Have we heard enough? Is Brunello dead? Have the Italians taken one of their greatest wine symbols and thrown it to the devil? From the looks of it, that seems to be the perception in the shattered market of late. The timing of the whole incident was horrible, but would there ever have been a good time for deception, misrepresentation and the endless mobius strip of Italian bureaucracy? But it isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.

Colleague Do Bianchi laments about his depression over Brunellopoli. He cites a passage from Luis Buñuel’s autobiography. The vines have been pulled out, the rifles put away. But the sales are dead.

I ran some reports today. The 2004 Brunellos are trickling in painfully slow. The problem is the 2003’s have stopped and, though inventory levels are about half of what they were this time last year, people have shied away from the category of Brunello. This could take years to rehabilitate the reputation and status of Brunello.

A major part of the problem is the perception of exactly what Brunello is. It isn’t a Napa Valley Cult wine blockbuster of a wine, anymore than the Castello Amorosa is a real medieval Tuscan Castle. Years of misleading reviews that people trusted and came to expect moved the style of wine away from the reality of what it started out to be, what gave it its fame. New wineries and ancient ones, somehow people got caught up in the lie. The reports are out there, I don’t have to make anything up. But now perception, once again, is reality. The popular view was that Brunello was a big, inky, massive, unctuous wine. Now Brunello’s legacy is clouded by doubt and its future has been hijacked for a time. And though just a handful of producers have been caught, Italians on the ground speculate that there were others who got away with it. The image of Brunello and Sangiovese is tainted every bit as much as the wines that were exposed in scandals in the 1980’s, diethyl glycol and methyl alcohol. How ironic that Brunello got the DOCG the same year as one of the scandals in 1986.

I was in the trade then. It was devastating for a young industry person to spend their first years (and specializing in Italian wines) to have the carpet pulled out from under them. To start over, to pull oneself up, dust oneself off and go back into the trenches. I really thought the Italians had learned the lesson. But another generation longed for recognition and affluence. How many Porsche Cayenne’s clog the tiny roads around Montalcino? I’ve been there, seen it, saw the gold jewelry and the designer clothes and tanned bodies. All these things cost money. But the currency was the soul. The temptation was too great for a few and now all will suffer. This is happening in a time when the world economy is drawing down, so recovery will be years in the making.

In Buñuel’s Movie, Simon of the Desert, Simon was a stylite, an ascetic who lived on a pillar in the desert and preached, fasted and mortified his body to get closer to God. And while Buñuel works on many levels of interpretation and symbolism in his short film, I see a parallel between the movie and the current state of the Montalcino wine trade. A little less glam and a little more dirt under their nails (or all of ours in any case) in this moment might be a real grounding moment. Keep the SUV for 6 years, not three. Take care of your shirts and keep them around for more than a season. Save money on French barrels; buy fewer and use them longer. Or better, use the larger botti and let the purity and beauty of the true Sangiovese represent all that is good about Brunello. Come back to earth and the vines and tend them and respect them and the wonderful life that awaits those fortunate enough to call Montalcino home.

— Alfonso Cevola, the Italian wine director for Glazer’s in Texas, has been involved in the selling, educating and advancing the cause of Italian wines since 1978. His  blog  is On the Wine Trail in Italy. He is a Certified  Specialist  in  Wine  and  a  Special  Contributor to the Dallas Morning News and Sommelier Journal. In recognition of noteworthy support of the wines of Italy in America, the Italian Trade Commission honored him with the Distinguished Service Award in 2009.

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  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Alfonso -

    Beautifully said. I can’t help but think of my trip to Montalcino, where we observed the schism of oak barrels close up. On one hand, the smaller producers and the traditionalists were proud to show off their botti. Other modern producers and their disciples preached the importance of barrique; they implied that respect in the international community relies on bigger, darker wines. And then there were the “tweeners.”

    These producers seemed torn by the divide. They explained that they age Brunello partly in botti and then for more time in barrique. Most explained that this was about creating “balance.” I couldn’t help but feel that the debate is so strong that some producers are trying to get a foot in both pools. The wines were, by and large, beautiful. But I find myself gravitating to the more traditional Brunello time and again.

    Are you noticing the same trend — that producers are trying to do and be both?

  • http://www.alfonsocevola.com Alfonso

    I have heard the same as you, and not just in Montalcino. In Piedmont in the early 1980′s, winemakers there were also dipping their toes in the fetid ponds of barrique. Many didnt realize how deep they were in until they had totally submerged into the depths of another expression. The barrel salesmen made fortunes at the expense of the soul of the wine ( and the winemakers)

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Alfonso –

    Some of the most modern Brunello producers are crafting wines that seem to stand up impressively to heavy oak treatment. Siro Pacenti comes to mind; 100% new barrique for the duration of barrel aging. The winemaker speaks passionately about Brunello earning the same international status and respect as the best Bordeaux. It’s difficult for me to declare which style is “right” or “wrong,” especially given that wines like SP are so easy to enjoy. What are your thoughts on producers like Siro Pacenti? I have to believe that Giancarlo is doing what he is doing because he truly believes it best for the wine (even if consumers like me prefer the more elegant, traditional style).

  • http://www.njmonthly.com Susan Guerra

    Alfonso-

    I love Do Bianchi’s use of the word Brunellopoli. How totally appropriate, no? I noticed this same “glam” obsession on a visit to Umbria last year. I was at a wine bar in Perugia and the owner wanted me to try this or that barrique aged Sangiovese from some new high-end winery designed by an internationally renowned architect who even designed the barriques himself in some new-fangled oval shape. All I wanted was a nice, furry glass of Sagrantino but I finally acquiesced and was largely unimpressed. A judicious use of oak is fine but I don’t want my Sangiovese to taste like a big, oaky fruit bomb and I just knew I was paying extra for those fancy designer barriques! Would you call it the enological equivalent of La Bella Figura?

  • http://www.alfonsocevola.com Alfonso

    HI Evan
    I haven’t tried Siro’s wine, but I’d like to. Normally I am not a big fan of heavy wood ( as my latest post denotes: http://bit.ly/vmk6A). I think Susan turns a good phrase when she uses the term La Bella Figura for these overly oaked wines are put on the table.

    If there is a lot of wood and I cannot tell, then, for me, that would be not too much wood. But when the wine tastes mainly of oak, for me, I’d rather have a glass of Bourbon.

    Thanks, both of you all, for your comments!

  • http://www.njmonthly.com Susan Guerra

    Alfonso-

    I just read your dream post and it is brilliant and so hilariously illustrated. I would like to laugh out but it makes me too sad. I am just waiting for the pendulum to swing back. Che cosa ne pensi?

  • http://www.alfonsocevola.com Alfonso

    I am hopeful. more to come. stay tuned. thanks!

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