The enjoyment of a good glass of wine was a part of my evening ritual long before I opened Convito. But beyond giving a bottle the thumbs up or thumbs down, I was unequipped to assess the more sophisticated components of the wine I was drinking. Terms like legs, nose, suppleness and mouthfeel were not a part of my vocabulary. That is, until I decided to open an Italian market in 1980.
The original goal behind my opening of Convito was to create a high quality Italian marketplace where Americans would have access to some of the more hard-to-get Italian foodstuffs that I had the luxury of being exposed to while living in Europe in the late 70’s. I wanted a small shop that featured a curated selection of all the essential elements of the Italian meal, one that imparted the many aspects of Italian cuisine and culture that I continued to acquire during my regional journeys. And since to the Italian people wine is culture; the inclusion of a small but fine selection of wine was an obligation.
When Convito first opened its doors, Italian wine had yet to be discovered in the Chicagoland area. Other than a couple of Chiantis, Verdicchio, Frascati, Asti Spumante and an occasional Barolo, good Italian wine was almost impossible to find. My partners and I wanted to change that. Although it was not my intention to become a wine expert, I decided early on that I couldn’t very well fill my shelves with fine Italian wine and not at least be familiar with the secrets inside all those beautiful bottles. The teacher in me wouldn’t allow that. So I began my self-guided wine education by attending a series of tastings and classes sponsored by the area’s wine sales and marketing companies and occasionally – when I was lucky – by the wine producers themselves. Generally, these were huge events with upwards of 50 wines for retailers and restaurateurs to taste; way too many I thought for any palate to adequately process and intended more for local buyers who already possessed a more formal wine education than I did. But I faked my way through them and quickly taught myself the basics of the proper way to taste wine and which varieties most appealed to my particular taste.
As I made my way through these events, I became aware of some of the smaller and more intimate formats that became my preference. I also realized that my favorite learning experience came in the privacy of my own home where nightly I would uncork a bottle from Convito’s wine selection and enjoy it over dinner with my then husband Bob. We swirled and sipped capably, but we also auditioned many of the other professional wine tasting techniques I was now attempting to add to my repertoire. It was so much easier assessing a wine when there was only one wine to assess, and it was so much more enjoyable. “Somebody has to do it!” Bob would wryly comment.
As I made the transition from a neophyte student of wine to a practiced taster, I started to parlay Convito’s growing reputation beyond Chicago to gain access to what I found to be the best classrooms of all, the wineries themselves. A walk through a vineyard, a tour of a wine cellar or simply enjoying a glass of local wine with one of the typical foods of the region while actually being in that region, were unparalleled learning experiences. And when I was lucky enough to visit one of those vineyards accompanied by the winemaker himself, that was the ultimate classroom.
As with so much of my Italian education, Lombardia was the region where it all began. Milan, the region’s capital was home to my partners, Paolo Volpara and Wanda Bottino and was my own particular headquarters for studying Italian history and culture, recipe testing and planning our itineraries for regional exploration.
Exploring Valtellina in 1981 was my first venture into Lombardian wine territory – and a complete surprise. An alpine valley in northern Lombardia close to the border of Switzerland, it is considered one of the most dramatic and at the time one of the most unexplored wine regions in all of Italy. It was amazing to me that an area so close to the hustle and bustle of Milan could feel so remote and look so different. I could never get used to (but always loved) the short distances one has to travel in Europe to see such a completely different picture of the world. In the Midwest – where I have lived most of my life – it was necessary to travel miles and miles before having such an experience.
Images of light and shadow dominated our journey. The region’s mountain ranges – the Bernia Alps, the Ortles Mountains and the Orobie Alps – provided a variety of different sights along the way. Some mountain tops were capped with snow, others grey and foreboding, and others naked and bluish, blending with the sky above. All of them loomed over wide stretches of soft, lush green valleys sweetly dotted with charming chalets and churches. Higher up, the mountains were covered with tall, pointed majestic pines stretching upwards to the heavens appearing as nature’s own Gothic Cathedral. We climbed to the Stelvio Pass, the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps. The view was breathtaking. Snow still lingered from the winter and the air was crisp and cold even in July.
Further south, approaching Sondrio, the mountains became tamer with vineyards lacing the slopes. The valley runs east/west following the Adda River, whose waters over the centuries have dug deep into the area’s hard granite. Paolo commented that only a few other Italian wine regions could match this dramatic vineyard landscape; the sheer cliffs of Cinque Terre and the breathtaking Amalfi Coast being its only equal. Small streams traced intricate patterns down the sides of the mountains and a thundering river pounded onto hard rocks spraying mist high into the sky. Along the way elegant taupe-colored cows could be seen contentedly grazing on the steep hillside while a group of chamois waited patiently for intruding cars to pass before crossing the road. It was all so idyllic and fairytale-like.
The terraced vineyards of this area are quite spectacular. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must be to harvest the grapes on these steep man-made terraces. A year and a half into learning about wine, I was still a novice, but familiar with the area’s principal grape varietal, the Nebbiolo, one of Italy’s most famous grapes known primarily in the Piemonte region as the source of the world famous Barolos and Barbarescos. Here, however the grape is called Chiavennasca, named after the nearby town of Chiavenna. I was anxious after our long first day to enjoy a glass of the area’s wine.
On our first evening we had dinner in a restaurant in Morbegno, a little town in the lower part of the valley running alongside the Adda River, a tributary of the Po.
Looking at the menu I understood quickly that there was no question what ingredient would dominate our dinner. This was mushroom country. The very finest and sought after porcini mushrooms are the Boletus eduli grown here in abundance under the pine trees. “Valtellina is one area of the world where mushrooms are not a luxury – they are an everyday staple,” Paolo commented.
When we asked our waiter what wines went with the mushroom-dominated meal we were about to order, he was happy to describe pretty much all the wines of the region. “Valtellina wines go perfectly with all the hearty mountain foods of this area – including the mushrooms,” he said. “These Nebbiolo wines are more muscular than the Nebbiolo wines of Piemonte. They tend to be less tannic, earthier and more graceful – intriguing food wines.” Seducente (seductive)” he called them. I loved that description.
We ordered a recommended glass of Sassella, the wine he considered to be of the highest quality on their wine list. It was certainly lighter in body and less powerful than any Barolo or Barbaresco I had tasted and went well with the many mushroom courses we had that evening including a mushroom risotto; a huge steak-like grilled mushroom, its tawny cap brushed with olive oil and herbs; and my favorite course – an iconic dish of the region – bresaola topped with paper thin slices of mushrooms, chopped parsley, a drizzle of peppery Tuscan extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Bresaola is air-dried salted beef that is aged for two to three months eventually turning a dark red color. The meat comes from the top round of the cow, but in Valtellina, sometimes deer is used instead of beef. Originating in this area, bresaola is now becoming a popular dish in several countries around the world including the U.S. Its sweet taste goes perfectly with the porcini of the area.
Following is a piece I wrote for The Les Dames d’Escoffier International cookbook entitled “Begin a Meal with Cured Meats.” Any of these meats make for wonderful first courses – or on a summer night, the main course accompanied by some delicious crusty bread and a good glass of wine.
Our last night in Valtellina we had another fantastic meal in Grosio, a town just northeast of Sondrio close to the border of Switzerland. Pizzoccheri, flat-ribbon pasta made with buckwheat flour and wheat flour is another regional classic. It is the name of the actual pasta as well as the name of the dish. The dish also includes potatoes and either Swiss Card or Savoy or Napa cabbage, Valtellina Casera cheese (very similar to Fontina which is more readily found in the United States) garlic and sage. Pizzoccheri’s ancient origins supposedly go back to 1550. It is not colorful but hearty and full of flavor – especially good on a cold winter night. We enjoyed our Pizzoccheri with a glass of Valtellina Superiore Grumello another wine made with the Nebbiolo grape. Medium-bodied and earthy, it was excellent with our meal. I was beginning to recognize on my own how certain wines went well with certain foods – enhancing one other. This was the case with our Grumello.
The waiter also offered us a taste of another famous local wine – Sforzato di Valtellina, a passito wine (those made from dried grapes). While many passito wines are sweet, this one was dry, full-bodied and rich – and also went very well with our “mountain dish.” Another lovely match! This whole food and wine pairing process was beginning to be fun – much less intimidating than when I first began to seriously taste wine.
Serves 4 – 6
2/4 pound butter
5 fresh sage leaves
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
1 medium potato, peeled and sliced thinly (approximately 1 cup)
1 small head of Savoy or Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
½ pound broad pizzoccheri noodles (buckwheat)
1 cup Val d’Aosta Fontina cheese, grated
1 cup Parmesan, grated
salt and freshly ground pepper
½ – ¾ bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Bring a large part of water to a boil. In the meantime melt the butter over low heat in a small sauté pan. Add the garlic and the sage and sauté until the butter turns a nut-brown being careful not to burn. Set aside. The sage leaves will be crispy.
When the water has come to a boil add the potatoes, cabbage and pizzoccheri noodles and boil for about 12 – 15 minutes until noodles are al dente. Drain well.
Remove garlic from melted browned butter and discard. Remove sage leaves from butter and crumble.
In a large ovenproof casserole dish, spread a layer of the pasta vegetable mixture, then a layer of fontina, then a layer of parmesan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with 1 ½ tablespoons of melted butter. Repeat 3 more times. Cover with breadcrumbs and drizzle with the remainder of the butter and the crumbled sage leaves.
Bake for about 15 – 29 minutes until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and cheese has melted. Serve.
Tasting wine is an art – an art that requires focus and concentration. I couldn’t call myself an expert yet, but I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the formal tasting steps required for evaluating a wine and was beginning to be able to identify and assess the sometimes very subtle differences between even very similar wines. But I still felt that the whole process was somewhat pretentious and wanted to find a way to make the experience of wine tasting more accessible. During a trip to Paris with my friend and fellow restaurateur Leslee Reis we discovered a very whimsical wine menu at a cozy little wine bar called L’Ecluse that happened to be close to our hotel. Cartoon-like characters illustrated the steps of wine tasting in a very humorous way. Something clicked with both of us. Leslee suggested a similar format might be perfect for Convito’s new wine bar, restaurant and market to be opened in downtown Chicago in 1984. Upon my return I commissioned my award-winning artist sister Karen to paint six of her fanciful characters to depict the 6 stages of wine tasting: seeing, swirling, smelling, sipping, savoring and summarizing. My business partner’s husband, English Professor Mike Houlahan, wrote the copy.
This was such a fun project. Karen actually raided my closet in search of Italian clothes to dress her six characters in. The “See” lady is wearing a Missoni dress I owned and the “Smell”, “Sip” and “Summarize” men all donned Italian ties from my husband’s tie collection. The project was hugely successful. We printed 2,000 covers to encase our wine list and Karen sold the original gyclée prints on her website. We expected these jackets to last two years but because they were so admired, many of them sneakily disappeared into the purses and pockets of our customers and walked out the restaurant doors.
There was something about this particular project that changed things for me. I don’t know if it was that it simply coincided with a newfound confidence I had gained in understanding wines and the process of tasting them or the fact that I was now contributing to the education of others, but it was about this time when I began to really have fun tasting wine!
The project stimulated much discussion – sometimes silly – with my sister and motivated continued exploration. On our next trip to another of Lombardia’s wine districts we visited the Franciacorta District and met with one of its masters, Maurizio Zanella of the Ca’ del Bosco winery. Located just east of Milan between Brescia, Lake Garda and Trento, Franciacorta is the name of both the geographic area and of the wine itself. It is a wine often compared to Champagne because like that sparkling wine, Franciacorta achieves its effervescence due to secondary fermentation in the bottle (the classic method) and is also like Champagne in that it is limited to a geographic area. However, Franciacorta is a smaller area with a much lower production, which – in my mind – made it all the more exceptional.
That is changing, however and our host for the weekend, Maurizio Zanella was (and still is) committed to making certain that Franciacorta receives the kind of recognition that this dynamic and fast-growing wine deserves. He has been quoted as saying “Champagne took three hundred years to be known. I hope that Franciacorta will take only fifty!”
We met Maurizio and his wife Tizziana at Ambasciata, a restaurant in the province of Mantua. Our meal was splendid as was the restaurant’s very striking interior. It never fails that having dinner with a winemaker is always the best of dining experiences. Restaurateurs love and appreciate winemakers and winemakers love and appreciate restaurateurs – especially if they are good. And this one was excellent.
Maurizio is a dynamic person. He talked about his many trips to Champagne and how that exposure provided inspiration to him and his winery. Our dinner was filled with interesting wine information – about his wines and about the area. Of course we began with a glass of Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Brut. Maurizio explained that this sparkling wine was made from carefully selected grapes (chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir). A delightful wine – fresh, fragrant with a firm structure and richly alluring – it went beautifully with the many little tastes delivered by the chef to our table before our main meal even began.
I especially remember a lovely small salad made of arugula, pear, candied pecans and the creamy Gorgonzola Dolcelatte* produced in the region. I was surprised how well the Franciacorta complimented the salad. Maurizio led us through the whole deliciously fantastic meal commenting on each course and how each wine matched that particular food. The spiciness of the arugula and the creaminess of the cheese as well as the lightly sugared pecans and the slices of pear all blended together perfectly. And the sparkling wine was a beautiful match.
*Gorgonzola Dolcelatte meaning ‘sweet milk’ was originally produced for the British market to provide a milder smelling and tasting alternative to the more traditional and stronger Gorgonzola
Pear, Gorgonzola, Candied Pecan and Arugula Salad
1 cup pecan halves
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons raw sugar
6 cups arugula, cleaned and dried
1 – 2 Bosc pears, thinly sliced in wedges
¼ pound Gorgonzola Dolcelatte
salt & freshly ground pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
Melt the butter in a small sauté pan. Add pecans and toss with butter. Sprinkle with sugar and stir until caramelized. Spread on wax paper and cool.
Combine ingredients for dressing and set aside.
Combine arugula and pear in a bowl. Add cooled nuts then dress with vinaigrette and salt and pepper. Top with crumbled Gorgonzola. Toss well and serve
Over dinner we discussed Karen’s wine tasting series. They had been printed in the Wine Spectator in 1988 so Maurizio and his wife were aware of them and thought the six characters were charming.
After a spectacular dinner we accompanied Maurizio and his wife back to their winery and stayed the night. In the morning before a visit to the vineyards and wine cellar we joined the family – Maurizio, Tizianna and their adorable son Brando – for a croissant and a latte. As expected their home and their winery was extremely handsome filled with beautiful art and amazing sculpture.
Walking through the vineyards, Maurizio recalled Ca’ del Bosco’s history beginning in 1968 when they started planning their very first vineyards. His mother purchased the land (Ca’ del Bosco means ‘House in the Woods’) in 1965 and since then it has grown both in size and reputation. Ca’del Bosco wines are celebrated everywhere in the world as is the man himself. President of the Franciacorta consortium, he is considered one of the area’s pioneers and main spokesperson.
Since our visit in 1988 I have read about Maurizio and the many awards and honors he has accumulated. He has also introduced many new wines including a red bearing its creator’s signature – Maurizio Zanella – as well as a Franciacorta dedicated to his mother Annamaria Clementi, founder of Ca’ del Bosco. The Cuvee Annamaria Clementi is considered one of the great wines of Lombardia.
Not only has Maurizio Zanella accumulated awards but also his art collection has grown exponentially. Major works of art can be seen all over the property. Currently a group of large blue plastic wolves rule over the roof, a life-size white rhinoceros hangs suspended in the crush pad and a handsome bronze sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro entitled “Hymn to the Sun” welcomes visitors to the estate.
By the time I visited another of Franciacorta’s renowned sparkling wine estates in 1999, I had become as proficient in the art of wine tasting as I would ever be (though I was still a little sloppy when it came to the swirling part!). Still not on the level of a true sommelier (and I never will be), I was very knowledgeable about Italian wine, comfortable with tasting in any circumstance and thoroughly enamored of the whole learning process. The aging of wine is meant to improve the quality of many wines and I, through the years, felt that my visits to the vineyards and focused tasting of all the wines Italy had to offer, that I was beginning to (when it came to wine) “age well” myself – and to appreciate and understand the significant mystique of wine. The wine term “maturation” comes to mind when describing my evolving tasting experience. A much better term than “aging”.
Bellavista was the winery we visited. Our hostess was Maria Empson, wife and partner of Neil Empson, premier wine importers. (see blog Milano III) Bellavista (Beautiful View) was named because of its magnificent position on a hill overlooking lovely rolling vineyards with views stretching from the Po plain to Lake Iseo all the way to the Alps and beyond. Our group consisted of very enthusiastic wine drinkers, all of us especially looking forward to tasting the Bellavista Gran Cuvee Brut Rose, which I listed as one of my favorite wines in an article in the American Airlines’ magazine.
Before visiting the winery, Maria treated us to a fantastic multi-course lunch at the exquisite Gualtiero Marchesi Restaurant in Erbusco housed in the five-star hotel L’Alberta Relais & Chateaux owned by Vittorio Moretti, founder and owner of the Bellavista estate. Master Chef Marchesi is considered the founder of modern Italian cuisine. His restaurant in Milan won the distinction of a third Michelin star – the first chef in Italy to do so. As expected the meal was glorious.
One of the courses reminded me of an appetizer that Convito had made for years (a Wanda Bottino invention) – a little crepe pinwheel filled with Mascarpone cheese, apple and walnuts then rolled into spirals. It goes beautifully with Franciacorta. Mascarpone comes from Lombardia. It is buttery, rich – a double-cream to triple-cream cow’s milk cheese. Since sparkling wine goes well with cheese that has a higher milk-fat content, this was a perfect match.
Approximately 48 pieces
Crepes – 12 to 6-inch
4 ounces Mascarpone
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup granny smith apples, peeled then finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped walnuts
Spread 1 tablespoon of the Mascarpone mixture on crepe. Roll up. Slice into – 1 ½ inch pieces
Garnish with tiny apple fan
After lunch we adjourned next door to the winery where we toured the gorgeous estate with the winemaker himself – Mattia Vezzola. Founded in 1977 this estate is made up of 100 different vineyard parcels. We certainly did not visit them all, but seeing the plump grapes (it was September and they were ready for harvest) weighing down the lush vines that undulated across the expanse of the beautiful rolling hillside certainly echoed the name of the vineyard – “Bellavista!” It was breathtaking!
Afterwards we toured the cellar, then made our way to the splendid tasting room. And yes, everyone got to taste the Gran Cuvee Brut Rose and everyone loved it. We tasted several other wines as well. I, of course, followed “The Six Stages of Wine Tasting” (now a completely natural process to me). I was becoming an old pro at seeing, swirling, smelling, sipping – especially savoring but often when I reached the summarizing part I remained quiet and waited to hear from the expert in the room. In this instance, it was winemaker Mattia Vezzola. Who better?!
Wine, I love it! At its best, a good wine exudes character and nuance. And in even the simplest of well-made wines there is a complexity that allows anyone – an expert or a neophyte – to find great joy in its tasting. In a book of wine quotes given to me by my mentor – the late Maury Ross (President of the Wine House at Union Liquor in the 70s and 80s) – one of my favorite quotes is from one of history’s most quotable figures, Benjamin Franklin. “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” Amen to that!