An Italian werewolf in San Diego and a Seyval Blanc from Wisconsin that I loved

Above: Organizer of the San Diego International Wine Competition Robert Whitley (right) is a “larger than life” kinda guy. The best part of the event was his telling the story of almost getting his lights punched out by Joe Namath in 1969 at Broadway Joe’s NYC bar Bachelor III in 1969. Duncan Williams (left) is the senior winemaker at Fallbrook Winery in northeastern San Diego. He makes an awesome Sangiovese Rosé (no kidding, I tasted it with him a few years ago), writes a column for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I was stoked to be on the same panel as he.

What does a guy like me feel like at the San Diego International Wine Competition? Like an Italian werewolf.

As flattered as I was to be asked to sit as a judge and as curious as I was to taste such a far-reaching sampling of American wines, I was probably the most unlikely candidate for the job. But I tried to embrace my duties with an open mind and heart: as I judged the wines with my tasting group — Duncan Williams (above) and Ron Rawilson of Ortman Wines (super cool dude) — I tried to evaluate them for the intention of the winemaker and the category for which they were created.

Above: I was psyched to catch up with fellow judges GlobalPatriot (left, author of an awesome geopolitical food and wine blog) and SF publicist extraordinaire Kimberly Charles whom I’ve known since my earliest days of food and wine writing back in NYC more than a decade ago. Nice folks…

Of the 191 Chardonnays submitted to the competition (the largest category), I was faced with the onerous task of tasting 32 of them — all of them barriqued. In the wake of the tasting, I needed a toothpick to extract the oak chips from my tongue.

I regret to report that Chardonnay and Merlot represented the two top categories submitted by the mostly American winemakers. Are we stuck in the 80s? Oops, I forgot to take down the Nagel from my living room.

Above: Linda McKee is a winemaker in Pennsylvania and very simpatica lady. It was really cool to hear her talk about Elmer Swenson, a legendary grape breeder who developed hybrids for American viticulture.

The pleasant-surprise wine for me was a Seyval Blanc (yeah, you’ve never heard of it either) grown in New York and vinified in Wisconsin: Prairie Fumé (ha!) from the Wollersheim winery in Prairie du Sac, WI.

The wine, which happened to land in one of our flights, tied for “best in show white.” It was delicious, with bright (clean, not acidified) acidity, good fruit, and balanced alcohol (11%, yes!, according to the fact sheet on the wine). I was thoroughly impressed and I am evermore convinced that hybrid grapes (Blanc du Bois in Texas, for example) are the key to making good, honest wine (that doesn’t need to be “corrected” in the cellar) in our country.

Above: Was it a sort of contrapasso that I had to taste 32 barriqued Chardonnays and 19 barriqued Merlots? And don’t forget the 17%+ Zinfandels. I think I’ve paid my dues at this point!

All in all it was a great experience — if only for the schmooze factor — and I was geeked to finally get to meet and taste with Robert, whose palate and schtick I greatly admire.

The moment that sticks out the most in my mind was when Duncan asked rhetorically, why do winemakers still make Chardonnay like this? It’s really such a neutral grape that doesn’t perform well in this style.

It led me to coin a neologism: ChardonNO!

Roberto Stucchi: Chianti “shouldn’t be fattened by Merlot or Cab”

Above: Roberto Stucchi, one of Italy’s leading winemakers, among the first, historically, to bring “Californian” technology to Tuscany after studying at UC Davis (photo via B-21).

Our recent VinoWire coverage of the Chianti producers association decision to allow IGTs (read “Super Tuscans”) at the body’s annual vintage debut event and its subsequent sea change (retracting the option for participating winemakers), really touched a nerve.

Over in a thread on my Facebook, wine writers Robert Whitley and Kyle Phillips (who argued for the inclusion of IGTs) squared off with Italian wine taste-makers Charles Scicolone and Colum Sheehan in a gentlemans’s however testy exchange on this sensitive issue. (Click here to read the entire thread, which includes comments from a number of interesting wine folks.)

In the spirit of Italian par condicio, I wanted to share the comment below by leading Chianti Classico producer Roberto Stucchi, who reported his notes from the meeting where it was decided not to allow the IGTs:

    I was at the assemblea [assembly]. There was little discussion about the IGT wines at the Anteprima [the annual debut of the new Chianti Classico vintage, held in Florence each year in February] at all. A few criticized it, but that’s it. The main topic was the reorganization of the C[hianti] C[lassico] appellation, and the one thing that came out very strongly was the rejection of the proposal of a “light young C. Classico” to help in this difficult economic time. The majority (but there where no votes) spoke in favor of reviving the riservas, and re-qualifying [re-classifying] the whole appellation. Also a mostly favorable opinion on the idea of sub-appellations by comune [township], but with very differentiated ideas about how to do it.My opinion about IGT at the Anteprima: why not? Many are pure Sangiovese. And unfortunately some Chianti Classicos are Bordeaux-like.

Here at Do Bianchi, he noted:

    As a C[hianti] Classico producer that has always worked only with Sangiovese, I’m not scandalized by the proposal to present IGT’s at the Anteprima. After all many are entirely from Sangiovese grapes.

    I find a lot more questionable that the rules have gradually increased the amount of non-traditional grapes allowed in the blend (now that’s a slippery slope to me).

    The Chianti “Bordelais” lobby keeps pushing to increase this percentage, the last proposal was to allow up to 40%. (It failed for now.)

    I need to make clear that I’m not at all against growing other varietals in Chianti; quite the opposite, I think that the Classico appellation should allow wines from other varietals to be called Chianti Classico, with a varietal appellation added.

    It’s just that CC alone shouldn’t be fattened by Merlot or Cab. It would be nice if things were more transparent, with things clearly stated on the label.

    I love CC from Sangiovese for its elegance, finesse, food friendliness, and for how the light penetrates it and gives it brilliance.

    What really bugs me is when an overly concentrated and heavily oaked muscular wine pretends to be a Sangiovese.

Above: I found this photograph of Roberto (from the 1980s, I believe) on a Russian site.

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!