Soldera update: making sense of the unfathomable

montalcino vendetta wineMala tempora currunt (bad times are upon us), wrote Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani yesterday in an email, one of the tide of messages that pulsed across the internets as we all tried to make sense of the unfathomable: on Sunday night, someone entered the cellars of Gianfranco Soldera (left, photo taken during my visit in 2008) and destroyed more than 60,000 liters of his wines, six entire vintages, spanning 2007 (still in cask) through 2012.

According to a post today by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association), “62,600 liters” were destroyed and the site confirms that “the entire production from 2007-2012” was lost.

The site also reports the same figure and vintages, noting that “the valves of 10 casks were opened.”

When reached for comment by the authors of the post, Soldera’s son Mauro told them that the wine was insured, including coverage for vandalism (before becoming a winemaker, Gianfranco Soldera made his fortune in the insurance trade in Milan).

The post also quotes the mayor of Montalcino, Silvio Franceschelli, who expressed the town’s “utmost solidarity with Case Basse for this villainous and cowardly act.”

Franceschelli is also quoted as saying that “any allusion to phenomena that bear the mark of the mafia are entirely imaginary.”

I wasn’t able to reach Soldera winery for comment today (the landline was occupied every time I called and a call to Gianfranco’s cellphone went unanswered). But I did speak to a number of people “on the ground” who concurred that the involvement of organized crime is unlikely.

Most believe that the senseless act was inspired by vengeance, perhaps in retribution for the supposed (but never verified) letter that Soldera wrote to authorities who launched an investigation into adulterated wines in Montalcino, an episode that culminated with judiciary action against a number of major players in Brunello in 2008 (the so-called “Brunellopoli” or Brunellogate affair).

(For the record, in 2008, while visting with him under the pergola of his home, I asked Soldera whether or not he had sent a letter to authorities. He flatly denied that he had and I believed him. He was, however, an outspoken critic of many of those implicated in the scandal.)

brunello scandal soldera

Above: Photo taken in 2008 during a visit to the winery. Yesterday, when we spoke, wine merchant Ceri Smith told me that she had tasted the 2007 in cask when she visited Soldera in February of this year.

One person I spoke to this morning (afternoon in Montalcino) proposed that it might have been a disgruntled ex-employee of Soldera.

But everyone I spoke to agreed that it’s unlikely that organized crime was the author of the vandalism. There has been no mafia activity there, said one informed person, and it is improbable that such an event would be isolated if the malavita were involved.

“One thing is certain,” wrote Franco Ziliani on his blog today, “today, all those who called Soldera a ‘poison pen’ or ‘snitch,’ accusing him of breaking the curtain of silence and challenging [Montalcino’s] establishment, should recite a sadly belated mea culpa. They are the ones objectively responsible for having prompted the deranged vandals who violated the cellar at Case Basse as punishment of its owner.”

In a phone conversation today, one of my friends in Tuscany noted how easy it would be to empty the casks of their wine. If you’ve ever visited a winery where large format casks like Soldera’s are used, you know that it’s simply a matter of opening a valve (if the wine were aged in 225-liter barriques, for example, this egregious task would be much more complicated).


Above: “I let my grandchildren use chalk to draw on the casks,” said Soldera during my 2008 visit. Note the spigot at the bottom of the cask.

“The territory of Montalcino is a small and tranquil territory,” wrote winemakers Alessandro and Fabrizio Bindocci on their blog today, “where many people still leave their doors of their homes unlocked.”

As hard as it is to wrap our minds around this nefarious and senseless episode, it’s easy to imagine how simple it would be to execute the crime. When Tracie P and I stay in Montalcino, we regularly leave our keys in the rental car and the doors to our apartment unlocked.

Italy has a long history of vengeance, spanning ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the twentieth-century, when many towns and families were torn apart by the brutality of fascism, the extreme violence of organized crime, and the envies and jealousies borne out by the gap between those who prospered in Italy’s post-war economic miracle and those who didn’t.

The English word vendetta, indeed, comes from the Italian (from the Latin vindicta, meaning vengeance).

Today, faced with the thought that no fewer than six vintages of one of the world’s greatest wines have been lost, no one among us has an explanation for the incomprehensible violation of — what we must recognize as — one of Italy’s greatest treasures and one of the most noble expressions of its cultural legacy.

United in our bewilderment, we can only express our solidarity for a man who has lost six precious years of his life.

Thank goodness for the amazing Ceri Smith @biondivino SF

Thank goodness for the amazing Ceri Smith (above), owner of one of my favorite wine shops in the world, Biondivino in San Francisco, and soon-to-be proprietor of Et Al., a “wine salon” around the corner from her (literally) wonderful store.

Goodness because her wines are so thoughtfully chosen and reflect an aesthetic that so many of us embrace and aspire to; goodness because her store and her soon-to-be-opened wine salon are friendly havens and refuge for those fleeing the Babylon of America’s consumerist hegemony; and goodness because she is one of only a handful of American wineshop owners who have remained true to their mission of sharing unadulterated passion for wine (while others are trying to be “as big as U.S. steel” and “are opening soon in Vegas and Hong Kong”).

In this series of posts devoted to my trip to the Bay Area (Eric Lecours in Redwood City; Shelley Lindgren at A16 SF; and David Lynch at St. Vincent SF), I’ve tried to feature the superb and impeccable professionalism of the restaurateurs and wine professionals who populate our nation’s leading food and wine community (stay tuned for the last post tomorrow, btw, on the food and wine punk rock scene in SF).

Ceri is the embodiment of that unwavering commitment to excellence, that unflagging collegiality, and that unflinching spirit.

As we sat and chatted in the space that is to become her new “wine salon” dubbed Et Al. (above), we talked about her Annie Liebovitz-inspired campaign to combat the Italian government’s campaign to censor the expression “natural wine” (she plans to ask Alice Feiring and Lou Amdur to pose nude with a sign reading, “I drink wines naturally”); we traded notes on our favorite bottlings of Aglianico; and she told me she will be serving Georgian wines by the glass in traditional earthenware cups in her new wine salon.

Beyond the work ethic and the sensibility, the thing that unites all of professionals I’ve profiled in recent days is their unbridled curiosity. And I can’t think of any wineshop in the U.S. where boundless inquisitiveness and commercial success align so seamlessly. The thing that impresses me so much about Ceri and her shop and her new restaurant is how she has managed to expand her business in a time of financial challenges and restraint, all the while staying true to her mission, her passion, and her personal interests. Thank goodness for that.

Ceri will ship nearly anywhere in the U.S. When the weather cools down (and allows for wine shipping), give her a budget to work with and let her know what you like/need to drink. Every year, Tracie P and I get a mixed case from her and we’re always thrilled and informed by her selections. You won’t be disappointed.

grazie @biondivino @zanottocolfondo #IHeartSF

Thanks to everyone who came out to the amazing Ceri Smith’s Biondivino last night for our Zanotto Col Fondo tasting.

It was a blast and your support means the world to me… I love the wines and I love my friend Riccardo and I’m thrilled to see them in California (in part because Tracie P and I want to drink them!).

But a special thanks to the Pasternak family and Marisa Ellero (in the photo above) who drove in from Reno for the tasting.

What is Prosecco Col Fondo (Colfòndo) @biondivino?

We’ll be tasting Riccardo Zanotto’s Prosecco Colfondo in San Francisco on Friday, August 17 at the amazing Ceri Smith’s Biondivino from 6-8 p.m.

The following post was originally published in March 2011 and provides some background on what exactly Prosecco Col Fondo is…

I’ll be at Sotto in Los Angeles tomorrow and Wednesday nights (August 14-15). Hope to see you in SF or LA! Thanks for reading…

Above: Until the 1970s, before pressurized “autoclave” tanks were introduced into the appellation, most Prosecco was double-fermented in bottle “on its lees.” The resulting wine was gently sparkling, cloudy, and still had the “fondo” (sediment) in the bottom of the bottle. Even when I lived and worked in the Veneto in the 1990s, it was a lot easier to find Prosecco “col fondo” (with sediment) than it is today. The traditional glass for Prosecco is the one pictured above.

Tracie P and I got to experience so many great tastings on our recent trip to Italy but none was more thrilling than our appointment with the Colfondisti, a loosely gathered group of Prosecco producers who have returned to the fondo (i.e., the bottom, pun intended) of their tradition, producing bottle-fermented, lees-aged Prosecco — the way their grandfathers did it and the salty, crunchy, utterly delicious way that Tracie P and I like it. The event was organized by an old friend of mine and colfondo bottler, Riccardo Zanotto (who knows me from my coverband days, when I spent three summers playing 6 nights a week in a zone that some call the “Sinistra Piave,” the left bank of the Piave river).

Above: The village of Rolle (not Passo Rolle, the mountain pass, btw) lies at the epicenter of the Prosecco appellation. Nearly equidistant from Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Most locals would argue that Conegliano is where Prosecco was born as an appellation, even though Valdobbiadene has eclipsed its sister village. Our tasting was held in a home in the center of the village.

We tasted five bottlings of sparkling Prosecco, from different vintages. And then we tasted the new Prosecco (still), by one of the producers, from the 2010 vintage — in other words, wine that had yet to be double-fermented.

Bele Casel 2009 Prosecco

Luca Ferraro’s wine is made in Asolo (a more recently authorized Prosecco appellation, not far from the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene series of valleys). Among the colfondisti, some serve their wines torbido (literally, turbid or cloudy), while others serve theirs limpido (limpid or clear). Luca is a torbidista, who prefers the sediment in the wine. Very fresh nose, clean, and with some savory notes. Some yeasty notes in the mouth, dominated by good white fruit. Balanced acidity. (Luca is extremely active in social media, he speaks English well, and his wines are present in the U.S. market.)

Cantina Gatti 2009 Prosecco

Carolina Gatti’s wine was the one that reminded me the most of the Prosecco I used to drink in the late 80s and early 90s: it was super salty and crunchy. Some citrus notes and lots of savory on the rich nose. Lighter in the mouth with salty and strong citrus notes. Bright, bright acidity the way I like it! Carolina is also very active in social media and she authors a wonderful blog called Rabosando.

Above: “Zuel” denotes “sella” or “saddle” in local dialectal inflection and it is a topographic designation that applies to the many “saddles” or gentle hills that shape the appellation. In case you were confused, there’s a saddle “di qua” (over here) and another saddle “di là” (over there).

Costadilà 2008 Prosecco

Ernesto Cattel is perhaps the most savvy marketer of the colfondisti and his wine has good representation in some of the bigger U.S. markets. He is of the limpido persuasion (although we always mix up his wines when we drink them at home). If you follow along here, you’ve seen his wine on my blog before. His wine was perhaps the most balanced, very clean on the nose and the mouth, good acidity and good saltiness balanced by honest fruit. He’s done a lot to document the origins of Prosecco Colfòndo but unfortunately his work is not available online. According to Ernesto, it was the legendary Venetian oste (tavern-keeper) Mauro Lorenzon who popularized the term colfòndo (with sediment), giving producers their battle cry in the face of the industrial and commercial autoclave production that now dominates the appellation and brand. Ernesto will be releasing an orange-wine, skin-contact Prosecco from the 2009 vintage.

La Basseta Casa Belfi 2009 Prosecco

Maurizio Donadi is a locally based enologist who makes Prosecco Colfòndo as a labor amoris. He currently experimenting with Effective Microorganism ceramic chips (above) as a means of controlling unwanted aromas and flavors in unsulfured wines. I liked his wine a lot but it may not be for everyone (you have to be careful not to ingest the chip!). Very nice citrus and white fruit nose and mouth. Very clean and with good acidity. Very interesting to talk to Maurizio and taste his wines with him. As you can see above, he is of the torbido persuasion.

Zanotto 2009 Prosecco

I’m so glad to have reconnected with Riccardo and I love his wines. A highly successful businessman (in the furniture business), he makes this wine out of passion and he’s just one of those folks whose generosity of heart and happy spirit can’t help but rub off on you. He bottles wine that his uncle grows in family-owned vineyards and his wine — served limpido — was probably the most elegant of all the wines we tasted. Beautiful nose, very fresh and very clean, fantastic balance of white fruit and savory notes. I could drink this wine every day.

And the still 2010 Prosecco, you ask?

You’ll just have to be like Tracie P and me and go to Rolle to taste it!

Special thanks to Enrico who hosted the tasting in his home in Rolle.

Oblong Table & Bible Study w/ @LouAmdur @SottoLA Tues. Aug. 14

The “Oblong Table” series that we’ve been doing with Lou at Sotto has been so popular and so much fun that we’ve decided to do one more before fall.

Tuesday, August 14, Lou and I will be leading a guided tasting of some of our favorite Natural wines from Southern Italy (including the Fatalone, white and red, from Puglia).

At the July event, it was fascinating to hear Lou compare the current debate over Natural wine (and whether or not the category really exists) to the dietary laws in Leviticus.

It was such a brilliant analogy: the current dichotomy between the Natural wine purists, on the one hand, and their abjuration of the industrial complex, and the conventional winemakers, on the other, and their disdain for a category they believe doesn’t even exist, is nothing less than biblical in the breadth of acrimony it has generated.

In essence, the laws of kashrut divide the animal world into “clean” that you can consume and “unclean” that you cannot. During the conversation (and btw, it’s an informal setting where wine professionals and lovers chime in with observations and questions), it occurred to me that both parties in this logomachy (a fight over words more than wines) apply the terms clean and unclean. The Natural purists say the conventional winemakers’ wines are unclean because they’ve been manipulated with additives while the conventional winemakers say the Natural wines are unclean because they have unwanted bacteria and “off” aromas and flavors.

At one point, I brought up Eric the Red’s recent The New York Times article “Wines Worth a Taste, but Not the Vitriol” and the Italian authorities’ recent crackdown on the use of the term Natural in advertising.

“Is this a line in the sand?” I asked Lou. “Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?” I queried in chiasmus.

Lou’s answered simply that he didn’t care. Enjoying the aroma of the Cornelissen (arguably the most extreme expression of Natural wine today), he talked about how much he enjoyed the way was changing in the glass and how he would continue to call it Natural because it’s a term that captures the spirit of these wines (“like obscenity, I can’t tell you exactly what it is but I know it when I see it”). And he said that he agreed with our mutual friend Ceri Smith who recently proposed that the category be defined by “those winemakers who tell you what they put in the wine and those who don’t.”

The conversation at our Oblong Tables is always fascinating and you’ll always find some of the top wine professionals in LA there with us. I hope you can join us!

Here are event and reservation details.

A great SF wine store, Georgian wine, and some interesting posts

Above: the inimitable Ceri Smith, owner and creator of Biondivino, named San Francisco’s “best wine shop” by the San Francisco Gate the very day I visited her, and Chris Terrell, importer of intriguing Georgian wines.

When I was in San Francisco last week, I had the great pleasure to meet Ceri Smith, owner and creator of Biondivino and one of the top Italian wine experts in our country. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wine simply blew me away and her store — however small — is one of the most delightful places on earth. She specializes in Italian wine but carries a few French, Slovenian, and Georgian labels. Her collection of Italian sparkling wine is probably the best in the country and she sells a few Champagnes as well. She was gracious enough to share a coveted bottle of Valentini 2001 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo with me, one of her favorites, she said. A fantastic wine…

Above: I really liked Vinoterra’s Kisi, which should cost around $20 retail. Look at the beautiful color on that wine. Really great, oxidized, tasty, stinky stuff — the way I like it. It’s high time to take Georgian wine seriously.

We were also joined by importer Chris Terrell who specializes in Georgian wines. He had contacted me after he read my post on the war in Georgia. Chris first fell in love with Georgian wine when he biked through the Caucusus and tasted these amazing bottlings. We tasted through eight Georgian wines by two producers, each unique, surprising, and intriguing. I particularly liked the Kisi (an indigenous Georgian grape) by Vinoterra, aged in amphora. Vinoterra served as inspiration and model for the extreme wines of Gravner, which he began to age in amphora some years ago after he visited Vinoterra.

In other news…

Here are some top bloggers in my Google reader and some interesting posts I’ve read by them recently. As the saying goes, ubi major, minor cessat…

My good friend Alice Feiring just launched this New York Times blog about her experience making wine for the first time. I’m one of her biggest fans.

Dr. Vino by Tyler Colman is one of the most popular wine blogs in the U.S. and a leading resource for tasting notes, wine news and trivia. Tyler’s pièce de résistance is his research on the carbon footprint of wine. I was particularly impressed by this post in which he debunks the myth of Beaujolais Nouveau, “Boycott Beaujolais Nouveau”. It’s hard-hitting stuff and a must read.

Italian Wine Guy aka Alfonso Cevola, another good friend of mine, is hands-down the top Italian wine blogger in the U.S. This guy knows his stuff and his blog is a daily read for me. I love the way that Alfonso bends our genre, always pushing the envelope in ways that surprise and entertain me. His recent post on Luca Zaia’s “mommy blog” is one of his most daring and politically charged. Chapeau, Alfonso!