Monday, May 21, 2012

20 Mondi

“Italy is not spaghetti and Chianti wine.”
     -20 Mondi introduction

I imagine Michael Loos sitting at a table in a trattoria in Milan, Italy, musing on his fledgling project, 20 Mondi. “Over the years of living in Italy, discovering the immense varieties of Italian wines, I yearned to share the experiences with my friends outside of Italy. Basically, I wanted to let them in on the ‘other world’; the non Merlot/Chardonnay/Cabernet world.”

Loos grew up in Dayton, Ohio “watching Gilligan’s Island while eating warmed-up Spaghetti-O’s.” An alum of Butler High School, he graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s world-renowned graphic design program in 1985. He worked in New York City as a graphic designer until 1989 when he lit out for Florence, Italy. In 1997, he moved to Milan and opened his own design business, Loos Image Communications. His passion, however, is the country of Italy and its wines.

20 Mondi, which translates as “Twenty Worlds,” is Loos’ attempt to explore and document the winemakers and, by extension, the people and the culture, of each of Italy’s 20 wine growing regions. Loos pointed out that few outsiders realize that much of Italy lies in central Europe – bordering and sharing languages with Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland and France. It also extends southward to within 43 miles of Africa. (I had no idea.)

The driving force behind the project? Autochthonal grapes.

What the heck’s an “autochthonal” grape? Pronounced “aw-TAWK-tow-nal,” autochthonal is the proper term for a grape indigenous to a specific region. There are over 600 autochthonal varieties of winemaking grapes in Italy. Some of them are fairly well known – Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Prosecco, Nero d’Avola. But most of us have never had a glass of Forgiarin or Pompanuto. “The small producers [of these grapes] are being squeezed out by more mainstream, primarily profit-driven producers,” explained Loos. Many of these producers are introducing better-known grapes like merlot and chardonnay to more easily market wines internationally. “Each territory,” Loos said, “is a treasure island unto itself, full of unique landscapes & family trees, folks & folk tales, and oral & oenological traditions and customs.”

Loos wants to bring attention to these grapes and, by extension, the people who carry on local traditions in winemaking, special regional foods, and local arts and crafts. Historically, people from a certain region tailor local wine to go alongside “hometown” cuisine. Loos fears the loss of these distinct regional Italian identities, so he wanted to showcase them. His plan? Get a camper, some close friends (including his sister and brother-in-law), and take a 10,000 mile road trip around Italy, exploring these winemaking worlds. “I start with suggestions from people I know in each region, then connections usually progress by word of mouth… I ask about their wines and the stories begin. People talk when they have a glass of wine. Or two.”

Loos is currently raising funds for 20 Mondi across Italy and the globe. “The Barolo-colored camper is waiting on the sales lot for us to plop down the cash,” said Loos. He’s optimistic about raising the capital to make the trip a reality. “The great thing is that we've discovered that there is a real interest out there to support our project; we just need to harness it. In the meantime, we've started creating some content for our first "world,” Lombardia [the region surrounding Milan], just using the car.”

Michael Loos, friend to autochthonal grapes everywhere...

As Loos and his companions travel around the Italian countryside, they hope to create a comprehensive video and photographic record of their trip, the wines, and local recipes. They are creating a series of online guides set up as downloadable apps for visitors to these various regions, as well as some large-format photo books, documenting the highlights. I’m certainly planning to follow along on his trek. To do my little part for the world of autochthonal winemaking, here are a few I’ve recently tracked down. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to put together autochthonal recipes to go alongside these wines, but I did the best I could:

Leone de Castris 2008 Maiana Salice Salentino – From Puglia, which is the “heel of the Italian boot.” This wine is made from a 90/10 blend of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera grapes. When I poured it, the dark, dark purple gave me the expectation of a monstrous wine. Not so. It’s medium-bodied, bordering on lean. Imagine coffee-flavored cherries, with a mouthfeel a lot like coffee, and you’ll get the idea. The wine’s tannins are subtle, as is the “chalky” characteristic that many Italian wines possess. The finish is an interesting mix of tartness and soft tannins. I thought this was quite pleasant. Tried it first with a couple of cheeses --“drunken goat” cheese was a particularly interesting pairing. Dinner was flank steak marinated in lemon juice and garlic with some steamed veggies – it turned out yummy as I hoped. About $13.

Tenuta Delle Terre Nere 2010 Etna Bianco and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere 2010 Etna Rosso – Both these $15 wines are from Sicily, the island being perpetually punted by the Italian boot. These wines hail from vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna. (“Bianco” is “white” – “Rosso” is “red.”) The Bianco is a blend of Carricante, Inzolia, Grecanico, and Cataratto. The nose is full of tangerines and flowers. The flavor starts with a biting acidity that mellows into an orange-ish citrus. Body-wise, imagine a pinot grigio muscling up to a chardonnay. The finish is tart and lemon-rindy. On its own, just OK. Sicily’s cuisine includes a lot of shellfish, so I made a meal of shrimp & beans seasoned with garlic, sage, and pancetta. The food dialed the wine’s acidity way back, but the flavor had enough oomph to stand up to the big flavors in the food. Nomnomnom.

The Rosso was described to me as “very Burgundian,” which I can see since it’s lighter-bodied and fruit forward. I hit lots of cherry and mineral flavors right off the bat. Made from 100% Nerello, it’s certainly a friendly, delicate red. For dinner, though, I’d made an earthy pasta: rotini in a sauce of caramelized onion, pancetta, cremini mushrooms and parmesan. The pairing was outstanding. This wine was particularly to drink against a dusky background like that. Sign me up.

Azienda Agricola San Giovanni 2010 Il Lugana – This white, which you’ll probably find at a little closer to $20, is made from 100% Trebbiano from the province of Lugana in Lombardy. Two folks at one of my favorite wine stores independently described this wine as “killer.” I’d agree. This fairly complex, medium bodied entry is a dinner party pleaser waiting to happen – both flavorwise and because of its short, stumpy, cool looking bottle. It starts with a deliciously fragrant nose of apple cider and lemon meringue. The body is smooth with more apple and a twist of tartness to give it a little grip. The finish is lasting and slightly sweet. I thought this was a particularly nice white on its own, and it held up exceptionally well with a fresh green salad with a vinaigrette – a combination which would ordinarily be a wine killer. The salad was a side for some grilled chicken breasts stuffed with asparagus, tomatoes, and fontina cheese which, unsurprisingly, worked extremely well. I’d put this wine next to almost anything up to roasted red meat. Imagine an Italian dry Riesling if you need a comparison, but, as Loos points out, it’s best to think of these wines in context.

As we wrapped up, I asked Loos to posit a suggested pairing for his childhood lunchtime staple: “A good Bonarda [made with the autochthonous grape Croatina], I would guess would be superb with SpaghettiO's, but I'm just postulating from a 40 year-old memory!”

Information about the ongoing project can be found at the website –

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Memorial Day shindigs

If  you're casting about for things to check out over the upcoming long weekend, a couple of the local wineries we've featured here before are having events. Both of these are about an hour's drive (and a very pretty one at that) east of Cincinnati.

Kinkead Ridge Vineyard & Winery will be having their traditional Memorial Day release of their 2011 white wines. They're going to be releasing:
  • 2011 Kinkead Ridge Viognier/Roussanne. $15.99
  • 2011 Kinkead Ridge White Revelation. $13.99
  • 2011 Kinkead Ridge Riesling. $11.99
  • 2011 River Village Cellars Traminette. Residual sugar 1.9% Production. $9.99.
The winery will be open for tasting on May 26 & 28 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day They will also be showing these whites on June 7 at the Cincinnati Art Museum's "A Taste of Duveneck." Kinkead Ridge is located in Ripley, OH.

La Vigna Estate Winery will be having their 2nd Annual La Vigna Food and Wine Festival on May 26 & 28 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. They're releasing their 2011 Proprietary White, made from 100% Petit Manseng.

The festival will feature Fireside Pizza made to order, complimentary goat cheeses from JZN Goat Farm, vegetables and herbs for purchase from Organic Farm at Bear Creek in Clermont County, and live music from "Rockin'" George LaVigne.  La Vigna is about a mile north of Higginsport, OH.

Previous Naked Vine coverage of these wineries can be found here and here.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Naked Vine tries Naked Tchopstix

Some restaurant experiences are wonderful. Some are awful. Some simply need to be documented.

Sushi is one of our indulgences. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I cook a lot, as followers of the Vine know, but sushi is an exception. Finding sashimi-grade fish and other ingredients, the prep, the ritual – it’s just better left to the experts. We were lucky to have one of the Cincinnati area’s best sushi restaurants, Aoi, within a short walk from our front door at Newport on the Levee. Aoi was a modern, classy establishment with excellent service, a quiet atmosphere and some of the freshest, best prepared sushi I’ve had anywhere. We were so disappointed when it closed.

Fast forward a few months. We read that a new Asian restaurant called “Naked Tchopstix” was opening in the old Aoi space. Naked Tchopstix is a small Indianapolis-based “sushi, pan-Asian food, and bar” chain, and the Newport location is their first outside of Indiana. The SPinC and I had a mutual sushi crave, so we decided to take an evening stroll to check it out.

Naked Tchopstix is a big place. They annexed a small art gallery next door and converted the space into additional bar/club space. A sign in front announced the evening’s featured appetizer as Hawaiian pizza. My eyebrow arched. We went inside. The place had been somewhat redone. The Japanese style partitions had been replaced by a more open, traditional dining room, part of which was set up for tatami – which were all in the middle of a room rather in more traditional private nooks. New place, new design – we could go with it.

Aoi set a very high standard, so I tried to keep an open mind. However, after being greeted by a young woman in a Sinful t-shirt whose perfume smelled like overripe apples, I began to worry a bit. She led us to our table, dropped off our menus and a drink list, and told us that our server would be there soon.

The menu is overwhelming. Imagine porting the Cheesecake Factory dining concept to Asian food. The menu was 10-12 pages long. Sushi (nigiri and about three dozen types of rolls), sashimi, Korean dishes, various Chinese stir-fries, noodles of various preparations, almost 30 appetizers (including frites?) and salads, and on and on. At the end, they had a list of “suggestions for the undecided” – which consisted of “rolls without raw fish” and similar things.  

As our eyes began to glaze over, we were approached by our server, who introduced himself, asked if we’d like something to drink “and the specials tonight are $2 Buds and Bud Lights and $3 Kentucky Bourbon Ales.” We asked for a couple of waters and I ordered a bottle of (nicely priced) Albariño. Our server said, “Is that all?” Erm…ok. I said yes and he departed, we assume to figure out what the heck “a bottle of “all beer eenyo” was.

Several minutes passed with no sign of our server. The SPinC suggested that I go check out the fish on the sushi bar. I looked it over – the fish looked good – and the sushi chef, who looked to be a recent college grad, asked if he could help me. I told him I was just checking out the fish. He said, “Yeah. We’ve got some really good stuff here.” I told him I was looking forward to it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just stopped short of calling me “brah.”

I returned to the table. Our drinks hadn’t shown up yet. At this point, a man who had been standing across the room pointedly watching our table, comes sauntering over. He looked like a thin version of Quarles from “Justified.” He asked in a raspy smoker’s voice if we’d been helped. I told him we’d placed our drink orders. He said, “Oh, OK” and walked off without another word. A bit creepy.

Finally, our server returns with a couple of waters. He puts them on the table and says, “And I’ll be right back with your wine.” Whew. At least we got the drink order cleared up. He returned with the bottle in a chiller. He struggled mightily with the screwtop for a minute before opening the bottle, turning to me, and saying – I shit you not – “Say when!” He poured some, I said when, and before I could reach for my glass, he started filling the other.

As I was checking the wine (which was fine), he then started telling a wonderfully ironic story about watching another server who “had never done a wine presentation” trying to open a screwtop bottle with a wine opener. He chuckled to himself about how dumb the guy looked. I tried desperately not to shoot wine from my nose.

He asked if we were ready to order. We decided to stick to our plan – sushi. We ordered the two-person minimum chef’s choice “Slow Boat to Tokyo” option. We said that we were pretty adventurous, so they could be creative. We just didn’t want any tempura. He told us that it would be about 25 minutes or more because they’d have to “work around the tempura.” We asked if it came with soups or salad or anything. He said that it didn’t, but added “That’s a lot of money, so I think I can find you some soup.” He returned a few minutes later with some miso soup which tasted OK.

We finished our soups as we waited for the sushi. After several minutes with our empty bowls in over on the edge of the table, Quarles returned and rasped, “I’ll take these for you.” We shuddered a bit.

The sushi boat eventually landed. When I order “Chef’s Choice,” I’m hoping for a little fun and a little flair from the chef. What arrived was a fairly standard array of nigiri and sashimi (tuna, white tuna, smoked salmon, salmon, yellowtail, snapper, octopus, eel) and two rolls – a “corona roll” and a “volcano roll.” I could have cobbled this array together a la carte more cheaply, I think. I asked the server what we had in front of us and he paused for a moment. He started pointing at the fish. “This is salmon…this is tuna…” and the SPinC stopped him, asking about the rolls. “That’s a corona roll and that’s a volcano roll.” I asked what those were. His face went blank.

He took a deep breath and launched into a story about how there’s a lot of things to learn on the menu. “And when the high rollers come in, they have these special kinds of tuna and shrimp that they only get in four or five times a month for them, and they have a whole other special menu we have to learn. You know, for the high rollers, like city councilmen and stuff.” I asked him again what the rolls were and he said, “Wow, you’re really testing me.” He came back with descriptions of what the rolls were and departed.

So…Sushi time! We dug in. And looked at each other with “hmmmm….” expressions. The sushi wasn’t *bad,* mind you. It looked really good, but with the exception of the yellowtail and white tuna, tasted completely unremarkable. The textures weren’t great, the flavors were OK. It was a step above what’s available in the fridge case at Kroger, but it was a huge step down from what had been such a wonderful dining experience for us for several years. When we’re going to drop sushi-type money on an indulgent meal, we’re hoping to be wowed. My overall thought was exactly what I told the sushi chef when he came over at the end of the meal and asked how everything was, “Eh…it’s alright.”

Naked Tchopstix isn’t gunning for the sushi-loving dining crowd. Their target audience is families, large parties of folks who want a mid-priced dining experience with lots of options, or twentysomething bros and chicks who want to feel adventurous before heading to the clubs.

Maybe I can convince Mayor Peluso or one of the other local “high rollers” to invite us to join them dinner there sometime. Otherwise, we likely won’t be coming back. If you’re a foodie searching for sushi, save your money for cab fare to one of the area’s other options.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Three Fat Guys

“Believe it or not, football players all want to be wine drinkers.”
            -Daryn Colledge, Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman & winemaker.

Start with three NFL football players weighing over a half ton combined; sprinkle in a business venture and good-natured rivalry with a Hall-of-Fame caliber defensive back; add some cabernet sauvignon grapes. Mix well. What have you got?

Jason Spitz, Daryn Colledge, and Tony Moll -- the Three Fat Guys
Three Fat Guys Cabernet Sauvignon.

The aforementioned large individuals are Daryn Colledge, Tony Moll, and Jason Spitz, all current NFL players. The three were drafted in 2006 by the Green Bay Packers out of Boise State, Nevada, and Louisville respectively. A combination of talent and injuries landed all three in the starting lineup for ten games as rookies. The seeds of a lifelong friendship friendship were sown. And over a conversation at Milwaukee steakhouse “Carnivore,” so was a different project…

"We'd had a few drinks, a huge dinner and we were all talking about being fat. Somewhere along the line, the idea came out and the name followed. The details after that are a bit cloudy," Daryn Colledge declared.

I had the chance to chat with Colledge for a few minutes as he took a break from his daughter Camryn tugging on his beard.

“Wine kind of snuck up on me. We did it initially just for ourselves and to be able to give some away as gifts. But people we knew who really knew wine said, ‘This is really good. You should try to sell it! It kind of went from there,” said Colledge.

One of Colledge’s teammates in Green Bay was Charles Woodson, future Hall-of-Fame cornerback – himself a winemaker. At a party sometime after the aforementioned carnivorous feast, they cornered Woodson and his winemaker Rick Ruiz. Some negotiations ensued and Three Fat Guys emerged.

To Colledge’s credit – he didn’t rise to the bait when I asked him who made better wines: offensive or defensive guys. He chuckled and said, politically, “You know that we’re each going to argue for their own side. Charles Woodson’s legacy and talent speaks for itself, and he’s been making the stuff a little longer than we have. He makes really good juice, and I like to think that we’re right there.”

Three Fat Guys released its first vintage in 2007. That was after the triumvirate’s second season in the league. I noted that they all must have been 24 or 25 years old. I was impressed. At 24, I thought Rolling Rock was high-end stuff. I asked Colledge how he got into wine so early. “It has a lot to do with the culture of the business that I’m in. In the offseason, you end up doing a lot of charity auctions and the like, and wine gets served. That’s what really got me into it. Then throw in Tony. He grew up in Sonoma, so he was around it as a kid. So when we’re over at his place, you know that’s what you’re getting.”

Colledge gave the nod to Moll for “best palate” honors. “Tony and Jason probably argue over the flavors more. I have to give the nod to Tony, though – he’s just been around it so long. He leads wine tastings in the offseason when he goes home and such.”

Three Fat Guys was good enough to send along a couple of samples. The bottles themselves are heavy enough to register as deadly weapons. These bottles have the deepest punt I’ve ever run across, perhaps as a tip of the cap to their special teams brethren. (WineSpeak: the “punt” is the dent on the bottom of the bottle.)

The 2007 is, not to put too fine a point on it, a vanilla bomb. The nose hits with a big whiff of vanilla and cassis. It’s medium-bodied for a California cabernet. The Sweet Partner in Crime described the powerful flavor as “strawberries and blueberries slathered in vanilla.” It does calm down a bit with some air. The finish is moderately strong with vanilla and some grippy tannins. If you’re a cab drinker that likes a big ol’ fruit-forward bottle, the ‘07 will be right up your alley. Myself, I think a couple of years might serve this well.

The 2008 was a different story. Nose is still full of vanilla and dark fruit, but it’s more balanced with some fresh cut wood and earthy scents. The flavor was much more balanced. Vanilla, blackberry, and oak all mingle very pleasantly. The finish of even tannin, vanilla, and fruit was much longer than the ‘07. This one pushed the right buttons for me.

Since many California cabs are fairly consistent from vintage to vintage, I asked Colledge how much tweaking they’d done with the mix. “We do a fair bit of sampling during the process to try to find what works best. We’re split on the vintages – Jason really likes the ’07 and Tony & I prefer the ’08. We offer up our ideas and our preferences, but the real genius lies with our winemakers: Rick and Gustavo (Gonzales). They’re amazing. Rick & Gustavo both say that the ’09 is going to knock it out of the park. We’re excited, to say the least.”

I asked Colledge about his suggestions for food pairings. “Well, you know I’m an offensive lineman, so I’m pretty much a traditionalist. Steak and potatoes are my thing, and I love it with them.”

I’d already broken into these wines before I spoke with him. I’d made this pretty tasty Asian beef & basil stew over some rice noodles a few nights before. The suggested pairing was a cabernet, so we used that as an excuse for our side-by-side. Both wines went well with this particularly yummy dish, but the ’08 was a particularly luscious pairing. The flavors ricocheted perfectly.

The three have all moved on from Green Bay. Colledge is now with the Arizona Cardinals. Moll is with the San Diego Chargers and Spitz is with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The wine helps their bond strong. “I like to think it’s one piece of what holds us together. We really forged a great friendship in Green Bay. We’ve all gotten older and gotten married. We’ve all got kids or kids on the way. But we always make sure that we take at least one trip together to California each year to celebrate the new vintage.”

Since “wine tasting” and “testosterone” generally don’t occupy the same sentence, I asked Colledge as we were wrapping up how his teammates reacted to his hobby. Are they into it? Do they give him shit? Colledge laughed: “You might not think it, but football players all want to be wine drinkers. They want to be able to do the business thing and seem sophisticated. But as for my teammates, they’ll tell me that they’re into it, but I know most of them just want free wine. So, we drop a couple of free bottles on them, then make them go through the distributor and jack up the price once we’ve reeled them in.”

A tried-and-true business model, to be sure. If the 2009 vintage makes the same sort of leap that the 2008 did, they’re certainly on to something. They also are in the planning stages for a “Skinny” chardonnay with their wives as consultants. For more information, you can check out and/or follow on Twitter at @3FatGuysWine

(A final tangential observation: With the advent of fantasy football, offensive linemen have become the last players hometown fans can root for unreservedly. While a sizable number of “home team” fans in the stands may be rooting for an opposing running back to have a 3 TD day or an enemy linebacker to have multiple sacks, few leagues give fantasy points when a play happens the way it should.)