Vietti, final thoughts: “without a great civilization behind them, great wines cannot be made.”

montalcino photo creative commonsAbove: “Chasing the fog” in Montalcino, a digital reproduction of an analog photo by London-based filmmaker Oliver Cooper.

As I was preparing an aggregate of blog posts on the recent controversy stirred by the sale of legacy Barolo estate Vietti to the American owners of convenience store chain Kum & Go, I realized that the most compelling piece wasn’t about Vietti at all. It was about Montalcino and its transformation in the 1990s as “foreign” investors (some of the American, most of them Italian) invaded the sleepy Tuscan hilltop village and surroundings.

“Maybe Brunello is better off,” writes my friend and client Stefano Cinelli Colombini on the Montalcino Blog (that I run for the estate). “Maybe it’s not. But regardless, it has remained the same. I don’t know of other cases of ‘grafts’ that were so successful. And I might even go as far as to say that even beyond the enologic horizon, this is a sign of a great civilization. And without a great civilization behind them, great wines cannot be made. ‘Terroir,’ money, marketing, and great winemakers are not enough. That’s been attempted in other places and it hasn’t worked. Ever.”

Watching the unfolding of Barolo’s historic arc from Montalcino, the future seems undimmed. I highly recommend Stefano’s mighty post (and my translation) to you.

In one of his most powerful posts, Antonio Galloni, the anglophone world’s leading Italian wine writer, sees a much less bright horizon in the distance.

“The recent sale of Vietti to American investor Kyle Krause,” he opines, “is one of the most shocking events I have seen in twenty years of visiting Piedmont and nearly thirty years of buying and drinking Vietti wines. For decades, Vietti has marketed itself as the standard bearer of artisan Piedmontese values – multi-generational family ownership, tradition and an attachment to the land. The question is: What does Vietti, and more broadly, Piedmont, stand for today?”

No English-language scribe has better captured the socio-cultural-historical significance of this transaction and transition.

The coda of his piece, which I highly recommend to you, brought me to tears.

In a comment to one of my posts on this changing-of-hands, Italian wine trade veteran Matthew Fioretti counters that “Vietti’s best days are still to come… In fact, the sale of Vietti was not at all surprising – at least not from the production side. Nor is it a sign of doom and gloom – unless you are idealizing the Langhe, viticulture, and life on wine estates. The fact that almost nobody is asking about the reality of production shows how wedded consumers and wine enthusiasts have become to an idyllic, Romantic picture of the Langhe.”

Matthew is a great if unsung writer. And he makes an informed, compelling and Realpolitik point in his note, which deserves our attention.

Lastly, while a few blogs have published interviews with Luca Currado wherein the Vietti winemaker addresses the sale and the controversy (you don’t need me to help you find them), the good folks over at the Italian hypertextual blog and commerical platform Vinix have published an English-language interview with Kum & Go scion Kyle Krause.

Unfortunately, Vinix hasn’t updated its site to align with the new standards of internet security. The link is not secure. So proceed at your own discretion and risk.

Krause doesn’t reveal anything new about the transaction but this is the only place on the interwebs (that I know of) where he has made his voice heard.

There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. Thanks for being here. Buon weekend a tutti.

Italian speeding ticket fine amount and how to pay

From the department of “moral of the story”…

how do you pay italian speeding ticket italyAs many Americans have headed to Italy for a summer vacation, I’ve seen a significant up-tick in views of a post I published last fall, “How much does an Italian speeding ticket cost?”

At the time, I had received notification from a rental car agency that I would subsequently receive a ticket from Italian authorities.

It took more than 6 months and nearly year since my speeding infraction to receive the actual ticket, which arrived via certified mail in May from the Monteroni d’Arbia municipal police department (Monteroni is a small village on the Cassia, the old Roman road that leads from Siena to Montalcino and ultimately to Rome, the SS2 or state highway 2).

I had been clocked over the limit by an automated “Speed Limit Enforcement System” like the “Autovelox” (as it is known in Italian) in the photo above.

The fine was for €192.99 (about $214 at today’s exchange rate).

The letter from the Monteroni police also provided bank wire information for payment.

But here’s the thing: I had no way of determining the bank fees that the township’s bank (in this case, the BancoPosta or Italian postal service bank) would charge me for the receipt of the wire. All banks charge an “incoming” wire fee. I also had to pay $40 to my bank for the international wire.

I tacked on another €40 to make sure I would be covered. In the end, it cost me more than $300.

As soon as the wire had gone through (most banks today will let you send an international wire online), I emailed the Monteroni police department using the address in its letterhead.

I included a scan of the ticket and the receipt for the wire.

My “to whom it may concern” was answered by a nameless agent who wrote:

Good evening,
the documents have been received.
You must not do any other action.
Best regards

I immediately wrote back requesting a receipt but never heard back.

Over the many years that I have lived, worked, studied, and traveled in Italy, I’ve been stopped and questioned by the police on a few occasions. In most cases, it was at a random check point. This is the first ticket and fine I’ve ever received (in nearly 30 years of driving in Italy).

Every time I’ve dealt with the police there, I’ve been reminded of Hemmingway’s 1927 novella “Che ti dice la patria” (which you will find today in an anthology entitled Men without Women, also published in 1927 by Scribner’s).

I won’t reveal the story line here but as per Ernest’s advice, always ask for a receipt

Single-vineyard Barolo at a supermarket? Yes, it happened in Houston.

best wine shop houstonI had read about Jaime De Leon and his ambitious wine program at a Kroger supermarket in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. But it wasn’t until I walked into the wine section there the other day that I could wrap my mind around what Jaime, who goes by James, has achieved. 

It’s a truly extraordinary selection, with great depth and breadth. And it includes wines like the Aldo Conterno crus above and scores of skus from small, artisan-focused importers whose wines reach Texas through a growing network of small, courageous distributors.

The wine scene in Texas and in Houston in particular have come such a long way since I first moved here nearly eight years ago.

James’ work is a a great example of the growing verve, grit, and gusto of the youthful Houston wine community and I was thrilled to profile him today for the Houston Press. His story — from teen-aged bagger to Master Sommelier candidate — is as compelling as it is truly American.

Here’s the link to my Houston Press post.

Today, I also have to give a shout-out to my good friend of many years, Bryon Bates of Goatboy Selections (below, left) and Zev Rovine of Zev Rovine Selections (right), two of the grooviest wine importers working currently in the U.S. They were both in Houston yesterday for the final event and tasting in the month-long, Houston-based “Loire Festival,” organized by Master Sommelier David Keck.

It’s awecome to see their wines available in Texas, something that wouldn’t be possible without a handful of forward-thinking, brave small business owners who have reshaped the Texas wine scene over the arc of my years here.

Thanks for coming to Texas, guys, and thanks for checking out what’s been happening in this little corner of Southeast Texas.

zev rovine byron bates

Groppello as pronounced by Paolo Pasini (Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project)

The latest entry in the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project

paolo pasiniReader John Roenigk of the Austin Wine Merchant writes:

Hello Jeremy,

“Groppello” might be a good one to add to your project.

Best from beautiful downtown Austin, Texas!

Here you go, John! And thanks for the suggestion!

Happy birthday, Lila Jane! We love you so much, sweet girl!

A new video starring Lila Jane and featuring the hit single “Lalala Lila Jane” by the Parzen Family Singers…

lj post 2Happy birthday, Lila Jane, sweet, sweet girl!

As I put together the photos for your birthday video, I kept thinking over and over about your special sparkle and your contagious smile.

It’s so much fun to be your dad and you have brought so much joy into our lives with your sweetness and tenderness.

I can’t wait for milkshakes today at Bernie’s Burger Bus, your favorite.

And I know your “rainbow” birthday party tomorrow is going to be a blast.

I love you, sweet, sweet girl. Happy birthday!

lj post 1

Tauma, a rosé that speaks the language of Jesus (one of Italy’s most talked-about new labels)

tauma best rosato wine italyIt seems like a lifetime ago that leading Italian wine blogger Alessandro Morichetti grabbed me by the arm at Vinitaly 2014 and whispered in my ear: “Jeremy, man, you just have to taste this wine. It’s incredible.”

The wine in question was a rosé made from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and named tauma, which means twin in Aramaic, the language most likely spoken by Jesus and His disciples. It was the language spoken during his era by most Jews, who were more likely to speak Aramaic and Greek than Hebrew.

(Check out this hard-to-navigate but super cool Aramaic lexicon on the Hebrew Union College website.)

The name is owed to the fact that Abruzzese winemaker Giuliano Pettinella (a lawyer by day) sources his fruit from “twin” vineyard sites.

Ever since its debut three years ago, Tauma has been one of the most talked-about wines among Italy’s wine cognoscenti.

According to the best online description I could find (translation mine), the wine is made from fruit grown in “two vineyards that, combined, barely cover a half of hectare and make for handful of bottles (roughly 1,800).”

“One of the sites is located in the foothills of the Maiella [massif in the central Apennines] in Tocco da Casuria township (Pescara province) with 45-year-old, Abruzzese pergola-trained vines. The other is found on a hillside facing the sea in Silvi Marina (Teramo province), with 20-year-old, low cordon-trained spur-pruned vines.”

No chemicals are used in the vineyards. And Giuliano alternates each year between manure and tilled cover crops for fertilizer.

The only treatments used to combat oidium and peronospora are sulfur and copper.

No herbicides are used and grasses are allowed to grow spontaneously. He mows between the rows at the end of summer so as to facilitate green harvest and the final harvest.

The grapes from each vineyard are co-fermented. No cultured yeasts are used for fermentation, which takes place in “decades-old” barriques without temperature control.

The wine is aged first in cask, where it undergoes frequent stirring of the lees, and then in stainless steel. No additives are employed to stabilize the wine and the wine is neither clarified or filtered. Only a small amount of SO2 is added before bottling.

It’s one of my most stunning wine discoveries over the last few years and it is available for the first time in the U.S. at Sotto in Los Angeles, where I have been authoring the wine list for more than five years now.

I’m telling you folks, this is one not to miss.

Thanks for reading and thanks for digging groovy Italian wine!

“We made this monster”: reflections and notes on the Vietti sale

From the department of “Gramsci’s ashes”…

vietti baroloAbove: a large format bottle of Vietti Barolo, proudly displayed in the lobby of the hotel where Tracie P and I were staying in Alba down the road from Barolo village last week.

“We made this monster.”

Those were the words of a legacy Barolo producer last week when the subject of the Vietti sale came up in conversation at dinner.

The winemaker wasn’t deriding Vietti or its new American owner. Nor was this a Jeremiad on the high prices of land and vineyards in the appellation.

It was a simple statement of fact. The immense popularity of Barolo among collectors today, said the grape grower, has caused land prices to increase so drastically that even legacy families can no longer afford to expand their holdings.

“I can sell my vineyards,” said the vigniaolo, “but I can no longer afford to buy new vineyards.”

How not to make an analogy with the גולם (goylem) of Jewish mythology? Created to protect the Jews of Prague, the goylem was a monster who could no longer be controlled by them once the threat had been overcome.

While we were in Barolo last week for the Collisioni festival, it was only natural that everyone was talking about the sale of Vietti to an American buyer Kyle Krause (owner of Kum and Go) and its implications.

I haven’t been surprised by the reactions of my Italian counterparts and peers — writers and trade observers who lean toward traditional-style Barolo and champion its cultural signficance. As I noted in a post last week, many (and most, really) see the acquisition as a “dark day for Barolo.”

But in speaking to top growers and bottlers in situ like the one above, I was impressed by their embrace of the sale as the natural outgrowth of their appellation.

I also learned that for the most part (although not universally), they have have great respect and affection for Mr. Krause.

He and his wife have been coming to Barolo for years, they told me. And for years, he has dutifully paid visits and homage to the Barolo greats. Although some are disdainful of the sale, none had a bad word for him — not one.

Since I posted my note on the sale last week, I’ve also been struck by the reaction of many leading American wine professionals.

As one industry veteran put it, my voice is part of “a chorus of American histrionics regarding foreign investment in Vietti.”

While in Barolo, one of the most prominent Italian wine buyers in the U.S. (and a good friend) gently chastised me. What’s wrong, he asked me, with the Vietti winery using American investment to expand their vineyards and grow their business?

He’s wholly right: the families behind the Vietti brand have every right and prerogative to engage in one of the tenets of the American brand of capitalism. He is 100 percent right in this. I cannot underline that enough.

But then I think of the sale of legacy Chianti producer Ricasoli to the Seagram group in the 1970s. We all know how that ended…

Just today, my friend and client Stefano Cinelli Colombini published a post about the day that Banfi came knocking at Fattoria dei Barbi in 1969. The Mariani brothers weren’t coming to buy but to license. And ultimately they came to buy.

“Love it or hate it… was it better for Brunello [this way]?” asks Stefano. “Who can say?” (The post is really worth checking out; Italian wine trade observers will be surprised by Stefano’s anecdote, I’m sure.)

Without a doubt, I see the logic and wisdom of capitalist spirit here, although I don’t share it.

I also see a Marxist parable in play whereby the boom becomes unsustainable by those who created “the monster.”

The Kum and Go family’s purchase in Barolo isn’t the first example of foreign investment there nor will it be the last.

One of the best expressions of Nebbiolo I tasted last week was made by a Barolo native who works for a Czech-owned winery: a historic estate that has been reinvigorated by foreign investment.

And I was told that Asian investment in Barolo is also growing.

The power and strength of the capitalist march are unstoppable. It was inevitable that Barolo, like Burgundy and Bordeaux and Brunello before it, would succumb to the capitalist model.

But there’s no question that a little piece of Barolo died last week for the sake of progress. And there’s no question — at least in my mind — that Baldo Cappellano was right when he told us: the battles you know you won’t win are the ones you need to fight the hardest for…

morra barolo license free

Italy’s never-ending viticultural wonders

enrico cauda roero fornaceTracie P and I were blown away — BLOWN AWAY — by the superb flight of wines that we tasted yesterday at the Collisioni festival’s Roero event.

That’s Enrico Cauda of Cascina Fornace, above, just one of the roughly 20 producers who showed their wines at Malabaila castle in the historic center of Canale (township). From the conventional to the elegantly macerated to the crunchy and funky, there wasn’t a bad wine in the house.

We’re about to head back to Houston today. But in coming days, I’ll have notes on Roero, Dolcetto di Dogliani, Nascetta, a new classic-style Barolo producer, and so many other incredible wines we tasted.

I’ll also share notes on what people from many different walks of (wine) life had to say about the Vietti sale (you might be surprised by what I learned).

I’ve been coming to Italy as a wine professional for more than 15 years now and even after so many visits, I’m always amazed and thrilled by the new wines I discover on each trip (the Roero event was particularly revelatory).

Thanks for being here and following along. See you on the other side!

barolo castle tour

Beppe Severgnini on terrorism #Collisioni16 #Barolo

beppe severgniniI didn’t get to catch all of Beppe Severgnini’s talk at the Collisioni festival in Barolo, Italy yesterday.

But I did manage to break away from a busy tasting schedule for a few minutes and hear him work a spellbound standing-room-only crowd.

“If we start to close our borders and ban immigrants,” he said, “then the terrorists will have won.”

I would have liked to hear more but a flight of Ligurian wines awaited me in the Barolo castle tasting room.

About to head out for another day of tasting at the festival and will report back soonest.

In the meantime, check out this interesting column by Severgnini on historical terrorism from late last year.

Buona domenica a tutti!

Vietti and the reification of Nebbiolo: “A dark day for Barolo.”

nebbiolo harvest 2015Above: Nebbiolo grapes in Cannubi, one of Barolo’s most famous crus.

“Here in the hills, people can’t stop talking about it,” wrote high-profile Italian wine blogger and Nebbiolo observer Alessandro Morichetti in a Facebook post today.

He was referring to Monday’s news that legacy Barolo estate Vietti had been sold to American entrepreneur Kyle Krause, owner of the “Kum and Go” convenience store chain.

It’s rumored that the cost was $60 million, an astounding figure for an appellation where many still remember the dire economic challenge faced by growers in the decades that followed the Second World War. As late as the 1960s, even as Italy’s post-war “economic miracle” began to take shape, many villages in Barolo and Barbaresco still didn’t have running water, for example.

In an excellent post today for the popular Italian wine blog Intravino, contributor and Langa native Francesco Oddenino remembers a remark by “last of the Mohicans” Barolo grower and winemaker Bartolo Mascarello.

Commenting the sale of a parcel in the famed Cannubi vineyard for an astronomical and at that time unimaginable sum, Mascarello reportedly said: “From this day forward, no young person in Barolo will have the means to acquire a piece of land in Barolo and begin to make wine. This is a dark day for Barolo.”

Yes, over the last decade or so, vineyard rows and even entire vineyard sites have changed hands for what some consider obscene amounts of money in Barolo and Barbaresco. But “until now,” writes Oddenino, “no other leading historic estate has ever been sold: The prices of land have reached levels never before seen but the best vineyards have always been purchased by historic wineries owned by Piedmontese producers.”

“This is perhaps another dark day for Barolo and the Langhe [hills],” he opines.

Krause has been trying to buy a historic estate in Langhe for some time now.

More than a year ago, I wrote this piece for WineSearcher about Roberto Conterno’s move to snatch up a historic Barolo farm that Krause desperately wanted to acquire.

He used “pre-emption rights,” otherwise known as “first right of refusal,” to block the American.

Tracie P and I will be heading to Barolo tomorrow for the Collisioni music and wine festival. I’m sure that there will be much talk of the sale and what it means for the future of the appellation.

I’ll report back all the news that’s fit to blog about.

And in meantime, I’ll try to figure out how to explain to Italians what “Kum and Go” means and its cultural (and pop-cultural) implications.