Why Antonio Galloni matters now more than ever

Antonio Galloni (left; image via Corriere.it) has been on my mind the last few days.

In part because I turn to his writing repeatedly for his observations on vintage characteristics and site typicity. In part because his extreme and truly supreme knowledge of Italian wine inspire me. In part because the genuine and unmitigated exhilaration of his Twitter feed reminds me every day why I love what he does and what I do for a living. And in part because the Citizen Kane of wine blogging took a very cheap — and despicably hypocritical — shot at Antonio this week.

Unmentionable wine blogger — who will remain nameless here lest we drive more traffic to his petty hissing — accused Antonio of conflict of interest in an upcoming tasting he’s leading. My feeling is that even if there were a conflict of interest (and there is not), who cares and who could possibly be hurt by a vertical tasting of Solaia (even though I personally don’t care for the brand)?

In a recent where-are-the-snows-of-yesteryear post on his blog, self-described “old fart” wine writer (and all-around jolly fellow whom I enjoy and respect immensely) Tom Maresca bemoans the current generation of wine writers, winemakers, and wine sellers (cfr. the ballade des dames des temps jadis).

“There are no more Luigi Veronellis or Giorgio Grais,” he writes (ignoring the fact that there is still a very healthy Giorgio Grai), “no Edoardo Valentinos, and all too soon there will be no more Franco Biondi-Santis. Pioneers like Renato Ratti and Giacomo Bologna are long gone, as are retailers as passionate and devoted as the still-lamented Lou Iacucci – that is now a rare breed indeed.”

I can’t fault Tom for his Jeremiad: as north Americans have discovered fine wine over the last three decades, the wine business has become big business and the larger-than-life, “greatest generation,” selfless figures that he refers to are being replaced by the Zonins, Antinoris, and Lucio Mastroberardinos of this new and brave world.

And that’s why Antonio Galloni matters more than ever.

A Berklee-educated jazz musician, a Milan-trained tenor, a successful finance executive, and — in my view — the leading expert on Italian wine today, Antonio is a true renaissance man for a new chapter in the history of wine connoisseurship. (Few remember, btw, that Voltaire made his fortune in finance before turning to philosophy.)

The culture of wine writing has shifted dramatically in the last ten years and I believe that Antonio’s model of superbly informed writing balanced by his business acumen (expressed through the many high-end consumer tastings that he leads throughout the country every year) represents the new generation of Anglophone vinography.

When House and Garden closed wine writer Jay McInerney’s legendary $75K expense account in 2007, the move represented the end of an era. At the time, there were scores of wine writers making a living purely by writing and not “monetizing” their intellectual property. Today, you can count their number on one hand.

Even our good friend Alice Feiring has begun to monetize her career following the example of Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, Jr. (and I highly recommend her soon-to-be-published Natural wine newsletter and Kickstarter campaign to you; I’m a subscriber).

Just like the world needs Alice, so the world needs Antonio. And I thank goodness for both of them. Let’s not blame them for monetizing their intellectual property. Let’s praise them for following a brave new path in a brave new world…

The Barbera affair: what really happened that snowy night in Nizza

The following is my account of the events that took place on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, during Barbera Meeting 2010. The facts, ma’am, just the facts. See also the account published by Tom’s Wine Line.

Bernard Arnould

Above: Even after they traded words more acidic than an unoaked Barbera, Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould (left) and winemaker Ludovico Isolabella shared pleasantries during the aperitivo after the conference on the wines of Nizza last Wednesday.

The controversy really began before lunch, when Italian wine writer Carlo Macchi, Austrian Helmut Knall, and Americans Charles Scicolone and Tom Maresca asked some pointed questions during the Q&A following a presentation by professor of enology Vincenzo Gerbi (University of Turin) and legendary winemaker Michele Chiarlo in Canelli before lunch. The speakers had presented the results of the Hastae experimental laboratory project. Researchers were able to reduce levels of acidity by employing non-traditional vine-training methods they said. I had been asked to interpret.

Why, asked the attendees, would you want to reduce the acidity levels of Barbera when its bright acidity is it’s defining characteristic? The answer, said the presenters, lies in a desire to make a wine more palatable to a wider market. The same held for judicious oak aging, they said. A heated argument on what defines “recognizability” and “typicity” ensued. Frankly, I had an easier time interpreting for the Italian foreign minister’s delegation and a hostile group of Chinese officials when I worked at the United Nations some years ago.

Above: Charles Scicolone addressed Michele Chiarlo directly during the afternoon session.

But things really heated up after we had tasted roughly 50 wines in the afternoon session in Nizza and Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould took the floor and openly challenged the winemakers present: the wines we had tasted, he told them, were so oaky and concentrated that they were barely drinkable. They did not resemble Barbera, he said, and he couldn’t help but wonder out loud where they expected to sell these wines.

To this, winemaker (and one of Piedmont’s foremost lawyers) Ludovico Isolabella, owner of the Isolabella winery, responded by asking: “Do you know anything, anything at all, about wine?”

Following this, Charles Scicolone addressed the winemakers, and Michele Chiarlo in particular. He asked them for whom these wines were intended. They did not taste like the wines he had tasted 20 years prior, he said. Why, he asked, did they change their winemaking style? Were they making one wine for their own consumption and another to sell to America? The Barberas he had tasted, he explained, were no longer the high-acidity, bright fruit, low-tannin, food-friendly wines of two decades ago.

Above: The Barbera 7 watched on as the volatile acidity flew. You can see Polish colleague Andrzej Daszkiewicz in the background with Charles and Tom Maresca to his left.

That’s all I have time for today. I’ll have more to report tomorrow and I know that my colleagues are also scribing posts on the fateful events of that day.

In the meantime, I’ve spent the whole day (and last night) stuck at JFK. I kinda feel like the Tom Hanks character in Spielberg’s Terminal. Ugh… Hopefully, I’ll make it back to that beautiful lady of mine tonight. I don’t think I can stand another day without her…

Apulia in New York and a visit with Obi-Wan

Above: the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Italian wine world, Charles Scicolone (left), with Tom Maresca, another one of New York’s great wine experts and writers and an authority on Italian wine.

As the newest member of the New York Wine Media Guild, I was asked to help organize and co-chair last week’s tasting of Apulian wines in New York together with my good friend and mentor, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Italian wine world, Charles Scicolone. What an honor for me to get to present Charles! He has been working in and writing about Italian wine since the 1970s, when few connoisseurs were collecting or drinking fine Italian wine. Together with two other now-legendary names in our field, writer Sheldon Wasserman and retailer Lou Iacucci, Charles played a starring role in what can now be called the Italian wine renaissance in this country. Whether selling, consulting, lecturing, or simply tasting, “it’s always a pleasure” Charles is one of the most recognized and respected faces in Italian wine in the U.S.

Above: top wine blogger Tyler Colman and agent provocateur Terry Hughes share a moment for my camera. Also in attendance, a who’s who of New York wine writers: John Foy, Paul Zimmerman, and Peter Hellman, among others.

Charles and I have known each other for more than 10 years: I first met him when I wrote about him and his wife, cookbook author and Italian food authority Michele Scicolone, for The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana. Later, I had the great fortune to work with Charles when he was the wine director at famed Italian wine destination I Trulli in New York. (Although he never won, Charles was nominated eight consecutive times for the James Beard Wine Professional award.)

Charles is known for his passionate defense of traditional winemaking and his distaste for new oak aging, especially when it comes to Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico. “They’ve gone to the dark side,” you’ll hear Charles say, referring to once-traditional Italian winemakers who switch over to California-style vinfication and high-alcohol, overly extracted, oaky, jammy wines. Hence, my cognomen for Charles.

Above: we were also joined by Francesca Mancarella, export director for Apulian winery Candido, and Gary Grunner, another Italian wine industry veteran.

One of the things that impresses me the most about Charles’ palate and his knowledge of Italian wines is that he tasted many of the twentieth-century’s great vintages on release and he has witnessed the evolution of the Italian wine sector during its most vibrant periods of renewal and expansion.

Charles, may the force be with you!

See also Off the Presses’ tasting notes from last Wednesday’s tasting.

Above: more than 30 wines were tasted that day, including this show-stopping dried-grape Aleatico by Candido — the only DOC Aleatico passito produced, an “idiovinification” (how’s that for a neologism?). Francesca explained that the wine’s freshness is owed to Apulia’s excellent Mediterranean ventilation.