Thank you Gambero Rosso for the “best contemporary wine list” award.

It meant a lot to me when my longtime friend and colleague Lorenzo Ruggeri, international editor for Gambero Rosso, wrote earlier this week to let me know that my wine list at Roma in Houston was awarded the Villa Sandi Best Contemporary Wine List.

It’s an award that they give to the best Italian-focused wine lists in the cities where the Gambero Rosso tour takes place (their tasting was held yesterday in Houston at Minute Maid Park).

Over the course of more than two years, I ran virtual wine dinners for the restaurant and ultimately became its wine director. I had previously been its media manager. But when the pandemic began, I started hosting its virtual events. That led to me taking over the wine program last year.

But despite nearly five years that I had put in at the restaurant, it all ended abruptly after the owner hired a new chef. So the award, while greatly cherished, is bittersweet.

In any case, it’s great to know that the work I did there was recognized by my peers and colleagues.

Thank you Lorenzo for the shout-out and the kind words!

How Tracie and I became “Chardonnay” drinkers.

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Back in the late aughts following the big bang of the enoblogosphere, there was probably no word more maligned, no term more associated with the wine establishment as “Chardonnay.”

“Oaky, buttery, California Chardonnay.” It spoke to everything we nouvelle vague wine lovers despised about the wine world hegemony.

And as Tracie and I began to date, Chardonnay avoidance with dramatic flair — à la “Sideways” — was a bona fide whereby you established your cool.

Yes, we were amenable to the grape variety if it showed up in the form of a racy blanc de blancs pas dosé or a hitherto unknown but acceptably “acidity-driven” Chablis. But the mere mention of the apelonym was enough to make you heave… well… maybe not heave but wince.

So how is that our most recent online, curbside mix-and-match order from the Houston Wine Merchant was literally replete with Chardonnay? California Chardonnay and French Chardonnay! Egads!

One of the key moments in my own personal Chardonnay sea change was my repeated visits in pre-pandemic years to northern California wine country where the opportunity to taste a broader spectrum of Chardonnay entirely reshaped my perception of the category. By my September 2019 trip for the Slow Wine guide, my third for the imprint, I had discovered so many expressions of Chardonnay that we both loved. From Santa Ynez to west Sonoma coast, there were myriad winemakers — many of them négociants — that had never found their way into our glass along our überhipster wine route.

It wasn’t that there was a “new California” that even the Times touted at the time. In fact, there was plenty of great California Chardonnay to go around. But it hadn’t been “marketed” to our emerging demographic of Gen X, would-be enlightened wine lovers.

By missed-opportunity marketing, I don’t mean that those winemakers had failed us. No, they had not, by any means. As I discovered, many of them were happily selling their entire production to their lists and to a tuned-in clientele who had appreciated the stuff for more than a generation.

The truth is we had failed them by letting them be eclipsed by the new subversive media- and social media-driven wine culture. Subversion was good. And a lot of cool stemmed from it. But it was also deeply myopic in certain fundamental instances like l’affaire Chardonnay.

Another seismic shift was also happening: we were becoming more experienced wine drinkers. As we strived for many years to birth our “cool palates,” we began to realize that a great lacuna had formed in our wine tastes. And ten years into that arc, we became aware of that gap because we had started to taste some of the great expressions of Chardonnay with more finely honed tasting chops.

And you know what? We discovered that we loved the wines.

There were also other factors that guided the shift toward the most coveted of candid grape varieties.

We stopped being drawn to the palate-bracing acidity of some of the wines that came out the the in search of balance movement (yeah, you know what and whom I’m talking about). At the time it seemed that the winemakers were overcompensating for the “okay buttery” (and attenuated acidity) paradigm.

Another thing that has really influenced our wine buying habits has been the release of an overwhelming number of Bourgogne blanc from top producers. At our end of the Passover Seder this year, we’ll be drinking current release 2015 Bourgogne, “white Burgundy wine,” from De Montille. It’s friggin’ delicious, people. And I imagine that Étienne (yeah, you know whom I’m talking about) reclassified this lot. Gauging from the wine, you would think that he had more lofty aspirations for it.

His Bourgogne blanc is just one of the many marquee houses that are now releasing rivers of appellation-wide designate wines (i.e., “Bourgogne”).

The current lineup in our cellar is Au Bon Climat, Boillot, De Montille, and a Mâcon from Thévenet.

Dear Chardonnay, it took us a long time to make it, but we got here as quick as we could. And we’ve been loving every minute of it.

The “monstrous paradox”: Vini Veri manifesto calls out a lack of technical ability in natural wine production today.

Above, far left: Sandro Sangiorgi, one of the authors of the recently published Vini Veri manifesto that squarely criticizes a new wave of natural producers who consider “technical ability an obstacle” to making their wines. A top wine writer and taster, Sangiorgi is widely considered one of Italy’s leading experts on and advocates for natural wine (image via the Porthos website).

Last week, during the Vini Veri natural wine fair in Cerea, Italy, the organizers released a new manifesto signed and presumably penned by wine writer, educator, and leading Italian taster Sandro Sangiorgi, “La forma e la sostanza, le luci e le ombre” (“Shape, substance, light, and shadow”).

In this short essay (roughly 350 words), the signatories Sangiorgi and Paolo Vodopivec, the current president of Vini Veri, criticize producers of natural wine who “consider technical ability an obstacle” to making great wine. “It’s as if [they believe that] the less one knows, the better the outcome.”

“Many producers have become perilously accustomed to technical imperfections,” they opine:

    some more grave than others, as the winemakers consider them venial sins or, even worse, characteristics of their wines and even of their colleagues’ wines. I sensed this would happen but I tried as carefully as possible not to believe it. This comes on the heels of the monstrous misunderstanding of conventional wineries that have issued appeals to underline the need for chemicals and biotechnology to call fermented grape must “wine.” Now we are shifting to a monstrous paradox of those who consider technical ability an obstacle to making aromatic liquid. It’s as if the less one knows, the better the outcome. (Translation mine.)

This “laxity” has led to the release of “undrinkable liquids” (“liquidi imbevibili” in the original).

The authors go on to encourage producers “not to fall into the trap of genuineness being the only criterion for quality.”

Besides learning how to make and age wines, they write in closing, it is important for natural winemakers to “learn how to taste so that they can develop a sense of beauty that elevates but does not compromise their efforts.”

The manifesto was published in its entirety by both WineNews.it and GamberoRosso.it. While Wine News generally tends to avoid controversy, the editors of the Gambero Rosso have been highly critical of the natural wine movement.

The wine bar of our dreams in Sonoma: Valley Bar and Bottle.

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The sun shone through the trees on an unusually warm Sonoma valley early evening as kids played in the park and tourists milled about the shops and tasting rooms.

And it felt like a dream as I walked through the threshold of Valley Bar and Bottle in downtown Sonoma right on the main square.

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Where homage to tradition is transcendent: Cotogna in San Francisco, one of my best meals this year.

Wines for Peace: Brunello Consortium auction benefitting Ukraine, Monday, April 11, at Vinitaly. Click here to learn more.

Since the late 1980s, Italian cuisine in the U.S. has been shaped by a tension between traditional- and creative-leaning forces.

Remember the wave of “northern Italian cuisine” that came around in the Reagan years? “Sunday gravy” was out and polenta was in.

The problem was that culinary interpreters often didn’t see these dishes in historical or cultural context. The rich meat- and jus-driven sauces we ate as kids in this country were a derivative of haute Neapolitan cuisine (vis-à-vis Ippolito Cavalcanti).

Polenta, on the other hand, so popular “rustic” and “peasant” (ugh, I can’t stomach that term) movements of the late 1990s, was a dish that many older people in Italy refused to eat at the time because it reminded them of a time when there wasn’t enough to eat (the 19th-century pellagra crisis in Italy was caused in part because polenta had become a staple for economically marginalized families; in the years following WWII, many older Italians in the north will tell you, polenta was all they had to eat).

Making my way over to Cotogna from my hotel in San Francisco the other night, I couldn’t help but remember a chilly winter evening in the late 80s when I stopped a man on the street and asked him if he knew the way to a certain “trattoria,” a name for pseudo-Italian restaurants that had become popular in the second half of the decade.

He did, he responded, but he would only tell me — and I’m not kidding about this — if I pronounced it correctly.

It wasn’t traht-toh-REE-ah, as I had enunciated it. It was traht-TOH-ree’ah, with the emphasis on the second syllable, not the second to last.

It kinda says it all, right there.

In my view and experience, the greatest Italian restaurants in the U.S. have always found a precarious however brilliant balance between the traditional and creative. And my meal at Cotogna was a fantastic example of how respectful homage to tradition can be transcendent.

The carrot sformato (first photo) blew me away with its ethereal texture and subtle dance of bold but elegant flavors. Sformato — properly called a savory custard in English — is all about the texture. It should be firm but light, rich but buoyant. I know already from my Instagram that people agree with me: this dish was nothing short of show-stopping. I loved it.

The asparagus alla fiorentina (second photo) brought to mind trips to San Francisco with my parents when I was a child in the 70s. They would slurp coffee as they inhaled “eggs Florentine” at a swank hotel restaurant on Union Square.

This truly Florentine-inspired dish sang out to me. The flavor — the bontà or goodness as we say in Italian — of the materia prima was nothing short of spectacular. And I loved the play in texture — again, texture! — between the lardons and American-style bacon (which btw is extremely popular in Italy today).

The finale, garganelli with rabbit, also played on its balance of textures and subtle flavors. I loved that the rabbit was ground, not stringy, and the richly flavored pasta was the focus of this dish, not the rabbit. I couldn’t agree or have enjoyed it more.

Paired with the delicious, spicy Ruché Panta Rhei by Valdisole (thank you, Ceri Smith!), this dish became the synecdoche for the entire dinner. For a generation who grew up complaining that there wasn’t enough sauce on the soggy over-cooked and rinsed pasta, it made me feel like we might finally have adolesced.

Thank you wine director Joseph Di Grigoli and team for taking such good care of me. Your work is as inspiring as it is delicious.

Wines for Peace: Brunello Consortium auction benefitting Ukraine, Monday, April 11, at Vinitaly.

Image via Caritas.it.

On Monday, April 11, on the occasion of the Vinitaly wine trade fair in Verona, the Brunello Consortium, in partnership with the Chianti Classico and Bolgheri consortia, will be holding an auction of large formats and prized vintages to benefit Ukrainian refugees in Italy. The event, “Vini per la Pace” (“Wines for Peace”), will include 30 rare lots.

Proceeds will be donated to the Siena province chapter of Caritas Italiana (Caritas Diocesana di Siena-Colle di Val d’Elsa-Montalcino) whose administrators will direct the money to refugee services.

The auction is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. local time and is being coordinated by Sotheby’s. Online bidding will be available via Bid Inside.

Visit viniperlapace.bidinside.com to learn more.

Caritas Italiana is part of Caritas Internationalis, “a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations operating in over 200 countries and territories worldwide” (Wikipedia).

Vinitaly, don’t have too much fun without me!

Every year at my Vinitaly, there’s a first-day toast organized by a loosely knit group of Italian wine bloggers and social media users at the Abruzzo region stand.

It’s been an honor and a joy for me to be included over the years. That’s our group in 2019, above, at the last Vinitaly before the closures began in early 2020.

As my social feeds are being flooded with images posted by my American colleagues, some of them already in Italy as they gear up for the fair, my heart is teeming with bittersweetness.

Because I have to be in Italy next month to teach at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences, I wasn’t able to make the trip this year to the trade fair. Now that Tracie is working full-time, we need to budget our time parsimoniously and a trip to the fair would mean missing a weekend in Houston when Tracie will be showing houses and I’ll be taking care of the girls. (When I go in May to teach, I’m literally going to be on the ground for five days while I teach four seminars.)

One of the most compelling experiences in my post-2020 era has been reconnecting in person and in real time with wine people and friends in Italy and the U.S. I’m so bummed that I won’t be in Verona next week.

But less travel, especially less travel to Europe, is part of our family’s new normal. It’s not a sacrifice, by any means. But it’s part of our new life rhythm. And that’s a good thing. As Tracie has been working, I’ve been spending more time with the girls working on music and doing schoolwork. They both play a stringed instrument, they both take piano, they both perform with the school choir, and they are both girls scouts. So please call me Mr. Mom. I love every single minute of it.

What I wouldn’t give to look for a parking place for an hour!

What I wouldn’t give to stand inline for a stinky bathroom at Veronafiere (the fairgrounds where the event is held), my shoes sopping from the centimeter of liquid on the floor! (Don’t ask.)

And what I wouldn’t do to fight the crowds, the throngs of drunken laypeople, the cigarette smoke (which I really don’t mind but…), the wifi and cell coverage that never work, and the long lines to buy a bottle of water or a sandwich!

Seriously, what I wouldn’t give to see my many friends I’ll be missing next week.

To everyone going to the fair, have a great one! Buona fiera! Buon Vinitaly! But don’t have too much fun without me!

Ashtin Berry is one of the greatest wine writers of our generation.

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Read. Ashtin. Berry. Now.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with minimalism,” she writes in a recent post on Instagram, “but it’s essential to understand how aesthetic trends are always in discussion with social structures. and also note when aesthetics are being used to push harmful biases. Minimalism is an aesthetic and it is also a lifestyle and if you aren’t careful you can end up perpetuating biases about poor and racialized people.”

In my view, there is no eno-focused writer today who is addressing the epistemological implications of wine culture with such unbridled perspicacity and clarity of voice.

Her post yesterday (above) is one in a series where she parses some of the thornier nuances of the contemporary natural wine world. Along the way, she draws from a broad spectrum of critical theorists, some of whom will surely surprise even the informed student of 20th century thought.

I’m certainly not the first to note the power of her voice. She’s been featured in countless who’s who lists by prominent wine-centered mastheads.

Those publications, at least as far as I can find, tend to focus on her utterly vital inner- and extra-industry activism. There is no question that her community work has had an outsized and welcomed impact.

But what intrigues me most about her writing is that she approaches the subject as a critical theorist. She is a Roland Barthes of our wine time, a writer who dissects the aesthetics — the ars poetica — of contemporary wine culture with acumen and deep insight. She is also a Noam Chomsky in her ability to see behind what Nietzsche would have called the “sacred texts” of wine, the cultural hegemony (to borrow from Gramsci) that continues to drive what she calls the “moralized consumption” of wine (and other lifestyle products).

I know those are big shoes to fill but fill them she does… and then some.

She also possesses a preternatural ability to ferment her observations into approachable, highly drinkable language. In a wine writing world where the register of language and the hermetic argot are often used in an exclusionary capacity (she address this trend as well), she seamlessly renders her thought into palatable demotic language digestible by all. It’s a glorious, beautiful balancing act that delivers spectacular results in widening the horizons of lay people and trade members alike.

Can you tell that I am entirely absorbed by her writing? I’m a little late to the game but am glad to be here. And thanks to Tracie for hipping me to her feed.

Ashtin Berry is one of the greatest wine writers of our generation. Read her.

Orange was the most highly prized wine in the Italian Renaissance. I can prove it.

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Above: last night, Tracie and I treated ourselves to one of our favorite macerated white wines from Friuli, the Vitovska by Skerlj. I’m now more convinced than ever that the most highly prized wines in the Italian Renaissance were “orange” like this one.

It hit me like a brick of bio char: vin greco (Greek wine) in the Renaissance was neither red or white according to a then best-selling author. It was golden brown, like a lion’s mane noted Cesare Crivellati, a medical doctor and wine writer from Viterbo whose Trattato dell’uso et modo di dare il vino nelle malattie acute, contra il costume de nostri tempi (Treatise on the Use and Mode of Treating Acute Illness with Wine, [a Guide] Counter to the Customs of our Time) was published in Rome in the second half of the 1500s.

On white wines that are not quite “white” but definitely not “red” he writes, “si deve intendere di colore fulvo o flavo come è quello della malvasia, del greco, e simili.”

“They should be considered fulvous or flavous in color, as is the case with Malvasia and Greco and similar [wines].”

The descriptor fulvo is from the Latin fulvus (fulvous in English), a term generally translated as “deep yellow, reddish yellow, gold-colored, tawny” (Lewis and Short).

Similarly, flavo from the Latin flavus meaning “golden yellow, reddish yellow, flaxen-colored” (Lewis and Short).

The word fulvus was used in antiquity to denote the color of a lion’s mane, to put it in context.

The discovery was part of my ongoing research on wines in Italian literature from 1300-1600. In and of itself, the quote is highly significant in our contemporary understanding of wine during the late Italian Middle Ages and Renaissance.

But there’s also an extremely important observation to be made here based on my extensive readings of primary texts from that era.

At the time, the term vin greco (Greek wine) referred not to the modern-era grape variety Greco or family of white grapes known as Greco, Grechetto, Grecanico, etc. Instead, it denoted a style of wine that often arrived by ship via Greece but was also produced in significant quantities, particularly in Naples where it was famously grown and vinified on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius.

Above: a folio from Itinerarium regionum urbium et oppidum nobiliorum Italiae (Itineraries Through the Noble Regions, Cities, and Towns of Italy), a travel log published by Flemish jurist Franz Schott on the occasion of the 1600 Jubilee declared by Pope Clement VIII.

By 1600, when Franz Schott (1548-1622) published his travel guide to Italy (above), Rome was already an important “wine destination,” as we would call it today. And the number-one wine in Rome, as Schott notes, was vino greco (see the image above):

“The Romans and the entire [Papal] court,” he writes, “indisputably drink the best wines [in Italy]. They are as follows. The best is white in color, Vino Greco from Somma, which is grown in the town of Vesuvius in Campania…”

He calls it white. But as noted in the Crivellati quote above, it was common to call tawny-colored wines “white” at the time. The confusion about tawny wines like Malvasia (a style, not a grape) and Vin greco (again, a style, not a grape) was such that Crivellati felt compelled to address it.

So the fact that Schott calls it albus doesn’t mean it wasn’t fulvus.

A few decades later, Francesco Redi, the Italian scientist and poet, would refer to the “amber” color of wines made in Crete (in Greece) and the Neapolitan coast and islands, not far from Vesuvius.

In his poem “Bacco in Toscana” (“Bacchus in Tuscany”), he refers to the “preziosa… ambra liquida cretense” (“precious amber liquid from Crete”) and in another instance, to the “noble wines” of [the island of] Ischia and the town of Posilippo on the Gulf of Naples.

The last however extremely important piece of evidence that leads me to believe that vin greco was an orange wine comes from the Trattato della coltivazione delle viti (Treatise on the Cultivation of Vines) composed at the end of the 1500s by Giovanvettorio Soderini (see one of my posts on Soderini here). In his work, he describes a practice of vinifying wines on the solids from previously vinified vin greco. This would seem to indicate that vin greco was made by fermenting the must on its skins. As any observer of the contemporary Italian wine scene knows, orange wine gets its amber color through the fermentation of white grapes on their skins.

My research is part of a bigger project slated for academic publication on the literary implications of wine in Boccaccio. As I publish more of my work, it will become clear that vin greco and wine in general play a greater role in the Decameron than previous scholars have imagined.

I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed putting it together! More to come… Thanks for being here.

 

Time to reimagine the Oxford English Dictionary definition for “sommelier”? @OED

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This just in from the department of lexicography…

Anyone who owns or runs a website is familiar with the tide of unsolicited emails from would-be web designers and SEO “experts” who want to sell their services. One such email arrived in my inbox last week. But it had an unusual message.

The sender’s services, the email’s author wrote, would help me to correct myriad spelling errors on my site. And they provided an example of an egregious orthographic error on my site — the word somm.

It struck me as odd because as a rule, the word sommelier always appears in its unabridged form on my blog.

Curiosity killed the cat. Is somm not considered an acceptable rendering? The urge to look up the entry for the lemma in the Oxford English Dictionary was too much to bear (btw look for the OED “draft addition” entry for lemma and you will find the acceptation used here).

The first thing that struck me is that somm is not included as an accepted abbreviation or alternate spelling.

At this point, somm the truncated form has nearly eclipsed the use of sommelier. And especially after the release of the “Somm” films, it has prevailed in winespeak, both professional and laical.

It has also been verbified or denominalized, depending on how you like your grammar.

Tonight Andres will be somming is understood in professional circles to denote that tonight Andres will be working as a sommelier on the floor of the restaurant. (That’s Andres Blanco in the photo above btw).

It’s surprising that the OED hasn’t yet included a definition for to somm.

It’s also dumbfounding to note that the last example reported by the editors is dated 1974. If you’re, say, 30 years old and working as a sommelier, you weren’t even born when the London Times reported that “an awe-inspiringly stately sommelier and long wine lists… can often discourage the sale of wine” (see above).

Wow, how the world of wine has changed since the year when the U.S. had two presidents in the same term (Nixon and Ford)! It’s also the year that the Stones released “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.” Just think what the wine world was like back then and who populated it.

It’s also no short of nonplussing that the only bona fide meaning the editors give is “wine waiter.” Today, the sommelier is so much more than just an arbiter of good wine and keeper of the cellar. Modern-day sommeliers are hosts, educators, tastemakers, entertainers, performers, human resources managers, entrepreneurs, authors, and even activists. Some would go as far to call the work of a sommelier “art.” None of this spirit is present in the OED entry.

But the thing that made the deepest impression on me is that in all the usage examples offered by the OED editors, each one includes a hint of negativity, a note of condescension, or, at worst, a downright insult to the sommelier profession.

The sommelier is actually a “butler.”

The sommelier jumps at the snap of fingers to fetch a cocktail.

The “fastidious wine-bibber” terrorizes the sommelier.

Standards are high even though there are “some cooks to shoot and many sommeliers to educate.”

And the irony in the “stately sommelier” who “discourages” wine sales is hard not to suppress.

Isn’t it time for the editors to reimagine the definition?

Once we get that taken care of, we can start working on an update of their entry for puttanesca.

Such is the fate of hapless lexicography that not only darkness, but light, impedes and distresses it; things may be not only too little, but too much known, to be happily illustrated.

Samuel Johnson
1755