Emptying the Bad-News Bin

It’s always a good idea, as the year dwindles to its close, to jettison as much of the bad stuff as you can, so you can start your new year with a calm mind, a clear conscience, and a hopeful outlook. So – be warned – I’m here purging my files of a few troublesome items that have been hanging around and nipping at my heels for too long.

soldera labelThe most serious item I suspect some of you already know about – the vandalism at the Case Basse estate in Montalcino. This happened at the beginning of December. During the night, person or persons unknown broke into the cellar and opened the spigots on all the huge casks of Brunello, vintages 2007 through 2012. This would be an outrageous loss for the owner even if the wines were just ordinary: six years of hard, devoted work literally down the drain. But by all reports these were wines well beyond that, standing at or near the top of quality among Brunellos.

gianfranco solderaThe owner of the estate and the maker of the wines, Gianfranco Soldera, is a perfectionist and devoted to his craft. As a winemaker, he has the respect of all his colleagues. As a person, the story is different. He can be very difficult (some would say impossible), with no low opinion of his wines and no reluctance to proclaim his disdain for many of the other wines of the zone. Rumors have persistently named him as the whistleblower who precipitated the Brunello scandal of just a few years past. He denies this, and I believe him: I suspect that if he had begun that whole brouhaha he would have been more than willing to take credit for it.

The attack on his cellar has shaken up the whole zone. Only another winemaker can viscerally understand what a loss like that feels like. In a small way, I have a sense of it, having had my own wine storage twice broken into, with a loss of many cases and some utterly irreplaceable large bottles. No comparison in magnitude, of course, but I do have an idea of the feeling of violation that Soldera must have experienced.

The Consorzio and its officials have been swift to deplore the vandalism and to express solidarity – backed up with promises of positive action – with Soldera, along with protestations of the solidarity of spirit of all the Brunello producers. Much as I wish the zone and its winemakers well, I can’t help but feel that is whistling in the dark. Whoever dumped Soldera’s wine, for whatever immediate motive, vandalism of that scale shows how very deep and rancorous the divisions within this important appellation are. I don’t know what the Brunello Consorzio can do to heal them, but somebody better get working on that problem PDQ.*

zraly bookItem 2. A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Tom Hyland published a review of the new edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. While praising the part of the book that concerns itself with French wine (the bulk of it), Tom goes ballistic over Zraly’s offhand treatment of Italian wines, in terms of both the scant space allotted to them and the often erroneous data provided about them. Zraly’s dismissal of Italian white wines particularly infuriates Hyland. I quote Tom Hyland quoting Kevin Zraly:

“The Italians do not traditionally put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds – in terms of style and complexity and they are the first to admit it.” (page 187)

Can you believe he actually wrote that? I had to read the sentence several times to make certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Yes, I’m quite certain that great vintners such as Leonildo Pieropan, Roberto Anselmi, Silvio Jermann, Sabino Loffredo and Ciro Picariello would admit they don’t put much effort into their white wines. What a truly outrageous statement!

I confess I haven’t looked into Zraly’s book for years now, for the simple reason that I recognize it as an anachronism, reflecting the attitudes of the wine world when the course on which it’s based first came into being, several decades ago. With every passing year, as new parts of the world succeed in producing quality wine, the “Complete” in the title has become more and more of a misnomer, and the almost relentless focus on the wines of France more and more inadequate as a reflection of the contemporary wine world or of the choices confronting the consumer. Keven Zraly is of course a New York colleague, a long-standing acquaintance, and a very decent person – but as Tom Hyland has made abundantly clear, his book (and the course?) is seriously out of date and badly needs a thorough revision.

A small aside: It’s fascinating to me how the reflex kowtowing to French wine just doesn’t die. I’m not entirely surprised to find the prejudice in favor of the always-and-forever superiority of French wine in Brits, who are invested in Bordeaux – especially in Bordeaux – in ways that Americans are not, but we’re supposed to be more open-minded, more flexible, more open to argument and proof. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. I love French wines. I learned wine on French wines, and I freely admit that many of them set the standards for their kinds (standards, alas, that they don’t all always meet anymore) – but their kinds aren’t all the wines in the world. Italian winemakers in my lifetime have risen to great heights with different kinds of wine – different, but of equal worth and quality. If we could all stop saluting Romanée Conti for a moment, we might realize that Cannubi or Rabajà deserve a genuflection or two as well.

Item 3. This concerns a couple of small but worrisome disappointments. At a pair of recent dinners, I poured for the fair Diana, Mistress of the Revels, and myself wines from two of Piedmont’s standard-bearer producers. (What I’m about to say is a little ironic in the light of that last paragraph, but what the hell? I can only call’em as I see’em.)

gaja 1The biggest disappointment was a bottle of Gaja’s Sori San Lorenzo of the 2001 vintage – a great vintage in Piedmont, from a great winemaker, and a wine for which I consequently had great hopes. All too quickly dashed, however: The wine lacked Nebbiolo intensity and showed no complexity whatever. My first thought was that it was in eclipse, but what flavors it was giving were wrong for that; it wasn’t dumb, it just tasted middling. I’m puzzled, and hope I just had a bad bottle – but the experience is worrisome.

Giacosa 2Especially since it was more or less compounded just a few days later when I opened a bottle of Bruno Giacosa’s 2008 Barbera d’Alba. ‘08 was a good year for Barbera, and Giacosa stands among the best winemakers in the Alba region, so once again I had high hopes for the wine, and once again they were disappointed. Just as the Sori San Lorenzo lacked Nebbiolo intensity, this wine lacked Barbera vivacity, on top of which it displayed prominent non-Barbera tannins. The taste was of a wine that had been exposed to too much wood and hadn’t been able to assimilate it. As my friend Charles Scicolone would put it, this wine had gone to the dark side.

Now, two disappointing bottles do not add up to a catastrophe. But because of the expense of Gaja’s and Giacosa’s wines, these are not everyday tipples for me. When wines like these disappoint, and disappoint in the ways these two did, it raises questions – it makes you wonder, and not in the marvelous sense one hopes for during the holidays.

‘Nuff said. The bad-news bin is empty. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

* Update: This morning (December 21) I received an email from Montalcino, informing me that an arrest has been made in the case of the Case Basse vandalism. The person charged with spilling the wines is a former employee of the estate.

10 Responses to “Emptying the Bad-News Bin”

  1. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Hi Tom:

    As usual, I come late to the party; but I think it an admirable gesture to leave as much baggage as possible from the year we’re leaving, in the year we’re leaving.

    I am struck that no one has yet commented on the Case Basse nightmare. When they spill the excess dreck into the streets in the Midi, it’s a service to humanity; when they do it in Tuscany it’s a kind of violence that unmasks longstanding grudges, and untold vendettas. 6 vintages of what was likely wonderful wine is gone forever, and all of winedom bleeds its secret sabotage. Who’s hearts laughed at this?

    And R. Parker is now crawling unburdened to the grave. Well, I suppose we all have to turn 65 sooner or later. He may not be a James Suckling, but he had overstayed his welcome anyway; so, when he signed off to Singapore (he will still review his favorite French wines), we look at the damage left in his wake, and take solace in that it is now finite. His critique of the industry was once valid, but soon after his consumer-oriented position stopped paying the rent, the _Wine Advocate_ became truly that: an advocate for the wine industry, not the consumer.

    I can’t help but sense that these two items are related in ways that cannot be articulated so well, but, well, there you have it.

    You know what? My bad news bin is greatly lightened. Sorry about all those bad bottles, by the way; I’ve had more than my fair share.

    Happy New Year. Looking forward to all those great wines now free to be in the image of their own kind. The king is dead; long live the wine.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Hi, Joe. You may be late, but you’re always provocative. Glad you had a chance to empty your own Bad News Bin. Happy New Year!

  2. Donn Rutkoff Says:

    I have also had the issue of a bottle that is just 70% or 80% of what it should be. I also can only point to the cork, and agree with M Apstein above that the only difference is the cork. I have come to discount the possibility of a speck of dirt in the bottle or during bottling, because most physical debris is inert. Drop a piece of dirt into wine, it will not create a microbial spread of dirt taste. The only real test is to open another bottle and compare on the spot. Costs some $ but you have already spent the $ (assuming you have more than 1 bttl on hand.) But too much wood is a different issue.

  3. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: Thank you for your support and for your consistent work in promoting Italian wines in America. More of us in the industry need to follow your lead.

  4. Michael Apstein Says:

    I wonder if the Gaja wine had the kind of cork defect that is not apparent as TCA, but rather “strips” the wine. It’s a pernicious defect because unlike TCA, which is apparent, the only way to recognize it is to be familiar with the wine. Many an unsuspecting consumer just thinks it’s a lousy wine.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You raise an interesting point, Michael. Perhaps this defect lies behind many a bad bottle. On the other hand, how can we know which is which? And does it really make a difference to the unfortunate consumer?

      • Michael Apstein Says:

        My prejudice is that this type of defect is the cause of most, if not all, “bad” bottles. I’ve have two bottles from the same case from my cellar–one is fine and the other is hollow. The only difference between them is the cork. It’s worse for the producer than the consumer. The consumer gets one bad bottle. The producer loses a customer because the consumer gets the wrong impression– he just assume the producer makes lousy wine, when in fact, most of the producer’s wine is fine.

      • Tom Maresca Says:

        The big question in my mind is: how do you know the cork is at fault? is there any kind of indication that points to the cork rather than, say, a fault in the bottling line line (unclean bottle, for instance) or the wine being from a faulty batch (just being in the same case doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is from the same barrel throughout)? I guess I’m suspicious because this mysterious defect is just too easy an excuse for the winemakers.

  5. Ed McCarthy Says:

    I agree on your first two disappointments. I have not tried the two wines you mentioned lately, but I have never been a fan of Giacosa’s Barberas. The winery obviously focuses on its Nebbiolo wines.

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