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TDG: The D.O.C.G. Disaster


Fat Guy
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Craig Camp goes fishing for great Italian wines in the sea of bureaucracy.

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Great article Craig.

Yes, Italian wine laws are not real laws but more loosely written guidelines. On one hand it bothers me because unless I have had a certain wine from a producer or have read vinification techniqes used I don't know what to expect once the bottle is opened. On the other hand I enjoy doing research and reading as much as I can on wine styles of different regions.

Until Itailian wine laws become strictly enforced nothing will change. Mind you, if once they decide to take laws seriously I am sure prices will increase dramatically. Good for producers, not so good for consumers.

Buyer beware, or at least, buyer be informed.

slowfood/slowwine

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Craig how does the whole Super Tuscan phenomenon fit into your theory of the regulatory scheme? What do you think those examples teach us, if anything? Do you favor schemes such as this, if done right? Or do you think they'll always be flawed no matter what?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm not sure that Italy is really any different than anywhere else when it comes to intra-DOCG (or whatever classification you wish to use) diversity. To a certain extent, this is epitomized by terroir - a specific site imparts it's unique characteristics upon the grape juice. In addition, the winemaker makes additional choices that effect the flavor and quality of a wine. There are good producers and bad producers, each of which can have different styles. This is just as true in Napa as Burgundy as Chianti. I believe that all the DOCG really addresses is the geographical source of the grapes and the basic type or blend of wine product (e.g. Chianti Classico vs. "Super Tuscan" table wine). One must as always choose by experience, reputation or chance. I guess I'm just not sure I see that the lack of a real quality "guarantee" is any bigger a problem for Italian wines as it is for any other wines.

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Craig how does the whole Super Tuscan phenomenon fit into your theory of the regulatory scheme? What do you think those examples teach us, if anything? Do you favor schemes such as this, if done right? Or do you think they'll always be flawed no matter what?

In Italy they will be flawed. The needs of the producers and the thinking of the bureaucrats are always going to be in conflict. There is a reason the bureaucracy is famous in Italy.

The 'Super Tuscan' phenomenan was led by innovative producers that would not live within the constrictions of the DOC or even the Chianti Classico Consortium (the famous Gallo Nero). A perfect example of this was Sergio Manetti of Monte Vertine in Radda, Chianti Classico. One of the leaders of innovation in Tuscany he was not even including 'foreign' varietals in the mix - just 100% sangiovese in his great wine, Le Pergole Torte. The DOC and the Consortium allowed too many mediocre wines to be made under the Chianti Classico name. He finally just chose to leave the DOC/DOCG no matter what changes they made because the he believed that these very lax wine laws were destroying the image of his brand by the mere association with their definition of Chianti. Many great estates have followed this pattern like Jermann in Collio and Anselmi in Soave.

It is also important to remember that wine laws, like DOCG and AOC, are not consumer protection laws, but producer protection laws. They are designed to protect the prices producers can charge for their wines by maintaining a MINUMUM quality level. They are not to protect the consumer by encouraging a MAXIMUM quality level.

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I'm not sure that Italy is really any different than anywhere else when it comes to intra-DOCG (or whatever classification you wish to use) diversity. To a certain extent, this is epitomized by terroir -  a specific site imparts it's unique characteristics upon the grape juice. In addition, the winemaker makes additional choices that effect the flavor and quality of a wine. There are good producers and bad producers, each of which can have different styles. This is just as true in Napa as Burgundy as Chianti. I believe that all the DOCG really addresses is the geographical source of the grapes and the basic type or blend of wine product (e.g. Chianti Classico vs. "Super Tuscan" table wine). One must as always choose by experience, reputation or chance. I guess I'm just not sure I see that the lack of a real quality  "guarantee" is any bigger a problem for Italian wines as it is for any other wines.

I agree with you completely in your description. The problem with DOCG is that there is an implied guarantee of quality.

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Have any non-governmental groups -- producers, consumers, or a combination -- tried to create a competing set of uniform wine standards in Italy?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It would seem that the Gambero Rosso people might be well positioned to do it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It would seem that the Gambero Rosso people might be well positioned to do it.

This is sure to draw howls of protest and cause Italian vintners to take up arms in a revolution.

The Gambero Rosso Vini d'Italia guide is no less controversial than than Robert Parker's Wine Advocate in the United States. The Gambero Rosso heavily favors very oaky, modern style 'show' wines at the expense of traditional and more complex, elegant styled wines.

Having Marvin Shanken (publisher of the Wine Spectator) define wine law in the United States would be less controversial.

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But in effect, in the absence of a serious US-based DOCG-type system, Shanken and Parker do define US wine "law" in that people look to them as quasi-official standards organizations. If you go to pretty much any US wine store, you'll see bottle neck tags and signs above the wines with WS and Parker scores. That's the perceived "guarantee" of quality in an American wine store -- for both American and imported wines. It's only a short hop from that to a labeling system.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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But in effect, in the absence of a serious US-based DOCG-type system, Shanken and Parker do define US wine "law" in that people look to them as quasi-official standards organizations. If you go to pretty much any US wine store, you'll see bottle neck tags and signs above the wines with WS and Parker scores. That's the perceived "guarantee" of quality in an American wine store -- for both American and imported wines. It's only a short hop from that to a labeling system.

That's true to an extent. The subscriber base of The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate is tiny percentage of the wine buying public. Most people buying in a store based on a 'necker' or 'shelf talker' sporting a high score have never read either publication but buy based on the recommendation of a supposed expert. This is the same as someone reading a movie or restaurant review. The wine scores on promotional pieces are the same as critics 'stars' used in movie and restaurant ads.

Wine law is not a consumer based concept and never will be. Consumers are not part of the development process. Wine law is a commercial activity designed to control a particular name and to protect its selling price. You cannot confuse any sort of consumer protection into the process any more than you can into the movie rating system which is designed to protect the movie industry from censorship - not to protect consumers.

This is why wine law is much more important to the bottom and middle of the quality spectrum than for those at the top. Chateau Latour will sell at the same price with or without the Pauillac AOC, but Bordeaux producers at the low end are able to sell at higher prices just because they are Bordeaux.

Edited by Craig Camp (log)
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Are there any examples of these wine-law groups saying, disingenuously, that the laws exist to protect consumers? It would be interesting to read how they phrase it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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A DOCG wine must meet standards that are stricter than those stipulated in DOC regulations. One of the principal differences is the lower yields imposed by the DOCG rules. The reductions in output have probably done more to boost the quality of the wines than any other provision in the production codes. The rules also require in-depth chemical analyses for all DOCG wines. Laboratories recognized by the government must carry out the examinations of the wines' physical composition. Once the analyses have demonstrated that the chemical properties are in accordance with the standards specified in the DOCG regulations, committees consisting of expert tasters sample each producer's wines. The committees can reject wines that fail to meet the specified sensory standards or instruct the producers to take steps to remedy deficiencies before approving or discarding the product. Upon receipt of a favorable report on the outcome of the chemical and sensory analyses, the producers' consortia or, less often, some other official body issues small pink numbered seals that fit over the corks in the bottles of DOCG wines. Strict controls are applied to ensure that the number of seals issued corresponds to the amount of wine that can be produced in accordance with the limitations of the regulations.
From the Italianmade.com - the government sponcered site.

Please note that those rigid tasting panels allow wines like the Argiano (correction: that's Argento) Barolo that sells for $10 at Trader Joe's to use the DOCG. Must be a tough tasting panel. It is nice to know that the wines are tested to at least see they are not poisonous.

Edited by Craig Camp (log)
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I also appreciated the point that the name of the importer can be a valuable piece of information. I think most of us dabblers never even consider that.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Craig:

I was just teasing with the Argiano thing :smile:

But

If DOC and DOCG are all messed up where does that leave IGT?

And

Is it that the laws are all over the map or is enforcement lacking?

And

Could it be that only a small percentage of Italians care about DOC/DOCG/IGT, most just want to live a good life and take the family to the beach in August which is why things don't change?

slowfood/slowwine

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IGT is another whole bag of worms. The requirements are so broad as to take in almost anything. I will expand on IGT and Vino da Tavola in an upcoming Daily Gullet.

It is not a question of enforcement. Producers follow the laws- its not that tough. To refer back to the Argento Barolo it is made under exactly the same guidelines as Monfortino. The difference is that great producers grow a lot less grapes than the DOCG allows. If you produce at levels allowed by the DOCG you can't make a great wine.

Most Italians only drink local wines produced by cooperatives - just like the French, Spanish and Portuguese. Its not that they don't care - its that wine is such a normal part of the daily culture they don't give it much thought. All the great wines of Europe - Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rheingau, Barolo and so on have been driven by the demands of an export market. Over 80% of Barolo is exported. Bordeaux would go bust living on the French market.

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I also appreciated the point that the name of the importer can be a valuable piece of information. I think most of us dabblers never even consider that.

The importer can be a good indicator of quality - but of course that means you have to learn who the good importers are. A great importer like Neil Empson or Marc de Grazia treats their portfolio like a sommelier treats a wine list. They are trying to select the best wines possible from the important wine regions, but they also seek great values as this is important to creating an economically successful portfolio. They need to have a balanced portfolio to stay in business - not just famous tiny estates, but a few wines at low prices that people can drink everyday. Just like a sommelier selecting a fine house wine.

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As much as I can agree with everything Craig says, I do not agree that appellation control trademarks don't offer any consumer protection. Saying that trademark protection only protects the producer is a simplistic point of view. It does afford some protection to the consumer. I mean if there weren't regulations regarding what you could call Barolo, they would truck wine in from Morocco and label it that way. At least when a wine says Barolo on the label you are assured the grapes come from a specific place, and the wine is made according to some standard.

That they still make loads of crap wine from that region, and get to charge a lot of money for it due to the DOCG designation, is a consumer issue and has nothing to do with the Barolo trademark being abused. Just because appellation control exists, that doesn't excuse consumers from needing to be savvy about what they are buying.

The problem with food and wine is not the AOC or DOCG system. The problem is people accepting crap food on their plate without complaining about.

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