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?