“The United States,” he observes, “has become the largest single consumer of wine on the planet, yet what’s missing in many people’s experience of wine is a simple sense of ease. Instead, choosing a wine becomes an exercise in anxiety. Many people have come to believe that they cannot enjoy wine unless they are already knowledgeable, and so deny themselves the pleasurable experiences that would allow them to gain confidence.”
(His column last week for The New York Times, also addresses this phenomenon and the misunderstood role of the sommelier.)
As I read Eric’s new book over the weekend, I couldn’t stop thinking about how our generation (he’s my eldest brother’s age) is the first American generation to approach wine in demotic terms.
Like him, I grew up in a Jewish household where wine was considered a luxury (if it was considered at all). He notes his (our) parents were among the first American generation who could afford to travel to Europe. They went made a first trip in 1971: “Perhaps most interesting of all to them, they ate in French restaurants and drank wine.” (Around the same time, my parents went to Russia and drank vodka.)
He talks about drinking “bland and boring” beer and smoking weed in high school and college, not “turn[ing] up my nose at the sort of things that typically found their way to dormitory parties back then.”
And then, in 1982, while a grad student in Austin, Texas, an epiphany is delivered by an $8 bottle of Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba (my epiphany bottle was a literally homegrown Sangiovese in Montalcino in 1989).
The parallels in our lives are uncanny as they are common among our generation. (For our mutual friend Alice Feiring, another one of my favorite wine writers, it was a bottle of Nebbiolo in 1980; the fact that we’re all Slavic Jews and the role that Italian wine has played are also unheimlich.)
As Georgia P played with her toys on the floor and I devoured Eric’s book, I realized that she will grow up in an America that is aware (and self-aware) of its application of wine. And I also thought deeply about how our generation’s “anxiety” in approaching wine is probably what has fueled the enoblogosphere’s explosion, the vitriol that often sullies the discusion of wine, and the joy that so many of us find in the wine blogging community.
I plan to write a proper review of the book for the Houston Press.
In the meantime, I highly recommend it to you.
O, and why is Eric called “Eric the Red” here on my blog, you ask?
He took the name himself inspired by my brush with Dany Le Rouge.
Click the image for a PDF of my wine list at Sotto in Los Angeles. Wine lists are among the most technical paradigms of vinography. Wine blogs are among the most idiosyncratic.
Not without a chord of disdain, the wine blogger at The Gray Report singled out my list at Sotto this week as the apotheosis of wine esotericism. In the world of wine blogging, I’m always up for taking one on the chin (although I suspect that The Gray Report has a different bone to pick with me).
The Gray Report’s post comes in the wake of a week full of Jeremiads wherein wine and restaurant pundits bemoan lists they deem deceitfully cryptic.
On Tuesday, Eric the Red offered a catalogue of their lamentations in a New York Times piece entitled “Should a Wine List Educate or Merely Flatter You? (How Adventurous Should a Wine List Be?)”.
His conclusion: “The enemy isn’t obscure wines or challenging lists. It’s fear of wine.”
When the owners of Sotto asked me to create an exclusively Southern Italian wine list for them in 2011, their proposition couldn’t have come at a better time: I was just about to leave for Apulia where I had been asked to be a judge in a competition devoted exclusively to native southern Italian grape varieties. And, of course, I already had a lot of experience in southern Italian wines: the last three years I lived in New York (2005-2007), I worked for Nicola Marzovilla, who was the first U.S. restaurateur to launch a southern Italian wine list in the late 1990s when he opened I Trulli (I was also a fan and patron of his restaurant and list for many year prior).
The list I’ve created at Sotto spans a spectrum of approachability and connoisseurship. It includes icons and classics of southern Italian wine as well as light-hearted, easy-going international-style wines.
I’ll let the list speak for itself.
I can report that Italians who visit us (especially southern Italian winemakers) have had high praise for our list’s equilibrium and its breadth (however contained).
And while many Americans may find the list challenging, I’m confident that our by-the-glass program and our liberal tasting policy make it relatively easy to find a wine that suits the meal and the guest — regardless of their knowledge of the wines.
I curate the list remotely (from Austin), visitng the restaurant every month, training and tasting with the staff and working the floor (I’ll be there on Tuesday and Wednesday nights next week, btw). And even when I’m not there, wine captain Rory Harrington (my colleague and good friend) is nearly always on the floor. He’s one of LA’s leading wine professionals and he and I are in daily contact (literally). When and if there is a question about the wine that he can’t answer (and there rarely is), he just shoots me a text and get him the info he needs (like the difference between Lettere and Gragnano? the answer: same grapes in both, Piedirosso and Aglianico, but higher elevation, volcanic soil, and more minerality in the former; lower elevation, sandier soils, and more generous fruit in the latter). He and I have co-curated the list since the beginning.
To The Gray Report, I say: before calumniating my list from afar, dine at the restaurant. (Or are you really pissed about something else?)
Your trepidation belongs to our parents’ generation, to those who lived in the pre-Child and -Beard era (hello, Steve Cuozzo!), when restaurateurs and sommeliers were viewed as dukes and dauphins.
Whether I’m there the night that you visit or not, I know this can all be settled over some tarallucci e vino…
Tuesday, August 14, Lou and I will be leading a guided tasting of some of our favorite Natural wines from Southern Italy (including the Fatalone, white and red, from Puglia).
At the July event, it was fascinating to hear Lou compare the current debate over Natural wine (and whether or not the category really exists) to the dietary laws in Leviticus.
It was such a brilliant analogy: the current dichotomy between the Natural wine purists, on the one hand, and their abjuration of the industrial complex, and the conventional winemakers, on the other, and their disdain for a category they believe doesn’t even exist, is nothing less than biblical in the breadth of acrimony it has generated.
In essence, the laws of kashrut divide the animal world into “clean” that you can consume and “unclean” that you cannot. During the conversation (and btw, it’s an informal setting where wine professionals and lovers chime in with observations and questions), it occurred to me that both parties in this logomachy (a fight over words more than wines) apply the terms clean and unclean. The Natural purists say the conventional winemakers’ wines are unclean because they’ve been manipulated with additives while the conventional winemakers say the Natural wines are unclean because they have unwanted bacteria and “off” aromas and flavors.
At one point, I brought up Eric the Red’s recent The New York Times article “Wines Worth a Taste, but Not the Vitriol” and the Italian authorities’ recent crackdown on the use of the term Natural in advertising.
“Is this a line in the sand?” I asked Lou. “Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?” I queried in chiasmus.
Lou’s answered simply that he didn’t care. Enjoying the aroma of the Cornelissen (arguably the most extreme expression of Natural wine today), he talked about how much he enjoyed the way was changing in the glass and how he would continue to call it Natural because it’s a term that captures the spirit of these wines (“like obscenity, I can’t tell you exactly what it is but I know it when I see it”). And he said that he agreed with our mutual friend Ceri Smith who recently proposed that the category be defined by “those winemakers who tell you what they put in the wine and those who don’t.”
The conversation at our Oblong Tables is always fascinating and you’ll always find some of the top wine professionals in LA there with us. I hope you can join us!
From the department of “ubi major minor cessat”…
Bolly is one of his top picks.
Eric the Red was right to “have a little fun with it” when he wrote me asking about the pronunciation of the Italian grape name Lagrein last year.
“FEW things are simple in northeastern Italy,” he wrote, “least of all lagrein, a red grape that can produce fresh, aromatic, highly seductive wines. Why, just last week, I asked a linguistically minded friend who is fluent in Italian for the proper pronunciation of lagrein. Here is his response, or part of it:”
- “Lagrein is a tough one,” he said, “in part because it’s pronounced using a Germanic, as opposed to an Italianate vowel system.” He went on to offer his preference, lah-GRAH’EEN, but allowed that lah-GRINE and lah-GREYE’NE (where greye rhymes with eye) were also acceptable. Well, linguists are nothing if not perfectionists. But even allowing for such hairsplitting, lagrein comes with ample grounds for confusion. It is grown primarily in Alto Adige, a region so far to the north in Alpine Italy that it practically touches Austria and Switzerland. There, the culture is more Tyrolean than Italian, and the first language is often German. Many wines from the region are labeled in both Italian and in German. Even the name of the region, Alto Adige, does not speak for itself; it is generally rendered bilingually with its German counterpart, Südtirol (South Tyrol, using the Germanic vowel system, of course).
Here’s the link to his profile of Lagrein and tasting panel notes.
When I headed to Italy at the end of March to attend the annual Italian wine trade fair, Lagrein was on the top of my list of new ampelonyms to capture for the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project.
And so I made a beeline to the Franz Gojer stand — in my view, one of the greatest producers of Lagrein — and asked Franz’s son Florian to speak for my camera. While Florian is bilingual (and of course, we spoke in Italian), German is his first language. And as per what I told Eric above, Lagrein, linguistically speaking, is first and foremost Germanic.
Thanks for speaking Italian (grapes)!
In my view, Levi is arguably the coolest sommelier in the U.S. right now and beyond his razor-sharp expertise in Italian wine, he always seems to be just one step ahead of the curve, shaping the discourse and defining the dialectic — a wine “seer,” as Alice put.
It’s not that I didn’t want to see all of my other friends last week in the City. I only had about 48 hours on the ground and they were consumed mostly by meetings with my top client. And Alice, Brooklyn Guy, and Levi were the people I needed to see on this trip.
But it was Levi who had the goods and the dope that I wanted to smoke.
The first wine he opened was the 2005 Overnoy Arbois Pupillin (made from Savagnin), a wine that Levi knows is hard to find beyond the island of Manhattan. An oxidative, tannic, orange wine from the Jura… In many ways this wine represented a synagoga (a coming together) of fascinations that have exited some of us over the last decade. The wine was salty and dense, with its muscle dominating its grace; its delicacy and nuance emerging and revealing itself only as we patiently observed its evolution.
Brooklyn Guy offered that this was an ideal expression of this wine, noting that he had seen a lot of bottle variation in his purchases.
But the pièce de résistance was the Equipos Navaros Bota de Manzanilla Pasada (Sherry).
Brooklyn Guy (aka “the Brook,” as Eric the Red calls him) and Levi have both visited Jerez in the last few years and it was thrilling to hear them hold court on this wine, produced by a generic, commercial winery that holds back certain privileged casks.
“Sherry is a forgotten wine,” said Brooklyn Guy, as Levi expressed his view that the category delivers wines that should be served with food instead of as an aperitif, as do the English and Anglophilic Americans.
Is Sherry going to be the next big thing in the U.S.?
@Levi_opens_wine an amazing wine seer, don’t you think, @DoBianchi?
In case you hadn’t already seen it, Tracie P has a new blog called Sugarpie where “mommy maximus” reflects on what it’s like to be a first-time mother and our experiences as new parents. I’m so glad that she’s blogging again and that she’s been applying her irresistible humor to the ups and downs of parenting… I love her and Georgia P so much and her humor, spirit, and beauty are an antidote to the often overwhelming challenges of being a first-time parent.
In other news…
On Friday and Saturday nights, I’ll be working the floor at Sotto in Los Angeles where we’ll be launching our new wine list for 2012. There are a lot of the old favorites on the new carta dei vini but there are also a bunch of new lots as well, like the Cornelissen Munjebel Bianco.
In today’s New York Times, Eric the Red wrote that Cornelissen’s wines are “unlike almost any others on earth, which people tend to love or hate…” Bring it on!
If you happen to be in LA this weekend, please come and see me and I’ll pour you something great!
And on a more solemn note…
With everything that’s been going on “on the ground” in Greece, it’s been really difficult to find inspiration to write about Greek wine for the Boutari Wines Project this year.
Evidently, my blogging colleague Markus Stolz — author of Elloinos, the world’s top Greek wine blog — has been suffering from the same aporia and he, like me, posted today about the Give Greece a Chance project: it’s a print media PR campaign spearheaded by Greek business leaders who are trying to raise awareness of the human suffering that’s happening there.
I highly recommend this page: it provides some background and some basic information on the grave situation there.
See also what Markus has to say.
Markus lives with his family in Greece and is watching this tragedy unfold firsthand.
“A lot of real human suffering,” he wrote to me today in a tweet. “I like initiatives like the one we both posted about, builds community and leads to change.”
Let’s hope so… And let’s not forget our sisters and brothers in Greece. Una faccia, una razza…
The Natural wine disconnect (the ideology and spirituality of wine and the importance of a good shit)January 25, 2012
Above: The best things in life are free but you can’t leave them to the birds and bees. My good friend Giampaolo Venica employs chemical-free farming and vinifies his wines using ambient yeast exclusively. But he would never call his wine “Natural.” He just calls it “wine.” I took this photo of “Wasp with Ribolla Grape” at his winery in September 2010.
Who will ever know why Eric the Red (as Eric Asimov is known here) decided to write today about the “vitriol” and “hissy fits” that “Natural wine advocacy” can evoke and provoke among English-language wine bloggers and writers? Was it because he overheard some wine hipsters at The Ten Bells — my favorite wine bar in New York City — dissing someone for liking a “yeasted” wine? (Dagueneau or Bruno Giacosa, anyone?)
Or was he writing in response to top American wine blogger and marketer Tom Wark’s satire of the “denigration marketing” embraced by Natural wine proponents in a post this week entitled “Drink Natural Wine Or Get a Bad Rash”?
I like to call Eric the “Solomon” of wine writers (and am a big fan). And if he wrote today about the discord that Natural wine foments in this country, there must be a good reason.
Of course, the greatest denigrator of them all and the instigator of the Natural wine dialectic in this country — Joe Dressner — recently left our world. Joe attacked nearly everyone (myself included; click here for Eric’s pre-obit of Dressner who died in September 2011). But there are a number of people in line for his mantle, each vying — for their own self-interest, whether commercial or purely personal — to take his place as denigrator-in-chief. (Again, please read Tom’s post if you’re interested in that rigamarole.)
Above: A wine shop in peninsular Venice (Favaro Veneto), where Incrocio Manzoni and Malbech [sic] are sold for less than a handful of Euro per liter.
In my view, the misguided and misplaced vitriol of Natural wine advocacy in this country is due to a fundamental disconnect.
In North America, wine is a luxury product only recently embraced by consumerist hegemony. Many in the U.S. may see wine as a means to return to Nature but they rarely embrace it as a means of natural sustenance. Wine is a commodity, often a trophy, a conversation piece and “first world” amenity.
In Europe, wine is a daily nutriment and it remains imbued with ideological and spiritual meaning, at times visceral, at others intellectual. Its origins and roots (literal and figurative) touch the very heart of European society and ethos.
And while many English-language wine bloggers and writers (is there a difference or distinction between the two anymore?) have traveled to Europe and picked and stomped the grapes themselves, few touch upon the deep ideological and spiritual meaning and cultural value that European grape-growers and winemakers cherish so dearly.
Veneto winemaker Angiolino Maule makes Natural wine and stands apart as one of the Natural wine movement’s leading advocates because he believes that Natural wine can save the earth and our humanity by warding off the absolute denaturalization of our species through the inevitable, looming reification of our bodies through consumerism.
This is not stuff of marketing. It is a living, breathing, and often gasping attempt to fight what Marx called alienation or estrangement (please see my post Sensuous world: Marx, Gramsci, Pasolini, food and wine).
Above: The bottom line is that Natural wine helps you to shit good. Camillo Donati’s Malvasia Frizzante not only will help you take a good dump. It tastes friggin’ delicious.
The fact that it’s come to this — “vitriol,” “hissy fits,” and “denigration marketing” — is the very proof in the pudding that the English-language dialectic on Natural wine is misguided. Ultimately, the maliciousness that emerges from the English-language discourse on Natural wine is generated by commercial interests that counter the very nature of Natural wine. It’s important to note that the vitriolic exchange, btw, is unique to Anglophone vinography.
Why do Tracie P and I drink (and advocate) Natural wine? She would tell you that it’s because it aligns with the vino paesano — the country wine — that she discovered on one of her early trips to Europe after college graduation. No need to call it “natural.” To the folks who make it and drink it every day — as a nutrient, not a luxury — it’s simply wine.
Me? I drink and advocate it because it’s delicious and it helps me to shit good. Why does it make me shit good? No one really knows but it’s probably because there is still active yeast in Natural wine — a defect to some in the wine world, a miracle of nature to others.
Who doesn’t feel better after a good shit? It’s the greatest return to Nature and the best way to get the vitriol out…
Above: Until the 1970s, before pressurized “autoclave” tanks were introduced into the appellation, most Prosecco was double-fermented in bottle “on its lees.” The resulting wine was gently sparkling, cloudy, and still had the “fondo” (sediment) in the bottom of the bottle. Even when I lived and worked in the Veneto in the 1990s, it was a lot easier to find Prosecco “col fondo” (with sediment) than it is today. The traditional glass for Prosecco is the one pictured above.
Alan Tardi is one of the great wine writers and restaurant professionals of our generation. I had the chance to meet him a few times when I lived and worked in New York and I’ve greatly appreciated and admired his work (especially this wonderful 2006 article on Asprinio).
But he gets it wrong in today’s New York Times article on Prosecco and its (relatively new) DOCG, “Prosecco Growers Act to Guard Its Pedigree.”
Maybe it was not Alan but his editor at the Dining section who hand-crafted the title (a “pedigree” for Prosecco?). But it was certainly Alan who wrote the oxymoron “sophisticated prosecco.”
The Italian wine writers scratched their head incredulously when then-agriculture minister and native of Treviso where Prosecco is made, Luca Zaia, effortlessly pushed through legislation creating the Prosecco DOCG.
Does a humble wine like Prosecco — and by its very nature, Prosecco should be a humble wine — deserve to be elevated to the status of wines like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino? asked pundits like Italy’s top wine blogger, Franco Ziliani.
Yes, it’s true, as Alan notes, that the new DOCG (which went into effect in April 2010) gives the wines raised in Conegliano and Valdobbiadene a bureaucratic distinction that sets it apart from Prosecco grown in Friuli, Piedmont (yes, Piedmont), and Australia. But this DOCG was just one of many that were created before Common Market Organization reforms went into in 2009, shifting the power to create new designations from Rome to Brussels. It’s one of the many examples of political spoils that Zaia lavished on his hometown before his boss Berlusconi was forced out by the international community.
And yes, it’s true that the biggest names in commercial Prosecco — Adami and Ruggeri are among those that Alan tasted for the piece — are making “heirloom” vintage-dated and vineyard-designated wines, as well as low-sulfur and even lees-fermented wines.
But these products are the result of attempts by the Prosecco industrial complex to appeal to the hipster sommelier crowd.
In fact, excellent col fondo Prosecco has been produced for many years now by an ever expanding group of small growers (see this post on our col fondo tasting last year). This is the bona fide new wave of Prosecco.
Costadilà is one of those wines and has been available in the U.S. for a few years how. And Coste Piane, which has also been available here for many years, has been making and marketing true Prosecco for as long as anyone can remember. More recently, col fondo producer Bele Casel has shipped its wines to North American shores.
Above: The village of Rolle (not Passo Rolle, the mountain pass, btw) lies at the epicenter of the Prosecco appellation. Nearly equidistant from Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Most locals would argue that Conegliano is where Prosecco was born as an appellation, even though Valdobbiadene has eclipsed its sister village.
And on a technical note, in Italian and Veneto dialect (including the dialect of Treviso), rive is the plural of riva, which does indeed denote hillside or slope (analogous to costa in Prosecco parlance). The rive system doesn’t denote a single growing site, as Alan implies: it denotes a series of slopes set apart for their topographical designation.
While I’m not a fan of Ruggeri, there’s nothing wrong with a glass of any of Adami’s wines. But they don’t represent real Prosecco. They are an expression of the consumerist hegemony that has choked my beloved trevigiano since the 1990s when Prosecco became a brand in the U.S.
I know I’m splitting hairs here and I remain Alan’s loyal admirer.
His oversights are harmless in the big (commercial) scheme of things and not nearly as bad as those in a Times piece this week in which Eric Pfanner ingenuously believes that a Paris wine shop owner is affected by Robert Parker’s “downgrade” of a 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
- I have no intention of second-guessing Mr. Parker, who has been tasting, and championing, the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for decades. But the change in his score for the 1998 Beaucastel highlights the challenges of encapsulating something as complex, subtle and capricious as a fine wine in a single number.
The moment of truth has arrived: it’s high time that we begin questioning the wisdom of Robert Parker’s rating system! It’s enough to make you think that the editors at the Times Dining section only recently discovered bread and butter…
O, Eric the Red, where art thou? O, Solomon among wine writers!