January 27, 2020
-by Bruce Neyers
In the spring of 1971, I began working for Connoisseur Wine Imports in San Francisco. It was my first serious job in the wine business, and the owners hired me soon after I was discharged from the army. They suggested that I would learn the wine business there, although most of what I did was unload containers, hand-truck wine around their vast cellars, and build displays – work requiring a strong back and not so strong a mind. We specialized in the wines of France, and while I didn’t know much about them, I tasted them often and learned to love them.
Early on a Monday morning, soon after I arrived for work, one of the owners gave me a list of red Bordeaux wines he wanted me to assemble in the back room, an area that doubled as our lunch room and client tasting room. Modesto Lanzone, I was told, was coming in to taste recent arrivals for his wine list. I didn’t know Modesto, but I had walked by his namesake restaurant in Ghirardelli Square a number of times. It looked fascinating – and expensive — so I was eager to meet him.
I assembled the wines, opened them, set up for the tasting, and Modesto arrived. The owners of the business were brothers-in-law, Art Formicelli and Bal Gibson. Art guided Modesto through the wines, while I looked on. When finished, Modesto wrote down a substantial order and handed it to Art. Art in turn passed it along to me with instructions to isolate the wines Modesto wanted and set them up for delivery. I delivered them the next day. While I was unloading the shipment, Modesto stopped by and, recognizing me from the tasting, started up a conversation. I explained a bit about my background, including my recent discharge from the army, and expressed my enthusiasm about learning the wine business. I also mentioned that my wife was a talented cook. When he learned that I had never eaten at his restaurant, he quickly invited us to come as his guests.
We acted on his generous invitation that weekend and enjoyed one of the best meals ever. The centerpiece of the meal was Risotto, Modesto’s specialty. With the Risotto, Modesto brought out a bottle of one of the wines I had just delivered, a red Bordeaux from 1966 that was way beyond our budget. I declined, but he insisted, reminding me that we were his guests. The wine was extraordinary, I thought, but I was struck by how well it went with the Risotto. I mentioned that, and Modesto replied simply, “Properly made Risotto requires the best wine you can serve with it.” That’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Barbara has a gift for making Risotto, and prepared some for dinner last week. With it, we opened a bottle of our 2017 ‘Napa Valley’ Cabernet Sauvignon, a new wine that we just began to sell. It’s Cabernet that comes largely from a vineyard in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, a relatively new AVA that sits in the southern-most part of Napa Valley, along the Silverado Trail. I learned about the area in 1975 when I was at Phelps. We bought grapes from the area, and I was impressed with the finished wine. It’s a cold weather region, and produces wines that are elegant and nicely balanced, but there was concern that the area had trouble fully ripening grapes. In vintages like 2017, that wasn’t an issue, and the low pH and high natural acidity gave us a wine of dark color, gratifying richness and attractive complexity. Tadeo added 5% Merlot to the finished wine, so one of its most charming features is an amazing softness. It was easy for me to guzzle a couple of glasses with the Risotto.
I’m enthusiastic about this wine. I’m similarly enthusiastic about Barbara’s Risotto, which I’m told is easy to make. I asked her for the recipe, so please try making it at home, and accompany it with a bottle of our newest wine.
“I was impressed with the finished wine.”
Wild Mushroom Risotto per Barbara Neyers
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
6 cups chicken stock
2 cups wild mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced into ½-inch pieces
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a large pot heat the chicken stock
Sauté the mushrooms until cooked, then set aside
Heat the rice and olive oil in a pot until the rice is coated with the oil
Slowly add the warmed chicken stock to the rice, stirring the rice with each addition
Once the rice is cooked, add the mushrooms
Remove from heat and season to taste
Top each serving of Risotto with grated Parmesan
For her recent preparation, Barbara was able to locate fresh Morels, Chanterelles, Oyster Mushrooms and Boletus Edulis at Sunshine Grocery in St. Helena. She often adds cooked Pancetta to the dish with the mushrooms.