The Death Throes of Nebbiolo Prima?

In the not too distant past, when it was known as The Alba Wine Event, the annual week-long presentation of new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco to a group of international wine journalists was probably the premier Italian wine occasion after Vinitaly. It was certainly the best organized and most informative of any of them, an excellent opportunity for knowledgeable wine writers to learn in depth the character of each new vintage, as well as to assess what individual producers had made of it.

many bottles

It was always a grueling event: Young Nebbiolo is not an easy wine to evaluate, and its tannins build up over a morning’s tasting to really punish the tongue and cheeks. But 65 to 75 wines, though a lot, were still doable, and the Wellcom agency, which ran the event for Albeisa, the organization of Alba wineries, worked comfortably with journalists to organize visits to individual producers and facilitate the flow of information from winemakers to press.

Then Albeisa changed agencies, the event’s name – now Nebbiolo Prima – and, seemingly, its direction. The first obvious signs were when some long-established journalists, representing traditional markets for Barolo and Barbaresco, weren’t there any more – they hadn’t been invited. Instead, there were many more Asian journalists, representing the hoped-for markets of the future – an understandable strategy, but crudely handled.

More alarmingly, there was also a whole new tone in the  event coordinators’ relations with the press, a tone of almost suspicion, almost hostility. I remember being treated like a delinquent schoolboy trying to get away with something because I declined to attend a dinner – after a whole day of tasting wines and facing more of the same next morning – that I knew was going to involve far too many more wines and would run very late. (I was correct on both counts.)

tasting room

Then Albeisa decided that the future lay not with print journalism but with electronic media – again, probably a correct assessment, but again crudely handled. More of the serious journalists disappeared, and in their stead a host of bloggers began the tastings. Few finished: I’ve reported on this fiasco here. By now, the hostility to print journalists was becoming quite overt: People working on books about Barolo and Barbaresco were given little help, and I know of at least one case where a writer was told that books weren’t that important. O tempora, o mores, eh?

I haven’t attended Nebbiolo Prima in a few years now, but I just read an account by someone who was at this year’s event that makes clear that all the deplorable tendencies I’d been observing have continued, and in fact accelerated. Writing in Jancis Robinson’s Newsletter, Walter Speller describes an event that I would say has careened out of control.

We always tasted blind in Alba, but blind in controlled blocks. Barolos and Barbarescos were presented by commune, with cru wines separated from blended wines. Commune and cru were identified for you, so you knew what rational expectations you might have, though you never learned producers’ names until after the tasting. Now, apparently you taste totally blind, with the wines not arranged in anything other than random order. Why? That cripples any serious journalist trying to sort out the differences or similarities of the wines of the different communes and crus. It simply makes no sense.


Tasting under those circumstances would be difficult enough, but now the poor attendees start at eight a.m., and they now must taste over a hundred wines before noon – which is as unfair to the wines as it is hideously difficult for the tasters – and then confront a series of afternoon visits and evening dinners that usually don’t return them to their hotels until after midnight, to start the whole round again next morning. I don’t know what Albeisa thinks it’s doing, but this is not hospitality – it’s brutality.

Even more seriously, the random presentation of the wines destroys the validity of the tastings themselves, as far as I can see. If you can’t taste in a group the wines of, say, Bussia cru, or Serralunga commune, how can you possibly form any valid opinion about the vintage or its character?  This is stupidity, and it has destroyed what used to be a great, informative event and turned it into a mere endurance contest, lacking any real point. O tempora, o mores indeed.

nebbiolo prima



10 Responses to “The Death Throes of Nebbiolo Prima?”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: Nicely done. I won’t take the time to make all the comments I want to in this space, but your summary is excellent. The event, once classy, has lost its glimmer. The real losers here are the producers.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks, Tom. You are of course absolutely right: whatever we have lost as journalists is insignificant compared to what the producers have lost in terms of comprehensive coverage of their wines.

  2. Donn Rutkoff Says:

    I am not a writer but work retail. I have taken to the practice of using napkin or towel several times during a red wine tasting to scrape off as much tannin as I can . Looks ugly to watch but is effective.
    Sorry that blogging is hogging space that should go to writers with bit more discipline and training. Agree that “just because you CAN blog, doesn’t mean you should”.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Anything that helps control those rough tannins is worth doing.
      And just to be clear: I don’t mean to imply that all bloggers are uninformed: There are several very fine, knowledgeable people working out there in digital-land. The Albeisa folks just didn’t do their homework, to get the right ones to attend.

  3. Tablewine Says:

    Quo usque tandem. . .

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Where, and how far indeed, Roland, but as far as I’m concerned the damage has already been done. To regain any relevance at all, the event will have to be completely re-imagined.

  4. Ed McCarthy Says:

    I attended Nebbiolo Prima two years ago, and was not impressed with the event. I vowed not to return

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Given the way the event has evolved, I’m not surprised, but if you had attended before Albeisa lost its way, back when Wellcom ran it, I’m sure you would have been impressed.

  5. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Never attended but what you describe sounds so ridiculous. As usual your piece is informative and interesting, not an easy task.

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