Sunday, December 04, 2016

Bruno Giacosa Retrospective - A Life in Wine

Bruna (L) and Bruno (R) Giacosa, the oracle of Neive, in 2004
Bruno Giacosa has spent a lifetime making great wine. Like the fog that cloaks the many hills of the Langhe, to many he is shrouded in an enigmatic blanket: cryptic, recondite, even Delphian. Impenetrable, to us mere mortals. Mr. Giacosa is a man who talks with his wine, a brujo of Barolo and Barbaresco. Why should we expect any explanation or commentary from him? Are the wines not enough? Does a Rembrandt or a Mozart require a labyrinth of interpretation for their life’s work? Some would say, yes, and there are all manner of academic and commercial industries that have sprung up in service of such explanations. But I think we would be disappointed should we expect this master of Nebbiolo to take the stand in his defense. The wines are – and they stand vigil for him and the energy of his life, which we can experience and enjoy, drop by drop.

Finding these wines, today, is a different story than it was many years ago. My first encounter with the wines of Bruno Giacosa arrived through his then importer Vinifera. Dominic Nocerino brought them in, and there were fans scattered across the country. But the cult of the winemaker, especially those from the Langhe, had not yet been exalted, as it is today. Not that souls like Bruno Giacosa shouldn't be revered for his stalwart fixation on tradition. It was what he knew. It is who he is. And it is not always the easy path. But when one tastes through a series of his wines, be they vertical or hodge-podge horizontals, the story comes out in shades of red.

And so it was recently, on a cold, clammy night in Napa Valley, where thirteen of us, winemakers, merchants and devotees of Nebbiolo, sat at a table and delved into the vinous life of the oracle of Neive.

It’s important to note that Bruno Giacosa is not from Barolo. Neive is in the heart of Barbaresco country. Why is this significant? We might look at the Langhe from a distant hill, and it could appear to simply be a localit√†, a dot on the earth. And in terms of the scale of the universe, it is. But in the 1950’s or 1960’s if you lived in Neive and went to Serralunga, you might as well have been from Jupiter. The language was different; the customs were not the same. Italy had recently been “united” as a country, and then two world wars hit the region. The place was an economic graveyard. There was no infrastructure. Hell, there weren’t even that many paved roads. It was rural, agrarian and a bit of a closed society. The youth, those who had survived the war, were heading to Torino for factory jobs with Fiat. It wouldn’t be until the 21st century when people would return to the villages and start repopulating them again. Winemaking wasn’t sexy and glamorous. It was hard work.

Bruno Giacosa's neighbor across the street in Neive was Romano Levi
Winemaking in the Langhe was traditional, but around the 1980’s outside influences started to creep in. Some of the new practices were needed, but if you have ever spent time with anyone from Piemonte, they can be a little wary of change. After all, they saw how change pillaged and plundered their villages one by one, between war and industrialization. So they were slow to embrace innovation.

The good news is that someone like Bruno Giacosa kept on course, through most of his winemaking life, to create wines that now young (and old) wine lovers clamor for. And rightfully so. The wines, though not brash and glitzy, are deep and soulful. I think Bruno Giacosa and his team have set, for the most part, their own personalities aside and bowed to the greater voice, that of the Langhe. Be it Barbaresco or nearby Barolo, the wines have a thread of territoriality that ring out as true and heraldic.

For our repast, our hosts, Jason and Sarah Heller assembled a menu and collection of wine (with a lot of help from Dan Petroski) to accompany pasta and truffles and other traditional Piemontese foods. It was all too lovely, to have an array of historic wines and food to go with it. Along with that, a table of engaged wine professionals, to talk about the wine. It was why I got into this business on the first place.

 ♫ It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas ♫
The wines were in flights. Jason Heller, a master sommelier in his own right, provided us with the list of wines. We started with the 2007 Bruno Giacosa Spumante Extra Brut alongside the 2015 Arneis. As well a few Champagnes and California wines, from our winemaker and wine merchant colleagues, popped up.

Sitting down we started with a 1989 alongside a 1998 Barbera D’Alba.

Then we went to:

Barolo Falletto Cru
• 1995 Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 1996 Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 1997 Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 1998 Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba

Barolo Falletto Cru (w/one Barbaresco red, or “brick,” label)
• 1999 Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 2000 Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 2001 Barolo Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 2001 Barbaresco Rabaja di Barbaresco Riserva (red label)

Barbaresco Riserva (red, or “brick,” label)
• 1996 Barbaresco Asili di Barbaresco Riserva
• 2000 Barbaresco Asili di Barbaresco Riserva
• 2007 Barbaresco Asili di Barbaresco Riserva
• 2011 Barbaresco Asili di Barbaresco Riserva

Barolo Riserva (red, or “brick,” label)
• 2000 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 2001 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 2007 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba
• 2008 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba

20 wines in all.

Christopher Hoel, French Laundry sommelier
turned Wine Advisor to the stars in LA
Suffice to say, I went to the heart of Cabernet country, Napa Valley, to dine on truffles and tajarin and carne cruda and sip and reflect on this great lineup of wines from the other side of the world, with winemakers young and old, and industry professionals. I am saying this because, like Bordeaux, like Alba, like many wine centers in the world, the pursuit and enjoyment of wines from elsewhere offer a gateway in to the soul of the wine business. This is why many of us stay in it. And thanks to people like Bruno Giacosa, who have given their life over to this world, and share it with strangers on the other side of the world. Can I be allowed to say this is a small miracle in today’s upturned world?

I had my favorites in the wine lineup. I kept going back to the 1997 Barolo Falletto. I thought it was a very sexy wine, which had a backbone indicating many more years of pleasure to come from this wine. I found the 2001 Barolo Falletto to be tight and savory. I imagined the goings on in the vineyard, which at the time, the whole world was reeling from 9/11.

Notes from Guy Stout, MS, in 2004 when we tasted the 2000's at Giacosa
Oddly, I was more drawn to his Barolo than Barbaresco. And I am first a lover of Barbaresco. Maybe Bruno’s “outsider” approach to Barolo resonates with me. Again his 2001 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto “Red Label” Riserva hit the mark with me. In reality, most of the wines would have made a great meal on their own, so excuse me if I sound like I’m splitting hairs here. If there was an off wine or two (the 1999 Barolo Falletto had an odd peach aspect to it, coupled with a tannic tightness.- It could have been a bottle in shock? The 2001 Barbaresco Rabaja had, for me, an odd, funky tomato jelly side to it that I cannot recall ever having tasted in Barbaresco – still, I’m splitting hairs here).

L to R Barrett Anderson, T.J. Shushereba, Mark Porembski, Cameron Hobel,
Dan Petroski(hidden), Steve Matthiasson, Tegan Passalacqua-pouring
One note: When the winemakers were describing the wines, the term VA, kept coming up. Tegan Passalacqua noted it more than Dan Petroski or Steve Matthiasson, and they weren’t the only winemakers in the group. But it gave me pause, because I have encountered this when tasting with other winemakers. Notably with Carol Shelton. I am not as attuned VA (volatile acidity) or even “brett” (brettanomyces) as some of my California winemaker friends. Perhaps that is because they are constantly tasting and analyzing. Or perhaps there are those who drink and enjoy European wines with a little more of those than might be acceptable for a winemaker, who is looking to make a product that steers away from what could be a controversial element in a wine that is produced and sold to the public. Not that Italian wine gets a pass if they have VA or brett. But I have tasted enough wines now to know that there are elevated levels of VA in Italian wines, often. Not as much as 20 years ago. But I am not put off by a little of the “spice” of VA or even brett. I admit I might not be in the norm, but it adds a dimension. So when the winemakers were talking about the VA in Giacosa, I wanted to break out a bottle of Primitivo from Savese or Nero d’Avola from La Lumia and say to them, “This is VA, guys! Giacosa? He's got nothing on the Southerner’s, my friends.” But that is just a sidebar to all of the great, warm, collegial discourse we shared around the Heller’s table. Really a wonderful night, with a great group of folks.

California is in a unique place in our American landscape right now. It is a powerful country of its own, and many of the people in California feel marginalized in terms of the ascending political landscape. So be it, this is what democracy looks like. What we do as Americans is to rise above it. I, for one, was so touched by a room full of my American brothers and sisters, gathering together, civilly and with such unbridled enthusiasm for red wine from Italy. In Napa Valley! The judgement of 1976 was 40 years ago, when I drove my little Falcon wagon up and down Highway 29. And here we are 40 years later, with winemakers and members of the trade, and huge influencers in the world of wine in America at this table. And they are digging in to Nebbiolo, unmasking the fog, from one who not only is great now, but who will be seen in history as one who took the Langhe by his hand and led it into the daylight. Thank you, Bruno Giacosa.

Thanks to Jason and Sarah Heller for opening up their home and their hearth. To Dan Petroski for lining this up. To Brennan Anderson, who works with Giacosa’s current importer, Folio, and providing notes and commentary. To Bob Bressler, who like Obi Wan, probably did more to get some of those wines in the room than he would ever let on. And forgive me if I forgot anyone else who provided wine and food for one of the most interesting tastings this year in a most peaceful and collegial environment - this is why I am a slave to the wine gods. Thank you all.

• Bob Bressler - winemaker
• Christopher Hoel – advanced sommelier, wine trade
• Brennan Anderson - wine trade,
• Barrett Anderson- winemaker
• T.J. Shushereba – wine trade
• Mark Porembski - winemaker
• Cameron Hobel – wine trade
• Dan Petroski - winemaker
• Steve Matthiasson - winemaker
• Tegan Passalacqua - winemaker
• Alfonso Cevola - wine trade, writer
• Jason Heller – master sommelier , wine trade
• Sarah Heller – chef, host
• Dandridge Marsh - wine trade

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
Real Time Analytics