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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Friday, January 22 2010. 12:08

Start Interview: Heart to Heart with Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja, the elder daughter of Angelo Gaja and the pretty face of Gaja wines, who also looks after the company exports,  was passing through Delhi for two days recently when Subhash Arora had a heart to heart chat with her on several hitherto unreported and interesting chapters of her personal life.

Ooh! That Hurts

‘When I was 6 years old I had learnt the gag in school, where you pulled the chair from underneath a friend just as she was about to sit down. She would fall on the floor and we’d all laugh and clap. My father who loves playing piano was about to sit down one evening when I pulled the chair from under him. He fell down screaming in pain as I had barely begun to laugh and clap. He was furious but luckily didn’t spank me.’

We were having a small, private dinner at the ‘Dhaba’, the ever-popular Indian rustic restaurant at the Claridges Hotel where Gaia Gaja was sharing private moments about her life and her iconic wine producer father Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco in Piemonte. The discussion was centered on my recent ongoing backache and how it can make life miserable. So where is the connection? The chair incident occurred when Angelo was also going through a miserable backache.

At the age of 30, does her father still get mad? I asked her about the person who is always flashing full- bodied smiles in public, indicative of his confidence in the knowledge that he is a successful producer who helped put Barbaresco on the world map, on the same footing as the towering big brother Barolo, the top dog of Italian wines. 

Getting Along with Father

‘Oh, he loses his temper easily as he has a very controlling nature and always wants things done in his own way, but he has mellowed down over the years,’ Gaia said, perhaps reminded of that chair incident in Barbaresco. Incidentally, she is one of the residents of the small village which used to have a population of around 4000 at that time but due to a constant migration to the big cities like Torino- the Detroit of cars, it has come down to 600, including her 5-member family.

She lives in a new apartment adjacent to the Castello di Barbaresco bought by her father in the nineties and situated across the winery. Her younger sister Rossana and teenage brother Giovanni live with her parents.

‘Does your father resent your moving out of the house and living on your own?’  'No, he is very happy, he wants me to be independent,’ she says. She has been working with him since 2004 and assisting in the exports of Gaja wines to some 60 countries and that means working very closely by his side and often travelling to the customers with him, especially the USA.

Gaia Gaja, Gaia Gaja

When I told my wife that Gaia was coming to Delhi and we would take her out for dinner she agreed to join only because she has often heard me talk of Gaia and Angelo, a good friend. When I introduced her to Gaia she whispered to me, ’But what is her first name?’ I said, ‘Gaia’. ‘I know she is Gaja but I cannot address her as Gaja!'

We had a big laugh when I told this to Gaia who told me that there is confusion many times when she meets people for the first time. Gaja is a Spanish name; Angelo’s forefathers moved from Spain about three centuries ago. She was named Gaia, a Greek name that spells happiness. Coincidently, both are pronounced as Ga-ya. But she is quite used to it by now, she says, laughing and narrating a few instances of her own.

Education and Experience

Gaia has had no formal winemaking education unlike Rossana. She finished her degree in Economics after which she was in California, working for Chimney Rock Winery, learning the ropes of distribution, including the wines of Bordeaux and California, but not Gaja. ‘Oh, I have done some short courses on wine here and there but no certification courses.’

Blending Princess

‘I love every part of my job, and I am interested in winemaking and agronomy which I find very amusing and fascinating. But right now what my winery needs is someone that travels, takes care of relation with importers, clients and journalists. That's why I am not working at the winery, but I always discuss with Guido and Giorgio-our winemaker and agronomist, and I try to learn from them.’

‘I love to blend and am a part of the team to select the blends for Gaja wines. You see, we make the wine from several different parcels, the grapes of which are fermented in the individual tanks. Although they are all 100% Nebbiolo, the characteristics of each parcel are different. We start with a mix of different proportions and select about 14 blends. After tasting we may narrow them down to four.

‘This is where the fun starts. I may like one blend; my father may prefer the second while Guido Rivella may select yet the third. There are heated discussions where no one is willing to concede. Of course, we finally select the right blend (and I suspect Angelo Gaja has the final say) for that vintage.’

Vertical Vineyards

Gaia may not be actively involved with the viticulture or oenology but she understands her vines and wines very well. Explaining why and how Gaja has gradually shifted from the traditional horizontal vines, she says, ‘my father has the great quality of being a man capable of taking big decisions and experimenting even if there is big risk, so long as there is a possibility of improving the wine quality.’

‘In the early '70s he decided to change the plantation of our vineyards from the traditional horizontal plantation to vertical, hoping to get better sun exposure for the grapes and to enhance the density of plants per hectare. You see, by planting horizontal on the very steep hills of Langhe, the distance between rows has to be more than that with a vertical plantation.’

‘The problem of soil erosion that you can get with vertical plantation has been solved by planting grass between the rows and minimum intervention with tractors, which would destroy the structure of the soil and contribute to the erosion of the land,’ she explains like an expert.

Climate Change

‘We are not happy about the global warming but we believe that our area being presently quite cold now will get better with any warming. Moreover, since 2001 we started to check and follow the vegetal evolution of each vine of our older vineyards and select, by tying ribbons around the ones which in our opinion perform better even in the warmest months.

Our goal is in this way to have a select number of clones that we can replant making sure that even during hot years they will perform better.

Continuing the conversation at the dinner organised by Brindco and Hotel Aman at the Lodhi restaurant where she practically outshone even the wines of the evening with her effervescent charm and ease in presenting her wines, I popped another personal question.

Good Boss

Is Angelo a good boss? ‘He loses his temper very fast but he is a very good person to work with,’ she confides. And is she a good boss? (Rossana told me in jest once that Gaia bosses her around a lot.) ‘Oh I am a good boss. I don’t like to boss her around. But she joined the winery only last year and did her first harvest at Ca’Marcanda in 2009. I have to be stern with her sometime,’ she says laughing.

Retirement of Angelo Gaja

Angelo is getting to be 70 years soon, he will complete 50 years into the business in a year. Does he have any retirement plans? ‘I don’t think he will ever retire. He is so agile, passionate and active. The question of his retirement does not arise. ‘Let me tell you one thing about my father-he is still a very fast thinker,’ Gaia says, adding, ‘when you talk of A, he is already thinking of his answer, your reactions and is at F already.’

Gaia ka Swayamvar

She is 30, she is beautiful-she was looking even prettier in her black outfit- she is charming, has a great job working with an icon like Angelo Gaja and she is a potential heiress to a part of the Gaja winery empire in Barbaresco;  Restituta in Montalcino and Ca’Marcanda  in Bolgheri: both in Tuscany. She has a good pedigree- her father is and grandfather was both highly respectable and, one speculates, well appointed. She is perhaps the most eligible bachelorette in Piemonte. Maybe there could be a Swayamvar like the recently televised Rakhi ka Swayamvar? ‘I don’t intend to marry for a few years, at least. And marriage does not have to be a given. Things are changing fast in Italy,’ she says instantly.

Celebrating a Milestone

‘My immediate focus is how to celebrate the 70th birthday of my father in March. It will be a small, private affair but we want to do something special for him but we don’t know what to do yet,’ she wonders. I did recommend a private family vacation in Goa. ‘But he is a mountain person’, she says.

There are several resorts like Wildflower Hall in Shimla in the Indian mountains which are special-not to mention several Oberoi top-end properties like Uday Vilas. Both Angelo and her mother love India and they might go for the idea. If you have any suggestion, let us know-we will pass them on. But rest assured you are not invited for the party!

Subhash Arora


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