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The Sad Case of the Stinky Bottle of Frapatto

So I don’t blog much anymore. In fact it is fair to say that I don’t blog ever. But while in Italy last week, something happened that I found so disturbing that I felt compelled to write about it. There I was at Casa Perbellini, having chatted with Giancarlo Perbellini for a bit before dinner. The sommelier presented me with the wine list, and though there were a number of stellar choices staring me in the face, I ordered one of my favorite bottles of wine - Frappato from Ariana Occhipinti. It is one of my go to wines when I am in a restaurant because for the price point (typically in the $40-$60 range) it delivers a lot of punch. And of course, the winemaking is really top notch.

After a few minutes the sommelier showed me the bottle and he went over to his station to open it. He poured a bit into his tasting glass, swirled it a bit, smelled and swallowed it, and then approached the table whereby he poured some into my glass. I lifted the glass in order to smell it and what my nose found in the glass was so vile that I am having difficult describing it. Maybe b
eing forced to sit in a room with a decomposing body might be apt. Or maybe having your head up a cow’s asshole is a better description.

I looked at the sommelier and said the wine was bad, and I questioned whether the problem might be heat damage. He responded by saying that Occhipinti had changed her style of winemaking in 2013, but he would open an second bottle to see if the problem was with the particular bottle he opened. But alas, the same foul, stinky and wretched aromas were emanating from the glass. The second bottle rejected, I settled on a lovely bottle from Mascarello that was drinking better than it should have been for a Barolo from 2013.

Having sorted out what we would drink for the evening, the sommelier and I started chatting about our favorite Italian winemakers. Eventually we got back to Occhipinti, and I mentioned that she was one of my favorite winemakers and I was shocked at how horrible the Frappato was. He went on to tell me the following story. if there is any truth to it, it shall serve as the perfect example of the wrongheadedness of the natural wine movement,

“In 2013" he told me, “because of market pressure to make her wines even more natural, Occhipinti changed her style of winemaking and the stink in the wine comes from that." He went on to tell me that “SHE MADE THE CHANGE BECAUSE THE MARKETPLACE IS WILLING TO PAY MORE FOR WINE THAT IS MADE IN A SUPER-NATURAL WAY,
EVEN IF IT SMELLS WORSE AND DOESN’T TASTE AS GOOD AS THE WAY SHE USED TO MAKE HER WINES." Now I have no way of knowing if this is true. But it corresponds to the few facts I have been able to accumulate from people that I am friendly with who like natural wines. Most of the wines that they like come from poor terroir and are poorly made, and as a result, often include significant flaws. So the idea of a market that likes these wines pushing the winemakers to make wines that are even more flawed rang true for me.

Now I am generally someone who does not criticize people for what they like to do and how they like to practice their hobbies. And if people like to feel as if they are having sex with a corpse while drinking a bottle of wine, well more power to them. But someone needs to explain to me why anyone would like to do that? What set Occhipinti apart from other natural winemakers is that the winemaking was so top notch that the excesses that are present in other bottlings have been removed. But that seems to have been thrown out the window so she can enter a a contest of who can make the stinkiest wine. Let’s face it, cow dung does not smell or taste good, even if it is natural dung. And if you are someone who thinks that paying additional money for wine that has that quality is a good idea, I cordially invite you to explain why you don’t prefer drinking wine that tastes like it comes from a good vineyard site to one that tastes like it has been bottled after being sent through your local sewer system.

Editors note: After reading the comments on a Facebook discussion about this post I decided to add the following. Even if the sommelier at this particular restaurant was mistaken about what caused this bottle to be off, it does not negate the underlying point of the article which is that the natural wine market prefers flawed wines that adhere to a particular set of principles over better tasting wines that do not adhere to those principles to the nth degree. As one importer commented, young wine drinkers think a chardonnay is flawed when it isn’t oxidized. So the point of my article isn’t really about this particular bottle. It is about an uninfomed group of people driving the market and deflecting criticism of flaws in the wines they like by saying “it’s supposed to be that way" as long as it is natural. I am having trouble coming up with another example of a craft where people value the lack of intention in the process, resulting in a flawed product, over ones made with great craftsmanship.