Vitovska: Italian Grape Name and Appellation Project


This week’s episode of the Italian grape name and appellation pronunciation project is devoted to a variety that I simply cannot drink enough of, Vitovska, a grape grown primarily in the Carso (Eastern Friuli) and Slovenia, a grape that produces bright white-fruit wines with low alcohol and high acidity, and a variety that has become a flagship for orange-wine (skin-contact) producers like Vodopivec and Zidarich — two of my all-time favorite wineries and wines.

Above: The Zidarich winery is one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen in all of my vinous travels. It was constructed using only locally found materials, like “Carso Onyx,” the red limestone of the Carso in Eastern Friuli.

Above, you can hear and see Benjamino Zidarich (BEHN-yah-MEE-noh ZEE-dah-reech) speaking the ampelonym Vitovska, with the rapid rhythm very commonly found among speakers in the Carso (the dialectal inflection of nearby Trieste is famous for this signature of its prosody). I visited Benjamino and his amazing winery back in September of 2010. Even though we’d never met, we share some very close friends (the uncle of a very good friend of mine is the architect who designed his incredible facility). We both remarked about the fact that he and I both have Old Testament names: his family has a long-standing tradition of giving its children names from the Hebrew Bible.

Above: Every element — including the artistic — in the Zidarich cellar is an expression of Benjamino’s respect for nature and his deep sense of spirituality inspired by her, like the four bas-reliefs on the columns supporting the ceiling, each of them representing one of the four seasons.

One of the things that impressed me the most about Benjamino and his winery was his deep sense of spirituality, expressed not only in the way he spoke about his wines but also in the cellar itself. The facility was built using only materials found locally in the Carso and it includes many artistic elements that depict nature and its balance. I don’t think Benjamino would disagree with my observation that he has built a temple consecrated to nature and Natural wine.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the biodynamic movement in America rarely includes its spirituality — one of the very foundations upon which it rests. However much they may disagree, the one thing that ties nearly all of the European producers of Natural wine together is their spirituality and quasi-religious devotion to what they do and how they speak about their wines and nature. Benjamino is one of the most deeply spiritual I know.

Above: In the U.S., we almost only see Vitovska vinified with skin contact as an orange wine. And the wines are DELICIOUS! But when I visited Benjamino, I got to taste his entry-level Vitovska, vinified as a lighter-style white wine. Man, I could drink that wine every day…

Eric the Red wrote a wonderful however short piece about Vitovska last year and Alder over at Vinography is a huge fan as well.

Yeaster me, yeaster you, yeaster day

Above: In some parts of the world, the “yeasting” of wines is common practice and is considered a genuinely positive aspect of human intervention, as evidenced in this post by Vinogirl. I don’t know much about Vinogirl but I love reading her blog and her posts about harvest in Napa are wonderful.

Ever the Solomon of wine bloggers, Eric posted Friday on the sometimes “strident” tones tossed about in the debate over natural wine and its definition.

I greatly appreciated Eric’s observation:

    I think that too much effort is spent coming up with a precise definition. Making wines “naturally,’’ after all, does not mean the wines are any good. All things considered, I prefer wine that would fit a rough definition of natural. But I don’t think the dividing line between natural and — what, unnatural? — is always that clear. Certainly, it is not if you are trying to characterize a winemaker.

Above: I tasted with Produttori del Barbaresco winemaker Aldo Vacca this year at Vinitaly. He is one of the most earnest and forthright winemakers I’ve ever met and I love his wines.

It does seem that the one thing that all natural wine lovers — from enthusiast to dogmatist — agree on is that “ambient” or “native” yeasts (i.e., naturally occurring yeasts) are a key if not the key element necessary to be allowed into the natural wine pantheon.

The delicate issue of yeast was illustrated Eric’s account of winemaker Roumier who “tries to make wine as naturally as he can, but he told a story once of having a batch of wine that had gotten stuck in mid-fermentation. The only way he could get it going again was to add yeast, a cardinal sin among many natural wine devotees.”

It made me think of what Produttori del Barbaresco winemaker Aldo Vacca recently told me when I called him to transact some other business but couldn’t resist asking him about the practice of “yeasting” at the winery.

“In a great vintage, we do not add yeast,” he said, “because the fermentation does not need any help. But in many vintages, we use a yeast called ‘Barolo strain’ that was developed based on yeasts that occur naturally in our terroir.”

According to the results of a quick Google search, the Barolo strain was “selected from 4 year study by University of Torino from over 600 isolates taken from 31 wineries of the Barolo region. The selection goal was to find a dominant natural yeast from Nebbiolo that is able to retain and enhance color.”

I never have and never would call Produttori del Barbaresco a “natural wine,” even though I believe the style of the wine jives with the wines of producers who subscribe to the natural wine movement. And I wonder if any of those winemakers have ever used a cultured yeast in a challenging vintage (like Roumier).

Throughout the debate, many have asked rhetorically, would the coinage of an expression other than natural wine offer an umbrella for those wines that aspire to the ideals of natural winemaking but don’t quite achieve its sanctity?

Founder Teobaldo Cappellano dubbed the Italian natural wine movement Vini Veri or Real Wines and added the epigram, wines as natural intended them.

Perhaps we should call these wines “humanist” wines. After all, all wine is made by humankind for consumption by humankind. In the end, I find that the wines I like the best are the ones that take into account not nature but rather “human scale,” as Guilhaume Gerard put it (in his remarks at the Symposium).

We can discuss natural wines and their definition until we’re blue in the face, but in the end, we are human — all too human.

Forget natural wine: the Texas weather will put the fear of G-d in you. I snapped this photo yesterday as Tracie B and I were strolling across the Colorado River. Click the photo for the full-sized image.

Grape porn from around the world (harvest has begun)

Come on, just admit it… We ALL like to look at a little grape porn now and then, don’t we? Even Alder likes him some grape porn.

It’s that time of year again and bloggers have been posting photos of the harvest as it progresses.

My favorite grape porn photo so far is the one above by Wayne over in Friuli.

In Montalcino they began harvesting Moscadello di Montalcino last week and this week they began to pick the Merlot. The Merlot comes in earlier than the Sangiovese. Alessandro posted the photo above: he and his father use the Merlot to make their Super Tuscan Mazzoni. (See, it’s okay to like Merlot, as long as you label it correctly.) So far, so good: it’s looking like a good harvest in Montalcino.

Over in Napa, Vinogirl author of Vinsanity posted this image of Pinot Gris — yes, the red grape that we’ve been taught to think of us a white grape. (Vinogirl has also been coming up with some sassy titles for her posts.)

From the Greek pornos (prostitute) + graph (writer), pornograph means literally someone who describes or writes about prostitutes.

I would hardly call those little berries prostitutes but they sure can be sexy and I’m not sure why, by they do inspire mimetic desire in me (mimesis means imitation in Greek).

For some vintage grape porn, like the image to the left, check out these beautiful plates from Giorgio Gallesio’s Pomona italiana (completed in 1839).


Didn’t George Harrrison write a song called “I, Mimesis, Mine”? Here’s Elliot Smith’s version.

Dorothy, here you come again

Half-jokingly, a wine publicist and good friend recently remarked to me: “I mean, come on, let’s face it. No offense, but how many people read your blog anyway?” As much personal satisfaction that my blog gives me, I recognize that I’m no Eric, Alder, Tyler, or Franco.

But that’s partly what makes me all the more angry (and I promise this is my last rant for the week) when one of the truly influential sources of food and wine journalism publishes disinformation, like Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher’s supercilious take on 2004 Barolo, published last week in The Wall Street Journal, or their truly offensive and imbecilic “10 Ways to Save Money Ordering Wine,” published on Saturday. (I apologize in advance to my friend J, a WSJ editor and writer I admire greatly for this second harangue about his colleagues: the poorly delivered humor in my post about the 2004 Barolo piece was simply that — poorly delivered.) Especially in this day and “age of responsibility,” when many of our nation’s restaurateurs find themselves gripped in a day-to-day battle for survival, Dorothy and John’s tips for not being “hosed” by restaurateurs (they actually use the word hose! in the WSJ!) and the accusatory, paranoid tone or their article are no less than nefarious. It’s important to acknowledge that restaurant-going consumers are feeling the financial pinch these days as well: Dorothy and John’s readers would have been better served by “tips on how to find value on the list at your favorite restaurant.”

Here are some highlights from their piece…

1. Skip wine by the glass.

I studied Italian literature at university but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that a glass of wine costs less than a bottle. Wine by the glass is one of the ways that we find new wines we like without having to pay for the bottle. Better advice would be: when ordering a wine by the glass, ask your server if you have the option to purchase the whole bottle at the bottle price if you like the wine.

3. Bypass the second-cheapest wine on the list.

A generalization like this is simply stupid, irrelevant, and inappropriate. Honest restaurateurs (and most of them are honest) price their wines in accordance with the prices they are charged by wholesalers. Better advice: figure out what you want to spend and ask your server or sommelier which wines in that price point meet your expectations in terms of style, aromas and flavors, and desired pairing.

6. Never order Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.

Even Eric and Charles — two palates who really do know something about Italian wine — liked Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio when they tasted it blind in a New York Times tasting panel. Dorothy and John, come on: this is insulting. Better advice: order what you like and enjoy when you go to a restaurant. Whether you like Pinot Grigio by Santa Margherita, white Zinfandel by Beringer, or first-growth Bordeaux (wines many would consider over-priced but coveted and thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless), then go for it. You go to a restaurant to have fun… not to be scared of being ripped off!

9. BYOB.

Dorothy and John, I hate to break it to you but bring-your-own-bottle is appropriate in two cases: 1) when a restaurant doesn’t have a beer and/or wine license; 2) when you bring an illustrious and expensive bottle that doesn’t appear on the restaurant’s list. And remember: whenever you bring your own bottle to a restaurant, be sure to order a bottle of equivalent value. Thrift, Dorothy and John, is no excuse for rude behavior or bad tipping.

Here you come again, Dorothy and John, Just when I’m about to make it work without you.

Brunello vote, a different perspective, and some blogs I’ve been reading

Above: this photo of me and Gianfranco Soldera of Casse Basse appears in this month’s issue of The Tasting Panel Click the image to read my piece, “The Sun Also Rises, a dispatch from Montalcino” (photo by Ben Shapiro). The sun also rises in Montalcino…

My relief to read that Brunello producers had voted to “let Brunello be Brunello” last week was tempered when I read an editorial post authored by my friend and colleague Franco Ziliani, who pointed out — rightly — that among the “overwhelming majority” who voted not to change the appellation, there were also the same producers who, just days earlier, were calling for a more flexible appellation and “tolerance” for grapes other than Sangiovese.

“With this hypocritical vote,” wrote Franco, “I truly fear that Brunello di Montalcino will continue to have problems. A battle has been won, no doubt, but I fear that the war — even if it is an underground guerrilla war — will continue. Good luck, dear Brunello, I believe you will continue to need it desperately!”

Read my translation of his post at VinoWire.

Some other blogs I’ve been reading…

I’ve always been a fan of Eric’s blog and I really admire how he weaves literature and music into his posts. He and I are both fans of the Camilleri novels and our musical tastes are pretty much in tune, as well. I really liked this recent post on novelist Hillerman and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (I also liked Eric’s excellent notes in the paper of record on his Montepulciano d’Abruzzo tasting).

Susannah is relatively new to the world of Italian wine blogging and I’m glad to see another Italocentric wine blogger jump into the mix. I really like her “Women in Wine” posts. Not enough attention is given to women winemakers in Italy, a country still plagued by chauvinism.

People often ask me why I blog and a lot of folks are curious as to why I do it when it doesn’t pay. Blogging has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my entire life, professionally and personally. As obsessively as I may check my blog stats (although probably considerably less than Strappo), the blog has enriched my life far beyond the immediate narcissistic reward. It is a medium for seeing the world that has transformed my life in truly wondrous ways that I never could have imagined. I really liked this post on wine blogging by Alder, a blogger whom I admire immensely for his work ethic, integrity, and palate. His sound advice should be required reading for any budding wine blogger.

Lastly but not least, proceed with caution: “Priming Stemware = Foreplay” by Benoit over at Anti Yelp.

Wine & Spirits Top 100 San Francisco (and a handsome tie)

Leaving San Francisco today, heading back down south… Here’s a quick post from last night’s Wine & Spirits Magazine Top 100 tasting at the historic Mint building in San Francisco. Man, San Francisco, what a town!

Above, from left: Jeffrey Meisel of Domaine Select, me, Josh Greene editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits, and winemaker Aleš Kristančič of Movia. Franco’s daughter Valentina gave me that handsome tie after I helped her with some translating earlier this year.

Vesna Kristančič of Movia and Alder Yarrow, author of top wine blog Vinography.

Jon Erickson and Jayne Battle owners of Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego with Aleš. (I’ll post later this week on the dinner Jayne, Jon, and I had with Ceri Smith of Biondivino and winemaker Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole the night before at A16.)

Among the other great wines I tasted, I really enjoyed Chablis producer Domaine Laroche. The winery has begun bottling the majority of its wines with screw caps and I’ll post later this week on what owner Gwenael Laroche had to say about the cork vs. screw cap debate.

Stay tuned…

How Sweet It Is: Lini finally lands in San Diego

Above: Lini Lambrusco “Labrusca” red paired well with the Jaynes Burger over the weekend at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego.

It’s actually not sweet… It’s dry and earthly with just a flourish of sweetness… It’s meaty in the mouth and bright on the palate… it cuts through the fat of my cheeseburger like a gorgeous housewife in the Emilian countryside cuts through her pasta dough with a serrated raviolo wheel. Yes, it’s voluptuous and sexy. It’s Lini Lambrusco — one of those “I could drink this every day wines” over here at Do Bianchi.

It’s my obligation to reveal that when it comes to Lini, I’m biased: I had a hand in bringing Lini into this country and Alicia (left) and I became good friends when I worked (pre-mid-life-crisis) with the company that brings her wines in.

Alicia and I shared a truly magical mystery experience when I accompanied her to a radio appearance on the Leonard Lopate show (WNYC) and we ran into “Wonderful Tonight” Patti Boyd in the hallway of the studio. (My post on our encounter is the all-time most-viewed at Do Bianchi.)

Lambrusco remains a greatly misunderstood wine in this country. The association with cheap, sweet quaffing wines, so popular in the late 70s and early 80s, continues to pervade even the informed wine enthusiast’s perception.

In Emilia — one of Italy’s food meccas, rivaled only by Piedmont — farmers like to drink Lambrusco, too. But Lambrusco is not just a wine for field hands. In Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Parma, Lambrusco is served with Emilia’s finest dishes and no other wine pairs better with the region’s famed foods: Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello, Zampone, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (di Modena and di Reggio Emilia), Lasagne and Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, and on and on… In Emilia — one of Italy’s most affluent regions — everyone drinks Lambrusco at dinner, from the village barber to the Ferrari corporate executive (they say there are more Ferraris and pigs pro capite in Emilia than anywhere else in the world).

When I lived — many moons ago — in Modena, I once brought some friends a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. Their response? “Please pass the Lambrusco.”

Which brings me to an important point about wine, wine writing, and wine appreciation: subjectivity is essential to wine appreciation. And I don’t just mean subjectivity as “consciousness of one’s perceived states” but rather in the (Jacques) Lacnian sense, whereby language (the sign or signifier) precedes meaning (signfication). But I’ll reserve that rigmarolery for another post. Just consider this: in Reggio Emilia, I would open a $20 (retail) bottle of 2007 Lini with my bollito misto as my ideal pairing; in Alba (if I could afford it), I’d open a $450 (retail) bottle of Giacosa Barolo Falletto Riserva (Red Label) 1996 with my bollito misto — also an ideal pairing. It’s all in the words of the subject as relates to the object and the other.

On the subject of subjectivity in wine writing, check out this interesting post at Alder Yarrow’s excellent blog Vinography.

In other news…

Today is Bastille Day, an important day for my (pseudo-French) band Nous Non Plus and a personal anniversary of sorts (last year I was in Burgundy on this date, whence my personal revolution began).

In other other news…

Just for kicks, check out this vintage Riunite commercial (which Dr. Vino pointed out to me a few years ago):