Today I'm Home with the Flu (so to speak), so it seemed a good time to add to my modest little blog!
Yesterday we began to prepare the white wines of 2009 for bottling. We have never before had white wines of one year's harvest ready for the spring of the following year! It's extremely satisfying. White wines bottled soon after being made are fruity and crisply acid - and we hope good to consume chilled under the pergola in the summer!
Our expertise and know-how have increased dramatically in the last years and we have mastered techniques that allow us to work the wines - all wines require some working - while retaining the perfume and taste and without risking oxidation and spoilage. In English and Italian we refer to wine-making (fare vino) to describe what happens in the winery before we eventually find the wine in the bottle. However, the verb 'to make' is not really the most accurate as it can imply to create, construct or fabricate. What really happens in the winery is that the wine makes itself through the intervention of yeasts and, sometimes, bacteria. So anybody, in this sense, can 'make' wine. They just need to let the grape juice ferment and in the end they will have wine. This, of course, is how wines were historically made.
Modern oenology - much of it deriving from work done in Australia, New Zealand, California and other parts of the New World - focusses strongly on creating the environment in which the yeasts and bacteria can be encouraged to produce wine that is pleasing to the human palate. It involves favouring the yeasts that give a pleasing result and creating a comfortable environment for them to work. Stressed yeasts in mortal competition don't make good wines! Creating this environment can come down to such banal measures as keeping the winery so completely clean that the numbers of competing organisms is at a minimum.
Obviously, like us, the yeasts need food so the grapes must be healthy and well developed and from balanced plants that are in themselves healthy and in equilibrium with their environment. They must have oxygen when they need it and must find a stable and temperate environment. On the other side, the world is full of organisms that love grape juice and wine as well but which don't give us the wine we want. Keeping colonies of these organisms (such as those that make vinegar) out of the winery and out of the wine is very important. But, in general, it's always a case of prevention is better than cure!
Thus, creating satisfactory winery techniques for the scale and type of winery one has is really at the basis of being able to have at the end of the process the type of wine one envisaged at the beginning!
Moving-on from the wine side of things, in the last couple of weeks numerous business people and politicians have been arrested or notified that they are under investigation for corruption. It is on a scale which Italy has seen many times before, but if true it means that the Berlusconi government has seen a level of corruption at least equal to that of the 1980's Clean Hands corruption investigations which led to a reforming of the old political order. The interesting thing is that with a destruction of the old parties, Berlusconi stepped into the vacuum with his new Forza Italia (Go Italy) party which comprised many people previously not active in politics. The Clean Hands corruption involved kick-backs to fund the political parties as well as to personally enrich politicians and state employees.
This time, the political parties are fully - and opaquely - funded by the State (notwithstanding the passing of a popular referendum banning State funding of political parties) that many see as legitimated theft. So this time the corruption, if proved, will have been wholly and completely to personally enrich the actors involved. It seems that many joined with Berlusconi either with the intention to profit themselves or the intention came later when they were in a position to so profit. When we who live in Italy think of the legal abuse of taxpayers money, it's doubly-shocking to think of the corruption overlayed on top. Legal abuses are constantly disclosed. For example the most recent was the government's admission that there are in Italy 679,000 official vehicles (compared to 51,000 in the UK and 60,000 France). The cynicism with which the Berlusconi government operated is depressing. And it is mirrored by the corruption and exploitation practised by the administrations also on the Left such as the Regional Government of Campagna.
There are two interesting twists to this tale. One is that the Berlusconi government has been successively reducing the powers of the investigation magistrates while simultaneously reducing their resources. Berlusconi himself argues with much justification that the Investigating Magistrates are not politically neutral and themselves constitute an inefficient, wasteful and self-serving caste. The second is that, of course, Italy is sitting on Europe's biggest public debt. It has passed 15 of the last 17 years either in recession or with no economic growth. Italy is not getting the attention Greece is getting because its deficit is only 5% of GDP. However, the deficit has been sensibly reduced by the effects of the tax amnesty which after extensions is due to finish this spring. The Minister of the Economy also has form in massaging the national accounts and a key feature of the Berlusconi Government has been getting control of and then censoring the news outlets. I would be prepared to bet that before the year is out the talk will be of the sudden deterioration in Italy's finances. These should be interesting times!
There is an Italian word - trascurato - which comprises, altogether, the idea of neglect, not having done one's duty, of having been remiss. In these last two weeks the website has been a bit trascurato! We received at the beginning of the year a large wine order for Japan. The boat leaves Genoa tomorrow 22 February and our wines had to be on it! The truck was to come - and did come - on 15 February and we had to have everything ready by then. The wine was, at the time of the order, only partially bottled as we prefer to bottle to order. Coming up to Christmas we were out of bottles and labels and the printer was closed until the new year. In early January we guessed that we would manage but we also knew how long it takes to get things done in Italy. Economic crisis or not, everything continues to go at it's own pace. It's virtually impossible to make someone do something faster than they want to and so we watched the weeks tick by waiting first for the bottles and then for the labels.
You might think that there shouldn't be any problems in finding wine bottles in Italy. Instead we encountered two problems. First, bottle stocks have been run down all along the chain from production to wholesale to merchant. Nobody wants to hold onto a lot of stock. In addition, we use Stelvin screw caps on our wine bottles. Stelvin has never been accepted by the Italian market and so it use used only by those wineries that export overseas. Cork and synthetic cork is now moving to be the exception for export wines but it makes sourcing the bottles here rather difficult and there is a generous lead-time between order and arrival.
The bottles arrived and we divided the bottling of the wine into two stages. First we would bottle 1200 litres of Pinot Bianco and second 1000 litres of Friulano (ex-Tocai Friulano). That these wines would be in transit for six weeks passing under and then over the equator, that they might be exposed to high temperatures sitting on the ship or on a wharf, rather focussed our minds on ensuring the absolute stability of the wine in the bottle. This led us to review our whole bottling process, from the filters to the sanitisers, from the water heater for sterilisation of the equipment to the best temperature for the wine at bottling to the amount of head-space in the bottle (Stelvin bottles are more generous than the standard bottle to allow for thermic expansion). It was really a good experience and led us to improve our whole bottling process.
Which brings me to a reflection. Wine-making must be one of the very few sectors of the food processing industry in which amateurs still have a role. In recent times, of course, universities have started producing oenologists versed in wine science and these people are steadily entering the largest wine producers. Many wine producers, while not formally educated in oenology, come from families that have been making wine for generations and so they are repositories of the accumulated know-how of decades if not centuries. However, there are still the enthusiastic amateurs who decide they want to dedicate themselves to making wine, they get a winery, and give it a go. This is obviously more common in the New World and many of these wine makers make the very best wines using inovative techniques and technology (see Stelvin screw caps).
In addition, there are those who having been successful in some other economic sphere rather see themselves as land-owner wine-makers - Chatteux without the title. These people, despite the economic slowdown, are still buying wineries and launching themselves upon the choppy, if not downright dangerous, wine dark seas of wine producing. Those of you who have read past editions of this blog will know that neophyte wine producers are often attended by very expensive consulting wine makers. A kind of cast serving those completely bereft of wine-making knowledge and skill. In many cases this is fine but the novice wine-maker is not an informed consumer of the advice being so expensively bought - in fact he (generally) knows absolutely nothing of the topic at hand except that he knows a good bottle of wine when he sees one and he will have his own label on one too!
Being completely ignorant of the whole winery business the new owner is in the hands of the consulting wine-maker. The risk is of commissioning a consultant who is nothing more than a parasitic trickster. It happens in Friuli and it is still happening. I can imagine that more than one novice winery owner from the canyons of Sydney or Melbourne has found that the expert winemaker who promised so much produced actually very little. That is the road to ruin as wine is a food, that, in the end, must be voluntarily consumed.
Coming back to us, having inherited Luca's Dad's hobby farm we entered the wine business through circumstance (I'm a beer drinker) rather than by choice. We wanted to make a great farm-stay and this consumed most of our energies over the early years. But we also knew that we wanted to have a good integrated wine business making tasty and interesting wines. And we too got our very own charlatan consulting wine-maker who knew almost nothing about wine-making but that didn't stop him leading us down a very expensive path to make wines that, in the end, were not what people wanted and which didn't cover their costs of production.
These situations are rather difficult. The problem is that tricksters always trade either on greed or insecurity, vanity and shame. We had doubts for a long time but always feared finding ourselves alone making wine. While we had our consultant we could always dream of the great wines that would eventually emerge from the barrels while suppressing our nagging doubts. When the eventual wines were just ordinary oaked wines, too heavy for many tastes, we knew we had to go it alone. And so we have now since the harvest of 2007.
This is probably one of the best and most positive things that coming to La Faula has given us. We now know how to keep the vineyard because going it alone meant that we got help and - very good - advice from unexpected quarters and we applied our own experience and know how and learning to the mix. We know what kinds of wine we want to make and are beginning to make them. And the whole process is replete with learning - learning by reading whether in books or articles or on the internet - learning by doing, by experiencing, by making mistakes and working out how to do it better. Instead of being blocked still, as previously, every thing done adds to our whole sum of experience and expertise. We drive our own ship now upon the choppy wine-dark seas. And we wish our wines a fair voyage to Japan!