I took a degree in Pharmacy to keep my family happy, and when I was 23 years old I was working behind the counter at the Farmacia Pontoni e Bassi in Gorizia, which was owned by my mother, Thea, who, when she got annoyed, used to fire me. When, on the 23rd July 1981 my father, Giuseppe, died (he was known as Beppino to his friends and The Italian to his fellow townsfolk as he was from Emilia) my mother, in order to organize the upcoming grape harvest, ordered me to go to my dad’s little smallholding of less than three hectares of vineyard. This was through necessity, seeing as I was the only one in the family who was capable of doing it, and she was probably ignoring the fact that I was likely to enjoy making wine much more anyway.
Once the harvest was over, I took a weekend off to relax with Fulvia, who at the time was my fiancée and who is now my wife. I thought it best to tell my mum about this from a phone box on the motorway – at the time there were no mobile phones – and she immediately demanded that I return because on the Saturday and Sunday we had to do the inventory. I refused and so she fired me for the fifth - and final – time. It was thus that I found myself permanently ensconced “de facto” among the vines and the old farm buildings which had belonged to my father. Naturally, my mother didn’t take the whole thing seriously, used as she was to bringing me back to the company fold after a few days of leave; it was only a few weeks later that she began to be seriously concerned. So, hoping to find some legal technicality that would wrench me back out of my new vocation, she turned to her trusted lawyer, Count Formentini, himself also a farmer and wine grower in San Floriano del Collio. He warmed to my idea to such an extent that he rapidly turned out to be a great fan of mine. When she had stepped over the threshold of the legal practice, she would never have expected to be leaving with a draft rental contract which leant heavily in my favour, and which legitimized my new and unexpected position. With hindsight, I really don’t think I was cut out to be a pharmacist, having always needed to dream and to build things up, and at the same time to have my future mapped out with realistic, new and ever more interesting plans to get my teeth into. Some time ago I came across a quotation by Antoine de Sain-Exupéry, the famous aviator and writer, whose words best express the way I feel:
The land gives us, for our part, more lessons than any books. Because it offers resistance. When pitting himself against an obstacle, man discovers himself. (…) The farmer, when ploughing, draws out, bit by bit, certain secrets from nature, and the truth he uncovers is universal.
And that is how it has been for me. Consequently the learning process that over the years has led me to taking important decisions which have influenced the character of my wines has been rather unusual. Being neither an enologist nor an agronomist, but having in any case studied both chemistry and biology and the basics of enology and viticulture, I have forged on without any ready-made formula for making good wine, and have therefore had to make things up as I went along.
Often, during those early times, I had to discover already known stuff for myself. Like in 1982 when, in order to improve my Merlot, I invented the salasso or saignée technique, where you remove part of the must from the vat to increase the ratio between skins and wine to obtain more colour and more taste. At the time it seemed to me to be a brilliant chemical-geometrical insight, but was in reality a technique which in fact had already been invented, going back perhaps even to the time of Pliny the Elder. Or again when I effectively invented the first double Guyot on the Collio; no-one had ever done that before. Some years later, in other locations, I came across endless expanses of vineyards using this technique. So, I began to think that it might be useful for me to study French so that I could get into their literature and discover similarly enlightening and ingenious practices. So it was that one Christmas I was working my way through an intensive audiovisual French course on cassettes lent to me by a neighbour, and by Epiphany I had only one more volume to go out of four. The first three had already been sufficient to permit me to greatly enjoy François Champagnol’s Elements de physiologie de la vigne. I believe that reading that book was one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of my life. As I gradually took in the terse content of the text, the mental images that I had randomly and sporadically built up over the previous years as a winemaker came together in a logical narrative, where certain of my intuitions were confirmed, many of my doubts found an explanation and even some of my rather modest empirical “inventions” gained a degree of scientific credibility.
Going back to the inventions, some, perhaps minor, were accredited to me. In fact there are some who maintain that I invented the dining Tocai, meaning an elegant wine which can be matched with fine foods. In actual fact, when I started out, Tocai was, when not insipid, a rough, heavy-going wine. And I made Tocai almost exclusively, not because I was caught up in some ideological madness for – these days highly fashionable - local vines (is Tocai really indigenous?… and what does indigenous actually mean?) but through necessity, as those were the vines I had to work with. Still fresh with my recollections of botanical pharmacy (my degree dissertation was about hellebores) which says that the older plants would produce more powerfully charged material (from an aromatic and pharmacological point of view, naturally), I simply decided not to tear them out, on the condition that I create a good wine. The enologists of the time were of the German school of thought, studied De Rosa, attended Muller-Spath conferences and bought Seitz machinery. The Germans were horrified by the idea of low-acidity wines, and the Tocai then had really low acidity. In an attempt to rectify this, the enologists harvested early, but the Tocai they obtained with unripe grapes had no flavour at all.
Those who used the old methods crushed the grapes too much and the wine resulted as flat and heavy. I, instead, borrowing heavily from the Champagne method, began to press fully ripe grapes softly, and obtained a wine which was both powerful and soft; 1982 saw my first Ronco della Chiesa.
I believe that in effect, the path I have followed has left its mark on the character of my wines which have, according to many, their own maker’s trademark. Over the last twenty years I have transformed, studied and debunked certain common beliefs and have also overcome - while allowing plenty of room for the sacrilegious power of empirical observation – some of my own personal taboos. I have observed, researched and innovated in the face of hypocrisy and prejudice. Often, however, while doing this I have unwittingly renewed ties with ways of the past which were interrupted by a modernity which had lost all sense and memory. It was probably my unorthodox approach to the world of wine which has guided my choices, meaning this also to include my checkered educational history; I was at the same time a child of scientific teachings and an orphan of technology. This has taught me to take absolutely nothing for granted, and the words of Galileo, which accompany me wherever I go, have taught me to be humble when facing all situations, and to be dignified when dealing with people.
Brazzano, 18 ottobre 2004