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Posted: Wednesday, July 08 2009. 11:38

Star Interview : La Casa Nostra

Angelo Gaja, has been termed the Prince of Piedmont and the King of Barbaresco for putting it on the world map as a top quality Italian wine but his family is also fully involved to assist him as Subhash Arora discovered during a recent visit to Barbaresco winery where he met the family again and tasted several vintages.

La Casa Nostra- a painting of the Gaja family
La Casa Nostra- ‘our house’ is far removed from La Cosa Nostra – the Italian name by which the Sicilian Mafia is known in the US, much revered and feared. However Gaja and his family are revered and respected not only in Barbaresco, Piedmont or Italy but throughout the wine world for what their wine making skills and contribution to fine wines of Italy.

Gaja is always a good conversational topic at any party where wine connoisseurs congregate. I was at a dinner organised by Albeisa, the organisers of Alba Wine Festival where I had been invited for anteprima tastings for the latest released vintages of DOCG Barolo (2005), Barbaresco (2006) and Roero (2006). I was not surprised when one journalist told me that the younger daughter Rossana, after finishing here Enology course in Alba, had worked in the winery for a while and decided to study Psychology, speculating if and when she would join back the winery while elder sister Gaia has been working with her father Angelo for several years.

Rossana and La Casa Nostra

I was pleasantly surprised when I met Gaia in the winery and she introduced me to the younger, shy and introverted Rossana. ‘I joined the company back in January this year and am learning different aspects of the business,’ she told me while showing me around the winery and walking me through the inter-connecting tunnel to the Castello di Barbaresco across the street, while Gaia got busy with organising a flight of 16 wines for tasting with Angelo in the brand new Castello Tasting Room.

The camera-shy Rossana seems to appreciate art very much and pin-pointed many of her favourite paintings at the special art exhibition being held to celebrate 150 years of Gaja wines. She had gone back to the University for a 4-year Course in psychology, she told me.

Rossana at the Reception of the earlier proposed Gaja hotel
But where was the need to study psychology when she could learn a lot at the family winery and contribute too, I asked? ‘You don’t know my father. He is all smiles and charm when you meet him. But it is very difficult to work with him. I thought the course will help me in ‘handling’ him better,’ she said with a shy smile and twinkle in her eyes.

We walked into the Tasting Room on the first floor of the Castello where Gaia was giving last touches to the 16 wine-tasting that included a few vintages of the flagship Barbaresco and also the other iconic wines like Sorì San Lorenzo, Sorì Tildin, Costa Russi, Sperss and Darmagi-all gems from their Barbaresco stable. Gaja also has a winery in Bolgheri and Montalcino, in Tuscany.

Charming Gaja

Meeting Gaja is always delightful. He is full of energy that peps you up too. As he entered the magnificent tasting room and we hugged, he reminded me of one of my earlier meetings with him. I had taken a delegation from the Indian Wine Academy (we don’t offer diplomas and degrees but do crazy things like hands-on learning through visits to the wine shows etc.) to Vinexpo and he was kind enough to fix a tasting for my group. Our members couldn’t believe that he poured wines for everyone, gave enough time to discuss the current vintages and took pictures with all the women individually and charmed everyone into being his fans for life.

Bubbles of energy

Even when he is not travelling to his Tuscan Ca’marcanda or the Pieve Restituta in Montalcino, Angelo is always on the ball. Travelling 6 months in a year may tire some people but not this young man! So what is the secret, I asked Angelo?

With his patent hearty laugh he said,’ I don’t know-I guess it is in my DNA. When we were young, we used to feel that 60 was an old age. Now I am 69- I had my birthday only a few months ago- and I still feel I am young.’  He is biologically and psychologically still a youth, I assured him.  

‘But seriously, I think when one passionately loves to do what he or she is doing, it makes a lot of difference to the youthfulness. I love my work and that keeps me going.’ By this time, his wife Lucia had also joined us. ‘I think I am also lucky because we are doing well and we have no conflicts in the family, he adds.’ But we do have our conflicts-sometimes,’ piped in Lucia with a look of affection and mischief in her eyes.

Lucia- the Administrator

With Gaja and Gaia travelling the most of the year, one needs to have the administrator at the home base. Lucia handles the office administration for the winery as well as wine distribution in Italy besides the distribution of Riedel glasses. How long has she been actively involved in the business?’ since 1976’, comes the answer like a bullet. That’s the year when they were married. In 1977, Gaza Distribuzione was borne.

Lucia is no different than the hard working and supportive Gaja women before her. Angelo Gaja’s grand-mother Clotilde Rey, whose pet name was Tildin is credited with a lot of vision and had bought a lot of vineyard properties at very low prices and managed the business very well. Anglo often talks about her immense contribution to the success of the company today.

Gaia in the footsteps

Gaia is already following the footsteps of her great-grandmother, and father and can independently manage the business when he is away. In fact, ‘we have divided the markets between ourselves, since he has started spending a lot more time in Montalcino and Castagneto Carducci in Bolgheri, I visit the foreign markets like USA,’ says Gaia. She spends a lot more time in the marketing, though.
  
Darmagi- What a pity!

‘In the book ‘Vines of San Lorenzo’ by Edward Steinberg, there was mention of your having a strong disagreement with your father Giovanni when you decided to uproot some of the existing vines and grow Cabernet Sauvignon with which you later made Darmagi,’ I ask Angelo. I had found the book and this episode fascinating.

‘The main reason why my father did not like my growing Cabernet or any other international variety was his firm faith in the Nebbiolo grape in our area. He felt that our soil was the best for Nebbiolo and we should focus on this grape only in Barbaresco.

‘That is why we also decided to make only Barbaresco as our flagship wine in the early sixties. We got rid of some of the other labels  and focussed on this DOCG wine only.’ Gaja produces single vineyard DOCG Barbaresco like Sorì Tildin, Sorì San Lorenzo and Costa Russi which are all single vineyard flagship wines named after the vineyards. 

‘In any case only 1.5% of our production is Darmagi- too small in our wine scheme,’ he adds.

Concept of Artisanship

‘We follow the concept of an artisan in our business which was supported by my father. This means we make a limited quantity only and do not run after increasing the production. Even today, we produce more or less the same quantity and are not greedy to increase the quantity to increase profits. We look after the interests of our staff. We treat them like family members.’ Guido Rivella, is only one such example-he has been an oenologist since 1970 and though quite now, still gives advice on wine making. 

Expansion plans

‘Last time when I met you in Ca’Marcanda, you had told me you had a lot of offers from foreign producer to collaborate but you were not interested because you always like the vines to be under your nose so you can monitor the quality. Still thinking same way?’ I ask.

‘I am still getting offers every week. But I feel the same. Besides, now I am not that young. The kids have grown up. They have to decide. If they want to do it they can go ahead.’ This was a hint for the first time that Angelo is perhaps slowing down and focussing more on shaping both his daughters Gaia and Rossana.

‘Our son is still in school and too young to get into the business,’ says Lucia. He is a normal teenager who wants to have fun with his friends.’ In time to come, he may hopefully join the family business.

On Indian wine industry

Gaia, Lucia and Angelo in front of the original door of the winery
‘What are your views on the Indian wine industry? I ask. Both Angelo and Lucia have been to India and enjoyed their visit immensely.

‘The whole world is looking with a lot of interest at India. Our two countries have so much in common-similar religious values, family system, warm friendship, even political,’ Angelo says with a wink, adding ‘ In fact, if I had some extra money, I would love to invest in the Indian stock market right now.’

‘Regarding the wine industry, it is very important that the Indian industry grows and the Indians should be proud of the wine made in India. Of course, one hopes that your government also brings down taxes so the people can drink other wines too.’

What he was trying to say was that the ‘other’ wines-the imported wines could help improve the quality of Indian wines and make India proud. He is known to have made numerous trips to Bordeaux and Burgundy in his quest for improvement in his wines at the early stage of his career and he gives a lot of credit to the fine wines being produced there and has always been ahead in using technologies and procedures adopted by these regions to bring his quality to the top. 

Price drop for the Big Bs

‘Do you think the prices of Barolo and Barbaresco will drop because of the recession?' I ask. 'I am told many producers are finding it hard to sell their wine and the stocks are mounting.’ 'I don’t think the quality producers have to worry about the prices. Surely, the marginal producers will be affected a bit. We are not reducing our prices even if it means a drop in sales. We will stock wines and sell later on when the market is better,’ he says with confidence and clarity.’

'Of course, if the current state goes on for a couple of years or more, things could be different. I hope it won’t come to that stage though,' he says with a look of confidence and hope.

Global Warming

‘This is something people keep on asking me all the time. I don’t think we have been affected so far. But for sure, if there is any effect, it would be for the better for our region. Since we are a cool area, a little temperature rise will benefit the grape ripening.

‘This could be an interesting topic to be discussed at the ‘Davos of Wine’ being organised later this year in Milan by Francois Mauss where you are a key speaker, I ask. ‘I am glad you mention that. It is a very important event-of course I will be there. Before I came to the tasting, I had received a mail from him and I was working on the outline of my speech.'

Albeisa and Gaja

Gaja is no more a member of Albeisa, the Alba based association of producers from the region that promotes the use of Albeisa bottle. He used to be a member earlier but he was very much interested to know how the visit was going on and if any of us had any suggestions that he could forward to the organisation.’ They are very good friends and will do anything possible to make the tasting event as much a pleasure as possible.’

Dinner at Antiné

A course at the Antine Restaurant
We continued our chat after wine- tasting as he and Gaia invited me and another old journalist friend from Denmark to the restaurant adjoining the winery. As we climbed the narrow stairs of the Michelin 1-star Antiné Restaurant, Angelo tells me with his usual laugh,’ many people think we own the restaurant as it is right next to us. But it is not. It is owned by a young chef, Andrea Marino who is One of the well-known young chefs of Piemonte-of course, he is a friend.

He must be a friend. The Menu had no prices. Gaia had graciously recommended a few of the dishes and the food was simply delicious. When we finished dinner, there was no bill presented. A few thank yous and we walked out.

Restaurants are the King

'I have always looked at restaurants for our market. They give you free publicity,’ said Angelo while discussing his marketing strategy during dinner. He makes it a point to know the restaurant owners personally, even now. That should not be an issue or an option in India where the heavy taxation precludes most people buying the flagship Barbaresco or the top end Sorì (pronounced as sor-ee) wines like Sorì San Lorenzo and Sorì Tildin. (Sorì is a Piemontese dialect which refers to that part of the hill where snow melts first, implying that it is the best location from the point of view of getting the sun.

Back to Alba

After having one of the most memorable dinners and an equally enchanting evening and tasting with the Gaja family, I head back home to Alba with my journalist friend-but not before Gaia invites me for a quick look –over of the new apartment where she moved into, just a few days earlier. ‘It is not even fully furnished, but I am so excited to have my, independent place,’ she said. Right across the winery, and next to the Castello which Gaja bought in 1994 to convert into a fancy hotel, refurbished and then changed his mind, it is a modern apartment, with the beautiful surroundings and the work place barely a few seconds away.

It would make many people envious of 'La Casa Nostra'.

Cavaliere Subhash Arora

       

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