Grapes, Without the Wrath

We read "Grape," the Chron's "serial saga," so you don't have to and uncover the world champion of pizza acrobatics

For more than a month, the San Francisco Chronicle has devoted a section of its Datebook cover to a daily installment of "Grape," a self-proclaimed "serial saga," two years in the works, that tells, and tells, and tells the tale of the making of a Sonoma County wine. Because Dog Bites knows the only reason readers might be skipping "Grape" is its length -- a nimble 39 parts -- we present, as a service to San Francisco, a summary of each of the 26 installments that had run through Friday, May 7:

1: There's a lot that goes into a bottle of wine, including the story of the state of California.

2: Sunlight is important to winemaking. Pruning, too, is crucial.

3: Times are tough in the wine business.

4: In 1995, a powerful Reno hotelier named Don Carano bought land in Sonoma County for a vineyard.

5: Life is both good and bad for the Mexican laborers who head north to harvest Don's grapes.

6: We meet a character (and SF Weekly, at least, is not making this up) named Deep Cork.

7: Don tours his vineyard.

8: Don wants his wine to be really, really good.

9: Once, a worker pulled a pistol on the vineyard's grape-grower, Steve, but the worker wasn't really serious about using it.

10: We go to a Mexican whorehouse!

11: There's a lot that goes into the label of a bottle of wine.

12: Steve likes growing grapes on Don's land. Also, you need water to make a bottle of wine.

13: Pesticides can be dangerous.

14: There's a lot that goes into making a cork for a bottle of wine. Also, the vineyard's purchasing manager has cancer.

15: It's hard to make wine taste good.

16: Don doesn't particularly like unions.

17: Don's villa is tacky. (At least, that's what the Chronicle's architecture critic says.)

18: To make wine taste good, you have to think like a tree.

19: Steve is a good guy.

20: People like Don. Don likes Steve. Steve likes George, and George likes Steve, but George is sort of a loner.

21: To make wine taste good, you need lots of sugars. Also, this grape tastes like pineapple.

22: Life is tough for farmworkers, but the ones at Don's place are happy. You can tell because they're listening to mariachi on the radio.

23: You need patience to make a bottle of wine.

24: Harvesting is hard work.

25: Harvesting is easier when you use harvesting machines.

26: There's a lot that goes into turning fruit into wine. Also, Ringo Starr once gave George some cymbals.

Yes, There Is a U.S. Pizza Team

After all that talk of wine, you're probably hungering for something edible. A Dog Bites correspondent filed this report about a local guy straddling the thin line between pizza and entertainment:

Bay Area native Tony Gemignani is the world's best pizza thrower. This is not speculation, and we're not talking about some sissy twirling dough in a half-rate pizzeria. No: Gemignani, who owns Pyzano's Pizza in Castro Valley with his brother, Frank, is the world champion in pizza acrobatics.

An outgoing party boy with slicked-back dark hair who loves the spotlight, Gemignani (pronounced "Gem-in-yanni") can juggle two slabs of dough at once, spinning and tossing them at dizzying speeds between his scissor-kicking legs as he lies on his back. He can roll a pizza on its edge along the length of his right arm and down the other one, catching it with his left hand. And he can do this with two wheels of dough at once, a trick known around the world as "the Gemignani."

Gemignani is so good that the organizers of the World Pizza Championships in Italy have asked him not to compete anymore, and for the past few years, he's been shunted to the sidelines as a judge and as the coach of the U.S. Pizza Team. But later this year (you heard it here first), the 30-year-old Gemignani will come out of retirement for a tremendous grand finale.

The international pizza community began to notice Gemignani's prodigious dough-handling abilities during his first competition at the Pizza Olympics in Las Vegas in 1995, when the then-21-year-old dazzled the judges with a routine set to Animal House's "Shout." With his clean presentation, speed, and clever choreography, Gemignani handily beat the veteran from Italy who was vying for his third consecutive title that year.

"The first year, I was a nobody," says Gemignani, who started doing tricks for the kids who came to his pizzeria. "So I ended up competing, and I won. It was a really big deal. ... I ended up getting a near-perfect score."

After winning twice more in Las Vegas, Gemignani went to Italy in 2000 to compete with the big boys in the World Pizza Championships, which take place in the tiny town of Salsomaggiore. This time, Gemignani faced 60 pizza acrobats, many of whom had trained at special Italian pizza-tossing schools.

Gemignani surprised everyone with his performance. He competed to the theme song from Mission: Impossible, and as he took the stage, his wife handed him a martini glass and a shaker. Gemignani approached the panel of 10 judges and pretended to mix a cocktail, but when nothing came out of the shaker, he opened it up and removed a black blindfold. There was shocked silence and uneasy laughter in the audience; some Italians muttered in disbelief at the young American's audacity.

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