In mid-April a scrappy, funny, long-winded wine documentary called Mondovino was attracting surprisingly large crowds at an art-house theater in New York. No doubt some in the audience were there because of the fashionable rise in wine consciousness caused by the comedy Sideways. In that movie, the neurotic connoisseur Miles says to his buddy, Jack, "If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving." The line is a brilliant gloss on the almost violent passions of the hard-core wine lover. Echoes of this are heard in Mondovino, when a Languedoc wine maker, discussing the cancer of globalization, says: "Wine is dead. Let's be clear, wine is dead. And not just wine. Fruits. Cheeses. . . ." This from a geezer making one of the most celebrated and distinct wines in his region of France.
What both scenes illustrate is a raging argument about the sort of wine many of us have drunk and enjoyed and even cut our teeth on: California merlots, big Australian cabernet sauvignons, maybe one of the Chilean reds. Purists say these wines lack the soul of the local soil their grapes were grown in—what the French call terroir—and are basically well-made industrialized fakes. That they are wines engineered to meet an international standard has little to do with the marriage of grape, earth and weather that differentiates, say, one tiny Burgundy production from another.
When I had dinner recently with Angelo Gaja (pronounced guy-ah), the legendary Italian wine maker, I began by asking him if he had seen Mondovino. He had, and we spent the rest of the evening drinking and talking about the global-versus-local debate.
Gaja, if you have not dropped two or three hundred dollars to taste one of his celebrated barbarescos, is the wine maker more closely associated with the late-twentieth-century renaissance of Italian wine than any other. While he was not solely responsible for dragging Italian wine out of its 1960s funk, no wine maker in Italy has done more to both shake up his region and exalt it: It was Gaja who showed that nebbiolo grapes used in barbaresco and barolo could produce intense, superbly balanced red wines that could command, with canny marketing, prices rivaling those of the best Bordeaux, all the while emphasizing terroir by producing barbarescos from single vineyards. It was Gaja who challenged tradition by then pulling up some local vines and replanting with cabernet—a French variety—and making a great cab with local character. This is a guy, in other words, who blended the international and the local to find world-beating fame.
Gaja admires the Mondavis, who are portrayed in Mondovino as villains seeking universal domination with designs on every vineyard from here to Mars. He rejects the notion that New World wine making has no soul. Gaja believes European wine makers have had to learn a thing or two from their California counterparts. "In Europe we were too arrogant," he said. "The fact that there is a lot of wine that is not our style does not authorize us to criticize."
Not that Gaja isn't strategizing. The international style of wine making, he said, is a relentless pursuit of "perfect" wine through manipulation. Wine has always been finessed—most wine makers add sulfur dioxide to prevent bacterial growth, and sugar is used in Burgundy in poor years to increase alcohol content—but Gaja sees a new challenge as factory-scale wineries with R&D budgets burst into the premium category on which he's built his fortune. "And the only way to compete with the perfect wine, manipulated wine," he said, "is with the terroir." Holding a glass of 2001 single-vineyard Sori Tildin Barbaresco, he added, "We don't produce perfect wines."
"But you do score 100 points," I say, referring to Wine Spectator's rating of Gaja's 2000 Costa Russi vineyard Barbaresco.
"Yes," he shrugged, "but it was the vintage that was unique. Approachable. The sort of wine that many tasters like. Unusual in terms of barbaresco." In Gaja's view, a wine can't get 100 points if it's being true to its character. Imperfection is a point of pride; it is the signature of a wine, the mole on Marilyn Monroe.
"We have not to make perfect wine," Gaja said. "If a little too much acidity is there, leave it: It's the character of the vintage. Same with tannins or concentration."
"You don't need a concentrator," piped in Gaia Gaja.
Ah, yes, the improbably named Gaia Gaja, Angelo's multilingual twenty-five-year-old daughter, who is being immersed in the wine business and groomed to run the show. She is also having dinner with us, but not getting in much edgewise. When Angelo said, "We don't make perfect wine," he was actually talking directly to her, pointing his finger as if in accusation. Then he launched into a ten-minute soliloquy on manipulation.
Gaia eventually said, to me, "I have a nice friend in the U.S. who said if I want to run this winery, the only way I can do it is by killing him."
Angelo smiled: "When I will be under the land, what will I have to say?"
That could be a while. Angelo, 65, has the shiny smiling vigor of Mastroianni in his prime, or Armani, and he looks like he plans to school his daughter for a long time. Even though Gaia will someday have to take control and decide the fate of the label, having met them both, I don't see even an ounce of terroir leaking from this family any time soon.
Tasting Notes: Gaja
Gaja wines manage to be superconcentrated without ever being cloying: packed with fruit but always balanced with typical Italian tart acids and tannins in the right measure. Even young, they open up in an hour or two to be delicious food wines; properly aged, they are superb.
1998 Sori Tildin Barbaresco ($275): Tongue-gripping tannins here, exquisitely intense fruit on the nose and in the mouth; delicious but still needing some time.
2001 Sori Tildin Barbaresco ($350): Just released, it's tough now, but it is a study in the Italian balance of fruit and acid. Begs for wild mushrooms, roasted meats.
2001 Langhe Sperss ($200): This Barolo, even this young, is a truly magnificent wine packed with unbelievably intense fruit coupled with peppery, earthy truffle notes and slight hints of anise. A perfect balance of acid and tannin. My favorite Gaja right now.
2001 Barbaresco ($185): The Gaja blend: lighter in weight than the single vineyards, a bit leathery on the nose, hints of raspberry, plenty of fruit, but not as powerful as the Langhe Sperss described above.
1985 Darmagi Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine, $300 at Italian Wine Merchants in Manhattan, shows no sign of its age: It's still bright red about the edges. It has a nose of pencil lead, green peppers, licorice and black cherry. A very lively twenty-year-old cab, neither Californian nor French in character. Simply delicious.