Chaptalization: new labeling norms could force European winemakers to list sugar as an ingredient

“Sugar War Reignites in Europe” read the title of an article published last month by Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy’s leading financial daily.

The paper was among the first to report on negotiations that took place in March between the European alcoholic beverage lobby and the European Commission.

According to a post published the following week by Reuters, “Europe’s drinks sector announced plans [in March] to inform consumers more about the energy content and ingredients in beer, wine and spirits in a self-policing move, but critics said much of this information would only be available online.”

But the inclusion of sugar as an ingredient and how ingredients will be listed remain a contentious issue. According to the Italian report, northern European wine growers (German, Austria, France) insist that sugar, even when added to boost alcohol content (a process known as chaptalization), is not an ingredient because the sugar is transformed into alcohol. Mediterranean growers, on the other hand, want sugar to be included.

Chaptalization is legal in the EU although it is forbidden in Italy. But some believe, as the author of the Sole 24 Ore piece notes, the practice is still employed illicitly. Some readers may be old enough to remember the chaptalization scandal that emerged in Piedmont in the early 1980s, involving one of the region’s most prominent winemakers.

The Sole 24 Ore article includes a quote from Roberto Moncalvo, president of Coldiretti, Italy’s national federation of food growers, one of the country’s most powerful food and wine advocacy groups.

“We need to expose the addition of sugar on wine labels,” he told the paper.

“The revision of labeling norms, including nutritional values and ingredients, needs to be adopted in order to allow consumers to know, finally, if the wine they are drinking was produced with the addition of sugar. Hiding this information misleads consumers and creates unfair competition for producers who don’t resort to sugaring [chaptalization].”

As the Reuters piece notes, the EU’s alcoholic beverage sector has agreed to draft and implement new labeling guidelines. But it’s not clear that northern and Mediterranean countries will agree on how (and where, whether or the label itself or online via QR code) sugar will be listed as an ingredient.

Image via Uwe Hermann’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

“We must see racism for what it is.” Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King 50 years after his death.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., American civil rights leader and peace activist, was assassinated 50 years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee.

The following is an excerpt from his landmark speech “The Other America,” delivered less than three weeks before he was killed:

    There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. It is the nymph of an inferior people. It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. To put it in philosophical language, racism is not based on some empirical generalization which, after some studies, would come to conclusion that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior.

I can’t think of a better way to honor Dr. King today than by re-reading and studying his writings and speeches. I recommend the speech above, one of the last he gave before his death.

Tracie and I wept last night as we streamed “King in the Wilderness,” a new documentary about the latter part of his career.

As we watched the film, one of the things that struck both of us was how whites would use Confederate flags to taunt Dr. King and the marchers he led. I can’t repost the image here but this photograph was shot during the 1966 March Against Freedom: a young shirtless boy plays “Dixie” as a young woman waves the Confederate flag and the marchers approach. You see the hecklers (in motion picture footage with audio) in the documentary. It’s a chilling sight.

Scroll through this archive of photographs from the same march and you’ll find similarly disturbing images of white Americans menacing their black sisters and brothers with Confederate flags.

Today, on the anniversary of his death, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King. His contribution to the historic fight for civil and equal rights for all Americans is unrivaled. And his legacy only grows as it continues to inspire a new generation of Americans to stand up for what is right and just in our country.

On Saturday, April 7, Tracie and I will be protesting the Confederate Memorial of the Wind in Orange, Texas. It was erected a few years ago on Martin Luther King Dr. where the thoroughfare meets Interstate 10, one of the busiest traffic hubs in the county. See this flier, distributed by the owner to raise funds for its construction.

We are not asking for the site to be torn down. We are asking the organizers to repurpose the site to reflect the values of the community — nearly 50 percent black.

Please join us. We have space in both of our cars available for Houstonians who want to participate.

G-d bless Dr. King and his family. G-d bless America.

See also this op-ed, “How Dr. King Lived Is Why He Died,” published by Rev. Jesse Jackson, in today’s New York Times.

Image via the National Park Service Flickr (Creative Commons).

Cannabis impacts CA wine industry in unforeseen ways

Above: the West Sonoma Coast is one of California’s youngest wine regions. Growers are petitioning to create a new Americana Viticultural Area designation there. The Pacific Ocean lies just a stone’s throw to the west of the vineyard in the photo.

Much has been written about the impact of newly legalized recreational cannabis on the California wine industry. The fear among some trade observers is that consumers will spend less on wine as their spending on pot grows.

But weed is affecting the California wine trade in unexpected ways, even just four months into legalization (which took effect in January of this year).

One of the most interesting elements to emerge from a touring tasting organized by West Sonoma Coasts Vintners last week was the winemakers’ concern that the lucrative cannabis business is attracting current vineyard and farm workers.

“It’s a lot nicer to be using tweezers in a greenhouse” to pare cannabis flower “than it is to be working in a vineyard,” noted one winemaker. Evidently, according to the growers, it also pays better.

Making matters even more challenging for wineries is the fact the the Sonoma, Napa, and Paso Robles fires last fall have drastically reduced the availability of affordable housing. This, combined with the current White House hard-line on immigration, has also made the industry less attractive to the migrant and seasonal workforce.

Another issue faced by wineries, said the vintners, is the decreased availability of storage and industrial space. The cannabis business is so lucrative that the new wave of pot growers is willing to pay higher rent for coveted warehouse and industrial park rentals. Winemakers need those spaces to store and age their wines.

The West Sonoma Coast is just one of the many wine growing areas affected by the nascent recreational cannabis business. But as a relative newcomer, in one of California’s more remote locations, it seems — at least anecdotally — to have been more acutely affected.

There is no doubt that cannabis is already reshaping the California’s agricultural landscape. It remains to be seen how its viticultural industry will react in the face of mounting challenges.

A world without Trump (exists)…

Yesterday, on Easter morning around 7:30 a.m., President Trump wished his Twitter followers a “HAPPY EASTER!” in all caps.

An hour and a half later, the President tweeted “NO MORE DACA DEAL!” also in all caps.

Another two hours would pass before he, his wife, and one of his daughters attended church for Easter services.

I wasn’t the only one who noted the jarring juxtaposition and incongruity between the occasion and the sentiment.

Is this what my Christian sisters and brothers hoped for when they voted for him? Is this how George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, or Mitt Romney would have acted on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar?

I ask the same of my Jewish sisters and brothers who support Trump. Sunday was the second day of the Passover, a remembrance of how we were all once immigrants in Egypt. Can any one of them say that their forbears — immediate or ancient — were not immigrants?

Tracie, our daughters, and I spent the Passover holiday with my brothers, their families, and our mother in San Diego. That was the view from my mom’s house above.

It was nice to be in a place like (mostly) liberal California where the majority opposes Trump, his willful degradation of civic discourse, and his continued efforts to use the children of immigrants — the DACA dreamers — as a political bargaining chip. Where I grew up in Southern California, it’s mostly socially awkward to speak favorably about Trump and his policies and dehumanization of immigrants. Mostly…

People call California a liberal bubble. I was reminded of this when one of my detractors recently wrote the following on my blog: “You dont know a godam thing about the south u bathroom swapping western bitch!!” [sic, sic, and sic]

But it’s actually not a bubble. In fact, one of my best friends from my childhood in San Diego, with whom I’m still very close, is an adamant and vehemently vocal Trump supporter. And so is one of my immediate family members, although not as loudly so.

My California family lives along the coast. But head inland and you’ll find plenty of Trump supporters. Similarly, you’ll find a predominance of liberals in blue-state Houston where we live. But move outside the urban area — north, east, south, or west — and you will find the political attitudes inverted.

As much as I enjoyed being home with my family and being in a place where we were mostly shielded from politics and political discussions, I also realized that California is not a world without Trump. That world exists in the future and in my mind. It exists in my hopes and dreams. But it is not a real world or real place. Yet…

In the meantime, Tracie and I will continue to teach our children that Easter and the Passover are holidays meant to make us reflect on our shared humanity — regardless of religion, ethnicity, or geography. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ and G-d’s redemption of the Jews in ancient Egypt remind us that we are all emigrants and immigrants, traveling between the physical and the spiritual. Between the real world and the one that awaits us.

Passover narrative: a story of refugees and immigrants

The Passover. The very name of the holiday implies movement.

The text it comes from, the Book of Exodus, tells the story of Hebrew refugees who migrate from Egypt to Israel as they flee persecution and bondage.

It’s a powerful narrative remembered and celebrated by Jews every year across the world. Even for secular Jews like me, the holiday and the retelling of the story have deep meaning.

That’s my maternal grandfather Maurice “Poppa” Bailie above (center left, with tie) with my great-uncle Ted Eder (center right, without tie). Both were children of immigrants who fled economic and religious persecution in Europe in the early 20th century.

When he arrived in this country, my Poppa and his family were seen as undesirables and potentially dangerous: impoverished Jews from countries where Bolshevism and Zionism were on the rise, unwanted immigrants who would take jobs away from Americans. After landing in New York at Ellis Island, they were shipped off to the midwest by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

In South Bend, Indiana, my great-grandparents scrimped and saved up to buy a small grocery store. When they ultimately achieved financial security, their children flourished and thrived. It’s a story not dissimilar from that told in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film “Avalon” (my paternal grandmother owned a “Radio-Television Mart” like the one owned by the characters in the movie). They went to college, they opened businesses, they saved money and speculated on the stock market.

They were the children of refugees. And my parents were the grandchildren of refugees. And I am the great-grandchild of refugees. And our children are the great-great-grandchildren of refugees.

In every Passover Seder (the symbolic meal and narrative that retell the story of the Passover), the Seder leader encourages the guests to see themselves as active participants in the story with the following exhortation: “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.”

The Seder’s invitation to the guests “to break the fourth wall” (and become themselves characters in the narrative) is based on a passage from Leviticus (19:33-34):

    And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…
    When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him.
    The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d.

Click here for Christian Bible versions of the same passage.

Our children are still too young to wrap their minds around its meaning. But as he leads the Seder tomorrow night, my older brother will remind them that they, too, were personally delivered from Egypt and from persecution by G-d. And every year, I’ll tell them the story again and again and again… until they can tell the story themselves.

Chag sameach, everyone! Happy Passover and happy Easter!

From West Sonoma Coast to Greece, Valpolicella, and Vienna in a day…

When I finally got home to sit down to dinner with Tracie last night around half past eight, it felt like I had traveled around the (wine) world and back.

In the afternoon, I attended a superb guided tasting of 12 jaw-dropping wines from the West Sonoma Coast Vintners association.

The brightest and the best of Houston’s wine scene were all seated at the standing-room-only event.

And the speakers, each of them leading winemakers from this aspiring American appellation (they are currently petitioning for the creation of their own designation), delivered a fantastic overview of the would-be AVA’s sub-zones, macro-climates, soil types, and winemaking styles. It was followed by a walk-around tasting of labels from eight different wineries, including 40+ wines.

Wow, what a great event! And it was amazing to finally hear Ted Lemon of Littorai speak. His wines are as compelling as the thoughtfulness and brilliance that go into his winemaking.

Gros Ventre (above) was a highlight for me as well. Great wines and great to chat with winemaker and grower Chris Pittenger.

I was wholly impressed by the caliber of the event and the tenor of the conversation and tasting.

Thank you for coming to Texas, West Sonoma Coast Vintners!

By late afternoon, I was seated with one of the coolest people in the Italian wine world today, Tony Apostolakos, U.S. sales director for Masi in Valpolicella.

We had sat down together to taste through a flight of Masi’s current releases.

But that wasn’t going to happen before we enjoyed a glass of Assyrtiko and Moschofilero at Helen, Houston’s celebrated Greek-modern restaurant where wine director Evan Turner runs one of the top two Greek wine programs in the country (the other imho is Molyvos in New York).

I really love the breadth and range of Masi’s wines but it was the 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Campolongo di Torbe (above) that really sang to me. What a fantastic wine and what a great tasting — each one of these bottles a gem.

Thanks, Tony, for coming back to Houston!

By the time I swung by one of my favorite wine shops, Vinology around the corner from Helen, to pick up a bottle of 2016 Zahel Orangetraube Orange T from Vienna on my way home, it just felt like I had been around the globe — from the edge of the western wine world to its heart and back… all in a workaday’s dawn-to-dark in my city on the bayou.

Italian Swiss Colony v. Italian Vineyard Co. circa 1910: would we be drinking Napa Valley Barbera instead of Cab today?

“Italian immigrants made sure Barbera had a home in California,” wrote José Vouillamoz in Wine Grapes (Ecco 2012).

“It has proved more popular than the noble Nebbiolo in [the state] with older vines in the Sierra Foothills proving particularly successful. The variety [also] benefited from the Cal-Ital vogue.”

In 2008, California growers had “more than 17,300 acres/7,000” planted to Barbera according to the ampelographer.

These notes from Vouillamoz’s Barbera entry recently came into sharper focus when I stumbled on a text that left me scratching my head and wondering: had Prohibition not disrupted the immense and immensely lucrative popularity of Californian Barbera in the early 1900s, would we be drinking Napa Valley Barbera instead of Napa Valley Cab today?

In the course of my research for a new blogging project I’m working on, “An American in Barbera,” I came across a 1910 petition submitted to the California Supreme Court, asking for an injunction in trademark litigation between Italian Swiss Colony (the plaintiff) and Italian Vineyard Co. (the defendant).

The latter was infringing on the former’s trademark, according to the complaint. Italian Swiss Colony was hoping to stop Italian Vineyard Co. from labeling its wines with the trademark “tipo” indicating the type or category of wine. And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Among the “types” of wine that the two estates were growing and bottling at the time (for more than 10 years at least, according to the document), “the defendant has been manufacturing wines having characteristics similar to those of other Italian wines, to wit [sic], those known as ‘Barbera,’ ‘Puglia,’ and ‘Gragnano’ — and has branded and marked them as ‘Tipo Barbera,’ ‘Tipo Puglia,’ and ‘Tipo Gragnano,’ in order to indicate that its said wines were respectively, of the type of the said Italian wines.”

Wow… and WOW!

There is a lot of juicy information (excuse the pun) loaded in this passage. It gives us glimpse of how Californian and Italian wines were marketed and perceived at the time (at least 10 years before Prohibition was implemented in 1920) and it also offers an indication of Barbera’s stature among the great grape varieties of the world at the turn of the century.

I wrote about my discovery today in a post for the Barbera d’Asti growers association collaborative writing project: My Name Is Barbera.

Please check it out. You might be surprised by my findings.

And please stay tuned: just wait until I publish my post on the origins of the ampelonym and piss everyone off!

Joking aside, I’ve really been enjoying the series, which will continue through early 2019.

Thanks for reading!

Image via My Name Is Barbera.

Wines for Passover and Easter: forget the “sweet vs. dry” dialectic and go for ripeness

It’s that time of year again when people begin wondering and asking about wine pairings for Easter and Passover.

The two holidays overlap this year, with Erev Pesach (the first night of the Passover) falling on Good Friday. But even though lamb can be the one common denominator for Easter brunch or lunch and the Passover Seder, the traditional foods for the two holidays don’t have much in common.

At my in-laws’ place, for example, spiral ham is the star of the Easter meal. At my brothers’ Passover Seder, my mother’s brisket (like the one above) will be the main attraction.

Across the internets (and across the years that consumers in America have become more wine savvy), I see countless wine writers recommending “dry” and “bone dry” wines for things like gefilte fish (traditionally served by Ashkenazi Jews on Passover even though, like the brisket, it has nothing to do with the Passover story or the symbolic meal).

Historically, my forbears drank sweet wines with their Passover meal. That’s partly because sweet wines were much more popular in my grandparents’ day. And it’s also because of a cultural continuity with the Austro-Hungarian food hegemony of Mitteleuropa. Can you imagine someone in Vienna or Berlin serving a dry wine with their gefilte fish (quenelles de brochet) in the first decade of the 20th century (when my great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S.)?

(It’s important to remember that people like my grandparents actually didn’t drink wine on a regular basis. But they had to serve wine during the Passover because the Seder meal isn’t complete with out it.)

Similarly, my wife’s family served and drank sweet wines (when/if they opened wine) at holiday meals. Sweet wine is still very popular in Texas and across the south. And so when we share holiday meal on the Louisiana border where my wife Tracie grew up, I always bring along some German Riesling and the occasional Quarts de Chaume.

The above wines work gloriously with the salty-sweet spiral ham. And frankly, they work great with gefilte fish, too!

This year I won’t be bringing too much sweet wine to the table (although I will bring some). Instead, I’ve decided to abandon the “sweet vs. dry” dialectic and embrace a totally different approach: the number-one criterion for my wine selection will be ripeness. And when I say ripeness, I mean the sweetness of bright ripe fruit flavors in the wine and not the sweetness obtained from residual sugar in wines like German-style Riesling and from the topping off of sparkling wines like Champagne and Prosecco, for example.

And while European wines aren’t excluded from my shopping list, it’s the new world ripeness that I’m looking for. Right now, my top pick for both tables is the Qupé Chardonnay Y-Block from Santa Barbara County. We currently have the 2015 in our market here in Texas: the wine is showing great right now (despite being last year’s release) and the price is perfect for the occasion ($15-20 depending on the market/state you live in).

Whether white or red (and I’m still working on my red pick), ripe fruit character works well across the spectrum of flavors at the Jewish and Christian holidays. And the sweet fruit in the wines works wonderfully with the saltiness of the gefilte fish and the spiral ham (my mouth is watering right now thinking of both!).

It’s important to remember that all wine has residual sugar in it. Even a bottle of Barbaresco, for example, has about two grams of sugar per liter of wine. That sugar doesn’t come from a topping off (a dosage or liqueur d’expédition). That sugar comes from the natural sugar in the grape itself.

Similarly, even a “bone dry” pas dosé or zero dosage Champagne or Franciacorta, for example, can have and probably does have up to three grams of residual sugar. It’s extremely rare to find sparkling wine that doesn’t have any residual sugar at all. And there’s a reason for that: you wouldn’t want to drink it otherwise.

My advice for this year’s selection is abandon the “sweet vs. dry” false narrative and look for ripeness of fruit that will harmonize with the food and have an appeal for a wider range of wine lovers (and not just connoisseurs who think dry is better).

That’s what I’m shooting for this year. We’ll see how it works out!

Looking for Kosher wine for your Seder? Check out this piece on “kosher-for-Passover” wines I wrote last year for the Houston Press.

Their Love Is Here To Stay

From the department of “some people want to fill the world with silly love songs”…

Their Love Is Here To Stay

A girl who grew up in southeast Texas
A boy from California
She was born on the Louisiana border
He grew up somewhere outside of LA

Storms may blow
Sand and stone may crumble
Their love is here to stay

Folks back home they say she’s crazy
To love a spirit such as he
She’s been a around the world that lady
The only one who knows her mind is she

Storms may blow
Sand and stone may crumble
Their love is here to stay

The water’s surely rising
But they are not afraid

The cold may howl
The night may call from the shadows
But their love is here to stay

It’s been nearly 10 years since I first came to Texas to be with Tracie. “Their love is here to stay…” I love you, piccina!

Slow Wine Guide to add Oregon in 2019 (writing gigs available)

Above: Kelly Mariani (right), whose family owns Scribe in Sonoma, and Antonio Balassone, who works with the winery as well. They were among the estates presenting their wines in San Francisco at the Slow Wine Guide tasting. Both are grads of the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

It filled me with immense pride to present and taste California wines at the Slow Wine Guide tasting in San Francisco earlier this month.

Watching Slow Wine senior editor Fabio Giavedoni taste with the eight winemakers who poured that day, I couldn’t help but think about how the tasting — part of the first Slow Wine tour to include California — represented a remarkable “old world/new world” cross-cultural moment. Fabio, who wasn’t involved in the California section of the book, is no slouch as a taster. It was amazing to watch his puckish grin appear as he tasted through the flight of California. The seasoned Italian wine writer, a Decanter magazine judge whose sharp Friulian cadence always reminds me one of the characters in Pasolini’s “Canterbury Tales,” was hooked!

The 2018 Slow Wine Guide was the first edition to include California: you can find a list of the estates that presented their wines during the tour here and you can read nearly all of the entries online here on the Slow Wine blog (not all of the profiles have been published but in time they will all be available online). The print edition will soon be available through mainstream channels as well.

As a native Californian and the coordinating editor of the first-ever California section, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Above: Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio (left) and Littorai’s associate winemaker Dan Estrin at the San Francisco event. What stunning wines!

I’m even more thrilled to announce that the 2019 edition of the guide will also include Oregon. We’re still in the process of finalizing details but the coordinating editor is in place and we are already working on dates for our Oregon tastings and visits.

In what I hope is equally exciting news, I am also looking for field contributors for the California guide. The work doesn’t pay much but it’s a great way for aspiring wine writers to break into print media.

If you live in or around California wine country (south to north) and you’re interested in applying for a spot, please shoot me an email with your resumé. We’ll be asking our field contributors to begin making visits in late May.

The compensation is meager but — I can tell you from personal experience — it’s a super fun and rewarding gig.

I’m looking forward to hearing from applicants: Evviva la California!