Brunello, for better or worse (or how I learned to love the fruit bomb)

Above: I recently asked legendary Tuscan enologist Carlo Ferrini (and historic consultant at Casanova di Neri) what he considered his great contribution to Italian wine. “I took the traditional role of the Tuscan enologist from the cellar to the vineyard,” he told me.

My brother-in-arms and close friend flying winemaker Giovanni Arcari often asks rhetorically: “How many of the winemakers in Franciacorta actually make their living — their main source of income — from growing grapes and making wine?”

I’ve been thinking about Giovanni and his bleeding heart this morning after reading Alfonso’s superb post on Brunello di Montalcino wherein the latter applies his more than three decades of experience, observation, and wisdom to the situation on the ground in the ilcinese.

Even spanning back to Brunello’s ante litteram era, we discover that even for its founding father Biondi Santi, winemaking was not the primary source of income. In fact, Ferruccio Biondi Santi — Brunello’s nineteenth-century “inventor” — was the scion of a noble family with vast land holdings and immense financial resources. His ground-breaking experimentation in massal selection redefined the appellation. But, in turn, that appellation was defined by a handful of landowners who began to produce a “fine” as opposed to “table” wine following in his footsteps.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that wealthy northern Italians began to buy property there (and they probably wouldn’t have seen Montalcino as such a choice spot had the British not planted roots there and “manicured” the Tuscan countryside, giving it its idyllic patina that we know today; just ask anyone old enough to remember the second world war what it was like in Montalcino from 1945 through the 1960s when the British began to arrive).

Above: Ask any ilcinese over 50 and they will tell you that it was the British who planted the cypress trees in Tuscany in the 1960s.

Today, just scan the names that define the arc of contemporary Montalcino winemaking: Soldera, an insurance magnate originally from the Veneto via Milan; Illy (Mastrojanni), a coffee mogul from Friuli; Parsons (Il Palazzone), U.S. CEO extraordinaire… and of course, Mariani (Banfi), one of the leading importers of fine wine in the U.S. who went to Montalcino in the hope of creating a sparkling wine legacy and ultimately turned Brunello di Montalcino into a super market brand.

Where there were less than 20 bottlers of Brunello in the 1960s, today there are more than 250 members of the Brunello bottlers association.

To Giacomo Neri’s credit — whether you like the style of wine or not — his family started out with humble farm that Giacomo took over when he returned from his mandatory military service. I know this because I met Giacomo for the first time in 1989 on my second visit to Montalcino, when his wines tasted a lot different from the way they do today. Since his collaboration with enologist Carlo Ferrini began in 1993, his Casanova di Neri label has become one of the most sought-after wines in the world, winning impossibly perfect scores from some of our country’s greatest wine writers (what do Nadia Comăneci, Bo Derek, Ann Colgin, and Giacomo Neri have in common? Hint: it’s not their good looks).

I recently met Carlo Ferrini for the first time in Los Angeles, where he and I spoke on a panel together. I asked him what he felt, over the arc of his career, was his greatest contribution to winemaking in Tuscany.

“Before I began working as a consulting enologist,” he said, “enologists were traditionally tasters.”

“Like Gambelli?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “I was among the first to convince growers to replant their vineyards and to adopt more contemporary farming practices.”

And on the subject of Brunellogate?

“I’ve never believed that Merlot or any other grape should be added to Brunello,” he told me. “In Chianti, I’ve followed a Bordeaux model, using different grapes, grown in different sites, to create blends in line with modern tastes. In Montalcino, the wines have always been 100% Sangiovese. It’s my work in the vineyard that has made the difference. Not in the cellar.”

Whatever Ferrini claims and whatever we believe (and for the record, looking Ferrini in the eye, I believed him), the predominate and guiding style of Brunello has changed in Alfonso’s lifetime and my lifetime.

In the beginning, was the style of Brunello guided by a handful of wealthy families who saw big business opportunities in producing wines that could rival their French counterparts? Is it guided today by a small group of wealthy families who see financial opportunity (and tax-shelter vacation homes) in America’s thirst for wines in the global style?

The answer to these questions lies somewhere in between an alpha, an omega, and a brief window (1975-1993?) when Italy’s cultural prosperity delivered an optimism and fostered a belief that even luxury products should be the expression of the land where they were grown and the people who made them. It just so happens that that’s when Alfonso and I had our first contact with the wines.

If you following along here at Do Bianchi, you already know the Brunello that I like to drink (Il Poggione, Brunelli, Soldera are my top three, whether I can afford them or not). And there will be plenty of time to write and discuss the wines that we love at our house…

Instead, please read Alfonso’s post: The Battle for Brunello. I’m just adding my two cents here…

In other news…

Today, Italian wine blogger Andrea Petrini, author of Percorsi di Vino, reposted this offer from Albana di Romagna producer Gabriele Succi (left): if you make a donation to one of the officially sanctioned channels for donations for Emilia-Romagna earthquake victims, you can send him a scan of the receipt via email and he will ship you the same value’s worth of his wine. He sweetens the deal by discounting each of his labels by Euro 1 ex cantina. He’s not giving a portion of proceeds to earthquake victims; he’s giving you the wine for donating.

Click here for the offer (in Italian) and links to official donation sites.

A treatise on tannins @EatingOurWords

This 1974 Produttori del Barbaresco classic Barbaresco came from the personal cellar of my friend Levi Dalton, one of the sommeliers I admire most.

Have you ever been to a wine tasting or dinner party and heard some blowhard try to befuddle and belittle an enthusiastic however neophyte wine lover by asking can you taste how smooth the tannins are in this [red] wine?

One of the most common misperceptions in the wine world is that you can taste tannin. In fact, tannins are expressed through the mouthfeel of wine. In other words, you perceive tannin through a tactile sensation.

Click here to continue reading my post today for the Houston Press and to learn my trick for teaching wine lovers how to understand what tannins are and how they affect the flavor and mouthfeel of wine…

A second earthquake devastates Emilia (remembering the Emilian Renaissance)

Above: The Duomo in Mirandola had withstood the earthquake of May 20 but crumbled this morning in a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Photo by Cris Provenzano via Instagram.

According to the reports I’ve been seeing this morning in the Italian news feed, there were at least 39 tremors in the region of Emilia this morning beginning at around 9 a.m. At 11:24 a.m., a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck in the town of Mirandola (which lies at the center of a triangle formed by Ferrara, Modena, and Mantua).

The New York Times reports that at least eight persons died this morning. Thousands of people have been left homeless and scores of factories have collapsed or been closed because of structural damage.

Photo via

In an uncanny twist of fate, the township of Mirandola had planned a town hall meeting this evening with earthquake experts who had hoped to calm local residents (the Mirandola township has a great website, btw, an indication of the industriousness and uprightness of the people who live there).

Of all of Italy’s regions, Emilia and its beauty are perhaps the most challenging for foreigners to understand. Emilia is a land of intellectual and sensual pleasures and partly because it is not a producer of fine wine (aside from a few exceptions like La Stoppa in the province of Piacenza), most enogastronomic travelers tend to gloss over its cultural patrimony after they’ve dined at one of the regions many culinary meccas. (My favorites are Trattoria Bianca in Modena and Ristorante Canossa in Reggio Emilia.)

Whereas the Venetian and Florentine Renaissances produced iconic works of figurative art that continue to attract tides of tourists each year, the Emilia Renaissance delivered the great epic poems of the sixteenth century (think Ariosto and Tasso), wildly popular intellectual hits of their day but sadly forgotten in comparative literature curricula today in Anglophone countries.

To contemplate [historic] Humanism without one of its greatest voices, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (whose family hailed from the town where the epicenter of today’s earthquake occurred) would be to disregard one of the greatest chapters in humankind’s intellectual development.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Emilia…

band on the run (life on the Boulevard Périphérique)

There were still sex workers on Van Buren St. when the airport shuttle rolled up to my flophouse motel near Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix yesterday morning at 8 a.m.

After tumbling out of bed at 4 a.m., I had jumped on an early commuter flight from Austin and was joining my bandmate, keyboardist Ryan Williams, for a session in a make-shift recording studio we set up for a day on the Boulevard Périphérique of Western civilization.

Note the Gideon’s Bible on our recording console (our “desk,” as we say in recording arts parlance).

We were energized by the fact that our band Nous Non Plus had been featured as “band of the day” on the now ubiquitous Band of the Day App.

But the greatest counterpoint to the bleak glimmer of sun-burnt, crystal meth-tinged Phoenix was the fact that both of us would be home in time to kiss our kids goodnight: Ryan, dad to two beautiful boys, had driven down from Flagstaff for the morning, and I had flown in especially for the session. We began tracking at 8:30 a.m. and I was on an Austin-bound 2:40 p.m. flight that got me home in time for dinner.

When I dreamed of a career in pop music as a child, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

But when you’re a new dad, you don’t need late-night, smoke-filled rock clubs to make the jams flow…

Ryan’s playing was fantastic, the sounds groovy and warm, and Tracie P’s cooking never tasted better (shredded chicken and roast poblano pepper tacos and cilantro rice paired with bright, fresh Schiava)…

The working title of our forthcoming album (fall 2012) is “Le Sex et Le Politique”…

Tomato sauce and condoms…

If you learned Italian as a second language then you surely know the joke I’m talking about.

For those who haven’t studied Italian, I thought I’d share this extremely cute post that Tracie P composed for one of our clients…

Buon weekend, yall! :)

Above: If you ask for “passato di pomodoro” without “preservativi” you might be greeted with a a funny stare…

We want you to be able to speak like an Italian, but we must warn you that there are some pretty easy ways to stick your foot in your mouth if you’re not careful.

Today’s Italian lesson is on false cognates, or “false friends.”

Cognates are words that basically sound the same in both languages in question. For example, there’s intelligente (intelligent) and farmacia (you guessed it, pharmacy). But don’t get caught asking for pepperoni on your pizza if what you want is cured sausage because what you’ll end up with is bell peppers. This is why it’s called a false cognate.

We don’t want you to get caught in a sticky situation where either hilarity or calamity can ensue, so here’s our top ten list of false friends:

1. Sensibile: it means sensitive, not sensible.

2. Preservativi: condoms (Watch out for this one! You don’t want to have a conversation about why condoms are bad for human consumption. Conservanti are preservatives in Italian.)

3. Baldo: courageous (You can describe to the local authorities that the taxi driver who ripped you off is baldo, but you won’t be referring to his head.)

4. Collegio: boarding school or dormitory (Explaining your educational background might make your new Italian friends think that you are very rich.)

5. Morbido: soft (Your little brother’s obsession with horror movies is… soft? I don’t understand!)

6. Genitori: This means parents. Get your mind out of the gutter.

7. Fabbrica: factory (Farm is fattoria and fabric is tessuto. Confused yet?)

8. Camera: room (Want to take a picture with your… room? Instead, make sure and ask for the macchina fotografica.)

9. Romanzo: novel (No, you do not want to have a great novel on your vacation, you want a storia d’amore.)

10. Educato: polite (Telling someone that their children are so educated when you mean polite is not an insult, but it may be confusing when referring to a toddler.)

@NousNonPlus (my band) featured on @BandOfTheDayApp

It’s pretty much the coolest feeling in the world when you know that kids across America are rocking out to your music…

Especially when the jam in question was tracked right here in Austin, Texas at Baby P Studios (chez Parzen)!

Today, Bunga Bunga (the single from our latest release, Freudian Slip, Aeronaut 2011) is featured on the new iPhone and iPad Band of the Day App.

Life could be worse… :)

Parmigiano Reggiano producers selling earthquake-damaged cheese

Photo via

According to a report by the Italian news agency ANSA, Parmgiano Reggiano producers lost up to 10% of their production in Sunday’s 6.0 magnitude earthquake in the Province of Ferrara.

Last night, I learned (via Facebook friend, Chiara Rich) that a number of the cheese makers are offering the damaged wheels to consumers at discounted prices.

According to a post by Arci Modena:

    the distribution can take place within 20-30 days without the cheese having problems… The following products can be ordered:

    – 14-month old in vacuum-packed pieces weighing 500 grams or 1 kilo at €11.5 per kilo.
    – 27-month old in vacuum-packed pieces weighing 500 grams or 1 kilo at €13 per kilo.
    – spreadable cream in 250 gram packages at €11 per kilo.

If you’ve never had fresh, creamy “spreadable” Parmigiano Reggiano, I can assure you that the airfare to Bologna and the short drive to Modena would be worth the price of admission and then some…

Click here for more info…

Prosecco polemic: Alan Tardi Responds

From the department of “par condicio”…

Last week I received the following message from Alan Tardi, one of the Italocentric wine writers I admire most. He was responding — however serotinely (no paronomasia with his name intended but if ever there were a case for the Latin adage nomina sunt consquentia rerum, this could be it) — to my post Prosecco, lies, and videotape: the real story behind the new wave Prosecco (published January 11, 2012) wherein I cited his New York Times article “Prosecco Growers Act to Guard Its Pedigree,” published that day. I have posted his message in its entirety below and recommend it to you….


About a month ago I came across your piece about my article in the Times and wrote you a note but I’m afraid you might not have received it (I seem to have been having some trouble with one of my email accounts lately). Here it is:

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article in the New York Times. I believe you posted your blog just after the article was published on January 11th but I didn’t see it until the other day when somebody sent me a copy of it. Otherwise I would have responded sooner.

One of the things I love most about wine is that there is always something to learn and discover, plus it’s always changing. With all this stuff in motion, it’s totally possible for someone to “get something wrong.” However, in this case it didn’t happen.

Continue reading