Some of the protagonists of “Barolo Boys” (L to R): Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Chiara Boschis, Marco de Grazia.
In 1983, a chainsaw echoed across the hills of the Barolo region. No humans were harmed in this Barolo massacre: Elio Altare took a chainsaw into the cellar of his family’s winery and cut up the large botti, or large wooden casks, often leaky and fetid, that his father used. He brought in barriques, the small wooden barrels more frequently seen at that time in Burgundy or Bordeaux. His father subsequently disinherited him.
This dramatic rupture with the past is captured in the pages of Barolo and Barbaresco, the essential and timely new book by Kerin O’Keefe. The chainsaw-wielding is also depicted on-screen in the new Italian documentary about the region, Barolo Boys.
The movie, screened for the first time in New York City on Monday, portrays the events of Altare and others as they ushered in a “revolution” to Barolo’s winemaking. A “war” broke out between the “modernists” and the “traditionalists.” This young Turks threw out the old casks, brought in barriques, but also started green harvesting in the vineyard, the process of dropping bunches of grapes to concentrate flavor in the remaining ones. The resulting wines were darker and denser but also flashier, fruitier with more obvious polish and immediate appeal than pure charm of nebbiolo, which is notorious for needing decades in the cellar to coax out.
If wanting to make wines more hygienically was a big push–Altare’s daughter talks in the film about how farm animals and a leaky oil-furnace shared the cellars with the wines–these wines also needed the pull of a commercial outlet. And the film makes clear this was the United States, where critics and consumers lavished praise on the new style and opened their pocketbooks for the wines imported by Marco de Grazia, among others.
While the stylistic clash was heated for a while, it has largely been relegated to the compost pile of history: many of the “modernists” now use larger formats than just barriques, incorporating both new and used barrels, while some of the “traditionalists” do things such as green harvesting, even if they remain steadfast in their use of botti or other larger format vessels for aging. In a discussion after the screening, the protagonists present agreed that the conflict was good for getting increasing interest in the area’s wines.
Elio Altare cast the rift in a different way in comments after the screening, “There are two types of wine: good and bad.” There was an outburst of applause in the room. He continued, “It’s personal taste. I must find the people in the world who drink wine with my taste. I don’t make wine for everybody: I make wine for my taste!” This slightly defiant tone paled in comparison to Joe Bastianich, the film’s narrator, whose last words are “the fight goes on.” The director said he took some liberties with that line and was intended to reprise the “journey” that he invited viewers on in the film’s opening segment.
PAOLO CASALIS & TIZIANO GAIA (Directors)
The Barolo Boys: The Story of a Revolution
Documentary, Stuffilm Creativeye, Bra (Piedmont, Italy), 2014, Italian with English subtitles, NTSC (all regions), $19.99
Reviewer: Alessandro Corsi
Once upon a time there was an Italian king of wines, known also as the wine of Italian kings. It was called Barolo, and it survived in the same form for a century or more. Then, only three decades ago, there was a revolution. Unlike other revolu- tions, this one did not aim to dethrone the king. Instead, the revolutionaries wanted to promote the king but put him in modern dress.
The Barolo Boys tells the story of this group of wine revolutionaries. In the 1980s, a group of young winegrowers and winemakers started to introduce new techniques to the Barolo region that were drawn mainly from France. The story begins with a young winemaker, Elio Altare, who visited Burgundy and found himself comparing the financial wealth of French vignerons to the misery of the Barolo producers. He concluded that the reason for the misery was that Barolo wines did not satisfy modern palates and were poorly promoted. As a result, a small group of young wine- makers started to experiment. They aged their wines in barriques instead of the tra- ditional casks, and they changed their vineyard practices to emphasize ripe fruit.
The new wines were a huge success among critics and consumers, and they were pro- moted widely. But these new Barolos also inspired a passionate controversy, and a “Barolo war” started. The “traditionalists” defended the old ways of making wine and stressed the typicality of Barolo, refusing to make a wine in the new “inter- national” style. The “innovators” claimed that they had amended the flaws of the old way of making wine and that the new wines better matched modern consumers’ tastes.
The controversy was also a generational conflict. In one dramatic episode of the story, Elio Altare used a chainsaw to destroy the big old casks in his family’s cellar, which led his father to disinherit him, convinced that the young Elio had lost his sanity. Also linked to the generational divide was the collaborative spirit of the group of “revolutionaries,” who collectively shared the results of their experiments in the cellar and vineyard. This collaboration accelerated the progress for the revolu- tionaries, but it was something simply inconceivable among the old winemakers, who remained jealous of their techniques and suspicious of their competitors.
The film focuses on the human side of the revolution and on its economic and social consequences. The interviews with the protagonists (Elio Altare, Chiara Boschis, Marco de Grazia, Giorgio Rivetti, and Roberto Voerzio) and Carlo Petrini, founder and president of the Slow Food movement, are punctuated by clips filmed using Super 8 cameras and by scenes of a local brass band marching and playing in the lovely vineyard landscapes of Langhe. Though it leans on the side of the innovators, the film also presents the arguments of the traditionalists. The film does a good job of capturing the protagonists in revealing moments. And you meet some fascinating characters, such as an unforgettable old worker—a perfect example of the old mentality—grumbling because he is ordered to prune imperfect bunches, which he clearly considers an inexcusable waste of grapes. The film provides a vivid picture of the rise of the movement, the controversy, and the passion of the protagonists. But it also becomes apparent that the cohesion of the group today is not what it once was and that the “revolutionaries” experience some nostalgia as they recall their “heroic times,” as in the film The Big Chill.
If you appreciate human interest stories, you will enjoy this film, as did I. And if you do not know anything about the story, you will find it a good starting point. If, instead, you are looking for more technical information, this film might leave you unsatisfied. One unanswered question is: of what did the “revolution” actually consist? Though the use of barriques was at the core of the controversy, the “revolu- tion” comprised many other technical changes that are not discussed in the film. These changes in the vineyard and in winemaking technology included everything from thinning the grape clusters to reducing the time of fermentation. The innova- tors were looking for wines that required a shorter aging period (which provided an obvious economic advantage), had more color, and had a taste more in line with the international standards promoted by Robert Parker. Some innovations, like dropping grape clusters, were also widely adopted by traditionalists, and, in general, the movement led to a greater focus on technical progress and on quality throughout the Barolo region. In the end, the traditionalists settled into a sort of peaceful coexistence with the revolutionaries, and both benefited from the increased media attention and tourism. Though there are some hints about these issues in the film, they are not fully developed.
From an economist’s perspective, this film raises some interesting questions. First, why did only some of the winemakers follow the new movement? Negro et al. (2007) have documented how the shift to modernism paid off in terms of both ratings from the critics and wine prices. The second and related question is: why was there such a passionate fight between traditionalists and modernists? After all, they could each make and sell their wines the way they liked and still find consumers. I have two hypotheses to offer. The first is that both parties believed that the existence of the other producers acted as a negative externality, threatening the reputation of their business. This was probably truer for the traditionalists, who considered the typical- ity and the link to traditions and to the terroir as important assets. The second expla- nation concerns the nonpecuniary benefits from wine production. It is evident from the film that winemakers (from both groups) were interested in more than just the income from their activity. Much more was at stake: prestige, acceptance, and recog- nition, all of which had a social dimension. Nonpecuniary issues are often disre- garded in economic analyses, and, I suspect, they are particularly relevant in the wine industry, especially for the highest-quality segment, in which creativity is crucial. Perhaps these considerations lead winemakers to disregard the motto of modern management schools: “be market oriented, not product-oriented.”
Finally, as a personal note, I was delighted by a tale told by Elio Altare at a showing of the film that I attended. Altare related that the much-admired Bartolo Mascarello,1 who was a leader of the traditionalists, had told him: “Look, you use barriques and you must go on doing so. You know that I’ll never use barriques. But eventually, the result will be that those who buy six bottles from you will also buy six bottles from me, and vice versa.” What a fine statement of the rationality of exploiting the segmentation of consumers’ tastes and their search for variety!
1 Mascarello passed away about ten years ago. He was a famed anti-Nazi partisan during World War II, a friend of philosophers and writers, a leader of the traditionalists, and a great personality. He drew his own labels, two of which exclaimed: “Barricades, not barriques,”and “No barriques, no Berlusconi.”
Negro, G., Hannan, M.T., Rao, H., and Leung, M.D. (2007). No barrique, no Berlusconi: Collective identity, contention, and authenticity in the making of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Stanford University Graduate School of Business Research Paper No. 1972, available at http://papers.ssrn.com
University of Turin (Italian Università degli Studi di Torino), Italy
E con i primi caldi non spuntano certo i funghi, ma le recensioni di Barolo Boys / the movie quelle sì. Eccone una pubblicata da MiVini, che contiene un’interessante citazione di Angelo Gaja: “”Non è che i produttori del Piemonte siano chiusi all’innovazione, assai più che in altre regioni molti di loro avvertono la forte necessità di integrarla con la tradizione procedendo per prove, passo dopo passo, senza strappo, con prudenza; mentre altri che non sentono questa necessità continuano a produrre i vini che amano di più”. “
dal sito MiVini
Barolo Boys: storia di una rivoluzione
Nel bel mezzo dei primi veri giorni d’estate ci siamo imbattuti in un interessante documentario del 2014 diretto da Paolo Casalis e Tiziano Gaia, che racconta la fantastica storia di un gruppo di giovani produttori che a cavallo fra gli anni ’80 e ’90, attraverso scelte ritenute rivoluzionarie e tanta voglia di emergere, contribuirono a fare grande il Barolo e le Langhe rendendo vino e territorio attraenti agli occhi del mondo intero.
È la storia di Elio Altare e altri amici produttori che intrapresero nuove strade per cercare una sorta di ribalta dopo le frustrazioni derivanti dalle condizioni economiche e dalle incomprensioni con i padri padroni.
La “revolution” dei Barolo Boys passa senza alcun dubbio da importanti innovazioni tecniche ed enologiche, ma anche da nuove strategie in campo di marketing e nel settore commerciale, queste ultime guidate con abilità e astuzia da Marco de Grazia, importatore americano che permise ai giovani produttori di affermarsi in maniera decisiva negli Stati Uniti, ottenendo grande considerazione e smisurato affetto.
Per questi giovani pionieri la barrique divenne quasi una religione, cosa che non tutti digerirono, soprattutto alcuni storici produttori fedeli da sempre alle antiche tradizione della Langa.
Da una parte Elio Altare con le posizioni dei Barolo Boys, dall’altra la fermezza di Bartolo Mascarello, icona del Barolo e fermo contestatore della barrique. Il primo importatore di metodologie studiate e recepite nel viaggio in Borgogna del 1976, il secondo legato ai valori della tradizione in chiave futura.
Ancora oggi la crescita delle Langhe in particolare del Barolo è una contesa ideologica tra modernisti e tradizionalisti che scalda gli animi di produttori, critica, importatori, wine lovers, ecc…
Uno sguardo attento su questo intricato scenario ci piace ritrovarlo nelle parole di Angelo Gaja riportate nel volume “Storie di vino e cucina” edito da Mondadori, nel quale parla così dei suoi corregionali: “Non è che i produttori del Piemonte siano chiusi all’innovazione, assai più che in altre regioni molti di loro avvertono la forte necessità di integrarla con la tradizione procedendo per prove, passo dopo passo, senza strappo, con prudenza; mentre altri che non sentono questa necessità continuano a produrre i vini che amano di più”.
Insomma un documentario consigliato a tutti i curiosi del mondo del vino, agli innamorati degli straordinari panorami delle Langhe e dei suoi principali prodotti.
Al termine della proiezione sarebbe stato il caso di bere un buona annata di Barolo firmato dai tradizionalisti ed una dai modernisti, anzi magari due per tipo. Ci sarà tempo e modo di farlo, sapremo rendervene conto, intanto auguriamo buon visione a chi sceglierà di gustarsi questa pellicola.
Info: è possibile vedere il film in streaming (http://www.baroloboysthemovie.com) o scaricarlo direttamnte da Itunes, come abbiamo fatto noi.
“Barolo Boys” (2014) is a documentary about the Barolo “boom” in the nineties. The strength of the film is its success in chronicling how a group of family owned wineries (7 men + 1 woman)* changed the historical character of their wines for marketing purposes and what happened as a result. The story is important because versions of it occurred in many other parts of Italy. The echoes can still be heard today.
*Elio Altare, Chiara Boschs of E. Pira e Figli, Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta, Roberto Voerzio, Luciano Sandrone, Domenico Clerico, Giovanni Manzone, Enrico Scavino of Paolo Scavino, Renato Cigliuti and Roberto Damonte of Malvirà
The Barolo Boys altered their methods in the vineyard and in the cellar to catch and ride a wave of stratospheric Parker/Wine Spectator point scores. Italo-American marketing expert, Marco De Grazia, took the group on tour in the United States and brought new wealth to them and to the area. But all of that had consequences in the community and provoked a counter movement toward “traditional” Barolo wine.
As background to the film, it’s important to know that the United States was the fastest growing, largest and richest market for wine in the 80s and 90s. Robert Parker’s 100-point scale, which spread to the Wine Spectator and other publications, fueled sales based on Parker’s personal preference for fruit forward, robust, ready to drink reds. His palate aligned with that of most Americans.
So how do you get Nebbiolo wine, which has traditionally been highly tannic and austere with a need for long aging in the cellar, to score 100 points?
– Prune bunches off the vines to concentrate their efforts on fewer grapes
(Create intensity of aroma and flavor)
– Allow the grapes to mature longer on the vine
(Add fruitiness, roundness and higher sugar content–higher alcohol)
– Shorten the period that fermenting wine remains with the skins
(Reduce tannins for less austerity)
– Use new barriques (small, French, wood barrels)
(Soften tannins and add aromas and flavors, like vanilla)
– Use additives, commercial yeasts, etc. to change the wine chemically in the cellar.
(All of the above)
The original group ranged from small to large producers (4,500-450,000 bottles annually). What they had in common was a feeling of frustration at working so hard to grow grapes but then, having to sell them in bulk at low prices or produce wines that were not recognized beyond the local area.
The film recounts both the rise of these “modernists” and the reaction that eventually rose up against them from the “traditionalists” like Giuseppe Rinaldi and Bartolo Mascarello, who made a label for his wine that revealed his thoughts on the matter. Whichever side people aligned with, it was clear that one effect of the Barolo Boys was a rift in the community.
The Barolo Boys’ boom also led to a gold rush where land prices skyrocketed and vines proliferated where once there had been woods, fruit trees, hazelnut trees, grain, grazing pastures and other crops. The monoculture that exists today has fundamentally changed the character of the area, reduced the health of the vines, and reduced the variety of aromas and flavors in the grapes.
Many vines are grown with industrial methods (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, fertilizers, etc.) and are heavily pruned to force the plant to concentrate efforts on the grapes. On a recent walk through vineyards above Barolo (castle in background), I took this photo.
Interestingly, some of the Barolo Boys wineries are following the market once again and leaving their “modern” methods in favor of a new marketing trend toward more authentic, terroir based, “natural” wines. The group no longer exists as such, and Marco De Grazia has moved to Mount Etna.
It is notable that some winegrowers in the area (and in other parts of Italy) never changed. They stayed with traditional, sustainable, “natural” mentors in the vineyard and in the cellar. (See winegrowers on this blog…and more stories coming soon from Piemonte!)
They plant only a small part of their acreage…
Allow all kinds of flora and fauna to grow in the vineyards…
Allow their vines to find their own equilibrium by not pruning the tops or conducting heavy pruning of bunches.
And intervene as little as possible in the cellar.
The fascination of Italy remains the natural diversity of land, climate, soil, altitude, exposition, grape variety and winegrower personality. Wine has been made here for over 3,000 years and is deeply rooted in the culture, a fact that no point score or ranking can easily change.
Published: June 22, 2016
For more information on Barolo wineries or on planning a trip to the area,contact Eleanor.
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BAROLO BOYS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTION
Documentary, not rated, 64 minutes, in English and Italian with subtitles, 2 p.m. Saturday, June 4, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles
What is identity? asks this 2014 film about one of the great wine success stories of the last century. Barolo wine took the international wine stage by storm in the 1980s and ’90s. This affectionately told story from directors Paolo Casalis and Tiziano Gaia focuses on the “Barolo boys,” a handful of Nebbiolo grape-growers who set off a wave of technical innovations in winemaking techniques starting in the 1970s. Filmed in the lush Langhe region, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and featuring intermittent visits by a brass band, which marches up and down the vineyards trumpeting the enormous pride of these winemakers, the film is irreverent and breezy in classic Italian fashion, with a somewhat meandering narrative that sometimes falters. Still, passion and dedication shine through in interviews with vintners like Elio Altare, an iconoclast who had the vision to deviate from established methods and thus kicked off a revolution in winemaking. As one subject in the film puts it, “We had the power to change things, which is the best thing you can have in life.” — M.B.
Dal sito Das Kabarett
[Andar per gusti] Elio Altare, Renato Cigliuti, Domenico Clerico, Renato Corino, Matteo Correggia, Franco Minuto, Giorgio Rivetti, Luciano Sandrone, Enrico Scavino e Marc De Grazia, insieme a Chiara Boschis, the Girl One, sono iBarolo Boys: si tratta di un gruppo di imprenditori che hanno rivoluzionato la produzione del più famoso e importante vino piemontese. Siamo nella bassa Langa, precisamente in provincia di Cuneo, proprio nella zona dove nacque Cavour. Qui, da tempi lontani, in questa sorta di Mesopotamia italiana (tra il fiume Tanaro e il suo affluente Belbo, un torrente molto “vivace”), dal Nebbiolo si produce un vino dalla spiccata personalità e dalla fortissima impronta locale, che però denota una scarsa cura della sua “piacevolezza”. Le botti sono vecchie e tarlate e le condizioni igeniche di maturazione non ottimali. Il destino di quegli abitanti sembra segnato da un’irrimediabile ereditarietà della miseria, con scarsissima spinta ad innovare: la tradizione è quasi una condanna. Ma negli anni Sessanta e Settanta poco alla volta crescono uomini e donne che trovano un po’ stretto questo mondo e i progressi della società danno l’avvio a una piccola rivoluzione. Dei giovani, figli di contadini, cominciano a osservare ciò che li circonda, ciascuno dal suo posto, si riuniscono e formano una specie di alleanza per cambiare le cose: è così che tra gli anni ’80 e gli anni ’90 la produzione del Barolo cambia del tutto aspetto
L’epopea dei Barolo Boys (2014, tit. or. Barolo Boys. History of a Revolution), scritto e diretto da Paolo Casalis e Tiziano Gaia, racconta questa storia con garbo e un discreto equilibrio. La voce narrante di Joe Bastianich è poco meno che un cammeo, perché a prevalere sono i volti e le opinioni dei protagonisti di tutta la controversia tra la tradizione e lo strepitoso successo commerciale dei Barolo Boys, fino ai 100 punti di Robert Parker, ai Tre Bicchieri del Gambero Rosso e oltre. Non c’è nessun progetto agiografico (anzi) e le voci discordanti trovano il loro spazio, perfino i ripensamenti o comunque le rettifiche: quella che sembrava una svolta epocale ad opera di una comitiva inossidabile di amici e collaboratori si risolve in breve in una moda (in apparenza) senza sbocco e senza futuro, che viene caricata in più dalla responsabilità di aver fatto uno sgambetto alla tradizione. Di quell’entusiasmo globale per la barrique, che aveva acceso gli animi per il legno nuovo, l’aroma di vaniglia, la maggiore freschezza e la più rapida bevibilità, restano però i risultati che sono sotto gli occhi di tutti: una cura maggiore per il prodotto e per il dialogo con i suoi fruitori e un’esportazione oltre i confini delle Langhe (che, per parte loro, proprio nel 2014 sono state incluse dall’U.N.E.S.C.O., insieme a Monferrato e Roero, nella lista dei beni patrimonio dell’umanità). Che questo dipenda da un momento di euforia per il mondo del vino e per unboom economico e culturale ormai lontanissimo, a me interessa fino a un certo punto: l’entità della rivoluzione non si dovrebbe misurare dalla sola sua persistenza, bensì dalla capacità collettiva di gettare uno sguardo nuovo su ciò che viene trasformato fin quasi a ricodificarlo. Né mi interessa o mi stupisce la breve durata di questo sodalizio, prima che i singoli produttori prendessero ciascuno la sua strada: l’alleanza ha comunque sortito i suoi effetti quando serviva.
Il gusto del Barolo in quella precisa stagione è già stato superato? Certo, e anche dopo; ma se l’importanza del vino (anche grazie a questa sfida, o a quest’abbaglio, come qualcuno lo considera) è cresciuta, e così la cura al prodotto, ciò lo si deve anche ai Barolo Boys.