Earthquake recovery in Italy: how to donate to the Italian Red Cross

earthquake amatriceAmmado is the official micro-donation platform for the Italian Red Cross.

Here’s the link for donations to the Italian Red Cross and earthquake relief efforts. Donations can be made using a credit card and don’t require an Italian social security number (Italian micro-donation channels require one).

Here’s a link to information on what the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is doing on the ground in central Italy to aid recovery.

I’m currently working on a couple of micro-donation campaigns here in Houston. More on those shortly…

Image via press_and_kitchen.

Earthquake in central Italy, 6.2 magnitude. Our hearts and prayers go out to our Italian sisters and brothers…

italy earthqake mapAbove: a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck central Italy early this morning (image via the United States Geological Survey website).

Across social media this morning, I’ve been reading accounts of this morning’s devastating 6.2 magnitude earthquake in central Italy, which occurred at 3:36 a.m. local time.

The epicenter was 10 kilometers southeast of Norcia in Perugia province (Umbria).

But the most extensive damage seems to have occurred in small hill towns in Latium and the Marches. According to all reports I can find, Accumoli (Rieti province, Latium), Amatrice (Rieti), and Arquata del Tronto (Ascoli Piceno province, Marches) were among the hardest hit.

In a statement this morning, the mayor of Amatrice reported that the entire historic center was destroyed (New York Times).

Click here for La Repubblica coverage and images of the devastation. As of this posting, 63 lives have been claimed. Updated, Thursday, August 25: at least 241 lives have been claimed (La Repubblica).

From Rome to the Marches and even as far north as Parma, social media users I follow have been checking in and posting dispatches on relatives and friends living in the affected areas.

One of the most moving was by my friend Fabio Ciarla who lives and works in the wine industry outside of Rome.

“You wake up in the middle of nightmare and head back down the Via Salaria,” he wrote this morning, “the same road you would take when you were little with your family on a drive to Ascoli Piceno where [brother] Valentino studied enology. Not just through Amatrice but also towns like Posta, Sigillo, and Accumoli… Those were happy trips. Today it’s a Calvary.”*

Our hearts and prayers go out to our Italian sisters and brothers this morning. G-d bless them, G-d bless us all.

*Calvary: “the proper name of the place where Christ was crucified” (Oxford English Dictionary) and by extension a site of doom.

Wine & Spirits features 3 Houstonians (and I’m one of them)

What a thrill for me to be included among the “50 masters of place” in the current issue of Wine & Spirits magazine!

But it was an even greater thrill for me to learn that I was just one of three Houstonians whose expertise was featured in the book (as they say in magazine publishing parlance).

Wine educator, writer, and buyer at one of the biggest retailers in the country (Spec’s), Bear Dalton wrote about Bordeaux.

And Evan Turner, owner and wine director at Helen (one of the best restaurants in Houston and one of the most original wine lists in the country), wrote on Xinomavro, the great red variety of Greece.

Present company excepted, the Houston-based media continues to slog away and along on its quixotic quest to portray our city as a bunch of air-conditioned hillbillies living on a land-filled swamp.

In fact, Houston is one of the most intellectually vibrant and culturally rich cities in the world and our groovy wine scene is a reflection of that. Three out of fifty, ain’t bad, Mimi!

It was also a thrill to see so many of my good friends among the contributors: Alice, Brett, Elaine, Shelley, Ceri, Pascaline…

What did I write about? Friulian white blends, of course. Check it out on newsstands now!

wine and spirits masters place

Natural wine group VinNatur releases controversial farming and production guidelines (English-language version)

angiolino mauleAbove: Angiolino Maule, right, founder of the VinNatur association for natural wine and one of the world’s leading advocates for pesticide-free wines (photo by Alfonso Cevola).

“I was beginning to feel like a sheriff,” said Angiolino Maule, founder of the Italian natural wine advocacy group VinNatur, when I met with him at his winery earlier this year.

He was referring to his group’s monitoring for the presence of chemical residue in the soils of its members’ vineyards.

When we met and tasted together this spring, he told me that the group is working on a new method for monitoring the health and biodiversity of the soils. The new system, he said, won’t be based on laboratory analyses of soil samples. Instead, it will focus on the presence of insects and other animal life among the vines.

“If there are insects in the vineyards,” he said, “it means that pesticides are not present.”

Maule and VinNatur have not yet revealed the criteria for the new monitoring system. But in a press release issued last month, they announced that they are in the process of developing the new protocol together with government-sanctioned certification groups and the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

In the meantime, the group has published its new guidelines for the production of natural wines.

As the wine world continues to wrestle with the definition of natural wine, VinNatur has presented its new checklist of permitted and forbidden practices as a new benchmark in defining the category.

“Those who choose to drink natural wine,” write the authors of the press released issued by the group (English), “have the right to receive tangible guarantees on what they will find in the bottle. Declaring oneself to be a ‘natural winemaker’ is not enough — one must be truly aware of the great responsibility that there is regarding the health of enthusiasts and clients, and act accordingly.”

The new guidelines haven’t been met by cheers in all corners of the natural wine movement. And more than one detractor has pointed to the fact that other similar “guidelines” have been published in the past.

“Whatever certificate, little medals, or badges… no, thanks. I’m beautiful the way I am,” wrote natural winemaker Corrado Dottori in a blog post. “Making natural wine is not a question of procedures. It’s a state of mind. VinNatur has got it wrong. Fuck the police. You have betrayed the revolution” (translation mine).

In a blog post entitled “Bla bla … natural wine … bla bla,” natural winemaker Alessandro Dettori contends that the focus should be on “agriculture… terroir, and the artisanal character” of winemaking (translation mine).

Click here for the English-language version of the guidelines.

Click here for the English-language version of the press release.

Natural wine grows (up) in Texas (and Franciacorta in Portland, Oregon Sept. 12)

SAVE THE DATE: Franciacorta Real Story tasting in Portland, Oregon at Nostrana, Monday, September 12. Click here for more details.

lewis dickson wine cruz texasAbove: I’ve followed Lewis Dickson’s wines for many years now. They’ve always been wholesome, food-friendly, and tasty. But they have really come into focus in recent vintages (photo taken in Austin, Texas in 2014).

It must have been four years ago when one of my best friends from Italy, a winemaker, came to visit us in Austin where we were still living on the corner of Alegria and Gro[o]ver in Brentwood.

It was his first visit to Texas and he had expressed an interest in tasting Texan wine. And so I brought home a bottle of Lewis Dickson’s Cruz de Comal 2011 Pétard Blanc, made from Blanc du Bois grapes grown in the Texas Hill Country.

We opened another wine that night: a macerated and oxidative white from one of Italy’s most celebrated natural winemakers. It was from one of said winemaker’s most widely praised and coveted vintages.

Ever the stickler for “technically correct” wines free from defect or blemish, our friend from Italy turned up his nose at the macerated white from Italy and its volatile acidity and gladly drank the Blanc du Bois instead.

“Texas wine is great!” he declared gleefully.

black spanishAbove: Dickson’s Troubadour is made from 100 percent Black Spanish grapes. No one really knows the variety’s origins. Some believe it was developed in the New World, others contend that it came from France. Most agree that it was widely planted in Texas before the founding of the Republic of Texas in 1836. Its legacy here gives it gravitas as a “Texan” variety. Look it up under “Jacquez” in Wine Grapes (Vouillamoz et alia, Ecco).

I was reminded of that evening when I met Lewis Dickson (above) last night in Houston to taste the latest vintages of his Pétard Blanc made from 100 percent Blanc du Bois grapes and his Troubadour from 100 percent Black Spanish grapes.

His wines have always been very good (albeit expensive) in my experience. But with his most recent releases, as his growing practices and his winemaking talents have evolved, he’s really begun to wade into the pool of greatness with his wines.

The Pétard Blanc was the most focused and elegant expressions of the Blanc du Bois that he grows on his estate in the Texas Hill Country. Its delicate floral and white fruit nose gave way to a wonderful balance of citrus and stone fruit.

But it was his 2014 Troubadour, from Black Spanish, that really blew me away with its chewy red and red berry fruit and the nuanced depth of its tannic character. This is a big wine at 14.8 percent (in alcohol content) but I was thrilled by how lithely it danced in the mouth. A truly original, lip-smakcing and delicious wine with serious aging potential.

Tracie P and I have always rooted for Lewis and his wines, which he makes with the help of California legacy winemaker Tony Coturri, one of the pioneers of organic grape growing and natural winemaking in the U.S.

As Lewis puts it, he doesn’t add anything to his wines beyond the grapes that he grows without the use of pesticides or herbicides. And he doesn’t sulfur them at all — not even at bottling.

But as I watched and listened to him interact with the staff at the wine bar where we tasted last night, he never presented the wines as “natural” or “zero sulfur.” His growing and winemaking practices came up, yes, by the way, as he fielded questions about the wine. But “natural” or “zero sulfur” were never badges that he wore on his sleeve.

No, he let the wine speak before the labels. And those wines revealed that great wine is made in Texas.

Click here for a profile of Lewis that I wrote for the Houston Press back in 2012. The arc of his narrative may surprise some readers.

Italy mourns the loss of sommelier Davide Oltolini, 48, beloved food and wine critic

davide oltoliniAbove: Italian sommelier and critic Davide Oltolini in a photo dated August 2012 (via his Facebook page). Many Italians knew him as a frequent guest on “Uno Mattina in Famiglia,” a news and entertainment program produced by RAI 1.

Today the world of Italian food and wine mourns the passing of Pavia-based sommelier Davide Oltolini, 48, beloved food and wine critic and television personality.

According to a report published this afternoon morning (CST) by the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera, he suffered a heart attack while playing tennis in Brallo di Pregola township (Pavia province) and died a few hours later after emergency responders were unable to revive him.

Oltolini was a frequent contributor to the Corriere della Sera and countless other mainstream mastheads like Gambero Rosso and La Cucina Italiana, Italy’s “National Geographic” of food and wine writing.

He also appeared regularly on national television, including the popular RAI 1 show “Uno Mattina in Famiglia,” a morning news and entertainment show that featured segments on Italian gastronomy.

Italy’s youthful food and wine scene was drawn to his magnetic presence on social media and he was known affectionately for his love of selfies. He would famously ask people from all walks of life to pose with him for the self-portraits.

“The first thing he would do when he saw you was take a selfie with you,” said an acquaintance, a young Italian wine professional who took time out today for a brief phone interview. “That was his thing.”

“We all followed him on social media and he was a great moderator [of wine tasting panels]. We’ll all miss him a lot,” she said, noting that he will be remembered for his upbeat presence.

“He was one of us.”

Vietti, final thoughts: “without a great civilization behind them, great wines cannot be made.”

montalcino photo creative commonsAbove: “Chasing the fog” in Montalcino, a digital reproduction of an analog photo by London-based filmmaker Oliver Cooper.

As I was preparing an aggregate of blog posts on the recent controversy stirred by the sale of legacy Barolo estate Vietti to the American owners of convenience store chain Kum & Go, I realized that the most compelling piece wasn’t about Vietti at all. It was about Montalcino and its transformation in the 1990s as “foreign” investors (some of the American, most of them Italian) invaded the sleepy Tuscan hilltop village and surroundings.

“Maybe Brunello is better off,” writes my friend and client Stefano Cinelli Colombini on the Montalcino Blog (that I run for the estate). “Maybe it’s not. But regardless, it has remained the same. I don’t know of other cases of ‘grafts’ that were so successful. And I might even go as far as to say that even beyond the enologic horizon, this is a sign of a great civilization. And without a great civilization behind them, great wines cannot be made. ‘Terroir,’ money, marketing, and great winemakers are not enough. That’s been attempted in other places and it hasn’t worked. Ever.”

Watching the unfolding of Barolo’s historic arc from Montalcino, the future seems undimmed. I highly recommend Stefano’s mighty post (and my translation) to you.

In one of his most powerful posts, Antonio Galloni, the anglophone world’s leading Italian wine writer, sees a much less bright horizon in the distance.

“The recent sale of Vietti to American investor Kyle Krause,” he opines, “is one of the most shocking events I have seen in twenty years of visiting Piedmont and nearly thirty years of buying and drinking Vietti wines. For decades, Vietti has marketed itself as the standard bearer of artisan Piedmontese values – multi-generational family ownership, tradition and an attachment to the land. The question is: What does Vietti, and more broadly, Piedmont, stand for today?”

No English-language scribe has better captured the socio-cultural-historical significance of this transaction and transition.

The coda of his piece, which I highly recommend to you, brought me to tears.

In a comment to one of my posts on this changing-of-hands, Italian wine trade veteran Matthew Fioretti counters that “Vietti’s best days are still to come… In fact, the sale of Vietti was not at all surprising – at least not from the production side. Nor is it a sign of doom and gloom – unless you are idealizing the Langhe, viticulture, and life on wine estates. The fact that almost nobody is asking about the reality of production shows how wedded consumers and wine enthusiasts have become to an idyllic, Romantic picture of the Langhe.”

Matthew is a great if unsung writer. And he makes an informed, compelling and Realpolitik point in his note, which deserves our attention.

Lastly, while a few blogs have published interviews with Luca Currado wherein the Vietti winemaker addresses the sale and the controversy (you don’t need me to help you find them), the good folks over at the Italian hypertextual blog and commerical platform Vinix have published an English-language interview with Kum & Go scion Kyle Krause.

Unfortunately, Vinix hasn’t updated its site to align with the new standards of internet security. The link is not secure. So proceed at your own discretion and risk.

Krause doesn’t reveal anything new about the transaction but this is the only place on the interwebs (that I know of) where he has made his voice heard.

There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. Thanks for being here. Buon weekend a tutti.

Italian speeding ticket fine amount and how to pay

From the department of “moral of the story”…

how do you pay italian speeding ticket italyAs many Americans have headed to Italy for a summer vacation, I’ve seen a significant up-tick in views of a post I published last fall, “How much does an Italian speeding ticket cost?”

At the time, I had received notification from a rental car agency that I would subsequently receive a ticket from Italian authorities.

It took more than 6 months and nearly year since my speeding infraction to receive the actual ticket, which arrived via certified mail in May from the Monteroni d’Arbia municipal police department (Monteroni is a small village on the Cassia, the old Roman road that leads from Siena to Montalcino and ultimately to Rome, the SS2 or state highway 2).

I had been clocked over the limit by an automated “Speed Limit Enforcement System” like the “Autovelox” (as it is known in Italian) in the photo above.

The fine was for €192.99 (about $214 at today’s exchange rate).

The letter from the Monteroni police also provided bank wire information for payment.

But here’s the thing: I had no way of determining the bank fees that the township’s bank (in this case, the BancoPosta or Italian postal service bank) would charge me for the receipt of the wire. All banks charge an “incoming” wire fee. I also had to pay $40 to my bank for the international wire.

I tacked on another €40 to make sure I would be covered. In the end, it cost me more than $300.

As soon as the wire had gone through (most banks today will let you send an international wire online), I emailed the Monteroni police department using the address in its letterhead.

I included a scan of the ticket and the receipt for the wire.

My “to whom it may concern” was answered by a nameless agent who wrote:

Good evening,
the documents have been received.
You must not do any other action.
Best regards

I immediately wrote back requesting a receipt but never heard back.

Over the many years that I have lived, worked, studied, and traveled in Italy, I’ve been stopped and questioned by the police on a few occasions. In most cases, it was at a random check point. This is the first ticket and fine I’ve ever received (in nearly 30 years of driving in Italy).

Every time I’ve dealt with the police there, I’ve been reminded of Hemmingway’s 1927 novella “Che ti dice la patria” (which you will find today in an anthology entitled Men without Women, also published in 1927 by Scribner’s).

I won’t reveal the story line here but as per Ernest’s advice, always ask for a receipt

Single-vineyard Barolo at a supermarket? Yes, it happened in Houston.

best wine shop houstonI had read about Jaime De Leon and his ambitious wine program at a Kroger supermarket in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. But it wasn’t until I walked into the wine section there the other day that I could wrap my mind around what Jaime, who goes by James, has achieved. 

It’s a truly extraordinary selection, with great depth and breadth. And it includes wines like the Aldo Conterno crus above and scores of skus from small, artisan-focused importers whose wines reach Texas through a growing network of small, courageous distributors.

The wine scene in Texas and in Houston in particular have come such a long way since I first moved here nearly eight years ago.

James’ work is a a great example of the growing verve, grit, and gusto of the youthful Houston wine community and I was thrilled to profile him today for the Houston Press. His story — from teen-aged bagger to Master Sommelier candidate — is as compelling as it is truly American.

Here’s the link to my Houston Press post.

Today, I also have to give a shout-out to my good friend of many years, Bryon Bates of Goatboy Selections (below, left) and Zev Rovine of Zev Rovine Selections (right), two of the grooviest wine importers working currently in the U.S. They were both in Houston yesterday for the final event and tasting in the month-long, Houston-based “Loire Festival,” organized by Master Sommelier David Keck.

It’s awecome to see their wines available in Texas, something that wouldn’t be possible without a handful of forward-thinking, brave small business owners who have reshaped the Texas wine scene over the arc of my years here.

Thanks for coming to Texas, guys, and thanks for checking out what’s been happening in this little corner of Southeast Texas.

zev rovine byron bates