This has been a long day. A very long day. First of all, happy birthday to Gia Galli and to David Burnett. Also buon anima for Eugenio Spinozzi, now three years gone from earth.
Today started at 6:30AM in preparation for a flight to Houston, and then a drive to Galveston, for an industry tasting. More like a huge showcase for anything and everything in the wine beer, water and spirits industry. Lots of scantily clad women showing lots of skin and very little fat. Racy cars displaying caffeinated vodka. And a whole bunch of colleagues showing their stuff to their willing clients. A little bit old home week, a little hustle, a lot of BS’ing, and very little damage done. A late evening flight back home and here we are sitting up trying to figure out what just happened. Probably something for another post, though there won't be a lot of those in the next few weeks. It is harvest time in Tuscany and Italy and one must go prepare for the vendemmia.
In the last week there has been an inordinate amount of chatter about the state of Brunello. My own feelings are that, what we witnessed this week, was the death of Brunello as we know it.
Anyone who has read On the Wine Trail in Italy knows that I am not just saying this to create controversy and drive traffic to this site. I couldn't care less. There are 10,000+ who read regularly, that is good enough for me. But I do think something happened this week that when we look back it will be seen as a transition for the history of this wine, Brunello.
First, let me just say this. I could care less about the gossip about who is doing what with their grapes, grown or purchased. There are some traditionalists who have their point of view, some of them are good people and some of them are toxic. And there are some “outsiders” who preach change and some of them know what they are talking about and some of them are in it for a buck. There has been so much inaccurate and misleading reporting, blogging, suppositions and allusions. Give me a break, who the hell really knows? Some folks write me with info and all kinds of verbal iterations. To what end? Where has this taken us? Italy has a political situation that makes the American political log-jam look like the Indy 500 race. I have even heard Machiavelli's name invoked, the original gangster. Others have harkened back to the early days of Berlusconi and Mussolini. With such a fecund past it is difficult not to look back. But it is a fruitless crusade, for we only have forward gear in this vehicle, and so we must press on.
All through this week we have had the procession of winemakers from Italy making their post-Ferragosto pilgrimage to America. One player, Stephane Schaeffer, export director from Argiano, was in town towards the end of the last week. The last time I saw Stephane it was during Vinitaly in Verona and he was heading into Bottigleria Corsini, the “other” wine bar that we were frequenting, having a glass of Prosecco. Stephane was doing a wine dinner for some important clients and he was carrying wine inside. He had a furrowed brow, not the look of someone who was comfortable. But why should he have been? News was circulating all over Vinitaly about the problems in Montalcino. Argiano had a bulls-eye painted on its front door. Someone wanted blood.
A month or so later Argiano did what I thought at the time was a dramatic and slightly silly thing. They declassified their Brunello, calling it Il Duemilatre, and sent it out into the world. It was still the wine they call Brunello. But they were taking a detour around the political.
Now it looks like genius. Who cares what you call it? We in America have other things pressing for our attention and we like wine that taste good. California prepared us for all kinds of names of wines. Opus 1 is a perfect example. In those days (1979) it was considered suicide to not call a Cabernet-based wine a Cabernet. Now we have a diversity of names, and the strong survive.
Argiano took a risk; I’d like to think it was calculated. It was quite brilliant. If Brunello as we know it is now dead, Argiano has taken the high road out of hell.
Now let me say this. I do not care what grapes are in their wines. And I am not saying this in a Napoleonic-guilty-till-proven-innocent way. I am not fazed by this current ongoing tantrum-cum-soap opera that just won’t let us think about anything else in the world of Italian wine. It’s like Montalcino has hired Fox to run their press for the world. So much tragedy, so many car chases, so much schadenfreude. Enough doom and gloom already.
Back to Argiano. We did a tasting for 60 people here in fly-over country and they loved the wines. Not one wine was called a Brunello di Montalcino and it didn’t seem to matter. Sure there was some discussion from corners of the room by enthusiasts. But try as he did, what could Stephane say? I don’t know. The investigation is ongoing. Some people are still being questioned. Some wines are still in limbo. We shall see. In the meantime, Argiano has moved on.
2006 Rosso di Montalcino – for me one of the most enjoyable wines of the night. I cringe when I hear that the Biondi-Santi camp disagrees with the Gaja camp about proposing two different kinds of Brunello, as reported on Vinowire by DoBi, “One...would be reserved for “artisanal” producers... who continue to make their wines with 100% Sangiovese grapes. The other would be used by “large” producers who require more “elasticity” in their production, producers whose fruit is sourced from vineyards that do not possess “pedoclimatic [soil and climate] conditions” suitable for the cultivation of superior Sangiovese." I flinch because it seems that the Biondi-Santi camp is saying, not let’s not make two kinds of Brunello, but let’s change the Rosso di Montalcino to reflect more of the second style sense. I think that would be unfortunate because Rosso di Montalcino is a wine for those of us who don’t always have the pocketbooks of the elite-economic class. We keep losing the ability to enjoy the wines we grew up on, those of us old enough to remember Petrus and Gaja and Biondi-Santi. This Rosso from Argiano was perfect – fruit, balance, mouth feel, it has that typical sensation that a Tuscan red can have in its youth: slightly astringent and earthy, like walking in a forest after a light rain. I’d hate to lose access to wine like that.
As an aside, the first picture on this post is of Lisini. Stephane says folks usually think Biondi-Santi is the oldest Brunello estate. He says no, that claim belongs to Lisini. I have a bottle of the 1975 Riserva settling to be opened this year. Fortunately Beatrice didn't crack it open, though it seems she threatened to. Good girl.
The 2003 Il Duemilatre- identical wine to what they had previously bottled as their 2003 Brunello, but this time no mention of the appellation. Now a Toscana IGT and, for the vintage, reflecting more of the spirit and soul of Argiano than many of their neighbors “Brunelli.”
The 2006 “NC” (Non Confunditor) - touted as the wine that Argiano is looking to spread around as their entry level wine. NC also is the initials of the proprietress, Noemi Cinzano. They mix it up here, Sangiovese with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Argiano hasn’t been afraid of those varietals and Tachis hasn’t discouraged them from seeking expression from their soil with these grapes. At first I thought this wine was a marketing gimmick and then I drank it several times and it grew on me. Remember, I am first a Californian, then an Italian and then a Texan. I didn’t grow up drinking Blue Nun or White Zinfandel. So this wine eventually recast itself in my vinous memory as a pleasant one. I can be persuaded by sybaritic virtues too.
The 2004 Solengo – And older gentleman in the crowd, now beginning his octogenarian ascent, called me over to his table and asked me what I thought of this wine. It sells for close to $100 in the retail world. I looked at him and told him it wasn’t for him. “Why,” he asked. “Because you have enough wine to drink in your life and you don’t have time for this wine.” Tough love, baby, but he got the gist of it. This is a wine for men with testosterone and money to burn. And for the women reading this, this is a lusty wine that pushes your power buttons. Go for it. Climb the mountain and tell us all about it.
The night ended with a few of us hightailing it to one of the fashionable wine bars in town, the kind that screams Dallas, with roving bands of long legged blond beauties, blackberry’s in hand. Looking out over the twilight Dallas skyline we sipped a Priorat Blanc and a Bordeaux Rose as if to say to the wine gods, we have had enough red wine tonight, we need no more of that. We have been to the mountain top. This week we buried the old moribund Brunello and we crowned a new King. Or so we have imagined. We shall see. Sooner or later.
Galveston Beach Sept. 7, 2008