Aug 18: I had been requested recently by a wine club to address a Webinar and share some anecdotes during my 20-year wine journey; and what could be more appropriate than sharing my incredible, chance encounter practically as a novice, with the legendary Angelo Gaja who was the Decanter Man of the year in 1998, among several accolades he earned over his 50 years of winemaking experience at Gaja group of 4 wineries, writes Subhash Arora who first met him in 2002 and has become a good friend with him and family over the years
When I started drinking wine in the 1980s I had been drawn to Italian wines after I met an Italian working in the Italian embassy, who became a close friend and coaxed me into buying wines from ACSA- the American Commissary against his vast quota. I relented eventually provided he would buy me only 2 bottles of a label, making a case with 6 different wines. I was quite happy with the wines costing around $6-$9 in the commissary and must have tasted all of them over time.
I used to drink wine frequently with another very good friend and his wife at their house, generally procured from bootleggers for Rs. 300-400 a bottle. Imports was not easy; only 5-star hotels and embassies were allowed it against a license. I was very curious about wines and studied on my own. Internet was rare but I did subscribe to as many wine websites as possible, besides wine books. One day in around 1998-99, I was shocked to see the price of a Gaja Sori Tildin (the name was rather exotic) wine listed at $280 on a website. To my uninitiated mind I could not then fathom such a high price for a bottle and emailed my friend light-heartedly to buy these wines and invite me at her home so we could share them. She shot back instantly that I should buy them so we could share. Expensive that!! It was my first introduction to Gaja.
Meeting Gaja in Vinitaly 2002
I went to Vinitaly in March 2002 as part of a wine delegation where I was the only one who paid all my expenses. But it was a great experience with numerous tastings and fantastic seminars for which I had registered already because the seats get filled fast. Somehow, I was a bit late for one tasting. Unfortunately, I lost the co-ordinates and had no clue where it was; all the doors to seminar rooms looked alike and there were no visible markings. I panicked because I did not want to miss out the Tasting. Suddenly I heard a German voice from one of the seminar rooms. I had vague knowledge of German language, so I decided to go inside to catch any Tasting. I knew no Italian language and there were no interpreters then.
The room was packed, with a short guy with glasses gesticulating. There was just one empty table on which the organisers quickly set up Riedel glasses thinking I was a registrant and was late. The only word I could understand was ‘Bulgaria’, making me kick myself for landing in a room tasting Bulgarian wines in Italy. Suddenly, I heard the magical words Angelo Gaja who walked in from nowhere. I thought my whole trip was worth it just to watch him speak about those $280 wines, even though he was talking fast in Italian. I had no clue what I was tasting but I enjoyed the wines even though he kept on stressing ‘Bulgaria.’ I was to learn later that he was ‘talking about wines from Ca’Marcanda-his latest estate in ‘Bolgheri’ in Tuscany!
Vines of Sori San Lorenzo 1989
As Angelo was walking out, I jumped to introduce myself when he was pleasantly surprised I knew about Gaja wines. He told the short gentleman to send me some book and said goodbye. The man was his export manager- Willi Klinger who would later become a very good wine friend as CEO of Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Within a couple of weeks, I received the book ‘Vines of Sori San Lorenzo 1989’. It was an enormously interesting, educational book with details about history and viticultural details about Gaja winery in Barbaresco, centring around his iconic wine.
Meeting at Vinexpo 2003
In July 2003, I went to Perugia on scholarship to study Italian; before that I went to Bordeaux in June to visit Vinexpo. I was flipping channels in an Amsterdam hotel, on my way to Bordeaux when I saw a wine award ceremony in Rome on RAI TV, where I saw Gaja receive some Award. The event was ‘Olympics of Wine’ by the Italian Sommeliers Association and his newest winery Ca’ Marcanda in Bolgheri, Tuscany had been recognised as the Best Italian Winery 2003. I made the resolve to meet him at Vinexpo where I did trace him. He remembered me and was gracious enough to taste his full range he next day and also invited me to visit this winery if I liked, when I told him I was going to Perugia. I accepted his gracious invite instantly.
I bunked my classes one day and caught a train to Castagneto- Carducci from where his assistant Valentina Montanari picked me up at the railway station and brought me to the beautiful winery that had won the coveted Award a few days earlier. I was told Angelo was very busy and could give me 10 minutes only. His charm and warm, hospitable nature was evident when he met me and took me around the whole winery and tasted 3 wines with me, spending almost 3 hours!
I visited the winery again in 2018 when I met Gaia Gaja, his daughter who had planned her visit so she could receive me and taste the new vintages. I was very impressed with their record keeping when Valentina who is still with the winery, told me I had visited them earlier on 18 July 2003 and listed the wines I had tasted with Angelo. How impressive is that!!
I visited the biennial Vinexpo again at the next edition in 2005 and took along a few members of the Delhi Wine Club. On the very first day, I took an appointment with him for tasting with the members the next day. I remember they were totally smitten by him and his demeanour and told me, ‘such a celebrity and he poured wines himself and tasted with us!’ That is the inimitable, friendly style of Angelo Gaja, Prince of Piedmont who I have been since meeting many times at various wine shows and in Barbaresco, though I see now more of Gaia who looks after day-to-day affairs in their 3 wineries in Piedmont, Montalcino and Bolgheri.
Meeting in Barbaresco
Another anecdote was when I met him at the winery in Barbaresco. He was in his usual upbeat mood as he welcomed me with a hug. When I asked him about Gaia, he told me she was preparing a special Tasting for me. And what a tasting it was! There were 14 different labels. I mentally calculated later, the value of those wines in India was well over Rs. 350,000!! That’s how friendly Gajas are!! As we say in India- ‘Yaaron ke yaar’! (Friends of friends)
Incidentally, when I visited Ca’Marcanda in 2003, Gaja Wines were being imported by Sanjay Menon of Sonarys. When I reached India, Aman Dhall of Brindco had taken over the distribution and is still the distributor.
Promis with Darmagi
Incidentally, I did keep my promise with my friends around 15 years later when I opened a bottle of Gaja Darmagi 1999, a DOC Langhe, single vineyard wine made with Nebbiolo and around 5% of Barbera, at their new Resort in Goa- ‘Beleza by the Beach,’ on 31 December 2009. ‘It is an opulent, full- bodied powerful wine from the iconic Angelo Gaja in Piemonte and has all the elegance of Barbaresco terroir. It is expensive enough ($240 street price in the US) to be opened once in a blue moon. Since December 31 was a blue moon (the second full moon in the same month; there are 41 in a century) it was quite appropriate to uncork the bottle with rays of the full shining moon infusing the wine in the glass,’ I recorded.
Gaja family brought this wine and others back into Barbaresco fold by going 100% on Nebbiolo and making it a DOCG Barbaresco wine starting in 2013 vintage, spearheaded by Gaia Gaja.
For some of the earlier related Articles, visit:
Archives (2003): Angelo Gaja all praise for Indian White Wines
Blog WineKnightIndia : Herr Klinger und il Kavalier
If you Like this article please click on the Like button