Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Franco Ziliani is one of Italy's most respected and widely read wine writers. Known as "il franco tiratore" (the Straightshooter), he combines encyclopedic knowledge with trenchant commentary. With his permission I have translated this article from his recent blog entry on Virgilio. If you feel moved to make your own comment, send it to him at this site. His English is excellent. I have just come back from four intense days in the magnificent Barolo area, and I have a great deal to share with you--impressions, emotions, states of mind. To travel at this time of the year around Barolo and neighboring towns such as La Morra, Monforte d'Alba, Castiglione Falletto, Verduno and other wine-making communities is wonderful. As it is to meet with many of the key wine people, especially the producers who are well-known, and the others who are more locally renowned. It's given me another glimpse at the things that make Barolo unique, and it's shown me the region at a crucial stage in its existence. This is a particularly delicate time in the Barolo region, which is riven by a sense of crisis and self-examination. Dreams and nightmares abound. To better understand what's actually happening, I'll engage the help of Nico Orengo, author of a recent, wonderful novel entitled Di viole e liquirizia (Of Violets and Liquorice, a perfect Barolo title if there ever was one). Set in and around Alba, it provides a lucid, critical look at what's happened there over the past fifteen years: the mistakes, the lack of strategic vision, the killing ingenuousness. In the novel, Orengo uses a taxi driver as a mouthpiece and narrator, a critical conscience who asks: "Want to buy a vineyard? You can't buy anything anymore. Nobody's selling. If you got land, you hold onto it. The last bunch that sold it, back in the Seventies, to go to work at Fiat in Turin, they got 17 million a hectare. Now you can get seven, eight hundred million lire a hectare. Look around: they're all millionaires now. Well, as long as it lasts..." It didn't last. And not just because, as Orengo writes, "we've become the Ferrari of wine--and the Ford." Or because "everything here in the Langhe is invented--we've always invented. We created ourselves a paradise for vineyards and wine tourists," where people are dominated by an unexamined, grandiose "rhetoric of wine." Above all, in Orengo's novel, things have changed there because "people don't look you in the eye," and "what really matters is your [wine] portfolio," and "there aren't any fruit trees--all the orchards were cut down to make room for more vineyards, hillside after hillside of them, all the same," so that the very landscape has been stripped of memories and it "seems like we were all born lords of the manor ever since, some time, this land lost its memory of its old hardships." The transformation of the Langhe has been complete, according to this author. "The old peasant ways are gone, with a few rare exceptions. The rest is all chemicals and machinery, hand in glove with oenologists, technicians, PR hacks, and international sales reps," all of which together have "made the wine into an industry, like manufacturing sports cars," with its new-style people and a new economic paradigm. In light of these enormous changes, it's easier to understand how, in 2005, Barolo is in trouble. This despite an unprecedented parade of stunning vintages in the 1990s, and an international reputation that's never been more illustrious. Some of the mistakes people there have made can be attributed to the simple fact that they weren't used to success, to vast amounts of money. It's understandable that they've become a bit engorged with it. But there is another reason Barolo has lost its way: gone are the great leaders who once had the integrity and strength to guide the region, such as the Ratti family, who were able to rise above mere self-interest; and the Consorzio Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe Roero, which would have condemned the suicidal rush to plant more and more vines, to produce more and more bottles, and increase prices year after stellar year. "As long as it lasts," indeed. The Consorzio might have acted as a brake on those who have tried (and succeeded) to alter the style and identity of the wine, all to please the overseas wine writers and importers. Today, after the first great euphoria and the illusion that the golden years of growth were endless, the world of Barolo is back to its old fear and uncertainty. The cellars are full to bursting with unsold wine, business has shifted to low gear...and the investors still want their pay-out. No wonder there's a certain lack of enthusiasm among the region's players regarding the future of their lands and the denomination, along with a fear that their lovely toy just might be broken. To put it another way, there's a sense that the unique and beautiful wine of Barolo could be replaced by other wines that are somehow better able to stand up to the brutal winds sweeping every market. There are plenty of doubts, too, in the producers' minds. They wonder if they will be able to find a market for their 2002, a vintage that's wrongly been talked down. This in spite of their experiments and costly investments to appeal to a global market--often aided and abetted in this by a smarmy and uncritical wine press. Many questions remain. One thing is certain: the indisputable greatness of many of these wines. (I tasted two extraordinary ones at the marvelous new restaurant in Alba, Piazza Duomo: Barolo Bricco Rocche Ceretto 1990 and 1982.) The fascination of these wines seems to come right out of the air, the bewitching air of these bricchi (hilltops) and sori` (slopes), where, despite all the changes, things seem to become as they were in certain magical moments. How can you not feel a powerful attraction to these lands, these hills and hills of vineyards where, Orengo writes, in winter "the mist rises and everything comes to a halt but the damp: a spider's web of water drops glimmers everywhere you look and it seems as though you're inside a giant chandelier. No sound but some branch that somehow finds the strength to break itself in two or some stone splits in the frost. The frost paves the roads and as you travel down them you feel as if you're on the keyboard of an out-of-tune piano."