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The New Italian Renaissance

Spurred by the Demise of a Feudal Farming System, a New Generation of Italian Winemakers Has Finally Realized Its Potential
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

It's not breaking news, but news it is: France no longer holds irrefutable title to the fine-wine pinnacle. Right alongside, fetching comparably breathless prices, is Italy.

For many wine buyers, the Italian achievement is still a revelation. After all, it's only been in the past few years that the average Barolo costs as much as a good Burgundy, between $50 and $100. Or that a good Chianti sells for $20 to $30 a bottle. * And now, with the impending appearance of the 1997 vintage, all heaven is about to break loose. Italy's '97 vintage is widely thought to be one of the greatest in years, if not decades. Virtually everywhere on the boot, from the snow-flecked Alpine foothills to sun-drenched Sicily, growers are describing their grapes in terms better suited for the flesh trade: fully ripe, luscious, breathtakingly structured and so on. "It's an incredible vintage," boasts Angelo Gaja, a producer in both Piedmont and Tuscany and not, usually, a man given to hyperbole. Comparable comments are filtering in from almost everywhere in Italy.

Whatever the true greatness of the landmark '97 vintage--we won't really know until the wines appear over the next few years--one thing is certain: Italy has arrived in a big way. All this has happened so quickly that the effect still startles. It was a revolution, and the good growers won. Stick a candle in someone else's wine bottle, they triumphantly declared. Now, there's an explosion of labels, grape varieties and small family producers issuing distinctive, lovingly individual wines. It's overwhelming. So many of the names are unfamiliar. Who can blame anyone for wistfully wanting to return to the simplicity of ordering a California Cabernet Sauvignon, or sticking with the name-brand reliability and familiarity of a Bordeaux chateau? But the Italian wine game is worth the candle (in someone else's bottle, of course). It's a renaissance moment. No wines--not even California's--are more significant to twenty-first century fine wine.

How did Italy recalibrate the old folkloric image of checkered tablecloths and straw-wrapped bottles into a vision of elegance, sleekness and modernity? I'll tell you how--the real, inside, structural story. Behind all the glitz, the Armani suits and snazzy labels, the high-stylishness Italians call la bella figura, there are two words that explain why Italian wines are at the top: the arrival of the autostrada and the departure of mezzadria.

Italy's first freeway (autostrada), really a toll road designated A1, opened in the 1960s. It connected Rome to Milan. For the first time since the ancient Romans, you could travel quickly between Italy's political and industrial capitals. So?

Well, in between Milan and Rome lies beautiful Tuscany, with its ancient stone farmhouses (crumbling) and their attached vineyards (neglected). Postwar rural Italy had no money, certainly not in the quasi-feudal Chianti countryside. But money was pouring out of Rome and, especially, Milan. For the first time, ambitious, successful, make-it-happen urban Italians could get out of town quickly and drive on A1 to arrive in a couple of hours at a lovely stone farmhouse in the ravishing Tuscan landscape. Their houses had vineyards. And they applied the same drive, capital and marketing to their new vineyard acquisitions as they did to the businesses that made their fortunes. The native Tuscans, especially the aristocrats, had been snoring for generations.

One of the few who wasn't was Piero Antinori, aristocratic owner of Marchesi L. & P. Antinori, one of Tuscany's best and biggest wine producers. Antinori points out that, "It's not only the fact of money, though. It's also a question of mentality. More than the advent of the autostrada was the attitude of many producers of the new generation. They were interested in traveling around the world to see what other producers were doing--in France, California, northern Italy. So maybe more than an autostrada running from north to south, it was really a willingness to travel at all." What Antinori says is true, but all that travel came later, in the late '70s and through the '80s. The impetus to explore-- in Tuscany, anyway--came from the example of outsiders.

These outsiders were not tied to the old feudal bonds of the mezzadria, or sharecropping, system, which suffocated ambition. As long as mezzadria existed, which it did for centuries, aristocratic landowners had effectively free labor and no incentive to improve their multiple farms. The workers, for their part, were excluded from even dreaming. All of agricultural Italy was a Sleeping Beauty in need of an awakening kiss, which only occurred when sharecropping was abolished in 1956 and outsiders poured in their money, lives and ambition.

One such outsider is Mario Schwenn, who runs the revived estate called Dievole (pronounced Dee-EH-vo-leh), located in the small village of Vagliagli, seven and one half miles from Siena in the heart of what is known as the Chianti Classico zone. Schwenn, 33, is one of the few proprietors in Chianti who publicly celebrates his workers. Until recently, these peasants--for that is what they were until the late 1960s--lived under the mezzadria system. In Chianti it was these people, working for half-shares (mezza) of the olive crop, the grape crop, the sheep flock, the cow herd and anything else that could survive in or on Chianti's daunting rocky soil, who made the place work.

"When my father bought Dievole in 1979," says Schwenn, "there were [a number of] mezzadri families working at Dievole. The estate was moribund. In fact, it was virtually given up for lost. No wine had been commercially produced here since the '60s. We replanted more than half of the 200 acres of vines we have today.

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