The Straightshooter Takes on Michel Bettane
I am reprinting the English translation of a strongly worded article which appeared last July originally on the web site LaVinium. It was written by Franco Ziliani, the Straightshooter ("franco tiratore"), whose wonderfully evocative article on Barolo country I translated here last week. Franco has generously granted me permission to bring his point of view to the American wine-drinking public. The translation was provided by his fans at the premier seller of quality Italian wines in the New York area, the Italian Wine Merchants on 16th Street.
I think you will appreciate Franco's knowledge and relish his pungent way of expressing himself. He is a welcome antidote to the smarmy horseshit that characterizes so much wine writing, both in the States and...everywhere else, actually.
Michel Bettane passes judgment on the 2001 Barolo but the King of Nebbiolo remains an unfathomable, impenetrable mystery…
Try to imagine the French wine world’s reaction if an overly self-confident Italian journalist were to judge the leading domaines of Bordeaux and Burgundy by comparing them to “the achievements of the best of Italian enology, whose aesthetic fundaments can be applied, without any trace of chauvinism, to all foreign wines,” including those made in France.
At the very least,
Even though he wrote—bordering on the ridiculous—that he was capable of evaluating Barolo by comparing it to the “achievements of the best of French enology, whose aesthetic fundaments can be applied, without a trace of chauvinism, to all foreign wines.” (Sic!)
Neither the present writer nor this publication are believers in political correctness or inflated grades: they like to call a spade a spade and, frankly, they prefer to speak their minds. We have no reservations in saying that not only is Bettane’s article offensive but it shows how it is impossible to understand Barolo unless you possess the necessary humility and willingness to evaluate the wine with an open mind. This article reminds us that
It would require pages and pages—the best thing would be to translate the whole article—to convey Bettane’s various misunderstandings, misconceptions, and mistakes (last year he gave readers a taste of his very personalized approach to Piedmont wines in the first edition of the supplement Italie della Revue du Vin de France devoted to the region, which he edited). He throws up his hands and admits that “some of my opinions may seem strange to those who follow these wines in American magazines and Italian guidebooks.”
One particular gem will give you an idea. In this chestnut, Bettane is discussing—it goes without saying—Angelo Gaja, the King, the Pope of Popes. Bettane states that “the greatest Barolos today don’t say Barolo on the label. Angelo Gaja has opted for the appellation Langhe (Nebbiolo) so that when necessary, he can add a little bit of Barbera, otherwise not allowed by the appellation even though many producers have no problem adding Barbera without saying anything.”
This is a masterpiece and a telling example of how an illustrious guardian of the Revue du vin de France sees Barolo and the wines of Le Langhe and how he happily embraced—without reservations and/or skepticism—the commonly accepted explanation for Monsù Gaja’s decision not to use the name Barolo for his Sperss. As all good children know, the reason is that he needed to add a pinch of Barbera to the Nebbiolo, of course. No other reason whatsoever…
If these were Bettane’s only outrageous misunderstandings, we would accept them. If he believes the best “Barolo” to be Gaja’s Langhe Nebbiolo, that’s fine. He can drink it. We would be much happier to imbibe a Barolo by Cappellano, Cavallotti, Mascarello, or Rinaldi. But it is a different matter when our professorial French taster, with his legitimately subjective opinions, mercilessly slams other iconic figures, i.e., “the producers who perpetuate a style of wine that I judge to be obsolete and that today has taken the form of an almost religious cult. In this regard, I am in complete disagreement with certain Piedmontese and American critics, even though I respect their position.” When he pans Bruno Giacosa, Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno Beppe Rinaldi… No, this cannot be tolerated. Even the facile manner of the insult is offensive: “the way of it afflicts me still,” as Dante would say.
What does Monsieur Bettane actually say about these figures? I feel obliged to translate his observations.
And it won’t take long.
He calls Bruno Giacosa “a grand figure of
Although we mustn’t take offense with our French brother, such bêtises and nonsense, for what they’re worth, illustrate his extraordinary critical approach. In his article, he strikes down Giacomo Conterno together with his legacy: “I have never found elegance in their wines and, in particular, never in the celebrated Monfortino. Undoubtedly, this is because classic Bordelaise enology has deformed my palate.”
Bettane describes Beppe “Citrico” Rinaldi as a “man rich in charm and clearly a defender of a respectable tradition.” But according to the critic who believes the best Barolo to be Gaja’s Langhe Nebbiolo spiked with Barbera, Rinaldi’s wines are unfortunately “uneven. Sometimes wonderfully complex but too often they are affected by analytical defects no longer admissible by today’s standards, like volatile acidity or wild animal aromas. My most recent tastings have been catastrophic.”
Well, if you have managed to resist the temptation to write to Bettane and tell him—in the spirit of friendship, mind you—to go to hell, I fear that your patience and tolerance will not last much longer when you read (and I ask you to read and re-read them and test your rage) the sweet nothings that this man from Paris uses to explain Barolo to the French. Shamelessly, he calls Bartolo Mascarello “an old, malicious philosophical winemaker.” What’s more, because he is ill-informed, he claims that Mascarello died last year (he passed away in March of the current year and will be greatly missed).
On the subject of Bartolo and his wines, the French expert (have we any choice but to call him a French expert?) writes that his wines “were originally very fine and pure. Often compromised and ruined by old barrels that gave them animal and wild flavors that his incredulous followers attributed to terroir. I sincerely hope, in memory of the time we spent together in 1988, that his daughter has put an end to these defects.”
There’s nothing that can be said in the face of such a stinging, superficial, and arrogant attitude with regard to Bartolo and his wines. Those of us who have always believed in them are anything but crazy. It offends his memory and his decades of hard work. These heartfelt words ought to suffice to understand how Bettane—as he honestly stated—tastes and judges Barolo with the palate, mentality, and approach of a taste philosophy typical of someone who regularly tastes and drinks
In the category of hopefuls, he also proves to be off the mark (Enzo Boglietti and Luigi Pira di Serralunga are hopefuls? It’s more likely that they are certainties). At least when it comes to the classics (here we go again), Bettane finally manages to get something right. Among those who embrace “the steadfast values of the appellation and who show regularity and correctness in style,” he includes important, solid names like Brovia, Brezza, Aldo Conterno, Vietti, Conterno Fantino, the Scavinos, and Cordero di Montezemolo.
But while Bettane considers these winemakers to be classics, he does not hold the Mascarellos, the Giacosas, and the Rinaldis to be leaders and true masters. For him, they are stuck between the dusty icons handed down by the past. They have nothing to say and nothing to give. This attitude is not only absurd and scandalous, but it shows how it takes more than being a great expert (or at least that’s what they call them) in