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A First Course in Wine: From Grape to Glass. Copyright 2013; Race Point Publishers, NY. 224 pages. Forward by Mario Batali.

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The Tutelage of Angelo Gaja

Angelo Gaja and the author

At a recent tasting in New York City, a group wine buyers, writers, and sommeliers gathered to participate in a unique wine tasting and lecture moderated by one of Italy’s most important wine pioneers, Angelo Gaja.  Outside the Central Park Suite at Jumeirah Essex, spring still clinged to the chill of winter as the wind howled and the sky choked a burnt gray, but inside the suite, the spirit of Italy and la dolce vita was alive and well.  Hosted by the importer of Gaja’s wines, Terlato Imports, the guest list was mostly composed of wine buyers.  However, in a more biblical sense, we were all there as apostles listening to the man who some would call, the savior of Italian wine.  Even his first name – Angelo – suggests there is something holy and erudite about him – sent from above to disperse the good word of Bacchus.  The success of the Gaja portfolio – Gaja in Piedmont, Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino, and Ca’ Marcanda in Bolgheri – have helped elevate the image of Italian wines from cheap and easy plonk to some of the most prized juice in the global market.

While the focus of the tasting was six vintages of the famous super-tuscan, Camarcanda dating back to 2000, the first vintage of commercial production, Gaja’s presentation was all-encompassing and universal, laced with sage advice such as, “passion is like having windshield wipers on your car – it won’t stop it from raining, but will allow you to go beyond, or avanti, in Italian”.   He’d later go on to say that life is what you make of it, and “even if luck never shows up at your door, you must keep going”.  He also offered advice for raising a family, challenging your children to dream, and he even dished on his favorite Bolgheri restaurant, La Pineta, a seaside joint catering to locals and specializing in the Italian raw fish preparation, or crudo. He asked that we should be honest when tasting his wines, both today and in the future, and encouraged us propose questions about the provenance and the winemaking aspects, but cautiously joked not to like them too much or else prices will rise accordingly.

His love of nature was reinforced throughout as he eloquently expressed the color and shapes of the earth, his properties, and

Angelo Gaja lays down the wisdom on some eager winos

ultimately his soul.  Witnessing him speak about the world around him and the natural beauty that abounds confirmed that Angelo Gaja sees the world in a different way – in different colors.  At one point, he went into illuminating detail about the compost that he and his team create on the property using special California Red Worms to decompose cow manure.  Aside from tasting excellent wines and learning of the history of Bolgheri, all of us present nearly walked away with a PhD in natural and holistic composting.  Hearing him describe his love of nature from the trees and vines all the way down to the smallest of dung-transforming worms legitimized his success, however you define it.

His visceral humility for winemaking as a traditional art form and natural expression of the earth was matched by his awareness of the importance that just his name can simply add to a winemaking area’s image.  He recounted his expansion into Tuscany by discussing his experience a few years earlier at his other Tuscan property, Pieve di Santa Restituta in Montalcino, and stated, “…at Restituta, we did not burst out into the market.  We were slow to work the land and learn the environment.  We had the same idea at Ca’ Marcanda, located in Bolgheri.  We wanted to develop slowly out of respect to the other producers, those that were there for a long time, those who built a draw to the area”.  He clarified that bursting onto the scene irresponsibly was like “…going into a garden rich in flowers, and picking the flowers that someone else has planted.  It’s better to come in a softer way, and earn the right to do our own work in the garden”.

Ca' Marcanda, one of the leading super tuscan wines

As we dug in to the meat and bones of the gathering, he spoke more about the property itself, Ca’ Marcanda, located in the heart of Bolgheri, the epicenter and genesis of the super-tuscan movement.  Like many things romantically Italian, the name of his property takes its form from something historically significant.  In this case, ‘ca’, stems for the Italian word casa, or house, and “marcanda” refers to mercanteggiare, the act of negotiating where two parties get to together and talk, negotiate, talk, bullshit, negotiate, and cease to reach an agreement; a timeless Italian artform in itself.  Prior to acquisition, Angelo Gaja met with the previous owners of the property on eighteen different occasions before finally coming to an agreement in 1996.  Aptly named the “house of endless negotiations”, the winery has since become one of the most significant in all of Italy.

As we tasted six different vintages – 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2009, and 2010, Angelo gleaned like an enthused history professor waxing about the prominent figures who have shaped the current wine landscape of Bolgheri.  He talked in detail about Mario Incisa della Rochetta, founder of Tenuta San Guido.  He credited Incisa della Rochetta as the first winemaker to really invest his time and energy into the land, and to properly develop Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot grapes in Tuscany.  Prior to this, Sangiovese reigned supreme in the Bolgheri.  He described his predecessor as “a dreamer” and one who intelligently and radically planted grapes on the hillsides rather than in the lower-lying plains.  Referencing Incisa della Rochetta’s Piedmont origins (like Gaja’s), he championed his instincts and love of agriculture as pivotal pieces in crafting the wine, Sassicaia, which has since become a cult wine and paved the way for all other super-tuscans.  Gaja also thanked his grandmother and father for their guidance and support, as well as architect and longtime friend, Giovanni Bo.

Camarcanda is the flagship wine of the Ca’ Marcanda winery, which produces three other wines; two red and one white.  The

A map of the Bolgheri zone in southwestern Tuscany

blend of Camarcanda has never deviated much from its first vintage in 2000; composed of 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Cabernet Franc.  After separate fermentations, the final blend is aged in new and used barrels for 18 months, followed by an additional year of bottle aging.  The most surprising wine of the six vintages was the 2003 vintage.  On paper, 2003 was a blistering hot and dry year and has been discounted by the critics, but the 2003 Camarcanda wine was sound with an equal balance of fruit and herbs.  Normally the leaves of the vines act as canopies to help shield the grapes from the sun’s scorching rays, but in 2003, many of the leaves dried out from the scorching heat and dry season, and the grapes were overly exposed.  At harvest time, the vineyard workers picked the grapes in three different tries, or separate walk-throughs of the vineyards, each time selecting only the grapes that were ripe enough and in perfect condition.  As a result the winemakers could craft an elegant yet structured product.  It displayed the leathery and balsamic notes of a well-aged Tuscan wine, with the power and depth of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.

There are few truisms when it comes to wine, but the legacy of Gaja is one that has changed the landscape of Italian wine in the most positive ways.  In his own words, “elegance walks a thin line”, but for the insouciant Angelo Gaja, he could sidestep the rest of his days and never come close to flirting with the edge.

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