Merlot di Montalcino is almost here! Hurray! Not!

Nearly 3 years after the story of the Brunello controversy broke in the mainstream media, after millions of liters of wine have been declassified, after guilty pleas and plea agreements and guilty verdicts and fines and sentences that included jail time for some… tomorrow the Brunello producers association is expected to approve new verbiage that will allow for up to 15% of grapes other than Sangiovese to be used in Rosso di Montalcino.

Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani and I reported the new language today over at the English-language blog we co-edit VinoWire.

Is the change a lesser of two evils? Yes.

Is it a shame? Yes, it’s a shame. It’s a pity and it causes me sorrow.

The fact of the matter is that when you add an alpha grape like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to a lighter-bodied grape like Sangiovese, the Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot will mask the nature of the Sangiovese — even when the former are added in small quantities. Most of the Chianti Classico that makes it to the U.S. these days is made in this manner.

Remember the other day when I was talking about paesaggio come stato d’anima (landscape as state of soul/mind) in Italian new wave cinema?

Antonioni’s 1957 Il grido (The Outcry) is a great example of this and it’s how I feel right now. Buona visione

A shout out to Brunello and Do Bianchi in the “Journal”

Check out Lettie Teague’s Wall Street Journal interview with Cristina Mariani, co-ceo of Banfi who says that the Brunello controversy was “just to make the press.” (I’m not sure what that means.) Lettie also gives a shout out to Do Bianchi and VinoWire. Read the interview here.

And for my latest dispatch from Montalcino, read my post Sunrise with a Brunello Master here.

More Italian winery designation notes and a clarification from Banfi

declassified sagrantino

Above: I tasted Paolo Bea’s 2006 declassified Sagrantino the other night in Houston. Winemaker Giampiero Bea was not allowed to label the wine as “Sagrantino,” he told me, because the tasting committee said that the wine “lacked color” and had undergone “slight oxidation.” It was fantastic. Giampiero’s labels are among the most information and most difficult to understand for someone who doesn’t speak and/or read Italian.

This morning, I added the following terms to the May 5 post
A note on Italian winery designations: azienda, cascina, fattoria, podere, et cetera
. I thank everyone for the generous support and I hope people will continue to make suggestions/comments/clarifications etc. (special thanks to one of my favorite wine writers, Mitch Frank, for reminding me, via Facebook, about ca’ and casa!).

cantina, literally cellar or cool place to store perishable goods and by extension tavern (probably from the Italian canto meaning angle or corner from the Greek kampthos, bend or angle).

The word cantina has a wide variety of applications in Italy (often used for restaurants and food stores, as well as wineries) and can be found across Italy to denote wine cellar.

casa, literally, a building, house, or habitation (from the Latin casa, a small house, cottage, hut, cabin, shed).

The term casa is used throughout Italy as a winery designation and is often abbreviated as ca’, as in Ca’ del Bosco (it is important to note that it’s often erroneously abbreviated as [using the accent grave diacritic], when in fact the inverted comma [‘] denotes the elision of the final two letters, often derived from a dialectal locution). A casa vinicola (pronounced KAH-sah vee-NEE-koh-lah) is a winery/négociant.

vignaiolo (plural vignaioli), vine tender or grape grower (derived from the Italian vigna, meaning vine, from the Latin vinea, vineyard [from the Latin vinum, wine]).

Pronounced VEEN-y’eye-OH-loh (plural VEEN-y’eye-OH-lee), vignaiolo is used to denote a winery that uses estate-grown fruit in the production of its wines.

I’d also like to draw attention to a important clarification made, in the comment thread, by Fred and Ken Vastola.

An azienda agricola (ah-zee-EHN-dah ah-GREE-koh-lah) is a farming estate, where grapes may or may not be grown for wine production. An azienda vinicola is a winery (or wine business) where grapes are purchased from other farms for wine production. An azienda vinicola (ah-zee-EHN-dah vee-NEE-koh-lah) can also denote a business where wine is purchased and then bottled. As such, the latter designation can be used for a wide range of business models, from the artisanal to the purely commercial.

In other news…

As the world anxiously awaits the results of today’s election of the new advisory committee for the Brunello producers association, a spokesperson from Banfi wrote me yesterday asking me to make this clarification at VinoWire.

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

Indictments arrive in Montalcino

Above: A view from atop the Fortezza in Montalcino (taken in February 2010). Spring may have arrived there but skies are still dark. But bluer skies are on the horizon.

It’s been more than a week since the Italian media reported that six persons had been indicted in the Brunello controversy that gripped the appellation in 2008 and 2009. The news initially appeared in the Siena edition of national daily La Nazione but the names of those indicted were not published.

About a week ago, the names were revealed in a small article in the Florence edition of La Repubblica although they didn’t hit the mainstream feed until yesterday when Mr. Franco Ziliani broke the story on his blog.

Seventeen persons were ultimately indicted by Italian authorities for having made false statements to public officials and for having sold “adulterated” products that did not meet appellation regulations for Brunello (the wines had been allegedly with grapes not authorized for the appellation; Brunello must be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes). Of those, eleven took a plea bargain and were never officially named in the investigation. The six named in reports widely circulated today have chosen to fight the charges. Their court date is scheduled for September 17.

It’s the most unhappy form of wine writing and you can read it in English here.

The good news is that the Brunello controversy is behind us: authorities in the U.S. have lifted the requirement for Italian government certification and a string of fair-to-good-to-excellent vintages since the horrific 2002 (too rainy) and 2003 (too hot) have delivered some great wines from Montalcino — wines that most certainly deserve our attention, regardless of the style that we prefer.

TTB lifts certification requirement for Brunello

The U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax, and Trade Bureau (TTB) has officially lifted its requirement that importers of Brunello obtain an Italian government declaration stating that the wine has been made in accordance with appellation regulations.

You can read the statement by the TTB here.

As a self-anointed semiotician, I can’t help but note what an interesting instance of wine writing this document represents. A close reading of the text reveals that that the TTB will ultimately be remembered as the author who “wrote the book,” so to speak, on the Brunello controversy. A winery, as of this week not yet implicated, also emerges in the document.

It’s at once the grimmest form of wine writing and the happiest: I hope it truly marks the end of the controversy known as Brunellopoli (Brunellogate).

I believe that Mr. Franco Ziliani was the first to publish the news in Italian and my friend Ale, author of Montalcino Report, was the first to publish the story in English.

Mr. Zaia goes to Washington (and lets Montalcino down)


It’s seems like it was just yesterday that I was posting a sigh of relief that the U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax, and Trade Bureau (TTB) was lifting its requirement of Italian government certification for Brunello di Montalcino imported to this country. Nearly every Italian news agency and feed (ANSA,, etc.) had reposted agricultural minister Luca Zaia’s press release in which he announced — with cocksure nonchalance, I may add — that the requirement had been lifted following his successful meeting in Washington with TTB bureau head John Manfreda. Even Brunello producers association director Patrizio Cencioni issued a release praising minister Zaia and thanking him for a job well done. (You can read all of the press releases here.)

But it seems that minister Zaia was a little too quick to sing his own praises.

Late yesterday afternoon, another post hit the feed as the Italians were already sleeping: the TTB issued a press release in which stated plainly and clearly that the agricultural minister had falsely represented the agreement negotiated in the minister’s meeting with Manfreda last week. Despite claims otherwise, states the document, Italian government certification is still required. And it will continue to be required, according to the document, until the Italian government presents the Siena prosecutor’s final report on the investigation (the so-called “Operation Mixed Wine” inquiry into the suspected adulteration of Brunello and other Tuscan wines).


I spoke this morning to Brunello producer Fabrizio Bindocci of Il Poggione in Sant’Angelo in Colle and he told me that he and Il Poggione’s owner Leopoldo Franceschi were left dumbstruck when they read the news of the TTB’s clarification. “Maybe Zaia met with the doorman, not the TTB administrator,” Fabrizio wondered out loud with classic Tuscan wit. (Fabrizio’s son Alessandro has posted the entire series of press releases at his blog Montalcino Report.) “We feel that certification should be required and it should continue to be required,” said Fabrizio, whose wine has been certified by an independent Norwegian risk management firm since 2003, long before the controversy began.


In his post this morning, Franco published an image of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and asked: “Just for the sake of clarity, can somebody — in Montalcino, Rome, or Treviso — help us to understand what’s going on?” (Minister Zaia hails from Treviso.) And making reference to Zaia’s bid to become governor of the Veneto (his home region), Franco asks rhetorically, “is it so hard to understand that it’s not possible and it makes no sense to run an electoral campaign in the Veneto using the supposed great success obtained in the [minister’s] campaign in Montalcino?”

@Mr. Zaia you are no James Stewart: if you need an interpreter the next time you head to Washington, feel free to give me a call!

Mexican porn: Bahia adds tortilla soup to its menu

Above: Bahia Don Bravo’s new Tortilla Soup was too sexy to resist. No trip home to La Jolla where I grew up is complete without a visit to Bahia.

Tracie B and I returned late last night to Austin from San Diego where we met a lot of great people, poured and tasted a lot of great wine at the SD Natural Wine Summit, and caught up with mama Judy, the German Professor, and the Cheese Hater’s mom over dinner at Jaynes Gastropub (yes, even on my night off, I ate there, that’s how much I love it).

Above: Owner Carlos Bravo aka Don Bravo was in the kitchen on Monday when we stopped in with mama Judy for lunch. The carnitas were particularly delicate and tasty, moist and rich on the tongue.

I’ve got a lot of really cool posts on deck, including more from the Natural Wine Summit, a wonderful toasty vintage grower’s champagne shared by a dear friend, and some old and very special traditional-style Sangiovese from one of the most famous producers of Brunello di Montalcino.

Above: Who ever thought beans could be so seductive?

It’s 8 a.m. and I’ve already been at my computer since 6:30, trying to catch up. So I’ll make this post a quickie.

On deck for tomorrow: “Good wine lovers go to heaven, bad wine lovers go back stage.”

In other news…

Excerpts of an interview with Franco — on recent developments in Montalcino — appeared in The New York Times today — cartaceous version. Read it while it’s hot! (And you can read the entire interview here.)

Keeping the world safe for Italian wine

Above: Franco Ziliani and I tasted some fantastic Franciacorta together last September in Erbusco (before Tracie B convinced me to shave my mustache). Franco has been a great friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. I am proud to be his partner at VinoWire. Photo by Ben Shapiro.

Just keeping the world safe for Italian wine… that’s what we do around here.

It was one helluva way to wake up this morning in sleepy La Jolla — where Botox trumps micro ox — to find that the editors at had decided to publish our post on recent developments in Montalcino and subsequent reports by the Italian media.

I’m glad we got a chance to set the record straight and that I can drink my Vino Nobile tonight with Tracie B at Jaynes knowing that the world is safe for Sangiovese (or maybe we’ll drink the 2007 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, which is showing gorgeously right now).

In other news…

If you’re planning on attending the San Diego Natural Wine Summit this Sunday at Jaynes, please email the restaurant to reserve. We’re almost at capacity and we’ll have to turn people away if they don’t have tickets. Click here for details and to reserve.

Deep Throat speaks from Montalcino

As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the shadows cast upon the walls of a wine cellar outline not reality but the truths of those who live them. Little clarity has emerged from Montalcino, even in the light of Italian officials’s findings in their investigation of adulterated wine there. As outside observers, we see only shadows of reality cast upon the walls of Brunello’s caves.

The following interview was conducted last week via email with a young winemaker in Montalcino who works with and for a small family-run estate. S/he has asked me not to reveal her/his name and so I will simply call her/him Deep Throat. Her/his English-language ability allowed her/him to answer the questions in her/his second language. For the sake of immediacy, I have not made any edits whatsoever to the answers. Read them below as I received them at the end of last week. I doubt we’ll ever know the truth about what really happened in Montalcino but I hope this point-of-view (however factual or speculative it may or may not be) helps us to understand the disparity between what we have been told by the wine media and the perceptions and sentiments “on the ground,” as we used to say when I worked at the U.N. Read and digest it for what it’s worth…


Why did the investigation happen in the first place?

The whole bomb came officially out about 16 months ago. Strategically… just few days prior to Vinitaly 2008. You can imagine what kind of backlash this gave to everybody in the appellation. The Brunello collective stand at the fair was like a war zone… Why did it come out? Likely because it was no longer possible to hide the lack of controls by the Consortium or, maybe better, the lack of actions by the Consortium after finding vineyards, cellars and/or wines not conforming to the Brunello production rules.

Was it because banks were checking on vineyards supposedly planted to Sangiovese and used as collateral in loan applications?

Let’s say that this could surely be a factor… many illegal vineyards were planted with big loans or (even worse) with EU funds. Just to give an example: a hectar of Brunello is worth about 500.000 Euros while an IGT one could be around 100-150.000. Do it yourself: this is very simple math! Only the producers were blaimed for the illegal vineyards and/or wines but those very same wines were tasted and passed at the Tasting Commission (official and external). The vineyards were supposedly checked and obviously passed by Officials form the Consortium, from the “Comune”, from the “Provincia” and I ask myself why nobody there was then involved in the investigation…

Now newcomers to Montalcino (Gaja, Frescobaldi, Folonari) are asking for “relaxed” rules and a more flexible set of rules. Screw you! Did you arrive to Montalcino for the idea of producing Brunello or for the value of the land? Be clear and make a choice. Or be nice and… get the hell out of here!

Or was it because “anonymous letters” were sent to the Siena prosecutor by disgruntled Brunello producers?

I have very good reasons to think that The Letter was clearly sent. This is going on a personal level: it is a very personal “faida” between some of the top managers of thee most visible estate in Montalcino (especially on the US market) and one of thee most radical and straight forward producers. Is David hitting Goliath. But I must say that little David was hitting the wrong enemy this time: is not Goliath’s fault if David’s wines are usually NOT conforming to the mandatory analysis due prior to the tasting at the Official Tasting Commission. The wines must conform to the parameters. Period. If they are out, they are out and you should adjust your winemaking method instead of complaining with the rules if they are not according your personal taste. Orelse… go your way without labelling your wine as a Brunello… but like this… the value of David’s bottles is going dramatically down. And David is already in deep shit with sales.

PS Last minute news: David’s estate is now for sale. But he’s asking way too much.

Has your winery been inspected by Treasury officials? What do they do when they inspect the estate? What technical tools do they use? How often do they visit? What are they looking for?

I cannot talk for other people but our tiny estate was checked several times by several different authorities especially in the last 2 years. I don’t know how much other people has been inspected. We ALWAYS conformed and they ALWAYS came back for more. We had: Tresury officials, Consortium inspectors, Ministry of Labour officials, etc. To make it short: you name it… they came! To check everything… I wonder what they have been checking at the other places. There was no way to get out of it with something out of the line. Of course it makes a big difference if you go and inspect a vineyard to check for the different varietals in July or in December… we got checked last week too for the countless time.

Was the issue yields or was the issue Merlot? Is it true that some were using grapes from Apulia?

The issues were several, being the non-Sangiovese grapes the most important one and the yeald per hectar another one. By the beginning of the investigation, I have personally seen a 4 hectars vineyard (supposedly Brunello) litterally destroyed with a Caterpillar by the owner from a day to another; and another one grafted with a new and different varietal (Sangiovese, this time?) in late June (???). I know a very influential Consulting Wine Wizard that, in order to come and make the wine for the estate of one of the past President of the Consortium, strongly demanded (as a condition to accept the job) to plant some ALICANTE grapes for the color. Come and drive around Montalcino in October and look at the leaves… You’ll have fun!

Wines in bulk were a point too. But we must say that: it is absolutely not illegal to buy wine in tanks from somewhere else. Illegal could be the use of it in some certain ways in the cellar. We must also say that: some of this wine could have been (and IT WAS) used illegally, out of the DOC and DOCG rules. You know… quality and quantity rarely match. Following the Brunello rules, you should not exceed 7 tons of grapes per hectar. Let me tell you that, to have a great juice (as Brunello should demand) it’s hard to go over 4-4,5 tons. Figure it out yourself!

As a small producer of traditional-style Brunello, how do you feel you have been treated in a sea of commercial producers?

As a small producer, we have been treated like we had nothing to say. We felt absolutely NOT represented by the Consortium, neither protected. DOCG means that our Appellation of Origin is Controlled and Guaranteed. This was the only supposed role of the Consortium. None of this things was provided by them: oviously NOT the controls, NOT the guarantee and, sometimes, NOT even the origin. So I am asking myself what is the reason of the Consortium to be. Right now, the Consortium is just a cost for a small producer, and it’s giving no advantages at all. Many people will soon leave, I am sure. We asked them how to act to protect ourselves from this situation, we were told to shut up! The big guys are messing around… and we suffer the real damage, being all commonly treated as cheaters. Our reputation is on the line and they could not care less. It’s hard to accept this, especially when they ask you to shut up, I feel I want to raise my voice from the top of the mountain. They have even payed (BIG MONEY) an very high-ended external press office from Milan to… shut up. With our money too… How pathetic!

You are a litterate person: write a few lines about the origin and the history of the word “Consortium” and you will find very little similarity with the recent image of the Consortium of Brunello.

PS. Is there any other kind of Brunello apart traditional? Don’t think so!

Would weather conditions in the dismal 2002 and 2003 vintages have had such an impact on wineries if growing sites were limited to the south and southwest subzones Sant’Angelo in Colle and Castelnuovo dell’Abate and the Montalcino township subzone?

The problem is that many people planted vineyards only for the sake of investement more than for the love of wine and the respect of a tradition. A lot of people arrived to harvest and bottle the wine with no idea on how and where actually sell that wine. This was the main reason for the price drop: fear and unprofessionalism!

Right after the 2002 harvest, everybody apparently agreed on the fact that the vintage was absolutely not good and not suitable for producing Brunello. You could go around and ask producers and they all would tell you that they were not going to release any 2002 Brunello. The fact is that very few people hold to that word: probably 98% of the producers actually released a 2002 and a single real genius (or a magician… previously President of the Consortium but not the one I was telling about before) even released a 2002 Riserva. Come on! Be serious and give me a break… We are talking about integrity here. Or, at least, we are trying… some of us is trying harder than others!

2003 was hard too and this was surely not helping in this moment as the beginning of the scandal hit Montalcino right after the official release of the vintage. so many importers and/or distributors took the chanche to invest -in moment of great financial crisis- in other (cheaper) appellations while waiting for the great 2004 vintage to come out. We must also thank the Consortium for the dangerous overrating of recent vintages that have been generously given too many stars…

About sub-zones, I am a fervent believer! But you, as owner of a vineyard in Torrenieri, would want this to be written on your label? And you, as a regular but somehow skilled customer, would prefer to buy a Brunello from the sub-zone of Castelnuovo dell’Abate or Sant’Angelo, or one from the lowest vineyards in Torrenieri? You already know the answer: that’s why sub-zones of Brunello are never gonna happen.

What is the future of Montalcino? Will other grapes be allowed?

The future of Montalcino is unwritten. I personally hope for the sudden death of the Consortium and the birth of a free association of producers with total dedication to PR and promotion and absolutely no role in the controls. I would like the controls to be completely made by State offices with less bureaucracy and very fast times of reaction to needs and/or infraction.

Allowing other grapes would mean to betray Mr. Biondi Santi original vision and dream. Dream that became reality and privilege for all of us. Allowing zelig grapes would kill the reality of a truly blessed terroir. We are always filling our mouth with the words “tradition” and “heritage”. It’s now time to stand tall behind our words. I have been doing this since forever. Like this they were doing at my estate before me. Like this they will do at my estate after me. The password is only one. Sangiovese! That’s the true reason why this land is so valuable. Why are they all so blinded by other less important things?