By Frank Cipparone
Some traditions don’t travel well. Their significance tends to get lost in translation. Aside from Christmas and Easter, other observances and holidays that Americans celebrate have little or no relevance to Italians, and vice versa. Thanksgiving, for example. Italians are aware of our customary feast, but it’s doubtful they’ll be sitting down to a meal of turkey cacciatore, cranberry caponata, and sweet potato parmigiana on the last Thursday of November. They might gather around to watch Juventus and Lazio have at it instead of the Lions and Packers, but that’s where any similarities end. On the other hand, Americans make plans for July Fourth but not the Festa delle Republica on June 2.
That doesn’t mean we can’t show gratitude for aspects of Italian culture that transcend continents — music, art, fashion, food and, of course, wine. In the spirit of the season I’d like to give thanks and lift a glass to …
• Innovators and game changers whose forward thinking brought Italian wine into the modern era and shook up the old guard. Aging wine in small oak barrels, pruning the vines in season to produce fewer grape clusters, and using only selective yeasts were heretical notions advanced by Angelo Gaia, Luciano Sandrone and fellow maverick Barolistas that swept the cobwebs from centuries of archaic farmhouse winemaking. They reasoned that if tradition meant wine that was barely drinkable, what was the point?
• Traditionalists like Bartolo Mascarello and Emidio Pepe who, thankfully, stuck to their guns and showed that old-fashioned didn’t have to mean stodgy and poorly made. The late Mascarello’s credo was “No barriques, no Berlusconi, no California,” a triumvirate he viewed as the antithesis of wine that had a sense of place and spoke to the history of the people who made it. His daughter has embraced his legacy, making only beautifully imperfect Barolo that has stood the test of time. Pepe’s philosophy is as basic as it gets — no machinery. Montepulciano grapes are selected and destemmed by hand to keep natural yeasts on the skins, and then pressed by foot before aging
in bottle. At the right moment every bottle is hand decanted to remove sediments and individually labeled by the family. His wines are the best Abruzzo has to offer.
• Those preservationists and advocates without whom many native grapes would have been forgotten or possibly extinct. Their commitment to Italy’s unparalleled diversity is a chance taken in a world where familiar varieties will always get the headlines and money. All over Italy they work with one goal, to do the best they can with what nature gives them.
• Eccentrics who march to different drummers. Edi Kante spent 40 years of trial and error until finally producing a completely sulfite-free wine, even eliminating those that are organic byproducts of fermentation. In Friuli, Ales Kristancic’s approach is dictated by lunar cycles and his belief that wine is the intersection of man and the cosmos.
• Those who work in less-than-favorable conditions, in some cases laying on their backs to harvest grapes before carrying them downhill in large baskets strapped to their backs, or using farm animals to plow between the rows and produce natural fertilizer. The hills above Liguria’s Cinque Terre are so steep that everything must be done manually. On the island of Ischia, lifts are used to move grapes from the highlands, as much as 1800 feet from the sea, to lower elevations. You have to love what you do to face such challenges and make unique wines.
• Sardinia is too often overlooked because of its proximity to Sicily, though both share the same type of cross-cultural influences. Its wines deserve respect because they are rarely too polished or make claims to elegance. They are what they are, and the best of them are rock solid and on the rough and rustic side, like the island itself, made from grapes that can’t be found anywhere else.
• The hospitality of winemakers and their families who took the time to walk the vineyards, answer questions, and converse over glasses of their wines. One who stands out is Valeria Gurrieri of Tenuta La Favola in Sicily whose winemaking husband Corrado’s family has owned their land for over 200 years. On a warm afternoon my wife and I sat with her under ancient shade trees on a hill Corrado’s grandfather named Buonvini. We spent hours chatting about family, the Italian diaspora, life in general and anything except the wine in our glasses, all the while snacking on charcuterie and freshly baked bread slathered with the estate’s olive oil. A special day with a special person.
• The producers of honest, everyday wine, the kind that satisfies the soul and elevates even the simplest meal or get together without fanfare. Thank heaven for them all, no matter where no matter who, without them what would wine lovers do.
Grazie Mille! IAH