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.