The tasting at Clerico’s: a defining moment in contemporary Langhe history

Post-World War II, Italy—fragile and threatened by a strong Communist party—was considered by the United States an important ally for the ‘Free World’. As such, the nation received from the Marshall Plan $1.5 billion between 1948 and 1952. This, combined with the presence of a large and cheap stock of labour, laid the foundations for spectacular economic growth. Such was the extent of this growth, economists coined the period, between 1958 to 1963, ‘Italy’s economic miracle’. Concomitantly, the global economy grew dramatically, an era known colloquially as the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’. Ironically, this era of overwhelming prosperity birthed the New Left, a sweeping neo-Marxist activist movement and pseudo-intellectual current inspiring global student and worker uprisings. During this period, the number of full-time students in higher education in Britain doubled, other developed nations recorded similar growth elsewhere. The explicitly utopian dimension of New Left thought attracted young intellectuals and activists—now not preoccupied with war or work—who led the 1968 student protests. Specifically, distaste for traditional Italian society inspired the 1968 movement in Italy. The country had recently increased industrialisation, and a new modern culture emerged. Students of working-class or peasant backgrounds drove the movement to change traditional capitalist society. In fact, Aldo Vaira’s father discovered him protesting and sent him to Barolo to spend the summer at his grandparents’ farm, far away from trouble. Following seismic expansion, the 1970s were a period of economic and political turmoil and social unrest in Italy. These periods of growth and decline spawned a generation of young, worldly and radical Italians.

Successive wars and considerable migration to industrial centres during the ‘economic miracle’ damaged Langhe, an agrarian society mainly consisting of small family farms. For most, life was difficult; growers encouraged their children to seek a ‘better life’ outside Piedmont, and farmers planted dolcetto, a high-yielding, early ripening variety with a shorter production cycle than Nebbiolo. Nevertheless, a modest cohort of growers was committed to quality, and by 1960, demarcation efforts were underway. At the same time, Luigi Veronelli, Italian gastronome, wine critic and intellectual, inspired producers across the spectrum to innovate. By 1961 Beppe Colla, who had already visited France, began vinifying single-vineyard wines; meanwhile, Angelo Gaja was estate bottling and experimenting with green harvest and barrique. And by 1966, the Consorzio instated the Barolo DOC. Shortly after, Giacomo Oddero sought to bring water to the region, recognising the need for better sanitation.

However, progress was glacial, and for much of the 70s, Langhe remained poor, negociants offered low prices, and farmers struggled. This reality proved deeply troubling for a small group of radical young locals, who, knowing more of the world, were unsettled by their comparative poverty. Then, in 1976, a young Elio Altare visited Burgundy in his Cinquecento, blessed by the priest before leaving La Morra. Upon his return, having happened upon Philipe Engel leaving home to holiday on his yacht, Elio—a recalcitrant, spirited young man—felt emboldened. Revolution ensued, eschewing tradition, the Barolo Boys carved up botti, imported roto-fermenters and probed new markets. The change was plentiful, grape prices rose sharply and—inspired by a more promising landscape—more local families began making and labelling their own wine.

Sadly, in 1986 disaster struck. Twenty-four people died due to lethal methanol levels found in more than 300 brands of wine. Winemakers had added methanol to raise alcohol content in poor-quality wine made from underripe grapes. As a result, exports plunged 39.2% in the first eight months of 1986, compared to the same period in 1985. After the scandal, the government declared a state of emergency and eventually arrested more than 20 people. Despite there being no indications that exporters shipped methanol-tainted wines across the Atlantic, exports to the United States tumbled 28.4% in the first eight months of the year from the same period of 1985. The scandal made 1986 “the worst year in the Italian wine industry this century,” according to Guido Scialpi, former publisher of a respected wine magazine.

Post-scandal, Langhe suffered again; nevertheless, its young revolutionaries marched on. Albeit burgeoning, the ‘modernist’ crusade hadn’t yet taken hold. In that same year, though, Aldo Vaira recalls a defining moment. Amidst a turbulent vintage, a tasting at Domenico Clerico’s house changed everything. As a young man, Clerico had started a small business selling olive oil; he had lived out of a truck for a year. Then, in 1979 he returned to help his struggling father. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Clerico did not come from a family that made wine on a commercial scale. Sharing in their struggle, Domenico became friends with Altare, Grasso, Scavino, et al. The same year he returned home, Domenico had bought a small parcel in Bussia, and in ’81, purchased a 3.3-hectare plot in Ginestra. By ’85, he was using 700-litre tonneaux for a portion of his production. Clerico was an animating character, charismatic and respectful, not at all shy; he spoke with conviction and authority. 

In 1986, Clerico brought together like-minded growers and sympathetic activists at his home in Monforte d’Alba. Mario Pojer (Pojer e Sandri in Trentino), Armando Parusso, Giorgio Rivetti (La Spinetta), Claudio Conterno and Guido Fantino (Conterno Fantino), Elio Grasso, Paulo Scavino, Elio Altare, Riccardo Seghesio (Fratelli Seghesio), Roberto Voerzio, Luciano Sandrone, Carlo Petrini (Slow Food founder), and several others. They drank late into the evening, tasting each other’s wines (’84 Barolo) blind and with punishing honesty; only three were permissible, the rest were judged to be poor quality or faulty. Unsurprisingly, this finding illuminated the group. It struck them that an individual producer’s commercial success depends, at least in part, on regional desirability; examples otherwise were few and far between. And so, only by working together—improving quality and wielding collective global clout—would market prices rise, improving local fortunes. Of course, collaboration was not entirely alien, and demarcation was well underway; nonetheless, an effort with such fervour, zeal and intent was momentous. Perhaps, in this moment, Clerico synthesised the ‘modernist’ movement.

Gambero Rosso published its first newspaper insert later that year; within a few years, it grew into the most respected guide to Italian wines in the world. Its influence was profound, picking up where Veronelli left off, with a more cosmopolitan youthful audience. Founded in the same year, Slow Food–which had initially produced a guide with Gambero Rosso—was an exciting grassroots movement with a natural affinity to Langhe wine. By 1988, the price of Nebbiolo had reached 10,000 lira a kilo, and by 1989 and 1990, demand for grapes was so high producers couldn’t find quality fruit no matter the price. In an interview with Antonio Galloni, Clerico recalls “1989 was a great vintage for Marco Parusso” and that “Sandrone’s 1990s remain among his finest wines”.

In the early-90s, wine prices rose sharply, and demand grew overseas. When I interviewed him earlier this year, Alessandro Masnaghetti remembered the late-80s and 90s as transformational, “though we made some mistakes, there was a daring spirit in the air” he fondly recalled. Robert Parker—who thought highly of Clerico—scored the modernists highly during this period, wine enthusiasts followed his trailblazing publication closely, and tourists flocked. In the same era, the group was introduced to Italian American importer Marc de Grazia, who brought the protagonists for tasting tours in the US. Parallel, a weak lira (depending upon one’s perspective) sustained thriving exports, particularly to the United States. As tourism grew, so too did local industry. The European community began financing hotels; owners transformed farms into Bed & Breakfasts, and restaurants reimagined their lists to accommodate demanding new visitors. This growth supported local business, an often-overlooked feature of the ‘modernist’ crusade. Plumbers, electricians and builders were flooded with work. Further, the development of the internet in the mid-to-late 90s catalysed this change. 

Of course, none of this is to say that previous generations had not made progress before the ‘modernists’, nor that winegrowing in Langhe had been static or tired. Influential figures from Cavazza to Colla encouraged their peers to consider new methods; others led efforts to codify production and improve sanitation. Irrespective, the intensity and ferocity that characterised Clerico et al. was revolutionary, albeit occasionally abrasive. Philosophical musings aside, there can be no doubt that Langhe would be an entirely different landscape today were it not for this collective. Domenico later felt misunderstood and grew tired of journalists; today, his wines are not often discussed among the most desirable Barolo, nor are his contributions given the credit they deserve. Nevertheless, Domenico Clerico was an animating character, an industrious entrepreneur, resolute in his efforts to better the fortunes of his community. Rightly so, the ’86 tasting is recognised by growers of varying methodological persuasions as a pivotal moment in contemporary Langhe History; Clerico ought not to be forgotten as Langhe continues to enjoy increasing prosperity. 

One thought

  1. This was an incredible story. It’s always fascinating to understand how people came together to incite positive change. I’ll make sure to pick up some wines produced by Clerico next chance I get.

    Are there new folks in the Langhe coming together to drive new innovations similar to how these modernists did? Or are producers right now driving creativity more individually/organically for now, as you’ve highlighted in many previous articles? Cheers!

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