Today was the first day with a real spring-like atmosphere. The Great Buzzards were very active on the hillside behind the house. I guess that with the warmth small rodents are getting busy and by the end of winter the Buzzards must be getting a bit peckish! I enjoyed trying to photograph them from behind the house. They are very aware of our presence and it is impossible to get near them. They are also very shy about being photographed but this time didn't seem so concerned. Another very pretty raptor was active around the hill. This bird is not much smaller than the Buzzard and is perfectly white with black wing-tips. The wings are extremely long in relation to the body. It is a bird almost impossible to photograph because it flies just centimetres above the ground and is gone almost before it has arrived!
Today was also a Sunday for working in the garden until late, enjoying the lengthening of the evenings. Of course, being at La Faula means never working without a visitors dropping-by so the afternoon was punctuated by more than one coffee-break!
In fact, our oak-aged whites were special but not exceptional. And to justify the investment of money and time those wines needed to be exceptional and not only special. This is notwithstanding a cult-following that these wines have from a fair number of our Australian and New Zealand clients who have been exposed to wines such as these made by experimenting New World winemakers. In the end this was the dissatisfaction that we had with the path laid-out by our consulting winemaker: under his tuition we had undertaken quite an audacious experiment for an Old World winery and he had to be certain of the outcome before setting us upon it. And, he wasn’t. He was just experimenting as well. It is the nature of experiments that their outcomes are uncertain so in itself this wouldn’t have been a problem. But we should have been advised. And we weren’t. And, artist that he was, he wasn’t, in the end, a technically competent wine-maker.
So, how did the story finish? In July of 2008 we decided to go it alone in the winery. We felt like we had grabbed destiny while fervently hoping for the best. The previous years of experience had not been at all wasted: our experience as wine-makers had undoubtedly grown and developed. Plus, going down this particular path in wine-making which can be described as skins, lees and wood brought us to a broad overview of possible winemaking styles. No longer with a consulting winemaker we were obliged to develop our own knowledge and we have learnt much in these last few months. We discovered techniques and skills of which we were previously ignorant. And we have been helped along the way by other winemakers and technicians in the field. This has been particularly heartening. We have found, to our great pleasure, that the winter, a moment when we have time available, is a great time for us to prepare and bottle wines. Most importantly we have developed an idea of the kind of wines we want to make. It is extremely easy to make a mediocre wine. With some skill and dedication - in the vineyard and in the winery - making a good wine is achievable. But making an outstanding or an exceptional wine is virtually impossible. Great wines are probably made with the hand of god. We know - because they are in our cellar - that we can make good wines. We know what kind of wines they are. We know that we will never make a truly great wine. That’s outside the realm of our possibilities. We don’t know if we will ever make an exceptional or an outstanding wine.But, maybe, we just one-day might!
From 2001 to 2003 our vineyard was in conversion to being organic and as we had a lot on developing the Agriturismo in these years we sold the grapes and skipped making wine. 2004 would be our first year making wine from organic grapes. Prior to the harvest of that year we met a number of times with our old consulting wine-maker and let him lay-out a plan for our wine-making going ahead. The red wines would, as previously, be a mix of those made in stainless steel and those made in oak barrels depending upon the quality of the vintage overall and the quality of particular grape varieties. It was on the white wines that our effort would be focused as our winemaker wanted to produce whites effectively as one makes red wines - extensive maceration (leaving the juice and the skins in contact during fermentation), extensive contact with the lees (leaving the wine with the sediments produced after fermentation), extensive battonage (keeping the lees in suspension by frequent mixing of the mass) and finally aging in 500 litre oak barrels for three years. This winemaking style was extremely harmonious from an organic point of view because the effect of the lees and wood aging for an extended period and the extraction of numerous substances from the skins during maceration allowed us to keep quantities of sulfur dioxide preservative and fining to the absolute minimum as the wine stabilised on it’s own account during the aging process. It was a very natural product involving minimum use of pumps and much manual labour.
And the best part was that our winemaker enthused that we would have a truly remarkable product of outstanding quality. Well it was all true. Every bit of it. We made that white wine in a way that was pure organic. We let the wine live and develop itself, just helping it along the way when needed. Through meticulous attention to winery hygiene at every level we let the wine - and the oak barrels - express themselves without the normal chemical intervention. And that was the problem. Making white wine in this way involves the extraction of bitter tannins from the skins during maceration and the barrels when new. Those tannins - which are also present in red wines - soften during the aging process. But the aging process also meant that the wines developed a very pronounced vanilla flavour from the oak and were very concentrated (in flavour and alcohol). Wines aging in oak barrels are constantly evaporating through the wood itself - fresh wine must be added from time to time and slowly but surely the mass concentrates.
So we found ourselves with this distinctive woody wine that was special but which appeals to only 0.5% of the population. Most of the rest want the immediacy of a fresh and fruity white only a step or two removed from fruit juice. That’s OK too. The big problem for us was that a white wine in the summer sipped slowly under the pergola while the kids play in the pool has to be light, crisp and easy to drink. We did have some like that but it went so fast that we always found ourselves back on our old oaky friends!
(to be continued)
Prior to our taking over La Faula, it was owned by Luca’s parents. It was his Dad’s hobby of love. As a small child waiting out the bombing of Udine during the second world war, Luca’s father, Franco, passed many days at La Faula with the three families that share-cropped the property. In the late 1950’s while working in Mexico Franco bought La Faula and kept it as his passion. It was his true hobby farm and he kept animals and made wine. Wine was fun but never serious. Every weekend Franco would come up to La Faula from Udine with his friends from childhood and they would work in the property and the winery and eat a wonderful lunch prepared by Luca’s mum and they had a great time. The wine they made was shared amongst all and given away to friends. The quality was that of all local farmer’s wines at the time.
Luca and I entered La Faula upon Franco’s retirement. Neither of us had any great feelings for wine but we loved the place and so we accepted that the vineyard and wine-making would be a part of whatever La Faula would become during our time here. Luca had made wine as a child with his father but we realised right at the outset that we needed help if we were going to produce a wine of consistent and acceptable quality. It was right at that moment that we found the consulting wine maker whose advice we followed until June of 2008.
The very first thing that we did upon arriving at La Faula was to open a ’frasca’. A ’frasca’ is a right, dating from the times when Friuli was a part of the Hapsburg Empire, for a farmer to sell his own wine on his own premises for a limited time without the necessity for a licence. As licences were restricted for most activities in Italy until only very recently, this was a very important concession. The frasca was very popular with the locals who would come and sit under our pergola and drink wine and eat salumi. It was the last of old-Italy. The wine was popular but we found making it consistently complicated and confusing. Until this month we never managed to filter our wine without the filters clogging mid-way (and sometimes before). The measures of quantities of preservatives or fining agents for the wines were never clear. Our wine-maker used inapt measures and was vague as to their application. But it seemed that his career was on a firm upward path so it seemed churlish to give these concerns the weight that they seemed to call for.
(to be continued)
And then there is the vineyard. Surely some plants supported by wires held-up by poles doing nothing but sitting still couldn’t be a problem? But vineyards are on the move! The best vineyards are on terraced hillsides, facing the sun, washed by the soft breezes that waft around a hill’s contours. But those terraces are inexorably moving down-hill. After heavy rain or cloud-bursts there are slips and earth slides. Poles point crazily out over steep banks. Vine plants are suddenly found half-way between one terrace and another. Those vineyards on the flat, of course can’t slide down-hill. But they are constantly enlarging like pasty spread this way and that on a marble bench top. The constant passage of tractors between the wines pushes-up the soil, creating ruts and holes that become trenches with time. How to maintain and stabilise a vineyard in any particular place requires experience and know-how and a constant investment of time and energy.
So, in summary, the vineyard and winery owner who finds him or herself confronted by an activity which requires more know-how than he or she has, desperately searches for someone to help. Why desperately? Because grape-growing and wine-making is a continuous activity, year on year, month on month, season after season the grapes grow, are picked, must be made into wine and that wine must be sold to justify all the expense incurred just to get that far! There is no possibility to take "Time Out"!
By definition, the winery owner is searching for someone with more knowledge than him/herself. Lacking that knowledge it is very difficult to assess the competence of the many "consultants" that purport - for a good fee - to bring a winery’s wines up to that "special" level. And into any market where the customer lacks the expertise to gauge the quality of the service being offered, steps, frequently, the charlatan or snake-oil salesman. In the wine sector they are not infrequent and the only good thing that can be said for the current economic crisis which is heavily impacting on the wine sector is that the mistakes and failures to deliver of these second-rate "consulting wine-makers" are less tolerated than the go-go times before.
In December as the full scope of the problems arising from our previous consulting wine-maker became apparent, I wrote that even in a country with thousands of years tradition of wine-making, like Italy, there was currently great scope for wine-making consultants of every hue ranging from the competent to the grossly incompetent, the dedicated to the trickster, the honest to the charlatan, to ply their trade. This is because wine producers fall broadly into three types. The winning types are those established wine-makers, who have been in the business since the days when it was essentially an artisanate activity, who saw the need to develop constantly when all others were satisfied with the status quo. They embraced and refined technology and techniques and learnt how to standardise and industrialise processes to guarantee a minimum quality and who used their knowledge and capability to make good, even great, wines to improve all their wines. You find these types in Oddbins, Waitrose, Saisburys and Tesco amongst others!
On the other side are a pretty sorry lot. There are the old artisanate producers who were pretty happy with their situation and didn’t see much need to learn and apply new techniques, technologies and science. As the wine market expanded in the 1980s and 90s they added vineyards and carried-on producing wines of variable quality and inconsistent character. As their margins got progressively squeezed in the 1990s they realised that it was not enough simply to produce more but that they had to produce better. The problem was that they had forfeited the chance to learn gradually and now had to undertake exponential - and expensive - improvements in one leap.
Finally, we have the great folly of the last twenty years: the person of means, made in some other sector, who decides to buy and run (not personally, of course) a vineyard and winery. This foolishness was encouraged by literature lauding the experience, by the fine example of Gerard Depardieu and other luminaries, by films and television. It would have been easier and cheaper if these souls, instead of buying the land and winery, had just piled-up the Euros or Dollars that they were intending to spend and set fire to them. Being successful in some other sphere of life, these types, new to grape-growing and wine-making, expected, in a linear fashion, to get the thing in hand, have someone tend the vineyard, someone make the wine and then it would be sold.
But running a vineyard and winery is not linear. For one thing it is a natural product made by living things (yeast, bacteria and people) from a food (grapes) produced by living things (vines) subject to the whole environment. Non only, but success requires close cooperation between each of the players to arrive at a wonderful product (wine) and this cooperation has to be played out between multi-cellular and unicellular creatures of varying degree of complexity. Would you do it?
(to be continued ...)
In December I wrote a couple of times referring to problems that we had started to become aware of stemming from wine-making techniques adopted following advice of our consulting wine-maker. At the time we had been brought-up short by the realisation that the "Super" White Wines promised by our wine-maker were OK - were certainly not super - and were very heavily oaked. These white wines are very strongly appreciated by our New world guests - some Australians and New Zealanders just can't get enough of them. I have to admit that I, also, am a great fan of oaked white wines. But, we had to face the fact that we are not in the New World and that heavily-oaked white wines are too woody and strong for the under-average, average and over-average European palate!
Of course, what most Europeans long for - and what we all like and enjoy a whole lot - are light and fruity whites with an attractive perfume and a crisp note on the palate as the cool, semi-clear liquid is ingested on a warm day. Yumm! In December, reviewing our whites we realised that the "Super" and "Special" wines our wine-maker had promised - and had followed for 3 years in maturation - and that cost a fortune in time and money to make - were just not there. And at that point we slowly realised that we had had our own little Bernie Madoff.
Of course, the initial shock involved waking-up at 3.00 a.m. in the morning and revisiting every fact and scene involving the affair over the preceding years. This was quite quickly followed by a reckoning of losses incurred. Then the "what do we do now?" question raised itself. So much in such a short time! The worst part was accepting that over the years we had worked with this particular consulting wine-maker we had had serious, very serious, doubts. But the dropping of a name of a well-known supposed client, the sympathetic and understated approach, the reference to vague technologies and techniques and the difficulty that he had in finding time for us amongst all his "important" clients served not only to make us doubt our doubts but to doubt ourselves as well.
Wine being a foodstuff with a limited shelf-life meant that we had to work very fast to try to recover from the situation. The good news was that these problems didn't concern our red wines or non-oaked whites. We have more demand for our reds than we can satisfy and we are perpetually out of non-oaked whites so the problems only involved a percentage of our wines - but an important percentage. Getting a grip on the situation was rendered difficult by the fact that the wines in question were not in any way defective and have a very loyal - but little - fan-base (the barrels were very expensive and very good so someone should like the wines at least!). This meant that we had to take decisions concerning a good wine but of a style that would make it extremely difficult to sell in large quantities. This meant that we could not bottle the wine because it is a cardinal rule of wine-making that, for obvious reasons, you only bottle a wine that you are sure to sell.
In December we removed all the white wines from the barrels and in a long and tedious process created some blends which we are now in the process of selling wholesale. Realising that the wines that sold best plus the only award winning wines that we had made, had been made solely by us we decided that it was time to take the winery wholly in-hand ourselves and decide fully ourselves the strategy and techniques that we would use. No longer in thrall of the mystique of our previous wine-maker we came into contact with other wineries, received very helpful advice and suggestions from others in the industry and found ourselves with more choice and freedom to organise and run our wine business than we would ever have believed previously.
One of the first things that we did was to reduce the vineyard from 4 to 3 hectares to allow us to dedicate more time to the best parts of the vineyard and the winery. Previously we had been too overstretched. We then developed the means to prepare and bottle the wines during the winter something that is crucial for us as the Agriturismo renders wine-working impossible from late spring to mid-autumn. We finally got on top of previously impossible wine techniques like filtration and sterile bottling. In the last week we bottled three varieties of red wine and over the next month will bottle another two vintages of reds and two of white wines. All in all we are very pleased and it has gone well.
It is tiring. Recovering from a Bernie Madoff takes a lot of work. But I guess that it is here that the human spirit comes into play. We estimate that we lost around 30.000 Euro following the advice of our wine consultant. We discovered that what he was selling he couldn"t deliver because the way he wanted wines made technically meant that this wasn't deliverable. But this is all behind us now. The very fact of getting a grip on the situation, of moving forward by learning, gaining experience and mastery of the situation brings satisfaction that removes the cut of the loss.
Now we only have to confront the world economic crisis. Phew!!!