Monday, June 22, 2020

The Many Faces of Montepulciano

"One barrel of wine can work more miracles than a church full of saints."  Italian Proverb

In all the world's wine regions, there is confusion over the naming of some wine grapes; Is it Mataro or Mourvedre?  Depends on where you live; Aussies prefer the former, French the latter. In a class by itself, though, Italian wine has a confusing jumble of grape, wine and town names.

Along the Italian peninsula there is a single red grape known by many different names. In the Tuscan region of Chianti, the main red grape is called Sangiovese, while in the hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino, Sangiovese is known as Brunello. Vintners in Montepulciano, another hilltop town not far from Montalcino, refer to Sangiovese as Prugnolo Gentile. 

And then there's this head-scratcher: Montepulciano is the name of a town, the renown Tuscan Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and, wait for it, a red grape that is not grown in Tuscany.  However, the noble wine of Montepulciano is made from Prugnolo Gentile not the Montepulciano grape.  And if that's not confusing enough, in Abruzzo, on the Adriatic Sea, there is a popular red wine called Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, made from the Montepulciano grape.

Did you get all that?

No worries.  You can see from that little exercise, though, that the mix of Italian wines, grapes and town names can be as confusing as Italian politics.  A few simple guidelines will help sort out the differences between Montepulciano uva, Montepulciano vino and Montepulciano citta. 

The Montepulciano grape
In all of Italy, including the island regions of Sicily and Sardinia, there are 95 provinces, of which 20, mostly in central Italy, are suitable for the cultivation of the Montepulciano grape. The provinces of Abruzzo, Marche, Molise and Puglia, along the eastern side of Italy, on the Adriatic Sea, are where the Montepulciano grape is most widely planted.  

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Wine - Gathering a Landscape in a Glass
Montepulciano vineyard in Abruzzo

Montepulciano is a late ripener, thus the warmer planting zones in the center of the peninsula are best.  Farther north, closer to the Alps, the climate is too cool for the grape to ripen fully, and further south, in parts of Puglia, the Montepulciano grape can get overripe fast.  Nevertheless, growers always looking for new places to grow quality wine grapes, have found that the Montepulciano grape does reasonably well in landlocked Umbria and along the Tuscan coastline in Maremma.

When planted in an optimal area, Montepulciano produces wines deep in color, packed with fruit and supported by firm robust tannins. These qualities make Montepulciano a good addition to red blends needing a boost.

The Montepulciano wines
Despite the name similarities, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Montepulciano d'Abruzzzo wines are different. In fact, some would say the two wines have little in common. Let's take a closer look.                                                                                                                                                                       
                                                   Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ...

Sangiovese, Prugnolo Gentile; is this just a name difference or are the two grapes the same?  Depends on who you ask.  Locals say that Sangiovese grown in the vineyards around Montepulciano, gives a fuller wine with deeper color, than say, Chianti, but not as big and deeply hued as Brunello.

The taste of Sangiovese is often described as dark fruits like blackberry, with floral and herbal notes. Prugnolo Gentile in Vino Nobile is more dark cherries, sweet herbs, brisk acidity and full tannins.

Reliable Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Producers: Avignonesi, La Braccesca (Antinori), Ettore Falvo, Il Macchione, Poliziano, Di Ricci, Valdipatta
Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is a different wine, mostly because it is made from the Montepulciano grape and not Sangiovese.  The Montepulciano grape is a vigorous late-ripening variety with robust tannins and ripe flavors. The flavor profile is more rustic, although wineries in Abruzzo are working to refine Montepulciano's flavors. To that end, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Coline Teramare has earned DOCG status.

Reliable Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Producers: Cataldi Madonna, Centorame, Citra, Farnese, Pasetti, Valentini

The Montepulciano city 
Montepulciano, in the Tuscan province of Siena, has the distinction of being mentioned as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy.  Having been there a few times, I would agree.

Piazza Grande In Montepulciano, Italy Stock Photo, Picture And ...
Piazza Grande, Montepulciano

Sitting on a limestone ridge, at an elevation of about 2,000 feet, the town of 14,000 is about 77 miles from bustling Florence. The relative quiet of Montepulciano makes the distance seem much further. 

Like most small Italian towns, Montepulciano is chock-a-block with historic buildings, presented in a variety of architectural styles. Three hundred years before the 19th century unification, known as Risorgimento, Montepulciano boasted a large enough population to support three major churches. One of those, the Duomo, houses an historic triptych above its altar.


The proverb above is from "The Quotable Wine Lover," Kate Fiduccia, The Lyons Press 

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Friday, June 12, 2020

The World's Best Wine?

"I rather like bad wine; one gets so bored with good wine." Benjamin Disraeli, British Statesman

When I started this blog, my goal was to write about wine education, while mostly ignoring the periphery topics that are often the theme of wine blogs, such as wine policy.

Then, I read this: "Iconic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Crowned Best Wine in the World," in the Wine Industry Network's Afternoon Advisor (May 26, 2020). The headline was on an industry press release from Vivino, an online wine marketing firm.

I paused and then re-read the headline and the release. The audacity of the claim was stunning; how could any one wine be deemed the best in the world? More importantly, though,was the misleading message Vivino was sending to wine consumers.

Based on 2019 data supplied by subscribers, Vivino determined that the Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Vineyard (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 was the "best wine in the world." The Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon attained a "4.84 rating," placing it ahead of last year's winner, Scarecrow, also a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  

                                            ᐈ Napa valley stock images, Royalty Free napa pics | download on ...

Vivino arrived at the rating through a series of submissions, they call "crowdsourcing," from "millions" of people who follow Vivino. According to Vivino's "Content Policy," which you can read on their web site (, this is how the company gathers contributions about wines: "...Vivino lets user (sic) contribute different kinds of content, including photos, reviews, pricings, places (placements?), top lists (?), articles, videos, and more." 

As a wine consumer, you might reasonably ask what a photo or a video has to do with wine quality which, after all, is what you are paying for. 

Let me say here that my objection to the Vivino approach to wine marketing in no way reflects on the Hundred Acre wine. I have not tasted the wine and, in fact, know very little about it. But before getting to the gist of my objection, here are a few things to know about Vivino.

Vivino Background
Vivino was started in 2010 by two Danes: Heini Zachariassen and Theis Sondergaard; hereafter to be known in this blog as "Z&S." In "About Vivino," on the company web site, there is this statement about the founding: "...before Vivino, there wasn't a way for them (consumers) to easily access information to help them make a decision about their next wine to try or buy."  So, Z&S started Vivino. Both men are co-founders of Bullgard, an internet security company and also were involved in several startups. 

The next move for Z&S was to secure startup money, first from a Danish billionaire named Janus Friis, then from three European venture capital firms. Total amount of capital raised was north of $35 million.

More from the Vivino web site: "Vivino is the world's largest online wine marketplace and most downloaded wine app, powered by a community of millions...Vivino uses data from 43 million wine drinkers to determine the world's favorite submissions or payments." Had the Vivino statement stopped with "favorite," I might have read on and not thought more about the "best in the world" claim. 

The Vivino Arrogance
So, what irks me about the Vivino headline? The preposterous and arrogant anointing of one wine as the "best wine in the world."  The claim may seem innocent enough, and you might ask what's the big deal, but these statements and headlines distort and wrongly influence wine sales. 

Vivino is selling the Hundred Acre's wine and it has the right to promote and market the wine. But the rating for this wine is about numbers purchased rather than quality. Wine consumers look at price but they also want quality.

                                           42 Best p e n e l o p e | wine photography images in 2020 | Wine ...
A review or promotion of the wines marketed by Vivino that I've seen is overheated, using words like "iconic" and "legendary."  Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve and Heitz Martha's Vineyard are legendary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, Dana Estates Vaso Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, no matter the quality of the wine, is hardly legendary. 

As for marketing integrity, this is troubling. According to "Conflicts of Interest" on Vivino's web site, Vivino clearly allows wineries to rate their own wines, with this caveat: "If you are affiliated with a winery or retailer we remind you to (sic) that your contributions should be unbiased and objective." The open brashness of that statement is almost laughable. 

Here is another example of why I believe Vivino is misleading the wine consumer. In the promotion of the online sale of Maroon Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Vivino uses this headline: "For 10 years It (Maroon) Went Straight Into Phelps Insignia...."   The accompanying text does add that (the) winery had a 10-year contract in the 1990s. That was more than 20 years ago, so do you suppose the vineyard has changed? Undergone replanting? Suffered from phylloxera?

Then, there's this headline: "Value for Money Wines a Hot Commodity," followed by the list of Spanish Verdejo, Portuguese Vinho Verde, Spanish sparkling, all priced by Vivino at $10 - $15 per bottle. According to a recent Nielsen survey of wine consumption, consumers are looking for wines in the $20 to $25 range. So, it would appear that Vivino's "hot commodity" wines are priced below what consumers favor. 

There is one last example of Vivino's questionable marketing. When I asked a friend what he knew about Vivino, he sent me a screen shot of a Vivino e-promo with the following wording: "Based on your taste profile, we think you'll like..." followed by the name of a 2015 Barolo. My friend says he never bought anything from Vivino. 

Vivino is not the first company to quantify wine quality by using numerical ratings. But the Vivino method is a popularity contest, not an honest evaluation of wine quality and value. Who are these "millions" of people who send Vivino photos of a wine they just bought?  More importantly, what are their qualifications to decide the "best wine in the world?" 

Next time you see a Vivino pitch for a wine, look beyond the clever marketing and trust your own palate.   


Next Blog: The Many Faces of Montepulciano

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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 3

 "Many readers have asked me to divulge my wisdom about wine, and I do so gladly, for wine is a noble thing, being much slower than the martini (known in bibulous circles as the quick blow to the back of the head) and much harder than differential calculus." Russell Baker, 1974, New York Times. 

At the close of the last episode, I had returned to Bavaria from France and to the beer-town of Freising, after visiting Janet's brother, Gene Boyle, who was recuperating in an Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, from a motorcycle accident in France. While in Wiesbaden, I was introduced to wine at a wine and food festival. 

Before heading back to the "Land of the Big BX (Base Exchange)," there was one more experience with the pleasures of German beer. I had spent some time at a five-man radio relay site situated in a tiny farming village outside Augsburg. The work schedule was one day on standby, one day on duty and three days off, so in my time off, I sipped some beer and practiced my German by playing Bavarian card games with the old men of the village.

In 1957, the end of my assignment in Germany coincided with the end of my four-year enlistment, so I packed my duffel bag and headed for Pennsylvania. Back in civilian life, my prospects for employment were uncertain and "My Life in Wine" took a temporary detour. 

A mini-recession in '57 was hurting the job market in the Philadelphia area, but I was lucky to land a few jobs, even though all of them lacked interest and opportunity. One bright spot: Janet and I had agreed to marry the following May, so with no permanent job prospects in sight, I re-enlisted in the Air Force, retaining my rank and securing an assignment to Massachusetts.  

My first assignment back was in a communications squadron at Otis Air Force base on Cape Cod. A small group of technicians, on rotation from a Texas Tower, off the coast of Massachusetts, shared our shop. It was a crowded space and a number of the guys were  looking for the same promotion. So I volunteered for a position at a detachment in Cambridge. I learned later that the Texas Tower technicians lost their lives when the  tower they were on went down in a north Atlantic storm.

A Texas Tower
A Texas Tower

Our detachment admin clerk told me of an opening for my grade specialty at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, which sounded a lot better than chilly Massachusetts. So, on April Fools Day, I asked Janet were she would like to be stationed next and she said Hawaii. When I told her about the assignment, she thought I was fooling her. I got the assignment, though, and we were off to sunny and warm Hawaii.

Nothing much happened with wine while in Hawaii, but at our next assignment in Sunnyvale, California, my re-introduction to wine was about to take place. I was assigned to a satellite tracking station at Lockheed in Sunnyvale and we found a house to rent in San Jose. I had signed up for classes at San Jose City College and heard fellow students talking about weekend visits to a cluster of wineries in nearby Santa Cruz Mountains.

The winery mentioned more than any others was owned by Dr. David Bruce, a San Jose dermatologist. Some of the comments passed along by fellow students were more about the man than the wines. I got the impression that David Bruce was some sort of wine oracle and that pilgrims made a trek to his mountain winery on Bear Creek Road to hear his comments about the pleasures of wine. 

So, one weekend, I visited David Bruce and found a quiet, somewhat modest man, describing the unique qualities of Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Bruce was a trail blazer who encouraged more people to follow his lead and open wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Curiously, he was more enthusiastic about making a success of Santa Cruz Mountain Zinfandel than Pinot Noir, although it was pinot that ultimately made the Bruce name. 


A few sips of Bruce Pinot Noir and I was hooked, again. The seductive flavors took me back to my serendipitous tasting (Gamay? Pinot Noir?) in the French train station restaurant. Unfortunately, our meager budget then didn't allow for a bottle of Bruce Pinot Noir and I knew nothing about Zinfandel.

My curiosity to learn more about wine was growing. I happened to see an article in the "San Jose Mercury News," by Paul Gillette about a winery in the hills above Saratoga, started by a group of fellow scientists at Stanford Research Institute. Dave Bennion brought the group together and was the first winemaker when the Ridge Vineyards Winery opened in 1960. By the time I visited Ridge for the first time. Paul Draper had been hired as the winemaker. 

Draper's crowning achievement was arguably California's best Cabernet Sauvignons (some say it is the best) called Ridge Monte Bello, named for the famed ridge. Draper also made a string of Zinfandels from grapes purchased in Amador, Napa and Sonoma counties, such as the famous and popular Lytton Springs and Geyserville Zins. 

Image may contain: plant, sky, ocean, tree, cloud, grass, outdoor, nature and water
Monte Bello Vineyard

I didn't have my first taste of Monte Bello Cabernet until years later, but I became as familiar, as our budget would allow, with Ridge Zinfandels.  The first taste of Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel at the winery was a revelation. Big, bold and over flowing with spicy Zin fruit and high alcohol; it was the ultimate seduction for a student of wine.

There is a natural association between Zinfandel and relatively high alcohol, but in those days, it was news to me. I did learn early about the natural pairing of California Zinfandel and grilled steaks and burgers. At some point in my tasting experience, I had tasted a monster Zinfandel from the Monterey Peninsula Winery, with a side label suggestion that the wine was an ideal match with a "Zen macrobiotic casserole." I didn't know then (nor do I know now) what that is, but I laughed when I read one of the most unique wine and food recommendations I had seen.

After my visit to Ridge, the names of more local wineries crossed my consciousness and I started reading everything I could find on wine. One surprise was discovering that my house in East San Jose was only a few miles from Mirassou Vineyards, and that the once thriving wine business in Santa Clara County was being slowly squeezed out by a fast-growing high tech industry.   

As my interest in wine grew, enthusiasm for my Air Force job in electronic maintenance  waned and so I decided to change career fields to radio and television production. My first assignment, fresh out of school, was a remote site near the Arctic Circle in Labrador. Not long after arriving I discovered Mateus Rose from Portugal. 

Mateus Rose
It was Thanksgiving and although it wasn't strictly legal to serve alcohol in a mess hall, our commander had a couple of cases flown in. The fresh berry flavors, hint of sweetness and a little fizz were just the right thing to perk up a common Air Force holiday turkey meal with all the trimmings. To this day, rose and Pinot Noir are my go-to wines at Thanksgiving.

In Episode 4, scheduled for July 3, 2020, I go wine shopping at a Piggly Wiggly, interview an eccentric Austrian orthodontist winery owner, sell my first wine article and more.                                                 

End Note: While browsing through my wine book library, I came across "Wine Memories," a delightful little collection of great writers on the pleasures of wine. I was surprised to see an entry in the book by Calvin Trillin titled, "My Life in Wine," first published in 1985. I had never read Trillin's essay but I'm honored to share the title with him.

The quote by Russell Baker, at the head of this blog is from "Wine Memories."  Watch for more memories of wine in future blogs.

Next blog: The World's Best Wine?
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