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!

Dear Ezio Rivella and Thomas Matthews, please give me a call…

In his post on Friday, Eric referenced my post at Do Bianchi (please see also the post published by me and Franco Ziliani at VinoWire).

In my post on the October 3 Brunello debate, I wrote:

As I watched the live streaming of the Brunello debate on Friday, I couldn’t help but think of Marinetti’s calls to abolish pasta and to “murder the moonshine” (uccidiamo il chiaro di luna! or let’s kill the claire de lune, 1909) when I heard one of Italy’s leading enologists, Ezio Rivella, say that “Sangiovese is a ‘lean’ grape with little color” and that the Italian wine industry would be better served by “using international grape varieties” and “making wines more international in style.”

“You don’t win a 100 points from the Wine Spectator,” said Rivella, “using just Sangiovese.”

Yesterday, Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, made the following comment on Eric’s post:

After reading this blog entry, I called Ezio Rivella, who is currently in Rome, and spoke with him and James Suckling, Wine Spectator’s lead taster for the wines of Italy. Rivella told us the quotation referenced above was taken out of context, that his point was only to say that Sangiovese can benefit from blending in many cases. He wishes that Mr. Asimov had called him directly to discuss this issue.

Dear Ezio and Thomas, it’s a matter of fact: the statement was made in the context of a debate on whether or not the Brunello appellation regulations should be changed to allow the blending of international grape varieties. And it’s the fact of the matter: Rivella made that statement, voice raised, pointing his finger at Franco and admonishing him, during a debate on whether or not international grapes should be allowed in the Brunello appellation. I watched the debate live over the internet and Franco was there!

Thomas, me thinks thou dost protest too much.

Ezio, feel free to give me a call. Franco knows how to get in touch with me and I know that you and he are in cordial if not friendly contact.

Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D.


In other news…

Over at Montalcino Report, my friend Alessandro Bindocci reports that 153 Brunello producers have now signed an open letter to agriculture minister Luca Zaia and the Brunello Consortium asking them to keep Brunello 100% Sangiovese. 149 had signed the original letter last week and that number already represented a majority of producers.

Donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi (observations on the Brunello debate part II)

Above: “harvesters” in a photo taken in Langa, date unknown, but I am guessing sometime between the two world wars (images courtesy Fontanafredda).

There’s a saying in Italian, donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Literally translated, it means women and oxen from your own village or [choose] women and oxen from your hometown.

Paesi tuoi is also the title of Cesare Pavese’s dark novel set against the rural backdrop of Langa (Piedmont)* in the years that preceded the second world war. The story centers around Berto and Talino, who travel to Talino’s village (paese in Italian) after they are released from prison. Berto falls in love with Talino’s sister Gisella. In a fit of jealous rage, Talino kills Gisella with a pitchfork. Her tragic death is a metaphor for the changing face of rural Italy during the country’s industrialization under fascism. Berto is a factory worker from a big city and his presence in the country seems to unleash an otherwise contained and tolerated depravity. He is repulsed by the atrocity he witnesses and flees. Pavese’s unforgiving realism is one of the greatest examples of 20th-century Italian (and European) narrative.

Renowned Italian enologist Ezio Rivella was born in Asti (in Langa) in 1933 and was 8 years old when Pavese’s novel was published in 1941 (it was translated as The Harvesters in 1961).

As Rivella and winemaker Teobaldo Cappellano sparred during the Brunello debate on Friday, October 6, Rivella repeatedly interrupted his interlocutor, admonishing him: “I knew your grandfather very well, Cappellano. And the wines he made were very different from the wines you make today.” Cappellano is one of Italy’s greatest defenders of traditionalist winemaking and is one of the founders of the Vini Veri or Real Wines movement. (Teobaldo doesn’t have a website, but Dressner did this solid profile in English.)

No one would deny that the traditions of winemaking in Italy have changed dramatically since the second world war and radically since the 1970s. Rivella pointed out that in Teobaldo’s grandfather’s day, Nebbiolo was regularly placed in the solaio or loft to “cook” the wine and accelerate its aging — a practice unimaginable today for those who produce fine wine.

“What is tradition and where does it begin?” asked moderator Dino Cutolo, a professor of agricultural anthropology, citing The Invention of Tradition by EJ Hobsbawm and TO Ranger (1983). In farming communities, tradition is shaped by necessity not by cultural self-awareness, Cutolo noted.

Countering Rivella’s claim that commerce should trump tradition in Brunello, Cappellano pointed out that the DOC system was put into place to protect not the winemakers but rather “the territory.” The spirit of the legislation was that of ensuring that artisanal winemakers would not be swept away by the Goliaths like Rivella’s Banfi. And he argued that “provincialism” in winemaking — viewed as a positive element, in opposition to globalization — is the very element that sets Italian wines apart from those produced elsewhere. “We shouldn’t make wines that everyone likes,” said Cappellano, “we need to make wines enjoyed by those who know the wines.”

As I watched the debate that Friday, I thought of how my friend Alice Feiring dealt with the concept of “tradition” in her excellent book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. “When I explored this New World wine vs. Old World another theme kept on coming up,” she writes, “and that was the confusion surrounding the word tradition. There were so many meanings. Who knew? Some … were able to use it as a weapon, as a synonym for poorly made wine, for wine that turned into vinegar. Now, what did traditional wine making mean to me? I wasn’t sure. I needed to find a new way to identify wines I liked. Perhaps I was using the word traditional when I meant ‘authentic.'”

We can debate the nature of tradition and authenticity until we’re blue in the face. But one thing is certain: the authenticity of place will disappear if Brunello appellation regulations are changed to allow for the blending of international grape varieties. The laws were created not to help Goliaths make money, but rather to ensure that the Davids would continue to express the authenticity of place.

Paesi tuoi… in the triangle of [mimetic] desire, industrial Banfi was the Berto, the “other” who upset the balance of rural life in Montalcino. In doing so, introduced the capitalist notion of progress (read greed) that has sullied the landscape of the once pristine Orcia River Valley where Brunello di Montalcino is made.

In other news…

Tracie B. told me not to bother watching the 60 Minutes advertorial devoted to the Antinori family last night. But I did enjoy Strappo’s post-game wrap-up. What happened to CBS hard-hitting journalism? Edward Murrow must be rolling over in his grave.

* Sometimes referred to has “the Langhe” or “the Langhe Hills,” Langa is home to Barolo and Barbaresco and is one of Italy’s greatest enogastronmic destinations.

Don’t Murder the Sangiovese: the Brunello debate, observations and reflections (part I)

Above: the Brunello debate panel included Banfi’s ex-director enologist Ezio Rivella (seated stage right), moderator Dino Cutolo, wine writer Franco Ziliani, and winemaker Teobaldo Cappellano.

In 1930, at the height of the “happy years” of fascism, the founder of the Italian Futurism movement and the father of the historical avant-garde Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his Manifesto della Cucina Futurista, in which he advocated “The abolition of pastasciutta, an absurd Italian gastronomic religion.” (The term pastasciutta means literally dried pasta.)

Today, it is hard to imagine that one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and one of the 20th century’s most dynamic figures (indeed, he who literally gave new meaning to the word dynamism) would lash out so violently against one of Italy’s greatest contributions to world cuisine and a sine qua non of its identity. Thankfully, neither the Futurists nor the fascists prevailed and today pastasciutta and freedom, however bridled by consumerism, continue to thrive in Western Europe.

As I watched the live streaming of the Brunello debate on Friday, I couldn’t help but think of Marinetti’s calls to abolish pasta and to “murder the moonshine” (uccidiamo il chiaro di luna! or let’s kill the claire de lune, 1909) when I heard one of Italy’s leading enologists, Ezio Rivella, say that “Sangiovese is a ‘lean’ grape with little color” and that the Italian wine industry would be better served by “using international grape varieties” and “making wines more international in style.”

“You don’t win a 100 points from the Wine Spectator,” said Rivella, “using just Sangiovese.”

At a certain point during the debate, moderator Dino Cutolo (professor of anthropology, University of Siena), pointed out that the calls for the abolition of Brunello as 100% Sangiovese were coming “from the right.” He quickly added, “not the political right, but from my right.” But his lapsus linguae wasn’t lost on the crowd and drew a chortle from the gallery, palpable even over the internet.

At the height of the heated exchange, when voices were raised and tempers flared, Rivella leveled his finger at Franco Ziliani: “how can we not change the appellation regulations and allow for the use of Merlot in Brunello, caro Lei, Ziliani?” (borrowing a vocative, dear sir, evocative of another era). In the light of the “enormous capital we have invested, we need to make wines for the international market.”

The bottom line: when Banfi, led by Rivella, came into the picture in the 1970s and launched a new era of industrial winemaking in Montalcino, it tried — politically and viticulturally — to impose a modern imprint and it expanded the appellation’s plantings to international grape varieties. The large, commercial producers of Brunello have lobbied twice unsuccessfully to change appellation regulations (allowing for blending of international grapes) from within the now defunct producers consortium. Their bid failed because within the consortium’s hierarchy, the vote of the smallest producer (think Delaware) carried the same weight as the majors (think California).

I’ll let the reader infer her/his own parallels or analogies from the above.

Tomorrow, Teobaldo and Franco’s response. Stay tuned…