Saturday, August 18, 2012

Frozen Baseball Insurance and January in August...

If a frozen baseball were to come crashing down from the sky and hit you on the head... what would you anticipate the damage to be? Maybe a big lump at best, stitches, concussion, or of course... worse case scenario; death by frozen baseball. Would you take out insurance if you knew that frozen baseballs only came flying down from the sky once every ten years?  This is the biggest risk for vignerons every year - hail storms (or for vines, the equivalent of frozen baseballs falling from the sky), and an assessment to make... to take or not to take hail insurance!

(this photo from local newspaper)

On August 3rd I woke up at 6AM, the weather was cool, and it was a perfect sunny day... I went for a run and on my way back extended my normal 'running route' to visit Fabrizio in the vineyard.  He was cleaning between the vines on the tractor, and had a huge smile on his face.  The vineyard was beautiful, the fruit as well... and he said, 'Ta-da, this is it for the season... I hope (no need to tantalize fate), no more treatments or vineyard work, this should do it... now we can just wait and watch the fruit ripen."  He had finished up all the work he wanted to in order for us to take a few days to go visit Martin Arndorfer in Austria, and Primoz in Slovenia.  We left beautiful vineyards, and what was shaping up to be a really nice vintage behind.

On Sunday August 5th, we were in the stunning vineyards of the Wachau, over looking the majestical Danube.  A sea of green, healthy beautiful vines, gorgeous fruit... and we were all commenting on what looked like to be an incredible vintage for this region of Austria (together with the Kamptal where Martin and Anna are).  Suddenly Fabrizio's phone started ringing off the hook... 

At around 6:30pm that day, Monferrato saw one of the worst hail storms anyone (still alive) in the region can remember.  The hail in our little village of Montaldo (pop:100 people, on a good day) lasted only 6 minutes, but it was enough to bring down parts of walls, put dents in cars, take out antennas, roof tiles, and scare the living sh** out of everyone.  Fabrizio on the phone was almost like watching someone get that horrible news that you are always afraid of when you see someones face fall from the words on the other end of the line. 

(Montaldo, our town)

We were with our good friends, and his Italian distributor and his wife, as well as Martin and Anna; so they all knew the gravity of the situation... and what 6 minutes of hail could mean.  We went from being tourists on vacation, to a quickly somber and respectfully quite mood, spending the rest of the evening rather solemnly.  There was however nothing we could do until we got home, assessed, and waited 10 days or so for the vines to 'dry out,' and heal a bit.   

Among all the phone calls coming in, we got a call from a friend that was staying at the house where the Nebbiolo vineyard is, and he told us he was stranded... the hail broke the windshield of his car, completely smashed, pieces of glass had fallen INTO his car, and there were even holes in the roof of the car... there was clearly no electricity, and needless to say... no words were even necessary for the vineyard situation, it was understood.  It looks like it does in January before the pruning... not only in the vineyard, but in the surrounding hills as well.  From green to brown in 6 minutes.

In a few towns over, hit equally as hard, people were sent to the hospital with wounds requiring up to 7 stitches... a few animals were lost, and lots and lots and lots of work for roofers!!

(Nebbiolo vineyard 4 days after the hail storm... not a leaf spared - not to mention a grape)
(Same vineyard last year at the same time)

Fortunately our Barbera and Pinot vineyards were spared in comparison.  We think we lost about 20%-30% of the fruit, but we were lucky none the less that even only a few kilometers away, the hail was slightly less severe.  

I don't need to wax poetic about the work that goes into a growing season, the nurturing, and constant attention needed for not just vines, but all crops.  You all know.  However, the sadness that only 6 minutes can ruin a years worth of work is just devastating.

Insurance?  Ha.  I am not sure how insurance works for the farmers of corn, wheat, alfalfa, sunflowers, poplars, and all the other crops grown in our area, but a large chunk of them lost 100% of their production, and unlike in wine, they do not have 'other vintages' to sell.  They can not spread out the loss over the next few years selling, 'back vintage corn'.  These guys have lost an entire years income, and I just hope that the insurance they have for weather damage is different then ours.  I know one town delcared a state of emergency, so hopefully that will help release some governmental funds (again, ha ha, that is summer being incredibly optimistic and/or naive :).

For vines, the 'hail insurance' pays the producer a PERCENTAGE of the market value of the fruit... not  the wine, and certainly not the finished product in bottle.  So what does this mean?  You pay a ridiculous amount each year for hail insurance.  Normal hail happens once every ten years or so, and serious hail like this... we hope only once every 50 years or so.  Pretty easy to do the math, regardless of insurance, we end up loosing not only our crops, but also more money.  Yes folks, another racket.

On a final note, Fabrizio always recounts the fact that in the 1960's, Monferrato saw three years of consecutive hail right before harvest, and the farmers couldn't afford to go on after loosing three years income, and so almost all of the vineyards were abandoned as folks moved to Torino to work for Fiat.  Leaving the land to work in a factory.  We hence feel very lucky to have the Barabba vineyard from 1935, as vineyards of that age are almost inexistent due to abandonment of the country side.  When he tells the story, we are usually in the vineyard itself, and without fail, everytime I think, "how could you leave this, regardless, I would never give this up... no silly hail could force me to abandon this!"

I still feel that way... but I must say, I feel closer to those that worked this land before us, and feel their sadness.   

What can we/you do?  Open a bottle of Iuli, or any Indie wine, and enjoy it... and appreciate even more what goes into it all - and the risks involved with being a producer and farmer.  Each bottle is a labor of love, art and passion - otherwise it would take only one frozen baseball storm to scare us away!

So there... a little lesson and story about hail for those of you that didn't know!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

From Dolia to Fusti; Indie Wine in N2 Kegs...

Wine in kegs is a hot topic in the US right now, and there are two very clear sides and lines. Personally, traveling and living in Europe since 1998, I am captain of the cheerleading squad for wine on tap (insert high jump and pom pom wave here), finally!  Typically American, what many fail to recognize is that this is NOT a new concept, and something that is simply a new concept in our country.  Being a primarily beer culture until quite recently, we associate taps with 'pub's' and cheap pitchers of beer flavored water, and I think this is the problem a lot of the 'haters' are having with wine on tap.  In Italy, almost 100% of the tap systems will have both wine and beer, and this is how it has always been.  What is new about this concept is using quality wine, sourcing from top producers, and using top of the line systems to pour the wine out of put together by trained professionals.  Wine on tap will never replace 'bottles', it's ridiculous for people to even mention this absurdity, what it does is offer both the consumer AS WELL AS the producer a new opportunity in the US wine market.

In Europe wine has been sold as 'sfuso' or 'in bulk' for as long as wine has been produced.  The Romans even had two 'tiers' of wine.  As soon as the wine became 'limpido,' or 'clear,' it was sold directly from the 'dolia' or amphora buried in the ground, and then the higher quality wine was racked into another, above ground amphora container and sold directly in the amphora itself.  Then, before being sold in 750ml bottles, wine was sold in 'damigiana' or large glass and straw containers of varying sizes, from 5 to 54 liters.  Trattoria's, cafe's and bars have all been serving wine on tap out of 'fusti' or kegs, for 80+ years in Europe, and in fact, at one time it was the only way wine was served in most places, by the carafe.  The wine list as we know it today is a recent addition in Italy.

All quality estates have wine that does not 'make the cut.' Possibly it comes from young and new vineyards still not mature enough to produce bottle quality wine, 2, 3 or 4 years old (sadly, some estates do put this juice in bottle... and then call it quality, but that is another blog :). Some estates have wine produced intentionally to sell in bulk.  There are a number of factors that lead to certain 'tanks' being destined for  'sfuso' rather than bottling.  This will change vintage by vintage, and estate by estate, but finally being able to get our hands on some of these 'seconds' for the US market is a dream come true for me.

In 2005 I worked at Felsina in Tuscany.  On one of my first days I saw a building near the cellar with a line of locals outside, all holding different sized and shaped containers.  I was totally confused... some of the containers were so large I couldn't understand what they would be buying.  When it was explained that they were buying Felsina wine in 'bulk'; white or red and there was even 'sfuso' olive oil, I had a full on dropped jaw.  I couldn't believe it, was overcome by excitement at this discovery, which was followed immediately by a veil of disappointment that this was an opportunity only available in Europe.  Buying great wine in bulk for a few bucks a liter seemed too good to be true.  This is possibly when I really first fell in love with Europe... needless to say, while living at Felsina, I don't even want to know how many liters of that 'sfuso' I consumed, sorry liver.

The first person to start talking to me about 'wine on tap' in the US was my long time friend and maestro, Paulo Villela from the Bohlsen restaurants on Long Island.  He was one of the NY pioneers to get the system set up in their restaurant, 'Verace' on Long Island:, and he opened the concept and restaurant in 2009 with Barbera, yes - you guessed it, Iuli Barbera.  Fast forward to the summer of 2010, I meet Bobby Stucky and Lachlan Patterson of Frasca restaurant here at Iuli in Piedmont.  Lachlan was looking to do wine on tap at their new place in Boulder, Pizzeria Locale, and so we worked out getting them some of the Iuli Barbera and San Lorenzo Verdicchio:  Lachlan and Bobby introduced me to Jim Neal who was doing the kegging for them in California: .

Thanks to Jim Neal's innovation with the kegging of the wine from these bulk totes, to top quality stainless steel kegs, the tap system itself in the restaurants, and passion and dedication to the project, this little personal 'dream' of my own to bring quality Italian bulk wine to the market has finally come true!  Here is a great piece recently written on the subject, mentioning Jim Neal from Wine Spectator:

I have worked personally with a selected few of our estates to choose the 'sfuso' to send to the US.  In order to save costs (it costs money to register wine under an appellation, the DOC, DOCG, AOC, ect., every single bottle with those letters on it comes with a cost), and by most European wine laws, the wine being shipped in these 1,000L totes must be declassified as VdT, or table wine, which as we know cannot have a vintage or grape variety on the 'label'.  However, our Indie producers that are part of the project are all proud to attach their names to this wine in order to guarantee to you that the wine you are drinking is in fact exactly what we have listed it as - and the 'seconds' to their bottled products we all love and drink every day.

Before this project and collaboration with Jim Neal, a lot of this 'sfuso' from these producers was sadly just sold to the local cooperatives, to be blended in with other wine.  This 'sfuso,' when coming from the Indie producers, is almost always made from the very same certified organic vineyards that make the bottled goods you are all familiar with.  This opportunity for them to sell it instead to Jim for kegging in the US is exciting for us all, and we all hope that you will enjoy experiencing a little bit of the 'trattoria' feel in your own favorite local spots that have jumped on board with this old Italian tradition.

For more technical information, photos of places across the country that have 'tapped up' with Jim Neal and Indie juice, or a presentation on the N2 system, please just write to us!!

Cheers :)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Natural Wine: Know Your Palate, Not the 'Fad'....

The problem with 'fads' is probably less than half of the 'fad followers' actually really believe in, like or understand the fad itself.  The majority of these 'fad followers' are just that, followers, and are the entire reason that whatever the subject or item is, is only a 'fad'.  The followers will loose interest, forget, move on to the next thing, ect., and so on.  This leaves the rest of us that were probably the ones that 'started' the fad in the first place, frustrated and scratching our heads.

What am I referring to?  Yes, Natural wine.  I know, I know, the internet is spilling over with blogs, articles, opinions, arguments, debates, celebrations and praises on the subject, but after the wine fairs this year in Verona I had for the first time an incredible urge to put my 2 cents in.  I heard just too much bull**** to not write.

The 'fad followers' I'm referring to in the first paragraph are hearing and reading about 'natural wine', 'organic wine', and 'biodynamic' wine.  They are seeing it more and more present in the market, they are hearing in their shops and restaurants more and more requests for this 'natural wine' stuff.  So, like good bloggers, buyers, sommeliers, and collectors, they are going out and tasting it, trying it, and talking and writing about it.

The truthnatural wine is not for everyone.  Some of these fad followers are trying natural wine and having their entire wine-geekdom-world shift, and that is what happened to me personally, becoming believers and not just followers.  Others want their worlds to have shifted... but they didn't, and so they 'fake it', or keep trying.  If you grew up drinking coca-cola, and you are still drinking and enjoying it, you are not going to all of a sudden start drinking wheat grass and loving that instead.  This is not an insult, just a fact, and a matter of what you and your palate is used to.

I am a full believer in the shift that has taken place in the wine world, the step backwards that many producers all over Europe are taking.  A return to traditional methods; cement, amphora, natural fermentation, following moon cycles, no pesticides or herbicides.  None of these things are new, and were never a category of wine making (which they fall into now), but instead, simply how wine was made, period.  I hope that all wine production (and food production... but that is another subject) moves in this same direction, whether 100, 100 thousand, or 1 million bottles are produced.  Hopefully this shift will also help the 'coca-cola' palates to evolve into wheat grass lovers as well.

Back to the reason I am writing this little piece in the first place.  I can't even count how many times I've had buyers tell me they are into natural wines/organic wines, just to start listing all the 'defects' they have found in the wines I've brought in my bag.  Not only are the so called defects they are finding not defects, but they are confusing brett for VA and VA for brett.  Oxidation for a wine being 'corked', and so on.  The buyers are insecure, they don't understand the wine, and possibly, they just don't like it.  This is fine, however I would like to just clear up a few simple points:

  • There is a small amount of brett in all natural wines... otherwise they would not be natural wines, the amount can reach levels where it becomes a defect, but in 9 cases out of 10 it is not a defect but a part of the wine's character, adds nuances and another level of complexity. By definition, brett is known, in small amounts, to improve red wine complexity. 
  • Reduction; again, not always a defect.  In fact, many producers want their wines to go into reduction while they are in barrel or tank before they are racked and oxygenated.  This adds (yes again) character, nuances and another level of complexity.  
  • Volatile acid is not a defect.  Once again, when reaching certain levels can take away and cover up some of the other aromas in the wine making it more of a defect than an attribute.  However, living at the Iuli estate - where we love acid, the slight VA Fabrizio has in all of his wines are what make them so unique and for me, one of a kind Barbera's.  Let's remember that tannin and acid are what give's wine longevity... and again VA adds character, nuances and another level of complexity.  
  • Oxidation is a tool that every single producer plays with... whether raising the wines in steel tank and bottling with synthetic corks not allowing any, to working in Amphora and oxidizing completely the wines.  I have my own level of oxidation on wines where it goes from pleasant and interesting, to over the top, rendering the wine no longer enjoyable for me to drink and instead purely academic.  This depends on the individual pallet.  Oxidation will also add: character, nuances and another level of complexity (are you noticing the theme yet)...
  • Sediment: NOT A PROBLEM!  As defined by Jancis Robinson, "Basically, filtration speeds the wine-making process and allows better control, thereby lowering production costs"and, "Filtration is a physical alternative to natural settling and requires more expensive equipment but much less patience."  These two quotes say it all for me, reiterating everything I personally believe in and preach in wine.  Slower is better, natural is better, traditional is better... keeping these particles and the sediment in the wine, for every single wine maker I've asked adds: character, nuances and another level of complexity.  
  • Vintage and bottle variance.  Really, I shouldn't even be dumbing down this list by taking the time to list something so obvious, but just incase; yes, in natural wine, there is an incredible vintage variance... because, yes, every vintage is different.  Moreover, not every vintage will be produced - if mother nature decides not to cooperate, there is no fighting against her.  This is also true for every bottle... again, a living breathing product, not a beverage, not stabilized, over filtered and fined, and so each bottle will be slightly different.
  • A science lab and sterilized cellar does not make natural wines.  The yeasts that live all around, on the grapes, in the cellar, and even on us are what make the magic happen and all part of what 'terror' is.  Terrior is not only defined by the actual soil that the vines grow in, but the energy and life all around the vine and wine.  This can not exist in a sterile environment.  Terrior driven wines can not exist in a sterile environment.  Using a lab to analyze and 'adjust' a wine does not make a 'wine' but instead a 'beverage'.  Natural wines are not 'made', but instead they are created and born from vines that are cared for by a vigneron.  Everything in the cellar happens naturally...with some care and direction.
Basically it comes down to whether you want a beverage, or wine.  It depends on if you want to taste where your wine has come from, who made it, and when and how it was raised.  

If you want a so called 'investment banker' wine; that perfectly tailored suit that will fit perfectly every day, with not a thread or seam out of place, then you do not want a natural wine.  If you instead want to be surprised, impressed, confused and thoughtful every time you open a bottle, then yes, natural wine is most likely for you.

If you take the time to buy organic foods, clothing, products, and free range meats, then natural wines are for you.  If responsibility for our land, our children and ourselves is important to you, then natural wines are for you.

So please, I beg all of you out there that are following to the fad, but do not really enjoy the natural wines, to just come to terms with that.  Do not continue to pick out all of characteristics of these wines that make them interesting and unique, that keep us talking and learning, and that maybe confuse you, calling them 'defect's.'  I ask you instead to take a minute to think about the word defect.  It's definition is, "a shortcoming, fault or imperfection."  Friends and fellow wine lovers and wine makers... let's let this idea of a 'perfect wine' go, and instead keep enjoying what nature gives us each and every year - and get excited to keep learning from the wisest of us all, Mother Nature.