by Fred McMillin
for April 5, 1999


Mama Mia, It's Oltenia


Romania is the sixth largest winegrower in Europe, with over half a million acres of vines. The Oltenian Hills, part of the southern ramparts of Transylvania, are in the district that produces over a quarter of the country's wine. One of the area's specialties is Merlot.

...Hugh Johnson, World Atlas of Wine

The Rest of the Story

The Greeks brought the vine to Romania three millennia ago, long before Merlot existed. In fact, it took a crisis to bring that Bordeaux varietal east. A century ago the insect phylloxera destroyed most of the Romanian vineyards. When replanting was started on resistant rootstock, Merlot made its debut north of the Danube. If you want to see how it's doing today, here's an inexpensive way to find out.

Decade Wine of the Day

'96 Merlot, Barrel Reserve (mostly from Romania)
Appellation—Chiefly from Oltenia vineyards; some California Merlot added to increase berry flavors.
Importer, Blender—San Francisco's Martino Pennisi, San Francisco Cellars, Pier 19, Embarcadero, phone (415) 664-8396.
Rating—RECOMMENDED in it's price range.
Retail Price—Well under $10.


From Pan to Pennisi: Today's importer is the second Martino Pennisi. Pennisi roots are as interesting as those of Romanian Merlot. The highlights:

ACIS, the son of Pan, was caught with the favorite nymph of Cyclops, a fatal mistake.

ACIS is memorialized by the name of the important city on the east coast of Sicily, Acireal. In medieval times, an important wine merchant of Acireal was none other than Baron Martino Pennisi.

Life in the castle went smoothly for generations until OUR Martino's grandfather also had a romantic problem...he fell in love with a commoner, whose father made wine barrels. So, Frank Pennisi married Mary, and learned to make barrels, also. Because the scandal would not subside, they moved to California where grandfather became head barrelmaker for the Petri family. Granddad's son Michael named his son after the first Martino Pennisi, closing the circle.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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