Why a bad vintage is good, Super Tuscans @WineSearcher & a special dinner @SottoLA

chef steve samson sotto los angelesAbove: my good friend from college, chef Steve Samson at Sotto in Los Angeles, is going to recreate an Emilian feast next Wednesday in celebration of his parents’ Brooklyn-Bologna wedding fifty years ago. There are still seats available for the late seating. I’ll be there pouring the wines I’ve selected for the dinner. Here’s the link for more info and the story of how it came together.

Man, what an insane week it’s been!

The “umpteenth Brunello scandal,” as one Italian wine writer called it, trumped all of the week’s news.

It eclipsed, among other things, my first contribution to the WineSearcher.com blog wherein I take a look at Super Tuscans beyond the -aia wines. I had a lot of fun writing the piece and it’s been great to work with Wink Lorch, the current editor there. She’s an amazing writer and a wonderful editor.

Alfonso also published his first piece there, a fantastic overview of Etna wines.

The Brunello coverage also kept me from responding to an important comment here by Sicilian winemaker Marilena Barbera.

In response to my translation of Luciano Ferraro’s post on Italy’s “black harvest 2014,” she lamented that my Italian colleague was being overly dramatic.

I’ve rectified this with my post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant, Why a bad vintage is good.

The great Tuscan winemaker Piero Talenti supposedly once said that “there are no bad vintages. There are just vintages when we make less wine.” I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in the aphorism, even if Talenti never said it.

Click here to read my post.

Thanks for being here and have a great weekend! I’ll see you next week.

Brunello counterfeit update, the name of the “consultant,” and the good news…

best sangiovese tuscany montalcinoIn a blog post yesterday, Wine Spectator editor Bruce Sanderson set the record straight regarding the recent seizure by Italian authorities of “approximately 180,000 liters—potentially 20,000 cases of [fraudulently labeled Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino] from the 2008 to 2013 vintages, with an approximate value of $3.87 million to $5.16 million.”

According to Brunello consortium president Fabrizio Bindocci, who was interviewed by Sanderson, the wine was still in tank and had not yet been bottled.

Previous accounts from Italy, including the Siena prosecutor’s press release regarding the seizure and investigation, had reported that the vintages were 2011-13 and had not specified that the wine was still in “bulk” form.

Early reports had also called the culprit an “enologist.” But, as Sanderson clarifies in his post, the counterfeiter was a “consultant” who “provided administrative and business services to numerous small producers.”

Although neither the Brunello consortium nor the Siena prosecutor have revealed the names of the wineries involved in the scheme, Italian media outlets have named Alessandro Lorenzetti as the author of the crime.

The good news is that the Brunello consortium has embraced an active and even aggressive role in ferreting out counterfeiters. As the Siena prosecutor revealed in its press release two days ago, its investigation was sparked by a tip from the consortium.

“Unfortunately, the Brunello brand is too tempting,” said Bindocci in an interview published earlier this week by Tuscan wine writer Carlo Macchi, “and people who want to steal will go where the money is. For this very reason and to guarantee transparency for consumers, a few months ago, we approved a rule that requires all wineries who want to sell grapes or wine to another winery to declare the sale to the consortium at least forty-eight hours in advance.”

(Translation by DoBianchi.com)

Counterfeit Brunello: “largest agricultural fraud ever attempted” says Italian official

tuscan cypress trees montalcinoIn what Italian authorities say was the “largest agricultural fraud ever attempted,” an unnamed winery consultant in Montalcino has been accused of falsifying vineyard compliance documentation. The counterfeit wine was seized by Italian treasury officials before being sold.

The individual allegedly responsible for fraudulently labeling more than 220,000 bottles of Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino was not an enologist, as previously reported.

“The author of the crime,” writes Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro on his blog today, “was a sort of jack-of-all-trades consultant who was used by tens of small wineries in the appellation. The grape growers entrusted him with bookkeeping and bureaucratic compliance, tasks that can be difficult to deal with for small farmers. Taking advantage of their trust and the free hand he had been given, he doctored the production amounts.”

According to Ferraro, the counterfeiter “augmented the amount of wine that was actually produced, making sure that the number of hectares [planted to vine] and producible hectoliters [of wine] aligned. The real wine remained at the winery. The extra wine, which existed only on paper, took the form of tanks of liquid that had nothing to do with Brunello or Rosso di Montalcino but was given to other wineries as authentic.”

“It’s the largest agricultural fraud ever attempted,” according to Luca Albertario, Siena Province commander for the Italian treasury department, who is quoted in Ferraro’s post.

Ferraro notes that the wine was seized before being released into the market.

Translations by DoBianchi.com.

220,000 bottles of counterfeit Brunello & Rosso seized by Italian authorties

Errata corrige: subsequent reporting of the seizure has revealed that the wine in question had not yet been bottled and was still in tank.

mt amiataAbove: Mt. Amiata, as seen from Castelnuovo dell’Abate (Montalcino).

Italian media outlets have reported this morning that more than 220,000 bottles of counterfeit Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino have been seized by Italian treasury authorities.

“Investigations to date have allowed [authorities] to discover and seize 165,467 liters of wine (roughly 220,600 750ml bottles),” write the editors of the Italian national daily Il Sole 24 Ore, “including 75,620 liters of Brunello di Montalcino and 89,847 liters of Rosso di Montalcino worth at least €1 million.”

(Translation by DoBianchi.com.)

According to the authors of the report, which was based on a statement issued by the Siena prosecutor’s office, the wine had been fraudulently labeled by an unnamed consulting enologist, who worked with multiple Montalcino bottlers.

The prosecutor’s statement describes the individual as a “serial swindler,” who also engaged in an elaborate money fraud scheme using electronic banking transactions to steal approximately €350,000 from his victims.

The investigation was sparked by a tip from the Brunello di Montalcino consortium.

“The operational synergy between monitoring groups and certification authorities has made it possible to stop the fraud from affecting yet more consumers,” said Italian agriculture minister Maurizio Martina in a statement cited by the Sole 24 Ore report. “And it has put an end to odious, unfair competition faced by honest producers.”

The counterfeit wine, which authorities believe was purchased on the black market, was falsely labeled as Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages.

The wineries victimized by the counterfeiter are not named in the Siena prosecutor’s statement, which has been reposted by a number of regional Italian mastheads and wine blogs this morning.

Read the Siena prosecutor’s press release in its entirety here.

Italy’s “black harvest” 2014: enologist association’s bleak forecast

italy grape harvest data 2014Above: you can read the Italian association of enologists (Assoenologi) forecast for harvest 2014 in its entirety on Luciano Pignataro’s site. Click image above to enlarge. The data above represent the 2014 yield forecast compared with yield data from 2013 and average yields over the last five years.

“The year of the black harvest,” wrote Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro on his blog on Friday, a forecast of a “30 percent decrease” in some appellations.

He was referring to report issued by Assoenologi, the Italian association of enologists and eno-technicians circulated by the group last week.

Disastrous snow storms in Abruzzo in November 2013; an accelerated growing cycle prompted by an otherwise extremely mild winter throughout Italy; intense hailstorms in the spring in northern Italy; incessant rainfall in July throughout Italy and an unusually cool August in northern and central Italy.

There will be some bright spots, write the authors of the report, but the outlook is bleak for most growers and winemakers.

In his post, Ferraro synopsized the forecast region by region and I have translated his notes below.

*****

Piedmont

Major hailstorms and peronospora [powdery mildew] in Barolo. Overall production will be good, with some spots in great condition but few excellent [wines].

Lombardy

Rainfall for 90 days out of 151. Gray rot has affected 15 percent of the bunches. In Valtellina, if the weather gets better, growers can hope for an interesting although late harvest.

Trentino-Alto Adige

Widespread damage from peronospoora, wind damage for Marzemino. Lower alcohol levels for Chardonnay in Trentino. Things are better in Bolzano province, where the wines will have lower alcohol levels.

Veneto

Vineyards have been affected by vine diseases because of rainstorms and low temperatures. Amarone production within the norm. Glera grapes (for Prosecco) will have interesting acidity levels.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Slow ripening of the grapes because of cold. Decrease in production of Pinot Grigio, Friulano, Chardonnay, Cabernet France, and Merlot.

Emilia-Romagna

Widespread cases of acid rot and botrytis in hillside vineyards. The health of Trebbiano is relatively good.

Tuscany

If September and October will be favorable, the vintage will be interesting. Otherwise, there will not be great spots nor excellent [wines].

Latium, Umbria

July rains have compromised the health of the vineyards in all areas. In Castelli Romani and Orvieto province, harvest will not take place until the end of the month.

Marches

The overall quality of the grapes is relatively good. Harvest of Verdicchio, Trebbiano, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano will come a week late.

Abruzzo

Enormous damage because of the snowfall last November but there is hope for an extremely interesting vintage for DOC wines.

Campania

The harvest will be completed in November when the Aglianico is picked. Late harvest with excellent promise for the grapes’ aromatic expression.

Puglia

Primitivo harvest will begin next week. Good levels for the grapes, with yields restored thanks to August weather. In any case, the forecast is for a 20 percent drop in quantity.

Sicilia, Sardinia

In Sicily, the production will be 70 percent of 2013’s harvest [but] quality could be interesting. In Sardinia, the quality of the grapes is excellent [and] quantities have returned to the norm.

BLASPHEMY: sea urchin carbonara @TonyVallone & earliest known mention of dish

carbonara best recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s new “Spaghetti alla Carbonara” is as blasphemous as it is delicious.

It was a thrill for Tracie P and me to take our Australian friends, the newly engaged Lydia and Stefano, to Tony’s, the flagship restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone in Houston.

The couple is touring the states, dining their way through our country’s metropolitan culinary hotspots (New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, etc.). So when I learned that they’d be visiting Houston, it was with no small measure of pride that I suggested a double date last night at Tony’s, where Tony and his chef de cuisine Kate McLean (another friend) are putting out some of the best food in the nation imho.

Kobe grade a5 beef is always a joy ride as was a spectacular risotto alla milanese. But the star of our evening was Tony’s new and blasphemous spaghetti alla carbonara, made with pecorino (no Parmigiano Reggiano), lightly sautéed pancetta, crispy guanciale, and raw sea urchin.

To my palate, the dish was a study in savory, delicately briny texture, with each of the “salt-delivery” components delivering a unique and distinct, nuanced layer.

But the addition of the raw urchin gave the housemade spahgetti alla chitarra an ethereal marine note that took the dish into an even higher realm of hedonist fulfillment. It was that good.

Our dinner and enogastronomically driven conversation reminded me of a gastro-philological nugget recently shared with me by my colleague and good friend Chris Reid, who writes — among other things — about barbecue for the Houston Chronicle (you may remember Chris from his 2012 New York Times piece on Texas barbecue outside of Texas).

0044_01_1950_0176_0003Above: an article culled from the July 26, 1950 edition of the Italian national daily La Stampa may represent the earliest known mention of spaghetti alla carbonara in print. Click here for a PDF of the entire page.

A number of people on both sides of the Atlantic (including me) have used the Google Books search engine to find early mentions of carbonara, where the term refers to the famous Roman dish (and not its many other meanings in Italian).

But Chris has found what may be the earliest known mention in print in the newly available digital archive of the Italian national daily La Stampa.

The article describes the Pope’s visit to the Festa de’ Noantri, the colorful summer festival held each July in Trastevere.

In a paragraph devoted to the neighborhood’s top trattorie, the author mentions “Cesaretto alla Cisterna — to name one of the most well known [restaurants] outside of Italy — who boasts ancient origins, being that his osteria rose from the ruins of another famous eatery in the time of Fabio Massimo [Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus]. It was this tavern keeper who first welcomed American officials who had come to Trastevere, many years ago now, in search of spaghetti alla carbonara.”

The passage is interesting for a number of reasons but chiefly because it associates the renown of carbonara with American military men.

American forces first arrived in Rome in 1944 and the fact that the author claims that Cesaretto (literally, little Caeser) was the first to serve American officials would seem to imply that he was the first to popularize the dish if not the dish’s inventor.

Is it possible and even probable that carbonara was inspired by American soldiers’ love of bacon and eggs? The passage above seems to give weight to the American influence theory.

We may never know the origins of spaghetti alla carbonara but I can’t imagine that we will ever stop looking for it, just like the American officials who headed to Cesaretto in search of the dish.

In other news…

Assoenologi, the association of Italian enologists, has published its early harvest forecast and the numbers are grim. After one of the rainest years in our lifetime, some regions will see a 30 percent drop in production. I’ll post about it on Monday.

Harvest dispatch from Friuli by @GiampaoloVenica

As in years past, I gladly publish harvest notes from winemakers across Italy. The following is from my good friend and Collio producer Giampaolo Venica, who wrote to me late last week. If you are a winemaker or grape grower and would like to share a note and photo, please feel free to send it to me (my email).

friuli harvest rain 2014Jeremy, you do not need me to tell you that the vintage is very challenging.

The warmest winter since 1955 gave 20 days of anticipation but that has been overruled because of the rainy, no sunlight and cold of the past months.

Lots of diseases as naturally must be with the highest and most frequent rain ever seen. Last night I had 2 landslides because of a water flood.

What is very surprising looking at vineyards around is that serious organic/biodynamic producers had the same problems of conventional ones.

We will cut botrytis down but mostly on Pinot Grigio and clusters with very compact bunches. Sugar is still very low, we might start harvesting at the end of next week.

Despite the pessimism around I am very confident because we have not had such cold days since at least 10-15 years. This is very good for slow ripening.

I am thrilled to try my 2014 vintage that will be at lest 1 percent alcohol less then 2013 and definitely with more acidity.

This will probably be vintage where only the best will make great wine but these will be unique.

Of course this is just my forecast and we all will be relieved when grapes are safely in.

—Giampaolo Venica

Tuscan authorities accuse grape growers of threatening landscape & environment

This just in: Italian wine blogger Jacopo Cossater has just reported that historic Valpolicella producer Bertani will not produce a 2014 Amarone Classico. “The rainy vintage of 2014 scores its first victim,” he writes.

montalcino tuscany erosion wine grapes“We are being treated like assassins of our environment,” wrote Brunello producer Stefano Cinelli Colombini in an impassioned op-ed published by the popular Italian wine blog Intravino earlier this week. “And everything that we have achieved is being challenged.”

He was referring to the implementation and fallout of new environmental guidelines that were published in July 2014 by Tuscany’s regional authority.

The document, known as PIT (Piano di indirizzo territoriale or plan for territorial oversight), alleges that the widespread development and expansion of viticulture over the last decades has reshaped the landscape and caused grave environmental harm.

“Extended areas planted to specialized vines represent a great threat to the naturalistic value of the agricultural landscape,” wrote the authors of the survey.

“The modifications brought about by viticultural specialization have greatly altered the character of the traditional landscape. The result is banalization and homogenization.”

Vines, contend the authors, create “a risk of hillside erosion… In some cases, there is continued risk that the water table will be polluted.”

Viticulture, they claim, has become a “dominant monoculture” that reduces “ecological permeability.”

(You can download the survey in its entirety here. The quotes above are taken from ambito 17 or article 17, which addresses issues of sustainability and environmental practices in vineyard land. Translation mine.)

In the wake of the survey’s publication, reports Cinelli Colombini, many wineries have already been denied permits that are required by authorities for commonplace, workaday operations, like grubbing up or replanting vines.

Calling the allegations absurd, he points out that the development of viticulture and its infrastructure (including tourist facilities like tasting rooms, restaurants, and lodging) were fundamental in rebuilding the Tuscan countryside’s economy after urban migration significantly reduced the region’s population during the 1950s.

His dismay is echoed today in an interview with Brunello consortium president Fabrizio Bindocci published by the Independent.

“This administration wants to take agriculture back to the 1800s,” said Bindocci in the interview. “We take regular samples from the rivers and streams near my vineyards in Montalcino and we have not detected pollution.”

In a country whose citizens are accustomed to bureaucratic overreach, the survey has caused an uproar among grape growers and Italian wine trade observers alike.

“The world of Italian politics has shown how terrible it is, without even trying,” wrote Intravino editor Alessandro Morichetti on Twitter yesterday.

“The agricultural landscape changes in accordance with economic necessities. And this needs to be accepted,” opined leading wine writer and enologist Maurizio Gily in the same Twitter conversation.

Translations mine.

A slice of Americana at Cleburne Cafeteria in Houston #nostalgia

best cafeteria houstonParzen family enjoyed a lazy Sunday lunch yesterday at the Cleburne Cafeteria in Houston, a classic and wholesome self-service eatery that revels in its 1950s origins without even the faintest trace of irony.

best jello recipeAs you make your way to down the chow line, tray in hand, you walk through a living museum of the pre-arugula-nation era.

chicken and gravy potatoes mashedI had fried, flattened chicken breast, mashed potatoes and gravy (choice of white or brown gravy) and a fresh salad, well washed and tasty.

Tracie P shared her fried haddock, black-eyed peas, and green beans with our girls.

Georgia P wasn’t so keen on her macaroni and cheese (unusual for her, but understandable in the light of the fact that she ate five pieces of bacon and waffles for breakfast). Lila Jane LOVED her baked spaghetti.

lemon meringue pie recipe bestWe skipped dessert but you get the picture.

Beyond the kitsch and genuine nostalgia, the thing that made it an A+ experience was how well-oiled and friendly the service was.

Although it’s is a self-service restaurant, the servers — well appointed in tidy 1950s-era black maid uniforms with white trim — aid elderly guests and parents with small children, offering to carry the trays to the table. And they periodically check in with diners to ask “is everything okay, can I get you something?”

And just as we were winding down, at just the right moment, our server arrived with orange balloons.

sweet potato fries french recipeLest you fret that we’re not feeding our children well, please know dinner was organic sweet potato baked French fries and organic broccoli and cheddar fritters.

We do live in the arugula-nation era, after all.

HAPPY LABOR DAY, everyone!

Remember the workers…