William Blake wrote: “To create a little flower is the labour of ages.” To make a magnificent bottle of wine takes almost as long.
If you enjoy wine but have never visited a vineyard you’re missing out on an additional dimension of pleasure. Gain a sense of how the crimson, salmon, or straw-colored liquid in your glass came to be: walk the fields in winter and see the vines sleeping in their rows, their arms a knot of burls, their knuckles knurled waiting for warmth; come back in early spring to notice shoots put forth, delicate leaves, and grape clusters so small, so compact you’d mistake them for underripe blackberries; return in midsummer and behold the glorious fruit, lush bunches hanging heavy beneath leaves as big as outstretched hands. With a few visits, you’ll understand why the ancients regarded the harvest with joyful reverence.
And yet, wine transcends the already awesome gift of the grape. It takes people (and yeast) to transform the fruit. The unique parentage of Dionysus, Greek god of wine, reflects this collaboration between nature and humans; his pop was Zeus, but his mom, Semele, was one of us, making Dionysus the only deity at the table atop Mt. Olympus born of a mortal. Like the wine god, the winemaker is an intermediary, a facilitator.
This past May, my friends and I traveled to Umbria, a fecund region between Florence and Rome known for its vineyards, olive groves, truffles, and terra cotta-roofed medieval villages perched on the slopes of rolling hills. And there, just outside one such village, Montefalco, we met a winemaker as skilled at collaborating with nature as anyone alive—an intermediary, a facilitator: Giampiero Bea.
For over twenty years now, I’ve been happily immersed in the world of wine, starting as a bartender in a French bistro where I was introduced to classic cuvées. My three-year stint in a high-end wine shop was like oenology grad school. I’ve led dozens of wine-tastings. I wrote a column, “On the Vine,” for six years in the Princeton Packet’s sadly defunct monthly magazine, PM. But a pillar of my education has been the 18 annual pilgrimages I’ve made with my close friends to explore Europe’s wine regions, meeting some of France, Italy, and Spain’s greatest vignerons, touring their estates, and, of course, tasting their wines.
Giampiero Bea amongst his vines
Even among this illustrious succession of winemakers, Giampiero Bea stands out. Like many vignerons we’ve met, he believes great wine is made in the vineyard—out in the fields on well-tended vines—and not by “tinkering” or manipulating the juice.
Still, I’ve never met a winemaker with such a total vision of his endeavor, from his facility’s architecture to his bottles’ labels (let alone their contents.) We forget that a vineyard is a farm and a farm is a business. Giampiero’s holistic view stems partly from tradition. The vineyard, named for his father, Paolo, runs on the classic Italian fattoria model, a self-sustaining farm on which the family grows grapes, olives, fruits, vegetables, and livestock. Giampiero’s brother, Giuseppe, does most of the farming.
Giampiero is a winemaker (vignaiolo in Italian) and businessman, but he’s also a fine architect; he walked away from a successful practice to continue his father’s vineyard. A student of nature, he keenly observes his land and climate. He’s an historian of his region’s winemaking traditions, a writer, an artist, a spokesman for his fellow vignaioli, and a curator of—shall we say—wine-folk wisdom.
He crafts beautiful wines and solves problems arising in the process of making them not only by his expertise in modern oenological methods but by looking back to what earlier generations deduced by trial and error. He told us, for example, of how a fungus began to mysteriously afflict a neighboring vineyard when the proprietors pushed their plantings further down the valley. Giampiero smiled and shook his head. There was no mystery; his neighbors forgot what their ancestors had figured out: above a certain elevation the vines were safe from harmful fungus.
But Giampiero had an even more folkloric pearl. A fundamental winemaking technique involves stirring the juice and skins of the crushed grapes during primary fermentation—traditionally with a wooden paddle. He explained to us when to fell the tree to make the wine-stirring paddle: cut it down as the moon wanes and your paddle will last decades; cut it down with the moon waxing and it only lasts a year or two before it begins to rot.
Over the years, my pals and I have learned a lot about winemaking’s intricacies, especially biodynamic methods, many of which, with their tie-in to lunar cycles, seem like a re-discovery of ancient techniques once practiced but not fully understood. Nevertheless, that tidbit astonished us.
I’ve been telling people that Umbria is Tuscany without the tourists. Like the region itself, Umbrian wines are a bit of a connoisseur’s secret. Italy has hundreds of grape varieties; some grow throughout the country, others hail only from one region or locality. The Bea winery produces several white and red wines, as well as a small amount of passito, a dessert wine made from late-harvest red grapes which are left out to dry to become raisins before being crushed.
Most of Bea’s white grapes are major Italian varietals, such as Garganega (primary grape in Soave wines), Grechetto, and Malvasia. He also grows Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. One grape, however, is unique: Trebbiano Spoletino, a rare clone of Trebbiano named for the ancient town of Spoleto about 15 miles from Montefalco. From this unusual varietal Bea makes his Arboreus, an orange-colored wine with extraordinary aromas and concentration of flavors.
Similarly, Bea grows Italy’s two most commonly cultivated red grapes, Sangiovese and Montepulciano respectively, but accords the biggest part of his production—some 60% of his vineyard—to Sagrantino, the semi-secret pride of Umbria. The region’s winemakers traditionally used their native varietal for passito (and often syrupy, cloyingly sweet ones.) As one of viticulture’s most tannic grapes, though, Sagrantino has the potential to yield an absolutely incredible dry red wine with uncanny aging power. A few visionary vignaioli began tapping that potential in 1976.
To enter the Bea winery, Giampiero opened an unassuming outside door, but as we stepped over the threshold we had a vertiginous sensation: a cavernous room lay before us, more of it below our feet than above. The space, containing two rows of giant stainless steel fermentation tanks, is crossed by an elegant wood and steel catwalk suspended 20 feet above the floor and running down the middle of the rows. Bea the architect….
Through the next door we entered a smaller room with what seemed to be two massive models of the DNA molecule flanking the opposite door and in the middle of the floor a low-slung table strewn with bunches of blue, dried grapes. Turns out the DNA models were made by stacking the table in front of us: drying racks for the Sagrantino grapes. Giampiero enthusiastically motioned us to try some of the grapes. Let me tell you, they were nothing like a handful of Sun-Maids. Drier than conventional raisins, they were far more flavorful and there was a pleasant light crunch from the pips.
Bea's Sagrantino grapes and drying racks
As Giampiero led us down a staircase, we walked over a circular window in the floor; it was a cylindrical column of visual access that went all the way down to where we were headed, the barrel-aging cellar beneath the subterranean fermentation room we'd crossed through earlier. What an elegant master plan! Along with a cellar kept consistently cool by being deep underground, his schema took advantage of gravity: once the juice in the fermentation tanks was ready for barrel conditioning, Bea could literally pour it through hoses from the upper floor to the lower.
Now, many meters below Umbria’s surface, Giampiero turned to us and explained some of his design philosophy:
You’re familiar with the classical theory of four primary elements: earth, air, water, and fire? I designed my winery to be in harmony with and harness these elements. Ventilation shafts circulate the cold air at this depth into the fermentation room above. Exposed earth and stone surfaces allow groundwater to circulate down here, providing moisture for the barrels.
He led us to the far end of the cellar and showed us a foot-wide seam of exposed earth in the smooth, cream-colored granite wall. Water visibly trickled down its face from about ten feet up. Along with its functionality, the exposed seam provided a wonderfully visible cross-section of the different soil and rock layers on the Bea estate. An exquisite touch.
And after an illuminating tour of his winemaking facility (even for us savvy wine pilgrims), Giampiero welcomed us into his supremely elegant tasting room. At a table with brass candleholders and copper spittoons, four settings had been set with placemats, Paolo Bea booklets, and pens.
Patrick and Giampiero
We began with the Arboreus, that most unusual and delicious orange-to-amber-colored “white.” We tasted the Pipparello, a full-bodied blend of 60% Sangiovese, 25% Montepulciano, and 15% Sagrantino. We ascended to the height of Bea's art with the Cerrete, his 100% Sagrantino di Montefalco named for the vineyard which sits 1,300 feet above sea level. And we finished with dessert, his intoxicatingly rich passito which he generously paired with aged Pecorino cheese. Curiously, Bea suggested we serve this bewitching combination to guests when they arrived, not after dinner. As we had yet to eat lunch, we understood the genius of this tip.
Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea (the vineyard’s full name) is not generally open to the public. Our pre-arranged visit was made possible not only through Giampiero’s generosity of spirit and time, but by the gracious help of a fellow American and living legend in the wine community, Neal Rosenthal. If you don’t recognize his name it’s probably because you were in such a swoon enjoying one of his selections that you didn’t think to turn the bottle around to find out who the importer was.
Like the wine god and the winemaker, the wine importer is an intermediary, a facilitator.
And like his friend Giampiero Bea, Neal Rosenthal is a multitalented man of refined sensibilities. Along with being a nonpareil wine importer, he’s a fine writer. My personally inscribed copy of his memoir, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, holds pride of place on my shelf of travel and wine-writing books. That Farrar, Straus and Giroux saw fit to publish it should also tell you something.
Here’s Neal describing how he discovered the wines of Paolo Bea:
In the late 1980s, a gentleman who was occasionally a retail client stopped by the shop brandishing a bottle of wine. He had just returned from Umbria. Knowing my taste as he did, he proclaimed this wine to be an absolutely perfect addition to our lineup. I’ve heard this countless times and I do habitually taste wines brought to me this way, both out of respect for the effort made to bring the wine back from Europe, and because one never knows! I am never disappointed by the flawed or characterless wines that flow from these references because I never expect much. But once in my professional life the proud conviction of an amateur has proven to be true. This was that moment, and the bottle was a Montefalco Rosso Riserva 1985 from Paolo Bea.
Back in October, I popped a bottle of Bea’s 2008 Pipparello—a more recent vintage of the very same wine which wowed Neal Rosenthal. I figured since it’s a decade old I’d better wait to uncork it just before I had dinner ready. I figured wrong. I could have decanted the wine—the day before! Time had not touched this impenetrably dark nectar. Certainly magnificent right out of the gate, the wine was still young. Incredible!
It was a startling reminder of the rare attainment of Giampiero Bea: mastery.