Venice for the Wine Lover

A quiet spot in a city of water, a city most commonly associated with tourists fighting pigeons for space in front of the Piazza San Marco, gondolas gliding down the canals and Harry’s Bar, the birthplace of the Bellini.  There is so much to see in this city that has the look of a movie set.  For the  wine lover, Venice is so much more.

Let the Ombra Begin

There is a tradition in Venice called the Ombra. The literal translation is shade. To Venetians, it means a glass of red wine. Some say the origin of the term comes from the wine sellers who sold their wares in the shadow of the tower in Piazza San Marco. Another story claims it came from the fishermen who worked each morning in the baking sun. Once they unloaded their small boats, heavy with their catch of the day, they retreated into small bars which lined the dock for a glass of red wine or Ombra.  My favourite story, echoed by the concierge at the Hotel ai Mori D’Oriente,  is that Ombra became a noun that refers to strolling from one small bar to another for a glass of wine, a pub crawl of sorts for the oenophile as in  “We are going for an Ombra.

Paradise Found

Paradiso Perduto (Translation: Paradise Lost)  topped  the recommended list and it turned out to be the perfect place to start our Ombra. We each had a glass of the house Prosecco, gentle bubbles of the lightest kind.   Outside, tables laden with cichetti or Venice’s answer to Tapas, lined the canal.  From roasted vegetables to fried shrimp, octopus, Baccala and  zucchini flowers.  Simple, fresh and affordable. 

The Real  Wine Thing

Our  best find of the day, just a few steps away,  has clearly been found before. Vino Vero is a small wine bar  with a dozen seats inside and a few tables outside. You know when you walk into a bookstore and can tell instantly  it is run by someone who truly loves books? That’s the feeling at Vino Vero.

There are about 200-300 wines here. So much choice but somehow Esmerelda, who handles the bar, makes it approachable.  “Give me something I have never tried before,” I asked.  Esmerelda pulled out two wines to try before committing  which  goes a long way to building my loyalty.

First up:  Esmerelda suggested  a sparkling wine called MUNI made from Durella, a white grape native to  Northern Italy. It was fruity, classic and elegant – with plenty of spritz. However, sparkling wine is the only spritz you’ll find at Vino Vero. There’s a  sign on the counter that warns – No Spritz –  just in case someone was considering ordering the popular Aperol cocktail.  In case you doubted their policy – “Nospritz” is even the WIFI password .

Esmerelda then pulled out a bottle of Slavcek 2012 –  a Merlot from Slovenia –  for me to sample.  Deep ruby red, dry and delicious. She is extremely knowledgable, with a lovely blog of her own called Yeasteria.it, focusing  on Italian bio-dynamic wine and beer.

Woman of Wine: Esmerelda
Vino Vero Regulars Chris and Vivian

We shared a drink with Chris and Vivian from Queensland, who were at the bar for the third time – proof that while the wines make Vino Vero worth visiting, the atmosphere and service make it worth the trip back.

Cannaregio District:  Both bars are located in the Cannaregio district. It’s the historical Jewish quarter and far from the cruise travellers and tourists armed with selfie sticks. A 10-minute walk from the train station and 20 – 30 minutes walk from most of Venice’s most popular sights.

Vino Vero, Fondamenta Misericordia 2497, 30100 Venezia

Paradiso Perduto, Fondamenta Misericordia 2540, 30100 Venezia

A Woman of Wine

 

My journey of wine discovery has involved  many tastings. From massive producers to boutique variety to wine bars,  I have been graced to meet  many remarkable and generous people.  Sicilian winemaker Ciro Biondi gave us a tour and tasting with a heaping side of Italian history and the struggles between the north and south.

Morning Glory in Montepulciano

Irene Lesti of Montemercurio fed our love of Tuscan wine with stories of the valley, the people all, of course, over generous pours of their wines.  I’ve toured the spectacular Culmina vineyard in Oliver, BC with Don Triggs.  Thanks to Canadian wine collector Garrett Herman and crossed schedules with his close friends, we had the good fortune to be stand-ins at a  dinner with Marchese Piero Antinori, the head of one of the eldest winemaking families in Italy over a glass of Solaia.

My journey has been a very lucky one. I came to the conclusion that wine people love to share stories, a glass, a meal.  They all look at least 10 years younger.  They are the kind of people who despite the many challenges of the wine business, they are living their dream.

Cinzia Caporali was one of those people. We met her  at E Lucian Le Stelle, my favourite wine bar inside Locanda San Francesco – a stunning B & B in Montepulciano. The first time we shared a joke.  The second time, I brought 8 friends and we drank them out of Valdipiatta, her family’s wines.

Organizer Cinzia in Action

The third time she invited Steve and I to join a blind tasting of the new release of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with a dozen winemakers. My dream come true. That night I heard one of my favourite lines that I have used many times since.  “You don’t make friends drinking milk.”

The Contenders

When friends Matt and Crystal  were going on a honeymoon, I contacted Cinzia to ask her to have a bottle of Valdipiatta waiting for them in their room along with a gift and a card. Cinzia made it an extra special vintage to mark their  very special day.

Steve’s First Glass
at E Lucevan Le Stelle

And when my husband Steve had a terrible accident, she sent her best wishes. When he had his first glass of wine in 19 months at her wine bar, she said she was honoured and would not let us pay.

Guilio Caporali Among His Vines

Cinzia also organized what was undoubtedly our best wine tasting experience at Tenuta Valdipiatta with Guilio, her father. He talked about his love of opera, his love of wine and how proud he was of his daughters.

Over these visits, I learned Cinzia  was a mechanical engineer, she had a great sense of humour and she certainly knew how to bring people together and make them feel welcome.

We talked about getting together in Rome. Steve and I thought how incredible  it would be to explore the city with her. 

Just two days ago I sent a tweet with a photo of Steve and I sharing our last bottle of Valdipiatta, very excited to see her again in three weeks when we will be in Montepulciano.  I received a letter today telling me that Cinzia passed away last month. I have no idea how old she was because  wine people always look so much younger.   All I know is she was far too young.

E Lucevan le Stelle means  the stars are shining brightly, a line from Tosca, one of Puccini’s most famous operas.  Indeed, Cinzia made the lives of all she met a little brighter. I count myself  so very lucky that she became part of mine,

Continue reading A Woman of Wine

Rome Wine Bars With Love

A Wall of Wine at Il Goccetto
A Wall of Wine

This last, quite spontaneous trip to Rome came with a mission.

I wanted to find the best wine bar in the city.

I did my research, perusing the listicles (that’s a list masquerading as an article) and took plenty of notes. Some I loved.  Some will never see me again. And some I found all by myself.

My favourites:

Il Goccetto:  Day one fresh off the plane – couldn’t waste any time to begin my search. It was  complicated by the fact that almost every Roman establishment has recognized that adding the words “Wine Bar” to  outdoor advertising is a big draw.

Not too far from Piazza Navona – in an area peppered with antique shops and historic apartment buildings, Il Goccetto looks fairly innocuous from the outside. It doesn’t even have a real sign.

The Secret Wine Bar
The Secret Wine Bar

It’s more of a marker for people who know what they are looking for.

Once inside, you know exactly what they are looking for….a wine lover’s paradise. Shelf after shelf is stacked with interesting wines. IMG_0436_2There is a cornucopia of wines by the glass  to try, mostly Italian. We started with a Bolgheri 2012 Argentiera. And note the price, 4 Euros (about $5.30 CDN) for a Nero D’Avola to 12 Euros (about $18 CDN) for a generous glass of top notch Barolo.  Sigh. When was the last time you got a great glass of wine for $5? We met other wine store owners from Rome, wine lovers from Paris and the best part, locals who gradually made their way in with kids, or without – for a glass of wine and conversation. Five stars.Il Goccetto, Via del Banchi Vecchi 14, Rome

 

Mimi e Coco – the names are the equivalent of Laurel and Hardy in Italy.

IMG_0512This is either your favourite place to end the night – or your musical nightmare. Along with a fun selection of wine,  helpful and most upbeat servers Renata and Lorenzo during the day and Sommelier Serafino at night, there is a steady stream of 80’s hits mixed with the odd Italian pop song.

Serafino in Song
Serafino in Song

Serafino even sang along to Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. Along with a great voice, he made some terrific recommendations, including a red from Lazio,  a region typically known for whites.

We LOVED the suggestion and the service and would absolutely return for some vintage Barry Manilow along with my wine.

Mimi e Coco, Via del Governo Vecchio 72, Rome

Cul-De-SacCul-De-Sac – Down the street from Mimi e Coco is one serious wine bar. All the big names are here, along with some tasty unknowns.  1400 wines, 30 by the glass. I found this place last year and it was as great as I remember it. Situated in a Piazza, you can watch the world go by as government workers and tourists stroll the street.

 

Cul-de-Sac Suggestions
Cul-de-Sac Suggestions

 

We tried a Ziggurat Montefalco Riserva 2010 from Umbria and a Aldiano Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva from Cantina Tollo – both full-bodied – excellent recommendations. Since we had reached our quota of wines to bring home, we bought two glasses.

Piazza Pasquino 73, Rome (near Piazza Navona)

 

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Cantina Ripagrande – This was a great find this trip. Located far from the crowds in a less-travelled part of the Trastevere district, it is a real haunt for locals who come in with or without Vespas.  What it lacked in varieties by the glass, it made up in atmosphere. A church dominates the square and across the street, a coffee shop where the proprietor drops by  to get himself a drink before heading back for work.

Via San Francesco a Ripa 73, Rome (Trastevere)

This is the world of La Dolce Vita, not Fellini’s masterpiece, but the embracing of life, friends, conversation and of course, vino.  I certainly have much more research to do before producing the definitive guide. I am already making a list for the next visit.

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Wine Bars for the Bucket List

 

A Wall of Wonder
A Wall of Wonder

Rome is to wine bars what Montreal is to hot dog joints and Toronto is to Tim Horton’s. Business people negotiate deals over a glass or two, students study will sipping, and friends get together and savour. Where in North America you head to Starbucks, Italians go to the wine bar.

Paradise in a Piazza
Paradise in a Piazza

 

 

First of all, you can get a decent glass of wine for the price of a Grande Caramel Latte. There is no awkwardness about going into a bar by yourself. And there is no pressure to hurry up and clear the table.  How civilized.

 

 

 

The Hangout of Taste
The Hangout of Taste

Il Ritrovo del Gusto (The  Hangout of Taste) Via dei Coronari 30, Rome

I discovered a lovely wine bar next door to our apartment around the corner from Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s most beautiful historical squares. A couple of priests sat in the back sipping on a beer. Five Polish women were laughing in the corner – enjoying the special day after coming here with one million other pilgrims for the Canonization of two popes by two living popes.

 

 

A Papal Procession
A Papal Procession

I sat back, by myself, and enjoyed  the show.   While it was sheer coincidence that I came to Rome the same day as the pilgrims,  I was moved by what was going on outside – the songs, the masses, the celebration of groups from all over the world. They joined the Old Nonno (Italian for grandfather) with a new pair of shoes, the young men who emerged from the shadows with armfuls of ponchos and umbrellas at the slightest drop of rain. This is the Rome I love.

 

 

And I am sheltered from the rain inside this little wine bar that treated each customer as though they were royalty.

steve's pics 312When I was not enthusiastic about  the wine-by-the glass choices on the board, the bartender brought me new choices;  a Cerasuola from Sicily and a  Primitivo from Puglia. The bartender lamented that tourists come in asking for Chianti, Chianti, Chianti – or if they feel adventurous Amarone, Barolo. “These wines need food to be properly enjoyed,” he says. As he tells me and my friends about the wine we are drinking, he offers us a plate of bruschetta to sample some of the local specialties. No charge.

Cul de Sac, Piazza Pasquino, 73, Roma

Cul-de-Sac
Cul-de-Sac

 

A five minute walk away in a neighbouring piazza, a different experience. Cul-de-Sac prides itself in having a great selection of wine. No kidding! There is a short one page menu for food and 3-inch  binder with wine picks. Fourteen hundred choices to be exact, 55 by the glass.

 

A Montrachet outside My Budget
A Montrachet outside My Budget

 

 

From best of local to exclusive bottles such as this 2000 euros (3000 dollars CDN) Montrachet that I passed on. They have something for every palate.

 

 

They have an interesting menu with such offerings as pasta with hare ragu to lasagna and a killer Tiramisu (My husband Steve should know, he has ordered it in every             restaurant in Italy.)  Everything is homemade.

steve's pics 309

 

 

We were surrounded by business people who work in the area – it is always a solid endorsement when the majority at the tables are local. The beauty of it is you can sit and watch the world go by, or you can catch up with the world with their free WIFI – which is offered at most places now.

 

 

Slowly after a two weeks in this country, I am losing my automatic skepticism that everyone is out to cheat the tourist. Because despite my proud but broken Italian, and my Euro-sneakers, they can spot that I am a tourist in a millisecond.  Offering that extra service is  good business.

Because…I went back the next day – and now I am telling my friends.

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Tuscan Blind Tasting with Eyes Wide Open

Two Glasses Half Full
Two Glasses Half Full

When life takes a turn…

A bit of a personal story before I share a wine adventure that I wish upon every lover of great wine.
Fifteen months ago, my husband and favourite travelling companion had a terrible accident. He fell down cement stairs head first landing him in intensive care with a brain injury,unable to walk and barely able to talk. Life changed in an instant. The love of my life, partner in wine, in travel, in all those mundane day-to-day things you take for granted, was not there.  And no one could tell me what the future would look like, or whether he would ever be back. Those were dark days.

Miraculously,within a relatively short time, he fought his way back. Different in some ways, and wonderfully familiar in others. Better. ( He actually tells people he is smarter.) But because of the type of  brain injury, he could not drink for a year.

The relevance to this entry, is because we got to share our first glass of wine together since the accident in our favourite place in the world.

Steve's First Glass  at E Lucevan Le Stelle
Steve’s First Glass
at E Lucevan Le Stelle

And maybe Bacchus the God of Grapes  took pity on a wine lover being forced to abstain for that long,  because that evening, we were invited to a blind tasting by 10 wine producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG at E Lucevan Le Stelle Wine Bar.

Vino Nobile, along with Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti, are the  three celebrated gems of  the Sangiovese grape. In 1980, Vino Nobile  became the first to receive the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation. It must be aged for two years before release and is characteristically full-bodied with firm tannins.

This evening we were testing the new releases of the 2011.

The Contenders
The Contenders

Ten numbered bottles at the bar, a score sheet and a room full of producers and wine lovers.  There was nothing formal about this tasting – it was a chance to talk with the producers and for people like Cinzia, who owns the bar, she gets to know what kinds of wine appeal the most.

Organizer Cinzia in Action
Organizer Cinzia in Action

Oh what a night!   I was completely intimidated until Cinzia  told me that only one in  ten producers can identify their own wine, let alone all 10.   Vittorio Bagnasco, who produces Lamberto,  blamed the fact he had a cold. Great excuse, I told him.

They all come with stories.

 

 

Vittorio of LambertoVittorio has been producing wines at Lamberto for 10 years. Before that he was a documentary cameraman and Director of Photography for feature films when he decided to take his love of wine one brave step further.

 

Il Conventino Ready for Sampling
Il Conventino
Ready for Sampling

 

Dr. Alberto Brini of Il Conventino Wines – had just that day made a bid to the LCBO to get his organic wines into their stores.   He looked about 25 and like all of the producers, utterly charming. His wine was ready before the label.

 

 

And Cinzia, the event organizer – I found out that night, was a marine engineer before she toasted a new career and opened up the wine bar and B & B.

All the wines were rated for colour, nose and taste. We ranked them and tried to guess the producer.  The wines ranged from elegant and silky to tannins that packed a serious punch.

Tasting Blind
Tasting Blind

Of course, whenever I ambled my way to the bar for a refill, I peeked at some of the marks.  The producers tended to be quite generous with their marks, while some of the wine lovers were, in my opinion, much too tough.

Valdipiatta  Took Top Marks
Valdipiatta
Took Top Marks

Valdipiatta, a small winery making a significant mark, came in first place. The 2007 Riserva is available at Vintages. It  was my third pick ( and my husband’s first pick – I told you he says he is smarter now).

Il Conventino ranked second – and producer Brini was one of the few who correctly identified his own wine.

 

Montemercurio Messaggero
Montemercurio Messaggero

Montemercurio Messaggero came third. I loved this wine – the colour and nose were quite subtle, but exploded on the palate.

 

 

 

And while I  only managed to match one wine with its proper label –  it was the chance to preview some of excellent wines that will hopefully one day soon be available in Canada.

 

 

 

 

A Wine Bar of Dreams

 

Words of Wisdom
Words of Wisdom

 

New York City is one of my favourite cities to visit in the world. Sure there are the museums, the music, the theatre, the shopping…but it’s also the surprises.

My friends Bev, Tina and I were wandering down West 52nd street  musing about what makes the ideal wine bar – the atmosphere, the selection, and the nibbles…and the Wine gods of New York magically steered us to Casellula Cheese and Wine Cafe.

 

Wine Cafe of Dreams
Wine Cafe of Dreams

The charming little establishment in Hell’s Kitchen looked so inviting even when it was closed, we came back two hours later and fell head over heels.

The wine list has so many interesting selections by the glass. From a sparkling Shiraz from McLaren Vale to a Pinot Grigio from Virginia, but I opted for the MatchBook 2008 Tinto Rey,  a blend of Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and  Graciano from Dunnigan Hills, California. It was spicy with notes of black cherry and currants – fruity and easy to quaff.  Tinto Rey means Red King and it reigns on this wine menu. Proprietor  Brian Keyser who picks the wine, says it is the most popular red accounting for 7% of its sales. I could have sampled everything on the list.

But Casellula is also the dream destination for cheese lovers. Keyser says his goal is to share his  love of cheese with as many people as possible. And its cheese menu tempts even the lactose intolerant. We sampled a flight of cheese, including a Robiola from Italy that I still dream about.cheese and wine

The cafe is small. It seats only about 50-60 people. We sat at the bar which gave us a first hand look at the mastery of preparing the other dishes on the menu such as a killer mac and cheese, a pig’s ass sandwich and stuffed peppers.

casallula intKeyser says  70% of the people who line up to get into the cafe are women. Half come from the neighbourhood, the rest  come  from other parts of the city or out of town. And later in the evening, when the restaurants have served their last plates, the local sommeliers come in to sample  what’s new on the menu

 

Sadly our  love affair with Casellula was fleeting. We only had an hour at this cheese and wine paradise. There were moments when we actually considered skipping the Broadway show that we had ordered tickets for weeks earlier. One more glass and I would have rationalized it.  But like any great first date, it leaves you wanting more and I plan to spend a lot more quality time there next visit. Check it out if you have a chance.

Cheers!

If you have a favourite wine bar in any city, please share!