Francesco Illy asks Brunello consortium to postpone assembly

Above: Grape growers began harvesting Sangiovese today in Montalcino. Photo by Montalcino Report.

Franco and I have obtained a copy of a letter written and circulated today by Mastrojanni owner Francesco Illy. The following is my translation of the letter.


Dear Mr. President and Council Members,

On August 21, a heat storm [spike] with strong winds and temperatures reaching 41° C. [106° F] struck Montalcino. Grapes that were ripening have been dried up in quantities that vary between 5-50% depending on the zone and the age of the vines.

This event will add difficult, prolonged work for producers and consortium members: we are currently harvesting and many of us are bottling. Regardless, this is the toughest time of the year and the heat damage makes it even more difficult. None of us have the time, energy, or desire to attend the meeting called by you for September 7, 2011.

Without even speculating on the reasons that lead you to call an Assembly when the greater part of those with the right to vote will be absent, I denounce your insistence on maintaining this date. Beyond the evident facts that I have listed here, it is weighty proof of your total lack of sensitivity to the interests of your producers and consortium members.

Therefore, in the name of my winery and in the name of all those who will endorse this letter, I ask that the Assembly of the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium scheduled for September 7, 2011, be changed to a later date to be determined because of the difficult conditions of the harvest.

Hoping that I have reawakened your dormant however duty-bound sensitivity, I thank you for your consideration and send you my regards.

—Francesco Illy


I’d also like to bring to your attention a tweet by my friend Laura Gray who manages the Palazzone estate in Montalcino:

    How did we get from a pro-Sangiovese petition to a forced meeting to include different % int. grapes but no option to vote for status quo?

I’m posting in a hurry from the road today but will post again just as soon as I have the chance to share some insights into today’s developments.

Thanks for reading!

Nicolas Belfrage says NO to Merlot in Montalcino

The following appeal to Montalcino producers by Master of Wine Nicolas Belfrage (above) was posted today, August 29, 2011, on Franco’s blog Vino al Vino. Franco has asked me to repost it here and I was happy to oblige (photo via the Adelaide Review).

I understand that, on Wednesday Sept 7, 2011, a vote will be held in the Assemblea of Montalcino wine producers on whether to allow a small but significant percentage of other grapes, which everyone understands to mean Merlot and/or Cabernet and/or Syrah, into the blend of Rosso di Montalcino DOC, which is of course at present a 100% Sangiovese wine.

I would urge you in the strongest terms not to support this change. Rosso di Montalcino, like Brunello di Montalcino, has created for itself a strong personality on international wine markets based largely on the fact that it is a pure varietal wine.

In these days when more and more countries are climbing on the wine production bandwagon it is more important than ever to have a distinctive identity, to make wine in a way which no one else on earth can emulate. It is my belief that the strongest factor in the identity of Rosso di Montalcino (and of course Brunello di Montalcino) is the fact that it is 100% Sangiovese.

I am not disputing the fact that Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah are excellent grape varieties, but it is their very excellence, their very strength of personality, which threatens to compromise the unique character of Rosso di Montalcino.

Who could ever imagine the producers of Bordeaux voting to allow 15% of Sangiovese into the Bordeaux blend? The idea is absurd — or would be treated as such by the Bordeaux producers. There are many who think that a reverse situation, in Tuscany’s finest vine-growing area, would be equally absurd.

Yes, in many cases it may improve the wine — especially in weak vintages or where Sangiovese does not succeed every year. But it will fatally undermine the personality of the wine.

I am aware that a lot of Merlot and Cabernet are planted in the Montalcino growing zone, and that there may be a need in the short term to find a commercial use for these grapes. But there are the options of St. Antimo or IGT Toscana.

Perhaps, instead of compromising the purity of one of Montalcino’s unique wines, there should be more effort in the irection of promoting these other wine-types.

You will be aware that many of us fear that a compromise in regard to Rosso di Montalcino would constitute an opening of the door to a compromise, farther down the line, of the purity of the great Brunello — one of the world’s great wines.

Whether or not that might be the case, I am convinced that it is against the long-term interests of Montalcino to allow any other grape variety, including any Italian or Tuscan variety, into the Rosso, just as it would be fatal to great Burgundy, for example, to allow Syrah to be blended with Pinot Noir, as was once widely practised — with, one might add, some notable successes, but with the inevitable distortion of the style.

You, the Montalcino producers, hold the fate not only of your own future market in your hands. You are the representatives of all of us who will not have a vote on September 7th. We urge you, please, to vote NO.

—Nicolas Belfrage

What the hell is going on in Montalcino???!!!

In the wake of my Friday post where Franco and I revealed one of the “hypotheses” for a new Rosso di Montalcino category that would allow the use international grape varieties, a lot of folks have been asking, what the hell is going on in Montalcino, anyway???!!!

Today, on his blog, Franco asks rhetorically, is the proposed change prompted by market demand or does it reflect the interests of certain actors?

The fact of the matter is that there is an oligarchy of commercial, big-business, industrial wineries that want this change. Their baron-robber chum and ringleader Ezio Rivella — gerrymandering president of the Brunello producers association — says that before the Brunello controversy of 2008, 80% of Brunello (which by law must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes), was blended in part using international grape varieties. (Here’s my post and translation of that story.) He and his gang claim that the market (read AMERICA) wants international grape varieties from Tuscany. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the overwhelming majority of Brunello growers and producers — 90% by most counts — want to protect their appellation from internationalization in the name of Italian and Tuscan cultural heritage. The last time that Rivella tried to hold a vote on changing the appellation to allow other grape varieties, he had to retreat at the last minute because he knew he would lose. (Here’s the post on VinoWire.)

In the days that led up to the aborted vote, Francesco Illy — scion of the Illy coffee dynasty and owner of Montalcino estate Mastrojanni — published two open letters exhorting his peers and colleagues to protect the identity of Montalcino’s iconic wines. (Juel Mahoney posted English versions of the letters here.)

Comparing the crisis in Montalcino to the hard times faced by his father in the coffee industry, he wrote that “Experiences tell us [sic] that those who have managed to defend its identity in the end he won [sic].”

The bottom line is this:

1) The big-money, establishment producers want to make the rules more flexible so that they can make more wine, even in bad vintages, when Sangiovese is more difficult to cultivate (and Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are more consistent and reliable).

2) The overwhelming majority of smaller producers do not want to change the appellations because they feel a deep connection to their land and their traditions and they do not want to see their wines internationalized (Rivella is from Piedmont, btw, not Tuscany). Ultimately, they realize, if Rivella and his gang prevail, there will be no space left in the market for their products (Walmart wins again).

3) The industrialists continue to create new scenarios that would allow them to use international grape varieties through a “back door” or “loop hole”; in other words, let’s create a new category that allows us to use Merlot when we need or want to. In keeping with the current strategy, Rivella continues to water down (forgive the pun) the different scenarios, hoping that eventually one will be approved.

If Rivella prevails, everything will be lost in Montalcino. Clear some trees, build a golf course, and, hell, why not turn all of Tuscany into a Disneyland-run tourist attraction? And after we build Disneyland in Tuscany, we’ll start working on Disneyworld in Piedmont. After all, the American boom times will return and all those fat cat brokers in Manhattan are going to need more Tuscan Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah to wash down those steaks. Shit, Tuscan Merlot costs less than Californian anyway!

O tempora o mores! Pasolini, Gramsci, Marx? Therein lies the answer…

Breaking news: Rosso di Montalcino proposed changes (documentation)

It is with a heavy heart that I share today’s news from Montalcino.

Italy’s top wine blogger Franco Ziliani (my partner in and co-editor and founder of VinoWire) has obtained a document that specifies proposed changes for the Rosso di Montalcino appellation. I haven’t had time to review them carefully but I am very alarmed by the “hypothesis for three typologies [categories] of Rosso di Montalcino”:

1) Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese Superiore: 100% Sangiovese (with a 1% “tolerance” of other grape varieties).

2) Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese: 100% Sangiovese (1% tolerance).

3) Rosso di Montalcino: minimum 85% and up to 100% Sangiovese, “authorized” red grape varieties up to 15% (1% tolerance).

Click here to view a full-sized version of the document.

Although it doesn’t appear that the Brunello oligarchy plans to call a vote on the proposal anytime soon, it has called for “ordinary assembly” of producers to put the modifications to the floor (September 7).

Rosso di Montalcino with up to 15% Merlot (see the third category)? Please say it ain’t so…

Anecdotally, Franco reports today on his blog that producers are “optimistic” that only 10% of them would vote to adopt the changes.

At least one producer wondered rhetorically and philosophically, “why isn’t there a proposal to not change the appellation?” It seems that the powers-that-be are hell bent on opening the floodgates of Merlot in Montalcino.

Last week, Montalcino experienced some heat spikes, as warm weather arrived from Africa. I regret that this doesn’t bode well for the 2011 vintage (although at least one producer is reporting cool evening and morning temperatures).

I’m with Franco when he says he hopes that the heatwave will pass quickly and stop “cooking the brains,” as they say in Italian, of the Montalcino establishment.

Our love song to Berlusconi: Bunga Bunga

Friends, wine lovers, and fellow rockers: if you’re not already following my band Nous Non Plus on Twitter, I’d be greatly obliged if you would follow. Thank you!

Earlier this week, I got a call from the A&R dude at our record company to write some copy about the first single, “Bunga Bunga,” to be released from our upcoming full-length album, Freudian Slip (in stores October 11). Usually Jean-Luc writes the copy for press releases etc., but in the light of my Italophilia, they asked me to take this one.

Yesterday, we found out that the video and the song will be hitting ITunes on September 13. I can’t share the song or the video just yet but here’s what I wrote, together with one of my favorite photos of Berlusca.

Bunga Bunga: Italian (and now international) slang for sex party, political corruption, and moral bankruptcy, probably from a European onomatopoeic approximation of the beating of drums (cfr. “bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t wanna leave the Congo,” a line from the song “Civilization” as performed by the Andrew Sisters and Danny Kaye); also used to denote a dance craze created by the faux French rock band Nous Non Plus on their 2011 album Freudian Slip.

The story behind Nous Non Plus’ “Bunga Bunga” (Freudian Slip, Aeronaut, 2011).

“Silvio [Berlusconi] told me that he’d copied that expression — Bunga Bunga — from [Colonel Muammar El] Qaddafi,” says former pole dancer Ruby Rubacuore (Ruby the Heart Stealer aka Karima El Mahroug, a native of Morocco), “it’s a rite of his African harem.”

Today, Italy’s sitting prime minister stands accused of paying Ruby for sex while she was still a minor (she recently turned 18) and could face up to 3 years behind bars. In Italy, consensual sex is legal at 14 years of age but it’s illegal to pay for sex with a minor.

Since the Rubygate scandal broke in early 2011, the expression Bunga Bunga has become synonymous with Berlusconi’s legendary sex parties, held in his villa outside Milan. And as Italy and the rest of Western Civilization slide into seemingly inevitable decline, Bunga Bunga resonates with Europeans and their trans-Atlantic counterparts as a metaphor for the moral bankruptcy of the European Establishment. The sex-for-hire charge is the latest in a long series of indictments leveled at Berlusconi for tax evasion and bribery. He has never been convicted.

It’s unlikely that Berlusconi’s (formerly) close friend and confidant Qaddafi whispered Bunga Bunga into the prime minister’s ear. In fact, as the Atlantic Monthly recently reported, the expression was probably first uttered by “Berlusca” and his countrymen as a racial epithet mocking the tide of north African immigrants who have settled in Italy. It’s hardly a surprise that the prime minister, infamous for his greed and hedonist excesses, proudly uses the notion of Bunga Bunga in the art of seduction. He is well known for his overt racism and his myriad racial gaffes (when Obama was elected as president of the U.S., Berlusconi noted, “I like him. He’s handsome and tanned”).

In the band’s homage to the Motown classic “Dancing in the Streets,” singer Céline Dijon brilliantly weaves together the world’s capitals, including some you might not expect, reminding the listener with each chorus that on fait le Bunga Bunga (everyone is doing the Bunga Bunga). And from the opening stanza, it’s clear that Dijon’s ingenious conceit is laden with social and political subtext and allusions to current events:

Milan ou Tripoli
Vilnius ou Benghazi
Paris, Moscou on fait le Bunga Bunga

The song’s pulsing sequenced drums (created by Julien Galner of Paris-based electronica band Château Marmount) recall the alcohol-fueled discotheques of Europe and the drum beat of Mother Africa. And its anthemic chorus is a battle cry for disenfranchised and disillusioned youth across the world.

The “sheep poop theory”: Cesanese del Piglio and cacio e pepe

When it comes to food and wine pairing, one of my favorite motti is owed to New York restaurant legend Danny Meyer: if it grows with it, it goes with it…

It’s what I call the “sheep poop theory”: you want to pair the wine with the cheese made by the sheep that poop in the field next to the vineyard where the wine is raised. Now, that’s what I call terroir!

The other night, when some friends brought an excellent bottle of 2006 Terenzi Cesanese del Piglio from Latium to our favorite BYOB joint in Austin (the name of which I cannot reveal lest it cease to be our best-kept secret), we asked the chef to whip up one of the simplest and most delicious dishes in the world, classic Roman cacio e pepe, long noodles tossed with Pecorino Romano and freshly cracked pepper.

So little Cesanese makes it to the U.S. these days and sadly, none — save for that which is smuggled in — makes it to Texas.

With its classic black pepper notes, it’s as if this wine were created expressly to pair with cacio e pepe. I thought the wine showed brilliantly: red fruit on the nose and in the mouth, zinging acidity (despite its age), and pepper, pepper, pepper combined with a gently chewy mouthfeel… Delicious…

Does anyone know of a Cesanese available here? It’s such a great summer red and I drink it any chance I get!

What’s your favorite Cesanese?

Ligurian wine and pasta aglio olio peperoncino, perfect summer supper

It’s pure coincidence that we happened to open a bottle of Bisson Ü Pastine last night with some penne aglio, olio, e peperoncino for a light supper — one of the most simple things and one of my most favorite dishes to prepare. This afternoon, Facebook friend Evan R sent me a link to Alan Tardi’s article on the Bisson winery, its owner Piero Lugano and his underwater-aged sparkling wines, which appeared today in The New York Times. (The article is great, btw.)

I always crave wines from Liguria during the summer. From the light-colored, nearly rosé Rossese to bright Pigato and Vermentino, the wines tend to be light and low in alcohol, fresh and spicey- and fish-friendly.

Frankly, before last night, I’d never had a wine made from 100% Bianchetta grapes from Liguria. In fact, Bianchetta is more famously grown in the Veneto and South Tyrol, where it is used to make an easy-drinking, food-friendly light white wine.

The Bisson was delicious, more unctuous than any other Bianchetta I’ve ever had, very salty and with nice white stone fruit. I was worried that the 2009 would be a little tired but it wasn’t. The acidity was kicking and happy (like little Baby P inside Mamma P’s belly!) and I saved a glass to taste tonight at dinner.

Of course, my philological curiosity got the better of me this morning, and so I did a little research on the name of this wine, ü pastine.

Regrettably, the importer’s website reports that the name is “local dialect indicating a very special product.”

And equally lamentable, a major U.S. retailer reports “‘U Pastine’ in the Ligurian dialect means, essentially ‘a gift that is specially crafted by someone for someone in particular in order to be an extra special present.'”

With all due respect, where do these people get this information? Beats me.

In fact, ü pastine is a Ligurian dialectal term that denotes the [a] field reserved for grape-growing. Used also in Tuscany and even as far south as Latium, pastine or pastene comes from the Latin pastinum, denoting a kind of two-pronged dibble, for preparing the ground and for setting plants with. In Ligurian dialect, pastinare means to till. In other words, ü pastine denotes the parcel of land chosen for grape growing because of its ideal conditions for raising wine.

I’m glad that we cleared this up!

And I plan to add pastene and pastine to my Italian winery and vineyard designation project, which I will revisit this fall.

Alfonso is coming over for dinner tonight and I’m not sure what we’re opening to pair with Tracie P’s pasta con i porri e la pancetta but I’m sure it will be good! Stay tuned… and thanks for reading!

Nuns and wine (Coenobium) and a report from Montalcino

Above: “Decameron” by Waterhouse (1916). The countryside outside the city of Fiesole served as diegetic backdrop in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Fiesole lies in the hills above Florence.

If you’ve visited my blog before, you probably have already tasted Coenobium, a wine raised by Cistercian sisters in the Province of Viterbo and vinified by natural winemaker and co-founder of Vini Veri, one of Italy’s leading natural wine movements, Giampiero Bea. Most Italophile wine lovers have heard the tale of this wine many times before.

But when I posted about it today over at the Houston Press food and wine blog, I couldn’t resist making an allusion to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Third Day, Novella 1, “Masetto da Lamporecchio [who] feigns to be dumb, and obtains a gardener’s place at a convent of women, who with one accord make haste to lie with him.”

The funny, sexy tale is one of those depicted by Pasolini in his 1971 filmic version of the Decameron (which we watched the other night) and I’m always looking for excuses to talk about literature when writing about wine.

    Fairest ladies, not a few there are both of men and of women, who are so foolish as blindly to believe that, so soon as a young woman has been veiled in white and cowled in black, she ceases to be a woman, and is no more subject to the cravings proper to her sex, than if, in assuming the garb and profession of a nun, she had put on the nature of a stone: and if, perchance, they hear of aught that is counter to this their faith, they are no less vehement in their censure than if some most heinous and unnatural crime had been committed; neither bethinking them of themselves, whom unrestricted liberty avails not to satisfy, nor making due allowance for the prepotent forces of idleness and solitude. And likewise not a few there are that blindly believe that, what with the hoe and the spade and coarse fare and hardship, the carnal propensities are utterly eradicated from the tillers of the soil, and therewith all nimbleness of wit and understanding. But how gross is the error of such as so suppose, I, on whom the queen has laid her commands, am minded, without deviating from the theme prescribed by her, to make manifest to you by a little story…

Here’s the link to my post.

And here’s the link to the tale. Buona lettura!

In other news…

Above: My friends have begun harvesting their Pinot Grigio in Montalcino. As you can see in the image, Pinot Grigio is not a white grape.

I’ve been following my friends father and son Fabrizio and Alessandro Bindocci’s posts on the vegetative cycle and harvest 2011 over at their blog Montalcino Report.

They’ve been doing an amazing job of documenting the 2011 vintage and to my knowledge, they are the only Italian winemakers who have attempted a project like this.

Today they posted the above photo of Pinot Grigio grapes and reported “Heat Spikes But Grapes Are Healthy and Correctly Ripened.”

It takes a lot of courage to be so honest about the vintage but it also gives Italian wine enthusiasts an entirely new perspective into the vegetative cycle. It will be fascinating to taste the wines when they are released and compare our tasting notes with their documentation of the vintage.

Chapeau bas, gentlemen!

Blogger malfeasance: a unique solution?

Above: The cinnamon roll this morning at a favorite Sunday morning Austin breakfast joint, the Kerbey Lane Cafe.

One of the more appalling bits of information to emerge from the Alfonso and Jeremy wine bloggers seminar at the Texas Sommelier Conference last Saturday was the fact that food bloggers often try to extort money from restaurants and other gastronomic destinations.

According a publicist from the Dallas/Ft. Worth offices of Whole Foods Market and a publicist from Annies Cafe in Austin (who both attended the seminar), there have been numerous instances when bloggers have demanded that they be paid to attend marketing events and/or to review the venues.

Above: The cheese omelette with ham and ranchero sauce at Kerbey’s.

The problem is so widespread and nasty that in Austin a group of food bloggers have created the Austin Food Blogger Alliance (see its code of ethics, including an entry on “negativity”).

Evidently, they ask restaurateurs not to deal with local food bloggers who have not become members of the alliance.

    Any member of the alliance or of the community may contact the membership chair or President to register a violation of the Code of Ethics. The membership committee will investigate the claim and recommend to the board if action should be taken. Members will receive two warnings from the board before revocation of their membership can be considered.

Above: Tracie P says this ham was better than most. Serve with maple syrup.

Also, in a dialectic with my follow-up post to the seminar, Should wine bloggers write about wines they don’t like? (And Tracie P is looking great!), there were a couple of fascinating posts and threads by two different European bloggers.

In Britain, Juel Mahoney of Wine Woman & Song writes about “How to be a blogger as a journalist.”

And Wojciech Bońkowski of the Polish Wine Guide writes about “The $ issue.”

I recommend both posts and threads to you.

I’m not sure I know all the answers and am still working through these issues on my blog.

But I do know one thing for sure: we wine bloggers are here to stay!

Thanks for reading and buona domenica yall…