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Italian Wine

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By Courtney Cochran

Italian wines have long been some of the best buys in imported wine, and even with the dollar's relatively weak position vis à vis the Euro they continue to offer terrific value to domestic shoppers. To get a jump on the trend, read on for a list of some of my top picks in Italian vino, conveniently arranged by region. For purchasing information, visit Salute!

The gorgeously fog-draped vineyards of northwestern Italy's Piedmont turn out some of the world's most sought-after reds, particularly those crafted from the expressive Nebbiolo grape.  Named for the nebbia (fog) so common in the region, the grape reaches its finest expressions in reds from Barolo and Barbaresco, though better value can be found in versions from lesser-known sub-regions.  To wit, the 2007 Elio Grasso "Gavarini" DOC Nebbiolo d'Alba ($25) enchants with much of Barolo's power and finesse, for a fraction of the price.

How it all Began: The Movie

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By Robert Farmer

Though it’s probably too early to begin calling it this year’s Sideways, the wine industry is again the darling of the silver screen with a new movie about how Napa Valley got its modern day start. The film, called Bottle Shock, is apparently a buzz at this year’s Sundance, which is now in full swing through the last week of January. Bottle Shock starts Bill Pullman, tell the story of an unassuming California wine that took the world by storm and set the wine world on its ear when it won top honors at the prestigious 1976 tasting in Paris, France - the event that became known as “the judgment of Paris.”

Pullman starts as Napa Valley’s own Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena, whose vineyard produced the famed bottle and set the wheels in motion that would forever transform the California Wine Country into a region of global winemaking importance. It was an impressive win not just for the winery but also for all U.S. wines - the competition was judged entirely by Frenchmen (Chateau Montelena took top honors for white wine, while less publicly Stag’s Leap in Napa took home the prize for reds).

Though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I have spent time at Chateau Montelena, which remains one of my favorite places in Napa to visit. Here you can relive the victory, get inside scoop on how it all happened, and best of all, sample the wines that continue to set the bar very high. It’s also worth noting that another film, called Judgment of Paris, about the same subject is due out this year too. It’s kind of like that year when two movies about asteroids hitting earth came out during the same summer. Only this time, we get fewer explosions.


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Just read the Spectator piece on Michel Rolland. Biggest take-away was the answer to a question I’ve had for years: How in the world could the guy have 100 clients in 10 countries?

I met Rolland the first time in Mexico of all places, at Chateau Camou in the days when it was convinced it had made Mexico’s best wine ever. Their models were good – Bordeaux, specifically Cheval Blanc and the left bank first growths – but they were emulating wines from 20 or 30 years ago. The wines were going to be nice 15 years after their vintage, but they were too astringent to give any pleasure on this August day in Valle de Guadalupe.

Rolland and I met in the barrel room, a chance passing that left us two foreign visitors alone for a moment. We introduced ourselves and I immediately asked, What can you do for these wines? He shook his head solemnly and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Just then both his handler and mine reappeared, each wondering how he had let his guest out of his sight. Rolland promptly said a cheery good bye and went off with his handler. I caught a glimpse of him getting into a car later, but that was it.

His jerk of the thumb? It could have meant the barrels behind him, the vineyards behind him outside the cellar door, the terroir outside the cellar door – or the managing director (and son of the owner) who was with him. I never found out.

The next time I saw Rolland was at Staglin in Napa. I pulled into the driveway behind a long jaguar and parked next to its owner, Bill Harlan. We walked up through the trees and there was Rolland, striding in the front way with his omnipresent briefcase. I noted that it was as full as I had seen it in Mexico.

Knowing Rolland’s habit of seeing all his clients from a particular region at the same times of the year, I guessed that Harlan and Rolland were either finished with their own blending trials or would conduct them the next day. Following jovial greetings, we went in to a 15-year retrospective tasting with the Staglin family, key supporters (including Harlan, a nearby neighbor), celebrity customers (I grabbed a seat across from former major leaguer Rusty Staub) and various winemakers including Rolland and an earlier consulting winemaker, California’s own Celia Mazcysek.

It was a great tasting and Rolland was a great addition to it. He didn’t hog the conversation, even though everyone wanted to know what he thought of the older vintages. He told good stories: brief, funny, and self-deprecating. Everyone had a good time.

Last time I was in South Africa a local winemaker I was driving with pointed to the Rupert & Rothschild winery as we went by and said, “Rolland’s here.” I pictured the briefcase and knew its owner was not on vacation.

So the answer to the question is that 60 of Rolland’s 100 customers are in France. For the great majority of them, in Bordeaux, he just drives around some of the world’s most manicured countryside, visiting his clients’ (and friends’ and neighbors’) chateaux and geting paid for his advice on blending.

Does that sound like work to you?

If it is, I'd like to volunteer. Unfortunately, I don’t have Rolland’s intuitive, literally life-long immersion in wine blending experience. Few people on earth can do what he can. Robert M. Parker, Jr. has the palate and the memory to do it, I believe, but from what I’ve read he may lack the social dimensions that make Rolland so successful: the ability to persuade with as much charm and pleasure as reason and conviction. But I digress.

A big slice of Rolland's non-French clients are still in Europe, so he can hop on a morning flight offered by one of the dozens of new regional low-cost airlines in Europe, put in a full day “abroad,” and be home the next morning.

If you haven’t read the story, it’s worth looking at (not as gushy as some Spectator profiles, but as usual it’s written as if they discovered this guy themselves).

The pseudo-documentary "Mondovino" portrays Rolland as bad for wine, such as by making all his clients' wine taste the same. This at least I can shed some light on. I have tasted dozens of his clients' wines and can say from personal experience that there are all kinds of differences between them, even when they come from neighbors like Harlan and Staglin.

As for the other criticisms, people need to get some perspective. Rolland is a bumblebee that’s clearly getting into more a whole lot more flowers than the other bees. According to nature’s ineluctable laws, this radically improves the chances that his clients will produce more flowers of greater beauty and complexity. And I’m down with that.

Have you noticed what’s happening to wine regions? They’re getting sliced and diced into smaller appellations (officially designated winegrowing regions) all the time.

It used to be that if you knew the name of half a dozen California counties, you could hold up your end of a conversation about wine regions. Napa was the prime example. Now there are half a dozen different appellations between Napa Valley's two biggest towns, and more than a dozen within the Napa Valley appellation.

This is not just a Napa phenomenon. Recently I did some errands in Sonoma County and went through five different appellations without getting on the freeway. Willamette Valley used to be the place they made Oregon Pinot Noir. Now they’ve sliced Willamette Valley into a bunch of sub-appellations. (Can I interest you in some nice Yamhill-Carlton Pinot?) Same with Columbia Valley in Washington. (Anyone for a Horse Heaven Hills Cab?). Heck, even places most Americans don’t think of as wine states (Virginia comes to mind) are starting to pile up appellations.

It appears that this trend is only going to continue, so I have already started thinking about what we should do about it as consumers. My recommendation is that you pick a new, small appellation and adopt it as your own. After some study on the matter, I really believe there’s no downside to this approach, and plenty of upside.

First, you will make some fast friends. It’s no snap to start an appellation or carve one out of a bigger one, so the people who do it tend to be passionate boosters who will shower fans of their new creation with love. It’s always nice to be appreciated.

Second, those fast friends will have wine to share with you -- never a bad thing. Not only that, they will be eager to make that wine attractive to you, either by pricing it well or giving you access to the best they make because you actually care enough to learn about where it’s made. There’s a good chance you’ll be pouring stuff for your friends that they’ve not only never had, but never heard of. Great way to boost your wine cred.

Third, everything that goes on in that new appellation will be more fun for you than it is for everyone else. For one thing, you will actually know how to get there, how to get around, where to eat, all that stuff. For another, new appellations tend to have new wine events at which you can become a VIP just by showing up the first few years and being one of the few people on earth with that distinction.

And here’s the kicker: if you harbor some secret dream of making wine, either at home for fun or commercially, everything and everyone you need to make that dream come true will be located in that new small appellation that you have adopted.

Because it’s new, it’s more likely to have good grapes available for you to buy than established appellations will. (You can always get bad grapes anywhere.) Because you know the area already, you’ll know whose grapes you want. Because you’re a VIP, they’ll be more likely to sell ‘em to you – and teach you what to do with ‘em. Heck, they might even let you pick ‘em yourself, at the perfect moment.

There are a number of ways to find new small appellations near you. One is to visit a winery you like in a huge existing appellation and ask if there are any plans to carve out something smaller. This is going on all the time, and it could be going on in a wine region near you. Dry Creek calves off Rockpile, Rogue Valley gives birth to Applegate Valley, and so on.

Another is to search online – the federal Tax and Trade Bureau that regulates appellations in the U.S. posts appellation petitions on the internet for people to comment on. (With this kind of inside info, you could become a fan before there’s officially an appellation to be a fan of. That should make you really popular.)

The most adventurous way, though, is to try a wine with some totally unfamiliar appellation on the label and see how it grabs you. You slide by these wines on store shelves and wine lists all the time, right? Next time, reach out and pick one. The appellation doesn’t have to be near you, or even in your home state. If you really dig the wine, you can start learning about its place of origin and finding more of the wine to drink. Eventually you’ll plan a visit, and when you get there in person, it shouldn’t take long for your newly adopted appellation to start returning your affection.

Ultimately, vintners are creating more appellations for one reason: to get our attention. I say, let’s give it to ‘em, and see what they’ll give us back.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at

This is the Year

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I’ve never done one of those “bold prediction” columns before. I’ve also never had a blog before at the beginning of a new year, where I could just call it like I see it. So here goes.

I predict that 2006 will be the beginning of end of the dominance of the 100-point scale for rating wine.

One of the surest signs is the long-awaited appearance of the new, improved “American Gold Medal Wines” for 2006. The first edition was interesting, but it felt like an amateur fan-zine for wanna-be wine geeks. The new edition is what the concept deserves: a well-designed guide that pretty much guarantees you will never buy another dud wine.

Here’s how it works. The editors of the guide get the published results from the top 20 wine competitions in the country. Then they organize them by grape variety, price level, and the kind of medal(s) they got. Let’s say you’ve got a party coming up and want a couple of cases of good Merlot that costs ten bucks or less. Go to the Merlot chapter, and there are almost two pages of them.

I’d surprise my party guests with the Huntington Wine Cellars 2002, which won a gold medal and best-of-class distinction from the Los Angeles County Fair in 2005. But you could also pick from plenty of reliable, big-name wineries.

The beauty of this concept is that you can trust it.

In contrast, all the 100-point rating schemes are black boxes, meaning you don’t really know how the scores got awarded. Was Robert Parker sitting at the winery, tasting with the winemaker? Was Stephen Tanzer tasting 20 wines in his office in New York or 50 wines in a tasting room in Walla Walla? Was Jim Laube really tasting blind or did he know whose wines were in the bottle? I’m not saying they are manipulating us, I’m saying we don’t know which conditions applied to which wines. There are too many variables, too much subjectivity, too few checks and balances.

It's exactly the opposite with medals.

The wine competitions are blind, the conditions don’t change, and every wine goes through the same process. There are three to five people on every panel that conducts initial scans of the wines that are entered, and then the whole group of judges at the competition votes on which wines get the top awards. Often the people who run a competition in one part of the country judge for other competitions in another part, to keep current with best practices. Some of the judges are the same, too, ensuring some consistency on a national basis.

At my first competition, for the Dallas Morning News, my panel captain was Dr. Robert Small, who runs the LA County Fair competition. I did not know this at the time, so I had no preconceptions. He turned out to be a thoughtful, careful judge, good at communicating his point of view and also at making sure our panel did not just pump out a bland consensus. I must not have embarrassed myself too badly, because he subsequently invited me to judge at his event.

Last year, my panel at LA County Fair included Debbie Zachareas of Bacar restaurant in San Francisco, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe winery and vineyard in Santa Barbara County, and Mark Gardner, who heads the Lodi Woodbridge Grape Commission. I pride myself on being able to concentrate for long periods without losing my edge. These people were razors for three days. In the lunch line I spotted dozens of people who command similar respect.

A couple years back, I was on a panel that had a lot of Italian wines. At one point I had a quick exchange in Italian with the judge next to me, Antonio Paolini, from the newspaper Il Messaggiero in Rome. Just wanted to make him feel welcome. To my amazement, everyone at the table joined in – in Italian. Did they know their Italian wine? Oh yes they did.

The point is, the competitions are legit. You can quibble about which ones are the best, but the medals are meaningful across the board: not one man’s opinion, but the results of a grueling competition involving winemakers, winegrowers, wine buyers, wine writers, and wine collectors. With the new “American Gold Medal Wines,” you can turn those results into better buying decisions with every bottle.

So feel free to ditch the numbers and go with the medals this year. Heck, according to this man’s opinion, everyone will be doing it.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at