Grappa… Sometimes just the mention of this spirit brings about the strangest reactions… Most involve exclamations about “jet fuel” and “blindness.” My experience has been that people either love or hate grappa, there is little in between. However, like so many things, people’s real knowledge of grappa, or lack thereof leads to missed opportunities.

Growing up in an Italian household with parents who were children of the Great Depression, we wasted nothing. Now, we weren’t slaughtering our own livestock or anything like that, but my Grandfather did what every self-respecting Italian of his generation did… he made “second wine,” and grappa.

Grappa is a truly Italian product, although every country that produces wine has their version of it (Turkish Raki, for instance). Quite simply, Grappa is brandy, specifically, pomace brandy. Pomace is the collection of material left over once a wine maker presses the contents of their primary fermenting vat. The material at the bottom of the press bears a striking resemblance to a cheesecake and is loaded with all kinds of stuff. Remember this comment as we delve into the method of production for grappa…

With the formation of the European Union, many products have gained protected status – grappa being one of them. As a protected product, there are very strict criteria that define exactly what can and cannot be called “grappa.”

  • First criteria – Grappa must be produced in Italy, or the Swiss Italy, or San Marino.
  • Second criteria – Grappa can only be produced from pomace (unlike traditional brandy, which is distilled from pure wine).
  • Third criteria – Grappa can only be produced from distillation that occurs on the pomace without the addition of water.

The third criteria is what dictates the production method for grappa, which is essentially a steam-distillation process. Traditional distillation involves the direct heating of the fermented agent to vaporize, condense and concentrate alcohol. If this method were applied to pomace, the result would be a cooked, burned mass of post-fermentation materials, with no usable by-product. With steam distillation, steam passes through the fermented material, carrying with it the essential elements that are then condensed as a highly-rarified spirit. The drawback to steam distillation is that larger amounts of methanol are extracted, which is extremely poisonous. This is one reason why homemade grappa earned a reputation for blinding and even killing imbibers. This is also the reason why the Italian government has sought strict laws around who can and cannot make grappa for resale.

Most grappa are clear, signifying that they are not aged in oak, like traditional brandy. The primary reason for this is that the spirit is known for having very subtle aromas and flavors that would otherwise be masked by the presence of wood.

More recently, some producers are experimenting with wood aging, which does produce a grappa with a pronounced hue and a different flavor profile more like brandy.

The production of grappa has definitely benefited by improvements in technology. Early examples of grappa clearly earned their designation as “jet fuel,” with the spirit having a rough, alcoholic presence. As the application of a more refined distillation process was used, the end product became much smoother and more alluring. The introduction of pressurization during the distillation process has allowed for a lower temperature extraction that preserves much more of the delicacy of the essential elements.

Like many things in the wine and spirit world there are many more grappa available today than were in the market only a few years ago. I have been actively seeking out grappa and can happily report on some of my favorites:


Moletto Grappa di Barbera

Mazzetti Altavilla Grappa di Barbera

Jacopo di Poli – Po di Poli – (Grappa from Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc)


Jacopo di Poli – Sarpa di Poli – (Grappa from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon)

Jacopo di Poli – Grappa da Vinacce di Sassicaia

Marolo – Grappa di Moscato

Marolo – Grappa di Brunello di Montalcino

Marolo Barolo

Marolo – Grappa di Barolo

G. Bertagnolli – Grappa di Amarone


G. Bertagnolli – Grappa di Teroldego


Nonino – Il Merlot di Grappa

Nonino – Il Moscato di Grappa

Nonino – Il Chardonnay di Grappa

I heartily recommend picking up one of the above grappa and sampling a small glass after a nice meal as the perfect digestif in the true Italian tradition. If you are an aficionado of fine spirits, you will not be disappointed.


The Cunningham Cocktail


I love Jazz. The infinite improvisations on time tested melodies that provide inroads into the inner reaches of a musician’s soul. I can endlessly listen to fifty artists put their signature on a classic piece and never grow tired. So too is the art of the cocktail. While I wax poetic about the importance of the exactitude of the classic cocktail, I also revel in the endless riffs that are played on these important tomes.

My curiosity is always peeked by the mixing of strange bedfellows. Scotch Whisky-based cocktails are always challenging and I have done my best over the years to showcase the best of the lot. A while back, one of these classic gems was The Blood and Sand, a Scotch Whisky-based cocktail from the 1920’s that featured orange juice and Cherry Heering in a pleasing salute to Rudolph Valentino.

Imagine my pleasure when I stumbled upon a modern classic by Marco Dionysos, which is clearly a riff on the Blood & Sand – The Cunningham. Offering the perfect example of how mixologists refine a classic, the Cunningham takes the Blood & Sand and moves it to a more ephemeral plane. The addition of blood orange juice and Bénédictine brings an earthy, edgy feel to the cocktail. Truly refreshing, the Cunningham may become my new favorite transitional cocktail…

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Cunningham:

1.5 oz The Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky

.5 oz Fresh lemon juice

.5 oz Fresh blood orange juice

.25 oz Bénédictine

.25 oz Cherry Heering

Garnish: Brandied cherries and a flamed blood orange twist

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with brandied cherries and a flamed blood orange twist.


2010 Poggio Bonelli Chianti Classico, Italy

Having grown up on Chianti poured from the infamous fiasco, or straw flask, I am always elated when I find a bottle of Chianti that merges all the best from the past with all that is good with today’s viticultural techniques.

Since 2000, Chianti Classico has been undergoing a formal “upgrade.” Changes in wine laws were enacted then, all intended to improve the quality, and sales of Chianti Classico wines. Many older properties resisted the changes, but many did embrace the new order and as a result, started producing wines of distinct quality. One such property is Poggio Bonelli – a 16th century wine estate that commands about 160+ acres of very high-quality vineyard in the heart of Chianti Classico.


The estate has been passed down since the Middle Ages, finally ending up in the hands of a large global real estate company, Monte dei  Paschi di Siena. Well-financed with access to talented wine makers and the best technology, the wines of Poggio Bonelli are exceptional. Most notable is the combination of traditional Chianti characteristics with more modern hints – there is an earthy quality with layers of dried cherry and old leather, combined with jammy fruit and exotic spices. The result is just lovely.

At an average per bottle price of $24, finding this gem at Martignetti’s in Brighton MA at $15.99 (before the discount) was, in a word, awesome…

My tasting note:

Jammy nose with blackberry, black cherry, earthy hints. Full-bodied with moderate acidity and firm, dry tannin – well balanced. Dark fruit core with intense cherry, crushed lavender and cedar notes. Long finish – smooth with spice, dried fruit and vanilla on the aftertaste. Drinking well now with 5 to 7 years of aging potential. A super value.


2010 Château Pied d’Argent, Côtes de Bordeaux


Small, inexpensive Bordeaux producers shine during great vintages. I have said it before and it bears repeating: “the best way to look for value in Bordeaux is to search out small producers, or the second labels of well-known chateaux, in superior vintages.”

I can’t tell you a lot about Château Pied d’Argent, information was scant at best. They are a small producer with vines in the AOC region of the Côtes de Bordeaux. The vineyards of the Côtes are primarily along the three rivers of the region (well, two rivers and one estuary), which means that they are planted primarily to Merlot. As such, the wines tend to be plumier and livelier than their cousins elsewhere in the region. The Château did win a coveted bronze medal in the famous Concours de Bordeaux and was greeted with great press across Europe.

Priced modestly at $14.99 per bottle before any discounts, the wine represents a very good value. Recently, the wine was a put on special offer at a metro-Boston wine shop, with a net price of $9.99 per bottle – no further discounts. At that price, the wine is an amazing value and deserves anyone’s attention.

My tasting note:

Ripe, lively nose with bright cherry, blackberry and lilac hints. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and moderate tannin – good balance. Dark fruit core with black cherry, tobacco and light cedar notes. Moderate length, simple and smooth, somewhat closed. Drinking well now and the wine should improve with some bottle age. Great value!


2012 Talbott Kali Hart Pinot Noir, Monterey County, California

I remember one day being asked why I liked the music of a particular artist. The inquisitive person, who I think was my father couldn’t understand what was so appealing: “all his songs sound the same.”

My reply: “Well, I guess I don’t mind all his songs sounding the same… I really like the song!” Little did I know that this same phenomena would exist with wine.

A few years ago I blogged about a wine from Talbott: ( and as a result of really liking the wine, picked up a case.

12_Kali_Pinot Noir

Fast forward to today and wouldn’t you know, I ran across another bottling from Talbott, their Kali Hart Pinot Noir from Monterey County and like my musical tastes, I just had to try it.

The Kali Hart Pinot Noir is an estate grown wine that is named for the youngest daughter of Robb Talbott, Kalin. In reading the technical details of the wine, we see that the grapes are sourced from the same vineyard, the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, as the wine I reviewed back in 2012. The difference being that the Kali Hart is taken from younger, less mature vines, suggesting the wine is similar in character, but perhaps lacking the refinement and intensity that older vines can often impart.


True enough, the Kali Hart has all the markers of being from Talbott – good balance – not too fruity with a judicious amount of earthy complexity. But, as I expected, the wine is less intense than the designated Sleepy Hollow wine. I had no problem with this, since the “song sounded the same.”

And, where we spent $24 NET per bottle for the Sleepy Hollow, the Kali Hart comes in at $17.99 BEFORE the discount, so it is conceivable to find the wine at less than $15 NET. I would say that given the similarity between these two wines, the potential $9 savings makes the Kali Hart a really good bargain.

This reinforces the point – our wine cellar is loaded with verticals because when we find a producer we like, we tend to follow them from year to year and from wine to wine. Sure, some may say that this a bit myopic, but in fact, if you follow a producer long enough, like a great musician, you see how the wisdom of age subtly changes their style and interpretation through the years.

Isn’t that what true appreciation is all about?

My tasting note:

Bright, fruity nose with lively red berry aromas and light floral hints. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and supple tannin – well balanced. Fruity palate with raspberry, cherry and blackberry notes. Moderate length – smooth with a bit of earthy complexity on the finish. Drinking well now and should hold for another 2 to 3 years. Very Nice!


Greater Boston Wine Festival – July 27th!


Musings on the Vine will be at the Greater Boston Wine Festival this coming Sunday, July 27th.

The festival is being held at the Marshfield Fairgrounds in Marshfield, MA.

We will deliver three sessions during each of the Festival hours – 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM.

The sessions are:

Exploring Massachusetts Grown Wines (11:30 AM or 4:30 PM)

Exploring Apple Wines and Ciders (12:15 PM or 5:15 PM)

Wine & Food in Balance (1:00 PM or 6:00 PM)


Check out: for more information!


2012 Le Fraghe Brol Grande, Bardolino Classico

Back in June I wrote about a rosé wine from Le Fraghe and noted that, based on the quality and appeal of the wine, I would be “seeking out other wines from Matilde Poggi.” Well, true to my word, I came across a red wine from Le Fraghe that I just had to try.



The Brol Grande is a single vineyard Bardolino Classico red from the commune of Affi. The wine is a blend of Corvina and Rondinella grapes from vines with an average age of 15 years. The vineyard is southern exposed at an elevation of approximately 600 feet. Each grape is vinified separately with maceration lasting about 7 to 8 days. The wine is pumped over daily and subject to complete malolactic fermentation. Upon completion, the wine is then placed in large 1,000 gallon wooden vats for 8 months of aging and further settling.

The resulting wine is truly charming and seductive, emphasizing the fruity, spicy nature of both the Corvina and Rondinella grapes. While not built for long aging, the wine does possess elegance and structure with moderate levels of fruit. At an average pre-discount bottle price of $17.99, this wine is an excellent value!

To learn more about Le Fraghe, check my prior post:

My tasting note:

Bright, lively nose with fresh cherry, allspice and floral hints. Medium-bodied with firm acidity and supple tannin – well balanced. Slightly tart, red berry palate with juicy cherry and strawberry notes – seductive. Moderate length – smooth with a crisp finish – some nice layered complexity on the finish – mineral, black pepper and nutmeg. Drinking well now – should hold well for another 2 to 3 years. Good value.



People who know me, understand me to be a purist. Nothing halfway about my pursuits. This posture brings about both joy, as well as disappointment. In the end you often realize that it’s the journey and not the destination that is important. Which is why I am constantly searching…

In a recent copy of Imbibe magazine I learned about a new line of pre-made cocktail mixers from an outfit called Bittermilk in Charleston, South Carolina. Like the author of the piece, I eschew most pre-made cocktail mixers, primarily because they are really bad and don’t make anything even close to the cocktail suggested on the bottle. I would rather pass on a cocktail, or struggle to find the right ingredients before using the usual dreck that constitutes pre-made cocktail mixers.

Imagine my joy when I read about Bittermilk and promptly ordered their three cocktail mixer compounds. According to the web site: “Bittermilk compounds are designed for the modern day cocktail enthusiast, to help mix up unique, quality cocktails following a simple ratio of Bittermilk to your choice of spirit. Each of our products use a bittering agent, a sweetener, and an acid to achieve a balanced cocktail. The labor is in the bottle.”

The three compounds currently available are:


No. 1 – Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Fashioned


No. 2 Tom Collins with Elderflower and Hops


No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour

After sampling them with my favorite spirits, I can justly say they are amazing. The Whiskey Sour is about the best I have ever had, bright, refreshing with near perfect balance. The Old Fashioned is lush with a lovely, nuanced vanilla character. The Tom Collins is light and floral with a crisp, bright finish. The other nice aspect to these compounds is that you basically pick your spirit, mix with the recommended proportion of compound, shake/stir/strain and you’re done. Nothing could be easier, nor more pleasing. The labor really is in the bottle.

While I did not look for them locally, you can order them from the web site: They run $15 per compound, plus shipping – not inexpensive, but for the quality and the ease of use, they are certainly worth the price.

So, if you too are a purist at heart and want to find a credible pre-made cocktail mixer, the search is (partially) over – Bittermilk Cocktail Mixer Compounds…


2011 Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel, Contra Costa County California

Zinfandel is the “All American Grape,” despite having highly-probable European and Eastern-European ancestors. Zinfandel can also be thanked, or blamed, depending on where one’s tastes lie for the massive sea of sweet, lightly pink blush wines coming out of California in the 1980’s. I sit clearly on the “blame” side of the fence, but given the resurgence of red Zinfandel evolving since the 1990’s, I choose to forget these transgressions, the way one forgives folks for collecting Beanie Babies…

First, let’s talk of ancestry. For many years, ampelographers, or the botanists focused on the study and classification of grape vines, strongly believed that Zinfandel and Primitivo were related. Initially, the scientists believed that the grapes were clones of each other – the story being told that immigrating Italian wine makers brought Primitivo from their native Puglia in the southern heel of Italy. The wayward vines were planted in California around the time of the Gold Rush (1840’s) and thus was born Zinfandel. Makes for great marketing on the back label… As the practice of DNA analysis of grape varietals became more prevalent, the story began to change. Rather than Primitivo begetting Zinfandel, it appeared that the two grapes may be siblings. The analysis strongly suggested that the two grapes shared a parent – Crljenak from Croatia. Recently, the debate has reopened, with newly uncovered evidence suggesting that the two grapes, while genetically similar do not share the same parent – Crljenak, but instead their parent is actually another Croatian grape – Tribidrag… Isn’t genealogy fascinating? Just think six degrees of Kevin Bacon…

Next, let’s talk of history. Regardless of its ancestry, Zinfandel found its way to America and was planted on the west coast during the middle of the 19th Century. The grape is a hardy vine and it thrived in the dry, hot regions of Central and Northern California. Ten percent of all vineyards in this part of California are said to contain plantings of Zinfandel vines and it was the most planted varietal in California as the 20th Century dawned. Production soared during the run up to Prohibition, but like most grapes at that time, Zinfandel suffered mightily at the hands of our noble experiment. It actually wasn’t until the early 1970’s, when Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery began experimenting with Zinfandel, creating a light, blush version that was slightly sweet, that Zinfandel reappeared on the wine landscape. And as they say, the rest is history.

Fortunately, the rebirth of Zinfandel did not damn it to a golden age of mediocrity. Plenty of winemakers realized the potential of the grape and began crafting red versions that underscored the intense fruit and spicy character of the varietal. One such producer is Rosenblum Cellars, founded in 1978 by Kent Rosenblum, the veritable “King of Zin,” located in Alameda, California. Rosenblum focuses solely on Zinfandel and actually, unlike many California wine makers, searches out small grape growers to source produce for their wines. They choose this approach, in lieu of practicing the “estate” model of cultivating their own vines, for several reasons: it provides a showcase for small, passionate producers from underappreciated regions; it underscores the differences between mountainside versus valley floor grown grapes; and it allows the nuance and power of many “old vine” vineyards to validate the credibility of Zinfandel as a world-class varietal.

Winemaking at Rosenblum is handled by John Kane, a 2001 graduate of Enology from Fresno state. Interestingly, when you talk to wine makers in California they describe the Fresno program as “learning about winemaking by getting your hands dirty.” Presumably, as the story goes, if you really want to learn to make wine “old school,” then you go to Fresno, as opposed to Davis, where the focus is more on classroom and science. I like old school…


I featured the 2011 Rosenblum Contra Costa County in my Summer Sippers class this past June. It struck me as an ideal red wine for summer, possessing enough tannin to give it structure to stand up to hearty grill fair, but fruity enough to make it pleasant on a hot afternoon. The wine was also right-priced at around the pre-discount price of $14.99/bottle.

My tasting note:

Intense, jammy nose with black berry, dried fruit and exotic spice hints. Full-bodied with moderate acidity and moderate, firm tannin – well-balanced. Dark fruit core with loads of black cherry, black berry and tarry notes. Fruit forward but very nicely structured. Moderate length – smooth with many evolving layers of complexity – seductive and spicy – charming. Drinking well and should hold for another 2 – 3 years in bottle. Great value.


2012 Sant’Antonio Scaia Corvina IGT Veneto

Everyone always asks what my favorite wine is… Tough question to answer as someone who deeply appreciates so many wines, but I always pony up a few: Châteauneuf du Pape for one and Valpolicella Classico della Amarone for another… My love of both these wines borders on the unnatural, but if you know them at all, you understand. Each represents a magnificent, age-worthy wine with an interesting story and a bevy of unfamiliar grapes. They were, many years ago, value leaders that today, unfortunately have taken on more expensive habits. This last realization is why I patiently scan the horizon for opportunities. In CDP, the values are found in the lesser production of fabled CDP producers within the Côtes du Rhone appellation, or possibly in neighboring Gigondas or Vacqueyras. In VCdA, the values are found in Vino Ripasso, or better yet, the recently delimited Indicazioine Geografica Tipica Veneto wines.

Which brings me to my subject wine… Anyone who knows anything about VCdA knows that the principal grape in the blend is Corvina, which is the star of most red wines grown in the Veneto. Rondinella and Molinara are its usual companions, and for good reason. Corvina can be difficult, providing too much acid and not enough fruit, which can make for tart, anemic wines. This is a large reason why the Venetians have taken to allowing their largely Corvina-based Valpolicellas to age on the lees of their bigger, more impressive Amarone brothers… The intensity, complexity and depth imparted makes for a real game changer.

Producers in the Veneto tend to have diverse portfolios. This isn’t a detraction, but more an economic reality. The folks at Tenuta Sant’Antonio have a very diverse portfolio, ranging from award-winning Amarone to youthful Soave to soulful Grappa di Amarone. Of all their wines I have tried, and there are many, there isn’t a bad one in the lot. The nice thing about a diverse portfolio is that there are bound to be some real values. The Scaia Corvina may be the best wine value I have come across in the last 12 months.


The Scaia, produced from 100% Corvina harvested from vines with an average age of between 3 and 10 years, is a youthful powerhouse. The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel, which preserves the freshness and lively spiciness of the grape. The naturally high acidity of the Corvina is tamed in this wine, instead being possessed of suppleness and smoothness. Closed under Stelvin, the wine should remain fresh and vibrant for many years, allowing for more complexity to evolve over time. And the best thing about this wine – the price… Sub $10 per bottle in most areas before the discount… That is an impressive feat given the quality, exuberance and potential of this wine!

My tasting note:

Bright lively nose with fresh cherry, black berry and black pepper hints. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and supple, well-integrated tannin – well balanced. Dark fruit core with cherry, dark chocolate and spicy notes. Moderate length with a smooth, seductive finish and a spicy aftertaste. Drinking well now and should improve for the next 2 to 3 years in bottle. Superb value!



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