With all the rumors about Joe Bastianich and Eataly L.A. last week, we thought it a fine time to check in on Bastianich's latest book, Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines.
Bastianich is, as the book's press release reminds us, “co-owner of twenty [mostly Italian] restaurants, an Italian wine producer with three vineyards in Italy, as well as partner in Eataly New York, the groundbreaking [Italian] artisanal food and wine marketplace.” All good reasons this book should stink of wine funk self promotion, as in theory, the more the American public learns to appreciate (and purchase) Italian wine, the more Bastianich's restaurants, wineries and retail outlets benefit.
Fortunately, he takes more of a generalist's storytelling approach — yes, cult wines like Ornellaia's Masseto are profiled, but more broadly, not a specific vintage — that feels more like Bastianich is celebrating wineries he truly admires (many with hundreds of years of history behind them), rather than padding his own pockets. It is indeed a solid book, even if we take issue with some wineries left out of his “finest wines” title. Turn the page for more.
This is not Bastianich's first Italian wine book. Several years ago he wrote Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy with co-author David Lynch, a massive and remarkable guidebook to the wines of Italy, covering grape varietals, growing regions, several hundred wine producers, and a handful of corresponding regional recipes thrown in the mix. Following that, not surprisingly, was the pocket guide Vino Italiano Buying Guide, touted as “the ultimate quick reference to the great wines of Italy.” Translation: How to fill your wine fridge with Italian wine.
Which gets us to Grandi Vini. As the subtitle makes clear, this is Bastianich's more “opinionated” — and therefore compact — version of that first comprehensive Italian wine guide. In that sense, it's interesting to read through his top picks by region, like a Brunello di Montalcino from La Cerbaiola di Giulio Salvioni (p.22).
But what's more interesting than those specific wines is his stories about the winemakers and wineries. He introduces that Brunello di Montalcino not with discussions of the wine itself, but by saying that Salvioni “has an eruptive personality… a typical Tuscan, genuine and exuberant, never timid about sharing his ideas or convictions.” Each wine entry is more of a short story, really, delving into the individual(s) behind the wine, the history of the region and specific winery, growing conditions and techniques, and the wine's place in the Italian, and sometimes stateside, market.
It's all followed by a refreshingly brief — for a wine criticism book at least — personal assessment of that particular Brunello in such general terms, you quickly forget that “an opinionated tour” is even part of the subtitle. Rather than telling us he prefers a certain vintage, Bastianich sums up his essay on the people, places and grapes behind the bottle with a few simple sentences such as this: “In the top vintages, the Cerbaiola Brunello is strong and structured, rich in tannins and pulp… the finish is long and persistent.”
Ultimately, the stories Bastianich tells about the winemakers themselves is what is interesting in Grandi Vini, not which 89 wines he chose as his top picks. They actually serve more to raise the question of why some wines/wineries were left off that list, as Italy's wine making greats are expansive. There's very little mention, say, of the Frescobaldis, and equally powerful, longstanding family wine dynasty as the Antinoris, other than in that Ornellaia Masseto mention, as the wine was an Antinori venture that was later taken over by the Frescobaldis in partnership with the Mondavis. Great. But how about a little more on the Frescobaldis? They certainly have a fascinating, and at times tumultuous, history, which seems right up Bastianich's storytelling alley. The obvious answer, to us at least, is this book would then become Vino Italiano all over again, and well, he's already written the pocket guide to that, so there's got to be a new angle.
No matter, as this is truly a great book, a peek inside the mind of a passionate Italian wine lover and the winemakers he most admires. Besides, we get a kick out of knowing that his mother, Lidia, wrote a blurb on the book's back jacket. It's somehow both hilarious and endearing at the same time, and we give her major biscotti points for starting out by noting: “It is difficult to be objective when talking about one's offspring…” And then, of course, she goes on to praise her son unequivocally. We'll drink a glass of Mormoreto to that.