Sunday, December 06, 2015

The Barone who traveled from the 19th Century to make wine in the 21st

No matter how crazy and out-of-control the world seems at times, there has to be a balance in one’s own life. This past week, I drove 1,000 miles in service of the Barone Sonnino. Let’s leave the pressing problems of the world behind, just for a moment; let’s spend a few minutes with the Barone and his wines from Montespertoli.

This was Barone Sonnino’s second trip to Texas this year and still we had no wine in Dallas for him to show. I took it upon myself to arrange to have some of his wine ready at my distributor's dock in Houston and went there from Dallas to fetch it. 30 or so cases fit snugly into my little wagon and with a lower than usual profile, I drove it back north.

Sausage Paul had arranged for a Friday night happy hour with a couple of hundred or so of his clients. It was Tuesday when I drove to Houston and Wednesday when I drove back to Dallas. I had some business in Houston, so it wasn’t really an inconvenience. Being out of wine would have been, but I was determined to get Sonnino’s wine kicked off in Texas before the end of the year.

I’ve spent my time reading about the ancient aristocracy of Italy. There are numerous reports, novels, films and the like. I have my ideas about the whole deal. But the Barone, he defies preconception. Does he come from wealth? Yes, his family was very wealthy. Does he travel in certain socially elite circles by virtue of his birth? He has relationships with powerful people, yes. Is he part of the ruling class? His uncle was a prime minister, so yes you might say he sprung from the aristocratic class.

He’s all that but it’s a little more complicated than that. The Barone is also human and he lives in the 21st century.

“I live in the 19th century,” he likes to say, and in a certain way he does. Watching him add an Uber app to his smart phone is very entertaining; he has a curious nature, almost precocious and child-like. The Sculptor Brancusi once said, “When we cease being children, we are already dead.” The Barone might live in the 19th century in his internal world, but he is very much alive and here.

I spent a week with him and one of my colleagues, Alfred Laudato, who “discovered” him and brought him into my world.

His wines? They’re direct; they can be simple. They can be complex. They can be affordable and they can be pricey. They are sophisticated but not snobby. They are individualistic. And they are delightful. Just like the Barone himself.

He knows everybody. While driving in the country, we were talking about cars. I mentioned Bizzarrini, a short lived sports car that had hopes to rival Ferrari and Maserati in the 1960’s. He knew the car. And the people who made them. He had an adolescent crush on the daughter.

I mentioned a certain French chateau. He knew the wine. In fact he had spent a New Year's Eve with the owner at the chateau, drinking 100 year wine from the cellar. It was there where he was introduced to Petite Verdot, which he now has 1½ hectares planted in Montespertoli for one of his Super Tuscans. It seems his grandfather was a business partner with the French chateau owner. The Barone is “connected.” But he’s also quite grounded. He loves burgers and hot dogs with abandon. He’s an original, distinctive in the sense that he has forged a life that is uniquely his. Is he perfect? Ask his wife, she’ll tell you he’s far from that. He’s a bit of a scoundrel, in fact. But you can’t help but love him. And after all, his wines. For it’s really impossible to separate the man from his wines.

“Let me know when I can come back to Texas,” he asks me. “In fact let me know when I can come back to Indiana and to Illinois. I can’t just keep coming back to Cleveland, we’ve saturated the place, they’re getting sick of me.” No, Barone, they’re not. But yes, I see how you have the desire and the fire to grow your wines up in other places.

Can you find critical reviews of these wines? Not as easily as some of the other Tuscan wines out there. For the Barone is not one to lick the paws of the journalists. He’s been known to physically “escort” wine writers off the property. And I say good for him, as no winery should be held hostage by any wine writer looking to fill their coffers in exchange for a good review. “Let the wines speak for themselves”, isn’t that what the millennials and the sommelier-set say? If they don’t, I do.

His straight forward Chianti is a steal. Where on earth do you get a wine for $10 with a Barone attached and a good story at that? And the wine is quite drinkable and presentable.

The Riserva, Castello Montespertoli, a 2011, is my favorite. We sold out in 45 minutes on Friday. Good thing I squirreled a few bottles away for the holidays.

And his Vin Santo, good lord, I don’t think there is a better Vin Santo out there. There are comparable ones, yes, but better? No.

“There is only one Vin Santo,” the Barone likes to say. “And it is not dry and it is not sweet. It has high residual sugar, yes. But it must also have high acidity. And it is a money losing position. One must have a large space for the grapes to dry and space like that is expensive. Our old castle has plenty of space, so that’s not a problem. But we never make money on it.”

The Barone claims to be poor, although he has wealth in real estate. But Montespertoli isn’t Montalcino or Bolgheri. The real estate values and the cost and inconvenience of transferring property in Italian bureaucracy, well it’s a bit daunting, even to a Barone. And then there’s the legacy of an ancient castle that has been in the family for many, many generations. At the end, he can’t really sell it so easily. Maybe he could auction off a Michelangelo painting or a Bernini sculpture, but where would he go if he sold his castle?

Look for these wines – they’re not so easy to find in America, but they’re so delicious and so very affordable to those of us who don’t reside within the lofty confines of the ruling class. The Barone is making wine for the people. All the money goes back into the wines or into the care and feeding of the castle. He isn’t getting rich. But he lives a rich life. And you can experience that, like he does, with his wines. Find them, drink them, share them. The Barone will be most grateful. And you will be most thankful.

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