Fiasco Flashbacks? Rediscovering Chianti Classico

It is called a fiasco.

Fiasco? Yes, I know what you are thinking, but you’re wrong. I’m not talking about what happening in Congress with the debt ceiling. And I am not talking about the bonehead moves your favorite sports team’s coach always seems to make.

A fiasco is a type of bottle. It is bulb-shaped and wrapped in straw that both protects the glass from breakage and keeps the rounded-bottom vessel from tipping over. Back in the day, if you spotted a fiasco you knew instantly what was inside: a tasty medium-bodied Italian wine that probably wouldn’t break the bank when you hit the check-out counter.

Fiasco meant Chianti, which along with Lambrusco and Valpolicella, was the easily recognizable popular face of Italian red wine here in the U.S. The Chianti fiasco was popular with me and my young friends years ago because you got the wine itself and a decorative candle holder (the straw-wrapped bottle) all for the same price. What could be better? The traditional Chianti fiasco still exists, although I don’t see them very often (you can buy empty bottles on eBay if you are into retro decorating).

Sue and I discovered a 1.5-liter fiasco of “red Chianti wine” at Trader Joe’s as this column was being prepared for publication. The fiasco endures!

Chianti Identity Crisis?

I suppose that the move away from the distinctive fiasco was a bit of an identity crisis for Chianti, but it might not have been the only or most important one as Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savino explained in their 2016 book  Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine.

Nesto and Di Savino argue that Chianti’s historical roots are in a relatively well-defined area that we now associate with Chianti Classico. As Chianti wine became more popular around the world, the Chianti zone expanded and the wine inevitably lost of some its distinctive character. Not all of it represented the original idea of Chianti very well. That’s a more serious identity crisis, especially at a time when there is more and more competition from within Tuscany, within Italy, and around the world.

Product Differentiation

The task for Chianti Classico producers, as it is for quality producers everywhere, is what economists call product differentiation. They need to make consumers aware of the difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico and then, because this is the age of premiumization, to further differentiate the best wines they produce.

The first task – Chianti versus Chianti Classico — is easy from a visual standpoint. Chianti Classico stands out on the shelf with its distinctive black rooster logo. But the wine needs to be distinctive in the glass, too, which has not been as clear in the past when both Chianti and Chianti Classico could be found with quality that varied from excellent down to just fair.

Climbing the Cecchi Chianti Classico Pyramid

The Cecchi family of wine producers invited us to sample their wines and taste the difference and it was an eye-opening experience. The Cecchi winery dates to 1893. Andrea Cecchi, who guided our tasting, is the fourth generation of the family in the business. The family’s home vineyard is Villa Cerna, which they acquired in 1962. The Villa Rosa vineyard was acquired in 2015. Both are complex mosaics of elevation, soil type, and aspect.

We started with their Chianti Classico Storia di Famiglia, which makes up about 60 percent of Chianti Classico production. It is made from 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent other grape varieties. Sue took one sip and said “Wow!” This wasn’t like any other Chianti that she tasted recently, she said. Bright, intense, and persistent in the glass. She was immediately taken by the wine’s style and substance. Product differentiation goal #1? Check!

We moved on to Cecchi’s Chianti Classico Riserva wine, Riserva di Famiglia, which is 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Riserva wines are about 35 percent of production. Sue appreciated this wine but didn’t find it as exciting as the first, perhaps because the Riserva might be an attempt to balance the traditional wine identity with the power that the international market sometimes prefers. An excellent wine. And I think Sue’s reaction might have been different if she had tasted it first.

We reached the top of the pyramid with Valore di Famiglia, the Cecchi Chianti Classico Gran Selection wine. Gran Selection accounts for just 5 percent of production. The grapes are 100 percent old-vine Sangiovese from the Villa Rosa vineyard. The wine ages in both oak and concrete. The goal is elegance, limiting intervention so that the identity of the vineyards is not obscured. Goal achieved! A wine of many layers and nuances. Memorable.

Is Chianti Classico a Terroir Wine?

The premise of Chianti Classico is that terroir makes a difference. If it doesn’t, then wines from the larger Chianti appellation (and indeed wines from all over Tuscany) that are made in the same way with the same basic grape varieties should be just as good.

To test the terroir hypothesis we were invited to compare two of the Cecchi Chianti Classico wines that are sourced from two very different vineyard sites.  Primocelle (first hill) Villa Cerna is a particular part of the Villa Cerna vineyard while the Ribaldoni Villa Rosa is from a vineyard of that name with the youngest vines on the estate. The differences showed themselves clearly both on the nose and in the mouth. I enjoyed the violet and iris notes of the Primocolle. Sue was attracted to the elegance and sleek style of the Ribaldoni.

Rediscovering Chianti Classico

Sue says that she enjoyed all the Chianti Classico wines we have tasted recently (and looks forward to a couple of others we have in reserve). Excellent wines are all very different from one another. But she couldn’t forget that first glass of the Cecchi Storia di Famiglia. The purity and clarity stood out. And the surprise punctuated the experience.

I think that we are not the only ones to be rediscovering Chianti Classico. I see that there are seven Chianti Classico wines (including Sue’s favorite from Cecchi) on this year’s Wine Spectator Top 100 list. That’s a strong showing for what is a relatively small region. Congratulations to Cecchi and the other producers for this timely recognition.

Bolgheri and the Native vs Traditional Grape Variety Debate

There are hundreds of native grape varietals around the world. Italy has enough for Ian D’Agata to fill two substantial volumes:  Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs and Native Wine Grapes of Italy.  Sometimes I think you could spend a lifetime enjoying just Italy’s native grape wines and never reach the end of the list.

Native grape varieties are almost everywhere threatened by invaders. “International” grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc, are thought to be easier to sell than native varieties with unfamiliar names. We tend to side with the underdogs in this fight, favoring native varieties that might otherwise fade from the scene. What a loss!

But that doesn’t mean that native grapes are the end of the story. Even in Friuli, home to so many indigenous grapes, there is a third category that are often called “traditional” grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, which make excellent and even distinctive wines and have been planted locally for decades. Not native, to be sure, but no longer foreign, either.

Should we favor the native grape varieties because many of them are found only in a single place? Or is that unfair to the traditional grape varieties, which may have been planted locally for generations?

(I think I remember reading that there are a few wine regions in Europe where French-American hybrid grapes, which were introduced more than 100 years ago during the Phylloxera plague, are considered part of the traditional wine culture.)

A Waste of Time?

The native versus traditional grape variety question flared up a few months ago when Sue and I met up with a press group near Lake Garda in Northern Italy. All was quiet when we visited Lugana DOC wineries. Their distinctive wines were all made from Turbiana, a local variant of the native Trebbiano grape. But then we stopped at a couple of wineries in the Garda DOC, where several traditional “international” grape varieties are approved, and things changed a bit.

“This is a waste of time,” a journalist from Northern Europe proclaimed as he stared into his glass, which contained a very nice Chardonnay. My readers don’t care about Italian Chardonnay, he said, they only want to know about what is unique to this place, the native grapes.

I didn’t think it was a waste of time because learning about nice wines is almost always a good thing, but I admit I sometimes fall into a less extreme variant of this point of view, favoring native over traditional or international much of the time. But his strong reaction made me think. The vines for this wine had been planted by the winemaker’s grandfather and had helped support three generations of his family.  That seems pretty well rooted in terroir, don’t you think?

Bordeaux in Bolgheri

I am reconsidering this question right now because Sue and I have been sampling some red wines from Bolgheri. Bolgheri is located on the Tuscan coast in the under-appreciated Maremma region. The wines are the San Felice Bell’Aja Bolgheri Superiore and Podere Sapaio Volpolo Bolgheri. Coming from Tuscany, you would imagine red wines to be Sangiovese or even a “super Tuscan” Sangiovese blend.  But the Bell’Aja is 95 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The Volpolo is 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent each Petit Verdot and Merlot.

The wines were very different from each other (just look at the blends!) but the threads that connected them were intensity and elegance from bright acidity. If you are not familiar with Bolgheri wines, these blends will come as a surprise. How did this happen? And what should we make of them? (I won’t ask what my European journalist friend would have said!)

Bordeaux grape varieties came to the Maremma region on the Tuscan coast in the 1930s, according to Joe Bastianich’s account in his book Grandi Vini. That was about the same time that the swamps and marshes thereabouts were drained to fight malaria. Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta saw similarities with Graves in Bordeaux in terms of maritime climactic influence and rocky soil, so a small amount of Cabernet was planted. The wines were meant for family and friends only, but word spread about a unique wine from a vineyard called Sassicia.

The family finally offered a small amount of the wine for sale in 1968 and Sassicia proclaimed the first “Super Tuscan,” which took the world by storm, inspiring winemakers in Tuscany and beyond to both raise standards and experiment with exciting new blends.

What is Tradition?

Sassicia was designated a simple vino da tavola because no appellation existed in Maremma for a wine with Bordeaux grape varieties. Indeed, when a Bolgheri DOC was first established in 1983 it designated white and rosé wines only. Red wines remained vino da tavola until 1994 when the DOC was amended to accommodate the sort of wines that define it today.

Bolgheri and its Bordeaux-blend wines are famous today and the best of them are treasured and collected.  I am not sure anyone would tell Bolgheri producers that it was a mistake to embrace Cabernet when the native Sangiovese was available.

Obviously, these wines don’t rely upon native grapes, but would you call Cabernet and Merlot “traditional” grape varieties here, or is it too soon? The first wines were planted about 90 years ago, the first commercial wines were made a little over 50 years ago, and a DOC was enacted for them less than 30 years ago. Italy is a land of long tradition. Bolgheri is young by comparison. Bolgheri’s timeline in this regard is more New World than Old World.

Perhaps, as Hobsbawm argued, tradition isn’t something that exists on its own. Maybe it is something we create to suit our needs.

Italian Wine and the Paradox of Scale: Three Case Studies

Most of the world’s wine is produced by a relatively small number of very large wineries. But most wineries are very small. So wine is both big and small at once. That’s wine’s paradox of scale.

You can see the paradox at work here in the United States. According to the annual Review of the Industry issue of Wine Business Monthly (February 2023), there were 11,691 wineries in the U.S. Eighty-three percent of the wineries, however, produced fewer than 5000 cases of wine in 2022 and 49% produced 1000 cases or less.

Most of America’s wine was made by the less than half of one percent of makers in WBM’s “Top 50” list of wineries that produce at least about 300,000 cases a year. Gallo tops the list with an estimated 100 million cases, about as much as the next four producers combined (The Wine Group, Trinchero Family Estates, Delicato Family Wines, and Constellations Brands).

The situation isn’t exactly the same in other wine-producing countries but the paradox of scale still generally exists. How can small wineries compete in markets dominated by big ones? There’s no single answer to this question, so Sue and I are always very interested when visiting small wineries that seem to thrive alongside much larger and better-financed competitors. Herewith are three case studies from our recent tour of the Lugana DOC and Garda DOC regions of Northern Italy.

Location, Location, Location

Sirmione is a pretty special place, no matter how you look at it. The people are special, or at least the ones we met are. Maria Callas, the famous opera star, was born here 100 years ago. The land is special, too, flat as a pancake right on the edge of Lake Garda, with a small peninsula jutting out into it. The land, with its thick clay soil, and the lake effects mean that the wines are special. Distinctive and intense.

Four generations of the Zordan family have been farming grapes here since 1924, so their roots in this particular location run very deep. As the region has developed, however, the challenges they’ve faced go beyond the usual list of natural and market woes. The land here is terrific for wine growing, but it is also in demand for hospitality and tourism. It is a beautiful location if you are staying in the Garda region. So it was, in fact, a little bit surprising when we came upon the four-hectare vineyard and winery as we navigated through the otherwise fairly built-up streets that surround them.

The family business, Cascina Maddalena, has evolved over the years. The basic business before 1999 was selling bulk wine and that is still a source of revenue today. But it became clear that the family needed to capture more of the value added if it was to sustain the vineyards and the business through more generations. So a few hectares of the land were sold off to pay for a small but useful winery, producing about 35,000 bottles per year, and an attractive agritourism center for tastings, group events, and direct sales. “Cascina” is Italian for “farmhouse” and that’s the warm feeling you get here.

Farming grapes and making wine is hard work. Running an agritourism business is hard work, too, and the whole family pitches in to make it successful and to make the family business sustainable.

Is all the hard work worth it? From our perspective, the answer is a clear yes. The Cascina Maddalena Lugana DOC wines we tasted over lunch were stunning, displaying an intense and memorable minerality. I was especially impressed by the wines they call “Clay,” which are only produced in special vintages (we sampled 2020 and 2018). The wines spend a year on their lees in stainless steel tanks and another year in the bottle before release. Incredible.

Location in terms of both the vineyards and the winery and its hospitality facilities is key to Cascina Maddalena’s success and it is one successful strategy for smaller wineries to consider.

Sharecropper Roots

Cantina Gozzi shares some interesting similarities to Cascina Maddalena along with clear differences from it. Gozzi is also a multigenerational family winery that was founded about 100 years ago. The family were sharecroppers, working the owner’s land in return for half of the crop. This is not exactly the easy road to fortune, but it was a common practice in Northern Italy for a long time.

Somehow the Gozzi family managed to find a way to buy the land to farm for themselves as a mixed agricultural enterprise of cattle and cereals along with wine grapes. The farm is several kilometers from Lake Garda in the rolling hills closer to Mantova. The soil is different here with clay in the lower spots and more stoney and calcareous near the hilltops, the result of ancient glacial action.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the family decided to make wine the main focus, which required new investments in both vineyards and cellar facilities. Given the farm’s history, it must have been a difficult decision to give up the security of diversified production and put all the family’s eggs (I mean grapes) in one basket. But they have made it work through the sort of energy and focus that must have been necessary to buy the land in the first place. Total production is about 120,000 bottles per year.

Gozzi is in the Garda DOC zone, which means that both native and select international grape varieties are permitted. Our tasting, therefore, featured a pair of Garda DOC Chardonnay wines, one fresh and floral after a time in stainless steel tanks and the other, the Garda DOC Riserva Colombara, a richer style from a single vineyard with a year in French oak. There is also a Frizzante Chardonnay that we enjoyed at lunch at Trattoria La Pesa in Castellaro Lagusello which specializes in local cuisine (you should try the stewed donkey with polenta).

Hard work, clear focus, and a generational perspective. These are some of the qualities that impressed us at Cantina Gozzi and I even think you can taste them in the wines if you close your eyes and open your imagination.

Strength in Numbers

Cantina Colli Morenici is a cooperative winery, a type of business organization that we don’t often think about here in the United States. But cooperatives are enormously important in global wine markets, especially in Northern Italy. You may not think about cooperatives when pouring a glass of wine, but you should. You may have poured yourself a glass of wine made here, for example, although chances are that there was a different name on the front label.

Cooperatives tend to be formed in times of crisis, when winegrowers and small producers band together as a protective measure, seeking strength in numbers in the face of unfavorable market conditions. Such conditions existed in Italy in the 1950s and Cantina Colli Morenici was born in 1959.

The “strength in numbers” strategy continues to drive Italian wine to a certain extent and in 2021 Cantine di Verona was formed through a merger of Cantina Collie Morenici and two other cooperatives: Cantina Valpantena and Cantina di Custoza. Together they have three wineries providing both scale (1800 hectares of vineyards) and scope of production (a wide range of wines and styles)  for their 500+ members.

The wines are meant for everyday consumption, not cellaring and investment. The wines we tasted were good and good value. The most memorable was a limited-production Amarone from Cantina Valpantena that sold for €49 at the winery. The shop at the winery sold bottles, bag-in-box, and pumped directly into your container using a machine that looked like it would be at home in a gas station: €1.35 per liter, rosato or bianco. Yes, the wine was cheaper than gasoline.

We were told about 70 percent of production is exported, with most of the wine bound for the U.S. market destined for private label brands. That made sense to me when I tasted one particular wine and had an “ah-ha” moment. I know that wine, I thought. I’ve bought it at Trader Joe’s (or something very much like it, I’m sure) under a different label.

The future? Custoza Superiore DOC is underappreciated in the U.S. market and the winery sees potential to develop the market for this wine. Custoza is the wine region between Lake Garda and Verona and its signature wine is a blend of native varieties. A lot of potential there, I think.

Strength in numbers gives the wineries of Cantine di Verona the volume they need to support export investments and the resources to market their wines at home. We were pleasantly surprised to see an advertisement for Cantine di Verona when we were watching a bit of television at our hotel in Verona during a thundershower. It was during a Food Network Italy show featuring Italian nuns cooking traditional dishes. Cooking nuns? I’ll drink to that!

The Hedgehog & the Fox: Discovering the Wines of Lugana DOC & Garda DOC

Today’s Wine Economist is inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The fox knows many things, Berlin wrote, drawing on an ancient Greek parable, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

People are like that, don’t you think? And there are wine regions like that too. The Lugana DOC on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy, for example, reminds me of the hedgehog, with its clear focus on one important wine. The Garda DOC, on the other hand, is home to many different ideas of wine. It is the fox.

Please read our report below and see if you agree — and which wine critter you find more appealing.


Lake Garda in the Italian north is one of Europe’s great summer playgrounds. No wonder visitors flock there from all over Italy and from Germany and Switzerland too. There is something for everyone. The lake itself for watersports, of course, along with beaches and campgrounds, theme parks, and more. The local economy benefits from the region’s understandable popularity and so does the local wine industry. I’ll bet both were hit hard when covid restrictions put a lid on tourism. They seem to be booming now.

The Lake Effect is Strong

Wine, not theme parks, was the focus when Sue and I joined a group of journalists from Germany and Denmark for a tour co-hosted by the Lugana DOC and Garda DOC consortia. The fact that the program embraced two overlapping but very different wine regions made this an unusual adventure.

Burton Anderson acknowledged the impact of Garda tourism on the Lugana wine industry in his classic 1990 guide The Wine Atlas of Italy,

Its success has been attributed to the fact that it is white and comes from the well-frequented Garda resort of Sirmione, but the real point in its favor is its graceful personality that appeals to both novices and to people who take wine seriously.

The wines are shaped by the combination of the Turbiana grape variety, also known as Trebbiano di Lugana, plus the beneficial lake effects, and the subtle variations in vineyard geology that result from glacial activity that made this region fairly flat but far from homogeneous. The Lugana DOC wines, as I wrote a few weeks ago, balance salinity against minerality in ways that please and provoke further investigation.

A Visit to Cantina Ottella

Although restricted to just one grape variety, we found tremendous variety in the Lugana DOC wines. A memorable visit to Cantina Ottella opened our eyes to the possibilities. Ottella is a project of the Montresor family, who have been making wine here for four generations. Michele Montresor showed us the winery with its fantastic modern art collection and then we began with the wines. Picked early, the Turbiana grape variety makes sparkling wines that are justifiably popular. Picked a little later, in September, the Lugana DOC wine showed the salinity and minerality that defines it so clearly.

The next wine caught our attention. Le Creete is harvested later, in October, from old vines from a single vineyard. It was complex and even more interesting than the wine before. The Riserva was elegant, with well-integrated oak. An amphora wine dedicated to Michele’s father Ludovico came next. Stunning in its complexity. Then, finally, a Lugana DOC from the 2007 vintage, to show that Lugana can age elegantly and develop gracefully. Quite an experience. And proof, if we needed it, that Anderson was right when he said that these Lugana wines have what it takes to interest experienced wine enthusiasts even as they delight beginners.

Foxy, but in a Good Way

Cantina Ottella is famous for its Lugana wines, but they also produce wines with grapes from their vineyards in other local appellations. The evening before our visit, for example, we ordered one of their Garda DOC red wines called Campo Sireso with dinner. It was a blend of Corvina Veronese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Garda wine zone. The wine was fantastic and caught our attention.

The “fox” Garda wine zone is very different from Lugana’s “hedgehog.” Approved grape varieties for Garda include both native grapes (Cortese, Trebbiano, and Garganega whites and Corvina and Marzemino reds, for example) and international varieties, too (Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc whites and Cabernet and Merlot among others on the red side).

This means, of course, that Garda has something for everyone who comes to visit Lake Garda in the summer months and the existence of red wines is perhaps especially appealing to visitors from Northern Europe who might have a particular preference for red wines.

But Garda’s fox-like character also means that it has more trouble defining its identity in export markets, which is a shame since the wines can be very good indeed.

Sue and I were fortunate to be able to visit several wine producers who have adopted different market strategies. Come back in two weeks for these “hedgehog” and “fox” case studies. In the meantime, next week’s Wine Economist will feature a special “Independence Day” flashback column.


Many thanks to the Lugana DOC and Garda DOC consortia for hosting us for this visit. Thanks, as well, to the wineries on our brief tour who generously gave us their time, knowledge, and very good wines! The winery list includes La Moretti, Ottella, Azienda Zenato, Cascina Maddalena, Ca” Maiol, Borgo la Cuccio, Colli Morenici, Bulgarini, and Perla del Garda. If you see wines from any of these producers on a shop shelf or wine list, please give them a try. You won’t regret it.

Pogo’s Dilemma and the Future of Prosecco Superiore

Pogo’s Dilemma is the theme of this week’s Wine Economist. Pogo’s Dilemma? It is a reference to Walt Kelly’s famous cartoon where the character Pogo reflects, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Sometimes life is like that, or at least it seems that way to me for the successful winegrowers in the Prosecco Superiore region.


As last week’s Wine Economist explained, the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG region in north-east Italy is a remarkable success story. The historic home of Prosecco in Italy (and the source of some of the finest wines today), Prosecco Superiore DOCG is in an enviable situation. Nearly every hectare of available vineyard land is planted, yields are pretty much at the maximum, and the wines sell out at attractive prices. There are not many wine regions that can compare.

By the Numbers

Here is the story by the numbers. Prosecco Superiore DOCG had 8,683 bearing hectares of grape vines in 2022, which produced a total of about 103 million bottles of wine and €634 million in revenue for the 2127 producers and growers (including seven cooperatives).

Italy is the top market for Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines, accounting for about 60 percent of sales. The top five export markets are the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the United States (Canada is next at #6).

You might be surprised to see the U.S. below Switzerland and Austria on this list. The U.S. sometimes seems to be awash with Prosecco. You see it everywhere on store shelves and restaurant lists. Surely the U.S. drinks more Prosecco than the export numbers suggest?

Prosecco vs Prosecco

Well, yes, Americans are great fans of Prosecco, but only about 3 million bottles of it are Prosecco Superiore DOCG from the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region. The rest is from the much larger Prosecco DOC zone or, like the big-selling Kirkland Signature Prosecco, from the Asolo Prosecco region. These wines can be very good and are generally less expensive. They pretty much dominate the U.S. market with many of the top-selling brands either distributed by U.S. wine companies (think Gallo’s La Marca brand) or sold under their labels. There is a Cupcake Prosecco, for example, a Barefoot Bubbly Prosecco, and now even a Prosecco from NBA star James Harden.

Prosecco DOC is ubiquitous in the U.S. market, but Prosecco Superiore DOCG can be hard to find. You really have to look for it. But the effort is worthwhile. I have organized comparative tastings of different Prosecco wines a couple of times and the Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines always make people smile and ask for more.

Prosecco DOC and DOCG wines are made with the same grape variety, Glera, using the same production techniques. The DOCG zone’s terroirs account for the wine’s distinctive qualities. It maybe isn’t a surprise that consumers who understand the difference between the wines are following the premiumization path toward Prosecco Superiore DOCG. Interestingly, producers told me, as Prosecco Superiore markets mature consumers tend to shift from the Extra Dry style that is so popular with Prosecco DOC wines to Brut and even Extra Brut Prosecco Superiore.

A Good Life (and its Discontents)

Life is good in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plans to move ahead. The goal is not so much to sell more wine (yields are maxed out) but to increase margins on the wine and generate new revenue sources through expanded wine tourism offerings. Wine tourism suffers a bit today from limited infrastructure and the nearby presence of Venice. Venice doesn’t give up her tourists once they arrive at the lagoon (day-tripping to the wine country doesn’t really happen), which makes an emphasis on destination wine tourist facilities critical.

Raising margins means raising prices and this is never easy, even for a wine like Prosecco Superiore, which seems undervalued for the quality it delivers. One part of the problem is competition, which tends to discourage price increases. The Prosecco Superiore producers compete with each other in every market, of course, and compete with other Italian sparkling wine producers for the key domestic market. Here in the U.S., sparkling wines from around the world compete with each other for room on wine shelves and space on restaurant wine lists.

The biggest competition for Prosecco Superiore wines here in America and perhaps in other export markets, too, are the generally less expensive Prosecco DOC wines. These wines are popular, heavily promoted by importers, and have consumer-pleasing quality. Prosecco Superiore’s efforts to increase price are limited, in other words, by the good value that Prosecco wines represent. And, of course, most U.S. consumers don’t really get the DOC vs DOCG thing. Prosecco is Prosecco to them.

When is Prosecco Not Prosecco?

This is where Pogo’s Dilemma (we have met the enemy and he is us) comes in. Many producers of Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines are also producers of Prosecco DOC wines (made with grapes from the DOC zone, not the DOCG zone). So, in effect, they are their own biggest competition when it comes to price increases. The better the DOC wines, the harder it is to boost DOCG prices.

The Moretti Polegato family, for example, owns Villa Sandi, a top Prosecco Superiore DOCG producer. Their wine was featured on the by-the-glass list at a top Verona restaurant we visited. But the family also owns La Gioiosa, whose DOC wines are often found on supermarket shelves. The family strategy seems to be to continue to raise the quality of all the wines rather than thinking about one versus the other and seize other opportunities that make sense, too.

For example, you can enjoy a glass of Prosecco at the Villa Sandi wine bar at the Venice airport, or have an excellent meal and perhaps spend the night at Locanda Sandi in Valdobbiadene. The Pogo effect isn’t really a problem in this case.

Smaller producers and those who focus exclusively on DOCG wines must consider different strategies. the family-run Vincenzo Toffoli, for example, produces 250,000 bottles including both Prosecco DOCG and DOC wines from their 20 hectares of vines. Although 95 percent of the wine is sparkling, the family is also exploring the region’s still wine heritage, including sweet passito wines, a delicious dry passito red Colli di Conegliano Refrontolo DOCG, and a ripasso Marzemino Veneto IGT.

The wines of Col Vetoraz are as spectacular as the tasting room view of the steep Valdobbiadene vineyards. Great wine, just don’t call it Prosecco. Prosecco, according to Col Vetoraz and several other producers, has degenerated into a generic term, defined by the big producers on the plains, which doesn’t capture the special quality of their wines. So they’ve banished Prosecco from their labels and literature. The wines they make are Valdobbiadene DOCG. Simple as that.

Refusing the Prosecco name seemed crazy to me at first, but maybe it is a reasonable response to the Pogo effect. If Prosecco is often sweetish and cheap, then maybe a drier luxury wine should have a different name, even if it is one that Americans might be afraid to pronounce. It certainly might work for some producers in their domestic market. Or at least that’s what came to mind when we were shopping for Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines at a big shop in Verona. You can see how the wine display was labeled in the photo.

Sue and I were impressed with the creativity and innovation we encountered during our visit to Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. It is a magical wine from a magical place and the magical people who make it are bound to find solutions to Pogo’s Dilemma.

Anatomy of Italian Wine Industry Success

Economics is sometimes called the “dismal science” and I guess it is true that the Wine Economist is often focused on the problems that the wine industry faces (see the recent column on California vineyard profitability, for example).  So it is a pleasure to write about two wine regions in Italy that have achieved rather remarkable success.

The regions I want to highlight here are Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG — home of many of Italy’s best sparkling wines — and Lugana DOC on the shores of Lake Garda, makers of one of Italy’s most distinctive white wines. Although the wines of the two regions are very different, the sources of their success have some things in common. Why are these regions successful? What challenges do they face? Read on.

Wine and Words

Sue and I came to Italy as guests of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Consorzio to participate in the first edition of a wine literature festival called Co(u)ltura Conegliano Valdobbiadene held in the scenic and historic Castello San Salvatore di Susegana. It was two days of author interviews, masterclasses, walk-around wine tastings, and more that drew a large and appreciative crowd. A highlight was the special recognition of five young Italian writers whose essays on this region were collected and published for the event. (The photo at the top of this column shows a fantastic video-mapping demonstration.)

Sue and I took advantage of this opportunity to meet with winemakers and Consorzio officials and learn as much as we could about this dynamic wine region. When the festival was over, we changed locations to join a small press tour organized by the Lugana and Garda wine consortia. The result was a very revealing set of experiences.

Signature Grape vs Taste of the Place?

I am not sure that anyone has ever thought to directly compare the Lugana DOC and the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (henceforth Prosecco Superiore DOCG) regions the way we found ourselves doing, but it is an interesting exercise. Although the wines are completely different in terms of sensory and market characteristics, there are still interesting shared qualities that are worth considering.

Each region is best known for wines made from a single grape variety. Glera is the go-to grape in Prosecco Superiore DOCG, producing several variations of sparkling wines as well as traditional still white wines that you can find if you look for them. Lugana DOC is built on the Turbiana (a.k.a. Trebbiano di Lugana) grape variety, which is made in several styles of still white wines and sparkling wines, too.

You might think these wines would be defined by their signature grape varieties, but you would be wrong. These are wines of place. The Lugana DOC wines are different from the many Trebbiano wines you will find in Italy and the particular climate and especially geology of the Lugana region at the south end of Lake Garda has a lot to do with it.

The Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines are distinctive, too. Although you can see the family resemblance in many cases between the Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines and similar wines made from Glera using the same processes from the Prosecco DOC and Asolo DOC zones, to my taste the DOCG wines are often brighter, more alive in the glass. They always make me smile.

The wines of Lugana DOC are distinctive, too, and for a long time, I found it hard to describe them. But a masterclass we attended led by the brilliant Constantino Gabardi has given me the words I need. The Lugana DOC wines are not so much defined by fruit as we often think for white wines, but by salinity and minerality held in tension by acidity. It is a different idea of wine than I am used to and so it is no wonder I find the Lugana wines so fascinating.

In both cases, the land and the grapes interact to create a complicated but fascinating experience. The landscape between the wine towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene is varied and stunningly beautiful, which is why, I suppose, it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Vineyard regions are often pretty, but these vineyards are special — even more spectacular than the Douro Valley. The dramatic landscape terroir is reflected in the wines. Fruitier, they say, in the more rolling hills near Conegliano. More structured on the sharp peaks and valleys near Valdobbiadene.

The area around Lake Garda is beautiful, but it is nothing like the stunning Valdobbiadene landscape. Yet the more subtle variations here matter a lot. The balance and dynamic interaction of Lugana DOC wines stem from the land, in this case, the complicated geology that was left behind as glaciers scraped the landscape eons ago. The soil is very different at lower elevations closer to the lake and the wines reflect this and the balance of salinity and minerality that is so attractive in the glass is the result.

Victims of their own Success?

Both regions have achieved great success and are developing strategies to climb even higher on the wine wall in the future. Having navigated the shifting market tides of the Covid era very well, producers in Prosecco Superiore DOCG find that they have hit a plateau. Virtually every available hectare of potential vineyard land is planted (to Glera for the most part) and yields have been effectively maximized. The challenge is not so much to produce and sell more wine, but to better differentiate the wines in the market to increase margins.

Lugana DOC producers are also victims of their success to a certain extent. The Turbiana grapes that go into Lugana DOC wines sell for several times the value of other grapes in the region, creating a prosperous environment for producers. Lugana is effectively differentiated and benefits from its reputation. The potential problem, I was told, is that just a few export markets dominate sales. What happens, one winemaker asked me, if tomorrow Germans decided they don’t like Lugana wines so much?

The Prosecco Superiore DOCG producers hope to raise margins. The Lugana producers who to expand and diversify their markets. Neither of these tasks is easy in today’s competitive marketplace, but then there was nothing easy about getting to their current high plateau, either. Watch for additional analysis of these two fascinating regions in the weeks to come.

Co(u)ltura Conegliano Valdobbiadene: Festival of Wine Literature

Sue and I are off to Italy in a few days to be part of an ambitious festival of wine literature sponsored by the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore consortium in collaboration with Alessandro Torcoli, director of Civilta del Bere.   Here is a link to the festival website 

The setting is the fantastic Castello San Salvatore in Susegana. The program features conversations with  noteworthy wine writers interwoven with focused wine masterclasses. All the senses will be stimulated, especially the imagination.

My contribution will take the form of a conversation with wine writer Susan Gordon about my new book Wine Wars II: The global battle for the soul of wine. followed by a book signing opportunity.  We hope to see our Italian friends at the event.

Here is an excerpt from the (auto-translated) press release with the details.


Wine is an integral part of our culture; an ancient drink whose production over the millennia has been improved thanks to the study, experimentation and research of man. The cultivation of the vine has forged landscapes, created local cultures, defined communities and projected Italy into the world. During Co(u)ltura Conegliano Valdobbiadene guests will be welcomed in a space designed to allow them to deepen the many aspects that the wine world offers to its enthusiasts and to the increasingly numerous curious.

“With Co(u)ltura Conegliano Valdobbiadene we want to propose a wider and more engaging way of proposing our product” announces Elvira Bortolomiol president of the Protection Consortium “It is an event inspired by the presentation of the last vintage of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG to lead the visitor on an exciting journey into the world of wine. Through meetings with authors and their books, with the producers of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, with images, which we will use in various ways to tell the many facets, visitors will have the opportunity to be surprised by the many insights and entertainment that we are sure will involve them “.

“Co(u)ltura is an extraordinary opportunity to experience wine in its best dimension, the cultural one” comments Alessandro Torcoli, director of Civiltà del bere. “It is the first time that a Consortium has decided to go beyond the promotional dimension of its wine to give back to the public opportunities for authorial reflection, thanks to the meeting with writers, journalists and essayists of clear fame. Visitors will be able to alternate tasting sessions with presentations of books on food and wine, to come out enriched not only in the senses, but also in the intellect. On the other hand, we are convinced that the best weapon against prohibitionist campaigns is that of culture, which teaches to drink with the head”.

Visitors and wine lovers will be able to spend an entire weekend meeting with the most authoritative names in Italian oenology such as the agronomist Attilio Scienza and Luigi Moio, president of the OIV; the most famous critics such as Daniele Cernilli. We will not neglect the marketing aspects with Slwaska Scarso nor the most evocative names and faces of the sector such as Sandro Boscaini. For those who want a complete overview of the product, its origin, its territory, it will be possible to register for in-depth masterclasses on Conegliano Valdobbiadene, also proposed “in combination” with a book that in various ways will address the territory: from the verses of Andrea Zanzotto to the studies on soils of the Director of the Consortium Diego Tomasi. The journalist and expert on the global wine market, Mike Veseth, will also be involved who, interviewed by Susan Gordon, will broaden our horizons beyond national borders. Finally, Gad Lerner will talk with Alberto Grandi about the origin of the denominations.

The books and their authors together with experts in the sector, the producers of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG will be the expedient to make Italian and foreign consumers discover that wine is not just a product that we consume but cultural expression in a broad sense, passion, effort, joy, sharing. For this reason, the event is also enriched by two exhibitions, one dedicated to advertising posters in the sector that tells how wine was promoted until the first half of the ‘900 and an immersive exhibition that will unfold in some rooms of the Castle from 21 pm on Saturday 6 May, in which the visitor will be literally immersed in the rows and stories of the territory.

Finally, the protagonist of the evening of Saturday 6 May will be the video mapping projected in the magnificent courtyard of the San Salvatore Castle, for a story of the history of the Protection Consortium, which winds between enchanted of the past and dream of the future.

For the complete program, directions on how to reach and how to book masterclasses visit www.

Wine Book Reviews: Two Perspectives on Italy and Its Wines

How you think about Italy and its wines depends upon how you approach them. Herewith are brief reviews of two recent books that take very different viewpoints.

Italian Wine Unplugged 2.0 by Stevie Kim, Attilio Scienza, et. al. Mamma Jumbo Shrimp, December 2022.

Italian Wine Unplugged 2.0 is a key part of Vinitaly International Academy’s program to draw attention to Italian wine’s wonders through education. As Stevie Kim writes in the Foreword, the idea is to take wine enthusiasts and help them become experts and, I think, also ambassadors for Italian wine to the world.

It is a big job and so this is a big book. More than half the 450+ pages are devoted to “must-know” profiles of the wine grape varieties native or traditional to Italy. We begin with the most well-known families of grapes and move to important regional varieties and, finally to brief profiles of lesser-known grape varieties from Abrostine and Abrusco to Wildbacher and rare varieties from Abbuoto to Zanelo There is a lot of fascinating information here. Not as comprehensive as Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, but clear, useful, and complete

A smaller section provides overviews of each region, linking denominations with associated grape varieties. A section titled “Science” features a major essay by Professor Attilio Scienza on the origins and evolution of Italian wine grapes. Prof. Scienza’s analysis is noteworthy for its interdisciplinary approach, blending DNA data, for example, with information distilled from ancient myths. It is a detailed study — you’ll need to put your smartphone away and concentrate — but very interesting.

I especially enjoyed reading Sarah Heller MW’s brief essay on “How to Taste Italian Wine.” Heller argues that Italian wines are misunderstood or underrated because they are simply different from the wines of Bordeaux and the Napa and Barossa Valleys that have shaped wine-tasting standards and expectations.

“This state of affairs is largely the result of the global hegemony of two wine value systems that poorly suit Italian wine.” One system is based upon the virtues British critics see in the best Bordeaux wines. The other derives more from characteristics of New World wines (I suppose we might associate this with Robert Parker’s influence, but I think it is more than that).

Italian wines are easy to overlook because they don’t fit either of these taste profiles. Italy is an exception and Heller proposes that “Italian Exceptionalism” be embraced and promoted by focusing on an appropriate value system. Fascinating.


Rick Steves Italy for Food Lovers by Rich Steves and Fred Plotkin. Avalon Travel Books, January 2023.

Italy for Food Lovers is also Italy for Wine Lovers. Why? Well, it is hard to think of Italy or Italian food without the wine that naturally goes with it. Wine is food in Italy, don’t you think?

But there is also this: the core of this book, co-authored by Rick Steves and Fred Plotkin, is Plotkin’s classic 700+ page guide to Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, which takes Italian food and wine very seriously indeed.

The idea is to take Plotkin’s book, first published in 1997, which has not been revised in almost a decade, and both update and streamline it for today’s Italy-loving audience. Plotkin knows Italian food and wine like the back of his hand. Rick Steves knows Italy, too, offering his list of 100 favorite restaurants alongside Plotkin’s list of fifty. Steves is especially good at helping people take the first step, gaining confidence along the way so that they can learn and love the journey.

Wine is pretty much everywhere here. There’s a chapter on wine, of course, and major sections on local wines in each of the regional profiles. The treatment is not nearly as comprehensive as in Plotkin’s classic guide or — obviously — as  Italian Wine Unplugged 2.0. But that’s not what this volume is about. This book is all about getting started in some cases or taking the next step in others. It will help travelers to Italy embrace local wines with unfamiliar names and appreciate the whole experience.

If you already know the wines of Italy very well, you might not learn much here, but you will probably still find it interesting. If you don’t know Italian wines, well here’s a fun place to start. Either way, this is a good gift idea if you have family or friends heading off to Italy for the first time.

Wine Book Review: History on a Plate (and in a Glass?)

Andreas Viestad, Dinner in Rome: A History of the World in One Meal. Reaktion Books, 2022.

All roads lead to Rome, they say, so the idea of a history of the world centered in Rome is not ridiculous. And, for food writer and activist Andreas Viestad, all pathways in Rome lead to his favorite restaurant, La Carbonara, so it is the only logical place to begin.

When in Rome …

Viestad (a favorite in the Wine Economist household for his television series New Scandinavian Cooking), takes us through a meal at La Carbonara, reflecting upon the experience as the courses follow their traditional sequence.

Viestad’s stories are not as intentionally global as the “history of the world in one meal” subtitle might lead you to expect (note that this is “a” history, not “the” history). Instead he talks mainly about Rome and Romans, and then Italy and Italians, leaving it mainly to the reader to connect dots to the world-wide implications and insights.  It’s fun! You learn a lot reading this book. And you get hungry, too.

The chapters are organized around the familiar elements of the Italy meal. Bread, antipasto, oil, and salt. Pasta, pepper, meat, fire, and lemon. And wine, of course, because this is dinner and this is Italy, so of course there is wine.

The best thing I can imagine would be to share a table at La Carbonara with Viestad and work through the  phases of the meal with him, listening to the stories he tells. (There would be room for a guest — in the book he dines alone!) And then, stuffed with pleasure, we would take the stroll around Rome he describes in the final chapter, ending with a soothing/shocking scoop of intense lemon sorbetto (lemons being the last topic discussed).

Since this first-person experience is unlikely to take place, I guess the second best thing is to take up the opportunity to read this creative and interesting book.

The Problem with Wine

But there’s a problem. Taken as a food book or a history book or a cultural guide for anyone who loves Italy or Rome, it is hard to deny Dinner in Rome‘s charm. But from a wine perspective it is hard not to be disappointed.

This may be because, as I read other parts of the book, I was mentally writing the chapter I hoped Viestad would write about wine. That chapter, I thought, might mirror in some ways the chapter on pasta, which invokes the Italian idea of “the civilization of the table” that Viestad suggests might easily be confused with the idea of civilization itself.

Is there a civilization of the glass that we might raise up along with the civilization of the table? Some think so, I believe, and there is even an Italian journal devoted to the idea. It is called Civilta del Bere (the civilization of drinking). So, you see, I was thinking about a chapter that might stress the ways that wine brings people together and both shapes and reflects relationships, both at the table and in other ways.

While the chapter that Viestad writes addresses many aspects of wine, his main point is that wine is alcohol and the point of alcohol is inebriation much of the time. The idea that wine is just the local alcohol makes me sad, since I think wine has much more to offer than that, but it is a problem since there are many who have this view.  My latest book Wine Wars II finishes with a section on “Wine’s Triple Crisis,” which examines the wine = alcohol syndrome and concludes that it is a threat to the future of wine as we know it. If wine is just alcohol, who needs it? There are cheaper ways to get numb!

Civilization of the Glass

Would it be possible to write a history of the world that framed wine and the civilization of the glass in a different way? Yes, I know it is possible because it has already been done. Economist editor Tom Standage’s 2005 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses uses beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola to trace an outline of global history.

It is interesting that Standage and Viestad focus on the same places and periods when it comes to wine: ancient Greece and Rome. But Standage tells very different stories. The Greek symposium, which in Viestad is all about getting drunk, is for Standage all about philosophy and, if the alcoholic temptation of drink is there (and it is), it is a passion to be resisted and controlled — a process that we might call civilization.

As Greek trade took wine throughout the Mediterranean, Greek culture and civilization tagged along. The civilization of wine and civilization — hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Wine in Rome, in Standage’s telling, has many layers. Taste, class, power, and empire all appear. If wine were just its alcoholic component it would not have been so important. I guess I stand with Standage in my thinking about the civilization of the glass and I feel a little bit sorry for Viestad that he doesn’t find more interesting stories in his half-full glass.

Highly Recommended

I wonder — would it be possible to write a book that tried to tell a history of the world in one wineglass the way that Viestad has done with one meal? Yes, I think it might work, although you’d need to break things down a bit so that the grapes, glass, bottle, cork, and the forces that spread them around the world and then brought them all back together wineglass could tell their stories.

But deconstructing your glass of wine wouldn’t be enough, as Viestad demonstrates with his Roman dinner. You also have to consider the whole and its significance. The civilizations of the table … and the glass.

Dinner in Rome by Andreas Viestad is highly recommended. A fine addition to your food and wine bookshelf.

Susumaniello & Beyond: Charting the Outstanding D’Addario Puglian Wines

It was the Susumaniello that first got my attention.

Our friend John Marino asked if we’d be interested in tasting the wines of Aziende Agricole D’Addario. D’Addario produces a range of wines in Puglia, which is a region we want to get to know better. Southern Italy is having a moment as consumers, having “discovered” Sicily and its wines start to probe other regions. That, and the reputation of the winery, were enough to get my attention.

Susumaniello: Old is New

But, as I examined the winery’s listings, it was the Accanto Susumaniello IGT Puglia that made me stop in my tracks. Susumaniello isn’t a wine or wine grape variety that you see very often. An old grape variety, according to Wine Grapes, my standard reference of such things, what little there is of it is planted around Brindisi. Susumaniello is mainly used as a blending grape and 100% Susumaniello wines are pretty rare. I had to try it!

But before we tasted the Susumaniello we had to get some context in terms of what Puglia has to offer, so we made a summer project of cooking meals with fresh garden ingredients to pair with D’Addario’s Casale Ciliani lineup of IGT Puglia and IGP Salento wines, which are priced in the current market “sweet spot” of about $16 (for an IGT Puglia Fiano) to about $22 (for an IGP Salento Primitivo).

Pretty in Puglia Pink

The first wine we tried, a Negroamaro Rosé, really opened our eyes. We make an effort to sample lots of different Rosé wines in the summer months and this was one of the best — maybe the very best — of 2022. A lovely, flavorful wine! Fresh, balanced, and a terrific value, too.

We enjoyed the red wines with variations on spaghetti alla Norma (this was a good year from tomatoes and eggplant in our garden). We found the Negroamaro, Malvasia, and Primitivo wines flavorful and well-balanced, with nice acidity to cut through the richness of the pasta.

Then it was time to move up to the D’Addario premium wine lineup and to finally taste the Susumaniello. And we were not disappointed. It was different, distinct, interesting and delicious. Worth waiting for, to be sure.

But, it turns out that the Susumaniello wasn’t our final destination. This wine opened the door for us to the range of D’Addario wines at the next level, priced from about $27 to $40 dollars. And, although we are still working our way through this part of the line-up, I have to say we are impressed.

A Stunning Primitivo 

The Vignalesta Primitivo di Manduria DOC, for example, was just stunning, with a finish that went on forever. What amazing wines these are, waiting to be discovered by wine enthusiasts who look beyond Italy’s “usual suspect” regions.

I asked winemaker Leonetta D’Addario to tell me the winery’s story. Well, she wrote, it began more than 100 years ago with her great-grandfather.

” At that time my family was involved in three main activities: the production of artisanal pottery from the famous Grottaglie area, trade, and agriculture. We owned fruit trees lands and we were mainly producing bulk wine. When my grandfather became a young man, in the early 1960s, also due to what it is known as the “Italian economic miracle”, he soon became one of the most important car dealers in Italy, while the other part of the family was still managing the land and producing wine.”

Focus on Old Vines

Choosing her own path, Leonetta was drawn to the land more than the auto business. Realizing that the family’s old-vine vineyards were a special resource, the family established the D’Addario winery in 2010. “I graduated at the Università degli Studi di Milano in Viticulture and Enology in 2016, writing a thesis in which I analyzed differences between 8 years old vines and 60 years old vines of Primitivo,” she writes.

Leonetta worked at Epoch Estate Wines in Paso Robles before returning home to Puglia to apply what she had learned to the family estate. “We do have in our staff one of the best winemakers of Italy, Teodosio d’Apolito, she writes. “Since 2015 he has followed the Aziende Agricole D’Addario with our agronomists in the production of our wines.”

The result of this multi-generational journey are the wines that Sue and I have been enjoying.  Come for the Susumaniello. Stay for the complete lineup of distinctive, quality wines that over-deliver in every case. And don’t miss that awesome Negroamaro Rosé if you see it!