Late spring freeze adds to Italian winemakers’ woes.

Above: a farm in Montalcino burns hay to protect vineyards during a late spring freeze this week across central and northern Italy (image via the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium Facebook).

According to a widely disseminated blog post by the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium, temperatures in the appellation have dropped to nearly 15° F. this week. In order to protect their vineyards from frost damage, many growers have been burning hay to warm the vines (as in the photo above, published this week by the consortium).

This late spring freeze comes at a delicate time for winemakers across central Italy as well as the northern regions, where there have also been widespread reports of damage. Once the plants have begun to bud, an extreme freeze can arrest formation of the clusters.

According to mainstream media reports, this year’s freeze is the latest in a string of three consecutive vegetative cycles that have been affected by frost damage. But the latest extreme weather event appears to be the worst.

The freeze couldn’t have come at a worse time for winemakers. Nearly all of Italy is still on complete lockdown and restaurants and cafés remained closed except for take-away orders. To give you a sense of the restrictions for private citizens living in small towns, most are not allowed to travel beyond a five-kilometer radius from their homes. (Earlier this week, restaurateurs in Rome clashed with police as they protested the continued restrictions.)

“In the middle of the night,” wrote the editors of the Brunello Consortium’s social media, “producers banded together in an effort to keep the temperatures from dipping too low in the vineyards. This is an important period [for grape growing] because the vines are at the beginning of their vegetative [productive] phase.”

The Prosecco ColFondo “10 Commandments.” A new Prosecco ColFondo farmers union takes shape.

Last month, a new consortium of Prosecco ColFondo producers was born in Treviso province, Prosecco’s spiritual homeland: ColFondo Agricolo or the ColFondo Farmers Union.

The project, spearheaded by ColFondo advocate and Italian wine authority Gianpaolo Giacobbo, includes “the 10 ColFondo Agricolo Commandments,” production requirements and guidelines for members (below).

For those of you who missed the ColFondo movement that began to take shape in the late 2000s, ColFondo is a pseudo-historic designation for a style of Prosecco that has been re-fermented in bottle and released without disgorgement. The name means con il fondo or with its sediment. (Most Prosecco is made using the tank method whereby the wines are re-fermented in pressurized tanks and then disgorged before bottling.)

The genre represents a link to the not so distant past before the international Prosecco boom of the 1990s. These were the wines that were produced and drunk by the grandparents of the current generation of Prosecco ColFondo producers. Over the last 15 years or so, the style has been embraced by growing legion of small family-owned estates and Italian wine enthusiasts.

“Farmers ColFondo,” wrote Gianpaolo, the group’s tasting committee chairperson, on the Slow Wine blog, “is a slow wine, a wine that respects time and history. It’s a wine that requires patience to be born and patience to be enjoyed. It’s not a drink but rather a sublimation of a human being’s life — the life of a grape grower. It’s the bottle that’s never missing on the table. Without filters, it tells the story of experience and hard work, honesty and sweat, freshness and simplicity.”

The following family farms currently belong to the new group of growers and winemakers: Bastia, Bele Casel, Ceotto Vini, Fratelli Collavo, Leo Vanin, Malibran, Martignago Vignaioli, Masot, Miotto, Mongarda, Moro Sergio, Ruge, Siro Merotto, and Terre Boscaratto.

All members must adhere to the union’s precepts in the form of “10 Commandments” (below, translation mine).

The 10 ColFondo Agricolo Commandments

  1. Your grapes must be grown in the Treviso hills where hillside vines have always ripened in the sun.
  2. You must produce your sparkling wine by refermenting it in bottle without disgorgement.
  3. The wine must be bottled between March and June in the year following harvest and it must be released for sale the following year.
  4. You must use a crown cap.
  5. You must use the following grape varieties: a minimum of 70 percent Glera blended with other historic varieties — like Perera, Verdiso, Bianchetta, Boschera, and Rabbiosa — making up a maximum of 30 percent in the blend.
  6. You must use grapes you have grown on your own property. And you must personally select the fruit for the wine.
  7. You mustn’t fear time: these wines deliver pleasant surprises after years of bottle aging.
  8. You must indicate the vintage of the wine with a colored paper strip on the bottle [see below]. The color of the strip will be changed for each harvest.
  9. You must drink Colfondo the way you like it. Cloudy or clear, the choice is yours alone.
  10. You must serve the wines to your friends together with a sopressa [a classic salame of Treviso province], the perfect pairing.

As Gianpaolo notes in his post for Slow Wine, ColFondo wines must be “artisanal with a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll” in the mix.
Photos by Arcangelo Piai via the Slow Wine blog.

Happy Easter from the Parzen family.

Happy Easter, everyone! That’s a photo, above, from the girls’ Easter in 2019.

This year, we’ll be back at their grandparents house in Orange, Texas for the holiday. We can’t wait!

And no Easter would be complete without a song from my favorite Easter movie, Easter Parade (1948) with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire (below).

And btw, Passover is still on so Parzen family also wishes you a happy Passover! Chag sameach!

This Etna Rosso is just waiting to sing its song. Listeners wanted.

On Tuesday of this week, I tasted the above Etna Rosso Lenza di Munti by Nicosia as part of the Taste of Italy Virtual Trade Fair presented by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South-Central (my client).

This wine simply blew me (and Tracie) away. Powerful but lithe in the glass, it had that “unbearable lightness” that makes wines like these stand apart from the crowd. And the wonderful balance between its tannin and texture buoyed its perfectly ripe, delicious red fruit and berry fruit. We drank about half the bottle the night I opened it for the virtual tasting. On day two, all kinds of other aromas and flavors kicked in: cinnamon, nutmeg, and wild sage. A gift that just kept giving, this bottle impressed me on so many levels, including the pricing.

But it was also impressive for how “ready-to-go” it is.

Especially now, as the new normal of the pandemic era settles in, Italian winemakers without U.S. representation are facing an uphill battle as they try to carve out a place for themselves on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, so many of them don’t have the wherewithal that the U.S. market demands.

In my book, this wine — beyond being utterly moreish — has so much going for it. The pricing aligns with U.S. sensibilities. The packaging is smart and U.S.-friendly. And the winery has a perfectly bilingual, young Roman wine professional serving as its ambassador for our country. He’s familiar with our market, has already spent lots of time here, and he’s working on putting together a network of regional importers and distributors in the U.S.

Wines are like songs. If you write the greatest song in the world but you only play it by yourself in your room, you might as well not have even composed it (unless for your own idiosyncratic enjoyment). Analogously, a wine without the means to reach its target wine lover is like a song sung in the forest without anyone to hear it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Nicosia — pronounced NEE-koh-ZEE-ah — has the right stuff. And while its international suppler rep Fabio has already lined up a few east coast importers beyond New York, he’s looking for partners in other states across the country.

This wine is 100 percent ready-to-go and 100 percent delicious. My recommendation is run don’t walk.

Alder Yarrow, you are an inspiration to so many of us. But I hate to break it to you, wine blogging is very much alive.

Above: Alberto Giacometti, “Large Standing Woman I,” 1960 (Houston Museum of Fine Arts).

The world of wine blogging owes an immense debt to Alder Yarrow, whose pioneering blog Vinography offered an early model and roadmap to a generation of wine-focused social media users when it launched in 2004. By 2007, he would become the first wine blogger to be invited to speak at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. And his writing also began to appear in some of the top wine world mastheads, electronic and otherwise. His is a path that so many have followed or aspired to in the meantime.

That was all the more reason that it was disconcerting to read his recent post “Wine Bloggers: An Endangered Species.”

“I think I finally know how my wife’s grandmother felt,” he wrote sorrowfully. “A year or two before she passed at the age of 100, I asked her how she was doing as we sat down together for a meal. She said, ‘I’m just fine, but I’ve been alive too long. All my friends are dead’…”

After his survey of the current field of wine blogging, he pines, “I definitely feel a bit doddering, having just pruned off all that deadwood only to discover what amounts to a stunted little group of branches clinging to life.”

It’s stunning to read that in a time when wine blogging has firmly shifted away from its early “tasting and technical notes” model to a deeply self-aware and socially conscious paradigm.

Just think of blogger sommeliers like Tahiirah Habibi and Liz Dowty. Their courageous posts last year disrupted one of the wine world’s sacrosanct institutions, the Court of Sommeliers. Thanks to them, the lives of wine professionals across the spectrum are safer today.

Some may protest that they are not traditional wine bloggers like the ones Alder references in his post. Yes, their posts appeared on Instagram (and not a WordPress-coded site). And yes, one used videos and live stories instead of written word. Even though they weren’t using the conventional blog post format (that Alder and his contemporaries used), they were regularly updating their readers on an internet platform by means of an online journal — the very definition of blogging.

With the media they shared publicly, they literally reshaped the world they inhabit. That’s some pretty powerful stuff, if you ask me. And it’s an indication that wine blogging, although no longer focused on the latest exclusive (and exclusionary) tasting or sample, is very much alive and kicking harder than it ever has. Tahiirah and Liz don’t get paid for their posts. They do it because they are called to a higher purpose: activism through media. Sounds like blogging to me.

It’s important to underline that Alder’s contribution to the world of wine blogging cannot be overestimated. That’s especially true because one of the other wine blog models of the genre’s early years was authored by an internet troll whose work sadly presaged much of the nastiness that would seep throughout the world of wine media. Alder offered aspiring wine writers a balanced locus amoenus and high quality writing that they could look to as they carved out their own space in the corners of the internets.

And wow, Alder, I’m not sure how you missed this, but there are so many of them out there.

Just think of Cara Rutherford’s wonderful blog Caravino. Based near Albany, New York, she posts traditional tasting and technical notes three to four times a week (the last time I counted).

Or what about Kat René in Houston? She’s a prolific collector and author of one of the most popular wine blogs in the country right now, Corkscrew Concierge.

Cathrine Todd, another highly active and superbly talented wine writer, posts regularly on the multi-author blog hosted by Forbes and her own site, Dame Wine.

(Just think how many wine posts appear on Forbes these days. No, that content isn’t hosted on a traditional, stand-alone, WordPress-fueled site. But it still fits the conventional definition, above, of what blogging is.)

Or what about my former Slow Wine colleague Pam Strayer’s excellent and newly launched blog Organic Wines Uncorked, a site that has disrupted the California wine industry?

I have immense respect for Alder. And I’ll be the first to tell you that he’s a lovely person who has used his status and visibility over the years to make the world of wine a better place — socially and professionally, I’ll add.

But when I look his list of currently active wine blogs, I find that it’s riddled with lacunæ (including some but not all of the writers I mention above). To his list I also add the myriad wine writers and wine trade observers who use social media platforms to host their media. Just because you’re blogging on Instagram, Facebook, or even Forbes or Medium doesn’t mean that you are not a wine blogger. Then add to that mix the countless writers who post on sites and social media for wine shops, importers, distributors, and even wine industry law firms etc.

Pointing to the writers I’ve included in this post on a wine blog, I’d say that the world of wine blogging is more diverse and compelling than ever before. And I’d like to thank Alder for getting this conversation started — on a wine blog.

Cecilia Mangini’s lost films resonate powerfully today. Don’t miss the opportunity to stream them.

Above: Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini in Rome in 2020. She died in January of this year. Her films are now being rediscovered by a new generation of cinephiles (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

Honestly, until my good friend Ben Shapiro (a noted filmmaker himself) brought them to my attention, I was unaware of Italian director Cecilia Mangini’s wonderful pseudo-documentaries, which have recently been rediscovered, restored, and are now being streamed for free by Another Screen.

Her oneiric and highly lyrical depiction of the Italian proletariat (omg, did I just out myself as a Marxist?) in the 1950s and 1960s resonates powerfully today as the pandemic has drawn a stark line and divide between the world’s disenfranchised and the management class.

(A few days ago, a Galveston woman had to be escorted out of a bank after she refused to wear a mask despite the business’ requirement that patrons wear a mask. A police officer was tasked with getting her out of the bank in what became a tragicomic scene. Some will see a parallel between the police officer and the southern Italian Carabinieri who had to face off with bourgeois protesters in 1960s Italy. Pasolini, a Mangini collaborator, wrote extensively about them at the time.)

I highly recommend checking out the link on the Other Screen site. It makes for great viewing and I believe it’s free only until Monday (I also encourage you to donate to Another Screen to support their efforts in preserving film archives).

See this Times profile of Mangini from last year (how did I miss this?).

Buona visione. Enjoy the films. You won’t regret it.

The earliest mention of “al dente” pasta in an English cookery book? And a better translation of the expression.

Above: paccheri with seafood in Lecce province. Needless to say, they were cooked “al dente.”

The other night after Tracie made a perfectly cooked dish of fusilli al pomodoro for our daughters and me, the girls were curious about my comment that the pasta (or rather, the pastasciutta because these were dried pasta) had been strained al dente.

Although it’s often mistranslated or used a loanword in English (and especially American English), most Americans know it today to mean pasta that is slightly undercooked. As anyone familiar with home and restaurant cookery in Italy can tell you, Italians like their pasta slightly undercooked or “crisp” (see quote below).

For Italians, al dente is the baseline. Only on rare occasions have I met Italians who like their pasta overcooked. And because it’s such a commonplace expression, it’s by no means extraordinary. But here in America in recent decades, it became very fashionable to draw attention to the al dente cooking time for pasta. I don’t have any hard data on when it began to happen, but I can remember the time before the time when mainstream pasta producers began to indicate regular and al dente cooking times on the front of the box. To this day, pasta packaging in Italy simply reports the regular al dente cooking time or cottura (e.g., cottura 9 minuti or cooking time: 9 minutes).

No one really knows when al dente became a commonly used expression in Italy. There’s no doubt that it’s part of the culinary parlance today. But I haven’t been able to find any usage until the late 20th century.

Many food historians point to Ippolito Cavalcanti’s 19th-century recipe for “vermicelli with tomato” as one of the earliest instances of al dente cooking times (nota bene that Maestro Martino’s 15th-century cookbook mentions cooking time but he doesn’t indicate that the cooking time will deliver slightly undercooked pasta).

Cavalcanti, whose homecooking appendix to his Italian cookbook Cucina teorico-pratica is believed to be the first to be written in Neapolitan dialect, writes: “scauda doje rotola de vermicielli, e vierdi vierdi li levarraje…” Translation: “boil two nests of vermicelli and strain them while still very green” [Italics mine]. Most concur that this is among the first mentions of undercooked al dente pasta.

(In his own landmark 19th-century cookery book, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, Pellegrino Artusi included what would become one of Italy’s canonical recipes for “maccheroni alla napolitana” [Neapolitan pasta with tomatoes] but it doesn’t include a specific cooking time.)

An early mention of the use of the expression al dente popped up surprisingly in a British cookbook from the late 19th century by a writer named Julia Anne Elizabeth Tollemache. The wife of an English sportsman and politician, she focused primarily on biography throughout her career. But she also published what must have been a best-seller in its day, Mrs. Roundell’s Practical Cookery Book With Many Family Recipes Hitherto Unpublished (Bickers 1898).

She writes:

    It is difficult to say how long Macaroni should be cooked. Neapolitans think it more digestible when it is underdone, so that it is rather crisp when bitten, or, to use their own term, when it is al dente. As a rule Macaroni should be cooked in from twenty to thirty minutes. It should be tried with a fork; or a piece may be taken out, and if it is crisp and yet tender, and if it breaks with its own weight, the Macaroni is done. The over-cooking of Macaroni makes it into a soft, pappy mess, which no Macaroni lover could touch.

There’s a lot to unpack in that passage! But to my mind, the big takeaway is that the expression al dente must have already been in common usage in Naples at the time. As an upperclass Brit, she most likely did a “grand tour” of Italy in her youth. The fact that she refers to Neapolitans and their cooking seems to be an indication that she had visited Naples and perhaps even cooked in a Neapolitan kitchen or two during her visit or visits there.

She was active roughly a half a century after Cavalcanti published the first edition of his book. It’s plausible that al dente came into popular usage sometime between Cavalcanti and Roundell.

I still have a lot of research to do here and I suspect that there will be many fascinating layers to this onion (stay tuned).

But in the meantime, please translate al dente as underdone, [slightly] undercooked, or as Mrs. Roundell writes, “rather crisp when bitten.”

Nearly all of Italy on lockdown through Easter weekend.

Above: a view of the Po River Valley from Montorfano in Franciacorta in Brescia province (to the north of the region at the foot of the Orobic Alps, also known as the Bergamasque Alps, in Lombardy). Restaurants there have been closed for more than four weeks now. They will remain shuttered at least through Easter weekend. Image via the Arcari + Danesi winery.

As of this weekend, nearly all of Italy has been designated zona rossa or red zone. Residents in Campania, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Lombardy, Marche, Molise, Piedmont, Trento, Puglia, and Veneto can only leave their homes for work or emergencies; restaurants are closed for dine-in service and only a few essential businesses remain open.

The following regions have been designated zona arancione or orange zone: Abruzzo, Tuscany, Bolzano, Umbria, Calabria, Liguria, Sicily, Valle d’Aosta, and Basilicata. Residents have slightly more freedom of movement but restaurants remain closed for dine-in service.

Sardinia is the only region in Italy’s zona bianca or white zone. Residents there are restricted from any type of social gathering. But they can travel from township to another and restaurants are open.

The entire country will be designated a red zone for Easter weekend, a holiday when many Italians travel home to visit family in normal years.

According to the New York Times:

    Fewer than two million people in the country have been fully vaccinated so far, partly because of late deliveries from the pharmaceutical industries, but also because of logistical problems in some regions. Italy is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world: The coronavirus has killed more than 100,000 people there, and infected 3.2 million.

In places like Puglia in the south, the new lockdown comes as residents have been enjoying increased freedom of movement and dine-in service at lunchtime. In places like Lombardy, a region now experiencing its third surge in infections (and an epicenter of the first outbreak last year), residents have already been in red zone lockdown for four weeks.

The restaurant closures continue to strain the Italian wine trade, especially among smaller-scale growers who rely on independent restaurants for much of their sales. Those wineries also depend on tasting rooms (now closed) and wine tourism (practically non-existent) to keep their businesses solvent.

After more than a year of rolling lockdowns and restrictions, winemakers there are facing a perfect storm of financial challenges with no relief in sight. Restaurants are a key element in Italy’s social fabric: beyond the economic devastation, the psychological toll of the lockdowns is nearly impossible to overestimate.

Dalla Terra CEO/founder Brian Larky and I discuss the “State of the Italian Wine Trade,” Wednesday 3/17, 10 a.m. CST WEBINAR.

Please join me and Dalla Terra CEO and founder Brian Larky for our virtual discussion of the “State of the Italian Wine Trade” on Wednesday, March 17, 10 a.m. CST/8 a.m. PST.

Click here to register for the webinar.

The event is open to all.

The event is part of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South-Central’s Taste of Italy Virtual Trade Fair, which takes place here in Houston and throughout Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana with virtual tastings and meetings, March 15-19.

Click here to register for tastings.

Brian revolutionized the way Italian wine was imported and sold in the U.S. when he started his company Dalla Terra in 1989. Literally decades before anyone else envisioned an importing model that would save consumers money by working outside of the traditional three-tier system (importer-distributor-retailer/restaurateur), he began setting up regional distribution networks that allowed wineries to sell their wines directly to local vendors. Today, Dalla Terra brokers the sales of some of Italy’s most iconic wineries, including Vietti (Barolo), Casanova di Neri (Brunello di Montalcino), Adami (Prosecco), Selvapiana (Chianti), and so many more.

But he is also so much more: winemaker (he made sparkling wine at Ca’ del Bosco after finishing his degree in enology at U.C. Davis); pilot (shuttling between his home in Napa and his mom’s place in LA in his Cessna); and all-around great guy whose company and conversation I enjoyed wholly in the time before the pandemic and virtually over the last 12 months.

He’s got the right energy for this moment. Man, we need us some Brian Larky right now! And he’s going to share some of his time and insights with us next week. You don’t want to miss this. I hope you can join us. Everyone is welcome.