On the origins of Primitivo, a great short on Langa, Wine Spectator Top 100 Italian & Italy’s most expensive burger

amphora primitivo puglia

Above: amphorae once used to age sun-baked Primitivo di Manduria (image via the Vinicola Savese [Vini Pichierri] Google+).

It’s been a crazy week here at Do Bianchi Editorial as we’ve settled into our new house in Houston. But that hasn’t obstructed our mission to keep the world safe for Italian wines.

Earlier this week, I posted my notes on the meaning and origins of the name Primitivo over on the CanteleUSA blog.

Because of its genetic relation to Zinfandel (one of the wine world’s most lucrative varieties), Primitivo is among the most scrutinized grapes in history.

But why was it called Primitivo by the pugliesi when its popularity began to spread through the Adriatic basin in the nineteenth century?

I hazard a probable explanation in the post.

In other news this week…

I was really impressed by this video on the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco by Geoff Kruth, Master Sommelier and chief operating officer of the Guild of Sommeliers.

The line between modernism and traditionalism can be treacherous and the director of this short does a great job of putting the dialectic into perspective without bias.

And the film is a wonderful introduction to the great wines of these appellations and the production value is fantastic.

Chapeau bas, Geoff and team!

I only wish that the langaroli would begin saying Serravallian instead of Helvetian.

In other other news…

Leading Italian wine writer Luciano Ferraro leaked the Wine Spectator Top 100 Italian Wineries list today on his blog, DiVini Corriere (published by the Italian national daily, Corriere della Sera).

I’m a big fan of Luciano’s writing and I love the quote that he culls from Philip Roth for this post: “The Italian cutter, son, is always more artistic in his outlook” (American Pastoral).

I imagine many Italians will be surprised by some of the omissions in the list but I applaud the editors of the Wine Spectator for their expanding coverage of the wines of Italy.

As Luciano notes, the list reflects not the wines that the Italians drink but rather the wines that are shipped to the U.S.

The list is now in its third year and will be presented officially at the Italian wine trade fair, Vinitaly, in April in Verona.

You can read it here.


I’ve written about Italy’s current burger obsession recently but was “disappointed” (those are air quotes) to learn that Italy’s “most expensive” hamburger only costs €85.

The notorious “Io sono ricco” (I’m rich) burger is served at Piazzetta San Marco 13 in Pordenone, Friuli — and not Milan, as many Italian hamburger enthusiasts would have expected (source: Scatti di Gusto).

At $200, “the world’s most expensive burger” accolade is probably owned by Houston, where we now live and where the petrochemical crowd is always a sucker for anything that glitters.

Buona lettura (happy reading) and buon weekend (have a great weekend), yall!

Lunch with Daniela Mastroberardino @TonyVallone

daniela mastroberardino

Above: Daniela Mastroberardino, one of the first ladies of Italian wine, daughter of Campanian legacy winemaker Walter Mastroberardino and export manager for her family’s Terredora winery.

Yesterday found me at Tony’s in Houston, a lunch guest of Daniela Mastroberardino, who was visiting Texas and showing her wines.

I have great admiration for Daniela: when her brother Lucio passed suddenly at age 45 in January of last year, she took over his role as export director for the family’s winery.

His were big shoes to fill. Not only was Lucio the president of the Unione Italiana Vini at the time (the Italian Wines Union, one of the most powerful lobbies in the European wine trade), but he was also widely revered for his tireless efforts as an ambassador of Campania wines.

With noble Irpinian equanimity, she broached the subject immediately after we sat down.

Continue reading

The truth about Valpolicella (and other busted myths)

Above: During my graduate years, I spent many hours at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice working on my dissertation on Petrarch and Bembo and early transcriptions of Petrarch’s Italian poems. It’s also where I made an important breakthrough in my inquiry into the origins of Vinsanto and Vin Santo.

A mention of the blog in today’s Boston Globe by wine writer Ellen Bhang prompted more than a few readers to ask me where to find my post on the origins of the toponym (place name) Valpolicella. It follows this note.

Originally posted in 2008, it’s just one of the many myth-busting posts I’ve done over the years. Others include:

it’s unlikely that Sangiovese means sangue di Giove or blood of Jove [Zeus];
it’s impossible that the enonym Aglianico comes from ellenico or Hellenic;
it’s improbable that puttanesca refers to prostitutes or their putative love of the recipe (this is one of the most popular).

Over the years, one of the greatest rewards in blogging has come in the form a platform where I can publish my — often arcane — research.

One of the posts of which I am most proud is the one devoted to my research on the history of Vin Santo, which originated in the Veneto and not in Tuscany, as many erroneously believe.

It was part of my investigation of the origins of Vinsanto from Santorini, Greece, and how the two wines are related.

It means so much to me that people find my work useful. And I’d like to believe that my oenophilology helps to give wine lovers a greater and richer understanding of the wines they taste. For me, wine and its history are epistemologic tools that give us unique insight into Italian historiography and western civilization.

So please help spread the logos!

My post on the true meaning the toponym Valpolicella follows… Thanks for reading and sharing.


valpolicella map vineyards crus

Above: Google’s “terrain” map shows the “wrinkles” of Valpolicella. The topography of the Valpolicella or “valley of alluvial deposits” is defined by a series of small rivers.

From the Greek topos or place and onoma or name, toponymy is the study of place names.

As is the case with many wine-related place names, the names themselves reflect the vine-growing practices of the place. One of my favorites is the Côte-Rôtie or the roasted slope, so-called because the slopes are “roasted” by the sun and there are countless others.

While many erroneously claim that the toponym Valpolicella comes from a hitherto undocumented Greek term for valley of many cellars, it is widely accepted that the name first appeared in the twelfth century (in a decree by Frederic I of Swabia, aka Barbarossa or Red Beard) and by the sixteenth century was widely found in Latin inscriptions as Vallis pulicellae, literally the valley of sand deposits, from the Latin pulla, a term used in classical Latin to denote to dark soil and then later to denote alluvial deposits.

In fact, Valpolicella is not a valley but rather a series of “wrinkles” defined by the Marano, Negrar, Fumane, and Nòvare torrents (streams).

If you’ve ever traveled through that part of Italy, you’ve seen how the hills roll gently across the landscape. There are other Veronese place names that reflect this tradition, like the towns Pol, Pol di Sopra, and Santa Lucia di Pol where pol denotes the presence of a stream or torrent and the pebbly, sandy deposits it forms.

There are some who point to the lass or pulzella portrayed in the device (emblem) of the town of San Pietro in Cariano as the origin of the name. But this theory seems as unlikely to me as the oft-repeated valley of many cellars (another facile faux ami or false cognate).

Valpolicella’s wines were praised highly by Latin authors, notably Virgil and Cassiodorus. Etruscan and proto-Roman winemakers recognized early on that Valpolicella’s undulating landscape was ideal for growing wine grapes.

As Virgil wrote famously, Bacchus amat colles, Bacchus loves hills.

Italy’s new agriculture minister @MauMartina & a glimmer of hope?

chinse racism italy

Translation: [TITLE] “A region that supports its businesses.” [LEFT CAPTION] “The competition from China is unfair.” [RIGHT CAPTION] “From now on, no more spring rolls. Waiter, bring me some polenta!” (Source: “Allegro ma non troppo” [“Happy But Not Too Happy”], newly appointed Italian agriculture minister Maurizio Martina’s comic-strip blog.)

“I was born on September 9, 1978 in Calcinate [Bergamo province, Lombardy] and I live in Mornico al Serio [also Bergamo province],” writes Italy’s new agriculture minister Maurizio Martina in the about page on his blog. “My father and mother have always been factory workers. My grandparents were farmers. I have a brother who works as an artisan and my sister is an office worker. I studied political science in college.”

At age 35, Martina, a democrat, is the youngest person ever to hold the post.

He was appointed by the youngest prime minister in Italy’s history, Matteo Renzi, who took power on Saturday after ousting his rival, forty-seven year old Enrico Letta, in a bold political coup last week.

Renzi, a democrat and former mayor of Florence who had never before held national office, has promised radical reforms, including sweeping electoral reforms brokered with ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

(Click here for yesterday’s New York Times coverage of Renzi’s inaugural speech.)

Despite optimism that Renzi’s government will be able to reverse Italy’s lingering recession and to renew hope among young people, Martina and Renzi, together with the “youngest cabinet” in Italy’s history, have many challenges to face in Italy’s well entrenched parliament, with its byzantine alliances.

Martina’s youth, proletariat roots, and folksy aphorisms (published via his blog), will surely appeal to young grape growers and winemakers in Italy.

His progressive attitudes, as expressed through his Twitter, do not seem to preclude nationalistic leanings (like that espoused in the comic above) in a country where racially charged comments about the Chinese are not uncommon in bourgeois circles.

Although there is little indication of his approach to policy beyond his association with the left-leaning Democratic Party, his appointment is viewed as a much needed break from Berlusconi’s politically driven appointments to the post.

His youthful demeanor is a welcome breath of fresh air to many in the wine industry, especially in the wake of predecessor Luca Zaia (minister in Berlusconi’s cabinet, the last appointee to drive any substantive policy changes), who openly expressed racist attitudes and who favored aggressive, however contradictory, protectionist policy.

Not easy to move with little kids but we’re settling into our new Houston home (TY @CiaoBelloHou)

i love grissini

It’s not easy to move with a toddler and newborn in tow but we’ve settled into our cozy new Houston home without any major issues.

We tried to do everything we could to make it as stress-free for the girls as possible: I moved a lot of our belongings in the weeks that led up to our transition and I even stayed in the house for four nights before they got here to make sure there were no major mishaps on the day of their arrival (last Friday).

We’re still eating a lot of take-out (unusual for our family) but Tracie P is already set up to make the girls breakfast (below). Georgia P (above) didn’t complain about pizza and grissini from my friend and client Tony Vallone’s Ciao Bello last night!

What a wonderful sight to see our girls enjoying their breakfast in our new kitchen! Thanks, everyone, for all the wishes and support.

And thanks, Tony, for a delicious dinner last night!

Arrivederci, Austin, thanks for the memories & #bbq @StilesSwitchBBQ

best bbq austin texas

On Sunday night, we hosted the last dinner party at our house in Austin at the corner of Alegria and Gr[o]over.

The Rosenberg cousins and a smattering of Levy cousins stopped by for Stiles Switch bbq and white Chinon (we also served some Grüner Veltliner, Soave, and Langhe Nebbiolo).

We lived for four years in that wonderful little house.

We conceived one of our girls there and brought both of them home there.

My band wrote and tracked a record there in my office/studio (including one of my favorite tracks of all time, Nadia).

We had so many great parties and opened so many unforgettable bottles of wine there.

Those four years and that house saw us build a new business, dig ourselves out of debt, and start a beautiful family.

We lived, we loved, we laughed, and we cried tears of joy there.

Arrivederci, Austin… You are truly the “groover’s paradise.”

Wish us luck for our move to Houston tomorrow! I’ll be taking the next few days off from blogging. See you on the other side! And thanks for all your support over the last four years. It means the world to us.

How to order wine in a restaurant (without feeling like an idiot)

cork screw best wine key

Tracie P and I feel so lucky to to belong to the international wine professional community.

We can travel to LA, San Francisco, New York, Langa, Siena, Rome, and even Paris, and our industry friends and colleagues always welcome us with professional courtesy.

But I also know what it’s like to feel the cold shoulder of the trade when I visit an unfamiliar venue.

It’s sad but it’s true: we all know that feeling of being seated at the “kids table” in a restaurant where there’s no previously established relationship.

In my post today for the Houston Press, I am brutally honest when I write that I’ve been treated like shit by snotty sommeliers (the exception to the rule, no doubt, but unfortunately something that happens more often that you’d like to think).

I’ll never forget the snooty sommelier in NYC who refused to pour me a 96 Poderi Colla Barolo Dardi Le Rose because she thought it was “too tannic for someone like me.”

I’ll never forget the absurdist sommelier in Chicago with a tongue pierce who refused to even consider that a 95 Grivot Clos de Vougeot was corked (there wasn’t even an offer of something by-the-glass as he turned to lecture the table next to mine on Sagrantino).

I’ll never forget the holier-than-thou sommelier at a Michelin 3-Star in Padua who lectured me on Rio Sordo after pouring me a über-barriqued, cherry-cough-syrup-flavored wine from my least favorite producer of the cru, even after I had told him that I like traditional-style Nebbiolo. Why bother telling him that my wife and I slept at the top of Rio Sordo on our honeymoon at the Cascina delle Rose?

This type of thing happens to the best of us.

And it happens to the little people like me, too.

Here’s my post today for the Houston Press on “How to order a bottle of wine in a restaurant (without feeling like an idiot).”

Is @WineEnthusiast biased when it comes to Italian whites? Time to cast off stereotypes

bonci verdicchio

Above: in November of last year, Steven Wildy poured this 1998 Bonci Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi for Paolo Cantele, 1WineDude, and me. Here’s what 1WineDude had to say about it: “This was a stupidly good bottle of wine; earthy, oily, unctuous, citric, spicy, alive, piquant. ‘Tired’ is not a word that seems to have entered its vocabulary at any point in the last fifteen years. As impressive as how well it wore its age was the fact that its round, toasty, nutty finish felt like it was going to last another fifteen years…”

Last week, the editor of the SlowWine guide, Giancarlo Gariglio, posted an editorial entitled, “The destiny of Italian whites? Pessimist! The sink, according to Wine Enthusiast” (“Il destino dei bianchi italici? Pessimist! Per Wine Enthusiast il lavandino”).

“It wasn’t easy to keep our comments in check after we read a special edition like the one that appeared in the February issue of Wine Enthusiast,” writes Gariglio. “It included ‘The World’s Greatest Vintage Chart’: the list of the best vintages across the world. Well, if it were a joke, they could have told us on the cover, which trumpets the chart in block capitals. We purchased a copy at the San Francisco airport and we began laughing and didn’t stop until we reached Chicago, after four hours in the air.”

Gariglio goes on to lament the fact wines like Soave (“one of Italy’s greatest whites”) are broadly dismissed by the magazine’s editors as “undrinkable” beyond six years of age: “How can they write that the whites of the Veneto — as if the were all the same — are ‘in decline, maybe undrinkable’ from 2008 and beyond? This is terrible!”

The only explanation, he posits, noting that “it’s not an excuse,” is that the editors have not tasted a sufficient number of aged Italian whites.

(Click here for the Wine Enthusiast post where the editors present the list.)

borgo tiglio ronco chiesa

Above: I drank this 1999 Borgo del Tiglio Ronco della Chiesa back in October of 2013. It was one of the best wines I’ve ever had in my life.

“All those over-the-hill whites?” asks Avellino producer Lello Tornatore of Tenuta Montelaura in a comment. “Tell me where they are and I’ll go fetch them!”

It’s hard not to share Gariglio’s disbelief and frustration.

Think of all the incredible Italian whites with immense aging potential like those from Friuli, Veneto, Campania, and Marche, not to mention wines like Fiorano from Lazio or Valentini from Abruzzo.

How could I forget a bottle of 1988 Bucci Verdicchio dei Castelli Jesi Riserva that I drank back in 2007 in New York? It was stunning.

1999 Borgo del Tiglio Ronco della Chiesa (above)? 1994 Gaia e Rey that I tasted with Angelo and Gaia in Barbaresco in 2010? I’ll never forget how Angelo was so thrilled with the results of that terribly difficult, rainy vintage, “a surprise,” he said.

venica 1989

Above: 1989 was a superb year in northern Italy, as this gorgeous bottle of Venica Tocai demonstrated a few years ago when Tracie P and visited our good friends Giampaolo and Chiara Venica.

For the most part, the Wine Enthusiast vintage chart aligns with conventional wisdom and experience — even in regard to Italy.

But the sweeping brushstrokes that elide the great Italian whites represent a lacuna — I can’t think of a better word to describe it — in the editors’ attention to Italian viticulture.

In all fairness to them, the Italians’ marketing focus in the 1990s and 2000s was on big, American-friendly red wines.

As one (very high-profile) commenter to Gariglio’s post notes, Italians haven’t done the greatest job of marketing their white wines to English-language media.

France is uniquely positioned when it comes to its dominance in the realm of white wine. And historically, Italy has always played the part of the white step-child, even as its reds have begun to compete on an international level with the best of the French.

In his 1980 Vino, Burton Anderson compared the wines of Valentini to some of the greatest expressions of Montrachet.

But therein lies the rub: many English-language writers feel obliged to compare Italian wines to French when it comes to describing their greatness.

It’s time for English-language media to cast off the stereotypes and bias of past generations.

Thanks for reading…

Italy mourns the loss of pioneering Basilicata chef Frank Rizzuti

cucina del sud basilicata potenza

Above: Chef Frank Rizzuti (image via Dissapore).

Today, Italy’s wine and food community mourns the loss of pioneering Basilicata chef Frank Rizzuti, who has died of an unspecified illness.

Across the Italian enogastronomic blogosphere, Chef Rizzuti — the first Basilicata chef to receive a Michelin star — is being remembered today for drawing international attention to the burgeoning fine dining circuit in Basilicata, a region seldom visited by foreigners and often overlooked by the Italian food media.

Click here to continue reading…

Panic in Montalcino over a reported seizure (a false alarm)

mt amiata

Above: a view of Mt. Amiata from Castelnuovo dell’Abate in the southeastern subzone of Montalcino.

On Friday, the Italian news agency ANSA (akin to our UPI or Associated Press) reported that 445 hectoliters of wine had been confiscated at a “noted” winery in Montalcino. It did not name the winery in question but claimed that the wine had been seized by the Italian forest service and by the anti-adulteration arm of the national police because of “hygienic and sanitary” infractions.

The title of the post was “Massive confiscation of wine in Montalcino.”

Over the weekend, the story was picked up by numerous mastheads, including some of Italy’s leading dailies.

The Brunello consortium responded swiftly with a blog post.

The seizure, says consortium President Fabrizio Bindocci in the post, had nothing to do with “issues related to appellation oversight,” although neither he nor the consortium specify what charges have been filed against the winery owner or why the wine was seized.

A source in Montalcino, who asked to remain anonymous because of the delicate nature of the report, has informed me that the seizure had nothing to do with adulterated wine or sanitary issues. It stemmed, in fact, from the winery owners’ failure to obtain required permits for a recently completed facility on the estate.

Tragically, Italy’s arcane and often heavy-handed bureaucracy, combined with its long-standing tradition of yellow journalism, has dealt another blow to consumers’ perceptions of Brunello di Montalcino, where memories of the 2008 adulteration controversy are still fresh and wounds still raw.

The saddest thing, in my view, is how no one on the ground in Montalcino has the courage to “get in front” of stories like this and embrace transparency over obfuscation.

This is an instance, no doubt, where transparency could lead to more veracity in reporting of events there.

The winery in question — a lower-end, commercial producer of Brunello, whose wines make it to the U.S. – should have taken responsibility for the “brand damage” and issued a statement itself.