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…

Cotarella: “a harvest of ancient flavors” & dispatches from Vulture, Salento & Prosecco Country

dawn salento sunrise puglia

Above: Sunrise over the Salento Peninsula. Photo taken this morning by grape grower and winemaker Gianni Cantele.

“This weather has ancient flavors,” said famed Italian enologist Riccardo Cotarella (current president of the Association of Italian Enologists and Enotechnicians) in an interview with the Italian news agency ANSA.

“Like 30 or 40 years ago,” he added, there is “less heat” and there are “strong temperature variations” between day and night. “It can’t be but good for the vineyards. Now we need to watch the clouds and the sky. Hopefully, it won’t rain in coming days and it will be a perfect vintage.”

The interview was reported by Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro on the newspaper’s wine blog today (here’s a link to the ANSA English-language post; it doesn’t include the quote cited by Luciano).

Luciano’s post — his blog is a must-read for Italian wine trade observers — also includes quotes from grape growers and winemakers across Italy (Arianna Occhipinti among them). Although vintage forecasts can be a tight-rope act where wineries must balance marketing and realism, most are predicting a good-to-excellent harvest for 2013.

Harvest is coming later this year because of the cold temperatures and excessive rain of the spring. Those conditions delayed the vegetative process.

In Tuscany, some have predicted that harvest will come as late as October. And at least one, my friend Alessandro Bindocci at the Tenuta il Poggione, has compared the vintage to 1979.

My good friend Laura Gray also posts on weather conditions in Montalcino for the Il Palazzone blog. Check out this interesting comparison of rainfall in the 2012/13 vintages (prepared by the Biondi Santi winery).

The Cantele family, my friends and client, is enjoying classic harvest conditions in Puglia. Grape grower and winemaker Gianni Cantele even had time for a bike ride yesterday. “I have the best job in the world!” he writes.

My friend and client Luca Ferraro, who grows grapes and makes wine in Asolo (Prosecco DOCG), is anxious about forecasts of rain and hail.

“Welcome back from vacation!” he wrote today on his Facebook.

aglianico veraison

Above: Aglianico grapes in Vulture. Photo from last week.

Lastly, here’s a dispatch from my good friend Filena Ruppi who writes from the foothills of Mt. Vulture in Basilicata. She and her husband, winemaker Donato d’Angelo, don’t have a blog but the landing page of their website has a really cool slide show that gives you an idea of the growing conditions there. I love their wines.

    We are experiencing relatively warm temperatures as well as the providential rains of August: after the rain, a gentle north wind always blows. It’s ideal for Aglianico because the grape bunches are very closed and dense and otherwise, rain could bring attacks of rot.

    Some zones have been struck by hail but as you know, hail always strikes like “leopard spots” and this year we’ve emerged unscathed.

    There’s every reason to predict a good vintage but remember: we still have two months to go before harvest begins.

    Fingers crossed!

I’ll continue to digest and post harvest reports as they come in. Hold on to your seats!

And in the meantime, please check out Alfonso’s excellent post on the “social hierarchy” of grape varieties in Italy.

Life as a winemaker sure ain’t easy

dawn in the vineyard italy

Above: The workday begins at dawn for grape growers and winemakers.

As harvest in Italy begins, we are reminded by the harsh life of grape growers and winemakers.

Now, more than ever, the year’s work — and often the work of a lifetime, considering how long it takes for a vineyard to produce fine wine grapes — is on the line.

Their days begin at dawn and end long after the rest of us have finished dinner and settled in with our families for the night.

Today, I’ve posted translations for two of my clients, Bele Casel in the Veneto and Cantele in Puglia.

Up in the Veneto (northeastern Italy) grape grower and winemaker Luca Ferraro delivered a brutally honest post on the challenges he’s facing this year as he prepares for harvest (that’s a view from one of his vineyards above).

“After entire weeks of rain,” he writes (and I translate), “July has left us with problems of hydric stress.”

Down in the Salento peninsula (the southern tip of the heel of Italy’s boot), grape grower and winemaker Gianni Cantele’s harvest is already well underway. But a broken refrigerator and a repairman on vacation are just some of the problems he’s been having to deal with.

“Man, why oh why does everyone in Italy have to take their vacation in August!!!???” he writes in today’s dispatch.

I’ll continue to post updates from these and other wineries as they come up in the feed… Buona vendemmia! Happy harvest!

A new and extreme era of wine writing (and why it matters)

Buon ferragosto a tutti! Happy ferragosto, everyone!

bartolomeo bimbi

Above: “37 Grape Varieties” by Tuscan naturalist painter Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729). The painting was commissioned by Cosimo III de’ Medici. The painting resides at the Medici Villa Poggio a Caiano and was part of a series of paintings commissioned by Cosimo III to document the agricultural products of Tuscany.

A wine writer, close to the source, gently nudged me yesterday, pointing out a lapsus calami in a few of my posts last week (here and here).

Botanist and grape geneticist José Vouillamoz and Master of Wine Julia Harding, she noted, were co-authors — not co-editors — of the landmark work in contemporary ampelography, Wine Grapes (New York, Ecco [HarperCollins] 2012).

Errata corrige! I wanted to be sure to right this lacuna and (I hope that the authors will forgive my absentmindedness and chalk it up to the sleep deprivation that comes with having a newborn and a toddler in the home).

I’ve already sung praises of their remarkable book. The work is a true godsend to oenophiliacs throughout the Anglophone world and beyond. And it marks a new era of wine writing, where a new scholarly benchmark in ampelography has been delivered.

The contemporary age of wine writing has its roots (excuse the paronomasia!) in Italy’s renewal of learning: Renaissance agronomists and naturalists, like Andrea Bacci (On the Natural History of Wines, 1595) and Giovan Vettorio Soderini (Treatise on the Cultivation of Vines, 1600), were pioneers.

Many overlook Agostino Gallo of Brescia and his Ten Days of True Agriculture and the Pleasures of the Country House, 1564. His extraordinary treatise — wildly popular in its day and revised as the Thirteen Days and then again as the Twenty Days — offers what is perhaps the earliest detailed description of vinification in the Renaissance era.

In 1685 Tuscan naturalist Francesco Redi gave us the wonderful and also highly popular Bacchus in Tuscany, a panegyric poem devoted to the wines of his homeland. It stands apart from the oenophilic verses of the Latin poets inasmuch as it combines Bacchanalia and ampelography.

The British were among the first wine [b]loggers.

Travel writers like Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), Bishop of Salisbury, described wines and viticulture in seventeenth-century Italy (thanks to the advent of Google books, more than one wine blogger has found his reference to “natural wine,” an expression which denotes wine that has not been fortified).

Few remember A Survey of the great Dukes State of Tuscanie by Sir Robert Dallington (1605), wherein he describes Tuscany’s “diverse sorts of grapes” (see my post and transcription here; you might be surprised by what you find).

Today, oenography has taken extreme forms that no one would have imagined even fifteen years ago.

On the one hand, there are legions of “citizen” wine bloggers who post daily on their impressions of the wines they taste. They remind me of the sixteenth-century Petrarchists. At the time, Petrarch’s Italian poems were so popular that nearly everyone who could wield a pen wrote sonnets inspired by his work, from a courtesan in Venice (Veronica Franco) to Wyatt and Shakespeare. The ability to compose a Petrarchan sonnet was a gauge of one’s social grace, a phenomenon not dissimilar from the way we admire and praise one’s capacity to describe wine as an expression of social interaction.

On the other hand, new scientific tools — genetic and otherwise — have allowed the authors of Wine Grapes to bring a new standard of precision to the field. In our home, we consult the book nearly every day and like the Oxford English Dictionary or the Encyclopedia Britannica, it represents a supreme reference work, often delivering the last word on the many conundra that continue to plague ampelography.

Why have these oenographic extremes emerged? And why has so much attention — from the demotic to the erudite — been devoted to wine writing in the last fifteen years or so?

I believe it’s because wine represents one of the last agricultural products with such a deep and even quasi-spiritual connection to the land. In the globalized era, when we desperately seek authenticity in our nourishment, there are few foodstuffs that we can link so absolutely to the place where they were raised.

Wine offers us an escape from Marxist alienation and it aids us in soothing our longing, as Freud may have called it, to return to an organic state.

As I negotiate the epistemological implications of oenophilia, I can’t help but think of how lucky we are to live in this era of extreme wine writing. It’s a wonderful time to be alive and to taste…