Joe Bastianich must be nuts.
The food business is crazy; you have to be nuts to own even a single restaurant in today’s market much less the twenty that Joe owns in partnership with the equally insane Mario Batali. The wine business is maybe even crazier; Joe owns three wineries in Italy and several food and wine shops, too, just in case he ever has a moment of free time with nothing else to do!
And now there’s this book, Grandi Vini. You don’t have to be nuts to write a book (although I think it probably helps), but I’m not sure a really sane person would write this book, which aims to identify the 89 best wines in all of Italy and tell their individual stories.
Nuts? Oh, Yes.
Why is this nuts? Well, Italy is maybe the the most complex and varied vino terrain in the world. Here in the U.S. we often talk about “Italian wine,” but really there is no such thing. Mario Batali once said that Italian food doesn’t exist, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy. It’s the same with Italian wine.
Just take a look at De Long’s nifty wine map of Italy shown below — what a crazy quilt! Local wines in Italy evolved from (largely) indigenous grape varieties and co-evolved with the local cuisines. Common threads, to the extent there are some, are few and far between.
Some of this complexity is hidden, submerged by regional wine appellations. Soave, for example, is a very familiar name — so familiar that we don’t always recognize it as a wine that comes from a particular place (the Soave zone outside of Verona), is a blend of grape varietals with the very unfamiliar indigenous Garganega playing the leading role and is made in a number of distinct styles (including Soave Classico and the exquisite Recioto di Soave).
The more you drill down into Italian wine, the more complicated (and interesting) it becomes and the more you start to understand how crazy Joe Bastianich must be to attempt to identify the very best wines.
Yes, yes, I know that Gambero Rosso’s famous annual guide Vini d’Italia has done this for many years now, bestowing their “three glasses” tre bicchieri designation on the year’s very best. (Receiving three glasses is like getting three Michelin stars.)
But their team tastes and rates thousands of wine (16,000+ in my dog-eared copy of the 2007 edition) from hundreds of producers (2,206 in 2007) and in the end bestows scores (262) of top prizes.
For Joe to try to do this all himself, despite his intense relationship with Italian food and wine (which now includes Eataly in New York — another Joe and Mario production) and to narrow down the list even further than Gambero Rosso is … well, audacious at least if it isn’t actually insane.
What Joe Says … and Doesn’t Say
So what about the book? Well, it’s a great read (just because Joe is crazy doesn’t mean he can’t write). Wine is good, I tell my audiences, but wine and a story is much better and the 89 stories that Joe tells here make great reading, both individually and taken as a whole. I am fascinated by what he says … and what he leaves unsaid.
The unsaid is quite striking. Joe’s family is from Istria and he calls Friuli in Italy’s northeast corner his Italian home. That’s where you’ll find his wineries including the eponymous Bastianich. (The Bastianich Vespa Bianco is Wine Economist household favorite.) I consider Friuli one of Italy’s great wine regions, so I was surprised to see just three wines listed here (versus five for nearby Alto Adige and six for the Veneto).
Mind you the three are stunning wines (from Josko Gravner, Edi Keber and Silvio Jermann), but I think there are more Friulian wines that deserve to be raised to the vino Italiano pantheon. Just sayin’ that Joe shouldn’t short change the home team in his attempt to be objective.
What Bastianich says is significant, too. As I have read through the various entries I find one strong theme: change. Joe is constantly recognizing winemakers who bring new ideas to Italian wine, especially “modernist” ideas. He wants his readers to understand that Italian wine today is not your grandfather’s rather flat raffia-clad Chianti. By implication, I think, he is saying that many “traditional” producers became lazy and let quality slip.
The best producers today are bringing new ideas and technologies to the vineyard and cellar and are making really distinctive wines of quality that honor tradition but are not slaves to it. These are the wines that are showcased in Grandi Vini.
It’s All in the Timing
The best Italian wines find a way to express their unique terroirs while also meeting international standards for quality. The worst Italian wines — and there are many of them — fail utterly and are part of Italy’s enormous overhang of unsold wine.
Italian wine is in a slump right now. U.S. off-premises sales of Italian wines have actually declined in the last year, although they have picked up a bit in the last few months. This is a good time to seek out the better wines. Hopefully Joe’s book will inspire many wine enthusiasts to take the plunge.
I still think Joe Bastianich is nuts for writing a book like this, but I hope he stays nuts for while. I’d like to see his crazy vision of Italian wine develop and its consumer market grow.
Grandi Vini: an opinionated tour of Italy’s 89 finest wines by Joseph Bastianich. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2010.