GREAT NEWS! Bindocci new president of Brunello Consortium

Because we were recording all day, I was offline yesterday when the news broke: my friend Fabrizio Bindocci, winemaker at the historic Montalcino estate Il Poggione, has been named the new president of the Brunello bottlers association.

The news came in the wake of Ezio Rivella’s sudden departure from the post on June 8 (for personal reasons, he reported in a press release issued by Montalcino mouthpiece WineNews.it).

It’s hard to believe that nearly ten years have passed since the disastrous 2003 vintage and more than four years since the Brunello controversy exploded in 2008.

In my view, Rivella’s presidency only prolonged the issue (remember when Rivella told an Italian journalist that 80 percent of Brunello was made with grapes other than Sangiovese?).

Fabrizio is a Tuscan (Rivella is from Piedmont and didn’t even keep a residence in Montalcino while president, opting instead to commute from Rome); he was born and raised in Montalcino; he has worked for Il Poggione since 1976; and he is one of the most respected and beloved winemakers in Tuscany today.

His presidency marks a new (and happy) chapter in the saga of Montalcino and I — along with many other lovers of Brunello — could not be more thrilled.

Tracie P and I will visit with Fabrizio later this year when we travel to Montalcino.

Ezio Rivella, contrapasso, and the Triumph of Time (fugacity)

From the department of “I read the news today o boy”…

Above: Rivella in a 1982 profile by Wine Spectator.

Not a bad PR move, eh? Announce your long-awaited resignation on a Friday at the beginning of summer.

On Friday, the controversial and much loathed toad of Montalcino, Ezio Rivella, resigned from his position as president of the Brunello producers association. The news was announced by WineNews.it, in its weekly PDF (the fact that it still sends out PDFs is indicative of the great minds behind this pseudo-journal, an advertorial affair produced by a PR machine that serves as Montalcino’s in-house media outlet).

According to the press release — and yes, let’s call it what it is and stop pretending that WineNews.it represents any form of serious, self-respecting editorial coverage — Rivella resigned solely because of personal reasons pertaining to family.

In the end, Rivella did not succeed in gerrymandering changes in Brunello appellation regulations. At every step, he campaigned tirelessly in his quest to allow international grape varieties. And at every turn, even when he called votes at the peak of harvest when he knew the hardship it would cause for producers, the popular voice of Brunello growers managed to drown his.

In reading the news, I couldn’t help but think of Rivella’s Dantean contrapasso: I can see him cast in the fourth circle (greed), forced to drink endless amounts of chemical tannin and tartaric acid.

But in the end, it wasn’t the Commedia that came to mind but rather another cycle of Italian poems written in terza rima, Petrarch’s Trionfi (Triumphs). In it, Petrarch envisions triumphal processions of the forces that inform and ultimately vanquish the human condition: Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, Eternity.

From what I’ve been told by industry insiders, Rivella sought to lay claim to Brunello’s throne (the regal metaphor is his not mine) in an attempt to refashion a legacy that was sullied when Banfi dismissed him (against his wishes) in 1999 after a career that spanned more than three decades. Rivella may have curated Brunello’s meteoric rise in fame but the spoils of the battle were denied him. And in a last flourish, he had hoped to beat time by once again redefining (literally) what Brunello was and could be.

But fame and time were greater forces than he.

Historically (as we have seen in recent weeks here), winemaking in Brunello has always been shaped by big business interests. And it will continue to be so (now more than ever, sadly).

Over the last two decades, those interests have moved farther and farther away from the ideals that informed Brunello’s pioneers (massal selection of a Sangiovese clone, excellent growing sites, and easy railway access). Instead, they have shifted their approach to appeal to globalized tastes and they have over-cropped their farms to deliver the quantities demanded by a globalized market.

We can only hope that Brunello’s new captain will guide its ship back to Tuscan shores and hear the ancient cadence of Tuscany’s great poets.

In other (sadder) news…

In an uncanny twist of fate, Rivella’s retirement eclipsed the sad news that Count Bonacossi, historic producer of Carmignano (above with his wife Lisa), transpired on May 24, 2012. Bonacossi’s farm produced superb Cabernet Sauvignon long before Tenuta San Guido ever released its Sassicaia. He and his wines were Super Tuscans ante litteram. A press release, issued by the winery, follows…

Continue reading

Ezio Rivella: “Tradition is a ball and chain.”

Above: Remember this image? Scanned from a 1982 edition of Wine Spectator (via Alfonso). I posted about it here.

On Monday, Ezio Rivella — Brunello’s deus ex machina and futurist of Italian wine, creator of the Brunello brand and propagator of the California dream — spoke before a group of Langa’s top winemakers in Piedmont. He had been invited their by the government-funded body Strada del Barolo (Barolo Wine Roads) to speak about the current crisis in Italian wine (the five-part series is entitled — and I’m not kidding here — “Feel Sorry for Yourself or React to the Crisis?”).

According to wine blogger Alessandro Morichetti, who attended the seminar, nearly the entire arc of Barolo was there: Maria Teresa Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Angelo Gaja, Enzo and Oreste Brezza, Cristina Oddero, Federico Scarzello, Lorenzo Tablino, Eleonora Barale, Davide Rosso, Enrico Scavino, and Michele Chiarlo, among others.

I’ve translated the following quotes from Alessandro’s report on the talk…

“Tradition is a ball and chain. At best, it serves as historical anchor.”

“The market fluctuations following Brunellogate? Rants by masturbating journalists.”

“Quality is what people like. Those who sell [their products] are right. There is nothing to learn from people who[se products] don’t sell.”

“Blogs are [a form of] self-flattery. The people behind them are incompetent.”

And all this time, I thought that Rivella didn’t read blogs! Go figure!

Reacting to Alessandro’s account of the event, Italy’s top wine blogger Franco Ziliani wrote: “Rivella chooses the path of insults…”

If you don’t know the backstory, here’s the thread of my posts devoted to Rivella and his self-appointed mission to refashion authentic Italian wines as expressions of Californian winemaking for the U.S. market.

As a manager and winemaker at Banfi from the 1960s through the 1990s, he credited Robert Mondavi as one of the inspirations for the behemoth Brunello brand that he created with the backing of the Mariani family, the Long Island-based importers who decided nearly 50 years ago that they would make Montalcino a household name in the U.S. (initially by producing sparkling white wine, btw).

Since returning to Montalcino to gerrymander his second coming as Brunello growers association president in 2010, he has patently conceded that “80% of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese” (an egregious transgression of appellation regulations and Italian law). And in doing so, he tacitly expressed his support for using “improvement” grapes like Merlot in traditional Italian wines made historically with indigenous varieties. He has repeatedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to lobby for the passage new appellation regulations that would allow for the blending of international grape varieties in Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino. Twice he has called votes and both times the body governed by him has remained unswayed by his industrial Brunello complex.

My friends who live and work in Montalcino tell me that he doesn’t even reside there. He lives full time in Rome, governing from afar, uninterested in the workaday lives of the homegrown montalcinesi.

He is also the author of Brunello, Montalcino and I: The Prince of Wines’ True Story (2010).

What will come of the legacy of the self-proclaimed Prince of Brunello?

Perhaps he should take the advice of a Tuscan, Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote (chapter 3, “On Mixed Principalities”): “It is quite natural and ordinary for a Prince to want to expand his rule, and when [Princes] do, if they can, they are praised and not blamed. But when they are unsuccessful, but still want to do it, here lies the error and the fault.”

What the hell is going on in Montalcino???!!!

In the wake of my Friday post where Franco and I revealed one of the “hypotheses” for a new Rosso di Montalcino category that would allow the use international grape varieties, a lot of folks have been asking, what the hell is going on in Montalcino, anyway???!!!

Today, on his blog, Franco asks rhetorically, is the proposed change prompted by market demand or does it reflect the interests of certain actors?

The fact of the matter is that there is an oligarchy of commercial, big-business, industrial wineries that want this change. Their baron-robber chum and ringleader Ezio Rivella — gerrymandering president of the Brunello producers association — says that before the Brunello controversy of 2008, 80% of Brunello (which by law must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes), was blended in part using international grape varieties. (Here’s my post and translation of that story.) He and his gang claim that the market (read AMERICA) wants international grape varieties from Tuscany. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the overwhelming majority of Brunello growers and producers — 90% by most counts — want to protect their appellation from internationalization in the name of Italian and Tuscan cultural heritage. The last time that Rivella tried to hold a vote on changing the appellation to allow other grape varieties, he had to retreat at the last minute because he knew he would lose. (Here’s the post on VinoWire.)

In the days that led up to the aborted vote, Francesco Illy — scion of the Illy coffee dynasty and owner of Montalcino estate Mastrojanni — published two open letters exhorting his peers and colleagues to protect the identity of Montalcino’s iconic wines. (Juel Mahoney posted English versions of the letters here.)

Comparing the crisis in Montalcino to the hard times faced by his father in the coffee industry, he wrote that “Experiences tell us [sic] that those who have managed to defend its identity in the end he won [sic].”

The bottom line is this:

1) The big-money, establishment producers want to make the rules more flexible so that they can make more wine, even in bad vintages, when Sangiovese is more difficult to cultivate (and Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are more consistent and reliable).

2) The overwhelming majority of smaller producers do not want to change the appellations because they feel a deep connection to their land and their traditions and they do not want to see their wines internationalized (Rivella is from Piedmont, btw, not Tuscany). Ultimately, they realize, if Rivella and his gang prevail, there will be no space left in the market for their products (Walmart wins again).

3) The industrialists continue to create new scenarios that would allow them to use international grape varieties through a “back door” or “loop hole”; in other words, let’s create a new category that allows us to use Merlot when we need or want to. In keeping with the current strategy, Rivella continues to water down (forgive the pun) the different scenarios, hoping that eventually one will be approved.

If Rivella prevails, everything will be lost in Montalcino. Clear some trees, build a golf course, and, hell, why not turn all of Tuscany into a Disneyland-run tourist attraction? And after we build Disneyland in Tuscany, we’ll start working on Disneyworld in Piedmont. After all, the American boom times will return and all those fat cat brokers in Manhattan are going to need more Tuscan Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah to wash down those steaks. Shit, Tuscan Merlot costs less than Californian anyway!

O tempora o mores! Pasolini, Gramsci, Marx? Therein lies the answer…

Rivella, barbarian at the gate: the Brunello debate goes mainstream (WARNING: POST CONTAINS POETRY)

Above: The grapes are ripening about a week late in Montalcino but conditions are excellent, says Alessandro Bindocci (Fabrizio Bindocci’s son) in his blog Montalcino Report. Alessandro has been updating the blog regularly with harvest and weather reports.

Yesterday a friend emailed me this article in Reuters online, “Battle of Brunello exposes row over purity vs blends,” by top wine writer Robert Whitley, my fellow San Diegan. In it he summarized the events that led up to Ezio Rivella’s controversial election as Brunello producers association president and Fabrizio Bindocci’s passionate if unsuccessful bid to stop Rivella’s march of progress. (For a more detailed account of what happened in recent months in Montalcino, you can scroll and leaf through this thread here at Do Bianchi.)

    The controversy over the election has put the spotlight on growing divisions in the wine world as some producers take a more global approach to their craft while others stick to tradition.

    Opponents such as Bindocci are passionate defenders of the status quo and are convinced that the 77-year-old Rivella as the modern face of Brunello could put the soul of Brunello at stake.

Has Montalcino become the frontline in the global battle (“growing divisions of the wine world”) of modernism vs. traditionalism?

In a “why didn’t I think of that” moment, I thoroughly enjoyed Robert’s superb allusion to the great poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” by Greek poet Cavafy wherein he implied that Rivella is a “barbarian at the gate.” It’s probably more a propos than Robert bargained for, especially in the light of the uncanny parallels. Poetry lovers read on…

    What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

    The barbarians are due here today.

    Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
    Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

    Because the barbarians are coming today.
    What laws can the senators make now?
    Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

    Why did our emperor get up so early,
    and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
    on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
    He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
    replete with titles, with imposing names.

    Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
    wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
    Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
    and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
    Why are they carrying elegant canes
    beautifully worked in silver and gold?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

    Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
    to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

    Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
    (How serious people’s faces have become.)
    Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
    everyone going home so lost in thought?

    Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
    And some who have just returned from the border say
    there are no barbarians any longer.

    And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
    They were, those people, a kind of solution.

And some who have just returned from the border say/there are no barbarians any longer.

I’ll be visiting Montalcino in September and will try to catch up with Fabrizio (a friend) then (although I know he’ll be very busy with the harvest). Who knows? Maybe Rivella will grant me an appointment, too… Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Maginot lines in Montalcino

Above: Tracie P and I took this photo, facing southeast toward Mt. Amiata, in February on Strada Statale 64 (State Hwy 64) heading north from the village of Paganico toward Sant’Angelo in Colle on the south side of the Montalcino appellation. It’s just a matter of time before Asti-born Ezio Rivella will be making “Brunello” just northeast of there, in a partnership launched with Veneto behemoth Masi in 2007.

And so, just as the Germans flanked the Maginot Line, invaded Belgium and then France, Ezio Rivella — the self-proclaimed “prince of wine” — has been elected as the new president of the Brunello consortium. He has vowed not to change appellation regulations so that they would allow for international grapes, as he previously advocated. But the thought of an Piedmont-born enotechnician at the helm of an appellation situated in the heart of a UNESCO-protected territory sends shivers down the spines of many — myself included. It’s a dark, dark day in Montalcino.

Above: “Hunting forbidden.” Facing southeast, gazing out on Masi’s Bello Ovile vineyards. Taken in February 2010. Today the sun shines in the early summer heat but it’s a dark, dark day in Montalcino.

Chatting with a friend, a wine professional I admire very much, late last night, he pointed out that this battle was lost a long time ago: anyone familiar with European history and iconography is acquainted with the metaphor allegory of the Maginot Lines.

If you’re not tired of my posts on Montalcino and what has transpired there, please revisit this post on the Brunello debates where Rivella and the sorely missed Teobaldo “Baldo” Cappellano sparred over the future of Montalcino and the Brunello appellation.

I promise to write something fun and entertaining (to cheer myself up) tomorrow but today — the day after the commemoration of the founding of the Italian republic, freed from fascist tyranny — I plan to mourn. Sorry to be a bummer…

The great Brunello debate and please keep Austin weird

Above: sopecitos at Fonda San Miguel, one of the many excellent Mexican restaurants in Austin, Texas.

Just a quick reminder: Franco and Ezio Rivella will face off tomorrow in the great Brunello debate in Siena, 3 p.m. local time. You can watch the debate live at http://www.vinarius.it/. I’ll be watching, of course, and will most certainly post about it here and at VinoWire. Franco will be presenting the case for Brunello di Montalcino to remain 100% Sangiovese while Rivella will argue that appellation regulations should be changed, allowing for other grapes to be used as well.

Above: Dale Watson did an awesome show at the Broken Spoke the other night in Austin.

In other news…

Tracie B. and me did us some more honky-tonkin in Austin this week. I’ve really been impressed by how Austin still has many family-owned and run music venues and restaurants. Especially coming from Southern California, where the landscape is dominated by fast food chains and strip malls, I’m happy to know that there is an America where folks are still keeping it real. Keep Austin Weird is a grass-roots movement that promotes general “weirdness,” as they put it.

I’ve been enjoying some of that weirdness and I really dug Dale Watson’s version of Pop a Top the other night at the Broken Spoke (my second-favorite honky tonk after Ginny’s Little Longhorn).

Pop a top again
I just got time for one more round
Sit em up my friends
Then I’ll be gone
Then you can let some other fool sit down

I’d like for you’d to listen to a joke I heard today
From a woman who said she was through and calmly walked away
I’d tried to smile and did a while it felt so outta place
Did you ever hear of a clown with tears drops streamming down his face.

Pop a top again
I think I’ll have another round
Sit em up my friend
Then I’ll be gone and you can let some other fool sit down.

Home for me is misery and here I am wasting time
Cause a row of fools on a row of stools is not what’s on my mind
But then you see her leaving me it’s not what I perfer
So it’s either here just drinking beer or at home remembering her.

Pop a top again
I think I’ll have another round
Sit em up my friend
Then I’ll be gone and you can let some other fool sit down
Pop a top again.