Italy, here I come! Heading back to teach at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

The news is still sinking in.

It was just a few short weeks ago that it didn’t seem possible: quarantine requirements for vaccinated U.S. travelers have now been lifted and the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont has just booked my flights for three weeks of seminars beginning mid-July.

After nearly 18 months since my last trip to my spiritual homeland — the country, people, and places that have shaped my academic and professional careers — I’m finally going back to Italy!

That’s a photo (above) of the university’s main campus in the village of Pollenzo, the site of a castle and former farm once owned by the Italian royal family. There is also an excavated Roman arena and settlement there. It’s pretty cool to check out.

As I have for the last five years, except for 2020, I’ll be teaching wine and food communication to students in the graduate program there. The overarching theme of my seminars this year is going to be “organic vs. optimized content,” a conundrum that seems to flummox so many young people who are trying to carve their paths in wine and food media today.

We’ll also be doing case studies about the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements and their impact on food and wine writing (it’s incredible to think about all that’s happened over the last year and half!). We’ll also be doing an overview of wine and food writing history and we’ll take a look at how content creators became even more creative during the pandemic, making use of technology in unexpected and surprisingly useful ways that continue to affect how we talk about and perceive wine and food.

I hope to get to spend some time away from campus during my weekends. But I’ll be spending most of my time between Pollenzo where the teaching happens and the small, nearby city of Bra where I’ll be staying.

If you happen to be in Roero or Langa the last two weeks of July or the first week of August, please let me know and let’s taste! I’m super serious about that. There will be many servings of vitello tonnato that I need to share! Seriously, hit me up. That’s the vitello tonnato (below) at Local, Slow Food’s excellent shop and casual restaurant in downtown Bra.

Wish me luck, wish me speed!

Italy, my love, the alma mater that has nourished and inspired me for a lifetime, here I come… back.

Alder Yarrow, you are an inspiration to so many of us. But I hate to break it to you, wine blogging is very much alive.

Above: Alberto Giacometti, “Large Standing Woman I,” 1960 (Houston Museum of Fine Arts).

The world of wine blogging owes an immense debt to Alder Yarrow, whose pioneering blog Vinography offered an early model and roadmap to a generation of wine-focused social media users when it launched in 2004. By 2007, he would become the first wine blogger to be invited to speak at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. And his writing also began to appear in some of the top wine world mastheads, electronic and otherwise. His is a path that so many have followed or aspired to in the meantime.

That was all the more reason that it was disconcerting to read his recent post “Wine Bloggers: An Endangered Species.”

“I think I finally know how my wife’s grandmother felt,” he wrote sorrowfully. “A year or two before she passed at the age of 100, I asked her how she was doing as we sat down together for a meal. She said, ‘I’m just fine, but I’ve been alive too long. All my friends are dead’…”

After his survey of the current field of wine blogging, he pines, “I definitely feel a bit doddering, having just pruned off all that deadwood only to discover what amounts to a stunted little group of branches clinging to life.”

It’s stunning to read that in a time when wine blogging has firmly shifted away from its early “tasting and technical notes” model to a deeply self-aware and socially conscious paradigm.

Just think of blogger sommeliers like Tahiirah Habibi and Liz Dowty. Their courageous posts last year disrupted one of the wine world’s sacrosanct institutions, the Court of Sommeliers. Thanks to them, the lives of wine professionals across the spectrum are safer today.

Some may protest that they are not traditional wine bloggers like the ones Alder references in his post. Yes, their posts appeared on Instagram (and not a WordPress-coded site). And yes, one used videos and live stories instead of written word. Even though they weren’t using the conventional blog post format (that Alder and his contemporaries used), they were regularly updating their readers on an internet platform by means of an online journal — the very definition of blogging.

With the media they shared publicly, they literally reshaped the world they inhabit. That’s some pretty powerful stuff, if you ask me. And it’s an indication that wine blogging, although no longer focused on the latest exclusive (and exclusionary) tasting or sample, is very much alive and kicking harder than it ever has. Tahiirah and Liz don’t get paid for their posts. They do it because they are called to a higher purpose: activism through media. Sounds like blogging to me.

It’s important to underline that Alder’s contribution to the world of wine blogging cannot be overestimated. That’s especially true because one of the other wine blog models of the genre’s early years was authored by an internet troll whose work sadly presaged much of the nastiness that would seep throughout the world of wine media. Alder offered aspiring wine writers a balanced locus amoenus and high quality writing that they could look to as they carved out their own space in the corners of the internets.

And wow, Alder, I’m not sure how you missed this, but there are so many of them out there.

Just think of Cara Rutherford’s wonderful blog Caravino. Based near Albany, New York, she posts traditional tasting and technical notes three to four times a week (the last time I counted).

Or what about Kat René in Houston? She’s a prolific collector and author of one of the most popular wine blogs in the country right now, Corkscrew Concierge.

Cathrine Todd, another highly active and superbly talented wine writer, posts regularly on the multi-author blog hosted by Forbes and her own site, Dame Wine.

(Just think how many wine posts appear on Forbes these days. No, that content isn’t hosted on a traditional, stand-alone, WordPress-fueled site. But it still fits the conventional definition, above, of what blogging is.)

Or what about my former Slow Wine colleague Pam Strayer’s excellent and newly launched blog Organic Wines Uncorked, a site that has disrupted the California wine industry?

I have immense respect for Alder. And I’ll be the first to tell you that he’s a lovely person who has used his status and visibility over the years to make the world of wine a better place — socially and professionally, I’ll add.

But when I look his list of currently active wine blogs, I find that it’s riddled with lacunæ (including some but not all of the writers I mention above). To his list I also add the myriad wine writers and wine trade observers who use social media platforms to host their media. Just because you’re blogging on Instagram, Facebook, or even Forbes or Medium doesn’t mean that you are not a wine blogger. Then add to that mix the countless writers who post on sites and social media for wine shops, importers, distributors, and even wine industry law firms etc.

Pointing to the writers I’ve included in this post on a wine blog, I’d say that the world of wine blogging is more diverse and compelling than ever before. And I’d like to thank Alder for getting this conversation started — on a wine blog.

A bottle of 1985 Sangiovese restored my faith last night in Miami Beach…

One of the things that has always amazed me about wine is how it can expand the horizons in our minds and our hearts.

In our minds because every wine is a glimpse of the past, a moment in time captured in a bottle, the universe in a glass.

In our hearts because despite all our science, wine remains a mystery and miracle, the same that gave life, succor, and faith to the ancients and the women and men who came before us in nearer times.

A bottle of 1985 Morellino di Scansano reminded me of our shared humanity last night when a group of wine writers sat down for dinner and a flight of Fattoria Le Pupille wines with the farm’s current generation, Clara Gentili. (I’ve been consulting with her U.S. importer, Ethica, and they brought me to Florida this week to meet her and taste together.)

The wine, harvested a month or so after a kid from southern California started college and Ronald Reagan was roughly halfway through his presidency, was fresh and lithe in the glass, with moreish savory notes of macchia (the distinctive Italian garrigue) and supple red and berry fruit that danced atop its still very vibrant acidity.

A 35-year-old wine that’s abided patiently through world crises — bellic, pecuniary, and epidemical — that have convulsed human discourse and self-awareness. A more than three-decades-old expression of a rational contortion of nature, the effort resulting by women and men (some of whom are no longer here to know the fruits of their toil) who worked the vineyards and transformed the must.

The wine — utterly delicious and immaculate in its clarity and focus — lifted me up and brightened my spirit. It reminded me of a line from Boccaccio’s afterword, where he advocates for the entertainments and medicaments of the young Tuscan nobles who have fled Florence for the countryside.

“Who will deny that wine is an excellent thing for the living?” he asks.

Clara, thank you for coming to America during these trying times and sharing these extraordinary bottles with us! Thank you for not letting trepidation in the face of the uncertainty impede your travels in wine! Thank you for reminding us of the miracle of wine and its life-giving properties!

Thank you, most of all, for affirming that we, too, will weather the current crises the world faces, just like a 35-year-old bottle of wine harvested on the Tuscan coast nearly a lifetime ago.

I’ll be tasting with Clara and other Italian producers tonight at the Suckling event in Miami and on Sunday and Monday I’ll be attending the Florida Wine Academy’s Vino Summit conference. I’m looking forward to sharing notes from both…

Heath Porter, a sommelier’s sommelier and one of the smartest, nicest, and funniest people in the trade

That’s my friend and one of the American wine professionals I admire most, Heath Porter (above), at the Château de Bagnols in Beaujolais.

I’ve only met and tasted with Heath on two occasions over the last decade. But we’ve stayed in close touch via social media. He’s always eager to help a fellow wine person out and the feeling is mutual.

A few weeks ago, he was gracious enough to let me interview him for the My Name Is Barbera blog.

I was so impressed by what he had to say and how he said it that I felt compelled to share it here.

Even on the digital page, his words convey his encyclopedic knowledge of wine, his knack for humor (something every sommelier should have), and his warmth as a human being. Re-reading the piece, I just got this feeling that he knows we’re all in this together.

(Yes, I have a crush on the guy. A grape crush.)

When I first got started in this business more than 20 years ago, most Americans had never even heard the word sommelier. Today, the celebrity sommelier circuit has become so expansive that even its kerfuffles make the news.

Heath is a sommelier’s sommelier, the type we could use a lot more of these days: education, conviviality, and humanity are what drives his career.

Check out his new wine tour gig, Heathen Wine Tours (if I had the dough, I’d hop right on to that bandwagon). And check out what he had to say about Barbera and you’ll see why I admire the guy — and what he does — so much.

Chapeau bas, Heath! Thanks again for taking time out for Barbera (and me).

10 biggest stories to watch in Italian wine in 2018 (#1 might surprise you)

When I first moved to Texas nine years ago, it was common to see Italy grouped with “other” in wine shops (the Foucauldian implications were evident, at least to me). Today, it’s rare that Italy doesn’t have its own, distinct space on the retail floor.

10. The expanding Balkanization of importing and distributing.

Over the last two years, more and more blue chip and marquee-name Italian wineries have abandoned national distribution opting instead for a state-by-state strategy. None of the biggest players in Italian wine imports wield the power they did 10 years ago when the field of wines and importers was much smaller. California, with its extremely liberal importing and distributing regulation, sets the bar for this trend. It simply doesn’t make sense anymore to rely on the three-tier system with its inherent markups and bureaucratic obstacles.

9. The growth of self-importing.

More and more Italian wineries are investing in their own importing and distribution channels. In Texas, for example, a major northern Italian estate (with little history or market presence in the state) set-up its own importing and distributing company this year and from what the owner has told me, the company is looking to expand its reach to California and other states as well. High-profile Italian estates have also invested in existing companies in recent years. This trend will only continue to flourish.

8. Robust tribalization among big distributors.

As the big distributors have watched their empire dwindle as more and more small importer-distributors pop up across the U.S., they have doubled down on their efforts to muscle their smaller competitors through aggressive marketing and sometimes unfair market practices. Increasingly, I’ve seen wine buyers wooed with gifts and liberal expense accounts. It’s reminiscent of the “good old days” (as some would call them) when reps entered accounts with wads of cash to distribute. And it’s as scary as hell.

7. The importer vanity label.

Among their efforts to curb small-business mid-sized importers and distributors, the fat cats have increasingly turned to vanity labels — created out of nothing but ink, paper, glue, glass, and wine. They obtain large quantities of wine from commercial producers, concoct a back story and marketing campaign, and then sell the wines at a high markup. It’s a brilliant business model, no doubt. But it negates the very thing that makes Italian wine so cool: its small-scale familial approach to viticulture. Slap some Tuscan sun on to a bottle of Montepulciano farmed in Molise and pass out the cigars.

6. Multi-national corporations’ land grab.

One of the biggest stories of 2016 was the sale of Piedmont heritage producer Vietti to the American owners of the Kum and Go convenience store chain. One of the biggest Italian wine stories of 2017 was the release of what may be the highest-priced Italian wine ever. A growing number of Italians fear that it’s only a matter of time before many of the best Italian estates are bought-up by multi-national corporations. Sadly, the unstoppable march of capitalist progress is, well, unstoppable.

5. Sicily is the coolest kid on the block.

As a wine buyer and an Italian wine trade observer, I’ve been seeing more and more value-driven, high-quality wines coming from the island. Investment in Sicilian wine, from Etna to Vittoria, is only growing and Sicilians have become increasingly savvy about marketing their wines in the U.S. It seems like every day, I taste something great from a new Sicilian winery. And it’s not just limited to cool-kid estates. Last year, I was thrilled to see Monica Larner (who’s doing wondrous things for Italian wine, btw) devote so much ink to heritage winery Feudo Montoni and its show-stopping wines. This year, Ian D’Agata wrote the following for Vinous: “Feudo Montoni is one of Italy’s best but still relatively little known estates.” Yes! Keep the great wine (and great wine writing) coming…

4. Sparkling wine.

The unbridled success of Prosecco in the 1990s has spawned a wave of sparkling wine production in Italy. From Sicily to Gambellara, it seems that everyone wants to get in on the sparkling wine gravy train — with mixed results. There’s no doubt that sparkling wine is the fastest growing category in wine across the world and we are only going to see more bubbles and more investment in Italian bubbles marketing here in the U.S.

3. Natural wine.

The ongoing debate over what is and what is not natural wine remind me of the countless hours we used to spend in graduate seminars discussing the definition of post-post-modernism. Sometimes it took up so much time that we hardly devoted our attention to the works of literature we were supposed to be studying. There’s no doubt that natural wine has established itself firmly as a market and marketing category in the minds of U.S. consumers — especially among young ones. In bon appétite, wine writers Belle Cushing and Marissa A. Ross called natural wine “2017’s Drink of the Year.” One of their criteria for selecting a bottle of natural wine was “It’s Fine to Just Pick the Coolest Looking Label.” Yes, it’s come to that. But it can only be a good thing in my view: the newer wave of natural wine enthusiasts only continues their predecessors’ efforts to champion small-scale farming and wholesomeness. That’s a positive, at least where I come from.

2. Asti Secco.

The first wave tsunami of Asti Secco is beginning to hit American shores. It’s going to give Prosecco a run for the money. The category didn’t make landfall in time to insinuate itself fully into holiday sparkling wine sales in the U.S. market. But Prosecco growers are going to be carefully watching developments in 2018. There’s a lot of money and marketing savvy behind the brands that are pushing this newly created Italian wine. Hold on to your seats… it’s coming to a Target near you!

1. The delayed issuance of CMO marketing subsidies.

Although hardly noticed by the American wine trade, the biggest story in Italian wine in 2017 was Italy’s failure to renew its CMO subsidies. More widely known by its Italian acronym OCM, the EU’s Common Market Organisation includes programs to protect and promote heritage viticulture and sustainable farming practices. But it also provides funds for the marketing European wines abroad. In the fall 2017, France and Spain received their new round of foreign marketing subsidies without a hitch. Italy did not: the EU delayed the issuance of monies earmarked for the country until February of 2018. From what I’ve been able to find out, the delay is owed to the fact that Italy wasn’t able to spend all of the funds allocated for 2017.

Thanks for reading and thanks for drinking Italian wine in 2017, 2018, and beyond…

The perils of wine blogging in #TrumpAmerica: readers strike back

For readers who may have missed them, here are a few comments that appeared on my blog last week.

Dr. Cary Murphy (below), family medicine doctor in Clay Center, Kansas on “What scares me in #TrumpAmerica: white people…”

I left your blog a few years ago when you began to spend more time praising Obamacare and gushing about your new daughter than talking about wine. I thought I would try it again today and was disappointed to see your gross generalization of Trump supporters as white supremacists. I really enjoyed your wine blogging and thoughts on other aspects of culture. I find your need to proselytize your politics off putting.

Michele Gargani (below), chef in southern California on “Asshole wine blogger? Yeah, that would be me and proud of it.”

Just had 2009 Schioppettino from Bressan… Amazing!

As the crow flies: the new Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California is forthcoming.

Slow Wine will publish its first-ever guide to the wines of California in early 2018.

Above: vineyards in the Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA). Note the Pacific Ocean horizon in the background.

It was in late 2016, on the eve of the American presidential election, that Slow Wine Guide editor Giancarlo Gariglio and I first sat down in Piedmont, Italy and talked about the possibility of creating a Slow guide to the wines of California.

By the spring of 2017 our plans had began to come into focus: he and I would co-edit the English-language by the end of the year, for publication in early 2018.

Above: vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. I spent the better part of last week touring vineyards and meeting with growers in northern California before I sat down with our editorial panel to taste more than 250 wines submitted for consideration in the guide.

Giancarlo and his Italian co-editor published the first bi-lingual Slow guide to the wines of Italy in 2011.

Its early success and the north American Slow Wine tastings that followed laid the groundwork for the new guide that began to take shape last week when we sat down to taste with our editorial panel.

Above: Giancarlo (foreground, left) and our tasting panel was impressed by the caliber and breadth of the wines submitted. He was tasting a lot of the estates for the first time.

It was a no-brainer for me to reach out to my dear friend Elaine Brown and ask her to join us. She is the author of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews and a contributor to Jancis Robinson: in recent years, she has become the country’s leading authority on the new (and old) wave of sustainable fine wine grape growers in California.

I also invited my long-time friend David Lynch, a top wine writer and leading American sommelier, to join our panel: his finely honed abilities as taster and his vast experience in California wine were just what was needed to complete our tasting and editorial panel.

Above: Alexander and Catherine Eisele of Volker Eisele were some of the growers I met with last week. The embodiment of the Slow ethos, their family has organically farmed its Napa estate for two generations and the couple supports their budding family through grape growing and winemaking.

Not only will Slow Food be publishing the guide in early 2018 but Giancarlo and I will also be presenting a group of select California growers that will accompany the Slow Wine tour of Italian grape growers in the early new year.

Dates are tentatively planned for New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Houston (to be confirmed).

Slow Food Editore will be making an official announcement soon and I’ll be posting updates on our progress and previews here on my own blog in coming months.

I couldn’t be more proud to share the news: the new Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California will be coming to a town near you soon!

Heartfelt thanks to Giancarlo for coming to me with this project and to Elaine and David for believing in this crazy endeavor (going where no wine writer has ever gone before!). And warm thanks also to intern Elisabeth Fiorello-Sievers whose lovely family hosted and fed our panel.

Angelo Gaja tasted by Victor Hazan circa 1982 and one of the most moving passages of wine writing I’ve ever read

victor hazan wine writerIn another chapter in my life, I was gravely afflicted by bibliophilia.

And while today my financial situation precludes me from pursuing my bibliophilous desires (the Aldine octavo is my greatest weakness), I do regularly indulge in low-wager purchases, generally $10-20 online and in used bookstores.

It’s remarkable how many great wine books that you can pick up, like the ones above. I recently bought the Hazan through Amazon for $4 and the Ray for $15 at a shop in San Francisco.

Leafing through Italian Wine (Knopf 1982), I was blown away by Hazan’s prescient description of the wines of Angelo Gaja.

“One cannot mention Barbaresco producers,” he wrote,

    without bringing up Angelo Gaja, the largest and best known. His wines, especially the ones from single vineyards, Sorì Tildin [sic] and Sorì San Lorenzo, enjoy the most extravagant praise and prices They are wines made with intense care and with the single-minded objective of making them as big and full and ripe as possible. I cannot deny that he succeeds, but, though mine may be the lone dissenting voice, I cannot bring myself to admire them wholeheartedly. Gaja’s wine does not seem to me to give what one most looks for in Barbaresco. It attempts to outmuscle Barolo, but fails to achieve the gracefulness that makes Barbaresco’s natural endowment of flavor and body stylish rather than pushy.

Today, we think of Hazan as Marcella’s scribe. But in 1982, he was also one of the pioneering voices of Italian wine writing.

And, man, what a passage! It’s even more powerful knowing that in the decades that followed, Gaja went on to become one of the world’s most famous and successful winemakers and one of the trade’s most brilliant marketers.

I love how he so eloquently and delicately expresses his “dissent” without the slightest hint of antipathy.

As I enjoyed the book last night after dinner, I marveled at how au courant it reads (save for the fact that his vintage ratings stop at 1981). The appellation maps, including excellent topographical renderings, are also superb.

As for his take on the new style of Barbaresco created by Gaja, I’ll let the reader arrive at her/his own conclusions.

Hazan’s book was trumped this week only by Cyril Ray’s, in which I stumbled across the one of the most the most moving example of wine writing I’ve ever read.

“It is salutary for an Englishman to live for a while in a wine-growing country,” wrote Ray in Ray on Wine (Dent 1979), “where wine is neither a symbol by which snobs can demonstrate their wealth or their taste, nor a means of fuddlement, but as natural and as necessary as bread.”

Now this is a powerful illustration of wine writing at its finest, where the author reveals so much about himself, his times, and the society in which he lives and works.

It’s even more powerful considering that the experience refers back to his time as correspondent during World War II in Italy (I wrote about the passage yesterday for the CanteleUSA blog because the account comes from Ray’s time spent with British troops in Puglia).

Not that I could ever achieve it, but this is the wine writing to which I aspire, where wine (the object) becomes a window onto the human experience and where a bourgeoisie can at once acknowledge his and his fellows middle-class shortcomings while using them as synecdoche for society at large.

For my fellow bibliophiles, my autographed copy of Ray on Wine is set in Bembo typeface (just to bring it back to my predilection for Aldine incunabula).

Thank you for letting me share my enobibliophily with you!

Italy vintage 2013 notes by @BSandersonWine @WineSpectator (recommended)

italy vintage 2013 harvest notes

Above: “Harvest in Cinque Terre 2013,” photo by reader Renzo Carmine.

I was thrilled to see this 2013 Vintage Report by Bruce Sanderson and Alison Napjus this moring on the Wine Spectator blog.

You don’t need to be a subscriber to read it and I highly recommend it to you.

Here’s the link.

Alison and Bruce, grazie!

Ciao Kyle, you will be missed and remembered fondly

Amice sit tibi terra levis.

kyle phillips wineIt’s with a heavy heart that I report the news that our friend, wine writer, and Italian wine and culture blogger Kyle Phillips has left this world for a better one.

I had the opportunity to taste with Kyle on a few occasions in Italy (where he lived with his family) but our friendship and my deep respect for him grew out of our correspondence on email and social media.

He was a superbly talented taster and had a profound mastery and knowledge of Italian wine and its myriad designations, the result of decades of traveling and tasting wines throughout Italy.

But he was also a prolific English-language ambassador for Italian culture and gastronomy: his pioneering work at About.com was a model and inspiration for my blog.

May the earth rest lightly on you, friend. You will be sorely missed. As Angelo Peretti wrote on his blog today, the next glass is for you…