The sixth 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.
In the 1990s, over the span of roughly a decade, the who’s who of Italian wine arrived in Montalcino: Frescobaldi, Banfi, Antinori, and other big fish. This Sangiovese-flavored D-Day heralded a deluge of heavy equipment (excavators, mind you!) and capital that was poured thunderously on the banks of the Orcia and Ombrone rivers. Good God! These were huge companies and some were from the U.S. Who could stop them?
Today, more than 30 years after this happened, long after the “fog of war” subsided, I’d like to offer an attempt at objective analysis.
The fear — our fear but not just ours — was that Montalcino would change. It was a justified fear. Montalcino did change. But how did it change? It was feared that vineyard ownership would be concentrated in the hands of just a few estates. But the exact opposite occurred.
In the early 1990s, the 15 largest wineries (including my own Fattoria dei Barbi) had 550 hectares planted to Brunello out of 1,200 hectares total. Today, they have just 750 out of 2,100. Everyone was certain that Montalcino grape growers, regardless of size, small or large, would have given in and sold (out) as soon as some rich foreigner waved a wad of cash in their faces.
It didn’t take long before there were crazy offers and too many of them. But our grape growers, save for a few, resisted temptation. In some cases, the children and grandchildren of land owners dug in their heels and bought even more land. They are the true masters of the appellation today. And who can make them budge? Not even herbicide would do the trick.
There was a fear that the newly arrived winemakers would have used their influence to monopolize awards, journalists, and visibility. But the ones who received the highest ratings were nearly all young, local entrepreneurs.
There was a fear that Montalcino would become a colony economy and that the natives would be exploited to line the pockets of greedy foreign owners (and steel magnates). Instead, prosperity flourished in Montalcino.
We were expecting a dystopia and a pillaging of our land. We were expecting poison and the end to those adorable rows of cypress trees.
Well, it’s true that a hill or two were ennobled. And a newly arrived and well known estate manager was mocked by the wicked locals.
But the landscape today is beautifully manicured. And every trace of abandon has disappeared. There’s no blight and no pollution. And the “Tuscan flavor” of our land has been so well preserved that UNESCO declared us a world heritage site.
But the real fear, the one that really had wine lovers shaking in their boots, was another. It was feared that the newly arrived winemakers would de-naturalize Brunello and that no one could stop them.
But then, instead, as often happens in Montalcino, reality was totally different from what it seemed. When the feared vote was held to determine whether or not Brunello could be “cut” with other grapes, more than 85 percent voted to keep Brunello the way it was. In the secrecy of the voting booth, the newly arrived winemakers voted exactly as the most “Taliban” among the Montalcino owners did. Otherwise, such a figure could never have emerged. Now, we all give our support to 100 percent Sangiovese wines. It’s better to make peace together than to continue to fight without end in sight.
But is all that sparkles made of gold? The answer, of course, is no.
There has also been also a blunder or two. There’s no denying it. But even in the moment of greatest conflict, we never stopped talking to one another.
So what was the impact of the big fish that arrived in Montalcino?
Perhaps it would have happened regardless. It’s true. But in the years that followed, everything changed in Montalcino.
Brunello was already an important wine. Now it’s an icon. A small village with 5,000 inhabitants now produces five percent of Italy’s entire wine output. That’s incredible! It’s possible that we are the richest rural community in the world.
Of course, in Montalcino, there’s a wine shop on every corner but you can’t find a shop that sells underwear. But is this really a problem?
The most important thing is that the arrival of these businesses didn’t force the locals out (nor did it take them to the cleaners). Those who were here are still here and they have thrived just as the newly arrived have and in some cases even more.
Maybe Brunello is better off. Maybe it’s not. But regardless, it has remained the same. I don’t know of other cases of “grafts” that were so successful. And I might even go as far as to say that even beyond the enologic horizon, this is a sign of a great civilization. And without a great civilization behind them, great wines cannot be made. “Terroir,” money, marketing, and great winemakers are not enough. That’s been attempted in other places and it hasn’t worked. Ever.
Stefano Cinelli Colombini