Pouring Wine for a Good Cause and Reflections on Brunello

Saturday night I poured a couple of my favorite wines at the ElderHelp gala fund raiser at the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown San Diego. ElderHelp is “a social services agency dedicated to helping low-income seniors live independently in their homes.”

My brother Micah serves as the executive board’s president.

The wines — Chapoutier 2006 white Côtes du Rhône “Belleruche” and Il Poggione 2005 Rosso di Montalcino — were generously donated by the Terlato Wine Group.

The event was a smashing success and I got to talk to a lot of great folks (more than 600 persons attended) about my favorite subject: wine.

In other news…

My friend and collaborator Franco Ziliani, author of Vino al Vino and co-editor of VinoWire.com, interviewed me about the fallout of the Brunello controversy for the Associazione Italiana Sommeliers (Italian Sommeliers Association or AIS) website.

Click here to read the interview in Italian.

For those of you who haven’t followed the Brunello controversy (you can read about it in detail at VinoWire.com), the Brunello appellation is in crisis: last month, the Siena prosecutor’s office revealed it was investigating at least five wineries for adulterating their wines by adding grapes other than Sangiovese, the only variety allowed by appellation regulation. According to some reports, at least one winery is being investigated for excessively high yields (yield is based on the amount of grapes produced per vineyard surface area; for high-end wines, yields are generally kept low).

I have made a point of not writing about the controversy here at Do Bianchi but rather pointing readers to VinoWire.com, where Franco and I have taken a “just-the-facts” approach to news from the world of Italian wine.

My love for wine was born nearly twenty years ago when I first traveled to Montalcino (I was then a student at the Università di Padova). Thanks to the generosity of my friends, the Marcucci brothers and their families (who live in a magical village just south of Montalcino named Bagno Vignoni, or bath amidst the vines), I had the opportunity to taste a lot of fantastic wine and Brunello remains one of my favorite wines to this day.

The appellation has changed greatly since that time. In 1989, Riccardo Marcucci took me to taste the wines of a friend — let’s just call him G — with whom he had performed his obligatory military service. G had just begun to make high-end wine on his father’s estate. Today, G regularly wins top scores from the Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate. The last time I was in Montalcino, he had just snagged the coveted Wine Spectator wine-of-the-year award for his 2001 single-vineyard Brunello.

Here’s what the Spectator‘s James Suckling had to say about the wine:

    Dark in color with intense blackberry, chocolate, and lightly toasted oak. Full-bodied and ultravelvety, with tannins that caress your palate. Vanilla, chocolate and berry. Goes on for minutes. Mind-blowing. Best after 2010.– J.S.

When I tasted G’s wines in 1989, they tasted more like fruit than ice cream. Let’s just say a lot has changed in Montalcino since that time.

There are 256 members in the Brunello producers association. While more than 1 million bottles have been impounded by Italian authorities, they represent a small group of big producers. Because the Italian judicial system works on a civil rather than criminal model (i.e., you are guilty until proven innocent), the investigation has essentially placed a stranglehold on the entire appellation. The Brunello producers association (Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino) has made things worse by shirking the transparency its office ought to foster. The good news is that producers are beginning independently to submit their wine for voluntary testing.

The confusion resulting from the controversy has created a sea of misinformation. Here are some facts to keep in mind:

  • to date, only 5 producers (of 265 total) have been implicated (not convicted) in the investigation;
  • the American government has officially requested information on the situation from the Italian embassy in Washington and has threatened to block imports if information is not provided by June 9 (we’ll see what happens over the next few weeks, but no action has been taken to block U.S. imports);
  • the issue is whether or not a handful of producers added grapes other than Sangiovese to the wine;
  • there are absolutely no health concerns and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the wine was made in strict accordance with appellation regulations;
  • bureaucratic hand-wringing and lack of transparency by the producers association are more to blame than the few bad apples who cut corners in a very hot vintage (preceded by a washed-out, rainy vintage).
  • I encourage everyone to continue to believe in Brunello, especially at a time when many honest, hard-working people — producers and their employees — are suffering because of a relatively small group of bad apples, so to speak (it only takes one, indeed, to spoil the whole barrel… pardon the pun).

    I wish I could take you all back in time to Montalcino when I first tasted Brunello. The appellation wasn’t as score-driven then and the leading Italian wines in the U.S. market were the prototypical Super Tuscans — Sassicaia and Tignanello first and foremost among them.

    Please continue to swirl, smell, and taste: there are a lot of great wines from the 2003 vintage and the upshot of the otherwise regrettable controversy will be bargain prices for a generally high-cost wine.

    2003 will ultimately be remembered as a great year to buy Brunello.

    I have a lot more to say on the subject of Brunello and the continuing modern vs. traditional debate but will wait until the controversy has subsided.

    2 thoughts on “Pouring Wine for a Good Cause and Reflections on Brunello

    1. Jeremy:
      Potremmo aver previsto notizie di oggi, più di noi avrebbero prestato attenzione a ciò che siamo stati in degustazione a Montalcino 20 anni fa.
      Come Joni’s Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone”.
      Grazie per mantenere noi inviato.
      Ciao …

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