Angelo Gaja’s cherry trees (and the legacy of global warming)

Angelo Gaja is simply one of wine world’s most fascinating personages. On the four occasions I’ve had the chance to sit down and taste or chat with him, I’ve always been wholly impressed by the scope and breadth of his interests and his humanity. And when you sit down with Angelo Gaja, you never know where the conversation will lead you… or rather, where he will lead you in conversation. At every meeting, I’ve always come away with my mind churning over an anecdote or insight that he shared.

I won’t conceal that I planned my recent trip to New York around his visit, knowing that I would get the chance to have breakfast with Angelo at the Soho Trump. He was in town to speak at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, where he gave a lecture on the evolution of the fine wine world and his role in it.

I was curious to ask him about his recent “open letter,” published in March of this year. In it, he wrote about the many challenges that Italian winemakers face in the wine trade “reset” (my term, not his).

But the day we met for breakfast last week, Angelo wanted to talk about cherry trees, perhaps inspired by the beautiful June day in the city.

“I remember when I was boy,” he began, “every summer, in June, my grandmother [Clotilde Rey] would send me a bag of cherries. They were the best cherries I’d ever had. These cherries were fantastic. But they were smaller than most cherries. They were black and they had a little bit of bitter taste. I thought that she had bought them at a fruit store.”

It was many years later, he explained, that he realized that the cherries actually came from a lone wild cherry tree — balin (bah-LEEN) in Piedmontese dialect, a Mahaleb cherry tree in English.

These trees, which blossom all over central and northern Italy in springtime, are ungrafted cherry trees and in their youth produce bitter fruit. But “after sixty or seventy years,” he said, their berries become fewer but larger in size and they deliver one of Langa’s greatest delicacies.

But in the summer of 1955, Clotilde didn’t send the teenage Angelo his cherries. “I thought that my grandmother bought the cherries in a food shop and so I asked my mother to ask her to send the cherries.” But they never arrived. And it would take six years before he would learn the reason why she stopped sending them.

A terrible hailstorm, he recounted, had devastated Barbaresco’s vineyards that spring. “It destroyed seventy percent of the vineyards in Barbaresco.” It was so violent that it ripped the bark from Clotilde’s beloved balin.

“For years, our vineyard manager Gino Cavallo had asked my father to cut down that tree,” remembered Angelo, “because it was planted in a field that was perfect for Nebbiolo. But my grandmother would not let them because she loved that tree so much. In 1961, when I joined the winery, he told me the story.”

It was only after the terrible storm of 1955 that she acquiesced and allowed them to cut it down. And today, that field is planted to Nebbiolo, one of the fourteen vineyards that provide fruit for Gaja’s classic Barbaresco.

Over the last few years, said Angelo, he’s had nearly eighty wild cherry trees planted across the Gaja family’s Piedmont estate.

“I’ll never get to taste those cherries,” he said wistfully, “because it will take sixty or seventy years for them to produce the cherries that we eat. But it’s something that I have done for future generations. Farmers must do this.”

“Before the 1990s,” and the epic string of bountiful crops that began in 1995, “we used to have to wait a decade for a good vintage. Today, with global warming, that has all changed… When I was a boy, the fog [could be] as thick as milk, five to ten meters thick. But nowadays, it’s not like that. The weather conditions have changed.”

Barbaresco growers have certainly benefited from the warming trend. Hail storms are never as severe as the storm of 1955 and they haven’t had a “disastrous” vintage for a decade now — a far cry from the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, when they were lucky to have one good vintage in the arc of ten years. And I don’t know a single grape grower in Barbaresco who doesn’t believe in global warming.

But I can’t help but wonder: will those cherries, planted by Gaja for our children, taste as sweet as they did to a teenage Angelo?

Thanks for reading…

Piedmontese dialect: a wonderful relic from the early fascist era

I don’t have time to post on my research or findings today but I wanted to share this image of a wonderful book I was able to track down yesterday at the New York Public Library: Dizionario Etimologico del Dialetto Piemontese, by Attilio Levi, printed in 1927 by G.B. Paravia in Turin.

Note the classic fascist-era design of the cover and the motto inscribed in the center: in labore fructus, labor brings fruit, clearly a nod to Piedmont agriculture at the time (I’ll have more to say on this later).

One of the most fascinating things about the book is that it was compiled by a Piedmontese Jew, Attilio Levi, born 1863 according to bibliographic records. (Think of the many famous Jewish Piedmontese writers, intellectuals, and scientists from that period, like Carlo Levi and Primo Levi, to name a few.)

The book was printed in 1927, the fifth year of the fascist regime following Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, 11 years before Mussolini adopted Hitler’s racial laws in 1938, when Jewish intellectuals were forced to abandon their posts as university professors, publishers, etc. From what I can gather using, Levi was a linguist and philologist, probably based in Turin, and he had even been published in English as early as 1920.

A wonderful find of a forgotten tome yesterday at the New York Public Library.

Thanks for reading! Have a great Memorial Day weekend!