Rebel to Vintner

I can't tell you how it came to pass that the Italian winemakers Mario Schiopetto, Giacomo Bologna, and Maurizio Zanella joined Italian gastronomic giant Luigi Veronelli on a trip to America in 1981, a trip that would ultimately spark the modern revolution in Italian wine quality. (Veronelli, in a conversation with Piero Selvaggio of Los Angeles's Valentino restaurant, lamented his discovery that California's upstate wine industry had surpassed Italy's. Selvaggio's reply: "Co l'acqua toca 'l cul tutti impara a nodar" — when the water touches one's ass, one learns to swim. "We will learn to swim." And learn they did, adopting various aspects of California's beloved winemaking technology and even bringing winemaking legend André Tchelistcheff over to Florence for a seminar on the subject.) I can't tell you because the answer belongs to Jeremy Parzen, a wine writer who's been chasing that particular story for some time. I just happened to be sitting next to him when he asked the question of Zanella, somewhere near the end of a long and delightful evening in the courtyard behind Jayne's Gastropub a few weeks back. (If you're at all curious, you can get the story at Parzen's blog, Do Bianchi: dobianchi.wordpress.com.*)

Happily, I can tell you about the rest of the night — very much An Evening with the Wine Luminary — and try to give you something of its flavor. Zanella is the man behind Ca' del Bosco, one of Italy's most celebrated wineries and certainly its most famous producer of the bubbly Franciacorta. He makes plenty of still wine as well — the evening featured two sparklers, a couple of Chardonnays, a Pinot Noir, a Carmenère, and a Bordeaux blend. (Despite a fair number of guests at the table, including local wine educator/tour guide Robin Stark, my notes get wobbly after the Pinot, though I have happy memories of the Carmenère....)

Zanella was in town for the first time — professionally, anyway. "Like all Europeans," he noted, "I had taken my kids to SeaWorld — it's one of the points to be seen — but that was 18 years ago or so. My other reason is that one month ago, he" — he gestured toward Parzen — "was in my cellar, and I was not there. There was lots of damage. He drank a '79."

"That was a fantastic tasting," smiled Parzen, who had visited with an Italian colleague. "It's better when you're not there. The '79 was unctuous and oxidized and fantastic."

"The lady who let you in no longer works at Ca' del Bosco," said Zanella, not even trying for deadpan.

"It was an important wine for me," rhapsodized Parzen, "because I saw that you guys have been making the wine in the same house style all this time."

"You're right — very conservative," answered Zanella. "If you want to have a style, you have to do small changes, but you cannot change your philosophy." He turned to me. "The common point that makes the Ca' del Bosco taste is harmony and elegance. We are 'over-nothing.' We try not to be massive. I believe that wines over 14 percent alcohol are not wines, they are Port. A strong wine wins a tasting, but we don't drink like this. We drink one glass with food, for pleasure. If a wine is over 14 percent, it's better they don't do wine. Wines that give emotion come from elegance, not power."

"Conservative" may sound funny coming from a man who helped revolutionize an industry, and even more so from a man who owes his winemaking career to "playing war with the police" back in '68. Funny, that is, until you hear him spin out the details of those heady days. "I was a hippie — worse than a hippie. I was in jail. I was in the student revolution — it was more fun than going to school. I was a student in Milano. When I was in private school, and the conservative party was the right side, I was a communist. My parents changed me to a public school, where everyone was communist — so I was fascist. The party wasn't important — it was important to go out into the street, to play far away from the school." Eventually, his parents sent him to a little house they owned in the country — the house that eventually gave the winery its name. "I was happy there, because I was living alone at 15. I did motocross. And then the wine started to be interesting. So." It wasn't that he was a revolutionary, then or now. What mattered was the devotion to pleasure. (Yes, such a devotion tends toward hedonism. But when was the last time a wine critic described a 13.8 percent wine as "hedonistic"?)

Case in point: Zanella's personal crusade against serving sparkling wine — and not just his own — in flutes. "I hate those glasses," he said. "It's the most wrong glass ever thought up to destroy a wine, to destroy our work, to destroy your pleasure in drinking." (Emphasis mine.) One might be tempted toward words like "crank" or "snob" in the face of such animus regarding something that's so generally accepted, but that last phrase saves the day. This is a man who wants you to enjoy yourself. And how can you enjoy yourself if your glass is suffocating your vintage bubbly, tainting it with the dank that comes from imperfect drying, forcing the wine down a narrow strip of your palate, and making you tip your head back in abnormal ways just to get a sip? "The flute was a big mistake," he growled, "and I have allies. I have, already, Krug, Pol Roger, Salon. The good people, they are with me."

The pleasure principle can also make a man humble, however celebrated he may be. What is pleasant to him may not be pleasant to all. Zanella had me compare the '04 and '05 Chardonnays, and I allowed as how I liked the '05, because it offered the unwooded, mineral leanness I like in Chardonnay. Zanella's face let me know that I had not given the hoped-for answer — and as time went on, the richer '04 showed better and better — but he remained exquisitely polite. "I will not tell you how I feel about the wine. I never speak about my wine, because it is not easy for me to be honest. I will never say, 'This wine is great' — it's stupid when a winemaker speaks about his wine. You judge. But '05 was a very rich harvest, very difficult to manage. The temperature was very high — it burns the acidity, and you lose a little finesse. But it was a good year for white, if the winemaker was able to read the year the right way. We harvested August 4, the earliest harvest ever done in Europe. But if you had the technology, I believe it could have been a good year. And from your word, I believe it was a good year."

And Zanella had the technology. Again, when pleasure is your rule, you embrace change or preserve tradition according to that rule. Zanella may have worked to preserve the house style at Ca' del Bosco, but it's a far cry from those early, earthy days of the '70s. "The vineyard manager puts a bar code on each palette of grapes that comes into the winery," he explained. "The code indicates the varietal, the vineyard, and the sanitary state — how the grapes look, if there is any rot. Perfect is five, a lot of problems is one. The pressing speed in the winery is determined by this code — if the harvest is difficult, the machines run slowly, because you need more time to do the hand selection of grapes. And the receiving door won't accept a crate of grapes if the code is from the wrong vineyard. Everything in its place." Once inside, the grapes are cooled to just before the point where condensation would kick in, keeping excess moisture out and fermentation down until the winemaker is ready to get things started. The precision temperature control allows Zanella, for example, to shift his Chardonnay into barrels mid-fermentation and so derive just the degree of barrel-fermented character he desires.

"It's like the beginning of Space Mountain at Disneyland," marveled Parzen, "where you see all the robots working. But not in an anonymous way."

*Credit where it's due: Do Bianchi is also where I found the account of the conversation between Veronelli and Selvaggio.

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