Feb 182017
 

Heralded wine educator Kevin Zraly with the new 40th anniversary edition of his acclaimed wine primer. | Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

I know relatively little about wine. I was once ashamed of saying so in light of forty years as a food writer—but that changed recently when I admitted as much to world-renowned wine educator, Kevin Zraly. “It’s not surprising,” he said, adding that the same is true for most chefs he knows, and vice versa for wine authorities. As he writes in the introduction to his newly re-issued best-selling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, “Studying wine isn’t merely learning about a beverage but also understanding the history, language, culture, and traditions of the people and countries where each wine is made… [it’s] a complicated subject, one that reinvents itself every year with a new vintage.”

Sangiovese, the signature grape of Tuscany, is the basis for most of the region’s signature wines. | Photo Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

I wouldn’t think of having a meal without it. In Italian fashion, I cook with it and sometimes I even add it to the food (if that line is stolen from somewhere, let me know, but it’s the truth). Yet as a wine drinker and not a wine expert, I still make my choices in a fairly haphazard way based on what I fancy at any particular time, or what I am cooking, or where I am.

Kevin Zraly, master of wine, showman, and renowned teacher with all eyes on him at Mohonk Mountain House. | Photo” Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

The idea of going to wine school has occasionally crossed my mind, particularly when I call up the advice of my first wine mentor, Victor Hazan, when, as a young journalist, I interviewed him and Marcella over lunch about his book, Italian Wine, released thirty-six years ago:

“Wine appreciation is like the appreciation of music or any other art,” he says. “We can turn on music as background and hang pictures on the walls as decoration, letting whatever they have to say slide past our consciousness. Or we can use our ears and eyes to turn to them the undistracted attention of our mind. We can negligently knock back the contents of our glass, or we can try to interest our palate in some of the things that nature, man, and time have put into it.”

Cantine Amastuola in Crispiano, Puglia, an award-winning vineyard tended by the Montanaro family. | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2016

If “negligently knock back the contents of [my] glass” hardly describes my romance with the drink that Galileo described as no less than “sun held together by water,” I confess to reticence in the matter of exploring the collaborative effort of nature, humans, and time in any but the most applied way. Particularly because the more I learn, the greater the journey looms. There have been many technological and scientific developments in viticulture over four decades with farmers going back to traditional practices that avoid soil-punishing modern agricultural methods (hooray!). And Italians, whose wines I am most inclined to drink, tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside its territory. In fact, they plant more grape types than any other country in the world. One million mom and pop growers owning two million acres of vineyards throughout the country’s twenty regions—we’re talking about some two thousands wines now—makes an outsized curriculum. In addition, how to begin to understand the differences between regions and styles? Besides, the trouble with any attempt to delve into the dizzying world of Italian wines with any hope of understanding it is confounded by U.S. import and interstate shipping regulations that makes most of them impossible to get here. What about other wines besides Italian? And just to throw a monkey into the kettle of fish, good Lord, how will global warming affect the vine?

Arriving for Kevin Zraly’s wine class recently at Mohonk Mountain House. | Copyright Nathan Hoyt/2017

Having percolated all of this for some time, I leapt at an invitation to take a wine class focusing on Italian wines with one of America’s most respected wine gurus on a recent frigid weekend at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Ulster County. If I hadn’t been charmed by one of Mr. Zraly’s lectures before, we might not have driven up north in what amounted to a January blizzard, up the swiftly rising height of a mountain to the sprawling lakeside Victorian castle that crowns a savage 2,000-foot quartz ridge called the Shawangunks that is his retreat. Mr. Zraly is not just a consummate teacher, as the blurbs on the new edition of his best-selling wine book attest (some 5 million sold at last count since its initial publication in 1985), but a wizard at demystifying the complex and often intimidating subject of wines. The castle at the top of this mountain has been, for him, a “sacred space” since the legendary Windows on the World restaurant and home to the eponymous wine school he founded there forty years ago disappeared on September 11, 2001 along with 80 employees and construction workers who died in the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center that day. Mr. Zraly had taken the day off to celebrate his son’s tenth birthday.

The lesson plan. | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/2016

On this afternoon at the Mohonk Mountain House, he was the master showman of Zraly fame and he spoke vividly about wine, sprinkling his authority with wit and wisdom (such as, “Never drink Chianti again; you deserve more—drink Chianti Classico”). We dipped into eight Italian vintages from three regions that produce some of the most appealing wines. They were picked from among those that are widely available, even if the selection inevitably glossed over glorious bottlings from vineyards that we can only find by transporting ourselves to the geographical boot, getting off the tourist track, and exploring what Mr. Zraly refers to as the “vast vineyard” that is Italy for ourselves. There are always more mediocre wines than good ones in the wine trade, but the man who turned the most spectacular restaurant in the world into an “international wine mecca,” in the words of Alex Witchel of The New York Times, curates them for us in the book that has become his life work.

Kevin Zraly signing copies of the new edition of his book, Windows on the World Wine Course. | Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

As for the many questions I have, I’m curling up with Kevin Zraly’s book for answers. It speaks with clarity, it’s lively, and it’s full of wit besides. Any book about wine should be nearly as much fun to read, as the subject is to drink.

From my notebook at my first official wine class:

  • Americans are now the largest consumers of wine in the world.
  • Vatican City is the number one place in the world for per capita wine consumption.
  • Washington D.C. is one of the greatest food and wine cities in the world. (Well, it would be nice to know that our tax dollars were supporting winemakers as much as defense contractors.)
  • You’ll get the true taste of a bottle of wine in the first 45-60 seconds in the glass (all that “breathing” is a myth).
  • 2015 was one of the best vintages around the world.
  • The best value of the top ten wines in the world is Brunello di Montalcino.
  • Pinot Grigio is the best white wine for the price.
  • Prosecco is the hottest thing in the U.S. right now, with sales increasing from 50%-70% yearly.
  • Don’t buy Amarone in a restaurant. It needs to age, and vintages ready to drink are unaffordable to us 99%-ers: Buy it retail and put it in storage for ten years.

Find out more about Kevin Zraly and his wine school on his website. The new edition of his book, revised with all the bells and whistles millennials expect from sidebars with wine stats to maps to videos attached.

If you have never bought a wine book before, start with this one. If you have a roomful of wine books, get this one anyway…. It makes wine fun, it makes wine exciting, and it carries its erudition lightly, just like this author…. One of the best start-from-scratch wine books every written. —The New York Times

Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, revised and expanded 2017 edition.

Feb 152017
 

The Eolo sailing past Torcello and the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, a notable example of Venetian-Byzantine architecture. | Photo: Paolo Spigariol

“I want people to see the lagoon as I see it. So many people come to Venice and never really understand what is out here.” —Mauro Stoppa, host of the Eolo

As recommended by The New York Times, Saveur, Elle, The Herald Tribune, Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, The Guardian, Tatler, The Daily Meal, Marie Claire, Gente Viaggi, Meridiani, Yacht Digest, Gala, Côté Sud, and other prominent publications.

Join our remarkable culinary tour of the city built on water and its lagoon islands. Our May 2017 tour is fully booked, but we are now offering these new dates:

2017 September 16-22

2018 June 2-8 | September 15-21

In addition, we can schedule customized tours for charter groups of 8-10 people for family reunions, intimate wedding parties, company trips, or other private occasions.

Selected Testimonials

“For centuries, the community’s livelihood revolved around the Arsenale, the shipyard that laid the foundation for Venice’s power, and today many residents still work as fishermen or in shipyards. There is a real attachment to the lagoon and the water beyond it…. Mauro Stoppa moved here to live … on his 52-foot “bragozzo,” one of the last surviving barges of its type, in order, he says, ‘to pay homage to the lagoon.’” —Marbella Caracciolo Chia, The New York Times

“John Ruskin once described this watery city as a ‘ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak—so quiet–so bereft of all but her loveliness.’…. [153 years] later, he would be more likely to compare this packed tourist magnet to a shopping mall during the sales season than to a shadowy mirage…. But Ruskin’s Venice still exists…. Sitting on a historic fishing boat on a recent July evening, with the sun setting over the island of Torcello and the sound of the gull cries splitting the silence of the seemingly endless lagoon, a visitor might even get a sense of what the Victorian thinker was going on about….” —Elisabetta Povoledo, International Herald Tribune

“…[it] is a splendid vision of Venice past in Venice present…. [on the] … broad beamed fishing vessel that was bought and lovingly restored by a stocky, warm-hearted Venetian named Mauro Stoppa, who takes visitors to parts of Venice other boats do not normally reach…. It is a well-appointed pleasure boat and a fine floating restaurant.” —Condé Nast Traveller

“Out of the tiny galley kitchen emerge plates of squid marinated in balsamic vinegar and arranged with architectural precision among red berries and grapes. Next, a risotto of clams, tender and crunchy in all the right places. The pièce de resistance is the sea bass, flesh falling off the bone, baked with mushrooms and herbs, the latter grown on board. Finally, a helium-light chocolate dessert whipped up by Luigi Biasietto, one of the most famous pastry chefs in the Veneto region…. Finding food this good in the city of Venice would be no mean feat. Even Mauro’s wines – including a Piccolit from Enrico Gatti – would not look out of place on a Michelin-starred menu. Yet even as we salivate, we are transfixed by our watery surroundings. There is a sense that we are glimpsing a private world.…most visitors get no further than the number 12 vaporetto that ferries tourists northwards to the “big three” islands: Murano, Burano and Torcello. Mauro’s trips encompass the latter – he puts his guests up in a private villa there – but he also moors alongside Le Vignole and Sant’Erasmo. These are the market gardens of Venice; rarely visited islands where stagnant canals wind through vegetable gardens. Here…you’ll find Venetians tending the artichokes, aubergines and tomatoes that you later see on the stalls around the Rialto market.” —Rachel Spence, The Guardian

“Morning sightseeing is interrupted with a glass of sparkling prosecco and delicious deep-fried castrauri, tiny local artichokes…. In the galley Mauro stirs a huge frying pan of creamy risotto with courgettes cooked together with their yellow flowers, while in the oven the main dish might be a giant scorfano fish, slowly roasting on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, or tiny wild ducks bought the day before from hunters on the lagoon, and delicately stuffed with foie gras.” —Orient Express

“Forget churches—Try the lagoon with a view…. A trip on the Eolo reveals a side of the lagoon few tourists – or residents such as myself who don’t possess their own boat – ever see…. Lunch aboard the Eolo is a tour de force. …We start with mussels steamed with white wine and the purple artichokes (castraure) that are a springtime speciality of Sant’Erasmo. Next comes the Venetian classic, risi and bisi (risotto with peas). But it’s the main course, a two-kilo bream cooked to flaking perfection, that wins a round of applause.…Not merely a sailing trip but… a fascinating [exploration] of local history and folklore, gourmet cooking lesson[s] in the galley… and … romantic meal[s] on deck. —Rachel Spencer, Financial Times

“The emphasis is on seasonal tastes, the freshness of the raw materials, and the simplicity of the cooking.”Gourmet Traveller, U.K.

“The adventurer inside you will be thrilled to travel through the northern lagoon and cook the fresh morning catch, while the tourist inside you will be pleased to spend your last few days exploring the famous landmarks in Venice both guided and on your own…. When eating on the sailboat, you will be able to cook the local cuisines right along with your hosts as hands-on lessons using some of the freshest ingredients of local products brought to you daily from the islands. You will be involved in every aspect from preparing to cooking the meals with professional guidance from della Croce and Stoppa.” —Bianca Bahamondes, The Daily Meal

“The Eolo is an undiscovered marvel. Many Venetians we spoke to had never heard of her…. We embark on the sleepy island of Le Vignole, then cruise to the sparsely populated isle of Mazzorbo. Soon we are in another world, far out into the lagoon, egrets and ibis our only company. Mauro and his crew set about preparing a four-course dinner as the sun sets; we eat on deck, the stars as our roof…. the food is wonderful: mussels with chilli, chocolate and fagiolini; seabass steamed with peaches and basil; watermelon gazpacho with pistachios.” —Marcus Sedgewick, Tatler

For Details, Itinerary, Reservations Information, Price, click here

To View a Video of the Eolo Under Sail, click here

The Grand Canal as seen from Ca’ Franchetti. | Photo: Paolo Destefanis for Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and the Italian Northeast, by Julia della Croce

Jan 282017
 
Venice Culinary Tour, May 15-21: Itinerary

Last Call! On May 15, 2017, our vessel, the Eolo, will shove off for a singular culinary and cultural tour of Venice and its lesser known islands. She is one of the few remaining purpose-built, flat-bottom boats left that were designed during the time of the doges to navigate this fabled city of 100 islands and 150 canals. Here is our itinerary, offering our guests an intimate experience for cruising by day, and first-rate accommodations in historic inns and hotels at night. We invite you to come on board for three days of island hopping, followed by three days of immersion in Venice […more…]

Jan 232017
 
Sail, Eat, Sleep Venice: Preview Our Video Now

Our culinary tour this Spring will take you to the undiscovered side of Venice that the typical traveler rarely sees. Even if you’ve been there before, you’ve probably never experienced this “most secretive of cities,” to quote author Victor Hazan, who with his wife, Marcella, ran a cooking school there for many years. That’s because it is a city of more than 100 small islands in a lagoon separated from the Adriatic Sea that cannot be reached by foot, but only by canals. To experience Venice behind its touristic facade, you have to get on a boat built to navigate the shallow waters […more…]

Jan 232017
 

We’re some four months away from my upcoming culinary tour to Italy, immersion in Venice and its lagoon. For those of you who are new to my blog, my new venture will take you to the undiscovered side of Venice that the typical tourist never sees. Even if you’ve been there before, you’ve probably never experienced this “most secretive of cities,” to quote author Victor Hazan, who with his wife, Marcella, ran a cooking school there for many years. That’s because it is a city built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon separated from the Adriatic Sea that cannot […more…]

Dec 312016
 
For New Year's Morning Cheers, Zabaione alla Veneziana

This is a shortie, but it occurred to me to pass this festive little recipe along to you all for ushering in the first day of 2017. It’s from my Venetian friend Mauro Stoppa, host and skipper of the Eolo, who learned it from a local contessa and well-known cooking teacher, Fulvia Sesani. He serves this liquorous treat on board when the weather is nippy, and of course, during the winter holidays. You could say that zabaione is Italy’s answer to eggnog (which some etymologists place in the Middle Ages), except that its origins go back at least as far as the late Roman period, to […more…]

Dec 302016
 
For New Year's: Lentils and Sausages for Luck and Plenty

Lentils and pork sausages, the first to represent coins, the second for abundance, served up together, has long been considered an auspicious dish with which to usher in the New Year in some parts of Italy. Take Modena’s lenticchie di Capodanno, braised lentils crowned with zampone, a delicate mixture of finely ground pork subtly seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, and black pepper stuffed into a pig’s trotter; or cotechino, a similar sausage, sans the trotter. One or the other is obligatory eating when the clock strikes midnight everywhere north of Rome—sumptuous eating, but not easily reproduced outside of Modena […more…]

Dec 192016
 
How the Trump Stole America, a Rhyme

  How The Trump Stole America by John Pavlovitz   In a land where the states are united, they claim, in a sky-scraping tower adorned with his name, lived a terrible, horrible, devious chump, the bright orange miscreant known as The Trump.   This Trump he was mean, such a mean little man, with the tiniest heart and two tinier hands, and a thin set of lips etched in permanent curl, and a sneer and a scowl and contempt for the world.   He looked down from his perch and he grinned ear to ear, and he thought, “I could steal […more…]