The Italian Winemakers' Cult


It was a hot, late summer evening in Tuscan wine country — and, unexpectedly, I was getting a lesson in astrology.

Inside a grid of cool, lush green vines, amid hills and valleys rippling toward the horizon, a cherubic woman in a wide straw hat named Helena Variara was pointing toward the sky.

“You have days of fire, air and days of earth — the 12 constellations are our helpers,” she said matter-of-factly. “Our work is to enter the rhythm of the planets.”

Technically speaking, Ms. Variara’s work is also to make wine. She and her partner, Dante Lomazzi, own a tiny winery called Colombaia, tucked onto a hillside of northern Tuscany, outside Siena. “We work the soil on earth days,” Ms. Variara said. “We work the leaves on water days. The sugar in the grapes grows when the moon grows. So we only harvest after a full moon.”

After a pause, she added: “By the way, the water days are also the best days for eating salad.”

Ms. Variara’s practices may seem unorthodox, but her method (better known as biodynamic winemaking) is becoming more and more prominent among a small cohort of Italian winemakers. It follows an ethos composed in the mind of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s, and the tenets are fairly simple: There can be no synthetic chemicals or mechanical irrigation. A true biodynamic farm must also grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, and there have to be animals, either domestic or wild, to keep this miniature ecosystem in check.

And Ms. Variara’s affinity for the constellations is not a personal idiosyncrasy. Biodynamic winemaking also mandates that the farmer adhere to a specific celestial calendar. Hence my astrology lesson.

Sebastian Nasello, the winemaker at Podere Le Ripi in Montalcino, explained it this way: “Organic farming does no harm to the earth. Biodynamic farming aims to make the earth healthier.”

People like Ms. Variara and Mr. Nasello are part of a movement of small vineyards; most produce about 10,000 to 20,000 bottles annually.

As a point of comparison, Goliath vineyards like Antinori, Frescobaldi and the other wines of the duty-free world produce millions of bottles a year and export them all over the world. In 2015, Santa Margherita sold over 19 million bottles in 85 countries, totaling 118,200,000 euros (about $130,000,000) in net sales.

Dante Lomazzi and Helena Variara, Colombaia’s owners, whose biodynamic method of winemaking is becoming more and more prominent among a small cohort of Italian winemakers. Credit Susan Wright for The New York Times

The biodynamic vineyards I visited export a few thousand bottles a year, if any, and the digits of their net sales numbers don’t usually exceed three or four zeros.

Unlike the giants of the wine world, these small, rough-hewed farms add no ingredients besides grapes and time to their wines (with the occasional exception of a pinch of sulfites to preserve the vintage). Where a company like Banfi or Antinori may get truckloads of grapes from all over the region delivered to a sprawling factory that also hosts tour buses, these biodynamic farms generally consist of a farmer, a tractor and maybe a few friends who come to help at harvest time. These farmers are the Davids.

What if the best way into the world of Italian wine was not on a tour bus, but walking through these tiny vineyards with these farmers as guides? It felt like unchartered territory, as if I was unpeeling the unknown side of Italian wine. And, as I would learn, it’s a world that only gets more fascinating the deeper in you go.

Officially, these wineries are not typically open to the public. Unofficially, such winemakers love nothing more than showing off their farms and vintages. For someone who is more traveler than tourist, these wineries provide the perfect entry into a part of Italy we don’t see very often, a part that has been untouched by throngs of tourists and Instagram clichés.

And, perhaps most fascinating of all, there is the deference to the occult.

“We bottle when the moon is descending,” Ms. Variara told me as we walked into her cellar. Each year Colombaia makes two red wines, a cloudy white and a tiny batch of sparkling pink and white wines. “You need the right moon because she’s alive. She knows she’s in a bottle.”

It took me a second to realize we were talking about the wine.

Far be it from me to say “she” isn’t alive. Biodynamic wines may seem like a quirk, a wine-industry outlier, but for the fact that the wine is fantastic.

“Helena’s wine has a soul,” said Brian Heck, a consultant who specializes in biodynamic wines. “It makes you want to be a better person.”

When I heard about people who worked according to a romantic voodoo of reading the phases of the moon, of using stars as a sort of extraterrestrial oenologist, I was fascinated.

Which is how I found myself in Italy (with my husband and two children) seeking out wineries like Colombaia: ones that are more farm than factory, exist in harmony with the land around them, and make some of the most interesting wine in the country.

The entrance to Stefano Amerighi’s winery, near the village of Cortona in Tuscany. Credit Susan Wright for The New York Times “I can’t drink conventional wine,” Gabriele de Prato told me. “I can taste the chemicals. I can taste the temperature control. A conventional wine tastes dead.”

Handsome and tan, with a shaved head, leather bracelets and camouflage shorts, Mr. de Prato looks as if he’d be just as comfortable on the pages of a men’s fashion magazine as strolling through his farm. We were touring Podere Còncori, Mr. de Prato’s vineyard not far from Lucca, in an area known as Garfagnana. Podere Còncori produces several labels, including a syrah, a pinot blanc and (my personal favorite) a rich, elegant pinot nero.

“People think our methods are strange because we use the astrological calendar,” Mr. de Prato said. “But remember that European farmers have always used the moon calendar.”

He almost had me convinced. Until he asked if I had learned to bury a cow horn. By the look on my face, he rightly assumed I had not. “We fill a cow horn with flowers, herbs, manure, like compost,” he said. “We bury it for the winter. It goes into the warm part of the soil closer to the sun’s energy. In the spring we dig it up, mix it with water and spray the vines. It is a natural fertilizer.”

A short while later, Mr. de Prato walked me through his cellar. Between giant steel wine barrels, there was a massive table piled high with lush red tomatoes of all sizes (“You have to have a hundred tomato plants in Tuscany or you’re nobody”). He grabbed a handful of the smallest, rinsed them off and plopped them in a terra-cotta bowl with a sprig of fresh rosemary. It was time to eat.

We sat at the heavy wooden table in his tasting room with those tomatoes, plus platters of crostini, bowls of homemade pasta e fagioli and generous pours of Podere Còncori Melograno. “This is not a simple wine, it is more difficult, but it warms you up,” he told me.

There’s artistry and erudition in this world. It attracts Italians who retreated to the hills to think deep thoughts. Many of the farmers I met with were musicians, some painted, one quoted Ulysses, and all of them tried to educate me.

“You must read Goethe,” said Stefano Amerighi, leaving me to wonder how he knew I hadn’t. We were at his vineyard 150 miles southeast, near the village of Cortona. “‘The Metamorphosis of Plants’ explains our philosophy. Humans waste a lot. With the biodynamic methods you don’t lose anything, you use everything. Goethe will help you understand.”

Mr. Amerighi has long, wavy hair to his shoulders and a graying beard, wears distinguished tortoiseshell glasses and carries a burned-out cigar.

He led me down a dusty path that ran between his lush green vines. Though it was an oppressively hot afternoon, the world inside the vines felt cooler, almost air-conditioned. We arrived at his pasture, home to Mr. Amerighi’s Chianine, the famous white cows that are almost always fated to become bistecca alla Fiorentina.

“Monoculture is not agriculture,” he said stroking one of the cows under her chin. “A farm is like a human: You need a head and a heart and the organs to make the whole organism.”

He pointed to a group of cows gathered in the shade and said: “A few are pregnant. I promised my daughter I would never slaughter our cows. I think soon we will have many cows.”

Before I left, we toured the cellar. And as we walked in the dank air between big barrels of aging syrah, I noticed that the ceramic casks were all covered with chalk drawings of butterflies, stars and rainbows: the blissful, pastel-colored world of a 6-year-old girl. This cellar was a playground.

It was the starkest reminder that we were nowhere near a factory farm. Though they may be separated by hundreds of miles, these farmers are almost family.

“If there is a hailstorm, we call each other and ask advice,” Mr. de Prato had said to me. “There is no rivalry between me and Stefano and Helena and Arianna. I am so impressed with what Arianna has done.”

If this world has a matriarch, it is Arianna Occhipinti, although that’s hardly the word to describe her. Ms. Occhipinti, who started her biodynamic vineyard in southeastern Sicily in 2010, is 33 years old with a tangle of thick black hair, Mediterranean skin and big brown eyes — more Venus than Juno.

Occhipinti is one of the largest producers of biodynamic wine (over 120,000 bottles annually), and it was among the first to be recognized by critics as high-quality wine.

I met Ms. Occhipinti in the courtyard of her winery, not far from the historic city of Ragusa. We sat on wicker chairs surrounded by olive trees and lavender plants and sipped glasses of the Occhipinti Nero d’Avola, a lightly tannic red wine with what wine people call generous fruit.

Farmers like Ms. Occhipinti believe they “have a responsibility to the people of the future,” she said. “We are in a good moment: Young people are making wine, there is more sensibility. The most important thing is to think small, not: production, production, production.”

These biodynamic farms, I was realizing, are self-sustaining idylls. They grow what they need, they don’t produce much waste, they respect the land. I had become a believer.

It was right around that time that I let my small children roam freely — unseen, unsupervised — through the vegetable patch at the Fonterenza winery.

Fonterenza is run by two sisters, Margherita and Francesca Padovani. Fifteen years ago, the Padovani sisters transformed their childhood summer home, a 400-year-old palazzo in the hills of Montalcino, into a kind of winemaking Eden, a swath of Italian paradise removed from all the bad stuff in the world.

My children were pillaging the garden for ripe tomatoes and fallen plums. Through the thicket of cypress trees, I could hear their sounds of laughter, of playing, of a happy childhood. I was feeling pretty smug. Until I heard Margherita’s voice.

“They must watch out for vipers! They must! Children! If you see a snake, stomp the ground very hard!”

In an instant: a change of heart. Maybe chemicals aren’t all bad? Sensing maternal panic, Francesca suggested we go into town, Sant’Angelo in Colle, for lunch.

From the edge of the centuries-old hilltop town, the Italian countryside was laid out before us like a verdant patchwork quilt stitched together by dirt roads. We walked up to the main piazza, where one lonely child was walking around with a soccer ball as if certain there must be another child nearby who wanted to play. Farther on a man in an apron yelled something very loud at the window of an ancient building. The last time there was a census here, in 2011, the population was 204.

There were 10 of us for lunch: my husband, his parents, our children, the sisters Padovani, Margherita’s husband, John, and their infant daughter. We had pushed together a few tables on the terrace of Il Pozzo, a small trattoria serving classic Tuscan food. Under a canopy of white umbrellas, late summer sunlight poured in.

“Here wine is food: It’s our culture, our history,” Francesca said. “The wine has always been made by the farmers, not people who thought of themselves as winemakers. It is nothing but grape juice.”

“As it should be,” her sister said, finishing the thought.

The waiter laid out platters of warm, crisp fiori di zucca and insalata caprese, while Francesca filled our glasses with Fonterenza Rosso di Montalcino. (The proprietors of the restaurant hardly seemed to mind that Francesca had brought her own bottles.)

“The big vineyards make wine that always tastes the same,” Francesca said. “That’s not wine. Wine is about finding the beauty of the vintage, finding its personality: 2014 was a cold, difficult vintage; 2015 was the opposite — full and ripe and feminine. It should always tell a story.”

A short while later, the waiter placed bowls of pici al ragù and pici all’aglione in front of us, and Francesca stood to pour the Fonterenza Brunello di Montalcino around the table. Slow, heavy church bells reminded us it was midday, and gradually the sky clouded over. The landscape grew darker and a small stream of sunlight beamed directly onto a field of haystacks in the distance like a laser. The gods were playing favorites.

Instantly, the farmers knew what the rest of us did not.

“Grab your things — it’s going to pour,” Margherita said, wrapping her baby in a blanket and getting up from the table.

A second later, it was biblical, pelting the umbrellas like punishment. Rivers of rainwater gushed down the street. We all ran inside for cover (and caffe macchiati) — all but my children, who ran directly into the piazza, which had been transformed into a makeshift Tuscan water park.

I watched them jumping in puddles, arms outstretched, willing more rain to fall. Margherita stood next to me, shifting her infant daughter to her shoulder. I asked her if it was difficult to be a woman in her industry.

“People didn’t think we could do it,” she said. “And we didn’t know much. We planted half a hectare of cabernet sauvignon. That didn’t work. And if we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t have broken so much machinery. But we believed we were doing the right thing.”

Theirs is a romantic undertaking. These young farmers with their tanned skin and leather bracelets are living a kind of bohemian utopia: Make beautiful wine using only the tools Mother Earth provides. Let the moon and the stars be your guide. Think small and waste nothing. Listen to music and read Goethe. And when winter comes, bury your secrets in the soil.

“The biggest misconception is that this is witchcraft. It is not witchcraft,” Mr. de Prato had said to me, smiling for a moment. “Well, maybe a little.”

Source here: New York Times