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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

Wednesday, May 12 2004
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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.

But Gemignani donned the blindfold without hesitation. Taking two mounds of dough in his hands, he proceeded to toss and juggle them by touch alone. The crowd and the judges were completely floored. Still, because he was the new kid on the block, Gemignani only tied for first place, though observers started calling the self-taught boy wonder "the Natural."

The next year, he returned to Italy and won easily, accompanied by the James Bond theme. (He has two good luck rituals: He puts a $2 bill in one pocket during his performance, and he parties until 4 a.m. the night before.) He was such a standout that throwers from all over the world began observing him, hoping to mimic his moves. A guy from Thailand even lied about being a photojournalist so he could take pictures of Gemignani as he practiced before a competition; the next year, Gemignani faced this so-called photographer in a tournament, and, yes, Gemignani still won.

After Gemignani's back-to-back victories in Italy in 2000 and 2001, the organizers of the world competition asked him to stop competing and to start judging. Back home, he had also been invited to head the U.S. Pizza Team, which sends pizza makers to compete in a variety of categories at the championships: pizza baking, making the biggest pizza dough, fastest pizza making, and so on.

In retirement, Gemignani has continued to perform at charity events, Disneyland, and festivals (he'll be at the North Beach Festival in June), but it's been three years since he stepped to the middle of the flour-dusted floor in the Salsomaggiore arena and felt the thrill of competition pumping through his nimble, almost-ambidextrous hands. To make his comeback, he'll start with the U.S. national competition in November in New York, where he'll toss against a field of contestants whom he has either personally coached, or who have likely used his instructional DVDs and trademarked glow-in-the-dark synthetic pizza dough. Then it's off to Italy to kick ass one last time in the spring of 2005. "I feel like I have one more shot to do something," he says in his characteristic cool, confident tone. Then he adds, coyly: "I don't know how to explain it. I think I can show people ... um, I don't know. I have an idea; I don't want to say it. ... It's a superstition. I just won't tell anyone."

But what he will reveal is that he's already begun choreographing his new piece in the rear of his pizzeria, late at night. He says he's going to use a medley of five songs, which he declines to divulge. He also won't say anything about his costume, but, he confides, the performance will be "very complicated."

Needless to say, Gemignani's pizza-throwing reputation has been good for business, launching Pyzano's into the realm of the "megaindependent," which means it does three to four times the amount of business as an average non-chain pizzeria. (Pyzano's revenues were $1.3 million in 2001.)

"It's really fueled the restaurant," Gemignani says of his pizza acrobatics. "We were ranked [in the] Top 10 Pizzerias by the Travel Channel, which is going to air in June. The Travel Channel people were in Manhattan, Chicago, L.A., and then they came to the Oakland airport [to tape us], and they were like, 'Where the hell is this place?'

"They said, 'You're in a strip mall? You've done all of this in a strip mall?'" (Bernice Yeung)

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