The only little glitch with all this was that European wine-making was at the time being heavily impacted upon by New World wine styles and techniques. White wines, following the path opened by the trio of California, Australia and New Zealand were becoming fruitier, lighter and more refreshing. New techniques ensuring minimal contact between juice and skins meant less residual bitterness in the wine (which had been dealt-with historically in Europe often by the addition of sweetners such as sugar [not OK in France or Italy but commonly done] or osmotically concentrated grape sugars [OK in France and Italy] or, illegally [ahem Germany and Austria], by the addition of diethylene glycol). Fining and acid balancing began right at the point of destalking so that the ’rough’ lees comprising bits of grape-leaf, chewed-up insects (the green stink bug - Hemiptera (Heteroptera): Pentatomidae - a particular problem), bird pooh (yes, some of it does fall on the grapes?), slugs (yuk!!) grass etc was taken out of the mass instantly and not left with the wine (self-evidently a good thing!).
The interesting thing about the ’frasca’ from a wine-making point of view, was that we made our wines in the traditional local way - very simple, no artifice, this was what the locals wanted and it was what we gave them. At this time, we found a consulting wine-maker who was just starting out on his own. Temperamentally, his focus was completely on retaining and refining traditional wine-styles while generally improving the quality by being rigidly hygienic and protecting the wines from bacteriological and chemical spoilage. It was a very good fit which we liked very much. We were making Friulano wines in the local style assisted by a consulting wine-maker who was completely on the same path.
The ’frasca’ was a great way to sell wine. It was sold ’sfuso’ - that is not bottled, the wine style was very simple with the wine from the preceding harvest being sold immediately. The frasca allowed us to sell all of our wine production for any year within the preceding year. It was also very good economically because there were low to no packaging costs and no transport. The problem that we perceived at the time with the frasca, quaint as it was, was that it didn’t exploit or use the really wonderful attributes of the house or the property. Of course, people liked very much sitting under the pergola in the summer drinking wine and eating cut meats but the house was enormous and the frasca effectively precluded us developing the agriturismo as the kind of a wonderful retreat that we had had in mind from the beginning.
Our point of departure was the creation of a ’frasca’, that is the exercise of a right dating-back to the times when Friuli was under Austrian occupation to sell for immediate consumption on the premises wine produced by the farm. The ’frasca’ was very important as the new wine was in the cellar and obtaining an Agriturismo licence would have taken some time. The ’frasca’ opened its doors originally every Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoon at 4.00 p.m. and was open all Sunday. It was a hit. By word of mouth the people came and the wine-sales took-off.
When we arrived at La Faula in 1995, we found a farm that had more or less been frozen in time, kept as a labour of love by Luca’s father and never having made the transition from a share-cropping economy to a modern cash-based one. Or rather it had made the transition, being supported as it was by cash earned outside the farm. Our challenge was to create a viable self-sustaining and profit-generating business at La Faula - for the first time in its long history.
In our case, La Faula had been a vineyard in the most ancient and romantic of ways. The plots where the grapes grew (’Ronchs’ in Friulano) were dotted over the property, sited to get the maximum sun and take advantage of the breezes that the hill generates. They were interspersed among fields (’campi’) of wheat and melons and fruit orchards and the sum total was used to sustain the 3 families (30 dependants) of sharecroppers that lived at La Faula and provide the 60% that was owed annually to the Fuedal landowner. This situation subsisted until the 1950’s. After this, Luca’s dad, Franco, kept the vineyards also for sustenance but also for pleasure. Not being a sharecropper and being a part of the cash economy he was happy to continue producing wine in the oldest of ways, selling some of it but mostly giving it away to friends and relatives, sometimes in payment for help rendered on the farm when Franco was overseas. Grape growing and wine-making was thus still free of the imperatives to invest and sell. Rather it was integrated into the style of Italian life at the time - growing prosperity in the 1960’s meant that a vineyard could be principally kept for fun. And it was fun.
I guess that every new business, set-up in a ’sunny’ location but with Latin practices, must have its ’No going Back’ moments and we at La Faula have certainly had ours over the last 12 years. A No Going Back moment (named after the BBC series) happens when you hit a brick wall but must go forward all the same. Getting into the business of growing grapes and making wine is a trap for unwary players. Romantic as the idea might be, to grow lush grapes and make fruity wines, the reality is that grape growing is a highly complicated agricultural activity and wine-making requires the highest understanding of the latest enological techniques and research. And that’s all without taking into account the market and its likes and dislikes, the competition, (over)-supply, costs etc etc.
The impact of competition and know-how from the New World has hit European wine-making like a swinging church-bell. Those viticulturists and vintners with experience behind them, a market around them and open to new ideas and horizons are specializing and growing and in the process developing a know-how that will, as the industry consolidates, allow them to evolve forward and thrive. Into this Jurassic Park stroll a steady stream of romantics desirous to partake of the pleasure of the vineyard and cellar. Generally they have money which they want to turn into an estate and a life-style. Mostly they don’t intend to actually do the work themselves so they quickly realise that they need workers but most importantly they need a consulting wine-maker who will guarantee that they will soon have the finest bottles on the finest tables. No-one spends the amounts of money required to get into the wine business to produce a mediocre tipple sold down at the local trattoria in dirty ceramic carafes!
Like a kind of Priest/Guru/Rasputin a ’consulting winemaker’ appears and the vineyard owner relaxes knowing that in these talented hands - mind actually, because consulting wine-makers never actually make wine with their own hands - the estate will move smoothly on to producing wines that will be recognised and sought after for their excellence and particular character, a character, strangely enough, only found in that particular estate.
But, of course, making these particular wines will require particular investments in particular barrels and de-stalkers and presses and .... TO BE CONTINUED ....
A lot has sure happened in the week since I last wrote. For one, Barak Obama has been elected U.S. President. For another it seems from the papers that Europe is cliffing-over into a headlong recession. At La Faula, however, we also have our little achievements and travails!
We finally got the wine-bottle labeller to work. It would have helped significantly if the machine had come with instructions (as EU law requires) and we hope that a lot of drawers are being overturned at the shop where we bought the machine in an effort to find them. The bottles labelled we packed them up and shipped them off to Belgium where we hope that they will bring some festive cheer to an otherwise uncertain world! On the travails front, the new wine is now made and effectively will sleep through the winter (although, of course, it is anything but asleep being a constant seething mass of chemical reactions purposefully pushing the wine forward to maturity). This means that it is time to begin bottling last years' wines. Normally the best time to bottle is in the summer when the wine is warm but with the agriturismo this is impossible so we must bottle in late autumn or early spring. The warm weather has kept the wine cellar at a good temperature so there are no problems on this front. But we did decide to change our wine-maker who had a strategy of aged and complex wines in favour of a strategy of fresh and fruity one's.
The change was not so much due to difficulty selling the <complex> wines as a desire to reduce complexity in all our activities and the need to have wines that slip easily down under the pergola in the summer time. Creating richly-bodied wines and aging them, especially in wood, is a really complex and time consuming process and expensive from the point of view of the wood need to store the wine and the capital locked-up in the barrels. Plus the longer a wine ages in wood the more there is the chance of things going wrong. I just felt that I wanted to move towards simplicity and let the grapes (and vineyard) make the wine and not a french oak forest!