A quixotic appeal to Brunello producers must not go unheard

One of Italy’s greatest and most polemical wine writers, Franco Ziliani is first and foremost a friend. He is also a mentor and a partner: together we edit the Italian wine world news blog, VinoWire. He was one of the first to encourage me to expand my own blog and the often self-deprecating honesty of his writing has always inspired me to examine my own perceptions of wine and wine writing. I like to call Franco the Giuseppe Baretti and Aretino of Italian wine writing today. That’s Franco and me, outside the Vini Veri tasting in April in Isola della Scala.

Today, Franco has posted an appeal to the director and president of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (the Brunello Producers Association), demanding they step down in the wake of the Italian Treasury Department’s findings that members of the consortium have “cheated in commercial transactions” (the culmination of “Operazione Mixed Wine,” an investigation launched by Italian officials in September 2007). In lieu of their resignation, he is calling on the consortium’s estimated 250 members (the consortium does not publish an official number of members) to leave the body.

It is a quixotic appeal, no doubt, but a voice that must not go unheard.

The other day, I was dismayed to read a pusillanimously anonymous comment on Alfonso Cevola’s post on recent developments in Montalcino. “Italians love their ‘crisi,'” wrote the would-be pundit, who identified himself solely as Scott, “and it was wine’s turn after calcio [football] had the headlines for a while. As with all things Italian, life goes on and things work themselves out.”

This sort of stereotypical reductive attitude is entirely inappropriate and frankly offensive in this case. And it was authored by someone who doesn’t read beyond the sports page.

What happened in Montalcino is a tragedy and the omertà — the screaming silence — that followed is doubly tragic. Just go ask the many folks there — old and young (and I have asked them personally) — who have fought vigorously if not always successfully to protect the traditions of their land against the evils of globalization.

In other news…

Some good news has arrived from Montalcino today, in the form of a post by my friend Alessandro Bindocci who reports that the Regione Toscana has approved legislation lowering the maximum yields allowed for Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino.

Lacan, Petrarch, Nietzsche, Fiorano, and hieroglyphic wine

Above: I love this image of the 1994 Malvasia by Fiorano, snapped by Tracie B in her apartment the other day. It’s a quasi-film-noir take on a hard-to-wrap-your-mind-around wine. One of the things that intrigues us about wine is its mystery: who made it and how and why? A glass of wine can be like Lacan’s hieroglyphs in the dessert.

Twentieth-century linguist, semiotician, and father of late-blooming French psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan famously asked his readers to consider how they would react in the following situation (perhaps a great premise for an ersatz reality show?):

    Suppose that in the desert you find a stone covered with hieroglyphics. You do not doubt for a moment that, behind them, there was a subject who wrote them. But it is an error to believe that each signifier is addressed to you — this is proved by the fact you cannot understand any of it. On the other hand, you define them as signifiers, by the fact that you are sure that each of the signifiers is related to each of the others.

(This passage is often cited in explaining Lacan’s theory of the “precedence of the signifier,” in other words, the notion that the word or symbol or sign always exists before meaning does.)

In some ways, protohumanist Francis Petrarch said the same thing when he wrote that as a young man, he could read Roman orator Cicero’s writing and he was enchanted by the words, their sounds, and their elegance, even though he could not (yet) understand what they meant.

Above: Tracie B’s contribution to our dinner Saturday at Italian Wine Guy’s was her excellent carbonara. It paired stunningly with the vibrant 92 Fiorano Semillon. Carbonara is another example of a trace of the past that has lost its meaning. No one knows for sure the origins of the dish or they etymon of its name.

As with literature and writing (even writing on the wall), we sometimes assign meaning to things not because we know the meaning intended by their authors or creators but because we simply come into contact with them. Nietzsche wrote about this in The Twilight of the Idols as “the error of imaginary causes,” as in dreams, when, for example, external stimulus (like a canon shot, as Nietzsche put it, or perhaps the song playing on a radio alarm clock) enters our subconscious:

    The ideas engendered by a certain condition have been misunderstood as the cause of that condition. We do just the same thing, in fact, when we are awake.

What do any of these things have to do with one another, beyond me stringing together a seemingly arbitrarily compiled handlist of philosophical and epistemological musings?

Every wine wine we approach and draw to our lips is a mystery, a riddle of the Sphinx. Every glass of wine is Lacan’s desert hieroglyph, Petrarch’s Cicero, and Nietzsche’s waking dream — ay, there’s the rub… And so were the three bottles of Fiorano white that Tracie B and I opened with Italian Wine Guy over the weekend as our birthday gift to him (and a thank you for all that he’s done for both of us, professionally and personally, over the last two years).

Above: Deciphering Fiorano through the prism of Italian Wine Guy aka Alfonso’s superb stemware, paired with his take on petto di pollo alla milanese. Photo by Tracie B.

A great deal has been written about the fascinating wines of Fiorano (Eric’s 2004 article was the first piece about these wines in English) but I think that Eric put it best when he called them “bygone wines”: they are wines that will never be made again. In part because wine is no longer produced in that fashion on the Fiorano estate (outside Rome) and in part because today, few if any would ever consider making white wines intended for such prolonged barrel aging. They are a trace of another time and era in winemaking. They are “classic” inasmuch as they will never be made again. They are a mystery, a conundrum that keeps us thinking. We know they exist and have existed (and we will know that even after we have drunk them all). We know someone made them but we will probably never know what he meant by them.

All we do know for certain is that they’re delicious.

She wrote the book on chicken fried steak

From the “life could be worse” department…

jeremy parzen

Above: Despite Tom G’s admonitions, I went ahead and ate the Chicken Fried Steak on Sunday. After all, it’s not every day that you get to eat CFS made by the woman who wrote the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink entry on CFS and it’s not every day that you get to pair it with Chateau Clerc-Milon 1990 (Pauillac, 5th growth). Thanks, Kim and Alfonso! Photo by Alfonso Cevola.

Sunday found me and Tracie B in the home of IWG where his SO (significant other), the lovely and immensely talented food writer Kim Pierce, shared a meal of chicken fried steak and yellow summer squash casserole (by Kim) and mashed potatoes (by Tracie B) with us. Food critic Leslie Brenner, her husband, and their son were also in attendance. Her son showed me how to play the intro to Aerosmith’s “Dream On” on guitar and Kim graciously shared the text of her entry in the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Enjoy!

"Chicken Fried Steak"

By Kim Pierce

Chicken fried steak most likely developed as a way to make a tough cut of beef more palatable: The first step in preparation is pounding a cutlet to tenderize it. Then, mimicking the technique for Southern fried chicken, it is either dredged in flour or dipped in batter before being fried in hot oil in a cast-iron skillet. A cream, or milk, gravy made from the drippings is spooned on top.

Above: “Chicken fried steak most likely developed as a way to make a tough cut of beef more palatable” and is prepared by dredging cube steak in flour and then frying it. My good friend Jon Erickson and I both call our dads “cube steak”: they’re of the generation too young to have fought in the Second World War but old enough to remember it and as a result, they’re obsessed with WWII folklore and factoids. My dad was 12 when it ended (he turned 76 yesterday) and the one time he ate at Jaynes Gastropub (owned by Jon and his wife Jayne), he said it was good but that he preferred “cube steak” — a classic entrée for his generation. Photo by Tracie B.

There are several theories about chicken fried steak’s origins. One holds that it developed in cattle country — Texas and the Midwest — before beef was as tender as it is today. Another holds that it descended from Wienerschnitzel, courtesy of the Germans who settled in Central Texas starting in the 1830s. Recipes resembling chicken fried steak are not uncommon in historical cookbooks. In The Kentucky Housewife (1839), a recipe for frying beef steaks starts with cutlets from the tough chuck and rump. It instructs the cook to “beat them tender, but do not break them or beat them into rags.” The cutlets are then dredged in flour and fried in “boiling lard.” Instructions for making a cream gravy follow.

Above: I’ve seen other versions of chicken fried steak where the meat is soaked in milk and is breaded before frying. Kim’s version, simply dredged in flour, was superbly tender — thanks to how well the meat was tenderized and the frying temperature (I believe). Photo by Tracie B.

Whatever its origins, chicken fried steak was well established in home kitchens by 1932, when a reader submitted a menu featuring “Chicken Fried Steak With Cream Gravy” to The Dallas Morning News. In 1936, the year of the Texas centennial, the same newspaper reported that the president of the Dallas Restaurant Men’s Association had received cards and letters from out-of-towners praising his and other restaurants: “To them a chicken-fried steak, smothered in brown, creamy gravy is the tops in foods.” The first known recipe that refers to Chicken Fried Steak by name appears in the Household Searchlight Recipe Book (1949), published in Topeka, Kansas. Country fried steak and chicken fried steak are sometimes used interchangeably.

Above: Chicken fried steak and nearly-twenty-year-old 5th growth Bordeaux for lunch. Life could be worse.

Bryan, Mrs. Lettice. The Kentucky Housewife. Cincinnati: Shepard & Stearns, 1839.

Gee, Denise. “Dueling Steaks.” In Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing, edited by John Egerton for the Southern Foodways Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. “GERMANS,” http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/BB/dibgi.html

Household Searchlight Recipe Book. Topeka, Kansas, 1949.

“Today’s Menu and Recipe.” The Dallas Morning News, November 8, 1932.

“Waiters in Dallas Restaurants Easily Spot Visitors to Fair By Differences in Their Ways.” The Dallas Morning News, August 10, 1936.

How I stay so thin

From the “just for fun” department…


jeremy parzenPeople ask me all the time how I stay so thin when I work in the food and wine industry and indulge — perhaps too often — in the hedonist pleasures of eating and drinking.

Yesterday, after the nth photo of a Jaynes Burger (my favorite dish at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego) appeared on my blog, Tom G commented and noted: “You need a dietician, you return to Cali and go for the Burger and fries in the land of fresh fish and veggies, better lay off that Chicken fried steak for a week. I also think you need an extra dose of red wine.”

Tom, thanks for the comment and for the genuine concern. Unfortunately, Tracie B and I are headed to Dallas for a Saturday evening and lazy Sunday of unusual wines and chicken fried steak “prepared with native yeasts” by Italian Wine Guy. So, the diet will have to wait until next week.

Above: Cake tasting for our wedding celebration in La Jolla. Tracie B wondered out loud: “wouldn’t it be great if you could spit at a cake tasting the way we [wine professionals] spit at a wine tasting?”

In fact, I do pay attention to my health (that’s me, above left, on tour with Nous Non Plus in May, poolside in San Jose before the show; Tracie B and I got engaged the next night after the show in LA!).

Above: On an account call in Arkansas for lunch, I asked our waiter for the restaurant’s “signature” dish and she brought me Frito Pie. Sometimes, as a food and wine professional, you find yourself in situations where you have to make unfortunate food choices and so it’s important to take care of oneself. The pie wasn’t so bad and I only ate a small portion of it. It did pair well with Primitivo.

I try to follow these simple rules:

  • I never eat when I’m not truly hungry;
  • I only eat at mealtimes, at most three times a day;
  • I never eat something that doesn’t truly appeal to me, even if I am hungry;
  • I try to eat as many leafy greens as I can;
  • I try (not as hard as I should) to stay physically active.
  • Above: California is the Golden State (not so much these days, actually, with its budget crisis) and Texas is the Lone Star State but Texas rivals California on any given Sunday for its gorgeous produce. I’ve found it’s easier to find farm-to-table produce here than in my home state and that farm-to-table isn’t limited to higher-end eateries. That’s the insalata mista at Dough Pizzeria in San Antonio.

    I do believe wholeheartedly (pun intended) that as food and wine professionals, we have a responsibility to project balance (aequitas) and good common sense in our daily lives and eating habits.

    Above: Ceviche, camaronillas, and grilled mahi mahi tacos at Bahia Don Bravo in Bird Rock, La Jolla (San Diego). Photo by Tracie B.

    When we go home to visit in La Jolla, Tracie B and I do tend to indulge in foods we can’t find here in Texas, Asian cuisine in particular. On this recent trip, I took mama Judy to lunch at Spicy City (an excellent Szechuan restaurant in Kearny Mesa, San Diego, highly recommended). Or the superior seafood (see above) we find at places like Bahia Don Bravo in Bird Rock (La Jolla) or Bay Park Fish Company on Mission Bay.

    I’m not sure what Italian Wine Guy has in store for us tonight but I know tomorrow’s “supper” will center around Kim’s (i.e., IWG’s SO’s) secret recipe for chicken fried steak.

    Stay tuned… There’s more food porn to come. Thanks for reading, everyone, and happy weekend!

    Post scriptum: with this post I’ve added a new category to Do Bianchi — de santitatis or on health.

    Spanna 55 or 58? The answer and seals on the beach

    You may remember a post from more than two years ago on a bottle of Vallana Spanna 1958 that my good buddy, wine writer and WSJ editor, Jeff Grocott and I shared for our fortieth birthdays. The wine was fantastic — fresh, with lively acidity and fruit, a real treat. Last night, I had the great fortune to pour and to taste the 1955 with our good friend and Jaynes Gastropub regular John G, who graciously tasted me, Jayne, and Jon on the wine (as we say in the wine biz, using the dative form of first person singular, for you linguist geeks). Jayne and Jon have some crazy stuff on their reserve list (be sure to ask them or me about it next time you visit) and this beauty showed gloriously. As much as I enjoyed the 58 back in New York with Jeff, I have to say that the 55 showed better (and is generally considered the slightly superior of the two spectacular vintages for Piedmont). Had it been topped off with young wine at some point? I’m sure it had. Was it recorked (and maybe even rebottled) recently? Probably not so recently, given the mold I found under the capsule. Was it a stunningly delicious wine, with vibrant fruit and acidity, and that ineffable lightness that traditional Nebbiolo attains when vinified and aged in a traditional manner? Well, I think you get the picture… If not, see the photo above.

    When my shift ended, Jayne and Jon graciously let me pop a bottle of the 2004 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano by Sanguineto I had brought in my wine bag. My pairing? The Jaynes Burger, obviously. Man, I am just so crazy about this wine — a traditional, old-school expression of Sangiovese (in this case, known as Prugnolo Gentile), with smaller amounts of Mammolo and Canaiolo. Classic red fruit flavors, Nadia Comăneci balance between acidity, fruit, and tannin (Benoit, who shared the bottle with me, agreed). I’ve squirreled away another bottle to share with Tracie B (maybe over camaronillas — deep-fried corn tortillas stuffed with Pacific Ocean shrimp — at Bahia Don Bravo, my lovely?) when we come back out in a few weeks for the San Diego Natural Wine Summit at Jaynes August 9. Check out the wines we’ll be pouring here.

    Jumping on a plane now to get back to Tracie B in Austin (it’s been two days too long since I’ve seen her) but here’s a quick vid I shot this morning of the seals outside of mama Judy’s place in La Jolla:

    Not everything coming up rosés in Montalcino

    Above: I had fun pouring this flight of rosé, including the 1998 López de Heridia Viña Tondonia Rosado Reserva last night at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego. I’ll be there on the floor (pouring not lying!) again tonight. Please come down to say hello if you’re in town (Comicon conventioneers receive a 10% discount for having monopolized all rental cars within a 100-mile radius! Just mention this ad…).

    Franco and I have published an excerpted translation of a letter to Brunello association members from the body’s director today at VinoWire. For the first time — nearly 16 months after the Brunello investigation was first reported — the association director has begun to address the issue, not publicly, but internally… Click here to read… It just blows my mind that the association has waited so long to respond to accusations but I’m glad the truth — or at least some of it — is beginning to emerge. All I can say is, in vino veritas, the truth is in the wine.

    For a reaction on this side of that misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean, read Alfonso’s moving post here.


    From “Roses” by Outkast

    I know you’d like to think your shit don’t stink
    But lean a little bit closer
    See that roses really smell like boo-boo
    Yeah, roses really smell like boo-boo

    I know you’d like to think your shit don’t stink
    But lean a little bit closer
    See that roses really smell like boo-boo
    Yeah, roses really smell like boo-boo

    How to make a living by wineblogging and 31 days come to an end

    dirty south

    A “hardy” mazel tov for Hardy Wallace (above), author of the excellent blog Dirty South Wine, who has emerged as the winner in the Really Goode Job contest and will be heading to Sonoma for a six-month tenure of blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking — and getting paid a handsome sum all the while! All I can say, Dirty, is chapeau bas, you did it: you figured out how to make a living by wineblogging! Tracie B and me have always enjoyed your blog and we’re thrilled that you won the contest. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy or a cooler blogger… I won’t bother explaining what the Really Goode Job contest was but I will say that it was an ingenious marketing tool and it is indicative of how the lexicon and lexicography of wine marketing is rapidly being transfigured. Hardy congratulations, Dirty!

    Like Tracie B and me, Dirty contributed to Saignée’s 31 Days of Natural Wine blogging series: the blogilicious event ended today with a post by Joe Dressner, whom many would consider one of the pioneers of wine blogging and whom we all revere as one of the fathers of the natural wine movement in this country.

    The 31 Days series got a great writeup at The Cellarist by Jon Bonné, who also participated in the blogging event, as did a lot of our bloggy friends.

    There were so many awesome posts among the 31 (and I recommend you read them all, whether you’re just getting into natural wine or whether you are already a natural wine fanatic) but one highlight for me (beyond Tracie B’s post on our visit to Joly, of course!) was Arjun’s treatise on sulfur and sulfites, a subject so hard to get a grasp on and so often misunderstood by wine lovers.

    In other news…

    I’m about to get on a plane for Vegas and then San Diego, where I’ll be hawking natural wine tonight at Jaynes Gastropub and talking up the first-ever San Diego Natural Wine Summit, where I’ll be presenting natural wines next month (August 9). (Click on the link and you can read a little manifesto of natural wine that I authored.) I saw the above license plate in the Austin airport gift shop and remembered the one that Tracie B brought me the first time she came to visit me in San Diego last year. It rode on the dash board of my old Volvo (“la Dama Azzurra”) all the way from the Pacific Ocean to Central Texas. Tracie B and I have only been apart since this morning and I already miss her…

    Dusk in Montalcino

    Above: Sunset on our way to Montalcino last September. My friend and traveling companion Ben Shapiro took this photo as we arrived. Our trip was a Sideways of sorts, except we were desperately searching for Sangiovese, not Pinot Noir.

    The dust has settled and Franco and I have finally had time to summarize and translate notes from the Italian Treasury Department’s findings in “Operazione Mixed Wine,” the investigation of the Brunello affair, Brunellogate, or Brunellopoli as it has been called in Italy (after the Tangentopoli or Bribesville scandal of the 1990s).

    Franco is on his way to Tuscany now, where he will talk with producers and try to assess their impressions “on the ground,” as we used to say when I worked at the U.N.

    An old friend and bandmate of mine, Stuart Mayes, wrote me yesterday, reminiscing about a magnum of 1990 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino that we drank together the night of the OJ Simpson chase in Los Angeles in 1994. My friend Riccardo Marcucci — who did his military service with Giacomo Neri, owner of the winery — had brought the bottle to Los Angeles pre-release. We all sat around my apartment in West Hollywood, glued to the television, sipping the wine. That was long before I knew I would have a life in wine. Giacomo’s winery is one of the 5 found to have “cheated in commercial transactions” by investigators.

    I met Giacomo back in 1989 when I first traveled to Montalcino and he had just begun making wine, taking over the reins of his family’s farm’s management from his father. The style of his wines has changed considerably since then and he has been transformed from a farmer’s son who recently completed his mandatory military service (when I met him in 1989) to producer of one of Italy’s most sought-after wines, with top scores and accolades, bottler of wines that command exorbitant prices in the U.S. market. Will the findings of infelicitously named Operazione Mixed Wine have any affect on him or the popularity of his wines? Probably not. And so let it be.

    At the recommendation (and thanks to the generosity) of my friend Howard, I’ve been reading the autobiography of Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh. I came across this passage in the opening pages, describing one of the characters in the town where Buñuel grew up in Spain, Calanda, when the country was still lost in the “Middles Ages,” as the director liked to remember it:

      Don Luis also played a decisive role when the Calanda vineyards were struck with a devastating phylloxera. While the roots shriveled and died, the peasants adamantly refused to pull them out and replace them with American vines, as growers were doing throughout Europe. An agronomist came specially from Teruel and set up a microscope in the town hall so that everyone could examine the parasites, but even this was useless; the peasants still refused to consider any other vines. Finally, Don Luis set the example by tearing out his whole vineyard; as a result, he received a number of death threats, and never went out to inspect his new plants without a rifle. This typical Aragonian collective obstinancy took year to overcome.

    What do any of these things have to do with one another? Nothing, really, aside from being overlapping remembrances and experiences in my mind. The Brunello controversy has finally come to an end, thank goodness. The Italian government has confirmed what everyone suspected all along (the truth was in the wine, in vino veritas, but all you had to do was look at its dark color to realize that it wasn’t 100% Sangiovese, which should always be bright and clear, as any producer of 100% Sangiovese will tell you). Frankly, whole thing has left me terribly depressed.

    The good news is I am headed to San Diego tomorrow to pour and talk about wine at Jaynes Gastropub — tomorrow and Thursday nights. If you’re in town, please come down to see me and we’ll open some Brunello di Montalcino by one of my favorite producers, Il Poggione, and ci berremo sopra, as they Tuscans say. We’ll have a drink and put it to bed.

    The saddest form of wine writing or in vino veritas


    There’s been a lot of talk in the wine blogosphere lately about the nature of wine writing and how it’s changing. De vinographia or “on wine writing” has always been a category on this blog and I often post on the subject of wine writing and wine writers.

    Yesterday and today, I’ve thought a lot about what must be the saddest form of wine writing. A few days ago, agents of the Italian Treasury Department prepared and read a statement in which they announced the findings of their investigation of winemakers in Tuscany who allegedly — and evidently — released wines “not in conformity” with appellation regulations. Italian officials called the investigation “Operazione Mixed Wine” [sic], an infelicitous title, in my opinion, evoking American Dragnet-era criminal mystery, film noir, and crime-stopping television.

    Back in September of last year, I created the above “I heart Brunello” logo, which Spume aptly dubbed “Bumper Sticker Brunello.” Hearting a wine is a form of wine writing, as is populating a fact sheet (technical), writing a tasting note (sensorial), rhapsodizing about a wine (panegyrical), negatively criticizing a wine (elegaical), rendering a tasting score (algebraic), or composing appellation regulations (taxonomic) or writing an indictment of a winemaker for adulteration (juridical)…

    When I posted yesterday at VinoWire on the news that emerged not only from Montalcino but also from Chianti Classico, I couldn’t help but think to myself that this must be the saddest form of wine writing.

    We all read the news today, o boy, and the truth that emerged was there right before us the whole time: in vino veritas, Tracie B and I mused this morning sitting in her living room with our laptops and cups of coffee, as is our habit on Sunday mornings. The truth was in the wine the whole time.

    It was always with a heavy heart that my friend and partner in VinoWire, Franco Ziliani, has reported the story on his excellent blog VinoalVino, beginning on Good Friday, March 21, 2008, with a post on rumors from Montalcino.

    Today, I’m sure that Franco’s heart is as heavy as mine. I heart Brunello: now more than ever, Brunello needs our support and love.

    Wineries named in Brunello investigation


    The server that hosts VinoWire is having problems today and so I’m unable to post there but I will do a detailed post asap.

    Today’s Florence edition of the Italian national daily La Repubblica reports the names of the seven wineries investigated in the Brunello inquiry, dubbed by Italian authorities, “Operazione Mixed Wine” or “Operation Mixed Wine.” The five that were found by the Italian Treasury Department to have bottled wine “not in conformity with appellation regulations” are: Antinori, Argiano, Banfi, Casanova di Neri, and Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi. According to the article, Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia were also investigated by were cleared by investigators of any wrongdoing.