This is an alert for viticulturists and vintners who claim to cultivate and crush the "brunello" clone of sangiovese in the United States. Ignore this warming and be prepared to face the polite if awkward wrath of Ezio Rivella, president of the Consorzio Del Vino Brunelleo Di Montalcino, a Tuscan trade group working to protect and promote wines made with sangiovese grapes grown in Siena.
In February, The Sacramento Bee published a column in which I praised the Bray Vineyards 2008 Shenandoah Valley La Dama Oscura Sangiovese. In the column, I explained that Bray winemakers John Hoddy and Mark McKenna had chosen for the wine grapes from a block of the Bray vineyard planted to the "brunello" clone of sangiovese. This wasn't the first time I've heard vintners rave about this particular strain of sangiovese for yielding interpretations of the wine unusually forceful yet spirited.
It's the first time to my knowledge, however, that wine officials in far-off Tuscany took notice as well as apparent offense. A month later, Ezio Rivella dispatched to Bray Vineyards a two-page letter in which he claims that the word "brunello" can be used only in relation to sangiovese when the grapes are grown at Montalcino in Siena. "Nobody can, in any way, assume the word 'Brunello' to identify a wine made by grapes grown in a different place because it does not make any sense," writes Rivella, a copy of whose letter Hoddy just forwarded to me.
Rivella backs up his stand with various vague references to "plant variety rights" and "industrial property rights." He also refers to "intellectual properties," "registered trademark" and Italy's wine requirements and regulations, all of which he suggests have been affronted by talk about a "brunello" clone of sangiovese in Amador County.
"So, since a foreign producer does not respect all these requirements, it should be clear now that the word 'Brunello' is improperly used by him in any case," says Rivella. That foreign producer apparently is Bray Vineyards, though several other wineries in the United States and in other regions far removed from Tuscany have made similar claims.
Despite all the bombastic legalisms, Rivella doesn't threaten any litigation, and concludes his letter in a conciliatory tone, simply asking that Bray representatives henceforth choose their words more carefully. Actually, they had from the outset. Officials in Washington, D.C., who oversee the nation's wine trade already had told the folks at Bray that they couldn't in any way use "brunello" on their label. That's why the wine is called "La Dama Oscura," a phrase long used to describe the wines Brunello di Montalcino. Apparently, however, it is not as recognized or as sensitive as "Brunello" itself.
I rather like the concept of geographical integrity in food and wine, and applaud Rivella and the consorzio for their vigilance. I just wish that in expressing their concern they'd been less pompous and more clear in outlining why geographically based traditions are important in preserving individual distinctiveness. At the same time, contrary to Rivella's fears, I don't see American wine consumers as so dim that they will think they are buying an Italian wine rather than a Californian wine just because the winemaker says he used a strain of grape cultivated historically in Tuscany.
I also suspect that Rivella and his brethern are trying to capitalize on Bray's small production - only 175 cases of the 2008 La Dama Oscura were made - to move Brunello di Montalcino back into the spotlight from which it has been shouldered aside by stellar takes on sangiovese from elsewhere. Look at the facts, as gleaned from a research paper published in 2006 by Susan Nelson-Kluck and JaRue "Jim" Manning for Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis: Sangiovese has been cultivated in Italy for more than 1,000 years. During that time it has shown itself remarkably adaptable to a wide range of settings. Indeed, by now sangiovese has morphed into more than 70 clones in Italy alone. No wonder the Consorzio Del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino is so intent on protecting and promoting its take on the variety as superior to others; the competition out there is stiff.
The paper by Nelson-Kluck and Manning, incidentally, never refers to a "brunello" clone of sangiovese. Rather, the 24 selections of sangiovese at Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis bear such innocuous designations as "FPS 03," "FPS 12" and the like. The closest the researchers come to designating a strain of sangiovese the "brunello" clone is "FPS 07," which they note derives from "VCR 6," a clone of the Montalcino biotype, "which is the biotype traditionally used to produce Brunello di Montalcino wine." Here you have the perfect if non-poetic solution to this little dust-up: Henceforth, the folks at Bray should refer to their clone of sangiovese as "FPS 07," if indeed that is what it is. They won't be happy with that, and neither will authorities of the Consorzio Del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino, denied the opportunity to raise the profile of Brunello Di Montalcino by crying "foul" over a wine in Amador County.