Tre Bicchieri: A Journey Through Friuli Wine in Three Glasses

Tre Bicchieri — three glasses.  Those are important words if you are interested in Italian wine. The Michelin Guide gives up to three stars to the top restaurants in France and around the world and perhaps for that reason Gambero Rosso magazine’s Vini d”Italia gives up to three glasses to Italy’s finest wines.

For the 2015 edition the editors surveyed 2042 wineries and evaluated 20,000 wines. Just 423 (about 2 percent) received  the tre bicchieri rating.

Friuli Venezia Giulia punches above its weight in the Gambero Rosso rankings with 27 tre bicchieri awards listed in the 2015 league table including wines from three wineries that I mentioned in my last column: the Rosso Sacrisassi 2012 from Le Due Terre, the Sauvignon 2013 from Tiare, and the Sauvignon Ronco delle Mele 2013 from Venica & Venica.

The quality of the Friuli wines is high and rising and deserves greater attention. We visited three wineries (the “three glasses” of this column’s title) that impressed us both for the three glasses-worthy wines and also for the different ways they are advancing the reputation of the wines of this region.

Rooted in Nature: Borgo San Daniele

We first learned the story of Borgo San Daniele in my dog-eared copy of Slow Wine 2014, which awarded the winery its “snail” designation for giving particular attention to the values of the Slow Food movement (I wrote about Slow Food in my Globaloney books).

It is the philosophy of Slow Food that tradition and nature are best preserved if they are valued in the marketplace and so the Slow Food and Slow Wine movements seek to identify producers of traditional and natural products and then draw wider attention to them. There was a special room set aside for Slow Wine producers at the Italian Trade Commission’s  Vino 2015 symposium in New York City earlier this year, for example, and it was always buzzing.

Borgo San Daniele fits right into the Slow Wine philosophy. Mauro Mauri and his sister Alessandra inherited vineyards from their grandfather in 1990 and have spent the last 25 years renewing the land and the vineyards and developing wines with a quite distinct local identity that reflects their own gentle but determined personalities. We were fortunate to be able to stay at the winery, meet Alessandra, and taste the wines with Mauro.

The Borgo San Daniele wines have an extraordinary reputation in Friuli — restaurants and wine shops that are lucky enough to get a few bottles display them proudly. Only a few different wines are made, each from specific varieties or blends and each from a particular place. The land, not demand, limits production and when it is gone it’s gone. Vineyards are 18 hectares in total, according to Slow Wine, and about 14,000 cases are produced.

Each of the wines we tasted was distinctive and memorable, but the Arbis Blanc and Arbis Ròs stand out. Arbis Blanc, from the grassy San Leonardo site in Cormons, is considered a defining Friulian white. It is a field blend of Sauvngnon, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Friuliano, with subtly integrated Slovenian oak. Arbis Ròs is 100% Pignolo from the Ziris site in Cormons. It was one of the two best Pignolo wines (along with Rodaro Paolo) that we tasted. Mauro served us the 2009 Arbis Ròs from magnum and it was simply stunning.

I desperately wanted bring home a bottle of Arbus Ròs to lay down and see if Maruo was right that it would continue to evolve and start to develop Asian spice notes in 8-10 years. But the standard bottles of this wine were long sold out and I didn’t think I could get one of the few remaining magnums home successfully. So there is just the memory of  Mauro, Alessandra and the Arbis and other Borgo San Daniele wines. Their personalities (which I think come out in the video at the end of this column) are so distinct that I am sure the memories will last.

 Tradition and Innovation at Rodaro Paolo

 Slow Wine brought us next to Rodaro Paolo and to meet the very intense and focused Paolo Rodaro himself, the 6th generation of his family to make wine in this region since 1847.  The current winery makes about 16,000 cases of wine from the 57 hectares of estate vineyards (40 hectares on the hillsides).  The vines are split 50/50 between red and white grapes, an increase on the red side (Pignolo, Schioppettino, Reofsco) over the years as climate change has improved the ability to ripen these grapes.

Slow Wine told us that the entry-level wines are a bargain for the quality (and we tried them a few days later over dinner at a simple country trattoria across the street from the winery). But we came to learn about the Romain wines.

Paolo Rodaro is committed to bringing out the very best of the traditional local wines that he produces and he intensely channels this desire through experimentation and innovation (evolution, not revolution), with some quite spectacular results. The flagship Romain wines, for example, are the result of an experiment in drying red wine grapes before pressing and fermentation. Paolo observed the beneficial effects of “appassimento” air-drying of Picolit and Verduzzo Friulano grapes for sweet wines. Would air-drying also bring out intensity and character of some of the red wines?

The answer we found in our glasses is a clear yes. Drying very ripe red grapes for 3-4 weeks through the “surmaturazione” process (versus 3-4 months for the white grapes) achieved maturity, concentration, and balance. The resulting wines are dry and therefore high in alcohol but extraordinarily balanced and capable of significant aging. These were some of the best red wines we have ever tasted and it was an honor to discuss them with the man who made them.

The discussion was very personal — as when we tasted with Mauro at Borgo San Daniele.  Both men make a statement about themselves and their idea of Friuli through the wines they put in a bottle. Both limit the production of the wines that make the strongest statements — Paolo released just a few hundred bottles of some wines each year and makes them only in years where conditions are ideal. We felt fortunate to leave with a bottle of 2009 Refosco Romain. My tasting notes rave about the depth and elegance of this wine and I can’t wait to taste it again in eight or ten years (a timetable we negotiated with Paolo, who encouraged us to wait even longer).

The personal touch extends to the label design shown here, which was created by Paolo’s daughter Giulia when she was 5 years old. It looks like a curling vine, but it is really an abstract representation of the family home’s wrought-iron gate.

Returning to Roots: Bastianich

It would be easy to dismiss Bastianich  as just another celebrity winery. Lidia Bastianich and her husband Felix fled their home in Istria (just across the Adriatic from Venice) during the dark days after the Second World War, eventually making their way to the United States where they slowly worked their way up in the world using food as their ladder. A restaurant (Bounavia) arrived the same year as a son, Joseph.

Lidia Bastianich is now a celebrity chef with cookbooks and a PBS cooking series to her credit. Joseph is a celebrity in his own right — business partner of Mario Battali in several famous restaurants, former judge on MasterChef USA and now host and judge on MasterChef Italia. It would be easy to say that the Bastianich winery in Friuli is just another example of a celebrity using wine to cash in on transitory fame.

But it isn’t true. In fact, against all odds, I think the first sentence you find on the Bastianich website holds true: “The Bastianich winery, founded in 1997, strives to understand the history and culture of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and take it to a new level.” Sue and I toured the vineyards and winery with Wayne Young, an American who has been with the project since the first vintage in 1998 and is very much part of Friulian wine society (he sits on the board of the Coli Orientali Consorzio, for example).

It was clear in talking with Wayne that although the Bastianich owners are American, the winery and its wines are not just Italian but Friulian through and through and that to the degree that celebrity comes into play, it is an asset that is used to try to draw attention to the region.

Take the wines, which is the right place to begin. Vespa Bianco and Vespa Rosso are the flagship “tre bichiere-class” products  (Vespa is Italian for “wasp,” inspired by the swarms of wasps that descend at harvest time) and they are authentic blends of local grapes that will introduce many wine drinkers to the wine styles of this region. We’ve enjoyed Vespa Bianco many times over the years, but never the single-variety Plus (from old vine Friuliano planted near Buttrio) and the Calabrone (Italian for “hornet”), a blend of Refosco, Schioppetino, Pignolo and a bit of Merlot. All the Schioppettino and some of the Refosco are air-dried before vinification.

Celebrity creates barriers that can only be overcome by performance. These are authentic wines and the intent is to take them to the next level while respecting tradition.  Celebrity  also opens some doors for the wines and the region. This is literally true with Orsone, the Bastianich restaurant, taverna and B&B down the hill from the winery which is worth a trip even if you (gasp!) do not care about wine. The menu at Orsone gives respect to local culture while also giving an occasional nod to New York.

We asked the chefs to choose our meal and the sommelier to pair Bastianich wines with each course with a predictably delicious result. My primo course was a burnt wheat orecchiette that honored the tradition of Italian peasants making one final pass through the fields after they have been burnt in the fall, looking for every last bit of wheat, no matter how scorched. Quite an experience.


So what do these three wineries have in common? A commitment to authenticity, which they have developed in distinctly different circumstances. The three families approach Friulian wine from very different angles and tell its story if very different ways. Tasting these wines and learning about the makers gives a sense of the journey that Friulian wine has taken and the road that lies ahead to greater global appreciation in the future.


Many thanks to Alessandra, Mauro, Paolo and Wayne.

I found videos of the three wineries featured here and I thought I would share them to give you a taste of Friuli wine. Enjoy!

Borgo San Daniele

Rodaro Paolo



Friuli Revisited: Surveying Collio’s Changing Winescape

It has been more than  a dozen years since our last visit to Friuli. Friuli-Venezia Guilia is tucked up in Italy’s upper right-hand corner, north-east of Venice, north-west of Trieste, bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south, Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. It is sometimes awkwardly lumped together with Trentino and Alto Adige as the Italian Northeast.

Friuli is a cultural mixing bowl with influences from all its sides. It is also a beautiful region with great wines. Why did it take us to long to return?

Lucky Day: Cantina Aperte

Our last visit was memorable. We happened to arrive at  Venica & Venica, well-known both for its wines and its hospitality, on Cantine Aperte Day, which is the one day of the year when many otherwise private cellars throw open their doors and welcome swarms of enthusiasts. It was a lucky day for us because we met so many wonderful people and tasted some memorable wines. Later we moved from the Venica B&B to to La Subida close by the Slovenian border and used it as a base to visit Udine, Cividale, San Daniele, Gorizia, Trieste and Aquileia.

As much as we enjoyed our visit to Friuli I wondered if we would ever return. There are so many interesting regions in Italy and the world, so many distinctive wines. But the pull of Friuli was strong and so we pointed our rented Fiat 500 in the direction of Cormons. We wanted to revisit some friends and wines, but “what’s new, what’s changed” were the questions on our minds.

We spent half a week at  Borgo San Daniele in Cormons, one of the best wineries in the region and a comfortable base of operations, before following the recommendation of our friends Zari and Greg and shifting to another wine estate,  Il Roncal, just outside of Cividale del Friuli for the final few days. (See below for some wine tourism notes.)

Super White: Tiare Sauvignon Blanc

When we visited before we were struck by the stunning white wines of the region and later attended some “SuperWhites” events in the U.S. designed to inform American wine enthusiasts about this under-appreciated part of Italy and draw attention to the stunning wines. We enjoyed many wonderful wines on this trip, too, including the memorable Ronco delle Cime Friuliano at the expanded and updated Venica & Venica.

But the highlight on the white side of the wine ledger was probably an impromptu visit to Tiare and the opportunity to taste a wine that had been named the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Best in the world? Those are big words and I don’t really know if it is even possible to settle such a claim with certainty, but the Sauvignon Blanc that we sampled (from the following and possibly even better vintage) was unquestionably excellent.

And it might not even be the best wine that Tiare makes. Roberto Snidarcig, the owner and winemaker, was even prouder of another Sauuvignon Blanc called Empìre that showed subtle oak, channeling France more than New Zealand.  And he smiled when Sue and I tasted his Pinot Noir, a pet project that showed real character and finesse.

Pinot Noir? Well, yes, as I said Friuli is a mix of influences from France and Austria and of course the indigenous Italian  grapes like Refosco, Friuliano and Ribolla Gialla.  The ebb and flow of global and local influences shows itself in many ways.

Bastianich, for example, is a project that American “Del Posto” and “Eataly” entrepreneur-restaurateur Joseph Bastianich (son of the remarkable chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich and business partner of the irrepressible Mario Batali) launched in 1997 to make the wines of the region and to introduce them to the U.S. and other markets.  The wines are good enough that Italy is today an important market, too. You may think of Bastanich as a showman — he was until this season a host/judge along with Gordon Ramsey on the U.S. Masterchef (he hosts Masterchef Italia now), but I can assure you that the wines are the real deal and not just a show.

Market Forces: A Region in Transition

White wines no longer steal the show in Friuli. It isn’t that they have declined in quality, only that winemakers have turned their attention to sparkling wines and back to reds, too. There have always been good reds made in Friuli, as we were reminded at Venica & Venica when we were served a stunning Merlot from the 2001 vintage that had been lost in the cellar and recently rediscovered. Clearly the best Collio reds can age! Climate change is partly responsible for the increased interest in red wines. Red wine grapes are a more reliable bet today than they were 50 years ago, I was told. The rising interest in indigenous red grape varieties such as Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo is also a factor.

Market forces are another reason for the shift in direction and economics is a powerful factor in Italy, which cannot seem to extract itself from a long-term recession. Back in the old days the Bank of Italy could devalue the lira and temporarily restore competitiveness when the economy slowed down. But now Italy is a euro country and competitiveness must come the hard way — though internal reforms — rather than from exchange rate adjustment. These are difficult times for everyone including wine and we heard through the grapevine that many vineyard properties are for sale. Financial security is in short supply.

Hence a shift toward fast-selling sparkling wines because the Prosecco production zone extends into Friuli. The town of Prosecco is actually a suburb of Trieste although  the zone of DOCG production is in the Veneto, south-west in Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Pinot Grigio is a reliable money-maker, too. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Pinot Grigio, its best-selling white wine, is from the Friuli Grave zone. Follow the money in times like these.

The marketability of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio put pressure on the indigenous wines that I am always keen to discover.  Some wine makers we met with were concerned about the region’s identity slipping away a bit, especially the very high quality Collio and Colli Orientali zones where we spent most of our time. The marketplace for wines (Italian wines, wines in general) is crowded and very competitive. Tough to get and hold consumer attention! Difficult, too, to earn that all important quality premium. A strong regional identity isn’t the solution to this problem, but it can be part of it. Need to make a statement.

My next column will profile three wineries that are making such statements in very different ways. Circle back for details.


I can’t end this overview of our Friuli expedition without a few comments on the wine tourism experience. Sue and I just love this region for its physical beauty and cultural importance, great food and wine, and the warm hospitality of the people. It is an exceptional wine tourism destination, well-known to Italians, Germans, Austrians and the Swiss, but mainly undiscovered by Americans. Put it on your list.

We were the only guests at Borgo San Daniele in Cormons (they have three nice rooms in the winery compound), so we had the place all to ourselves at times and enjoyed our stay very much. We had breakfast in the kitchen each morning and came back at one point to discover the sleepy cat shown here who may have come in through the window and obviously made himself as comfortable as we did.

Il Roncal was a different experience but one that we would also recommend.  More rooms, more visitors, lots of activity on this hilltop estate overlooking the vines. A group of German bicyclists passed through one day and several family groups took full advantage of the outdoor meeting areas. Our room was elegant. The private tasting featured local delicacies paired with each wine, which was a real treat.

There are many exceptional restaurants in the area including a homey new osteria at La Subida with great food and wine. The staff built a fire in the outdoor fireplace for us one night when thunder, lightening, and a heavy rainstorm chased all the other diners inside. What atmosphere! trota

We had to return to Al Giardinetto in Cormons and it was as spectacular as we remembered. The food is wonderful, but the wine stands out in my memory. Our host pulled many corks, showcasing limited and unusual wines that we would not otherwise have been able to taste. A glass of this, a half glass of that, you might find this interesting, it was great as he shared treasures of the cellar with the guests.  And the total cost was much less than we might have paid for a single bottle of wine in other circumstances. A real wine lover’s restaurant.

Two other meals stand out among many. We stopped for lunch Alla Trota in the little village of Pulfero near the Slovenian border in the beautiful Natisone valley. We sat out on the patio overlooking the Natisone river that produced the trout on our plates. I went over the top with tagliatelle with a smoked trout ragu followed by  roasted whole trout and then apple strudel along with this jug of local wine.

salepepeThe next day we found ourselves in an even tinier town at lunchtime. Not many dining options in little hillside Stregna and when we asked at the door we discovered that Sale e Pepe‘s kitchen was closed for a thorough cleaning. What to do? Well, the chef said, just because we can’t use the stove doesn’t mean we can’t fix you lunch. And so we enjoyed the rather spectacular salad, cheese, charcuterie and dessert shown here accompanied by one of the region’s best red wines from Le Due Terre.

Did I mention warm hospitality before? Now you know what I’m talking about. Obviously we need to return when the kitchen is cooking on all its burners. Must be spectacular!

Circle back for a profile of three wineries that really caught our attention. Cheers!


Thanks to everyone who hosted and helped us during our week in Friuli. Special thanks to Michelangelo Tagliente for his advice.

Three Faces of Veneto Wine: A Wine Economist Report

Titian’s famous painting Allegory of Prudence  (1565-70) is one of my favorite works of Italian Renaissance art. I stand before this painting and ponder it whenever I visit the National Gallery in London.

The three faces represent three sides of human nature: the loyalty of youth (represented by the dog), the courage of maturity (the lion) and the wisdom (or is it cunning?) of old age (the wolf).

It is a complicated painting that can be read on many levels, but one interpretation is that loyalty and courage much be tempered by prudent wisdom (hence the title). Or perhaps it is that wisdom is the product of loyalty and courage accumulated over one’s lifetime.

Whatever your reading, it seems that all three characteristics exist at once in most people, but since we are complicated folks, they come out in varying proportions at different times.

Wine has many faces, too, and this is especially true of Italian wine. The Veneto region of Italy is interesting in this regard because it is home to the big (it produces the most wine of any Italian region) and the small, the cheap and dear, the … well, you get the idea.

We were fortunate to be exposed to many different faces of the region’s wines during our recent visit. Last week I reported on the Prosecco producers we visited in Conegliano, where I lectured at the famous wine school. This week’s column looks at three faces of Vento wine we discovered on the next leg of our tour.

From Conegliano to Valdobbiadene

Our journey took us from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, the two poles of a wine zone officially knows as Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if they shortened this mouthful of a name to something simpler such as Prosecco Superiore, but I don’t really see this happening soon.

Someone told us that Conegliano Prosecco has more structure and Valdobbiadene Prosecco more fruit and, when I asked a friend if this is true he just shook his head and smiled. This is Italy, he said, and everyone is loyal to their locality, so everyone must be the best at something. And so  Conegliano-Valdobbiadene it is likely to remain, despite the marketing challenge, reflecting a certain combination of creative tension and political equilibrium.

The landscape of Valdobbiadene is quite stunning, with steep hillsides of vines. No wonder if is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage site status. And the wines are quite stunning, too.

Going Small at Silvano FolladorP1100182

A visit to Silvano Follador presented on intriguing face of Valdobbiadene wine personality. Silvano Follador inherited a few hectares of vineyards from his grandfather and produced wine from those vines and purchased grapes until, in 2004, when he made the choice to go small and to stick to estate fruit.

Now, working with his sister Alberta who met with us at the winery, he makes tiny amounts (about 2000 – 2500  cases) of beautiful wines working as naturally and sustainably  as possible. It takes courage to be small in a business where capital, technology and economies of scale are key factors.

Our interview and tasting with Alberta was conducted entirely in Italian and Sue and I were struck by the elegance of both the wines and the language Alberta used to describe them and the philosophy behind them. Tasting the wines with her was a very personal experience, which I suppose is what these wines are all about. The focus is very intense here — on the land, the seasons, the philosophy.

The wines deserve the global attention that they receive — they were featured in the copy of Slow Wine 2014 where we discovered them — but with production necessarily limited to estate fruit — and the idea of expansion or buying in grapes off the table — only a few of the world’s Prosecco drinkers will taste these wines. If you find them, do not hesitate!

Going Big at Bisol

Is going small the only way to preserve quality and a sense of place? It certainly works for Silvano Follador, but scale and quality are not mutually exclusive as we learned when we visited the much larger Bisol winery just up the road. The Bisol family has deep roots in Valdobbiadene, with evidence of grape cultivation going back as far as 1542. The business today is still all about family and, if the scale has grown the family-oriented philosophy remains.

We had our first taste of Bisol Prosecco from the iconic Cartizze zone last fall when we were in the Veneto on other business. Cartizze is the peak of the Prosecco pyramid, a small mountain covered in 106 hectares of vines that are divided up among 140 owners (Follador has a small plot of very old vines near the base of the mountain).

The Cartizze wines are so special and command such high prices that in the rare cases when vineyards go on the market they are exchanged for as much as 2.5 million Euro per hectare, or about a million dollars per acre. The vineyard scenes in the video above give you a sense of the territory. Given this it is perhaps unsurprising that we wanted to visit Bisol on this trip and learn more.

Bisol is both big and small, local and global, and this, along with the family philosophy, is the key to its success. Thinking big means thinking in terms of a portfolio of Prosecco wines that includes the popularly priced Jeio label and then moving up to Bisol Crede, a larger volume DOCG wine.

Quantity supports and enables quality and the smaller production Bisol wines really shoot for the stars. Here is a list of exceptional Bisol wines we tasted at Venissa in September 2014. We tasted many of these wines again in June in the company of Desiderio Bisol and export manager Stefano Marangon.

 Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.

Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 — Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG –– from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita — dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either.

The Bisol website proclaims that the family aims to be at the cutting edge of tradition, and I think this is a wise (or perhaps cunning) approach. They use the capital and technology and take advantage of the economies of scale, but without losing sight of first principles.P1100186The Colli Euganei and Maeli Estate

Loyalty seems also to be a characteristic of the Bisol family and it shows up in unexpected ways. Venissa, the vineyard, restaurant and inn on an island in the Venetian lagoon, is a project of Gianluca Bisol that aims to honor the deepest traditions of Venetian winemaking. At Gianluca’s suggestion, Sue and I drove from Valdobbiadene to Villa Vescovi in the Colli Euganei to visit another project that honors tradition: the Maeli  Estate of Elisa Dilavanzo.

We had never been to the Euganean Hills before and we found the geography quite striking. The hills seem to erupt from the plain in a way that suggests their volcanic origins. So close to Venice that you can see San Marco from the hilltops on a clear day (our day was not so clear, alas), this zone supplied Venice with traditional wines and agricultural products for ceP1100200nturies. Now, however, there is pressure to shift from traditional wines to international grape varieties that are sometimes easier to sell, which is understandable but a loss to wine’s diversity if the trend goes too far.

With Gianluca Bisol’s support, Elisa Dilvanzo has dedicated the hilltop Maeli estate to try to preserve some of the wines and traditions of the Colli Euganei and to develop markets for them, too, since one way to preserve tradition is to demonstrate its value.

We tasted a number of quite fascinating wines and walked the vineyards, too. The wine that stands out in my memory and that I will always remember is the wine shown here: a Fior D’Arancia DOCG made with indigenous Moscato Giallo grapes. The wine really does remind you of orange blossoms. It makes a strong statement that winemakers should be loyal to their heritage even as they reach out to the global markets that can support their efforts.

Maeli’s strategy is to begin by exploring Moscato Giallo in all of its many possible expressions, then continue the journey with other red and white wines that have deep roots in the region. These include Bordeaux varieties that were introduced by the French here long ago. We tasted a delicious wine called “D+” — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere — and joked about the name. In the United States “D+” is a poor grade — better than D- but worse than C-.  Here, however, it means “even more” and that’s what this wine (and the project) aims for while still staying loyal to the past.


And so here are three faces of Veneto wine. Are these the three faces of Veneto wines? Oh my, no — just scratching the surface. But they show the rich diversity of this impressive region and, like Titian’s painting, represents three sides of Venetian wine character. Thanks to everyone at Silvano Follador, Bisol and Maeli estate for giving us a taste of their wines and a peek into their worlds. Special thanks to Michela De Bona for all her help. Photos by Sue Veseth.

Wine Wars in Prosecco’s Home: A Report from Conegliano

Sue and I spent 12 days in the Italian Northeast last month and this is the first of an series that reports our experiences in this colorful piece of the Italian wine mosaic.

Conegliano Genesis

We came to  Italy in response to an invitation to speak at the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano,  the famous wine school in Conegliano — which I like to think of as Italy’s equivalent of UC Davis in the U.S. Students come here from across Italy to train in viticulture, enology and also to study the business of wine.

Because of its location and history, there is a special focus on the wines of the Veneto and perhaps especially Prosecco, the famous sparkling wine.  Indeed, the statue you encounter as you approach the school is of the founder, Antonio Carpenè, who is also the originator of the “Italian method” of making sparkling wines (secondary fermentation in autoclave, not bottle), which is used today to make most Prosecco wines and many other sparkling wines around the world.

Interest in the U.S. market is very high these days in Italy (as it is in most winegrowing regions around the world), so I had an attentive audience for my seminars on “Anatomy of the U.S. Wine Market” and “Wines of the Veneto: A SWOT Analysis of the U.S. Market.” Anna Paola Giacobazzi, export manager at Cantina Della Volta, came all the way from Modena for the first seminar, bringing with her a bottle of Cantina Della Volta’s award-winning and distinctive Rimosso,” a Lambrusco made using the classical method and bottled sur lie. Stunning color and distinctive flavor! I’ve never tasted anything like it!

The opportunity to meet with researchers from the wine school and to visit wineries in the Italian Northeast was too good to miss, so we spent several days touring the region visiting a small group of distinctive wineries. Each winery told a different story and I am still working to put them together into a coherent story for a future book project.

Giro [Northeast] d’Italia

The Giro D’Italia is Italy’s elite professional bicycle race (the Italian competitor to the Tour de France). The race, which was won this year by Alberto Contador, passed through the Italian Northeast a few days before we did but sometimes it seemed like we were climbing higher and higher like the racers themselves — not just in terms of altitude but also quality and sophistication. It was an elevated experience to be sure.

We visited four wineries in Conegliano and they presented us with a classic “compare and contrast” exercise. What did they have in common? Prosecco, of course, and the traditional still wines of this region. They all displayed an emphasis on quality and an obvious  rising ambition. With Prosecco’s recent success and the continuing popularity of Pinot Grigio, everyone sensed that this might be the Veneto wine industry’s moment to take the next step in export markets and especially in the United States.

The contrasts were striking, too. These wineries differ so much in their size, scope and history and because of this their strategies are very different, too.  Herewith four brief profiles to illustrate my point.

Paladin: Prosecco and  More (including a surprising Malbech!)

Our wine school hosts first guided us to Paladin, an innovative family firm that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Prosecco is the name of the game here, of course, and it came in all of that wine’s many delicious forms. A great beginning.

The Bosco de Merlo line featured many fine still wines, both red and white, in addition to bubbles, with an emphasis on regional grape varieties. At my request we tasted a Malbech (my first Italian Malbec!), a wine with a longer history in this region than I would have guessed and a celebrated part of the Paladin portfolio. Can it be true that Italian immigrants introduced Malbec to Argentina? If so, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Paladin’s strategy is multi-region: they also owns an award-winning  winery in Franciacorta (Castello Bonomi), which was recently named Italy’s best sparking wine, and a winery and beautiful agritourism facility in Rada in Chianti, Borgo Castelvecchi.  The same team directs winemaking at all three locations, maintaining a consistent emphasis on quality.

We learned that tradition is important at Paladin, but that innovation and imagination are honored and embraced. The whole operation is very analytical and data-driven — but rigor and respect for tradition are not mutually incompatible.  Soon we found ourselves out in the middle of a Paladin vineyard in the company of viticultural scientists from the wine school. Together Paladin and the school are doing research to discover how winegrowing itself might mitigate wine’s big  carbon footprint.

The vines apparently take carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. How? And how much? These are the questions that this rather sophisticated project seeks to answer and the researchers are optimistic that their studies will yield results that will be good news to environmentally-concerned winegrowers and wine drinkers everywhere.

Ponte: A Progressive Cooperative

On the way to Paladin we drove by La Marca, a big Prosecco operation and maker of one of the best selling Proseccos in the U.S. We learned that is a second-level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — with the resulting size and economies of scale. Our next stop after Paladin was different  cooperative, Ponte, which is also quite large (14 million bottle annual production) if perhaps less well-known here in the U.S.

Cooperatives are born in times of crisis — when growers have no choice but to make wine with their own grapes because no one will buy them and so growers band together to share risk, cost, and expertise. Ponte was born in the postwar wine crisis year of 1948. It started with just a handful of growers and now has grown in scale and scope, with 1200 members farming 2000 hectares of vines.

American wine growers please read those numbers again. 2000 hectares (about 5000 acres) and 1200 members. The average vineyard holding is 1.7 hectares or about 4.1 acres per member and, since this is an average, you know there are lots of vineyard plots of one hectare or less in the mix. Making such tiny holdings profitable is a huge challenge and puts a lot of pressure on the cooperative to be efficient in its operatives and successful in marketing the wines.

Ponte makes dozens of different wines at many price points but, unlike some of the old style cooperatives you have heard about, the goal here is not simply to dump plonk into the bulk market. Despite the scale and fragmented ownership, we learned, there is a focus on quality that displays itself most prominently in a line of sparkling and still wines that honor Teatro la Fenice, the famous Venetian theater.

Like the successful cooperatives we discovered in Alto Adige a few years ago, Ponte is very demanding of its cooperative members, who must supply grapes of high quality to get the best prices. Then it is up to the winemakers in the vintage winery (distinctive state-of-the-art architecture when it was built  in the 1950s, state of the art production technology today).  Interestingly, Ponte’s portfolio also includes wines from outside the Veneto:   Champagne de Castelnau from Reims, France, MonteStregone from the Piedmont, and Nuraghe Crabioni from Sardinia.

In Tune with the Times at Borgoluce

One of my themes in speaking about marketing wine is the importance of seeing wine as consumers do, as part of a life experience that often includes food, travel and culture. The fact that Americans think about Italian wine in this way gives the Italians a big advantage over wines from other regions. Borgoluce understands this holistic message and has embraced it to a degree that frankly caught us  off guard.

Borgoluce is all about wine  — Prosecco of course and also red and white still wines —   but wine sometimes faded into the background just a bit (except at lunch) when considered alongside the bigger enterprise: a large family estate with vines but also pigs, beef and buffalo (raised for both their milk and their meat). Sustainability and accountability are watchwords here and key to the experience whether in the shop, where wines and other products of the estate are sold, the osteria up in the hills where farm-to-fork is the name of the game or in the farmhouse holiday venues.

Ludovico Giustiniani showed us around, taking obvious pride in the environmental accomplishments and “triple bottom line” approach and the opportunity that Borgoluce presents to those who want to reconnect with the land, nature and ultimately I suppose themselves. But, having said earlier that wine sometimes seemed in the background, it is actually the foundation of it all since from an economic standpoint wine makes possible the tremendous investment in agriculture, hospitality and tourism. The Borgoluce wines we tasted were great, but Sue and I will always remember the values they stand for, which seemed to us to be entirely in tune with the times.

Past, Present and Future at Carpenè

Our final winery visit in Conegliano completed the circle — from the wine school that Antonio Carpenè founded to the winery he built: Carpenè Malvolti, the original Prosecco producer. Brand manager Roberta Granziera was in the audience for my lectures and arranged for us to meet with global sales and marketing manager Domenico Scimone at the historic downtown winery.

Once upon a time Carpenè was synonymous with Prosecco (you asked for a Carpenè not a Prosecco much as someone might ask for a Kleenex not a tissue) and this is still true in some places. Carpenè is number one in its category in China, we were told. But Prosecco’s rapid growth has weakened both this brand identity and the identity of the wine itself. To many consumers who have just discovered this product it is not clear that Prosecco is a product of place rather than the name of a grape variety.

Carpenè’s intent is to reestablish Prosecco’s identity, connecting the history and the territory. They are confident that once consumers really understand Prosecco’s history and appreciate it is a product of a particular region (not a generic grape designation), then they will reach for wines that represent these ideas, including especially Carpenè Malvolti. One project that got our attention was a very limited production luxury wine called PVXINUM after the first reference to Prosecco (as a still wine) found in Pliny the Elder’s works.

Carpenè aims to lead from the front and we were impressed with the wines, the people and the strategies we discovered here. Very different from our other Conegliano visits, but that makes sense since each of these wineries is so distinct in history and personality. A good foundation for the next stop on our tour.


Thanks to everyone who met with us during this quick trip and extra special thanks to our hosts at the Conegliano wine school: Professors Vasco Boatto and Luigi Galletto, Luigino Barisan, Gianni Teo, Tanja Barattan and Michela Ostan.

Broccoli, Batali’s Law & Deconstructing Italian Wine at Vino 2015

Last week I wrote about Batali’s Law and how it applies to Italian wine in general and to Vino 2015, the recent Italian wine event in New York, in particular. Batali’s Law, for those of you who had too much Opus One and were napping along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, holds that there is no such thing as “Italian food,” there are only the diverse regional cuisines of Italy. Complicated things are best understood in complicated ways.

The application of Batali’s Law to wine is straightforward. We talk about “Italian wine” all the time, but what is it? Show me a bottle of wine that defines Italy. No, Italy is too big and diverse from a wine (or food) standpoint to be summed up so simply. There is no such think as Italian wine, only the diverse regional wines of Italy.

The seminars at Vino 2015 explored this theme very effectively. Two in particular stand out in my mind.

Italian Sparklers: Zraly Flips Out

One of the highlights (for me) of Vino 2015 was the opportunity to see Kevin Zraly, author of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course 30th Anniversary Edition. in action. (You can read my enthusiastic review of the book here.) Zraly was invited to moderate a panel discussion on the topic of “Italy Outsparkles the Competition — from Prosecco to Franciacorta and Beyond!”

The only problem (according to Kevin) was that the organizers never bothered to invite anyone else to speak at the session! I don’t think it was an oversight, either. I think they wanted Kevin Zraly to work his magic unfettered, which he did magnificently. He “flipped” the seminar, as we say in academics, making the audience the panel. And thus a room full of wine industry and media professionals were led by Zraly to make their own examination of Batali’s Law applied to Italian sparkling wines. What fun. Bravo Kevin!

We began, as you might expect, with Prosecco, which is so very popular these days. We only tasted one Prosecco, the Tre Venti 2013 vintage from Zardetto, but we could have drilled much deeper — I have written about the huge variety of distinctive wines that exist under the Prosecco umbrella. Then we moved from white to pink (the Belcanto Cuvee Rosé Brut from Bellussi) to deep dark red (the remarkable sparkling Vernaccia Nera by Alberto Quacquarini, made with 60 percent dried grapes according to my  notes).

Franciacorta was next (Bellavista 2008 Brut) and an unexpected wine from Alba in the Piedmont, a 100% Chardonnary Rocche dei Manzoni di Valentino Brut Riserva 2001.  And we finished up on a sweet note with the Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Aqui.

It was quite a tour of sparkling styles and regions and since there were just six wines I think we really didn’t scratch the surface. So many more wines and styles, so much more diversity.

 Drilling Down into the World of Sicilian Wine

The second seminar could not have been more different from the first and yet it served to further reinforce the Batali’s Law theme. Bill Nesto MW (author with Frances Di Savio of The World of Sicilian Wine — see my review here) led the discussion of “Sicily from Myth to Reality — A Unique World of Wine Tradition, Variety, Terroir.”

The focus was clear: drilling down into one region rather than highlighting the diversity among regions of a particular style and Nesto was the perfect guide for Sicily. His quick survey captured key elements of the geography, geology, history, economics, vineyards, wines and wine people. Bravo Bill!

But Batali’s Law appeared again in a difference context because if Italian wine is the wine of its regions, then Sicilian wine presents the same multi-local diversity.  What exactly is Sicilian wine? Nesto deftly showed us that it is many things not just one, in terms of grapes, styles and winemaking approaches. Some of the wines were links with history and others distinctive variations on an international style.

It was a study in contrasts, especially between the Portelli Riesco Cerasuolo di Vittorio DOCG 2012, made of equal parts of Nero D’Avola and Frappato, and the Quignone Petit Verdot IGT 2011. My favorite of these wines was probably the Pietracava di Comenico Ortoleva “Maanar” Nero d’Avola Terre Siciliane IGT 2013.

A Fractal Image of Italian Wine?

I’m starting to think that Italian wine is really a fractal phenomenon. Fractal? That’s an image that retains its complicated properties at every possible scale.

Think of a stalk of romanesco broccoli, for example (see the image below). Imagine its shape. Now cut off a broccoli flower and look closely. Same characteristic  shape. Now take a piece of that and you will see the broccoli  design once again.

Italy is incredible diverse among the regions and, like my fractal broccoli, equally diverse within each region. Or at least that’s what I hope because that makes my terroirist soul happy. It’s that diversity that makes wine in general and Italian wine in particular really special.

If and when wine loses this characteristic (and it may have happened in some places), it becomes commodified, like industrial beer, and vulnerable to competition both from within the wine world and from more interesting products (craft beer? craft cider? innovative cocktails?) outside it, too. Cheers to Vino 2015 for celebrating Italy’s wines and reminding us of what makes them great.


I am a big fan of DeLong’s wine maps, especially the wine map of Italy shown above.

Batali’s Law, the U.S. Wine Market & Vino 2015 Italian Wine Week

batali3Sue and I had a wonderful time at Vino 2015, the Italian Wine Week celebration in New York City. Besides speaking on the opening panel I was asked to write the Foreword for the conference program. The organizers have posted my essay on their blog. I will paste the first few paragraphs below. You can read the whole essay on the Vino 2015 website by clicking on this link. And here is a link to a story that emphasizes how my ideas about Brand Italy relate to Stevie Kim’s work at Vinitaly International. Enjoy!


Vino 2105: Perspectives on the Italian Wine Renaissance in the U.S. Market


Wine Economist readers who fall into the “trade and media” category should set their map-app coordinates for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City during the first week in February because that’s where Vino 2015 will happen. This celebration of the wines of Italy is being billed as the “grandest Italian wine event ever held outside of Italy!” Do I have your attention now?

Vino Italiano Renaissance

Italy is the number one source of imported wines in the U.S. market and sales are on the rise. I would call it an Italian Wine Renaissance except that many would counter that Italian wines have no need to be reborn in the U.S. — they have long been popular here. Still there is something to the Renaissance metaphor, starting with Prosecco, which I wrote about in 2014, and continuing up and down the boot-shaped peninsula.

Prosecco’s popularity has invigorated the whole sparkling wine category in the U.S. and is part of a growing interest in Italy beyond the usual suspects. There is much more to Italian wine than the famous names and best-selling styles and varieties, as important as they are, and Vino 2015 is coming to New York to tell that story.

I’ll be there to speak at about Italian wines in a rapidly changing U.S. market. Here’s the description of my session. Click on this link to see the entire agenda.

Trends in the World’s Largest Wine Market : US’s Growing Global Relevance

In 2013, the United States  became the world largest wine market, in terms of absolute consumption. Despite economic headwinds, the market grew again in 2014, and is expected to add to these gains in 2015. What segments of the U.S. market are doing especially well—even outperforming? What opportunities lie ahead for Italian wines in the U.S.? This is the ideal discussion with which to kick off Vino 2015.


  • Anthony Dias Blue, Editor-in-Chief, The Tasting Panel & The Sommelier Journal


  • Jon Fredrikson – Gomberg Fredrikson and Associates

  • Cristina Mariani-May –  Co-CEO, Banfi Vintners

  • Angelina Mondavi – Partner & Winemaker, Dark Matter Wines

  • Mike Veseth – Wine Economist and University of Puget Sound

Piazza Conversations

I was asked to write the Foreword to the printed program, which gave me an excuse to think about how the many parts of the event come together and what the trade and media attendees might take away from it all. There’s a lot to consider!

Start with the Grand Tasting “Italian Wine Exchange,” featuring over 200 Italian wineries. This, as the name suggests, is a traditional arena for tasting the wine, making contacts, doing deals, renewing relationships, seeing and being seen.

Trade tastings like this always remind me of when we lived in Bologna and would hang out at the Piazza Maggiore just a few steps from our apartment. Everyone came to the Piazza, or so it seemed, and you never knew what new opportunity would present itself through a mixture of purposeful design and simple fortune.

An ambitious series of seminars explores several broad themes. Wine business and economics comes first — the characteristics and dynamics of the U.S. market for Italian wine with its shifting demographics, and the state of the wine industry in Italy. The second theme examines the Italian South — Puglia, Sicily, Calabria and Campania. Italy is too big and diverse in terms of wine to focus on everything, so shining a spotlight on the South — as big and diverse as it is by itself — is a great strategy.

Other seminars take a compare and contrast approach to Italian sparkling wines and to rosés from different regions.  A final set of programs looks beyond wine to food (of course!), music and culture,  global climate change, Italian craft beers and more. As I explain in my Foreword, I think the formal program parts tie together very well. Lots to share, learn and discuss.

And of course that’s what is going to happen in the hallways, lunches, bars, cafes and so forth when everyone gathers to socialize, do a little business and talk about Italian wine. Just like the Piazza Maggiore!

Creative Tension

Years ago I wrote an essay about the economy of Renaissance Italy that was titled “The Creative Economy” and one element of creativity is tension. I will be interested to see how the many tensions in the wine market are addressed at Vino 2015. What kinds of tension? Some of the typical ones, I suppose. Old and new. Modern and traditional. Local and global. North and South (because this is Italy and regional identities are always important).

Add to the list particular tensions in the dynamic U.S. market. The strategies that have been successful for Italian wines in the past may not be the best plans for the future as new demographic groups become the focus of attention and as new parts of the country are targeted for growth. Add new competitors to the mix — new wine regions, new craft beers, spirits and cider rivals — and the situation becomes more complicated.

This tension between stability and change that was at the heart of the Creative Economy 500 years ago is central to the wine market today. I’m interested to see what my creative  Italian friends will do with it! Italian wine Renaissance? You be the judge. Ciao, everyone. See you in New York.


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