On wine and good health in the pandemic circa 1348 (my Georgetown Humanities Initiative lecture).

Above: Sandro Botticelli’s “Banquet in the Pine Forest” (1482-83), the third painting in his series “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti,” a depiction of the eight novella of the fifth day in Boccaccio’s Decameron (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

When esteemed wine educator Karen MacNeil upbraided me last year for writing about a wine and its effect on my metabolism, it only reminded me of what a soulless wine writer she is. And her pungent words came to mind this week when I delivered a virtual lecture on wine as an expression of Western culture for the Georgetown University Humanities Initiative.

One of the topics covered in my talk was wine as portrayed in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. For those unfamiliar with the work (one of the pillars of the Western canon), the backdrop of the 100 tales told by the young Florentine nobles is the Black Death (Plague) of the mid-14th century. The pandemic reached his city around 1348.

In the introduction to the collection of novellas, Boccaccio describes wine consumption habits of Florentine citizens during the health crisis, their excesses and their moderation, and the role that wine plays in achieving good health.

In the work’s afterword, he returns to the subject of wine and moderate consumption.

“Like everything else,” he writes, “these stories, such as they are, may be harmful or helpful, depending on the listener.”

    Who does not know that wine is a very fine thing for the healthy… but that is harmful for people suffering from a fever? Shall we say it is bad because it does harm to those who are feverish? Who does not know that fire is extremely useful, in fact downright necessary for [hu]mankind? Shall we say it is bad because it burns down houses and villages and cities?

(The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, New York, 2013.)

As evidenced in the passage above, Boccaccio and his contemporaries believed that wine, like fire, was “downright necessary” for humankind.

In Medieval Europe, wine was prized for its ability to balance the “hot” and “cold” of foods and dishes. “Hot” wines were ideally served with “cold” foods and inversely, “cold” wines were best paired with “hot” dishes. These were not gradations of temperature, spiciness, or alcohol content, but rather indicators of humoral composition.

The humors of the drinker, and the place and time of consumption, also came into play.

“Once the nature of a given wine was determined,” writes Medieval scholar Allen J. Grieco, “it still remained necessary for a consumer to respect at least four other conditions.”

    First of all it was necessary to know the humoral constitution of the persons who was going to drink the wine. Secondly, it was important to determine what food was going to be eaten with it. Thirdly, it was necessary to take into account the time of the year in which the wine was to be drunk and finally, it was also important to consider the geographical location in which the wine was to be consumed.

(“Medieval and Renaissance Wines: Taste, Dietary Theory, and How to Choose the ‘Right’ Wine [14th-16th centuries],” by Allen J. Grieco, Mediaevalia, vol. 30, 2009, The Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Binghamton University, The State University of New York.)

Boccaccio’s belief that wine was necessary for humankind is widely reflected in the 15-century treatise “On Right Pleasure and Good Health” by Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Sacchi “Il Platina” (see Platina. On Right Pleasure and Good Health, a critical edition and translation of De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Mary Ella Milham, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Tempe, 1998).

Pairing the right wine with the right food (and at the right time and in the right place) was one of the keys, he writes throughout the work, to good metabolism and healthy living — echoes of Boccaccio.

Today, wine scribblers like MacNeil embrace only aesthetic, hedonistic, and commercial values in their reviews and “educational” materials. Nearly universally, they fall short of embracing the human and humanistic currency of wine. They ask only how is this wine made?, how does this wine taste? and what’s its commercial value? without ever addressing the role that wine may play in metabolism and more generally in achieving balanced, good health. They write of lifestyle while ignoring life and living itself.

I can’t imagine a more soulless wine culture. With so many wonderful examples of wine writing over the ages where wine is viewed as vital to human experience, it’s a wonder that the current generation of wine mediators have failed us so grossly.

Maybe if MacNeil and her followers would drink a more human wine, they wouldn’t have such a prickly stick up their arses.

Scenes from a Tuscan castle and dinner this week with Baron Francesco Ricasoli in Houston.

In January of this year, before the lockdowns began, I made my last trip to Italy (on behalf of my client Ethica Wines, an importer). My visit to the Castello di Brolio and the Ricasoli winery and tasting room in the heart of Chianti Classico was one of the highlights.

That’s a portrait of Bettino Ricasoli (1809-80) above: the “Iron Baron,” the second prime minister of united Italy (1866-67), and historic champion of Sangioveto (Sangiovese). Not only did he transform and elevate Sangiovese into Italy’s quintessential red wine, but he was also one of the earliest Italian growers to favor native grape varieties. He was arguably Italy’s most influential winemaker and the impact of his studies and experimentation still shapes Italian wine today.

The Ricasoli family and winery hold a special place in my heart. More than a decade ago, Francesco Ricasoli (the current generation) and his father Bettino received me at their Castello di Brolio to discuss my then ongoing research into their namesake’s famous “Chianti recipe.”

Francesco’s father pointed me to an archive where I could find a transcription of the “recipe,” a letter published in the late 19th century. See my translation, the only English-language version of the “recipe,” here.

He also treated me to a wonderful tour of the castle and estate.

At one point, he recounted how he was embedded with British soldiers as they tried to re-take the castle from the occupying German forces toward the end of the Second World War. It was incredible to retrace his movements with him as he described the final battle: because of his intimate knowledge of the castle’s design (he was born within its walls, after all), he was able to provide the British with a layout of the structure’s battlements. Amazing!

I’ll never forget that day and visit. I felt like a 12-year-old kid watching his favorite movie. We ate tripe and drank Sangiovese at lunch.

Here are some photos from my visit. I’ll be hosting Francesco Ricasoli at Roma restaurant, my client, this Thursday for our weekly virtual wine dinner. Francesco is one of the most magnetic and engaging winemakers you’ll ever taste with. We’re expecting this event to sell out. See menu and details here. I hope you can join us!

The Ricasoli family chapel. Magical.

A view from the castle. It’s hard to take a bad photo in Tuscany.

Renaissance garden. Note the vineyards that practically touch the castle’s walls to the right in the image.

Francesco’s studies of Chianti Classico soil types are astounding and extremely useful. Note the ancient sea shell, a trace of ancient seabed, a red thread in many of the world’s greatest appellations.

The Iron Baron greets King Victor Emmanuel II at the Castello di Brolio. The two statesmen were eager to compare notes on their viticultural studies and findings.

The night before my winery visit, I drank the Ricasoli 2012 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà (single-vineyard designate) paired with creamy veal spleen and chicken liver crostini at a forgettable trattoria in Greve in Chianti. It was one of the best wines I drank this year. Highly recommended.

Take action on wine tariffs: please sign USWTA letter to incoming Biden administration.

Above: not only could a new round of wine tariffs raise the cost of wines at your favorite Italian restaurant, it would also impact countless Italian wine-focused small businesses and their employees across the country (photo taken at Misi in Brooklyn in January 2019).

According to a report published yesterday by Bloomberg, “the U.S. will soon issue the results of probes into Austria, Italy and India’s decisions to tax local revenue of Internet companies such as Facebook Inc., which could pave the way for retaliatory tariffs.”

The news comes on the heels of the EU’s recent announcement that it “plans to impose $4 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods, continuing a trade war fanned by the Trump administration” (Washington Post).

Both moves are part of ongoing World Trade Organization litigation between the U.S. and the EU over airline industry subsidies.

In October of 2019, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) imposed a tariff of 25 percent on French wines and Italian cheeses among other European products.

Those tariffs are still in place despite herculean efforts by the United States Wine Trade Alliance, an association formed last year in response to the continuing trade war.

The duties have gravely impacted not only French wine growers and Italian cheese makers but also thousands of small business in the U.S. including retailers, restaurants, distributors, and importers. Their tariff pain has only been exacerbated by the health crisis this year.

While Italian winemakers have been spared (so far) from the fallout of the trade wars, the new EU digital tax investigation and the newly imposed EU tariffs on U.S. goods could prompt the USTR to impose new duties on imported Italian wines.

“Biden has the ability to abolish these tariffs on day one of his administration,” said USTWA president Ben Aneff on a Zoom call with hundreds of American wine professionals yesterday afternoon.

Aneff and the USWTA are asking wine trade members to sign a petition asking the Biden administration to “End the Restaurant Tariffs!” Currently focused on the “on premise” sector, the campaign is part of a broader effort to raise awareness in the new administration about how these tariffs are affecting small businesses and their employees across the country.

I highly encourage all U.S. wine trade members to read and sign the petition. And please share it with your networks. The presidential transition, as Ben noted yesterday, represents a unique opportunity to have these duties lifted with one bold pen stroke.

Click here to read and sign the petition.

Please see also this USWTA Facebook post where Ben addresses strategies on raising awareness of the campaign among restaurant owners and employees.

Thank you for your support and solidarity.

The last vineyard on earth not affected by climate change?

Above: grape grower and winemaker Piero Mastroberardino joined us last night for a virtual tasting in Houston.

What an incredible night of virtual tasting last night with Piero Mastroberardino!

Piero was our guest yesterday at the fortnightly Zoom event that I host for Roma restaurant in Houston, my client.

Over the course of tasting current vintages of his Greco di Tufo NovaSerra, Lacryma Christi, and Taurasi Radici, Piero talked about something truly remarkable in the world of wine today: A wine-growing region not affected by climate change, Irpinia.

That’s not to say that Piero is a climate change denier. By no means.

He, too, remarked on the remarkableness of the climatic situation in Irpinia, an ancient volcanic plateau east of Naples where some of Italy’s most famous wines are raised.

It’s hard to explain Irpinia’s stunning landscape without actually being there.

As you drive up the highway toward the mountains from Naples, your ears begin to pop because of the rapid change of altitude. Once you make to Irpinia’s edge, you are greeted by a view of a green valley in the sky surrounded by mostly extinct volcanoes.

Above: Irpinia, a photo from my 2016 trip there.

There’s really not much reason to go there except for the extraordinary wine growing. No Michelin-starred restaurants or resorts, no industry besides winemaking. Just ancient hilltop towns and vineyards and vineyards as far as the eye can see.

And as Piero explained yesterday evening, it’s perhaps the only place on earth where grape harvest times still align with the rhythms of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations and even beyond.

Regardless of the causes of climate change (and I, for one, believe that the scientists are right in their thesis that human industry is the primary motor), grape harvests have been accelerated across the world in recent decades.

“I harvest much earlier than my parents did” is something that you hear European growers nearly without exception.

Most famously in Italy, Piedmont growers point to the string of vintages that began to take shape in the early 1990s as an example of this. More than a decade ago, a famous Rhône grower echoed a Piedmont grower when he told me that “climate change has made me a very wealthy man.” He was referring to the fact that he, like his Italian counterparts, no longer have trouble attaining higher alcohol volumes in their wines now that rising temperatures deliver the necessary sugar levels in the fruit. In another not-so-long-ago era, European growers — both continental and Mediterranean — considered themselves fortunate if they had one vintage per decade where they could achieve the desired alcohol.

Above: all the wines showed beautifully last night and the Taurasi was spectacular. But the show-stopper for Tracie and me was the Greco di Tufo NovaSerra. What a fantastic wine!

As guests asked Piero about the elegant minerality and balance in his wines, he ascribed the savory character and freshness to the fact that he, like the generations that came before him, can ripen their grapes over longer spans of time, in other words, more slowly than winemakers in other parts of the world.

Just ask a grower in Torrenieri or Verduno if they still pick in the same month as their parents or grandparents did. They will both tell you that where their parents harvested in October, they now gather their grapes in September. Piero picks his fruit as late as November — because he can.

Wine knowledge is truly encyclopedic in its breadth. Last night was an example of how just when you think you know everything about wine, you realize that you’ve just scratched the surface of its wondrous and boundless mosaic.

Thank you, Piero, for sharing these super wines with us (at 2:30 a.m. your time!). And thank you Shanon, Roma’s owner, for believing in our campaign to bring Italian winemakers into the homes of wine lovers!

Taste with Piero Mastroberardino and me on Tuesday, Gianluca Garofoli and me on Thursday in Houston.

Call me a “kid in a candy store.”

Tomorrow night, I’ll be welcoming one of Italy’s greatest winemakers, Piero Mastroberardino (above), for a virtual wine tasting of three of his family’s wines, including the Greco di Tufo Nova Serra — one of my favorite Italian whites.

And then on Thursday, we’ll be joined by Gianluca Garofoli whose family produces another one of my all-time favorite Italian white wines, the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Podium.

Both events are hosted by Roma restaurant in Houston, my client.

For Piero’s virtual wine tasting event, $119 sends you home with three bottles of wine — the Greco, the red Lacryma Christi, and the Taurasi Radici — and light bites from Chef Angelo.

For Gianluca’s virtual wine dinner event, $119 sends you home with three bottles of wine, including the Podium, and a traditional Marche menu for two. Chef Angelo is from Marche so this is a special one for him.

Chef, you had me at “homemade passatelli with mushrooms”!

Please just shoot me an email if you’d like to attend either virtual event (in the comfort of your own home!).

Why is there a photograph of a bee at following this message? Join us Thursday to find out! Thank you for supporting local businesses, including my own, by eating great Italian food and drinking great Italian wines with the people who produce and love them.

Image via the Garofoli Facebook.

Taste with Marco Fantinel and me this Thursday in Houston and notes on how to roast a bell pepper.

This Thursday, I’m thrilled to welcome my friend Marco Fantinel for the virtual wine dinner I host each week for Roma restaurant here in Houston.

I first met Marco in 2007 at the U.N. when he was launching a wine to benefit humanitarian aid (a lot of people don’t realize that Italy is one of the biggest supporters of the U.N.).

Over the years, he’s become a great friend and his family’s wines have become one of Tracie and me’s go-tos.

Marco is an amazing guy: a soccer club owner, a hotelier, a producer of Prosciutto di San Daniele (Friuli’s classic prosciutto), and first and foremost a grape grower and winemaker.

As you can see in the photo below, he grows his wines in the shadow of the Karsic Alps in the gravelly and limestone soils of Grave and Collio in Friuli. And I bet many of our guests will be surprised to learn how significantly his wines and Friulian culture have reshaped fine dining in the U.S., thanks in no so small part to Marco’s efforts.

Most recently, Marco partnered with Mary J. Blige to produce her Pinot Grigio (no joke!). I can’t wait to see him on our Zoom call and hear all about it as we taste his wines and enjoy Chef Angelo’s amazing cooking.

See the menu and details here. $119 send you home with three bottles of wine and dinner for two. Please support local businesses, including my own, by eating Italian food and drinking Italian wines with the people who make and love them. Thank you for your support.

In other news…

A ton of people had questions about this photo, posted on my social media over the weekend.

Back when I was translating recipes and writing about Italian wines and gastronomy for La Cucina Italiana in the late 1990s, this was how I learned to roast bell peppers.

You just place them on the stove top over medium or low heat and turn the pepper as it chars on each side.

For the next step, most recipes call for it to be placed in a brown paper bag to steam as it cools. I just put it in a medium-sized mixing bowl and cover it with a b&b plate.

After 10 minutes or so, it will have cooled and the charred skin is easy to remove.

After I’ve removed the skin under running water, revealing the beautiful color underneath, I clean the pepper of its stem and seeds. Then I slice it into thin strips that I dress with kosher salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and a kiss of red wine vinegar.

Sometimes I sauté the strips with garlic and chili flakes before dressing them as above. But Tracie and I like them best simply roasted and dressed.

It’s a super easy but classic way to prepare them! We served them with crusty bread and a glass of delicious Lageder Chardonnay (our new favorite everyday white ever since we did a virtual wine dinner with Helena Lageder a few weeks ago!).

Is the Coravin the key to the virtual tasting paradigm? An interview with Coravin inventor Greg Lambrecht.

One of the most interesting anecdotes that Coravin inventor Greg Lambrecht (above) shared when we spoke early this month was about a group of six sommeliers preparing for their exams.

Each of them had purchased a mixed case of wines from a region or appellation they needed to cover in their studies. Using a Coravin, each member of the group “accessed,” as Greg put it, one glass of wine from each bottle. They then traded the mixed case with one of their colleagues who, in turn, traded their case with the next member.

Once the process was complete, they had each tasted through all the wines. But along the way, each of them had only absorbed the cost of a single mixed case. Their creative resource sharing had saved these up-and-coming wine professionals the cost of five mixed cases while still allowing them to taste and make notes on wines from six different appellations/regions.

Brilliant, right?

That story didn’t make it into the interview with Greg that we published today on the Boulder Burgundy Festival blog (Coravin is the 2020 festival’s title sponsor; I’m the gathering’s in-house blogger).

But it led to my own εὕρηκα moment: the Coravin is going to be key to the new virtual tasting paradigm.

Currently, I lead between 1-3 virtual tastings for consumers every week. And I was also a co-organizer of a virtual trade tasting last month that included more than 40 professional tasters (wine buyers and restaurant and wine shop workers) across the state of Texas.

One of the biggest problems that virtual tasting organizers face is how to get the wines to the tasters. Some restaurants, for example, are repackaging wines by unsealing them and pouring them into smaller containers. But this is a wholly unacceptable solution for winemakers who rightly hold that this compromises the integrity of the wine. That’s one of the reasons that in-person trade tastings have been the paradigm for a generation of wine professionals (the other is the schmooze factor).

Even though the cost of an individual bottle of wine is relatively low (all things considered), it’s extremely challenging to get sealed bottles of wines to everyone who needs them for a virtual event. We were faced with this fulfillment issue when we needed to get wines to tasters in Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio for a two-day tasting event. It was a Herculean task, riddled with problems, to say the least.

But chatting with Greg, it occurred to me: what if a mixed case and a Coravin were delivered to each taster? If that were the case (no pun intended), they could access one glass from each bottle as they connected with wine growers via Zoom et alia and then organizer could then pick up the wines and deliver them to the next taster.

And what if a tasting event were dilated to span multiple days (instead of just two) or even weeks? As proud as I am of the work we did on the massive trade tasting we did here in Texas, time worked against us. I realize now that we were too focused on emulating the classic in-person event model. By extending the virtual event time, we also would have had fewer scheduling problems. And the winemakers and tasters could have coordinated their virtual meetings not following a rigid schedule but rather using a timetable more convenient and expedient for all.

Invention is the parent of necessity, n’est-ce pas? Or is it the other way around? I believe that the Coravin holds the key to the future of virtual and even consumer tastings.

Check out the interview with Greg here. It was a genuine thrill for me to get to speak with him. “It’s the variety that makes Coravin,” he told me, “the opening of the potential variety, that makes Coravin what it is.”

“A wine favored by the worst kind of thieves.” On the origins of the ampelonym Garganega.

Above: a Garganega cluster. Photo courtesy of Soave producer Anselmi, one of my favorite Garganega growers and winemakers (thank you, Lisa!).

Last Wednesday, a guest at a private virtual tasting pressed me about the origins of the grape name Garganega (we were tasting a famous Soave producer together via Zoom). It wasn’t the time or place to go into extreme detail (the occasion was a birthday party and the setting was the host’s dining room). But I wanted to follow up here on the blog this week because even though the ampelonym’s etymology is still unknown, it leads us down a philologic trail that is as compelling as it is revealing.

There are two main although unproven theories as to its fons et origo.

Some Italian philologists posit that it may be a dialectal inflection of garganico meaning from/of Gargano (pronounced Gargàno), a sub-region of Foggia province in Puglia.

In my view, this is the more tenable thesis. In antiquity, grape names were often derived from toponyms (e.g., Prosecco and Nero d’Avola among many others). This was probably owed to how the wines made from those grapes were sold or shipped. And Veneto’s historic link to Puglia as its last port of call may have had an influence.

On the other hand, Italian ampelographers (who often cite only secondary sources and frequently offer unfounded philological speculation) surmise that it comes from or is related to the grape name Grecanico because of its genetic relation to the grape Grecanico Dorato, a variety cultivated in Sicily.

The botanists (because that’s what ampelographers are) claim that the ancients believed grapes like Greco, Grecanico, Grechetto came from Greece. And so, the theory goes, they named them accordingly. In fact, the word greco referred to a winemaking style (and not an ampelonymic classification) in the Middle Ages. Medieval Italians — and especially the Venetians and Neapolitans — held Greek viticulture in high esteem and so it was only natural for them to lend the name greco to their most prized grape varieties.

The bottomline is that we still don’t know where the grape name came from and both theories are inconclusive and without any hard documentation.

The earliest known mention of Garganega (and here’s where it gets really interesting, the whole point of philology) is found in the Ruralium Commodorum by Pietro de’ Crescenzi, the prolific 14th-century jurist and botanist.

Many ampelographers cite Crescenzi but none, at least that I can find, have actually read his work.

The wine made from Garganega, wrote Crescenzi in the first decade of the 1300s, “is fine and brightly colored, with low alcohol, and is highly age-worthy. Many praise it in Padua and Bologna. But some scorn it because it is favored with great importunity by the worst kind of thieves.”

It’s important to note that he doesn’t refer to Padua and Bologna as viticultural centers (as some ampelographers erroneously claim). In fact, he mentions those two cities because at the time, they were two of northern Italy’s most important cultural and commercial hubs. Both cities were already home to what are now considered the oldest universities in the western world.

Crescenzi’s notes on Garganega would later be cited by the editors of the Accademia della Crusca’s 17th-century dictionary. In their entry for femmina (above), they quote his description of the grape as an example of a description of a female plant or flower.

“And another type of grape is called Garganega… The female [Garganega] produces a lot of fruit. The male is worthless,” they write quoting Crescenzi.

The fact that the Crusca uses this passage from Crescenzi is an indication of how popular Garganega wines were in antiquity.

Even the ampelographers would agree on this point. And so would the thieves.

Taste with me and Roberto Stucchi of Badia a Coltibuono this Thursday in Houston.

Images via the Badia a Coltibuono Facebook.

Why is there a photo of a seemingly unkempt and neglected vineyard on my blog today? Just look at those wild grasses growing unchecked! It’s a far cry from the meticulously manicured vines of a prestigious Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon grower or a heavy-hitting Bordeaux house!

Joking aside, vineyards like the one above at the Badia a Coltibuono in Chianti Classico) are a great way to illustrate the magic of biodiversity at work. In this case, as for many organic fine wine growers across the world, the vineyard manager wants those native grasses to grow spontaneously They contribute to the site’s biome and foster the wine’s sense of place — another way of saying terroir expression.

The idea is that by allowing nature to perform its magic, the winemaker can better capture — or rather usher in — the wine’s true character and distinctness.

And along the way, she or he makes a more wholesome wine, ideally fresher and more vibrant, while also sustaining the environment at large.

Note also the photo of the estate below, purposely surrounded by woods, another fundamental way that the winemaker bolsters biodiversity through the presence of thriving native flora and fauna.

This Thursday, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be welcoming Badia a Coltibuono winemaker Roberto Stucchi at the weekly virtual wine dinner I host for Roma restaurant here in Houston. Roberto is at once one of Italian wine’s greatest pioneers and the steward of one of its oldest and most historic estates. Tasting and conversing with him is always an extremely compelling and rewarding experience.

Houstonians, please join me for what will definitely be a super fun and delicious evening. If you’ve never attended one of our virtual dinners, I know you’ll enjoy it. It’s a great group of regulars and the pairing menus have been nothing short of spectacular. $119 sends you home with a meal for two and three bottles of wine. Support local businesses, including my own, by eating great Italian food and drinking great Italian wines with the people who make and love them.

Thank you for your support.