Hemingway’s Valpolicella and the Quintarelli Legacy

Except for the cover of Hemingway’s novel below, all the images here were captured when we tasted at the winery in January 2011.

In 1949, as he lay dying (or convinced that he was about to die as the result of hunting accident) in Venice, Ernest Hemingway famously drank Valpolicella. His brush with death and his love of the wines of the Valpolicella are fictionalized in Across the River and into the Trees (Scribner 1950), a novel he thought would be his last. The main character, Colonel Cantwell (a lightly veiled autobiographical figure), always seems to have a bottle of Valpolicella at hand’s reach, even though the Colonel believes “that the Valpolicella is better when it is newer. It is not a grand vin and bottling it and putting years on it only adds sediment.”

Some 25 years later, in the landmark Vino al Vino, the great Italian wine writer Mario Soldati reluctantly called Quintarelli’s wine the “closest” to the wine that Hemingway loved, adding “I’m not saying it’s the best Valpolicella on the market” (Soldati’s preferred “artisanal” Valpolicella — yes, artisanal, that’s the term he used in 1975 — was Galtarossa).

Both texts open a window onto how Valpolicella and its wines were perceived in the post-war era — in Italy and abroad (in his 1950 review of Hemingway’s novel in The New Yorker, Alfred Kazin wrote, paraphrasing the novelist, that “Valpolicella is better poured from flasks than from bottles; it gets too dreggy in bottles”).

Giuseppe “Bepi” Quintarelli — the son of the man who made the wines that Soldati tasted — was born on March 16 19, 1927 and died yesterday at home in Negrar after succumbing to a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.* It wasn’t until the 1980s that he began to experiment in his family’s vineyards and cellar, ultimately creating some of the world’s most coveted, collected, and expensive wines.

“Bepi was a deeply religious man,” said winemaker Luca Fedrigo, 33, who spoke to me early this morning from Santa Maria di Negrar in the Valpolicella. Luca worked side-by-side with the maestro for 10 years, from age 17 to 27, from 1992 until 2002.

“All of his vacations were religious [in nature]: Rome to see pope Pius XII; Lourdes; and the Holy Land. But in the 1980s he also made a trip to Burgundy, where he discovered that the soils there were similar to the [Morainic] soils of the Valpolicella. That’s when he began to believe that we could make great wines here.”

“He was self-taught,” said Luca, “He learned early on that the priest of the village and the bishop of Verona were willing to pay well for quality wines. Priests always like the finest things in life. He was always experimenting, in the vineyard and the cellar, constantly looking for ways to make better wines.”

Leafing through the many tomes on Italian wine that inhabit our shelves at home, I discovered that Anderson (Vino, 1980) and Wasserman (Italy’s Noble Red Wines, 1985) both parsimoniously cite Quintarelli as one of the best “traditional” producers but do not give him the praise that Belfrage would later bestow in 1999 in Barolo to Valpolicella.

“One realizes in his presence,” wrote Belfrage, “as he draws samples from this barrel and that, intently studying your expression and your words as you taste and comment, that it is this attention to every detail which constitutes the difference between the great and the good in artisanal winemaking.” (Note the quasi-apologetic use of artisanal.)

Today, Quintarelli’s Amarone and Recioto, as well as half bottles of his rare white Amabile “Bandito”, command upward of $300 a bottle retail in the U.S.

In Negrar, Quintarelli was no mere artisan but rather a maestro and a patron saint and protector.

“Bepi departed with the same discretion with which he lived,” said Luca.

“He was one of the most generous persons in Valpolicella,” he recounted. “His gave generously to help children in Africa and he never hesitated to help people from the village who needed help. And he was always happy to share the secrets of his winemaking. For him, there were no secrets.”

Luca, who at Bepi’s encouragement launched his own winery some years ago and continues to make wines in the same style, was one of Bepi’s students. The other was Romano Dal Forno, considered by many the father of modern-style Valpolicella.

“Whatever the style, Bepi taught us how to reach for quality in winemaking. And as generous as he was, he could also be severe” in his criticism. “We both learned from him.”

“I think of him as the nonno dell’Amarone,” the grandfather of Amarone. “When [his daughter] Silvana called me yesterday to tell me that he had passed way, I had a long cry. I couldn’t help it,” said Luca, whose emotion was palpable over the intercontinental connection.

It’s been amazing to see the internet reaction to Quintarelli’s passing. Knowing the focus, beauty, and spiritual clarity that Bepi sought in his life on earth (and in his wines as an expression of that earth), it’s not surprising…

Quintarelli Bandito 90, one of his rarest wines

Last week, when I attended the John Mariani dinner at Tony’s in Houston (where John spoke about and signed copies of his new book How Italian Food Conquered the World), I had the great fortune to taste one of Quintarelli’s rarest wines, his 1990 Amabile del Cerè “Bandito” (thanks to a guest at Tony and John’s table).

This dried-grape white is made from the same blend that goes into Quintarelli’s dry white: “mostly Garganega with Trebbiano Toscano, ‘Saorin’ (Tocai), and Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in small quantities,” wrote Francesco Grigoli, Quinatrelli’s grandson, in an email the other day. The wine is made in extremely small quantities and the last vintage bottled was the 1990. It’s only made in exceptionally good vintages, said Francesco when we visited him in February.

While the 375 ml bottle at Tony’s didn’t report the poem that accompanies the 750 ml bottles of this storied wine, Francesco was kind enough to scan a label and send it to me.

The poem, composed by Quintarelli himself, reads: Sono nato nel 1990, sono cresciuto da bandito e in 5 anni ho raggiunto l’infinito (I was born in 1990/and was banished at birth/and in 5 years I reached infinity).

According to the Quintarelli family, the wine was made for the first time during the second world war and was hidden away out of the Germans’s sight (remember that the Valpolicella was a fascist stronghold and after Italian liberation in 1943, the fascists and nazis established the Republic of Salò on Lake Garda, not far from the Valpolicella). When the wine was recovered, the Quinatrellis were rewarded by their patience.

At nearly 21 years from its harvest and with 16 years of bottle aging, this wine was fresh and bright, with delicious nutty and caramel overtones, ripe apricot and peach flavors and aromas, and breathtaking minerality. One of the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted. (There are a few bottles left at Tony’s, btw, but for big spenders only!)

The most exciting news to come from Negrar is that next month, Quintarelli will be bottling the 2003 Bandito — nearly 8 years after it was harvested. A truly rare wine, from one of the world’s greatest producers.

Quintarelli and an incredible day of tastings in Valpolicella

Our first tasting appointment yesterday was in the cellars of the legendary Valpolicella winery Quintarelli in Negrar. Amazing, on so many levels… simply stunning wines (you don’t need me to tell you that)… There will be a proper post dedicated to the illustrious flight of wines shared with Tracie P, Alfonso, and me (and you might be surprised by what I found out about the 1998 Alzero). But the 1997 Recioto della Valpolicella… wow… one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted…

Next came L’Arco, with owner Luca Fedrigo, who worked with winemaker Giuseppe Quintarelli in the latter’s cellar from the age of 17 to 27 before starting his own winery (he’s now 33). I met Luca in Austin in 2009 and was floored by the elegance and freshness of his wines. I believe that he is the best young winemaker in the appellation (by far) and his traditional-style wines — made proudly in the style of his mentor, aged in large cask — are phenomenal. They’re not easy to find in the U.S. but if you want to know what REAL Valpolicella wines taste like, seek them out…

Our last visit of the day was at Monte dei Ragni, where Zeno Zignoli (right) practices radical biodynamic and organic farming. Zeno is an “off the grid” character and winemaker. I met him thanks to the young Paduan student Andrea Fasolo (left) whom I met through blogging.

The “three different faces” of Valpolicella winemaking formed a 180° arc and were all fascinating in their own right.

But the face that stole my heart yesterday was this one: