NatDiego festival forges a new language for natural wine in an unlikely market

Above, from left: the organizers of NatDiego Patrick Ballow, Katie Fawkes, Chelsea Coleman, Tami Wong, and Anne Estrada.

Last weekend, roughly 20 American natural winemakers and 15 or so importers of natural wines from Europe gathered for NatDiego, San Diego’s second-annual natural wine festival.

The event included seminars, wine-themed parties, and a walk-around grand tasting. All were open to trade and public.

Above: the grand walk-around tasting on Saturday.

The festival was remarkable — at least to me — because San Diego isn’t exactly the first city that comes to mind when it comes to America’s natural wine epicenters.

New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle are home to bustling natural wine bars and robust natural wine lists. But San Diego (where I grew up) is still widely considered a wasteland by the fine wine world.

“Just think how far we’ve come,” said organizer and natural wine advocate Patrick Ballow (in the group photo above, far left), an old friend of mine. “This would have been unimaginable 10 years ago,” he noted, adding that his inspiration for organizing the festival was pure passion.

We both remembered fondly tasting López de Heredia 12 years ago in “America’s Finest City” and the difficulty we had back then tracking down natural wines in this southern Californian metropolis where micro-brews and “fruit-bomb” oaky red wines from northern California are still the preferred beverages of most alcohol-consuming residents.

Above: San Diego grower and natural winemaker Michael Christian of Los Pilares.

Ever since Alice Feiring (the featured speaker at last year’s NatDiego) published her natural wine manifesto in 2008 (The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization), natural wine has slowly crept into the American mainstream and away from the fringes of the wine world’s counter culture.

Where natural wine was once jealously guarded by a small group of wine importers and their followers, it’s now embraced by a much broader swath of America’s wine cognoscenti.

But San Diego has been among the last major U.S. cities where the movement had yet to take hold. NatDiego — imho — is changing that. And it’s giving San Diegans a new language to describe, understand, and enjoy natural wine (see the festival’s about page where you’ll find their mission state and definition of natural wine).

It was great to see consumers lining up out the door at the Bread and Salt event space in San Diego’s Barrio Logan. And it was also compelling to see how many San Diego-based growers were among the robust California presence.

“San Diego’s Fun-Loving Natural Wine Festival” is the title that the organizers gave to their event. And it struck me that fun is what has often been missing from so many of the natural wine events and tastings I’ve attended.

With its second year under its belt, the festival is sure to become a cornerstone of California’s natural wine scene. And that’s a good thing, no doubt.

Congratulations and thanks to the organizers for such a wonderful event!

Let’s ROCK tonight and TASTE tomorrow in San Diego…

If you happen to be in San Diego this weekend, please join me tonight for a show with my California band The Grapes, tomorrow morning at Nat Diego natural wine fair, and tomorrow afternoon at Jaynes for a Lini Lambrusco tasting I’m presenting.

Happy summer, everyone! Buona estate a tutti!

Event details follow…


9 p.m. – 12 a.m.

featuring Dave Gleason on Telecaster

5662 La Jolla Blvd.
La Jolla CA 92037
(858) 459-0474
Google map



3-5 p.m.
$15 per person

with small bites by Jaynes

Jaynes Gastropub
4677 30th St.
San Diego CA 92116
(619) 563-1011
Google map


Also happening in San Diego this weekend, Friday-Saturday, July 27-28: Nat Diego, natural wine festival!

Luigi Tecce’s macerated Maman Bianco, the first white to emerge from the iconic grower

Over the last 10 years, Taurasi grower Luigi Tecce has firmly established himself as the leading voice of Campania winemaking.

A “Triple A” farmer whose compelling red wines have captivated Italy’s wine cognoscenti, he proudly lists “what I don’t put in my wine” on his back labels, making him a bright light of transparency and integrity among Italian vignaioli.

Two years ago he released his first white wine, a macerated blend of Greco (45%), Fiano (25%), Coda di Volpe (25%), and Moscato (5%).

It’s dedicated to the winemaker’s mother and his friend Vinicio Capossela, the celebrated Italian singer-songwriter who designed one of Tecce’s labels.

While the reds are available in certain (fortunate) markets in the U.S., the white hasn’t made it here yet. But a friend bravely smuggled it into Texas and poured it for me last week in Houston.

It’s inevitable that tasters will measure its character against Tecce’s reds, which have become benchmarks not only for Taurasi and Campania. While this early bottling probably won’t be remembered among his best entries, it was thoroughly delicious, with gorgeous acidity buoyed by lithe texture. Stone fruit and dried white fruit flavors were plentiful in the mouth and the wine was swiftly consumed by my “wine people” companions and me — a sign of how much we all loved it.

If it’s any indication of what’s to come from his cellar, I’ll definitely be making space in mine to accommodate what will surely become an iconic white from Irpinia.

Organic and biodynamic wine growers anxiously await EU decision on copper limits

Above: “Bordeaux Mixture” — copper sulfate and lime — has been used to prevent downy mildew in vineyards for generations.

Europe’s organic and biodynamic grape growers are anxiously waiting to hear whether or not the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will further limit the use of copper fungicide.

Last week, the European Union’s Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) Committee met to discuss new restrictions on fungicides, including “the approval of the active substance copper compounds” which are allowed in organic and biodynamic grape farming.

Currently, the EU allows the use of up to 6 kg per hectare per year. The committee is considering limiting the amount to 4 kg per hectare per year.

Ever since the committee designated copper sulphate as a “candidate for substitution” (EU parlance for more restrictive limits), organic wine growers in France and Italy have lobbied to maintain the current limit.

“We are very concerned,” wrote Matilde Poggi, president of Italy’s Federation of Independent Grape Growers in May.

“For organic producers, there are no suitable alternatives to copper,” she noted in a press release issued by the group.

The federation has lobbied Italy’s agriculture ministry to oppose the proposed change.

European wine growers have used copper as a fungicide since the late 19th century.

The so-called Bordeaux Mixture — copper sulphate mixed with lime — is sprayed in vineyards primarily to prevent downy mildew (peronospora). Although there is little concern that copper affects the safety of the end product, its presence in the water table can make the land unsuitable for agricultural use.

Copper is a heavy metal and can be toxic to humans and animals. Because it has been used for so long in Europe, EFSA fears that its accumulation is affecting the environment and farmland health.

“My job is to protect the public health,” said last month EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis who is leading the discussion on proposed restrictions.

“Alternatives to copper remain very limited,” countered Eric Andrieu, chair of the EU Committee on pesticides. Organic winemaking could be threatened by the proposed limit, he noted.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

You look wonderful tonight: how Lambrusco led to a meeting with Beatles and Clapton muse Pattie Boyd

Above: last month, Alicia Lini and her daughters hosted Tracie, our girls, and me at her family’s winery in Correggio (Reggio Emilia province). I’ll be pouring her family’s wines a week from Saturday at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego. Please join me. I’ll also be playing a show the night before (Friday) and attending the Nat Diego Grand Tasting Saturday morning. Click here for details.

The first iPhone had just been released two months prior.

And in just a few weeks the Financial Crisis would officially begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Earlier that year, a food and wine media consultant in the last year of his 30s had traveled to Italy in search of a classic method Lambrusco.

It seems like a lifetime ago.

It was back in 2007 that I first met and tasted with Alicia Lini (above) at her family’s winery in Correggio in the heart of Lambrusco country. A tip from the owner of a wonderful restaurant an hour’s drive to the east had led me to her doorstep.

New York City had been my home for nearly 10 years and my 9-to-5 was a gig as marketing director for a high-profile restaurant and wine imports group.

In August of that year, Alicia flew to New York where I had organized a series of tastings and meetings with top wine media. The highlight was her appearance on a WNYC talk show. The other guest that morning was Pattie Boyd, who had just published her memoir. When we met her in the green room, I discreetly whispered to Alicia (in Italian, hoping that the famous model wouldn’t pick up on how starstruck our handshake had left me).

“Do you realize who that is, Alicia???!!! It’s Pattie Boyd! George Harrison wrote ‘Something’ for her… Eric Clapton wrote ‘Wonderful Tonight’ for her.”

Alicia did great on the show and she and the wines ended up appearing in some of the top wine columns of the day.

I decided to leave New York later that year and return to California where I grew up. By the end of the following year, I had moved to Texas to be with Tracie.

The Financial Crisis devastated and decimated the New York restaurant scene. The upscale Italian where the above photo was taken closed not long after the bubble had burst.

But Alicia’s family’s wines had already been woven into the fabric of the city’s wine community. And Alicia and I stayed in touch, thanks in part to our fond memories of our work together.

When we met at Vinitaly this year, the Lini family asked me to come back into the fold. And we’ve set out to expand their presence in Texas and California, where the wines are now imported directly.

Back in 2007 when we first met, the wine blogging world had just begun to take shape. I had launched my own blog just a few months earlier.

It seems like a lifetime ago and it seems like yesterday.

Please join me as I pour four of Alicia’s family’s wines a week from Saturday at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego.

Look out world: here comes Alta Langa! Tasting notes from my visit with appellation president Giulio Bava

In May of this year, Alta Langa consortium president Giulio Bava graciously sat down with me at the Cocchi winery and distillery in Piedmont where we tasted 16 wines from the appellation.

Many American wine and spirits insiders know his brother Roberto, marketing and export director for Cocchi, a frequent traveler to the U.S. where the Cocchi Americano vermouth has become wildly popular in recent years.

Giulio and the third brother Paolo are the winery’s enologists. And Giulio is now in his second term as president for the Alta Langa consortium.

What a fantastic flight of wines he poured for me!

That’s Cocchi’s Alta Langa Brut Toto Corde 2012 in the photo above, a blend of 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay. The Latin expression toto corde, btw, means with all my [one’s] heart.

The wine, one of my favorites in the all-around great flight, really impressed me with its freshness on the nose and its glowing citrus in the mouth.

It was indicative of the fresh, fruit-driven style that Alta Langa has embraced. Of the 16 wines in the flight that day, there was just one label that veered off into the oxidative style that continues to prevail in Champagne.

As the world’s thirst for high-quality sparkling wine continues to grow, the Alta Langa consortium and its producer members are gearing up to expand their presence in Italy and abroad.

And they have a lot going for them.

There are 146 townships in Alessandra, Asti, and Cuneo provinces that can produce Alta Langa. Compare that with 19 townships in Franciacorta, Alta Langa’s main domestic competitor in the high-end sparkling market.

All of those villages lie to the east of the Tanaro river. In other words, they share the same soils, climate, and legacy of Barolo and Barbaresco growers. Many of the current and soon-to-be members of the consortium are already established producers of top Nebbiolo and many of them already have distribution networks in the U.S.

The Bera Alta Langa Brut 2011, also a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend, was another favorite of mine. Very fresh and clean on the nose with white floral and fruit notes that reappeared in the mouth. This wine also stood out for its gorgeous mineral character on the palate. Another great example of how Pinot Noir can perform in Alta Langa.

Another thing that struck me about the flight was the Alta Langa growers’ love of Pinot Noir.

Some of my all-time favorite classic method wines are made from Chardonnay (Satèn from Franciacorta and blanc de blanc Champagne, for example). In Alta Langa, producers have focused on Pinot Noir (at least gauging from the tasting Giulio put together for me that day).

There were a couple of great expressions of 100 percent Chardonnay in the flight but the real standouts were the vintage-dated Pinot Noir wines. They seemed to achieve the greatest complexity and depth of fruit.

But leave it to me to stay true to my heart: my top wine that day was the 2013 Roberto Garbarino Alta Langa Dosaggio Zero, which — if I’m not mistaken — is a 100 percent Chardonnay (I couldn’t find the wine on the winery’s website).

All Alta Langa must be made with hillside fruit (no valley floor allowed) and according to the estate’s site, its top Alta Langa is grown at 480 meters a.s.l. in vineyards planted 50 years ago (hey, wait a minute, wasn’t Gaja the first to plant Chardonnay in Langa?).

This wine had everything that I look for in classic method: freshness, focused fruit notes on the nose and richly vibrant fruit notes in the mouth, buoyed all the while by an elegant savory quality. I loved this wine. I also liked the estate’s 2015 Extra Brut.

I also have to give a shout-out to the Tosti Alta Langa Giulio I Riserva (below), 100 percent Pinot Noir. It had a touch of the pastry notes that you find in the French style of classic method wines but its glorious fruit had me coming back to the glass for another taste.

All things considered, I believe we are going to be hearing (and tasting) a lot more from Alta Langa in the near future.

After all, it has “Langa” in its name: how would you like to taste a classic method Pinot Noir from the land of Barolo and Barbaresco? The answer is yes, with all my heart.

Thanks again to Giulio for a truly fantastic tasting. And thanks also to consortium media relations director Mariana Natale who put it together.

Can a cloudy Barolo from the 70s still be good? Bartolo Mascarello 1974 tasting (and decanting) notes

Above: you can see the sediment on the side of the bottle. Despite Francesco’s expert care in decanting, the wine was still cloudy.

One of the most stunning wines I drank this year was a 1974 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello.

It was generously shared with me back in May by my good friend Francesco Bonfio (below), a leading Italian wine retailer, former winemaker, and co-founder of the newly launched Association of Italian Wine Shop Professionals, known as AEPI (Associazione Enotecari Professionisti Italiani).

The bottle’s provenance was nearly impeccable: it came from the cellar of Gianni Bortolotti, the famous Aosta Valley cheese expert and wine collector who passed away — I believe — in 2010.

Francesco decanted the bottle directly into our glasses: like me, he prefers not to decant old wine into decanters because he feels (as I do) that the less intervention the better.

As he poured the last glasses, you could clearly see the sediment in the bottle’s neck (and that’s when he stopped pouring).

Despite his expert care in pouring, the wine — from the first glass he poured — was still cloudy. And that was a bad sign. Clearly, the wine had begun to “disassociate,” in other words, some of the wine had returned to solid form.

We were doubtful but still hopeful when we first tasted. And then, wow, a miracle: the wine’s fruit was rich and vibrant and the acidity was still very much alive. In spite of the obvious defect, we enjoyed it thoroughly with our meal. Its rich red fruit flavors eclipsed the classic Barolo earthiness that you expect in a wine like this (especially from Bartolo Mascarello) but it drank beautifully. The fact that we drank the whole bottle was evidence of this!

Moral of the story: an old wine like this doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.

Thanks again, Francesco, for sharing this extraordinary bottle with me!

“There’s a Chianti Classico that’s just right for you.” Jeffrey Porter’s excellent Chianti Classico seminar and tasting.

Some of Houston’s best and brightest wine professionals came out yesterday morning to taste a superb flight of Chianti Classico with celeb sommelier Jeffrey Porter (standing) at the city’s swank Post Oak Hotel.

Seminars and tastings like this can be so long-winded, boring, and redundant. But Jeffrey, who seemed to enjoy the opportunity to speak in his native Texan, kept the discussion lively and fun.

And the wines, well, they spoke for themselves.

I was really impressed with the Fabbri 2015 Chianti Classico Lamole from Greve. What a stunning wine! Great balance and varietal expression, with that distinctive mineral note that you get from higher-elevation Chianti. A real discovery for me.

But all the wines were fantastic, something that’s unusual in consortium tastings like this.

And as Jeffrey put it, at once so plainly and so elegantly, when you look at the spectacular range of growing conditions throughout the Chianti Classico DOCG, you soon come to realize that “there’s a Chianti Classico that’s just right for you.”

It was also really fascinating to hear some of the producers discuss soil texture as opposed to soil composition (something I believe is too often overlooked in discussing Chianti).

And toward the end of our time together, one of the city’s top Italian buyers brought up the thorny question of single-vineyard designation and the Gran Selezione program. Not all of the producers agreed on the benefits or drawbacks of the appellation’s recently created pyramid hierarchy.

If you only bolster the tip, said one of the more outspoken panelists, you weaken the base. It’s the base that needs to be reinforced, she suggested — not just to the audience but to her fellow panelists.

The frankness and openness of the dialogue was compelling. It was clear that Jeffrey has developed a relationship with each of the producers participating in the tour. And that camaraderie seemed to create the right conditions for an honest — as opposed to marketing-minded — discussion.

Jeffrey will be leading the same tasting and seminar tomorrow in Washington D.C.

He’ll be doing it again in October in Portland. And he also told me they’re looking at doing it again in five or six American cities next year.

Subscribers can check out his Chianti Classico webinar for the Wine Scholars Guild here.

Thank you, Jeffrey and Chianti Classico, for bringing such a great group of winemakers and such a wonderful flight of wines to our city!

“Blacker than tar, faster than the wind.” Rest in peace, Doggynino. We tried our best to give you a home. We will always love you.

“Blacker than tar, faster than the wind.”

That’s how Petrarch described his friend Matteo Longo’s dog in August of 1351. Petrarch was a dog lover and even wrote a Latin poem about one of the dogs he loved.

The words came to mind this weekend as we laid to rest Doggynino, above, a stray that had followed Tracie home after she had been out for a run last Monday.
Continue reading

Taste and rock out with me in San Diego, July 27-28 (Nat Diego natural wine festival too!)

Please join me in San Diego the weekend of July 27-28 where I’ll be playing a gig at a pretty rowdy bar (I’ve seen punches thrown there) on Friday, attending the grand tasting of the Nat Diego natural wine festival on Saturday morning (very psyched for that), and hosting a Lambrusco tasting at my our favorite San Diego restaurant (Tra and the girls will be with me there all afternoon and evening).

Music and a ton of great wine. Please come out and hang!

And special highlight: Dave Gleason, an amazing country guitar player, is sitting in with the Grapes on Friday night. We are playing two sets.


9 p.m. – 12 a.m.

featuring Dave Gleason on Telecaster

5662 La Jolla Blvd.
La Jolla CA 92037
(858) 459-0474
Google map



3-5 p.m.
$15 per person

with small bites by Jaynes

Jaynes Gastropub
4677 30th St.
San Diego CA 92116
(619) 563-1011
Google map

Stay tuned for wines…

Please email me to register (not required but encouraged).


Also happening in San Diego that weekend, Friday-Saturday, July 27-28: Nat Diego, natural wine festival!