More Critical Wine (and Guest Blogger)

Following my post on La Terra Trema the other day, a number of friends and fellow bloggers have written me and shared their experiences.

Top blogger and good friend Alice Feiring sent me the below pic of a poster for Critical Wine that she saw on her way to the Vini Veri fair in 2006.

Above: “Rebellious Land and Critical Wine.” Alice took this photo of the Skinny Food Writer on their way to Villa Matterana (click the image to read her post on Vini Veri).

My friend Wolgang Weber also weighed in with a piece he wrote on Critical Wine for the April 2007 issue of Wine and Spirits. The piece wasn’t available online and so I’ve cut and paste below:

Terra e libertà/Critical wine

by Wolfgang M. Weber

My friend’s Vespa was parked at the end of a long street near a pile of scooters forced up against a crumbly brick wall covered in graffiti. I pulled my scooter in as well and walked over to an entryway in the wall that opened on to a worn path. The massive stone bulwarks of the 18th century Forte Prenestino spread out before me, and there was a large red banner with Terra e libertà/Critical wine stitched in white cloth over a black pitchfork. This was a wine tasting?

Forte Prenestino is a centro sociale, most commonly a large abandoned structure like a train station, factory, or, as in the case of the Forte, a former military structure, that has been taken over by squatters who often make creative use of the space. The Italian government turns a blind eye if the squat is used to host public concerts, film screenings or lectures; add public wine tastings to that list now that Critical Wine is on the scene.

Critical Wine aims to raise awareness of the potential ills of globalization—industrial agriculture and food production, environmental concerns, GMOs, international economic inequality—through public wine “happenings” where they bring together artisan wine producers from up and down Italy. Most notable, perhaps, is the insistence that participating wine producers work with indigenous grape varieties, practice organic or sustainable viticulture and show wines that exhibit some sense of their particular territorio. A sign displayed on the wall behind the producers from Basilicata read “Autoctono [indigenous]; No barrique; No cabernet; No merlot; No syrah.”

The organization originally formed in Milan with the help of Italian gastronome/intellectual Luigi Veronelli (who died in 2004), and staged its first wine event at Verona’s La Chimica centro sociali concurrent with Vinitaly in April of 2003. Similar events have since taken place in many of Italy’s major cities, attracting large numbers of Italians from all walks of life. Critical Wine returns again this year to Verona from April 3–4.

Slow Food International, also an Italian organization, is similar to Critical Wine insofar as it aims to protect and promote smaller, regional food and wine artisans against a rising tide of internationalized tastes and global production. Critical Wine, however, is probably better described as a collective promoting worldwide social change through a focus on mankind’s relationship to food and wine.

That’s a lofty goal for any organization, let alone one built around staging wine tastings with a quasi-socialist bent. But then the cultivation and consumption of wine and food in western culture has always had powerful connotations. Whether it’s the relationship between a grower/winemaker and the plot of earth he tends, or a group of people coming together at table to share a meal, wine and food possess the ability to inspire a reflection beyond the narrow parameters of everyday life. Can that save the world? Who knows, but it’s worth trying.

Veronelli in the Air

There have been a couple of truly interesting posts about Luigi Veronelli in the last few days, including this one by Alan Toner, who points out — rightly — that Veronelli’s legacy stretches far beyond his interest in barrique. Alan renders a genuinely compelling account of his life (including Veronelli’s 1957 incarceration “for having translated and published Historiettes, contes et fabliaux by the Marquis De Sade, defined as an ‘obscene publication’ and publicly burnt in Varese”).

Franco Ziliani also did this post (in Italian) inspired by recent remembrances of Veronelli and his “oenoic utopia.”

Se hace la boca agua a la Boqueria

Above: couldn’t resist the Viña Bosconia 1999 by López de Heredia at Boqueria.

Monday evening found me with my long-time friend Bret Scott at Boqueria, a great and wine and tapas bar on 19th st. named after the Mercado de la Boqueria in Barcelona (don’t forget to aspirate that “c” in Barcelona!).

Bret owns and runs an entertainment agency specialized in spoken word and dance, Global Talent Associates, and he used to book my band back in the day.

Bret’s traveled more extensively in Spain than I have and we both agreed that Boqueria gets it right. I had some tostadas topped with tuna and Bret had a slice of tortilla española (also called a tortilla de patatas), a traditional Spanish potato omelet.

The Viña Bosconia 1999 by López de Heredia was great although a little meatier than the house’s typical light style. I guess its ripeness was due to its youth and possibly the vintage. We both enjoyed it thoroughly (it was reasonably priced) and will definitely return to boqueria.

Above: Jamón Serrano hangs in the shop window at Boqueria.

Rich Man, Poor Man

Above: hot dogs from Katz Delicatessen and Barbaresco.

I’m a man of means by no means.
— Roger Miller

This summer’s mid-life crisis has rolled over into fall: it’s snowing in New York, I’m broke, soon-to-be unemployed, living out of a suitcase, sleeping on a futon on my buddy’s living room floor, and I’ve got a lot of good wine that needs to be drunk because I have nowhere to store it (since I became homeless back in August).

Money’s tight and so Friday night I picked up hot dogs from Katz Delicatessen on the Lower East Side and met up with a few wine buddies to open some bottles.

A 1999 Rabajà by Produttori del Barbaresco was “cooked” or maderized (a term derived from the Portuguese island Madeira where they make a fortified wine). When I pulled the cork, I could feel that it was brittle and dried out. This can often mean that some oxygen seeped it into the bottle and caused the wine to age rapidly. While it was drinkable, it was indeed oxidized, had a syrupy texture and brownish color (reminiscent of a fortified wine, hence the term, maderized). Good (unoaked) Nebbiolo should always be clear in color. Opacity and color are always the first indication of a wine’s quality (N.B.: color and opacity vary depending grape variety and winemaking style).

A Produttori 1996 Pajé was fantastic and drank beautifully. The last glass had tartrates in it (see above): tartrates — sometimes called “wine diamonds” — are tasteless, odorless tartaric crystals that can form on the inside of traditional old oak barrels. Many mistake them for sediment. They impart no flavor to the wine and are actually a good sign (in my book): when you see tartrates, you are likely drinking a wine that was made in traditional, large oak casks.

Barbaresco and hot dogs? Rich man, poor man — depending on how you look at it.

Anarchist Wine

Above: “The Earth Trembles… Authentic Wines and Winemakers, Peri-Urban Farmers, and Autonomous Gastronomy,” an alternative wine and food conference held late last month at the historic “centro sociale” Leoncavallo in Milan. Themes included “self-certification” and “source pricing.” Note the symbolism in the battle between spears and shopping carts.

Is there anything more romantic than the Grand Tour of Italy? Piazza San Marco, the canals and vedutista paintings of Venice? The Uffizi galleries and the Basilica di Santa Maria in Fiore of Florence (although I am partial to the Fra Angelico frescoes in the convent at San Marco and the Laurentian library)? The Vatican, the Coliseum, the Borghese Gardens, the Spanish Steps of Rome? And, of course, who can forget that little trattoria where you had the “best meal of your life”?

Dig a little deeper and you may discover an Italy beyond its famous hospitality and its ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and Risorgimento treasures.

Since the early post-war era, Italy has also been the backdrop of ideological, political, and economic strife that has often expressed itself in extreme and — sometimes — violent manifestations. From the gun-slinging “lead years” of the 1970s (which culminated in the Aldo Moro kidnapping and assassination) to a legacy of organized crime that stretches from the southernmost tip of Sicily to the Dolomite Alps, from the indiscretions and excesses of the historic Christian Democrat and Socialist parties to the “continuous struggle” of the only politically relevant Communist Party outside of the ex-Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, from the “economic miracle” of the 1960s to a current-day negative birthrate and the 30- and 40-somethings who still live at home because of economic hardship in one of the western world’s most prosperous countries… Italy continues to represent one of Europe’s greatest paradoxes.

While we often read about Italy’s “trasformismo” (transformism) governmental system, its ever-changing coalitions, and colorful politicans, we rarely hear about the country’s underground movements of autonomi, off-the-grid individuals who seek to live their lives unfettered by Italy’s unbridled consumerism and bourgeois values.

Late last month, one such group of “autonomous” farmers and winemakers held a food and wine conference entitled La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles) at Milan’s historic Leoncavallo, a centro sociale commandeered in the 1970s by “autonomous” citizens who demanded better social services for the community. All kinds of conferences and rock concerts are held there and the venue — I know from personal experience — is hemp-friendly. (I found this article on “anarchist” culture in modern-day Italy.)

I’ve taken the liberty of translating the following passage from the manifesto posted on La Terra Trema’s website:

La Terra Trema [The Earth Trembles] tells the story of gastronomy conceived as cultural action: the act of cooking as the practical fulfillment of free, commonly shared knowledge and not the instrument of the restaurant industry’s technicist, professional insinuations. It is in the kitchen (including and above all in everyday cooking) that we may discern a thousand traces of the ages: the contamination and nomadism of food and people, economic and social shifts, changes in the land, alienations, the qualities and rhythms of our work, and the countless deviations/depravations of mass-media flavors.” (N.B.: my translation reflects the rigid pseudo-Marxist style of the original.)

Among the themes discussed at the conference, supporters of “self-certification” proposed that every winemaker, “beyond that which is prescribed by law…, has the right and duty indicate the origin of the raw materials, their classification, and the methods of transformation, conservation, and packaging.”

Producers, they argue, should not be bound by appellation laws and the restrictions of market hegemony. There is more than a grain of truth to the notion that small producers’ market access is limited by Italy’s often bureaucratically and politically driven DOC (appellation) system and the market’s inherent tendency to favor mass-marketed wines.

Another theme was “prezzo sorgente” or “source pricing”: proponents argue that consumers have the right to buy wine at the producer’s price.

I didn’t attend the conference. My account is drawn from the conference website and other bloggers’ previews, like this one by Franco Ziliani, who fairly and even-handedly points out some of the organizers’ shortcomings and linguistic foibles,* and reviews, like this one by kNOw Future Inc., who doesn’t address the conference’s ideological implications at all (last year, however, the same blogger wrote this succinct description of the “Critical Wine” movement in Italy).

But I applaud the organizers’ spirit: it’s important, I believe, to remember that wine — like any commodity — will always be politicized and ideologized. In our increasingly globalized world, we need voices who zealously oppose the complacently embraced hegemony of mass-marketed wines.

* Ziliani points out rightly the weakness of conference’s English subtitle, “Critical Wine,” borrowed from the “Terra e libertà/Critical wine” (Land and Liberty/Critical Wine) movement co-founded a few years ago by the great Italian food and wine writer Luigi Veronelli.