Sunday, September 09, 2018

In praise of Trebbiano Abruzzese - a short personal history

Dino Illuminati, me and Daniele Spinelli,- 30 years ago
Without a doubt, the one indigenous Italian white that I have the most experience with over the years is Trebbiano Abruzzese. Because of that, I have a fondness for this wine. When I mention it in conversation I often get raised eyebrows before the verbal comments. I know what’s coming, and I brace myself. I’ve been repeatedly flogged with that whip over the years. It doesn’t hurt anymore.

My first exposure to Trebbiano d’Abruzzo was in 1980. I was running a wine bar in Dallas, and the salesperson brought in three wines from a winery in Abruzzo, Illuminati - Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (the red), Cerasuolo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (the rosé) and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (the white). Little did I know this wine would be the one I would look back, almost 40 years later, with so many memories, so much exposure to.

At first, I wasn’t much impressed. But it was 1980, and white wine from Italy was just beginning to enter into a new era. Often, white Italian wine was (unfashionably) yellow-orange, or if the devil of oxidation had had its way, murky brown. A few years later, as I entered into the wholesale distribution channel, the company I worked for, Arwood H. Stowe, had Illuminati in their book. The year was 1983. I remember seeing the importer one day in the office, Eugenio Spinozzi, and thinking to myself, “looks like we’re getting into the Greek or Lebanese wine business now.” Eugenio was tanned from a summer on the beach in his hometown, San Benedetto del Tronto. I had no idea he was Italian.

Eventually we got that misperception sorted out and Eugenio and I became lifelong friends. And with many trips to San Benedetto del Tronto, where the Illuminati family also lived, we spent many nights under the stars by the beach, with a cool breeze, a plate of grilled langosto and gamberi and the inevitable procession of bottles of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo.

There was something about the wine, as it evolved in the technical side, that really hooked me. The body was light but not Frascati light. It had this nuttiness that leant itself well to marrying with the gorgeous seafood we were enjoying on the beach. And it wasn’t so full of itself that it had to be front stage and center. It was a player in the band, not the soloist. Never a diva, but always singing somewhere in the choir, making the overall experience better for those who were in the audience.

Back in Texas, as we were experiencing America’s culinary ascension into a more Mediterranean-centric lifestyle, the foods that were coming to the tables (and the grocers) were more complementary to a kind of wine like Trebbiano d'Abruzzo.

Tasting note from 1983:
1982 Illuminati Trebbiano d’Abruzzo – light in color, with a pale straw tinge. In the nose there is salinity and lemon zest. The flavor is dry, bone dry, but the fruit along the edge is fresh and citric. Acidity is high but not throat scorching. In all, the wine is a simple but lovely quaff that goes well with grilled seafood, or a nice plate of paste with clams.

As time went on, the Illuminati family brought out any number of Trebbiano Abruzzese wines. There was Nicolino, which was a frizzante version. Think pét-nat before pét-nat was cool.

There was Ciafré, which was a deep, rich (predominantly Trebbiano Abruzzese) white blend, reminiscent of a Meursault. I know, that sounds weird, a blend from Abruzzo resembling a monovarietal Chardonnay from Burgundy. But that’s how it was.

And there was Daniele, named for their venerable and most wonderful winemaker, Daniele Spinelli. It was a barrel-fermented white (again, predominantly Trebbiano Abruzzese)  that was deeply colored and amazingly rich. Orange wine cultists would kill for this wine today.

Now, all one needs to do is scan their Instagram or Delectable feed and sooner or later, the “newly discovered” Trebbiano of Emidio Pepe or the “unicorn” Trebbiano of Valentini show up on someone’s feed. But it wasn’t always so. I know, because I was there, one of the early donkeys carrying the (Italian) water up the hill, in hopes of advancing the popularity of wines like Trebbiano. Nobody wanted Trebbiano, nobody. Nowadays, the likes of Tiberia, Masciarelli, Cirelli and La Valentina, Trebbiano Abruzzese has secured a place in wine bars and “cool kids” hangouts, from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to Alberta Street in Portland. I celebrate this as a “win” after a grueling 40-year battle of getting Americans “into” Trebbiano.

For me, it was always the simple white, the Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo, that won my heart. Eventually I’d find a way to get it poured by the glass in a few places and over time, the restaurateurs and wine shops started softening. That was before the cheap tsunami of California wine started crashing upon the shores of middle America. But we sold hundreds of thousands of bottles of that wine, in land-locked Texas. We did it against all odds.

Wine writer Mike Lonsford, wrote in the Houston Chronicle on December 23, 1982 about Illuminati wines and offered this guarded recommendation:
“The Trebbiano is a modest-priced wine (around $3.99) which as I said is meant to go with food, especially creamy or cheese-filled dishes. It’s fairly well-balanced, but again, a trifle hard and acidic, as are many Italian wines.”

Actually, a bowl of pasta casalinga with seafood
(without cream or cheese) is preferable
“…as are many Italian wines.” That was the Sisyphean task we had then. To convince the public, and more importantly, the gatekeepers, that Italian wine was ready for America. And in fly-over country, which always was a step or two behind the coasts. Add to that the heat of the region. In 1980, when I was opening the wine bar in the summer, we had 69 days (42 in a row) over 100°F in Dallas. Houston, Austin and San Antonio also suffered that year. In a way, it was the perfect time for a crisp, dry, chilled white wine.

But Italian white wines were still some time off before becoming more fully integrated into the mainstream of wining and dining culture in the US.

From Ỏlivepiù - Olive ascolane,lovingly hauled from Italy
So, I went from door to door, day in and day out, bringing back pictures of Abruzzo and San Benedetto del Tronto, of the foods we ate. We even brought back frozen bags of olive ascolane to show how the food from the area went really well with the local wines. And I drank a buttload of Trebbiano.

When I see the current-gen waxing on their reddit feed about “where has this wine been all my life?” I laugh, and I cry. But it’s really tears of joy, not crocodile tears. I’m happy they’ve “discovered” Trebbiano. Even if it is “orange.” Hell, I’ve drunk my share of orange Trebbiano as well. Not that it was the intended final product. But it was there, and the nuns taught me to “waste not.”

Eugenio Spinozzi wrote this in his letter to introduce Illuminati and their wines (including the Trebbiano) to new customers in America back in the early 1980’s:
“It is my belief that in the world of wines there is nothing ‘new’ to put on the market but what does exist is a close and passionate race among the producers to obtain the best wine from their grapes and then to bring this product to the consumers for even better drinking, appearance and price range.”

In 1997 Illuminati changed their "Costalupo" Trebbiano
d'Abruzzo DOC to the newly formed Controguerra Bianco DOC
And that is the race we have been seeing for the past two generations. Trebbiano Abruzzese isn’t going to supplant Meursault, or even Assyrtiko, as one of the great white wines of the world. But Trebbiano Abruzzese has been a great life lesson for me. Think not ill of the minor players, for they sit in the chorus and contibute to the music. Yes, it is a group effort. It isn’t just the wine. It’s the food, the breeze, the conversation, the friends at the table. It’s the orchestra and the players, all of them, playing their part.

From where I stand, Trebbiano Abruzzese has played its part well. Very well.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Geralyn said...

Such an excellent telling of not only the history of Trebbiano Abruzzese but of Italian white wine in general over the last 35+ years, and Eugenio's prophetic comment at the end is spot on. Thanks, once again, for sharing that visual history with all the labels.
I too brought back olive Ascolane, but they did not fare as well as yours!

Marty said...

Came across your article by chance and I enjoyed reading about your love affair with Treb. I recall those years at Arwood Stowe , I worked with Guy Stout in Houston, and met Eugenio when he visited. I always loved the Illuminati wines. I remember Guy and I had dinner with Del Frisco and placed Illuminati Red and Trebbiano as his house wines. I met you when you had just returned from Vin Italy and brought us some really great Italian wines. Ciao

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