We were better off when things were worse: James Suckling joins forces with Gambero Rosso

Above: James Suckling via his Facebook.

“We were better off when things were worse.” That’s what Italian wine blogger Antonio Tomacelli wrote today on Intravino describing his feelings about the news that James Suckling will be joining the editorial staff of the Gambero Rosso brand. (!!!)

Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio is one of those perennial Italian sayings, expressing the nostalgia (and consequent irony) for a time before the hegemony of capitalist consumerism fatally grasped the Italian people in its merciless grip (in the wake of the “economic miracle” of the 1960s when American culture and mores began to dominate the ethos of the Italian people).

There’s another expression in Italy that describes precisely my reaction to the news of Suckling’s new gig: non ho parole.


Montalcino MADNESS! If Pirandello were a winemaker…

Above: Alfonso is on the wine trail in Italy today. He sent me this photo, taken with his blackberry, of his digs in Montalcino where he arrived this afternoon. Montalcino and the Orcia River Valley are among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.
—Luigi Pirandello

Is it a enoic parable scribed by Karl Marx? Is it a dialectic on vinous hegemony by Antonio Gramsci? Are these winemaking characters searching for an author like Luigi Pirandello? Is this an engagé film made by Pietro Germi in the 1960s?

UGH! I’ve been tearing out what little hair I have left as I watch the MADNESS unfold in Montalcino from afar!!!

Yesterday, as I painfully stitched together this post on the pending election of a new administrative council and a new president of the Brunello di Montalcino producers association, I couldn’t help but think to myself that Giovanni Verga couldn’t have written it better!

Election procedures are secret and only certain candidates have revealed themselves. One presidential candidate is an aristocrat, Jacopo Biondi Santi the dashing and dandy son of traditionalist Franco Biondi Santi (the “father of Brunello”). Jacopo broke from his father and his father’s legacy many years ago only to stamp the family name on his international-style wines (from what I hear, father and son don’t speak).

One is an odious technocrat and bureaucrat, Ezio Rivella, who once produced “22 million bottles of wine a year” at the helm of Montalcino’s largest estate, according to his biography in his “order of the knights of Italian industry” bio.

Another is a lawyer, Bernardo Losappio, who represents flying enologist Carlo Ferrini (“Mr. Merlot,” as he is known locally) and Wine Spectator darling winery Casanova di Neri. Losappio wrote to Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani, assuring him that “My commitment will be focused on promotion of the appellation in all of its expressions, a broadening of media relations, preservation of Brunello’s typicity, and a rethinking of the Rosso [del Montalcino appellation].” He probably has some property in Brooklyn he wants to sell me, too.

Above: Literally as I write this, Alfonso is tasting 2009 Brunello with a producer.

The backdrop for all of the above is the fact that of the 17 persons charged by authorities in the wake of the Brunello scandal (when producers were accused of adulterating their wines), 11 took plea bargains and 6 have now been indicted.

And as if it were a short story by Edmondo de Amicis, an absolutely heinous “anonymous letter” has been circulated, defaming some of the more notable candidates.

AND as if it were a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Piedmontese winemaker Angelo Gaja issued a statement two days ago admonishing the residents of Montalcino that tourism is the main issue they should be considering (not transparency or appellation regulation).

Reflecting on Gaja’s communiqué, another one of Italy’s top winebloggers, Antonio Tomacelli, observed: “There’s no question that tourists play their part, for goodness’s sake, but they come to shake hands with Brunello producers — a difficult operation, especially when they’re wearing handcuffs.”

There is one candidate whom I believe could really make a difference as the new president of the producers association. He’s a friend and he was born and bred in Montalcino. His wife grew up in the foothills of Mt. Amiata. He makes great wine… honest wine, true wine, and real wine. On the eve of the election, he — I believe — is Montalcino’s greatest hope.

I love Montalcino. I love Sangiovese Grosso. I love Brunello di Montalcino. It was there, more than 20 years ago now, that I first discovered my passion for wine. I remember meeting Giacomo Neri (of Casanova di Neri) in 1989. He had just finished his military service and he had just begun making wine on his father’s estate. Back then, he didn’t use Carlo Ferrini as his enologist. He just vinified the grapes grown in his families vineyards. He hadn’t yet built his state-of-the-art winery. He hadn’t yet received the top scores. His wines weren’t even available on the U.S. market. The wines were bright, light, and delicious, not opaque, dense, and woody. Back then, Brunello had yet to become a household word in the U.S.

The saga of Brunello is a Marxist parable: the socially enlightened ideals, mores, and ethos of post-war, “red state” Tuscany have been grubbed up and replaced by the insidious roots of capitalist greed. Tuesday’s election will undoubtedly determine the new trajectory of the wine, the land, the tradition, and the people. I hope that the members of the Brunello producers association will remember that that the legacy of Brunello di Montalcino belongs not only to them but also to the people of Tuscany, the people of Italy and of Europe and of the world.

I am a force of the Past.
My love lies only in tradition.
I come from the ruins, the churches,
the altarpieces, the villages
abandoned in the Appennines or foothills
of the Alps where my brothers once lived.

—Pier Paolo Pasolini