Becky Pezzullo is an Italian wine specialist with a knack for perfect pairings and tableside wine education. Most recently, she was responsible for the all-Italian wine list at Bar Bambino, and has honed her skills over 12 years of working in the San Francisco food and wine industry. Becky is currently an independent consultant and the co-founder and wine director for Undercover Supper, a new roving supper club. She has traveled extensively in Italy, including interning for the 2009 harvest in Piemonte.
When people ask me why I got into wine, I always answer, “drinking with purpose.” Tough job, I know. Each taste is an opportunity to both learn and enjoy. Giving new meaning to armchair travel, each taste can be a journey to the soils and climate of that place and time where the grapes were grown. I’m making it my resolution in 2011 to drink wines that are more expressive of origin, and leave a smaller ecological footprint.
Originally wine was the rustic, fermented juice of grapes, a way of extending the harvest. Throughout its history, knowledge has been gained and improvements made in the vinification process. Ancient vintners buried clay pots known as amphorae underground to control temperatures and allow longer macerations. Then people found that storing wine in oak barrels smoothed the tannins, and allowed respiration that enhanced the end product. Certain vineyard sites seemed to create a more expressive elixir. And as history progressed, our mastery of agriculture ensured us a predictably pleasant glass of wine. But has technology gone too far? Does predictability keep us from magic and mystery?
In the vineyard, massive yields are achieved through aggressive use of pesticides, herbicides, and unchecked irrigation. When that many grapes are produced, there’s not much flavor concentration. But science has the answer. Sulfites, acid, sugar, and wood chips are some of the least suspicious additives. Large-scale commercial wineries have an arsenal of techniques and chemicals designed to control nuance or fluctuations in character that can arise from unique vineyard conditions. The priority is predictability. The chemicals utilized read more like the ingredients in a brightly colored children’s breakfast cereal, and the magic and mystery of fermented grapes are buried by the power of science.
Burgeoning wine geeks are introduced to the concept of terroir, the idea that an agricultural product is unique and special because of where it is from. This applies broadly to what we eat and drink. Cheeses like Comté taste of Alpine meadows the cows grazed in. Prosciutto di Parma has a creaminess derived from the leftover Parmigiano whey the pigs ate. Reverence for terroir is one of the driving reasons the European wines are labeled by place name rather than grape variety. Burgundy, the French would say, can’t possibly taste of anything other than Burgundy.
When we aggressively manipulate wines, we strip away their blueprint, their personality, and their potential. Large grape yields require manipulation to be palatable. In turn, reliance on a predictable product requires ongoing manipulation. These practices allow winemakers to produce wine that is profitable, by being palatable for the mass market. As we San Franciscans know, acquiring land in California is a significant investment, and a vineyard is no exception.
And, to be sure, many people will make the point that technology allows the production of better wines for a global palate and that, as a result, consumers have access to quality wines at more affordable prices than ever before. However, we’ve outdone ourselves. So much “good” wine is being made that, in France and Spain, governments are buying back the surplus and turning it into biofuel. Australian winemakers have faced a combined surplus of 100 million cases, and no witty name or cute critter can help them to sell that much wine. By today’s standards, an inexpensive bottle of wine is certain not to offend the palate, but alternately it won’t inspire either. Is inoffensive the best we can do?
The answer lies in re-thinking how we get to quality: restricting the yields, looking the potential of failure in the eye, and having the confidence to let the wine find its own voice. It’s entirely possible that, with the right approach, an inexpensive bottle of wine could actually be one that sings. Progressive winemakers are pushing the envelope, allowing nature to take its course. In the vineyard, during fermentation, and in the aging process, there is a renaissance of craftsmanship in which hands-off winemakers are letting nature speak. These wines lack the polish and glitter of a technologically crafted wine, but they win out in character, heart, and soul.
With a disclaimer, while not cult favorites with a waiting list, these wines are not continually available in the marketplace, but if you know your importer/distributor, you’ll find more wine doors open to you.
Herederos de Argüeso Manzanilla Sherry, Spain $12
Dom. de la Pépière Muscadet, France $14
Benito Santos ‘Saiar’ Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain $15
Verasol Tempranillo, Navarra, Spain $10
Château d’Oupia Minervois, France $12
Hermanos Peciña ‘Joven’ Rioja, Spain $13
Jenny & François
Look to some of the Bay Area’s best wine shops to help you with your quest:
Biondivino, Russian Hill
Arlequin Wine Merchant, Hayes Valley
Bi-Rite Market, Mission
San Francisco Wine Trading Company, Twin Peaks/Inner Sunset
Vineyard Gate, Millbrae
Paul Marcus Wines, Oakland
These shops are helping to further wine education and accessibility, and they deserve your support.