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(Like certain wines, perhaps this synopsis has spent too much time in wood. We shall be much briefer from this point on.) Sometime later this year (summer is best), Sor San Lorenzo 1989 will be bottled. At this point in a ball game, the crowd might think it is all over but the shouting and start heading for the exits. Bottling is a critical operation, however. It can even ruin a wine. Guido explains what goes on (including prebottling filtration, a controversial issue); Angelo has stories about the old days. We note briefly how bottle and cork were married in the late seventeenth century and have a critical look at the "and lived happily ever after" aspect of the story.
Ottavio Ottavi noted over a century ago that "the choice of a bottle has an influence on the wine's future that is far from being unimportant." We go with Angelo to the Trentino region, where we are shown around the Nordvetri bottle factory by Franco Marchini. He explains the progress that has been made since Ottavi's time, as exemplified by the bottle Gaja uses for Sor San Lorenzo. We notice a bottle with an unusually thin neck. "That's for a producer who was convinced by an expert that the less cork you put there, the better." Marchini turns re-proachfully to Angelo. "But you drove us even crazier with that cork of yours."
When you pull the cork from a bottle of Sor San Lorenzo, you notice at once that it is exceptionally long. As is the story behind it.
As long ago as 1973 a reader of France's leading wine journal, Revue Revue des vins de France des vins de France, would have come across photos of thirty-three-year-old Angelo, his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. In an advertis.e.m.e.nt with the t.i.tle "The pa.s.sion of four generations hangs on 177 the quality of a...cork," Angelo explains that he is looking for "a really exceptional cork."
On the island of Sardinia, we drive with Angelo through forests of the cork oak, Quercus suber Quercus suber, which is hardly recognizable as a relative of its more aristocratic northern cousins. These trees seem dumpy and gnarled in comparison. Those that have recently been stripped of their bark look like they have been caught with their pants down.
We enter Calangia.n.u.s: 5,000 inhabitants, 250 cork producers, 90 percent of Italy's cork production. Peppino Molinas shows us around his highly automated factory. One machine punches the corks directly out of strips of bark; another cla.s.sifies them electronically. Molinas explains the various stages of production. He drives us to an old-fashioned workshop where craftsmen called quadrettisti quadrettisti cut parallelepipeds from the strips of cork by hand. We learn how corks made this way differ from those produced in the factory. cut parallelepipeds from the strips of cork by hand. We learn how corks made this way differ from those produced in the factory.
The cork is the last link in the long chain of production factors that is behind the quality of the wine you pour in your gla.s.s. When he talks about cork, even a gentle person like Guido looks like he could get violent. "All that work and just like that"-he snaps his fingers-"it's ruined by the cork." We look at some of the problems caused by defective corks.
Like grapes and oak, cork varies greatly according to the conditions in which it grows. With more and more wine being bottled all over the world, the demand for cork has grown rapidly. We examine why quality has suffered. "Producers do a good job of actually making corks," says Angelo, "but it's like with wine: you can't make up in the cellar for poor raw material. They're like growers who don't know what it means to select grapes."
Angelo's way of dealing with the problem was to ask suppliers for corks sixty-three millimeters long, an unheard of length when he first used them in 1981. Since no existing machine could cork a bottle with them, he had to have one made to order. "There's no proof that such long corks protect the wine any better," Angelo says, "but they do oblige the producer to select his best raw material."
The problem does not end with defective corks. Cork itself is an issue.
We go with Aldo Vacca to visit an old schoolmate of his who works as an enologist at the huge Martini (of c.o.c.ktail fame) and Rossi establishment near Torino. Alberto Orrico explains that he periodically takes fifty bottles of wine off the bottling line and closes them with corks from different shipments as well as with crown caps, screw caps, and other 178 devices. After three months the wines are tasted blind by a large group.
"Everyone always agrees that the wines closed with corks are the least good," he says. "And each one tastes different."
Guido is convinced there are better alternatives, but they are not part of our traditional wine imagery. "It's a very touchy subject," Angelo confesses. "The idea of a crown cap on a bottle of Chateau Lafite is hard to swallow."
Sor San Lorenzo 1989 will rest for a year in the Gaja cellar before making its debut in wine society. We have seen what has gone into the making of this wine. In another sense, the making of the wine takes us further back into history, a strand that in the book will be interwoven with the first one.
The purchase of Sor San Lorenzo in 1964 was part of a strategy to ensure the winery a reliable supply of top-quality grapes. Three years earlier they had stopped buying grapes from other growers, including those from the then much better known Barolo area. Angelo explains why.
Sor San Lorenzo was farmed by a sharecropper, who grew wheat and other crops between the rows of vines and used part of the land as a pasture for his livestock. Angelo shakes his head. "Can you imagine a great vineyard in Burgundy reduced to that condition?"
Our vineyard was on the wrong side of the Alps. We take a brief historical look at how the wines of France had achieved preeminence by cornering the all-important English market, with Bordeaux leading the way and others following.
Barbaresco's affinities were with Burgundy rather than Bordeaux: numerous small growers; small, fragmented properties; a demanding grape variety. Wine had a long tradition in Barbaresco. In the choir of the cathedral of Alba, one of the stalls dating from 1490 has an inlaid wood decoration depicting the village and its ancient castle under a bowl of grapes. But what historical a.s.sociation could Barbares...o...b..ast to rival that of the great Burgundian vineyard Chambertin with Napoleon? The only one cited in writings on Barbaresco in an effort to give its tradition a bit of l.u.s.ter concerns a General von Melas, who, on November 6, 1799, ordered wine from the village to celebrate an Austrian victory over the French in a nearby battle. The order was actually a humiliating military requisition by a foreign power, and, symbolically enough, in a much more important battle seven months later at Marengo (of chicken a la fame), von Melas was defeated by none other than Napoleon himself.
France established the international vinous canon; Bordeaux, Bur- 179 gundy, and Champagne became colors as well as wines. Modern taste was founded on those flavors. New World wines could become famous overnight by "beating" famous French ones in international competi-tions, but the condition for entering the compet.i.tion was making your wine with one of the major French grape varieties. Cabernet and Chardonnay became the vinous equivalents of the English language.
Making wine with Nebbiolo was like writing verse in Finnish.
During its frequent wars with France, England would seek other sources of wine (which is how port, for example, got its foot in the door).
Early in the eighteenth century, if not Barbaresco, at least nearby Barolo got its chance. Doc.u.ments in the National Archives in Turin reveal that English merchants were interested in a deal, but getting the wine to them was a problem. There was no road leading to the then Piedmontese port of Nice that was suitable for the transportation of heavy barrels, and the even closer ports of the Republic of Genoa would have taxed the wine out of the market.
Geographical isolation and Italy's lack of political unity sealed the fate of wines like Barbaresco. The Langhe remained a region of back-ward farmers making wine for a strictly local market. Lorenzo Fantini describes the situation in the middle of the nineteenth century: "a miserable state of winemaking" ("with procedures that go back to the good patriarch Noah") due to "the almost total lack of trade," which in turn was due to "the scarcity and sometimes total lack of roads." A vicious circle. "In those times, to speak of exporting was like speaking Sanskrit!" he writes. "Frequent were the years in which producers were forced to drink their wines themselves for want of buyers, and that explains the phenomenal generosity with which our grandfathers poured wine for their friends."
Mixed crops in even prime vineyard sites were a consequence of such a precarious situation: farmers always wanted to "grow a little of everything" so as not to put all their eggs in the wine basket. Sharecropping was another consequence and another obstacle to progress. ("A sharecropper who is a good viticulturist is as rare as the phoenix.") Indeed, Fantini sees the small farmer himself, the contadino contadino, as an obstacle.
Without education, he writes, he will continue to be "an inefficient machine and nothing more," "a seriously ill patient who needs an operation to get well."
France was way ahead. Writing to his father from Toulouse, Pietro Musso, a young contadino contadino from Barbaresco, described the marvels of technology used to prepare the ground for a new vineyard: "Here there from Barbaresco, described the marvels of technology used to prepare the ground for a new vineyard: "Here there 180 180 are two large pulleys that draw a big plow back and forth. You're not always just digging away with a hoe like we do. The ground is broken up by a machine, and in a few days it's ready to be planted." His father admonished him not to tell anybody about it when he came home.
"People wouldn't believe you, and we'd soon be the laughingstock of the town."
We hear about the wines of a century ago from Ottavi. "The French are way ahead of us in the art of making fine wine," he observes. "It is an undeniable fact that at present we make little fine wine, much poor wine, and a lot of vinegar." He lists the major defects of Italian wines in general, but notes a number of promising signs, especially in Piedmont.
Times were not propitious, however. World War I hit hard. Outside the minuscule town hall of Barbaresco, a marble plaque dedicated to the village's "brave sons who fell for their country" has fifty-four names engraved on it. The autarkic fantasies of Mussolini's "Battle for Grain"
encouraged growers to plant even more cereal crops in their vineyards.
World War II brought German occupation, Allied bombings, and civil war. The death rate in the Langhe was almost twice that of Italy as a whole. Luigi Cavallo, foreman of Gaja's vineyard crew until his retirement in 1983, tells of the three corpses he dug up while working. A Fascist roundup in Barbaresco led to forty people, including Gaja's cellarman, being taken off to Turin.
There were amusing notes, though, as the Langhe met America toward the end of the war. A photo shows local eyes bulging as two black GIs stroll though Alba. "They had more stuff in one of their packsacks than in all of ours put together," chuckles a former partisan. Another recalls the U.S. Air Force parachuting supplies to the partisans. It was not long before "balconies all over the Langhe displayed homemade nylon lingerie in a riot of colors."
Even a year after the war was over, food was still a serious problem.
Thus the narrator of a novel by Beppe Fenoglio: "Lunch and dinner were almost always dried corn mush. To give it a bit of flavor, we took turns rubbing it with an anchovy hanging from a string tied to a beam.
Even when the anchovy no longer had even the semblance of one, we still went on rubbing it for several days."
The big change took place in the fifties. Alba had been the least indus-trialized town in the province of Cuneo; by the end of the decade it had more people employed in industry than any other. This meant prosperity for Angelo's father, who was in the construction business, 181 181 enabling him to purchase Sor San Lorenzo and other outstanding vineyards. It also meant a shortage of agricultural labor, as contadini contadini became became cittadini cittadini (townspeople). (townspeople).
What is perhaps the last generation of the old contadino contadino culture lives on in Barbaresco today. Luigi Cavallo lives at number 1 on via Torino, Turin Street. He has never been to Turin. "I've always been here," he says, bringing to mind that as late as the early years of this century people in the Langhe talked about Piedmont as if it began, or ended, just across the Tanaro River, which flows by Barbaresco. "I'm going to Piedmont," they would say. "In Piedmont they do this and that." culture lives on in Barbaresco today. Luigi Cavallo lives at number 1 on via Torino, Turin Street. He has never been to Turin. "I've always been here," he says, bringing to mind that as late as the early years of this century people in the Langhe talked about Piedmont as if it began, or ended, just across the Tanaro River, which flows by Barbaresco. "I'm going to Piedmont," they would say. "In Piedmont they do this and that."
Just a few yards up the street, at number 36, is the Gaja winery, a world of phone calls to New York and Amsterdam, of faxes to Tokyo, of BMWs with German license plates parked in the courtyard. Angelo is off to Burgundy for a meeting of French and American Chardonnay producers, but he and Guido talk about it in dialect. The language of Luigi Cavallo.
When Angelo, a Taurus who looks it, started to work at the family winery in 1961, it was the leading one in Barbaresco, but sales were mainly in Piedmont and direct to consumers in large, anonymous containers. Barbaresco was obscured not only by the shadow of French wine, but also by the more local one of Barolo: our vineyard was not only on the wrong side of the Alps, but on the wrong side of Alba as well.
Reading what the leading English-language food authorities were writing at the time would have been discouraging. Elizabeth David's cla.s.sic Italian Food Italian Food advises readers to approach Italian wine "in a spirit of optimism and amiable inquiry rather than with harsh comparisons to the wines of France" and mentions Barbaresco only as "another of the good wines of Piedmont" and "interesting to try." Somewhat later, in his advises readers to approach Italian wine "in a spirit of optimism and amiable inquiry rather than with harsh comparisons to the wines of France" and mentions Barbaresco only as "another of the good wines of Piedmont" and "interesting to try." Somewhat later, in his The Food of Italy The Food of Italy, Waverly Root d.a.m.ned Italian wines with his defensive claim that they were better than French ones with Italian food ("Who would think of drinking a fine Medoc with a dish of spaghetti and tomato sauce?") and a.s.signed Barbaresco its routine place as "probably the second best wine of Piedmont." The first edition of Hugh Johnson's The World Atlas of Wine The World Atlas of Wine dedicated a whole chapter of seventy-two pages to France ("the undisputed mistress of the vine") and thirteen pages to Italy as part of a catchall chapter on Southern and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean; Barbaresco was presented as "less fully ripened than Barolo." Even the dedicated a whole chapter of seventy-two pages to France ("the undisputed mistress of the vine") and thirteen pages to Italy as part of a catchall chapter on Southern and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean; Barbaresco was presented as "less fully ripened than Barolo." Even the Random House Dictionary of the English Random House Dictionary of the English Language Language, published in 1966, had an entry for "barolo," but none for Barbaresco!
182 The occasional English visitors were put off by the yellowish hue of oxidated old Barolos and Barbarescos; they spoke of "salame skin" and "chicken skin." If the larger world had little interest in Barbaresco, the world Angelo grew up in had little interest in it. "It was almost impossible to find even a bottle of Chianti in Alba," he recalls.
Trips abroad opened his eyes. He attended courses for growers in southern France. "They were Third World, too, dealing with the same problems we had." Bordeaux and Burgundy showed him that quality paid. But the winery's cellerman in the sixties, Luigi Rama, had no contact with the outside world. "He lived in a world all his own," says Angelo. "He was the depositary of Tradition."
But there is always a tradition prior to Tradition. Nebbiolo, for instance, had a long tradition in Piedmont, where the earliest doc.u.mented reference to it goes back to 1286. Pa.s.sing through Turin in 1787, Thomas Jefferson noted in his journal that he had tasted "a red wine of Nebiule,"
but his tasting note ("sweet," "astringent," and "brisk as Champagne") might strike us as quite untraditional. Yet when Barbaresco growers met over a hundred years later to form their a.s.sociation, they acknowledged that the wine their village had produced in the past "was little better than those sweetish, sickly sweet, semi-sparkling or frothy Nebbiolos that delighted the unsophisticated palates and stronger stomachs of our forefathers" and that the new tradition of a consistently dry wine dated from the founding of the cooperative winery in 1894.
Barbaresco had been transformed before; Angelo would transform it again. He was also getting ready to see what he could do with canon-ical grapes.
A trip to California in 1973 made a deep impression on him. "People were in wine by choice," he says. "They were real pros." Above all, "they were showing you could beat the French at their own game."
To make way for Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo vines were ripped up below the Gaja home on the Bricco, the most prominent spot in the village. "I didn't want to sneak it in through the back door," says Angelo. It was as if Nebbiolo had driven Pinot Noir out of a major vineyard in Burgundy. As the work proceeded, Angelo's father would shake his head and mutter "Darmagi," dialect for "What a shame!" and thus, along with the vermouth Punt e Mes, the label of Angelo's Cabernet Sauvignon now propagates Piedmontese throughout the world.
We look briefly at the history of "foreign" grape varieties in Italy and note the long line of Piedmontese who have played a major role in experimentation with them, beginning with Manfredo Bertone di Sam- 183 buy, who, in the 1830s, planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon in Italy.
By the end of the century, experimentation was thriving in many regions, as we see from a book on the subject by Salvatore Mondini, published in 1903. (There was even a famous Cabernet vineyard in what is now a fashionable residential section of Rome, Parioli!) This innovative and cosmopolitan tradition was all but destroyed by phylloxera, Fascism, and two world wars. Like two other Piedmontese, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta and Giacomo Tachis, leaders of the Tuscan wine revolution with their creations Sa.s.sicaia and Tignanello, Angelo was in on the revival.
Sor San Lorenzo and other Gaja wines have become part of the world's vinous elite in terms of both price and critical acclaim, as have the wines of other producers in Piedmont and elsewhere in Italy. Having turned Fantini's vicious circle into a virtuous one, Angelo spends a lot of time on the road keeping them there.
He slams on the brakes as he spots a highway patrol car lying in wait farther up the road. "Italian style," he says sheepishly as the speedomet-er plunges. Angelo is a man in a hurry. "You should have seen him tear into town on his tractor when he was still working in the vineyards,"
says Guido. Perhaps he is trying to make up for more than two centuries of lost time. Fantini, obsessed by the lack of roads and thus of trade, would have understood him.
Angelo is on his way home from a visit to Europe's largest vine nursery, at Rauscedo, near the Yugoslav border. During our visits to Sor San Lorenzo, we noticed numerous gaps where vines have been rooted up; many others "have reached the end of the line," as Federico puts it. Plans for replanting the vineyard are being made, and Angelo has been looking into rootstocks. The considerations are many. Resistance to phylloxera, of course. And to drought. Vigor. Will it perform well in Sor San Lorenzo's calcareous soil? Does it have rooting problems?
In the distance, hilltop Barbaresco comes slowly into focus. The cranes at the Gaja winery loom above the village coequally with its ancient tower.
Angelo's mind is racing faster than his car. It's a critical decision.
Those roots will be there for thirty years or more, entrusted with the "savor of the earth," the "secrets of the soil." And in the end, that is where it all begins: with the best grapes in the world.
184 About the Editor DANIEL HALPERN is the author of eight collections of poetry and the editor of several anthologies, most recently is the author of eight collections of poetry and the editor of several anthologies, most recently The Art of the Story The Art of the Story. He has received numerous grants and awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the publisher of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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Copyright NOT FOR BREAD ALONE. Copyright 1993 by The Ecco Press. Introduction Copyright 1993 by Daniel Halpern. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.
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