Planet of the Grapes: 'What matters is wine’s soul'
If you ever read anything about wine, you’ve surely read about the backlash — the veritable revolution — that’s been waged against critics who rate wines with numbers. A new wave of sommeliers, bloggers, and wine journalists directs so much venom at Robert Parker, at the Wine Spectator, at any entity who sips and spits and scores. Wine blogs, and their comments sections, are filled with would-be revolutionaries, trembling with indignation at the injustice of the 100-point scale. ¡Viva La Revolucion!
These wine-soaked Che Guevaras declare that the influence of the 100-point-scale, such as the one Parker pioneered in his Wine Advocate in the early 1980s, is at long last on the wane. Or soon will be. Maybe. Some day. The revolution, they tell us, is coming and it will be beautiful. We will presumably all hold hands in the liquor store and sing Kumbaya, and no one will ever again buy a wine simply because because it was rated 90+ points.
Now, I’m no fan of scores either, but the reality is that change is still far away. Shelf talkers in almost every wine store aisle still tout the critics’ numbers. And consumers still purchase wines based on those numbers. The reason people still cling to scores is fairly obvious: What is their alternative? Obscure tasting notes of aromas and flavors? How does the average drinker choose wines in a post-score world? Wine critics around the world seem to be searching for the answer.
Over in Italy, the Slow Food movement published its first English-language guide to Italian wines, Slow Wine, the second edition of which was published earlier this year by Chelsea Green Publishing. Slow Wine introduces readers to more than 400 wine producers and more than 3,000 wines. There is also a Slow Wine app available in English.
“We have abandoned the very easy-to-understand, but ultimately also trivializing, method of awarding points and sought to look beyond the glass,” write Giancarlo Gariglio and Fabio Giavedoni, the editors, in their introduction to the inaugural Slow Wine 2012 guide. “What matters is wine’s soul.”
So what would be Slow Wine’s revolutionary methodology? Wineries are rated with a rather confusing array of symbols: snails (for exemplifying Slow Food values), bottles (for excellent quality), and coins (for good value). And then there is a short narrative broken to three sections: People, Vineyards, Wines. “Story-telling is the key concept underpinning our approach,” write Gariglio and Giavedoni.
Storytelling, is of course, Slow Food’s stock in trade. The worldwide 130,000-member organization, as many know, was started by activist Carlo Petrini in the late 1980s, in response to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Slow Food manifesto calls for a “good, clean, and fair” model of food production, and protests against fast food, industrial food, and homegenization. Its logo, the snail, has become a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the “eco-gastronomy” set.
Slow Food’s famed “Ark of Taste” is a veritable storybook, teeming with tales of small growers and producers heroically keeping traditional foodways alive against the dark onslaught of modernity. Which makes it easy to ridicule Slow Food, the movement,” as elitist and frivolous (asked one waggish friend, “Do you really think we can solve the world food crisis by eating a stinky cheese or weird pickle?”). Let’s just say it’s like shooting (line-caught, non-farm-raised) fish in a barrel (made of recycled, certified-sustainable wood).
So what exactly is a Slow Wine? It’s a little hard to pin down. I met Giavedoni at Slow Food’s biannual Salone del Gusto in fall 2010 when the Italian edition was launched and he told me then: “For a wine to be a Slow Wine, it doesn’t just transmit taste. It must also transmit values. They have two kinds of complexity, both in the glass and outside the glass.”
Slow Wine’s editors want to make clear that storytelling did not trump rigor. The book represents 2000 winery visits and 6000 hours of work by a staff of about 200 who visit every winery. “We are journalists, not novelists,” said Gariglio, in an email. “We don’t try to make things look pretty, we don’t seek out the folkloristic side.”
That is true about the prose. Their 2013 entry for Antonelli San Marco (awarded a snail) which I visited recently in Montefalco, Umbria: “Filippo Antonelli always keeps a careful eye on the future, interpreting modern times while preserving the charm of the past. Which is why his cellar is one of the finest expressions of the Umbrian winemaking tradition.” I’m not certain that sort of vague prose tells me much more than a point rating would. I know it doesn’t begin to capture Filippo Antonelli, who I’ve also met, and who told me hilarious stories of how he worries about his older children who — like a lot of young Italians — don’t drink wine and “love the stupid Justin Bieber.”
Likewise, Slow Wine describes Antonelli’s Contrario 2009, a modern, fresh bottling of the Sagrantino grape, as follows: “represents an interesting experiment with the variety. It manages to bring out all the grape’s fruity character without interfering with the tannins.”
Ahem. I’ll give that description an 82.
Here are some examples of Slow Wines available locally:
Vietti Tre Vigne Barbera d’Asti 2010. Piedmont, Italy. $16.99 in Pennsylvania, on sale for $17.49 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill, and $14.98 at WineWorks in Marlton.
Vietti is well known for its pricier, nebbiolo-based wines. But this more budget-minded offering is great with pizza and pasta. Big, bold and dark, but with the oak in check.
Foradori Teroldego Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT 2010. Trentino, Italy. $25.89 SLO, $18.99 at Canal’s in Mt. Ephraim, on sale for $18.99 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill.
Wild raspberries, a fresh iron-like minerality, full of life, with a savory, tobacco finish.
Pieropan Soave Classico 2010. Veneto, Italy. $12.99 in Pennsylvania, and on sale for $13.59 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill.
Forget about the soave they drank in the 1970s. This one is tart and juicy, balanced by almond notes, a mineral quality and a crisp, clean finish.
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2010. Alto Adige, Italy. $19.99 in Pennsylvania, and on sale for $15.98 at WineWorks in Marton.
Kerner is a hybrid of Riesling and schiava, grown in Italy’s northernmost, German-speaking region. It is full-bodied and creamy, with just enough acidity to make a perfect match with rich winter food.