Virtual Gourmet

  December 10,  2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER


"Christmas Boar" for Saturday Evening Post (Dec. 20, 1924)
by J.L. Leyendecker


Part One: The Ritz, Paris
By John Mariani


By John Mariani

By John Mariani


By John Mariani


The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring his master back from the edge of despair. 



Part One: The Ritz Paris

By John Mariani

    Paris is called the "City of Lights," but the four-year-long $400 million restoration of The Ritz Paris, which opened in 1898, shows that it is also the City of Light—a light that is now purer and brighter than when the Impressionists painted it at a time when coal smoke began smogging the air and blackening the buildings.

    Like every building in Paris up until a decade ago, The Ritz was once a gritty dark gray, as it was when Gary Cooper seduced Audrey Hepburn there in the 1957 movie Love in the Afternoon (right). Now, carefully scrubbed clean, the façade of the great hotel glows with a Chanel-like beige, behind which is a new glittering interior whose own lighting makes the venerable old hallways and dated suites now among the most vibrant in the city.

    New York-based designer Thierry W Despont enlisted an army of a thousand workmen and artisans to restore, re-assemble, refine and redeem every square inch of the five huge connected buildings, one a former ducal residence dating to1705, the garden to 1898, a 1911  hotel addition on the Rue Cambon, and four two-story townhouses with roof terraces.  The trick was to do it all without destroying its character, retaining as many fixtures, paintings and decorative flourishes as possible.  The new Ritz was not to be a museum, however. Seventy-eight new paint colors were trademarked; all needed to be approved by various landmark committees.

  Now with 142 suites and rooms (reduced from 159),  The Ritz would still be immediately recognizable to its celebrated clientele over the past century—right down to the gold swan bathroom fixtures—from Marcel Proust to Maria Callas.  Ernest Hemingway, who wrote, “"When I dream of an afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Ritz Paris," is once again commemorated at the evocative Hemingway Bar (below), now a fresher version of all that regulars have loved about the room and still manned by the redoubtable bartender Colin Field, who actually served as The Ritz’s ambassador to the world during the four-year closure.

    Now, walking through the lobby, checking in at the airy front desk, strolling by the sumptuous, book-filled Salon Proust and through the Gallery lined with five posh boutiques and 95 showcases, you no longer have the hushed sense of moving down a church nave; instead, you experience what might be called a new Belle Époque in Paris, for all the grand châteaux hotels—the Plaza-Athenée, Le Meurice, Le Bristol, the Crillon and the George V—have been given similar treatments.

     Bought in 1979 by Mohammed Al-Fayed and given a  make-over in the mid-1980s that included a two-story wellness spa, a private members' club and the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School, the hotel never lacked for an affluent clientele, but the pall cast on its being the last residence of Princess Diana and her lover, Dodi Fayed, before their death in a high-speed car chase never wholly lifted.  Now, though, where once entry to The Ritz might cause doleful remembrance, that tragedy has melted into a bittersweet memory among many in the hotel’s long history.

    Clearly, while restoring the best of the old Ritz, what was once considered comfortable luxury even twenty years ago would now be considered passé and out-of-date, so that air-conditioning, wi-fi, hidden wiring for all business requirements, a spectacular new Spa and Pool (the largest in Paris) with trompe l’oeil ceiling, and, perhaps most significant, modern bathrooms that are more spacious and bathed in natural light.

    I had occasion last June to dine at and report on the new Les Jardins de L’Éspadon, the more casual dining room next to the formal L’Éspadon Restaurant (where I have yet to dine), where I have not dined, both overseen by Chef Nicholas Sale, who also runs a cooking school for up to 40 people.  Within five months of opening last year, the former garnered one Michelin star, the latter raised to two. As my report indicated, Les Jardins is suffused with light in an orangerie-style room, with excellent modern French cuisine and, as I learned at breakfast, some of the best croissants in Paris and a pain perdue—French toast to us—that’s already becoming a signature item. Lunch prices at Le Jardin are 95€ to 145€.

    The dining room at L’Éspadon (left) is far brighter than it used to be, though largely in the ornate style of its predecessor; the menu is very lavish and jaw-droppingly expensive: dinner is both á la carte, with main courses up to 120€, and prix fixe of five courses 195€, for seven courses, 340€, without wine; tax and service are included.

    Of course, everything at The Ritz is expensive—rooms in December start at 1,000€.  How could it be otherwise? Obviously, you are paying not just for the posh and the history but also for brigades of people behind the scenes—the florists and gardeners, the pool maintenance crew, the wedding and banquet planners, the engineers, upholsterers, chambermaids, a staff whose members speak a dozen languages, scores of cooks, patîssiérs, breadmakers, maître d’s, captains, waiters, sommeliers, security—those who move quietly, often unnoticed but always at the ready.  photo George

    The Ritz Paris is open again, and Hemingway’s dreams are all intact.


By John Mariani


133 East 61st Street (near Lexington Avenue)


     The Brazilian steakhouse, including a couple of chains in the U.S., has pretty much had a lock on South American restaurants outside of the Bronx and Queens, largely, I think, because it’s a lot of fun to help yourself to gargantuan meals of skewered meats along with apps and salads.

    Nevertheless, Argentinians are South America’s great beef eaters, who couldn’t care less if they get their orange juice in the morning as long as they get a steak at night.  In every neighborhood of Buenos Aires there seems to be a restaurant with a wood-fired grill heaped with sausages, sweetbreads, kidneys, langoustines, and various cuts of beef.  And, given Argentina’s large Italian population, there are good pastas to be found in abundance.

    All of this is what makes Chimichurri Grill East (the original, smaller Chimichurri is on Ninth Avenue, with almost an identical menu) a very welcome introduction to Argentina’s cuisine, and, despite a menu loaded with cuts of grilled beef, you could have a sumptuous meal of appetizers like firm polenta sticks topped with Argentine blue cheese ($12), littleneck clams in white wine and chorizo ($18), and much, much more.

    The restaurant is in two parts: Up front is the well laid-out bar, where you can sit at a glossy marble counter or tables and feast on small plates (there’s a happy hour menu). Then there is a small rose-colored lounge followed by a wholly unexpected large dining room with a huge crystal chandelier, marble fireplace and molded wainscoting. The experience of going from one room to the other is like the astronaut in 2001: Space Odyssey going through a time warp and finding himself in some neoclassical room, complete with tables set with thick, double cloths.

    The menu is wide-ranging, from small plates and salads to pastas—Argentina has an enormous Italian population and Buenos Aires many fine Italian restaurants—to items from the grill. I invite you to check out Chimichurri’s website, whose gallery teems with photos of irresistible dishes. I asked chef/co-owner Carlos Darquea  (left) to just keep bringing out food from every category, an idea he was excited by, so you should ask him the same.

    We began with a slew of regional empanadas within crisp pastry ($12), one of beef, one of chicken, one of Swiss chard and manchego cheese (below), along with a hefty platter of Argentine chorizo, blood sausage, Spanish chorizo ($21), which went very nicely paired with a vinegar-and-old graced watercress salad ($10).

    The two pastas we tried were excellent, one “ravioles de mi vieja” ($21)—“mom’s ravioli”—that really did have a homey, robust, good-for-you size and flavor, and house-made pappardelle ribbons with a ragù made from ribeye ($26), giving it plenty of rich fat in the sauce, along with Malbec red wine and just enough tomato to add sweetness. 

    There were four of us at the table, but we took food home after doing our best to finish a 16-ounce gaucho ribeye of grass-fed Black Angus South American beef ($58), luscious grilled baby lamb chops ($48), a filet mignon with a rich blue cheese sauce ($38). We did not take home the crispy polenta fries lavished with blue cheese ($14), because they were polished off greedily.  The same result with the quemada (“burnt”) cauliflower ($10).

    I’ve inveighed more than once about the ubiquity of farmed sea bass served in restaurants, so I was very happy to see and taste wild branzino (market price) at Chimichurri, a wonderfully meaty, flavorful fish grilled and glossed with olive oil and lemon.

Prices overall are remarkable for the size of the portions, including a parrillada tradicional for two composed of short ribs, hanger steak, pork and blood sausages and potatoes at $75.

    After such a hearty meal, desserts may seem too much of a good thing, but they are very, very good, including a crêpe with dulce de leche sauce (left); chocolate crème brûlée with a spark of cayenne; and a crisp and thin caramelized apple crêpe topped with homemade caramel ice cream (all $12).

    If you are curious as to how far the Argentine wine industry has come, you could start with Chimichurri’s list, one of the most extensive of its kind, with plenty of bottlings you don’t see anywhere else. Carlos is the one to ask for some special selections, which are sold at fair prices.

    You’ll see a number of Argentinians at Chimichurri—and they have a tango night on Tuesdays—including families who long for this kind of food. NYC is lucky to have two such restaurants, which are as close to the best you’ll find outside of Buenos Aires.


Open Mon.-Sat. for lunch, and dinner.






By John Mariani

    With so many restaurants claiming to be serving USDA Prime beef and wagyu from the most exclusive Japanese purveyor, I thought I'd get closer to the truth of the matter by interviewing Jack Matusek (left),
Founder of Raw Republic Meats and co-author, with s5 butchers from around the world of  Butchers’ Manifesto.


Q: The amount of certified USDA Prime beef traditionally has never been more than two percent of the beef market, yet scores of steakhouses are opening around the U.S. claiming they serve Prime.  How is that possible?


A: The growing demand for Prime grade beef has triggered ranchers to find ways to maximize the amount of Prime grade beef they can produce. Ranchers are now spending huge amounts of money (sometimes in the six-digit range) on bulls or semen that will produce offspring that will exhibit the money trait: marbling. John Mayer of Guymon, Oklahoma, has bought many of these “super bulls” in the past few years and has increased his Prime beef output dramatically. According to Texas Akaushi rancher Tony Spears, some outfits, such as 44 Farms, are now boasting 40% of their output as Prime grade beef. 



Q: So it is possible to increase the amount of Prime—which must be inspected and graded by the USDA—or are these suppliers simply claiming it is Prime?


A: Ty Lawrence, an animal science professor at West Texas A&M, is currently investigating whether cattle cloning is the answer to the prime beef demand. After spotting the greatest prime carcass of his career, he gained permission to clone a bull from DNA in the carcass. The result, Alpha, was then bred to three other Prime clone heifers at a research study at West Texas A&M. The offspring already are taking on all the desired physical traits as well as sporting an incredibly tough immune system. 

    Feeding ratios have also become important as ranchers look for the perfect blends of proteins to give their beef advantages in flavor, tenderness, and marbling over their competitors. Corn continues to remain in the process as it remains the most efficient way to fatten cattle. Today, the Prime beef cattle now control 3% of the total market due to increased genetic and feeding control. As the demand for high-quality beef continues to rise, expect more ranchers to turn to genetics to fill American bellies.


Q:  And how is it that, aside from obtaining Prime beef, can these steakhouses buy it dry-aged?


A: For thousands of years, the only form of aging had been dry aging. Beef is hung in the carcass form, primals or subprimals, at near freezing temperatures with heavy ventilation for weeks on end. During this period, enzymes began breaking down muscle tissue, which makes the meat more tender. At the same time, the meat loses moisture, which concentrates flavors within the meat.


Dry aged beef from DeBragga Butchers, NYC

     The downside of this method is that the meat must be heavily trimmed, which drives the price up. The moldy, crusty faces of the meat must be discarded, but still must be accounted for. 

The invention of vacuum packing in the 1970s brought about “wet aging,” whereby meat is placed in a plastic bag and stored in a refrigerator (right). This method allows the meat to age in its own juices, sometimes leaving behind a slight metallic flavor. When using this technique, the meat doesn’t have to be trimmed, saving a lot of meat and keeping costs down.

    Today, a vast majority of the beef market uses wet-aging techniques, somewhere around 95%. Dry aging is a very expensive business to get into. Customers should check the restaurant menu and make sure it specifically states “Dry aged for xx days.” Want a little more confirmation? Ask to see the dry aging setup.


Q: Is all American beef aged to a degree?

A: Just about all beef is aged at least 7 to 14 days, usually in the harvesting facilities. From there, the carcass is broken down and used in a number of ways. Most often, you will see dry-aged steaks anywhere from 28 to 48 days. This is an ideal time frame for aging as the meat has started to tenderize and some flavors have started to concentrate and develop. I have seen steaks aged past 400 days. Knife, a John Tesar restaurant in Dallas, experiments with a wide range of dry-aged steaks. When steaks are aged past 100 days, the flavors become very intense and cheese like, which can be off-putting to some.


Q: Then there’s the question of wagyu, once wholly unavailable in the U.S. Now it seems ubiquitous.


A: I have only worked with Texas Wagyu a few times and I have yet to make it to Japan and Australia to really grasp the essence of this phenomenon, so I am by no means an expert on that subject. Yet, the Wagyu/Kobe mystique still shrouds the American mind and wallet, so I’d love to give you my take on it. 


Kobe grades

  A few years ago, I read a Forbes article by Larry Olmsted in which he separated fact from fiction when it comes to Wagyu and Kobe beef in the United States. He has since published an updated article on the Kobe movement as well as a book, Real Food, Fake Food. My Wagyu information stems from his writings as well as a few Texas Wagyu breeders I’ve visited.

    In 1976, the U.S. began its import of Japanese beef, Wagyu.  Wagyu is broken into four breeds of cattle (below): Akaushi (Red and Brown), Kuroushi (Black), Japanese Polled, and Japanese Short Horned. Tajima-gyu, the only breed that can be certified “Kobe,” is a strain of The Black Kuroushi (below), which makes up about 90% of cattle raised in Japan. Over the next two decades, bulls, heifers, and genetics made their way to the United States shores. In 2010, the U.S. placed a ban on Wagyu because of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Japan. It is for this reason that a lot of prized Brazilian and Argentinean beef doesn’t reach the United States.  In August 2012, the U.S. began allowing small amounts of Kobe beef to be imported.  

    I like to say Kobe beef is like Champagne. If it isn’t produced in the Champagne region of France, it isn’t champagne. It's not just the grapes that produce the wine’s flavor, but all the environmental factors, like soil, rain patterns, and airflow, that effect the end product—the terroir, a French word for “sense of place.” 

    My expertise is in charcuterie and there is a similar phenomenon with Prosciutto di Parma (below). Prosciutto from this area is prized due to the pigs being raised in ideal circumstances, and for the weather. The dry, fragrant air sweeps off the Apennine Mountains, creating a perfect environment for curing meat and imparting a unique flavor that cannot be replicated. If the entire product isn’t produced in Parma, it isn’t Proscuitto di Parma.  

    This “Kobe beef mania” has grown due to false labeling and advertising. Because USDA labeling laws are very vague (non-existent when dealing with Japanese beef), many restaurants slap the “Kobe beef” or “Kobe-styled Beef” label on their product and get away with it. The animals they are selling might have been just a ¼ Wagyu and ¾ Angus and raised in Texas, but the general public doesn’t know the difference. A vast majority of the Wagyu that you see in the states have been crossbred with native cattle breeds to better adapt the foreign breed to their new environments. There are only about a dozen authorized dealers of Kobe beef in the states and I’ve provided an up-to-date list here.  

    With only 4,000 head of cattle meeting the requirements of “Kobe Beef” each year, chances are that much of the American public hasn’t touched it. Last year, the United States as a whole received just over 600 pounds of certified Kobe beef from Japan. 

Q: If an importer or restaurateur wanted to pay for the real wagyu and Kobe, how would he go about it?


A: If you were going to get into the meat business, I’d advise planning some producer visits. The only way to really know what you are putting in customers’ mouths is to go visit the source. I know a number of good quality ranches that produce Prime grade beef, such as 44 Farms, but many are already overwhelmed due to current demand.

      If you were going to open a steakhouse chain tomorrow, my number one stop would be 7X. The all-natural beef coming out of Colorado cattle is some of the best out there and they can handle quantity as well.

    As far as authentic Kobe beef, my best advice would be to book a flight to Japan and go shake some hands. I think Japanese producers are much more likely to deal with someone they have met in person rather than a random person they received an email from. I made my way around Europe in a similar fashion. After sending countless emails, I went and knocked on the doors of butcher shops until someone let me in the door to work for them.


Q: And what exactly is kosher beef?


A: Kosher beef is beef fit for Jewish consumption. The cattle must be slaughtered in a very ritualistic manner by a highly skilled butcher of high moral character. Cattle are usually chained by the leg to separate corners of the room and then given an inspection. If the animal passes the physical inspection, the butcher uses a very quick motion to slice through the throat and major blood vessels in the steer’s neck and the animal bleeds out while still conscious. It is a very stressful slaughter and the meat quality is certainly affected because of it. The organs are then submitted to another rigorous inspection and then the front half of the carcass is deveined under rabbinical supervision. The posterior end of the steer is too difficult to devein and is usually sold as non-kosher beef.




By John Mariani



    Way back in 1861, while the Civil War was in full swing in the East, a Prussian immigrant named Charles Krug (below) arrived in California’s Napa Valley to pioneer what was to become the state’s first commercial winery. (Incidentally, the winery has no relation to Krug Champagne.)

    Back then the grapes planted were Mission and he used a cider press, but by the 1880s Krug saw a future for Cabernet Sauvignon and other European varietals in the valley.  He also built the state’s first tasting and sales room.

In 1943, during another, larger war, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi (below) bought the Krug winery, by then up to 147 acres; today it is more than 850.  Now, four generations later, the Mondavi family is still expanding, experimenting, replanting and researching how to make better wines than the last generation, while still keeping to a family style.

    I caught up with what’s doing at Krug by having dinner with Peter Mondavi Jr. and his wife, Katie, at Bobby Van’s steakhouse in Manhattan.  To offer a sense of how things have changed, Peter said that back in the 1960s, an acre in Napa cost between $2,000 and $5,000; now, if you can find one, that cost can be in excess of $300,000.  Back then, an oak barrel cost $30, today $1,200.

    Peter Mondavi Sr. was an innovator, the first to use French oak barrels and cold fermentation and to introduce varietal label wines.  In 1986 he was honored by the Napa Valley Vintners Association as one of “Twelve Living Legends in the Napa Valley.”

    A little family background is necessary here, without getting into a generational saga of discord.  Yes, this is the same Mondavi family that includes the late Robert Mondavi, who, with his brother, Peter Sr., ran  Krug through most of the post-war period, founding the Napa Valley Technical Group in 1947 and promoting single varietal labeling. 

     After their father’s death in 1959, the brothers had a fractious falling out in 1965 that resulted in Robert leaving Krug to set up his own namesake winery in Oakville, successfully promoting it as a premium wine that could compete with the best in Europe.  (Much later, Robert and his side of the family lost control of their winery, owing to massive debt; Robert’s sons, Tim and Michael, now run their own wineries.)

    Peter Mondavi Sr. died at the age of 101 just last year, and the torch was passed to Peter Jr., and his brother, Marc. Their father had encouraged both sons to go away after college and to return to the wine business only if they really had a passion for it.  Peter Jr., trained as an engineer, told me, “I’d actually been working in the vineyards since I was eight years old, so I never really left.” There was a brief plan to put the Mondavi name on the label alongside Charles Krug, but it is now relegated to the back label.

    Given the 70-year history of the Mondavi stewardship at Krug, it seemed reasonable to ask whether the wines of the first two generations had held up, since California was not known for long-lived wines.“We had a library tasting of the Krug Cabernets from 1978 to 1959, in which the ’59 really stood out. Also, the ’66 vintage is outstanding,” Peter said.

   He said that since 2003 “Sustainability has been the key word at Krug,” and in 2008 a ten-year $25.6 million vineyard improvement program was completed. Today, 74% of the vineyards are planted with red Bordeaux varietals. In 2009 the Charles Krug Family Reserve Barrel Room and Carriage House were restored. 

    Over an appetizer of crabcakes and seared tuna, Peter, Jr., Katie (right), my wife and I enjoyed a Krug Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc ($18), cold-fermented in stainless steel, that escaped the overly grassy, perfumed style of so much New Zealand and California examples. A newly released 2016 Chardonnay ($21) gained body and fragrance by being aged in French oak sur lie for five months; at 14.3% alcohol it was bold but, I felt, lacked a balance of acid.

    As faithful readers of this column know, I am not a fan of California wines above 14.5% alcohol, an opinion I expressed to Peter.  He admitted that in some vintages his wines can go above that, but he argued that “alcohol is a byproduct,” meaning he and winemaker Stacy Clark do not deliberately aim for or boost the alcohol levels, as other wineries may do.

    With steaks, a veal chop and pork chop with garlic-rich potato cake, I preferred the more elegant 2014 Vintage Selection ($100)  to the 2013. I found the older wine, which is a blend of 98% Cab and 2% Petit Verdot and with alcohol at 15.5%,  at this point lacked the complexity of the 2014, though I think it may mellow out beautifully.  Peter said, “It looks like it will develop into a great vintage.”

    The 2014 Generations ($60) is a more complex blend to begin with—84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot and 3% Malbec—closer to a Pauillac style. Unfortunately that evening, a bottle of 2014 Limited Release Cold Springs Vineyard ($125)  was corked, but Peter was kind enough to send one to my home to try.  It’s 94% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot, spending 19 months in new French oak. A seared, medium rare NY strip steak was a natural pairing for the big Cab, at a whopping 15.7% alcohol. I found it at first luscious, bold and very Californian in style, but after one glass I was not really ready for a second, simply because it was more like drinking a vintage Port, which typically are only about four percentage points higher in alcohol.

    Still, I take Peter at his word that wines like these will develop, mature and gain complexity. Or maybe not.  Time will tell, but the Mondavi family has another generation in the wings to wait and find out.

Charles Krug Wine Library


I also asked Peter about this autumn’s devastating  fires, which spared much of the valleys' floor because vineyards have little dry scrub brush and the vines contain water; there was much more damage in Sonoma. A
ccording to the Wine Institute, of the 1,200 wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino, about 10 were destroyed or heavily damaged, and 90% of this year's harvest already was complete. Charles  Krug suffered no damage.





“It’s complicated [making vegetarian wines.] After wines have fermented, winemakers often depend on a practice called fining to remove impurities. In red wines, for instance, fining agents remove excess tannins. In white wines, they remove proteins that can make wine look cloudy. Traditionally, these fining agents have been made from animal products: egg whites for red wines and a derivative of fish bladders, called isinglass, for whites. But a growing number of Napa wineries are foregoing animal-derived fining agents — whether to be vegan friendly or simply because they want to produce wines that are as natural as possible. Currently there are at least two dozen Napa Valley wineries, regularly open to the public, that pour wines that are vegan friendly, whether labeled as such or not.”—Peter Fish, “How Much of the Wine You Drink Is Truly Vegan,” (11.12.17)





Greggs, a British bakery chain with more than 1,800 locations, released an Advent calendar showing the Three Wise Men gathered around a manger with a sausage roll in the manger instead of Baby Jesus.



Wine Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners



   Wine is a joy year-round but during the holidays, one grape varietal has really taken center stage in my daily activities – that most Italian of grapes, Sangiovese, and its ultimate expression – Brunello di Montalcino. 

    From mid-September through mid-October, the Sangiovese grown for our various styles of red wines are be harvested, culminating with the top selection for Brunello di Montalcino.

    Second, cooler weather here means it is time to start enjoying more red wines and especially Sangiovese based wines.  That includes Banfi’s cru of Brunello, Poggio alle Mura, literally the cream of the crop of our Sangiovese vineyards. Alongside our Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino, this year we introduced two more wines from the cru Poggio alle Mura – a Rosso di Montalcino and a Riserva of Brunello.  Rosso is sort of like the younger brother of Brunello, also made from 100% Sangiovese grapes but usually a selection from younger vines and the wine is aged only two years compared to the four required for Brunello.  The Riserva, on the other hand, is an even more selective harvest of Sangiovese, and ages for an additional year before release.

    What is so special about this cru Poggio alle Mura?  Well, it is the result our over 30 years of ongoing research at my family’s vineyard estate, Castello Banfi.  When we first began planting our vines there in the late 1970s studies from the University of Bordeaux indicated which strains of many varietals we should plant, based on the soil type and microclimate of each vineyard.  But when it came to the region’s native Sangiovese, there was only local lore, no scientific research.  So we took it upon ourselves to figure out this vine, and set off on three decades of incredibly detailed research. 

    We started with 600 apparent variations on Sangiovese, because it is so susceptible to variations in weather and soil, and narrowed that down to 160 truly genetically different clones.  We planted a vineyard with two rows of each type, made wine from each of them, and charted the differences – remember, you only get one chance a year to make wine, so this took time. 

    It took about ten years to get some concrete results, though we continue to experiment today and always will – you never stop learning in science and nature!  Once we determined which were the best, complementary clones that could be planted together to make the best Brunello, we chose to plant them in what we determined to be the optimal vineyard sites.  Coincidentally, the best soils and climate conditions are in the slopes surrounding the medieval fortress today known as Castello Banfi, known since Etruscan times as Poggio alle Mura – the walled hilltop.  Hence the name of our most special “cru” of Brunello, representing a synthesis between tradition and innovation.

    Though the focus of this study was our Brunello, all of our Sangiovese-based wines, including the super Tuscans SummuS, Cum Laude, and Centine, benefited from this work.  And that’s the third reason for celebrating Sangiovese this month, for the range of wonderful reds that usher us into autumn!  One wine in particular was inspired by our research – the BelnerO, a Sangiovese dominant blend with what I like to call a kiss of Cabernet and a whisper of Merlot.  We grow the grapes a little differently for BelnerO than for Brunello, make the wine with less oak aging and released it earlier from the winery, providing a counterpoint to Brunello and a lovely terroir-driven wine in its own right.

     If you know Italians, you know that by nature we are multi-faceted, varying in mood, and always passionate.  As a nation, we span from the hot sunny beaches of Sicily near the African coast to the rugged mountains and Alpine ski slopes of Trentino-Alto Adige in the north.  Sangiovese is grown in almost all of Italy’s regions and reflects the unique nature of each; it is most famous (rightfully so) in Tuscany, yet even there it reflects the nuances of each hilltop, valley and subzone.  It has something a little different to say in Brunello than Chianti, Morellino than Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Rosso di Montalcino than Super Tuscan blends. 

    Here is a smattering of Sangiovese-based wines that you may wish to get to know better, reflecting a spectrum that appeals to every occasion, every taste, and every budget.  We can assure you that the conversation will never become boring.

Recommendations for Celebrating Sangiovese 


BelnerO Proprietor’s Reserve Sangiovese – A refined cuvée of noble red grapes perfected by our pioneering clonal research. This dark beauty, BelnerO, is produced at our innovative winery, chosen 11 consecutive years as Italy’s Premier Vineyard Estate. Fermented in our patented temperature controlled French oak and aged approximately 2 additional years. Unfiltered, and Nitrogen bottled to minimize sulfites.  


Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino – Rich, round, velvety and intensely aromatic, with flavor hints of licorice, cherry, and spices. Brunello di Montalcino possesses an intense ruby-red color, and a depth, complexity and opulence that is softened by an elegant, lingering aftertaste. Unfiltered after 1998 vintage.  


Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino – Brunello's "younger brother," produced from select Sangiovese grapes and aged in barrique for 10 to 12 months. Deep ruby-red, elegant, vibrant, well-balanced and stylish with a dry velvety finish. 

Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – A single vineyard selection of our most historically outstanding Sangiovese, aged five years before release, the additional year more than that required of Brunello including 6 months in barrel and 6 months more in bottle to grant its “Riserva” designation.  Incredible elegance and harmony. Intense with lots of fruit and subtle wood influence. Round, complete, well balanced with hints of chocolate and berries. Unfiltered after 1998.


Poggio alle Mura – The first tangible result of years of intensive clonal research on Montalcino’s native Sangiovese grape.  Estate bottled from the splendidly sun drenched vineyards surrounding the medieval Castello from which it takes its name.  The Brunello di Montalcino is seductive, silky and smoky.  Deep ruby in color with an expressive bouquet of violets, fruits and berries as well as cigar box, cedar and exotic spices. The Rosso di Montalcino is also intense ruby red.  The bouquet is fresh and fruity with typical varietal notes of cherry and blackberry, enriched by more complex hints of licorice, tobacco and hazelnut.  It is full bodied, yet with a soft structure, and a surprisingly long finish. The Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is deep ruby red with garnet reflections and a rich, ample bouquet that hints of prune jam, coffee, cacao and a light balsamic note.  It is full and powerful, with ripe and gentle tannins that make it velvety and harmonious; this wine is supported by a pleasing minerality that to me speaks soundly of that special hillside in southern Montalcino.

SummuS – A wine of towering elegance, SummuS is an extraordinary blend of Sangiovese which contributes body; Cabernet Sauvignon for fruit and structure; and Syrah for elegance, character and a fruity bouquet.  An elegant, complex and harmonious red wine. 

Cum Laude – A complex and elegant red which graduated “With Honors,” characterized by aromas of juicy berries and fresh spices.


Centine – A Cuvee that is more than half Sangiovese, the balanced consisting of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Vinified in a firm, round style that easily accompanies a wide range of dishes, this is a smooth and fragrantly satisfying wine with international character, and a perennial favorite at my own dinner table. 

Banfi Chianti Superiore – The “Superiore” designation signifies stricter government regulations regarding production and aging requirements, as compared to regular Chianti.  An intense ruby red wine with fruit forward aromas and floral notes.  This is a round wine with well-balanced acidity and fruit.

Banfi Chianti Classico – An enduring classic: alluring bouquet of black fruit and violets; rich flavors of cherry and leather; supple tannins and good acidity for dining. 

Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva – Produced from select grapes grown in the "Classico" region of Chianti, this dry, fruity and well-balanced red has a full bouquet reminiscent of violets.

Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico – This is our newest entry into the Chianti arena, coming from a 99 acre estate in Castellina, the heart of the Chianti Classico region.  The wine is a captivating mauve red that smells of cherry, plum and blackberry with hints of spice.  It is round, full and balanced with very good acidity.  

Col di Sasso – Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Luscious, complex and soft with persistent notes of fruit and great Italian style structure.


Cristina Mariani is not related by family or through business with John Mariani, publisher of this newsletter



 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has won top prize  from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe,  The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  THIS WEEK:

Eating Las Vegas JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;

MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Geoff Kalish, Mort Hochstein, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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