Monthly Archives: November 2012

Under the Umbrian Sun, Part 4: Milziade Antano

The vineyards of Antano and the snow-dusted Apennines (home to great pecorino)

Milziade Antano

While in Umbria, I stayed at the adorable B&B la Corte de’Vasari, set in a medieval building in Bevagna. On a side note, the B&B doesn’t really serve breakfast unless you prefer to start your day with a slice of cake and a side of cookie. Aside from that, the owner was charming and spent over an hour with me the night of my arrival, practicing English and helping shape my list of places to taste Sagrantino. Daniele, the proprietor, felt strongly about including Milziade Antano as a good example of a “humble and traditional” winery.

After my visit with Caprai, I followed Marco in my Jr. vehicle up to Antano. The winery had a gorgeous setting perched on a hilltop with views of the Apennine Mountains and Montefalco. I was meeting with Francesco, the owner/winemaker, who didn’t speak English, and his son Giordano, who did.

Will he make wine with his dad one day?

I could see why the innkeeper suggested Antano as a contrast; the operation was clearly a “garage” winery, particularly as compared to Caprai. Although the son spoke English and was knowledgeable about the specific wines, I had a little trouble getting background info on the winery and vineyard. I took to the web and found T. Edward Wines in NYC who import and distribute Antano. Their website noted the vines were planted in 1975, and that Antano is “old school” in style with a lack of intervention in the winery, no barrique and no high-tech equipment. In the vineyard, Antano green harvests aggressively and has very low tonnage per acre.

Inside the winery, the son Giordano poured each of the wines. I asked him if he planned to follow his lineage and make the wine at Antano. He crinkled his nose, looking at his dad out of the corner of his eye. He said he wasn’t convinced sticking around Montefalco was his destiny, but maybe time in a big(ger) city would bring him back one day, far away. Fair enough, I thought. I don’t think his Dad loved the response, translated for him by Marco, but it probably wasn’t the first time he had heard it.

Giordano pouring and explaining the wines

After the father/son politics concluded, we addressed the wines.  Milziade Antano has a line-up similar to most of the wineries in the area. They offer a Bianco IGT blend (but no 100% Grechetto); two Montefalco Rossos, one being a Riserva; two Sagrantinos, one version a vineyard designate “Colleallodole”; and a Passito.

Antano definitely excelled in their dry reds, which makes sense. The Montefalco Rossos were particularly lovely, both offering a wild streak of Sagrantino tamed by the softer Sangiovese and small percentage of Merlot. Sweet plums and black cherry were prevalent in the Rosso; the Riserva, which had a little Cabernet Sauvignon and more barrel time, showed additional notes of figs, blackberry and balsamic. The tannins in both were grippy; clearly the wines needed more time.  I would’ve liked a nibble between tastes, but given the garage-style digs, I guess that was expecting too much.

Montefalco Rossos and Sagrantinos

The Sagrantinos were big, broad, palate ball-busters. They were demanding wines with an edge of rusticity, but yet attractive; infants in a bottle with a future you could envision. The 2008 was aged 3 years before release: 15 months in barrel, 15 months stainless steel and 6 months in bottle. The wine showed notes of coffee, tobacco, leather, cherry and blackberry with layers of spice.

The Colleallodole, made from a designated vineyard and only 1000 bottles produced, had similar notes, but an earthier quality, with accentuated tobacco, leather and raisin. The tannins were big but smoother. It was also double the price: $25 v. $50. Again, these are food wines and really need to sleep a half-decade before opening, but should be worth the wait.

Next up: The final stop on my winery tour, Adanti

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Under the Umbrian Sun, Part 3: Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Caprai Vineyards—why aren’t all offices this pleasant?

Arnaldo Caprai

A short drive from the famous village of Montefalco is a narrow, half-paved road hugging a vine-covered hill. Driving my Nissan Jr., I followed this modest path around the base of the knoll until it swung around to greet two large gates offering admittance to the gleaming, modern Arnaldo Caprai winery.

In the parking lot, I am intercepted by a smiling, seemingly easy-going guy who introduces himself as Marco. Yes, that Marco Caprai, son of the founder Arnaldo, now head of the recently awarded European Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. His flight to NYC had been cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy (as mine would be 2 days later), so he was now in town to give me a personal tour, tasting, and later, a lovely lunch back in Bevagna.

A little background on Marco: He is dogged in his love for his grape and Umbria, yet is a benign and genuine salesman of Sagrantino. He travels regularly to NYC, California and Europe with the sincere ambition of achieving recognition for the region, and putting this little known variety on the international vinous map. Marco has also spearheaded the region’s sustainable viticulture movement through the founding of “Montefalco 2015: The New Green Revolution” in 2010.

Marco Caprai

Marco is well-known around town, although I get the feeling everyone knows everybody in these quaint villages.  Later, over lunch and two bottles of wine, he proclaimed himself to be a “naughty boy,” stated with what I interpreted as mischief in his eye. I didn’t stick around Umbria long enough to find out what that meant, but I could imagine Marco as the go-to guy if one was looking for a boisterous time in this sleepy hamlet.

The first activity on the day’s agenda involved piling into the winery’s rehabbed Land Rover (I love these cars for their reminder of Africa) to take a drive up through the vineyards. Arnaldo Caprai is a leader in the area for viticulture research, having launched the Sagrantino Project with the University of Milan to study, quite obviously, Sagrantino. They use the experimental plantings to examine clonal selection, trellis systems and various other vineyard variables that affect the wine in your glass.

A drive through the vines affords remarkable views of the area and a chance to enjoy the crimson Sagrantino leaves that change color each fall with the weather.  Marco told me the leaves were only beginning to turn, and that in late November the region would be awash in rolling rows of red.

Crimson leaves of Sagrantino

Back inside the winery, I am given a brief tour of their facilities. As opposed to many traditionalists in the area, Marco believes in modern winemaking for taming the unruly Sagrantino grape without repressing its spirit, and he has the latest equipment to prove it. After, we head to the tasting room to sip and spit—the downfall of driving yourself—through their line-up.

Barrel Room

Caprai currently offers 8 wines: Two IGTs, a “Grecante” Grechetto dei Colli Martani DOC, two Montefalco Rossos, two Sagrantinos and a Passito dessert wine.

Without going into notes on all of them, I will say I enjoyed the Grecante 2011 for its delicate florals, white grape juice and apple-citrus notes—a change of pace from the region’s robust reds.

Of course, the showstoppers were the Sagrantinos. The Collepiano offered intense concentrated red and black fruit, spice and youthful tannins, but proved to be a junior version of the enormous 25 Anni Sagrantino.  The 25 Anni, first bottled in celebration of the winery’s jubilee in 1993, is produced from the best grapes, sees longer maceration and barrel time, and is a mammoth wine. Both of these bottles will bring joy to their imbibers but should be held for at least another 4 years; longer for the Anni, if you can stand it.

From high-tech, we head to traditional winemaking and Milziade Antano next…

Don’t be fooled by the pretty bottle, this wine is mammoth!

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Under the Umbrian Sun, Part 2: Tenuta Castelbuono Winery


This modest little winery outside of Bevagna is…Sorry, that was a different outfit.

Tenuta Castelbuono keeps up the reputation of the region for inducing gawking while driving and near constant car wrecks. I couldn’t believe this piece of sculpture, architecture as well as functioning winery could be so neatly tucked amongst the Umbrian hills; both obvious and hidden at the same time. Having seen the photos before arrival, I knew what to look for, but in person the property was a marvel. Despite the rolling dark clouds and rainy state of the sky, the winery, designed to resemble a turtle shell, shimmered both inside and out.

Angle 1

Angle 2

Tenuta Castelbuono Barrel Room

I have been to many wineries around the world but the “carapace” is perhaps the most stunning and unique. Yet I was concerned that with all the money spent on the winery, the wines might not deserve the shrine. You would be surprised how often this actually happens—how do you forget about the wine, people???

So who built this temple to Sagrantino? The Lunelli family (of Ferrari sparkling wine soon-to-be-fame-in-the-U.S.) acquired the land in 2001. They were looking to expand beyond the Dolomites of their home region, and fell in love with the distinctive character of Umbria and her unique grape. This would be their third winery project, having established a winery in Tuscany a few years prior.

Their arrival in 2001 meant the Lunellis were fairly new to the region, yet Sagrantino di Montefalco was granted DOCG status in 1992, and only a small group of winemakers had been making serious dry wines since the ’70s.  In fact, the region has seen a great deal of growth over the last few years as awareness and popularity of Sagrantino has grown.

Establishing the winery took a number of years, both in the vineyard and in the creation of the physical structure. As far as building an homage to the tortoise, that decision came from the renowned sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro whom the Lunellis engaged to design it.

When asked about his inspiration for the property, Pomodoro explained: “The landscape reminded me of Montefeltro, where I was born, a region painted by Piero della Francesca in his works. Therefore, my work must not disturb the gentle hills and vineyards, but it needed to integrate with them. I had the idea of a shape that resembles a turtle, symbol of stability and longevity. Its shell represents the union between earth and sky.”

The structure ultimately took 6 years to finish, finally opening this summer in 2012—lucky me for being one of the first tasters through the door!

Sagrantino is chock full of tannins and can be a tough grape to spend the day with. It is truly a food wine and a good Umbrian winery should offer something to nibble while tasting. Castelbuono prepares visitors a lovely plate of snacks, paired with a local olive oil made by the family of the tasting room manager Giorgia.

Snacks and wine at the tasting bar

Tenuta Castelbuono currently offers three wines:

Montefalco Rosso 2008: 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, 15% blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Despite being the “easiest” wines of the three, the Rosso was still a big boy, getting a tannic kick from the 15% Sagrantino, with loads of marasca cherries to coat the mouth. Aged 18 months.

Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2008: Same blend as above, but with more Cab than Merlot in that 15%.  This wine is aged for four years like the Sagrantino, and is a new addition to the line-up. Even more intense that the Rosso, this wine has impressive body, slightly smoother tannins and notes of blackberry, black and red cherry, with a nice kick of fall spice.

Montefalco Di Sagrantino 2007: 100% Sagrantino. The Big Dog. The Reason You Came. This huge wine is just getting started and really should be opened a few years down the road. If you must open now, drink with equally weighty food. Proper acidity brings balance. Mouthcoating tannins surround a core of blueberry, blackberry jam and leather.

Guests enjoying the view

My turn to gaze

Seriously Stunning.

All in all, Tenuta Castelbuono proved a successful start to my Umbrian adventure. A highly recommended experience, but if you don’t have plans to hit up Umbria any time soon, you can find their wines at Eataly Vino in New York City.

Next up, Arnaldo Caprai…

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Under the Umbrian Sun, Part 1: Why Go, How to Get There

Assisi on the mountain

Why Go?

If you are considering a visit to Umbria, or heard Umbria is merely an appendix to Tuscany, hopefully this wine and travel report will convince you of the region’s inimitable charms.

I spent a lovely three days in the heart of Umbria near Bevagna and Montefalco. I visited four wineries, ate at darling restaurants and wandered old Roman and medieval cities.  Although I traveled to Umbria solo, there is really no such thing as “alone” in Italy. The minute I mentioned a lack of dining companions, I was whisked off to lunch, invited to dinners and shared drinks with locals and winemakers.

Why is Umbria a treasure? The people treat you like an old friend. The food is über-fresh and seasonal—they have been eating this way longer than “trendy” was a concept. The backdrop of the Apennine Mountains dusted with snow is National Geographic dramatic.  And of course there is the wine. Many know Umbria for the white wines out of Orvieto, but the most fascinating grape is the indigenous and distinctive Sagrantino. I got to know this grape and her makers, and will spend the next several posts sharing their stories. Hopefully some of these words will inspire you to try these wines or visit the “Green Heart of Italy.”

Getting to Umbria

In late October, nearly two weeks ago, I visited Umbria for the first time.  My starting point was Florence, from where I picked up a teeny, tiny European-size car equipped with GPS, followed by a two-hour drive to a town called Bevagna. My mini-Nissan had the craftsmanship of a Go-Kart, but it did the job and later proved to be a fun companion through the medieval streets of the region.

Hopping on to the Autostrada out of Florence, my route proceeded through the stunning Tuscan countryside. I get chills when I travel to new wine regions and first encounter the magical scenery of oft-dreamt about vineyards; it as though an unknown but impending event hangs in the air like the thrill of a new romance.  I felt that energy as rolling hills covered in vine, topped with villas, shot past the window.

I thought I must be crazy for zipping past exits to historic towns: “there goes Chianti; goodbye Arezzo; I can’t believe I am turning away from Montepulciano!” I reminded myself not to get greedy, that there would be another time for Tuscany, and pressed on.  The tingles triggered by Tuscany amplified when crossing into Umbria; a new paramour joined the party.

As I traveled towards the core of Umbria, I passed other notable cities such as Perugia—chocolate!—and Assisi—Church! I was due for an appointment at my first winery, but had a spare hour, so I took a short detour to Assisi. In fact, I nearly wrecked the car while passing it by on the highway; I was mesmerized by the awe-inspiring vista of the Franciscan Basilica on the side of the mountain. Despite doing zero justice to the town on my short visit, I managed to shoot a documentary photo before finishing the last leg to Bevagna and Tenuta Castelbuono.

Stunning entrance to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi

Part 2, Tenuta Castelbuono Winery…

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Update: Can Red Hook Winery Be Saved?

Last week, I visited Red Hook Winery. I posted an update on their Post-Sandy status in my column Unscrewed for the Village Voice.  If you missed my article, here is your second chance…

Red Hook Winery tasting room post-sandy.jpg

A few weeks ago, I wrote about celebrating the new Brooklyn wine trail. Both Brooklyn Oenology and Brooklyn Winery, featured in the story, were relatively unscathed by Hurricane Sandy. But Red Hook Winery is located right over the water, nearly at the end of Pier 41, and the facility was completely exposed with zero buffers from high winds. When Sandy brought 11- to 16-foot storm surge waves, the winery was pummeled. TheAndrea Gail in The Perfect Storm comes to mind.

The first heartbreaking report on the damage came from Christopher Nicolson, head winemaker, through an interview given soon after the storm to Nona Brooklyn. He forecasted a near total loss after winds blew planters through the glass doors, and waves swept through the winery, flooding the space with five feet of water. The flood ruined electrical equipment like forklifts and pumps, scattered barrels of aging wines, and soaked and smashed hundreds of bottles as though Charlie Sheen and the devil teamed up for a Bacchanalia.

I visited RHW a week later to see if any hope had been dug up from the debris, spending last Friday with Christopher Nicolson and winemaker Abe Schoener. I can confirm that, sadly, the winery will not be hosting tastings and tours anytime soon.

RHW is still without power. They are working without light and heat (and it’s cold with that winter wind blowing off the water). Lots of renovation will be required, including the removal of several walls and its recently refurbished bathrooms, to flush out trapped water. To make matters worse, insurance won’t cover loss from flooding.

But for all the destruction, Abe and Chris feel blessed. The Red Hook Initiative sent dozens of volunteers daily to assist in clean-up; Luciano Racca of Domencio Clerico wines in Piedmont, Italy, spent three days volunteering after his NYC appointments to promote his own wines were cancelled; and staff from Terroir wine bar lent a hand.

If RHW is unable to salvage any of their current vintage, numerous offers showing support and solidarity among the winemaking community have rolled in: a winery in Oregon offered a vintage worth of juice; Hermann Wiemer up in the Finger Lakes offered juice, equipment, and general assistance in hopes that RHW won’t have to go a season without making wine.


But Abe and Chris now believe the wine gods kept an eye on their babies after all. After tasting through the wines, some stored in sealed stainless steel tanks, others in puncheons, they found much of the juice alive, in excellent condition. Ironically, the lack of heat coupled with the chilly air might have saved a lot of their wine. Assuming the final product is technically sound and they are happy with the results, the other caveat which is the caveat to saving any part of the vintage, is whether the EPA tests will conclude all or some of the wines are OK for sale, or instead deem them “salvaged” from a flood or contaminated. Nobody knows that answer yet, so in the interim, the plan is to keep calm, carry on, and make wine.

So that’s what they did for four days in the dark, cold winery. Last Friday, I helped drain tanks by gravity flow and we sent North Fork Chardonnay into barrels with a donated pump. The wines I tasted were fresh and good, but mere caterpillars propelled into wooden cocoons where they will lay for the next year, hopefully to emerge with wings and an EPA stamp of approval.

Abe seemed optimistic, an attitude both inspiring and, frankly, dumbfounding given the circumstances. When asked the best way to support the winery, the answer from the entire team was a definitive BUY WINE. RHW maintained cases of safe, dry bottles in a separate warehouse, and have updated its website to inform customers of their offerings, with orders to be placed via phone or e-mail and then shipped out. For alternative retail sources, check USQ Wines, Brooklyn Wine Exchange, Acker-Merrall, and Amagansett Wines. Several local restaurants are extending support through glass and bottle sales; visit Gilt, Terroir (multiple locations), and Arthur on Smith for a drink and a bite.

Red Hook Winery lost a lot, and, without insurance coverage, it might be enough to put them out of business. But for now, with spirit, community support, and a little luck from vinous deities, the odds are looking better that RHW will be around another vintage.

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Where I am going: Post-Sandy clean-up at Red Hook Winery


Red Hook Winery

Tomorrow I head out to Red Hook Winery on Pier 41. Having just returned from a long trip to Italy, extended by a week due to flight cancellations from Sandy, I am only now getting up to speed on the amount and severity of damage done by the hurricane.  Unfortunately, the destruction includes near devastation to our local and beloved RHW.  A few weeks back, I tasted the exciting wines being made by Abe Schoener and Robert Foley, helmed by head winemaker Christopher Nicolson. At the time, I remarked how gorgeous their location was over the water, particularly when the sun dropped below the horizon. Sadly, Mother Nature giveth and she taketh away, and reports suggest RHW is facing a near total loss.  I will be volunteering all morning and apprising readers of the situation through the Village Voice and my blog, with updates on volunteer opportunities and cloudy crystal ball predictions for their future. Stay tuned.

For the most comprehensive report from Christopher on RHW’s situation, please see Nona Brooklyn for a heartbreaking interview given last week on the 2nd. Hopefully tomorrow, a week later, the RHW team will have dug from the debris more hopeful news.

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