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Domodimonti's Dr. Francesco Bellini -- Renaissance Man

Dr. Francesco Bellini -- passionate winemaker of Domodimonti Natural Wine -- married an Italian and relocated to French Canada but he did not forget his Italian homeland. In 2003, while he and his wife Marisa were in Italy, an opportunity came their way to purchase a distressed Domodimonti“antique cantina” with over 40 hectares of vineyards along with eight hectares of olive groves.

The idea of producing their own natural wine in the region where he grew up was the realization of a dream. But that is just the beginning of a remarkable story for Dr. Bellini is not just a winemaker, he is also the driving force behind one the great discoveries of the 21st century -- a virtual cure for the dreaded Hepatitis C virus.

It was the first week of August, I unexpectedly received an email from my Sicilian colleague Marco Scapagnini and the Italian Tourism Board inviting me to Montefiore dell'Aso for the grand opening of Domodimonti's state-of-the-art facility and of their vineyard-based new hotel and spa, Albergo Magnolia. It was a quite a nice surprise -- it always is when someone invites you to Italy.

 I thought this trip would be about innovation in wine-making -- Domodimonti makes a "natural wine" using only minimal sulfites and he takes a "this is a living organism" approach to ensure the very best product.  So who is Dr. Bellini, you might ask? Well, he is many things and... quite complex.

If you met Dr. Bellini at a local restaurant in Marches (the region where the winery is located), you might think him to be just one of many Italian businessmen, maybe from Rome or Milan. A unassuming man, he's a passionata, a lover of wine, a man who loves hisfrancesco_bellini_2006 land and takes pride in where he comes from. But, he's complex. He is a businessman. But unlike most  -- Bellini has done good for the world. Incredible good. Some people have called him a philanthropist. I think he's a modern day Renaissance Man.
Dr. Bellini's first major success in the pharmaceutical world came in the form of the drug Lamivudine (3TC), commercially known as Epivir, an anti-AIDS drug, and Zeffix, used to treat Hepatitis B. Although there had been other antiviral drugs on the market, the game changer was when Epivir was used to combat the AIDS virus; it forced the virus to change into a less toxic form thereby making it more vulnerable to other antivirals such as AZT.
Combination therapy was born in the anti-AIDS field, eventually making Epivir the cornerstone of any anti-AIDS therapy. Ironically, Epivir seems to attack the AIDS virus in the same way the AIDS virus attacks humans -- by weakening its immune system.
The company Dr. Bellini founded that is behind the discovery and making of the drugs, Biochem Pharma, would grow to be the largest biotech company in Canada. Biochem Pharma is big business and it eventually merged with Shire PLC in a staggering $12 billion dollar deal in 2000.
In 2001, in conjunction with Power Technologies of Canada, Dr. Bellini created Picchio Pharma (PP): A 50/50 joint venture. Picchio Pharma invested in small companies within the Biotech field, often taking control of the company; one of those investments was in a company called Virochem.
Virochem eventually discovered VX-222 and it would play a pivotal role in developing combination therapy. It also became a takeover target by Vertex for their V-222 drug, which they acquired in 2009 for close to 1/2 billion dollars Canadian. Today, VX-222, is undergoing clinical trials with Teleprevir to try to demonstrate that the Hepatitis C disease can be treated by a combination of two drugs, effectively eliminating treatment by Interferon, which has serious side effects. As of early September 2010, results of VX-222 and Teleprevir were released  showing a remarkable 78 percent cure rate of Hepatitis C, even with the most severe cases.

Enough pharma-speak. Lets talk wine. Specifically Domodimonti.

This cutting edge, modern winery is located only two and a half hours East of Rome in the Le Marche region between Umbria and Tuscany. With a spectacular landscape of narrow coastal plains that rise sharply into the peaks of the Sibillini Mountains, Ancona and the Adriatic Sea can be seen in the distance on a clear day. Yes, Domodimonti is is harmony with nature.
Dr. Bellini grew up in Ascoli Piceno. Owning a vineyard was a dream of his, and with Domodimonti -- a boutique winery that has a maximum production capacity of 400,000 bottles -- purchasing 140 acres of land in his home region would be the realization of that dream. A return to his roots, so-to-speak, to create a "natural wine vineyard," with the least amount of additives. As a chemist and research scientist, it's not surprising that Dr. Bellini -- who resides in both Montreal, Canada, and Le Marche -- approaches winemaking from a scientific point of view.

In every region in Italy and the world at large, there are rules and regulations to follow when making wine, especially when it comes to organic farming. Dr. Bellini focuses on specific aspects of sustainable wine growth including water conservation, soil improvement, erosion control and the latest in integrated pest management techniques.

The vines are sustainably grown, using primarily organic matter. The grapes are hand-picked, low-yielding with no sugar added. The wine has no acid adjustments, strict selection of yeasts and no other additives for mouth-feel or color. Temperature controlled vats with external jackets allow strict control of the very important stage of fermentation. By cooling each individual vat, Domodimonti is able to substitute the use of sulfites during the fermentation process.
With minimal sulfites added, there is less of chance of allergic reactions and other side effects. With the copious quantities of Domodimonti wine that I drank on my visit -- I should have had a terrible hangover. It never happened. I never woke up the next morning with a hangover -- and that's how i know this.

The vineyard is spread across the backdrop of Montefiore dell'Aso. The vineyard occupies several parcels of land made of clay soil with the vines facing south. The soil was originally covered by the Adriatic Sea. The vicinity of the sea to the east and the protection by the Sibillini Mountains play a role in creating the 1200 foot high vineyards' microclimate, ideal for healthy and natural ripening of the grapes.

There is a lot of history in this winery. Despite Domodimonti's first vintage in 2004, the vineyard has actually been in existence since the 1950s. It's taken quite a bit of time and work to restructure the original vines and to plant new ones. But the result has, obviously, been more than worth it.
Throughout the growing season the vines are monitored for growth. During the summer months, the vines are pruned, reducing the fruit by 50%. This strengthens the remaining grapes. They receive the maximum amount of nutrients and achieve their full potential.

The internationally acclaimed winemaker, Carlo Ferrini, adds his guidance and inspiration to the wines he produces at Domodimonti. The entire winemaking process is performed under nitrogen, which is generated by ionic exchange, allowing Domodimonti to handle and later bottle the wine in the absence of oxygen. This is where Dr. Bellini's talents as a biochemist are used most effectively.
The wine is aged in French oak barrels in the wine cellar. Depending on the wine, the duration in the barrels may range from 3-14 months. Afterwards, the wine is bottled and stored for a minimum of three months, before being shipped.
With the same passion for research and entrepreneurship in biotechnology, Dr. Bellini weaves tradition and innovation in the wines of Domodimonti. It's obvious that his love for the native soil and special attention given to the land is rewarded with fruit produced of quality and value which creates exceptional wines. In the future, we can only hope that other winemakers might follow Dr. Bellini's lead.


Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco's Essential Tourist Trap

San Francisco Fisherman's WharfIt is said that San Franciscans hate Fisherman’s Wharf. To some extent that’s probably true. The reason is simple. Too many tourists!

San Franciscans, at least those who aren’t in the tourist-hospitality industry, hate tourists. It reminds them that the hospitality-tourist industry is the largest in the city and that it’s possible the city’s best days are behind it.

Granted, gentrification has improved much of the burg, but be that as it may, whether the locals like it or not, Fisherman’s wharf is an essential tourist trap.
If it weren't so, then how would you explain the fact that it has three (count ’em, three) national parks, decent food, a sizable percentage of the world’s sea lions, good fishing and really great views of the bay. What more do you want? A cheesy shopping mall? They've got that too.
The reason most San Franciscans rarely go there (or admit that they do) is the main reason it’s essential. It’s too famous. People don’t go to their area’s famous attractions. It’s also arrogance. After all, the area stinks with tourists, and unless they work there, the locals are better than that, thumbing their noses at us fat visitors who come to see the city by the bay. This is just something you have to see…
Starting with the national parks…
The three NPs -- San Francisco Maritime, Golden Gate/Miller Field and Alcatraz, -- aren’t exactly in the Wharf; they frame it. Alcatraz, on Pier 33, is the eastern border of the area, and the other two rim the west.

Maritime has an interesting museum and for a small fee you get to see some interesting old ships. Then there’s a place to rest and look at the bay, which is owned by the US government and is absolutely free. Further to the west, you’ll see a cliff. That’s the Fort Mason Unit of the Golden Gate National Parks, technically part of the Marina district.

As far as Alcatraz goes, the trip is definitely worth it. However you just can’t walk up to the ticket kiosk and get on the next boat. The whole thing takes about a day, which means that Fisherman’s Wharf is a two-day operation. Everything’s booked up for at least a day in advance so get a reservation. To do so go to the website:

If you forgot to make a reservation for Alcatraz, then find out when the first available boat is and head west to Pier 39, which is where the carousel, aquarium and notorious hoard of sea lions are. This is the little bit of Disneyland that the chi-chi San Franciscans so love to hate.

Unless you’re looking for high culture or a bucolic setting (in which case what the hell are you doing in San Francisco?), this is the best spot for people watching. (Union Square is a close second.) The prices for souvenir tchotchkes are high, but not THAT high, and the street performers are for the most part entertaining. This is San Francisco-the-theme park, and as such is pretty successful.
West of Pier 39 is the Wharf proper, bordered by the bay to the north, North Point Street to the south and Hyde Street, where the cable cars and Maritime National Park are, to the west. Here you will find a huge number of souvenir stands and seafood restaurants, just what a tourist wants and a local doesn’t. After all, except for the occasional patriotic T-shirt and baseball caps during the season, who really goes around with stuff festooned with one’s hometown’s logo on it?
But behind the all the kitsch, you will discover that Fisherman’s Wharf is a real wharf with real fisherman. Go ahead, have an expensive bowl of chowder or crab cakes. It’s part of the experience.

Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the world's essential tourist traps….and why do you think they call them that?

Overlooked California Gems

You could visit California a thousand times and still miss many of its charms.

What is notable about Napa, Pismo Beach, and Ojai is that they are places which California residents like to escape to for long weekends.Napa Valley
Located about 40 miles northeast of San Francisco, Napa Valley is renown of course for its wine and wineries. While famous brands as Mondavi and Sutter Home draw a lot of visitors, lesser known wineries often have more beautiful grounds and are more generous in their sampling policies. The Chateau Montelena, in the town Calistoga, has their offices and wine tasting center in a 17th century European-style castle. On the other end of the Napa Valley, is the Artesa Winery whose spectacular grounds and panoramic view are unparalleled.
There aren’t any wineries in the downtown Napa itself but its numerous parks, boutiques, and walking path along the Napa River make it a very charming town. Located in the heart of the city is the Napa River Inn which back in the 19th century was a sugar mill. The pet-friendly Napa River Inn is a member of the National Historic Hotel register and is located two blocks from the Napa Valley Wine Train station. The Wine Train is a great way to enjoy a gourmet meal and sample some of the area’s wines while enjoying a three-hour excursion through Napa County.
Pismo Beach was a desired vacation destination for Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. “Pismo Beach and all the clams you can eat!” said an ecstatic Bugs before realizing that he “made a wrong turn in Albuquerque” and that he and Daffy were nowhere near the central California beach town in a famous Warner Bros. cartoon.
This beach town is a popular vacation spot for middle class residents who live in inland sections of the Golden State. It is also an ideal rest midway spot for those driving down scenic US 1 from San Francisco to LA. Pismo Beach is also a mere 20-minute ride to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
While there are no longer many clams here, there are a lot of sea food restaurants and inexpensive oceanfront lodging properties as the Cottage Inn whose friendly staff welcomes you and your pets.
Traveling farther south in California is the town of Ojai that is located in the foothills of Topa Topa Mountains and whose pink sunsets over those mountains are even more beautiful than those over the Pacific that you can observe from any of the state’s beaches at dusk.
Ojai has more public tennis courts than any other town in California and such legends as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Douglaston’s own John McEnroe played at the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament when they were starting out. The tournament is held at the end of April every year and is sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association, the governing body in charge of the US Open in Flushing Meadows which gets underway in a couple of weeks.
Ojai has become a second home to such entertainers as Ted Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen, Larry Hagman, and rock legend Dave Mason who are drawn to the small town that is free of paparazzi and gawkers. They also enjoy the artistic vibe of the city that is home to many painters and sculptors.
A fun way to see the city is to ride on the town’s mass transit system, the Ojai Trolley, which will take you all over for fifty cents. The trolley stops by Suzanne’s Cuisine, a top-notch restaurant that serves seafood from the Pacific at reasonable prices, as well as by the Lavender Inn, a charming bed and breakfast that will also welcome your cats and canines as guests.    
After working your way down California, you might as well head down to San Diego which is far cooler than New York in the summer and far warmer than it in the winter. You can’t go wrong with its picturesque beaches and family attractions as Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park.

There is no shortage of lodging here and my top choices are the elegant but not stuffy Grande Colonial located in the village of La Jolla one block from the Pacific, and the Hyatt Regency at Aventine, located just off I-5, which has a resort feel with its Olympic pool and its proximity to the city’s best restaurants.
For more information log onto:

The Chateau Montelena    

the Artesa Winery

The Hearst Castle in San Simeon

Napa River Inn                            

Suzanne’s Cuisine

the Lavender Inn

the Hyatt Regency at Aventine

Grande Colonial

South Africa is An Aphrodisiac for Lovers

South Africa is for lovers. And I don't just mean the two-legged kind. Everywhere we went it was though there was this aphrodisiac-like mist in the air. Beginning with the LeopardMarula tree, which, legend has it, bears fruit with magical powers to heal matters of the heart.

South Africans sometimes refer to it as "The Marriage Tree." Thousands of elephant can't seem to live without it, quite often knocking down barbed-wire, electric fences just to get to it, that's how powerful the juices of this libido-enhancing fruit seem to be.

So why not bottle it? Of course! Yes, there's even a liquor promoting its legend, Amarula, a product that reminded us of Baileys but with the warm edge of a spirit. Brown-Forman brought us down to experience it first-hand. Amarula is the second-best-selling cream liqueur in the world and available in 150 countries. But, as the Marula tree only grows in sub-equatorial Africa, it is a noteworthy find. At first, we paid no attention to its lore. But as each day progressed, one incident after another made us believers. But never in a million years did we expect to see such a strong sensual side to a country all on one 10-day trip. But we did.

Everything in South Africa spells sensual; from a glass of red wine to the Marula fruit to Amarula on-the-rocks to Capetown's Amalfi-like coast to sexual safaris where the animals were fornicating quicker than you could put a quarter into a slot to watch a porn video at your local Downtown strip joint.

Even South African Airways [SAA] lit the fire to our aphrodysia with their  Premium Class. Five-star restaurant quality care, both in cuisine and in hospitable service, it was an experience that rocked the senses. Smiling faces everywhere, our dinner began with slices of tuna sushi followed by a rack of lamb, porcini mushroom ravioli, and a bottle of Meerlust Pinot Noir to wash it down...  It was some of the best food we ever ate on an airline.

On the ground, we started our sensual journey at the Melrose Arch Hotel in Johannesburg to regain our traveling legs, so-to-speak. A modern hotel with a hip fashion sense, it was the perfect place to recharge our batteries in preparation of our safari adventure. Below we found a myriad of restaurants where we delighted ourselves in a few glasses of red South African wine from Durbonville Hills, and partook in eating the Biltong dried meat delicacy. An aphrodisiac buzz set in, a combination of jet-lag and the potent fruit of the vine -- but we resisted in favor of a good night's sleep, turning in at an early hour. But it didn't come easy.

Upon returning to our rooms, we quickly discovered that even the hotel was affected by the hint of aphrodisia in the air. Looking to watch a movie to help us sleep, we soon discovered each room had a DVD collection that included free porn! Okay, South Africa is hot. Red hot. But we were ready for it!

Most of us have a conception of what a safari game drive might be like. Years of watching National Geographic specials and numerous TV shows, like "Safari!," have put this glamorous image of adventure and danger into our conciousness. But even our safari ranger, Murray, who was our guide at our first safari camp, Kirkman's, would express his astonishment at the sightings we were about to see over the first 48 hours.

Ngala, meaning ‘lion’ in Shangaan, was the first private safari reserve to be incorporated in the world-famous Kruger National Park – the largest wildlife sanctuary in South Africa. With exclusive traversing rights over 14 700 hectares (36 323 acres) of Kruger's game-rich wilderness, the Ngala Game Reserve offers an extraordinary African wildlife safari experience. occupies 36,500 acres of the nearly five million acres that make up Kruger National Park.

Kirkman's Camp and Ngala Game Reserve are owned by Conservation Corporation Africa and operated in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund South Africa and South African National Parks.

Kirkman's Camp overlooks the Sand River. This South African game lodge has spectacular views of the unspoilt wilderness as far as the eye can see. Sometimes called Kirkman's Kamp. this historic and famous camp which was originally built in the early 1920’s. It was named in honour of W. Harry Kirkman, one of South Africa ’s foremost conservationists, who began his illustrious career as a ranger in Toulon in 1927.

The colonial atmosphere of Kirkman's Camp, with its gracious style and luxury, has been retained. One steps back in time upon entering the old homestead, which now serves as the recreational hub of the camp. The large lounge, decorated in 1920 style, leads through double French doors onto rolling lawns that provide a velvety contrast to the wild and tumbling bush surrounding the camp.

Afro-dysia continued to sustain its effect even in the bush. It seemed like mating season in the 50 km area of the Sabi Sans Game Reserve, where Kirkman's Camp resides. Astoundingly, in our first three game drives, we were surrounded by the Big Five -- rhinos, elephant, cape buffaloes, leopard and lions -- all which we saw fornicating at one point or another.

One of the rarest animal to spot on any game drive is the leopard. To see more than one at a time is considered an event in the bush. But to see a male and a female having sex, to capture it on film and then to watch them walk just a 100 yards away to munch on a freshly killed impala hanging from a Marula tree, well, to those who know, it's practically a miracle sighting. Forget that even our ranger, Murray, had never seen something like this.

National Geographic spent three years tracking a male and female leopard to capture them mating on film. We wake up at the crack of dawn, have a coffee, take a casual ride in our Range Rover and catch this rarity by happenstance.

Oh yeah, and did I mention minutes after this sighting we came across another female leopard with her two baby cubs? Incredible.

Soon after, we would soon see the startling sight of cape buffalo mating on a nearby riverbank, two of the largest animals we'd ever seen "doing it."

There would be elephants in "must," a term used to describe the males when they go into heat, who, we were told, can be quite dangerous during this period as they can become extremely aggressive without warning.

Female and male baboons doing the mating dance, screaming at one another, the females butt swollen red, which indicates they, too, are ready to mate. All the commotion they would make would not soon be forgotten.

Rhinos, who when they mate march in a circle to mark their "spot," so-to-speak, would also be on the prowl. Like dinosaurs from a bygone era, it was almost surreal to see these animals behaving amorously.

"For the record, animal-tracking is unpredictable," Ranger Murray explained to us. "They move around a lot. This is not a zoo. So to see all these animals and to see the kind of sightings we saw, is truly remarkable. Even I've never seen leopards mating. And I've been doing this for years."

On our final game drive, we made our way through the bush, with a big orange sun setting in the distance as we returned to our luxurious rooms at Ngala. As the sun finally disappeared behind the magical Marula trees, we couldn't help but notice the emerging moonlight washing along the landscape. Within a pale blue tint, there were elephants and giraffes in silhouette dotting the horizon line, the distant roar of lions and the squeal of hyenas permeating the cool night air, and even the smaller creatures of the bush, the lowly crickets, could be heard screaming for attention, seemingly the loudest of them all.

Our safari experience left us with a new-found respect for nature, an awakening and an awareness of the environment as well as a few new ideas on lovemaking. Without a doubt, we will never be able to look at these amazing animals the same way again. Seriously, though, to experience these wonders in their own habitat, uninhibited and free, was awe-inspiring. And to see nature and life in motion, in its rawest form, made us think of our own existence on this Earth and just how precious life truly is.

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