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 Ar.pe.pe. 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 Ar.pe.pe. (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 WineSearcher.com, 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.

A note on the Argiano Brunello acquittal

daybreak montalcino

Above: A daybreak view of Mt. Amiata from the village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate (Montalcino).

This week, two major wine news outlets — Decanter and Wine Spectator — reported on the acquittal of ex-Argiano CEO Giampiero Pazzaglia, who had been charged by the Siena prosecutor with commercial fraud in the Brunello adulteration scandal of 2008 (the inquiry was dubbed “Operation Mixed Wine” by Italian authorities).

At the time, seventeen persons were indicted by the Siena prosecutor. Of those, one was absolved of any wrongdoing shortly after the news of the indictments broke; fifteen persons were convicted after entering into plea agreements with the prosecutor’s office; and Mr. Pazzaglia, alone, fought the charges.

Click the links above to read their reports.

News of Pazzaglia’s acquittal was reported in Italy in May of this year (nearly two months ago). But for some reason (unclear to me), the Decanter and Wine Spectator editors only picked up on the story now.


Argiano, which is now owned by a Brazilian investment group, did declassify a substantial amount of 2003 Brunello at the time of the scandal. But Pazzaglia — whom I interviewed by phone shortly after news of the scandal and indictments broke — always maintained that neither he nor the winery had engaged in any attempt to adulterate the estate’s wines or to falsify any documents.

According to the report of his acquittal in the Italian media, the court found that the charges were unsubstantiated.

So much has changed in Montalcino since the time of the controversy (Brunellopoli, as it was dubbed by the Italian media, a reference to Tangentopoli, the Italian government bribery scandal of the 1990s).

Ex-Brunello Consortium president Ezio Rivella, who lobbied unsuccessfully at the time to allow blending in Brunello, is long gone.

And the now second-term president, Fabrizio Bindocci, has won a long-fought campaign to create protocols for emergency irrigation in Montalcino.

Had those protocols been in place back during the blistering heat wave of 2003, it’s likely that the scandal would have never emerged on the scale that it did. If anything, it would have been a footnote in the annals of Italian vinous history.

Five years after the controversy, its long-term impact on Montalcino is negligible. In fact, as many other Italian appellations are still feeling the acute pains of the ongoing international financial crisis, Montalcino is a “happy island,” as Bindocci put it in a video posted recently by Repubblica.it.

65 percent of the wine produced there is exported, he says in the video, and the U.S. remains the largest consumer, representing 25 percent of sales (Germany is the next largest consumer at 7.5 percent).

Defending a diacritic in Cogno’s “Anas-Cëtta” TY @brittanieshey

cogno anas cetta

A note of thanks to my friend and colleague Brittanie Shey (Houston-based music and lifestyle writer) who brought this New Yorker piece to my attention: “The Curse of the Diaeresis.”

It interests me for three reasons: 1) my doctoral thesis on medieval & Renaissance prosody (meter/versification) and transcription included a chapter devoted in part to diaeresis; 2) I have always been annoyed by the New Yorker’s hypergrammatical (yes, that’s a term; I didn’t coin it) use of the umlaut (aka diaeresis); and 3) Valter Fissore uses a gratuitous umlaut in the proprietary designation for his Cogno Langhe Nascetta.

Continue reading

Ut pictura oenographia: a short treatise on synaesthesia in wine writing

blake dante inferno

Above: William Blake’s depiction of Dante and Virgil heading toward the “dark wood” where “the sun is silent.” Image via BlakeArchive.org.

Horace, Dante, Blake, Carducci, and wine tasting? Pane per i miei denti, as the Italian says (bread for my teeth to bite into, in other words, right up my alley).

I had a lot of fun composing a short treatise on synaesthesia in wine writing this morning for my friend and client Paolo Cantele.

Click here for the post…

@SottoLA wine list named one of “best in LA” by @SIreneVirbila @LATimes #DreamComeTrue

sotto los angeles

Above: Our very first staff wine training at Sotto in Los Angeles when the restaurant opened more than two years ago.

What a thrill for me and Tracie P to learn that S. Irene Virbila has named the wine program at Sotto, where I co-curate the list, one of the “best” in Los Angeles!

It means even more to me because I grew up in Southern California and went to U.C.L.A. for both undergrad and grad: like it was yesterday, I remember my first starry-eyed meals at Valentino and Spago, two restaurants also named in this shortlist of top wine programs in Los Angeles. And now my name is up there with theirs! Wow…

fatalone primitivo

From day one, my co-curator and bromance Rory Harrington and I have taken a very radical approach to the list at Sotto and we’ve never strayed from that course. We have always featured food-friendly wines that truly reflect the grapes with which they are made, the place where those grapes are grown, and the people who grow them.

But like a tree that falls in the forest when no one is there to hear it thump, our wine list wouldn’t have any meaning if guests didn’t enjoy our selections. More than two years into this project, I never stop being thrilled by watching someone taste an old Taurasi, Gaglioppo, or Gioia del Colle Primitivo for the first time. Of all the rewards that this experience has delivered, this has been the greatest by far.

I’m currently on paternity leave from my monthly visits to the restaurant. But I’ll be back again in September and we already have some interesting wine events lined up for the fall.

Thanks SO much to everyone for supporting me and the restaurant in this adventure. And thanks from the heart to Ms. Virbila for taking the time to enjoy the wines that we love so much…

Solaris: disease-resistant hybrids make waves in Italy @CorriereDiVini @terrauomocielo

werner mornadell

Above: Werner Morandell netting his vineyards in the Mendel Pass (image via his Facebook).

As Giovanni notes today on his excellent blog Terra Uomo Cielo, this is the time of year when grape growers treat their vineyards with sulfur and copper to reduce the risk of fungal diseases, chiefly oidium and perenospora.

At the sound of the tractors’ motors revving up on their way to the vineyard, he is reminded that “not only do the products used to safeguard the fruit pollute. So does the movement of the tractors” belching out diesel aromas more offensive to Giovanni, he writes, than the smell of the sulfur.

There is at least one grape grower in Italy who believes he has found a chemical-free solution to fungal disease: Werner Monrandell (above), winemaker in German-speaking South Tyrol, where his “super-organic” vineyards have no need of sulfur or copper treatments thanks to disease-resistant hybrids he has been developing since 1993, Solaris and Bronner.

The latter is named after the researcher who developed it. The former, evidently, after the 1961 novel and 1972 film.

According to a post by Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro, published on Saturday, the dried-grape Bronner is already available for sale in Italy and the Solaris, while not commercially available, has been offered to Italian sommeliers and viticultural research institutes where it is being studied.

Morandell is one of roughly fifteen grape growers, mostly from Trentino-Alto Adige but also Piedmont and Veneto, who are working together on this project.

“Every year in Europe,” say Morandell in an interview with Luciano, “72,000 tonnes of poison (pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, etc.) are scattered on the fruit crop. Roughly 70% of those are employed in viticulture and they leave a residue on the grapes. It’s time to stop this [practice] because it’s possible to make fabulous wines even without chemical treatments to combat oidium and peronospora.”

Some winemakers remain skeptical, like Giovanni, who recently became a grape grower himself.

“I wonder if Solaris will have the same results if it’s planted elsewhere,” he writes.