Monday, February 27, 2006

Olympics: the food and wine post

Most journalists have departed Torino by now. Thankfully, the curling and the x-country skiing is finito, freeing up your intrepid correspondents to write about serious stuff:: il cibo e vino di Piemonte. Thankfully, the food and wine critics penned some well-deserved critiques on the Barolo, chocolate, chocolate again, and gelato.

And bravo to the SF Chronicle for this intrepid piece on the Slow Food movement. What is Slow Food? Well, the ingredients are locally sourced and the preparations, specific to regional traditions and tastes, take hours -- an antithetical notion in this era of the golden arches. For Xmas, Cristina and I received the annual Slow Food Editore "Osterie d'Italia". We rarely leave the house without it. The number of tiny, out-of-the-way trattorie highlighted in this book is a sheer marvel. It's a great way to explore the back roads of Italy: with your appetite to guide you.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Stazione silly

It's election season. How do I know this? The streets of Rome, after years of neglect, are finally being paved, and out-of-touch politicians are on TV every night describing a planet called "Italia" that certainly doesn't sound like the place I live.

How out of touch are the two men vying for the job of running this country? Silvio Berlusconi, aged 69, said this past week that a vote for him means everybody over 69 gets free TV and discount train fare. Challenger Romano Prodi says a vote for him and each bambino gets 2,500 euros until their third birthday.

And what does that not insubstantial group of Italians from age 3-69 get? Nulla -- the prospect of microscopic economic growth, the least dynamic labour market in the G8 and under-funded universities. No wonder 37 percent of Italians would move to another country if they could. (Among the 18-24 crowd, the percentage who would like to live abroad is 55 percent.)

But there is hope. There is a drag queen from left-leaning Lazio on the ballot who has a good shot of getting into Parliament.

The perks of ownership, Italian style

Mistrust and loathing for your local phone company is a universal human condition. They are inefficient, uncaring and unhelpful institutions. They *make hoards of cash and seem to employ only small-minded people who tell you they can be at your house next Monday between 9 and 1 pm, or 2 to 6 pm. We'll call you on the day to tell you which. Except they never arrive, never call. Sound familiar?

In Italy, it's not quite that simple. All the above are true of Telecom Italia, the former state monopoly, except that it is massively in debt (Its net debt of 42 billion euros as of September, '05 is high even by European telco standards). However, its CEO, Marco Tronchetti Provera, has marvelous hair and is permanently tanned and frankly looks damn good in the society pages and gossip mags, and so there's really nothing to complain about, is there? And now there's a new book out called L'Industriale describing him as a revolutionary thinker, a 21st Century CEO. I saw him a few weeks back addressing fellow captains of industry at an OECD event. He used his 15 minutes to slam the evils of cheap (or even free) Internet telephone service. (The crowd of geeks would have booed him had it not been for this man's hypnotising tan that cold, grey January morning). Innovation, in this man's book, no doubt is not to be trusted.

Beppe Grillo, the genius satirist/muckraker, has a bigger bone to pick. He rightly questions how this man could even be called an industrialist when he doesn't really own much of anything.

From Grillo's blog:

But the president of Telecom Italia, “the Industrialist”, how much of this company in constant decline does he own? It has a debt equal to the GDP of many countries and its share value has lost almost half its value since 2001. Have a little think before reading the answer: how much of Telecom is owned by this unhappy Tronchetti ...
Have you had a think? Well, it’s less than that!

It’s slightly more than 0.8%.

In fact, keep following my argument, and I know it’s difficult for those who are still sane:
- Marco Tronchetti Provera & C a.p.a owns 61.48% of Gruppo Partecipazioni Industriali (GPI)
- GPI owns 50.18% of Camfin
- Camfin owns 25.36% of Pirelli
- Pirelli owns 57.7% of Olimpia
- Olimpia owns 18% of Telecom Italia

less than one per cent, “the industrialist” governs one of the biggest Italian Groups.
The same Group that has been fined 115 Million Euro for the abuse of its dominant position in the telephony sector.
An industrialist without money, without results.

Dear shareholders, substitute him!

The old box-within-a-box-within-a-box ownership scheme is famous in Italy. It concentrates ownership into the fewest possible hands while spreading the liabilities out to a complex network of companies and holding companies. I haven't read L'Industriale, but I am sure this is explained fully in chapter one.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Touring Torino in a bottle

Bravo to Slate's magnificent wine columnist Mike Steinberger! He uses an Olympics new peg to write about Piemontese wines with an interesting behind-the-barrel argument about the merits of barrique barrels. (Barrique means barrels made of young French oak. The effect is to give some vintages a woody taste). I like whites that age in barrique; I'm more of a traditionalist when it comes to red. Give me the old barrel, in other words.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Brunello di Time Warner?

What does a CEO do to unwind from the daily rigors of defending a sprawling $43 billion media empire from corporate raider Carl Icahn? If you're Time Warner boss Dick Parsons, you cultivate wine. Parsons recently acquired a prime vineyard in Tuscany's Montalcino region, home to the famous Brunello. This weekend at the annual fiera di Brunello, Parsons' first batch will be sampled by the public. For the megawealthy, buying Italian vineyards has become al corrente. Last Autumn, Russian oligarch and Chelsea football chief Roman Abramovich set aside 10 million pounds from his personal stache and was hunting for a plot in the Umbria/Tuscany regions.

If I had discretionary income to pluck down on a vineyard it would have to be in the Trentino/Alto Adige region. Who's willing to back me?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Back to wine class

Last night in wine class (the 4th of 5) we covered Italian whites. I am a big fan of vini bianchi italiani. Always have been. But in truth, Italian whites have for years suffered from an inferiority complex. On the global stage, there are few Italian whites that stand up to French or California Chardonnays or German Rieslings. When people think of Italian wines, they think of reds: Super Tuscans, Barolo, Brunello, etc. But Italian vinologists are making the most strides with whites these days, and so it's possible to find a fantastic, obscure Italian white before it becomes too popular (and too pricey for your budget).

Before I get into specific grapes and producers, here's a quick hint to narrow down your search for a quality Italian white when lost perusing a phonebook-sized wine list:

Select from one of these regions: Campagna, Le Marche (The Marches), Friuli, Trentino/Alto Adige or Veneto. These *5 regions are considered the best for whites and will certainly give you the most selection and value. But how would one choose from these five? The first two regions have classicly drier whites, in general, and thus are good for fish or light pasta meals. The latter three tend to produce wines with strong tastes. These shouldn't be thought of as rules, but rather as general pointers. There are too many exceptions to list here.

*Sicilian whites also deserve consideration.

Ok, now to this week's list of sampled wines. Again, the top wine, according to my teacher and classmates was a vino Marchigiano. Incredibly, two weeks running a Le Marche wine captured "the most loved" prize. All loyalties aside, it was a deserving choice. I also really liked the one from Friuli. I would highly recommend each of the four.

The list (this week I put the cantina mention first, grape and description to follow):

1) Telaro: A 2004 Falanghina from Campagna. (Located northeast of Naples, this co-op also has a b&b and restaurant that look promising). Falanghina is a grape popular in the hills between Rome and Naples. But this isn't pope swill. It has recently gone through a resurgence. It's worth investing in. This one here was very sweet with a powerfully fruity perfume. You really can smell the banana and apple. Probably best served with cheeses and fruits and light Oriental fare: noodles and such.

2) Rivera: a 2004 Sauvignon called "Terre al Monte". Also very sweet with a distincly fruity perfume. This wine is an evolving story. Puglia is too hot for grapes like the Sauvignon, so the vintner has decided to harvest the grape a good 2 months early in August. Apparently, the quality has improved every year. This wine has real promise, but if you're a big Sauvignon fan you may want to hold off for another year or two. Here's even further detail about this wine.

3) Ca' Bolani: a 2003 Tocai called "Friuli Aquileia". I like Tocais. I have had them in the mountains on ski trips and on a hot day at the beach. They never disappoint. This one was no exception. In my opinion, this grape really should raise the reputation for the whole category of Italian whites. The problem is it's not that easy to find outside Italy.

4) Colonnara: a 2004 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. This one is a Superiore Cuprese, 2004. Even casual wine drinkers know the Verdicchio, the white wine that comes in the green amphora shaped bottle. For decades it was produced for quantity, not quality, and became synonymous with cheap trattoria wine. The verdicchio is still one of the easiest Italian wines to source abroad, but the quality has skyrocketed in recent years. Even in the past four or five years, the quality (and the price) has risen noticeably. Typically, I like Verdicchios from the Matelica zona. They are certainly not my favorite Italian whites, nor Marchigiani whites for that matter, but they never disappoint. I had never tried Colonara Verdicchios until last night. We all had the same surprising reaction: this is a Verdicchio? The teacher raved about this producer. Apparently, they have really stepped up the quality in the past few years. Definitely look out for this one. You can buy online from

5) Vorberg: Pinot Bianco. We didn't try this one last night, but the instructor recommends it as one of the best Italian whites you can find for under a tenner. This one runs 8 euros or so. It's from the Alto Adige region, probably the most diverse wine region in all of Italy and quite possibly Europe. If you are ever thinking of doing a wine-tasting holiday, this is the region to visit.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Kings of curling

I ran into my former Reuters colleague, Rachel, a few weeks ago at a conference here in town. She was off to Torino in a few days, she told me, to cover the Olympics. Her beat? General news. And then, in an unmistakable grumble, curling. I couldn't contain my laughter. The Brits, holding the women's curling gold from Salt Lake, have this one rare Winter Olympic event to follow. How do you say national Olympic pride in a wealthy nation of 60 million? In the UK, the answer is curling! And Reuters intends to cover every broom sweep.

But this year, the Italians are kings of curling. Rachel is covering the biggest Italian sporting story of the year at the moment. 23 percent of Italy tuned into Wednesday's men's curling match, a startling development to some media watchers here. But not to me. This sport is a sort of bocce-on-ice. Italians should be the world champions at this event, not the Brits!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Is zat yer dog?

Reports of a panther (or maybe it's just a big black dog) terrorizing Roma are intensifying.
According to Italian newswire Ansa: "recurrent reports of a panther on the loose in the capital on Wednesday spurred police to put out an all-points bulletin for the big cat."

I haven't seen any suspiciously large felines. But there is a strange woman who comes out at dusk to feed the numerous stray cats on our street. Guilty in my book.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Washington Post: "Pardon her French"

For all you NPR (what Xtina affectionatly calls "American Communist Radio") listeners... here's a little tale about an intrepid reporter with a funny sounding surname stuck up in Torino covering the Olympics. Courtesy of Washington Post (via Jim)

At the Turin Olympics, Pardon Her French

NPR reporter Sylvia Poggioli -- whose very Italian way of pronouncing her last name has delighted listeners for two decades -- uttered a very un- bellissimo word while on the air on "All Things Considered" late Friday.

Speaking live from the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Turin, Poggioli thought her connection to the Washington studios had crashed on her: "Oh, [shoot]!"

An end-of-the-black-box- recording-type silence followed. "Sylvia?" asked host Michele Norris . No answer. Quick cutaway to another segment.

Yesterday, Norris told our colleage Paul Farhi that it was "a day of intense technical difficulties" for NPR. "I think she thought the line [to the studio] had dropped. It hadn't."

Poggioli's expletive is a word that often draws the ire of the FCC's indecency cops, but the few dozen people who called or wrote just wanted to know if the broadcaster was okay, said NPR spokeswoman Andi Sporkin . "Someone thought she might be choking on a piece of prosciutto." Good times.

Back to school (Part 2)

So what did I learn in wine class this week? Tasting, let alone ascertaining the scent of, wines when you have a rotten head cold is an esperienza inutile. I could have been swilling warm Budweiser for all I knew. It's a shame, really. This week we did a giro grande of Italy, sampling red wines from tip to toe. We started with the Barbera grape in Piemonte (not far from where they are holding the Olympic Games) then a Merlot from Veneto (north of Venice). Next was a Montepulciano that I know well: it was a Rosso Conero from Le Marche (representing Central Italy) and finally a funny old grape from Puglia (all the way down south) called the Primitivo.

As I said, my taste buds and olfactory senses were out of service, so my judgement of all four was a bit skewed. But I can tell you what my classmates and teachers thought. Surprisingly, the best grade went to the Rosso Conero. Honest. I am disqualifying myself from a vote because I am impartial to wines from Le Marche. I think they're very good (and improving) in the taste and value category. But then I would say that as a (sometime) resident of the region. To me, the best one (outside of the Rosso Conero, of course) this week was the Merlot from the Veneto.

I wouldn't necessarily advise running out to buy these four, but if you ever find yourself in the area, pick up a bottle and try them for yourself. So, without further ado, the wines of the week are (The name of the wine comes first, the name of the cantina follows):

1.) Barbera D'Asti Nowood 2004 "Scrimaglio"... Piemontese wines are always good value. And the Barberas are no exception. But if you really want to impress go with the more famous red from the region, Barolo. The Barbera tend to have high tanin content and have a mildly acidic after-taste. Very mild though.

2.) Collio Merlot 2001, "Torriani" ... I'm a big fan of wines from the Collio region of the Veneto, bordering Friuli (if my geography is correct). But my favourites are the whites, like Tocai. This is a fine Merlot. Very smooth. One criticism from the class was the taste didn't linger on the palate. I think that's a snobbily harsh critique. This is a fine vino.

3.) Rosso Conero San Lorenzo, 2002, "Umani Ronchi". I really like Umani Ronchi wines. This is considered one of the premiere vintners in Le Marche, and the prices are rising abroad as demand grows. The esteemed Gambero Rosso, the same people putting on this wine course, are big fans of Umani Ronchi too. The San Lorenzo can be found from a UK distributor.

4.) Primitivo Artas 2002, "Castello Monaci"
This Puglian wine is very sweet and flavorful... maybe too sweet and flavorful if you want to taste your meal. But it's really smooth. At almost 15 euros a bottle, that's a bit pricey. If you like southern Italian wines, go for a Sicilian wine like a Planeta.

Thankfully, my head cold is almost history. Just in time. Next week is Giro d'Italia with white wines.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The agony of defeat, chronicled

Sports fans, DFL is back!

During the Athens Olympics Games, when I was toiling away for the Baron, I wrote this article about a Canadien blogger who tracked last-place finishers for every event. As only a blogger can, DFL is once again recording the achievements of the games' loveable losers so history doesn't forget them. Why is this necessary? Because the media and Olympics organisers tend to heap all the attention on the winners. So predictable.

*In case you're wondering D = dead; L = last; F = exactly. Also, DFL was experiencing some connection problems this morning. We hope it's back up in time for today's Ski jump preliminaries or the 30km cross-country ski pursuit race. And, to put yesterday's 16-zip mauling of the Italian women's ice hockey squad in proper historical perspective. Ouch!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fire-snorting rollerbladers makes for good TV

I was mildly disappointed with the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics. I was assuming, this being Italian primetime TV, the organisers would parade scantily clad showgirls and serenade the 2 billion worldwide viewers with sing-alongs that you can clap in time to at home. Instead, the world saw Italy's finest performance in years. (I particularly liked the tree frog performers and the rollerbladers with fire-breathing jetpacks. And, Pavarotti's Puccini-inspired finale was bravissimo). But, dear viewers, don't believe what you saw is an accurate portrayal of Italian TV culture. It's usually all about cleavage, C-grade has-been actors and bad lounge acts. I welcome a 2-week respite.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Sometimes early is too early

In journalism, sometimes it's better if you're not too early, too ahead of the pack. I whipped up a small article Tuesday morning about suspected Muslims hackers attacking Danish Web sites, the cyber-version of the street protests over the publication of cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. The editor at PcPro was pleased to have the semi-scoop. On Tuesday, my compatriots in the media, it seemed, had little interest in pursuing the story. This is a fresh, albeit quirky, angle on the biggest story of the week and nothing but crickets! I was mightily perplexed. Eventually, the found the article and the traffic started pouring into the PcPro site, the editor informed me. But otherwise, few other journalists were touching the story. Today I wake up and Wham! The story is everywhere. The Guardian, Reuters, the Beeb. Meanwhile, the piece I did for PcPro is now bottom of the heap on Google News. :-(

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Back to school

For five Monday nights in January and February, I have class. Wine class. It was a xmas gift, one I hope will keep on giving forever. My ambition is to become *knowledgeable enough about Italian wines where I can suggest a few up-and-comers to friends, identify rip-off Chiantis before purchase and amass a nice cache of vino to complement whatever miracle dishes Xtina whips up for dinner.

*I promise not to insist that you sniff the glass before imbibing, or study the legs or think of adjectives for the soil and wood perfumes that waft from the glass.

So what have I learned after the second week? Answer: grapes are incredibly complicated creatures that react to everything: sunlight, soil, breezes, you name it. The great thing about Italy is that the wines are more varied here than anywhere else in Europe. There are over 300 wine-producing grape varietals in Italy -- twice as many as in France and four times as many as in Spain. So, region by region (even hill by hill), the local vintage changes dramatically. Ok, we all know that. But if you know a few things about the grapes and the producer beforehand, the wisdom can go a long way towards improving your meal.

Ok, so now to the truly useful tips. I've now tasted 8 wines, running the gamut of red, white, rosatto and even a Moscato. Here are the ones to keep an eye out for the next time you pay a visit to your local off-license, enoteca or Wine World.

1) Cortese dell'Alto Monferrato Oro, 2003. This is a white from Piemonte, the land of Gavi. I would put this number against any Gavi I've tried. The trick is bariq barrels. This is a strong candidate for my annual "best of" list. ;-)

2) A 2004 Sicilian Syrah called Monreale Syrah from the Spadafora vineyard. I know I said I wouldn't mention perfumes and adjectives, but this baby gives off an unmistakable coffee aroma. Perfect for heavy pasta dishes: tagliatelle with pomodori, melanzane parm.

3) a 2004 Pinot Nero from Cantina Produttori Termeno in Alto Adige (a region that makes fantastic reds and whites). This is a very dry red, but light enough to accompany a fish meal, I'd say. I didn't know too much about the Pinot Nero (or, Pinot Noir, as the French, the masters of this grape, say). My loss. I promise to research more and get back to you. On a personal note, I actually stopped into this cantina in the German-speaking village of Tramin (Termeno) quite by chance a few weeks back. I wanted to buy some bottles of the LeGrein, a smooth red I first tasted at lunch. The cantina was packed with oldtimers, playing cards and swilling the local vintages on tap. It was uncharacteristically raucous for a cantina, almost intimidating. The wines are worth the trip, however.

4) Here's a sweet wine for those of you who like something to accompany dessert, a moscato from Cantina Sant'Andrea in Terracina, south of Rome. The one in particular I liked was a Moscato di Terracina Oppidum 2004.

Imbibe with care.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Don't let a truffle get in the way of a good tale

It's six days to the Olympics in Torino and reporters have already converged on the hills of Piemonte (aka Piedmont) to write local color vignettes of the region. This dispatch, courtesy of the Washington Post, is the kind of journalism you will be reading/seeing/hearing in the coming days. Reporter goes to Alba, famous for its white truffles, but alas cannot find any as the last ones were gobbled up by mid-November. (Note to editors: truffles have a very limited shelf life. Do a story on some other facet of this area's fabulous cuisine.) Nonetheless, the story has been assigned. The expense budget determined. The article has been laid out on page. All the Post needs is about 1500 words of reportage and basta cosi, everybody's happy. Except for those of us who want to read something about truffles.

Friday, February 03, 2006

If your favorite band had a tube stop, it would be?

It now costs, I learned this week, £3 for a one-way, zone 1 trip on the London Underground. But that's not my biggest tube-related gripe today. It's this Guardian article by Dorian Lynskey in which he heroically tries to reconstruct a taxonomy of popular music over the past 100 years and chart it, family-tree-style, on the classic London tube map layout.

The Central Line, for example, is Reggae and thus Lynskey places Peter Tosh on the map where White City should be. The Clash is the end of the both the central (Reggae) and district (Rock) lines, or Ealing Broadway. (I doubt the band had Ealing Broadway in mind when they penned "Train in Vain").

There are numerous clever placements such as the Rolling Stones at Earls Court, the terminus of rock (district) and blues/country (piccadilly). Ditto for Beck at King's Cross, the intersection of funk (victoria line), hip-hop (northern), pop (circle), electronica & dance (hammersmith and city), jazz (metropolitan) and blues/country (piccadilly). And Public Enemy at Camden Town on the hip-hop, erm, Northern line.

But there are some big omissions too. For example, where's Jethro Tull, a fairly influential rock band in its day that had two songs named after Tube stops: Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square? Ok, at 16 I may have been aggrieved with the Jethro Tull oversight. But if The Flying Burrito Brothers or the Creation can make the map, then why not Tull?

I'm willing to let that one slide. But these three really should have made the cut:

-- T. Rexx. Even if frontman Marc Bolan hadn't died in a car crash not far from Wimbledon (on the district/Rock line), T.Rexx's 70s chart performance is enough to land them on the map -- maybe swapped in for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (Wimbledon).

-- Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler. For the same reason Jethro Tull deserved consideration, why not Knopfler? He has my all-time favorite tube-inspired lyrics in Junkie Doll. "Turnpike Lane, Turnpike Lane/ You spiked my arm / But you missed the vein... Turnham Green, Turnham Green/You took me high/As I've ever been" In fact, Turnham Green (a stop on both the Piccadilly & District lines) is a no-brainer for Knopfler. What's there instead? The Byrds.

-- Neither AC/DC nor Eric Clapton get a mention. Further aggravating the problem, Cream is placed at the Fulham Broadway stop. I once dated a girl who lived around the corner from Fulham Broadway. One reason I broke things off with her? I hated taking the District Line.

-- But the biggest goof? Parliament/Funkadelic is at Green Park. What's the next stop down the line? Westminster! (pop/rock/avante-garde)

Back in town

Ciao, tutti

My meanderings are over. Where have I been? A week in the northern region of Trentino/Alto Adige where I got in some fantastic skiing thanks to my gracious Sicilian host and then London to blog a trade show about retailing. Sadly, my digital camera has gone haywire on me (does anybody have a cure for a Sony Cybershot that eats batteries?). Otherwise, I'd have molte fotografie per voi. The photo here is of the Grupo Brenta, a rugged stretch of the Dolomites, still the most beautiful mountain range I've ever seen.

Annexed to Italy after WW1, the Alto Adige part of the region is German/Austrian in flavor. The lingua prima is German and the wines of choice are Riesling, Gerwitztraminer and Müller-Thurgau. And now, to the chagrin of Italians, there are fresh rumblings that the good people of Alto Adige (or Sud Tyrol) have requested "the protection and guardianship" of not Rome, but Vienna. If your choices for military protection come down to the Italian or Austrian armies, you have big problems.