Please stop calling my Brunello “normale”!

Above: the classic “blue label” Brunello di Montalcino from Fattoria dei Barbi. There’s nothing “normale” about it (full disclosure: I consult with Fattoria dei Barbi on media and marketing strategy).

    normal, adj. and n. Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. (The usual sense.)
    Etymology: < classical Latin normālis right-angled, in post-classical Latin also conforming to or governed by a rule (4th–5th cent.) < norma norma n. + -ālis -al suffix.
    Oxford English Dictionary

Let’s just get this straight for once and for all: there’s nothing normale about Brunello di Montalcino.

Nor is there anything normale about Barolo or Barbaresco.

Ever since Italian wine began “trending” in the U.S. in the late 1990s, wine professionals have been faced with a linguistic conundrum: if the “single-vineyard” or “reserve” bottling of a given wine is considered to be superior in both quality and value, what do you call the “blended” or non-designate wine?

Unfortunately, many American tradespeople adopted the practice of calling the latter categories “normal” or — or even more regrettably, using an erroneous and misguided cultural (mis)appropriation from the Italian — “normale.”

There are two major issues with this convention.

Above: the single-vineyard designate Brunello di Montalcino “Vigna del Fiore” from Fattoria dei Barbi.

The first is that normal means, quite literally, conventional or ordinary, as in doesn’t stand out in a crowd.

Brunello, like its northern counterparts Barolo and Barbaresco, are not “conventional” or “ordinary” wines. In fact, they are illustrious, exceptional wines, even when not accompanied by a cru or aging designation.

The second issue is that historically, the Italians who make them consider the blended wines to be the more expressive and reflective of the appellation where they are produced.

The same holds for the “riserva” or “reserve” designation. It’s not that it’s a better wine from better fruit. A riserva wine is a wine that was conceived, through vineyard selection and vinification techniques, for longer-term aging.

Many Americans will be surprised to learn that the cru-designate trend in Italian wine is relatively recent. And in many cases, the single-vineyard designation was added to appeal to American consumers who assume that the single-vineyard expression is superior de facto. The same could be said of vintage-designate wines in Champagne where the non-vintage, vintage-blended wines are considered (by the people who grow them) the more indicative of the domaine’s style and tradition.

Calling a classic Brunello (or Barolo or Barbaresco) “normale” is demeaning not only to the wine but also the winemaker and the people who live, work, and grow grapes in the appellation of origin. And it also creates confusion for the consumer.

And that’s why I encourage my wine trade fellows to call wines blended from more than one vineyard “classic.”

Whether classic, cru-designate, or reserve, these categories are simply different expressions of the appellation and the winery’s style. When it comes to the top wines for which we use them, there’s nothing normale about them.

The Confederate flag is a symbol of hate. Don’t believe me? Ask your black friends.

Above: A protest of the Confederate Memorial of the Wind in Orange, Texas, where the Sons of Confederate Veterans have erected a monument celebrating Confederate battle flags. The conspicuously displayed banners include the “Confederate Flag” that Nikki Haley has praised as a symbol of pride and heritage. The monument stands on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. and Interstate 10 in a city where an ongoing legacy of racial violence has stained the community for generations. See the Sons’ rendering of the site below.

Rising Republican star Nikki Haley’s recent claim that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of white supremacy is as egregious as it is dangerous.

Egregious because — I’m sorry to break it to whitewashed, “snowflake” Republicans — the Confederate flag is a symbol of the white supremacist movement in our country.

Don’t believe me? Just ask your black friends how they feel about conspicuous displays of the Confederate flag. And ask them about their own experiences with the Confederate flag and the people who wave it.

Your white friends who belong to the Sons of Confederate Veterans will tell you that it’s symbol of “pride” and “heritage.” And they are right: it’s an expression of their pride in white supremacy and their ancestors’ belief in and support of apartheid in this country — otherwise known as poll tax, Jim Crow, and the “Southern Strategy” of the 20th-century Republican party.

Just have a look at the flier (below) that the Sons of Confederate veterans circulated as they gathered money to erect their “Memorial of the Wind,” a celebration of Confederate battle flags including the Confederate flag, in Orange, Texas where half the population is black and where there is a searing legacy of racial violence and Jim Crow.

Her assertion is dangerous because it’s the latest example of the Republican party’s defense, validation, and propagation of the flag itself.

Just as the leader of her party and her close political ally Trump claimed that there were “some very fine people” carrying tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Haley contends that the flag is conspicuously displayed by a mere handful of bad actors.

Evidently, she hasn’t visited the South lately. Here in Southeast Texas, the Confederate Memorial of the Wind (depicted in the flier below) stands at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. and Interstate 10. And all you have to do is meander through the residential streets of southeast Texas and you’ll find Confederate flags displayed conspicuously on houses and cars.

In our own neighborhood in Houston, I’ve spotted a Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag painted on it.

But in recent years, I’ve also seen countless Confederate flags displayed in my hometown of San Diego, California. I even saw more than one prominently displayed Confederate flag when I visited Oregon wine country earlier this year.

To embolden white supremacists with morally bankrupt rhetoric like Haley’s is to euphemize a growing and increasingly violent group of hatemongers who embrace the Republicans’ historic and well-documented subjugation of people who don’t look like (or vote for) them.

Don’t believe me? Just ask my friend in Orange, Texas who drives down Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. every day, traveling beneath the Interstate 10 overpass to take her daughter to elementary school.

On a mission from G-d: when a winery isn’t just a winery but a vital cultural institution and resource

Full disclosure: I consult with Antica Casa Scarpa on media and marketing strategy.

Last month, I spent the better part of a week “working the market,” as we say in the wine trade, with my friend and colleague Riikka Sukula, director of operations for Antica Casa Scarpa — or Scarpa as it’s known — in Monferrato.

Market work entails visiting current or prospective clients (known as “accounts”) accompanied by a locally based distributor and/or agent for the winery’s importer. It’s sometimes called a “ride-with” or “work-with.” And it can be as fun and exhilarating as it can be disappointing and monotonous.

As Riikka (above) and I made our way from wine shop to wine shop, restaurant to restaurant, to taste and chat with wine buyers, wine directors, and sommeliers, I had a light-bulb moment as I listened to her deliver her spiel about the winery and the wines.

Yes, Scarpa is a winery, a commercial enterprise, and the purpose and objective of our ride-with was to convince people to buy the wine.

But Scarpa is so much more than just a winery that merely grows, vinifies, and sells wines: as one of Italy’s oldest continuously running estates, it’s a genuine cultural institution and resource, a part of what the Italians like to call their “cultural patrimony” or heritage. Riikka and her colleagues, some of whom were my students at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences, aren’t just making and selling an agricultural product. They are protecting and giving new life to a cultural icon and benchmark that would otherwise be tragic to lose.
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Apply for sponsored trip to Vinitaly. 30+ spots available. Food professionals encouraged to apply.

For more than four years, I’ve worked as a consultant with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas, located here in Houston. Currently, the Italian government ranks the Texas chamber as the number one chamber in the U.S. and the number five chamber in the world. I’m really proud of the work we do together and I am glad to share the following info here. See you in Verona in 2020!

Held in Verona, Vinitaly is the Italian wine industry’s trade show. It’s the largest and most important gathering of Italian-focused wine professionals each year.

More than 4,400 companies are expected to participate this year. And the organizers expect to present more than 400 events, including tastings and seminars with top producers.

And in recent years, the fair has also included an expansive food component featuring leading producers of cheeses, salumi, olive oils, vinegars, etc.

Click here to learn more about the fair, including travel and accommodation information.

As in years past, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas has 30+ sponsored spots available for wine and food buyers and professionals, importers, and distributors.

You must be a trade member to apply. Food professionals are also encouraged to submit an application. Anyone based in the U.S. is eligible to apply. 

Click here to receive an application form.

Specogna 2013 Picolit, a truly extraordinary wine we drank at Thanksgiving

One of the things that I’ve loved about living in Texas for the last decade has been how good the food is here.

I’m not talking about the vibrant, überhip food scenes here in Houston and in Austin (the latter, the city where we lived for the first six years of my time here). The food in Houston and Austin is nothing less than amazing and it’s been fantastic to be part of these emerging and now firmly established capitals of U.S. fine dining, food trucks, and gastronomy.

No, what I’m talking about is classic Texas and Louisiana cookery. In Texas in general, and especially here in southeast Texas where Tracie grew up and where we have lived for nearly six years now, people are into food. And they are particularly proud of local and familial food traditions, making for some damn-good eating during the holidays.

So I always set aside some special bottles for our family holiday get-togethers.

This year, it was this truly extraordinary bottle of Specogna 2013 Picolit from the Colli Orientali del Friuli appellation in northeasternmost Italy.

Picolit is a white grape that is used almost exclusively to make a highly coveted dessert wine. Part of the reason why it’s almost always made into a dried-grape wine is that the finicky Picolit vine “aborts” some of its clusters during the vegetative cycle. It literally abandons certain bunches, which never fully form on the plant, and concentrates its vigor into berries that will be markedly rich in aroma and flavor.

Specogna, one of my favorite Friulian growers and winemakers, goes for extreme balance and restraint in their Picolit. This gorgeous wine — beautiful to look at and to taste — clocked in at a lithe 13 percent alcohol. Its vibrant acidity was present and popping on the palate but perfectly balanced. And its layers and layers of flavors were as nuanced as they were persistent in the finish. In many ways the rich finish was the highlight (as you followed it with a bite of pie).

My roommate from my junior year in college in Italy (my first year studying abroad) brought this wine to our home as gift when he came to visit earlier this year. I feel truly fortunate to have such a great friend, bearing such an extraordinary wine! Thanks again, Steve: it was the perfect wine to open at our Thanksgiving meal. What a wine!

Here’s some of what we ate as part of our southeast Texas Thanksgiving this year.

Boudin balls. Crumbled boudin, a rice and pork sausage, breaded and fried (very heavy but man, this is an amazing dish).

Memaw’s deviled eggs are one of my favorites (memaw means grandma in southeast Texan; Tra’s memaw, Violet Branch, is 98 years old!).
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EU officially recognizes Vermouth di Torino designation

According to a report published the Italian national daily La Repubblica, the European Union has recognized “Vermouth di Torino” as an official EU designation.

The announcement of the new designation came last week as the recently formed Consorzio del Vermouth di Torino (the consortium of Vermouth di Torino producers) was holding a festival in Turin (Torino) celebrating the legacy of aromatized wines there.

While the designation had already been approved by the Italian ministry of agriculture in 2017, it has taken two years for the Italian government’s counterparts in Brussels to take this historic and important step.

With the newly approved EU designation, Vermouth di Torino now joins a growing list of countries that have received or requested protected status for aromatized wines. According to the European Commission, these include Nürnberger Glühwein, Thüringer Glühwein, Samoborski bermet, and Vino Naranja del Condado de Huelva.

Click here to continue reading my post today for the Antica Casa Scarpa blog.

If you can’t be with the Pinot Grigio you love, love the Pinot Grigio you’re with (Thanksgiving recommendations 2019)

It’s remarkable to think about how and how much Americans’ perceptions of wine have changed in the last 20 years or so. A generation ago, wine at the Thanksgiving table was mostly an afterthought, if that, even for the privileged among us.

Today we live in an America where “wine is the new golf.” Knowing, appreciating, and consuming fine wine has become part of our social fabric. Professionals (you know, the lawyers and doctors and such) are expected to possess an ever elusive “wine knowledge,” a loosely defined and always liquid (excuse the pun) canon of winespeak and consumption. And even for those who don’t belong to the managerial class, wine has become more accessible and enjoyable (for all the discussion of natural wine and its epistemological implications, we often overlook the fact that it has made wine palatable to a new generation of ready enthusiasts).

That’s not a bad thing. The wine renaissance that has taken shape over the last two decades has manifested itself with many positive ramifications — in production, representation, and consumption.

The new wave of technically superior wines, paired with the heightened interest in wine writing and wine education, has created a truly golden age for wine lovers. And the moneymakers have taken note and followed suit: from the crusty old big shippers to a newly minted army of small importers and distributors, more good wine is making its way coast-to-coast and across the American south and heartland.

The downside of all of this is that our self-imposed enological expectations and pressures often blind us to wine’s true purpose and role in human experience. After all, wine (at least in my view) serves to enhance nutrition, pleasure, and spiritual enlightenment.

(Spiritual enlightenment, you ask? Anyone familiar with wine’s diegetic — not digestive — role in Judeo-Christian tradition is surely aware of its divine association. And those who know the works of American philosopher William James should also recognize how wine — and thoughtful inebriation — can open the mind, so to speak, to a greater state of consciousness.)

And that brings us to the question at hand: even with open minds, the best and the brightest among us seem to be nonplussed by that Holy Grail of wine pairings, the Thanksgiving Feast.

The diversity of the foods and flavors, the congregation of the wine friendly and the wine adverse, the burden of supplying wine to a large and unwieldy group of people who all have wildly different expectations and desires… All of these elements come together to form a puzzle that has no solution, a riddle of the Sphinx for which not even the smartest and most knowing women and men have an answer.

Sadly, the overwhelming pressures and ideals of the new wine culture have prompted us to overthink the perfect pairing.

Perfect pairings are almost never fully predictable. Yes, you can use tradition and experience as a guide. But they only come together thanks to an unforeseeable combination of factors. Opening a bottle of wine and matching it with food always represents a gamble, a wager, a rolling of the enological dice. A glass of Carricante paired with a chilled seafood salad only makes for a prefect pairing when all the elements are right: the wine, the food, and the mood of the people at the table.

And so this year, I would like to propose the following Thanksgiving Feast wine pairing: if you can’t be with the Pinot Grigio you love, love the Pinot Grigio you’re with.

Don’t fret or fluster over the optimal pairing. Don’t spend too much but make sure there’s plenty to drink. Open your favorites but make sure that they’s something for everyone (include a “Chard,” a “Cab,” and a sparkling Moscato for sure). And most important of all, eat and drink and be merry this holiday season.

That’s the secret to enjoying a great Thanksgiving with family, friends, and all the ones you love.

There’s a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove.

Happy holidays, yall.

Catastrophic flooding in Venice, “highest tide in 50 years.” Live video via La Repubblica.

“Venice Floods Because of Highest Tide in 50 Years,” according to a report published two hours ago by the New York Times. “The mayor called for a state of emergency and the closing of all schools after the Italian city was submerged under ‘acqua alta,’ an exceptionally high tide.”

See the live video from national daily La Repubblica embedded below.

Venice and its lagoon are a designated UNESCO heritage site. It’s also a living, breathing city where people go to work and study and parents send their kids to school every day.

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening there.

See also coverage on the La Repubblica website (in Italian but the images tell a thousand stories).

Top image via Wikipedia Creative Commons (2008).

Premox (premature oxidation) in white Burgundy: could modernity be the culprit?

Earlier this month, I had the immense fortune to attend a seminar with Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Roulot, legendary producer of Mersault. The event was part of the 2019 Boulder Burgundy Festival (I’ve been the gathering’s blogger for the last six years).

Everyone in attendance at the standing-room-only tasting was rapt with Jean-Marc’s earnestness and transparency in talking about his wines, including the challenges he’s faced in his 30 years at the winery.

But most impressive was his forthrightness when the sticky subject of premature oxidation — “premox” as it’s known in trade parlance — was raised. After all, many of the attendees were top Burgundy collectors who have been deeply disappointed with the cellaring potential of their investment.

“I have discovered that a large number of bottles of white Burgundies from the ’90s suffer from a phenomenon known as premature oxidation,” wrote leading sommelier and author Raj Parr in a dire “Warning on White Burgundies” in 2007 (Wine Spectator). “Simply put, these wines show various stages of advanced oxidation, and this state is not what would normally be expected given their relatively young age.”

(See also this in-depth essay published by World of Fine Wine in 2014.)

Although many believe that a high-quality cork shortage (owed to high demand) might be the culprit, no one really knows what has caused premature oxidation in white Burgundy.

Jean-Marc attributes the trend, he said, to a combination of factors, including, possibly, the scarcity of good cork.

But he believes, he said, that the problem is due to a new wave of consulting enologists in the 1990s who encouraged winemakers to press and vinify the wines too swiftly. The focus was on maintaining the freshness and aromatic character of the wines in a decade when fruit was arriving in the cellar riper than in previous years thanks to climate change (we know now).

After some of his wines suffered from premox, he told the tasters, he decided to reserve roughly 10 percent of his grape must and let it oxidize slightly before vinifying. He’s found, he said, that by letting some of the must gently oxidize, premature oxidation of the wines seems to have been avoided.

In a sense, it’s possible that it was modernity itself to blame. Coming away from the tasting and talk, I couldn’t help but think to myself, it wasn’t broke until they tried to fix it.

Jean-Marc’s wines are extraordinary, although expensive and extremely hard to find in North America. I’d only ever had the opportunity to enjoy them in France, in the occasional overlooked bistro, when my band was touring there. Many consider him one of the greatest producers of white wine in the world today. And many American winemakers try to emulate his style by using what has come to be known as the “Roulot Method” (although he claimed adamantly not to have invented it). What a great experience to get to taste with him! Drink his wines if you can!