Sunday, January 28, 2018

Italy’s Unsung Heroes Series – Giuliano Noé

An influencer behind the influencers

The story I am about to tell you doesn’t have anything to do with words or language. Which is odd, because here I am, using words and language. Well, let’s just say this story cannot be limited by words or language, that they are a jumping off ground. An attempt to explain the unexplainable.

I was sitting at a table last fall, in Piedmont, for a symposium on Barbera d’Asti, commemorating the 30th anniversary of Vinchio - Vaglio Serra’s flagship wine, Vigne Vecchie, a Barbera d’Asti DOCG. This last sentence might not mean much to you, dear reader, but to the thousands of souls who have put their life’s work into their soil, and to have it produce, with the help of God, grapes that have been destined to go into such a wine, a Barbera, it is the apotheosis of what almost every winemaker in Italy has been striving for since the end of World War II. I don’t say that lightly.

It all hit me sitting at that table, glasses of the Vigne Vecchie Barbera lined across my place setting, stretching back to 1987. Barbera, not Barolo, nor Barbaresco. Not a Nebbiolo wine, a Barbera.

And so, when I saw at a nearby table, an older gentleman, sitting in front of his array of glasses, as if he were preparing for Sunday Communion, it all hit me, right then.

Because I am a visual person, we exchanged nary more than a sentence or two of polite pleasantries, in Italian, right to the polar limits of my verbal skills. And as I have said, more than once on these virtual pages, there is so much more to communication than mere words. So, I observed him.

He was one of the pilgrims that were sent from the past, to bring Italian wine into the future. The man behind the curtain, the one who influences the influencers.

Simple as that. No words needed, with or without vowels. No translation needed either. It emanated from him like the aurora borealis. I had to know this man’s story, as it was likely emblematic of the story of Italian wine. Over the next day or so I continued to observe, taste and look at the way people around him regarded him. He was a mage, one of those souls that have been around for aeons. He didn’t make a splash as he jumped from the high dive.

All the time, while I’m wondering, one of the most defining elements of his life’s work was standing there, right in front of me, waiting for me to shut down the squawking little monkeys in my brain, the answer was right in front of me. The Barbera.

And not only the Barbera, but the history of wine in the last 70 years. Going from a liquid that many used to supplement their diet, perhaps a bit rough around the edges, but wine. Alcohol, fruit, and whatever else goes into it. Water, of course. Sustenance in times of lean and sublime in times of plenty. Complex, but not complicated.

Old magazines tell stories about Italian (men) in the 1950’s and 1960’s who drank, on average, 1.5 liters of wine a day. Barbera was a workhorse wine. And like so many things in Italy in those days, people just didn’t give thought to elevating everyday things. They were struggling to just find enough everyday things to get through the day. Giuliano was a young man in the 1950’s (born in 1935), had seen the hardship of war, had some of his childhood taken by it, and entered adulthood in an Italy that had been destroyed by war.

As I observed him at the table, I saw a man of resilience. Not just a survivor, but with a soul that didn’t forget his childlike curiosity. And also, a man with a purpose, a mission.

Again, words fail me. How many times I have seen men and women, who have had this “idea,” this notion of something that didn’t yet exist. An inspiration to create something, something better.

His life intersected with people like Giacomo Bologna and Bruno Giacosa. It was Giacosa who met Dante Scaglione in Noé’s enology lab. Scaglione went on to become Giacosa’s assistant and winemaker, making some of the greatest wines in Italy.

But it was always this Barbera that he kept coming back to. How to make the world take notice? Giacomo Bologna was getting the world’s attention, and wineries like Bersano were investing heavily in uplifting the image of Barbera. And Noé started working with the large collective of growers, Vinchio-Vaglio Serra, with his sights set on making the flood of Barbera coming online more than just a consumable. A wine that people can enjoy every day, but not an everyday wine. Does that make sense?

Noé isn’t a Tachis. He wasn’t shooting for the sun. He is another kind of hero – one with his feet on the ground. Yes, they call him the father of Barbera, one who makes the Mother of all Barberas. Ok, let’s give that to him. How many people can say they have done something that important for Italy, for wine, for humanity? But I don’t think the man himself while he might be honored, it wasn’t why he took that first step, some 60+ years ago, to this point.

What I saw, and felt, and imagined, was that this was a man who at the beginning of his life wanted to explore his instinctive inquisitiveness and apply it scientifically, to leave a better world than the one he found himself in. I think he did. And because of it, Italy and the world, is better off.

Want to know more about Giuliano Noé? - In his own words

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1 comment:

Darius Liddell said...

Hope I learn enough Italian soon to listen to his words on Granai della Memoria. Speaking of italian people who basically breathe wine, I keep going back (again and again) to Veronelli and his life. I'm hoping for one day to read a biography of him (because a memoir is out of our reach). His politics, about food and people and justice, is super inspiring.

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