Paolo Scavino: Crossing over into Italy

Old grape vines, like old people, have a soul, Riccardo explained.  Take Enrico Scavino, for example.  Enrico, he always says I know more than him, but, of course, he knows more than me.

View from the loading dock.

Enrico, the son of Paolo, was out on the fields that morning at 6:30.  He is 74 years old.  Enrico was helping with the green harvest, trimming away bunches of unripe grapes to let them decompose back into the ground.  There are only a limited number of resources, and fewer grapes means higher quality.  This rule always seems to hold true.

The wine library at Paolo Scavino.


We only make wine from grapes that are at least 15 years old.  Time, suffering, deeper roots- these are things that create a great wine.  At some point back in the 60’s, Enrico decided he wanted to stop blending all of his Nebbiolo grapes together and make a wine that represented the best that his land had to offer.  Then he made the single vineyard Bric de Fiasc, 1978.  Enrico was an iconoclast, a part of a group of iconoclasts.


The land has been good to us, Riccardo said.  The land has given to us.  We decided that we would give something back.  He pointed at a label of the 2008 Bric de Fiasc Riserva.  This vintage of the Bric de Fiasc was the only reserve they had ever made from that land, and it was the only reserve they would ever make.  All of the proceeds from that reserve would be invested into charities that protected the land.  We’re not in America, anymore, I said.  We’re not even in France, anymore.

The bigger barrels in the back are made of Slovenian oak. Slovenian oak barrels are sometimes used for decades.

Ricardo brought out three tasting glasses- one for me, one for my brother, and one for himself.  They were Zalto glasses.  These glasses are the best for the wine, Ricardo said.  He poured a tiny amount of wine into each glass and swirled it around until it coated the inside of the glass.  You must prepare the bed for the king, he said, and winked.






Pontet Canet: Black as a Moonless Night

Before Josh and I visited Pontet Canet, we read through some of the reviews together.  Pontet Canet has been raking in the 100 point reviews from powerful tasting and judging mouths, even from the most powerful mouth, that of Robert Parker.  I listened as Josh read through the first review.  When he got to the end, he looked up, and I said, “Again.  Read it one more time.”  After the second time, I said, “Graphite? The stuff in pencils?  It has a taste?”

The wine library at Pontet Canet.

Poetry is alive and well here.  Robert Parker enriches the wines he likes with the flourish of his language, and he loves the 2009 Pontet Canet.  All he needs is to break his words up into lines, and he could be our next poet laureate. Allow me, Mr. Parker.


Pontet Canet, 2009

by Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer, Wine Spectator, and Annie Newton



As a moonless night.

Incense, graphite, smoke

Licorice, creme de cassis



Purity precision

Penetrating minerality.

Irrefutable, quintessential, colossal

Like liquid velvet

Layer after layer

Of weight and richness.

A tour de force

Of integrated components:

the tannin

the acidity

the wood

the alcohol.


At the winery, we tasted the 2009 Pontet Canet.  The wine was truly darker than any Bordeaux that Josh and I had yet seen.  That’s because Pontet Canet doesn’t do the powdered egg white floater technique, God bless them.  They have a more liberal and modern stance on sediment.  I also found the graphite in the wine, probably because I was looking for it.  Pontet Canet doesn’t just age their wine in wood, they also make casks from the same earth that each separate varietal was grown in.  Penetrating minerality, indeed.  

The wine vats made from the same earth the grapes were grown in. Modeled after an ancient Roman technique, if I remember correctly.

Wine tasting has a way of revealing all of the vulnerabilities and insecurities of the taster.  This originated from a yuppy-sort who was also on our tour:

Do you taste cherry in this?  I think I might taste cherry, but I’m not really sure if that’s what I’m tasting.  On the nose maybe it’s cherry, maybe it changes to figs once you put it in your mouth?  Oh, ok.  You get the cherry, too?  I mean, I just wasn’t sure, I just wanted to make sure that the thing I thought I was tasting, I was actually tasting.  Thanks, man.
As I was marveling at this guy’s ability to revise his entire experience based on a possible withheld validation of that experience, Josh swirled his glass with panache.  “This wine is as black as moonless night,” he said.

Translation: “You would not have limited the number of my days down here- these days so troubled and so short, a witness to your power and your kindness. I await the days of endless immortality.”

Pontet Canet: The Principles of Biodynamism


combining form
1. indicating or involving life or living organisms: biogenesis; biolysis.
2. indicating a human life or career: biography; biopic.
  1. the quality of being characterized by vigorous activity and progress.
  2. the theory that phenomena of matter or mind are due to the action of forces rather than to motion or matter



    “Over there, behind the trees,” the vineyard worker told us.  We were lost in a maze of Pauillac fields.  The worker was pointing straight across the fields and smiling.  We started off through the tilled rows of grapevines to the disturbingly far away line of trees in the distance.  We were going to be late.  

    “These fields aren’t Pontet Canet fields,” said Josh, who had learned to be suspicious of my listening comprehension skills in the French language, especially when it came to directions.  “Just look at the tractor marks.”


    Pontet Canet doesn’t use tractors to till the fields, they use ingeniously designed plows pulled by horses.  Also, they don’t use pumps to macerate the grapes, they rely on gravity.  And, thank heavens, they don’t waste a million powdered egg whites to remove the sediment from the wine.  I’ve unsuccessfully tried to keep my preaching and pontificating to a minimum, but the egg white thing… is the worst.  In my opinion.  

    At Pontet Canet, this radical switchover began as a collaboration between the manager and the owner based on the agricultural teachings of man named Rudolf Steiner.  Steiner was a crazy, genius, Renaissance man who not only founded a new agriculture philosophy known as biodynamic agriculture, he also founded a new educational philosophy that is still practiced in Steiner schools and Waldorf schools.  In professional educational opinion, the Steiner methods are much more congruent with actual cognitive theory and brain research than traditional education.  Vygotsky’s concepts of development and processes of learning, Bruner’s work on creating meaning with language- all of it supports Steiner’s pedagogy.  And Steiner was completely unaware of the research, as far as I know.  

    Rudolf Steiner. This guy is serious.

    Steiner was a prolific author, and when browsing through his penned works, you can immediately notice that he was a strange hybrid of a man- half data-driven scientist, and half crackpot mystic.  The same man who wrote The Education of a Child and Early Lectures on Education also wrote Cosmic Memory:  The Story of Atlantis, Lemuria, and the Division of the Sexes.  Steiner’s thoughts on agriculture seem to represent both halves of Steiner’s mind.  In biodynamic agriculture, there are no harsh chemicals used, and the soil is organically enriched to keep it productive without exhausting the minerals.  Also, the moon cycles and astrological year marks are observed and acted upon in the fields. My brother told me that when an animal dies who worked the land, the skull has to be buried and filled with flowers.  I have no idea if this is true.


    Pontet Canet is certified biodynamic, so they practice the whole shebang.  And it works for them.  Robert Parker and the rest of highfalutin’ prophets of the wine world can’t get enough of Pontet Canet’s wine.  Parker gave Pontet Canet multiple 100 point scores since their switchover to biodynamic practices.  It seems that one day, the manager (who must be a quirky, radical, passionate type) came up to the owner (who must be an open-minded, idiosyncratic sort of rich person), and proposed getting rid of all the machines and switching over to biodynamism.  And the owner agreed.  One day, all the men who rode tractors were told they had to learn to till the fields with horses.  No wonder the man in the fields laughed at us as he gave directions.

    Josh and I kept walking, and distant tree line began to materialize in the haze as it came closer.  “Look at the ground, Annie,” he said.  I looked down at my feet, and there were no more tractor tracks.  Instead, there were parallel lines carved in the earth, divots that could have been made by a rake.  A rake pulled by a horse.


Chateau d’Issan

As a town, Margaux is prettier than Pauillac. Pauillac is a bit of a rootie poot town, as my brother would say. The millionaire owners of Lynch-Bages must agree with Josh. They created a little village just for themselves around their chateau with “everything a French town needs,” that is, a restaurant and a boulangerie. And just like the rootie poot real town of Pauillac, everything in the makeshift Lynch-Bages village shuts down on Sundays. Pauillac on a Sunday feels post-apocalyptic.


Chateau d’Issan


In 1855, Napoleon Bonaparte blew into the wine world of France, and labeled certain wines from certain regions “grand cru classes.” There are five tiers of grand crus classes are five first tier grand crus in the Bordeaux region.  Chateau d’Issan is a third tier grand cru.  Napoleon’s rating actually came recently in Chateau d’Issan’s history.  Before Napoleon, before the beautiful chateau with its moat, before the tiny village of Issan, wine was made on Chateau d’Issan land. The wine at Henry Plantagenet’s 12th century wedding came from land that is today Chateau d’Issan.

The moat, with the windmill in the far background.



The moat is fed from water from the Gironde river. The Gironde borders the Chateau d’Issan land, which is divided into three sections: the strip next to the river, the middle strip, and the strip furthest from the river. The strip closest to the river is the richest soil. Chateau d’Issan leases this land to other farmers who grow corn and sunflowers on it. The vines have to suffer to make good wine, and any grapes grown next to the river could never be up to the standard of any Bordeaux, especially not a grand cru classe. The middle strip of land is planted in vines that are made into a Bordeaux superior, called Moulin d’Issan after a mound of crumbling bricks that was once a windmill.  Even this soil is a little too rich to properly deprive the vines, so Chateau d’Issan plants grass between the rows to compete for the low-lying nutrients.  And on the strip farthest from river, on the poorest soil, grows the Margaux appellation, the stuff Napoleon drank.  Soil affects grapes and quality, and the dirt is present in the glass.


Suffering vines.


Time is also present in the glass.  We tried a 2001 Chateau d’Issan and a 2011 Chateau d’Issan, two years with comparable weather conditions.  You can see time in the color.  An aged wine begins to develop a rich brownness.  You can smell the time.  Time smells like that sunshiny wooden floor in an old house, the image I used to attach to an aged Nebbiolo. I have revised that taste image.  The Floor Scrapers tastes of of age.


French oak barrels.


Chateau d’Issan also uses processed egg powder to clarify their wine, despite the alternatives offered by technology.  They do it because it’s expected, I guess.


About that Nebbiolo…

My brother told me the other day that Nebbiolo is named after the Italian word for fog.  The fog is that dusty film that covers the outside of all grapes, whether they are ripening on the vines in Piedmont, or in a plastic bag in the supermarket.  Blueberries have these fog clouds, too.  This fog is the yeast colonies that settle on the outside of the fruit, drawn the sugar stored behind the skins, I imagine.  This yeast is the yeast that eventually ferments the wine.  As any homebrewer knows, when you make beer, you have to add the yeast yourself.  When you make wine, the yeast comes to you.


Nebbiolo is the grape, and I will be paying it a visit in a few weeks with my sommelier chef brother.  The wine that is made from these Nebbiolo cloud grapes is Barolo.  I have tasted Barolo before with my brother.  And last week I tried a Nebbiolo d’Alba.  Both of these wines are made in Piedmont, and both of these wines are from 100% Nebbiolo grapes.  And they are so different.


Here is a random smattering of some other people’s word attempts to capture the personality of the Barolo:


a stern-faced ‘worthy’ of Italian wine; a big, tough, terrifying red; a giant of propriety; dark, chewy, and exhausting for the first few years of their life, yet which can blossom out into a remarkable shower of flavours; a class apart; massive


To me, a Barolo tastes like a very old house with glass windows that have started to waver with time.  The windows face east, and the sun is shining into them at an angle, and as a square of the wood heats up under the sun, it comes alive with the smells of time.  And it changes.  A carpenter once told me that wood is a vein. It changes with water, and it absorbs from the air.  The older the wood is, the more life it has absorbed and can breathe out.


This is almost, very nearly, what a Barolo tastes like when it’s ripe. An earlier version of the Floor Scrapers by Caillebotte.