Soldera: Rorschach & (probable) resolution

soldera criminal

Above: I took this photo of sunset over Soldera’s Case Basse estate in 2010.

Nearly two weeks after more than 60,000 liters of wines were destroyed in an act of vandalism at the Soldera Case Basseestate in Montalcino, Italian wine industry observers generally concur that the atrocious and senseless crime cannot be attributed to organized crime. The theory that it was an act of retribution for the 2008 Brunellopoli controversy, believed by some to have been sparked by Gianfranco Soldera, has also been discounted by Montalcino insiders.

This week, leading Italian wine blogger Franco Ziliani quoted a private message sent to him by lawyer Bernardo Losappio, who represents many Montalcino wineries and winemakers.

“I am certain,” wrote Losappio, “that the author of the crime will be sought among persons with whom Case Basse has had private relations” and not among “external” actors.

gianfranco soldera montalcino

Above: Soldera (left) with chef Roberto Rossi in 2010.

In an article published online this week by Panorama (a leading weekly), author Gianmaria Padovani, whose family makes wine in Montalcino, noted that the crime is not being investigated by an “antimafia” investigator. This fact, he writes, precludes a “mafia connection.”

In my personal email exchanges with persons on the ground in Montalcino this week, everyone of my friends and colleagues has expressed the belief that it was an ex-employee of Case Basse who committed the crime.

Many have written that it’s only a matter of days before the case is solved.

One thing is certain: this act of heinous vandalism and “intimidation,” as Soldera has called it, has prompted a collective gasp of disbelief and horror that stretches across the world.

As in a Rorschach test, every subject has reacted differently: many saw the hand of organized crime, some called it an act of retribution by “big” wine, and others simply expressed their inability to wrap their minds around this atrocious act of violence.

Our morbid fascination with this episode surely reflects the role that wine plays in contemporary bourgeois society as an emblem of wealth, luxury, and power. Nearly two weeks after news of the crime spread through the internets, we have observed how the power to destroy wine — an act that took just a few minutes — is almost as enthralling as the power to produce it. And we continue to be nonplussed by the disparity between the energy expended to make this wine (six vintages of maniacally cultivated fruit and meticulously vinified wine) and the energy employed to destroy it.

In other news…

This week, the Case Basse winery declined an offer by the Brunello producers association who had called for donations of wine to be given to the Soldera family to use at its discretion. In a statement, published online (and reposted by Franco Ziliani), Soldera thanked the consortium for its solidarity but proposed that the wine be given to the Universities of Siena and Florence for research.

The winery also announced that it is suspending sales of its 2006 Brunello di Montalcino in order to discourage “speculation” in pricing. On the popular Italian wine blog Lavinium, leading wine writer Roberto Giuliani reported today that an Italian wine shop was selling the 2006 for Euro 4,500.

The world according to Soldera

Above: Gianfranco Soldera, legendary, enigmatic, and paradigmatic winemaker, a Trevisan farmer turned Milanese industrialist turned Montalcinese winemaker.

Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to be invited to visit Gianfranco Soldera’s estate, Case Basse, in the southwestern subzone of the Brunello appellation will surely share my impression that his winery, vineyards, and contiguous botanical garden come together to form what is undeniably one of the most impressive estates in the world.

When he began looking for an estate to purchase in the early 1970s, the Piedmontese wouldn’t sell him a decent plot of land, he told me the other day when we visited. So he decided to to buy a parcel in Montalcino on the advice of a friend who had told him you could pick up a piece of land there for a boccon di pan, a mouthful of bread, in those days.

Above: The botanical gardens at Soldera’s Case Basse include a swamp (to create a maritime influence) and a white flower garden (to encourage nighttime pollination). “Ah, the white flower garden,” remembered wistfully my friend Dr. Lawrence O, the other day when he spied my visit on Facebook. Lawrence has visited there, of course.

When you talk to winemakers in Langa (Piedmont), many of the current generation still look to Soldera as a doktorvater (like Beppe Rinaldi, who told me that he often seeks advice and guidance from Soldera when the elder visits Barolo).

In many ways, it’s as if Soldera, when faced with the fact that he couldn’t make wine in Piedmont where he so obstinately desired to do so, decided to construct his own microclimate within the Brunello macroclimate. As he explains very openly, the remarkable botanical garden on his property (manicured by his wife) creates a unique ecological balance of plant and swamp life, including the “white flower garden,” so famous among wine insiders, intended to encourage pollination at night because the bright peddles attract the insects in darkness.

Above: “You find no vineyards with larger berries nor smaller clusters,” said Soldera proudly of his fruit. The attention to detail in his vineyard management is truly stunning.

Soldera has famously stated that he makes “natural wine.” Whether or not that’s the case is something I’ll leave that to the experts in the thorny field. He does seem to meet all the card-carrying members’s requirements: manual vineyard management, no chemicals in the vineyards, ambient yeasts in the cellar, no temperature control, lowest possible sulfuring. While I was in his presence a few weeks ago, he scolded one very famous winemaker in absentia for using cement vats for vinification, noting that wood is the natural vessel for winemaking. He also scolded another very famous winemaker for suggesting that it was okay to use a starter yeast when he had trouble initiating fermentation in his cellar.

But is it natural, I wonder, to build a botanical garden using mountains of manure (however organically prepared) in a place abandoned by sharecroppers because nothing would grow there anymore? I’ve leave that one to the exegetic forces of the rebbes and erstwhile Talmudic scholars in our field.

One thing we can all seem to agree on is that his wines are among the best in the world (and accordingly priced). I had the good fortune to taste the 2008 (extremely good) and 2006 (exceptional vintage, one of the best I’ve ever tasted) out of cask with him in the cellar. And at dinner we drank the 2003: an infamously and remarkably difficult vintage for any winemaker in Italy yet a harvest for which Soldera delivered lip-smacking acidity and gorgeously nuanced fruit aromas and flavors in his Sangiovese. These wines are simply life-changing, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring… It’s true…

Above: Soldera with Roberto Rossi, chef/owner of Il Silene, arguably the best restaurant in southern Tuscany. The drive up to Seggiano is worth it if only to taste Roberto’s olive oil. The food and service were amazing.

Anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to be invited to visit Gianfranco Soldera’s estate, Case Basse, will tell you that Soldera keeps no secrets and he liberally shares his often salty opinions with those whom have been invited for an audience. (You’ll be surprised to find out that he has a website.)

Our conversation spanned many generations of Italian winemaking the other day when I visited him and you can imagine the controversial topics we covered. But the thing that stuck with me was what he said when I asked him what he saw for the future of winemaking in Italy.

“Commercial winemaking has come to an end in Italy,” he said referring to the recent Brunello controversy and rumors that the historic Barbi estate has plans to sell its property to Italian wine behemoth Zonin. “The nature of Italy cannot support industrial farming and commercial winemaking has run its course historically,” he told me. However many grains of salt there may be in the world according to Soldera, there’s certainly a grain of truth in this morsel of wisdom.

Above: Sunset at the Case Basse estate.

Another winemaker told me the same thing later on in my trip. Stay tuned to find out which one…

Soldera 03 Riserva and dinner at Il Silene

Had the opportunity to chat and to taste some amazing wines with Gianfranco Soldera yesterday (but more on that later) and then was treated to dinner at what many consider the best restaurant in this neck of the Tuscan woods, Il Silene. Utterly delicious all around and a truly remarkable pairing (especially considering the balance in the wine from the otherwise-difficult-to-tame 2003 vintage).

That’s chef Roberto Rossi’s snail and vegetable soup paired with 2003 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.

That’s Chef Rossi’s tagliatelle al ragù (evidently Soldera had eaten there at lunch as well yesterday, making the 1-hour drive 4 times in one day just to dine there!). Fantastic wines, stupendous dinner…

Posting in a hurry as sunlight, landscape, vines, and my camera have a date this morning… then to lunch with friends…

Suckling and Soldera on the Tuscan wine scandals

case basse

Above: One of the great maestri of Brunello Gianfranco Soldera and I tasted his wines together in September 2008 at his winery Case Basse in Montalcino (before Tracie B convinced me to go back to my au naturel hair style!). Photo by Ben Shapiro.

In an hour-long documentary on the Orcia River Valley, recently aired on the national-television Sunday show Linea Verde (it’s worth watching the show, even if you don’t understand Italian, if only for the cinematic beauty of the Val d’Orcia), the presenter asked Brunello maestro Gianfranco Soldera to share his impressions of the recent controversy in Montalcino regarding producers who allegedly added disallowed grape varieties to their Brunello (which, by law, must be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes).

“Luckily,” Soldera said, “the [Italian] treasury, the magistrate, and the anti-adulteration department did a great job in their investigation and they found some big problems. Millions of liters of wine were declassified in order to protect consumers and those producers who have always used only Sangiovese, as required by law, because this is what needed to be done.” Even though the quantity of wine declassified was significant, he noted, “only a handful of wineries” were implicated in the investigation. (The segment on Soldera appears at the end of the show and it is the only occasion that I know where the general public has been allowed to view Soldera’s “secret garden.” Definitely worth viewing.)

wine spectator

Above: The clairvoyant Swami shared his wine predictions for 2010, including a real whopper for Tuscany.

A week or so earlier, one of America’s premier wine writers, a world-renowned expert on Italian wine, and a resident and champion of Tuscany and its wines, the inimitable James Suckling published his predictions for the year in wine 2010 on his blog, including, this ominous premonition for Tuscany: “Tuscany will be embroiled in another wine witch hunt with the magistrate of Siena along the lines of a similar debacle in Montalcino over the past two years.”

This morning, I couldn’t help but share Franco’s indignation at Suckling’s admittedly “less than earth-shattering” prediction, expressed in a post entitled, American Wine Writers: Luckily they’re not all like James Suckling.

However ugly the recent controversy in Tuscany, it “needed to be done,” as Soldera pointed out. Everyone I’ve spoken to there (except for those implicated in the investigation) seems to share Soldera’s opinion.

Of all the things to predict for Tuscany in 2010 (eclipsing the rest of Italy, btw), how about something like this?

1) The Val d’Orcia DOC will emerge as one of the coolest new expressions of Sangiovese.

2) Tastings of the 2007 harvest will reveal that Tuscany was blessed with one of the better vintages in recent memory.

3) The high-cost of barrique and the emerging trend against oak-laden, concentrated wines will lead more and more producers to make traditional-style wines using large-cask aging and less manipulation in the cellar.

4) Thanks to more flexibility in labeling, the recently implemented EU Common Market Organisation reforms will allow Tuscan producers to regionally “brand” their international-style wines without encroaching on the Brunello and Chianti de facto trademarks.

5) Tracie B and Jeremy P will win the lottery and finally be able to move into the Ripa d’Orcia castle as their “vacation home.” (There are some beautiful shots of the castle in the Linea Verde show, btw.)

Thanks for reading. Tracie B and I will soon be heading to Montalcino on our honeymoon, where we’ll have our “nose in a glass” and our “ears to the ground.” Stay tuned…