The New Italian Renaissance

Spurred by the Demise of a Feudal Farming System, a New Generation of Italian Winemakers Has Finally Realized Its Potential

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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.

"The entire estate, which dates to the year 1090, is about 800 acres," notes Schwenn. "It used to be owned by the Terrosi-Vangnoli family of Siena, who are still, I believe, the biggest landowners in the province of Siena. Frankly, they didn't care about it. Dievole was just one of their many properties. And they certainly didn't care about the sharecroppers. They were just tools to them. That was how all the great landowners in the Tuscany region saw them."

The Schwenn family is not old Tuscan stock. They are outsiders, like so many of today's Tuscany success stories. They are German and today live in Switzerland, except for Mario, who lives at Dievole. "In the old days," he says, "the landowners would allow the mezzadri to build a house on the estate which they worked. But if they retired, they had to leave the house. So this insured, if any insurance was needed, that the next generation of the family would remain on the estate.

"It didn't matter anyway," Schwenn adds, with just the barest note of bitterness. "There were always plenty of mezzadri to go around. After all, they had no education, no money, no opportunity. The landowners never dealt with them. They saw only the fattore, or overseer. He was the go-between. He would settle up with the mezzadri--usually telling them that they were always in debt--and show the accounts to the landowner."

Dino Petri, one of Dievole's vineyard workers, recalls the system well, despite his being only 49 years old. His older brother, Armando, a grizzled 73 years old, has longer memories, but their recollections are largely the same. At a dinner in their simple house, which was built generations ago for their mezzadri forebears, they recount tales of being mezzadri over a classic Tuscan dinner of beans, bread, olive oil and grilled meats washed down with homemade red wine of the latest vintage.

"There were 10 people living in this house," recalls Armando. "It's not that big a house." That is an understatement. Although handsome enough, with timbered ceilings and thick masonry walls, the home has no central heating. Its four rooms, excluding the kitchen, are frigid during the winter. Only the kitchen, with its enormous hearth, boasts any heat. One room is used today for potato storage and other utilitarian purposes. "We used to keep some animals in there," says Armando.

Evidence of newfound wealth is inserted into the rooms like shiny pennies in a pair of worn loafers. The kitchen has a washing machine tucked in one corner. The bedroom has a color television. And the hallway, already narrow, is clogged by a deep-freeze chest. Otherwise, the place has not likely changed, except for running water and electricity, from what its residents a century ago would have found familiar. The walls are whitewashed and soot-covered and, apart from various religious pictures, devoid of decoration. The floors--part tile, part concrete--are bare. It is a dwelling of extreme simplicity.

The dinner conversation is not always easy to follow, what with the Petris' thick country speech and the peculiar Tuscan accent of turning most "c's" into "h's" (Coca-Cola in Tuscany is pronounced "Hoha-Hola"). The brothers haul out thin paperback ledger books (called libretto colonico) for my edification. Every mezzadro had one, in which the year's accounts were kept by the overseer. Inside, pages of ledger sheets detailed every expense. For example, every sheep that was born, died, vaccinated, seen by a veterinarian or otherwise entailed a debit or a credit was accounted for. All transactions, no matter how minor, were listed, including, one year, the sale of a tiny quantity of artichokes.

Today, Dino Petri freely and happily announces that he has money in the bank. For someone who was shoved out of school at age 13 to work in the fields, this is a marvel. He receives a substantial wage, as well as a variety of fringe benefits, including health care. A union represents his interests.

Although the mezzadria system was legally abolished more than 40 years ago, the mentality--and, effectively, the reality--lingered until very recently. "My hardest job when I came to Dievole in 1986," recounts Schwenn, "was to educate them to the existence of a client. In other words, that what they did had a direct effect on their fortunes. That there even was a client. And that this client has needs and demands."

Italy's most famous winegrower, Angelo Gaja, lives hundreds of miles away from Tuscany in the Langhe district of Piedmont, in the northwest corner of Italy. It's where the famous Barolo and Barbaresco wines are produced. Mezzadria was pervasive there as well.

"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.

"Look at that," Conterno barks, pointing across the valley at another Barolo vineyard. "You see that?" He likes to make sure that listeners, especially suspected liberals, are not about to miss a profound conservative truth. "That vineyard over there was worked by a mezzadro and his family since the late 1940s. Then it went up for sale. And he was able to buy it by getting one of those loans you were talking about. You know how much he paid for it?" he demands. I have no idea, especially considering how cheap vineyard land in Barolo was then.

"I'll tell you how much: 800,000 lire. For something like 20 acres." It sounds pretty cheap to me. When I say as much, Conterno looks at me with the same despairing forbearance for the perennially weak-minded that P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves had for Bertie Wooster. "Of course it was cheap," Conterno replies with asperity. Having got that clear, he continues, "You know Prunotto, of course?" Prunotto is one of Piedmont's best wine shippers. It was purchased a decade ago by, as it happens, Tuscany's Marchesi L. & P. Antinori.

"You know the Prunotto Barolo, the one they label Bussia Vineyard? Prunotto always bought the grapes for it from that guy down there," Conterno instructs, pointing to the nonexistent guy. "Well, anyway, in 1989 Prunotto bought the vineyard from him. And you know how much they paid?" he demands, his voice reaching a Pavarotti-like pitch of incredulity.

"How much?" I ask, as meekly as possible.

"Eight hundred and twenty million lire," he replies, pronouncing each word slowly, with awe, satisfaction and amazement (it works out to about $500,000). "Without that program, that mezzadro could never have bought that vineyard," Conterno says, noting approvingly, "He worked like a dog."

Today, Italy's wines are the nectar of a social and economic revolution. The potential was there for centuries. After all, everybody knew about Chianti and Barolo. But until recently, the wines simply weren't all that good. Today, cognoscenti clamor for the tiny, expensive production of hundreds of growers in dozens of regions.

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