The fourth in Stefano’s series of posts on the “Ten Days that Shook the World” of Brunello di Montalcino: The First Sales Boom of the 20th Century.
On August 3, 1933, the King of Italy officially opened the “Classic Wines of Italy Exhibition and Market” in Siena. For the first time, all of the wines that would become the historic DOCs of Italy were presented to the public. The event marked the birth of modern Italian wine and it was an overwhelming success.
The exhibition’s slogan had been penned by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: “Brunello è benzina!” In other words, “Brunello is gas,” the energy that moves the world.
Immense pavilions and displays that had been planned down to the smallest details. The whole affair was hypermodern, futurist, and ambitious. Participants felt like they were experiencing something entirely unique and Brunello was one of the featured wines.
Ten Montalcino wineries took part with their own stands. Combined, their entire production was 4,850 hectoliters, a figure equivalent to 650,000 bottles. In order to put that number into context, we need to consider that those estates represented just a fifth of the surface area of the township. It’s likely that they also represented roughly a fifth of the production as well. In that era, Montalcino had 3,500 hectares planted to vine, just 20 percent less than today.
In the wake of the fair’s success, Fattoria dei Barbi markedly increased its catalog sales (the online marketplace of the time) and Biondi Santi exported its first bottles to the U.S., the beginning of a love story that continues today. This was a revolutionary moment for Brunello and its renown. And the appellation was living one of its many rebirths. And after the more than 100 medals Brunello had won in Europe between 1890 and 1910, it wasn’t just a question of rebranding. It meant that a lot of wine was being sold and at high prices.
Let me share a family anecdote that captures the spirit of the times. In 1933, my grandfather Giovanni Colombini was a young and idealistic lawyer. During the fair, he saw the price that Tancredi Biondi Santi was asking for his Brunello and he couldn’t contain himself.
“This is immoral!” he blurted out. “It’s too expensive when there is a crisis going on” (in Italy, there is always a crisis going on). “Prices this high are offensive to people who are suffering.”
Unruffled, Tancredi said to him: “Giovanni, don’t be an idiot. You’ll see.”
On a large pile of bottles he had placed a sign that read “Premium Brunello 20 Lire” and next to it, on a pile of bottles filled with the same wine, he had placed a sign that read “Regular Brunello 5 Lire.” By the end of the evening, the first pile was sold out while the second pile was still standing.
Then the war broke out and the soldiers shot holes in the casks so they could drink the wine that gushed out. Everything was destroyed. Even our memory was lost. We had to start all over again, one of the many times we had to start all over again in Montalcino.
Stefano Cinelli Colombini