Let’s not use a homophobic slur when we talk about wine. On finocchi and infinocchiare, a philological clarification.

“The closer the look one takes at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back.” – Karl Kraus.

Image via Nick Saltmarsh’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

A conversation at last night’s Italian Trade Commission dinner in Houston led to a discussion about the Italian word infinocchiare (to cheat or to swindle someone) and its relation to wine and wine tasting.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: wine sellers did not doctor their wine with fennel (finocchio in Italian) or fennel seeds in the Middle Ages or Renaissance.

What they did do (and we have ample knowledge of this from primary sources) was to serve certain foods like fennel before customers would taste wines they were considering buying. They did this, it is now well known, to impair the buyers’ ability to perceive the aromas and flavors of the wine. (Fennel seeds were widely used in the preparation of salumi in the Middle Ages but that was an unrelated practice.)

And while the first known mention of fennel used to deceive wine buyers dates back to the 15th century (Corniolo Della Cornia’s La divina villa), the foods that were primarily used for this purpose were walnuts and cheese (Crescenzi mentions this in the early 14th century and Corniolo also mentions this a hundred or so years later; English speakers will find all of this info in Massimo Montanari’s excellent book Let the Meatballs Rest, And Other Stories About Food and Culture).

But today, philologists are relatively certain the word infinocchiare does not come from this practice (although Montanari seems not to be up on the current philological dialectic with regard to the lemma).

Instead, they believe (and I concur), it most likely came from the Greek word φένᾱξ (phénāx) meaning liar or cheater.

The word finocchio (commonly used in the plural, finocchi, to avoid equivocation), comes from the Latin foeniculum (the perennial herb was a popular vegetable in Roman times).

So to say that infinocchiare comes from a medieval practice of doctoring wine with fennel is entirely erroneous.

Neither of these terms is to be confused with the Italian homophobic slur finocchio.

The etymology of this ugly epithet is unknown. The one thing we know about it was that it originated in Florence, probably in the early 20th century. The most plausible etymology, embraced by many philologists today, is that it came from the name of a mask used in 19th-century Florentine theater. There’s no hard evidence of this. But it is believed to be the most likely etymon among experts in the history of the Italian language.

What’s important here is that three terms — finocchio (vegetable), finocchio (homophobic slur), and infinocchiare — are probably not related and should be considered separately in terms of their cultural significance.

Making flippant jokes about their homonymity only propagates an ugly cultural trope that gay people are in some way “deceiving” those around them.

Next on deck: the difference between lasagna and lasagne and cultural swindlers like so-called “chef” the Kevin Bryant at Roma restaurant in Houston. Yes, I have a bone to pick there as well, pun intended… stay tuned.

Italy’s wild boar problem: 10 metric tons of wine grapes lost to hungry feral hogs in Colli Euganei.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

“Wild boars pull off mega heist in organic vineyards in the Colli Euganei,” read a headline in the Mattino di Padova, Padua’s daily newspaper, over the weekend. Feral hogs “devour 10.5 metric tons of grapes.”

Feral hogs — a term used in U.S. English to denote the cinghiali or wild boar that we love so much in our pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale — have increasingly become a nuisance and even safety hazard in Italy as hot temperatures, dwindling water resources, and scarcity of their natural foods have increasingly led them to venture into the human sphere.

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian magazine published an article entitled — no joke — “Wild Boars Are Ransacking Rome.”

Check out this video posted on Twitter by Wanted in Rome.

You’ll see a brood of the beasts strolling down a heavily trafficked street in Italy’s capital.

Beyond the neighborhoods of the Eternal City, where the biggest concern is that they will spread disease or physically harm residents, the animals have come to represent an existential threat for small wine growers.

Enrico Selmin had used electric fences to protect his five hectares of organically farmed grapes — his first commercially viable crop.

“My five productive hectares were completely eaten,” he told the Mattino. My winery [opened just this year] will remain closed and unused because I don’t even have one cluster to make wine.”

For large-scale growers, the animals, which have little fear of humans, represent a growing problem in terms of crop loss. But for someone like Enrico, it means starting all over from scratch. He also lost his investment in the electric fence.

Last year, Italy’s national daily La Repubblica reported that the Chianti Colli Fiorentini appellation lost 30 percent of its crop to feral hogs.

Tuscany’s regional government has allocated €4 million to build “double fences” to keep the beasts out of vineyards, and farm and ranch land.

Efforts to curb the damages have been underway since 2015 when it became clear that the problem needed to be addressed, says Chianti Colli Fiorentini president Marco Ferretti in the Repubblica coverage. But programs to hunt and kill the animals were put on hold during the pandemic. As a result, the boar population continued to grow during 2020 and 2021.

Italian wine growers are already contending with one of the hottest and driest vintages on record. The last thing they need is to contend with ungulates eating their already diminished crop.

*****

Roadkill is certainly no solution to this ongoing and increasingly challenging ecological problem.

But nearly anyone who’s ever dined in the home of Tuscan in wine country will tell you that roadkill boar is thoroughly delicious. My favorite has always been gooey fried boar liver paired with a nice glass of young Sangiovese and a side of chestnut flour polenta and white beans.

What happens to grapes when they don’t get enough water? With harvest already underway, Italy continues to hold its breath…

“The Sreja 2022 died before it was even born,” wrote Cascina Fornace grower and winemaker Enrico Cauda on his Instagram this week. He was referring to one of his top red wines, Sreja, made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes, grown and raised in Roero.

“It died in the bellies of of the parched people of the woods. What the f*&%. #sreja #cacscinafornace #roero #everythinglost” (translation mine).

Like many Italian winemakers, Enrico and his crew have been dealing with extremely high temperatures and prolonged drought. In some places across the peninsula, the drought persisted for more than three and a half months before moderate rainfall gave them some relief — and hope.

And now that the red grape harvest is around the corner, Enrico, like his peers and counterparts at all levels of the wine trade, is facing the challenges of extreme hydric stress.

As Riccardo Cotarella, the president of the Italian association of enologists (Assoenologi), wrote in a widely circulated statement earlier this month:

    everything will depend on what happens in coming days because the vines will need a significant amount of water in the ground. They need it not just to keep their vegetation alive. They also need to feed the many berries in the clusters that they have produced. If enough rain falls over the next few days, we should be able to save the harvest. If not, we are going to have problems… If the rain doesn’t come, we will see a phenomenon where the plant will need to take back the little water it has given to the berries. This is the worst-case scenario. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

In the case of Enrico’s Sreja, the precipitation was too little, too late.

From grape growers to bottlers, from large importers to small distributors across Europe and the U.S., the trade is holding its breath and praying for the best as the red grape harvest approaches.

According to Cotarella, there will be “appellations that suffer to a greater extent while others will suffer to a lesser extent. It depends on the type of soil and the vineyards’ exposure. This means we can’t generalize about the entire country in our analysis without recognizing these distinct differences.”

For many white wine growers, it seems that last week’s rain was enough to carry them through to a successful if not abundant 2022 harvest.

The following are a few snapshots from around the country (from growers I follow on social media).

I’ll be heading to Italy soon and will post updates as I travel across central and northern Italy. In the meantime, I’m keeping up with it all via social media and have also been giving some growers a hand with translations of their “statements” and press releases on the situation there. Stay tuned…
Continue reading

Esther Mobley will be featured speaker at Boulder Burgundy Festival 2022.

For more than a decade, the Boulder Burgundy Festival has quietly grown an extremely loyal following among top Burgundy collectors and wine lovers.

The inspiration for the festival came to founder Brett Zimmerman after he volunteered at Daniel Johnnes’ Paulée festival in New York. The idea was to put together a similar gathering of top wines and wine professionals but with one major difference: a more approachable price of admission.

Over the years, Brett has invited a wide range of wine media personalities to be part of the event: Eric Asimov, Jancis Robinson, Ray Isle, Alice Feiring, Raj Parr… And the roster of producers has been equally impressive. Care to have dinner with the likes of Jean-Charles le Bault, Jean Marc Roulot, or Guillaume d’Angerville? Just to name a few.

Today it’s official: this year’s featured speaker will be Esther Mobley, wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

She will be appearing on a panel on “sustainability in Burgundy” and she will also be joining for nearly all of the tastings, including the Sunday morning seminar, and dinners, giving guests a chance to hob-nob with one of their favorite critics.

I’ve been a media consultant for the festival since 2014 and I also manage media and original content for the Boulder Wine Merchant, Brett’s amazing shop.

As I always like to say, Italy is my signora but Burgundy is my mistress. Although still not a cheap date, the Boulder Burgundy Festival is a great way for the Burgundy-curious like me to spend time with some of the world’s most extraordinary wines — and the people who love them.

The event’s legendary marquee tasting, the Paulée-Inspired Lunch, is already sold out. But there are still spots available for the seminars and dinners (pricey but worth every penny, especially for the all Grand Cru menu). The Sunday walk-around Grand Tasting is one of the weekend’s best values and its been an invaluable experience for people like me who want to taste through Burgundy (more than 200 wines) without breaking the bank.

Add to the mix all the great people and restaurants in Boulder, the beautiful setting, and the city’s cannabis-friendly laidback vibe… and it’s a recipe for a great weekend. Tracie will be there with me this year as well.

Registration is now open for Boulder Burgundy Festival 2022, November 11-13 in Boulder. I hope to see you there!

Much needed rainfall raises hopes for a solid vintage in Italy. “The health of the grapes is excellent.”

Above: winemaker Gianluca Cabrini of Tenuta Belvedere in Oltrepò Pavese shared this photo on his Facebook last week as he prepared to pick his Pinot Noir for the production of classic method sparkling wine. This harvest is “the most difficult, the most impossible,” he wrote.

“#sky #light #night #hope” wrote Chianti Classico winemaker and grape grower Francesco Ricasoli yesterday in a haiku-esque expression of relief after rains brought much needed water and lower temperatures to vineyards across central and northern Italy this week.

Check out this amazing shot he captured, just one of “thousands” of lightning bolts, he wrote.

As severe weather — “Europe’s Scorching Summer” — continues to affect Europeans across the continent and peninsula, drought and extreme heat have tempered growers’ optimism for the 2022 harvest in Italy.

In early August, Riccardo Cotarella, president of the Italian enological association Assoenologi, warned that the situation could be catastrophic if rain did not arrive this month.

“Climate change,” he wrote in a widely circulated statement, “is putting the entire farming industry to the test. As far as viticulture is concerned, we are witnessing a truly anomalous and extraordinary season. It resembles 2003 [one of the hottest on record at the time]. But the current drought is even more challenging and deeper. And it’s coming together with a dangerous element: the high temperatures. When combined with the drought, they create an environment that is highly unsuitable in terms of the vines bearing fruit as best as they can.”

Official estimates for the Italian grape have yet to be published, noted Maurizio Gily in his popular industry newsletter MilleVigne today. But this week’s rainfall and lower temperatures have raised hopes for a solid vintage.

“The rains,” he writes, “which came mostly in the form of storms, did not reach the deepest layers of the soil. But the vines benefitted nonetheless and ripening was suddenly accelerated in the end after a veraison that came early for most. The health of the grapes is excellent at this moment. Harvest of early-ripening grapes has begun in the south while they have started picking Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wines in the north.”

The most important wine appellation in Dante’s time? No, it’s not Tuscany.

Above: Lake Iseo in Brescia province as seen from Mt. Orfano in the south of what is now the Franciacorta appellation. Its morainic “lean” soils, as they were described in the Middle Ages, contributed to its reign as a top zone for wine between the 14th and 16th centuries.

One of the most remarkable and compelling things about early Italian ampelography is how cutting-edge it appears today.

Attentive readers of 14th and 15th-century viticultural treatises will discover that what are called “biodynamic” farming practices today were standard operating procedures for grape growers in the Italian Middle Ages: cover crops and farming practices aligned with the lunar cycle were sine qua non elements of commercially viable vineyards. The only difference was that the humus didn’t need to be revived and restored through the purging of chemical based treatments.

But Medieval growers in Italy were also extremely knowledgeable about soil types, vineyard density, harvest timing, and, perhaps most significantly, pruning. Anyone with even a vague sense of how fine wine grapes are largely farmed today will immediately recognize the myriad parallels with contemporary knowledge and know-how.

Another striking element that emerges through close readings of these texts is that the Italians were extremely advanced with respect to their French counterparts. By all accounts, head-trained vineyards were the norm in southern France while Italians were already using sophisticated cordon and cane-pruned training systems (the latter is what we commonly call Guyot today).

Of course, the Italians had a huge advantage over their transalpine cousins: Mediterranean as opposed to Continental climate in the time before the fossil fuel transformation of the earth’s weather systems. And however far off climate change may have been on the horizon, the Italians were well aware that their warmer climate made them the viticultural leaders of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

What will come as a surprise to contemporary readers is that neither Tuscany or Piedmont figure as top centers for wine production. Tuscany would become an elite region for wine as the Medici family’s power grew. But it was still far from dominant when Dante began writing the Comedìa. Piedmont was centuries away from becoming a top wine region.

And while Naples was the center of the fine wine world of the time thanks to its connection to the Greek wine trade, Brescia province (yes, Brescia!) was the top area for red wine and Romagna was the leader for white. The Marches were also considered a number-one producer. (Naples was renowned for what we now call orange or macerated white wines but much of that wine was imported from Greece, although vin greco — “Greek wine” — was also produced locally around the Castello di Somma on the lower slopes of Mt. Vesuvius.)

This observation is based on my own close reading of the first definitive work on ampelography by an Italian, Pietro de’ Crescenzi from Bologna, who died around 1320. He was an itinerant lawyer who traveled throughout the peninsula for his work. Written in Latin and based on his own experiences combined with his readings of the then newly rediscovered agricultural classics of the Roman era, his work was remarkable in part because it represents an ante litteram protohumanist achievement. It was widely popular in its day and when it was translated into Italian during the Renaissance a few centuries later, it became an instant best seller.

Many Italian philologists believe today that Boccaccio used Crescenzi’s work as a source and inspiration for his own descriptions of the natural world in the Decameron.

Crescenzi pointed to Brescia — Brixia in Latin — as the top producer of red wine in the time of Dante, who died around the same time that Crescenzi did (1321). But the uncanny thing about it is that Dante, in his book about the nascent Italian language, De vulgari eloquentia, points to the Brescians (more precisely, the Bergamask, but the linguistic and geographic connection is undisputed and undeniable) as the worst speakers of Italian.

Lucky in wine, unlucky in language… go figure!

Thanks for checking out today’s post. This is the kind of stuff that I really love to do. It means the world to me that I can share it with like-minded wine lovers and Italophiles.

Praying for rain as a hopeful harvest 2022 begins in Italy.

Grape harvest in the north of Italy began this week.

That’s a cluster of Pinot Noir at Ronco Calino in Franciacorta.

Sparkling winemakers are always the first to pick their fruit. Depending on the winemaker’s style, they need to obtain higher acidity and freshness in order to create the final product they envision.

A high-quality harvest is expected across Italy despite the ongoing drought and high temperatures.

In Franciacorta last month, growers requested and were granted authorization for emergency irrigation. Winemakers simply didn’t have enough water to obtain the desired fruit.

As Franciacorta consortium technical advisor Mario Falcetti explained in an interview, it’s important to remember that the scarcity of water has affected estates across the appellation to varying degrees. As he points out, the vegetative cycle, while impacted by the heat, was by all indicators a healthy one until this summer’s heat wave. Irrigation, he tells the interviewer, will ensure a good harvest.

While winemakers in southern Italy have had a relatively easier time in dealing with climate change, their counterparts in northern and central Italy have faced increasing challenges over the last decade.

In a June interview, prolific winemaker Andrea Lonardi told WineNews.it that “we are seeing things that we have never seen before. Until the 2000s, climate change had positive effects. There are some appellations that have been transformed [by climate change] in terms of quality. Today the situation has completely changed. And we are seeing certain regions that are facing great difficulties. It’s a worrisome situation.”

He has proposed creating a series of reservoirs in affected areas. Some trade observers are proposing new water conservation efforts while others believe that hybrid grape varieties are the key to safeguarding Italian viticulture.

Despite this year’s major challenges (namely drought and extreme eat), most growers in the north and central Italy were spared the wrath of spring freezes and extreme weather events. A healthy crop is expected across Italy.

And with about a month to go before growers began picking white grapes for still wines and reds to follow, they are still praying for rain…

The Lila Jane birthday miracle. Happy birthday sweet girl!

Lila Jane, happy birthday! You are nine years old today! We love you so much and are so proud of you, sweet girl!

Last Saturday, we were packing for our yearly trip to San Diego to visit your grandmother there when your uncle called.

Your grandmother had come down with Covid. Even though she had all her shots, we were all really concerned about her.

And we were all disappointed about our cancelling our trip. We were looking forward to staying with her in La Jolla where she lives. And we were sad that we wouldn’t be able to celebrate your birthday on your favorite La Jolla beach with your California friends.

But yesterday, good news arrived! The doctor said that your grandma is getting better and she said that she’s starting to feel like herself again. Mommy and I changed our flights and now we’ll be leaving early next week for our trip. And all your friends are getting the bonfire and the s’mores ready for your birthday beach party!

It’s a birthday miracle!

Lila Jane, you bring so much joy into our lives.

Your cello, your piano, your grades at school… You are everything mommy and I could dream of.

Your humor, your creativity, your love for your doggies. We love how thoughtful and caring you are. And we love how you cherish your friends and the time you spend with them.

Lila Jane, you are the one and the only and I wrote you this song. I love you and am looking forward to celebrating your birthday today at home and next week on the beach! Happy birthday, sweet girl!

Professione wine blogger: two Italian wine bloggers that I follow (and that you should follow too).

When you Google “Riccardo Fabbio,” the first result is a video interview by an Italian YouTuber entitled “Professione wine blogger.”

It’s a hard-boiled title that evokes one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970s films made for MGM: “Professione reporter,” starring Maria Schenider and Jack Nicholson (called “The Passenger” in English). It also brings to mind the hard-knocks detectives we used to read about in pulp fiction.

Wine Telling Riky, aka Riccardo Fabbio, got on my radar after he visited and profiled my friends in Franciacorta (that’s Arianna and Giovanni with Riky in the photo above, poached from Riky’s social media).

He gave me a call a few weeks back to chat about his work and career path.

Man, this dude has been everywhere! Or at least, he’s on his way to getting there.

I’ve been loving following his trip through Champagne. But I got even more wrapped up in his trip to Friuli.

Riccardo is a wine blogger and social media personage who’s giving it his 1,000 percent. He’s a young dude trying to carve out his space in the enoblogosphere and the wine trade. And he’s doing it with class and panache.

This is his life and livelihood: professione wine blogger.

Another Italian-focused wine blogger who’s in my feed is Kevin Day, author and editor of Opening a Bottle.

That’s Kevin above, in a photo taken recently over dinner at Pizzeria Locale in Boulder.

Kevin, whose blog Opening a Bottle continues to churn out thoughtfully produced feature stories with superb photography, represents a different paradigm in the wine blogging world.

Wine writing and photography is a second career for him. He has a solid writing day gig and a wonderful family to support.

But like Riky, he’s giving it his 1,000 percent.

Or better put, like Riky, he’s giving his curiosity his 1,000 percent.

And that’s what compels me to keep up with both of their feeds.

The best advice that anyone ever gave me about my doctorate was that it’s all about following your curiosity to complete fulfillment. No one ever gave me a job because I have a Ph.D. But I gave my brain a new muscle by taking those deepest of dives. (My thesis was devoted to Renaissance transcriptions of Medieval Italian poetry and how the new printing press medium changed the way readers perceived the prosody — meter and performative rhythm — of those texts. Someone once joked that he would love to read my work as long as it wasn’t about commas and semi-colons. In part, it was.)

There’s so much acrimony in the wine media world owed to one-uppersonship. A counterproductive attitude continues to prevail in that universe: if I’ve been there and done that, how could you possibly have something interesting to add to the conversation?

Let me put this another, more succinct way: there are so many assholes in the wine media world who have forgotten or who never knew that the whole point is the joy of curiosity. It’s not about keeping tabs on who doesn’t kiss your fucking ring.

My dissertation advisor, a truly towering intellectual, knows and continues to know more about Italian literature than I ever will. He watched me stumble over countless rookie, knuckle-headed mistakes as he gently and generously guided me through my path of discovery. It was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me: recognizing my own joy of curiosity and appreciating its immense value.

I hope you’ll enjoy following Riky and Kevin as much as I do. You might even learn something new. I know I have.

Please consider giving to Unicef’s Ukraine child refugee fund. This link takes you straight to the donation page.

What keeps Italian winemakers up at night?

These days, it’s no surprise that Italian winemakers are kept up at night by nagging questions about energy costs, availability of raw materials and their rising prices, worker shortages, logistics, and the biggest challenge of all — international consumers and their changing habits during economic volatility and unpredictability.

Add to that blend the war in Ukraine, Putin’s weaponization of energy and food prices, the rise in Covid cases across Europe, Asia, and the U.S., record-high inflation, and Europeans’ growing uneasiness about the economy and their concerns about climate change… It’s not a pretty picture.

Last week, the editors at WineNews.it, the Montalcino-based wine industry digital magazine, asked leading Italian winemakers to share their concerns as some of the hottest summer temperatures on record are stoking fears of a diminished crop this fall.

The following are my excerpted translations of some of the more compelling comments. Check out the entire piece, worth reading in its entirety, here. (And hats off to the writers at WineNews, who consistently deliver great content about the Italian wine industry.)

Price increases “on the energy front as well as for raw materials, from glass to paper, have led to a hike in production costs, which were already extremely high,” said Caterina Dei of the Cantine Dei group in Tuscany. “We also need to keep in mind that we will be producing less with the next vintage. This means that margins are even tighter.”

“With cost increases,” said Stefano Capurso, president of the Dievole group in Tuscany, “it’s relatively normal that the costs on our price lists would also increase. But for certain wines, like mid-tier products, there is the risk that in many markets, those products will no longer be priced accordingly. As a result, they won’t end up in consumers’ shopping carts. In the U.S., for example, a Chianti Classico that used to cost $21 is now $25 on the shelf, if not more. There is the risk that American consumers will turn to alternative types of products.”

“Inflation that is running rampant, together with production costs and the growing prices for raw materials,” said Andreo Lonardi of the Bertani winery group, “these are the big issues in 2022. As a result, we are not only talking about increases on our price lists. We are also concerned with consumers’ buying power.”

The price of raw materials, noted Michele Bernetti of Umani Ronchi in the Marche, “is something that needs to be monitored. But there are other industries, like construction, where we are also seeing a slowdown in price growth. And the costs of certain equipment used in the vineyard are beginning to come down as well. Let’s hope that the bubble has peaked and that now we are getting back to normal.”