and nearly chipping a tooth as the buffoon beside me raised his arm. If that wasn’t enough there was the unmistakable, unpardonable wallop of Fahrenheit cologne. So overpowering was that Christian Dior bouquet that I swear I still smell a whiff of it every time I’m at a dinner party or some other occasion where Sassicaia is poured.

Given this reflection, my two fingers of Romanée-Saint-Vivant was pretty damn unforgettable (pipe in Nat King Cole), but I wish my sommelier had had a heavier hand.