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.