The wilds of Irpinia and Daniela Mastroberardino’s extraordinary wines (Terredora’s is a story yet to be told)

irpiniaAbove: Irpinia, the wild volcanic highlands of Campania where some of Italy’s most extraordinary wines are raised (click the image for a higher-resolution version.

Of the nine trips I made to Italy this year and the literally hundreds of wines I tasted, one of the most remarkable visits was with Daniela Mastroberardino, co-owner of the Terredora winery, who took me on a tour of her family’s vineyards in Montefusco township in Irpinia, Campania’s wild volcanic highlands.

Like many U.S.-based Italian wine professionals, I’ve logged countless hours of vineyard tours and winery tastings in northern Italy between Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and Friuli. And there are few Tuscan hilltop villages between Montalcino and Rùfina that I haven’t visited over the nearly 30 years that I’ve been traveling to Italy.

Of course, I’ve also tasted (and have drunk with gusto) more than my fair share of Irpinia wines: Taurasi, Fiano d’Avellino, Greco di Tufo are all appellations whose wines are increasingly available to American fine wine consumers like me. But until this year, I had never spent any time with those wines in situ.

What a revelation to tour these forgotten, untamed hills of southern Italy’s wine country! As we drove up and down the steep roads that lead to and from Montefusco village (one of the hubs of Irpinian viticulture), I remembered hearing Italian wine maven Charles Scicolone talking about his early visits to Italy in the 1970s, when Italian farmland was just beginning to be developed by big industry. “There were vines everywhere,” he would tell me, noting that the Italian countryside has been radically transformed since those years. Driving through Irpinia, I imagine that it resembles the Italy that Charles saw when he first visited some 40 years ago.

best-campania-winesAbove: the only industry in Irpinia is grape growing and winemaking, Daniela explained. These highlands, with their volcanic top soil, are bordered on every side by active and extinct volcano mountain chains. As you drive from Naples up into the hills and then past Avellino, your ears begin to pop from the change in altitude and you enter into a viticulture landscape seemingly suspended in the sky with volcanoes as its moorings (click the image for a higher-resolution version).

Although fine wine has been produced in Irpinia for millennia, the volcanic top soil — mostly the fallout from ancient eruptions on Mt. Vesuvius, I was told — played a fundamental roll in the development of the wine trade here in the 19th century: the tiny grains of volcanic sand that form the top layer of farmland here made it impossible for phylloxera to thrive. Echoing what grape growers told me in Santorini, for example, the little creatures simply can’t negotiate the fine soil (or as one winemaker put it, they can’t jump from one grain to the next, making it impossible for them to survive).

antica-trattoria-di-pietro-dal-1934Above: one of my top meals of 2016 was at the Antica Trattoria di Pietro dal 1934, where Daniela treated me to these Campania-style cavatelli (different from Puglia-style) dressed with tomato and wild herbs. This dish and the entire meal at Pietro alone would have been worth the journey. Di Pietro doesn’t seem to have a website but it does have a website but it does have a Facebook. Note to Italian gastronauts: seek this place out and you won’t be disappointed. And note to Italian wine connoisseurs: a deep-reaching cellar brimming with older vintages of Taurasi, including the 1998 Terredora that I enjoyed thoroughly.

The other revelation for me was tasting current and older vintages of her family’s wines with Daniela. As she opened an unforgettable flight of wines from the 2000s and even late 1990s, I was reminded of what a wise wine buyer told me many years ago in Austin: trust the wine, not the story.

Daniela’s wines have always been marketed and positioned as excellent restaurant-friendly expressions of Campania winemaking, with an emphasis on their modern-style and their appeal to modern sensibilities in wine tastes. And her family’s wines are immensely successful in the U.S., where you can find them on a wide range of wine lists.

But as we tasted over dinner and tasted through the wines, and then the next day, as she gave me and a pair of Milanese wine merchants a tour of Irpinia wine country, I realized that no one had every told me the real story of these wines. There’s a lot more soul in these bottles than I think a lot of people understand. To see the pristine wild areas where they are grown and to hear the tale of blood, sweat, and tears that the Mastroberardino siblings (the children of Walter Mastroberardino) shed as they built a winery from scratch in the earthquake-prone highlands in the 1990s, I began to wrap my mind around these wines and what they mean in the context of Irpinian viticulture.

best-taurasi-1998Above: this 1998 Taurasi was just one of the older vintages of her family wines that Daniela opened for me. What an eye-opening wine! Very fresh, with perfectly integrated wood and super vibrant fruit flavors. Tasting this wine and learning the story behind it, really helped me to understand what these wines are about.

I also really loved an older vintage of Fiano that she poured for me: with aging these wines achieve nuanced layers of fruit and mineral flavors, notes that you miss — I believe — when you taste the current vintages.

When I really took the time to learn more about the places where they are grown and to taste them patiently and in context (and not just wine a sales rep who’s pulled them out of a chilled wine bag on a hot summer day in Los Angeles), I realized that these wines have a lot more substance than their deep-punted California-style bottles reveal at first sight.

Both the 1998 classic Taurasi and the 2004 single-vineyard Taurasi Pago dei Fusi (which I don’t believe is available in the U.S.) really blew me away with their sheer beauty. Great wines with a great story that has yet to be told…

Thank you, Daniela, for the wonderful visit and the gracious hospitality. That was such an eye-opening and memorable visit!

This is just the first in my series of posts from Naples and Campania. Stay tuned and thanks for being here…

Italy’s “no” vote and Italians’ certain uncertainty

roman-ruins-italyA lot of people have asked me to share my insights into Sunday’s referendum on political reform in Italy and the implications of the Italians’ resounding “no” vote. (In case you’re not following the New York Times, check out this recent coverage of the fallout from this week’s vote, an overview of why it could prove to be a pivotal moment in Italy’s new future and the stability of the European Union and its currency.)

On my last visit to Italy, the first night I was in the country in early November, I was invited to a dinner party at the home of a successful hairdresser. The 8 or so guests (give or take a few that stopped by to say hello) were all progressive middle-aged professionals, people more or less my age and like me. Naturally, they grilled me not for dinner but on my thoughts about Donald Trump and could he possibly be elected president?

As in many Italian homes during dinner, the television was on full-blast throughout our repast. There was a lot of coverage of earthquake relief (central Italy has been struck by a series of major earthquakes this year and many ill-prepared hilltop towns there have been devastated by the powerful seismic activity). Art historian Salvatore Settis (whom I knew during my Scuola Normale and Getty days during grad school) was on, talking about his new book, If Venice Dies. And of course, there was coverage of the December referendum on constitutional overhaul.

When I shifted the conversation from Trump to the referendum, the table fell silent. Not one guest at the dinner party wanted to break the brio of the evening by unleashing polarizing, divisive thoughts and feelings on the subject. Amen. And so it was.

According to most accounts, youth unemployment in Italy continues to hover at 40 percent. When we complain about the lack of job opportunities for young people in the U.S., we often don’t realize that our outlook is much rosier than for nearly all of our European counterparts. And Italy, where economic recovery from the years of the financial crisis has yet to take hold, is facing challenging times ahead.

I work in and write about Italian wine, but my life in Italy brings me into contact with people there from all walks of life (thanks to the many years I lived, studied, and worked there). Among my peers, the only people I see who are thriving are those who have created their own small businesses. Most of the people I went to school with enjoy job security (mostly in publishing and marketing) but many are deeply disheartened by their inability to change their economic status or provide greater economic mobility for their children.

I even have a few friends who are postermen for Italian mammismo. The only difference is that, at 50 years old (like me), living with your mother is no longer cute.

The economic challenges of middle-class life in Italy have been weighing on my peers and counterparts for more than a decade (the seeds of the current status quo go back to the demise of the corrupt socialist coalition in the 1990s). This seemingly unsurmountable intractability was likely what prompted the silence that fell over the table when I asked my dinner companions to share their thoughts about the referendum. Better to embrace the brio of the moment than to bust open the fears and insecurities that brimmed beneath.

On Sunday night, after the results of the referendum were clear, a good friend of mine wrote the following on his Facebook. He’s a successful winemaker who also works in a political lobby for farmers and grape growers.

Listening to [Massmo] D’Alema laughing on the radio, saying that today was a great day, with the Elio e Le Storie Tese song “Land of Persimmons” in the background, makes me realize that we are definitively SCREWED [sic] as a nation.

Happy Monday to all the people who will continue to break their backs to make their businesses succeed, to all the people who are creating jobs as they try to show foreigners that we are something more than the “Picturesque Country” in [actor and comic] Enrico Montesano’s “English Lady” [skit].

I’ve embedded the videos of the song and the skit below. His mood, I believe, is representative of many successful middle-aged Italians who view the EU and constitutional reform as vital to Italy’s future.

The populist movements, on both the far right and far left in Italy, see the outcome of this week’s vote as an opening for their agenda (although a streamlining of the Italian parliament, which would have been set into motion had the result been “yes,” would have also opened political channels for Italy’s rising populist parties).

To understand the implications of the vote and its probable legacy, see this New York Times piece, “A New Wave of Popular Fury Could Hit Europe in 2017.” In it, Alissa Rubin writes:

“The political demise of Mr. Renzi, the Italian prime minister, and his reform agenda removes an unabashedly pro-European leader who had hoped to ignite economic growth by ending an era of crippling budget austerity. Instead, he may be remembered for creating an opening for politicians who are openly hostile to Europe and the euro.”

Renzi’s fall could very well usher in an era when Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement enters into the mainstream of Italian politics (again, see the Rubin’s piece for the Times). It’s probable that Grillo will call for a referendum on leaving the Eurozone (the first step in leaving the EU). If Italy, a founding member, were to leave the EU, it’s likely that the union would collapse.

It’s hard for me to believe there would be a moment in my lifetime, let alone my children’s lifetime, when the future of the EU could be in question. But then again, I never thought it possible that a populist candidate like Donald Trump could be delivered to the White House on a fundamentally bigoted platform.

The one thing that is certain about the results of Sunday’s vote in Italy is uncertainty. So many Italian wine bloggers love to quote the famous line from The Leopard: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” Scarcely do they know the portent of this utterance in the historical context in which it was first spoken and its deep-reaching relevance today.

In the wake of this week’s vote, maybe it’s more fitting to say: everything needs to stay the same so everything can change.

“I Believe in You and Me” NEW ALBUM from PARZEN FAMILY SINGERS

Syncopate the beat, it will make your feet to the music move
In the whole wide world there is no soul it cannot soothe
In the rhythm lives the take and give that make the groove
Music is in everyone a mystery that we have sung for you

Here’s the new album, “I Believe in You & Me,” from Parzen Family Singers. Please download it from BandCamp FOR FREE and import it into your iTunes and play it LOUD. Nothing could mean more to me. THANK YOU! You can also listen via the SoundCloud embed below. And listen to our new single, “I Like Playing a Game (featuring Georgia P),” in the YouTube above.

It’s dedicated to my wife and lover Tracie P:

Before I met you I could hardly tie my shoes
Before you came into my life I could never lose the lonely blues
But knowing that you love me there’s no way that i could lose
You are my wife and lover, you are my muse

It may take a moment for the SoundCloud audio embed to load below.

Click here for Parzen Family Singers “I Believe in You and Me” BandCamp.

THANK YOU FOR LISTENING TO OUR MUSIC. IT MEANS THE WORLD TO ME.

Happy holidays, everyone!

back-cover-2016

8 wine blogs Italian wine professionals need to know @UniSG

jancis-robinsonAbove: I caught up with Jancis Robinson (center) this fall at the Boulder Burgundy Festival, where I serve as the event’s official blogger. Some people call her “the world’s greatest wine writer.” She is. But I call her the world’s coolest wine blogger. She is super nice (and so delightfully funny as well). And hers is one of the 8 essential wine blogs Italian wine professionals need to know. That’s winemaker Étienne de Montille on the left, Master Sommelier and festival founder Brett Zimmerman on the right.

Among the English-language wine blogs that we discussed at length in our seminars last month at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont (for the Master’s in Italian Wine Culture), there were two that I didn’t include in a post yesterday on eight wine blogs that Italian wine professionals need to know: one was Elaine Brown’s Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews and the other was the Jordan Winery Blog by Lisa Mattson.

I didn’t include them because neither focuses on or publishes regular content devoted to Italian wine. But both merit the attention of anyone working in the fine wine trade today.

Elaine’s, because of the way she has pushed the envelope and expanded the horizons of wine blogging. Over the arc of her career as a wine-focused writer, she has created a sui generis form of enoscripture, blending the personal, the political, and the vinous in a stream and feed of often spectacular and compelling quasi-real-time memoir (can you tell I am a fan and a friend?).

Lisa’s, because, perhaps to a greater extent than any other, she has elevated the benchmark for what social media can do in terms of promoting awareness and visibility of a wine and winery brand. In the days that ran up to the U.S. presidential election, as my students and I met for our seminars, we watched Lisa lambaste the now president elect like the fat Christmas turkey he is. It was a bold and audacious move for a California winery brand (and I agree with and share the sentiment wholly). But beyond (our shared) political or ideological leanings, it revealed an authenticity and a deeply personalized approach to marketing that Lisa has mastered despite and thanks to an impressive technical apparatus that she has realized. Brava, Lisa!

Of course, we also discussed Alder Yarrow’s pioneering blog, Vinography. He was one of the early trailblazers of America’s new wave of wine writing (I remember when Lettie Teague made him the first wine blogger to speak at Aspen).

Tom Wark’s excellent Fermentation was another we looked at in Piedmont. Another one of the great pioneers of the new wave and another benchmark for what can be achieved in terms of activism and marketing in the wine trade.

And last and least, we gave honorable mention to the venerated Italian wine critic and broadcaster Levi Dalton, that beloved denizen of the New York wine scene, a Donald Trump among wine dilettanti (remember the song I wrote for him last year?).

Here are the eight that I profiled for UniSG this week: not an exhaustive muster roll but a hand list and a good place to start (not finish) for Italian wine professionals.

Click here to learn more about UniSG’s Master’s in Italian Wine Culture Program.