Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Un disastro!

Let me say at the outset that the purpose of writing posts for this blog and for my Learn Italian Wines blog is to share information and at times, educate readers about wine. I have been in the wine business for 31 years and have been writing professionally about wine for more than 13 years. I specialize in Italian wines, having made more than 50 trips to that country, visiting wine regions from north to south. I have written dozens of articles for major wine publications and recently wrote my first book about Italian wines, which will be released soon.

Clearly, I love Italian wines and believe that they are among the best of the world. So when a respected voice in the industry writes mistruths and mistakes about Italian wines, I'm not exactly thrilled.

A few months ago, I was asked by a publisher rep if I would like a copy of the latest edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course for review purposes. I replied that I would and having read a good deal of the book, I was ready to pass along a positive judgment. There is a good amount of worthwhile information in this book, especially toward the end, where there is a chapter on how to taste. This is something that everyone should think about more often, no matter whether you are a beginner or someone with decades of tasting experience.

But any good that is presented in this book is overshadowed by his section on Italian wines. I won’t go into everything that is wrong here, as I don’t have the space available, but let me say it now – this is a disaster!

I want readers to know that this essay of mine is not a knee jerk reaction. I read Zraly’s text more than a month ago and made up my mind then to write about this. But I thought I would speak with other people in the wine industry first. I then spoke about this to several producers and other individuals in Italy who also work with Italian wines for a living. I wanted to discover their thoughts about this and see if my opinions were something that they shared.

A few people who know of Kevin told me that he is a Francophile. There’s nothing wrong with that. I love French wines as well and drink them whenever I get the opportunity. But the point here is that Zraly has written a book about wines of the world. In reality, his bias toward French wines clearly shines through in this book. It’s subtitled a Complete Wine Course, but a better title would have been a French Wine Course along with sections on other wines of the world.

There is a separate chapter on the white wines of France, but there isn’t even a separate chapter on the wines of Italy; rather Italy shares a chapter in this book with Spain. Furthermore, the section on Italy deals almost exclusively with a few famous red wines, as the country’s white wines are largely ignored (more on that later). Look, I don’t have a problem with the author devoting a separate chapter to French white wines, but not even a separate chapter on Italy? He decided to write so little on Italian wines (especially in comparison with the wines of France) that this subject became merely part of a chapter. Again, if Zraly prefers French wines that’s fine, but he’s clearly not giving Italian wines their fair due in this book.

As for the section on Italian red wines, there are several key mistakes. He writes that Chianti must be 80% minimum Sangiovese. Actually, it’s 75% for most versions of Chianti, such as Chianti normale or a Chianti from one of the seven districts, such as Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Senesi, etc. The 80% requirement for Sangiovese is only for Chianti Classico. This is something that’s been in effect for several years; all Zraly had to do was look this up on the internet.

Then he writes about a change to regulations for aging Barolo in wood. He writes that Barolo now has to be aged for only one year in wood. This is simply incorrect. I emailed a winemaker in the Barolo zone and also checked the Barolo disciplinare to learn the correct information; the minimum aging in wood for a Barolo is eighteen months, not one year. Now I realize that Italian wine laws change quite often, but the simple fact remains that the minimum aging is not one year now and never has been. It used to be 24 months, which was changed to 18 months. Zraly does mention that it was 24 months several years ago, so if that was what he listed in the book, one could forgive him, as one could say he hadn’t updated this information. But to list one year as the figure, when it is not that period of time today and never has been, well, that’s simply incorrect and a sign of not doing the proper work. For a book that is supposed to be one of the finest available about wine education (we read that on the inside front as well as the back cover), this is a careless mistake.

Then there are a few really stupid or strange things he writes. Under the heading “easy-to-find Veneto producers”, he lists Quintarelli. Wait a minute! Quintarelli, easy to find? Where does this guy shop for wines?

Even worse is his note on Amarone, which he writes derives from the Italian words amar, meaning bitter and one, meaning big. Huh? I mentioned this to a few producers in Italy and their reaction ranged from laughter to outright disbelief. This guy is a leading wine educator?

I mentioned that the Italian section is primarily about red wines; Zraly concentrates on Amarone, the big reds of Piedmont (Barolo and Barbaresco) and four famous wines of Tuscany: Chianti, Vino Noblie di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino and Carmignano. However, there is not one word – not a word! – about Bolgheri. How did Zraly decide to leave this out? It certainly couldn’t be because the wines are too expensive, as he writes a great deal about classified growths of Bordeaux that retail for hundreds of dollars per bottle. He also writes a good amount about the premier and grand cru bottlings from Burgundy. I can understand in a book such as this that there isn’t room for everything, so some wines are deleted. But we’re not talking about an obscure red wine from Basilicata or Calabria here, we’re talking about Bolgheri. Even if you only know two wines from here – namely Sassicaia and Ornellaia – you know about Bolgheri. Given that there are two full pages on the wines of the Loire Valley in France, couldn’t Zraly at least written a paragraph about Bolgheri? Especially given the fame of these wines? Again, his bias toward French wines while ignoring many distinguished Italian wines, is striking (also, there is no mention Morellino di Scansano, one of Tuscany’s most successful red wines of the past decade).

While this is bad enough, this doesn’t even come close to the outrage I feel about his few brief paragraphs about Italian white wines. Zraly writes that he doesn’t teach classes about these wines as the leading examples of these products imported into America, such as Soave, Frascati and Pinot Grigio, tend to retail for about $15. So what? Doesn’t it stand to reason that the leading wines in terms of sales from anywhere – Italy, France, Chile, Australia, Spain, etc – sell for $15-20? Yet he has an entire chapter on French white wines, most of which are much more expensive than $15. It’s quite an illogical argument. It seems clear that he doesn’t taste many examples of Italian white wine.

Kevin, have you tried this?

Or this? These are two outstanding Italian white wines.

Also, by writing what he does about these wines being $15, he tends to dismiss then singlehandedly, as though they’re not worth his – or anyone’s - time. Yet I wonder if he’s tasted the Pieropan Soave Classico lately or other examples of Soave Classico, such as Cantina del Castello, Ca’ Rugate, Gini and Pra. They all retail for about $14-16 dollars and they are excellent values. If Zraly means this book as a text for beginning and intermediate wine drinkers, he’s doing them a disservice by not highlighting these wines.

Of course there are single vineyard offerings of Soave in the $18-25 range (not a great deal of money and certainly on par with white wines from the Loire and Bordeaux that he praises in the book) that are marvelous wines. Soave has become relevant again and these cru offerings are first-rate wines, yet there’s nothing about them in this book. Apparently Zraly doesn’t care much for these wines, if he samples them at all.

Zraly has brief lists of varieties and wines from several Italian regions; he admits that he doesn’t have the space to cover all twenty wine regions. That’s fine, but take a look at his list of grapes in Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. That’s it! Has he ever heard of Friulano, the signature grape of the region? How can he leave this out? Wouldn’t you think that it would be easy to remember Friulano when writing about Friuli?

But all of this doesn’t even hold a candle to his most outrageous statement in the book, which happens to deal with Italian white wines. Continuing his reasoning about why he doesn’t teach a class on Italian white wines, he writes:

“The Italians do not traditionally put the same effort into making their white wines as they do their reds – in terms of style and complexity and they are the first to admit it.” (page 187).

Can you believe he actually wrote that? I had to read the sentence several times to make certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Yes, I’m quite certain that great vintners such as Leonildo Pieropan, Roberto Anselmi, Silvio Jermann, Sabino Loffredo and Ciro Picariello would admit they don’t put much effort into their white wines. What a truly outrageous statement!

Again, does Zraly even drink Italian white wines? I mentioned this statement to a producer in Alto Adige and told him that it seemed as if the author wrote this some forty years ago. His reply to me was that, yes, some four decades ago, one could say this about Italian white wines, but certainly not today. For anyone who has been paying attention, the amazing level of quality of the best Italian white wines has been one of the major developments in the wine industry over the past fifteen to twenty years. Has Zraly even noticed?

Zraly, by the way, also writes that recent plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in Italy have “elevated” the quality of Italian white wines. How can he say this? The best white wines in Italy, the ones that have truly been among the country’s best over the past twenty years are largely not produced from these two varieties, but rather from Verdicchio, Friulano, Vermentino, Garganega, Cortese, Greco, Fiano, Falanghina and several dozen more. It’s these indigenous varieties that are at the core of greatness of Italian white wines.

While I’m angry and terribly disappointed with Zraly’s take on Italian wines, there’s a bigger problem here. It’s the mere fact that he could write this and get away with it. Can you imagine the reaction he would have received if he had written mistruths and had as many incorrect facts about the wines of France or California? He would have been tarred and feathered and run out of town. Yet, I’ve not read any other criticism of his text on Italian wines. Where is the outcry? Where are the Italian producers and importers on this? To me, this entire situation shows the lack of respect for Italian wines in this country.

I applaud Zraly for being a positive source for wine in this country and also for writing this book. But once you decide to take on such a venture, there is a professional responsibility that must emerge. You cannot write mistruths as he has about Italian white wines and represent yourself as a leading wine educator. If he doesn’t care for Italian white wines or doesn’t keep up with these wines, then admit it. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s being honest. But don’t write something that is a slap in the face to hundreds of excellent white wine producers in Italy.

If Italian wines – white, red and sparkling (there is barely any mention of Prosecco or Franciacorta in this book) are to be taken seriously in America, then individuals who write and teach about wine need to treat them with the proper respect. Like other wines more if you will, but give Italian wines their proper due.

By the way, Kevin, I invite you to pay a visit to Melissa Sutherland Amadowhite wine buyer at 67 Wine and Spirits in New York City. She adores Italian white wines and can give you a great education on this topic. She will introduce you to several great wines that are proof of the excellent work being done by white wine makers in Italy today.


  1. Hi Tom. Calm yourself! Just so you know, I find similar ignorance from UK-based, published wine writers about Italian wines, including famous international names. It gives us room to work, at least. Keep at it!

  2. Geoffo:

    I hear you. Interesting insight from you about UK writers as well.

    I'm calm now!

  3. Robin:


    Hope you're well.


  4. Your outrage is well warranted, Tom. I'm frankly flabbergasted at the excerpts and omissions you mention.

  5. Alder:

    Thanks for your comment. It is clearly time for Mr. Zraly to get in tune with what's going on with the Italian wine industry.

  6. Tom,

    Great post and I understand your outrage. It is unacceptable that one of the most respected wine 'educators' in the US is so shockingly misinformed and behind the times when it comes to Italian wines. That he is able to squeeze all of Italy into a single chapter, and ignore Italy's whites and the great strides in quality in Soave, Friuli and Alto Adige is an insult to the Italian wine industry and to the many fans of Italian wines in the US. What decade is this guy living in? Is Zraly even aware that not only does the US import more wine from Italy than from any other country, but that for the last few years, the value of Italian wine imported into the US has increased substantially? This means that consumers aren't just buying low-end Pinot Grigio, but also mid-priced and high end Italian wines. In fact, the US is the biggest market for Barolo and Brunello, importing millions of bottles of these wines annually.

    Given his obvious disregard for quality Italian wine, together with the misinformation you found in his book, it would probably be best if Zraly avoids writing on the subject altogether in my opinion.

  7. Kerin:

    Thank you very much for your insightful comment. As you are a successful author of several books about Italian wines, your thoughts are valuable.

    You make an excellent point about the US market being much more that a place where consumers purchase low end Italian whites and reds. As you said, the US is indeed the largest market for Brunello and Barolo. Kevin either has no awareness of this or chooses to ignore it.

    I didn't even mention all the mistakes in his section on Italian wines, such as omitting Taurasi from a list of DOCG wines. Clearly he does not stay current on Italian wines, so as you wrote, maybe he shouldn't write about them at all.

    1. Tom,

      Based on what you wrote in the post, I was pretty sure Zraly had neglected Taurasi, but am still saddened to hear this confirmed. Once again, he has made a huge oversight. Taurasi is one of the true gems of Italian wine. How could he have not even mentioned it when writing on the country's wines?

  8. Kerin: He literally lists the word Taurasi once in the book, under the category of Best Wines of Campania.

    We agree on this, as Taurasi is one of the premier Italian red wines, so why nothing on this wine?

    But at least he mentioned it. As far as red wines from Puglia such as Salice Salentino and Nero di Troia, there's nothing in the book. In fact, the word Puglia is not even mentioned once in the book. Zraly does write that he doesn't have room to write about every region, so I can't criticize him too much for this omission, but he certainly dropped the ball regarding Taurasi.

  9. Of course Calabria is listed as an example of the most obscure wines... *sob* #truthhurts Gaglioppo was being served at the Olympics about 3000 years ago, when Napa wasn't even a twinkle in anyone's eye!

    I digress... while I totally agree with your analysis, as a graduate of the AIS program in Italy I had to laugh. We spent one class on every region of Italy during our third level studies, had one class on France and ONE class on "the rest of the world" which encompassed all of North and South America, Australia, New Zealand... the other side of the coin I guess!

    -Michele Connors

  10. Michele: Thanks for the comment.

    Yes, history is certainly on the side of Calabria and every other Italian wine region, isn't it?

    Something to think about and, as you wrote, another side of the coin.

  11. Tom, one can only hope that your review will make a difference when the next 'newly revised and updated' edition is released. BTW, 'The Wine Bible' is another very popular wine book that needs to "correct" facts about and views on Italian wines - desperately.

  12. James: Thank you for taking the time to comment. You have been fighting the good fight for many years and have been tasting and importing wines from dozens of outstanding artisan producers in Italy; for this, you are to be congratulated.

    So for people such as yourself who understand the passion and dedication that are at the heart of so many great Italian wines, it's frustrating and sad to read so much incorrect information from a leading wine educator. I haven't seen "The Wine Bible" in some time, so I'll look at that as well.

    The bigger problem as I wrote, is this status of Italian wines in this book. Zraly just doesn't take the time to make certain this is a well-written section. It's more than several basic mistakes, it's his attitude toward Italian wines, as though in his mind, they are not as unique or as excellent as French wines. Thus he presents the reader with a poorly organized, error-ridden look at Italian wines, one in which he basically dismisses all but a few wines from the country.

    This sort of thing has to stop.

  13. Anyone looking for Kevin or anyone else to give benediction to any country of wines is seeking approval from a place below the Ultimate Source. Italy needs no defending. It simply is, as it has been for 2500+ years - making wine, making some mistakes along the way, but ultimately, in my view, the spearhead for inspired wine making for the rest of the world.

    If Kevin ( or anyone) doesn't get that at this point, I dont see any reason to take time from my enjoyment of Italian wine to drag him ( or anyone else) along for what has been a great ride.

    It would be nice for Mr. Zraly to respond, I know he dabbles in social-media - but again, the train is leaving the station with or without him 9 or anyone else).

    All aboard!

  14. Alfonso: Thanks very much for commenting. Your work promoting Italian wines has been exemplary - we need more people such as yourself to continue educating today's consumers and members of the trade about the glories of Italian wine.

    I basically agree with you when you write that "Italy needs no defending." In this case, I wrote this post to point out that Italian wines do not receive the respect they deserve in the country, especially as compared with French and California wines. It's a caste system of wine education, one that is antiquated and one that needs to change.

    Kevin writes gloriously about many types of French wines, but only a very few Italian wines. He writes nothing about Taurasi, except to include it in a list of Campanian wines and he doesn't even mention wines such as Salice Salentino or Nero di Troia. Then to write what he does about white wines in Italy is a slap in the face to hundreds of excellent producers.

    The book supposed to be a complete wine course, but while French and California wines are given excellent coverage, Italian wines clearly do not get their due. That's the main point of my post, especially as thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of consumers will read this book, hoping to learn about the wines of the world. They just won't learn much about Italian wines from this book and a fair amount of what they pick up from this book will be incorrect information. As others have commented here and on my facebook page, they simply can't believe that the mistakes in this section exist.

    Yes it would be nice for Mr. Zraly to respond, but as you noted, the train has left the station.