The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Day 11: Colli Tortonesi

It was a good day to get inspired, a great last day before going home. Seventy five degrees and sunny with a light cool breeze, one of the three or four really perfect days in a year. Weather-wise. Other things are good, too, but I wake up still feeling like a stuffed pig, my insides crowded with regional specialties, ancient grains, homemade cakes from Italian grandmothers. A normal night’s sleep isn’t going to shake off a week of force-feeding Italian style. So I went out for a run, seeing again my buddies the brutal hills between San Marzano, Moasca and Canelli. It really lifts my spirits and turns the 5 kilo lead weight in my stomach back into a 5 pound lead weight, or maybe now it is aluminum. I stick to protein during a late breakfast: Bruna from Carussin does something to scrambled eggs that is indescribably good, and there is a liter of raw cow’s milk to be drunk. It feels light: context is everything. Thanks to a glitch in the house wi-fi I can hit the road with no additional fiddling.

I few kilometers south and the Piedmont becomes green and flat, and stays that way almost to my destination. Agricultural and uneventful. I like it, I’m feeling mellow and unambitious and the terrain suits my mood. No harrowing switchbacks or fold-in-the-mirrors moments on roads threaded between ancient stone houses on this route, at least until the very end. It’s a day when I’m feeling like rolling with it. The critical filter can be turned off a little, too, because I know we are working with Chiara and Michele from Oltre Torrente. After a state-side tasting of samples and an initial visit by Luc during the dampest days of winter, my stop at their cellar is formality and a great deal of information gathering. They made it into the portfolio weeks back, lucky (or unlucky) for them!

The cellar is an example of inefficiency at its finest, three tiny old stone rooms stacked on top of each other, with disconnected spaces around the village for bottle storage. Soon they will move the warehousing of wine to one larger location.“Right now we have wine everywhere in Paderna!” Chiara says. The small cool underground cellar that houses the remnants of last year’s vintage will become a room for keeping reserve wines. Currently they have no space to age anything, in a few days when Michele bottles the 2013 whites and 2012 reds the room will be totally filled up.  

Chiara is from Milan. The choice in 2010 to move to Paderna was a little random: they considered Oltrepo Pavese, (“too expensive!”) Le Marche, many more. I think it’s clear Colli Tortonesi is the right choice, even if hoped-for funding from the local authorities never materialized. “We thought they would give us (a grant) to start something new in Paderna. Now that seems unlikely.” In spite of nonexistent financial backing, the couple managed recently to purchase an additional hectare of 100-year-old vines, and will probably buy another small north-facing parcel from an old farmer who currently rents it to them. “He keeps threatening to rip up the vines,” which is an unsubtle rural negotiation tactic. Today Oltre Torrente has 5 hectares to utilize, and will make about 15,000 bottles this year. That’s up from 5,000 in the first year, 10,000 in the second… the goal is to get the estate to 30,000 bottles eventually. Ambitious, but it’s a good size, and I think they’ll make it.

They had to pick a farm somewhere. Chiara had studied at the university in Milan, got her PhD and took a year-long spot at a university in the Netherlands. It was clear to her that positions in academia in Milan were unlikely to be forthcoming. Perhaps the school retains one too many tenured professors teaching conventional viticulture from a different era. And Michele was always making wine elsewhere in Italy: the couple needed to find a place of their own.

Chiara likes raising two small kids in a village where all the locals eat lunch together in the only restaurant. “Everybody knows your business (and has opinions) but you would never starve.” And the kids still see plenty of Milan, diverse perspectives to absorb.  

We talk about everything: it’s pretty easy with Chiara. I’m on their side. Through lunch and a nice walk up steep north and south facing Timorasso, Cortese, Barbera and Dolcetto vineyards I get closer to her philosophy. They use minimal sulfur, around 30mg per liter for their white wines. One day they might experiment with an orange wine, but she says lower sulfur “is like playing Russian roulette in reverse. Occasionally it works out but usually….” I pretty much agree. A tiny amount of sulfur strikes me as reasonable, not dogmatic or dangerous.

They are organic in the vineyard. Honeysuckle is in full bloom on the ridge road separating their north and south facing vines. The south-facing ones border the cemetery, so I make dumb zombie jokes. Chiara says she is more afraid of working there because of wild boar. The cellar has a couple rows of 5-hectoliter concrete tanks. There is squeaky-clean stainless steel upstairs with new white (and red) wine in it, and a small stack of mostly second and third use barriques in the cellar. The make all the reds as individual crus, then blend. The 100-year-old Barbera is ridiculously fruity, the 60-year-old Barbera parcel is more structured, with secondary flavors of smoke and spice. It’s an estate of 10+ tiny parcels, so blending them together is the only sane way to make the wine.

They are young, they don’t really have any money, and they make wine in a place probably smaller than your garage. I can tell Chiara really likes Paderna, and it’s easy to do business with people who share your viewpoint and aesthetic: I see Fugazi, Iron Maiden and Fela Kuti cds on the shelf of their apartment, which is attached to the side of the church at the top of Paderna. It’s a house with amazing views in every direction and architectural potential that doesn’t exist where we live, as far as I can tell.

I can’t really get more excited about an estate without needing a brown paper bag to breathe into. The Timorasso is a special wine, saline and bright and ripe. We will sell lots of their richly appley Cortese and a cool, clean vino rosso, but for some of you Timorasso will become wine crack. I know I will have a hard time letting go of it, except I want to create a scarcity of these wines in their cellar and in our warehouse. Awesome people, youngish, full of energy, working 24-7 with two little kids in tow. They are going for it and trying not to think too much about how crazy this project is. Because Michele and Chiara are really obsessed with wine. They collect it like you and I do, it’s a mission/life’s work, the path they are on. It probably feels like the thing they have to do. This place really is the best. And there is a badger on the label.


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