Opinion: “Montalcino, I had a dream” by Franco Ziliani

I had a dream, I dreamt I was in another Montalcino.

In my dream, it was a different Montalcino. The landscape wasn’t different. All the landmarks were there: the Fortress, the church of Sant’Antimo, the historic medieval town, the cypress-lined road that leads to the Greppo estate, the winebar and cafè in the Logge di Piazza, the Giglio hotel and restaurant. All of Montalcino’s characters were there, too. I distinctly remember seeing Giulio Salvioni, the former Consortium president Sarrino Fanti, Piero Palmucci, Gianni Brunelli, Stefano Cinelli Colombini. They were all there. But in my dream, Montalcino was different… there was a different spirit and people were talking but about different things.

I remember that in the fury to point the finger at Gianfranco Soldera and to declare him “guilty” of sending letters to the Siena magistrate’s office (letters that unleashed a dust storm), the unthinkable happened (something probably better if avoided): the Siena prosecutor’s office and the magistrates decided to summon Soldera. They were the same magistrates who had heard rumors of Soldera’s “guilt,” rumors started by persons who wished to distract attention from their own responsibility in the matter.

They summoned Soldera because he was a person who “knew the facts,” a person who might have something to tell the magistrates. Perhaps he would present substantive research on Montalcino and its wines, research conducted by him and his collaborators — famous scientists well-known for their unerring work and meticulousness.

It was a truly strange dream, a dream that had nothing to do with reality.

In the dream, instead of absolving and making excuses for those persons under investigation by order of the magistrate (and not by order of any journalist), the world of Montalcino — from the Consortium to every single producer — reacted with great dignity and pride. Instead of trying to whitewash everything, to conclude the matter as soon as possible and to “forget,” Montalcino asked for people to take responsibility, calling for a clear-cut distinction between the majority of sensible persons who respected the law and the consumer and the minority of charlatans.

In the dream, the producers under investigation considered the situation carefully and decided, as a precautionary measure, voluntarily to suspend themselves. They simply wanted to defend their good name and the shared legacy of Brunello di Montalcino and its Consortium. They chose to let justice take its course.

In the dream, the producers of Montalcino — small and large — were proud of their work. The chief concern was to protect the good name of Brunello, its credibility, and its prestige. They took matters into their own hands and they collected signatures and formed a committee undersigned in boldface by the wineries and their owners. They set out to do what the Consortium was not doing or what it could not do: they reached out to consumers, clients, markets, and importers… they spoke, explained, clarified, reassured, and offered transparency.

They reaffirmed their belief in an indisputable paradigm: that Brunello must be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes grown in Montalcino. They expressed their conviction there is no serious or substantive technical, enological, viticultural, or commercial reason to change the identity of Brunello — a wine the world wants because it is different from others, a wine that should not be homogenized or forced to imitate a Super Tuscan.

In the dream, these good-willed producers — and they formed the majority — took out a page in the Corriere della Sera and The New York Times where they explained their position and their intentions. And following the advice of their public relations agency, they held a press conference in Montalcino and laid out a clear-cut plan to save their industry.

Firstly, they called for the reformation of Siena Chamber of Commerce Tasting Commission. The panel, the said, would be invested with the power to sample and green-light wines to be labeled and released on the market as Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. The body would approve only true Brunello and it block not only technically questionable wines but also any wines out of line with regulations for production.

In the dream, the producers and the Brunello Consortium were united: they decided, with an overwhelming majority, to submit not only the current-release 2003 Brunello for examination but also future releases: 04, 05, 06, and even 07, the child of the most recent vintage. And they even decided to submit a few samples from previous vintages — 02, 01, and 2000 — for analysis.

But it was just a dream… just a dream I had.

Dear Montalcino winemakers, wouldn’t it be wonderful to make this dream, this utopia into realty? Why don’t you take the words of Martin Luther King and make them yours: exclaim, all together: “I have a dream, a dream of untarnished Brunello di Montalcino, transparent and free of any trickery. A dream of a Brunello that protects the hard work of the good-willed women and men who make it. A Brunello that defends its good name, credibility, and the shared legacy of an appellation. A special, singular, inimitable wine, a wine that will continue — albeit on more solid ground — to be an epic wine of our times.”

I know you can do it. All you have to do is try.

— Franco Ziliani

Argiano Announces Declassification of 03 Brunello

Earlier this week, the Argiano winery circulated the following letter announcing the declassification of its 2003 Brunello:

    Montalcino, April 21st, 2008

    Dear Wine Lovers,

    I am deeply troubled and extremely sadden [sic] by the recent events that have had such a serious impact on our very lovely area and, inevitably, my heart goes out to all the people who for many years have worked very hard and with dedication to produce our wine, and to our faithful customers who have followed us with great passion.

    During the past weeks, Brunello di Montalcino has been undergoing fierce attacks that fuel controversy and negatively influence the work done by all the winemakers in the area and their legacy, which is now recognized at international level. The Consortium is doing a great deal of valuable work to defend all that we have achieved, helping to shed light upon what has happened and upholding the quality of our products with precision and expertise.

    Given the philosophy that has always inspired us at Argiano, we are unable to stand back and wait for the events to take their course. Our foremost wish is to enable our faithful customers to enjoy our excellent wine this year as well. For this reason we will make a great sacrifice, one that is truly enormous for a winemaking company: we will declassify our top wine, our flagship.

    In this unforgettable and unique year there will be a new label: IL DUEMILATRE DI ARGIANO. We have decided to change the name, contained in the classic label that has become our symbol, but leaving the wine unchanged in its essence, the same as ever, the same wine that on more than one occasion has permitted us to win praise and awards. We steadfastly keep to our values and our enthusiasm, which are firmly rooted in our history, dating back to 1580.

    The dream that has guided my life is this: to transform emotions into something unique, sensual and fascinating to share with as many people as possible. I fell in love with Argiano at first sight, I immediately sensed that this was the place where I could cultivate this great ambition of mine, creating wines known and appreciated all over the world. I have strenuously devoted my whole life to the wine world and to striving to achieve refined taste.

    Looking towards the future I feel confident that everything will very soon return to normal, also because I am fully aware of the good work that has been done, and that Argiano will be able to continue successfully along its journey towards excellence.

    I sincerely thank you for your time and for your continued support.

    Contessa Noemi Marone Cinzano

Ziliani in The New York Times

The following is an excerpt from today’s Times article on the recent Brunello controversy by Elisabetta Povoledo. Read the entire piece here. Look for Franco’s comments to David Lynch’s recent article, “True Brunello” in the May issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine. Visit Franco’s polemical Italian blog VinoalVino.org for more commentary on the current controversy and scroll down for coverage of recent developments.

    ‘Bolt From the Blue’ on a Tuscan Red

    Winemakers in Tuscany ask: who is being honest?

    By Elisbaetta Povoledo

    Why would anyone want to use unapproved grapes?

    “Very simple,” said Franco Ziliani, the Italian wine expert who helped spread the word about the scandal on his blog, vinowire.com. “Adding cabernet or merlot, which are more pleasant to the American palate, makes for a more appealing wine for the average consumer as well as critics.”

    The American market, Mr. Ziliani said, is among the most lucrative and prestigious. Merlot in particular, he said, “makes sangiovese’s acidic tannins rounder, and more ready to drink,” and these grapes give these wines a darker color. Such wines regularly score in the high 90s with American critics, which usually translates into big sales.

    He and others believe winemakers in the region have been doctoring their brunello for much of the past decade.

    Mr. Ziliani, the critic, is outraged by the reaction of many winemakers.

    “Even though honest growers might be upset that the rules have been broken, they’re also irritated — and this is very Italian — that it’s interfering with their business,” he said. “I think most producers in Montalcino would have preferred that things went on as before — with some companies selling real brunello, and others not — because in any case brunello sells.”

Carlo Ferrini on the Brunello Controversy

Italian enologist Carlo Ferrini spoke to VinoWire editor Franco Ziliani over the weekend at the first meeting of the Wine Creators conference in Ronda (Málaga) Spain.

Although Carlo Ferrini (left) has previously advocated revisions of Brunello di Montalcino appellation regulations, he told VinoWire editor Franco Ziliani that today, he opposes any changes that would allow for the use of grape varieties other than Sangiovese. In the light of the recent controversy, he said, a change in regulations would be a grave error.

Ferrini expressed his dismay with the Siena magistrate’s handling of the investigation and the coverage the controversy has received in the press. Roughly 90 wineries (nearly half the number of Brunello producers) could be implicated – to one degree or another – in the ongoing inquiry, he said, and he noted that few winemakers are in a position to criticize their colleagues. (Ferrini also revealed that Casanova di Neri, for whom he has consulted in the past, has been named in the investigation for minor irregularities.)

According to Ferrini, the investigation was launched after a Brunello producer repeatedly sent anonymous letters to the Siena magistrate’s office. The producer and two of his winery’s consultants were asked to join the magistrate’s investigative panel together with a noted enologist who does not work in Montalcino, said Ferrini.

As a possible solution to the current crisis, Ferrini proposed that the Italian government intervene and resolve the controversy internally, within the system of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, the Brunello producers association. Alternatively, he suggested that a “moratorium” could be set into place, whereby producers would be granted 2-3 years to address and correct any irregularities without repercussion.

The former technical director of the Chianti Consortium and consultant to some of Tuscany’s most important wineries, Ferrini was named a “Wine Creator” by a select group of journalists and wine experts at the first-ever Wine Creator conference held April 18-19 in Ronda (Málaga), Spain.

Opinion: Oportet ut scandala eveniant

Click here to read a preview of David Lynch’s article, “True Brunello, the future of Tuscany’s signature sangiovese,” featured in the April issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine.

I applaud David Lynch for his excellent article, “True Brunello” (Wine & Spirits Magazine, April, 2008). This serious, well written, and meticulously documented piece reveals what a treasure Sangiovese represents for Montalcino.

Sangiovese is and must continue to be the backbone and hallmark of the appellation, a wine known throughout the world for its greatness. All of the producers and enologists interviewed by Lynch have declared their “faith” in the Sangiovese grape and have made it clear that there is no logical reason to make Brunello less “Montalcinian” or more international by changing the appellation’s regulations through the addition of other grape varieties, French or otherwise.

In the light of the recent scandal and inappropriate practices in the cellar by certain winemakers who lacked both respect for the appellation regulations and common sense, Lynch’s article is important also because it reveals that Montalcino producers were aware of the existence of “strange” wines labeled as Brunello. The scandal was a time bomb bound to explode sooner or later. It was clear to everyone that there were irregularities and it was time to stop pretending that everything was being done by the book.

All you had to do was to look at the dark color of these wines and experience their aromas (completely different from Sangiovese), their concentrated flavors, their resemblance to Merlot and their utter lack of refinement, elegance, and the character of Sangiovese: it was clear that some producers were freely “interpreting” Brunello and transforming it into something that it wasn’t meant to be.

How should we respond in the face of a scandal that threatens to damage perceptions of Brunello and the hard work of the overwhelming majority of producers who respect the law and honor the land, history, and identity of Brunello and Sangiovese by creating real wines that truly taste of Tuscany? As the Latins use to say, oportet ut scandala eveniant, it’s good that scandals happen.

It is my hope that this scandal will give winemakers an opportunity to bring clarity and “purification” to the appellation, a chance to begin anew and make Brunello di Montalcino even greater than before: the authentic, unique, inimitable, powerful legacy of a land where Sangiovese grosso is transformed into Brunello — and certainly not into Cabernet, Merlot, or Syrah. Today, the most important response is to believe in Brunello and to continue to buy, uncork, and cellar the many great wines that continue to be produced in Montalcino — and for Bacchus’ sake, there are a lot of them!

When Brunello enthusiasts are doubtful about a given wine, they should simply ignore it and reach instead for the tried and true. They should choose and reward those Montalcino producers who fulfill their duty and who — now more than ever — need our support, especially in this moment of insanity when they may be tempted to conclude that Brunello is no longer a credible wine. Brunello is indeed a credible wine and so are those producers who represent its connective tissue, its strength, and its past, present, and future.

— Franco Ziliani

NAS Announces More Seizures of Italian Wine

Italy’s Anti-Adulteration and Health Safety Bureau (NAS) announced yesterday that it has sequestered 180,000 hectoliters of bulk wine and 16,000 bottles from nine wineries in the provinces of Cremona, Mantova, Napoli, Parma, Siena, Treviso, and Taranto. According to a wire report published by ANSA (Italy’s Associated National Press Agency), infractions included the presence of illegal additives and sweeteners and improper labeling. Irregularities in pricing were also cited as grounds for the seizures of VdT (table wine) and DOC (controlled appellation) products produced by the as-of-yet unnamed wineries.

Italian Agriculture Minister Launches Media Investigation

Italian Minister of Agriculture Paolo de Castro (pictured left) announced late last week that the Italian government would launch an investigation of coverage of the recent wine controversies by the Italian press.

“Over the last few weeks,” said De Castro in a prepared statement, “we have witnessed a violent attack on Made-in-Italy products and the efforts and commitment of the [Italian] government and [Italian] companies to affirm the quality of our products abroad… This is not the first time in this country that we have had to combat not only criminal adulteration but also fear disseminated by bad information. I’d like to think it is due to ignorance and a lack of conscientiousness rather than bad faith… Given the scope of the situation, the Ministry [of Agriculture] has asked its lawyers to verify whether or not there are grounds for legal action.”

De Castro also noted that “Italy has assured the European Commission [EEC] that the Taranto prosecutor’s investigation of [adulterated] wine has ruled out any health risks.”

The minister’s statement seems to contradict an order, signed April 4 by prosecutor Luca Buccheri in Taranto (Apulia), to sequester wines produced by two winemakers, VMC and Enoagri in Massafra (Apulia), after “acidic substances” and substances “foreign to winemaking” were discovered in the wine. According to the order, some of those substances were “highly dangerous to human health.”

The investigation of toxic substances found in wines produced by VMC and Enoagri was first reported in the April 10 issue of the magazine L’Espresso. The story was dubbed Velenitaly or PoisonItaly by the magazine’s editors.

Editor’s note: there is no relation whatsoever between the so-called Velenitaly controversy and the recent revelation that a small number of Brunello di Montalcino producers have been investigated for not following appellation regulations. Although hundreds of thousands of bottles of Brunello have been sequestered by Italian authorities, the reason for the seizure was the alleged presence of grapes other than Sangiovese and, in at least one case, yields allegedly too high for appellation regulations. Authorities have reported no health risks whatsoever in relation to Brunello.