Sunday, January 21, 2018

I Left My Heart in Barbaresco

High on a hill, it calls to me

What is it about a place that marks one’s soul? When a place seems more than recognizable the first time one walks in that place, although one had never been there? And that the spirit of the place infuses upon that soul and being, a sense of belonging, of an intimacy that transcends mere time and place? Such is the effect Barbaresco has had upon me for the greater part of my adult life. And it surprised no one more than myself, this attachment, this passion, for a place and its wine.

My first contact was in an Italian restaurant, Il Sorrento on Turtle Creek Boulevard in Dallas. One of the local distributor bigwigs, Pinky Parrish, was a barrel-chested bourbon loving extrovert. He’d take up a whole dining section with his infectious fervor for food and wine. And he was entertaining a party in my section when he ordered a bottle of wine he’d sold the sommelier, a 1969 Calissano Barbaresco Riserva Speciale.

“Take a taste,” he prompted this shy 28-year-old waiter. “You need to know about wine like this.” I couldn’t at the time, as the owner forbid drinking (even tasting) on the job. But he got me a sample later and I tried it at home. It was unlike anything I’d had growing up in California. And it was the start of a long journey, and a love affair, with a wine that I’m still smitten over.

After I moved on to run a wine bar, I remembered that wine and wanted to put it on the list. the Calissano Barbaresco was no longer available, but their 1970 Barolo Riserva was and I put it on my list, for $12.00. I located another Barbaresco, a 1969 Prunotto Riserva and listed it, for the unbelievable price of $20.00.

What I didn’t know, at the time, was that these were two Barolo producers making Barbaresco. I didn’t know the difference between the two places, Italian wine being a complex study. But I was intrigued with Nebbiolo, and Barbaresco.

After I left the restaurant business I came into contact with the wines of Angelo Gaja. I was newly settled in a position, working for a wholesale distributor in Dallas, Texas. Estrada’s was a small, ramshackle kind of operation, based out of Galveston. Run by two brothers and a sister, George, Al and Pilar, they had impeccable taste in wine. And incredibly bad luck in business. Their portfolio was, at the time, in 1981, worthy of envy. Now, as well. DRC, Heitz, Schramsberg, Vega Sicilia, Dr. Pauly (this was before Thiese and Wiest) and any number of desirable wines from France, Germany, Spain, California and Italy. And we represented Gaja.

At the time, Gaja was relatively unknown. Because of my Italian origins, one of the Estrada’s asked if I would work up a reorder on the Telex machine to Gaja. What followed was an education in negotiation and in wine. For I was clueless as to the status of Gaja and Barbaresco. In truth, we all were. What Angelo was planning was none less than daring and almost inconceivable. And that was to make his wine, Gaja Barbaresco, synonymous in global stature (and value) to the great wines of the world at the time – Lafite, Romanée-Conti, Bernkasteler Doktor, Vega Sicilia.

What struck me, at the time, was how Gaja valued his wine. His Barbera was as expensive as many of the Nebbiolo wines coming out of Piedmont at the time. I didn’t have a great selection at the time, but the standard Barolo (we had Scanavino, which was a low to mid-tier product then) sold for less than his Barbera D’Alba. When I took a look at the price-list for his 1976 Barbaresco (the current offering at the time, which was about $7 a bottle, ex cellars) I was shocked. I didn’t have a base of clients for those wines in Dallas, Texas, in 1981. But we bought them, and we found homes for them. Sometimes we’d have to discount a bit more than we wanted to. Restaurateurs, at the time, were the most intractable. They wanted the cheapest Barolo, Amarone and Chianti they could find. And Barbaresco wasn’t even on their radar.

Gaja was from Barbaresco. Barbaresco was the wine from his village. Yes, he made Barolo. But to him, Barbaresco was the wine that equalized this place (Barbaresco) with some of the great places in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Gaja was very much a champion of égalité for Italian wine – his wines being first and foremost. It was a hard sell, at the time. Now, the wines of Gaja, like the wines of DRC, are all but unobtainable to the unwashed masses. His crusade got him to the mountain top.

As I moved on to another small company, Arwood H. Stowe, to run the Italian wine business for them, the wines of Gaja followed. Dallas in 1982 was flowering into a full-blown love fest with all things shiny and bright. It was a Golden Age for pageantry. And the new wave of Italian restaurateurs, arriving from Milan, Florence, New York and Miami were looking for “Il meglio del meglio.” I got in touch with people like Louis Bonaccolta of Trebon Wine in Flushing, NY, and Dominic Nocerino of Vinifera Imports in Wheaton, Illinois, looking for the best of the best. As well, our company had hooked up with a Florentine Barone, Armando de Rham, who had an Enoteca as well as an import brokerage business.

From Trebon we secured Gaja wine. It was the 1979 Barbaresco at the unheard-of price (then) of $100 – per case (of 12). My boss questioned me about it. “Look, we’re offering 1964 Salon and 1966 Margaux, 1935 Taylor Port, and 1889 Tokaji Essencia and 1959 Lafite. By comparison, Gaja is a bargain!” I know Angelo Gaja would have rebuked me for using that word, it was so against the grain of his ego. But I was in the trenches in Dallas, not New York, and I had to find an angle to keep bringing his wines into my city.

As well, from Dominic Nocerino, we had the wines of Bruno Giacosa with Barbaresco offerings from 1971 (Santo Stefano Riserva), 1979 (Gallina di Neive Riserva) and 1978 (Santo Stefano Riserva). These were comparably priced with Gaja. And equally world-class.

From Armando de Rham, we had the wines of Pietro Berutti, La Spinona. His 1975 Barbaresco, Bricco Faset Riserva, we could sell for considerably less than what we bought the Gaja or the Giacosa for. I thought of them as entry-level for the hard-liners, who still hadn’t bought into the égalité mantra. And we had older vintages, including magnums of the 1971 Riserva, that we could sell to the trade for $50! Mind you, I had yet to step on soil in Piedmont. But I was getting the fever, real fast.

When I did go, in the Spring of 1984, it was unlike anything I had ever seen in my earlier trip to Italy. Yes, I’d been to Tuscany and spent a bit of time there, as well as Rome and southern Italy. But there was something familiar about this place, Barbaresco, as if I had a memory of the place. Even though I hadn’t ever been there until 1984.

So here I was, on a little road that leads into the town, surrounded by localities and vineyards with names like Asili, Moccagatta and Rabaja. I was hooked. I remember taking a walk into town, needing to stretch my legs after a long lunch. I walked into the center of the town and saw the tower, the church and a winery, Produttori del Barbaresco. I walked inside where there was a counter and what looked like a provisional tasting setup. Most of the folks were home at lunch, or napping, and my cohort, an Italian, indicated that we could taste on our own, that the folks here wouldn’t mind. That was Barbaresco in 1984 - sleepy, without pretension, innocent. Wonderful. I still dream about that day.

And my love affair with Barbaresco blossomed.

I came home and proceeded over the years to represent any number of producers. But those four – Gaja, Giacosa, La Spinona and Produttori – set my heart in the direction of this little village. Barbaresco is my Mecca. I am unabashedly as head over heels about the place, the people and the wines, as I was when I first walked into it in 1984. I still recognize the place from my youth. Who can say that about one’s home town, or any number of places on the wine trail? Napa? The Napa Valley I first met in the early 1970’s only exists in my memories. Bordeaux? Have you been there lately? It’s all grown up. But there’s something about Barbaresco that still retains that small-town feeling, that feeling that the world, while it has changed hasn’t gone inexorably off the cliff, like so many places on earth seem, these days.

And the wines.

Since those early days, I’ve developed business and personal relationships with wineries like Produttori del Barbaresco, Giuseppe Cortese,  Marchesi di Grésy, La Ca Nova, Ceretto, Bruno Rocca and Carlo Boffa. I’m nowhere near the expert on the subject. But Barbaresco has a lifelong grip on me. I have an almost embarrassing overabundance of Barbaresco in my personal stockpile, to the detriment of other Italian wines, and without regards to maintaining a proper balance in such matters. But in affairs of the heart, whenever has balance been the key factor?

One thing is certain – I’ll always know where I left my heart – if ever I should wonder.

In memory of Bruno Giacosa -  Buon Anima

Further reading listening - Aldo Vacca on Barbaresco [Highly Recommended]

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

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