Savary Chablis and Tracie B’s enchilada casserole. Who knew? (also, Gramsci, Gaja, Israel Merlot in Italy, and natty wine in SF)

Above: Tracie B’s enchilada casserole may not be pretty but it’s shot to the top of my list of favorite things she cooks with meteoric celerity. And what better with the spicy and rich flavors of tomatillo sauce, cotija cheese, fresh peppers, corn, and cilantro, roast chicken, and corn tortilla than steely, mineral-driven (and affordable) Chablis? Who knew?

Seems we weren’t the only ones drinking Savary Chablis last night: a series of backs-and-forth on Facebook with Anthony on whether or not my silverface Princeton is a 69 or 71 was interrupted around dinner time because Savary 07 Chablis and Tracie B’s enchilada casserole were calling in my case, Savary Chablis Vieilles Vignes (I believe the 06) after his show last night (wherever he is!).

It’s Saturday and I’m working today (because I have a tight deadline on a hefty translation: a folio edition of twentieth-century Italian photography, pretty cool stuff actually). But before getting to work this morning, I did indulge in some Antonio Gramsci and his notion of cultural hegemony. I’d been thinking about Gramsci over the last week and how wine, in his era, was considered a luxury product in the eyes of the agrarian class (Italy was still in the early phases of its industrialization) and an important trading commodity by the landlords. How far the western world has come in such a short period of time! With the rise of globalization (unthinkable in Gramsci’s time when protectionism reigned) and the seemingly boundless exchange of wine today, Tracie B and I can enjoy an excellent and affordable (at our price point) Chablis that has traveled seemingly effortlessly across that misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean. And we enjoyed it — no less! — with Mexican cooking spiced up by peppers grown in the farmland that stretches between Dallas and Austin in Texas (we still had some peppers left over from my stopped at the sorghum syrup and stuffed armadillo store).

My hankering for Gramsci was whetted in part by the soul searching that followed the wild exchanges this week but it was garnished by the news — which I read at Franco’s blog — that Angelo Gaja is importing Israeli Cabernet and Merlot to Italy. It seems that like the historic stockfish vendors of the Roman ghetto, Gaja saw an opportunity in bringing modern-style international grape varieties from the promised land and selling them to the “Israelite” communities (as they are called there) in Italy. Does Italy really need another international-style Merlot? From Israel?

Gramsci, where art thou?

In other news…

Above: I bet this guy knows his Gramsci. Guilhaume Gerard, one of the owners of Terroir in SF, pours great wine and writes a great blog with an emphasis on you know what.

I read at McDuff’s excellent blog that there is a now a site with information about the natural wine week event going on in San Francisco next week, hosted by different venues, including one of my favorite natural wine destinations, Terroir, with a symposium led by the inimitable Guilhaume (whose natural wine credentials, by all accounts, are impeccable and who has an amazing palate and writing style).

Angelo Gaja, please call me!

From the “just for fun” department…

I like to call him the Giuseppe Baretti of Italian wine writing: my friend and colleague Franco Ziliani (pictured above holding two bottles of would-be [wood-be] Nebbiolo by Giorgio Rivetti) is one of the Italian wine writers I admire most and the feathers he ruffles with his excellent blog, Vino al Vino, often belong to the princes and princesses of Italian wine.

He reminds me of yet another great Italian writer, a Renaissance master of satire, Pietro Aretino: if anyone deserved to borrow Aretino’s motto flagellum principum (flagellator or flogger of princes) it would be my dear friend Franco.

Franco recently posted the above photo together with a post in which he lampoons a Nebbiolo producer (well, should we call him that? his wines don’t really taste like Nebbiolo at all) who — for Franco and for me — represents everything that is wrong with the world of Italian wine today: Giorgio Rivetti is a “wine wizard” and master of marketing who created wines expressly for the American market with little consideration for the great tradition and great people of the place where he makes wine. (You may remember my post on the Spinetta Affair.)

Not long after he posted the photo and satire, he received a phone call from the “bishop of Barbaresco” (who, incidentally, had recently anointed his disciple Rivetti as a member of a putative “national team” of winemakers who will lead Italy into the world cup of the future). Evidently, messer Gaja has forgotten the meaning of irony and satire — notions and literary figures cherished by the ancients and rediscovered during the renewal of learning and then again in the age of enlightenment.

This week, my partner Alfonso Cevola (aka Starsky) and I had some fun with it: Angelo, please call me!

In other news…

Yesterday, Franco sent me this photo, snapped in Maroggia, at the foot of the alps in the Valtellina, where Nebbiolo finds one of its finest expressions.

I moved to Texas for one very special lady only to discover there’s a little bit of Texas in everyone… Thanks, Franco!

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.

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.

Angelo Gaja’s rosy glasses and apocalyptic vision and blogs I (can’t) read

Neither Franco nor I can decipher the cryptic post published by the bishop of Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja (photo by Alfonso Cevola), at I numeri del vino (one of the most important resources in the enoblogosphere for hard data on Italian wine). Gaja seems to want his cake and eat it too, riding both sides of the fence in the Brunello controversy, warning producers that “nothing can be the same” while painting a rosy picture of a world of Italian wine free of commercial fraud. Read our faithful translation at VinoWire and let me know what you think.

Blogs I (can’t) read…

I haven’t been doing much blog-surfing lately because I am slammed with work right now and just finished my move to my new apartment in Austin. But there are some new feeds in my Google reader.

In the world of corporate blogging (clogging), I’ve really been enjoying Italian Wine Guy’s newest creation, The Blend. His insights into the current state of our industry should be required reading for any and all wine professionals (old and young).

An old comrade from the early days of the Italian wine and food revolution (think 1998-1999) in New York, Wayne Young, has taken up blogging from the far eastern front of the now Napoleonic empire (it’s funny how the revolution always becomes an empire, isn’t it?). Wayne’s winemaking knowledge is impressive and his “tell it like it is” anecdotes from the world of wine and wine writing are always thought-provoking.

When in the mood for some Lacanian musings (contemplating the signifier over the signified), I often find myself gazing mindlessly at two blogs I can’t read.

FinareVinare in Sweden often links to me and to Eric le Rouge. I have no idea what FinareVinare is saying but I know its author likes some of the same wines I do.

Billigt Vin, also in Sweden, is another one. When I “read” it, I’m like a young Petrarch with his cherished manuscript of Cicero: I can’t understand what the words mean but I know they mean something important (well, I don’t mean to compare myself to Petrarch — he was kind of a big deal, after all).

Lastly, I cannot omit a blog that I can read, Armadillo Bar by Alessandro, a long lost brother in wine and roots music and the greatest Austinophile on the planet. Sometimes, instead of checking the Austin Chronicle for what show Tracie B and I should go to, I just email Alessandro, who always responds with incredible celerity and pinpoint precision. Every time I see an armadillo on the road, I think of Alessandro and his blog.

Even if you can’t read it, Armadillo Bar is always worth the visit for the tracks Alessandro spins.

Montalcino: the next step? Angelo Gaja weighs in.

Above: that’s my good friend Robin Stark (center right) tasting with legendary Piedmontese winemaker Angelo Gaja on one of her wine-themed bike trips in Piedmont. Our mutual friend Terry Hughes over at Mondosapore likes to call me Zelig but Robin makes me look like Forrest Gump!

Legendary winemaker Angelo Gaja made news today when he published an open letter calling for changes in Brunello appellation regulations that would allow for the use of grapes other than Sangiovese. I have translated an excerpt at VinoWire.

As I get ready for my trip to Germany and Montalcino, I wish I had time to translate the entire letter, which is already creating waves in the blogosphere. But I’ve been busy working on the production of our record, getting ready for my trip (see below), and taking some time out to stop and smell the roses (yellow roses, in this case).

Angelo Gaja is one of the most charismatic and interesting figures in the world of Italian wine — and the world of wine period. I’ve met and tasted with him on a few occasions, including once at the winery. The Gaja winery is a unique experience, an objet d’art in and unto itself, where modern sculpture and architecture live side-by-side with the wine. Years ago, Gaja caused a controversy when he proposed that the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations be changed to allow for the use of international grape varieties. And after he was unsuccessful in his bid to revise the appellations, he declassified his site-designated wines. No one knows exactly what he puts in them but they are among Italy’s most collected — if not the most collected. A long-time proponent of barriqued Nebbiolo, Gaja makes wines that even the most fervent detractors of new oak aging will gladly drink. I’ve tasted Gaja back to 1971 and have to say that his wines are simply exquisite. He also produces high-end wines in Montalcino and Bolgheri.

Here’s a interesting passage that I translated but didn’t include in the post at VinoWire.

    In the 1960s, there were less than 60 hectares of vineyards planted to Sangiovese earmarked for the production of Brunello di Montalcino. There were roughly twenty producers, and no more than 150,000 bottles were produced [every year]. In the same period, there were 500 hecatres planted to Nebbiolo in Barolo, 115 producers/bottlers, and 3,000,000 bottles of Barolo produced annually. While Barolo did not have a leading figure, Brunello di Montalcino already had Biondi Santi: its founding father, an artisan who over time had raised the flag of quality high and he had also raised the price of his aristocratic, rare, and precious Brunello, available only to the few who could afford it.

    And then came Banfi…

He doesn’t take issue with Banfi but he reveals how the expansion of Sangiovese vineyards, spearheaded by Banfi, led to many “large” producers (as he puts it) planting Sangiovese in growing site that don’t have the right soil and climate conditions to grow superior Sangiovese. This phenomenon, he says, is what led to the current controversy there. It’s important to note that Banfi’s expansion and extremely successful marketing of Brunello made the appellation a house-hold name in the U.S. I remember the first time I saw a bottle of Brunello at the supermarket in La Jolla in the early 1990s: it was Banfi.

I wish I had time to translate the entire letter but you can read it in Italian here.