Gaja open letter stirs controversy: “confusion [in the market] must be pruned back”

angelo gaja winery barbarescoAbove: a “functional” objet d’art in the foyer of the Gaja winery in Barbaresco. It’s one of the myriad works that punctuate the storied cellar.

It seems that everyone in Italy is talking about Angelo Gaja’s most recent open letter, posted yesterday on numerous blogs and Italian wine news sites.

“Angelo Gaja spares no one: journalists, wine guides, colleagues, ingredients in wine on the label…” That’s the title of Slow Wine’s post.

“Angelo Gaja spares no one in his letter: guides, colleagues, practices,” wrote leading Italian wine blogger Alessandro Morichetti on the popular Italian wine blog Intravino this morning. “Well, we have some news for Angelo Gaja.”

My translation of the letter follows. I hope you find it as interesting (and provocative) as I did.

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Analysis is a waste of time when it comes to understanding the unstoppable decline in wine consumption in Italy. The conversation ought to be about the CONFUSION [sic] that prospers and thrives as it drives young consumers away.

Wine’s function as a food product is slowly being replaced by its hedonistic role. People once drank “with their stomachs”; today they drink more and more “with their heads.” As a result, niche categories grow and consumers increasingly ask for wine that is natural, organic, biodynamic, sustainable, free, clean, fair…

And producers pander to the demand for these wines. They call for new controls and certifications. Good for them, as long as they do not resort to the use of public funds.

WINE LEGISLATION regulates the practices allowed in making wine and it gives producers license to do just about anything and then some. Just think what would happen if producers who employ the most invasive practices were forced to mention them on the back label of their wines.

Tragically, because of the dutiful movement to prevent the abuse of alcohol, wine ends up being associated and confused with spirits and soft drinks to which alcohol has been added. This occurs despite wine’s history, culture, and the radically different values it represents.

There are five times as many WINE GUIDES in Italy as there are in France. TOP 100 ITALIAN WINE LISTS are equally plentiful and each one is unavoidably different from the next. JOURNALISTIC WINE PRIZES, established to benefit those who write about wine, are more abundant in Italy than in all the other European countries combined.

Tourism promoters continue to drag WINE INTO THE PUBLIC SQUARE, even though the sale of alcoholic beverages should be authorized solely in properly licensed venues.

High-volume producers are accustomed to running their companies. So who would ever expect them to refrain from donning the garb of the GRAPE GROWER, despite the fact that Italian dictionaries define the grape grower as someone “who tends vines (by hand)”?

The same tired DEBATES on how to understand, produce, and sell wine continue to drag on, spurred by both producers and numerous external advisors.

To combat the decline in consumption, confusion needs to be pruned back. And in order to do so, we need respect and courage.

Angelo Gaja
May 28, 2014

baglio, an Italian winery designation rich with meaning

baglio sicily meaningAbove: the entrance to a classic Sicilian baglio (Image via gi+cri fargilli’s Flickr, Creative Commons License).

It was leading Italian wine blogger Alfonso who suggested that I add the term baglio to my Italian Winery Designations Explained project.

I’m so glad that he did: it’s been fascinating to research the origins and applications of the word. And it’s such a great example of how oeno-philology opens up a wonderful window on to Italy’s rich cultural history. I hope you enjoy the entry as much as I did researching and writing it.

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Please click here for the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project; here for the Italian Wine Terms Translated index; and please see the Italian Winery Designations Explained glossary below.

baglio is the latest entry in my ever expanding Italian Winery Designations Project below. If you have a winery-related term that you’d like me to include, please let me know in the comment section.

baglio, literally courtyard and by extension a fortified country estate, possibly from the post-classical Latin ballium meaning outer rampart of a castle; possibly from the Arabic baha meaning open space, square, or courtyard.

The designation baglio is used widely in Sicily where it denotes a walled country estate and is often applied to contemporary wineries. It first began to appear during the seventeenth century, when Sicily’s Spanish rulers, who needed to expand wheat production for their growing empire, encouraged citizens to move from the major cities into the Sicilian hinterland, which, at the time was largely undeveloped. Widespread banditry prompted the newly licensed land owners to build walled country estates around a baglio or courtyard. Fortifications helped to secure agricultural products and they also provided safety for the farmhands and their families. Thanks to this new social model, many bagli grew into small towns during Spain’s domination of the island. Today, scores of bagli lie abandoned across inland Sicily although many have been transformed into agritursimi, farm house inns where locally sourced foods and wines are served to guests.

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azienda, landed property, estate, domestic work, from the Spanish hacienda, from the Latin facienda meaning things to be done from facere, to do.

The term azienda means business and is used to denote a company or firm in Italian. An azienda agricola is a farming business; an azienda vinicola is a winery (a wine business).

ca’, see entry for casa.
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Italy’s natural beauty endangered

blue bottle flower corn Cyanus segetumAfter translating the passage below this morning for my client Bele Casel, I couldn’t help but do a little reading about the Italian blue cornflower, Centaurea cyanus (“commonly known as cornflower, bachelor’s button, bluebottle, boutonniere flower, hurtsickle or cyani flower… an annual flowering plant in the family Asteraceae, native to Europe”).

The cornflower, or fiordaliso as it is known in Italy, was once commonly found across Italy’s farm land. Today, it’s relatively rare.

Most agree — according to what I found on the internets this morning — that its disappearance is due to expansion of chemical-based commercial farming in Europe.

“It is now endangered,” reports the Wiki, “in its native habitat by agricultural intensification, particularly over-use of herbicides, destroying its habitat; in the United Kingdom it has declined from 264 sites to just 3 sites in the last 50 years.”

Here’s what a journalist in Piedmont had to say about the fiordaliso: “The advent of pesticides and seed breeding [please click this link to learn more about "seed breeding"] has certainly helped to increase agricultural production. But it has also denied our children the opportunity to enjoy this poetic sight in our wheat fields.”

The excerpted translation (mine) comes from a 2011 article about school programs that teach students how to grow cornflowers in the classroom.

I hope this background information will help to make Paola Ferraro’s note (below) more meaningful to readers.

I’ve always been impressed with the Ferraro family and Bele Casel’s commitment to chemical-free farming in their vineyards. They see it as a means to deliver a better product. There’s no doubt about that. But they also view it — first and foremost — as a civic duty and societal responsibility. If not them, I’m sure that grape grower Luca Ferraro and his sister Paola would agree, who will try to protect Italy’s natural beauty and its wondrous natural resources?

On a rainy, dreary day here in Houston, Paola’s note brought a ray of sunshine into our home… Buona lettura. I hope you enjoy her note as much as I did translating it.

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My mother has often told me about how she used to ride her bicycle through fields that were full of cornflowers when she was a little girl.

And whenever she remembers those days, she always gets a little sad because you really don’t see them in the fields anymore.

The other day, when we went to pick some flowers in our vineyard in Cornuda and she saw some cornflowers, the smile on her face made me so happy. It was one of those smiles that come from deep down in your heart.

Nature is a truly wondrous thing and it’s such a pity that so many — too many — people don’t understand that.

Paola Ferraro

Italian wine resources: winery designations, wine terms translated, grape name pronunciation

A ping today from friend and colleague Meg reminded me that I had neglected to create widgets on DoBianchi.com beta for my Italian wine terminology resources: please click here for the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project; here for the Italian Wine Terms Translated index; and please see the Italian Winery Designations Explained glossary below. Thanks, Meg, for the nudge! And buon weekend yall… Thanks for being here.

italian wine terminologyMaso is the latest entry in my ever expanding Italian Winery Designations Project below. If you have a winery-related term that you’d like me to include, please let me know in the comment section.

maso, Alpine farm, estate, from the post-classical Latin mansus, mansum, mansa, meaning dwelling, house, homestead, or manor (from the Latin manere, to remain), akin to the French mas and the English manse.

The term maso (pronounced MAH-zoh) is used exclusively in Trentino-Alto Adige to denote a working farm and farm house. Traditionally, this term — which is shared by Italian and Ladin — referred to a ranch (i.e., a farm where animals were also raised).

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azienda, landed property, estate, domestic work, from the Spanish hacienda, from the Latin facienda meaning things to be done from facere, to do.

The term azienda means business and is used to denote a company or firm in Italian. An azienda agricola is a farming business; an azienda vinicola is a winery (a wine business).

ca’, see entry for casa.

cantina, literally cellar or cool place to store perishable goods and by extension tavern, probably from the Italian canto meaning angle or corner from the Greek kampthos, bend or angle.

The word cantina has a wide variety of applications in Italy (often used for restaurants and food stores, as well as wineries) and can be found across Italy to denote wine cellar.

casa, literally, a building, house, or habitation, from the Latin casa, a small house, cottage, hut, cabin, shed.

The term casa is used throughout Italy as a winery designation and is often abbreviated as ca’, as in Ca’ del Bosco (it’s important to note that it’s often erroneously abbreviated as Cà [using the accent grave diacritic], when in fact the inverted comma ['] denotes the elision of the final two letters, often derived from a dialectal locution). A casa vinicola (pronounced KAH-sah vee-NEE-koh-lah) is a winery/négociant.

cascina, farm house or other structure used to house livestock or farm tools, from the late Latin capsia meaning case or receptacle.

It can also denote a structure used to store cheese and other dairy products. The term is used primarily northern Italy and especially in Piedmont to denote a farmhouse or winery or dairy farm.

fattoria, farm, from the Latin factore, literally maker, from facere meaning to do.

You find usage of fattoria generally in Tuscany where it can denote a winery or a farm, keeping in mind that most wine-producing estates in Tuscany also grow olives and other crops.

masseria, country house, estate, from the post-classical Latin mansus, mansum, mansa, meaning dwelling, house, homestead, or manor (from the Latin manere, to remain), akin to the French mas and the English manse.

The term masseria (pronounced mahs-seh-REE-ah) is used primarily in southern Italy and most widely in Puglia to denote a country estate.

podere, country estate with farm house (according to the Zingarelli dictionary), akin to the Italian potere, meaning can or to have the ability to do, from the late Latin, potere, from the Latin possum, meaning to be able, have power.

The term is used today primarily in Tuscany where it denotes, literally, a seat of [agricultural] power, hence the late Latin origin of the word, potere, literally power or possession (who also share kinship with the Latin etymon). According to the Cortelazzo etymological dictionary, the word first appears in the Middle Ages in northern Italy.

poggio, hill, from the Latin podium, meaning an elevated place, a height.

As Virgil wrote famously, Bacchus amat colles, Bacchus loves hills. The usage of poggio in Tuscany is documented dating back to the thirteenth century and the term appears in Dante. There are many related words like poggiolo, poggiuolo, and poggione.

ronco, literally a growing site on a hill used for farming, from the Latin runco, meaning to weed out, root up; to weed, clear of weeds, akin to the Friulian dialectal term ronc.

To my knowledge, ronco is used exclusively in Friuli. Akin to the Italian roncola or pruning hook, it probably comes from the past participle of the Friulian runcar (to clear of weeds, runcà, in other words, a site cleared for planting.

tenuta, a [land] holding or property, past participle of the Italian tenere, from the Latin teneo, meaning to hold, have, or keep.

Tenuta is a term that you see applied across northern and central Italy. Its relation to the pre-industrial age, when land ownership denoted nobility, is clear.

vignaiolo (plural vignaioli), vine tender or grape grower, derived from the Italian vigna, meaning vine, from the Latin vinea, vineyard, from the Latin vinum, wine.

Pronounced VEEN-y’eye-OH-loh (plural VEEN-y’eye-OH-lee), vignaiolo is used to denote a winery that uses estate-grown fruit in the production of its wines.

groovy folks, groovy wines in sunny LA (was it just a dream?)

fico pizzeria los angelesTexas was on my mind yesterday, as I floated through gilded, bigoted, face-lifted Beverly Hills, as if in a THC-induced dream.

I was raised here… vinified in La Jolla and bottle-aged at UCLA. But as my high school chum Gary Jules likes to point out, I spent my whole adolescence trying to escape.

Today, I’m a Texan, husband to a Texan and father of two little Texans. But these are my roots, for better or for worse.

I really loved chatting with John Tierney at Pizzeria Il Fico (above) and shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he speaks excellent Italian. He studied Italian at Stanford, I learned. Super cool guy who shares my passion for Italian wine and food in a historical and cultural context and a top-notch restaurant pro.

porcini salad republiqueThe porcini salad (above) was just one of the great things that I ate last night at the super sexy République on La Brea, where I met my good friend and music agent Michael Nieves.

Some of the porcini were lightly sautéed with garlic and others were sliced raw. It was one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. Really fantastic…

The place was slammin’ packed and I was geeked to catch up with my friend and colleague Taylor Parsons, who runs a superb and mostly French wine list there. He changes the list nearly every day, he told me, reacting to specials and changes in the menu with new and different by-the-glass selections.

Taylor is so sharp and focused and his wine list was orthographically impeccable — not to mention delicious. He tasted us on two ten-year-old expressions of Muscadet, approachable but classic Chablis, and Anjou blanc that blew my nugget.

We were seated without delay and our server was also spot-on. I was really impressed by this restaurant on every level.

radoar muller thurgauThe folks from Farm Wine tasted me on the Radoar Müller-Thurgau from German-speaking Italy.

What a beautiful, focused expression of this grape, electric in the glass! Not much of this wine is brought in by Louis/Dressner, they told me. And I was very geeked to get my first taste.

People still get thrown out of Louis/Dressner tastings, they also told me. I was glad to learn that the tradition continues.

failla sonoma pinot noirAnd the dudes from Chambers & Chambers, with whom I did a “ride with” yesterday, tasted me on this awesome Pinot Noir from Sonoma coast, Failla. This elegant wine had brilliant acidity, gorgeous fruit, and lovely balance. They told me it should retail for around $35. We don’t drink a lot of Californian at our house but I would happily see this on our dinner table on a Saturday night. Really loved this wine from my home state.

All in all it was a good visit to sunny LA, where the tits are fake and the homeless are real.

Our Festa del Rosato tasting at Sotto was a mad house and it was fun talking to guests about the virtues of rosé and why we drink so much of it.

Was it just a dream? I don’t think I’ll ever know… I’ll just keep on keeping on, trying to understand where I came from and how I got here (some weird family shit has been hard on me lately)…

Now it’s time to hop back on a plane and get my ass back to the armadillo, where I belong. Thanks for reading this oneiric post of mine.

Believe the hype: why the 2009 vintage is good for middle-class collectors like us

We’ve opened up seating at our Festa del Rosato tasting tonight at Sotto in Los Angeles. We usually only seat on the patio for these events but the demand has been so great that we’ve taken over the entire restaurant. If you happen to be in LA tonight, please stop by and taste with me and Rory. Here’s the registration info.

gregorian chants italyAbove: the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo in Castelnuovo dell’Abate in the southern subzone of Brunello di Montalcino.

One of the things that sets the wine trade apart from other luxury goods categories is the rapport between storage and cash flow. Grape growers and winemakers — especially those who produce high-end wines — often have to wait years before they can sell their products. For them, every vintage is an investment and a gamble.

And when the wines don’t sell, winemakers are faced with a sometimes insurmountable problem: with unsold vintages in the cellar, they need to make room for the new wine being bottled. The storage and cash flow problem is compounded by the fact that many domestic distributors and international importers do not pay for the wine upfront.

External factors can also exacerbate these issues. The dark period following 9/11 and the 2007-2008 financial crisis are examples of this.

Of course, there’s also the other side of the coin. When a great vintage is followed by a tough low-yield vintage, bottlers have to scramble to fulfill their orders.

Beginning in the 1970s, when far-sighted bottlers began to see the potential of the export market, growers and winemakers started to become acutely aware of how market perception of a given vintage could drive or kill sales.

As various bottler associations began to emerge and come into focus during that period (the Brunello consortium, for example, was founded in 1967), producers began to align their marketing efforts. Like the growers who sold them the fruit, they realized that they could influence the way a given vintage was perceived and received by the trade and by consumers.

Collusion is too strong a word. But when pressed, any older Langa grower, winemaker, or bottler will quietly concede that there was a concerted effort within the trade to pump up the 1974 vintage in Barolo and Barbaresco. It was a strong vintage, although not a great one. But it followed a disastrous, rainy vintage in 1972 and a challenging vintage in 1973.

The 2007 vintage in Langa is an analogous case, in my view. It was a great vintage for certain producers, a good one for others. But at the time of its release, with the financial crisis still looming and a lot of wine from 2006 still in the cellar, I can remember distinctly how export managers tended to inflate its quality, even though it wasn’t one of the great, balanced, “classic” vintages of the decade.

As the great Italian wine writer Antonio Galloni noted on his excellent site Vinous Media last week, “every vintage can’t be epic.”

In an article entitled “2009 Brunello di Montalcino: The Day of Reckoning,” he writes:

    The 2009 growing season in Montalcino will be remembered by the massive heat wave that arrived suddenly in August of that year… The intense August heat caused sugars to mount faster than phenolic ripeness could be achieved. In some places, it is obvious the heat caused plants to shut down, blocking ripeness. In other spots, yields were too high for plants to carry their fruit through to full maturity.
    The 2009 Brunellos are some of the most uneven, problematic young wines I have ever tasted. As a group, the 2009s are forward, light in color and built for near-term drinking. Readers will see obvious signs of maturity in wines with advanced color and flavor profiles. In fact, many wines are already alarmingly evolved and mature.

(The complete article is available to all readers here. I can’t recommend it to you highly enough and I feel it’s such a great example of why Antonio is one of the best wine writers working today. His critical palate is always balanced by his judiciousness and his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wine and wisdom in tasting are impeccable.)

abbey sant antimo montalcinoAbove: the Abbey is from the Romanico or Romanesque period of Italian architecture, when many Roman temples were converted to churches. That’s why there’s a pagan symbol in this capital.

But when Antonio advises the Brunello collector to make her/his purchases carefully where the 2009 vintage in Brunello is concerned, he’s not talking to me. He’s addressing buyers with much greater financial means than I will ever have. I do have a few bottles of Brunello in my 27-case locker in San Diego. But I can’t afford to collect Brunello, at least not the ones that I like. At $80+, they are out of my price range: my ceiling for wines I collect aggressively is around $65 and most of the bottles in my long-term aging collection fall between $35-50.

Ultimately, 2009 will prove to be a good vintage for middle-class collectors like me. Many producers have reclassified their wines, in part because the fruit isn’t as age-worthy and in part because they fear they won’t be able to move it out of their cellars.

And the wines, if not already ready to drink, will come around sooner. I don’t have unlimited storage space and I tend to drink most of the wine purchase on the earlier side. The 2009 Produttori del Barbaresco (classic) Barbaresco is such a great example of this, in my view. It’s not a wine that I will put down for long-term aging in my cellar. I’ll drink it now and over the next few years (although I will put a few bottles down so that I can maintain my complete vertical).

Writing this post, I can’t help but think about the 2002 Poggio di Sotto Rosso di Montalcino. Piero Palmucci didn’t make a Brunello that rainy year and he bottled all of his top fruit as Rosso. In 2006, when I was working for a high-profile wine seller in New York, you could buy it for a song. And it was ready to drink.

Poggio di Sotto lies a stone’s throw from the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo (pictured, above), where the monks still perform Gregorian chants every year, despite the weather conditions.

I agree wholeheartedly with Antonio that the 2009 harvest in Brunello won’t be the harvest that some growers have hyped it up to be. But sometimes, when you’re an average bourgeois punter like me, you just gotta have faith…

Parzen girls update & an extravagantly delicious gumbo

the producersAbove: our girls love going to restaurants and Georgia P always wants to read the menu. On Saturday morning we took them to Kenny & Ziggy’s deli for white fish, salmon, eggs, and bagels. It’s such a great restaurant and as a former New Yorker and now Houstonian, I can tell you that it’s just as good (and as pricey) as any you’ll find in the city.

We’ve had a really lovely weekend here in Houston, with weather that reminds us all of the California where I grew up (and where they’re experiencing unseasonally high temperatures).

My mom came in from La Jolla for a four-day stay to visit Georgia P (above) and Lila Jane (below).

As any parent will tell you, raising babies and toddlers is never an easy task and our girls — like anybody’s kids — can be a handful. But they always have a smile, hug, and kiss for us and all it takes is a coo or an “I love you” to make the sleeplessness and headaches vanish…
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The story of the Ferrari horse & what it has to do with wine

ferrari horse yellowI spent my early Friday morning researching and writing this post for my client Barone Pizzini producer of Franciacorta and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Buona lettura e buon weekend… I hope you enjoy the post as much as I did writing it and have a great weekend…

He was called the “ace of aces” and was one of the most famous aviators of World War I: Francesco Baracca (1888-1918), “the Prancing Horse,” author of 34 aerial victories during “the great war,” and one of the most celebrated wartime figures of the era.

(Click here for his English Wiki entry and click here for a detailed technical account of his missions.)

As a young cavalry officer in training at the Scuola di Cavalleria (Cavalry School) in Pinerolo township (Piedmont), he befriended Baron Edoardo Pizzini Piomarta Delle Porte (1882-1966), founder of the Barone Pizzini winery.

(Click here for a description of the school by British contemporary of the Baron and Baracca.)

Some time after Baracca became fascinated with aviation and abandoned horsemanship to become one of the most decorated “fly aces” of early aerial combat, he wrote to his friend Edoardo, inquiring about a favorite horse at the school.

Please click here to continue reading the story of the “prancing horse”…

2013 Friuli showing strong & Pinot Bianco back to 1955, all in a day’s work

giampaolo venicaIt’s always such a treat for me to get to visit and taste with my good friend Giampaolo Venica (above, right), who’s been coming to Texas over the last few years to work the market with his family’s extraordinary wines.

Giampaolo is such a sensitive and thoughtful grape grower and winemaker and as much as I love tasting and talking wine with him, our conversation always shifts toward literature and politics when we get to spend time together. After all, our friendship was borne out of our shared interest in Pasolini, whose first major work of poetry, Poesie a Casarsa, published during the Second World War, was composed in Friulano, Giampaolo’s madre lingua.

venica sauvignonAlas, now is not the time to speak of poetry…

Giampaolo and I met Tuesday at Vino Vino in Austin (one of my Texas clients) to taste his newly released 2013s with other members of the trade.

I was in Friuli in early October of last year and I can still remember the delicious “courtyard aromas” of the fermenting must. This classic, balanced vintage is going to be a great one for Italy in general and a truly outstanding one for Giampaolo’s wines, which were showing gorgeously, even so early on in their evolution.

Giampaolo agreed with me that the vineyard-designated Ronco del Cerò Sauvignon Blanc was the more fully developed of his top crus and I had the great fortune to drink a bottle over dinner with him and his importer, Troy Kuhn of Serendipity, later that evening. What fantastic wines these are!

branzino crudoDuring Giampaolo’s trade tasting Tuesday, Austin chef Dean Chambers debuted some dishes from his new menu for the soon-to-opened Al Fico, a new Italian concept being developed by the Vino Vino partners.

I really loved his branzino crudo (above), with lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, and pickled sunchoke. A lovely pairing for Giampaolo’s wines.

I’m excited to see what chef Dean will do with this new entry in the expanding Austin dining scene. In bocca al lupo, Chef!

In other news…

klaus gasserOur close friend and number-one Italian wine blogger Alfonso Cevola snagged me a spot a last night’s Terlano vertical at the swank Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, where my good friend Steven McDonald is wine director.

We tasted some stunning expressions of Pinot Bianco stretching back to 1955 and it was fascinating to hear the winery’s export director Klaus Gasser tell the story of how these bottles had been stashed away by an old cellar master who foresaw their longevity.

The winery’s more recent releases, served in an initial flight reaching back to 1999, were superb. And Steven and his team delivered world-class wine service.

It’s incredible to think about how Houston and Texas in general have become one of the world’s wine epicenters in the arc of time that I lived here.

All in a day’s work…