Above: the architects of Italian unification (1861). To the far left, Count Camillo Cavour, Italy’s first prime minister, a winemaker (Piedmont). To the far right, Baron Betting Ricasoli, Italy’s second prime minister, a winemaker (Tuscany). In the center, unified Italy’s first king, Vittorio Emanuele II, a winemaker (Piedmont). Ricasoli’s estate Brolio and Vittorio Emanuele’s Fontanafredda still produce wine today.
A wine writer whom I admire greatly (and who happens to work in the editorial office of the Wine Spectator) wrote me today to express his dismay (warranted) with the recent back-and-forth between VinoWire (which I co-edit with my friend Franco Ziliani) and Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews. (I translated and posted Franco’s most recent entry today).
I can understand his position. After all, we are wine writers, not ideologues. My colleague is right to point out that our debate and discussion should be carried out in a spirit of collegiality and good faith. But I also feel that it is difficult for Americans (in general, not him specifically) to understand how our lists and rankings offend Italian winemakers and Italians in general. Italy was born as a “wine nation” and wine is woven indelibly into its national identity.
Italy’s founding fathers (above) envisioned wine and indigenous grape varieties as an integral part of the nascent Italian economy (remember: beyond its value as a luxury product, wine was considered a food stuff).
One of the reasons why Piedmontese winemakers grow Nebbiolo today is that Italy’s first prime minister, Count Camillo Cavour (1810-1861), recognized its potential in fine winemaking.
The primary reason why Tuscan winemakers grow Sangiovese is that Italy’s second prime minister, Baron Bettino Ricasoli (1809-1880), wrote extensively and prolifically on the virtues of Sangiovese married with Tuscany’s terroir and he boldly replanted his estate — where he had grown a wide range of French grapes — with Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Malvasia.
Americans do not feel the same connection to wine that the Italians (and French) do. Winemaking was born in this country as a luxury industry and the tastes of our opinion leaders (Robert Parker and James Suckling foremost among them) have been shaped by a youthful winemaking tradition that favors opulence and power over balance and nuance. There’s no doubt about this. Imagine what it feels like to be an Italian and to read that one of your country’s greatest wines (Case Basse) receives pitiful scores (and even in its top vintages!) while a young Brunello producer (owned by one of Italy’s largest commercial winemaking groups) received the coveted 90+.
In the spirit of healthy debate, I encourage you to take a look at the comments at VinoWire to get a sense of the offense perceived by some of our readers in Italy.