No vote on proposed Montalcino DOC

Above: I’ve tasted Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino going back to the 1970s. One of the greatest expressions of Sangiovese I’ve ever tasted was the 1979 Rosso (bottled before the existence of the Rosso di Montalcino DOC and labeled as “Rosso” from “Brunello vines”), which Alessandro Bindocci’s father Fabrizio shared with me last year over steak dinner at Keens in Manhattan.

My friend Alessandro Bindocci, son of Il Poggione winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci, posted today on the proposed creation of a Montalcino DOC: evidently, the vote was put to the floor but no vote was held. Read more here…

I’ll be tasting with Alessandro and his father later this week at Vinitaly.

Angelo Gaja and the “age of responsibility”

The bishop of Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja (left), certainly wasn’t looking at the world through rose-colored glasses when he sat down with Jedi blogger Antonio Tombolini and 19 other food and wine bloggers in a conference room at the Gaja estate last Sunday (photomontage by Alfonso Cevola). Gaja had agreed to let the bloggers ask him anything they wanted regarding the caso Brunello or Brunello affair, as it has come to be known, and Antonio blogged live from their session — even taking questions from the virtual crowd. Franco and I have translated and posted some highlights at VinoWire. If you have been following the Brunello controversy, you might be surprised by what Gaja had to say and his candor.

Throughout the Brunello controversy, bloggers, journalists, and wine pundits have lamented the lack of transparency — on behalf of the Brunello Consortium, the winemakers themselves, and the Siena prosecutor’s office.

When young winemaker Alessandro Bindocci began posting at Montalcino Report, it was a breath of fresh air from Sant’Angelo in Colle at 400 meters a.s.l.: finally… finally, the world had an honest, reliable, just-the-facts source for information about what was happening “on the ground,” as we used to say during my U.N. interpreting days. Alessandro is a twenty-something and technically hip winemaker (check out his FB and if you don’t know what that means, then don’t bother). Gaja — a relative newcomer to Montalcino but an old dog when it comes to new tricks — doesn’t have a blog and so he had the bloggers come to him.

Whether or not I like Gaja’s style of Brunello (I don’t), whether or not I agree with his push to change Brunello appellation regulations and allow for blending of international grapes (I don’t), I have great admiration for him and what he did on Sunday. And I believe that — like Alessandro — he has done a great service for Montalcino and the people who live and work there by having the courage to bring some transparency to his otherwise murky situation.

Has the “age of responsibility” arrived in Montalcino? Not yet. But the “Gaja vs. Bloggers” summit, as it was dubbed in Italian, was a step in the right direction, no doubt.

I wish I had time to translate the entire thread, but I’m besieged by work these days.

In other news…

I’m not the only to make an analogy between the new political era and the world of wine writing and blogging. In fact (and I give credit where credit is due), I am taking my cue from Eric’s recent post, “Can we all get along” (I was in LA, btw, when Rodney King and the riots went down. “God damn ya, who’s got the camera?” Does anyone remember the Ice Cube song?). I was really impressed by the post and the thread of impassioned comments it inspired.

“Let the arguments rage on!” I’ll drink to that… Long live the counterculture! Et vive la différance!*

* After no one commented on my “Brunello socialist” joke, I don’t have high hopes for this this pun. Does anyone get it? Hint: note the unusual spelling.

LONG LIVE BRUNELLO! LONG LIVE SANGIOVESE! PRODUCERS VOTE NOT TO CHANGE APPELLATION

Alessandro just posted the results of the voting here. Brunello will continue to be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes. Long live Brunello! Long live Sangiovese! (And nicely done, Alessandro!).

Brunello vote results expected shortly but looking good

I wish I could say I broke this story at VinoWire but I must give credit where credit is due: my buddy Alessandro Bindocci is posting on the Brunello vote results at his blog Montalcino Report. I’m glued to my seat and am keeping my fingers crossed for Brunello to remain Brunello (100% Sangiovese). Long live Sangiovese!

High Noon in Montalcino

Italians love westerns. At least, they used to. In the 1960s and 70s, the Italian film industry produced some of the wild west’s most enduring iconography.

A showdown of epic proportions is beginning to take shape in Montalcino, as the Brunello producers association braces for an October 27 “once-and-for-all” vote on whether or not appellation regulations will be changed to allow for the use of grapes other than Sangiovese. See this report that Franco and I published today at VinoWire.

The stakes got higher yesterday when 149 producers signed off on an open letter to separatist agricultural minister Luca Zaia and supporter of “more elastic” regulations informing him that they don’t want to change current legislation. My friend Alessandro Bindocci broke news of the letter over at his blog Montalcino Report.

Zaia recently began blogging, but before you add his feed to your Google reader, be sure to read this post by Italian Wine Guy.

Me? I’m glued to my seat and my keyboard. Stay tuned for high drama from Montalcino…

Word from the vineyard: Sangiovese harvest has begun in Montalcino

My friends in Montalcino just let me know that they have begun harvesting the 2008 Sangiovese Grosso. Alessandro’s been posting nearly every day over at Montalcino Report and he also posted his winery’s government-issued certification letters (translated into English but for the bureaucratically minded only). Ale, I’m really digging the Montalcino weather widget!

Word!

Montalcino on my mind

In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche wrote famously that “God is dead.”

In the year of my birth, 1967, Roland Barthes informed us that the author was dead.

Sometime in the 1970s, and I can’t seem to track down where or when exactly, Woody Allen told us that Marx is dead and “I’m not feeling so well myself.” (And he wasn’t talking about Karl.)

The other day, Italian Wine Guy shared his feeling that “Brunello is dead.”

I don’t think that Brunello is dead but I do share Italian Wine Guy’s sentiment that the so-called “scandal” is more about the scandal itself rather than the quality of wines produced there.

During the five days I spent last week between Montalcino and Bolgheri, I talked to countless winemakers, growers, restaurateurs, enologists, and agronomists and I tried to get to the bottom of what has happened and what we can expect over the next few months as the Brunello controversy hopefully plays itself out.

The most insightful observation on Brunello and Sangiovese was offered by a winemaker who worked for many years in Montalcino and who now works in Bolgheri.

“Sangiovese is a very easy grape to sell,” he told me, “but it’s very difficult to grow for the production of fine wine.”

No matter who you talk to, there is one thing that everyone agrees on: as the Brunello “trademark” grew in popularity and in profitability, Montalcino wineries began planting Sangiovese in vineyards not suited to its cultivation.

No matter who you talk to (even though none will go on record), everyone who works in Montalcino will tell you that it was common knowledge: Merlot has been widely planted and used in the production of Brunello for years and bulk wine has regularly been carted into the appellation to top off the wines.

“When the tankers come in to Montalcino, you can see their axels are weighted down,” one winemaker told me. “When they leave, you can see that they’re empty.” This was the same song sung by everyone — from winemakers and consultants, to restaurateurs and hoteliers.

No one seems to have hard data, but all agree that far less than 1 million bottles of Brunello were produced annually in the 1970s. Today, roughly 14 million are produced: according to people “on the ground,” there is simply not enough acreage under vine to produce that much wine. And of that surface area, conventional wisdom reveals that the majority is not suited for the cultivation of Sangiovese to be used in fine wine.

Follow the money… Put all of these factors together and one thing becomes clear: the large expansion-team producers (and maybe a few of the original league) over-planted and promised the American market abundantly flowing Brunello. As a result, they needed to cut corners in order to make ends meet. Twice, I learned, the majors have lobbied to change appellation regulations and allow for the use of international grapes. Twice a vote was called but a majority never reached in the Consortium because the votes of even the smallest producers carry the same weight as the biggies (Delawares to their Californias). Certain smaller producers, probably egged on by point-hungry flying winemakers, blindly followed the advice of their consultants.

But there’s something even more important, that nearly everyone agrees on (except those implicated in the controversy): of the more than 250 Brunello producers who belong to the Consortium, only a handful have indulged in such practices.

But I’m probably not telling you anything that you don’t know… Here are some insights I gleaned that might surprise you.

— While the use of Merlot was a well-known fact in Montalcino, the magistrate’s inquiry had more to do with sloppy documentation than reckless blending.

— In the case of at least one of the majors implicated in the controversy, the use of Merlot was never at issue. It was simply a question of mislabeling in the winery and a disallowed assemblage of different vintages.

— The “100% Sangiovese” certificates are being issued by the Italian government. The certificates, however, are not based on testing for the presence of certain flavonoids in the wine but rather on documentation in the wineries. The wines themselves are not being tested.

— The certificates are being issued regularly to those wineries who have kept their houses in order, so to speak. But the government has reserved the right not to issue the certificate in certain instances and the wineries have no reasonable recourse in such cases. In other words, even if your certificate gets held up for bureaucratic reasons, you’re screwed. Not everyone is going to get one.

— At least one winemaker told me that he’s not sending his current release to the U.S. He was concerned that the current controversy could taint the reputation of his wine and has decided to focus on other markets. Could it be that the real loser in the Brunello controversy is the American consumer?

Epilogue

Whenever people ask me “how do you tell if a wine is good?”, I tell them: “if you like it, it’s good,” whether traditional Brunello (my preference) or buttery Chardonnay (clearly not my preference). If you like modern-style Brunello, then go for it. If you like traditional-style, look for clear bright color in the wine and good acidity. I agree with Italian Wine Guy: too much fuss has been made about Brunello. Drink what you like…

Now, more than ever, Brunello and the folks who live in Montalcino — and especially the honest producers of Brunello, traditional and modernist alike — need our support. As summer comes to an end, get out that BBQ one more time, grill up a mean piece of meat, and decant that Sangiovese.

My friend Alessandro Bindocci is posting nearly every day about the harvest at Il Poggione in Montalcino over at his blog Montalcino Report. Check it out… It’s pretty cool.

In other other news…

I DON’T LIKE IKE!

Just in from Montalcino…

My friend Alessandro Bindocci, whose family makes traditional-style Brunello (at Il Poggione in Sant’Angelo in Colle, one of my favorite producers of Brunello), sent me a copy of the Italian agriculture minister’s decree establishing an official government body (the ICQ) to provide Brunello producers with “declarations” that their wines are 100% Sangiovese. I’ve translated the salient passages of the decree and posted at VinoWire.