Monday, September 6, 2010

For The Love of Bressan

Sometimes in the day-to-day course of life, you encounter something that changes you – often it's a book, a film, a piece of music; sometimes it’s something random or seemingly inconsequential like a newspaper article, the weather, or a drive in the car.
If you know what I’m talking about, you recognize, perhaps even treasure its special variety of uncanny sublimity, its importance, its sort-of trans-rational educational value. It doesn’t always make much sense, yet it does.

On rare occasion, it's wine.

Allow me to introduce the wines of Bressan Mastri Vinai.

Quite fortunately, as you know, I am privileged to represent many of the world’s finest wines. It’s certainly not by accident that I do so – in fact, I have endeavored deliberately to gain the opportunity to represent the wines that I do, and it actually makes my job quite a bit easier and more fulfilling when I can sincerely believe in and be genuinely enthusiastic about the wines I sell.

Bressan, to say the very least, is one of these cases. I won’t continue to test your patience, except to say that Bressan has been, for me, a handful-in-a-lifetime (as far as wine's concerned, anyway) discovery. So as not to duplicate effort, here is the recent feature I wrote along with Hi-Time’s John Downing about these amazing wines - it can also be found in their September newsletter:


“These are wine drinkers’ wines.” This comment came from John Downing, our long-time Italian wine buyer, upon recently encountering this astonishing line-up from Friuli’s Bressan Mastri Vinai. Our staff, immediately smitten, recognized instinctively what he meant: to say the very least, these superb wines are traditionally-crafted, absolutely singular in terroir expression, and quite unlike anything else from Friuli, or Italy for that matter. Almost more evocative, if you can believe it, of the great wines from Rioja’s R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia or France’s greatly-missed Didier Dagueneau, these astonishing wines belong to a certain arch-traditional, hyper-naturalist, and anachronistic school of wine-making that vehemently resists things like technological innovation, international style, and, well, anything other than what they've done, quite successfully, since 1726. From the village of Farra di Isonzo in the heart of Italy’s Collio and Isonzo D.O.C, Bressan Mastri Vinai was founded in 1726 and has been family-owned and operated for ten generations. Often mentioned in the same breath as cult, reactionary producers Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, Bressan typifies the ultra-old-school approach to Friulian winemaking. The following is an abridgement of their extraordinary manifesto:

  • Everything is done by hand – vine selection, harvest, cultivation, even labeling
  • Everything is done naturally – no herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or synthetic chemical substances of any kind
  • No sulphur used in the wine-making process
  • Only natural, indigenous yeasts
  • Preferential use of indigenous grape varieties
  • No filtration, no irrigation
  • No new oak – only un-toasted Slavonian large casks, tonneaux, barriques
  • Old vines – many of the vines on the estate are over 100-years-old, and no vine may produce wine until at least seven years old
  • No wine is released until it’s ready. Some wines are held back as long as ten years before release.

In short, Bressan is one of the most exciting discoveries we’ve made in quite a while, but certainly something that must be tasted to be believed and understood – in fact, we invite you to do so at the wine bar on Tuesday, September 21st, as part of our $10 Tuesdays series, with Bressan representative George Pavlov.


Closely-related to the Verduzzo Giallo used in Friuli’s great sweet wine, Ramandolo, this wine, from Verduzzo Friulano, is completely dry. Offering up an incredibly complex bouquet of apricots, paraffin, citrus zest, lanolin, sea-salt and oyster shell supported by a nuanced touch of almond oil and sandalwood from a little time in old Slavonian casks, this is a white vin de garde that will actually improve for another 10-15 years in the bottle. Quite unlike the squeaky-clean, stainless-steel fermented whites that Friuli has become known for, this is a monumental example of the old-style approach. Try it with a dish of sautéed scallops or a few slices of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Limited.


Also known as Ribolla Nera, this grape varietal is notoriously difficult to ferment properly. In the old days, wine that hadn’t completed its fermentation would begin to re-ferment in the bottle once the weather warmed up, causing bottles to explode with the pressure from carbon dioxide. This is how the grape gained its nickname, Schioppetino, or “little rifle.” And this wine is an absolutely remarkable example of Schioppettino – with an incredibly complex nose of tobacco, black pepper, leather, and black raspberries supported by notes of sea-salt, musk, and sandlewood, this wine delivers all this plus more – miso, green tea, dark chocolate, etc. – on the remarkably long, satisfying and impeccably-balanced palate. A truly remarkable discovery. Try it with roasted duck or a hunk of Reggiano right off the wheel. Limited.


Pinot Noir has been grown on this estate since 1726. And this example, from very old vines grown on a remarkably complex, ferrous soil called ferrettizzato, shows a side of Pinot Noir quite unlike anything else in the world. Rich, full-bodied, and laden with dark, brooding spice tones, this wine delivers an intense nose of stony wild raspberries, Sarawak peppercorns, porcini powder, and a dark earthiness that transforms in the glass into a complex perfume of dried roses, oolong tea, and toasted herbs, finishing finally with a mysterious umami savoriness. Extremely complex, and something for the Pinot fan who thinks he’s tried everything. Excellent with game or roasted lamb. Limited.


The world’s slowest-fermenting grape variety, Pignolo is something of a specialty of the area and a rarity, with prices to match. Sought after by connoisseurs, Pignol can produce intensely complex, age-worthy wines that sell for prices well into the triple digits. This example, already twelve years old (Bressan never releases their Pignolo until it is at least ten years old), can compete with the best of them. Offering up a mind-numbingly complex bouquet of black plums, heirloom tomato, and somewhat juicier, rounder fruit than the Schioppettino, the palate is supported by subtle notes of black-strap molasses, more black plums, and a high, lifted acidity. Finishing with a mysterious, smoky/savory minerality, this wine is something to wonder at. And while it performs beautifully now, this wine will improve for decades. Extremely limited.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Alice Feiring's 'Stones'

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of luncheoning with my good friend Alice Feiring. Best known (at least in the wine world, anyway) as an anti-Parker firebrand and leading proponent of the natural wine movement, Alice was in town for the recent Los Angeles Natural Wine Week.

I met Alice in Austria – we were both there with importer Terry Theise and a group of other individuals per the usual Terry Theise Austrian junket. I had recently read her book, and needless to say, we hit it off. So yes – full disclosure – I do love Alice, and yes, we’re friends. So feel free to take that into consideration as you read the following, if you like.

Recently, Alice posted this on her blog – basically, nothing more than a hilarious critique of a recent Jay Miller (of The Wine Advocate) review. Knowing her, I knew right away that this was Alice poking fun; I never initially read it as mean-spirited or vindictive – perhaps a little edgy (hey, she’s a New Yorker, right?), but basically good clean fun - or so I thought. Well, somebody on (supposedly a haven for anti-Parker types, for what it’s worth) got a hold of the URL and skidoosh! – 118 responses; Controversy!

Quite naturally, there was a great deal of idiotic drivel – some of it down-right entertaining – and I actually succeeded in holding my tongue for the first 115 comments or so.

Then, I gave in:

I've been silent for the most part up until now, but this is just too much.

Doesn't anyone see the irony here that those very characteristics which everyone seems to find so unappealing about Alice are the very ones which they tend to exhibit, often rather egregiously, in their criticisms of her?

At the end of the day, Alice is a writer, and a wine writer, and sometimes a critic. And critics are sometimes critical. That's why they're called critics! I know that most main-stream journalism has replaced critics with 'reviewers,' but I think we still need the occasional critic.

I've read her book, various articles published in a variety of publications (including the New York Times, Time, Wall Street Journal Magazine), and probably a couple dozen blog postings. And yes, I happen to know her personally and consider her a good friend.

The fact of the matter is, most of her work DOES talk about what she likes - while not bashing anyone - or takes an investigative tone. The problem is, it is usually only the confrontational, incendiary stuff that gets peoples' attention, and consequently sells books, creates controversy, and creates the ILLUSION that that's all there is to Alice's work.

Has anyone read her recent Champagne article in Wall Street Journal Magazine? The recent Modern Love Columns in the New York Times, or any of her recent blog postings? Does anyone know that she's working on another book which will espouse the positive side of her philosophy and tell the story of the natural wine movement?

Doesn't anyone see the irony here? This silly little blog post - (which, if you know Alice, is clearly just poking fun at the review and Jay, who is not even mentioned by name, BTW) - generated 115 responses on this board?

How many responses, for example, did the rather open-hearted, laudatory posting - about 6 or 9 months ago, I think - about Nikolaihof's wines generate?

Honestly, how many books would Alice have sold if it were instead entitled "Alice Feiring's Positive Manifesto about Natural Wine"? To some extent - and I suspect this idea was not lost on her editor and agent - she made a name for herself and achieved some of her (in my opinion sincerely earned) notoriety precisely BECAUSE she took on such a worthy opponent.

When I first heard her name, I didn't know who Alice Feiring was, but thought that whoever she was, she must have some serious stones taking on Robert Parker, right? And, as many of us are well aware, this IS God's work, and somebody ought to do it!

Haven't y'all heard the cliché about what you're supposed to do on your first day in prison? You find the toughest guy in the yard, then proceed to rip him a new asshole!

At any rate, let’s just say this didn’t put an end to the “discussion” (and I use that term loosely).

And I don’t care what what's-his-name says, I really like the plumber piece in the Times.