Monty Waldin on Decanter’s claim that Banfi has been “cleared of Brunello adulteration”

In case you don’t know him already, “Monty Waldin, a British wine writer who has been living in Italy for the last few years, is one of the best known commentators on (and advocates of) biodynamic wine growing.” — Jamie Goode

Here’s just part of what British television wine personality and wine writer Monty Waldin had to say about Decanter’s post on Friday claiming that Banfi has been “cleared of Brunello adulteration”:

    Decanter also swallowed a press release last year in which Brunello’s biggest winery Banfi declared itself as innocent — when this was absolutely not the case as the Siena prosecutor subsequently made perfectly clear. Although some (most in fact) of the wineries who were investigated have not been charged others — perhaps with something to hide, perhaps not — have taken the option of plea bargaining pre-trial (a perfectly legitimate option in Italy if you, ahem, feel you may have broken the “Brunello must be 100% Sangiovese” rule).

Monty posted his thoughts on Jancis Robinson’s pay-per-view site and Franco was gracious enough to repost them at Vino al Vino.

Read the entire post here.

Evidently, Franco and I are not the only ones outraged by Decanter’s egregiously disinformational post. Today, I’m trying to get to the bottom of what actually happened in their editorial offices. Stay tuned…

A quixotic appeal to Brunello producers must not go unheard

One of Italy’s greatest and most polemical wine writers, Franco Ziliani is first and foremost a friend. He is also a mentor and a partner: together we edit the Italian wine world news blog, VinoWire. He was one of the first to encourage me to expand my own blog and the often self-deprecating honesty of his writing has always inspired me to examine my own perceptions of wine and wine writing. I like to call Franco the Giuseppe Baretti and Aretino of Italian wine writing today. That’s Franco and me, outside the Vini Veri tasting in April in Isola della Scala.

Today, Franco has posted an appeal to the director and president of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (the Brunello Producers Association), demanding they step down in the wake of the Italian Treasury Department’s findings that members of the consortium have “cheated in commercial transactions” (the culmination of “Operazione Mixed Wine,” an investigation launched by Italian officials in September 2007). In lieu of their resignation, he is calling on the consortium’s estimated 250 members (the consortium does not publish an official number of members) to leave the body.

It is a quixotic appeal, no doubt, but a voice that must not go unheard.

The other day, I was dismayed to read a pusillanimously anonymous comment on Alfonso Cevola’s post on recent developments in Montalcino. “Italians love their ‘crisi,'” wrote the would-be pundit, who identified himself solely as Scott, “and it was wine’s turn after calcio [football] had the headlines for a while. As with all things Italian, life goes on and things work themselves out.”

This sort of stereotypical reductive attitude is entirely inappropriate and frankly offensive in this case. And it was authored by someone who doesn’t read beyond the sports page.

What happened in Montalcino is a tragedy and the omertà — the screaming silence — that followed is doubly tragic. Just go ask the many folks there — old and young (and I have asked them personally) — who have fought vigorously if not always successfully to protect the traditions of their land against the evils of globalization.

In other news…

Some good news has arrived from Montalcino today, in the form of a post by my friend Alessandro Bindocci who reports that the Regione Toscana has approved legislation lowering the maximum yields allowed for Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino.

Not everything coming up rosés in Montalcino

Above: I had fun pouring this flight of rosé, including the 1998 López de Heridia Viña Tondonia Rosado Reserva last night at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego. I’ll be there on the floor (pouring not lying!) again tonight. Please come down to say hello if you’re in town (Comicon conventioneers receive a 10% discount for having monopolized all rental cars within a 100-mile radius! Just mention this ad…).

Franco and I have published an excerpted translation of a letter to Brunello association members from the body’s director today at VinoWire. For the first time — nearly 16 months after the Brunello investigation was first reported — the association director has begun to address the issue, not publicly, but internally… Click here to read… It just blows my mind that the association has waited so long to respond to accusations but I’m glad the truth — or at least some of it — is beginning to emerge. All I can say is, in vino veritas, the truth is in the wine.

For a reaction on this side of that misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean, read Alfonso’s moving post here.

*****

From “Roses” by Outkast

I know you’d like to think your shit don’t stink
But lean a little bit closer
See that roses really smell like boo-boo
Yeah, roses really smell like boo-boo

I know you’d like to think your shit don’t stink
But lean a little bit closer
See that roses really smell like boo-boo
Yeah, roses really smell like boo-boo

Dusk in Montalcino

Above: Sunset on our way to Montalcino last September. My friend and traveling companion Ben Shapiro took this photo as we arrived. Our trip was a Sideways of sorts, except we were desperately searching for Sangiovese, not Pinot Noir.

The dust has settled and Franco and I have finally had time to summarize and translate notes from the Italian Treasury Department’s findings in “Operazione Mixed Wine,” the investigation of the Brunello affair, Brunellogate, or Brunellopoli as it has been called in Italy (after the Tangentopoli or Bribesville scandal of the 1990s).

Franco is on his way to Tuscany now, where he will talk with producers and try to assess their impressions “on the ground,” as we used to say when I worked at the U.N.

An old friend and bandmate of mine, Stuart Mayes, wrote me yesterday, reminiscing about a magnum of 1990 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino that we drank together the night of the OJ Simpson chase in Los Angeles in 1994. My friend Riccardo Marcucci — who did his military service with Giacomo Neri, owner of the winery — had brought the bottle to Los Angeles pre-release. We all sat around my apartment in West Hollywood, glued to the television, sipping the wine. That was long before I knew I would have a life in wine. Giacomo’s winery is one of the 5 found to have “cheated in commercial transactions” by investigators.

I met Giacomo back in 1989 when I first traveled to Montalcino and he had just begun making wine, taking over the reins of his family’s farm’s management from his father. The style of his wines has changed considerably since then and he has been transformed from a farmer’s son who recently completed his mandatory military service (when I met him in 1989) to producer of one of Italy’s most sought-after wines, with top scores and accolades, bottler of wines that command exorbitant prices in the U.S. market. Will the findings of infelicitously named Operazione Mixed Wine have any affect on him or the popularity of his wines? Probably not. And so let it be.

At the recommendation (and thanks to the generosity) of my friend Howard, I’ve been reading the autobiography of Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh. I came across this passage in the opening pages, describing one of the characters in the town where Buñuel grew up in Spain, Calanda, when the country was still lost in the “Middles Ages,” as the director liked to remember it:

    Don Luis also played a decisive role when the Calanda vineyards were struck with a devastating phylloxera. While the roots shriveled and died, the peasants adamantly refused to pull them out and replace them with American vines, as growers were doing throughout Europe. An agronomist came specially from Teruel and set up a microscope in the town hall so that everyone could examine the parasites, but even this was useless; the peasants still refused to consider any other vines. Finally, Don Luis set the example by tearing out his whole vineyard; as a result, he received a number of death threats, and never went out to inspect his new plants without a rifle. This typical Aragonian collective obstinancy took year to overcome.

What do any of these things have to do with one another? Nothing, really, aside from being overlapping remembrances and experiences in my mind. The Brunello controversy has finally come to an end, thank goodness. The Italian government has confirmed what everyone suspected all along (the truth was in the wine, in vino veritas, but all you had to do was look at its dark color to realize that it wasn’t 100% Sangiovese, which should always be bright and clear, as any producer of 100% Sangiovese will tell you). Frankly, whole thing has left me terribly depressed.

The good news is I am headed to San Diego tomorrow to pour and talk about wine at Jaynes Gastropub — tomorrow and Thursday nights. If you’re in town, please come down to see me and we’ll open some Brunello di Montalcino by one of my favorite producers, Il Poggione, and ci berremo sopra, as they Tuscans say. We’ll have a drink and put it to bed.

The saddest form of wine writing or in vino veritas

i_heart

There’s been a lot of talk in the wine blogosphere lately about the nature of wine writing and how it’s changing. De vinographia or “on wine writing” has always been a category on this blog and I often post on the subject of wine writing and wine writers.

Yesterday and today, I’ve thought a lot about what must be the saddest form of wine writing. A few days ago, agents of the Italian Treasury Department prepared and read a statement in which they announced the findings of their investigation of winemakers in Tuscany who allegedly — and evidently — released wines “not in conformity” with appellation regulations. Italian officials called the investigation “Operazione Mixed Wine” [sic], an infelicitous title, in my opinion, evoking American Dragnet-era criminal mystery, film noir, and crime-stopping television.

Back in September of last year, I created the above “I heart Brunello” logo, which Spume aptly dubbed “Bumper Sticker Brunello.” Hearting a wine is a form of wine writing, as is populating a fact sheet (technical), writing a tasting note (sensorial), rhapsodizing about a wine (panegyrical), negatively criticizing a wine (elegaical), rendering a tasting score (algebraic), or composing appellation regulations (taxonomic) or writing an indictment of a winemaker for adulteration (juridical)…

When I posted yesterday at VinoWire on the news that emerged not only from Montalcino but also from Chianti Classico, I couldn’t help but think to myself that this must be the saddest form of wine writing.

We all read the news today, o boy, and the truth that emerged was there right before us the whole time: in vino veritas, Tracie B and I mused this morning sitting in her living room with our laptops and cups of coffee, as is our habit on Sunday mornings. The truth was in the wine the whole time.

It was always with a heavy heart that my friend and partner in VinoWire, Franco Ziliani, has reported the story on his excellent blog VinoalVino, beginning on Good Friday, March 21, 2008, with a post on rumors from Montalcino.

Today, I’m sure that Franco’s heart is as heavy as mine. I heart Brunello: now more than ever, Brunello needs our support and love.

Wineries named in Brunello investigation

i_heart

The server that hosts VinoWire is having problems today and so I’m unable to post there but I will do a detailed post asap.

Today’s Florence edition of the Italian national daily La Repubblica reports the names of the seven wineries investigated in the Brunello inquiry, dubbed by Italian authorities, “Operazione Mixed Wine” or “Operation Mixed Wine.” The five that were found by the Italian Treasury Department to have bottled wine “not in conformity with appellation regulations” are: Antinori, Argiano, Banfi, Casanova di Neri, and Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi. According to the article, Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia were also investigated by were cleared by investigators of any wrongdoing.

Brunello, a peculiar form of wine writing, and Antonioni’s surface of the world

The mere exposure to the visible surface of the world will not arouse ideas unless the spectacle is approached with ideas ready to be stirred up.
—Rudolf Arnheim

For now we see through a glass, darkly…
Corinthians 13.12

Above: Alfonso took this Antonioni-inspired (Blow up?) photo of me while he and I were traveling in Italy last week with a group of wine professionals following the wine trade fairs, visiting wineries and tasting together. In reading the “signs” of the Brunello affair, I must employ my sensibilities as semiotician and see beyond the “surface of the world.”

Last Wednesday, two days after the conclusion of Vinitaly (Italy’s annual wine trade expo), the Italian daily La Nazione reported that 1) Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia have been cleared of any wrong doing in the Siena prosecutor’s Brunello inquiry; 2) other wineries implicated in the investigation have declassified their wines and have reached agreements with the prosecutor, avoiding further action against them; 3) “preservation of evidence” hearings were to be held (on Friday) for Argiano, Frescobaldi, and Valdicava. (You can read my translation of the article at VinoWire.)

One of things that has kept many — or at least some — of us rapt in the imbroglio of the Brunello controversy has been the Sciascia-esque twists and turns it has taken. Even though Nino Calabrese, the Siena prosecutor, has never spoken directly about those implicated in the investigation (and although he has claimed to be “abstemious” when it comes to the media), he has used ciphered leaks and statements to the press to move his agenda along. He has never directly addressed the question of who was investigated but he did issue a statement in which he claimed that:

    Many of the companies implicated have violated the appellation regulations for Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Rosso di Montalcino DOC… 6,500,000 liters of Brunello di Montalcino and 700,000 liters of Rosso di Montalcino were impounded. Roughly 1,100,000 liters of Brunello di Montalcino have been declassified to IGT Toscana Rosso. Roughly 450,000 liters of Rosso di Montalcino have been declassified to IGT Toscana Rosso.

The article published last Wednesday does not cite its source but it would appear that the information came from the prosecutor’s office.

There is certainly some significance to the fact that the prosecutor waited until the day after the conclusion of Vinitaly to release this information. It’s not clear to me why he has singled out Argiano, Frescobaldi, and Valdicava — especially when Argiano opted to declassify voluntarily shortly after news of the inquiry broke.

Calabrese claims to be “abstemious” when it comes to the media (what an apt word choice!) but beyond the surface, he has certainly indulged in a peculiar form of wine writing!

Banfi manufactures consent

The strangest post found its way to my inbox yesterday. In it, someone who calls her/himself WineCentric reports that last year the Banfi winery “came under fire from Italian authorities who claimed that varietals other than Sangiovese were being blended into Brunello di Montalcino” and she/he claims that the winery “has emerged sagacious and smelling as sweet as the rose petal and raspberry bouquet found in their Rosa Regale sparkler… Lab tests eventually cleared Banfi of any impropriety.”

Sagacious? Smelling sweet as rose petal?

Reports by leading Italian news outlets don’t jive with such claims. According to L’Espresso, for example, wineries like Banfi had to declassify considerable amounts of Brunello in order for their products to be allowed back on the market.

I wrote to Winecentric but received no response.

I’m sorry, Banfi: you still stink… Me? I’m just trying to keep the world safe for Italian wine.

Fight the power…

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.

Do the math: Siena prosecutor speaks out on Brunello investigation

Earlier this week, Banfi issued a press release announcing that its 2003 Brunello di Montalcino had been released by Siena authorities (it was impounded in April 2008). Evidently in response to Banfi’s press release and the newspaper articles and blog posts that followed, the Siena prosecutor sent a statement to members of the press today.

Click here to read the post published by Franco and me at VinoWire.

Our sources on the ground in Montalcino tell us that nearly half of Banfi’s 2003 release — Rosso and Brunello — had to be declassified.

Read our post and do the math…