happy father’s day

It’s my first father’s day as the dad to two happy, healthy, beautiful little girls. And it feels great.

Tracie P and I have so much to be thankful for…

Our girls have the best mommy ever. She takes such good care of them and works so hard to make sure that they have everything they need to grow up in a wholesome environment.

And we are so blessed to have the support of our loving family here in southeast Texas.

I love our girls and their mommy so much. Thanks for sharing our joy and happy father’s day!

Coravin controversy: don’t malign this revolutionary device

My post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant follows.

Thanks for reading and buon weekend!

dave fass wineAbove: a sommelier using the Coravin. The device is wildly popular among wine professionals today in the U.S.

In case you’re not familiar with the Coravin, it’s a tool that allows wine professionals to extract wine from a bottle without breaking its seal or removing the cork. The device itself is a high-tech syringe that’s inserted into the bottle through the cork. Because it doesn’t allow any air to enter the bottle, the fitness of the remaining wine is not compromised.

The Coravin was launched in July 2013 (click here for the company’s press release announcing the launch) and since that time, it’s become immensely popular among wine professionals across the U.S.

On June 3, subscribers to the Coravin email newsletter received the following message:

“Dear Coravin Customers… it has come to our attention that, in certain circumstances, wine bottles can burst when used with the Coravin System, presenting a risk of lacerations. We believe the likelihood of this occurrence is very rare since wine bottles are designed to withstand significantly greater pressure than the low pressure the Coravin System places into the bottle. Nevertheless, Coravin has now received seven reports of bottles bursting including one report of a laceration.”

The story was immediately reported by myriad English-language and foreign blogs, notably by the popular wine search engine, WineSearcher.

In the title of the post, “Safety Warning Over Coravin’s ‘Killer Device’,” the editors of WineSearcher quote the noted wine writer, Robert Parker, Jr., out of context.

In his July, 2013 review, he wrote in praise of the new device: “Coravin is the most transformational and exciting new product for wine lovers that has been developed/invented in the last 30+ years, this is a killer device.”

The Coravin June 3 announcement has polarized the trade.

“Always hated these stupid things,” wrote a prominent sommelier in a message e-list subscribers.

Please click here to continue reading my post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant.

My favorite interview & my top 10 wine destinations in Houston

jeremy parzen wine blog bloggerAbove: friend and colleague Alfonso took this photo of me.

I feel so fortunate to be part of the national dialog on wine.

One of the fun things about belonging to the U.S. wine community is that wine writing colleagues will occasionally reach out and ask me to share my insights into Italian wine and trends in fine wine.

But I rarely get to talk about my other interests, like Italian cinema and indy music.

Until today…

Jameson Fink, author of one of my favorite wine blogs, Wine Without Worry, and contributor to Grape Collective, just posted an interview that we did via email.

In it, he gave me the opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Italian filmmakers, my music, and about the city that I have come to love and where I live with Tracie P and our girls, Houston. It includes my top 10 spots for wine in the Bayou City, where the scene is bustling like never before.

Jameson, thank you so much for this. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it really means the world to me… thank you, friend!

Palmento, latest entry in Italian Winery Designations Explained glossary TY @GiacomoBrunelli

PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR THE UPDATED GLOSSARY (April 2018).

ancient winemaking italyAbove: outside a mid-twentieth-century palmento in Alliste, Lecce province (image via Wiki Commons).

“The closer you look at a word,” wrote the twentieth-century Austrian essayist Karl Kraus, “the more distantly it looks back” (see this note on a word’s “aura”).

That’s what happened when I started to examine the word palmento this morning. It was suggested to me by Italian artist and photographer Giacomo Brunelli for inclusion in my Italian Winery Designations Explained glossary.

palmento, literally a place where grapes are pressed or where wheat is milled, an ancient term that appears as early as the thirteenth century in Italian, possibly from paumentum, spoken Latin for floor (akin to the Italian pavimento), possibly from the late Latin (?) palamentum meaning [mill] paddle, akin to the Italian pala meaning paddle or blade (N.B. neither etymology is certain).

In antiquity, the palmento was a de facto cooperative, the so-called torcular (Latin, press) where grapes were pressed before being transferred to other vessels for fermentation. Today, there are still working palmenti in Campania and Sicily, while in other parts of Italy, you can find palmenti that have been transformed for other uses.

palmento siciliaAbove: a palmento in Buscemi, Siracusa province (image via Wiki Commons).

The Italian expression mangiare a quattro palmenti (literally, to eat like four millstones, akin to the expression macinare a quattro palmenti, i.e., to grind like four millstones) means to eat voraciously or to eat like a horse. See this note on the expression by leading English- and Italian-language food blogger Briciole.

Thanks again to Giacomo for suggesting this fascinating term!

In other news…

A tweet this morning from the nice folks at Hearth and Terroir in New York reminded me that I had neglected to update the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project with the most recent entries (Ribolla Gialla, Friulano, and Verduzzo).

It’s now up-to-date and you can view it here.

In other other news…

Yesterday, I posted on a superb meal that I shared with my friends and clients Silvia Loschi and Alessandro Fenino in the Marches in April. It was one of the highlights of my trip and I’ll never forget the excellent vincisgrassi that I ate that magical night.

Thanks for reading and for speaking Italian wines!

amaro varnelli best marche

Wine culture stymied by Pennsylvania monopoly, a sommelier speaks out

steven wildy wine list vetriAbove: Steve Wildy (left), wine director for the Vetri restaurant group in Philadelphia. The group’s flagship restaurant, Vetri, is considered one of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. Steve has to pay retail prices (not wholesale) to maintain its superb wine list (image via McDuff’s Food & Wine Trail).

The following Facebook note, by my friend and colleague Steve Wildy, one of our country’s leading wine professionals, appeared week before last. I’m reposting it here in its entirety.

Others (notably Joe Roberts, author of 1WineDude) have written about the dismal situation in Pennsylvania, where the state monopoly on wine and spirits requires restaurant wine buyers to pay retail prices for their wines.

After reading Steve’s note, I felt it was important to share it here. (See also “The PA State Monopoly on Wine & Spirits: A Systemic Failure” by Joseph M. Norton, professor of history, SUNY Dutchess, Poughkeepsie.)

If we are to grow as a nation of fine wine lovers, we need to fight arcane, anachronistic, fascist-era regulation of wine sales in states like Pennsylvania, where young wine professionals are stymied by egregiously restrictive and counterproductive oversight (Texas is another major offender).

*****

I recently received wind of online comments made by Jason Malumed, a wine distributor, in response to Philly Mag food writer Trey Popp’s review of Petruce et al. These comments elicited a response from the critic called “A Second Look At Petruce et al: The State of the Markup.” (You should read it – http://www.phillymag.com/foobooz/2014/05/27/second-look-petruce-et-al-state-markup/#comment-1410210035) Malumed’s comments sought to point out many factual inaccuracies and outright untruths. Unfortunately, Popp’s second look doesn’t apologize to Petruce co-owner and wine director Tim Kweeder for misquoting his average markups as 3x instead of 2.6x as much as it takes the opportunity to further rail against restaurant wine pricing in general.

Popp may not be alone in his opinions on the matter, but as a journalist whose readers regard him as an authority on the subject, I’d like him to take another look. There are several serious issues with his critique that show a fundamental lack of understanding of the wine business, and in fact how restaurants operate in general.

It’s this lack of knowledge—given Popp’s wide platform and long reach—that has the potential to irrevocably harm a slew of honest and hardworking small businesses. Why? Because his misinformation, even if it’s un-willful, potentially discourages a large swath of people from dining at a restaurant for fear they’re being ripped off.
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Will Valpolicella Classico cease to exist? Popularity of Ripasso threatens tradition

valpolicella map vineyards crusAbove: the wrinkled topography of Valpolicella, the “valley of alluvial deposits,” was formed by five ancient river beds. Please click here for my post on the origins of the toponym Valpolicella.

An old friend and colleague from my years in New York, Lars Leicht (now of Cru Artisan Wines), asked me to present a vertical tasting of Amarone this week here in Houston with Andrea Sartori of Sartori and Christian Scrinzi of Bolla.

The flight, stretching back to the mid-90s, was compelling (the 1999 Corte Bra by Sartori was the highlight for me). But the frank dialog with the participants — both of whom sit on the Valpolicella consortium advisory board — was what really sticks in my mind this morning.

“It’s possible that Valpolicella Classico could cease to exist,” said Sartori when I asked him about where the majority of Valpolicella wines are sold in the world (Canada and the nordic countries, he noted, are the biggest markets for the appellation, one of Italy’s most successful wine “brands”).

The problem, he explained, is that the number of bottles of Ripasso — the most lucrative category — are limited by the number of bottles of Amarone and Recioto produced.

Article 5 of the Ripasso DOC regulations (as amended in 2010) states:

    In volume, the quantity of “Valpolicella ripasso” designation of controlled origin wines can not exceed twice the volume of wine obtained from the lees from the categories “Recioto della Valpolicella” and/or “Amarone della Valpolicella” employed in the operations of refermentation/ripasso [ripasso, which can be rendered in English as second passage or second fermentation, refers to the traditional Valpolicella vinification technique whereby wines are aged on the lees from previously vinified Amarone or Recioto; translation mine].

In other words, a given producer may only produce two bottles of Ripasso for every bottle of Amarone and/or Recioto she/he makes.

Ripasso has become such a successful category that more and more growers and bottlers are using their fruit to produce Amarone instead of Valpolicella Classico. Greater volume in Amarone production allows them to bottle more Ripasso.

The issue, said Sartori, will be one of the discussion points at a Valpolicella consortium advisory board meeting to be held next Tuesday in Verona (both he and Scrinzi will be in attendance, he noted).

As a bona fide Venetophile and Italian wine lover, it’s my sincere hope that the board and the appellation in general will work together to protect Valpolicella Classico. It’s a proletariat wine that aligns in tradition and in ethos with Veneto enogastronomy. When vinified in a traditional manner, it’s fresh, food-friendly, and delicious. In terms of price-quality ratio, it can represent one of Italy’s greatest wine values and it’s a sine qua non of Veneto culture.

In other news…steve samsonMy good friend chef Steve Samson (above), whom I’ve known since our junior year abroad in Italy together, appeared yesterday on the morning talk show “The Talk.”

Here’s the link to the clip.

Steve is such a great guy — dad to two beautiful children and a super talented chef — and he is the owner/chef at Sotto in Los Angeles, where I co-author the (nearly) all-southern Italian wine list.

In other other news…

This week, my Italian wine writing colleague Jacopo Cossater launched a crowd-funding project for a new English-language magazine devoted exclusively to Italian wines.

It’s an ambitious project and if successful, it would give the world a much-needed English-language resource — authored by Italians.

You can watch an English-language video describing the initiative here.

Jacopo is a good guy and I have a lot of respect for him and his work.

And lastly for your consideration…

I was profiled this week in the San José Mercury News. Wine blogging has been so rewarding for me, both personally and professionally. But above all, it’s given me a means to express my passion for Italy, Italian literature and culture, and Italian enogastronomy.

As the author of the piece notes, when I realized I couldn’t make a living by writing about Italian poetry, I turned to viticulture…

Here’s the link.

Buon weekend, yall!

Hail wipes out 2014 Maule/Biancara vintage, tragedy for Garganega lovers

angiolino mauleAbove: a few years ago, Tracie P, Alfonso, and I visited Angiolino Maule (right) on his Biancara estate in Gambellara. He is the founder of the natural wine association VinNatur and his extraordinary wines are dear to my heart.

In Italy they call it a “leopard-spot hailstorm,” in other words, a hail storm that capriciously hits small, delimited areas while sparing adjacent vineyards.

On Friday of last week, such a storm violently ripped through parts of northern Italy, striking some of the Veneto’s most prized Garganega vineyards in Gambellara (Vicenza province).

The story was reported yesterday by the popular Italian wine blog Intravino.

“Four hectares were hit hard,” Alessandro and Francesco Maule (Angiolino’s sons) are quoted as saying in the report.

The damaged sites represent roughly a third of the winery’s vineyards.

“There are no grapes left here and in the other two parcels [Monte di Mezzo and Taibane], we lost 80% of the bunches,” said the brothers. “We’re talking about our best growing sites. We are the masters of nothing! There will be no [vineyard-designated] Pico from the 2014 vintage although there will probably be some Recioto. It’s a disaster.”

“We lost at least half of the harvest,” said Claudio Zambon the local delegate for Coldiretti (the Italian agricultural union) in an interview published this week by VicenzaReport. “The damage was so bad that many plants will have to be moved.” Next year’s harvest, he noted, will probably be affected as well.

The storms will cost the appellation “hundreds of thousands of Euros,” he said.

Faenza province (Emilia-Romagna) was also hard hit by the storm. The image below was posted this week by Agronominvigna on its Facebook.

“Even the grass is gone,” wrote an Intravino reader who shared the Facebook link.

faenza hail storm

America’s favorite busboy & a great illustration by @Hawk_Wakawaka

bobby stuckey busboy“I’m just the head busboy at Frasca,” says Bobby Stuckey whenever he pours wine for trade or consumers. He’s referring to one of our favorite restaurants in the country, Frasca in Boulder, inspired by the enogastronomy of Friuli.

He and his business partner Chef Lachlan Patterson, founders and owners of Frasca, were in Houston last night pouring their Scarpetta wines and serving up a classic Friulian dinner.

Tracie P and I love Lachlan’s cooking so much and I was geeked to take her out for the evening (we have a great baby sitter and we’re finally settled into nursing and bedtime rhythms with the girls and we can occasionally treat ourselves to a night out these days).

We love the wines, too, and you’ll often find their sparkling rosé from Franconia in our fridge.

But the thing I love the most about Bobby is his easy-going nature and his snobbery-free approach to wine connoisseurship. There he was (above) bussing tables and serving food to guests, interacting with everyone.

I wrote about the marvelous dinner, held at the trendy seafood outfit Reef, for the Houston Press today.

An added treat was revisiting the fantastic illustration (below) by my good friend Hawk Wakawaka, wine blogger extraordinaire.

scarpetta wine stuckeyShe had done the drawing and tasting notes for Bobby and Lachlan a few years ago and now they use it as a placemat for their events. It’s simply brilliant. And the descriptors are spot-on.

Click here for a high-res scan of the original drawing.

One of the trade reps at the dinner got up and talked about how Hawk Wakawaka is “the voice of our generation,” as he put it.

It’s wonderful to see how her work has affected people’s lives and perceptions of wines. Invariably, when someone sees her illustrations for the first time, there are exclamations of “this is wonderful!” and “I’ve never seen anything like this before!”

She’s been such a good friend to me and I am a huge fan of her work (she wrote my all-time favorite wine blog post, btw).

Yesterday ended well with a lovely dinner date with my beautiful wife.

But otherwise, it had been a really dark day here at Do Bianchi. I really appreciate the many notes of solidarity that I received from wine writing colleagues from Italy and here in the U.S. They meant the world to me.

The one good thing that the awful morning delivered was a new motto: in vertitate vinum. In other words, you’ll find the wine in the truth and not the other way around.

Thanks for being here. It means the world to me. See you tomorrow. Now it’s time to hit the streets and keep the world safe for Italian wine…

Sensationalist reporting wrongly tarnishes Italian wine: Nadeau’s yellow journalism

We see through a bottle, darkly…

italian wine scandalI was dismayed to read Barbie Latza Nadeau’s most recent reporting on the Italian wine trade in a June 1 post on The Daily Beast.

The piece, which appears on one the world’s most popular English-language blogs (published by Newsweek), is laden with hyperbole and inaccuracy, not to mention spotty, yellow journalism.

I won’t speculate on what prompted Ms. Nadeau to write it. But I’d like to address some of the sweeping, sensationalist claims published by her and her editors.

The title reads: “Chateau Scam 2014: Italy’s Weird World of Wine Fraud.”

Is she aware that château is French? And is weird an appropriate descriptor for reporting of such egregious transgressions? In all fairness to Ms. Nadeau, it’s likely that her editors wrote the title.

The subtitle: “Italian police confiscated thousands of bottles of table wine masquerading as high-end appellations, some selling for as much as $25,000 each.”

A six-bottle lot of 1978 Giacomo Conterno sold for $14,400 and a single bottle of 1961 fetched $1,680 at Zachy’s in New York in 2009 (source: Blouin ArtInfo).

But these record-setting prices don’t come near the “$25,000 each” mark mentioned in Ms. Nadeau’s piece (again, it’s likely that the sub-title was written by her editor).

Most trade observers agree that G. Conterno’s Monfortino is one of Italy’s most expensive wines. French wines often sell for higher prices (in 2013, WineSearcher.com reported that “the average price of a bottle of Romanée-Conti [one of the world’s most expensive wines] sits at more than $13,000”).

But it’s highly improbable that the alleged bottles of counterfeit wine described in Ms. Nadeau’s piece would have been sold for “$25,000 each.”

“After a three-year investigation into suspected wine fraud in Italy,” writes Ms. Nadeau, “it appears increasingly likely that your vino tinto is actually vino finto, the Italian word for fake” [italics hers].

Is she aware that vino tinto is Spanish? I’d love to give her the benefit of the doubt but the pun is misinformed, misleading, and in bad taste (finto is an Italian word that can be translated as fake; vino is Italian for wine).

Ms. Nadeau reports: “Italian police confiscated 30,000 bottles of Brunello, Chianti Classico and Sagrantino di Montefalco from warehouses, wine merchants, grocery stores and restaurants after discovering that the bottles with the more expensive labels contained common table wine that is only worth about a dollar a liter.”

The amount of wine is substantial. But however serious the crime, it comes nowhere near the more than 9 million liters of wine reportedly confiscated in Italy in 2008 (see this post by Master of Wine and Oxford Companion to Wine editor Jancis Robinson and my excerpted translation of Italian news reports).

Yes, it’s true: wine adulteration is common throughout Europe and the U.S.

But 30,000 bottles represent a relatively small amount of wine when compared with the major counterfeiting scandals in recent memory. And Ms. Nadeau and her editors have greatly misrepresented the gravity of the allegations.

Italian authorities’ “wine fraud investigation, which began more than three years ago,” claims Ms. Nadeau, “was launched after wine importers in the United States complained that their expensive Italian reds tasted bitter.”

Beyond the fact that she gives no source for this claim, it’s hard to believe that U.S. importers would contact Italian officials lamenting that “their expensive Italian reds tasted bitter.”

“Bitterness” is hardly a criterion for the authenticity of wine. It’s simply laughable to think that a self-respecting U.S. importer would contact the Italian government with such a claim.

“The Italian scam,” notes Ms. Nadeau, “follows an even bigger case of fraud in the United States involving Rudy Kurniawan, a Chinese-Indonesian wine fraudster who reportedly netted more than $20 million selling counterfeit wine and defrauding several banks to take out loans to buy and sell his fake wines in exclusive auctions.”

The two scams are by no means related: based in the U.S., Rudy Kurniawan produced counterfeit bottles of coveted-vintage French wine that were sold to collectors at exorbitant prices; the Italian “scam” described by Ms. Nadeau appears to involve counterfeit bottles of current vintages of “high-end [Italian] appellations” produced in Italy and marketed to mid-tier consumers.

The fact that Italy and France continue to be plagued by wine counterfeiting schemes is newsworthy — no doubt.

Possibly prompted by the Daily Beast articles and a story published by the Telegraph last week, Decanter also reported the episode this morning.

But the Decanter writer seems to be more knowledgable about the context of the crime (and is thus more restrained and more accurate) and he also seems to be better versed in wine parlance (my favorite Nadeauism is “oaken barrels”).

(The story was originally reported by the Associated Press on May 29, 2014. It’s worth reading the original report: it gives you a sense of how this story evolved in Ms. Nadeau’s hands.)

The thing that irks me the most about Ms. Nadeau’s sloppy journalism is that she misses the point entirely. Failing to see the forest for the trees, she writes: “unless wine consumers have a sophisticated enough palate to discern whether their Brunello, Chianti or Sagrantino is the real deal, there is just no way to judge the bottle by its label.”

The true victim of this crime is not the unwitting consumer who doesn’t have a “sophisticated enough palate” (another fine example of Ms. Nadeau’s command of English). No, the real victims are the producers. The Italian and French appellations systems were conceived to protect them. And the good news is that the Italian authorities are working diligently to combat wine counterfeiting. Food and wine adulteration is one of the Italian government’s top priorities (pork, for example, is one of the most highly adulterated food products in Europe).

I feel bad for the consumer who cannot discern whether or not her/his Sagrantino is the “real deal.” No one wants to spend $80-100 on a counterfeit bottle of wine. But I feel even worse for Italian winemakers who have to pick up the pieces in the wake Ms. Nadeau’s irresponsible reporting.

After all, in veritate, vinum, not the other way around.

Donatella Cinelli Colombini knighted by Italian Republic

donatella colombini knight merit republic italyAbove: Donatella Cinelli Colombini (right) in New York in 2013 at Benvenuto Brunello.

Today in Siena, Brunello di Montalcino producer Donatella Cinelli Colombini was knighted by the Italian Republic. The ceremony was held in the historic tapestry room of the Siena prefecture on the occasion of Italian Republic Day, an annual national holiday celebrating the founding of the Italian Republic in 1946.

Colombini is now a knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, “the highest ranking honor of the Republic… awarded for ‘merit acquired by the nation’ in the fields of literature, the arts, economy, public service, and social, philanthropic and humanitarian activities and for long and conspicuous service in civilian and military careers” (Wikipedia).

She is the vice president of the Donne del Vino (Association of Italian Women in Wine), president of the Orcia bottlers consortium, and a member of the technical advisory committee of the Brunello di Montalcino bottlers consortium.

Known for her colorful character and her leadership during times of crisis within the Brunello consortium, she is one of Italy’s most beloved winemakers.

According to her winery’s blog, when she received her diploma today in Siena, she asked attendees “not to call her knight but knightess.”