A day from my travel journal. Caparsa, May 29, 2016.

Paolo e son

People often flatter me by saying how wonderful it would be to see Italy at my side, winery-by-winery. They blur out the hard realities of my work travel life. It’s cool.

A few friends have lived with me on the road in Tuscany. Here is their story. Or, here’s a day from my travel journal, at the end of a challenging two weeks abroad.

Friday, in a week of winery visits. Our ranks thinned. Wine tourism gets dull, even if you really enjoy drinking. Unless you are stricken with the need for ever more granular knowledge, sand falling into in a very deep well. Attrition. The undeniable appeal of surrounding Tuscany pulled Phoebe (who cooked all the food) and Chuck (who took all the best photos) to markets and distilleries, and olive oil frantoias. They kept a trio of children in their care, which makes them unheralded saints.

I won’t  know if Phoebe minded cooking for 11 people for a week, her time off from making food for a living. She’s one of my very best friends, but she holds some things tightly. I think the week had been a mix of high and low for her. The flight to Florence had been harrowing, her son melted down spectacularly. She clearly loved an early visit to Il Casalone, a tiny Lambrusco farm run by the impossibly kind Alberici family. We ate simple food and talked while the kids played soccer on the patio. Phoebe said she was close to tears. I understand the sentiment. These little beautiful places still exist, filled with marine blue beehives and giant abandoned wooden wine barrels and selfless, generous farmers.

Chuck had a mob of children thrust upon him. He longed to see art but was unlucky to be on a foodie excursion, our art was prosciutto, not Giotto. He gamely stood watch by the cold deep swimming pool, surrounded by lemon trees, with specks of grazing sheep forming patterns across the valley. He drew perfect illustrations of our verdant stone fortress. He captured the light, the surreal Tuscan sunsets. I’ve seen similar wonderful light in Bordeaux, at nearly 10pm on a clear summer evening. And crossing the Arizona desert with Megan, 21-year-olds in a tiny Mazda, dreaming of the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, and falling in love for the first time.

Kate (my favorite nocturnal Brooklynite) was holding on. She was awake earlier than her biorhythms normally allow, because I’d lied about our departure time. I know my people. We needed to shove off at 10am, so I told Kate nine. She looked pale in black, wearing a wan smile and sunglasses. Among many primary virtues, Kate remains up for every adventure, a team player and an upbeat companion. She underestimates how much her presence means to me, and many others around her. She has infuriated me a few times, usually late at night, probably because of our similarities. But her heart and substance is writ large. This morning she was fast to make coffee, which we’d brought in bulk from America. You can’t take chances. In the kitchen of a rented Italian farmhouse, even a beautifully restored fancy one on an organic farm, the stovetop espresso can be a little too industrial to swallow in the first fragile moments of morning.

Megan doesn’t need the sleep I need. We’ve shared a bed for many years. Under nearly identical conditions she rises an hour earlier, a feat of strength. She is physically strong, and glues my world together with willpower. Perspective is everything. I feel connected. We may be at different altitudes as time and life’s trajectories pull at us, but I miss her when she’s not around.

Three-year-old Fiona napped the entire duration of our cellar tour and tasting. Which was perfect.

Coffee importer and Italophile Grant was fresh off the plane. He brought good Mescal gathered on a work excursion to Oaxaca. It made the last night in Italy memorable. Grant will go the extra mile for distinct wine experience, and seemed pretty stoked to spend afternoons with proprietors of quality-centric Chianti farms. He injected enthusiasm and product experience into our group. It created the right balance of relationships to wine within our small mob.

23-year-old Emma. Dreadlocked, tattooed, blunt. Really a softie: my age-inappropriate friend. Caring, close, there for me in night’s darkest hours. She joined us the previous evening, from solo travel in Piemonte. We’ve spent 1,000 hours on the road together. She was my surly, frustrating coworker for a while. She left, did dangerous things that make me both proud of her and worried about her judgment, because I’m old and she is young. We’ve drunk bourbon together across three states, in dive bars and faux roadhouses. We drove the length of the eastern seaboard (and back) sharing our darkest thoughts and personal, painful life experiences, bonding in a very immediate, undeniable way. We’re tight.

We piled into two cars, and drove south, to Radda in Chianti. The hills are higher than you expect, the turns and dives can create vertigo. The land is as beautiful as you’d expect.

Paolo Cianferoni doesn’t behave like a man that lost 60% of this vintage’s production to hail a couple weeks before we arrived. Temperament, or the cumulative experiences of two decades of farming? “The vines will struggle (because of the hail) and make better wine,” he said.

According to Paolo, 60% of Chianti Classico is under foreign ownership today. And 60% of the territory is still forested. That’s a greater percentage than is tree-covered in the larger surrounding region of Tuscany, and it’s a qualitative asset to winemakers in Chianti Classico. Paolo owns 12 hectares: 10 hectares are planted with vines. Paolo started planting new vineyards in 1999. 98% of his new vineyards are planted with Sangiovese. The rest is Trebbiano and Malvasia. Until the turn of the century he was solely working vineyards planted by his father in the mid-1960’s.

There is evidence that Etruscans made wine at Caparsa. Before World War II the whole area was farmed by sharecropping. Peasants had no rights. By the time he was six, Paolo was working on the tractor. By the age of 13 he was working in fields with peasants who had farmed the land before the war.

According to Paolo, 30 years ago the average vintage at Caparsa made 11% alcohol wine naturally. Now the average is 13%, even with their northeast-facing position. The maximum permissible yield in Chianti Classico is 53 hectoliters per hectare. The normal, natural yield at Caparsa, because of how they farm, is 40-45hl/ha. Paolo’s fields are planted in a galestro/clay/alberese soil mix. He still only bottles about 33% percent of production, because of constraints of time, cellar size, and a serious focus on only releasing the very best wine under the label “Caparsa.” He sells the less-good fruit to Ruffino and Antinori. While Paolo will expand the cellar, he doesn’t really want to change the character of his life. He wants Caparsa to stay small, and to remember an older way of farming.

Paolo views Caparsa as a love story. He restored Caparsino, his 16th-century house and cellar, along with his wife Gianna. They raised five children at Caparsino. Doccio a Matteo, Caparsa’s top cuvee, is named after a natural spring that provides water for Caparsino. The couple’s oldest son is 27, and has a passion for making movies. Paolo’s second son started helping out around the farm seven months ago. The family still use a wooden basket press to crush the grapes. Paolo never filters his wine. He does decant it two to four times, depending on the wine.

“Sangiovese matures in October,” Paolo said. The late-ripening means “Sangiovese sees more influence of the land.”

After a vineyard and cellar tour, Paolo leads our ragged group to a picnic table under a tree outside Caparsino, to taste wines. Paolo is generous, opening a comprehensive array of the estate’s wines. I think we were all taken aback by the diversity of character and underpinning excellence of the line-up.

We started with 2014 and 2015 Rosato. The latter wine was exceptionally fruity and good. It gets its dark cherry color from a full day of skin contact. The rosato is made from fruit harvested in shady parts of Paolo’s vineyards. The wine is put into stainless tanks for tartaric stabilization, which is the only real way to accomplish this step because Caparsa is certified organic (so Paolo can’t add a stabilizer) and the cellar has no temperature control. It was bottled at the end of January.

Then we sampled the 2012 Caparsino Chianti Classico riserva. “My wines need time,” Paolo said. “It’s better to open them the day before.” After 24 hours of aeration the wine tastes quite grapey, strong. This is a high quality wine encountered in its infancy.

The 2010 Caparsino is a level up: very ripe, full, tannic: very good. Paolo has been making this wine since 1982. He was 24 years old.

The 2009 Caparsino is wide open aromatically at this stage. The wine is really approachable. Paolo said 2009 was a regular season in Chianti Classico. He made about 6,600 bottles of the Caparsino in that year, which is a little more than normal.

Caparsa usually makes about 4,000 bottles of Rosso di Caparsa. It’s an IGT wine, which Paolo likes because there’s no bureaucracy (in comparison to making DOCG Chianti Classico riserva.) He can use lighter glass, and the wine is bottled with no vintage on the label. Yields can be higher. The 2014 and 2011 bottlings of this wine are really great, naturally 12%, thirst-quenching and fun.

Maximum permissible yield is a dodgy thing in Chianti Classico, and really everywhere in the wine world. The ceiling is 52 hectoliters per hectare in Chianti Classico… with a caveat. You can only bottle 52hl/ha as Chianti Classico, but an additional 18hl/ha from the same fields can become IGT rosso Toscano. So in terms of farming, that permits 70hl/ha. And you can go to 90hl/ha if you bottle solely IGT wine, and as high as 140hl/ha for basically unregulated vino rosso. Which is staggering, industrial, un-ripenable.

Labels are always confusing. “Prodotto e imbottigliato” sounds like produced and bottled, but the laws around this label term permit 50% purchased fruit to be used, as long as you grow the other 50%. Paolo adds the term “integralmente” to his back labels, which means legally that the wine is 100% estate-made.

We ran through a crash course on Doccio a Matteo, essentially his top wine (though not my favorite.)

The 2011 had more grip. It was really nice.

The 2008 saw some barrique. It was more open… at first. Then tannins clamp down. 2007 was another warm year. The wine is tannic. Paolo believes it needs 10 more years.

The 2006 was probably my favorite of the line-up for drinking today.

In 2003 Paolo lost 70% of the vintage. Today the wine seems fully mature.

“1997 was considered the beginning of the renaissance of the wines of Chianti,” Paolo states. “By then, many vines being used by were 20-30 years old. Big companies were busy buying up a lot of very small wineries in the area.”

“We have the power of the culture of wine and food,” Paolo said. There are more than 1,000 grapes in Italy. And 400,000 producers.” It’s an optimistic viewpoint. Italy is doggedly resistant to homogenization.

With this positivity circling us, we set off toward lunch, down the gravel hillside driveway and along a winding forested road toward Volpaia. To Bar Ucci. Where the food is really good! It seems to prove Paolo’s point. Waves of tourists wash through Volpaia, yet Bar Ucci continues to serve solid, high-quality traditional fare. They could easily sell out, take it easy. My fresh pasta and cinghiale-flavored sauce speak to stronger, older motivations.

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Sorgente del Vino March 2017

Oltretorrente ChiaraI’ve been dismissive of trade shows in recent years. I let the personal become professional. They are large and loud. The din and excess, the raw aroma of booze alone gives me anxiety. When I leave I feel I’m exiting an area of grave danger, like a paintball course or a Coldplay concert. But it’s unprofessional to dodge the accumulation of knowledge simply because the experience is a mild irritant.

I hit upon a strategy. I’m a little guy in the wide ocean of wine. To attend the massive fairs filled with industrial sangria makers and vodka floozies and literally thousands of exhibitors, including a fragment that are appealing to me: it’s a mistake. But I need context to grow, to understand if I am importing wines as good as my ego and palate lead me to believe. I have a feisty, healthy ego. To seize hold of a wine and shove it into people’s stemware requires ego. But I don’t value ego at the steering wheel of human character so… there is some roiling tension under my blotchy hide.

I’m at Sorgente del Vino because it is one of the oldest Italian natural wine fairs, well established, with a diverse but ultimately not overwhelming number of exhibitors, and because I’ve never been to it. And because Piacenza is a convenient location, close enough to Piemonte, Emilia-Romagna and the Milan airport that I can do a good deal of what I normally do (visit farms) and also commit 48 hours to grazing through the halls of Piacenza expo.

And I’m here to graze. A few estates that I represent have tables, and it is nice to see them (always) but I’ll see them all at their respective farms on this trip anyway. I want to wander, taste the names I don’t know, with a focus on Liguria and Val d’Aosta, because I know little about what’s happening in those regions today. Calabria and Sardegna, too. On day one I wandered for a couple hours, talking and tasting (35 wines maybe, enough to red-line my palate but not so much as to feel exhausted by the influx of sensation) and formed a few impressions. Sorgente del Vino has a higher population of dogs than any professional wine event I’ve wandered around, including some draft animal sized Newfoundlands. The percentage of smokers is high relative to the general population. Even in Italy smoking is plummeting out of fashion and mercifully the fog of nicotine that covered VinItaly of yore is absent in the sunny concrete causeways around Piacenza Expo. Clusters of smokers drift like last bison on the Great Plains, looking furtive, delinquent, and occasionally quite happy. I’m 16 years beyond a 13-year smoking habit, long enough to feel the creep of disdain. In honesty I like smokers and like smoking, even if it stinks to me now. There are more smokers here than you’d find in a normal population sample because we buy and sell alcohol! Drugs is drugs on some level, drugs have gravitational pull on particular humans. So: no judgment. We’re tasting hippie natural wine of the cosmos, but we’re all in it for the buzz, even if it’s a mellow high that we seek.

I didn’t expect organic cheese. Food throws me off course. Wine is my everyday, the chance to chat with a cheese-maker from the mountains of central Sardegna: that gets my blood moving. And then the raw milk Pecorino slows the blood down again. Balance!

The smell of alcohol is still here. To clarify, alcohol often smells lovely. This is the smell of your college dive bar parking lot. Old rejected alcohol oxidizing into a putrid hangover aroma. We all know it. A reminder of mornings after unthinking evenings.

I’m not sure I covered the whole room. Distractions on day two came in the form of the inspiring/necessary dried pastas of Casa Tajarin from Alba (I bought two kilos) and a particularly beautiful pane lieviti madre, bread the size of my torso that I immediately compulsively purchased and furtively hid in my rental car. Mine mine mine! Why do I need this charred cracked giant bread? The answer is probably hidden deep in my DNA. In between rounds of grocery shopping I run into Daniele Saccoletto, whose farm I’d visited the previous week: he seemed genuinely happy to see me. He has a cult following at this event, which is really great. Later I see Chiara Penanti from Oltretorrente. I have fun walking around with Chiara, getting recommendations of wines made by her friends, and bottles she simply enjoyed tasting. We’ll see each other again on the last day of my travel. This first brief visit after over a year with no contact feels positive, warm. She possesses a mix of my favorite characteristics in a wine partner (or in a human.) She is perceptive, thoughtful, funny, generous, analytical and a little worried, but not held back by her fears. Chiara and Michele take action at Oltretorrente: more on that soon!

I’m not sure if attending trade shows is the greatest commercial activity for wine estates. I’ve heard from winemakers in our portfolio that the costs are high, and that few long-term clients emerge from the scrum of tasters. At least, not enough as reward for vital days away from their farms. Other estates that I represent attend many trade shows and do significant business as a result. I wouldn’t import a wine without visiting where it is made. I have to dig deeper than these events allow, for assurance, to dispel any fears that would otherwise bubble to the surface of my consciousness at 5am, kicking me out of gentle somnambulance and into my frequent state of sweaty, irrational pre-dawn terror.

I see value for the wine buyer in broad critical analysis of wine’s vast unknown expanses. Sorgente del Vino was a low stress situation for me. I scrupulously avoided the temptation to run around trying everything. Consequently I had a good time. And Piacenza is cool. Low impact participation gave me the free time to wander its diverse and architecturally impressive city center. And to eat a pasta or two!

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Micro-wine

Micro-wine.
There are delicious wines that make us happy. They set things alight. We drink them and it’s an entirely different night, we feel just great. These wines are the real deal on a deep fundamental level, and they resonate.

These wines are dangerous: they make it unappealing to drink ordinary wine. You crave their vibe, the extra crackle of giddy electricity, so you spin in frustrated concentric circles through turned-on wine shops, in search of scant bottles of the really awesome stuff. Patterns are altered, to the detriment of convenience.

The ideal of people working in nature for agricultural reward is often the reality of life at the farms that make these delicious wines that send us over the moon. The little farm with a couple people making wine by hand has nothing to do with the creation of most ordinary wine. When you walk down that grocery store aisle, surrounded by a wallpaper of marketed-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life bottles, it is unrealistic to connect those products to a specific farm or farmer. Wandering open-handed through that gauntlet of appealing labels, shopping with an open mind and without a compass will yield an ordinary wine for your dinner. Because ordinary wine, wine without a spark, that beverage is assembled and bottled in exponentially greater quantity than the good stuff. Ending up with it has nothing to do with your powers of discernment or wine acumen.  They are vast and ubiquitous in nearly all alcohol-selling establishments today.

But let’s return to the positive and tangible world of delicious wines.

I want to write about the specifics behind delicious wines I encounter. These are common threads. Precisely how this memorable wine is different from common wine creates definition for an important category. To connect with beer, a category of alcohol whose production distinctions are widely understood and accepted today, I’ll call the majority of delicious wines being made globally today Micro-wines.

Micro-wines wines are:

  1. Made by small estates. Hence the name. We can fuss over what small is, but we know not-small when we see it.
  2. Made by families, or small communities of people. Which is logical to point number one. Family farms and little co-ops with high farming standards make the good stuff.
  3. Farmed in a healthy way. Methods vary greatly, under a successful big tent idea. Microbrewers use quality ingredients, Micro-wine needs the same, and it comes from healthy vines on healthy land.
  4. Estate-bottled, mostly. It starts with controlling fruit quality.
  5. Made to articulate something distinct about their place. This is a bit squishy, but character can be hidden and erased, or exposed and framed by farming and cellar work.

The terms are all imperfect. Many bad-tasting wines also fit within the above definition. It is a worrying trend to associate flaws in farming, fermentation and aging with this emerging category of Micro-wine. This erroneous conflation comes from too-few encounters among wine drinkers with Micro-wine, which they know will be a less homogenized entity. The Micro-wine community will weed these underachievers out. Every community has untalented, average, and exceptional members among its ranks. Our support for the delicious wines makes those farms thrive and continue: it’s how capitalism works, when it works, right?

Returning briefly to danger: every encounter with Micro-wine makes ordinary wine more unappealing. Eventually ordinary becomes intolerable, your body essentially rejects the wine. You know how it’ll make you feel later on, like you’ve consumed a cheap unhealthy drug, or eaten a pile of Bugles, Chips Ahoy and Cheese Whiz for dinner. In my experience, the banality of the ordinary becomes unacceptable, to the degree that abstemiousness is more appealing than a glass of industrial wine. I’d rather read a book! Or drink tea. Heavily processed wines make my mouth unhappy.

Still more danger: of course people will call you a snob. And you are, because you also like eating local ripe tomatoes or tasty local chicken. You analyze what you consume. Snob.

Micro-wine fits, because only a tiny part of the world’s wine is like this. Two or three percent, maybe? Even inside my happy, healthy wine importer bubble I see the difference in scale between the people making cool stuff, and the giants of ordinary wine processing. But seeking out great micro-wine will also lead you to great people who care (sometimes a little too much, exceptional experiences breed obsession) about the same thing you are finding. Fun-to-drink wine.

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