Organic viticulture and Slow Wine: how the 2019 guide differs from the previous edition

The Slow Wine Guide 2019 tour begins on Monday, March 4 in San Francisco and then moves on to Portland (Oregon), Denver, New York, and Boston. Click here for tasting and registration details.

One of the things that flummoxed the editors of the 2018 Slow Wine Guide to the wines of California was how to treat the often thorny subject of who is and who is not a genuine organic grape grower.

On the one hand, organic viticulture is widespread in California where extremely dry conditions make it easier to farm without the application of fungicides commonly used to combat peronospora (downy mildew).

On the other hand, there are myriad legacy growers in the Golden State who have no interest in obtaining organic certification even though they have employed organic practices for decades, often since the first planting of their vineyards.

Add to this mix the fact that exorbitant land prices in California make it nearly impossible for smaller-scale winemakers to own the vineyards where they source fruit for their wines. Throughout the state, the cost of acreage in wine country is driven by “weekender” owners whose primary income isn’t derived from viticulture. As a result, the California wine industry — especially as relates to producers who embrace the Slow Wine ethos — is highly parcellized.

Even in “lower rent” districts like the Sierra Foothills AVA, it’s challenging for low-volume winemakers to grow their own fruit.

Take Hank Beckmeyer’s La Clarine Farm, for example, one of my favorite wineries in the U.S. and a shoo-in for inclusion in the Slow Wine Guide.

Above: organically certified Cabernet Sauvignon vines at Volker Eisele, one of my favorite Napa Valley growers. The vineyards there have been farmed organically since they were planted in the 1960s. And the owner was among the first to certify a Napa Valley grape farm.

Hank — one of the most respected, beloved, and emblematic producers in California’s progressive movement — sources 100 percent of his fruit. And although all of those growers employ organic practices in their vineyards, none of them are organic certified.

If organic certification were the sine qua non baseline for being profiled in the guide, our team of editors reasoned, we would have hardly had enough winemakers to fill the pages of the book.

For the 2018 edition, we didn’t include certification status for every winery.

But with the current 2019 guide, not only did we specify whether or not producers were certified organic, we also listed the number of acres owned by the winery. In many cases, as for La Clarine farm, that figure was zero acres owned and certification entry was annotated with “n/a” (not applicable).

Unless a given estate is 100 percent certified organic (or biodyanmic as the case may be), its certification status is listed in the book as n/a. Editors were encouraged to quote growers and winemakers directly when it came to accounts of organic growing practices employed. And in many instances, they have specified that although organic farming is employed in the vineyards, the estate is not organic certified. But in order to be profiled as an “organic winemaker,” the estate had to be 100 percent certified and/or sourced fruit had to be 100 percent organic certified.

This year’s California guide, the second edition, has nearly doubled the number of wineries profiled. And the debut edition of the Oregon guide profiles 50 wineries.

The Italian editors of the guide are currently posting all the profiles on the Slow Food blog here — free for all.

I’ll be attending the Slow Wine tastings in San Francisco next Monday and Portland, Oregon next Tuesday. I hope you’ll join me!

Meet me at the Weiners Circle: taste with me in Chicago and New York this week, SF and PDX next week…

Thanks to everyone who came out to our tastings and seminars yesterday at Taste of Italy in Houston! That was a blast. I am so fortunate to live in such a tight-knit community of supportive food and wine professionals. Grazie di cuore…

My buddy Flavio Geretto and I will be pouring Villa Sandi Cartizze tomorrow in Chicago at the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri event.

Please join us if you’re in town (details here).

And if you can’t make to the Gambero, ping me and we’ll connect at Wieners Circle, one of my favorite hotdog stands in Chicago, one of my favorite cities in the world and the place where I was born.

From there we head to New York for Gambero on Friday.

And although I won’t be pouring, I will be hanging out and tasting at the Slow Wine tastings in San Francisco and Portland next week (details here).

Please join me!

If you’ve never heard of or been to Weiners Circle, check out the Wiki: it’s a truly unique Amercana culinary destination (I could write a doctoral thesis about this place). That’s me, above, enjoying a Weiners Circle chardog a few years ago. I’ll be there on the late side… Ping me!

An unforgettable Lugana — everything and nothing “natural” about it…

One of the wines that impressed me the most during my early February trip to Italy was this Lugana fermentazione spontanea (spontaneous fermentation) by the Sansonina estate, a property and label that Nadia Zenato is developing for her family.

Back in the 2010s, she began experimenting with wild yeast fermentation using grapes sourced from a vineyard planted there in the 1970s. The first release of the wine was from the 2014 vintage.

Man, this wine has eno-hipster written all over it!

The “old-vine” (40+ year old) Vigna del Moraro vineyard — one of the Zenato family’s top holdings — is farmed organically, she said, and will soon be certified.

It’s planted to Turbiana, the hyper-local clone of Trebbiano used to make monovarietal Lugana.

The grapes are picked by hand and vinification is carried out in stainless steel using only naturally occurring yeast.

I loved the way the savory component in this cru-designated wine played against the white flower notes on the nose and the fresh and gently dried stone fruit in the mouth. Subtle oxidative character accentuated the wine’s delicate almond notes that seemed to float ethereally throughout its body without ever weighing it down. The texture was lithe but balanced and confident in the mouth, the finish was a gift that just kept giving dried fruit and nuttiness.

It made me feel so hip that I thought I was going to grow a handle-bar mustache!

But just as I was about to break out my Brooklyn Grooming Commando Old School Pomade (animal fat and petroleum product free), it occurred to me that the word natural hadn’t been uttered during my tasting and conversation with Nadia. She seemed genuinely surprised when I speculated that the wine, hitherto unknown to me, must be a hit among the natural wine crowd.

If ever there were a Lugana that “speaks of place,” that stands apart as an expression of “site,” this would be it, for sure.

As we moved on to the estate’s flagship Merlot, also excellent, it occurred to me that Nadia hadn’t conceived this wine with marketing in mind. It was a challenge: a desire to create the purest and truest representation of an appellation her father helped to create and a vineyard that she and her mother hold extremely dear.

I loved it and I admire Nadia for growing, raising, and bottling it. What a great wine — everything and nothing “natural” about it!

Soldera: The “stubborn genius” and “heretic” of Brunello. Remembrances of an iconoclast winemaker.

Above: thanks to my connections in the wine trade, invitations to Soldera’s winery and vineyards were extended to me on three occasions. But the first visit, in September of 2008, was the most memorable. Many trade observers would agree that his approach to viticulture was “maniacal.” Those Sangiovese bunches — nearly cinematic in their perfection — are examples of his devotion to his vineyards.

News of legacy Brunello grower Gianfranco Soldera’s passing broke on Saturday morning as the Italian wine world was gathering in Montalcino for the appellation’s annual tasting of new releases, Benvenuto Brunello.

According to at least one mainstream media report, trade members and observers were surprised when Patrizio Cencioni, president of the Brunello consortium, announced that the Sangiovese giant had died in his opening remarks at the gathering.

“He was an emblematic figure,” said Cencioni (according to the piece published online by the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera), thanks to “the great wines he made in the 1980s and 90s. I can still remember a day he came to visit my winery with Luigi Veronelli,” the 20th-century Italian food and wine writer, considered by many to be one of the architects of the Italian gastronomic renaissance and a close friend of Soldera’s. “His impact on Montalcino was profound.”

Above: anyone who’s visited Soldera’s storied Case Basse estate in Montalcino will tell you the same story. The grower and winemaker was most proud of the property’s “white flower garden,” essential, he claimed, to creating biodiversity — a key element in his approach to winemaking.

The author of the Corriere obituary called him “heretical.” My preference would have been iconoclast: even while he was still part of the Brunello consortium (he was expelled and sued by the body in 2013), he was outwardly and loudly critical of Brunello growers and bottlers — even to the point of making him a reviled personage.

“Certainly iconic,” wrote wine writer and natural wine authority Alice Feiring on Instagram upon learning of his passing. “What a character he was. And the wines were sublime.”

Some would argue that he was an ante litteram advocate of the natural wine movement that came long after he had established his celebrity as one of Europe’s premier winemakers.

Above: another feature he was always keen to point out to visitors was the “marsh” he had built. The pond was another important source of biodiversity in an otherwise barren sub-zone of Montalcino.

But the best obituary and tribute to appear so far — whether in Italian or English — were penned by Robert Parker Italian review Monica Larner.

I loved the way she dubbed him the “stubborn genius” of Montalcino. And I highly recommend that you visit the link she provides for the last review of a Soldera wine published by her (the obituary appears on her Facebook while the review is behind the paywall). She really captures the essence and controversy of his life as a winemaker and she covers the major scandals (or scandalous episodes) that reshaped the arc of his career in the last two decades.

It’s a great piece of writing that could only have been produced by someone like Monica: she has the talent, the experience, and perhaps most importantly the ear to the ground needed to deliver such a compelling piece.

I can’t imagine that profiles by Antonio Galloni and Wine Spectator aren’t forthcoming. And I’ll be looking forward to reading the insights they share.

But I’d also like to point you to this piece (free for non-subscribers) by Jancis Robinson on her site, published just last summer: “Soldera – whom doubt doth not assail.”

Soldera will be remembered, no doubt, as both a champion and denigrator of Montalcino. The wines he grew, raised, and bottled were among Italy’s and Europe’s best. But they were so expensive and the winery’s allocation protocol was so byzantine that they were rarely tasted beyond a tight circle of well-heeled admirers.

Although many will remember him for the controversies he stirred (wittingly and unwittingly perhaps), “now is the time for forgiveness,” as one of my best friends in Montalcino wrote me this morning.

Amen… So be it.

Gianfranco Soldera, outspoken Sangiovese grower and iconic winemaker, dies at 82

As the Italian wine world gathers this weekend in Montalcino for the annual debut of the appellation’s new vintage and releases, Brunello has lost one of its most outspoken and iconic masters, Gianfranco Soldera, 82.

According to reports that began to circulate in mainstream Italian media about 2 hours ago, the winemaker suffered a heart attack apparently while driving. He was found on this morning around 10:30 a.m. not far from the his famed Case Basse estate. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Soldera was an inspiration for a generation of Italian and international growers and winemakers. And his wines were among the first Italian bottlings to command the attention and prices once reserved solely for their French counterparts.

A hermetic figure who seemed to attract controversy, he will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest Italian winemakers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

I’ll follow up on this story with translated excerpts of the myriad tributes and remembrances that are sure to be published in coming days.

Slow Wine tastings coming up in SF and PDX, Taste of Italy here in HTX: come out and taste with me!

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Above, from right: Slow Wine Oregon senior editor Michael Alberty with Annedria and Andrew Beckham of the Beckham Estate Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains of Oregon wine country. The Beckham winery, producer of some of the most compelling wines I’ve tasted from the Pacific northwest, appears in the debut edition of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California and Oregon.

On Monday, March 4 and Tuesday, March 5, I’ll be joining Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio as we present the second edition of Slow Wine California and the inaugural edition of Slow Wine Oregon in San Francisco and Portland.

I won’t be following the entire tour but tastings will also be held that week in Denver, New York, and Boston.

Click here for tour information.

Please come out and taste with me and my fellow editors! There will be plenty of amazing American wines to taste not to mention the Italian and Slovenian estates that will joining the tour as well (click the link above for info on the wineries that will be pouring at each event).

A true labor amoris, the Slow Wine experience has been a real eye-opener for me: I realize now how wrong I have been in the past about California viticulture (really wrong) and I also now have a richer sense of Oregon’s greatness.

Back at the home office in Bra (Piedmont), Italy, my colleagues are in the process of publishing the entire U.S. guide online on the Slow Wine blog (click here to view, no paywall). And you’ll also find posts there on our field editors.

Before I head off to the west coast, I’ll also be presenting some really great tastings here in Houston, including “How to Pair Texas BBQ with Italian Wine,” at the Taste of Italy food and wine trade fair and festival on Monday, February 25. Now in its fifth year, it’s an event that I help to produce together with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (one of my most beloved clients, rated the number one chamber in NAFTA, no joke!).

The seminars, which will also feature Master Sommelier June Rodil and top American wine writer Bruce Schoenfeld, are nearly all full. If you haven’t already signed up, please shoot me a PM and I’ll see what I can do to get you in.

We are also looking for volunteers in exchange for a comped spot at the BBQ tasting and seminar.

Hit me up, people! I hope to get to taste with soon and I’ll also be at the upcoming Gambero Rosso tastings in Chicago and New York if you happen to be around.

Sorry for the too-much-info post and thanks for the support! I hope to get to taste with you this month and next! That’s Oregon editor and wine writer extraordinaire Michael Alberty below, left, and Slow Wine editor-in-chief and super taster Giancarlo Gariglio tasting with me in Oregon in late spring of last year.

Good food I ate in Italy over the last couple of weeks…

On my way home from a whirlwind research trip to Italy. Barely had time to catch my breath let alone get in a good meal. But here were some of the highlights of what we ate. Wish me luck, wish me speed! I need it. See you on the other side…

Piadina with prosciutto, brie, lettuces, olive oil-cured roasted peppers, and salsa rosa (chez Arcari, Franciacorta).

Tuna tramezzino (Piccolo Bar, Crocetta del Montello).

Pizza with bufalo mozzarella and datterini tomato sauce (iDon, Padua).

Puccia with prosciutto, fontina, lettuces, insalata russa (La Puccia, Lecce).

Cavatelli with mussels (iSensi [Cantele], Guagnano).

Orecchiette with meatballs (iSensi [Cantele], Guagnano).
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Is a massive wine scandal fermenting in Italy? Let’s get the facts straight, people, please!

Above: A Carabinieri NAS officer inspects salmon. NAS is an acronym for Nuclei Antisofisticazioni e Sanità or Anti-Adulteration and Health [Safety] Squad (image via the Carabinieri Facebook).

On Saturday, a high-profile English-language pop culture website published a factually challenged post on a “sting operation” in Italy that has — according to the cheapjack author — ensnared “cheap grapes in fancy” and “prestigious wines.”

The story she referred to was first posted online by the Pordenone (Friuli) edition of Il Gazzettino on Wednesday afternoon of last week (she doesn’t credit the masthead).

“Early this morning,” wrote the author of the Gazzettino post, “in a dozen provinces (Pordenone, Udine, Treviso, Venice, Padua in the northeast, but also Reggio Emilia, Modena, Ravenna, Florence, Livorno, Naples, Bari and Foggia), Carabinieri from the Udine [Friuli] offices of NAS [Italy’s anti-adulteration and health safety force] and technicians from [Italy’s] anti-counterfeiting inspectorate searched roughly 50 wineries, distilleries, farming businesses, homes, and shipping companies. The searches were conducted on behalf of the Pordenone district attorney.”

Evidently, the search focused on the Cantina di Rauscedo cooperative (not to be confused with the famous Rauscedo grape vine nursery, which shares the place name Rauscedo — the largest hamlet in Pordenone province — with the bottler).

Nearly all 10 of the “roughly 10” persons under investigation, writes the author of the Gazzettino report, reside in Pordenone province.

(Translation mine. Because of the copyright, I don’t want to translate the entire article. Read it here in Italian.)

A query on reveals that the highest-price wine available from Cantina di Rauscedo clocks in at a hefty $12 or so (retail).

The winery also produces bag-in-box wine (what Americans know as “box wine”).

It appears that the wines are not available in the U.S.

So far, that’s what we can ascertain. We won’t know more until (notoriously tight-lipped) Italian officials reveal more information about the investigation.

Is a massive wine scandal fermenting in Italy? Let’s get the facts straight, people… please!

I’ll continue to follow the story and will post about it as it develops.