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Sour Grapes or Wine?

Posted: Jul 2, 2008 2:00pm ET

Tomorrow there will be a joint press conference in Montalcino featuring Luca Zaia, the Italian agricultural minister, and Ron Spogli, the U.S. ambassador to Italy. They will announce a plan to resolve the current dilemma with the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has said it will block the importation of Brunello di Montalcino to the United States if the wines do not have an official certificate from the Italian government guaranteeing that they were produced in accordance with DOCG rules.

Tuscan magistrates are also finishing their investigation into Brunello di Montalcino producers, and they have released some Brunellos from impound, namely Antinori's Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino 2003.

I have heard that this governmental certificate for the TTB will be produced in living color tomorrow, and Brunello producers as well as their U.S. importers will be able to use it to prove that their wines adhere to official rules governing the production of what is arguably Italy's greatest red. This certificate, if you haven't been following closely, will guarantee that the Brunello is 100 percent Sangiovese.

I am shaking my head in disappointment as I write this. Yes, I am happy that the Italian government finally stepped in and did something about a monumental fiasco that tarnished the image of one of the world¹s great wines. But I still have to wonder what the whole thing was really about.

I've heard that it was just an example of how some wine producers can let their petty jealousies run so wild that they're willing to destroy something very special in their wine world. Apparently, it all began with one Brunello producer whose wine the official DOCG tasting panel refused to approve because it was too light-colored and unclean. And then, the story goes, this disgruntled vintner went to his friends at the magistrates and urged them to investigate the top names in the region. It sort of backfired when all Brunello imports were prohibited from entering the United States.

Anyway, I am not sure what to think. I lost respect for part of Italy's wine world in some ways. Honesty is the key to making great wines, and any dishonest vintner should be disciplined. But if this thing was really only about jealousy, then it was really just about sour grapes, and not wine.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  July 2, 2008 6:10pm ET
Sounds like what could be a Hatfields and McCoy event. Seems if the story is true this vintner would become a pariah. He would get the old silence treatment, at best, mysterious fires and killed vines, at worst, from the other people in the AVA. Montalcino is too small of a place to hide to upset that many neighbors.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  July 3, 2008 12:44pm ET
It seems that mountains have been made out of piles of dust. It's amazing how how these beautiful wines that create a true cerebral and soulful experience have to now bare some sort of governmental approval. I really feel bad for these producers and their stunning wines from this small AVA in Tuscany. Sour grapes is exactly what it is.
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  July 3, 2008 12:57pm ET
James thanks for keeping us updated. It sounds just like U.S. politians who only want their party in power and do not care about anyone elseas long as they have the power.
James Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  July 3, 2008 2:31pm ET
It is truly sad that so many people were affected because of a few bruised egos. The degree to which people can be so petty - cutting off their nose to spite their face - never ceases to amaze me. With a little luck, the more people learn about what really precipitated all of this (with help from diligent journalists such as yourself), the more likely it is that this whole sorry episode will be relegated to a footnote in the annals of Italian wine. Let's hope so, anyway: the people who were unjustly penalized through all of this deserve better.
Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  July 3, 2008 4:56pm ET
Hi James,Can you explain to me how a tasting panel delivers a verdict on what a single grape wine should taste like in a growing area as diverse as Brunello DOCG. Taking into account individual approaches to vinification, vineyard altitudes,different soils, etcPerhaps time for the sub-zone debate? Lets not forget the BrunelloConsorzio panel of experts gave 2003 a **** vintage rating the same as 2001 !!!
Steven Balavender
Tampa, Fl —  July 4, 2008 4:42pm ET
From talking to other tourists while I was in Italy, I can tell you that NO ONE I talked to during my 2 week trip to Italy had any idea there was a Brunello scandal going on. This even while I was visiting wineries in Montalcino.....as far as the US and average customer is concerned it's....what scandal????? Brunello in the US will go on like nothing ever happened (since no one even knows...lolol)As far as straightening this out in Italy...it's just a sham....they had to drop charges once the US threatened to block imports, they had no choice....simple as that.
John Poggemeyer
Cleveland, OH —  July 5, 2008 11:58am ET
James- In teh course of your tastings, have you come across any "suspect" Brunello's, in terms of their style? Not asking you to name names and start ANOTHER petty war, just curious i fyou feel anyone has tried what they are accused of, based on your opinion of their wines...
Riccardo Bonino
Washington DC —  July 7, 2008 8:19am ET
This kind of BS is what prompted Angelo Gaja to renounce to the DOCG appellation for his wines. Old rules, old people (in their minds only), old "rust"....I would not be disappointed if there's a 3 per cent merlot in my Brunello, if I like it.Just think of Fontalloro, Sperss, and more recently the Recioto Dal Forno.... all wines without DOC or DOCG but still great wines.What it counts it's you're own experience while drinking these wines. They dont taste better only because of a pink ribbon.
Aldo Popolani
New Jersey —  July 7, 2008 12:43pm ET
James,it would be great if you could share with us who is "this disgruntled vintner"?
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  July 7, 2008 6:47pm ET
I believe in accountability on all sides. If producers are issuing bogus Brunellos, we should know about it, and be protected from them. If, on the other hand, one disgruntled producer set this whole thing in motion without proper foundation, then the world deserves to know who it is. To be anonymous and still be able to have such a potentially catastrophic effect on such a big business sector is just plain unfair. Come on, who's the one who yelled "fire" in a crowded theater?

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