Some of the protagonists of “Barolo Boys” (L to R): Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Chiara Boschis, Marco de Grazia.
In 1983, a chainsaw echoed across the hills of the Barolo region. No humans were harmed in this Barolo massacre: Elio Altare took a chainsaw into the cellar of his family’s winery and cut up the large botti, or large wooden casks, often leaky and fetid, that his father used. He brought in barriques, the small wooden barrels more frequently seen at that time in Burgundy or Bordeaux. His father subsequently disinherited him.
This dramatic rupture with the past is captured in the pages of Barolo and Barbaresco, the essential and timely new book by Kerin O’Keefe. The chainsaw-wielding is also depicted on-screen in the new Italian documentary about the region, Barolo Boys.
The movie, screened for the first time in New York City on Monday, portrays the events of Altare and others as they ushered in a “revolution” to Barolo’s winemaking. A “war” broke out between the “modernists” and the “traditionalists.” This young Turks threw out the old casks, brought in barriques, but also started green harvesting in the vineyard, the process of dropping bunches of grapes to concentrate flavor in the remaining ones. The resulting wines were darker and denser but also flashier, fruitier with more obvious polish and immediate appeal than pure charm of nebbiolo, which is notorious for needing decades in the cellar to coax out.
If wanting to make wines more hygienically was a big push–Altare’s daughter talks in the film about how farm animals and a leaky oil-furnace shared the cellars with the wines–these wines also needed the pull of a commercial outlet. And the film makes clear this was the United States, where critics and consumers lavished praise on the new style and opened their pocketbooks for the wines imported by Marco de Grazia, among others.
While the stylistic clash was heated for a while, it has largely been relegated to the compost pile of history: many of the “modernists” now use larger formats than just barriques, incorporating both new and used barrels, while some of the “traditionalists” do things such as green harvesting, even if they remain steadfast in their use of botti or other larger format vessels for aging. In a discussion after the screening, the protagonists present agreed that the conflict was good for getting increasing interest in the area’s wines.
Elio Altare cast the rift in a different way in comments after the screening, “There are two types of wine: good and bad.” There was an outburst of applause in the room. He continued, “It’s personal taste. I must find the people in the world who drink wine with my taste. I don’t make wine for everybody: I make wine for my taste!” This slightly defiant tone paled in comparison to Joe Bastianich, the film’s narrator, whose last words are “the fight goes on.” The director said he took some liberties with that line and was intended to reprise the “journey” that he invited viewers on in the film’s opening segment.
Kerin O’Keefe provides much more texture in Barolo and Barbaresco. She provides more history, pointing to Angelo Gaja’s pioneering use of barrels in the Barbaresco region, adjacent to Barolo. She offers a more nuanced discussion of the contentious debates between modernists (now, a “ridiculously outdated” term she argues) and traditionalists that incorporates more points of view and more characters than the film. She also notes that not only did media outlets such as Wine Spectator praise the modern style, but they laid waste to some traditionalists, including giving the 1989 Barolo from Bartolo Mascarello a “lowly and insulting 76 points” and the 1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Collina Rionda “a miserly and misplaced 78 points.” She also brings up the “taboo” subject of whether, for a time, the modernist wines achieved their dark color through illicit blending of cabernet though her discussion provides no conclusive evidence.
After the opening discussion in the book, O’Keefe provides detailed producer profiles, which are extremely useful not only for the discussion of the house styles and personalities involved, some tasting notes, maps, and also the contact information of the producers. In a trip to Barolo earlier this year, I had an almost impossible time finding some addresses (hint: try searching google.it) let alone email addresses so this will be particularly useful to travelers.
Barolo has gotten a lot more popular in recent years. And, with rising prices in many other fine wine regions, consumers and collectors around the world may increasingly develop a love affair with nebbiolo. So use these tools to get a lay of the land and the debates. See the movie. Read the book. Pull some corks. And start plotting an itinerary for a visit to the region.
Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine, by Kerin O’Keefe
There will also be a free public screening at NYU on Thursday at 6PM. Discussion with Elio Altare and others to follow.
When William Shatner is not negotiating deals for your travel, apparently he’s been drinking wine out of a brown paper bag. Fear not for the former Star Trek Captain–he’s swilling on camera in a newish (I’m the last to know, apparently), short interview show that incorporates a few minutes of celebrity chat followed by a brown bag wine tasting.
The most recent episode features Misha Collins who talks about his charitable work and acting in some supernatural show. When it comes to the tasting portion, The Negotiator pours a white wine in the glass, which Collins grips by the bowl, swirls and sniffs, saying that it has a “waft of amphibian, a primordial sacrifice” like the Aztecs. Must be a Halloween tasting note. But it made me laugh.
The Shat previously tasted with Alton Brown, who developed a word cloud of a tasting note with uncanny precision on his guess, and Dominic, a “marijuana dealer,” among other guests.
It’s all good fun but it is unfortunate that at the end of each tasting, Shatner pulls out a sheet with a score (from his show sommelier) and tasting notes on it and the guests rejoice or sulk in how much they conformed or deviated with the sommelier’s thoughts. But here’s the thing: the sommelier’s tasting notes and scores are simply his opinion. Shatner should embrace his guests’ opinions too, rather than comparing them to some sacred text/score handed down from on high. As wine enthusiasts, we’ve been there, done that. But the page has turned and the diversity of opinion now reigns supreme. For Shatner’s program to connect with millennials, he might want to set up more of contrasting views, rather than a right and wrong about what are simply opinions.
There are facts about the wines but blind tasting is notoriously difficult. Hats off to Alton Brown, though!
I love a good documentary. I just saw “Blackfish,” about the treatment of killer whales at Sea World and thought it was effective in taking an issue that I hadn’t really thought about, making me interested in it, and giving me some basis for forming an opinion about the issue (free the whales!). “The Cove” was similar in presenting the capture and brutal killing of dolphins in Japan; that documentary was gorgeously shot had a dramatic tension as the camera crew inserted themselves into the narrative. In that vein, Morgan Spurlock’s stunt of eating McDonald’s for 30 days in “Super Size Me” was a good way of getting at the broader issue of the health and fast food. More recently, my kids and I enjoyed the “The Short Game,” a Netflix original about competitive golfing among seven and eight year olds. Again, we don’t even golf but it had good arc and did raise the issue of how much is too much competition for such young kids as well as what it takes to succeed at an early age.
This is all a long-winded background to the fact that Decanter reports that a documentary entitled “Sour Grapes” is in the works about the Rudy Kurniawan wine counterfeiting story. They say that the film is being made by a British team with the full cooperation of Laurent Ponsot and will be completed by the end of this year.
While I look forward to seeing the documentary, I’m not sure a documentary is the best treatment for the material. The Rudy saga is terrific and it definitely has the ability to draw the interest of the casual viewer not really into wine. But to me it is a character-driven story that speaks to the larger themes of hubris, duplicity, gullibility and more. In other words, the stuff of Shakespeare more than policy issues, such as dolphin hunting, orca abuse, or nutrition gone off the rails. So I hope that this documentary treatment doesn’t crowd out what I see as the huge possibility of a fictionalized movie version, in the vein of “Catch Me If You Can,” which was based on a true story of check forgery and grossed almost $200 million. However, I’m not exactly sure who is working on such a treatment of the story so I guess we as wine enthusiasts will take what we can get in terms of further exposure to the story and the wine world.
Because having a blockbuster movie about wine might just be the best way for the Rudy saga to end, assuming it gets more people into wine generally and not just into ’45 DRC RC. Look where that got some people!
Such appears to be the logic of Duckhorn Wine Company, which has sued over the Duck Commander wines. The controversial Phil Robertson, who recently got suspended (or not really?) from Duck Dynasty, was not named a party to the suit. Trinchero Family Estates is a defendant in the suit, as is Wal-Mart where the wines are line priced at $9.99. Duckhorn Merlot sells for $54 a bottle.
What do you think: valid mark infringement through a case of customer confusion? Or is Duckhorn seeking to simply get it’s name out there during the discussions of the popular TV show? Read more…
CBS Sunday Morning ran a 10-minute segment on wine fraud yesterday. The full segment is embedded above.
It centers on Bill Koch, including having the CBS correspondent walking around his cavernous cellar at his Palm Beach home, discussing his various counterfeit bottles. The segment also mentions the Kurniawan trial, talks with Maureen Downey, and examines some anti-counterfeiting technology at Opus One.
While it is an important and interesting subject, the piece could have been stronger. Interviewing other collectors, auction houses, some of the three Burgundy producers who testified at the trial or a wine critic would have made for a stronger segment–while Opus One may be faked in China, Bill Koch does not complain of having fave bottles of it in his cellar, so it would have made a tighter segment to have one of the producers involved his his story.
At any rate, it’s good to see the story getting reaching a broader audience. I was at a Christmas party over the weekend where people were talking about the trial, so it’s good the story is getting out there. A lot of people said it would make a great movie and I agree–maybe one day it will reach the silver screen.
Wine is splashing on the silver screen: today, the documentary SOMM opens in New York and on iTunes.
It’s difficult to successfully capture wine on TV or movies. The medium is limited since viewers are not able to smell or taste. Further, the characters on camera risk sounding like the stereotypical wine doofus. Miles from Sideways was memorable in this regard, with tasting notes like “the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese.”
Given these hurdles, the fact that SOMM informs, educates and maintains a riveting pace is particularly notable. The documentary tracks four candidates for the Master Sommelier exam, a rigorous test that includes a theory portion, a blind tasting portion, and a service portion. It has such a miserly pass rate that there are only 201 Master Sommeliers around the world today. Nonetheless, wine directors from around the world cram, swirl and spit to prepare for the annual sitting of the exam.
The film succeeds because rather than turning the viewer off with snootiness, it brings the viewer in by inviting you to witness wine geeks in action. It’s a window on their world, watching them banter, taste and describe wines. As the star power of point-wielding wine critics has dimmed in recent years, sommeliers have seen their star power rise, making this inside look more meaningful. Also, people enroll in my (non-sommelier) wine classes because they want to be able to talk the wine talk; watching these wine gate-keepers up close provides viewers a good opportunity to pick up some tasting methodology and jargon that doesn’t have a flutter of pretentiousness.
The opening sequence is a succinct, word-free, appealing presentation of the course of life in the vineyard in a year. Director Jason Wise keeps the pace moving with a countdown to the final exam day. As the final results are read, there’s tension followed by rejoicing and sorrow.
Check it out: the movie will make you thirsty in more ways than one.
SOMM movie trailer at iTunes
In NYC @ Quad Cinemas at 34 W. 13th St for a one-week run.
UPDATE from Quad Cinema: “Q&A immediately following the 7:20pm show with DUSTIN WILSON FROM ELEVEN MADISON PARK AND LAURA MANIEC FROM CORKBUZZ on Friday 6/21. (They will also introduce the 9:50pm show).”
However, unlike most celebrity wines which are simply brand extensions and the celebrities wouldn’t know the vineyard that provided the grapes if they ended up there on a winery crawl, the Pitt Jolie duo actually live on their vineyard. Well, let’s not get too carried away: the peripatetic couple have been more-or-less residing on the 1,000-acre estate in Provence since 2008. They’ve decided to get serious about the wine and have started a joint venture with the Perrin family of Beaucastel to make a rosé at first, due out in a couple of months, with a white and a red to follow. Marc Perrin told Bloomberg that they tasted through several rosés and agreed on the style they wanted. The wines will be bottled under the Miraval label and will have “Jolie-Pitt and Perrin” on the back.
There has to be a joke in here somewhere, but the project actually sounds quite serious! Hopefully it will be more Fight Club than Se7en. And it won’t start off tasting old, like Benjamin Button. Or it will be good enough to be gone in 60 seconds…Argh, make it stop!
A wine story will be splashing on the silver screen this year: Samuel Goldwyn has bought the theatrical and digital distribution rights to “Somm.” The documentary, directed by Jason Wise, follows four candidates studying for the Master Sommelier exam. It will be released as a feature documentary some time this summer. The film got good reviews around the time of the Napa Valley Film Festival; while it’s not likely to knock off The Avengers, Part 56, from the top spot this summer, I, for one, am looking forward to it. For now, I’ll have to settle for the above trailer.
“Samuel Goldwyn toasts ‘Somm’ acquisition” Variety