“A stadium crowd cheering between organic and not organic.” Responses to Italian organic farming controversy.

Above: last night’s BYOB wine was the 2017 Brooks Crannell Vineyard Pinot Blanc from Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills. Many of Brooks wines are biodynamic certified but the fruit for this bottling is not. No certification is listed for Crannell Vineyard but according to info available online, it is “dry farmed without any irrigation.” 100% delicious, with vibrant fruit and racy acidity, a perfect pairing for Cantonese.

There were a lot of responses to this week’s post on opposition to proposed legislation in Italy that would create new protections and incentives for organic farmers.

The bill was approved by Italy’s lower chamber and is now being considered by the Italian senate. It would create a tax on conventional farming and require public schools and institutions to serve organic food products.

Opponents of the bill, which is likely to be approved, counter that global-scale organic farming is unsustainable and a threat to nutritional security and the nation’s health. Authors of the bill claim that organic farming is vital to the nation’s identity, health, and nutritional future.

Click here to read “Organic farming, a “beautiful but impossible fairy tale.” Italian scientists oppose proposed organic regulation.”

Professor Michele Fino, director of the master’s programs at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Slow Food) in Piedmont (where I also teach), wrote on Facebook:

“Very inaccurate interview fully supported only by the reputation of the Senator [Elena Cattaneo, an opponent of the bill], who is no agrarian or plant scientist. No information, no revelation. Sorry. This is politics with the feathers of science.”

In a comment thread, he wrote me that an official response from his office in support of the bill had already been prepared and is currently being vetted by the university’s lawyers and technical advisors.

Jason Lett, organic grape grower and owner of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon, tweeted: “We profit from the deliciousness of what we make, not the yield per land. If we assign value to flavor and expression of place into the food calculation, organic wins easily.”

Alice Feiring, author and natural wine advocate, tweeted: “What about if organic farming was perfected? What about if more research was going in how to farm responsibly and also get high yields? What if the ag biz put their research $ there?”

Jamie Goode, wine writer and organic/biodynamic advocate, tweeted: “Organic farming for wine is fine. But if all agriculture went organic, then it would be a disaster. People would starve. I wish it were not so as a big fan of organics.”

Maurizio Gily, a leading Italian agronomist, tweeted: “Something true, something wrong. Not everything in organic is always sustainable in the long period, not everything in conventional is polluting and unsustainable. But the big mistake is to create a stadium crowd cheering between organic and not organic. Things are more complex.”

I’ll post updates on this story as it develops. Thanks for being here.

Organic farming, a “beautiful but impossible fairy tale.” Italian scientists oppose proposed organic regulation.

The vineyard in the photo above is farmed by one of Italy’s most prestigious wineries. It provides fruit for one of the estate’s marquee wines. Although many Italian wine trade observers assume it’s an organically farmed parcel, it’s actually farmed conventionally. The winemakers contend that conventional farming is actually better for consumers and for the planet.

As the Italian senate is about to consider newly introduced legislation that would promote and protect organic farming, calling it vital to the nation’s health and environment, nearly 400 Italian scientists have signed an open letter opposing the bill, which has already been approved by Italy’s lower chamber.

The researchers argue that organic farming, if adopted on a global scale, is unsustainable and would lead to weakened nutritional security. They also point to aggressive marketing — and not sustainability — as the driver behind the popularity of organic products among consumers. Only privileged Italians can afford organic food products, they note. And they point out that organically farmed products represent a negligible amount of foods that Italians consume.

The letter was delivered in January of this year, with more than 200 signatures. As of last week, that number had grown to almost 400.

On Friday, Il Sole 24 Ore (the Italian Financial Times) published an interview with Elena Cattaneo, one of Italy’s leading researchers and a senator for life in Italy’s parliament. She has joined her colleagues in opposing the bill. The following is an excerpted translation of her remarks (see this Wiki entry on Dr. Cattaneo).

“For the first time,” says Cattaneo, “this letter demolishes the ‘beautiful but impossible” narrative behind organic farming. With supporting data, it reveals the discrepancies in organic farming’s ‘one way’ marketing. I believe such marketing is misleading.”

“In order to justify pricing often double [that of conventionally farmed products], we have been told that organic farming is the only way to save the world and help us to live longer and better. It’s an illusion. There is no scientific proof to confirm this. In fact, the opposite is true: analysis reveals that organic products are not qualitatively better and that large-scale organic farming is unsustainable inasmuch as it produces up to 50 percent less when it comes to top agricultural products. Large-scale organic farming would require twice as much land. In order to convert the world to organic farming, we would have to use hundreds of millions of hectares of currently fallow land, including forests and prairies.”

“The fairy tale that ‘natural = good’ has led to the labeling of more than a million [Italian] farmers as ‘polluters of the planet.’ It’s these same farmers that rely on the best technology available in order to guarantee that consumers have access to wholesome and safe food products.”

The following are my paraphrases of the letter’s 10 bullet points in which the scientists explain their motivation for opposing the legislation. The bill calls, among other things, for all public institutions and schools in Italy to serve only organically farmed food products. Unfortunately, the letter hasn’t been translated in its entirety. If you speak Italian, I highly encourage you to read it.

1) Low production rates in organic farming.

According to currently available data, organic farming yields 20 to 70 percent less than conventional farming.

2) Ecological sustainability for individual farming companies should be more closely examined.

Even organic farms depend on agricultural products that come from the world of conventional farming.

3) Global sustainability of organic farming should be more closely examined in terms of its environmental friendliness.

If organic farming were adopted on a global level, the surface area devoted to agriculture would have to be doubled. The subsequent scarcity of nitrogen in the land (owed to the fact that synthetic fertilizers would no longer be used) would lead to severe famine.

4) Global sustainability of organic farming should be more closely examined also in terms of its economic and social impact.

If organic farming were adopted on a global level, consumers wouldn’t have the same level of access to fruit and vegetables. The impact on health — especially in terms of the occurrence of cancer — could be enormous.

5) Marketing of organic farming aims to denigrate conventional farming even though the latter is productive, efficient, and indispensable to the nation.

Convention and integrated farming provides 97 percent of the food Italians eat and the difference in quality between organic and conventional and integrated foods is negligible. Only the privileged classes have access to organically farmed foods.

6) Is organic farming really growing?

The number of certified organic farms in Italy actually shrank from 58,000 in 2001 to 57,000 in 2017. The sector is essentially stagnant and isn’t showing signs of growth.

7) Organic farming accounts for only a small segment of the farming sector.

In 2018, only 3 percent of foods consumed in Italy were organically farmed. That’s a small increase over 2017 but the figure is reflection of organic foods’ “niche” in the market, heavily dependent on marketing that doesn’t represent Italian agriculture in general.

8) Organic farming is highly subsidized thanks to aggressive marketing.

Organic farmers actually receive more subsidies than conventional farmers because additional funds and incentives are earmarked especially for organic farming. Marketing drives this financial model.

9) Organic farming depends, however counterintuitive it mays seem, on synthetic products.

Even though an individual farm may avoid the use of synthetic products, its sustainability still depends on the overarching farming system where synthetic products are used.

10) Organic farming is opposed to genetic innovation and technical advances in farming technology.

Increasingly, farmers will need to look to genetic innovation and technical advances in farming to feed the nation. Italy’s nutritional security depends on innovation.

Scenes from Slow Wine California and Oregon (taste in Denver this week, Boston and NYC next week)

Registration for Slow Wine tastings in Denver (tomorrow), Boston and New York (next week) is still open. Click here for details.

Here are some highlights from the Slow Wine tastings in San Francisco and Oregon this week. Heartfelt thanks to all the winemakers who participated and all the trade members who came out to taste.

That’s a whole lotta wine right there! Matile Poggi of Le Fraghe (left, one of my wine heroes, for her FIVI leadership) and Andrew Beckham of Beckham Estate Vineyard in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains.

Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio (left) with California wine legend Robert Sinskey. I have to confess to being a bit starstruck when meeting Robert, whose wines were among the first Californians I swooned over as an adolescent wine lover.

Soil samples from the Russian River Valley at the Small Vines table. Slinging dirt is a great way to teach people about your wines, remarked winemaker Paul Sloan.

Mitico! Dan Petroski (left) poured Larkmead Vineyards for Giancarlo. Dan’s Massican wines were also in the guide this year.
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Chicago’s Italian wine scene blew me away

Above: Chicago-based Derrick Westbrook is one of the most dynamic wine professionals working in the U.S. today. And he digs and pours Italian wine.

It’s not every day that a Friuli fanatic discovers an indigenous Friulian grape variety he’s never tasted before.

But that’s exactly what happened on a chllly midwest evening when a couple of Italian wine trade professionals sat down at the bar at Nico Osteria in Chicago’s Gold Coast district.

Wine director Bret Heiar’s Italian-focused program there is one of the most exciting wine lists I’ve seen this year. And the aggressive pricing is the first clue that this is an Italian wine list written by someone who really loves Italian wines and who wants people to experience them.

The night we were there, they were pouring Emilio Bulfon Piculìt Neri by the glass — yes, by the glass, people!

Above: when’s the last time you saw a Piculìt Neri by the glass? Or ever?

Super cool stuff.

I was also really geeked to see American sommelier superstar Derrick Westbrook pouring at the Gambero Rosso event last week.

His career is on FIRE right now and it was so cool that he was pouring and talking about Chianti Classico there. He’s also the nicest guy. We need energized, think-out-of-the-box folks like him working with Italian wine as we move forward in our increasingly media- and product-saturated markets.

Man, this dude is going to go far and I’m glad he’s taking Italian wine with him.

While in Chicago, I also checked in with another one of the country’s hippest sommeliers, Rachael Lowe, who’s been shepherding one of our nation’s historic Italian fine wine lists at the legendary Spiaggia.

I remember going there when I was still in college back in the late 1980s after my first trip to Italy. At the time, there were only two or three programs like that in the U.S. I”m glad to see that it’s still going strong stronger than ever. It couldn’t be in better hands.

Another person I was geeked to catch up with was my buddy Craig Perman who runs Perman Wine Selections, one of the grooviest Italian-focused retail programs in the U.S.

In a town notorious for its corporate-driven market, Craig keeps fighting the good independent fight. His knowledge of Italian wine is spectacular and he’s doing truly great work in bringing real-deal Italian wines to a market that is evermore thirsty for them.

I was bummed not to make it to Monteverde where one of the city’s most progressive Italian lists has a home. I hear that the restaurant is currently between wine directors but I’ll be following along closely and hope to get back there to check it out soon.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago over the last decade and I’ve never seen so much great Italian wine and so many mega-talented people running a growing number of Italian-focus programs.

I can’t wait to get back there later this year. Keep on keepin’ on, yall!

New Yorkers! I NEED YOU (to taste with me today at Gambero Rosso)

Above: the Gambero Rosso tasting in Chicago on Wednesday was packed.

Calling all wine people in New York: please come out and taste with me at Gambero Rosso this afternoon in Manhattan!

I’ll be pouring Villa Sandi Prosecco.

Please stop by and say hello.

Click here for event details.

And in case you are on the west coast next week, I’ll be hanging and tasting (although not pouring) at the Slow Wine events in San Francisco and Portland on Monday and Tuesday.

Click here for event details.

I hope to see you there! Thanks for your support.

Organic viticulture and Slow Wine: how the 2019 guide differs from the previous edition

The Slow Wine Guide 2019 tour begins on Monday, March 4 in San Francisco and then moves on to Portland (Oregon), Denver, New York, and Boston. Click here for tasting and registration details.

One of the things that flummoxed the editors of the 2018 Slow Wine Guide to the wines of California was how to treat the often thorny subject of who is and who is not a genuine organic grape grower.

On the one hand, organic viticulture is widespread in California where extremely dry conditions make it easier to farm without the application of fungicides commonly used to combat peronospora (downy mildew).

On the other hand, there are myriad legacy growers in the Golden State who have no interest in obtaining organic certification even though they have employed organic practices for decades, often since the first planting of their vineyards.

Add to this mix the fact that exorbitant land prices in California make it nearly impossible for smaller-scale winemakers to own the vineyards where they source fruit for their wines. Throughout the state, the cost of acreage in wine country is driven by “weekender” owners whose primary income isn’t derived from viticulture. As a result, the California wine industry — especially as relates to producers who embrace the Slow Wine ethos — is highly parcellized.

Even in “lower rent” districts like the Sierra Foothills AVA, it’s challenging for low-volume winemakers to grow their own fruit.

Take Hank Beckmeyer’s La Clarine Farm, for example, one of my favorite wineries in the U.S. and a shoo-in for inclusion in the Slow Wine Guide.

Above: organically certified Cabernet Sauvignon vines at Volker Eisele, one of my favorite Napa Valley growers. The vineyards there have been farmed organically since they were planted in the 1960s. And the owner was among the first to certify a Napa Valley grape farm.

Hank — one of the most respected, beloved, and emblematic producers in California’s progressive movement — sources 100 percent of his fruit. And although all of those growers employ organic practices in their vineyards, none of them are organic certified.

If organic certification were the sine qua non baseline for being profiled in the guide, our team of editors reasoned, we would have hardly had enough winemakers to fill the pages of the book.

For the 2018 edition, we didn’t include certification status for every winery.

But with the current 2019 guide, not only did we specify whether or not producers were certified organic, we also listed the number of acres owned by the winery. In many cases, as for La Clarine farm, that figure was zero acres owned and certification entry was annotated with “n/a” (not applicable).

Unless a given estate is 100 percent certified organic (or biodyanmic as the case may be), its certification status is listed in the book as n/a. Editors were encouraged to quote growers and winemakers directly when it came to accounts of organic growing practices employed. And in many instances, they have specified that although organic farming is employed in the vineyards, the estate is not organic certified. But in order to be profiled as an “organic winemaker,” the estate had to be 100 percent certified and/or sourced fruit had to be 100 percent organic certified.

This year’s California guide, the second edition, has nearly doubled the number of wineries profiled. And the debut edition of the Oregon guide profiles 50 wineries.

The Italian editors of the guide are currently posting all the profiles on the Slow Food blog here — free for all.

I’ll be attending the Slow Wine tastings in San Francisco next Monday and Portland, Oregon next Tuesday. I hope you’ll join me!

Meet me at the Weiners Circle: taste with me in Chicago and New York this week, SF and PDX next week…

Thanks to everyone who came out to our tastings and seminars yesterday at Taste of Italy in Houston! That was a blast. I am so fortunate to live in such a tight-knit community of supportive food and wine professionals. Grazie di cuore…

My buddy Flavio Geretto and I will be pouring Villa Sandi Cartizze tomorrow in Chicago at the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri event.

Please join us if you’re in town (details here).

And if you can’t make to the Gambero, ping me and we’ll connect at Wieners Circle, one of my favorite hotdog stands in Chicago, one of my favorite cities in the world and the place where I was born.

From there we head to New York for Gambero on Friday.

And although I won’t be pouring, I will be hanging out and tasting at the Slow Wine tastings in San Francisco and Portland next week (details here).

Please join me!

If you’ve never heard of or been to Weiners Circle, check out the Wiki: it’s a truly unique Amercana culinary destination (I could write a doctoral thesis about this place). That’s me, above, enjoying a Weiners Circle chardog a few years ago. I’ll be there on the late side… Ping me!

An unforgettable Lugana — everything and nothing “natural” about it…

One of the wines that impressed me the most during my early February trip to Italy was this Lugana fermentazione spontanea (spontaneous fermentation) by the Sansonina estate, a property and label that Nadia Zenato is developing for her family.

Back in the 2010s, she began experimenting with wild yeast fermentation using grapes sourced from a vineyard planted there in the 1970s. The first release of the wine was from the 2014 vintage.

Man, this wine has eno-hipster written all over it!

The “old-vine” (40+ year old) Vigna del Moraro vineyard — one of the Zenato family’s top holdings — is farmed organically, she said, and will soon be certified.

It’s planted to Turbiana, the hyper-local clone of Trebbiano used to make monovarietal Lugana.

The grapes are picked by hand and vinification is carried out in stainless steel using only naturally occurring yeast.

I loved the way the savory component in this cru-designated wine played against the white flower notes on the nose and the fresh and gently dried stone fruit in the mouth. Subtle oxidative character accentuated the wine’s delicate almond notes that seemed to float ethereally throughout its body without ever weighing it down. The texture was lithe but balanced and confident in the mouth, the finish was a gift that just kept giving dried fruit and nuttiness.

It made me feel so hip that I thought I was going to grow a handle-bar mustache!

But just as I was about to break out my Brooklyn Grooming Commando Old School Pomade (animal fat and petroleum product free), it occurred to me that the word natural hadn’t been uttered during my tasting and conversation with Nadia. She seemed genuinely surprised when I speculated that the wine, hitherto unknown to me, must be a hit among the natural wine crowd.

If ever there were a Lugana that “speaks of place,” that stands apart as an expression of “site,” this would be it, for sure.

As we moved on to the estate’s flagship Merlot, also excellent, it occurred to me that Nadia hadn’t conceived this wine with marketing in mind. It was a challenge: a desire to create the purest and truest representation of an appellation her father helped to create and a vineyard that she and her mother hold extremely dear.

I loved it and I admire Nadia for growing, raising, and bottling it. What a great wine — everything and nothing “natural” about it!

Soldera: The “stubborn genius” and “heretic” of Brunello. Remembrances of an iconoclast winemaker.

Above: thanks to my connections in the wine trade, invitations to Soldera’s winery and vineyards were extended to me on three occasions. But the first visit, in September of 2008, was the most memorable. Many trade observers would agree that his approach to viticulture was “maniacal.” Those Sangiovese bunches — nearly cinematic in their perfection — are examples of his devotion to his vineyards.

News of legacy Brunello grower Gianfranco Soldera’s passing broke on Saturday morning as the Italian wine world was gathering in Montalcino for the appellation’s annual tasting of new releases, Benvenuto Brunello.

According to at least one mainstream media report, trade members and observers were surprised when Patrizio Cencioni, president of the Brunello consortium, announced that the Sangiovese giant had died in his opening remarks at the gathering.

“He was an emblematic figure,” said Cencioni (according to the piece published online by the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera), thanks to “the great wines he made in the 1980s and 90s. I can still remember a day he came to visit my winery with Luigi Veronelli,” the 20th-century Italian food and wine writer, considered by many to be one of the architects of the Italian gastronomic renaissance and a close friend of Soldera’s. “His impact on Montalcino was profound.”

Above: anyone who’s visited Soldera’s storied Case Basse estate in Montalcino will tell you the same story. The grower and winemaker was most proud of the property’s “white flower garden,” essential, he claimed, to creating biodiversity — a key element in his approach to winemaking.

The author of the Corriere obituary called him “heretical.” My preference would have been iconoclast: even while he was still part of the Brunello consortium (he was expelled and sued by the body in 2013), he was outwardly and loudly critical of Brunello growers and bottlers — even to the point of making him a reviled personage.

“Certainly iconic,” wrote wine writer and natural wine authority Alice Feiring on Instagram upon learning of his passing. “What a character he was. And the wines were sublime.”

Some would argue that he was an ante litteram advocate of the natural wine movement that came long after he had established his celebrity as one of Europe’s premier winemakers.

Above: another feature he was always keen to point out to visitors was the “marsh” he had built. The pond was another important source of biodiversity in an otherwise barren sub-zone of Montalcino.

But the best obituary and tribute to appear so far — whether in Italian or English — were penned by Robert Parker Italian review Monica Larner.

I loved the way she dubbed him the “stubborn genius” of Montalcino. And I highly recommend that you visit the link she provides for the last review of a Soldera wine published by her (the obituary appears on her Facebook while the review is behind the RobertParker.com paywall). She really captures the essence and controversy of his life as a winemaker and she covers the major scandals (or scandalous episodes) that reshaped the arc of his career in the last two decades.

It’s a great piece of writing that could only have been produced by someone like Monica: she has the talent, the experience, and perhaps most importantly the ear to the ground needed to deliver such a compelling piece.

I can’t imagine that profiles by Antonio Galloni and Wine Spectator aren’t forthcoming. And I’ll be looking forward to reading the insights they share.

But I’d also like to point you to this piece (free for non-subscribers) by Jancis Robinson on her site, published just last summer: “Soldera – whom doubt doth not assail.”

Soldera will be remembered, no doubt, as both a champion and denigrator of Montalcino. The wines he grew, raised, and bottled were among Italy’s and Europe’s best. But they were so expensive and the winery’s allocation protocol was so byzantine that they were rarely tasted beyond a tight circle of well-heeled admirers.

Although many will remember him for the controversies he stirred (wittingly and unwittingly perhaps), “now is the time for forgiveness,” as one of my best friends in Montalcino wrote me this morning.

Amen… So be it.

Gianfranco Soldera, outspoken Sangiovese grower and iconic winemaker, dies at 82

As the Italian wine world gathers this weekend in Montalcino for the annual debut of the appellation’s new vintage and releases, Brunello has lost one of its most outspoken and iconic masters, Gianfranco Soldera, 82.

According to reports that began to circulate in mainstream Italian media about 2 hours ago, the winemaker suffered a heart attack apparently while driving. He was found on this morning around 10:30 a.m. not far from the his famed Case Basse estate. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Soldera was an inspiration for a generation of Italian and international growers and winemakers. And his wines were among the first Italian bottlings to command the attention and prices once reserved solely for their French counterparts.

A hermetic figure who seemed to attract controversy, he will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest Italian winemakers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

I’ll follow up on this story with translated excerpts of the myriad tributes and remembrances that are sure to be published in coming days.