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 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…

G-d bless @JancisRobinson et alia

jancis robinson wine grapes

The most remarkable thing happened yesterday.

As I sat at the counter of a new Houston wine bar, the servers produced a copy of Jancis Robinson’s excellent Wine Grapes and began eagerly leafing through its beautifully illustrated folia and superb critical apparatus.

No, there’s nothing remarkable about that. In fact, I see it all the time these days.

Here’s the remarkable thing: a young couple, evidently regular guests, brought their own copy of the tome and proceeded to peruse its pages for insights into the wines they had in the glasses that lay before them (you can see the two gentlemen in the background of the image above).

Not just one exemplar in situ but two!

With unheimlich timing, Jancis, you and your brainiac team — Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz — have delivered a new Torah unto the nascent flock of youthful wine lovers in the English-speaking world.

Their thirst for wine knowledge is rivaled only by their want of drink. And you have rendered unto them a new testament.

And in an era where the digital image seems nearly always to trump the printed logos, you have achieved a nearly singular triumph: your gorgeously cloth-bound book and cloth-bound slipcase are practically ubiquitous among the wine-smitten (at least those whom I frequent).

At the Parzen residence, the volume is displayed handsomely and prominently in our oenographic library and I can’t remember a workaday when I didn’t consult it at least once.

Thank you, thank you, Jancis, Julia, and José, for this wonderful gift to those among us afflicted by oenophilia!

May G-d bless and keep you! Your work is a true mitzvah…

More @arpepe1860 from @ItalianWineGuy @WinechefPDX & @Jbastianich opens restaurant Italy


Above: “@DoBianchi [the wines of Ar.Pe.Pe. are] beauties!” wrote Michael Garofala yesterday on the Twitter. “We’re very lucky in Pdx [Portland, Oregon] to have them. Valtellina’s also not such a bad place to visit.”

Yesterday’s post on generated a lot of positive response.

Michael Garofola aka @WineChefPDX, who works in Portland, posted this beautiful photo of the Valtellina (above).

And Alfonso aka @ItalianWineGuy reminded me of this excellent post on his vist to the Valtellina from 2007, including tasting notes for (highly recommended).

bastianich mozza aragone

Above: The news of Joe’s new restaurant in Italy nudged me to grab this bottle of his Mozza 2008 Aragone from my samples bin. A blend of Sangiovese with smaller amounts of Syrah, Alicante, and Carignan, the wine was fresh and the ripe red fruit was bright, balanced by wholesome earthiness. According to, it sells for under $35 in the U.S. market. Another gem of a wine from the great enologist Maurizio Castelli, it paired nicely with some chicken tacos.

Things are insanely busy these days at the home office, but I did manage to catch up on my Feedly reading yesterday.

I’m surprised that virtually no one in the U.S. has written about Joe Bastianich’s soon-to-be-launched new restaurant in Friuli, “Orsone” (the big bear), the name of farmhouse and vineyard where he sources fruit for one of his vineyard-designated wines in the Colli Orientali del Friuli.

I read about it on one of my favorite Italian-language food blogs, Dissapore (where you can also see a photo of the venue’s façade).

One of the things that fascinates me about Joe’s career is his reverse immigration. There are many Italian-American restaurateurs in the U.S. who own vineyards in Italy (as he does) but I don’t know of any who are megagalactic (to borrow an Italianism) television celebrities and restaurant-owners on the other side of the Atlantic.

It will be interesting to see what he does with it… And like any high-profile “restaurant man” (the title of his memoir, published while in his early 40s), I’m sure that Orsone will be the subject of intense scrutiny…

So much more to tell but I’ve got hungry mouths to feed. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned…

Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti bans racist politician

oscar farinetti

Above: Eataly founder and Italian entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti with Uman foundation president and environmental activist Giovanna Melandri in Rome, October 2012 (image via the Uman Foundation Flickr).

“Entry to Eataly is forbidden to people like [Italian senior parliamentarian] Calderoli,” said the food emporium’s founder Oscar Farinetti to a radio interviewer this week in Italy, adding that the ban was “for hygienic reasons.”

He was referring to Roberto Calderoli, Northern League (Separatist) party member and vice-president of the Italian senate, whose recent racist comments have been the subject of controversy this week in Italy.

At a political rally on Saturday in Treviglio (Lombardy province), Calderoli used a racial slur in reference to Italy’s first African-born minister, Italo-Congolese politician and opthamologist Cécile Kyenge.

Calderoli and his racist cohorts, suggests Farinetti in the interview, “shouldn’t just resign from politics… They should resign from the human race… They lack the conscience that distinguishes humans from chimpanzees.”

Click here for an updated English-language report on the episode and steps Italian officials are taking to censure Calderoli.

You can listen to the interview here.

As an Italian wine and food historian and an observer of Italy’s wine and food trade, I applaud Farinetti for his “no racists allowed” policy.

His statements came in response to the interviewer’s question: As someone who works abroad, are you ever embarrassed by the attitudes of Italian politicians?

While many international ambassadors of Italian wine and food avoid the sticky, unsavory issues of politics and racial tensions in Italy today, Oscar Farinetti’s decisive stand on this issue — zero tolerance for the manifest racism expressed by Italy’s separatist movement leaders — deserves our attention and commands our respect.

Enogastronomy is one of the greatest expressions of the Italian soul — no matter what the political affiliation. As the highest-profile representative of Italian wine and food throughout the world, Farinetti’s example should be a model for us all.