So I finally made it to the original Terroir wine bar on East 12th on Saturday, having become something of a regular at the sister location in Tribeca this spring. What did I find there on the bathroom wall – alongside photos of Roberto and Giacomo Conterno – but a framed copy of “Research Paper No. 1972 from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.”
That seemed like a decidedly strange piece of decor in a hipster East Village joint… until I read the title: “No Barrique, No Berlusconi: Collective Identity, Contention, and Authenticity in the Making of Barolo and Barbaresco Wines” (2007).
I made a note of it and found it on the web when I got home. It turned out to be intriguing: an extended history of the growth of the modernist movement in the Langhe and the counter-movement by the traditionalists, with statistics, no less, on the surging and waning of the modernists.
For me the best parts are the history, based on extensive interviews with winemakers (Gaja, Altare, Sandrone, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Aldo Vacco, and more) and others in the trade, plus earlier research.
That’s dressed up with some turgid, canned sociological theory. However, the authors have one sociological insight I found interesting. They frame the debate as one over the meaning of “authenticity.” To the upstarts, “authenticity” was rooted in creativity and experimentation. To the traditionalists, “authenticity” meant working within the regional traditions.
Here’s what I learned:
–In 1982, Elio Altare, inspired by Angelo Gaja, took a chainsaw to his father’s dirty old botti. I guess you could say that announced the movement’s arrival. It may also explain why so many of the high modernists are based nearby in La Morra, or across the La Morra/Barolo gulch in Castiglione: A guy with a chainsaw can be pretty persuasive.
–Cellar cleanliness was as big reason a factor in the shift to barrique as its softening impact on the wine, at least initially.
–In 1987, before the 1984 vintage was released, some 20 producers and others, including Marco de Grazia, convened to taste each other’s wines blindly and to discuss techniques. This was a turning point, as they exchanged information that sparked them to new experimentation and gave each other moral support.
–For this group, the emphasis was explicitly on producing wines that could be drunk now, not just sooner (e.g., 10 years instead of 20).
–The interviews document the indisputable impact that critics had in reinforcing the shift toward modern techniques, though it was Gambero Rosso and Veronelli that had the biggest impact, and not Parker. Altare’s daughter says, in effect, that her father lived for recognition.
–The paper includes stats on the “defection rate” (p. 46): the portion of traditional producers who adopted “modern” (i.e., barrique for this purpose) techniques each year from 1978-2000. The big peaks were in 1990 (over 8%) and 1996 (10%), bearing out the anecdotal sense of many of us that 1996-97 was the high water mark. (The researchers use barriques as the main criteria because that was perceived as the dividing line, though they mention maceration times and temperature control. Oddly, rotofermentation doesn’t come up.)
–The “defection” rate drops off sharply after 1997 (to the 2%-2.5% range). This corresponds to the time when many of the barrique makers (e.g., Scavino) shifted back partly to botti and longer macerations.
There are other tables with statistical correlations between different factors (vintage, traditional style, cru, and so on) and critical acclaim, but I haven’t taken the time to wade through the statistical methodology to decipher those. I think the point is that modern wines got higher points up to 2000. To anyone who had followed the Tre Bicchieri awards this is no surprise.
In sum, for serious Barolo/Barbaresco-heads with a tolerance of academic prose, it’s a must read.