The new Italian DOCGs, Derrida, and the moral bankruptcy of the Italian appellation system

I will speak, therefore, of a letter.

Of the first [seventh] letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations which have ventured into it, are to be believed.

Jacques Derrida, “Différance” (1968)

If the alphabet is to be believed, then I imagine we must seriously consider the three new DOCGs announced by the Italian government last week: Frascati Superiore, Cannellino di Frascati, and Montecucco Sangiovese. (See my paraphrase of the agricultural minister’s press release at VinoWire and see Alfonso’s wonderfully parodic treatment here.)

Of these — in an era when the Italian DOC/G system has been rendered essentially obsolete, save for its campanilian value, by the EU CMO reforms and adoption of the overarching PDO and PGI system — the most intriguing and least absurdist is the Montecucco Sangiovese.

Montecucco (in the Tuscan province of Grosseto) has grown significantly in the last 5 years, both in terms of quality and investment, and the wines raised there are aggressively marketed to the domestic and foreign markets. But the thought of a Montecucco DOCG remains laughable at best. When the DOCG was created (the first was awarded to Brunello di Montalcino in 1980), it was ostensibly intended to denote superior quality: the G in DOCG meant that the appellation had been controlled and guaranteed (in a second round of tasting after bottling) by Italian authorities before its release. Although I can find no official statement addressing the reasons for its creation, it was conceived and has been subsequently perceived as an elevated category reserved for Italy’s finest wines. As much as I wish the growers, producers, and bottlers of Montecucco well, I’d be hard-pressed to name a bottling of Montecucco that impressed me the way certain bottlings of Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Barbaresco, Aglianico di Vulture, Taurasi, or Amarone del Valpolicella have (for the record, among others, I’ve tasted scores of Montecucco in Paganico with the media director for the Montecucco growers association).

But the thought of a Frascati Superiore DOCG and its sister Cannellino di Frascati DOCG requires mental gymnastics too strenuous for my current state of mind. I, like my blogging colleague, Franco Ziliani, shook my head in disbelief and despair when I read the news. In an editorial posted today at VinoWire, Franco observes that “the Frascati DOC is made up of 800 grape growers who span 1,400 hectares of surface area and who produce 150,000 quintals of grapes destined to become 110,000 hectolitres of wine vinified by roughly 30 winemakers and bottled by roughly 40 bottlers.” A year ago, he points out, the Italian government applied to the EU for “emergency distillation” for Frascati bottlers so they could distill their unsold wine and reap EU subsidies. Today, Frascati has two new DOCGs. When’s the last time you tasted a Frascati that you would but in a class with Italy’s or Europe’s greatest fine wines?

Read Franco’s editorial, “The Letter G Is No Magic Wand,” translated to English by me, here.

“There is nothing outside the text,” said Derrida (in)famously. To which he often added, “everything is a text. This is a text,” as he gestured about. In the light of this observation, the G in DOCG must mean something within the (con)text… mustn’t it?

But the more closely we look at the G (borrowing from an aphorism by Karl Kraus), the more distant it appears. In fact, it has come to mean nothing beyond an insipid, vacant, morally bankrupt, and politically corrupt marketing conceit. (In the Veneto, for example, bureaucrats have created a DOCG ex novo, with no historic precedent, the Malanotte DOCG, a DOCG created before any wine labeled as Malanotte was ever released! Conceived in 2009 and awarded in 2010, the DOCG will be made available to consumers for the first time at the end of this year.)

But as Alfonso’s updated DOCG list reveals (as does the subsequent handwringing that reverberates throughout the blogosphere every time he updates the list), we recognize the signifier (the letter G) and our will to decipher its signified is so great that we are compelled to ascribe meaning. (Anyone familiar with the writings of Lacan will recognize the imagery in Alfonso’s post of biblical proportions.)

If Derrida were alive today to deconstruct the DOCG as text, he would illustrate how the différance created by the letter G is but a series of misunderstandings whereby its function is conceived, misconceived, perceived, and misperceived in its Atlantic crossing until its meaning no longer has any connection to its author.

Parodying Nietzsche, French semiotician Roland Barthes wrote famously that the author is dead. But it was Woody Allen who said, Marx is dead, Lenin is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself.

My thoughts exactly!

The new DOCG list and a killer Offida Pecorino

Above: The 2008 Offida Pecorino Le Merlettaie by Ciù Ciù is the best Pecorino I’ve ever tasted in the U.S. Really, really dug this wine.

“Official” is a relative qualifier in Italy. And I make that statement with all due respect and sans ironie. In the linear, Protestant thought processes of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, actors tend to see things in “black or white,” “day or night,” “yes or no”… In the non-linear, Catholic all-embracing Romance understanding of the world and the way it works, lines are blurred and absolutes are malleable. (Does anyone remember Bertolucci’s treatment of absolutes and Plato’s cave in Il conformista, 1970?)

Above: Le Merlettaie is named after the famous lacemakers of Offida. The merletto a tombolo (tombolo is the pillow used to make the lace) is one of the great national treasures of Italy. I found this video showing how the lace is made.

In the wake of the publication of Alfonso Cevola’s update DOCG list, contentious emails have been hurled across the internets this morning debating the currency of the “official” number of DOCGs. I guess it depends what your definition of “is” is.

The only thing I know for certain is that Alfonso has done the wine world a service by compiling and diligently updating the list. Whether you’re a Master Sommelier candidate studying for your exam or your a server in a fine-dining establishment who wants to be able to discuss the Italian appellation system intelligently with your patrons, his list is an indispensable tool in deciphering the canon law of Italian wine.

Above: To DOC or DOCG… I say “schlemiel, schlimazel!” Pecorino, when vinified in a traditional manner, is delicious (BTW, the schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel.)

I can also confirm that Offida Pecorino will be equally delicious when it attains its new “Terre di Offida” DOCG status. The one that we drank last night showed sturdy acidity and a wonderfully viscous mouthfeel, with nutty and stone fruit notes.

In other news…

Last night, Tracie P made ragù alla bolognese for Nous Non Plus and the utterly inimitable and magical David Garza who came over to listen to our tracks and sprinkle some of his amazing gold dust on us. He brought a beautiful 1964 handmade nylon string guitar and it was amazing to hear him play and noodle on the patio before dinner. He’s performing the last concert of his residency at the Continental Club (gallery) in Austin on Monday night.

Zampone! @ the Parzen Christmas party

Alfonso and SO Kim drove down from Dallas last night for a weekend of cooking, eating, and opening some bottles that I’ve been saving for this holiday season.

Don’t ask me how it got to our house (or how it got into this country) but last night I cooked one of my favorite Italian delicacies: zampone, a pig’s trotter stuffed with head cheese and then boiled. (@TWG you would love this stuff!)

Tracie P stewed some delicious lentils (which are traditionally served with zampone in Italy on New Year’s eve), aligot, and spinach. And I made a salsa verde (flat-leaf parsley, anchovies, garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil) and prepared some kren (grated horseradish with a touch of vinegar and sour cream) as condiments.

Alfonso brought a pandoro (which Tracie P and prefer over panettone) and we paired with OUR FAVORITE MOSCATO D’ASTI by Vajra. Man, that shit is good!

It’s going to be hard to top the sheer fun factor from last night but we’re going to try again tonight: Tracie P is making Jewish delicacy brisket and potato latkes for our Chanukkah party!

Stay tuned…

Nuthin’ but a G thang: an updated list of DOCGs

I will spare you my Derridian dissertation on the différance that a G makes between the DOC and DOCG designations (nor will I comment on the superfluousness of the recent political jockeying that resulted in a DOCG boom for Italian winemakers).

As one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century once said, it ain’t nuthin’ but a G thang.

I will, however, point you to an updated list of DOCGs authored by Alfonso (above).

In other news…

Sunset yesterday in La Jolla where I’ve been busy delivering wine for my wine club Do Bianchi Wine Selections and visiting with mama Judy and Parzen brood (jamming out with nephew Cole after dinner last night, him on upright piano and me on guitar, was a highlight).

How does the song go?

Vega-Sicilia Unico 1960 (magnum) for Alice Feiring

Many wonderful bottles were opened last night in the home of our good friends Patricia Winston and Bill Head to celebrate Alice Feiring’s first visit to Texas.

But it was Alfonso who gave her the BIGGEST Texas welcome with an unforgettable bottle of 1960 Vega-Sicilia Unico in magnum (!) and original wooden case. I was blown away by how savory and rich the wine was, vibrant and with an acidity that I frankly wouldn’t have expected in a wine this old. A truly amazing — in so many ways — bottle of wine.

Patricia and Bill had assembled a who’s who of Austin-based winemakers, collectors, and wine professionals for the occasion. But it was Devon Broglie (right, with me, center, and Alfonso, left) who stepped up to the plate to extract the cork. Nice work, Devon!

Even Alice looks TALLER in TEXAS! That’s our good friend, journalist, author, and radio personality Mary Gordon Spence (right).

What a great night, great wines, and great folks…

There might just be a few spots left for a dinner to be held in Alice’s honor tonight in Austin at Vino Vino. In her words, the wines we’ll be tasting are “hard-core natural.”

Welcome back trotter and other idioblogs

Folks often send me images of what they’re eating, cooking, or drinking. I call them idioblogs, “blogs intended for one reader and one reader alone.” Here are a few recent notables.

Welcome back trotter, from SnackBoyJr aka Jean-Luc Retard Björn Türoque aka Dan Crane.

Brother Tad’s killer chili. “first batch was a little bland. Enhanced the recipe with some ortega chiles, green pepper, extra chili powder, a bay leaf, a little Cholula hot sauce and a little garlic. taste test is tomorrow. it is pretty good!”

Alfonso’s “Killer Lambrusco.” Hopefully Alfonso will start posting about his recent and most amazing trip to Emilia.

Italy meets California circa 1982 (by Burton Anderson, Wine Spectator)

Source: Alfonso Cevola. Check out his truly stunning post on tasting Sangiovese in Tuscany in the 1970s, Our Sangiovese.

The above image of Ezio Rivella (now president of the Brunello producers association) has been culled from the December 1-15, 1982 issue of the Wine Spectator. The article, filed from Florence, was written by Burton Anderson and is entitled “Italian vintners look to Cabernet, Chardonnay for future wine styles; results mixed so far.”

“We’re deliberately adopting a California style because our main market is the United States and also because the technology is more suitable,” Rivella, then director of Banfi, told Anderson. “But we have an advantage. Conditions in our hill vineyards are not only better than in Napa or Sonoma, they’re the best I know of anywhere. We plan to fully exploit this advantage in our wines, which will be aged in barriques of split French oak.”

A picture’s worth a thousand words, isn’t it?

In other [Brunello] news…

Who knew that Gianfranco Soldera was a natural winemaker? Read what he had to say in an interview published last week, translated and posted by Mr. Franco Ziliani and me at VinoWire.

Red, white, and bubbly carpet: TexSom 2010

Nearly 300 people attended the standing-room-only, sold-out TexSom 2010, the 6th-annual Texas Sommelier Conference, which began yesterday at the Four Seasons hotel in Irving (Dallas, Texas). That’s reigning “Best Sommelier in Texas” June Rodil who helped out with pouring duties for the “Emerging Regions of Italy” seminar.

The event draws some of the best and brightest stars in the world of wine, like Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey (left), who took time out to pose for a paparazzo with Jamie Adams, VP The Sorting Table.

The ever-affable Bartholomew Broadbent is a sponsor and a perennial attendee.

Seven Texas wine professionals will be “seated” at the Court of Master Sommeliers Masters Exam next Monday in Dallas, including Craig Collins (left) and Devon Broglie (right), both of whom serve on the board of the Texas Sommelier Conference.

Best-dressed Texas wine professional D’Lynn Proctor will also be seated at next Monday’s exam.

The “Italian Wine Guy” Alfonso Cevola, Italian Wine Director for Glazer’s Distribution, was in fine form as always.

The Duchman Family Winery (Driftwood, Texas) was also a sponsor of the event and was represented by its Events Mananger Paula Rester (center), Tasting Room Manager Bill Elsey (right, who participated in the “Best Sommelier in Texas” competition) and the president of the winery’s distributor, D’Amore Wine Selections, Julio Hernández.

Wine professionals travel from all over the state to attend, like Antonio Gianola (left), who authors one of my favorite wine lists in Houston, and Greg Randle, who educates and blogs about wine in Austin.

Kevin Pike (Sales Manager for Thierry Theise), together with Master Sommelier Emily Wines (nomina sunt consequentia rerum!) delivered one of the best seminars (on German wines) I’ve ever attended… anywhere. Chapeau bas, Kevin and Emily!

How the paparazzo always gets to go home with the prettiest girl in the room will forever remain a mystery!

Today’s trade-only event begins with a seminar on “Management of a Beverage Program” with moderator James Tidwell MS and panel Bobby Stuckey MS, Antonio Gianola, Paul Roberts MS, and Drew Hendricks MS. Nearly 300 people are expected for the Grand Tasting this evening.

Sneaking Saignée de Sorbée into the best little honkytonk in Texas

From the “it sure is good to be back in Texas” department…

ginny's little longhorn

Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon (Austin, Texas) was literally overflowing with bodies yesterday for Chicken Shit Bingo and Dale Watson.

ginny's dogs

Folks were there for the music, the bingo, and of course, the free chili dogs — “Ginny Dogs” as the song goes.

We like to sit out back, where folks gather round in lawn chairs and listen to the music through speakers Ginny’s got out there.

Alfonso and SO Kim were in town and so we snuck the most amazing bottle of Champagne into Ginny’s (given to us for our wedding by one of the nicest people I know in the wine business, Scott. Thanks again, man! You R O C K!): the Saignée de Sorbée by Vouette et Sorbée, “one of the most original wines in all of Champagne,” to borrow a phrase from one of the leading Champagne writers on our planet.

Jeremy Parzen

You’re not supposed to bring wines to Ginny’s but Ginny has a soft spot for Tracie P (it’s not hard to understand why!).

The Saignée de Sorbée may not be for everyone, but, man, it is simply so unbelievably good. So drinkable, so gorgeously fruity (think boysenberry), with alcohol, gentle tannin, and food-friendly acidity singing in four-part harmony like an old-fashioned love song. Please read Peter’s exquisite write-up of this wine. We had the 2006 (“R06”), disgorged in February 2009.

Back at the ranch, Tracie P whipped up some bucatini with tuna bottarga that Alfonso brought back from his recent, amazing trip to Sicily.

Life certainly could be worse… It sure is good to be back in Texas…

Vinitaly observed from afar

Vinitaly went on without me this year. As much I was glad to spend some time at home this week, after already too much time on the road in 2010, I can’t conceal that I was disappointed not to attend this year. But I’ve been following a lot of truly great blogging from the fair. Here’s a round-up of some of the blogs I’ve been following so that I can get my virtual fair on…

Avvinare really took it up a notch with some great coverage of the tastings she attended. I really liked her post on the Franciacorta seminar (and highly recommend all of her posts from the fair).

I’m also dying to read Tom Hyland’s notes on the Franciacorta tasting but his not-yet-posted notes on a Vermentino Nero (!!!) are the ones keeping me on the edge of my seat and glued to my screen. He posted some first impressions here.

A lot of folks received fancy awards, including Eric Asimov who was given a Grandi Cru d’Italia prize for best foreign wine writer, as reported by the excellent blog Consumazione Obbligatoria.

Ale over at Montalcino Report posted about a prize given to his family’s importer Tony Terlato (and to other Italian American notables) by the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy. I grabbed that picture of Ale’s stand, above, where I taste every year, from Ale’s Facebook fan page.

I also read about Italian president Giorgio Napolitano’s historic visit to the fair over at the ANSA English-language feed and I translated some of Mr. Franco Ziliani’s thoughts about lame duck agriculture minister Luca Zaia’s braggadocio over at VinoWire.

And of course, Vinitaly wouldn’t be Vinitaly without at least one day of rain, as Ale reported, and some Miss Vinitaly watching by top sommelier Andrea Gori.

But the blogger that’s really been killing me has been Alfonso, who’s been “turning Visentin” without me!

Xe sempre l’ultimo giosso queo che imbriaga…