Articles by: Mattie john Bamman

  • Art & Culture

    Wine: Italy’s Favorite Energy Drink

    Italy’s Puglia region is one of the oldest and most underappreciated wine producing regions in the world, and the Apulia Wine Convenzione proved it. The convention took place in the giant courtyard of the Palazzo dei Celestini, adjacent to the famous, elaborately carved church of Santa Croce in Lecce, Italy. White LED lights outlined the sweeping architecture and large candles burned among palm trees, making for a festive mood, not unlike a low key Mardi Gras. Hundreds of wines were beautifully arranged beneath the portico that wraps around the courtyard, and from my notes, I tasted around seventy of them. Several were extremely impressive. So impressive that, as the jazz band took the stage on the first night in the “City of Jazz,” I went in search of an explanation. Why have these wines been overlooked for something like 2,000 years?

        The answer has nothing to do with the global wine market’s unwillingness to test Pugliese wines. And though it is tempting to blame the slow advancement of technology, this also falls short of the mark. The answer turned out to be much more fundamental.

    Puglia is the second largest producer of wine in Italy (Italy in turn being the country that produces more wine than any other), and from its very beginning, as the poems of Horace reveal (1st Century B.C.), the wines were strong and sweet. Puglia’s best known native grapes are red:

    Negroamaro and Primitivo, which has the same DNA as Zinfandel, with more and more superb wines being made from local Aglianico and Nero di Troia grapes. All of these grapes are capable of creating very dark, brooding wines, and I had always blamed Puglia’s lackluster wine history on the weather.

    The past 4,000 years of wine making in the region suffered from the lack of temperature-controlled fermentation; one of the primary challenges for winemakers was creating wine that didn’t spoil in the barrel. A high alcohol level, which goes hand in hand with high levels of residual sugar, helped Pugliese winemakers preserve their wine. The sweet wines did not impress wine drinkers from the north. Likewise, few Pugliese natives had much esteem for their native grapes, and they exported most of their wine for blending. 

    But then, why, thirty years after temperature-controlled fermentation was introduced to the region, are so many Negroamaro and Primitivo wines still too sweet?
    To understand the reason you have to first understand Puglia’s enduring agricultural industry. Puglia has the most level land of any region in Italy and for that reason agriculture has been its primary industry. Puglia is also one of Italy’s poorest regions. Put yourself into the shoes of a Pugliese field worker in the 1400’s. You’ve worked hard all morning and the sun is bearing down. You stop for the traditional light lunch of bread and vegetables, but you need something extra to give you the energy to complete your work. And that has been the primary relationship between Pugliese and their wine: a source of energy. This tradition continues today, and Puglia’s wine scene is still second to beer and spirits.

    At the Apulia Wine Convenzione I sampled around 35 wines that were either 100% Negroamaro or 100% Primitivo. The majority lacked balance. If winemakers could stop making red wines that taste like late harvest Zinfandels they’d attract more global attention. Overblown flavors were all over the place, from coffee, cola, and chocolate to blackberry, strawberry, and raisin juice. The few varietals that were not overblown, on the other hand, were very good. I liked the great aging ability of Tenuta Cocevoli’s 2006 “Vandalo” (100% Nero di Troia) with omnipresent soft tannins. It can also be drunk young, its tannins standing up to heavily seasoned or heavily brothed meats. I found L’Astore Masseria’s 2007 “Filimei” (100% Negroamaro) nicely expressive, with a green bell pepper and herbasciousness that reminded me of South American wines. Its dark finish typified the character of the Negroamaro grape.

    The blended Primitivo and Negroamaro wines were truly tremendous. My favorite wine of the event was Ionis’s 2004 “Suavitas Salice Salentino” (90% Primitivo 10% Malvasia Nera), which had the huge depth of dried fruit and soft tannins that I’ve come to associate with the very best Salice Salentino wines. Aged in barrique, this wine was not over oaked or overtaken by vanilla scents. Taurino’s 2003 “Patriglione” (90% Negroamaro 10% Malvasia Nera) had all the qualities of sitting down in a big leather armchair in your grandfather’s den. The huge, leathery fruit of the wine was gentle, though, dismissing any thought of old-timer pretension.

    The rosès (rosato in Italian) convinced me that they are Puglia’s greatest assets in the global wine. The dark character of the Negroamaro grape succeeds in creating a wonderful structure when used to create rosè. None of the rosès I tasted were sweet, and very few exhibited the fruity, creamy flavor of strawberry yogurt, which I, personally, find wimpy. I like my rosè to have an intense fruit and floral aroma and a high acidity level that cuts through them, leaving the mouth feeling clean and refreshed. I mean, who’s going to drink a rosè on a cold winter’s eve? These wines are meant to cut through the muggy heat of the Mediterranean, and it is my opinion that they have more depth than rosès from cooler climates. Leone De Castris, founded in 1661 and thought to be the first producer of rosato in Italy, was my second favorite wine of the event, the 2008 “5 Roses Anniversary Rosato” (80% Negroamaro 20% Malvasia Nera of Lecce). I later learned its nickname, the “King of Rosès.” I also liked Tenuta Cocevola’s “Castel Del Monte” (100% Nero di Troia), which was nicely light, with good tannins for food pairing.

    Although I was least impressed with the whites, primarily because few represented the region’s native grapes, with more than 50% being Chardonnay, there were two unique wines in the line up. Taurino’s wines stuck out throughout the entire event, but the winery’s 2008 “Sierri” (“mostly” Chardonnay with Malvasia Bianco) clearly stood alone amongst the whites. It was atypical for a Chardonnay, with a lighter body and a crisp acidity that made it a great palate cleanser. After extolling on Taurino’s overall strong performance, I must follow up with Torrevento, which made wines that I included among my favorites in every category, including the 2006 “Castel Del Monte” (70% Bombino 30% Pampanuto), which exhibited impressive balance.

    Unfortunately, the wines that featured the region’s native white grapes were underwhelming. The only Fiano I found was strangled by lemon. The two wines made from the Verdeca grape, which I had been excited to try, were middle of the road in expressiveness.

        There were two dessert wines being poured, of which Taurino’s “Le Ricordanze” (Semillon and Riesling) is worthy of mention. Though it is sometimes true that white dessert wines cannot hold their own when paired with chocolate, Taurino’s had enough sweetness to balance the delicious Vico Chocolate selection, yet it also danced off the tongue without a hint of stickiness.

        The Apulia Wine Convenzione showed me that Puglia’s winemakers are honing their voice and homing in on a style. More and more winemakers are setting their sights on a wine market that appreciates wines for more than energy. The reds are wildly approachable and many are capable of significant aging due to longer maceration periods. The rosès exhibit the Mediterranean terroir, and their clean, vibrant, and dry qualities will appeal to many countries. This is particularly pertinent in regards to regions like Napa Valley, whose rosès, let’s face it, are mostly strawberry soda pop.

  • Art & Culture

    Renzo Piano Reinvents The Natural Science Museum

     In 1451, the painter Filippo Brunelleschi decided to paint the architecture of Florence as it was reflected in a mirror. He couldn’t have known that his “duplication,” or mere copying of the reflection, would lead to one of the greatest intellectual periods in western civilization, the Renaissance. By noticing that the lines of his painting all converged at one point on the horizon, Brunelleschi had reinvented perspective. Perhaps less profound, but no less innovative, is the perspective with which Genovese architect Renzo Piano has reinvented the concept of the natural science museum. The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, opened on September 27th, 2008, can be seen as a dialogue between visitors and the building, the building and nature, and the Italian architect and the city of San Francisco. Piano created this dialogue in hopes that science would be more accessible to more people, rejecting the notion of a natural science museum as a “kingdom of darkness.”  Most science museums are set up like an argumentative essay. The visitor is introduced to the basic concepts, e.g., dinosaur skeletons and red volcanic rock, then whisked away on a tour of the ages, e.g., animals that have come and gone, the dodo bird, the rise of man, the birth of fire, etc. before finally getting to the point, viz., the fun stuff, e.g., mechanized gazelle, polar bears, albino alligators, and steamy swamps. This is to say that most science museums have a starting point, a preplanned route, and an ending. It is this kind of directional and organizational control that Piano rejects, and he does so by designing his buildings around his love for the piazza and poetry.


     Renzo Piano - Architect of California Academy of Science
    At the opening ceremony for the California Academy of Sciences, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect quickly stood out from the other speakers. He made great sweeping gestures to illustrate the high emotion that ran through him and at one point even cried, “Mamma Mia.” Piano’s honest emotion revealed humility when confronted with his impact on a culture that is not his own. “Every time, it is a new adventure: A new place, new geography, new topography, new people … How can you believe that you can impose your style?”
    From the beginning, Piano stood out from the other prospective architects when bidding for the job. In contrast to the other architects, he did not arrive with completed plans for the building but was armed with only a notepad and green felt pen. The executive director at the California Academy, Patrick Kociolek, recounted that “instead of explaining his design for the new Academy, Piano simply asked what the Academy’s ethic was.” Piano likes for his buildings to tell stories, and it is his willingness to hear the stories of others that has made the CAS building, speaking architecturally, a modern day cathedral.
    To appreciate the CAS, it is best to take a tour. The CAS is the greenest building ever built; it houses the deepest living coral reef tank in the world, a 290 seat planetarium, and a completely self-contained biodome that contains four unique jungles, and it uses 1.7 million living plants as a roof. Upon entering the building, visitors immediately face a giant piazza that is the nucleus of the building, overhung by a stunningly complex framework, which workers remarked was the hardest part of the building to construct. Natural light infiltrates at least 90% of the regularly visited areas and this is a key element in telling the story of a natural science museum: The building’s duty is to look accessible to everyone.
    Another storyline of the CAS building is that it should excite visitors about science by sparking the imagination. From the central piazza, visitors can go to either the planetarium or the biodome. Heading toward the fully transparent, jungle-filled biodome, visitors walk actual scientists conducting research behind transparent, plexi-glass partitions so that visitors can watch them in action, e.g., dissecting birds on opening day. Over 50 world-class scientists in eleven fields of study conduct daily research at the CAS.

    Renzo Piano in an interview with Charlie Rose
    Inside the biodome, a spiral walkway traverses four floors of the jungles of Madagascar, Borneo, Costa Rica, and the flooded forest of the Amazon. The sloping walkway features such complex geometry that a roller coaster manufacturer was brought in to shape the steel. At the top of the biodome, an elevator is position to take visitors through the flooded rainforest itself, then drop them off beneath the 100,000-gallon tank that holds it. Amazingly, an acrylic tunnel allows visitors to walk beneath the aquarium as Amazon river fish swim over head.


    The tunnel then leads to another set of underground pathways designed to resemble waves. The rolling walls are illuminated in shimmering blue light, and 360-degree movies are projected on them once an hour to highlight the importance of conserving water. In this dungeonous water world, all matter of water life can be found, from tide pools with starfish, to a 165-lb sea bass, to self-lighting jellyfish. A final passage way reveals a long window into a den of alligators and fish. The window is divided between the underwater world and the steaming swamp, where a sleepy albino alligator suns on a rock.
    A stairway takes visitors back to the ground floor, where the alligator den can be viewed from above. The alligators, as they sun themselves, likely appreciate the significant amount of natural light Mr. Piano allows into the museum. Just past the alligator den is the main piazza again, and to its right, the planetarium. The 90-foot dome of the planetarium contains a 75-foot-wide, tilted and curved screen on which visitors discover how truly unique the earth is among the universe.
    Just outside the planetarium are a number of interactive exhibits, including a video game in which visitors uses a Wii gaming wand to catch different species of insects, allowing visitors to play with science. Walking past a skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex, visitors are faced with three options, 1) cafeteria-style dining, 2) a full-service restaurant, the Moss Room, with sustainable food, or 3) elevators up to the living roof. The elevator opens to the foggy, chilly air of San Francisco and one of the most unusual roofs in the world. Three bulbous hills, designed to mimic San Francisco’s own hilly geography, are filled with skylights. The roof is the largest area of native wild flowers in San Francisco county. Several Youtube videos offer a nice perspective.
     California Academy of Science, Living Roof
    Piano’s love for the piazza becomes fully realized here, for this piazza is unlike any other in the world. It has an elevator coming up through the middle, is surrounded by thousands of plants growing out of invisible coconut-husk planters, and looks across the museum’s concourse to the other worldly DeYoung Art Museum. From the top of the California Academy of Science building, visitors may reflect on the work of Renzo Piano: a man who was born in Genoa in 1937 into a family of contractors, went to the Milan Poitechnic Architecture School before traveling to the United States to work in Philadelphia, and built the most visited building in Paris, Le Centre Pompidou. His Italian heritage can be seen in the piazzas of his buildings, but it is his poetic, interactive approach that makes his architecture so popular. On opening day at the CAS, Piano said, “nature is the inspiration of the building.” Like Brunellesci’s painting, the California Academy of Sciences building is, above all, a reflection of the world.