Tasting Italian Wines for Fun and Charity

Long a fan of the “light whites” such as soave and pinot grigio, over the past month I’ve fallen in love again with Italian wines. (Never fear, Champagne, you’ll always be first in my heart!)

As spring began to arrive here in Minnesota, I was excited to attend a series of events that promised the superb combination of fun, friends, vintages in both Italian film and tasting flights, as well as an introduction to a fabulous new local charity.

Starting down the path to ubriachezza, our group found itself on a Tuesday evening at La Cucina di Nonna Rosa’s for movie night. This was a spring series of specially-selected films related to Italian culture and places, paired with a wine feature. Diners were treated to the feature which was projected on a large screen in the corner of Nonna Rosa’s private dining room, providing atmosfera unica to enjoy Francesco’s culinary talent.

Nonna Rosa’s is owned by Francesco and Tina Suglia, who was inspired by her grandparents’ romance to meet the right man and marry in their footsteps. Francesco, born in the southeast region of Puglia, grew up learning to cook from his mother and grandmother using ingredients in their region: fresh seafoods, garden herbs, and natural meats and cheeses. They met in the Twin Cities and opened Nonna Rosa’s to honor both families’ legacy.

The first feature we saw was Come September, starring Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida, a classic, light-hearted, innocent boy-meets-girl comedy with supporting appearances by Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee. Set mostly in Portofino, the movie’s scenery was breathtaking and it was beautifully complemented by the wine feature.

The Nero d’Avola grape varietal is indigenous to Sicily, first cultivated in Roman times near Syracuse. The Arancio Nero d’Avola is a bargain at around $8/bottle and its berry hints went well with my dinner: a pan-seared fresh salmon served on a bed of mushroom risotto, finished with a lemon-white wine sauce with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes.

We tasted the previous week’s selection, Frescobaldi Remole, which had been paired with Under the Tuscan Sun. This wine was more dense and complex, aromatic with fruits – blackberry, raspberry, cherry and red currant, but punctuated with hints of spice and black pepper. Remole is made with a combination of grapes: the sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon. The taste of this wine lingered, much as the story I remembered so vividly of Frances Mayes and her love affair with Tuscany and her husband-to-be.

Eagerly, our group reserved a front row table for It Started in Naples, starring Sophia Loren and Clark Gable. This was the last film released during Gable’s lifetime, and was filmed on location in Rome, Naples and Capri. We thought the show was stolen by the child actor, Marietto, a charming and precocious thespian.

Likewise, the wine pairing, Villa Sandi Prosecco, was light and bubbly, with notes of apple, citrus and melon. The Villa Sandi operation, in the Veneto region, is housed in a 17th century neo-classical palace under which several miles of tunnels, used in WWI by the Italian army, now store over a million bottles of wine. This Prosecco is nicely priced at around $13/bottle, and I enjoyed it more than I did my Insalata Toscana – mesclun greens with balsamic vinaigrette, goat cheese, walnuts, marinated artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes.

We decided to cap off our temporary romance with post-war Italian film with what many perceive to be the epitome of the genre – Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. This night our group consisted of my sisters-in-law – Teri and Jenny, and daughters Jessica and Robin, along with one of Robin’s girlfriends. Nice of the young’uns to hang out and indulge the old ladies, wasn’t it? Teri brought along a bag of vintage scarves, which we all donned in honor of Audrey’s “look” in the movie.

The Arancio Pinot Noir wine pairing for Roman Holiday was described as having “aromatic elegance and a hint of spice,” just like Audrey. It paired well with every pasta we ordered: tortellini pugliesi – tossed with mushrooms and sweet Italian sausage in a rosa sauce, gnocchi bolognesi, fettuccine alfredo, and spaghetti allo scoglio – tossed with mussels, calamari, shrimp, scallops in a pomodoro broth, a specialty of the Puglia region.

Two days later, I joined Jenny again, along with two other friends, for a A Glass Half Full, an event hosted by local Twin Cities musician, Mick Sterling, to benefit his charity, The 30-Days Foundation. Here’s Mick on video: You Don’t Know What Dirty Is. See why we like him so much?

The 30-Days Foundation is a simple and elegant solution to a common problem in this recession, that of someone, barely making it month to month, who needs a financial assist without having to navigate the labyrinth of social agency services: We want to help people get over the hump. To take care of a nagging bill that won’t leave them alone. To provide them a down payment for an apartment. To fix their tires and other car repairs so they can get to work every morning. To pay for groceries for the month. To buy baby supplies for the newborn. To buy their kids some school clothes and supplies and multiple other real-life scenarios that every family and individual has gone through. The 30-Day Foundation exists to help people out of a temporary jam and get them through the month before a precarious financial situation starts to snowball.

A Glass Half Full married the traditional silent/live auction fundraising event concept with a dinner at Spill the Wine Restaurant.  Located in the theatre district in downtown Minneapolis, Spill the Wine has been voted #1 wine bar and #1 wine list by readers of Minnesota Monthly magazine. Our experience this evening was the result of creative efforts by Spill the Wine’s executive chef, Craig Johnson and Mary Beth Gallagher, representing Wine Merchants of St. Paul.

Mary Beth spent time last year in Italy, getting to know Italian wines and vintners. This definitely paid off for us, as she introduced each one of her selections with a charming back story. I was excited to taste and learn.

We started off greeted by an appetizer, an amuse bouche consisting of a gourgere puff with prosciutto and baby arugula, paired with a festive sparkling wine from the Veneto region: Cuvee Astoria “Lounge.” This wine is a 90/10 Prosecco/Chardonnay blend, which Mary Beth described as having floral, Golden Delicious apple and pear aromas. Prosecco wines as a whole are lighter than Champagne and a little less bubbly. So delicious, I resolved to buy a few bottles right then. The evening was off to an auspicious start!

Course One was a wild mushroom bruschetta with taleggio, on a base of truffle oil. Mary Beth instructed us that Italians believe “what grows together, goes together.” In that spirit, she had selected Rittrati Pinot Noir ’07, from Trentino. This extreme northeast region in Italy is bisected by a mountain range, and its northernmost part, the Alte Adige, borders on Austria. Known for its extensive array of wild mushrooms, the Alte Adige is also famous for strudels made from local apples. The Rittrati pinot was very earthy but still easy, and I bought two bottles.

Our second course was exceptional: cabernet braised short ribs on a puree of yukon gold potatoes with natural jus. So tender, the meat fell apart in uneven strands as we tried in vain to make this course last. Mary Beth chose a Tuscan Morellino di Scansano from the Poggio Morino winery. Their 2006 bottling was selected by The Wine Buyer as one of Five Fantastic Finds a year ago. This wine is primarily made from the Sangiovese grape, which finds itself at the heart of Tuscan table wines such as chianti or brunello. This was a flavorful, medium weight wine that went very well with the short ribs. I rounded out my wine purchases with a couple of bottles of this, as well.

Our dessert course was billed as a nougat terrine, but what came seemed more like a golden sponge cake with lime zest, similar in spirit to tiramisu. The Nero d’Avola Mary Beth paired with this was from the Oko vineyard, but didn’t seem as good as the Arancio Nero d’Avola we had tasted at Nonna Rosa’s, so I passed on purchasing it.

Throughout all this, a rollicking great time was being had as a dynamic live auctioneer encouraged generous bidding on a variety of live and silent auction items. At the end of the night, many tens of thousands of dollars were raised for Mick’s foundation.

What a great few weeks it has been with these events! I am sorry to have to miss the last feature of Nonna Rosa’s Tuesday movie nights: Three Coins in a Fountain, which will be paired with Umberto Fiori Moscato d’Asti, another sparkling wine. Tina Suglia informs us that her patio seating will be opening up for warmer weather, and based upon the success of these movie nights, she may repeat the concept in open air format over the summer. What fun that will be!

I am certain that Mick Sterling will continue with creative event planning for his charity, as well. His good friend and wine expert Mary Beth Gallagher is available for Twin Cities area home and special event wine tasting, too. If they repeat A Glass Half Full, Jenny and I will jump at the chance to introduce more friends to this worthy cause.

For certain: we’re far more knowledgeable about Italian wines now than we were several weeks ago, and we’ll be enjoying them regularly thanks to the efforts of these fine folks. Salute!

Are you a fan of Italian wine? What kinds of special restaurant and charity events do you enjoy attending?

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    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Dot – You and me both! I loved learning more about red wine, in particular. Thanks.

  1. says

    Hi Betsy .. what a brilliant concept – great films, great wine, great friends and great food .. quite honestly what more could one want … ah yes – a great Pete!!!!!!

    Love this post – and really it deserves more time .. especially the film recommendations and tours of the wines etc ..

    I’ll be back sometime ..

    Cheers for now .. and see you around .. Hilary
    Hilary has an awesome blog post here: O is for Oak – that’s what O is for My Profile

  2. says

    Thanks so much for coming out for our Dinner & A Movie features, we had such a good time with you and the ladies, our run ends with the last one tonight! On a different but related matter, our next wine event is the Tuscan Wine Dinner for Mother’s on Thursday the week of Mother’s Day, (5/12) we will also be featuring the Poggio Morino wines including the Morrelino Di Scansano with our Tuscan fare! Salute!