Angelo Gaja Interview

Famed Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja is interviewed by Dorothy J. Gaiter at the Core Club in New York City.

Angelo Gaja: The family had a trattoria, and they thought it could be possible to sell wines to the customers there. In effect, the customers of the trattoria started drinking wine there, and some of them started to ask to have wine for home consumption. At the time they were used to buying the wine and bottling it themselves. So they went on, step by step, starting to collect consumers buying wine. In 1912, they had a large number of consumers—private consumers, or even restaurants buying wine and bottling themselves—and they stopped the trattoria and went on exclusively with the winery. This was my great-grandfather, Giovanni Gaja.

Angelo Gaja: My great-grandfather had five sons. The oldest sons was my grandfather, Angelo Gaja. I took his name. He went on with the winery. My my grandfather married Clotilda Rey.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: You referred to her as a “hurricane.”

Angelo Gaja: Very strong woman, you know. In the family, always, the destiny is to be lead by a woman. It’s not bad!

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Not bad.

Angelo Gaja: Because, you know, my grandfather was used saying that in life, it can happen for a man to have a woman better than him. What to do?

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Your father said that?

Angelo Gaja: My grandfather. I didn’t hear him; I know that in the family my father heard him saying this. His father, my grandfather, was saying, “the life, it can happen for a man to have a woman better than him. What to do? He has only two chances. To follow her, or to kill her.” He was smart.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Very smart. He decided to follow her. That’s very good. So, I’m going to start by welcoming you. Today we have the great, great Angelo Gaja. He is just-

Angelo Gaja: Thank you. Great is not enough—the great, the great, the great, three times!

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Well, several greats! The great, the great—The most influential wine-maker in Italy.

Angelo Gaja: Artisan, maybe. Not winemaker.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: You’re an artisan. Just world-famous.

Angelo Gaja: I believe that, yes, I was lucky because I joined the winery that my father was already considered the greatest artisan in Piemonte for wine, probably in Italy. And my father absolutely did a fantastic work, and a lot of his ideas I continued. A lot of ideas came by him, so I was lucky. And he was very good. He had in mind that to make quality wines it’s important to know all the three fields: to be an expert in vineyard, to know about the cellar, and to know about the market. The three steps. And he had Clotilda Rey who pushed him in understanding the three steps. So Clotilda Rey started in France. She spent almost 11 years in college in Chembery in France, and then she became a schoolteacher there, and then she knew perfect French, the language. When she was 25 years old she married my grandfather, and she moved by the mountains to the hilly countryside.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Okay.

Angelo Gaja: But she had no idea about buying, growing or wine-making—

Dorothy J. Gaiter: But she was smart. She was wicked smart, very smart.

Angelo Gaja: But she learned very quickly. She was able to tell my father and to help him to understand the passages, the steps, to become artisan.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: You make a great distinction between being an artisan and being a winemaker. How do you see them as different?

Angelo Gaja: No. Artisan is a way to be winemaker.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Okay.

Angelo Gaja: It’s a way—because there are artisans and producers of large volume.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Okay.

Angelo Gaja: I would say that there are two attitudes in making wine. Making it to make wine, to gratify the consumer—who are expecting for example, I don’t know, lower price, low prices. To make easy wines, to make wines that make the consumer happy because the consumer is expecting a smooth wine, easy wine, easy to understand. To make a wine that can enter specifically in supermarket, maybe with a special label. So, to gratify the market, you know—this is an attitude.

And the other attitude is to make wine that reflects a specific area, or a specific greater variety, or a specific project that the artisan has in mind. It’s a different attitude. the second attitude is not to gratify the market. That is principally to have a project that the artisan likes to reveal, to help the consumers to reveal a special grape variety, like Nebbiolo, like Sangiovese, that are indigenous grape varieties. To reveal a special terroir, to reveal a special climatic condition. So it’s a different attitude.

The attitude of my family was to be artisan in making wine, and to help the consumer to understand the great quality of Nebbiolo, that is an indigenous grape, a variety planted almost exclusively in Piemonte.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: So your family goes way back with Barbarescos, then, and authentic ones.

Angelo Gaja: Yes, absolutely. But let me come back in terms of being artisan, what my grandmother was saying. My grandmother was saying that there are four steps there. Fare—to do—So everybody has to do something in life, to live, to occupy time, for their ambitions, and so on. The second step is sapere—to know how. To reach the know-how, and to reach the know-how is specific of the artisan. To enter, to enter in the taste, to know the taste, to do perfectly the kind of work that they do and that they are following their mind, their project, their ways of seeing how to do, and they have to have a know-how. And to spend energies in a way to know as much as possible, completely, and the life, in his life, the artisan doesn’t reach never the maximum of know-how. There you are, it’s continuing: the knowing, and the working, and so on.

This attitude of artisans is extended to a lot of work. You can be an artisan, probably, you know. A lot of people that have a job with a large possible knowledge and passion is an artisan. And the more he knows, the more he has the chance of becoming what we call in Italy maestro. Able to teach his followers, or family, or collaborators, to teach the know-how to become artisans, to have the knowledge of the know-how, understand? So, to do, to reach the know-how, to teach the know-how, that means sapere, saperfare, saperperfarem and to transmit the knowledge. To help the people to understand the work that the artisan does.

Grandmother was great in terms of pushing my father to understand the four steps of the artisan, and my father did to me. So I had the chance of having a maestro to learn the way from. And after, my father, and that aspect of my father, he knew that to become an artisan in terms of making wine is important to be ready to accept the sacrifices. What kind of sacrifices? To produce the grapes is to produce, you know, the roof over the vineyards is the sky.


Dorothy J. Gaiter: Okay. Tell us about Barbaresco. What's so special about it? What do you like most about where you are?

Angelo Gaja: Well, I believe that the Barbaresco is, you know, like a Barolo is made, by the same grape variety that is in Nebbiolo. And traditionally it belongs to the tradition the fact that one producers of Barolo and Barbaresco they try to immerse the unique character of this wine. And the character is of producing wines that have elegance, first. We believe that elegance is one of the aspect of the wine, of the character of the wine that goes better for matching food. We believe that elegant wines can match better food better than opulent, very rich wine. And these are according our taste, but we have to recognize that there are other people in other market, other consumers, that prefer some time with food even opulent wines. So we have to be tolerant and respect it. But the elegant wines are the top wines for matching food. And Barbaresco in my opinion among Italian wines is probably the most elegant wine. Elegance is a different ... it's a difficult concept, it's not so easy to understand, you know.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: How would you define it?

Angelo Gaja: Because opulence, look at the advertisement. The advertisement of today in the last 20 to 30 years is using more and more the body of a man and woman to ... that is shown and is shown often without dress and, you know? In this case the body has to be perfect and sometime if it is opulent it looks even better, you know?

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Right. I get it.

Angelo Gaja: But look at ... be careful. More the body is perfect, and the more you have to think that it can be manipulated, you know?

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Not authentic.

Angelo Gaja: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Some little manipulation, a little bit more, because it has to be perfect. The elegance ... elegance doesn't need perfection, you know? Elegance is something that is an attitude in your mind to read back, and you image it. So it's a different approach.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: That's a lovely concept.

Angelo Gaja: Yes. So, the wine, the elegant wine that we produce has not to be perfect. And the little bit imperfection some time, that means a little bit of acidity that you can feel, or tannins, this makes special the wine and gives authenticity to the wine. Quite important. So, what is it when I say to you that Barbaresco ... I consider Barbaresco that probably is the most elegant wine in Italy, because of the Nebbiolo grape variety, because it's not too rich, it's not too opulent, and this is a condition of elegance. Because when you look in the glass and you turn the glass over so notice, this one is not Barbaresco, sorry. But, sorry. Next time, yes.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: It smells awfully good. A girl can dream.

Angelo Gaja: If you look carefully there, and I believe that you can image it, that you can see that the wine is produced in hilly countryside. You can see the hills. You can see the ... you can understand that ... and when the wine comes in your mouth, let the wine tell you what it has. Don't become crazy to understand, he will able to talk to you, naturally. And it's perfect. If you drink the wine without food you can be a little bit surprised about the character that seems to be a little bit aggressive, and the tannins and the acidity you feel there, and then you have the impression to be disturbed. But as soon as you match the food this tannins and acidity are cleaning the mouth perfectly and it is perfect with food. This is the character of, as you asked me ...

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Sounds fabulous, fabulous.

Angelo Gaja: This wine that is produced, we'll now talk about Camarcand. Camarcand is produced in Tuscany. And the Camarcanda is ... I have no tradition there because we joined the area in '96 and we ... there were no existing vineyards, no existing winery, so we had to build both, vineyards and the winery. And we started planting there, no more Nebbiolo because it's not a great variety planted there, but the area there, in Bolgheri, is for international grape varieties.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: So you have Merlot and ...

Angelo Gaja:

Merlot and Cabernet. And we started planting Merlot and Cabernet there. And the vines originally ... because we started planting 10 acres, 5 acres, 15 acres, year by year, reaching today 240 acres, that these are the maximum of vineyard, the density that we have there, understand? Cabernet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. We did ... why we choose this grape variety there? Because in Bolgheri there were previous wine producers that explored the opportunity, the possibility of planting international grape varieties there, and being successful. And the first one was Sassicaia, this well-known wine, and so on, and opened the lights, and gave other producers the example and the chance of understanding that Cabernet and Merlot could produce there unique wines.

Why is unique? Why is unique Bolgheri? Bolgheri is unique because from a side that is the Tyrrhenian Sea and after the piece of land that this large maximum 15 miles, and after there is a hill, tall hill, covered the forest. So the vineyards are planted on plain, but there is a fantastic influence over the climate of the sea. And this climate of the sea is, especially during night, the temperature even during summer time, is fresh and the freshness of the night and the relatively high temperature of the day makes a beautiful wines grapes with acidity. And acidity is important. So we don't need to add acidity to the wine, you know. In some area in the world where they plant Cabernet and Merlot and sometime it, because the weather is a little bit too hot, they are obliged to add acidity to acidify the wine. We don't do there. We don't need that there, because this is a fantastic opportunity of having the sea close, very close, maximum, large 15 miles, and after the forest covered of green makes-

Dorothy J. Gaiter: So you have perfect conditions.

Angelo Gaja: Perfect conditions. And even decided there is a different light there. And the light is different there because the sun that reflect on the surface of the sea, and it makes a special light there. And even, even ... and it's even another very aspect ... important aspect of, is for, naturally the area is very windy and the wind is very important. The blowing, principally in springtime and autumn. And in springtime helping the flowering, the branches of the vines and in autumn drying the grapes. So, if perhaps there is some rain, and so on, the grapes are immediately dried, means heavy, perfectly. So this ... all the aspects of Bolgheri they're unique in the area, it's not by chance that Bolgheri is able to show today the best expression of a Merlot and Cabernet produced in Italy. Fantastic.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Made a big splash when it was new, I remember that. Are some places pulling out their Cabernet and Merlot?

Angelo Gaja: In Italy?

Dorothy J. Gaiter: Mmhmm, yes.

Angelo Gaja: I believe that in Italy there is ... we have so many indigenous grape variety there is no other country that has so many indigenous grape variety like Italy. 377 different grape varieties in incredible varieties, including Sangiovesse, Frementino, Trebbiano, Arneis, all the grape varieties there. First of all, the different grape varieties in Italy that no other country has, the special size of Italy that is like a boot, you know, in the Mediterranean, and a lot of long miles of coast, and the Apennines crossing, the mountains crossing the boot, and so you have the climacy closer to the sea and after some plain land, hill, and the mountains. So, a combination of sources so different in a sort of miniature, in a small country, and even 36,000 wineries and at least 28,000 or 29,000 out of 36,000 are artisans. Small wineries owning limited quantity, producing limited quantity of wines, but having a lot of interesting, producing quality wine, and reflecting in making wine of place, wine of the reflected ...

Dorothy J. Gaiter: I do want to ask you, which of your daughters is most like your grandmother? Is there one like her?

Angelo Gaja: Maybe Rosanna, the youngest one. I believe that she is a little bit bizarre, and hard willing and that she likes to do exactly what she likes.

Dorothy J. Gaiter: She will go far, she will go far.

Angelo Gaja: Difficult. She is the most difficult daughter that I have. But I have three children. Rosanna and Gaia that are already in the company, and I have to tell that I'm lucky and I am very, very happy because both ... Gaia has the responsibility of the international market, export market, and Rosanna works in the domestic market. And she even goes very often to Tuscany where we have two wineries, Camarcanda in Bolgheri, and Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino, and she goes there to learn and so on, and I can understand that she has become so passionate, more and more. Excellent. And beside, I have a son that is younger, younger, he's 21 years old, and the name of the son is Giovanni. That is the name of my father and my great-grandfather. I ... the Giovanni son is showing some interest in reaching the winery, but I tell him, look, you have to study a lot and you have to be very smart and to work a lot and to be available to do sacrifices, joining the winery when you have already two daughters inside occupy all the room, you know. If you like to earn some little room for you you have to be smart and good and work hard. So, but it seems that Giovanni's available and he likes to do that so I will be very lucky. I mean, three children that are already that will be joining the winery, working there, and continuing the work that we did. Not always, you know, what ... where normally artisan ... artisenal ... companies are weaker is in the future. It's not easy.