Casanova di Neri supermarket Brunello in Lecce

It’s hard to believe, I know: tasting notes for Casanova di Neri 2004 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG on Do Bianchi.

But when I saw this bottle at a downtown Lecce supermarket for Euro 22.90 (see receipt below), I couldn’t resist the temptation to pick it up (that’s $29.51 based on today’s exchange rate).

I opened and tasted the wine today before lunch and I have to say that it’s pretty good. Lighter in body than Giacomo Neri’s U.S.-bound Brunello, with bright fruit and some wood tannin on the finish. If it weren’t for the wood, I’d even say it was more than pretty good.

I’m guessing that this wine is akin to his “white label,” as it is called in the states.

On Winesearcher, I see Casanova di Neri for as low as $40. But never this low. Who knew it was a supermarket wine in Italy?

I plan to taste it tonight with pucce for dinner (on our first night in Lecce, we had an early dinner of grilled vegetables at a rosticceria and last night we had take-out pizza in our B&B; tonight is puccia night and generally we’ve either been eating very early or back at our hotel).

In an hour or so, we’re heading to one of Lecce’s culinary landmarks for lunch, Le Zie. I can’t wait!

The James Suckling era ends (and what we ate and drank for my birthday)


Above: We treated ourselves to a bottle of 2004 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino and porterhouse steak last night in celebration of my birthday. When we planned this classic Tuscan meal, I had no idea that my birthday would also deliver the news that James Suckling had left the Wine Spectator.

Yesterday, as we were preparing for birthday and Bastille Day celebrations chez Parzen, the following news arrived via email from a colleague and friend:

    James Suckling, who joined Wine Spectator in 1981 and has served as European bureau chief since 1988, has retired from the company.

    Suckling’s tasting responsibilities have been reassigned. The wines will be reviewed in our standard blind-tastings in the company’s New York office.

    Senior editor and tasting director Bruce Sanderson will oversee coverage of Italy. Sanderson, who has been with the magazine for 18 years, currently reviews the wines of Burgundy, Champagne and Germany.


Above: To make a proper “bistecca alla fiorentina” at our house, we season the porterhouse generously with kosher salt, rubbing the salt into the meat, and then we char the T-bone, with the steak upright.

Neither Tracie P nor I could ignore the uncanny coincidence that we had decided to open a bottle of 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione, a traditional-style wine made by a family who has vehemently and vociferously opposed the modernization of its appellation. There’s no two ways about it: during James Suckling’s tenure at the Wine Spectator, the scores he gave to modern-style Brunello — with Casanova di Neri as its poster child — helped to eclipse the sale of traditional-style wines, like those made by Il Poggione. (In all fairness, Suckling also gave good scores to Il Poggione but his historic preference for dark, concentrated, oaky Brunello with higher alcohol levels, indisputably skewed his evaluations toward modernism.)


Above: Then you cook the steak on either side, very quickly at high heat. By cooking the steak upright first, the meat “heats through” entirely.

Another layer of irony was cast upon the news and our Brunello by the fact that Mr. Franco Ziliani — at times Mr. Suckling’s detractor — had suspended publication on his wine blog Vino al Vino, the leading Italian-language wine blog, a few days earlier. (Mr. Ziliani’s relationship with Mr. Suckling is even referenced by the author of the Wiki entry on the Italian wine writer.) “A pause for reflection,” wrote Mr. Ziliani on Monday, a search for “clarity” in his life and for a sense of purpose for the blog, he explained. “To blog or not to blog,” he asked rhetorically.


Above: High heat is the key to searing and caramelizing the fat on the outside of the steak while leaving the meat in the center tender and nearly raw.

The two events are certainly unrelated but their confluence is rich with meaning. We often forget that that the current economic crisis has affected both the wine industry and the publishing industry. Hawking wine is no easy tasks these days (especially when it comes to high-end, luxury wine like Brunello) and hawking newspapers and magazine is even harder.


Above: Traditional style Brunello and steak, one of the great gastronomic pairings in the Western Canon. (Honestly, I wish I would have used a slightly shorter cooking time. I prefer my steak “black and blue,” charred on the outside, blood rare on the inside. But it was delicious nonetheless!)

While I’ve been a devoted fan of Mr. Ziliani’s blog since I first discovered his writing more than 5 years ago, I can’t say that I’ve been such an admirer of Mr. Suckling’s take on Italian wine. In fact, I think that Suckling historically ignored and omitted the great icons of Italian wine from the canon of the Spectator’s “top wines of the world” because he was looking for wines that appealed to his idiosyncratic sensibility without viewing them in a broader scope and without consideration for the wines that Italians consider to be indicative of their winemaking tradition. At the same rate, looking back on Suckling’s legacy (however skewed) as an arbiter of Italian wine, I feel compelled to acknowledge his contribution to the world’s awareness of the overarching greatness of Italian wines.


Above: Potatoes, spinach, grilled onions, and steak, all dressed simply with kosher salt and extra-virgin olive oil.

And so we raised a glass of 2004 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione last night, to both Mr. Suckling and Mr. Ziliani, polar opposites in their approach to Italian wine, leading voices of antithetically positioned vinous philosophies. I hope and trust that both will continue to share their impressions and palates, using whatever media they see fit, with a world ever-thirsty for Italy’s unique wines.

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.

Wineries named in Brunello investigation


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.