Eccentric and exciting masters of wine
The story of Passion on the Vine continues when Sergio decides to leave the restaurant business and begins to fully cultivate his vision and passion for Italian wine (please see part 1 and part 2 and of this series). In his vision, the store would be a high-end boutique of wine with each bottle displayed with its own placard, like its own work of art. The company would educate clients on Italian wine and culture as well as provide security for those who wanted to invest and make collecting high-end Italian wines a reality. By a twist of fate, Sergio runs into an acquaintance, Joseph Bastianich, who then owned a wine bar/restaurant called Becco and a high-end Italian restaurant called Babbo with Mario Batali. Sergio makes the quick decision to become partners with these two men who had a much better understanding of his goals and ambitions, and in October of 1999, Italian Wine Merchants opened its doors to the public.
Of course, opening a wine store in New York City is no easy feat, and this task was made especially difficult due to Sergio’s commitment to stocking the store full of wines that weren’t the mainstream. It was a very stressful period marked by Sergio’s flying back and forth to Italy fifteen times a year to continue scoping out the best possible producers to showcase in his store. The narrative of the memoir now takes the opportunity to highlight some of the greatest producers of Italian wine that Sergio knows as friends, compatriots and, occasionally, adversaries. In reading this portion of his journey, we are all able to experience and begin to understand some very eccentric and exciting masters of wine. I’m going to showcase a few of my favorite moments and producers below:
Paolo Scavino, whose estate is currently run by his son Enrico Scavino, is a pioneer in Piemonte for going against the grain and making Barolo into a modern, technological masterpiece. He was one the first in the region to institute temperature-controlled winemaking and storage facilities, and has led the way with the use of new rotary fermenters and small barrels. He made the biggest leap in 1993, when he decided to switch from Slovenian oak aging to 100% barrique. He is a prime example of what a modern producer has done to make Barolo more accessible and attractive to our current market and shows that Barolo is capable of expressing itself with vigorous vineyard care and less age.
Josko Gravner, however, shows an opposite side of the wine story. He was one of the first producers to experiment with technological advancements and became a mentor to producers who wanted to be skilled in modern winemaking techniques. He rigorously taught himself each new machine and method until one day he realized he was losing something in his wine. He began exploring ancient wine-making techniques and in time transformed his entire philosophy. He is currently a pioneer in the biodynamic movement and produces wine in 4,000-year-old clay amphorae, dug into the ground for natural temperature control. Gravner’s philosophy is expressed in a nutshell: “Wine and food have to be natural products. In flying a plane, one needs technology, but it’s absurd to think that man can ever improve what is natural. Wine and food we put in our stomachs. How could I continue to do my work if I have the knowledge that what I make was slowly poisoning my children?”When asked to describe his wines he said, “I don’t have the words for that, how can you describe a soul? I can tell you only that these wines have real spirit.” These quotes are enough to make anyone want to drink Gravner’s wine; the man is as spectacular as his products.
Movia’s Ales Kristancic is another top biodynamic wine producer from Friuli, though his vineyards border Friuli and Slovenia. He is quite a character, and Kristancic has talents that seem to burst at the seams; he’s a whirlwind of energy who can’t help but inspire the people he encounters. He has very strong ideas about wine and life, showcased in how he describes his vineyard and wines. Sergio recalls a moment where Ales metaphorically compares a newly planted vine with a growing young woman. He also describes the vine as our closest counterpart in the plant kingdom: “You must understand this—if any plant in the entire plant world were to rise up into the animal kingdom and become a human being, it would be the vine.”
Kristancic continues, “It is the plant closest in character to man. If it has this comfortable life and this undemanding land, it is never challenged. It’s like a spoiled socialite: healthy, beautiful and vapid. It’s a machine, not a thing of natural beauty- just eating and producing fruits. And yes, absolutely, you can make something from this fruit. You can mix it up in a barrel and get drunk from it — but this thing you make is not wine.” Kristancic is close to his land and what he creates—his energy is infections and you can’t help but catch his enthusiasm.
Sergio then brings us back to Barolo to the estate of Maurizio Anselma, a young man who leads Famiglia Anselma, an estate that has the goal to produce traditional Barolo reminiscent of his history. Maurizio first met Sergio at IWM as an inexperienced, but eager young, producer. His family had an advantage, having been purchasing vineyards since the late seventies. Established in 1993, the Anselmas went forward to produce some of the best traditional Barolo of today. Maurizio avers, “We will only make Barolo because this is the history of our land.” Reading this section, I felt I grew to understand the connection between Barolo and history even better, and to understand Barolo’s history seems tantamount to understanding Barolo.
“No barriques, no Berlusconi, no California,” is the motto of Bartolo Mascarello, a humble, yet iconic Barolo producer. Considered by many to be the master of the trade, Mascarello embodies his values and belief in his work in everything that he does. Sergio claims that Mascarello belongs to “a rare sub-species of human, the members of which are entirely uninfluenced by external sources of energy. His emotional state persisted despite those around him, as though he were surrounded by a force field of resolution that insulated him from all external anxiety, desire and chaos.” This could very likely be the reason why his wines are so revered. He sticks to his guns, making Barolo the way he believes he should make it, in the time it takes to make it. Nothing seems to be able to penetrate his stability and sense of tradition. He is the supreme example of what a Barolo can express.
Currently run by Franco Santi, Biondi Santi represents the discovery and creation of Brunello di Montalcino. Tancredi Santi, Franco’s father, discovered a replanted clone of Sangiovese during the phylloxera epidemic, a serendipitous moment that lead to the creation of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino. Tancredi and Franco showed themselves to be expert entrepreneurs as well as wonderful winemakers, transforming a lonely, dusty spot in the road to one of the most important winemaking regions. And the beauty that Sergio describes is trance-inducing.
If Biondi Santi founded Brunello di Montalcino, then Gianfranco Soldera mastered it. Soldera was an industrial insurance broker from Milan before trying his hand at wine. He appeared to be quite prescient; Sergio recalls that Soldera told his colleagues, “If I find a great piece of land in the next year, I’m making the best wine in the world.” Quite a statement for a former insurance broker! He bought the Case Basse estate in1972 and went on to fulfill his prophecy of becoming one of, if not the best, Brunello producers of today.
If I had read Passion on the Vine a year ago, I would have been quite entertained by these unusual characters, but I might not have taken them very seriously. For example, biodynamics in itself is a controversial idea, with many wine cognoscenti thinking it’s mystical and useless, and before my days at IWM, I probably would have agreed with these naysayers. Now with my experience at IWM and the ability to taste wine every day, I think differently. I’ve enhanced my knowledge and palate, and I notice major differences between various styles and methods. It’s like every single bottle has its own personality and character, with its own story to tell—and reading Passion on the Vine illustrates how that feeling came to be. Each of these producers is a unique individual who makes his or her wines with private convictions and idiosyncratic philosophies. These bottles are like their children.
It’s what makes the wines of IWM so beautiful, and it’s what makes the book so good. We only have one more blog to finish this book club. I’m eager to know what you’ve been thinking. Who is your favorite producer? And why?