Beppe Colla, soft-spoken hero of Piedmont viticulture, is dead at 88.

Anyone who’s ever been to visit the historic Poderi Colla estate in Piedmont’s Langhe Hills will tell you the same story.

As we were tasting the wines with Tino Colla and enjoying a delicious luncheon of classic homemade Piedmont dishes, there was an older man sitting quietly outside the farmhouse. He didn’t utter a word beyond “buongiorno” and so we just assumed he was a retired farm hand or a beloved uncle. Only later did we learn that he was the legendary Beppe Colla…

This week, the world of Italian wine mourns the loss of one of its greatest pioneers, Beppe Colla, who — together with Nebbiolo icons like Bartolo Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa — reshaped the legacy of Piedmont viticulture in the 20th century. Few beyond Langa’s inner circle of cognoscenti were aware of his immense and immeasurable contribution to Barolo and Barbaresco’s rise as two of the world’s greatest appellations. But the soft-spoken hero of Piedmont viticulture left an indelible mark on the world of fine wine — in and beyond Italy.

The following passage appeared in his obituary, published this week by the Italian daily La Stampa (translation mine):

    The Langhe Hills bid adieu to Beppe Colla, a visionary and innovator among grape growers, one of the few winemakers you could call a “patriarch.”
    He was 88 years old and he would have celebrated his 70th vintage this year.
    After finishing his degree at the Umberto I school of Enology, he was asked to become the director of what was the biggest Alba-area winery at the time: Bonardi. He was just 19 years old.
    In 1956 he purchased another historic Alba property, Prunotto, which he sold to the Antinori family in 1990 when he and his brother Tino founded the Poderi Colla winery. Located in Bricco del Drago in San Rocco Seno d’Elvia hamlet, their estate also includes important vineyards in Roncaglie (Barbaresco) and Bussia di Monforte (Barolo).

I highly recommend watching the excellent video in this post by Intravino (with English subtitles).

And be sure not to miss this insuperable 2005 post by my friend and blogger colleague Craig Camp, who writes (ubi major minor cessat):

    For over fifty years Beppe Colla has made wine in the Langhe and has seen the transition of this zone from a region on the edge of disaster to the home of some of the worlds most expensive and sought after wines. From his first vintage in 1948 ( a disastrous vintage) and his just completed 56th vintage in 2004 (which looks to be an excellent vintage) he has seen it all and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of the climate and vineyards of the Langhe zone and has personally experienced every vintage of the modern era of Barolo and Barbaresco. It is this incredible range of experience that he brings to winemaking at Poderi Colla.

My 2016 tasting at Poderi Colla was one of the most inspiring winery visits of my career.

Thanks to generous Italian collectors, I’ve also had the chance to drink some of Beppe Colla’s pre-Antinori Prunotto bottlings stretching back to the 1970s, some of the most compelling expressions of Nebbiolo I’ve ever tasted.

Sit tibi terra levis Iosephe.

Image via Intravino.

“Recognition: North and South.” Please help us raise just a little more money to post our MLK billboard over the Confederate memorial in Tracie’s hometown

After we posted our GoFundMe to raise an MLK billboard over the newly erected Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up, it caused quite an uproar (more than 200 comments, a lot of them negative and abrasive, many of them positive and supportive). We must be doing something right.

We are just a few hundred dollars away from our goal.

Please help us by donating or sharing on social media.

Here’s the link.

And thank you to everyone who has already donated and/or shared. This really means the world to us — literally. It’s the world that we inhabit and it’s the world where we are raising our children.

To quote Dr. King, “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.” That’s the line that will appear with our billboard, which will run starting next week and through most of African American History Month. It seems only fitting. The Sons of Confederate Veterans raised their monument, which includes the “Confederate Flag,” on MLK Dr. in Orange. Our billboard will look down on the memorial from across the road.

You can see the billboard here. It will be the second that we’ve raised.

Here’s a note on the painting above. It resides in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. It was painted in 1865. The following is a transcription of the label that appears with the work.

*****

Constant Mayer [artist]
American, born France, 1832-1911

“Recognition: North and South”
1865

In “Recognition: North and South,” a wounded Confederate soldier has just discovered the body of his dead Union brother, whom he cradles. The landscape echoes the contrast of life and death represented by the two figures, with a lush, green forest appearing behind the Confederate soldier and a decaying tree stump hovering above the mortally wounded brother.

This powerful painting captures the sorrow of the Civil War (1861-65), one of the darkest chapters in the history of the United States. Neither man in this work wins, an idea that would have resonated with Americans who, around the time this painting was produced, had endured four years of death and destruction and were searching for meaning in the unprecedented carnage.

Image via the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (public domain).

My new obsession: Roberto Girelli’s Montonale Lugana

To be totally honest, Roberto Girelli’s extraordinary white wines had not come to my attention until Decanter called his 2015 single-vineyard Lugana Orestilla a “best white single varietal” in its 2017 world wine awards (I don’t know why they still use the passé varietal but that’s another story). The magazine’s tasting panel gave it a whopping 95 points.

Consternation filled my mind: how could this wine not be on my radar? After all, neighborhing Brescia and Desenzano (where the wine is raised) and Lake Garda have become my stomping ground over the last 10 years (thanks to my great friends in Franciacorta).

It took a lot of cajoling and even some name dropping to get the opportunity to taste the wine last year at Vinitaly, where it is kept — literally — under lock and key. But Do Bianchi always get his wine…

Was it as great as Decanter claimed? After three days of hardcore tasting and schmoozing at Vinitaly, it’s always hard to wrap your mind around anything. In that context, it wasn’t clear to me whether it lived up to the hype, honestly. But despite the haze of the wine fair experience, it left my curiosity tickled, my palate seduced.

The true test came when our family headed to California for summer vacation last year. Six bottles were ordered from a celebrated Costa Mesa wine shop where they were languishing apparently unnoticed. It was the only place in the U.S. where the wine was still available.

And here’s the thing, as our older daughter Georgia likes to say, it landed at my mom’s doorstep in La Jolla at less than $40 a bottle!

The wine was powerful yet lithe, laser-focused yet elegant in its white flower and fruit flavors and intense minerality. Its flavors literally wrapped themselves around your tongue and left you pining for more as you swallowed. This is one hell of a white wine, folks. It didn’t take but a few delicious days for us — mom, Tracie, and our San Diego friends — to drink it all up.

What can I say? I’m now obsessed with this wine and only wish I had the dough to put down cases and cases in my wine cellar.

I finally visited Montonale and tasted with grower and winemaker Roberto Girelli in early December.

That’s a shot of vineyards looking north toward Lake Garda (just on the other side of the camera’s horizon).

As you’ll note, there are grasses growing wild between the rows in the clay- and limestone-rich rocky soils. The vineyards are all planted within a stone’s through of the winery and Roberto’s house.

Like so many northern grape farmers I’ve spoken to over the last five years or so, they have opted for a lutte raisonée approach to viticulture. In other words, they intervene with synthetic products only when absolutely necessary. With such intensely concentrated rainfall and often violent weather events in recent years, Montonale — like so many of its peers — believes it does less harm to the environment and makes better wines by using a rational struggle protocol (excuse the slavish translation; see the link above for the best post on this emerging trend I’ve found so far).

And like a lot of Italian white wine producers I’ve interacted with over the last ten years, they vinify in an entirely reductive environment, using the first pressing of their hand-picked and sorted grapes for their estate wines. Working in the absence of oxygen allows them to retain the fruit’s natural aromas and flavors.

Roberto and his brothers are among an expanding generation of homegrown winemakers who have revived their parents and grandparents viticultural enterprise. It’s a story often told these days: in 1998 the farm was abandoned only to be replanted by Roberto’s generation in the 2000s. Wine lovers — and white wine lovers in particular — are the better for it.

Drink and cellar these wines if you’re fortunate enough find them. You won’t regret it. My only critique, as I told Roberto, is that he should charge more for them!

Best Sommelier in Houston Competition Feb. 24-25: applications now being accepted

For more than four years, I’ve been working as a media consultant for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (recently ranked the top chamber in North America and eighth in the world).

Our marquee event each year is the Taste of Italy food and wine festival, the largest trade fair devoted exclusively to Italian enogastronomy in the U.S.

Every year, one of Houston’s most beloved sommeliers, Jaime De Leon, coordinates our sommelier team through AweSomm — a wine study and support group for aspiring Advanced and Master Sommeliers here in Houston (above).

Last year, Jaime approached the chamber about creating a “Best Sommelier in Houston” competition to foster wine education in our city and provide resources for wine professionals (including prize money to be used for travel and study).

The first-ever competition will be held at this year’s Taste of Italy festival. Details follow. Please help us get the word out by sharing on social media. Thanks for your support.

*****

On February 24-25, AweSomm will be hosting the first-ever “Best Sommelier in Houston” competition in association with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas and its 5th annual Taste of Italy Houston festival and trade show.

To apply, please use the form below.

Continue reading

“I wanted them to be an Italian band”: Alejandro Escovedo on his new album and recording in Italy

Alejandro Escovedo (above, third from left) is one of America’s most iconic songwriters and performers. His new album, “The Crossing,” was recorded in Emilia-Romagna with a group he met serendipitously while touring in Italy. It tells the story of two young migrants — one from Mexico, the other from Italy — who meet while working in a restaurant in Galveston. 

Over the Christmas holiday, I had the opportunity to interview the legendary Texan musician. The following are excerpts from our conversation. 

He and his Italian band Don Antonio are playing this Sunday at the Heights Theater in Houston (see this preview on the Houston Press).

When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, Italians have a different sensibility and a different sense of rhythm than Americans. What clicked for you working with Italian musicians?

I did not expect them to have that groove. I didn’t want them to be an American band. I wanted them to be an Italian band. And it was important that they kept their identity that way — musically. And that’s what impressed me about them.

When they bring in anything that’s slightly American, it’s about the Twist. Because the Twist was a popular form in the 1960s, in Italian movies and soundtracks. It’s not that they don’t love American music. They’re very well versed in blues and soul and R&B and the guitar players from Austin, songwriters from Tucson. Obviously they’re big fans of that stuff. [But] it doesn’t dictate who they are. And that’s what was really attractive to me.

So I did not expect them to sound like the Stooges from Detroit, I didn’t expect them to sound like the Zeros or the MC5. I wanted them to be Italian because the beauty in Italian music is that it’s always searching for melody. It’s got this beautiful, kind of dramatic soulful, very passionate kind of view. And that’s what I wanted from them. It wasn’t a problem for me that they didn’t sound like Muscle Shoals. That’s not what I wanted.

In interviews, you’ve talked a lot about how recording in Italy was a different experience than recording in America — in part because of the food.

The Italian press [like] Buscadero has been very generous with me. And I’ve always had great shows in Italy. I’ve done a lot of tours.

But when I met Antonio and the boys, they picked me up in Bologna at the airport. And they happened to have a friend who was also on the same plane. So they gave her a ride back to Faenza. And then we proceeded to Modigliana, which is their town. Then we immediately went to go eat, which the Italian thing, right? It’s essential.

Continue reading

5 trends to watch in Italian wine in 2019

Happy new year, everyone!

Here are some of the trends in Italian wine that I’ll be following in 2019.

It’s incredible to think that more than 20 years have passed since the first major all-Italian wine lists were launched in New York in the late 1990s. Two decades after the advent of the Italian wine renaissance here, the category is stronger than ever. But the 2019 vintage will be a challenging one for Italian winemakers and grape growers.

Italian trade members here in America should also check out this awesome and extremely useful Intravino post with a calendar of top wine events planned in Italy this year.

May your 2019 be filled with happiness, health, and prosperity — and great Italian wine!

Thanks for being here in 2018…

5. Italian winemakers, both large- and small-scale, will face expanding difficulties in getting their wines to the U.S. market.

As one of America’s most important Italian wine importers pointed out in a seminar I attended this year, the Italian wine market is more saturated than ever but the channels of distribution are becoming more and more narrow. Twenty years after the Italian wine revolution began in New York thanks to a handful of visionary importers and restaurateurs, the competition for marketshare in the U.S. is fiercer than ever. But only a handful of the historic Italian wine importers, including those who helped shape the Italian wine renaissance, remain. Importing and distribution channels will become increasingly parcelized.

4. Political, social, and economic volatility will affect consumer choices.

Regardless of ideological affiliation, consumer confidence has already been shaken by the recent market swings and the political uncertainty that 2019 holds. Consumers are seriously asking themselves whether or not we are on the precipice of a recession or financial crisis. Producers are wondering how Brexit and the American trade wars will impact their sales and sales channels. This could actually help to bolster Italian sales since Italy represents some of the best value in fine wine in the market today.

3. So-called populist and illiberal democratic tendencies will begin to emerge from the fringe of Italian wine.

Many don’t realize that Italy’s (and Europe’s) terroirist and populist movements are closely aligned in certain corners of the industry, even among those considered to be (quote-unquote) progressive by English-speaking Italian wine lovers. Americans might be surprised by how European farmers are becoming more and more emboldened and vocal about their stands on immigration and national identity. As it has in the past, social media will amplify their attitudes. With the rise of populism and nationalism in the U.S., American consumers are also becoming more tolerant of intolerance among Italian winemakers.

2. Natural wine is here to stay (whether you like it or not).

Recently overheard in a hipster wine bar in Houston, spoken by a well-dressed 30-something professional who clearly did not work in the wine business: “Do you have anything really funky by the glass? I mean, really natural?” Natural wine is now part of the mainstream wine parlance and lexicon. From my 85-year-old mother who wants natural wine from Sicily (because she believes, however erroneously, that it won’t give her a headache) to the millennial consumer who’s beginning to have the spending power to afford it, natural wine has become as prevalent a category as Merlot or Pinot Grigio — despite the fact that an agreed-on definition of natural wine continues to elude us.

1. Newly imposed EU limits on copper sulphate will have a major impact on organic wine growing.

Beyond this excellent piece on Wine Spectator, the mainstream wine media hasn’t devoted much coverage to the EU’s newly imposed limits on copper. But this is going to be a highly contentious topic among conventional and organic growers next year. The heart and soul of organic and biodyanmic farming is at stake and Italy is the biggest stakeholder. The issue is compounded by the fact that rainfall patterns in recent vegetative cycles have forced organic growers to increase their copper spraying to combat peronospera. See my thread on the copper debate, including my post on the newly imposed restrictions.

Will the “Prosecco Hills” be Italy’s next UNESCO heritage site? A chat with Villa Sandi’s Giancarlo Moretti Polegato

In early December, I had the remarkable opportunity to sit down with Giancarlo Moretti Polegato (above), CEO and legacy owner of his family’s Villa Sandi estate in Valdobbiadene, one of Prosecco’s greatest pioneers and one of its enduring cultural icons.

When our conversation turned to the “Biodiversity Friend Certification” of Villa Sandi’s vineyards, he explained to me that Villa Sandi had implemented the association’s environmentally friendly protocols for two main reasons.

First and foremost, he said, is the fact that the Prosecco DOCG is one of the few appellations in the world where residents literally live among the vines. If you’ve ever driven through the appellation, you know that town squares, schools, and residences are surrounded by and in many cases abut on vineyard land. In the light of how grape farming can impact residents’ quality of life, the winery felt it was imperative, he told me, to lead the way in creating a new benchmark of sustainability and biodiversity.

The other reason, he said, is that he expects Valdobbiadene and Conegliano to be added shortly to the list of UNESCO Heritage Sites.

Some readers may be unaware that “The Prosecco Hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene” were included in the “tentative list” of candidate sites in 2010. And in 2017, the area was upgraded to official candidate status. With heritage status on the horizon, he noted, maintaining and fostering Prosecco’s natural beauty and its unique landscape will be key elements in developing the wine- and nature-tourism industry they expect to grow there.

(Read the UNESCO entry for the Prosecco Hills here.)

Above: Biodiversity Friend certification reflects the growers commitment to sustainable vineyard and winery practices.

Another topic I was keen to cover with Giancarlo was the estate’s production methods. It’s not the only estate, nor was it the first, to make its Prosecco DOCG using must instead of a base wine for the second fermentation. But it is one of the few estates (if not the only) to produce all of its wines this way.

Villa Sandi began making its wines this way when it first started to ship its wines outside of Italy, said Giancarlo. It ensured the freshness of the products even after a year of shelf-life, he explained. Because the vinification process takes place in a reductive environment (i.e., in the absence of oxygen), it’s easier for the winemaker to preserve the distinctive fresh aromas of Glera. It also reduces the amount of sulfur needed to stabilize the wine.

He reminded me that in another era (one that I remember well from my university days in Veneto more than 30 years ago), Prosecco was always consumed within a year of the harvest. Today, the wines travel much greater distances and often spend more time on wine shop shelves.

I know that a handful of Prosecco producers use this method for some of their production. But to my knowledge, Villa Sandi is the only one that uses it exclusively for all of its Prosecco DOCG.

Our conversation spanned a number of topics, including the 17th-century Palladian-school villa that stands at the center of the Villa Sandi hydro-powered campus (below).

They use it for the winery’s gala events, of course. But it’s also open to the public year round.

All in all, it was a fascinating chat, with one of the wine world’s most charismatic and inspiring figures. His family is the embodiment of the Veneto spirit of entrepreneurship and the winery’s reception area is lined with photographs of Popes, aristocrats, politicians, and celebrities who have visited the estate.

But with is classic Veneto cadence and warm demeanor, he was also easy going and easy to talk to. He apologized profusely that he had to cut our conversation short: after his Do Bianchi interview, RAI 3 television would be filming him for a national broadcast.

I can’t wait until I can make it back that way again…

Two old vine Proseccos that I really loved from Drusian and Ruggeri

A trip to the land of Prosecco in early December was an opportunity to taste at a couple of my favorite houses.

Over the last 10 years or so, as more and more small-scale Prosecco has come to the U.S., many Italian wine lovers and trade observers have shifted their focus away from some of the bigger producers.

But they forget that Prosecco DOCG, even when produced in large volume, is almost always a “family grower” wine. That’s because the appellation, one of the most parcelized in the wine world, is made up of a vast patchwork of small farms. The best winemakers, even among the most commercial, rely on a network of generational relationships for their fruit.

Producers opened a lot of great wines for me during my stay earlier this month. These two were stand-outs.

It was such a thrill for me to get to taste with Francesco Drusian, a legacy producer and appellation pioneer. His insights into the evolution of Prosecco and its extraordinary arc — literally from rags to riches — were fascinating to hear.

I loved the winery’s 30th anniversary release, 30 Raccolti, a dosage zero produced exclusively from 40+ year old vines from 30 different farms. No apples or bananas here, as the Prosecco old timers like to say. Just salty, minerality-driven Glera with gorgeous, juicy grapefruit notes. Very classic in style and very varietally expressive.

Like the man and winemaker, Francesco’s wines are among the most soulful in Prosecco today imho.

The Ruggeri Vecchie Viti was another highlight.

This historic estate, founded after the Second World War, is owned today by a German multi-national. But the Bisol family, whose winemaking and distilling roots run deep in Proseccoland, still manages the winery on a day-to-day and wine-by-wine basis. And the quality of their labels, across the board, really shined through during my visit there.

There were a number of wines that I really liked in the flight that afternoon but the Vecchie Viti (Old Vine) bottling was the showstopper.

The fruit is sourced from some of the oldest farms and vines in the DOCG, including 80+ year old plants.

The other really cool thing about this label is that it’s not 100 percent Glera: it’s an old school cuvée of Glera (around 90 percent) and Verdiso, Bianchetta, and Perera — the classic Prosecco field blend (no Chardonnay or Pinot Noir here, folks; and yes, both are also allowed by the DOCG).

The wine reminded of the Prosecco I used to drink from caraffe with my friends back in the late 1980s before the Prosecco revolution. Its rich balance of savory and fruity notes would have been ideal for washing down the economically priced rotisserie-fired chicken and French fries we used to gobble down in the hills outside of Padua.

It’s a pity that the wine hasn’t made it to the U.S. yet. It’s got eno-hipster written all over it.

More news from Proseccoland forthcoming. Are you drinking/serving Prosecco this New Year’s? Which one?

Best Christmas wine gift: Produttori del Barbaresco (hint, hint!)

One of the biggest thrills of my year in wine was my first taste of the newly released 2015 Produttori del Barbaresco (classic) Barbaresco with one of Barbaresco’s coolest homeboys, Luca Cravanzola.

Although we’ve corresponded over the years on numerous occasions and we follow each other on social media, Luca and I had never met in person until this spring when we both attended the same raucous, blow-out party in Franciacorta.

Luca’s grandfather Riccardo was the first president of the storied cooperative and he’s worked in the marketing and sales department for some time now.

(Read about the winery’s history on Ken Vastola’s excellent Nebbiolo portal, Fine Wine Geek.)

And how else to put it? Luca is uno dei nostri, one of us as they say in Italian.

People who work in the wine business get asked the same question by laypeople all the time: what’s your favorite wine?

It’s only natural that we answer: well, it depends on where I am, what I’m eating, and with whom I’m eating it.

But when pressed for a more specific response to the inquiry, I always tell them that I have bought and own more Produttori del Barbaresco than any other wine.

In terms of price-quality ratio, there is no more value-driven wine in the world imho. And the generally reasonable pricing makes it affordable for average punters like me.

Especially when it comes to the classic, blended cuvée (as opposed to the single-vineyard designated bottlings), the wine can be spectacular even in its youth. But it can also be cellared with stunning results for decades, depending on the vintage.

I’ve never tasted a bad wine from them and apart from the occasionally corked bottle or a bottle that’s been mishandled or mistreated, my experience in drinking and collecting these wines has always been overarchingly and wonderfully positive.

It’s the wine we drink on special occasions at our house. And it’s the wine that enjoy especially when sharing with my friends.

Just in case you’re shopping for great but affordable red wine for the holidays (or in the off-chance you’re shopping for a gift for me), you can’t go wrong with Produttori del Barbaresco.

Luca, it was so fun to meet you in person for the first time and it was a truly moving experience to taste the new vintage with you — my first kiss from the harvest!