Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today I visited two winemaking operations, worlds apart in their size and scope but both sharing a passion for natural wine.

This morning Fernando and I made our way to the Azienda Marino, nestled in the hills south of Agropoli, where we met Rafaele Marino, the proprietor and winemaker of this mid-sized operation. Rafaele was out in the vineyards on the tractor, so we strolled around the grounds of the villa as we waited for him to return. The Mariinos (this is another family operation) operate an agriturismo on the property, a beautiful villa with a huge veranda in front and rooms facing the vineyards with an oblique vista of Agropoli and the sea in the distance. At the back of the villa is a walled cortile or courtyard around which are clustered work areas such as the winery and tasting room. All immaculate and pretty. It’s easy to see that this family shares the same esthetic sensibilities, combined with a powerful work ethic, that we have seen so often before in Italy.

About ten minutes later we were greeted by Rafaele himself, a man who appears to be in his late forties/early fifties with movie star good looks: blue eyes, bronzed skin, carefully styled black hair graying at the temples, perfect white teeth, and looking, in his navy shorts and white polo, like he just returned from Monaco instead of the tractor. I was glad Sandy had opted for shopping this time around; she’s been dropping strong hints that she’s going to dump me and move to Italy and Rafaele could have tipped the scales. I, on the other hand, was most impressed by the fact that he looked so cool and collected. It’s been hot here in the South of late, and our faithful intermittent brezze (sea breezes) and venticelli (mountain breezes) have deserted us as well. With our northern-European ancestry, we’ve been sweating like race horses. I’m reminded of an old girlfriend who insisted that girls don’t sweat, they glisten. Rafaele glistened. I sweated.

Rafaele took us first to part of the vineyard where he showed us vines of Aglianico and explained that he specializes in the ‘historic’ vines of the region such as Aglianico, Fiano, Greco di Tufo and Piedirosso. I’ve commented elsewhere about the chances of these being the ‘original’ vines of Italy, so I won’t be a curmudgeon, but what I can say with absolute confidence is that several of these grapes have enormous potential, given the right amount of respect. Take this for what it’s worth, since I have a mediocre palate, sad to say, but the Fiano grape (white wine) and the Aglianico grape (red) in my opinion are undiscovered jewels. And they’re still reasonably priced! There’s even an Aglianico that is my favorite everyday quaff which is sold for about $5 by Trader Joe’s. Spring for a couple more bucks and I’d almost guarantee you’ll never go back to Two Buck Chuck again.

As we made our way to the winery Rafaele explained his philosophy of winemaking: leave the grapes and young wines alone and let them show you what they can do, unless they obviously need some help. Case in point, the use of copper sulfate. Coastal Cilento has the same problem for viticulture as we have in North Carolina: too much humidity at key points in the summer. And molds and mildews such as oidium and gray mold just love a warm, humid place to eat grape leaves. So Rafaele sprays, but only when it’s obviously necessary, not on a preset, biweekly schedule as so often in the US, even in industrial wineries in arid California. And he lets the grapes leaven themselves until he sees they’re in trouble, in which case he’ll use a cultured yeast. None of this foolishness of blasting the must with sulfites and starting from a ‘dead’ must. As a teacher and a parent , I’ve always thought that kids thrive on a bit of benign neglect; let ‘em show you what they’re capable of doing, even if you fear they’re overreaching. But be there for backup when they get in trouble. That seems like a good way to raise wines as well, so Rafaele was preaching to the choir.

Next we toured the winery, a spacious facility where we saw the staging area for the entry of the grapes, the crusher/de-stemmer, the ‘press’, in this case one of the bladder presses so popular in modern winemaking. If it sounds a bit distasteful, don’t be alarmed; it’s just a large cylindrical metal canister with an inflatable rubber ‘balloon’ inside which squeezes the crushed gapes against the interior sides of the cylinder to extract the must. Not quite a gentle as the naked human foot, still the absolute best way to crush grapes, but a world gentler than the hydraulic presses which are cheaper and faster.

We made our way to the fermentation room with its large, stainless steel vats which can be temperature controlled, so very critical for producing good wines in this hot environment. Then to the bottling room where the Marinos have a complete bottling line. Finally to the tasting room where Rafaele told us more of his philosophy and met his lovely wife and handsome son. With his parents, this kid had no chance of turning out ugly. Rafaele explained that he has difficulty selling his wines in the commercial venues in the Cilento, so he sells in Canada and through the family’s restaurant in Agropoli. Sad to say, this didn’t surprise me at this point. Only the day before I had gone to a local wine shop to buy an excellent Fiano Sandy and I had enjoyed at a local restaurant. The clerk practically sneered, “This wine you will find at the supermarket!” Geez, lady, I thought, I didn’t ask for sterco on a crocciante, it’s a great little wine! So I asked for any other local Fianos. “At the supermarket, signore!”

Well, I’m not going to be cowed into buying something I don’t want, so off I went to the supermarket, where I found... not one single Cilentane wine! Not one! There was a Fiano from northern Campania which I’ve had before; it’s crap. Sadly, it appears that wine snobbery is as rampant in southern Italy as in America.

This afternoon I experienced Rolando’s vino della casa, and I’ll warn you in advance there is no way I can be an objective observer here, I have so much admiration and affection for him. Rolando is our host. He showed me his vineyard, consisting of some 8 rows of grapes. These too were the traditional grapes, not of the Cilento but of Piemonte! Rolando and Filomena lived in Torino for many years and when they retired to Agropoli he brought slips of the famous Piedmontese grapes Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Arnese. Rolando’s grapes, like Rolando himself had earlier done, are thriving in their adopted home. I was struck by the tiny little berries of these pretty clusters, a reminder that most of the flavor and aroma in wine derives from the skins, so the really noble wine grapes all have small berries: more skin per ounce of juice.

Rolando’s grapes are completely organic, not even any copper sulfate. I suppose in a bad year for molds he simply makes the best wine he can and hopes for a better season next year.

His ‘winery’ is a workroom on the ground level of the villa, katty-cornered from our apartment, which is naturally cooled by the earth itself. Rolando uses a hand-cranked crusher-destemmer, then throws the must into two large plastic containers, perhaps five feet tall and about the same in diameter at the top. They undergo the primary stage of fermentation here, when fermentation is so vigorous there is no need for a closed container. Then they go into stainless-steel cylinders, the elfin cousins of the huge ones at Marino, and in this case not mechanically cooled. The vintage takes place in October, and by February the wine is ready to be racked off the lees into glass carboys which line a shelf along one wall, where they slowly finish their aging. Rolando bottles by hand, of course, and uses simple plastic ‘corks’, cheaper and more hygienic.

We tasted one of Rolando wines, a Barbera. Rolando explained that he uses about 80% Barbera grapes and 20% white Arnese. For balance and aroma? No, the Arnese have some residual sugar and they are what gives the wine its fizz. Rolando uses a specially designed plastic stopper which accepts a wire ‘cage’ just like the cork ones do on commercial sparklers. The wine is not really fizzy, spumante as the Italians say, but more a frizzante, just a pleasant bit of sparkle. There is also a bit of residual sweetness. Not my favorite style of wine, but still delicious; the aroma and fruitiness of the Barbera grapes were all there, the wine was perfectly balanced and ‘healthy’. Plus, the companionship was a great vintage.

Rolando explained that he likes to drink his wines young, often after only six months or so, like Beaujolais Nouveaux. Why not aged wines? Because, unless they are truly great vintages of truly great grapes, the winemaker is practically compelled to sulfur his wines to keep them stable, and that is no longer a natural product. It’s the same for his olive oil, which Rolando claims is good medicine as well as fine food. Hard to argue with that. The best pasta sauce I’ve ever tasted is a tablespoon of Rolando’s olive oil.

It was interesting that both Rafaele and Rolando emphasized with considerable zeal that natural wine will make you strong and keep you strong. Hard to argue with that either; Rolando is a robust 73 who works around the villa every day. And once again I was struck by the recurrent theme: technology can make products more rapidly and more cheaply, but it does not necessarily make them better.

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