Soldera: “I’m not afraid. They picked the wrong man” to intimidate (Italian interview)

December 5, 2012

soldera vandal intervista

This Italian-language interview at IlCittadinoOnline.it just came to my attention.

In it, Soldera clarifies that he never spoke of mafia.

“I’m not afraid,” he tells the interviewer, describing the vandalism as an act of “intimidation.”

“They picked the wrong man” to intimidate, he says.

You might recognize the photo: they lifted it, without attribution, from my blog.

Posting in a hurry from the road today…


Soldera update: making sense of the unfathomable

December 4, 2012

montalcino vendetta wineMala tempora currunt (bad times are upon us), wrote Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani yesterday in an email, one of the tide of messages that pulsed across the internets as we all tried to make sense of the unfathomable: on Sunday night, someone entered the cellars of Gianfranco Soldera (left, photo taken during my visit in 2008) and destroyed more than 60,000 liters of his wines, six entire vintages, spanning 2007 (still in cask) through 2012.

According to a post today by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association), “62,600 liters” were destroyed and the site confirms that “the entire production from 2007-2012″ was lost.

The site WineNews.it also reports the same figure and vintages, noting that “the valves of 10 casks were opened.”

When reached for comment by the authors of the post, Soldera’s son Mauro told them that the wine was insured, including coverage for vandalism (before becoming a winemaker, Gianfranco Soldera made his fortune in the insurance trade in Milan).

The post also quotes the mayor of Montalcino, Silvio Franceschelli, who expressed the town’s “utmost solidarity with Case Basse for this villainous and cowardly act.”

Franceschelli is also quoted as saying that “any allusion to phenomena that bear the mark of the mafia are entirely imaginary.”

I wasn’t able to reach Soldera winery for comment today (the landline was occupied every time I called and a call to Gianfranco’s cellphone went unanswered). But I did speak to a number of people “on the ground” who concurred that the involvement of organized crime is unlikely.

Most believe that the senseless act was inspired by vengeance, perhaps in retribution for the supposed (but never verified) letter that Soldera wrote to authorities who launched an investigation into adulterated wines in Montalcino, an episode that culminated with judiciary action against a number of major players in Brunello in 2008 (the so-called “Brunellopoli” or Brunellogate affair).

(For the record, in 2008, while visting with him under the pergola of his home, I asked Soldera whether or not he had sent a letter to authorities. He flatly denied that he had and I believed him. He was, however, an outspoken critic of many of those implicated in the scandal.)

brunello scandal soldera

Above: Photo taken in 2008 during a visit to the winery. Yesterday, when we spoke, wine merchant Ceri Smith told me that she had tasted the 2007 in cask when she visited Soldera in February of this year.

One person I spoke to this morning (afternoon in Montalcino) proposed that it might have been a disgruntled ex-employee of Soldera.

But everyone I spoke to agreed that it’s unlikely that organized crime was the author of the vandalism. There has been no mafia activity there, said one informed person, and it is improbable that such an event would be isolated if the malavita were involved.

“One thing is certain,” wrote Franco Ziliani on his blog today, “today, all those who called Soldera a ‘poison pen’ or ‘snitch,’ accusing him of breaking the curtain of silence and challenging [Montalcino's] establishment, should recite a sadly belated mea culpa. They are the ones objectively responsible for having prompted the deranged vandals who violated the cellar at Case Basse as punishment of its owner.”

In a phone conversation today, one of my friends in Tuscany noted how easy it would be to empty the casks of their wine. If you’ve ever visited a winery where large format casks like Soldera’s are used, you know that it’s simply a matter of opening a valve (if the wine were aged in 225-liter barriques, for example, this egregious task would be much more complicated).

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Above: “I let my grandchildren use chalk to draw on the casks,” said Soldera during my 2008 visit. Note the spigot at the bottom of the cask.

“The territory of Montalcino is a small and tranquil territory,” wrote winemakers Alessandro and Fabrizio Bindocci on their blog today, “where many people still leave their doors of their homes unlocked.”

As hard as it is to wrap our minds around this nefarious and senseless episode, it’s easy to imagine how simple it would be to execute the crime. When Tracie P and I stay in Montalcino, we regularly leave our keys in the rental car and the doors to our apartment unlocked.

Italy has a long history of vengeance, spanning ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the twentieth-century, when many towns and families were torn apart by the brutality of fascism, the extreme violence of organized crime, and the envies and jealousies borne out by the gap between those who prospered in Italy’s post-war economic miracle and those who didn’t.

The English word vendetta, indeed, comes from the Italian (from the Latin vindicta, meaning vengeance).

Today, faced with the thought that no fewer than six vintages of one of the world’s greatest wines have been lost, no one among us has an explanation for the incomprehensible violation of — what we must recognize as — one of Italy’s greatest treasures and one of the most noble expressions of its cultural legacy.

United in our bewilderment, we can only express our solidarity for a man who has lost six precious years of his life.


Soldera vandalized, 600 hectoliters destroyed

December 3, 2012

If you’ve landed here, please check out the update here.

brunello mafia

Above: I took this photo of Gianfranco Soldera in his cellar in September 2010, the last time I tasted with him.

According to a report first published today by WineNews.it and then reposted by Franco Ziliani, “vandals” destroyed more than 600 hectoliters of Gianfanco Soldera’s wines last night.

After entering the cellar, they simply opened the valves of the large-format oak casks and let the wine pour out on to the cellar floor.

The report, which was based on Soldera’s own account, states that his entire production from 2007-2012 was lost.

No other damage or theft was reported.

Observers of the Italian wine industry have already begun to speculate that this act of vandalism fits the classic model for extortion by organized crime.

I’ll continue to report on this tragic episode as more information comes to light.


Terroir, Soldera, Barthes, Derrida, and St. Augustine

October 30, 2012

deconstruction derrida barthes eco

Above: In the late 1970s, Gianfranco Soldera created a “terroir” by building a series of botanical gardens in Montalcino, including this mini swamp.

My entry today for the Houston Press is an intro to the concept of terroir.

As I was writing it, it occurred to me that many wine writers omit bacteria as one of the defining elements of terroir. In the light of the dialectic over native yeast in recent years, I was surprised not to find bacteria or yeast mentioned in the online edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that few wine authorities discuss the human contribution to terroir through culture, history, and tradition. Would we have a notion of terroir, I asked myself, if the friars of Burgundy hadn’t manicured and monitored their cloistered vineyards with maniacal care?

terroir montalcino brunello

Above: Soldera’s white garden is his biggest source of pride.

My thoughts led me to a memory of walking through Gianfranco Soldera’s botanical garden for the first time in 2008. Anyone who’s ever visited the estate knows that his biggest point of pride is the garden and in particular the white-flower garden and the mini swamp (above). In the 1970s, he created his own terroir on barren land, including the yeast colony that rose from his earthly handiwork.

If humankind can create terroir by reinterpreting landscape, I wondered, does humankind’s perception of terroir influence terroir itself?

At first, Barthes, Derrida, and deconstruction came to mind. Could Eco’s notion of the “open work” be applied to wine connoisseurship? Is the winemaker dead (to quote Barthes)? Every bottle of wine is an expression of a moment and a fabric — a text — of elements that converge between harvest and vinification. And each bottle of wine tells a different story depending on how and when it is handled and opened and by whom.

Yes! I thought: a bottle of wine is an “open text” whose meaning is interpreted and ultimately defined by the reader/drinker.

But can terroir — the quasi-mythical concept of site and vintage specificity — be influenced by the reader/drinker?

Surely it can. To apply Kantian absolutism to terroir would be to negate the very ethos of terroir.

Ultimately, my thoughts led my back to my beloved St. Augustine and his reflections on the nature of memory.

Our concept and conception of terroir could not exist unless we remembered our previous perception of terroir.

In other words, if you only tasted Bonnes Mares or Monprivato once in your lifetime and tasted no other expressions of Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, you’d have no sense of their uniqueness.

I arrived at the conclusion that terroir could not exist if we were not there to perceive it (in many ways St. Augustine was a precursor of the proverbial tree that falls in the forest but doesn’t make a sound).

If terroir cannot exist without humankind, then humankind does, indeed, wield influence over it. And if perception of terroir cannot exist without humankind’s memory of terroir, then it follows that even the end user of a bottle of wine play a role in terroir.

Whether you taste a bottle of Soldera on his estate (where he built a terroir ex novo), whether you taste it on the hilltop where he regularly dines, or whether you taste it in New York City or Houston, Texas, you play a role in the terroir by perceiving it.

Wine for thought…


Brunello, for better or worse (or how I learned to love the fruit bomb)

May 31, 2012

Above: I recently asked legendary Tuscan enologist Carlo Ferrini (and historic consultant at Casanova di Neri) what he considered his great contribution to Italian wine. “I took the traditional role of the Tuscan enologist from the cellar to the vineyard,” he told me.

My brother-in-arms and close friend flying winemaker Giovanni Arcari often asks rhetorically: “How many of the winemakers in Franciacorta actually make their living — their main source of income — from growing grapes and making wine?”

I’ve been thinking about Giovanni and his bleeding heart this morning after reading Alfonso’s superb post on Brunello di Montalcino wherein the latter applies his more than three decades of experience, observation, and wisdom to the situation on the ground in the ilcinese.

Even spanning back to Brunello’s ante litteram era, we discover that even for its founding father Biondi Santi, winemaking was not the primary source of income. In fact, Ferruccio Biondi Santi — Brunello’s nineteenth-century “inventor” — was the scion of a noble family with vast land holdings and immense financial resources. His ground-breaking experimentation in massal selection redefined the appellation. But, in turn, that appellation was defined by a handful of landowners who began to produce a “fine” as opposed to “table” wine following in his footsteps.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that wealthy northern Italians began to buy property there (and they probably wouldn’t have seen Montalcino as such a choice spot had the British not planted roots there and “manicured” the Tuscan countryside, giving it its idyllic patina that we know today; just ask anyone old enough to remember the second world war what it was like in Montalcino from 1945 through the 1960s when the British began to arrive).

Above: Ask any ilcinese over 50 and they will tell you that it was the British who planted the cypress trees in Tuscany in the 1960s.

Today, just scan the names that define the arc of contemporary Montalcino winemaking: Soldera, an insurance magnate originally from the Veneto via Milan; Illy (Mastrojanni), a coffee mogul from Friuli; Parsons (Il Palazzone), U.S. CEO extraordinaire… and of course, Mariani (Banfi), one of the leading importers of fine wine in the U.S. who went to Montalcino in the hope of creating a sparkling wine legacy and ultimately turned Brunello di Montalcino into a super market brand.

Where there were less than 20 bottlers of Brunello in the 1960s, today there are more than 250 members of the Brunello bottlers association.

To Giacomo Neri’s credit — whether you like the style of wine or not — his family started out with humble farm that Giacomo took over when he returned from his mandatory military service. I know this because I met Giacomo for the first time in 1989 on my second visit to Montalcino, when his wines tasted a lot different from the way they do today. Since his collaboration with enologist Carlo Ferrini began in 1993, his Casanova di Neri label has become one of the most sought-after wines in the world, winning impossibly perfect scores from some of our country’s greatest wine writers (what do Nadia Comăneci, Bo Derek, Ann Colgin, and Giacomo Neri have in common? Hint: it’s not their good looks).

I recently met Carlo Ferrini for the first time in Los Angeles, where he and I spoke on a panel together. I asked him what he felt, over the arc of his career, was his greatest contribution to winemaking in Tuscany.

“Before I began working as a consulting enologist,” he said, “enologists were traditionally tasters.”

“Like Gambelli?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “I was among the first to convince growers to replant their vineyards and to adopt more contemporary farming practices.”

And on the subject of Brunellogate?

“I’ve never believed that Merlot or any other grape should be added to Brunello,” he told me. “In Chianti, I’ve followed a Bordeaux model, using different grapes, grown in different sites, to create blends in line with modern tastes. In Montalcino, the wines have always been 100% Sangiovese. It’s my work in the vineyard that has made the difference. Not in the cellar.”

Whatever Ferrini claims and whatever we believe (and for the record, looking Ferrini in the eye, I believed him), the predominate and guiding style of Brunello has changed in Alfonso’s lifetime and my lifetime.

In the beginning, was the style of Brunello guided by a handful of wealthy families who saw big business opportunities in producing wines that could rival their French counterparts? Is it guided today by a small group of wealthy families who see financial opportunity (and tax-shelter vacation homes) in America’s thirst for wines in the global style?

The answer to these questions lies somewhere in between an alpha, an omega, and a brief window (1975-1993?) when Italy’s cultural prosperity delivered an optimism and fostered a belief that even luxury products should be the expression of the land where they were grown and the people who made them. It just so happens that that’s when Alfonso and I had our first contact with the wines.

If you following along here at Do Bianchi, you already know the Brunello that I like to drink (Il Poggione, Brunelli, Soldera are my top three, whether I can afford them or not). And there will be plenty of time to write and discuss the wines that we love at our house…

Instead, please read Alfonso’s post: The Battle for Brunello. I’m just adding my two cents here…

In other news…

Today, Italian wine blogger Andrea Petrini, author of Percorsi di Vino, reposted this offer from Albana di Romagna producer Gabriele Succi (left): if you make a donation to one of the officially sanctioned channels for donations for Emilia-Romagna earthquake victims, you can send him a scan of the receipt via email and he will ship you the same value’s worth of his wine. He sweetens the deal by discounting each of his labels by Euro 1 ex cantina. He’s not giving a portion of proceeds to earthquake victims; he’s giving you the wine for donating.

Click here for the offer (in Italian) and links to official donation sites.


Video of Soldera’s vineyards

September 15, 2010

Above: A shot of Sant’Angelo Colle taken from Il Poggione’s farmhouse at 10:30 a.m., September 15, 2010 (using my Blackberry).

It rained heavily in Tuscany on Monday night while I was in the Maremma (on the coast), although according to accounts from Montalcino, the vineyards in Sant’Angelo in Colle emerged unscathed.

Last night, I slept at Il Poggione’s farmhouse and watched the sun rise: at daybreak, when I went outside to take some photos, it was so chilly that I had to wear my Adidas jacket and cowboy hat.

At 10:30 a.m., as I write this, it’s 61° F. and the weather is fantastic, clear skies and sunshine.

Here’s what it looked like on Sunday, in the vineyards of Gianfranco Soldera, in Santa Restituta, not far from Sant’Angelo, also in the southwestern subzone of the Brunello di Montalcino appellation.


Soldera 03 Riserva and dinner at Il Silene

September 12, 2010

Had the opportunity to chat and to taste some amazing wines with Gianfranco Soldera yesterday (but more on that later) and then was treated to dinner at what many consider the best restaurant in this neck of the Tuscan woods, Il Silene. Utterly delicious all around and a truly remarkable pairing (especially considering the balance in the wine from the otherwise-difficult-to-tame 2003 vintage).

That’s chef Roberto Rossi’s snail and vegetable soup paired with 2003 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.

That’s Chef Rossi’s tagliatelle al ragù (evidently Soldera had eaten there at lunch as well yesterday, making the 1-hour drive 4 times in one day just to dine there!). Fantastic wines, stupendous dinner…

Posting in a hurry as sunlight, landscape, vines, and my camera have a date this morning… then to lunch with friends…


Soldera Rosso 91 backstage at Diana Krall

August 13, 2009

From the “Good wine bloggers go to heaven, bad ones go back stage” department…

Franco is not the only one who gets to go see Diana Krall thanks to his connections in the wine world.

Most of the folks who visit my blog know that blogging has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me, professionally and personally, bringing me into contact with a wide range of people, from all walks of life, whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

I probably would have met Anthony Wilson — wine dude and jazz master (I’m not kidding) at one point or another: as it turns out he and I have a ton of friends in common (including my old friend John Mastro who manages our band Nous Non Plus). We met “virtually” after Anthony stumbled upon a post of mine on López de Heredia, one of our shared enophilic passions, and we made the connection of all the folks we knew in common.

Above: Pre-show dinner with the gang at Pt. Loma Seafood, around the corner from Humphrey’s by the Bay where Anthony played with Diana Krall. The name of the venue is SO 70s!

On Monday, Tracie B and I picked up Anthony (second from right) and took him to dinner at Pt. Loma Seafood, where we drank 2007 Soave Classico by Suavia and Lini Lambrusco Cerasa Rosé with our dinner (no corkage!). Pt. Loma Seafood is a San Diego classic and the freshness of the materia prima is second to none — highly recommended. That’s our friend Frank Sciuto, owner of Tio Leo’s, sitting next to Jon and Jayne, center. When I mentioned to Frank that we were going to see Diana Krall, his mouth dropped to the floor and his wife Violet said, “Diana Krall is Frank’s freebie.” So we just had to take him along.

Above: Soave Classico 07 by Suavia and crab louie paired like the warm tones of Anthony’s Clark amplifier and the tender notes of his custom Monteleone archtop guitar.

I have to confess that I hadn’t really done my due diligence. I knew that Anthony was a wildly talented musician but it wasn’t until I ordered some of his disks from Amazon and started listening to his music that I realized he is one of the jazz greats of our country (and the son of legendary band leader Gerald Wilson).

Above: Jon said it was the most “rock ‘n’ roll” label he had ever seen, hence the headbanger’s homage.

I really wanted to thank Anthony for being so generous with tickets and passes and so we smuggled in a bottle of 1991 Soldera Rosso Intistieti. I couldn’t figure out the origin of the name Intistieti and so I asked Franco to write to Gianfranco Soldera, who answered that Intistieti is a highly localized dialectal form that means terra tra i sassi or literally land among the stones. The soil is stony and poor and thus unsuited for growing crops other than grapes destined for fine wines. I had never tasted one of Soldera’s declassified wines, i.e., a wine that he felt didn’t rise to the quality of his Brunello di Montalcino, but a wine he felt should be released nonetheless. He is one of Italy’s most exacting winemakers and I knew this would be great. The Pegasus on the label was inspired by the notion that his wines rise above mediocrity — and indeed, they do. This wine showed gorgeously and was shining example of how Sangiovese can age gloriously when made in traditional manner (I’ll do a post on my mind-blowing visit to Soldera last year and his unique approach to winemaking.)

Above: I brought a bottle of Lini Lambrusco Labrusca Rosso for Anthony to take on the buss with him that night for a night cap. That’s him, left, with bassist Robert Hurst (also, a super nice guy). Lambrusco, so low in alcohol, light, and refreshing, is a great end-of-the-night wine.

Thanks again, Anthony, for a truly unforgettable night and a great way to celebrate the success of the San Diego Natural Wine Summit on Sunday. And thanks to Winnie, who was the first connection that Anthony and I made, and who suggested that I write a blog so many moons ago! I am amazed, over and over again, how wonderful surprises continue to emerge from the world of blogging. As the virtual world grows smaller, so the real one seems to be richer every day.


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