“Barolo Boys” film review from Dr. Vino

Barolo in the spotlight: Barolo Boys and Barolo & Barbaresco

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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.

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Barolo Boys film review from Vineous

Barolo Boys – film review

Around 1980 I was on a budget holiday in Northern Italy, where most meals were bread, cheese and ham picnics.  However, one evening we pushed the boat out and went to a proper (albeit cheap) restaurant.  I remember we ordered a bottle of Barolo and, even though I had little interest in wine in those days, I can still conjure up a vivid image of how it tasted: brown, tannic, and totally devoid of fruit.  Today I would probably send it back, and I did consider it back then.  But of course we drank the bottle, even though it gave no pleasure.

That must have been an example of the wine that prompted the modernist revolution in Barolo.  It was the style of wine that sold for little money and kept the wine growers in poverty, as described in Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution.  But then how does it relate to the great traditional Barolo wines that, in the same documentary, David Berry Green said were so fantastic?  Ultimately I am still left a little confused about what the situation was before the revolution, and how it relates to the current state of affairs.  However, it seems that the quality of Barolo has been raised generally, irrespective of whether the traditionalist or modernist tag is applied. Are the Barolo Boys to thank for that?  Regardless, it must be seen as a good thing.

The Barolo Boys were a group of producers who introduced crop thinning, shorter maceration times and barrique aging, thus making the wines more appealing to consumers and critics alike, and allowing them to sell for a lot more money. The film tells this story through interviews with the people involved, and through archive clips.  However nice it was to meet the people, learn a bit about their culture and see the landscape, I am not convinced that is the best way to understand a story, but I cannot deny that I did learn quite a bit.

I am a little ashamed to admit that I used to think that the Barolo Boys was just the name of the winemakers’ football team.  Though it is that too, and the football team even featured in the film.  The other surprise was to see the documentary’s Langhe landscapes suddenly switch to the volcanic Mount Etna and Marco de Grazia.  I know about Marco – he is the guy that is currently busy raising the profile of Etna wines.  But what’s he got to do with Barolo? Ah, I see… before he arrived in Sicily he encouraged the Barolo revolution, introduced the Barolo Boys to America, and imported their wines.  In fact, it was on the American tour organised by him that their name was coined.

Interestingly, the booklet that accompanies the DVD mentions that in the early 19th century Nebbiolo was used to make a wine that was semi-sweet and slightly fizzy.  But the landowners wanted something better, so experts were called in to introduce the latest winemaking techniques.  Does that sound familiar? Terms like traditional and modern are, if they have any meaning at all, relative terms.  My only concern about change, particularly with modern communications, is that stylistic choice in the world of wine might get diminished. That might be a real danger in some cases, but I would say today’s Barolo remains distinctive. And if you want red wine in the early 19th century style, you can still get that from the region, in the form of Bracchetto d’Aqui. Has much really been lost?

If you are interested enough to read my blog, I think there is something in this documentary for you. DVDs of Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution are available here, along with further information. That is where I bought my copy. But be warned – the homepage is a badly-executed multimedia extravaganza, so you will probably want to turn your computer sound off.  If you want to see the trailer, you’d do better accessing it on Vimeo directly, by clicking on the above image for example.

Update 03/2016: I was recently talking to a Barolo expert (but not sure he would want to be quoted on this), who said that before the revolution the general standard was poor. But there were a few producers making good age-worthy wine that sold for more money than most, and that David Berry Green was probably mainly thinking of one in particular that he had an involvement with.