Montalcino on my mind

In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche wrote famously that “God is dead.”

In the year of my birth, 1967, Roland Barthes informed us that the author was dead.

Sometime in the 1970s, and I can’t seem to track down where or when exactly, Woody Allen told us that Marx is dead and “I’m not feeling so well myself.” (And he wasn’t talking about Karl.)

The other day, Italian Wine Guy shared his feeling that “Brunello is dead.”

I don’t think that Brunello is dead but I do share Italian Wine Guy’s sentiment that the so-called “scandal” is more about the scandal itself rather than the quality of wines produced there.

During the five days I spent last week between Montalcino and Bolgheri, I talked to countless winemakers, growers, restaurateurs, enologists, and agronomists and I tried to get to the bottom of what has happened and what we can expect over the next few months as the Brunello controversy hopefully plays itself out.

The most insightful observation on Brunello and Sangiovese was offered by a winemaker who worked for many years in Montalcino and who now works in Bolgheri.

“Sangiovese is a very easy grape to sell,” he told me, “but it’s very difficult to grow for the production of fine wine.”

No matter who you talk to, there is one thing that everyone agrees on: as the Brunello “trademark” grew in popularity and in profitability, Montalcino wineries began planting Sangiovese in vineyards not suited to its cultivation.

No matter who you talk to (even though none will go on record), everyone who works in Montalcino will tell you that it was common knowledge: Merlot has been widely planted and used in the production of Brunello for years and bulk wine has regularly been carted into the appellation to top off the wines.

“When the tankers come in to Montalcino, you can see their axels are weighted down,” one winemaker told me. “When they leave, you can see that they’re empty.” This was the same song sung by everyone — from winemakers and consultants, to restaurateurs and hoteliers.

No one seems to have hard data, but all agree that far less than 1 million bottles of Brunello were produced annually in the 1970s. Today, roughly 14 million are produced: according to people “on the ground,” there is simply not enough acreage under vine to produce that much wine. And of that surface area, conventional wisdom reveals that the majority is not suited for the cultivation of Sangiovese to be used in fine wine.

Follow the money… Put all of these factors together and one thing becomes clear: the large expansion-team producers (and maybe a few of the original league) over-planted and promised the American market abundantly flowing Brunello. As a result, they needed to cut corners in order to make ends meet. Twice, I learned, the majors have lobbied to change appellation regulations and allow for the use of international grapes. Twice a vote was called but a majority never reached in the Consortium because the votes of even the smallest producers carry the same weight as the biggies (Delawares to their Californias). Certain smaller producers, probably egged on by point-hungry flying winemakers, blindly followed the advice of their consultants.

But there’s something even more important, that nearly everyone agrees on (except those implicated in the controversy): of the more than 250 Brunello producers who belong to the Consortium, only a handful have indulged in such practices.

But I’m probably not telling you anything that you don’t know… Here are some insights I gleaned that might surprise you.

— While the use of Merlot was a well-known fact in Montalcino, the magistrate’s inquiry had more to do with sloppy documentation than reckless blending.

— In the case of at least one of the majors implicated in the controversy, the use of Merlot was never at issue. It was simply a question of mislabeling in the winery and a disallowed assemblage of different vintages.

— The “100% Sangiovese” certificates are being issued by the Italian government. The certificates, however, are not based on testing for the presence of certain flavonoids in the wine but rather on documentation in the wineries. The wines themselves are not being tested.

— The certificates are being issued regularly to those wineries who have kept their houses in order, so to speak. But the government has reserved the right not to issue the certificate in certain instances and the wineries have no reasonable recourse in such cases. In other words, even if your certificate gets held up for bureaucratic reasons, you’re screwed. Not everyone is going to get one.

— At least one winemaker told me that he’s not sending his current release to the U.S. He was concerned that the current controversy could taint the reputation of his wine and has decided to focus on other markets. Could it be that the real loser in the Brunello controversy is the American consumer?

Epilogue

Whenever people ask me “how do you tell if a wine is good?”, I tell them: “if you like it, it’s good,” whether traditional Brunello (my preference) or buttery Chardonnay (clearly not my preference). If you like modern-style Brunello, then go for it. If you like traditional-style, look for clear bright color in the wine and good acidity. I agree with Italian Wine Guy: too much fuss has been made about Brunello. Drink what you like…

Now, more than ever, Brunello and the folks who live in Montalcino — and especially the honest producers of Brunello, traditional and modernist alike — need our support. As summer comes to an end, get out that BBQ one more time, grill up a mean piece of meat, and decant that Sangiovese.

My friend Alessandro Bindocci is posting nearly every day about the harvest at Il Poggione in Montalcino over at his blog Montalcino Report. Check it out… It’s pretty cool.

In other other news…

I DON’T LIKE IKE!

La dolce vita, after all

Above: a pensive moment at dusk outside La Pineta, a fantastic seafood restaurant where I dined with Cinzia Merli and Luca d’Attoma last week, in Marina di Bibbona, on the Tuscan coast (photo by Ben Shapiro).

Strappo is sure to remind me that Fellini’s labyrinth of semiosis often led him to revise his explanations of signifier and signified in his films. But I believe the great Romagnolo director was telling the truth when he said that the expression la dolce vita referred not to the glamour of the Via Veneto but rather the sweetness that we find in life, even in our darkest moments of existential crisis.

[SPOILER: if you’ve not seen La dolce vita, I am about to reveal the final sequence!]

As Ben and I were waiting to meet our dining companions, Cinzia and Luca, the other night at La Pineta in Marina di Bibbona on the Tuscan riviera, I took a stroll alone and gazed out at the sea in one of those “what’s it all about, Alfie?” moments.

Just over a year ago, my life fell into turmoil when my mid-life crisis hit me like a freight train and I wished that I had gone straight but was side-swiped by a simple twist of fate. Today, I find myself in the Munich airport, on my way back to the States, exhausted but invigorated, excited about music and work, thankful to have so many wonderful folks in my life — some of them my oldest friends, some of them my newest.

Marcello turns his back on Paola, the young girl he met one day in a seaside trattoria. But before he returns to the party, he looks back and sees her irresistible smile — sweetness in his otherwise bankrupt existence. Maybe it’s the sweetness in a young girl’s smile, a plate of wholesome pici with ragù, a bunch of Greens dancing to Nous Non Plus in a forgotten border town along the Polish-East German border, or maybe it’s the waters of March. I believe there is a sweetness in life, to be revealed when you least expect it.

You don’t need to speak Italian to enjoy the clip below. Marcello has been partying all night with a lascivious crowd and the revelers find their way to the beach shortly after dawn…

In other news…

Yes, you can now add R.D. to my post-nomial Ph.D.: I was recently ordained as a Rock Doctor in the Universal Life Church and I’ll be officiating at the wedding of Jayne and Jon next Saturday.

*****

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
then I guess it’s wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,
what will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
and you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.

— Hal David and Burt Bacharach

A Roman sine qua non: la pajata

No stay in Rome is complete without a serving of rigatoni con la pajata: rigatoni tossed in a tomato sauce made with the small intestines of an unweaned calf, in other words, a calf that has been fed exclusively with its mother’s milk (today, in the post-mad-cow world, it is made with lamb intestines, as in the photo above). When the animal is slaughtered, the intestines are tied at either end. As the intestines cook, the rennet in the walls of the organ coagulates the milk and makes cheese. The resulting sauce has an inimitable creamy consistency… simply delicious. Last night at Perilli in Testaccio, I paired with a 1999 Taurasi Radici, which was showing beautifully. Ben had taglioni cacio e pepe and the owner also gave us some carbonara, which he makes with rigatoni instead of long noodles.

Running to catch my plane back to Berlin but wanted also to share this image of a 1992 Gambero Rosso Guide to the Wines of Italy being recycled, snapped in Testaccio. It’s good to know that the guide is being put to good use.

In other news…

The father of Brunello di Montalcino, Franco Biondi-Santi, has proposed a change in the Rosso di Montalcino DOC that would allow for other grapes besides Sangiovese. Read about it here.

Viva gli sposi!

Above: there was a wedding last night in the agriturismo where we stayed in Nigoline near Erbusco (province of Brescia). Newlyweds Sabrina and Emanuel partied long into the night. They seemed like really nice folks and didn’t mind a bit that I got in on the fun. Viva gli sposi! That’s Italian for mazel tov!

Believe it or not, one of the best places to get online in Italy is the Autogrill, the ubiquitous and beloved highway rest stop where the sandwiches are reliably good and the tchothckes abundant. (Does anyone remember Gregoretti’s contribution to the 1962 film RoGoPaG, “Il pollo ruspante”? It’s a wonderful Marxist study of the Autogrill phenomenon in economic-miracle Italy.)

Ben and I are on our way down to Rome and I’m posting today from an Autogrill.

Yesterday, Franco and I tasted some fantastic Franciacorta together.

So much to post and so much to tell… Stay tuned…

Hang time

Look at those babies hang! There was a scirocco yesterday in Bolgheri and a hot wind blew from the south. While some wineries had begun to pick their Merlot, these berries still hung on the vine in Ornellaia’s famed Masseto vineyard.

Ben and I are headed up and over to Lombardy today to meet Franco. Still can’t get properly online but was determined to post nonetheless.

Stay tuned…

It don’t get more natural than this

Above: Patrizia and Dora of Sanguineto, producers of a natural, traditional-style Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

I’m posting today from Bolgheri, where I’m visiting a few wineries. I can’t get online but for a minute: no wifi or other connection, just a shared computer at the hotel’s front desk. But I wanted to share these pics snapped day-before-yesterday at the Sanguineto winery in Acquaviva (Montepulciano). Ben and I had a blast tasting with the girls and their wines are fantastic.

More later…

Say it ain’t so: reporter claims that Banfi’s 03 Brunello contains grapes other than Sangiovese

Above: “no hunting allowed.” Photo courtesy VinoalVino.

Ne nuntium necare. I’m really sorry to report that, according to at least one Italian news service, Banfi’s 03 Brunello contains grapes other than Sangiovese. Read our post at VinoWire and for those of you who speak Italian, read Franco’s post.

I’m in Montalcino as I write this and I am speechless. Non ho parole. This sucks.

Italy day 2: desperately seeking Sangiovese

Above: in my book, penne should be rigate di rigore (obligatorily ridged as opposed to smooth). Otherwise, the pasta doesn’t absorb the sauce properly. Yesterday at Il Poggione in Sant’Angelo in Colle (Montalcino), we were served penne from Gragnano dressed with a rich ragù.

Yesterday, My Life Italian wrote a post about that “epiphany” wine where it all got started. Wine, she wrote, is a “stained-glass window to the world, a way to touch another culture… a way to travel that is much more visceral than vicarious.” The post got me thinking about my own “epiphany” wine.

Above: lunch began with classic Tuscan antipasti — prosciutto toscano, salame, chicken liver and spleen crostini, and a slice of saltless Tuscan bread drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.

It was nearly twenty years ago that I first came to Montalcino, to stay in my friend and composer Michael Convertino’s apartment in Bagno Vignoni, a small village in the south of the township, where a Roman hot springs bath still dominates the main piazza. I became friends with Riccardo Marcucci and his brothers Leonardo and Andrea. Riccardo ran the wine program at his family’s hotel and he took it upon himself to teach me about Tuscany’s grand winemaking traditions. It sounds unbelievable now but every night we opened bottles of Sassicaia, Solaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello, Pergole Torte, and every other Bordeaux-inspired wine under the Tuscan sun. The year was 1989, the Super Tuscan craze had not yet begun in the U.S., and the wines didn’t command the prices they do today.

Above: next came stewed wild boar and beans. Not very photogenic but delicious.

But my “stained-glass window” wine was the wine their father Augusto used to make. 100% Sangiovese vinified in a natural style (natural yeasts and no temperature control) and aged in large old oak casks. I’ll never forget the night (it was 1994 by then) that my then band was invited to dine at Augusto’s home on the hill above the village. We ate fried wild boar liver (from road-kill boar that Augusto had collected and frozen), drank Sangiovese, smoked and told jokes late into the night. Augusto couldn’t understand a word we were saying but he laughed and clowned with us all through the evening. We played a show the next night in the town piazza.

Above: the stars of lunch were a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva and an 18-month pecorino. What a fantastic pairing. We tasted the ’97 side-by-side with the 2003. Both vintages were warmer than usual in Montalcino. The 2003 is still very tight and will need many years in bottle to come around. The ’97 was showing beautifully. It will be great to come back to the ’03 in 5-10 years or so.

The same way a junkie seeks forever to recreate that same first high… I’ve been looking for the flavors and aromas of Augusto’s Sangiovese since that day.

Epilogue: in May, Eric le Rouge and I had a chance to taste Il Poggione going back to the 1970s. I’ll do a post on our tasting when I get back Stateside.

Italy day 1: Trattoria Il Pozzo, one of my all-time favs

Above: twilight in the Val d’Orcia (Orcia River Valley) is stunning. The sun was setting as my friend Ben and I arrived yesterday evening.

Whenever I come to Montalcino, Trattoria Il Pozzo in Sant’Angelo in Colle is at the top of my list. It’s one of the few classic trattorie that has remained unchanged since I first came here nearly twenty years ago. The cuisine is traditional Val d’Orcia fare, no frills and no fuss. And while the arista di maiale (the roast rack of pork loin) is excellent at Il Pozzo, one of the highlights of any trip to Montalcino is always the restaurant’s fiorentina, the Tuscan porterhouse (made from gigantic Chianina cows slaughtered young).

My dinner at Il Pozzo always begins with an assortment of crostini: chicken liver and spleen, tomato, and caramelized onions.

Pinci or pici are traditional hand-rolled long noodles, made with just flour, salt, and water. I like mine with ragù.

Ben had his with mushrooms. Also very good…

We had our choice of steaks: I would have liked to order the large one with the tenderloin, but in my book it’s the striploin that counts (more flavorful) and I didn’t want to overdo it on my first night in Montalcino.

Now that’s one MEAN PIECE OF STEAK!!! I’ve been to Il Pozzo with winemakers in the past and the ladies who own and run it are always cool about bringing your own wine. But last night we just did a simple old-school, food-friendly “locally produced” Sangiovese.

Trattoria Il Pozzo
Piazza del pozzo, 2
Sant’Angelo in Colle
53024 – Montalcino (SI) Italia
Tel. 0577.844015
closed Tuesdays

****

I am currently blogging from Le Logge, a classic Montalcino mainstay, and the ONLY place I can find to get online in this town!

I can’t find a listing on Google for Le Logge (man, this place is old school, but how cool is that, that they have free wifi? Some German girl at an enoteca down the road overheard me asking about internet and hipped me to it. There’s no sign or anything.).

So I’m just reading the address from the street: 1 Via Giacomo Matteotti.

That’s 2005 Canalicchio di Sopra in my glass. I think that Canalicchio may have declassified some of its Brunello in 05 (a warm vintage) and this wine is drinking really well right now.

Bees in Berlin

Above: Céline Dijon (Verena Wiesendanger) and Bonnie Day (Emily Welsch) had so much fun dancing the night before in Frankfurt an der Oder that they had to recreate their dance moves the next morning on the train back to Berlin.

Sunday, Nous Non Plus took the train back to Berlin where I spent the afternoon and evening with my childhood friend Noah Isenberg, who’s on sabbatical in Berlin this year (he’s a professor of German), his wife Melanie Rehak, and their gregarious son Jules. The four of us had a leisurely stroll in their neighborhood in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, ate a sandwich and drank a Radeburger, and hung out at their favorite playground, or spielplatz as Jules likes to say.

Above: there are so many bees in Berlin at the end of the summer that shopkeepers have no choice but let them have the run of the place.

Noah’s guide to Weimar cinema is to be released later this year and Melanie has just completed a book on a favorite restaurant of hers in Brooklyn (the name of which I cannot reveal! to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

After Jules was put to bed, we stayed up late, talking and talking and sipping a nice, very food-friendly Zweigelt, which weighed in at 13% alcohol and paired well with a much-needed, simple and wholesome repast of roast chicken, potatoes, and cauliflower.

Today, I leave for Montalcino… stay tuned…

Above: Radeburger and a cheese sandwich really hit the spot on a lazy summer afternoon in Berlin.

Above: people are really into vintage scooters in Berlin.

Above: Jules really loves this über-cool pirate ship in his favorite spielplatz.