Natural wine: Italian government crackdown

Above: In late June, Italian authorities visited the Enoteca Bulzoni (one of the city’s oldest and most respected wine retailers) and cited the owner for the display of a sign that read “natural wines.” Many in Italy believe that the Italian government is poised to crack down on the use of the expression “natural wine” in the sale and marketing of wine (image via Google Maps).

While most in the U.S. took the last week off from blogging (myself included), a small news story in Italy exploded into a major controversy.

On June 25, Marco Bolasco (editorial director for Slow Food publishing) posted the follow story on his personal blog:

    A few days ago I received this email from [Alessandro] Bulzoni, an important Roman wine shop on Viale Parioli.

    “I’m writing you to let you know about what happened to me last week: two agriculture ministry officials came [to my shop] to notify me that the sale of ‘Natural’ wines on my shelves was illegal. They wrote me up and they will be fining me. They might even charge me with a crime. The issue was advertising the sale of wines without certification.”

Above: The fact that authorities chose to penalize Enoteca Bulzoni — a Roman institution since 1929 — has led to speculation that officials wanted to make an “example” of a high-profile retailer (photo via the shop’s website).

In the days that followed, myriad posts appeared, including pieces by high-profile blogs Intravino, Millevigne, InternetGourmet, and Terra Uomo Cielo, a blog co-authored by Giovanni Arcari, who brought l’affaire Bulzoni to my attention.

“If advertising a wine as ‘natural’ is a crime, I want to be arrested, too,” wrote blogger Fabrizio Penna in a post on Enotime.

It’s not clear whether or not this episode will mark the beginning of a new crackdown by government officials or whether it will be a singular incident.

But as Maurizio Gily points out on his blog MilleVigne, the fact that the officials didn’t hesitate to fine Bulzoni appears to indicate that they will be taking an aggressive approach. A request to remove the sign and a warning would have been more in line with current attitudes and trends, noted Maurizio.

In his post, Maurizio also reminds us that the use of the word natural in the labeling and sale of wines is not permitted by Italian wine industry regulation. Technically, Bulzoni was in fact guilty of having committed “consumer fraud,” a crime that Italy’s agriculture ministry and inspectorate take very seriously (consumer fraud is what spawned the Brunello controversy of 2008).

The production, labeling, and marketing of wine are highly regulated in Italy and the wine industry lobby is one of the agricultural sector’s most powerful.

And as Natural wine continues to emerge as a commercially viable category (the fact that a retailer like Bulzoni was advertising “Natual” wines is indicative of this trend), there are many powers-that-be who would like to curb its application.

I can’t help but be reminded by another analogous instance in the history of Italian vinography: in the 1980s, when Sassicaia and Ornellaia (among others) were still being labeled and sold as vini da tavola because they were not “authorized” by Italian appellation regulations, the English-language media — deux ex machina — coined the phrase Super Tuscan.

The origins of the expression Natural wine are surely French but the term has been popularized (read vulgarized) by the American wine media. And many would point to the vibrant interest in Natural wines in the U.S. as one of the factors that has prompted Italian winemakers, marketers, and retailers to embrace the epithet.

But the thought of Italian officials entering a beloved shop and fining the owner for the use of the term natural evokes images from an era when fascist linguistic “purists” (as they called themselves) tried to ban foreign terms in commerce (the word tramezzino for sandwich is a famous historical example of this).

Above: Umberto D.

Italians don’t enjoy the same freedoms of speech that we do in the U.S. but this move by the Italian government seems excessive (and is being closely followed by industry observers).

At a time when the financial crisis has led to an overarching reset in the Italian wine industry and when small producers and retailers continue to struggle to stay afloat, is there really any harm in a little sign on Viale Parioli?

Evidently, in the eyes of the Italian agriculture ministry, there is…

Jared Brandt, reluctant Natural winemaker at Donkey & Goat @SottoLA

Above: Polymath and reluctant Natural winemaker Jared Brandt sat down for dinner together last night at Sotto.

It’s hard to explain the role that Donkey & Goat wines play in our lives.

We serve them by the glass and by the bottle at Sotto in Los Angeles, where I curate the wine list.

Tracie P and I drink them regularly at home (the last vintage of Sluicebox is currently our house white).

And Rev. B, my father-in-law, just can’t get enough of the Berkeley winery’s red wines, which, like most of Jared’s wines are sourced from a new frontier of grape growing in contemporary California winemaking, El Dorado, where wine grapes have been grown since the time of the Gold Rush.

“It’s really interesting to see where they planted their vines” during the Gold Rush, said Jared, who doesn’t own any land there but works closely with growers.

“You’ve got to consider that they had no means to acidify their wines and so they needed to plant on sites where they had diurnal temperature variations.”

The thought of gold miners growing wine grapes in an era before Pasteur’s discoveries had taken root would have been enough to occupy the conversation for the entire evening.

But there were so many questions I had for Jared, a polymath who came to wine and winemaker later in life after a career in high tech but who has now emerged as one of our country’s leading Natural winemakers — however reluctantly.

“I don’t like labels and I don’t consider myself a Natural winemaker” per se, he said. “I think of it more as ‘unmanipulative’ winemaking. But that’s not as fun to say.”

“Basically,” he explained, “I don’t put anything in my wine that could hurt my daughter if she ate it,” referring to the many chemical treatments that even Natural and biodynamic producers use regularly. Of course, his rule of thumb resonated with me, father of a six-month-old baby girl (Tracie P has been posting about Georgia P’s Baby Led Weaning on her Sugar Pie blog, btw).

I don’t have time to recount our entire confabulatio this morning but I was impressed by his take on Native yeast.

“It seems that the one thing that everyone [of the Natural winemakers] agrees on is native yeast,” he said. “I’ve experimented with commercial yeast but every time, I’ve ended up with a stuck fermentation. You’d be surprised by how many famous Californian winemakers use native yeast.”

His approach to winemaking has been enjoying popularity among young U.C. Davis enology students, he told me. “Davis is changing: there is a generation of professors there and we have a quite a following of students who come to visit us at the winery.”

The spark that ignited his career in winemaking?

“I was collecting the wines of [Rhône producer] Eric Textier and had tasted a white wine he made and loved it. I then read in the Wine Advocate that Robert Parker found the wine undrinkable. That’s when I decided I wanted to travel to France to make wine with him.”

An ice cream machine, said Jared, is one of the techniques employed by the famed zero-sulfur producer as a means to stabilize his wines and eliminate the need for sulfur. But that will be have to be another story for another day…

Taste Jared’s wine with me tonight at Sotto if you’re in LA…

Un naso straordinario (a date with Lou Amdur @SottoLA)

If you follow along here, Lou Amdur (above) needs no introduction. He’s one of the most beloved and respected professionals working in the wine world today. After closing Lou, his now legendary Natural wine bar in Los Angeles, he’s been taking time off to travel and do research before opening Lou 2.0. He’s currently visiting Sicily, including many of the wineries featured on our all-Southern Italian wine list at Sotto.

On June 21 (details below), he’ll be joining wine captain Rory and me for a guided tasting of Natural Southern Italian wines.

Seating is limited but it should be a super fun event…

Sicily, Italy’s Wild Frontier
a tasting with Lou Amdur
(formerly of Lou on Vine)
Sotto Wine Director Jeremy Parzen
& Sotto Wine Captain Rory Harrington
Thursday, June 21
7 p.m.
$40 per person (plus tax and gratuity)
limited availability

To reserve, please email General Manager Nastassia Johnson:

Please note that tickets are transferable but non-refundable.

Join Natural wine trailblazer Lou Amdur (formerly of Lou on Vine), Italian wine expert and Sotto wine director Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D., and Los Angeles restaurant veteran and Sotto wine captain Rory Harrington as they taste a flight of Natural wines from Sicily — including COS, Occhipinti, and Cornelissen — and discuss Lou’s recent trip to the island.

Lou Admur is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures on the Los Angeles wine scene today. He literally changed the way Angelenos understood wine when he opened the city’s first and only Natural wine bar six years ago. After closing the doors of his restaurant earlier this year, he has devoted his time to research and travel and will have recently returned from Sicily where he plans to visit Vittoria and Etna.

Why Cornelissen is on our list @SottoLA

Frank Cornelissen came from Belgium to Etna,” wrote Eric the Red in a recent New York Times piece, “where he makes extreme wines unlike almost any others on earth, which people tend to love or hate.”

Cornelissen’s supremely polarizing wines are a wine director’s worst nightmare. Because they are entirely unsulfured, there is extreme bottle variation in any allocation and secondary fermentation (and the resulting spritz) is more common than not. Because they are unfiltered and unfined, the wines are cloudy and have all kinds of nasty looking bits floating around in them. And the volatile acidity in the wines — there’s no way around this — can make them smell like shit when you first open them.

So why did I put them on my list at Sotto in Los Angeles (where I’ve been curating the carta dei vini since the restaurant opened on March 5, 2011)? And why did the general manager, Dina Pepito, agree to let me, against her better judgment?

It’s a lot easier to serve Cornelissen’s wines at home, where you have all the time in the world to let them rest upright and let their sediment fall to the bottom. When we’ve served them in our home, we made sure to give them ample time to repose and we’ve drunk them over the course of an entire evening, following along as the wine changed from first glass to last.

When I worked the floor at Sotto on Saturday night, there were ninety people on the waiting list trying to get in. It’s one of the hottest A-list tables in LA right now. And in all that hustle and bustle (between the CAA dick-waggers and the Chardonnay-drinking housewives of Beverly Hills), a sturdy Gaglioppo works great while a delicate Etna blend tends to be unsettled by the roaring din of the rich and famous.

And even though the allocation we managed to get certainly doesn’t meet the criteria for “fine wine,” we store the bottles with our verticals of Taurasi, Cirò, and Graticciaia because the wines need to be handled with the same gentle tenderness.

When the wines became available to us thanks to Amy Atwood Selections, I put them on the list because I wanted to offer our guests Natural winemaking in its most extreme expression. From the Natural wine police to the consumerist hegemony of wine punditry in the U.S. today, everyone agrees that 1) these are impeccably Natural wines; and 2) they represent, to borrow an expression from Roland Barthes, “wine degree zero.” These are wines to which literally nothing has been added. Nothing, zero, zippo… (If you don’t know the wines, read this profile by Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator, of all places!)

And of course, I wanted our wine list to reflect the renaissance of winemaking that’s taking shape on the northern slopes of Mt. Etna.

I sold a couple of bottles of the wine over the last weekend (when I was visiting for staff training and to “work the floor”).

One was to a table of wine geeks who had read a preview of the list in one of LA’s sea of food blogs. It was amazing to watch their eyes light as the stink blew off and they slowly nursed the wine. “I’ve never tasted anything like this,” said one. “The wine is slightly sparkling,” noted another.

I sold another bottle to super glam Eastern European lady (Hungary?) who sported a Farrah Fawcett hairdo and who was in town to visit her daughter, who was dining with her.

“I cannot drink wines with sulfites,” she told me. “I break out if I drink wine with sulfites. I can only drink natural wine,” she added, clearly unaware of what the volatile term natural can mean to wine professionals these days.

“As it just so happens,” I said, “I have a wine to which, I am 100% sure, no sulfites have been added.” (We actually have a couple on the list.) And I opened the Contadino (the same as in the photos above).

She wasn’t entirely thrilled by the wine but she didn’t send it back. She was normally a “Merlot drinker,” she told me. And in one of the most bizarre moves I’ve ever seen, she ordered coffee after dinner but kept nursing the wine with her coffee. (Disgusting, right?)

I don’t think the wine made much of an impression on her. But I’m assuming, since she didn’t call to complain, that she didn’t break out the next day.

And in our small little way, we made the world a little safer for Italian wine…

Stay tuned for my next post about my recent visit to Sotto: “The Racism of Corkage.”

Los Pilares: Not so Natural but delicious in San Diego (it’s a small world after all)

it’s a world of laughter, a world or tears
it’s a world of hopes, it’s a world of fear
there’s so much that we share
that it’s time we’re aware
it’s a small world after all

I used to love that song as a kid (and still do) and I would sing it over and over and over again… my favorite ride at that twentieth-century experiment in social engineering otherwise known as Disneyland…

It was only natural (small n) that I would get a call asking if I’d like to taste the first bottling by Los Pilares in San Diego after our friend Alice Feiring wrote about the wine glowingly on her blog the same week that Tracie P, Georgia P, and I were visiting my hometown (La Jolla High School Class of ’85).

When the call (and connection) came, our friend — cancer survivor, author, local radio personality, and vibrant life force — Chrissa Chase informed me that she wanted to set up a tasting and a meeting with one of the winemakers, a nice gent named Michael Christian, a retired lawyer who, like many in his generation, grew tired of drinking concentrated, overly oaked, and excessively alcoholic Californian wines.

In the wake of the excitement that followed Alice’s post (and calls expressing interest in representation from the Garagiste and from one of the top distributors of Natural wine in California, said Michael), the San Diego folks began calling the wine a “Natural” wine.

But when I sat down with Michael — a super nice guy — I discovered that, in fact, the grapes had been sourced from local growers whose “Natural” credentials would surely be questioned by the Natural wine elite (had they been consulted). And of course, the wine had been inoculated for malolactic fermentation — a red flag among the self-appointed Natural wine auditors.

After a thirty-minute discussion on the Natural wine dialectic, the Natural wine elite in our country (a club I don’t belong to because as Groucho Marx once noted, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”), and what makes a wine Natural (as per Eric the Red’s recent op-ed in the Times), I turned to my host and her guest Michael and said, “who the hell cares if it’s a Natural wine or not? Let’s just taste it!”

I thought the wine — a blend of San Diego-grown Grenache and Carignane — was delicious: bright and fresh, with a lot of cinnamon and spice in the initial impression, giving way to ripe berry and red fruit flavors. And like Alice (I hadn’t yet read her review when I tasted it), I loved the low alcohol content (12.5%). Michael noted that the cool 2010 harvest in California allowed him and his partners to achieve the ripeness they wanted without the high alcohol. I liked the wine so much that I convinced Michael to sell me a bottle ($24) to taste with Tracie P at dinner the next night.

Maybe the folks in San Diego have come to the Natural wine discussion a few years late… Maybe the word itself Natural is just too sexy to resist. Ultimately, whether a wine is Natural or not is now irrelevant, especially considering the vitriol that the discussion has generated (the exact opposite of what Natural wine should mean, in my view).

In the end, the important thing to remember is…

There is just one moon and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone.
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It’s a small small world…

The Natural wine disconnect (the ideology and spirituality of wine and the importance of a good shit)

Above: The best things in life are free but you can’t leave them to the birds and bees. My good friend Giampaolo Venica employs chemical-free farming and vinifies his wines using ambient yeast exclusively. But he would never call his wine “Natural.” He just calls it “wine.” I took this photo of “Wasp with Ribolla Grape” at his winery in September 2010.

Who will ever know why Eric the Red (as Eric Asimov is known here) decided to write today about the “vitriol” and “hissy fits” that “Natural wine advocacy” can evoke and provoke among English-language wine bloggers and writers? Was it because he overheard some wine hipsters at The Ten Bells — my favorite wine bar in New York City — dissing someone for liking a “yeasted” wine? (Dagueneau or Bruno Giacosa, anyone?)

Or was he writing in response to top American wine blogger and marketer Tom Wark’s satire of the “denigration marketing” embraced by Natural wine proponents in a post this week entitled “Drink Natural Wine Or Get a Bad Rash”?

I like to call Eric the “Solomon” of wine writers (and am a big fan). And if he wrote today about the discord that Natural wine foments in this country, there must be a good reason.

Of course, the greatest denigrator of them all and the instigator of the Natural wine dialectic in this country — Joe Dressner — recently left our world. Joe attacked nearly everyone (myself included; click here for Eric’s pre-obit of Dressner who died in September 2011). But there are a number of people in line for his mantle, each vying — for their own self-interest, whether commercial or purely personal — to take his place as denigrator-in-chief. (Again, please read Tom’s post if you’re interested in that rigamarole.)

Above: A wine shop in peninsular Venice (Favaro Veneto), where Incrocio Manzoni and Malbech [sic] are sold for less than a handful of Euro per liter.

In my view, the misguided and misplaced vitriol of Natural wine advocacy in this country is due to a fundamental disconnect.

In North America, wine is a luxury product only recently embraced by consumerist hegemony. Many in the U.S. may see wine as a means to return to Nature but they rarely embrace it as a means of natural sustenance. Wine is a commodity, often a trophy, a conversation piece and “first world” amenity.

In Europe, wine is a daily nutriment and it remains imbued with ideological and spiritual meaning, at times visceral, at others intellectual. Its origins and roots (literal and figurative) touch the very heart of European society and ethos.

And while many English-language wine bloggers and writers (is there a difference or distinction between the two anymore?) have traveled to Europe and picked and stomped the grapes themselves, few touch upon the deep ideological and spiritual meaning and cultural value that European grape-growers and winemakers cherish so dearly.

Veneto winemaker Angiolino Maule makes Natural wine and stands apart as one of the Natural wine movement’s leading advocates because he believes that Natural wine can save the earth and our humanity by warding off the absolute denaturalization of our species through the inevitable, looming reification of our bodies through consumerism.

This is not stuff of marketing. It is a living, breathing, and often gasping attempt to fight what Marx called alienation or estrangement (please see my post Sensuous world: Marx, Gramsci, Pasolini, food and wine).

Above: The bottom line is that Natural wine helps you to shit good. Camillo Donati’s Malvasia Frizzante not only will help you take a good dump. It tastes friggin’ delicious.

The fact that it’s come to this — “vitriol,” “hissy fits,” and “denigration marketing” — is the very proof in the pudding that the English-language dialectic on Natural wine is misguided. Ultimately, the maliciousness that emerges from the English-language discourse on Natural wine is generated by commercial interests that counter the very nature of Natural wine. It’s important to note that the vitriolic exchange, btw, is unique to Anglophone vinography.

Why do Tracie P and I drink (and advocate) Natural wine? She would tell you that it’s because it aligns with the vino paesano — the country wine — that she discovered on one of her early trips to Europe after college graduation. No need to call it “natural.” To the folks who make it and drink it every day — as a nutrient, not a luxury — it’s simply wine.

Me? I drink and advocate it because it’s delicious and it helps me to shit good. Why does it make me shit good? No one really knows but it’s probably because there is still active yeast in Natural wine — a defect to some in the wine world, a miracle of nature to others.

Who doesn’t feel better after a good shit? It’s the greatest return to Nature and the best way to get the vitriol out…

Natural wine and (good) pooping

Above: The wines of Angiolino Maule (La Biancara) are impeccably Natural. We tasted with him in early February at the winery in Gambellara. Note how his label reports the amount of “anidride solferosa” (anhydrous sulfur dioxide or SO2) and note how the label reports “NON CONTIENE SULFITI” (“does not contain sulfites”). Not all of his wines are unsulfured (I’ll devote an upcoming post to how he obtains his unsulfured wine).

Invariably, when a group of food and wine professionals gets together, they will talk about food, wine… and poop. Naturally, the three phenomena go — how can I say this? — hand in hand.

Such was the case on Wednesday night at Lou on Vine when Zach (whose new restaurant will be opening shortly in Los Angeles) described his pooping issues while working at a restaurant in Italy and subsisting on a diet of boiled salame, polenta, and potatoes. He only managed to “liberate” himself (so to speak) once a week, he said.

Above: I really dug this 2009 Manzoni Bianco by Foradori that I tasted at a trade tasting yesterday at the top (and coolest) wine shop in Los Angeles (in my book), Domaine LA. (The label is smudged because it had been in-and-out of the rep’s wine bag all day.)

When I told him that I thought that Natural wine could have helped him, even Natural wine fanatic (and in my opinion, authority) AW was incredulous.

On the Twitter, he wrote: “stop the presses! @dobianchi officially claims: natural wine good for eliminative function’.”

Maybe because of my ethnicity (you know why it’s called IBS don’t you? Isaac Bashevis Singer syndrome), good pooping is very important to me (come on, it’s important to everyone, isn’t it?). One of the first things Tracie P asks me when we message each morning while I’m on the road is: “how’s your pancia today?” (pancia means belly in Italian and is our euphemism for life’s daily miracle).

Above: Some might argue that Villa Bucci is not a Natural wine producer. And, in fact, sig. Bucci probably wouldn’t use the term “natural” to describe his wines. But the wines are grown using chemical-free healthy farming and vinified using native yeasts. Either way, I can tell you that it’s a good wine for pooping. Also tasted yesterday at a trade tasting. One of my all-time favorite wines.

The bottom line is this: I have no hard data (aren’t you glad for that?) but I can report anecdotally that when I drink Natural wines — even when accompanied by heavy foods, as they often are — I nearly always poop well the next day.

Why is this? Probably because the wines aren’t packed with chemicals and the alcohol tends to be more balanced. The generally higher acidity certainly helps with digestion (the same way acidity in wine can tenderize meat when used to marinate). And everyone who has tasted wine while still active (i.e., with active yeast, still fermenting) knows that if you drink to much (even a healthy glassful), the wine acts as a purgative.

If you don’t believe me, take it from the 2,000-year-old man, another correligionary of mine. To what does he attribute his longevity? He never touches fried food, he never runs for a bus… and he drinks natural wine.

The best restaurant in Italy? Le Calandre in Padua

It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments: for the one night where we hadn’t already planned where to eat, we dined at Le Calandre in Padua — a 3-star Michelin restaurant.

tagliolini di mozzarella

the texture of the julienned mozzarella released unexpected flavors from the plastic cheese

scampi tostati con “formaggio fresco” di latte di fave, radicchio di Treviso e mele

toasted langoustines with a “fresh cheese” of fava milk, radicchio trevigiano, and apples

battuta di carne cruda piemontese al tartufo nero

as instructed by our server, you wrapped the nuggets of raw beef in the shaved truffle, served on a piece of bark, and then dipped them in light beaten-egg sauce

cappelli liquidi di brodo d’oca all’arancia

these were cappelletti filled with an orange-goose broth, like soup dumplings

cannelloni croccanti di ricotta e mozzarella di bufala con passata di pomodoro

crunchy cannelloni filled with ricotta and buffalo mozzarella with tomato sauce

risotto di zafferano con polvere di liquirizia

saffron risotto with licorice dust

maialino di latte arrostito, salsa di senape e polvere di caffè

roast milk-weaned suckling pig, mustard sauce and coffee dust

proiezioni al cioccolato

dessert came with a mini-screening to complement the physical sensations

Many believe that Massimiliano Alajmo is the best chef in Italy today. He might very well be. Le Calandre was a fantastic experience… And for however experimental and avant-garde his cooking, the flavors were pure Italy… A stunning and thrilling evening, full of sensual surprises…

Nota bene: Le Calandre is not a cheap date (THANK YOU GOSSIP GIRL!). But you can order à la carte and there are a lot of very reasonably priced, wonderful wines on the list, like this Malvasia Secca dell’Emilia by Donati, one of my favorite producers. Natural and wonderfully stinky and crunchy, lees-aged, bottled fermented… Perfect with the wide range of flavors…

Beatles (forever) and Natural wine

Many wonderful and thoughtful gifts came my way this holiday season (including a fantastic new camera from Tracie P) but the one that took it over the top and the one that none of us can stop talking about was Mrs. and Rev. B’s gift of the complete Beatles on ITunes. (!!!)

Listening to the more than 250 tracks on our way back from Orange, Texas on the Sunday after the holiday, I remembered a cartoon I wrote when I was ten years old, “Jeremy vs. the Plastic People.” In it, I imagined myself protecting the world against the “Plastic People,” who had come to earth to cover the world in plastic. My plan of action? I drove the would-be invaders away by singing Beatles songs, poison to their ears.

Over the holiday break I took time out to fix a hole where the rain gets in: I reread “Jeremy vs. the Plastic People” and spent some time thinking about the ethos of the 1960s (I was born in 1967 during the “Summer of Love”) and how many of the values championed by the Beatles and the 60s generation resonate in our passion for “real wine,” “Natural wine” (whatever that term means to you), wines not made with a plastic spirit…

You can download the entire cartoon here (about 9 MB).

Thanks again, Rev. and Mrs. B! I LOVE MY BEATLES on ITunes… Beatles forever!