Oct 132016
 

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the first and oldest DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controlata e Garantita) in Italy, held a birthday party this weekend to celebrate fifty years of making wine under the stringent requirements of Europe’s appellation system.

As you might expect, the party featured fabulous regional cuisine, a multitude of wine personalities from around the world, and spectacular tastings of both modern vintages and bottles that harkened back to that day in 1966 when it all began. And the town was aglow with smiles and toasts.

The day began with a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Federation of DOCs, the organization that administrates all of the regional wines of Italy, followed by a tasting of Vino Nobile from vintages as far back as that original 1966. Stunning wines.

On the musical side there was a performance of original music for the DiVin Orchestra of Montepulciano, made up of instruments created exclusively from materials found in a winery, like barrels, for drums, bottles for xylophones and flutes, and even hoses and funnels for trumpets and trombones. A later concert with more traditional instruments featured an ode to Montepulciano, with text written by Mr, Contucci himself.

Of course, the town of Montepulciano began long before that. Its City Hall was built by the Medicis hundreds of years ago, and the town itself goes back more than 2000 years. Its strategic hilltop made it an important satellite between Rome and Florence, between the Vatican and the Medicis. Some of the performances took place in the charming theater that was built nearly two hundred years ago in the form of La Scala in Milan.

All of that history was on display this weekend. The main piazza of the town, where the Cathedral looms over one side, and the City Hall defends another, crowds of celebrants cheered and toasted the ceremonies. And a grand procession led up to the very top of Montepulciano, where the old Fortezza was renovated as the new home of the Consorzio di Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the now fifty year-old organization that manages the wine production for the region. The fortress, originally built to protect the town, now houses a glorious new visitor center built on the ruins of an Etruscan wine cellar, which are visible through the glass floor of the new tasting room.

Just below the piazza, the art museum proudly displayed its most recent discovery–a Caravaggio that had gone unnoticed as a part of the collection for many years, hidden behind a thick layer of dust. When a visiting expert peered carefully through the centuries of accumulation, there was huge excitement. It was, in fact, a Caravaggio. The painting now enjoys a private room in the museum–and rewards those who spend the effort to seek it out.

Much like Montepulciano itself.

Mar 232016
 

Pat Fegan

Very sad news this past week that our old friend Pat Fegan had passed away.

Pat was an institution in Chicago. He taught classes, wrote about wine, and knew everyone who mattered. But more than that, Pat put his own stamp of the world of wine in Chicago, and frankly, the whole Midwest. That stamp is still there is so many ways.

Pat was among the most knowledgeable people in the world about grapevines and varieties, but he was the antithesis of the pedantic academic expert. Always ready with at least three of the latest jokes, always happy to say hello to his hundreds, maybe thousands of students, Pat made wine fun in every way. He made the world a better place, and we are much poorer for his passing.

Tonight I think I’ll raise a glass of Tempranillo in honor of Pat—and hear his voice reminding me of the many different names that grape has in Spain–much to his amusement. And then he’d move on to a joke told quietly out of the corner of his mouth…

Mar 212016
 

Real Estate vs. Wine

This weekend I started reading the real estate section of the San Francisco Chronicle, just for giggles. Normally I can’t be bothered, and I certainly don’t have the kind of money that allows me to peruse the ads for million dollar homes.

But what I found was pretty interesting. There were scores and scores of descriptions of properties for sale—just like in the wine business. In fact, the whole real estate section reminded me of a wine magazine, with a few feature articles, and then endless listings of “tasting notes” of houses for sale

Only in this case, all the descriptions were perfectly intelligible. No effort to show the reader how clever the writer was, nor use of obscure or overly inflated language or descriptors. Just plain old words talking about houses. None of the houses was painted in the delicate colors of a charentais melon, or had gardens infused with the blossoms of stone roses. The dining room floors were not described as having notes of polished rare Allier oak, nor did the carpets capture nuances of zin-berries and cassis.

I couldn’t help thinking that if you can sell a house for $1M with simple words, why can’t you sell an $23 bottle of wine that way? Wineries should take note when publishing their own tasting notes.

Mar 142016
 

TEXSOM International Wine Awards

3200 Entries. The good news is that my panel didn’t have to judge them all!

As a judge at the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, there are always three things I look forward to doing.

  1. Meeting and chatting with the other judges. This is a wonderful collection of some of the finest palates in the world, and this group is particularly fun to talk and taste with. Many of us have judged for quite a few years here, and there is just a little bit of a sense of something between a reunion and a tontine about the whole event.
  2. Tasting some really good wines. This year the first day’s panel, chaired by Sharron McCarthy, worked through a whole series of wines from Latin America, and the second day I chaired a panel focused on California wines from RON: Regions other than Napa. And each day we found plenty to like and give bronze, silver and golds medals.
  3. James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks know how to put on a competition. With the foundation laid by Becky Murphy, this one is really well organized, from the reception and lodging of the judges to the logistics and table organization of the wines. I am sure there are a thousand small crises in the back room, but from what I could see as a judge, it was flawless.

Will I do this one again? Absolutely, assuming I’m invited back (every competition rotates judges from time to time to keep things fresh.) And in the meantime, I have a new appreciation of some of the wines and regions I judged this year. Can’t beat that!

Oct 272015
 

Hungary - Furmint

I spent the last week traveling through time. It’s not something that you get to do every day. And as you might imagine, it was pretty darn memorable.

My companions were an amazing group: Master Sommeliers Peter Granoff and Scott Harper, blogger Joe Roberts, and Debbie Zachareas of the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant. Experts all, and veterans of many a visit to a famous wine region of the world. And yet this trip was different.

Part of it was the landscape and culture. We were in Tokaji; that legendary region of Hungary where even the language is from a different world—where last names come first, where every word changes depending on its use in the sentence, and where navigating a menu (Étlap, in Magyar) is as mysterious as the cabinet of Dr. Kaligari.

And then there were the wines. We began, as things always do, with dry wines made from the local grapes: furmint, to be sure, but also hárszlevelű, muscat, kabar, zéta, and kövérszőlő. Had many of those recently? The wines were fresh, lively, with great acidity and balance. We were charmed and impressed. In fact, cases, even pallets of wine were ordered for the shops and restaurants back home. They were delicious.

Then they pulled out the big guns: Tokaji Aszú wines made by adding buckets and buckets of botrytis affected grapes to the dry furmint wines. Suddenly the lightness and charm of the wines got wonderfully deeper and richer. Intense flavors, soaring aromatics, and finishes that I can still taste today, if I give myself a chance. We started with current vintages, and then worked backwards into wines that were twenty years old. The seemed fresh and full of vigor.

And five times we were invited to sample a wine historically reserve for the Emperor himself: Esszencia—the pure free-run juice of those Aszú grapes. Beyond nectar. Scott Harper said it best, when he noted that the wine in the glass seemed to be affected by a different level of gravity. Almost no alcohol, because no yeast could prosper in that soup of intense flavors and sugar levels approaching the ionosphere.

Quite an amazing journey. And I look forward to drinking some of these wines thanks to Peter, Scott and Debbie, who are making them available to us. No translation required.