Sun 21 Mar 2010
Few are the wine regions of the world that don’t have a festival or conference devoted to their traditions, geography and wines. From Paso Robles to the Loire Valley, trade groups and vinters’ associations mount annual meetings to showcase current and upcoming vintages, with attendant lectures and discussions about marketing, technical matters and consumer perceptions. Some of these festivals are relatively ancient and steeped in ritual, while others expound the spirit of “wine country lifestyle” and gourmet food competitions. Some are international in scope (VinExpo), some are national (VinItaly and Wine Australia), and some are devoted to the elucidation, not to say the worship, of a single grape, as the West Coast of the United States treats pinot noir, zinfandel and petite sirah.
The annual Barbera Meeting in the Piedmontese town of Asti centers on a region and a grape, that is, the zone where Barbera d’Asti, Barbera del Monferrato and Barbera d’Alba are produced. The four-day tasting event, March 8 to 11, was sponsored this year by the Province of Asti and the Assessorato all’Agricoltura, and the cities of Casale Monferrato, Asti, Nizza Monferrato and the Consorzio di Tutela Vini d’Asti e del Monferrato, with further support from Cassa di Risparmio di Torino. It was organized and promoted by Well Com, a publicity firm based in Alba.
Barbera Meeting 2010 was highly structured. Each morning there was a blind tasting, from 9 until noon (on Monday) and 9 to 11 (Tuesday through Thursday), that focused on a particular segment of Barbera production: Barbera d’Asti DOC 2007 and DOCG 2008 on Monday; the same vintages with emphasis on the Nizza sub-zone on Tuesday; Barbera del Monferrato DOC and DOCG 2007 and ’08 on Wednesday; and Barbera d’Alba DOC 2007 and ’08 on Thursday. These tastings, 177 (or so) wines altogether, occurred at the 14th Century Palazzo Zoya in Asti.
Following lunch, the journalists and members of the trade were divided into groups and bussed into the countryside for visits to three wineries selected by the organizers. Reconvening at some usually grand venue, the writers and trade representatives along with producers, winemakers and local officials would attend a large walk-around tasting of many of the other wines made by the producers from that morning’s tasting, followed on a catered multi-course dinner with more wines on the tables. Dinner didn’t conclude until 11 most nights, so arrival back at the hotel in Asti was often at midnight or later. (And did we need a banquet three nights in a row? By Wednesday night, we were giddy with exhaustion.) This was the schedule Monday through Wednesday; on Thursday, the meeting concluded with lunch, though we bloggers kept up a busy round of winery visits and late nights through Saturday.
The innovation for Barbera Meeting 2010 was the introduction of six American wine bloggers and one British blogger, a group organized by Jeremy Parzen (image at right) of Do Bianchi, that was intended to lend an air of immediacy and accessibility to the proceedings, or, as the material prepared for the meeting put it: “to [spread] at a global level the knowledge of Barbera and its birthplace, through the influent contents published by the bloggers.” This content was posted on the bloggers’ individual platforms and gathered on the group site, Barbera2010. How successful, effective or influential this attempt at Internet innovation was remains to be seen. The fact that the bloggers’ largely negative reactions to the wines made the print and television news in Italy and that the controversy was picked up in America testifies to some perceivable yet indefinable level of impact.
Tasting together, eating meals together, traveling on vans from town to town together allowed the bloggers periods of reflection and discussion (if not naps) on the purpose and structure of Barbera Meeting 2010 and its generally hectic and crowded activity and rather elusive purpose. As one of the participating bloggers, I have suggestions that might improve the flow, the logistics and the effectiveness of the enterprise. (And let me say first that we could not have gotten along without the care and organizing principles of Marinella Minetti and her staff at Well Com, whose every concern was our comfort. Thanks too to the members of the Association of Italian Sommeliers who poured the many wines for us each morning.)
1. Get a new graphic designer and logo. This is pretty cheesy.
(To be fair, I just heard from Jeremy Parzen that he designed this logo specifically for the group Barbera 7 blog, in “the spirit of punk rock blogginess” — he’s also a guitarist — and that it’s not connected to the official Barbera Meeting print or online material. Sorry, Jar!)
2. Define more clearly the purpose and scope of Barbera Meeting. At no point were we informed about the selection process for the blind tastings in the morning and the walk-around tastings in the evening, nor was it made clear how the wineries for the afternoon visits were chosen. I would have been far more comfortable as a taster and blogger if I had known why I was tasting the wines put in front of me. Was there a preliminary competitive stage? A juried tasting? Do the producers simply alternate every year? Do they belong to a club? Is participation by invitation? If by invitation, what are the criteria? And what’s the motivation for all of this tasting anyway? If there was a discernible or desired result, other than to give us the experience of encountering so many wines, it eluded me. I felt a bit as if I were tasting in a vacuum.
3. Exert control over the wines presented by the producers. This suggestion is controversial, and I offer it tentatively. Naturally, the producers that provided the wines for the blind tastings wanted to offer their best products, which it turned out, in their interpretation, were the Barbera wines, the “important” wines, aged in barriques of which we were most critical. Often when we visited a winery, we discovered non-barrique Barbera wines, of whatever category, that we liked better for their integrity and authenticity. Perhaps producers selected for inclusion in the blind tastings should be required to present both “old style” and “modern” Barberas that would offer a glimpse of their range of technical philosophy. Or perhaps that requirement would result in too much complication.
4. Give us time to do what we were invited for. For most of the week that we were in Asti, our group of bloggers left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and returned at midnight. At no time during the day was there an opportunity to perform our assigned task, so most of us ended up writing and posting from midnight until 2 a.m. or so and then getting up a few hours later to sit at the breakfast table doing the same. Tasting wines and blogging simultaneously, which we also tried, detracts from both efforts. What we needed was an hour after lunch and an earlier return to the hotel at night to write and post.
5. Limit the winery visits to two each afternoon. This suggestion is a corollary of number 4. If bloggers were given more time to write, the hours allotted to visiting producers, however educational those visits may be (and were), would necessarily be truncated.
Having said all this, I must add that I learned a tremendous amount about Barbera wines and the nuances of their production at Barbera Meeting 2010. Visiting various wineries in the afternoon offered a great deal of insight not only into how the wines get made but into a whole heritage of concerns and values. In addition, the hospitality we received at the properties was superb, and even if I never meet some of those owners and winemakers again, I will think of them with gratitude and affection.
Map from vinonyc.