The Soulful Wines of Bruno De Conciliis

In 1996 Bruno De Conciliis took over the family vineyards which traditionally grew grapes to be sold to a local cooperative. De Conciliis bucked the conventional chemically focused agricultural practices in his area, Cilento, Campania, and created a winery dedicated to organically and biodynamically produced fine wines. The winery has been energy self-sufficient since 2007, with the introduction of solar panels.

The strong personality of Bruno De Conciliis is evident in the elegant and complex wines that he produces. He focuses on Campania’s most recognized grape varieties, Fiano and Aglianico. His winemaking emphasizes indigenous yeasts, minimum intervention and low sulfites added at bottling. Cilento Aglianicos tend to be more approachable than the austere wines made in nearby Taurasi. A lover of jazz De Conciliis' Naima, an elegant Aglianico is named after a John Coltrane song, while Donnaluna, a play on the Charlie Parker/Miles Davis bebop jazz standard “Donna Lee”, is a zingy Aglianico with 10% Primitivo added in some years.

Grape Collective talks to Bruno De Conciliis about his unique wine journey.

Bruno De ConciliisChristopher Barnes: Bruno, how did you get involved in winemaking?

Bruno De Conciliis: Actually it’s very easy. I was on the other side, I studied art. I studied Italian literature at University and then I was involved in the DMMC with Umberto Eco in Bologna, back in 1979—a long time ago. And then, it was a moment of big change. It seemed to be a moment of big change for young Italians. But we had a earthquake in 1980, down south, where I lived when I grew up. And we moved down there. I worked for 40 years, thinking how to rebuild all these places. We had 120 people who passed, and maybe more than ten small towns completely fall down and rebuilt. It was a very bad moment.

I understood that my place was my homeland. Cilento has always been a land of very poor people and we had a lot of immigrants. And the land became poorer and poorer, because what gives the richness of any land, of a country, of a nation, that richness is human energy. And still, the towns that were built for eight thousand citizens and now they have four, five hundred citizens so they're ghost towns. And I understood that if I really wanted to do something to rebuild my home place, it was working there. Allowing the energy, the human energy, to flow back to the place.

And so we occupied some land. We began in 1982, we started a company with friends from university, and we grew medicinal herbs. And we happened to be very close to 500 bee houses. So we started with organic, with biodynamic. At the time we were in touch with Terre and Salute Up in Toscana, in Piemonte, which was the only Italian biodynamic association back in the early '90s, late '80s.

But it didn't work so well. From the beginning, we had a very clearly political idea that we didn't want to be supported by an institution. We had to do it on our own, and so some of us started to work outside of the company, just to raise money. This is a complicated story and I have learned that when it's complicated it has to be told.

When everything ends, I found myself with a job, a well-paid very annoying, very terrible job. And with a very dark vision of my future. It was the end of innocence and the teenager power of thinking you can change the world. It's very sad. But I did not become an alcoholic at all! At the time I was Head Sales Manager for Southern Italy and in many regions for the company. They gave me an American Express Gold Business card — it was a powerful piece of plastic. I was only 20-something.

Bruno De ConciliisAnd so I did, not professionally, the three levels of sommelier, just for myself to understand. Definitely I fell in love with wine. And I wanted to know more and more and more. I started to buy good wines. I used my holiday to travel all around the wine countries and meet winemakers.

My father owned 303 hectares of vineyard; he was selling the grapes to the co-op, the social winery. I like to say, this is true, those wines were only for external use. You could not drink them, they were terrible. No, it was not the concrete or the stainless steel use, there was simply no vision, there was no project, there was nothing behind the wine. It was just — use what they had. And when my first daughter was on the way I thought I cannot die this way, I want to do something. I was 33, I want to do something that I really love and that makes sense. And maybe the ideal prosecution of my heritage of a revolutionary kid, no? Really change. At least my life, if not the story of Cilento.

So with my wife pregnant, I told her, "I'm going to quit my job. I don't know what will be our future, in terms of economy. But I cannot die this way". And I'm lucky, I married a fantastic woman. And she was with me, she didn't complain at all. She supported me. She still does. And so I went to my father. But before going to my father I send a letter and I closed my business and I was paid back for all the money they kept. So I kept all the money I had, and I said to my father, "Dad, I'm unemployed and I want to make wine". He was very close to dying. It was a bet. There was no wine in Cilento at the time. No wine at all.

Three year later, I studied and applied myself to research, and creating some small experiments. In 1996 we produced the first harvest of De Conciliis. And this was the first independent winery focused just on fine winemaking, focused on organic growing, and focused on respecting the worker and paying the correct payroll. Still now, in my homeland, there are people that work for 400 euro a month. That is nothing. I don't know how they can survive. It is still a very poor land.

Since the beginning, we have paid everyone the national salary, the minimum at least. This was a kind of little revolution. And, thank God, it worked. So that's why I'm here. Finally.

Bruno De ConciliisBruno, talk a little bit about the terroir in Cilento.

Cilento's very unique in the panorama of wine from Campania. First of all, Cilento was under the sea the at time of the big volcanic eruption. So, as wine lovers know, most of the wine from Campania is characterized by this volcanic soil. Because we have even Irpinia, the area of Capri, and Ischia, and Naples.

The volcano, the presence at least of the ash of the eruption, is very present. While Cilento was under the sea at the time of the big volcanic eruption, we were not influenced by the volcano. The soil in Cilento is highly characterized by the limestone that's very present. It’s all sedimentary stone and sandstone. It's the same sand you have in the Sahara Desert. It's a deep gold sand with very high quartz that carries a lot of mineral. So most of the minerality that is in the wine is carried by the sand.

And we are also lucky to have a very high clay content in the soil. I think the irrigation for the vineyard is a drug. Because the roots, they tend to remain on the surface. So if you always keep water they don't go deep. And if they don't go deep they don't get the minerality from the soil. The clay allows us to keep the minerality intact because it preserves, even in a very dry harvest, such as 2017. We had 150 days with not a drop of rain. My vines were still alive and working, because they have deep roots and because the clay preserves the water better.

So clay, sandstone, limestone, mainly. And more than anything else is the closeness of the sea front. All my vineyards are within two and a half kilometers, as the crow flies, from the seafront. So we are very highly influenced by the sea breeze that twice a day runs from the inland to the sea. And at night, from the sea to the inland. This also carries high iodine and saltiness and sodium chloride in the wine.

This made me think that I can make, I can build, I can try it ... this is a tiny bit pretentious, but I am a dreamer and I am a visionary and, I am like this. I don't pretend to be the best, but I have to do what is necessary to produce the best from my grapes and my soil.

I am trying to build a new benchmark for the white wine from the Mediterranean and the coastal area. Basically the idea is that the technical wine making at this stage is based on the acidity for the white wine. And avoiding the oxygenation of the wine. And this makes the wine very sharp. Usually the use of a very high sulfite content allows the perception of this minerality. But sulfur is the mineral.

I'm trying to make a white wine that has elegance and lightness. A good analogy is to music. White wine cannot be like Johann Sebastian Bach. Cannot be too intense, cannot pretend to occupy your full attention. A good white wine has to be like Mozart. That is, if you pay attention, it gives you the sense of the infinite. But if you don't pay attention it can still be a great pattern music, a great piano bar music if you're not really paying attention. Has to be more light, the rhythm more gentle and open. So this is the reason I quit, in 2004, I quit the technical, the orange wine. I think personally, they are too close to Bach. So this is my idea, I don't want to be universal.

Bruno De ConciliisThe saltiness, instead of the minerality, and the acidity, can be the key to keep, to really express a Mediterranean white wine. And the saltiness comes from the sea, but mostly from the potassium that is in the limestone. The use of the skin contact and the use of the stems also allows the winemaker to enhance this characteristic of saltiness in the wine.

And plus I go through, with all my whites, outside of the Falanghina and the sparkling, I go through the full malolactic. I trust the more round sensation, being stronger, the characteristic of Mediterranean. It is increasingly more important to me that I bottle without filtering. So, I can have all my bacterias and enzymes and living things in the small world that is a bottle of wine without using very high sulfite contents. It was never my goal to make 100 percent sulfite-free wine, I don't think that is the point. I don't use high sulfite contents because I believe this affects the perception of the wine too much. And it underscores something that, for my palate, is undesirable in the wine.

So, it's not about health. It is important but sometimes, if you have no other chance, you have to use sulfites when necessary for bottling. I tend to have sulfite content lower than 50 milligrams per liter. For any wine, the young and the old wine, and also the barrel-aged wine. I never go over 50 milligrams of total sulfite.

Why don't you tell us a little bit about your philosophy of winemaking and your philosophy of viticulture.

This is easy, because it's just one word. It is respect. Everyone who works with me, the first word I listen to and the last each day, is respect. To me there's nothing, nothing, nothing else. So when we grow, when we work in the field, we respect the present and the future of our land. We respect the present and the future of our workers. The future and the present of ourself and the vines and the soil and the customer. The present customer and the future customer.

When we make wine we respect the grape the way it is. It’s been very rare times I have used, for instance, tartaric acid, to acidify the white wine. I say, if I use something that forceful, for any reason, it changes the nature and the expression of the white. This was 2003 and 2003 was so hot and we had winds from Sahara. We harvested the white with three grams of total acidity and the pH was almost 4, so I couldn't manage. I didn't know what I would do now. But at the time I had no other tool than tartaric acid to give some harmony to the wine. Modern safety is harmony. So respect. The word is respect. Respect of the living, even the smaller living creature we have. Respect of, thinking of life as something that is not just in the living, moving creature, let's say, but also in the mineral, in the stone — everywhere. Respect, easy.

Talk a little bit about Aglianico, it's a grape that really has a spiritual home in the area where you make your wine.

Aglianico is a very unique creature. The idea which is very racist in my opinion, the idea of the monovarietal has pushed too many growers and too many nurseries to build up clones of Aglianico. In DNA they are Aglianico, but they are no longer. There is nothing further from the culture of farming which is the idea of purity. The farmer is a transmission of population. We trust the difference is a value.

So what is good with Aglianico and what is great with Aglianico is what they try to cancel, or control, with clonal selection. Aglianico is one of the most generous grapes with color, alcohol, acidity, and with tannins. So this is Aglianico, it is a generosity. A clever and respectful technique of wine growing and winemaking can make Aglianico wine very elegant and drinkable. But only if those characteristics of generosity are really respected.

The 2017 harvest was very rainy, so it was supposed to have some dilution in the grape. I have only one tank, of eight tonnes, with less than 14 percent by alcohol. I have three tanks over 15 percent of alcohol. Aglianico is generous with alcohol. Most of the Aglianico, if it's not corrected by the winemaker or during the clonal selection, is way more acidic than Fiano, for instance. And sometimes can be more acidic than than Malvasia or Trebbiano, maybe less than Greco di Tufo. But Aglianico is very acidic and you can easily understand how the roundness and the heat of the alcohol can be balanced by the peak of the acidity and the tannins.

So actually a wine with a 17 percent, is an option for me (a California winemaker may not think the same). I will balance Aglianico with the 17 percent. Donnaluna, Naima 2008 was a 17 and a half percent alcohol. But the acidity and the tannin made the wine agreeable and harmonic and absolutely enjoyable. If you don't want to get drunk just drink a little bit less. But please, don't add water.

Bruno, we had a winemaker in here from Vermont last week. Deirdre from La Garagista and she was singing your praises and talking about how you were an inspiration to her. Vermont is an interesting area to be growing grapes. A lot of Italians whom I've met have had a "turn your nose up" attitude to anything outside of Italy and France. But, it's interesting that you were so encouraging in terms of creating unique wines in an area like Vermont.

Bruno De ConciliisI think if she were in the North Pole I would say no. But she is not. Actually the first time I saw her vines, there was maybe five meters of snow, they were completely covered by snow. Again, it is the vine, the grape, it’s probably one of the strongest. You know the story of the grape. The grape starts in the forest up north, in Norway. In the forest it was climbing the tree just to find a little bit of light up there. There's not as much in Norway. It was not producing any fruit at the time. But little by little by moving south and finally, in Georgia, for the first time, the grapes came out and the humans started to make wine.

So the grape is very, very strong and very highly versatile. That's why, for instance, I am against irrigation. Because you make such a strong, adaptable, living creature, as the grape is. You make her sick and fragile. Actually, I don't think I did anything with Deirdre. Everything was there. Maybe as Plato wrote about Socrates, I was the, how to say that, what's the name of nursery that keeps the child? I was just the midwife, yeah. I just was her midwife. Everything was there; the grape, the culture for life. A great culture and attention and knowledge of what life means. The culture of respect was already there, so I didn't teach any, it was there. And the vision.

Whatever you want to create, whatever it is, you must be able to see things that noone can even imagine. And actually those wines, they have to be the expression of that land. I would not expect a round, heavy or jammy, sweet wine from that area, not at all. It's going to be wine from Vermont. But, honest and clean. Maybe I said, something that I used to say at the beginning of her journey, “Buying a well made wine, a bottle of wine, is the cheapest ticket to visit any country." Because it tells the story of that place and the culture of the person that lives there.

Perhaps this is one of the sparks I gave her. Encouraging her to make it possible and if you really are a visionary, you accept the risk of failing. It may happen. I've been planting vineyards all over Italy for twenty-five years. With friends, or just for fun, or maybe because, again, you have to be serious to have fun. And a couple of times, maybe five times, it happened that I failed. And it's sad, but you have to accept it. It may happen. I don't want to be a winner. No, I want to be a good player. That means I going to accept the losses sometimes.

I like to win, as everybody does. But if I lose, I lose. It's okay. There's going to be a next time, it's not the end of the world. It was clear to me that she wants to give it her best. This is what Deirdre wants, no? Beginning. Thinking it was possible, having the vision. And she also did very serious research into the vines that were in the area. So there was also a brain, not just a heart and soul. This is important.

Bruno De ConciliisBruno, do you have winemakers that influenced you, when you started?

Saverio Petrilli, he works for Tenuta Valgiano, but his family comes from Cilento. The family of Petrilli was one of the immigrants. Rich immigrants, but immigrants. They moved to Milano, I think in the early 90's but he still has an estate down in Cilento. My first Vinitaly, the first time I showed my wine was in Italy in 1997; it was the vintage '96, my very first vintage. And I studied a lot. I drank a lot of wine, but I was still confused, and I was not feeling safe in doing so. So I was introduced to Saverio Petrilli and he was to me like the cricket for Dumbo. Dumbo has the big ear, has the big nose. But it's more or less the same, no? The big nose allowed me to think that maybe I can make wine because I have sensibility. Size sometimes matter.

But I was not sure, I was by myself, and I invested all my money; it was 20 years of work behind that. And my father and then my other family. So he was my help. And he came to the winery for three years and we talked about everything. We went together — the experience with the Biodynamic Italian Association was not as good back in the 80's so I wasn't sure that I want to go further with the biodynamic. But we did, I went to meet Alex Podolinsky in Australia and I understood there was a different approach to biodynamic. Less church, less spiritual, more pragmatic and with a focus on who has to work with it. So this made it possible for me and I came back.

We were talking about mostly girls. What else? Both of us don't like soccer very much. In Italy, if you are a boy, all you talk about is soccer or girls. Wine sometimes, but you know, food. Old Italians, this is not gender, old Italians just talk about food. But also about winemaking. And then in 1999 I remember at that time I was a motorbike driver. And we stopped somewhere to dive, to swim in the sea. And as we were drying on the rocks he said, "I have to tell you something, I will never come back to help you winemaking". And I said, "What the fuck?"

Bruno De ConciliisI felt it was exactly like when a mother gives birth or pushing the kid out of the house. I cannot do, I felt. I told him, "Saverio I have to call somebody else." He said, "Don't do it. It was you who was saying how to make wine, I was just giving you comfort. I was just rebounding what you said. But I didn't say anything. Everything you do you do by yourself."

By the way. This was the end of the beginning of a new and different, relationship. Now we have lot of common projects and we do a lot of things together. With Saverio we were the first of 20 founders of the FIVI, Italian Federation of Vineyard Independent. We were the very early pioneers. And we started out of this, there weren't enough girls around to talk about, and it came out, the story of FIVI. And other things.

Now we just planted a vineyard on the equator with FIVI, in Kenya. It's going to be the first wine made in Kenya.

We support a mission there with the kids and we buy many things from them. We have a project with coffee, an organic coffee. But everything is related to export in the first world and I thought, if I make it possible that they can make wine, they can say to the restaurants in the hotels in Nairobi, Mombasa, and in Malindi, that they can control 100 percent of the business. Who knows, maybe. I hope this will not fail. From Vermont, from the Northern area here, in this country, to the equator. The vineyard is 40 kilometers north of the equator. But it’s 2,500 meter above sea level. So we have July and August very fresh, maybe it’s going to work. I dunno. Next year I will tell you. Maybe.