Nature doesn’t refine sugar. But refined sugar goes into your sparkling wine.

Earlier this month, a group of leading Italian wine writers sat down to taste a flight of nine wines, spanning 10 years, with my friends Nico Danesi, Andrea Rudelli, and Giovanni Arcari. Beyond their own wines (Arcari e Danesi, SoloUva, and Vezzoli Giuseppe, a 2008-2018 retrospective), the three Franciacorta growers and producers also included current-release wines from three marquee Franciacorta estates, covered in foil, to be tasted blind that evening.

The idea behind the tasting and selection of wines was to highlight the differences between wines made using the classic method and wines made using what the three 40-something franciacortini call the SoloUva (SOH-loh-OO-vah) method or Just Grapes method.

The classic method is analogous to the Champagne method (the fundamental difference is that only wines grown and vinified in Champagne can be rightly called “Champagne method” or méthode champenoise wines).

A “base” wine or wines are produced as still wine or wines (non-sparkling). A sweetener and yeast are added to the wine (or blended wines) to provoke a second fermentation (the tirage). The wine is sealed in bottle. The CO2 resulting from the pressurized second fermentation gives the wine its fizziness. The wine is then allowed to age “on its lees” (i.e., the dead yeast, a solid that results from fermentation). At the appropriate time, the wine is “disgorged” of its solids. It’s topped off with a sweetener if desired (the so-called liqueur d’expédition or dosage). And the wine is resealed and labeled for release.

(The above description of the classic method is a simplified one. For one of the best overviews of classic method winemaking, see the introduction to Tom Stevenson’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine or the entry for “sparkling wine” in the Oxford Companion to Wine.)

The difference between the classic method and the SoloUva method (developed by my friends) is that the classic method calls for refined sugar to be added for the tirage and dosage (topping off) while the SoloUva method calls for reserved grape must to be used as the agent for the second fermentation and the topping off of the wines.

Among the wines that Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni selected from their own cellar for the tasting, there was a dichotomy: two of their wines had been produced using the classic method; the three “blind” wines from other producers were also made using the classic method; and the remaining seven wines were made using the SoloUva method.

As they tasted through the 12 wines before them, the Italian writers immediately noted the blaring difference between the two categories: the classic method wines had distinctive aromas of “brioche,” “yeast” (a canonical descriptor, however misleading), “toast” etc.; the SoloUva method wines had “fresh” fruit aromas.

The discussion that followed (on picking times, phenolic ripeness, and different approaches to sparkling wine production) was as interesting as it was provocative. But it was plainly clear to all present that the oxidative style of classic method wines was starkly contrasted by the fresh and ripe fruit style of the SoloUva method wines.

Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni are not the first to employ reserved grape must as a sweetener in sparkling wine production. But they may be the first to propose such a method as a “purer” expression of their appellation.

Why add exogenous (as opposed to autogenous) cane sugar from Brazil when you can use grape sugar from the very same appellation? they asked their interlocutors.

When they call into question the wisdom of centuries of classic method wines from France, they may be veering from the enological into the ontological. But over the course of the gathering, Nico changed the nature of the conversation when he pointed out that refined sugar doesn’t occur in nature. Only humankind produces refined sugar, he noted, and refined sugar is partly to blame for many of contemporary society’s health challenges.

Nearly all sparkling wine is produced with the addition of refined sugar (and not just classic method wines; Charmat, Martinotti, and even some ancestral method wines are made using refined sugar). Wines labeled dosage zero, brut nature, and pas dosé are also made with the addition of refined sugar (some may be surprised to learn this). They can contain up to 3 grams of sugar per liter and depending on the wine and the winemaker, that can include refined sugar used to top off the wine, not to mention the refined sugar used to provoke the second fermentation during tirage.

Only history will reveal whether or not Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni’s wines will represent a new era of sparkling wine production. I like their wines a lot. But take my opinion with a grain of salt spoonful of sugar because I am biased by our friendship. What I can tell you for certain is that their wines don’t contain anything that nature didn’t give them.

All they need is grapes…

Here’s a song I wrote for them a few years ago (MP3).

Mother nature is yours and she is mine
And the tender grapes she grows on the vine
She gives us the earth, the sun, the sky
But it takes humankind to make the wine so fine

Two wineries from Soave that you’ll want to taste

In logology, it’s called “multiple discovery,” the notion that distinct cultures often produce similar and nearly simultaneous scientific discoveries unknowingly and independently of one another.

The phenomenon came to mind as I walked the halls of the third annual Vulcanei tasting in the Colli Euganei outside of Padua a week ago Sunday. Organized by the Colli Euganei Consortium, the tasting brings together hundreds of wines that have been raised in volcanic-rich subsoils: Campania (mostly Irpinia), Sicily (mostly Etna), Greece (mostly Santorini), and Veneto (Soave and Colli Euganei).

When I told some of my more-savvy-than-the-average-punter Italian colleagues that “volcanic wines” were all the rage in the U.S., they were as surprised as they were unmoved and unimpressed. It seems — at least to me — that the interest in these wines has emerged and developed on either side of the Atlantic free of international contamination (thus disappointing would-be diffusionists).

It was my first Vulcanei and I was blown away by the range and scope of the wines. And the massive Colli Euganei offering alone would have been worth the price of admission.

One of my biggest discoveries (however not multiple) was Le Battistelle (above).

What fantastic wines, with vibrant fruit and rich but not overpowering minerality! Organically farmed, family-raised, and with lovely hand-drawn labels, these wines have all the right stuff to appeal to the American market. I believe a few bottles have found their way to California but none of the mid-sized importers of natty and groovy have picked up on these gems. I hope one of them does soon.

When I pointed the wines out to a superbly experienced taster in our group of wine professionals, he noted how these wines taste like “real Soave” and not the many trumped up wines that the appellation seems to favor these days. I really loved every wine I tasted from Le Battistelle — wholesome and delicious.

Another one of my big Soave discoveries on this last trip to Italy was Filippi, an estate that has already generated buzz among the American enocognoscenti but still hasn’t landed with an importer here.

These gorgeous wines are focused, smart, and electric with aroma and flavor. I had the wonderful opportunity to taste with the winemaker at the Arcari + Danesi/SoloUva “Friends in Wine” event in Franciacorta a week ago Saturday (it was also a birthday celebration for my bromance Giovanni Arcari). Like many young growers in Soave, he’s taken over his family’s vineyards and has been making his own wine instead of selling the fruit to the cooperative. Similar to what’s happening in Langa, it’s a trend analogous to the “grower Champagne” movement from the late 1990s. And we’re all going to be the better for it.

I am really smitten when Filippi’s wines, from the entry tier to the flagship single vineyard bottling. I know it’s just a matter of time before they get snatched up by an American importer. I just hope it’s the right one. Great wines and great folks.

Oh and about that wild party in Franciacorta?

Here’s what results from a little “day drinking” (as we call it in Texas):

Italy driving tips: speeding tickets, tolls, international driver’s permit, Waze, DUIs, wi-fi, etc.

When you work in the wine trade like me, it’s almost impossible to avoid renting a car when you travel to Italy.

Italy’s big cities have fantastic public transportation. And the inter-city rail system is also wonderful.

But when you travel to wine country, there’s really no other way to reach your out-of-the-way destinations than by motor vehicle.

I just got back from a two-week trip to Italy where my main means of transportation was an Avis rental. Here are some insights that I’ve gleaned over the years and on this last sojourn.

– get an international driver’s permit.

I’ve never heard of anyone having problems when traveling without one but I have heard that some rental car companies are refusing to rent to people who don’t have one. I get mine every year at AAA. It’s super easy and takes just a few minutes. Why risk it?

– manual transmission is the standard.

Many people are surprised to learn that you have to make a special reservation for an automatic transmission cars (and it costs more). Stick shift is the norm in Italy.

– nearly all rentals are diesel.

Every car I’ve rented over the last 20 years has been diesel. Fuel, in general, costs about four times as much in Europe. When you go to the gas station, “diesel normale” (regular diesel) is the way to go and that’s what the attendant will ask you when she/he fills your car (look for “servito” at the pump if you want

– pay freeway tolls with your credit card.

Look for the “Carte” sign when you roll up to the toll-booth when exiting the freeway. When you enter the freeway, you’ll be prompted to take a ticket. When you exit, use the lane with the “Carte” sign (like the one above) and just insert your ticket and then wait for the prompt to insert your card (the automated voice will ask you to insert your “tessera,” which means “card” in Italian). You can get a receipt by pressing the button labeled “ricevuta.”

– observe the speed limits and expect hefty fines (that will catch up to you!).

Italy, like all of Europe today, has strict enforcement of speed limits. The limit in small towns is 50 kilometers per hour and the speed cameras WILL catch you. If you do get a ticket, the car rental agency will charge you for a processing fee and you will probably receive a hefty fine (180 euros and above) at some point down the road. It’s a pain to pay it (see this post on speeding tickets). I know at least a handful of people who have been denied at rental agencies because they have outstanding tickets. Here’s a good Wiki with info on speed limits and other traffic laws, in Italy and across the EU.

– use Waze if you have data coverage.

I don’t even go to downtown Houston these days without using Waze. It works really well in Italy and one of the coolest things about it is that it alerts you to speed traps and speed cameras.

– Italy, like all of Europe, has zero-tolerance for buzzed and drunk driving.

A lot of folks probably don’t realize this but buzzed driving is actually legal in the U.S. I learned that when I was in a jury pool on a drunk driving case in Texas a few years ago. Europe has ZERO TOLERANCE for buzzed and drunk driving and there are random check-points everywhere. Even one glass of wine takes you over the legal limit (no joke). I’ve never heard of an American being arrested but I have heard of extremely severe penalties for buzzed drivers in Italy. When you go out to a restaurant and expect to drink, a designated driver is a must.

– Autogrills often have good wi-fi now.

I love Italy and the Italians and I have made a career out being a student of Italian culture (including viticulture). But, man, the wi-fi situation there really sucks. Autogrill is the ubiquitous freeway cafeteria, fast food, and gas station in Italy. And many locations now have solid wi-fi. On this last trip, I ended up spending two hours at the Cantagallo Autogrill just south of Bologna on the A1 freeway after my hotel in Siena left me without wi-fi all morning.

These driving tips are by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. My insights are based on my own travel experiences and are by no means an official representation of driving laws, norms, or best practices in Italy or the EU. Having said that, I hope they are helpful. The last thing you want is for the stress of driving to ruin your trip to Italy this summer. My best advice: observe speed limits religiously and NEVER drive buzzed or drunk.

Our children, our times…

Yesterday, our family attended a fund raiser for our children’s public elementary school in Houston, Texas. The day before, less than an hour car’s ride to the south, children and adults lost their lives in yet another unspeakable tragedy.

When the right to bear arms bests children dying in our schools…

When the right to wave a flag bests the dignity of those it offends…

When the right to wealth bests the neediest among us…

When the right to succeed bests others’ deliverance from despair…

When race bests community, when creed bests Moses’ law and Jesus’ word…

When complacency bests opposition to injustice…

When indifference bests love…

Who are we?

Boccaccio’s Marchioness of Monferrato, an ante litteram #MeToo icon

Above: A detail from John William Waterhouse’s “Decameron” (1916). In Boccaccio’s Decameron, young Florentines flee the Black Plague, taking refuge in the countryside and telling each other stories to pass the time. It’s one of the greatest works of Italian literature and it includes one of the earliest mentions of wine in Monferrato (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

As I whittled away at my post today for the Barbera consortium blogging project (“Fit for a King: The first mention of Barbera d’Asti?”), it occurred to me that the main character in Boccaccio’s novella “The Marchioness of Monferrato” is an ante litteram #MeToo icon, not to mention an extraordinary gourmet.

For two years now, I’ve been working on my own research on wine in Boccaccio and (what I believe is) its essential role in the Tuscan humanist’s Italian masterwork. And so it was only natural that I would take a philological paring knife to the description of a feast in the tale and try to uncover what Boccaccio meant when he wrote of the “excellent and precious” wines of Monferrato (where Barbera is famously grown today). You might be surprised by my close reading of the text.

Please check out my post here.

Rereading the text for the umpteenth time, I realized that it had never dawned on me: in using her wit to repel the unwelcome advances of the king of France, who uses his position of power to corner her while her husband is away, she is an early feminist and #MeToo icon. Especially when read in the context of courtly love and its code, she is a victim who rises above her times and cultural hegemony. She subverts that code by means of culinary and convivial artefice, making the tale even richer in meaning in my opinion.

The tale is a shorter one and it will take you just a few minutes to read it (in English here). The ending is even more powerful, I believe, when read in the light of gastronomic wokeness.

Thanks for reading. I just got back an exhausting but great trip to Italy. So many wines and adventures to share! Stay tuned and please come out and taste with me and Alicia tonight in Houston… Thanks for being here.

Taste with Alicia Lini and me Wednesday @VinologyHouston

It seems like a lifetime ago… It was back in 2006, while I was still living and working in New York, that I helped to bring Alicia Lini’s wonderful Lambrusco to the U.S.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to share the news that her family’s wines are FINALLY available in Texas.

She’s one of my best friends in the wine business and I’ve been giving her a hand as she expands her brand’s presence in the states.

On Wednesday night, she and I will be pouring three of her family’s wines at Vinology (one of my favorite wine bars) in Houston. Please join us.

In other news…

It’s enough to make a Jewish mother proud: last night the Italian Association of Wine Shop Professionals made me one of its official ambassadors. The title came as a complete surprise to me but it couldn’t have arrived in a more ideal setting — the Euganean Hills, my special place in Italy.

More on that later. But I’m about to head out for a very special evening in Milan with my dissertation advisor, the Milanese poet Luigi Ballerini. I’ve been looking forward to this evening for many months and there couldn’t be a better way to end this truly amazing trip to Italy…

Thanks for being here and hope to see you on Wednesday in Houston!

Happy Mother’s Day, Tracie P! I love you, we love you…

When I landed in Frankfurt, Germany a week ago last Tuesday, I turned on my phone to discover that Georgia P, age 6, had fallen from a hammock at our family’s favorite park and broken her collar bone.

“Should I turn around and come back home?” I asked Tracie who was rubbing the sleep from her eyes when we spoke around midnight Texas time.

“No, no, no, she’ll be fine,” she said. “The doctor at the urgent care said to be sure to go to a orthopedic specialist but she’ll be fine.”

Later that day, they had already seen a pediatrician who said she wouldn’t have any trouble healing.

By Friday, Georgia was back at school and her kindergarten class welcomed her with a necklace and pendant. She was proud to show off the badges Tracie had ironed on to her sling.

Tracie P, happy Mother’s Day! I love you, we love you… Georgia and Lila Jane are so lucky to have you as a mother, so caring, loving, and attentive. And I am blessed to call you my wife.

We have built such a wonderful life for our girls and ourselves in our little corner of Houston. It never would have happened had we not fallen in love and decided to grow a family. I love you, we love you… Happy Mother’s Day!

An editio princeps of Gallesio’s Pomona! Enough to make me swoon…

Between libraries in the U.S., England, and Italy, there are roughly 10 extant copies of the first volume of Giorgio Gallesio’s Pomona italiana (Italian Pomology), published in Pisa in 1817. There are another couple of copies to be found in German libraries, at least according to (a go-to online bibliographic resource). Of course, there are also an unknown number of exemplars in private collections.

The landmark work of 19th-century botany is more properly known as Pomona italiana ossia trattato degli alberi fruttiferi contenente la descrizione delle migliori varietà dei frutti coltivati in Italia (Italian Pomology or Survey of [Treatise on] Fruit Trees, including descriptions of the best varieties of fruit grown in Italy), its complete title. And while the entry devoted to the fig tree is arguably the most famous and the most widely reproduced (including numerous modern reproductions and transcriptions), the volume devoted to grapes — the first in the series — is extremely rare.

Earlier this week, thanks to my work with the Monferrato Growers Association, I had the immense pleasure of viewing a privately owned copy of the first volume at the Bersano winery museum in Nizza.

In other time in my life, I used to spend my days in dusty libraries in Italy, England, and New York, leafing through medieval manuscripts and early printed books. The Vatican, the Marciana (Venice), the Laurenziana (Florence), the Bishop’s Seminary in Padua, the Morgan (New York), the British Library (London, my favorite!), the Ahmanson-Murphy and the Getty (Los Angeles)… o man, those were some rich and happy days, when old old words, often hand-written, leapt off the page and spoke to me. I miss them.

Here are some shots from my all-too-short visit. Click images for high-resolution versions. Note the rare white Rossese, above!

Heartfelt thanks to the folks at the Monferrato consortium and at Bersano: sometimes a boy just gets lucky! I can’t wait to get back.

Brunellogate 10 years gone: Montalcino is stronger than ever

Above: Montalcino’s breathtaking beauty is rivaled only by its extraordinary confluence of culture, history, and tradition — and its enviable economic model.

When I translated this op-ed for Fattoria dei Barbi owner Stefano Cinelli Colombini this week (I manage and contribute to the estate’s blog), I couldn’t help but be blown away by the power of his observations (not to mention his wry humor).

“Wherever great wines are produced in Italy — Montalcino, Langhe, or Valpolicella — the same old litany of grievances [is] repeated again and again,” he observes.

“The show is over and all that’s left for us ‘locals’ to do is cry: Our villages aren’t what they used to be; a wine shop stands where you used to be able to buy underwear; everything is so expensive and you can’t even find a parking spot. We’ve sold our souls and our towns are filled with SUVs and the jerks who drive them.”

But he’d rather drive an extra mile or two for his underwear and zucchini, he writes:

    Our villages are wealthy and vibrant. And they offer many opportunities for our young people. Who are we to complain about not being able to find a good head of lettuce or a pair of underwear?
    A “real” community is a community that has developed its own social, economic, and cultural model for living… It’s a community that offers a sustainable future to its young people. And that’s what we are.

As he points out in the piece, rare are the communities where a natural disposition for fine wine growing is combined with robust culture, rich history, and deep-seated tradition. Montalcino, he notes, is one of those uncommon examples where a model for sustained prosperity has emerged thanks to a confluence of shared vision and viticultural inclination.

Such a community, he notes, “also needs to know how to preserve its identity and how to rise up again after a crisis. Because sooner or later, the other shoe will drop.”

As I read and translated that line, it occurred to me: 10 years have just passed since news of the “Brunello scandal” broke on the floor of Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair in Verona, in the spring of 2008.

Today, I can’t imagine an Italian wine industry observer who wouldn’t concur that Montalcino and perception of its wines among consumers and trade members are stronger than ever.

I recently launched a Brunello program at a restaurant where I consult in Los Angeles: after a string of highly rated vintages, it’s the only Italian wine “brand” that seems to sell itself. Our offering is arguably more esoteric than most of our competitors’ and few of our guests recognize the estates we carry. But that hasn’t hampered sales by any means. All it takes is the mention of “Brunello”… And in the three months since we debuted the selection, not one — not a single one — of the diners has mentioned the controversy.

“If I need to drive a couple of extra miles to buy some zucchini,” writes Stefano, “that’s fine with me. You can keep your radishes. I’ll take the Brunello instead.”

Sommelier, sommelier! I’ll have what he’s having!

Vitello tonnato: a photographic retrospective

The photo above (snapped the other night at Battaglino in Bra where I’m teaching this week and next) prompted a robust thread of comments by fellow vitello tonnato lovers on my Facebook.

My friend Logan Cooper from Austin, a food blogger I admire greatly, wrote the following:

    The first time I encountered this dish I was a young man visiting Milan. I was confused, put off, and generally disparaging that such a thing wasn’t a weird joke on tourists. I was wrong. In the years since, this dish has held delight, surprise, and mystery. So many flavors, so many variations, still slightly baffling. If cognitive dissonance had a Italian mascot, vitello tonnato would be near the front of the line.

I love his candor and exhilaration.

And I love vitello tonnato — roast or boiled veal, thinly sliced and topped with a sauce made from olive oil-cured tuna, salted anchovies, raw eggs, and brined capers — in part because of its deliciously satisfying character and in part because of its easy digestion. It’s a dish that “agrees” with me on every level.

The following are some interpretations I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. And here’s a translation of what is perhaps the earliest printed version of the recipe, Pellegrino Artusi’s. I rendered it into English a few years ago for Tenuta Carretta. Note the absence of egg.

Centro storico vinoteca.

Osteria More e Macine.

Poderi Colla.

Locanda in Cannubi.

Local Bra.

Battaglino (from last year).