In wine, there's truth. ... The best kind of wine is that which is most pleasant to him [or her!] who drinks it. -- Pliny the Elder

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Sorceress of Southern Tuscany

Antonella Minuli in vineyard
Antonella Minuli of Fattoria La Maliosa
Sometimes you meet a person in life who inspires you to look more closely at yourself and your own dreams. That happened for me while on a recent press tour of Italian wineries, focused on Abruzzo and the Veneto (which was fabulous, read here). I was enticed to tack on a few days at the end of the tour to visit an additional wine region, the Maremma in Southern Tuscany. My friend and fellow wine writer Gwendolyn Alley had written about Fattoria La Maliosa and owner-winemaker Antonella Minuli last year, in an article for which she won the Jancis Robinson writing contest in 2022 (read here), but had never met her in person. I, and another wine writer Lynne, were game, and I'm thrilled that I did, as the two days spent at La Maliosa were my best wine days ever! 

La Maliosa, which translates to 'the sorceress' (per Google Translate) is a name that Antonella chose for her winery, but she based it on what she describes as the magical beauty of Southern Tuscany. Antonella moved to this area in the 1990s where she managed the Terme di Saturnia Roman spa and golf course. During her 10 years there she explored the rolling hills surrounding these ancient Roman thermal springs, which are a major tourist attraction just a couple hours north of Rome, and began to envision starting a sustainable agriculture project in the area, not necessarily vineyards. Over the course of the next few years, she purchased a series of properties totaling 70 hectares (173 acres), which not surprisingly were just right for grape vines and olive trees. However, she realized that more traditional Tuscans did not 'get' her and thought she was a bit crazy with her ideas about sustainable agriculture. In 2012 a friend introduced her to Piedmont-based Lorenzo Corino, an expert in sustainable viticulture, and it was a match made in wine heaven!

Lorenzo Corino's book and La Maliosa Label

'The Essence of Wine" by Lorenzo Corino;
each bottle of La Malioa wine features the principles of Metodo Corino

Metodo Corino

Manuli first became interested in the organic movement during her university years in California (she was there on a golf scholarship) when she began thinking about developing an agricultural project in a gentle, earth-friendly, and sustainable fashion. Beginning in 2013, she and Corino began documenting his 'Metodo Corino,' the principles of which is captured in the book "The Essence of Wine and Natural Viticulture" (available from Amazon). Corino, a noted landscape architect, had been publishing scientific papers for years on the topic of sustainability in European vineyards, and met a kindred spirit in Manuli. He subsequently became her collaborator and mentor, assisting her with decision-making at Fattoria La Maliosa. In the opening chapter of his book, Corino notes, "we must 'restore' fertility to the soil."

In my two days with Antonella, I got a vivid picture of just how and why this should, and has to be done.

The main principles of Metodo Corino (more details here) are:
  1. The environment must be suitable for vitis vinifera (wine grapevines)
  2. The soil must hold biodiversity for both botanicals (flowers and grasses) and microorganisms (insects)
  3. Grape varieties must be 'historical' and 'traditional'*
  4. Minimal intervention in vine management
  5. Grape quality is the top priority
  6. In the cellar, no invasive intervention or additives can be used
  7. The farm must be 'artisan-sized'
  8. Carbon footprint must be measured as proof of environmental sustainability
*In the case of La Maliosa, indigenous red grapes grown include Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo, and Gray Cannonau (aka Grenache) and indigenous white grapes include Procanico and Ansonica (aka Inzolia). Says Antonella, these grapes "are more adapted to everything and are more expressive of the place." She adds that they have the "taste of history." Trebbiano Toscano is also grown, but is gradually being replaced with Procanico, which Antonella says was pulled out by Venetian-based vintners in the 1960s through 1980s.

Fattoria La Maliosa: Beyond Wine Tourism

Fattoria La Maliosa, on first glance, is not your typical tourist winery. It is, however, possibly the future of tourism, and therein lies its magic. It combines food, wine, olive oil, and 'experiential' accommodations, all in the place where everything is grown and made. Fattoria La Maliosa is reachable via a pothole-filled and bumpy dirt road, which on my visit challenged the undercarriage of my rental car! The torrential spring-summer rains in Tuscany had wreaked havoc on these roads. The main winery building is a restored yet still rustic 19th century farmhouse. Quite plain, but functional, this building serves as the current wine cellar on the ground floor (former animal stalls), and a tasting room and office (former living quarters with the original large open fireplace) on the top floor. Using her savvy business acumen, Antonelli secured European Union funds to help finance the construction of a brand-new cellar, which had just broken ground in early spring 2023, but was delayed due to the rains. Antonella also used EU funding to build a solar farm on one of her hillsides, providing clean energy for the winery.

Big Bench on La Maliosa property
Enjoying the view from the Big Bench

As we began our tour of the facilities and the vineyards, it became clear to me that La Maliosa is more than a collection of buildings and vineyards. It's a movement, pushed by a woman with a purpose and a true vision of the future of wine tourism. On our first stop on a hilltop right outside the winery we encountered a giant orange park bench, which is part of the Big Bench Community Project (BBCP) BBCP is a non-profit started in Piedmont that builds giant benches that require individuals to climb up them to admire the beautiful view with childlike wonder. There are over 300 benches throughout the world, with more planned, and the organization has raised thousands to support local community needs. It's a great place to take photos and to have your picture taken.

La Maliosa offers picnic baskets for visitors, for a fee, and has designated areas throughout the vineyards to enjoy the goodies, including wine, charcuterie, cheese, bread, and, of course, a bottle of wine. These beautiful and private areas are ideal for romantic getaways, and the proximity to Rome allows weekenders to take advantage. Antonella says that 90% of her customers for such experiences are millennials and GenZers, not surprisingly. The Rome proximity is key to much of the economy of Southern Tuscany, which is one of the least densely populated regions in all of Italy. Tourism is their lifeblood, and Antonella knows it and provides much needed and wanted services. 

One of Antonella's goals with her winery is to employee local young women to train them in the hospitality field. She and her employees taste her wines as she's making them, and help her make decisions during the winemaking process. Employees also conduct tastings with winery guests and help with marketing and food preparation.

Happy Wild Vineyards and Olive Groves

Near the Big Bench we entered some of the wildest looking vineyards I've ever seen in my life. There was so much growth of things other than grape vines that it was actually hard to spot the vines amidst them, much less the vineyard worker in the field below us, and it was a bit treacherous to step through this gorgeous underbrush. Wildflowers and grasses of many varieties were happily (yes, they looked happy!) growing alongside the vines. This was my first look at the biodiversity of La Maliosa vineyards, and I was captivated. Antonella explained her belief that vines are just one part of the biodiversity of a healthy vineyard, and that each and every form of plant life has a role to play in keeping the earth healthy.

collage of six vineyard shots at La Maliosa

Don't expect pristine, manicured vines at Fattoria La Maliosa, but do expect happy healthy vines.

In addition to a solar panel field, La Maliosa has a 15-hectare (about 37 acres) olive grove from which Antonella makes award-winning olive oils. In 2022, La Maliosa Aurinia Organic extra virgin olive oil was awarded an Extra Gold Medal for blended Tuscan cultivars by BiolNovello, an organization that hosts a competition dedicated to the best extra virgin organic olive oils from around the world. In June 2023 she was aw' arded top honors in the category of 'Agricultural companies, frantoiers [crushers] and cooperativesfrom the National Oil Tourism Competition for her 'picnic experience in StarsBox among the historic olive trees of Maremma.'

Unique Vineyard Accommodations 

StarsBox is another unique aspect of the La Maliosa experience. These are tiny cabins, or 'nests,' which are situated on hilltops on the vineyard providing stunning vistas during the day, and amazing star-gazing at night. They feature bedding for two people to sleep comfortably, and the tops of the tent-shaped structures have two panels that open up to the sky. La Maliosa has six StarsBox structures throughout the property, and they have proven to be quite popular, with most booked well in advance. The experience at a winery "has to be real" says Antonella, and tasting wine and other products of the land in nature, under the sun or the stars, provides that. While I have yet to experience a StarsBox, it's definitely on my bucket list.

StarsBox accommodations provide visitors with a unique vineyard experience.

In addition to running a winery, Antonella has opened a restaurant in a charming old building that she purchased in the village of Saturnia on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Called Saturnalia Wine Bar, the lovely place has delicious local cuisine and, of course, serves La Maliosa wines. We drank the 2021 UNI White Tuscany orange wine, which was recently awarded a Bronze medal at the 2023 Gaia Wine Challenge. The chef is a local woman, and one of the employees is a refugee from Ukraine. In fact, the building is currently housing eight refugees from Ukraine, who are residing in the apartments above the restaurant. Another of the refugees, Zorina Getman, is an accomplished watercolor artist who has been commissioned by Antonella to create artwork of various views around her winery and vineyards (see her artwork here.) Antonella's husband Fabrizio, who did the branding for La Maliosa, has done two missions to Ukraine. The couple has thus far hosted 16 refugees. 

Watercolor paintings of La Maliosa from Ukrainian artist Zorina Getman

The Challenges of 2023

hail damage on grape vines at La Maliosa
Hail damage on vines

In March 2023, Southern Tuscany was hit with a hail storm that destroyed a significant portion of the crop. Two hail storms on May 11 and May 25 of this year nearly destroyed all La Maliosa vines for this vintage. "Hail never happens!" in this part of Southern Tuscany, says Antonella, who says she spent a couple of days on the couch being depressed over the damage the sudden storm caused. As a result of the storms, 'There will be no La Malioso Rosso from this vintage,' she said, and this is one of her most popular wines. Pictures cannot describe the damage that hail inflicted on the vines, however there was good news the vines were recovering and there's always next year. Such is the life of the vineyard owner. 

The wet conditions helped to point out the benefits of the healthy cover crops that La Maliosa has in place. Standing on the hay between the vines, which La Maliosa grows and harvests at significant expense, the vineyards were passable, whereas the areas where there was no hay and/or grassy cover crop were deep mud. The cover crops soak up the moisture in wet weather and hold in the moisture when the sun is blazing down, which it usually does in summers in Southern Tuscany.

The rains in Southern Tuscany in the first half of 2023 were torrential (as they were in Abruzzo and the Veneto), and well above normal. On the day I visited La Maliosa, Antonella said it was the first day in a month and a half when it did not rain. The rain not only created difficult conditions in the vineyards, but it also held up construction for 90 days on the new cellar. Antonella updated me in mid-July to say that the construction was back on track, and the last few weeks had been rain-free.

La Maliosa vines on the opposite side of the Fiora River, which is also a dividing line between clay soil on the side of the winery and volcanic soils on the other, were not affected by the hail, and those vines were growing according to plan. "Isn't it beautiful," Antonella said of one of her 2 hectare (about 5 acre) vineyards on the volcanic side of her property. "It's full of complexity." This complexity is achieved through a set process that requires patience. The initial step is planting the vines, and year one is all about revitalizing the soils. Nothing is done to the vineyard for the next two years, however this is when the biodiversity begins to happen, which is evident in the flowers, grasses and microorganisms visible amongst the vines. 

Tasting La Maliosa Wines

My visit to La Maliosa culminated with a wine tasting. The wines are all 'natural,' and they are award winning. The grapes are grown in sustainable, organic, and biodynamic conditions, however the biodynamic portion is slightly different than Demeter in that it's 'vegetal closed cycle agriculture,' with zero animal products, such as cow horns. Hence, La Maliosa wines are truly vegan-friendly. Everything is bottled on site at the winery, and labels, which are applied by hand, are uniquely informational. They lay out the eight basic principles of the 'Metodo Corino' (see image above), thereby creating a dinner table conversation piece. The bottles weigh just 360 grams, the lowest possible weight for a usable wine bottle, which is a reduction by about half the carbon footprint of a standard 750ml bottle.

Four La Maliosa wines tasting during the summer of 2023 included the following:

2022 Saturnalia Biano IGT

This orange wine is a blend of Trebbiano Toscana and Procanico sees three weeks of skin contact, and ferments in stainless steel tanks. After fermentation the wine goes to big barrels for 6 months, then back to stainless steel for 90 days, and is then bottled. The wine pairs with pastas, cheeses, white meat, fish, and sautéed mushrooms. You can smell the vineyard in this wine, with mint, flowers, and green herbs flowing from the glass. This was delicious on the day I tasted it, I consider this the best orange wine I've ever tasted.

Note: During my visit to La Maliosa, Antonella learned that Vinepair had named La Maliosa 'Saturnia' Bianco 2020 one of the best orange wines for 2023

2019 Toscana Rosso IGT

This is a blend of Ciliegiolo, Sangiovese, and Grenache, grown in clay soil. It has notes of peppery spices and baked cherry, with integrated tannins (note that it takes a couple of years for this to happen).

2021 Toscano Rosso IGT

Made from 100% Ciliegiolo, which has to be picked at the right time to keep its acidity. The name means 'little cherry' in Italian, and the taste is close to Barbera, with notes of cherry tobacco. 

2019 Stellata IGT

This wine is 100% Cannonau (Grenache), and is spicy, with strong tannins. It has a lot of substance on the palate and pairs with lamb or beef.

I thoroughly enjoyed each and every taste of La Maliosa wines, and I feel inspired to delve further into sustainable and thoughtful wines. Select La Maliosa wines and olive oils are available in the US. Visit

Final Thoughts

In addition to all of the above, Antonella Minuli of Fattoria La Maliosa has set her sights on the future, in a way that benefits not just herself, but her employees, and Southern Tuscany in general. In addition to the new cellar under construction, projects in the work include the refurbishing of various old farm buildings on her property that have lain vacant for years (see photos below), which will allow more visitors to La Maliosa. 

I'd like to experience more of this beautiful property, as well as Southern Tuscany in general. It's a gorgeous land, with dozens of picturesque hilltop villages, offering great restaurants, friendly people, ancient sites to explore, and loads of interesting history. Below are some more gorgeous vineyard shots from Fattoria La Maliosa.

Six images of La Maliosa buildings

Until next time,

Ciao & Grazie mille!

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Cerasuolo: The Beautiful Rosato of Abruzzo

Cerasulo d'Abruzzo is influenced by both the mountains and the sea.

Abruzzo, Italy, is a region that sweeps west of Rome, over the rugged and steep Apennine Mountains that form the country's backbone, and sloping down to the shores of the Adriatic Sea. It's debated whether this is a Central or Southern Italian region (see map inset), but that's beside the point to me. It's a region unto itself, with some defining wines and wine styles that are a joy to explore.

Abruzzo has four distinct wine provinces: Pescara, Chieti, Teramo, and L'Aquila. The first three have eastern borders on the Adriatic coast, while L'Aquila is situated in the mountainous inland. Soils vary among these four, but generally the mountainous areas have rocky soils, and the lower areas have more clay and sand. The former produces lighter-style wines. All regions, however, benefit from the cooling mountain winds as well as the saline-filled Adriatic breezes. The looming mountains of the massif Gran Sasso  (9.5K feet elevation at its highest), and the massif Maiella, both of which have large National Parks, provide the cooling mountain air, and in June 2023 their peaks were still snow covered. Organic wine producer Luigi Valori (see Valori Wines) who in the 1970s was a professional player for Ascoli Soccer, and is a heck of a nice man, bragged that he could go skiing in the local mountains, and within 90 minutes could be drinking wine under the sunny Pescara skies, as depicted in the photo above. Pride for their splendid land was evident among all of the winemakers I encountered in Abruzzo!

The spring and early summer of 2023 were unusually wet in Abruzzo (indeed, most of Italy), which is often hot and dry, with nearly a month and a half of some rain, often torrential, almost every day. Wine growers in the region were very concerned about the current crop in mid-June when I visited, and many expressed concern they would lose a fair amount of vines to mildew as a result of the current situation. However, optimism was in the air, even as we trampled through muddy vineyards and rain sprinkled down on us.

The four wine regions of Abruzzo. Map courtesy of the Consorzio Tutela Vini d'Abruzzo.

Abruzzo Wines

The wines of Abruzzo are distinct, albeit quite limited in number of varieties. For red, it's all about Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a rich and bold wine that is widely available in the US market, usually at super affordable prices (i.e., under $20 a bottle). It's a perfect backyard BBQ wine, rich and fruity, that pairs well with grilled meats. In Abruzzo, the typical local pairing is arrostocini, or grilled diced mutton on a skewer (tasty little morels!). The photo, right, was taken at a luncheon at Ciavolich winery.

The US market for exports from Abruzzo is second only to Germany, at approximately 14.2% (Germany is 20%), per the Consorzio Tutela Vini d'Abruzzo, which also supplied the map above. The region also produces white wine, mainly Pecorino and Trebbiano d'Abruzzo. Additionally, pink wines, called Rosatos in Italy, made from the Montepulciano grape and called Cerasuolo, are produced by just about every producer in this region. They are splendid wines, and possibly the future of the region, according to several notable producers.

Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo: From Farmer's Wine to Everyone's Wine

Originally, Cerosuolo (pronounced 'cherra-swolo') was the wine of the people of the farm, not a wine to be sold. Over time, however, the 'lightness plus weight' characteristic of Cerosuolo wines became more desirable, and there's a local Abruzzo saying that "Montepulciano is a Cerasuolo that didn't make it," rather than vice versa! I couldn't agree more.

The name Cerasuolo is derived from the local dialect for 'cherry,' cirasce. It's apt, as the wines have both a cherry color and a cherry flavor. Cerasuolo wines are generally a dark version of pink wine, however, like Provencal-style rosé wines, they come in many shades of pink or light red, and in many cases look and even drink like a light-bodied red. Cerasuolo wines are made using the native red grape of Abruzzo, Montepulciano (mandatory 85%, the remainder can be other local grapes), and traditionally go through vinification like a white wine. While this ancient technique is common, newer techniques are also in use. For instance, Fausto Albanesi, winemaker/owner at Torre dei Beati, uses three different vinification techniques: the traditional white method for a very pink wine; saignée, aka the bleeding-off method; and cold temperature soaking of 3-5 days. He then blends the wines from each technique for a gorgeous Cersasuolo d' Abruzzo which he calls 'Rosa-ae.' This former engineer produces a Cerasuolo that has beautiful elements of blue flowers and berries, and it's a joy to drink (as are all of his other wines).

Cerosulo wines at Abruzzo master class. Notice the dark green bottles, unlike the clear glass used for Provence rosé. Cerasuolo wines come in varying shades of pink and light red.

Cerasulo has a weight to it, as the Montepulciano grape is thick skinned. This allows the Rosatos to age well beyond the ability of other pink wines, which normally begin to lose their fruitiness within a year of bottling. Not true with Cerasuolo. For instance, the 2020 Cerasuolo d' Abruzzo Fosso Cancelli from Ciavolich had lovely acid along with framboise, cassis, and tobaccco notes, as well as Mediterranean garrigue from the mountain herbs grown around the 40-year-old vines used to produce this wine. This wine is aged in Tuscan terra cotta vats and sees just a touch of oak, and it's just splendid.

The Pettinela Tauma is a wine I've tasted and sold before at The Wine House (as of this writing it's not in stock). During a Cerasuolo master class in Abruzzo, our instructor was quite surprised that a US retailer was selling this wine, but I informed him that it usually sits on the shelf longer than most other rosé wines, simply because consumers (and frankly those selling the wine) don't really understand the wine. "Is it a dark rosé or is it a light-bodied red," they ask. Now that I know how well these Rosatos can age, I plan to buy them up at the end of rosé season to hold for the next year or two! The 2022 Pettinella Tauma tasted of hay, red fruit, ash, dried porcini mushroom, and also had intense salinity. It's a complex yet easy-drinking wine, that is sure to create conversation as it activates the senses. The wine is made from grapes out of two vineyards, and the name Tauma is Arameic for 'twin.' 

One of the iconic producers of Abruzzo wines is Emidio Pepe, and his daughter Chiara is now the head winemaker. The wines are biodynamic and extreme care is taken in the vineyard with such things as folding down the growth between vines, rather than cutting it, which helps with water retention (in a normal year, not 2023!). The 2022 Emidio Pepe Cerasuolo  has lots of cherry on the palate, plus wild blackberries, and gun flint. The grapes are foot stomped, with 50% going into wood, and 50% going into concrete. Only 5,000 bottles are produced, and in the US market, these hard-to-find wines sell for $50 to $60 a bottle. Another daughter, Stefania Pepe, makes biodynamic 100% organic certified wines at her eponymous winery. She poured me her 2017 Cerasoulo Pepe Rose, which is suitable for vegans and vegetarians, and it again showed the potential for these pink wines to retain their freshness and flavors for several years after bottling.

Tenuta de Melis is a wonderful example of a trend I saw in Abruzzo: younger generations taking over family farming and bringing a fresh, more modern approach to both vines and wines, while respecting the age-old traditions and techniques. The de Melis family has been working their vines and selling their grapes since 1905. Now, father Carmine and children Valeria and Stephen have opened a new artisan winery that currently produces just three wines, among them a Cerasuolo. This wine had a touch of residual sugar, and is fermented on the skins and aged in all stainless steel. Even though Valeria was about to give birth to her first child, when I spoke with her she was full of energy, and totally agreed that Cerasuolo is probably the future of the Abruzzo region. "My grandfather made it," she said with pride.

Some of Abruzzo's Cerasuolo producers, from top left: Stefania Pepe; Valeria de Melis of Tenua de Melis;
Luigi Valori of Vini Valori; Fauto Albanesi of Torre dei Beati; Marina Cvetić of Masciarelli; Chiari Ciavolich

Cerasuolo Gets Classified

Beginning in 1967, Cerasuolo Rosatos were classified under the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo appellation, and then in 2010 they received their own appellation, Cerosuolo d'Abruzzo, which is the first DOC to focus on Rosato. "Cerasuolo is the wine of the future of this region," said Chiara Ciavolich of Cantina Ciavolich. The change in perception of Cerasuolo as a serious wine, not just a farmer's wine, "can be a booster for the reputation of the region," she adds. Marina Cvetić of Masciarelli agrees it's the wine of the future in the region. "It's the Red Bull of Abruzzo!," she says with a smile.

Note: As of June 2023, there is discussion in the Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo DOC about changing the rules regarding the color of the wines. Most producers I spoke with were wishing to distinguish their wines from the generally pale pink Provencal style rosé wines. More to come on this topic!

Also, in May it was announced that as of the 2023 harvest, there will be "Superiore" versions of all DOC wines, including Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Superiore, Trebbiano d'Abruzzo Superiore, Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo Superiore, and Pecorino d'Abruzzo Superiore. So, lots happening in this developing wine region of Italy.

Until next time,


Monday, May 8, 2023

Tasting California Anew: Tercero, Notre Vue, Kaena

I've been attending a variety of wine events in the last couple of months, which included wines of the Rioja region of Spain, the Union Grands Crus of Bordeaux, wines from two producers in Virginia, and the Chablis wines of Patrick Piuze, to name a few. Not to mention my trip to Italy last fall, focused on the wines of the Lugana region (see my posts on Italy here). I love tasting wines from around the world, but every now and then I need to be reminded that I live in the great wine state of California, where wine runs plentifully, and there are some world-class examples that warrant my attention. 

I just had a quick visit to Santa Barbara County, which is one of my favorite wine regions in the state, where I reacquainted myself with, and introduced my good friend to, the wines of Tercero Wines and Kaena Wine Company. The LA Wine Writers also hosted a pair of luncheons at A.O.C. Brentwood wine bar, one with Larry Schaffer of Tercero, and one with Renee Brown-Stein, owner of Notre Vue of Sonoma. All of these wineries produce excellent and unique examples of California wine.

Tercero Wines, Los Olivos, Calif.

A tasting with Larry Schaffer, owner, winemaker and provocateur (in the best way) regarding the wine industry, is always entertaining, and decidedly tasty! I believe Larry to be one of the most talented winemakers in the U.S., and also one of the most daring. He makes wines that remind me of the Old World, but with a New World twist. He's been making wine for over 20 years, sourcing grapes from some of the best vineyards in Santa Barbara County, picking and foot stomping everything himself, and regaling visitors in his no-frills but elegant tasting room in Los Olivos. He's also quite peripatetic, hauling his wines to wine-pairing dinners, to wine luncheons such as the one with LA Wine Writers, and wine fests, like the popular Garagiste Festival, where he often has samples of his homemade bread to pair with his wines. 

Larry is a Rhone guy, and is also vice president of the Rhone Rangers, the leading non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines. He's got Mourvedre (red, rose, and even a carbonic version that's so good), a GSM blend, Grenache, Cinsault, Counoise, and Clairette (one of the few to make this Southern Rhone white outside of France ... and it's delicious!), among others. But he doesn't stick just to Rhone varieties, producing other wines such as dry Gewurztraminer, Picpoul (which I have yet to taste), Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir. "Never say never," is one of his mottos, and I'm glad because I eagerly await each and every new wine he produces. His Pinots are new as of the 2020 vintage, and he began making them because his wife loves Pinot. True to form, he makes three versions from three clones, from grapes grown in the Kessler Hawk vineyard. I'm going to watch how these beauties evolve.

He calls himself a "typicist," meaning he doesn't interfere with the grapes during the winemaking process, but let's the grapes speak for themselves. He believes his most important decision in winemaking is when to pick the grapes. All his wines are made using whole clusters, at a facility in Buellton, and he produces a total of about 2500 cases per year. 

At the A.O.C. Brentwood tasting, Tercero wines were paired beautifully (as always at this top-notch wine bar!) with dishes by the excellent and award-winning team of Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin, not to mention their staff, who pours wine like pros. My favorites of Tercero wines are both of the lighter body reds, the Counoise and the Cinsault, and I recently downed a bottle of his Mourvedre Rose, which was fantastic on a warm spring day.

I'm definitely a fan of Tercero Wines, and encourage anyone in Los Olivos to drop in for a tasting, and some great conversation with Larry, if he's there. Another one of Larry's mottos is "remain curious." I'll drink to that!

Notre Vue, Sonoma, Calif.

More often than I'd like to admit I get introduced to a winery from California that I just know nothing about. Such was the case with Notre Vue, which I learned about recently at another LA Wine Writer's luncheon at A.O.C Brentwood.

The luncheon was hosted by Notre Vue owner Renee Brown-Stein, pictured below in the top center photo (Cori Solomon, President of LA Wine Writers is on the left, yours truly is on the right). As per usual, A.O.C. paired Renee's wines with their scrumptious small plates, which included salad, appetizer, hanger steak entrée, and a cheese plate. Each dish was paired with two Notre Vue wines, which includes Balverne wines.

Balverne, which I should know but did not at the time, was quite renowned back in the day ... the day of Ronald Reagan in the White House, that is! 

After initially planting grapes in the 1970s, Balverne Cellars was launched in the Regan era and rose to fame quickly, becoming one of California's first cult wines. The award-winning wines were served in the White House, at a Supreme Court luncheon, at the famed Brown Derby restaurant, and on United Airlines flights. But like many fast-to-fame people and places, Balverne eventually ended up in bankruptcy, and languished for many years before Renee and her husband Bob Stein purchased it in 1992. The couple, an interior decorator (land and sea) and yacht designer, respectively, learned grape growing "from the bottom up,'' says Renee, and for 20 years sold them to the likes of Williams Selyem and Dutton. Then in 2012 Renee re-designed and re-invigorated the Balverne label and introduced their Notre Vue (French for 'our view') label. 

Notre Vue and Balverne wines cannot be pigeon-holed into a category, as the varieties they grow cover the wine map. There's Sauvignon Blanc, GSM blends (rose and red), Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Cabernet, among others. All are made to high standard, and the winery has won numerous awards and, if you're into point systems, they've earned some high marks from the likes of James Suckling and Wine Spectator. Winemaker Alex Holman introduced low-intervention winemaking and the farm is now organically certified, and it says so on its label. 

Renee, who lost her husband in 2020, is now sole proprietor and takes great pride in putting her stamp of approval on all winery decisions, but with a trusted team, including her Estate General Manager Geoffrey Thompson, winemaker Holman, and vineyard manager Lupe Ruiz, who oversees the 700 acre estate, 176 acres of which are planted to vines and 350 acres of which are a "Forever Wild" protected open space. The winery also has a permanent year-round crew of 30 individuals. 

As a sustainable property, the winery uses no pesticides, and sports an open space in the center of the property, from which insects "eat the bad critters," says Renee. Other good critters on the property include foxes, bobcats, 300-400 turkeys, geese, deer, rabbits, and "lots of lady bugs."

When asked about her wines, Renee glows when she talks about sparkling. A sparkling program was introduced when Holman took the reigns in 2019. It's obviously her pride and joy (among many) and she can go on and on when discussing the wine and the all-important bottle shape, color and label design all of which are gorgeous (see bottom middle photo below). 

While I have yet to visit the property, I'm looking forward to doing so.

Kaena, Buellton, Calif.

It had a been a long time since I'd tasted the wines of Santa Barbara County's "Grenache King," Mikael Sigouin. He and his wife Molly have poured at many a Garagiste Festival over the years, which I've either attended or volunteered for, and I've seen his wines leave people swooning. So, when my friend from San Francisco wanted to meet up somewhere between LA and San Francisco, I suggested Buellton for it's easy access to all of Santa Barbara County wineries, from Los Olivos to Los Alamos. And lo and behold, on this trip I saw that Kaena Wine had opened a second location!

In addition to a tasting room in downtown Los Olivos, across the street from Tercero, Kaena now has the 'ranch' on the main road from Buellton to Solvang, called Kaena at the Ranch. It's been open two years now, so interesting timing, as they opened during Pandemic. The ranch is beautiful, simple, rustic, and idyllic, and is a nice mid-afternoon stop where you can sip wine leisurely surrounded by well-spaced chairs and picnic tables, and enjoy the view. 

The tasting room is a large barn, which the couple stripped and refurbished simply, but elegantly. It has a gallery of enlarged photos of Mikael's family, depicting his Hawaiian ancestry (hence the name Kaena, and the hibiscus flower label), some of which are just mind-blowing. His grandfather was a surfer, who caught waves with the famous Duke Kahanamoku and even made surfboards. These photos alone are worth a stop at this winery.

Also worth the stop are a few other things, most importantly the wines! Kaena makes lots of Grenache, and makes it well. The Reserve from 2021 is divine, but the 'regular' Grenache is also a keeper. The Grenache Blanc is crisp and refreshing, perfect for al fresco dining, or any other occasion!

Kaena also makes wonderful Syrah, bone-dry Riesling, Cab Franc, Chardonnay, Viognier, and host of other varieties. But it's the Grenache that always draws me in, whether red, white or rose. 

Molly was a super hostess on the day we visited, pouring us a range of wines and answering our myriad questions about the wines, the location, the mountains behind the ranch winery, and the vineyards on the property. We found out that the vines are old Sangiovese plants that the team at Kaena is reviving. As you can see from the photos below, the vines look healthy, and will someday be a new variety of wine at Kaena. Like Larry of Tercero, Mikael (who was not present on the day we visited) is also staying curious!

If you're driving into Solvang on Highway 46 going East, you will find Kaena at the Ranch on the road right after the Ostrich Farm. I recommend you stop in.

Until next time, Cheers & Mahalo!


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Lugana Winery #3: Cà dei Frati

This is the third and final installment on Lugana wineries that I visited last fall as part of the 2022 Wine Media Conference to this stunningly beautiful land in Lombardy, Italy. The other two wineries already presented are Ca'Lojera, a small family run producer, and Ottella, a larger producer with extensive art-filled facilities.

Winery #3 Cà dei Frati, is one of the benchmark producers in the Lugana DOC, with 280 hectares of vines located in Lugana and another 10 hectares in Valpolicello, where Amarone is produced. The winery receives close to 40,000 visitors each year, mostly from Germany. German tourists were in abundance during our visit to Lombardy in fall 2022.

While the winery was purchased in 1939 by Felice Dal Cero, whose descendants own the winery today, the grapes on the land date back to 1046, when the property was a monastery, hence the name Cà dei Frati, which is Italian for 'home of brothers.' The current owners represent four generations of the family, including grandmother Santa Rosa; children, Gian Franco, Anna Maria, and Igino; and grandchildren and now great-grandchilden, all working various areas of the business.

Our tour guide was Stefano Fioranzato, who married into the De Cero clan and is Export Manager for the winery. Below, he's pictured top center, and the surrounding images are of the main tasting room, which is converted from the original monastery building, with gorgeous architectural details. The more modern design of the winery building displays stain-glass-like windows that mirror the older windows, but the glass is actually wine bottle bottoms in a multitude of different colors. The tunnel into the cellar, pictured bottom right, has a fresco-like painting of the night sky, with gold stars ... just stunning.

Ca d'Frati winery
Cà dei Frati's Stefano Fioranzato and some of the winery's beautiful architectural features.

Like Ottella, Cà dei Frati is a super-modern, well-funded winery, with the latest in gravity flow equipment, harvesters, barrels and tank rooms, and just about any other up-to-date wine production gadget you can think of. We happened to be visiting during harvest, when red grapes were being brought in, as you can see in the images below. Everything was pristine in this facility and the barrel room is enormous. 

All top-of-the line equipment at Ca d'Frati!

As I did in my two previous posts, I'll repeat the facts about Lugana DOC, see below. Cà dei Frati produces wines in all the DOC categories, from Lugana DOC entry level wines, to various sparkling wines, all based on the Turbiana grape. Turbiana blends are also made, such as Pratto Vino Biano, a blend of Turbiana and Chardonnay, and Tre Filer, a Turbiana, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc blend. Additionally, as noted above, red grapes are also grown, and the winery has red blends, including Ronchedone Vino Rosso, composed of Marzemino, Sangiovese and Cabernet, and Pietro Dal Cero Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, from Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Croatina. And finally, there's the winery's Grappa, called I Frati Grappa da vinaccia di Lugana, which is 100% Turbiana. 

Important Facts About Lugana DOC

  • The Lugana appellation is located on the southern end of Lake Garda, with some land going right up to the lake, some of it more inland. 
  • There are about 200 producers in Lugana DOC, from large to tiny.
  • The grape is Turbiana, and most producers use 100% of it in their Lugana Whites. 
  • The soils in Lugana region are morainic, composed of clay topsoil over rock, red soil and iron.
  • Proximity to the Lake Garda influences how much clay is in the soil, and it can be anywhere from 20% to 40%. 

The Five Types of Lugana Wine 

There are 5 levels of Lugana DOC wines: 

Lugana DOC these are the the 'everyday' drinkers, fresh, fruity, and lively.

Lugana DOC Superiore  these must age for a least one year.

Lugana DOC Riserva   must age for 2 years, with 6 months of that in the bottle.

Lugana DOC Vendemmia Tardiva  these are Lugana's late-harvest wines. 

Lugana DOC Spumante these are sparkling wines. 

Final Thoughts on Italy

Attending the 2022 Wine Blogger's Conference in Lombardy, Italy, last fall was one of the highlights of last year for me. I had never explored northern Italy in depth, and had never really heard much about Lake Garda. My husband accompanied me on this three-week adventure, as we decided to travel around Italy, a country he had never been before. So, we did a loop of Milan to Venice to the Adriatic Coast to Rome, back up north to Cinque Terre, and finally Milan again. 

It was a trip full of wonders and joys. The food was outstanding, inexpensive for the most part, and freshly made everywhere we went. The people, especially at the wineries we visited as part of the WMC, were very friendly, welcoming and eager to please, so thank you to them!

Valtellina, So Close Yet So Far!

One major disappointment was our truncated trip to Valtellina, which I was especially psyched to visit. Even though we got there, we were struck with COVID once we arrived and I did not get to visit the steep, breathtaking vineyards of this Italian Alps region. I do, however, want to recognize the wonderful Isabella Pelizzatti Perego of Arpepe, who I managed to dine with, and who is the most lovely and talented winemaker. 

Our group had lunch at a converted post office restaurant in downtown Sondrio, which is a charming town very close to the Swiss border. At this luncheon, a handful of Valtellina wineries and a plethora of wines were served. Afterwards, there was another reception of Valtellina wines at a beautiful underground, vaulted space (pictured top right in photo below). So I at least got a 'taste' of the area before leaving town. And I did manage to capture the town in a few photos.

The Alpine town of Sondrio, where Valtellina wines are made. Top center is Isabella Perego of Arpepe.

You can read more about Valtellina from others on the trip with me, as follows:

A Visit to the Birthplace of Nebbiolo in Valtellina by Liz Barrett of What's in that Bottle

Crushed Grape Chronicles has excellent videos of Valtellina, by Robin and Michael Renkin.

That's it for my Italy trip! I do want to return to Northern Italy, especially to Valtellina, and other areas like it in the future. And Lake Garda (read my Love Letter to it) will always be a special place for me.

Until next time,


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Lugana Winery #2, Cantina Ottella: Where Wine & Art Come Together

In the 16th century, all of the area around the current Cantina Otella winery in Northern Italy was called Otella, which is named for four sets of twins born there. These eight, or "octo," became the namesake for the area. Stepping out of the bus last fall on my visit to Otella, in the town of Peschiera del Garda, during a Wine Media Conference 2022 excursion, our small group was greeted by current fourth-generation owner Michele Montresor ...  and his winery dog, of course! His family has owned this land since 1905. He quickly pointed to the encased 'coat of arms' (see right) on display in front of this magnificent and oh-so-modern winery/art museum.

Truth be told, I took very few notes on my tour of Cantina Ottella, as I was entranced by the art and good vibes all around me. I was an art history major in college, and I have a tendency to get lost in art when I'm around it, When you combine art with my other love, wine, it's just a beautiful sensory overload for me! Fortunately, I have very strong recollections and some pretty good pictures to share from this stellar winery visit. And, the Cantina Ottella web site captures it best, saying the winery is a place where "wine, art, nature and culture come together in perfect harmony, creating emotions that touch the heart."

Otella's wines fall into the Lugana DOC, and they are a member of the Consorzio Lugana, whose goal is the protection of Lugana DOC wines. As this is the second of three Lugana wineries I visited (see my previous post on Ca'Lojera), I'll repeat some key facts about the area and the wines produced there.

Important Facts About Lugana DOC

  • The Lugana appellation is located on the southern end of Lake Garda, with some land going right up to the lake, some of it more inland. 
  • There are about 200 producers in Lugana DOC, from large to tiny.
  • The grape is Turbiana, and most producers use 100% of it in their Lugana Whites. 
  • The soils in Lugana region are morainic, composed of clay topsoil over rock, red soil and iron.
  • Proximity to the Lake Garda influences how much clay is in the soil, and it can be anywhere from 20% to 40%. 

The Five Types of Lugana Wine 

There are 5 levels of Lugana DOC wines: 

Lugana DOC these are the the 'everyday' drinkers, fresh, fruity, and lively.

Lugana DOC Superiore  these must age for a least one year.

Lugana DOC Riserva   must age for 2 years, with 6 months of that in the bottle.

Lugana DOC Vendemmia Tardiva  these are Lugana's late-harvest wines. 

Lugana DOC Spumante these are sparkling wines. 

Otella: Art + Wine = Divine

Otella is a brand I've been long familiar with, as I've sold much of it at my sales job at The Wine House. Like most Lugana DOC whites, these are refreshing, highly drinkable, everyday wines that usually come in under $20 a bottle. They pair well with many different foods, as they have lovely acid and a clean, crisp palate. I think of them as a Northern Italian Chablis. As you go up the ladder in quality, where the wines age longer, the prices go up, but they're still reasonable.

I tasted through Otella's line and they were well made, totally enjoyable wines. But there were a few that Michele was especially proud of, including a 'natural' wine that he ages in amphora, which he calls "Back to Silence," which is an homage to his father.

From upper left: Ottella owner Michele Montresor in his amphora room; Michele welcoming visitors in his art-filled garden; Otella barrel; (bottom left) modern and pristine tank room; slick, art-filled tasting room; Ottella's 'rain room'

There's no question that Ottella is a high-end winery, with a major investment of Euros in the product and the property. The extensive art collection alone is worth a fortune, and the tasteful display of the art makes a visit to Ottella well worth it. I did learn that in Italy, a work of art is referred as an 'opera,' which originates in the  Latin, meaning 'activity, effort, attention, work.' I really like that, and Michele used the word often on his tour, referring to the paintings and objects scattered throughout the extensive, multi-leveled property. The doors alone to the barrel room were an 'opera,' larger and more artistic than any I've ever seen!

Ottella's gardens are inviting, and a great place for selfies!

A few of Ottella's many works of art, or 'operas'

(top row) Lunch at Ottella was all local specialty dishes, including a pasta in a broccoli puree; (bottom row) Ottella
 has a sophisticated and modern facility, with artwork tiles even on the floor of the production facilities.
Ottella is one of the few wineries with it's own full bottling line.

Cantina Ottella is stunning, well worth the visit, for both the wine and the "operas"!

Read Lugana Winery #1: Ca'Lojera

Until next time, Ciao!

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Lugana Winery #1: Ca'Lojera

As part of the Wine Media Conference 2022, held in Lake Garda, Italy, in early October, I was on a pre-conference excursion that included on-site visits with three outstanding Lugana DOC wine producers.  Two of these wineries were state-of-the art, with such amenities as gravity flow production facilities, an amphora room, deep cellars full of hundreds of barrels, well-appointed tastings rooms, and exquisite and pricey artwork throughout the facility. And one was a mom-and-pop type winery, with some of the modern touches, but on a smaller, less grand scale. This latter was just as impressive and interesting to visit, however.

In this and my next two posts I will focus on each of these wineries individually. First, here's a recap of what Lugana DOC is all about:

Important Facts About Lugana DOC

  • The Lugana appellation is located on the southern end of Lake Garda, with some land going right up to the lake, some of it more inland. 
  • There are about 200 producers in Lugana DOC, from large to tiny.
  • The grape is Turbiana, and most producers use 100% of it in their Lugana Whites. 
  • The soils in Lugana region are morainic, composed of clay topsoil over rock, red soil and iron.
  • Proximity to the Lake Garda influences how much clay is in the soil, and it can be anywhere from 20% to 40%. 

The Five Types of Lugana Wine 

In my last post, the 5 levels of Lugana DOC wines were discussed. Briefly, they are:

Lugana DOC these are the the 'everyday' drinkers, fresh, fruity, and lively.

Lugana DOC Superiore  these must age for a least one year.

Lugana DOC Riserva   must age for 2 years, with 6 months of that in the bottle.

Lugana DOC Vendemmia Tardiva  these are Lugana's late-harvest wines. 

Lugana DOC Spumante these are sparkling wines. 

Ca'Lojera: Multi-Generational Family Winery

Ca'Lojera, or 'House of the Wolves' in the local dialect, was founded in 1992 in the town of Sirmione, just a few steps from Lake Garda, by Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi. The couple bought the property in 1980 and grew fruits and vegetables before venturing into wine. The property itself dates back to the 13th century, as the summer home of the bishop of Verona. The wolves reference comes from a local legend that the animals protected the houses of smugglers who traded weapons and black-market salt along the coast of Lake Garda. 

Marta, the founder's granddaughter and our tour guide at Ca'Lojera, offered two explanations for the wolf lore, with one being that the wolves refers to the animal, as per the above, and the second being that the smugglers themselves were the wolves. Either way, it's a good story, and adds historical dimension to the winery and its labels.

From top left: Ca'Lojera's Lungana lineup; Marta, grandaughter of founders; tasting in the former on-site restaurant; Second row, from left: Ca'Lojera shipments; the modern winery building; Ca'Lojera's 1999 late-harvest wine;
Third row: the 13th century building, where plans include a new tasting room; caricatures of Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi on a special magnum bottle.

The land on which Ca'Lojera sits was once the La Garda seabed, so the soils are full of sea minerals, which impart a characteristic flavor profile to the wine, with notes of salinity and chalkiness. The winery produces all its own grapes, with 18 hectares of Turbiana in Sirmione, plus an additional 2 hectares of hilly, moranic vineyards, dedicated to Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet. Note that these grapes are not approved under Lugana DOC; Ca'Lojera sells them under the 'della Guardia' label.

The modern winery building was built just 10 years ago, but the original cellar is 30 years old. With production ramping up for the current 200K bottles they produce per year, it's becoming a tight squeeze, and Marta informed us that more modern and spacious production facilities are in the works. With the winery in full harvest mode during our visit, it was not the top priority at this time!

Until recently, the winery had a home-style restaurant on the property, which is where our tasting took place. The room was full of family memorabilia, and was a cozy place to do some wine tasting. Marta says her plan, when she has the time, is to build a tasting room in the currently unoccupied original building (see photos above). 

Ca'Lojero's lineup included a fresh and fruity entry-level Lugana DOC, with an herbal nose (some of the tasters smelled marijuana!); a Superiore, which is harvested a bit later; a Riserva, which is a late-harvest wine that spends 1.5 years in tank and 6 months in the bottle, which makes it more complex; and a 1999 'Anato Historico' which was aged in small wooden barrels for two years. This last wine had a deep gold color, with notes of honey. Ca'Lojera uses oak only on its sweet wines. 

This is a fun winery to visit, and should you be in the Lugana area, visit the quaint and lovely tasting room.

Until next time,