Cultural entrepreneurship on the rise among Italian winemakers

A photo of Vigne del Vulture’s vineyards in Aglianico del Vulture, taken September 20. Image via Gabriele Ladislao Moccia’s Facebook.

While Tracie P, Georgia P, and I were in Melfi (Basilicata) a few weeks ago, we had the chance to meet and taste with a young producer, Gabriele Ladislao Moccia. His winery, Vigne del Vulture, is new on the scene: a native of Vulture and purveyor of fine food products, Gabriele has been using his contacts in the nordic countries to distribute his wines with great success.

Above: I wouldn’t call Gabriele’s wines classic in style but they are a true expression of the grape variety. Note the dark color and transparency of his 2007, which I liked a lot.

His wines aren’t yet available in the U.S. but I wanted to write a note about them because I believe that Gabriele represents a new trend of young Italian entrepreneurs who recognize the value of authenticity in their wines.

Vigne del Vulture’s wines are a little rough around the edges and they still need to come into focus. But I was impressed by Gabriele’s resolve to make wines that truly reflect the appellation.

A generation ago, many Italian winemakers set out to make wines for the American market: if you follow along here at Do Bianchi, you’ve seen my reportage on wine industry greats like Ezio Rivella who have declared — very publicly — that they were “deliberately adopting a California style.”

Above: I thought that Gabriele’s 2007 showed the best in the flight we tasted. It tended toward modernity but didn’t ever lose its continuity with true varietal expression and the appellation.

As we traveled through Italy on this last trip, I found more and more signs of a new generation of young Italians who are looking to enter the U.S. market with wines that reflect their local traditions, even if they do lean toward modernity.

Of all the winemakers we visited, Gabriele was one of a score of thirty-somethings who embrace authenticity (if not tradition) in their approach to their products.

This trend is the opposite of the generation that came before them. Perhaps they take their inspiration more from a renewed sense of identity and purpose than from old man Mondavi and the Napa Valley revolution.

I liked Gabriele a lot and I’m looking forward to tasting the new releases next year when they arrive.

“If it’s a blend, I will not attend!” (And the Texas fires)

Cousin Marty had a hunch about what wine I’d be bringing to our BYOB dinner last night in Houston with friends. And when I arrived and revealed my bottle of 2006 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione, he opened the evening with the line of the night: “If it’s a blend, I will not attend!”

Of course, he was referring to yesterday’s news that Montalcino producers voted NOT to allow international grape varieties in Rosso di Montalcino, a step that many of us feared would irrevocably reshape the appellation.

According to results posted by the Brunello producers association, roughly 2/3 of voting members voted not to adopt either of the two options proposed by oligarchy that controls the body’s technical council. One option would have created two categories of Rosso; the other would have created three; in either case, international grape varieties would have been allowed in wines labeled Rosso di Montalcino.

But that figure is misleading because consortium president Ezio Rivella had called for an “ordinary” assembly whereby the number of votes is allocated according to the size of the winery. In other words, larger wineries had more voting power than smaller wineries. If the voting had been based on a one-vote-per-winery basis, the results would have been a landslide against the proposal to change the appellation.

I am fully convinced that efforts by my colleague and partner in VinoWire, Franco Ziliani, played a fundamental role in shaping public awareness of the issues in question.

Chapeau bas, Franco! IF IT’S A BLEND, I WILL NOT ATTEND!

The 2006 Brunello by Il Poggione was gorgeous last night, rich in body, bright in acidity, with ripe red fruit and that wonderful horse sweat note that often distinguishes great Brunello. The wine was muscular and still very, very tight, young in its evolution. But the green notes that emerged the last time I tasted the wine about 6 months ago have disappeared. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to be a great vintage for Il Poggione.

In other and sadder news…

I wanted to share these photos that I took on Hwy. 290 from Austin to Houston of the Texas fires.

In the first photo, above, taken about 20 minutes west of Giddings, the fire had just started and the firefighters had just arrived. Man, it was scary and you could see the fear and the stress in the faces of the firefighters. G-d bless them.

In this second photo, you can see a plume northwest of Houston. Pretty spooky and so sad.

In this last photo, you can see the smoky haze over Houston this morning. That’s not morning mist. It’s ugly, brown smoke. My eyes are burning and my throat is itchy. It reminds me of LA during the riots when I was a grad student at U.C.L.A.

Tracie P and Baby P are fine and even though there are uncontained fires burning not far from our house in Austin, the smoke is not affecting us there.

Please say a prayer for all the folks who are suffering here… It’s so sad…

BREAKING NEWS: Franco Biondi Santi speaks out against proposed Montalcino changes

It would seem that the editors at Decanter and Gambero Rosso spoke too soon when they reported that Brunello di Montalcino great Franco Biondi Santi (left, photo via Weintipps) supported proposed changes to the Rosso di Montalcino appellation that would allow for blending of international grape varieties in Rosso di Montalcino (current legislation requires that Rosso di Montalcino be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes).

Last week, both publications cited him as a supporter of Brunello producers association president Ezio Rivella’s campaign to modernize the appellation. But evidently, neither contacted Biondi Santi — the grandson of the creator of Brunello di Montalcino and a towering figure in the history of the appellation — for comment.

“Three years ago I was in favor of the addition of softening wines or grapes to Sangiovese for Rosso di Montalcino,” said Biondi Santi in a phone interview today with one of Italy’s leading wine writers and top wine blogger Franco Ziliani, who quotes the signore del Brunello on his blog Vino al Vino. “Today, things have changed and my position is no to any change to the appellation.”

The proposed changes, he noted, would allow producers to transform 500 hectares of unsellable Sant’Antimo and IGT Toscana into Rosso di Montalcino.

“We would enter into the same thicket as 1966,” said Biondi Santi, “when the appellation ‘Vino Rosso dai Vigneti di Brunello’ was created.” [editor’s note: this appellation was changed to Rosso di Montalcino fifteen years later] “In the fall of 1966, Montalcino was obligated to found the Brunello Consortium, which became operative on January 1, 1967, with my father. After three months of negotiations with other producers, we decided not to enter the consortium because we strongly disapproved of how it was taking advantage of an equivocation at the time: the grape variety was also called Brunello and it was considered a subvariety of Sangiovese! Therefore, a no is indispensable in order to clarify.”

Does Rosso di Montalcino need more personality?

In the wake of an aborted vote to change the Rosso di Montalcino appellation, Brunello producers association president Ezio Rivella (above) has broken the silence and explained the reason for wanting to add international grape varieties (Merlotization) to the currently monovarietal (100% Sangiovese) wine.

Speaking to his new public relations mouthpiece (ItaliaTV, which calls itself the “channel for internationlization”! HA!), he recently recounted how the producers association is “preparing a marketing plan [UGH] that will help us to relaunch Rosso di Montalcino as an independent wine — a wine that has its own personality.”

(I watched the video and translated some excerpts sans ironie over at VinoWire.)

Although I will commend ItaliaTV for its production value (decidedly better than Carlo Macchi Productions, who managed to capture Rivella saying that 80% of Brunello was illicitly blended with unauthorized grape varieties), I am repulsed by the fact Rivella continues to promote his personal agenda and program for internationalization and Merlotization in spite of the growing chorus of opposition voices (who succeeded at least in forcing the gerrymandering Rivella to postpone the vote to change the appellation).

I’ve been drinking Rosso di Montalcino since 1989 and I am here to tell you that honest producers never made it as a “leftover from Brunello.” They made it from younger vines grown in good (as opposed to top) growing sites; they made it as a more approachable expression of Sangiovese and their land, not intended for long-term aging; they made it to drink everyday (as opposed to special occasions); and they made it so folks like you and me could enjoy fresh, food-friendly, utterly delicious Sangiovese for around $20.

If that’s not personality, grits ain’t groceries and the Mona Lisa was Ezio Rivella

Italy meets California circa 1982 (by Burton Anderson, Wine Spectator)

Source: Alfonso Cevola. Check out his truly stunning post on tasting Sangiovese in Tuscany in the 1970s, Our Sangiovese.

The above image of Ezio Rivella (now president of the Brunello producers association) has been culled from the December 1-15, 1982 issue of the Wine Spectator. The article, filed from Florence, was written by Burton Anderson and is entitled “Italian vintners look to Cabernet, Chardonnay for future wine styles; results mixed so far.”

“We’re deliberately adopting a California style because our main market is the United States and also because the technology is more suitable,” Rivella, then director of Banfi, told Anderson. “But we have an advantage. Conditions in our hill vineyards are not only better than in Napa or Sonoma, they’re the best I know of anywhere. We plan to fully exploit this advantage in our wines, which will be aged in barriques of split French oak.”

A picture’s worth a thousand words, isn’t it?

In other [Brunello] news…

Who knew that Gianfranco Soldera was a natural winemaker? Read what he had to say in an interview published last week, translated and posted by Mr. Franco Ziliani and me at VinoWire.

Wine blogs you should and can’t read react to Brunello “rivellation”

Regretfully, I don’t have a subscription to Jancis Robinson’s subscription-only blog but a friend cut, pasted, and sent me a post on Jancis’s blog by British wine writer Monty Waldin (above), who commented on the Rivellation that “80% of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese.”

    By saying that most pre-2008 Brunello was fraudulently blended, Dott. Rivella implicitly accepts that journalists such as Franco Ziliani, myself and a number of others who have consistently and publicly claimed that all Brunellos were not 100% Brunello, as they should have been, deserve at least some credit – and that we don’t ‘deserve to have our tyres slashed’, as one irate ‘Brunello’ producer told me to my face.

    We didn’t say what we said because we are anti-Brunello. Far from it. We said it because it was obvious to any wine drinker with half a brain that certain wines labelled Brunello did not always look, smell or taste as though they were 100% Brunello (Sangiovese). This was not fair to consumers, but just as importantly it was not fair to those Brunello producers – both big and small – who played by the rules, the vast majority of whom actually succeeded in making red wines with the inherent quality to reinforce the fully justified claim of real Brunello to sit in Italy’s vinous pantheon.

Another interesting pingback came from a truly dynamic wine blogger in Finland, Arto Koskelo (above), who was gracious enough to translate a post in which he reflects on Rivella’s statements (since I, for one, cannot read Finnish!).

    Don’t get me wrong, the wines may very well be excellent. But in the end the most crucial point isn’t the style of the wines nor even their quality but integrity and lack of it. If one exploits the very historical legacy the regions reputation is based on and at the same time sells it short, wine lover finds that if he gives this kind of fashion the thumbs up he ends up with one stinky finger.

Arto’s a 30-something freelance writer and wine blogger and videographer. “As you might know,” he wrote me in an email, “Finland as a Nordic country has traditionally been a beer drinking country, so we are super happy about the small impact we are making on the cultural landscape.”

Ezio Rivella: “80% of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese.”

Above: I hope that Tuscan wine writer and internet-based interviewer Carlo Macchi doesn’t quit his day job. I certainly wouldn’t call him the next Antonioni. Although he might give Dario Argento a run for his money. Last week, the newly elected president of the Brunello producers association, Ezio Rivella, told Macchi that “80% of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese.”

You can imagine my utter and profound astonishment when I watched a recently taped interview with the new president of the Brunello producers association in which he stated the following: at least up until the time of the Brunello controversy that broke in March 2008, “80 of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese” and that the practice of adding “3-5% of grapes other than Sangiovese” was “widespread” and “commonly accepted” among the 250 or so bottlers of Brunello di Montalcino. (The interview was filmed in two parts: the above statements were made in the second segment, and here’s a link to the first.)

The interviews were conducted last week by Italian (Tuscan) wine writer Carlo Macchi, editor of the online wine magazine WineSurf. The videos came to my attention via the weekly web news roundup published on the Italian Sommelier Association website by Mr. Franco Ziliani (who, btw, is not currently blogging right now).

I’m only partly astonished by the figure. In fact, most people whom I’ve spoken to on the ground would arrive at the same figure more or less through guesstimation. As Gian Franco Soldera told me when I visited with him in September 2008 (at the height of the crisis), “the tanker trucks come in weighted down, their load riding low to the ground, and they leave riding high.”

No, what amazed me was the nonchalance with which Rivella brandished this astounding figure. But at the same rate, considering the fact that he spent four decades (the majority of those at the helm) at the largest producer in the appellation (you don’t need me to tell you who that is), I’m not surprised that he would so unabashedly utter these words. And in all fairness and in honesty, I must applaud Rivella for sharing this insight (so often spoken sotto voce, under one’s breath in Montalcino) in a public forum.

What alarmed me was the fact that Rivella also told his interviewer that “for the moment were not going to be talking about changing the appellation to allow for grapes other than Sangiovese.” The law states that the producers get to decide the rules, he explains, and the producers have voted for 100% Sangiovese. But — ugh and here it comes — “we will discuss changing it in future because it needs to be changed.”

When asked the wine figure that impressed him the most, he replied Robert Mondavi. Are you surprised?

I translated and paraphrased some other highlights (?) here at VinoWire.

Jancis Robinson: “Syrah di Montalcino”

From Jancis Robinson’s blog, yesterday, “Montalcino votes for modernism”:

“After dramatic last-minute machinations, it has just been revealed that the secret ballot to elect the new president of the Brunello di Montalcino consortium revealed that arch-modernist Ezio Rivella of Banfi garnered most votes and will now direct the fortunes of this controversial wine.

Until very recently it looked as though the most prominent woman in Montalcino, Donatello Cinelli Colombini, would win, but at the eleventh hour, in a move that took many by surprise, she withdrew her candidacy and threw her weight behind Rivella. Concerned that this would be the final nail in the Brunello coffin, and that Piemonte-born Rivella would encourage the use of grape varieties other than Brunello (Sangiovese), veteran winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci of the respected estate Il Poggione declared his own bid for the presidency yesterday. …

It seems as though the juggernaut rolling towards the likes of Syrah di Montalcino is unstoppable.”

Nightmare in Montalcino: Fabrizio is our only hope!

I just saw a retweet in my Twitter feed and am literally feeling ill after what I just read over at Montalcino Report: Donatella Cinelli Colombini has “stepped aside” and is giving her support to Ezio Rivella in his bid to become president of the Brunello producers association (if you haven’t been following events there, just scroll down on my blog to my most recent posts).

A nightmare is unfolding in Montalcino and Fabrizio Bindocci (left, in a photo I took probably 6 years ago) is our only hope. Fabrizio had not officially announced his candidacy for the presidency but Cinelli’s “abdication” has led him to speak out finally. He did so today in an open letter he wrote to Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani. Fabrizio’s son Alessandro has published an English translation at Montalcino Report.

In it, his father writes:

    It is, however, with a certain dismay that I have learned — in a meeting that we held yesterday with some of the councillors — that Donatella Cinelli Colombini wishes to give way (and to give the presidency) to the very person, in my opinion (and in accordance with my own sense of propriety), who is the farthest from my land and the wine that we steadfastly wish to continue to produce (perhaps by improving our tradition but certainly not by bastardizing it). He is the farthest from it in his actions, his feelings, and his interests.

    I am referring to Cavalier Rivella, whom I have known since his earliest days in Montalcino and whose bluntness I appreciate.

    Therefore, I believe that it is my duty, on the eve of this most delicate of appointments, to ask all of my fellow councillors and all of those who hold dear the reputation (and success) of this wine to banish from our behaviour any interest that does not correspond to that of the producer Consortium members.

    This — and only this — is what I would wish to do if I were to be President!

However distant this election may appear, it is the front line in the battle to save traditionalism and indigenous winemaking in Italy. I know Fabrizio well and as outspoken as he is (in the true Tuscan tradition), he is also a very humble man who would not have taken such a brazen stance if the situation were not grave.

Keeping my fingers crossed (and hoping you are, too)… thanks for reading…

A ray of hope in Montalcino (election results expected tomorrow)

Above: I photographed this pristine bunch of Sangiovese grapes in the southwestern subzone of the Brunello appellation in September 2008, just a few days before harvest began.

So many amazing bottles of wine (Italian and otherwise) have been opened for me and Tracie P over the last few weeks and I have a lot to post about, but today Montalcino is on my mind: tomorrow Thursday, if all goes as expected, the Brunello producers association will announce the name of its new president.

The good news is that presidential front-runner Ezio Rivella, who previously proposed a change in appellation regulations that would allow for grapes other than Sangiovese to be used, has publicly pledged NOT to change the rules.

My colleague Mr. Franco Ziliani, author of Italy’s most popular wine blog, Vino al Vino, reported the story last week, and this morning, he and I have posted my translation of Rivella’s interview with the Corriere di Siena over at VinoWire.

Above: Neither my friend Ben Shapiro (in the photo), who accompanied me on the trip, nor I will forget that beautiful fall day in Montalcino, our last in the appellation before we headed over to Maremma.

His words come as a relief, to me and to many observers of Montalcino and actors on the ground. The thought of Brunello with even just 5% of Syrah in it… well… makes me want to heave…

I imagine that the backroom compromise went something like this: after being elected to the consortium’s advisory council (who in turn will elect a president, to be announced tomorrow), Rivella vowed not to change appellation regulations to allow grapes other than Sangiovese in exchange for support for his presidency and a willingness to revise the Rosso di Montalcino and Sant’Antimo appellations to allow higher percentages of international grape varieties.

The fact is that most producers — at least from what I hear directly — want Brunello to continue to be produced using 100% Sangiovese grapes.

Fyi, Rivella has teamed with viticultural giant Masi to produce Brunello on the Pian di Rota estate in Castiglione d’Orcia (not far from the estate where Masi is growing grapes for its Bello Ovile project). To my knowledge, no Brunello has been produced there yet…

Stay tuned…