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Posted: Friday, 13 May 2022 22:00

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Angelo Gaja: Driving Italian Wines was not easy

May 13: Today, Gaja is a Brand, a household name in Italy and the rest of the world where connoisseurs lap up his Gaja wines from Piemonte, Tuscany (Bolgheri and Montalcino) and even from Etna in Sicily) but his initial years were not a cake walk, as he shares with connoisseur like Subhash Arora who marvels at his efforts in not only making Gaja a super deluxe collectible brand but has also helped bring Barbaresco on the world map

Angelo Gaja outside his winery in Barbaresco‘Bravo’ booms a voice. “Bravissimo” chimes another. More than a thousand people are on their feet-it’s a standing ovation… The applause is a crescendo already two minutes long. The reviews will surely be raves…This is the New York Experience where agriculture drops its first two syllables…There he is, Angelo Gaja, in his dark suit, putting on his reading glasses behind the lectern.

Unlike when he first visited the US 17 years ago, he is now a well-known figure, Wine writers no longer have to tell their readers that his name is pronounced as ‘Guy-ah’. But he takes nothing for granted.

Also Read : Gaja and Graci: Etna Collaborative Wine Project still Work-in-Progress

These above are a few lines excerpted from the Book. The Vines of San Lorenzo by Edward Steinberg, that Angelo presented to me after I met with him for the first time at Vinitaly in 2002. It describes the New York Wine Experience, one of the most prestigious wine extravaganzas even this day. For the uninitiated few in India, Angelo Gaja is a legendary figure in Italy and a larger-than-life icon who did so much for Gaja wines and Barbaresco appellation and literally brought it at the same level as Barolo. It is no small feat that he was a recipient of ‘Winemaker’s Winemaker Award’ by the Institute of Masters of Wine and the Drinks Business in 2019.

Also Read : Chance Encounter with Angelo Gaja and long Friendship

Struggle for 17 years

Things were not as rosy in the beginning, after he started working with his father in 1961. After he joined the management in 1969, the 34-year old Angelo visited America for the first time in 1974. ‘I stayed for two weeks, went to important restaurants, which were all French, and their cellars did not carry a bottle of Italian wine. Italian restaurants, were actually trattorias started by immigrants with great will and passion, who put their mothers and grandmothers in the kitchen. I immediately understood that a very difficult challenge awaited me,’ he acknowledges.

Also Read : Gaja Back to Barbaresco Roots

’I met one wine broker,  Bonsal Seggerman  who took me to a couple of places to help me understand the market. The first was an Italian wine shop in Queens, managed by a guy from Molise, a small region in south Italy (squeezed between Campania, Basilicata and Puglia in the South and Lazio and Abruzzo in the North). He told me that Gaja wines were too expensive to compete with French wines. Everyone kept saying that our wines had to be ’cheap and cheerful’, says Angelo. This was perhaps the time when Chianti had become the most popular wine in the flask- cheap and cheerful!

The second place he visited was Sherry-Lehmann, a very important wine shop on Park Avenue, run by Sam Aaron. ‘He generously welcomed me by uncorking a bottle of Bollinger champagne. At the end of our meeting he also told me with prices like mine there was no market in the United States. But he didn’t discourage me either and advised me to wait patiently as the American market rewards patience and dedication. It would be only a matter of time.’

Also Read : Lifetime Achievement Award for Wine Enthusiast Angelo Gaja

Ground breaking book about Italian Wines

‘Seven years later, in 1981, a ground-breaking book came out. Written by an American journalist Burton Anderson who lives in Italy even today, Vino: The Wines and Winemakers of Italy, described Italian producers and wines from a new perspective that praised tradition, craftsmanship and quality. It was a turning point’, says Gaja.

When he returned to the US at the end of 1981, the atmosphere already had begun to change. ‘Our meetings went much more productive and I returned home with my first orders. Anderson's book was of enormous importance; it was the first work in English on Italian wine, a source of inspiration for other American journalists as well.

Also Read : Davos of Wine: Gaja Decries Spirited Approach against wine

But it took time to kill the idea that Italian wines should be cheap. I had found an importer, Jerry Tosi in 1980 in Boston.  He was a man who had flown American fighter planes during the war. He fell in love with Italian cuisine and started an import business after the war, selling olive oil and pasta to restaurants and then adding a selection of wines for Boston wine shops.

After visiting the Ristorante Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence he sought me out to organize a tasting of my wines at the historic Colonnade hotel in Boston. Despite an extraordinary snowstorm, the room was full. At one point a person in the audience stood up to ask me a question. My English was terrible then and I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. But I figured he was angry because he took his papers and stormed out of the room. That man was Toni Spinazzola, the food and wine critic of the Boston Globe, arguing that the prices of Gaja Wines ruined the perceived image of Italian wine! ‘This was the climate back then.

Also Read : Star Interview : La Casa Nostra of Angelo Gaja

The Turning Point

The real turning point came towards the end of the 1980’s. ’I remember Ed Koch, the mayor of New York for 12 years, who often had lunch at the Il Mulino restaurant in New York and always selected our wine. He was so passionate about our Barbaresco that he asked to keep the bottle of Barbaresco GAJA on the table, with the label facing Tasting with Angelo Gaja  at the wineryaway so that everyone in the room could see what he was drinking. Another great promoter of Italian wines was the Hollywood star Robert De Niro who owned the New Yorker Restaurant in Tribeca’ New York’.

Also Read : Feature : Gaja - Celebrating 150 Years with Art

Angelo sums up his relationship with the United States as follows:

’The Americans are willing to let you in the ring, even if you’re just a rookie, but you have to show that you can fight. If you know how to move well and you have courage, they appreciate and reward you. This is why I like to cross the ocean, because when I return to Piedmont I’m recharged with an incredible energy. I’m walking on sunshine, and floating high, ready for anything.’

Perhaps, this is the path chosen by KRSMA and JCB wines from Jean Charles Boisset who has teamed up with Fratelli in India and sells the premium label in California. Gaja wines have been imported into India by Sanjay Menon of Sonarys since 2001. He is also the current distributor. Though it might set you back by over Rs. 40,000 for that bottle of Barbaresco, it would give you the satisfaction that this wine claims to be the equivalent of the First Growths of Bordeaux, costs a fraction of the price of the French wines.

Subhash Arora

 

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