High Noon in Montalcino

Italians love westerns. At least, they used to. In the 1960s and 70s, the Italian film industry produced some of the wild west’s most enduring iconography.

A showdown of epic proportions is beginning to take shape in Montalcino, as the Brunello producers association braces for an October 27 “once-and-for-all” vote on whether or not appellation regulations will be changed to allow for the use of grapes other than Sangiovese. See this report that Franco and I published today at VinoWire.

The stakes got higher yesterday when 149 producers signed off on an open letter to separatist agricultural minister Luca Zaia and supporter of “more elastic” regulations informing him that they don’t want to change current legislation. My friend Alessandro Bindocci broke news of the letter over at his blog Montalcino Report.

Zaia recently began blogging, but before you add his feed to your Google reader, be sure to read this post by Italian Wine Guy.

Me? I’m glued to my seat and my keyboard. Stay tuned for high drama from Montalcino…

Wine & Spirits Top 100 San Francisco (and a handsome tie)

Leaving San Francisco today, heading back down south… Here’s a quick post from last night’s Wine & Spirits Magazine Top 100 tasting at the historic Mint building in San Francisco. Man, San Francisco, what a town!

Above, from left: Jeffrey Meisel of Domaine Select, me, Josh Greene editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits, and winemaker Aleš Kristančič of Movia. Franco’s daughter Valentina gave me that handsome tie after I helped her with some translating earlier this year.

Vesna Kristančič of Movia and Alder Yarrow, author of top wine blog Vinography.

Jon Erickson and Jayne Battle owners of Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego with Aleš. (I’ll post later this week on the dinner Jayne, Jon, and I had with Ceri Smith of Biondivino and winemaker Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole the night before at A16.)

Among the other great wines I tasted, I really enjoyed Chablis producer Domaine Laroche. The winery has begun bottling the majority of its wines with screw caps and I’ll post later this week on what owner Gwenael Laroche had to say about the cork vs. screw cap debate.

Stay tuned…

Donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi (observations on the Brunello debate part II)

Above: “harvesters” in a photo taken in Langa, date unknown, but I am guessing sometime between the two world wars (images courtesy Fontanafredda).

There’s a saying in Italian, donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Literally translated, it means women and oxen from your own village or [choose] women and oxen from your hometown.

Paesi tuoi is also the title of Cesare Pavese’s dark novel set against the rural backdrop of Langa (Piedmont)* in the years that preceded the second world war. The story centers around Berto and Talino, who travel to Talino’s village (paese in Italian) after they are released from prison. Berto falls in love with Talino’s sister Gisella. In a fit of jealous rage, Talino kills Gisella with a pitchfork. Her tragic death is a metaphor for the changing face of rural Italy during the country’s industrialization under fascism. Berto is a factory worker from a big city and his presence in the country seems to unleash an otherwise contained and tolerated depravity. He is repulsed by the atrocity he witnesses and flees. Pavese’s unforgiving realism is one of the greatest examples of 20th-century Italian (and European) narrative.

Renowned Italian enologist Ezio Rivella was born in Asti (in Langa) in 1933 and was 8 years old when Pavese’s novel was published in 1941 (it was translated as The Harvesters in 1961).

As Rivella and winemaker Teobaldo Cappellano sparred during the Brunello debate on Friday, October 6, Rivella repeatedly interrupted his interlocutor, admonishing him: “I knew your grandfather very well, Cappellano. And the wines he made were very different from the wines you make today.” Cappellano is one of Italy’s greatest defenders of traditionalist winemaking and is one of the founders of the Vini Veri or Real Wines movement. (Teobaldo doesn’t have a website, but Dressner did this solid profile in English.)

No one would deny that the traditions of winemaking in Italy have changed dramatically since the second world war and radically since the 1970s. Rivella pointed out that in Teobaldo’s grandfather’s day, Nebbiolo was regularly placed in the solaio or loft to “cook” the wine and accelerate its aging — a practice unimaginable today for those who produce fine wine.

“What is tradition and where does it begin?” asked moderator Dino Cutolo, a professor of agricultural anthropology, citing The Invention of Tradition by EJ Hobsbawm and TO Ranger (1983). In farming communities, tradition is shaped by necessity not by cultural self-awareness, Cutolo noted.

Countering Rivella’s claim that commerce should trump tradition in Brunello, Cappellano pointed out that the DOC system was put into place to protect not the winemakers but rather “the territory.” The spirit of the legislation was that of ensuring that artisanal winemakers would not be swept away by the Goliaths like Rivella’s Banfi. And he argued that “provincialism” in winemaking — viewed as a positive element, in opposition to globalization — is the very element that sets Italian wines apart from those produced elsewhere. “We shouldn’t make wines that everyone likes,” said Cappellano, “we need to make wines enjoyed by those who know the wines.”

As I watched the debate that Friday, I thought of how my friend Alice Feiring dealt with the concept of “tradition” in her excellent book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. “When I explored this New World wine vs. Old World another theme kept on coming up,” she writes, “and that was the confusion surrounding the word tradition. There were so many meanings. Who knew? Some … were able to use it as a weapon, as a synonym for poorly made wine, for wine that turned into vinegar. Now, what did traditional wine making mean to me? I wasn’t sure. I needed to find a new way to identify wines I liked. Perhaps I was using the word traditional when I meant ‘authentic.'”

We can debate the nature of tradition and authenticity until we’re blue in the face. But one thing is certain: the authenticity of place will disappear if Brunello appellation regulations are changed to allow for the blending of international grape varieties. The laws were created not to help Goliaths make money, but rather to ensure that the Davids would continue to express the authenticity of place.

Paesi tuoi… in the triangle of [mimetic] desire, industrial Banfi was the Berto, the “other” who upset the balance of rural life in Montalcino. In doing so, introduced the capitalist notion of progress (read greed) that has sullied the landscape of the once pristine Orcia River Valley where Brunello di Montalcino is made.

In other news…

Tracie B. told me not to bother watching the 60 Minutes advertorial devoted to the Antinori family last night. But I did enjoy Strappo’s post-game wrap-up. What happened to CBS hard-hitting journalism? Edward Murrow must be rolling over in his grave.

* Sometimes referred to has “the Langhe” or “the Langhe Hills,” Langa is home to Barolo and Barbaresco and is one of Italy’s greatest enogastronmic destinations.

A couple of posts worth reading…

David Schachter and I had our weekly powwow at Mozza last night, where we also tasted with general manager David Rosoff (above) — top sommelier and Italian wine guy in Los Angeles in my book. Man, I wish I could get my facial hair to look as good as his. He’s also a rocking drummer.

Today finds me simply too busy to keep posting my Brunello debate series and I promise to pick it up again on Friday.

In the meantime, check out this post by winemaker and wine blogger Craig Camp, who sets the record straight with James “Giacomino” Suckling. The 1997 and 2000 vintages in Piedmont (and Tuscany) are among the most overrated and misunderstood in this country (I mean, come on: is there such thing as a 100-point vintage?). Suckling should be commended, however, for keeping prices of 1999 and 2001 down. And Piedmont 1998? Drinking great right now.

Schachter brought a bottle of Il Cantante white, impossible to find in this country, and I have to say, one of the most impressive Sicilian whites I’ve ever tasted (made from Carricante, Minnella, Grecanico, and Moscato). Don’t let the rockstar label fool you: this is serious stuff.

I also liked Lyle Fass’ report “U.S. to bailout wine retailers.” Note his take on the 2000 Barolo and 2003 Brunello (both warm, atypical vintages).

We also drank a Conterno Cicala 1996 from Schachter’s cellar. I tasted this wine twice on release — once in NYC and later at the winery. I have to say that it did not show as well as I would have expected and the wood still dominated the wine unfortunately. This wine was touted by some — and they know who they are — to be one of the greatest releases of the decade. I’ve always enjoyed Aldo Conterno’s wines but at the end of the day, I think that traditionalism invariably trumps modernism, however muted that modernism may be (call me a passéist). But this post is about others’ rants, not mine! More on the Brunello debate on Friday…

Don’t Murder the Sangiovese: the Brunello debate, observations and reflections (part I)

Above: the Brunello debate panel included Banfi’s ex-director enologist Ezio Rivella (seated stage right), moderator Dino Cutolo, wine writer Franco Ziliani, and winemaker Teobaldo Cappellano.

In 1930, at the height of the “happy years” of fascism, the founder of the Italian Futurism movement and the father of the historical avant-garde Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his Manifesto della Cucina Futurista, in which he advocated “The abolition of pastasciutta, an absurd Italian gastronomic religion.” (The term pastasciutta means literally dried pasta.)

Today, it is hard to imagine that one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and one of the 20th century’s most dynamic figures (indeed, he who literally gave new meaning to the word dynamism) would lash out so violently against one of Italy’s greatest contributions to world cuisine and a sine qua non of its identity. Thankfully, neither the Futurists nor the fascists prevailed and today pastasciutta and freedom, however bridled by consumerism, continue to thrive in Western Europe.

As I watched the live streaming of the Brunello debate on Friday, I couldn’t help but think of Marinetti’s calls to abolish pasta and to “murder the moonshine” (uccidiamo il chiaro di luna! or let’s kill the claire de lune, 1909) when I heard one of Italy’s leading enologists, Ezio Rivella, say that “Sangiovese is a ‘lean’ grape with little color” and that the Italian wine industry would be better served by “using international grape varieties” and “making wines more international in style.”

“You don’t win a 100 points from the Wine Spectator,” said Rivella, “using just Sangiovese.”

At a certain point during the debate, moderator Dino Cutolo (professor of anthropology, University of Siena), pointed out that the calls for the abolition of Brunello as 100% Sangiovese were coming “from the right.” He quickly added, “not the political right, but from my right.” But his lapsus linguae wasn’t lost on the crowd and drew a chortle from the gallery, palpable even over the internet.

At the height of the heated exchange, when voices were raised and tempers flared, Rivella leveled his finger at Franco Ziliani: “how can we not change the appellation regulations and allow for the use of Merlot in Brunello, caro Lei, Ziliani?” (borrowing a vocative, dear sir, evocative of another era). In the light of the “enormous capital we have invested, we need to make wines for the international market.”

The bottom line: when Banfi, led by Rivella, came into the picture in the 1970s and launched a new era of industrial winemaking in Montalcino, it tried — politically and viticulturally — to impose a modern imprint and it expanded the appellation’s plantings to international grape varieties. The large, commercial producers of Brunello have lobbied twice unsuccessfully to change appellation regulations (allowing for blending of international grapes) from within the now defunct producers consortium. Their bid failed because within the consortium’s hierarchy, the vote of the smallest producer (think Delaware) carried the same weight as the majors (think California).

I’ll let the reader infer her/his own parallels or analogies from the above.

Tomorrow, Teobaldo and Franco’s response. Stay tuned…

di mamma ce n’è una sola…

Judy’s grandchildren Abner (Micah and Marguerite’s older boy) and Amalia (Tad and Diane’s youngest) took a break from Judy’s birthday celebration for very important discussions.

There’s a saying in Italian, di mamma ce n’è una sola…, there’s only one mother, in other words, you only have one mother… A few weeks ago, the Parzen family celebrated a special birthday for Judy, “our bridge over troubled water…”

Of course, I did a little wine tasting for the party, which was held in the park across from my mom’s building at the La Jolla Cove. This Saumur Rosé Corail, a sparkler made from Cabernet Franc, was the winner in my notes.

Brother Micah with long-time family friend Mr. Regan.

Long-time family friend Dr. Ugoretz and my mom’s colleague from her UCSD days, Mary. Dr. U’s really into wine and he seemed to dig the Truchard Cabernet Sauvignon that I poured him the other night at Jaynes.

Brother Tad, his father-in-law Saul, and the Golds, who live in my mom’s building. Mrs. Gold is my mom’s swimming partner.

Sister-in-law Diane and long-time family friend Theresa, one of my mom’s best friends.

Megan and I grew up together in our old neighborhood. Our families have been friends since we were children.

The weather was fantastic that day and everyone had a great time at the party. La Jolla never seemed more beautiful.

If you ever wonder where I learned how to do “jazz hands”… That’s me and Judy at Jaynes earlier this year celebrating my birthday.

Happy birthday, mom! Here’s a lil’ YouTubication for you…

A Higher Authority (Brunello needs one)

Above: I watched a live “streaming,” as they say in Italian, of the heated Brunello debate today in Siena. That’s moderator and anthropology prof Dino Cutolo (left), Franco (center), and Teobaldo Cappellano, producer of one my favorite Barolos.

Sparks flew and and tempers flared at the Brunello debate today in Siena. Fascist, capitalist pig Ezio Rivella and his crony and brown-noser Vittorio Fiore faced off with the forces of good: Franco Ziliani and Teobaldo Cappellano. I’ll post my observations and thoughts about the debate soon (I have other pressing issues to attend to today) but you can read my cut-and-dry report at VinoWire.

Does it show that I’m pissed?

The arrogance of Rivella was only rivaled by the colorful remarks by Fiore that “it is not as if we need to make Kosher wine. Israelis make Kosher wines but there are Jews who will pay 200 or 300 Euros for those wines. We don’t need to be so stringent in our winemaking,” he said.

I think that Brunello needs a higher authority. Remember the ad below?

The great Brunello debate and please keep Austin weird

Above: sopecitos at Fonda San Miguel, one of the many excellent Mexican restaurants in Austin, Texas.

Just a quick reminder: Franco and Ezio Rivella will face off tomorrow in the great Brunello debate in Siena, 3 p.m. local time. You can watch the debate live at http://www.vinarius.it/. I’ll be watching, of course, and will most certainly post about it here and at VinoWire. Franco will be presenting the case for Brunello di Montalcino to remain 100% Sangiovese while Rivella will argue that appellation regulations should be changed, allowing for other grapes to be used as well.

Above: Dale Watson did an awesome show at the Broken Spoke the other night in Austin.

In other news…

Tracie B. and me did us some more honky-tonkin in Austin this week. I’ve really been impressed by how Austin still has many family-owned and run music venues and restaurants. Especially coming from Southern California, where the landscape is dominated by fast food chains and strip malls, I’m happy to know that there is an America where folks are still keeping it real. Keep Austin Weird is a grass-roots movement that promotes general “weirdness,” as they put it.

I’ve been enjoying some of that weirdness and I really dug Dale Watson’s version of Pop a Top the other night at the Broken Spoke (my second-favorite honky tonk after Ginny’s Little Longhorn).

Pop a top again
I just got time for one more round
Sit em up my friends
Then I’ll be gone
Then you can let some other fool sit down

I’d like for you’d to listen to a joke I heard today
From a woman who said she was through and calmly walked away
I’d tried to smile and did a while it felt so outta place
Did you ever hear of a clown with tears drops streamming down his face.

Pop a top again
I think I’ll have another round
Sit em up my friend
Then I’ll be gone and you can let some other fool sit down.

Home for me is misery and here I am wasting time
Cause a row of fools on a row of stools is not what’s on my mind
But then you see her leaving me it’s not what I perfer
So it’s either here just drinking beer or at home remembering her.

Pop a top again
I think I’ll have another round
Sit em up my friend
Then I’ll be gone and you can let some other fool sit down
Pop a top again.

What to serve with home-smoked ribs in Austin TX? Produttori del Barbaresco, what else?

Above: what else would I pair with home-smoked ribs? 2004 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco (classico), of course. I’ve tasted this wine a number of times since I first tasted it in NYC at a Vias portfolio tasting with Alfonso, Alice, and winemaker Aldo Vacca early last year. Over the last few months, it’s been in what I call a “state of grace”: a period of sensational drinkability before it shuts down again for the long-term. The bottle we opened on Sunday night in Austin showed signs of tightening up again but was delicious nonetheless.

Italian wine bloggers — me, Tracie B., Alfonso, and Wolfgang — converged on Austin last weekend for the Austin City Limits music festival and some general honky-tonking.

My festival highlight was Erykah Badu: man, that lady is one bad-assed mother… (and I mean that on multiple levels: played an amazing show, rocked a great percussion solo on with her digi trigger, and how many months pregnant is she?). We watched her set with my friend, roomate, and licensing agent Michael Nieves. He and I raised a beer to toast the phat placement he did for our song Fille Atomique on Gossip Girl on Monday.

Alfonso, Tracie B., and I were the guests at the home of Misti and Nathan, Tracie B.’s good friends. Nathan smoked pork ribs — one rack with a spicy rub, one with a bbq sauce finish, and one plain. He began smoking them in the morning, keeping them at about 200° F. all day long, using chips from old whiskey barrels (Franco would agree with me that this would be an excellent use for barriques! Nathan said, however, he prefers pecan). Misti made steamed corn with jalapeño rounds and a great potato salad (with olive oil instead of mayonnaise). Lena and Dean were there, too. Nathan’s a pretty mean guitar player and so we traded some riffs and played Beatles and Bruce Springsteen into the night (on the ladies’ request).

Above: what do Italian wine bloggers drink when they get together? Mexican beer, of course! Wolfgang and Alfonso at Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin. I wasn’t sure about getting fish tacos in a land-locked taco joint so I went with the roast pork, which was very good, but the sides were just so-so. The salsa bar was excellent if meager and I love the way they serve the beer with small, old-school glasses, like the ones you find in Mexico.

Above: Tracie B. at Ginny’s Little Longhorn, my new all-time favorite honky tonk. The night we were there, the caliber of the playing just made me want to go sell my geetar at a pawn shop. Tracie B. moved back to Austin earlier this year from Ischia where she wrote her fantastic blog, My Life Italian, about Italian food and wine and the life of a Texana in Campania, Italy. She’s a little shy on camera but, man, that girl’s got the prettiest eyes this Italian wine blogger’s ever seen!

*****

Post scriptum

Strappo and Marco: we missed you at the Italian wine blogger summit, Austin, 2008 edition.