Wine tasting for the Obamas

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

How it all began

I had just returned from New York to Rome when I read that President Obama and his wife Michelle would likely be spending some time in Tuscany. I entertained the idea of being able to accompany them to one of my tastings, but as I landed in Florence, work urgencies and my two fabulous priorities – my children Daphne and Milo – took precedence.

Between jet lag and a natural difficulty in quieting my mind, I couldn’t fall asleep, so I decided to look for the email of the former US Ambassador John Phillips whom I had met in Washington during a charity event eight years ago. John Phillips is a lawyer and an extraordinary person, devoted to helping people in need throughout his life. I had met him during one of the forty dinners I attend each year, pairing Italian wines with forty cuisines from around the world for charity.

The thing is, I hadn’t heard from John since he became ambassador, so I hesitated to send him an email in which I offered my assistance for the grand venture.

Castel del Monte

Two days after sending the email, during a Negroamaro tasting in Puglia, I received a call with a 0577 area code: “Hi Filippo, it’s John, long time no see!” My adrenaline surged, and my happiness level skyrocketed: initiative pays off occasionally. No email followed our phone call, just an agreement over the phone that required my absolute silence about this event until its conclusion: “You can’t tell anyone about this until it’s done, ok? And one more thing… your Chef for the night is going to be Massimo Bottura, please get in touch with him to coordinate matching food and wine, you think you can do that?”

Massimo Bottura, Osteria Francescana

I met Massimo five years ago in London during a tasting of the newly born Coevo from Azienda Cecchi. I had organized a vertical tasting of Chianti Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1980s and a preview of Sangiovese and other varieties from individual Maremma vineyards, ending with the presentation of the new Supertuscan to a large group of Masters of Wine and other colleagues from the press.

The wines ranged from intense red to deep blue/purple, and I decided to guide the tasting inspired by the color. Massimo prepared some of his most famous dishes to accompany the nine wines we tasted. His energy electrified me: “a tasting in colors? You’re great, we’re going to have fun!”

At the end of the evening, we met by chance at midnight to eat dim sum in a rain-drenched London. Since then, I have tasted Bottura’s dishes every year and followed his extraordinary rise. I introduced Coevo between aperitif and dinner because it was the wine that made me aware of Massimo. Having him in the kitchen for the Obamas was an event within the event!

Matching extraordinary menu with extraordinary wines

At first, he made it clear that there were too many wines (ten), but I reassured him that I would present five for the aperitif and five during dinner. “What do you pair with the veal – “Beautiful Psychedelic Veal, Not Flame-Grilled”? he asked, as if testing me. I replied: “Chianti Classico Castello di Ama 2008 and Sassicaia 2009. The first to celebrate his inauguration at the White House and the second to celebrate the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him that year.”

His face relaxed, but he continued: “and with the crispy part of the lasagna?” An incredible dish that Massimo conceived to bring out the flavors and memories of when, as children, I believe every Italian can’t wait to snatch the best part of the lasagna from the pan. I chose Carricante Bonora Tasca d’Almerita and Ribolla di Gravner 2012 to celebrate the “second term”.

“Perfect, let’s get to work!”

Massimo Bottura

It may have been five minutes, but it felt like two hours. Looking back a few months later, I still feel the unmistakable taste of behind-the-scenes of great events, those that you immediately sense will go well despite any difficulties because they can’t go wrong! It’s a wonderful feeling to be eager to take the exam; I experienced it only a few times at university and many times in recent years before going on stage.

Getting ready

That said, from the moment I hung up with Phillips, I had a very difficult week, and the undertaking was possible thanks to the organizational support of the people who work with me at LeBaccanti Tours.

So while the office worked to clear the security procedures for the event and managed the logistics for the arrival of some wines, I headed to Piedmont to bring the Barolo 1961 from Oddero to Tuscany. A wine with a delicate touch, with a sensation of silk scented with dried rose, white truffle, undergrowth, and sour cherries. The evening would be a real journey through Italy with ten great wines that had significant meaning for the participants of the evening. In this case, it was the President’s vintage. Moreover, one of the greatest vintages ever in Europe, and obviously, the Langhe were no exception. Three perfect bottles. My emotion in opening them was immense, as it always is when I open these extraordinary bottles, produced by incredible people in years when Italian countryside still lived as it did in the sixteenth century.

Four hundred kilometers away, three years later, another great Italian wine was produced: the Brunello di Montalcino from Col d’Orcia 1964. A full-bodied wine, still dense, full of fruit and memories of undergrowth and Mediterranean scrub.

Let’s go for one of the most amazing experience in a life time!

The wines were served blind, and all the guests were surprised by their age. Astonishingly, both spouses Obama liked them, without knowing their respective vintages. Once the cards were revealed, they gently congratulated each other on the youthfulness that each wine displayed.

The most surprising thing about the Obamas is their kindness, politeness, and presence. Evident kindness toward each other, their guests, and all of us who were working.

Filippo Bartolotta & The Obama Tasting

I opened the tasting in a lounge set up with armchairs, chairs, and sofas like a semi-amphitheater with the wines on stage and me next to them. After about ten minutes of pleasantries, the guests sat down, and I was asked to start the evening. I hesitated for a moment because there was an important absence, that of the President. For a moment, I felt discouraged, then I literally said to myself: “well, it was predictable, surely there was a more important commitment to follow.” My hesitation was noticed: Michelle looked at me warmly straight in the eyes, then with a smile and a slight nod, she gently encouraged me to start. I hesitated but started, what else could I do… I asked my fabulous team: Benedetta, Vanessa, Andrea, and Giovanni to start serving the Giulio Ferrari 2005 Founder’s Reserve. I had to start with a sparkling wine. I had put forward five or six solutions, including a couple of Franciacortas. Then I chose one of the sparkling wines that had always surprised me in the finals in blind tastings for its class, cleanliness, and complex and compelling drinkability. A Chardonnay planted at the end of the 19th century on a farm at almost 600 meters above sea level in the immaculate Trentino valleys where viticulture is conducted with an absolute ban on pesticides. I wanted a wine from the North to tell this part of Italy with its scents of rennet apple, syrupy peach, acacia honey, and some light scent of dry pastry. A pure Chardonnay that rests for almost 10 years on the lees and that I know for its extraordinary ability to last over time, and whose first label was born in my vintage year, 1972.

“don’t mind me, carry on!” said President Obama

I finished telling this first piece of “The Extraordinary Journey of Italian Wine” when the President appeared, who, of course, was welcomed immediately by everyone saying, “don’t mind me, carry on!”

That was the only moment when I lost my train of thought and felt the importance of the event and a touch of fear with my mouth drying up.

It lasted a moment because Michelle immediately put me back on track asking me to explain better how wine aromas are generated. I returned to the room and answered the question as we were about to taste the rosé 18 Fanali 2012 from Apollonio. The Italian journey where I also represent all possible wine styles and for the rosé, I chose our chosen land for this type: Salento. A wine that bewitched me when I tasted a bottle from 1975 in perfect condition a few years ago. A rosé with scents of sour cherry and vanilla with notes of oriental and unexpected spices, capable of aging.

At this point, the tasting proceeded at a perfect pace. The guests were trying to guess the identity of the mystery wine and interacting with each other. Obama took advantage of this and invited me to approach. “Let me ask you a question: do you think you can bring me up to speed with how to find out about the age of a wine?” I asked if I could hold his glass for a moment and on the sleeve of his white shirt, I spoke about the wine nail and the thousand reasons why the color changes. I think this was the most surreal moment of the evening for me.

At that moment, we were tasting the Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 years 2010 from Arnaldo Caprai. The day I received the final confirmation, I was in Montefalco to coach journalists on the wine stage of the Giro d’Italia. Marco Caprai has always followed my travels in America closely, believing from the first day in the idea of what I then called Italy at Your Table – today The Amazing Italian Wine Journey: cycles of tastings in some of the most prestigious American tables that took me from the Metropolitan Museum to the White House through many private homes. A simple idea, to promote Italian wine by bringing Italy together under one roof.

Dinner is ready

After about an hour, I turn around and see Massimo out of the corner of my eye as he brings the first dishes. I make room for Bottura’s cuisine: Chicken cacciatore in the form of macarons with crispy borlenghi, followed by a memory of a mortadella sandwich, and 36-month Parmigiano Reggiano from Rosola with Villa Manodori traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena.

We close the tasting with a small award ceremony for the winner of the mystery wine game: Michelle and her friend win the bronze statue of Michelangelo’s Bacchus from the Frilli Gallery in Florence.

I accompany the guests upstairs for dinner. Bottura looks at me and points at the clock: “Filippo, it’s eight-thirty!” Actually, the tasting had lasted an hour and a half, but the pressing questions and the guests’ interest were genuinely difficult to contain. His wife Lara, who had attended the tasting, comes to my rescue with a big smile, Massimo pats me on the shoulder and rushes into the kitchen. I breathe a sigh of relief and move to the room, at this point, the color of the wall, remaining available for any questions from the guests about the wines, which, invariably, arrived.

The celebration of Bottura’s extraordinary creativity and Osteria Francescana begins: Autumn in Nyc …Spring in Tuscany, peas, mint, goat milk, and aromatic herbs reminiscent of the colors of the Union Square Farmers Market. The slightly citrusy notes with a hint of sea salt and a slight salinity of Tascante Buonora 2016 accompanied this dish. Then came one of Francescana’s historical dishes: The five ages of Parmigiano in different consistencies and temperatures next to Ribolla di Gravner 2012 – as a reminder of Obama’s “second term” at the White House. A wine with pronounced aromas of herbs, yellow flowers, fresh white fruit, and dates, but above all, a wine with a kaleidoscopic personality, great structure, and that changes every minute with an extraordinary persistence, just like Massimo’s dish.

This was followed by the crispy part of the Lasagna, every child’s secret dream on Sunday morning, which I paired with the freshness and elegance of Chianti Classico from Castello di Ama 2008, with which Sangiovese becomes graceful, transparent, and rich in precious minerality.

At this point, Obama asks me: “why do I like all these wines so much?” Because they are wines that I love paired with the dishes of one of the most talented chefs in the world!

At this point, I return to the kitchen where Massimo is preparing the Spin painted veal, ‘colored’ Chianina on the outside to simulate the black of the grill, a technique in homage to the painter Damien Hirst (it looked grilled but it was sous vide). With a slight tone of challenge, Bottura asks me: what wine do you pair with veal? “I played it safe, Massimo,” I replied, “a magnum of Sassicaia from 2009, with scents of wild blackberry, a light touch of green peppers, a very gentle scent of vanilla, and, above all, a silky, soft but responsive mouth.” Massimo gives me a complicit and happy smile.

From here we move on to the Caesar salad in bloom with chamomile vinaigrette and finally the dessert: Oops, I broke the lemon tart. Ending with the Modena Sorbet: tortellini in Parmesan cream as a grand finale with the legendary Lambrusco di Modena 36 from Cantina della Volta that Massimo personally brought to the table as a tribute to the territory and a great wine, alas, too mistreated.

Honored, happy, hyped

The extraordinary journey of Italian wines concludes, and I add some Italian dishes. The stories of wine producers are Italy’s story; they tell the evolution of our landscape, the different styles of architecture, the millennia-old cuisine, and the different ways of speaking and sitting at the table. Italy does not have in its veins the concept of a team as strong as the French with their team or the Anglo-Saxons with their teamwork. “The extraordinary journey of Italian wine” is a team project. I am convinced that the long-term project is won if we can bring together Etna and the Dolomites, Salento and the Langhe, and promote Italy as a system.