Faced with civil disobedience threat, Italian agriculture ministry issues new labeling guidelines

fivi federation italian grape growers independentAbove: the Italian Federation of Independent Grape Growers technical advisory board, including president Matilde Poggi (top row, third from left). Their t-shirts feature a quote from the song “Absolutely Sweet Marie” by Bob Dylan, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

On December 31, 2014, the Italian agriculture ministry issued new guidelines for the use of geographic mentions in wine industry labeling and marketing materials. The so-called “clarification” came in response to a threat of civil disobedience by the Italian Federation of Independent Grape Growers (FIVI). The group had called for its members to employ illegal labeling and marketing practices if the ministry did not act to address their grievance with restrictive EU norms.

“It is now possible,” according to a FIVI press release, “to use the name of a province or a region in labeling and marketing materials even when the name is registered as a DOCG, DOC, or IGT.”

In 2014, an Italian winemaker had been fined by government officials for using a geographical mention in marketing materials. The winery, a producer of Barolo, had used the place name “Langhe” in promotional media.

According to the Italian ministry’s interpretation of EU norms, even though the winery is located in Langhe (the Langhe hills of Piedmont), he was not entitled to use the geographic mention because it is the homonym of an appellation name (Langhe as in “Langhe Nebbiolo,” for example).

Many were bewildered by the seemingly absurdist application of EU law.

See this post for background on the controversy.

A number of prominent Italian wine trade members and observers had spoken out about the issue. And in November, FIVI called on its members to engage in civil disobedience if the ministry did not act by the end of the year.

In the FIVI statement, the group’s president Matilde Poggi expressed her satisfaction with the ministry’s new guidelines, calling it “an important step toward simplification and common sense.”

Serge Hochar of Musar will be sorely missed

best photo of serge hocharThere’s not a lot that I can add to the many wonderful tributes that have been published since Lebanese winemaker Serge Hochar (above) died last week in Mexico.

See Eric Asimov’s obituary for the New York Times.

See also Jancis Robinson’s post, where she describes a visit to Musar in September of 1980 at the height of the Lebanese civil war.

I had the good fortune to meet Serge on a number of occasions, including our first encounter at Aspen Food & Wine back in 2008, where I was writing a story for a trade publication.

The photo above was taken at a party in a suite at the Ritz Carlton Aspen reserved by importer Domaine Select who represented the wines in the U.S. [Broadbent is the U.S. importer, I’ve been told since I posted this.]

It’s not the greatest photo but it does capture his ability to command a room’s attention to the convivial delight of all those present.

You can read about his unrivaled charisma, his indefatigable presence on the international wine scene, and his (inmho) superb wines in the myriad profiles published since news of his passing broke (just Google him).

But the one thing that many have overlooked is the fact that Serge didn’t just travel to top markets to sell his wines.

As early as 2011, before Texas and the Texsom conference had established themselves as mandatory stops on the wine sales routes, he was here, working the marketing and the crowds with the ease and grace that only he could muster so readily. (See this post by Alfonso Cevola on his Texsom tasting.)

I’ll never forget when, in 2012, Master Sommlier Drew Hendricks, then wine director for the swank petroleum-crowd Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, added a vertical of Musar to his list. Stretching back to 1967, it was an unlikely addition to the otherwise big-hitter, mostly Napa Cab and Bordeaux selection there.

I wrote about it for the Houston Press here.

And that’s the thing about Serge that I’d like to add here.

When he visited places like Texas, he didn’t come solely to sell his wines (and in fact, his wines didn’t really sell that well at Pappas, at least according to one young sommelier I spoke to at the time).

He came to make young wine professionals feel special and to help them understand that they were members of a greater, broader, and wonderfully dynamic international wine community.

He taught young people that wine was a gateway to a deeper awareness of the world and that it can bring them into contact with people, like Serge, who will enrich their lives not just through wine but by means of culture and knowledge. After all, that’s the greatest thing, to my mind, about working in and with wine.

Sit tibi terra levis Sergie.

In other sad news…

Today, the sensuous world also mourns the loss of another larger-than-life figure, Pino Daniele, the great Neapolitan guitar player and songwriter, who fused Campanian music with jazz, blues, and Latin rhythms.

He shaped a generation of Italian rock, jazz, and pop musicians. And he was one of the most influential Italian artists to crossover into the international music scene in the latter half of the twentieth century.

I really love his music and know he will be missed by so many of my friends in Italy, in Campania and beyond.

My good friend Anna Cortese, who was born and raised on the island of Ischia (Naples province), posted the below photo on her Facebook this morning.

pino daniele concert

(My) 10 Tips for New Year’s Eve Fizz

barone pizzini rosato franciacorta bestHoly Crap… New Year’s 2015 marks four years that I’ve been posting about wine on Eating Our Words, the Houston Press food and restaurant blog.

The Houston Press is the Bayou City’s weekly rag, akin to the Village Voice and the LA Weekly (it’s owned by the Voice media group).

The blog has had its ups and downs since I moved to Texas. But I’ve really cherished the freedom to post about workaday wine matters that matter to me.

My blog, Do Bianchi, is mostly about our lives and the role that Italian wine and food play in it. So it’s been great to write about the world of wine beyond Italy on Eating Our Words.

And it’s been rewarding to focus on the challenges and thrills of drinking well in a still underserved market where a growing band of ambitious and courageous wine professionals are trying to reshape the Texas wine scene.

People seem to enjoy it and I’ve enjoyed the writing.

As I sat down to rehash the perennial rules-of-thumb for sparkling wine, I realized that the best advice that I could ever give is that the wine is only as good as the persons with whom you share it. I’ve tasted so many incredible wines this year but as I look back on 2014, I remember that the best ones where always with the people whom I care about most.

Please click here to check out my 10 Tips for New Year’s Eve Bubbles.

Thank you to everyone who’s been there and here in 2014. It’s been a year full of light and darkness, high highs and low lows. But there’s always been something interesting to share, an undiscovered wine newly arrived, or an previously unknown grape newly delivered. I really appreciate your being here. It truly means the world to me.

Happy New Year to all! I hope you taste something great tomorrow night and I wish you all good things for a healthy and happy 2015!

Ceri Smith’s Biondivino as if in a dream of Italian wine (hag urim sameach yall!)

rocche del gatto pigatoAbove: the Rocche del Gatto Pigato blew me away with its freshness and rich minerality. It was such a stunning pairing for the takeout Vietnamese that Ceri treated us all to on Wednesday night. This wine was a lovely discovery for me.

It’s hard to describe the emotion that I experience when I visit Ceri Smith’s amazing Biondivino wine boutique in Russian Hill, San Francisco.

The walls of the shop are lined with a literally oneiric selection of my favorite Italian wines and a smattering of wines that I’ve never seen before and am thirsting to taste.

Cappellano, Castell’in Villa, Giacomo Fenocchio, Cavallotto, Crociani… Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?

best georgian wine san franciscoAbove: the nose on the Orgo Rkatsiteli was like a stroll through an apricot orchard. Ceri has been to Georgian wine country and has been instrumental in turning San Francisco on to these stunning wines.

But the most incredible thing about the shop is its wonderful salon character.

After our Bele Casel Prosecco tasting on Wednesday night, Ceri and Zach Zito, who helps her manage the busy store, kept the shop open and continued to receive wine shoppers as we drank Pigato and munched on delicious Vietnamese takeout.

Some would stop and have a glass of wine. Others would grab a bottle and hurry on to their holiday party.

It’s simply a magical place for Italian wine and Italian wine lovers.

Of course, our dinner and confabulation had been preceded by an entirely brilliant pairing of Bele Casel’s Prosecco Col Fondo with the Brescian caviar that was served as I poured the wines for guests.

Thank you again, so very much, Ceri and Zach, for hosting me and Bele Casel’s wines. I LOVE your shop…

In other news…

hanukkah candles 2014 houstonI managed to make it home yesterday from the west coast in time to light candles with the girls.

I lit the three candles as I said the prayer and Georgia P asked me why we don’t blow out the candles like we did on her birthday.

The candles represent something that happened a long time ago, I told her. It was a really special moment for me as I watched her watch the candles burn.

Tonight before we sit down for dinner, we’ll light four candles (the photo above is from last year when we were still Austin).

Tomorrow, Tracie P is going to make us all her awesome latkes.

Happy Hanukkah, everyone! Hag urim sameach!

All you need is groovy wine and love: wine list back on track @SottoLA

best wine list los angelesSo much to report from my trip this week to California, including a super fun evening and fantastic wines, caviar, and conversation last night at Ceri Smith’s amazing Biondivino wine boutique in San Francisco.

But as I’m getting ready to board this morning for Houston from Oakland, I’m extremely happy to report that the wine list at Sotto is now back on track.

That’s the server crew at the restaurant (above), including the wine program manager Christine Veys (seated back, right), who co-authors the list with me.

Over the last few months, Christine and I have been working hard to bring the list back into focus.

best trebbiano abruzzo naturalAnd here’s the funny thing: now that we’ve eliminated the banal “crowd pleasers” and “dick waggers” that had insinuated themselves into our selection, we’re actually selling more wine!

It goes to show that groovy wine and love is all you need.

That’s the amphora-raised Trebbiano d’Abruzzo by natural producer Francesco Cirelli (above), which we currently serve by the glass (one of my personal favorites).

2015 will be the fourth year of our list at Sotto and I’m really psyched about what we’re working on for the new year.

Christine, you’ve done an extraordinary job and your ability as a taster is awesome.

To everyone at Sotto, thanks for believing in my crazy idea that we could turn LA on to groovy, crunchy, funky, soulful southern Italian wine.

You rock my world…

Absurdist EU wine marketing regulation & why Prosecco Col Fondo matters more than ever

giuseppe beppe citrico rinaldiAbove: Giuseppe Rinaldi at his winery in Barolo in 2010. Aggressive enforcement of EU regulations and the prospect of steep fines are forcing him to change the names of his wines.

Across the Italian wine world, producers and trade observers have been loudly protesting and denouncing new European Union regulations that restrict what wineries can and cannot say about their products on the internet and in other marketing materials.

I posted about it here a few weeks ago and leading Italian wine writer Luciano Ferraro wrote about it for the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera just last week.

Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini wrote an editorial about it some weeks ago for Slow Wine. In his piece, he robustly endorses the Italian Federation of Independent Grape Growers’ call for civil disobedience in the face of fines by authorities.

Basically it comes down to the following.

Although regional references are allowed in labeling (as long as the text is in accordance with highly detailed specifications for what can appear on the label and its font size etc.), they are not allowed in promotional materials.

As a result, a producer of Barolo (the appellation), whose winery lies in Barolo (the township), cannot write that her/his winery “is in Barolo” in her/his marketing materials.

In his article for the Corriere, Ferraro cites another potential example of a seemingly nonsensical restriction offered by Montalcino producer Donatella Cinelli-Colombini.

If a Tuscan winery property includes a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast and/or restaurant, she notes, said winemaker cannot use the word “Tuscany” in marketing materials. The results, she noted, would be devastating for the winery, who otherwise rightfully can lay claim to Tuscany and all that it evokes in marketing her/his products and services.

The EU marketing restrictions include other counter-intuitive measures as well. In one instance, the legacy Barolo producer Giuseppe Rinaldi (above) was forced to remove the reference to two vineyards on a single label for a blended wine. Even though his family has been bottling a blend of these two crus for generations, only one vineyard name is allowed by the Italian legislation modeled after EU regulation.

There is a logic to the restrictions, however misguided (and perhaps abused).

If a winery is located in Barolo township but doesn’t produce Barolo wine, the strict regulation of marketing verbiage prevents an unscrupulous winemaker from writing Barolo in marketing materials that could potentially confuse or mislead consumers (at least this is the logic that I was able to find in my research on the subject; see this abstract of an article from Wine Economics and Policy by Florence-based wine economics researchers).

Of course, there are dishonest bottlers out there and every time I visit an American supermarket, I am reminded that end users of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco are often deceived by less-than-earnest marketing practices.

But the damage being done in Italy, in my view, greatly outweighs the harm to my 80-year-old mother when she goes wine shopping. Wine trade oversight is intended to protect the producers first and foremost. After all, without them and their well being, we wouldn’t have the honest wine in the first place.

The new regulations have actually been in place since August 2009. But authorities have only now begun to enforce them fully.

And that’s why everyone is talking about it now: because authorities have begun fining winemakers and these nonsensical applications of the law are coming to light.

Small Italian wineries like Rinaldi’s have become the Davids to the European Union’s Goliath wine marketing regulation. But there’s a lot more at play than just wine marketing.

The Great Recession and stark austerity measures have led to growing discontent and disillusionment among European Union citizens. Today, there is a widespread feeling among regular people that Brussels (the synecdoche EU capital) doesn’t hold their traditions and aspirations in high regard.

And this is why I believe that wines like Prosecco Col Fondo matter more than ever.

The Prosecco Col Fondo movement emerged right around the time that the new EU policies came into effect.

Its epicenter was a small group of likeminded and mostly youthful growers and winemakers who wanted to revive a generational tradition of winemaking that had all but disappeared: bottle-fermented, undisgorged, ancestral-method Prosecco, a style that was eclipsed by the Charmat method in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Over zealous enforcement of poorly conceived, however well intentioned, policy will stifle the spirits of young winemakers who want to preserve the legacy and continuity with the past.

Anyone who follows Italian wine — and anyone whose ever spent time in Italy, for that matter — will tell you that unique local tradition is what makes Italian wine so special.

As an expression of that youthful embrace of artisanal tradition, Prosecco Col Fondo represents a vital element in Italy’s future as a producer of wine that transcends its mere value as a luxury product.

It would be a tragedy to see such spirit disappear from the horizon of Italian wine.

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week, please come out and taste with me at Ceri Smith’s amazing shop Biondivino. I’ll be there tomorrow, pouring one of my favorite expression’s of Prosecco Col Fondo by my client Bele Casel. Please click here for details.

1982 Cabernet by Giorgio Grai, one of the best bottles I drank in 2014

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week, please come out and taste with me at Ceri Smith’s amazing shop Biondivino. I’ll be there on Wednesday, pouring one of my favorite expression’s of Prosecco Col Fondo by my client Bele Casel. Please click here for details.

giorgio grai winemakerLong before we looked to Tuscany for high-profile bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, German-speaking Alto Adige (South Tyrol) had established itself as one of the greatest producers of so-called “international grape varieties.”

In fact, they weren’t “international varieties” back then. In an era before the emergence of the “international vs. indigenous” and “modern vs. traditional” debates, they were just grapes.

Generations before the Marquis Incisa della Rocchetta replanted his San Guido estate in Bolgheri after the second world war, grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Riesling (among others) had been grown there and raised in South Tyrol to be shipped toward Vienna and points northward.

On my recent trip to Italy, thanks to the immense generosity of my good friend Francesco Bonfio, I had the great fortune to taste one of the best wines I had all year: the 1982 Kehlburg Cabernet by Giorgio Grai, one of Italy’s most renowned winemakers and blenders and mentor to scores of current-generation winemakers.

I’ve been thinking about that wine ever since.

It came to mind when I was in Boulder in November for the Boulder Burgundy Festival.

giorgio grai wineryIn the “old and rare” tasting sponsored by the Guild of Sommeliers, Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher made a controversial comment when he noted how many older wines may “still be alive,” i.e., with healthy acidity and tannin, but they often lack the vibrant fruit that we look for in the world’s great wines.

“If you’ve got a cellar full of 1982s,” he told the well-heeled crowd, “I got news for you: the wines probably haven’t aged as well as you may have thought.”

This wine was an clear-cut example of the opposite: here the fruit was vividly present, with notes of fresh red fruit and gentle, nuanced hints of citrus zest.

And one of the most remarkable things about tasting it was not the fact that it was still “alive.” There are no apologies necessary from Giorgio Grai’s wines. We expected it to be great and it delivered on every level.

The wine came to mind again last week when a small northern Californian wine importer wrote me and said that he’s just met with Giorgio and will probably be bringing his current wines into the states.

Thank you again, dear friend Francesco! We’re keeping our fingers crossed and are looking forward to seeing more of Giorgio’s wines here in the U.S.