This time of year winemakers in the northern hemisphere all over the world are picking ripe grape bunches from the vines and bringing them to the winery. The grapes are transformed into wine and in doing so tell the story of the land from whence they came. As it goes, all great wines have great stories to tell, and this fall, one of the greatest wine stories never told takes center stage – just in time for the harvest season. The story is that of a small group of progressive winemakers in Italy’s historic Barolo zone, roughly one generation ago. Produced entirely from the indigenous grape, nebbiolo, the wines from this region are traditionally aged in large oak barrels, which impart subtle nuances into the wines while allowing the grape’s unique flavors and aromas to remain the main focal points of the wine. About 30 years ago, a fortuitous group of young Barolo producers began producing wines in a different fashion – by using smaller barrels to age their wines. This practice imparted somewhat more power, depth, and approachability to Barolo – stylistically and spiritually different from the traditional approach. Considered by many as recalcitrant, it shook things up in an otherwise sleepy and preserved wine community. Nowadays, when startups and disrupters are more common than ever, we revisit a story of an early group of young renegades who challenged the status quo and found not only willing and able winos to share in their adventure, but also found themselves along the way. The film, “Barolo Boys” take the viewer on a journey and tastefully examines the debate between the traditional and the modern, and discusses both sides of the coin…which we learn is nothing more than two sides of the same coin.
Writer, director, lecturer, and international citizen of the world, Tiziano Gaia is the co-director of the film, Barolo Boys. In a recent interview, he explains the motivation and teachings of his latest work.
DA: What was your inspiration for making this film?
TG: I Knew this story! Working on the Slow Food guide Wines of Italy, and having grown up a few miles from the Langhe, I knew very well the story of the “bad boys” of Barolo. For a long time I’ve dreamed of telling their story, but I did not know exactly how to do it. A book? A movie? Then I realized that it would be very interesting to interview the actual characters of the saga and tell it in a form of a documentary. So I started to work together with my co-author and director, Paolo Casalis. We focused in particular on two aspects of the story. First we examined the the theme of “team”, that is, the group of young people who come together, join forces, and can achieve extraordinary results. Second, we focused on the theme of social and economic redemption, that is, the idea that someone always wants to improve his or hier condition, starting from a situation of poverty (as in the case of Barolo up to 30 years ago) up to the worldwide success. There is a third aspect that fascinated me right from the start in this story, and it is the generational conflict between “innovators” and “conservatives.” What is tradition? What is innovation? To what extent are entitled to try to change things? They are very deep themes in the film that we have tried to highlight. And if you ask who inspired me from a cinematic point of view, it is difficult to answer, because the documentary genre is still quite specific and not very commercial, so it is also difficult to find the true “masters” for inspiration. Recently I was very impressed by the film “Sugarman”, which won an Oscar for best documentary in 2013. The journalistic and artistic competencies of that film were sources of inspiration for me and my co-director. Paolo.
DA: What are you trying to achieve with this film?
TG: Good question! The goal behind a job like this is always to introduce a story. In doing so, we were attacked from many sides. There are those who think that we wanted to make a “gift” to the modernists, and others who think we were defending the traditionalists…it’s all nonsense! We did not want to make a technical or biased film, we did not want to “cheer” for someone, we had no prejudices at the outset. We had a strong story (according to me) that it was worth to be known outside of Langhe. Only this. The history, the men and women who bet on the territory, and the parable of a group of friends going to conquer the world with few resources. It was a great success and we also addressed the crisis and the divisions caused by this success (and by the fact of becoming old). Is there not enough evidence to want to tell this story?
DA: Had the Barolo Boys not succeeded in their mission, what would the landscape of Barolo look like today?
TG: Another great question. The Barolo Boys did not invent anything.
Barolo was before them, and in some cases was also very good. Also the marketing was already there before them, and a man like Angelo Gaja had already gone in the United States long before the Barolo Boys. You could say that it was affordable and it that it’s available to everyone; who created the myth of the team that moves together and goes on to conquer the markets; who were the first to really believe in the potential of nebbiolo, the first to do large-scale thinning, and the first to experiment with regularity. All right, all right, but it’s all partial. The real novelty of Barolo Boys, and their main historical merit, was to restore dignity to “THE CRAFT OF FARMER”. Before the “BB” young people were running away from the Langhe and went to work in large factories in northern Italy; after the “BB”, young people have realized that you could live in the hills and through agriculture, and so they remained in the country. They have taken over the cellars of their fathers and grandfathers, and have helped to transform the face of the Langhe and Piedmont. This is a historical merit to which no one can ever challenge the Barolo Boys.
DA: What is the future of Barolo?
TG: I’m not a wizard, Dan! But I think it’s a good future. Many companies are witnessing a new generational shift and young people are highly motivated above all on the road to organic and biodynamic. The concept of “cru” (vineyard) is increasingly important. From a stylistic point of view, the “war” between modernists and traditionalists seems finally over and now you are looking for a reasonable synthesis between modern taste and tradition. In other words, the small barrel can live with the big barrel. The market seems to appreciate and reward the efforts of these many, small producers and the recent recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site to the Langhe is first of all a prize to the work of generations of farmers. Of course, in Italy the economic crisis is felt, the bureaucracy is an intolerable burden, and it is not always easy to work. However, in contrast to the less fortunate, the Langhe can count on a very long history now, a solid reputation and a socio-economic fabric made of many small family businesses. If I had to bet something in my life, I would not doubt and I’d bet – or rather, I would continue to bet on the long-term success Barolo!
TG: No, I do not think that there is a new situation on the horizon like the Barolo Boys. It is often said that the new revolution is that of biodynamic producers and there are also some films devoted to the subject (especially by filmmakers such as Jonathan Nossiter). But it is a completely different situation: there is a compact group as in the case of BB, there is one soul as in their case, there is not even a common will, in fact, the biodynamic producers have tried to establish a group and an event but were immediately divided into ,5,10,100 groups and events. I’m too idealistic and too radical, and I cannot stand more than 5 minutes in the same room. The new revolution is sure that “green”, but via other channels and other shapes. That of BB remains a unique experience – there was a right time (the eighties and nineties), a group of the right people (great personalities, winemakers very charismatic, rebellious, talented), the land and the right wine (Langhe, Barolo, Nebbiolo grape) was the perfect alignment, a conjunction of stars just in the right place at he right time. In Italy Ido not see anything like that, only copies (more or less ugly, more or less successful) experience of Barolo Boys.
Eataly NY is proud to present a rare and exclusive tasting next month featuring some of the main characters in the films and a tasting of some of their meteoric wines that have helped shaped the wine world we know today. Visit, http://www.eataly.com/event/nyschoolbaroloboystasting, for more information. Space is limited.
For more on the movie, Barolo Boys, and information on where to see it and how to view it, please visit http://www.baroloboysthemovie.com/index_eng.html.
For more on Tiziano Gaia and his works, you can visit his website here, http://tizianogaia.com/.