Columnist, Food

Leading Italian wine critic Daniele Cernilli, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017,” at a recent tasting in Washington. (Dave McIntyre)

Searching for value, variety and excitement in wine? Look to Italy — or so says Daniele Cernilli.

He is the author of “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017,” and a longtime champion of the wines of his native country. The Roman was one of the founding editors of Gambero Rosso, the leading Italian food and wine magazine that grew out of the Slow Food movement in the 1980s. Wine lovers around the world know Gambero Rosso’s “tre bicchieri,” or three glasses, as the highest rating an Italian wine can receive (at least in Italy).

“Italian wines are the new wave for high-quality wines for Americans,” because there are many with high quality for the price, Cernilli told me during a recent industry and consumer tasting at the Mayflower Hotel sponsored by the Wine Scholars Guild. The tasting included about 50 wines that were top scorers in his new guide.

“Quality is higher than Spain, but in price we are lower than France,” Cernilli said, explaining Italy’s appeal to value-conscious consumers.

Those consumers should look for wines from Campania, he said. “The wines there are improving in a tremendous way. It’s the Tuscany of the south,” he said.

He praised Campania for its local grape varieties such as fiano and greco di tufo, as well as wines made with international varieties.

At 62, Cernilli looks every bit the rumpled oenophile, with a wine-softened smile lifting his double chin, and a paunch coaxing out his shirttail. (Believe me, I know the look.) He is congenial, but he bristles at the mention of Gambero Rosso, which he left in 2011 to create his own website, DoctorWine.it.

When a winery representative offered a taste of a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano during the event, saying, “It got tre bicchieri,” Cernilli waved it off and pointed to another wine.

“I created tre bicchieri,” he said. “I know what it has become. It’s all politics.

“I am too romantic to be in Gambero Rosso today,” he continued. “It is more modern and commercial. They gave 450 tre bicchieri last year. That’s too many high awards. They also do more than 50 events worldwide each year. In my day, we did three.

“I want to be a publisher, not a promoter,” he said.

So in addition to his website, Cernilli has self-published his third annual guide in Italian (and second translated in English) as a counterpart to Gambero Rosso’s annual Guide to Italian Wines, which he edited for more than two decades. In that respect, he is not unlike other prominent writers, such as Wine Spectator’s James Suckling or Wine Advocate’s Antonio Galloni, who have tried to leverage their own reputations independent of the publications that made them famous. It is available for $20 at Eataly in New York and will soon be on Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeffery P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

This might be a good time for this book. Americans are buying more Italian wine than ever, according to the business news website Il Sole 24 Ore. Italian wine exports to the U.S. market last year topped 1.8 billion euros (about $1.9 billion), up 6 percent over 2015. That was a volume increase of 4 percent.

Prosecco, the inexpensive and charming — if rarely compelling — sparkling wine, led the charge, with 2016 sales up 28.5 percent over the previous year.

With more than 500 grape varieties, Italy offers a lifetime of wine adventure and exploration. Cernilli’s book guides us, region by region, through the top producers as rated by him and his contributors. Wineries are evaluated from 0 to 3 stars, with their top wines scored on a 100-point scale. Wines that score 95 or higher receive an additional stamp of approval: Cernilli’s visage, dubbed a “DoctorWine Face” — his personal guarantee of the wine’s quality. Inexpensive wines that show extraordinary value are denoted by a thumbs-up symbol, the universal social media positive review. Cernilli and his team also named their best red and white wines of the year, as well as winery and winemaker of the year.

Cernilli may have written the “ultimate” guide to Italian wine, but it isn’t an exhaustive one. The book includes nearly 1,000 wineries and about 2,500 wines. Some wineries familiar to U.S. wine lovers are conspicuous by their absence, such as Alois Lageder in Alto Adige, the cult winery Radikon in Friuli and Tenuta delle Terre Nere on Sicily’s Mount Etna.

“We choose wineries by the quality of their wines year by year,” Cernilli told me. When wineries don’t perform as expected, he leaves them out rather than writing a bad review, “out of respect to their history and international image.”

“The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017” is a valuable reference, engagingly written in an Italian accent. Let Italy’s foremost wine critic introduce you to the exciting variety Italy has to offer.