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Articles & Commentary Archive


Italian-American: A Phrase Not Commonly Applied to Wines

2006 Bonny Doon Ca' Del Solo Nebbiolo

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Wednesday Wine Down with a group of close friends. Afterwards, we ventured down to a new Neapolitan pizza restaurant on Saint Paul Street, called Pizzeria Verita. The pizza was excellent, and I was especially impressed with the both the selections and pricing featured on their wine list, which was mostly Italian in composition. After perusing the short, but thoughtfully composed wine list, I settled on choosing the Cantine Valpene Barbera for our table. This Barbera is a perennial favorite of mine, and it earned high praise in the small blind tasting of Barbera that I hosted this fall.   

However, as I sat at the table and observed the ease with which the Barbera paired with our pizza, a nagging thought re-entered my head. Why weren't more American vintners producing wines from traditionally Italian varietals? I certainly enjoy Italian wines, but it is often fun to compare American interpretations of traditionally European grapes. However, for all the diversity and growth that America's wine culture has enjoyed over the past 30-plus years, American viticulture is still shockingly dominated by grapes that are native to France. Nearly all of our most prolific and popular grapes - Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and to some extent Syrah and Riesling - trace their origins to France. What about Italian grapes? Isn't their a devoted following for Italian wines in America? I've seen wine enthusiasts hunt down prodigious Chiantis, Brunello di Montalcinos, Barolos, and Barbarescos, along with more obscure Italian varietals, such as the red wines made from the Nerello Mascalese grape by Tenuta delle Terre Nere on Mount Etna in Sicily. Certainly, some Italian grapes are likely to be limited to their native terroir, but it is still shocking to think that our wine industry has been so heavily influenced by France to the detriment of other countries.

I am always searching for new wines, and I have a particular affinity for the obscure and esoteric. At the present moment, American wines made from Italian varietals are well described by those characteristics. The question to ask is: Why is that the case?

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Bonarda, Comfort Food, and Typos

Last night, I had the pleasure of enjoying the 2009 Vila Bonarda Reserva with my chicken dinner. One of my favorite recipes for homemade chicken tenders is Dana Carpender's "Heroin Wing" recipe. While the recipe is delicious as listed in the link, I like to add bread crumbs to the mixture, and I will usually substitute boneless chicken tenders for chicken wings. I'd highly recommend giving this recipe a try, especially if you happen to be looking for a relatively healthy chicken wing option for this weekend's football games. Go Patriots!

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Not Pinot, Not Chardonnay... Chalone Syrah

2009 Graff Family Vineyards ConsensusChalone isn't likely to be the first appellation to come to mind when one thinks of California wines. Napa Valley holds that coveted title, with neighboring Sonoma providing healthy competition. Chalone was deemed an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1982, but its path to fame was paved years before that, by the infamous Dick Graff. A Harvard-educated music major, Graff worked in Chalone Vineyard in the early 1960s, which led him to realize his passion for wine and winemaking. He spent a year in the oenology program at UC Davis, and then purchased Chalone Vineyard, with the help of his mother, in 1965. He released his first vintage under the Chalone Vineyard label later that decade. Graff had a passion for the wines of Burgundy, and consequently focused Chalone Vineyard's production on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Although the winery now produces wines from other grape varietals, it is Chalone Vineyard, and its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, that most people think of when they hear the word Chalone.

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2012's Ugliest Wine Label: Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil “Cuvee Venus” 2010

Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil “Cuvee Venus” 2010

I've always been intrigued by the fact that a large number of wine consumers in this country buy wine based on the label. Apparently the motto, "Don't judge a book by its cover," is frequently disregarded when it comes to the fruit of the vine. I don't blame consumers for allowing the label to influence their buying decision, but I do feel bad for the wine drinkers who have allowed themselves to become convinced that the aesthetic appeal of the label is an accurate predictor of the quality of wine in the bottle.

Personally, I think wine is much more about what's in the bottle than what's on the label. Sure, a pleasant looking label, or a label with personal or seasonal significance can be a nice touch. I love Owen Roe's Sinister Hand, and make a point to drink it every Halloween because of the macabre tale that is associated with the label. However, no spooky tale or label could compel me to drink a wine on Halloween if the wine weren't as delicious as The Sinister Hand. 

Some would argue with me, and tell you that wine is wine, and that "a bottle of wine will get you nicely buzzed with your friends over the course of an evening no matter what you choose [emphasis in the original]." This was the point that Matthew Latkiewicz recently made in an article for Grub Street. Latkiewicz even went so far as to design a fairly humorous wine label wheel, in which he grouped wine labels into seven distinct categories. However, I think that to categorize a wine by its label is about as shallow and disingenuous as judging a book by its cover, or judging a person's character based on their appearance. Good wine can be found in bottles with traditional labels, artistic labels, designer labels, or bottles so old that the labels have faded away. At the end of the day, packaging is simply the vessel used to move the wine from the winery to our glass. I've continuously advocated for people to put aside prejudice and hesitancy when it comes to non-traditional wine packaging, because packaging is no longer an indicator of quality. The world's best wines can be found in bottles sealed with screw caps, glass Vino-Seals, Zorks, in Tetra-Paks, or even in boxes.

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Wine Recommendation: Lucien Crochet "La Croix du Roy" Sancerre Rouge

Lucien Crochet "La Croix du Roy" Sancerre RougeThese days, it seems everyone is looking for the next great source of Pinot Noir. Ever since the movie Sideways, the grape's popularity has exploded, with sales increasing 18% in the nine months following the movie's late-October 2004 release. Although it is still outsold by grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which account for 12% and 10% of US wine sales respectively, Pinot Noir is holding its own with a 4% share of the US market. Yet, when you consider that in 2010, California crushed nearly 3 times as many tons of Cabernet Sauvignon as Pinot Noir, the gap in sales is easily explained.

Pinot Noir is not easy to grow. It is thin skinned, is prone to a host of diseases, and prefers cool climates. As such, there are restrictions on where it can be planted. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which has adapted to a host of climates all over the world, Pinot's fickle nature has kept it confined to a few specific regions. These regions, such as Burgundy, parts of California (e.g., Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Central Coast, etc.) and Oregon's Willamette Valley, have become the tried and true sources of Pinot Noir for lovers of the grape from all over the world.

Because of the difficulties associated with growing Pinot Noir, and its widespread popularity, when a new region emerges as a potential source of quality Pinot Noir based wines, it generates a good deal of buzz in the wine world. Earlier this year, I was tremendously excited when I visited Whitecliff Vineyards, and discovered that they were producing top-notch Pinot Noir. Similarly, over the last 10 years, Pinor Noir from New Zealand and Chile have generated a good deal of excitement, as they have been spotlighted on the world wine stage.

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