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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

(continued from page 2)

"Today it's all grapevines everywhere you look," says the 58-year-old Gaja. "But back when I was a boy and even a young man, it was a polyculture. The mezzadri kept cows and oxen for milk and meat. Our Sorì San Lorenzo vineyard used to be planted one-fourth to grass for grazing. But the yield even for grass was poor. You could cut the grass no more than three times a year." Today, the eight-acre Sorì San Lorenzo vineyard is the source of one of Gaja's "collector" Barbarescos that sell for as much as, or more than, a first-growth Bordeaux, or about $175 a bottle.

Nevertheless, the system did change. The beginning of the end can be traced to the Second World War, which brought a glimmering awareness that things could be different. "If the mezzadri and the poor of the village didn't go about the world themselves, the world had come, in the war years, to awaken them," wrote the great Piedmontese writer Cesare Pavese in his 1950 novel, The Moon and the Bonfires.

With urban industrialization offering an employment alternative, indeed a siren call, the glacial mezzadria system began to recede. The lawyers and aristocrats who owned two or more farms soon found themselves saddled with properties that, because they were so badly managed, could not support workers earning a decent wage. Certainly they could not compete with factory wages. Only the cheap labor of mezzadria had once kept these farms economically plausible for their owners.

Even farms worked by their owners could not compete. Every-where in Italy the countryside began to be drained of its farmers, who fled to the cities in search of a living, or at least a future. They simply walked off their land. The government was alarmed at this prospect of deserted farms where mezzadria was waning. So, in the 1950s, it offered Italian farmers a deal that they hoped they would not refuse: if the farmers stayed on the land and made money only from crops on land they owned or leased, they would be excused from paying any business income tax. Effectively, that meant no income tax.

In the beginning this didn't cost the Italian government very much simply because the farms generated so little income anyway. But when the Italian economy improved in the 1960s and '70s, these once negligible incomes became more substantial. In the case of winegrowers, as long as they made wine only from grapes they grew on land they owned or leased--buying not a single grape or a drop of juice or wine from anyone else--their income was gravy. By the '80s that gravy was lip-smacking.

I recall being baffled in the early '80s when I would visit tiny Italian wineries whose owners would proudly show me their gleaming new stainless steel fermenting tanks and their $100,000 German-made bottling line. All to produce, say, 5,000 cases of wine that sold locally for maybe five bucks a bottle. It didn't pencil out. Later I learned about the tax exemption law.

Given the notorious inefficiencies of Italian government, to say nothing of its endemic corruption, allowing farmers to legally keep their money was probably the best use of that money that Italy could ever have hoped to achieve. It was trickle-up economics at its best. The farmers took their money and reinvested it. They bought more land and better machinery and sent their sons--and sometimes even their daughters--to agricultural schools. For vintners, the result was better-quality wines, an awareness of marketing and, eventually, a higher return. (The tax law was rescinded in 1987.)

Unlike the working owner-farmers, the mezzadri had no land. The government recognized that what the mezzadri lacked was not a willingness to work the land but access to capital with which to buy it. So another government program emerged: if a landowner put up for sale a property worked by a mezzadro, the mezzadro had first rights of refusal to buy it. The government offered him low-interest loans, with the stipulation that the mezzadro must work the land himself for a certain number of years. It was a clever idea, serving the interests of the landowners--they had a ready buyer on the property--as well as the mezzadro, whose labor could make the land economically viable.

I mention this legislation, admiringly, to Aldo Conterno, 67, who is considered Barolo's most talented winemaker. He grunts and says, "Let me show you something." Frankly, I didn't know what Conterno thought of the program. Professionally adventurous but politically conservative, Conterno is forever complaining about the government. "Nobody wants to work anymore," he says with mantra-like repetition.

So I didn't know what to expect. Certainly, it wasn't a tour of his vineyard, which I've seen at least a dozen times. But I dutifully trot along. We stand at the edge of his steep hillside vineyard.

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