Notes from the Frank Cornelissen dinner earlier this month

Above: The crowd of wine lovers and professionals who gathered at Sotto on Sunday November 11 were thrilled to meet and hear Frank Cornelissen (right) speak.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about hosting Frank Cornelissen and his wines at Sotto was simply getting to meet and interact with him.

His wines were first introduced in this country a few years ago and have been extremely difficult to obtain. (They were originally brought in, in very small quantities, by the Garagiste in 2009, if I’m not mistaken; and they have only recently become more readily available thanks to importer Zev Rovine out of Brooklyn, NY and distributor Amy Atwood here in Los Angeles.)

Even though the wines were very hard to find, much had already been written about Frank and his wines, by high-profile wine writers like Alice Feiring, Eric Asimov (NY Times), and Matt Kramer (Wine Spectator). Nick Fox of the Times wrote this excellent piece, one of the earliest, back in May 2009.

Above: Squid-ink spaghetti tossed with uni was my favorite dish of the night. What a thrill to hear Frank say, “this is the restaurant for my wines,” after tasting Chefs Zach and Steve’s food!

In part because of the rarity of his wines and in part because of the radical nature of his winemaking — he is widely considered the most radical Natural winemaker on the planet and is often called a “fringe” winemaker and even a “crazy” — an aura of mystery and awe seem to precede Frank wherever he goes.

In fact, Frank isn’t an eccentric Howard Hughes of winemaking who gave up a privileged life up to go make wine on a volcano top.

He’s always worked in wine: born and raised in Belgium, he has worked as a high-end wine merchant all of his life (he likes to talk about how one of his early acquisitions was a mixed case of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti).

Why did he choose to go make wine on Mt. Etna, an active volcano on the eastern side of Sicily, where some of the world’s highest vineyards are cultivated?

By process of elimination, he told me. Etna he said was one of the few places left — perhaps the last — where he could find a pristine growing site suited for the production of fine, age-worthy wines.

At the time, he said, he and Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro were the pioneers in bringing chemical-free farming practices to the region and, besides Benanti (who has owned vineyards there for generations), they were the only fine wine producers.

Gianfranco Soldera, he explained, was one of his inspirations and one of the models for his work. Like Frank, the legendary Soldera bought land in the late 1970s where no one thought the cultivation of fine wine was possible. In essence, Soldera built his own terroir. There were many vineyards there at the time, most of them neglected by the villagers who used them to produce wines for daily consumption. This was ideal for his vision, he said, because the neglect had also left the old vines — some of them 60 and 70 years old — in a pristine state.

Above: The entire staff at Sotto loves Frank’s wines and we were thrilled to host him.

Los Angeles wine celeb and Natural wine authority Lou Amdur was also on hand. He asked Frank to address his hyper-hygienic approach to winemaking.

“If I could, I’d make my cellar as clean as a hospital,” he explained. This approach to cellar management is what allows him not to use any sulfur whatsoever in the winery.

The secret to his wines is to deliver the best fruit possible in the vineyard, he said, and then to do as much as possible not to do anything to the wine once it gets to the cellar.

I thought to myself: it’s almost as if he were capturing the fruit in the vineyard and then delivering into a vacuum, thus avoiding any microorganisms that could taint the wines.

Frank seemed to enjoy himself and to be pleased with the menu that Chefs Zach and Steve had create in his honor (I thought it was superb). And he promised to come back next year.

O, and the wines, you ask? You’ll just have to come and taste them for yourself at Sotto!

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