Empire State South wine director Steven Grubbs raved about wine made from obscure Piemontese grapes when I visited there recently. “This is so weird, Angela. You need to taste it!”
By “weird,” he meant more of a fringe wine. We sipped Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato, a rare grape varietal from Casa Brina. It was lush, with spice and floral nuances. It had a mysteriousness about it, and Grubbs knew the backstory, which transported each sip to a sunny Italian hillside where people were smashing grapes like they did when the winery began in the 1700s. He always is excited to introduce diners to something new.
“I love how much heart Piedmont reds have, while also feeling pretty refined,” he said. “They seem to exist at some nexus between country charm and old world class. The cuisine of the Piedmont causes a similar sensation, and, once you’ve experienced that place and its products firsthand, you can’t help but feel some romance about it.”
Grubbs recently helped organize the Atlanta stop on the “Slow Wine” 2018 tour. “Slow Wine” is a guide in support of small-scale winemakers using old school methods and techniques. The guide of more than 400 Italian wines (and, new this year, California wines) distinguishes itself from other wine rating guides in its focus on high-quality wines, sustainable practices and great price-to-value ratio.
Started eight years ago, the guide aligns with the slow food movement, the global grassroots effort founded in the late ’80s to counter the rise of fast food, encourage traditional foodways and emphasize how food choices affect the world. Editor in Chief Giancarlo Gariglio produced the guide after working with slow food for more than 10 years. “We decided to create this guide with the aim of telling (about) the world of wine through the stories of its protagonists,” he told us at the Atlanta tasting.
The tasting, held at Downtown’s Peachtree Exchange, was a tangible version of Gariglio’s guide. More than 80 of Italy’s best producers poured tastes, while talking terrior, technique and pedigree. Gariglio introduced Atlanta sommeliers to winemakers from the book.
“For us, it is very important that the taste of wine is the mirror of the territory where it is born,” he said. “The vine must also be clearly perceived in the wine. It is simple enough to always reward the same wines; less simple is to find new wines, tell stories of less-known producers. I think that ‘Slow Wine’ exists for this — that is, telling new stories and talking about new wines.”
Sommelier Melissa Davis, who directs Staplehouse’s wine program, was there. Her wine list includes a few wineries heralded in the guide. A Sicilian 2016 Carricante from Tenuta della Terre Nerre falls under the category of Layers and Textures. A Frappato-Nero d’Avola from Occhipinti is filed under In the Sweet Spot.
Arianna Occhipinti’s winery garners a snail in the guide — the symbol of Slow Food International, indicating a winery that embodies slow food sensibilities of organoleptic, territorial, environmental values. “We think it is important that the wine is of excellent quality, but that the method of producing wine is also important. Ours is the only guide in the world that visits all the reviewed producers every year,” Gariglio said.
I asked Gariglio which Italian wines we should be trying. “I think that, at this moment, it is important to taste the wines of Southern Italy, of regions like Sicily, Puglia, Campania and Calabria. In these regions are born many new producers who work very well and are enhancing vines, like Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Greco di Tufo, Fiano, Nerello Mascalese and Grillo.”
It’s easy to accomplish this at Miller Union, where co-owner Neal McCarthy oversees the acclaimed wine program. He loves the guide and, when flipping though it over lunch, made comments like, “we have that … love this one … this vineyard is stunning.” His by-the-glass menu listed an excellent Nero di Lupo 2015 from Cos, a biodynamic vineyard that also manages an olive grove. (Handy little book.) We sipped on a mineral-driven 2016 Matthiasson Linda Vista Chardonnay, part of the book’s recent inclusion of select California vineyards.
“I think it is very important to use ‘Slow Wine’s’ ideas, even outside Italy,” Gariglio said of the California additions to the book. “I was amazed by these companies that we have selected. The quality is very high and (they) are very different wines. For me, it was a magnificent experience.”
You can find many of the slow wines on Empire State South’s list. We spotted California producers: Matthiasson, Domaine De La Côte, Stolpman and Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Italian ones include Occhipinti, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli, Cos, Felsina, GD Vajra, Grattamacco, Sottimano, Terre Nere and Vietti. Grubbs keeps it fun with his education. His menu notes on GD Vajra Langhe Nebbiol: “Gosh dang it, this is delicious — 100% declassified Barolo fruit!”
Wish he would write a guide.