From Kevin McKenna:
It's been a summer of loss in Piemonte... Two winegrowers of strong conviction who were not only inspirational in the struggle against standardization, commercialization and agricultural pollution but also, in two very different areas of the same province, pointed the way for a younger generation of winemakers and wine-enjoyers toward the future, against all odds and the established order.
The first was Beppe Rinaldi... I've not publicly noted his passing but have felt a personal loss and perhaps a bit of regret. Though a founding member of the ViniVeri group and a close friend of many wine winemakers we represent, I never really got to know him. For me, he is one of the winemakers of benchmark Barolo in a style that I've came more and more to appreciate. I guess I was a bit too shy and he was more than a bit forbidding. Besides he was hardly ever at his table; he preferred hanging with his friends than pouring wine for believers and heathens (and watch them spit it out - always one of Baldo Cappellano's pet annoyances). He was too active, full of life and ready for a conversation, a coffee, a pretty woman. But the thing is, along with Bartolo & Maria Theresa Mascarello and Baldo & Augusto Cappellano, he and his daughter Marta staid a steady course during a turbulent time in the Langhe. Of course, there were others (Roagna and Accomasso are just 2 that come to mind) but these 3 were vocally and actively opposing the movement towards disrespectful agriculture, standardization, unconsidered and unbridled 'innovations' in winemaking practices and the mad rush for critics' high scores, pointing to it as a form of group madness. Baldo's Manifesto for the ViniVeri group remains a fundamental cri de coeur for rational, responsible viticulture and a guide for what has become known as the "natural" wine camp. They were the first to publicly break away from the embarrassment and affront to good wine that the ocean of crap that the Piemonte Pavillon of VinItaly had become. All this is to say, I hate to see another of my wine heroes leave this plane. The ones who have done their small part in trying to save the earth and our palates. Anyone who has tasted even a "little" vintage of his Barolo Brunate or, even rarer, Freisa, know this to be true. I really regret not being a bit bolder and at least saying "Thank You, Beppe" - personally, warmly, honestly.
Now this weekend, a colleague, a mentor, a friend and catalyst, Stefano Bellotti unexpectedly departed. This has been a very hard one to take. He is one of the first Italian winegrowers we asked to represent. I had tasted the wines when they were imported by SummaVitis and on our first tour of Italy as a company, Alessandra Bera invited him to meet and taste with us. Denyse, Joe and Stefano hit it off from the start, and we made a plan to make an impromptu visit Cascina degli Ulivi before flying out of Malpensa the next day. The first time visiting that estate, nestled in the grooves and the pathways of that remarkable area of Piemonte, is generally an enchantment. I still remember it as such. That was something like 15 years ago, maybe more. We've chased a long winding path together in the wine world since then.
Stefano - The word fanatic tends to be thrown at the natural wine guys a lot (and I am sure more than once or twice at Stefano), generally by apologists for standard blah-ness in their lives and wines. It's like calling a liberal a liberal; like that's some kind of insult from a morally superior, scientifically-based high-horse. A belief, for example, that apples that have no spots and look exactly like each other but taste like barely anything but cardboard are a better option for the population and what the masses want. I would actually turn it around and call that a "fanaticism" or, worse, material opportunism. That is what Stefano fought all his life in a region of the wine world where through the 70's and 80's, the stakes got higher and the "fanaticism" Stefano saw was an opportunistic chase to nullify the tradition and dumb-down the potential of a wine that had been made in his region for at least a few centuries. His belief was an actual call to rationalism and a call to compassion for, not violation of, nature and viticulture.
Early in his farming life, Stefano turned to organic farming and shortly thereafter to biodynamic methods (his positive take on the results of another farmer's experience) and never turned back on that. During our relationship, as "opposition" winemaking expanded and new estates were proliferating, various schisms divided the camps and the allegiances. Stefano became the proponent and de facto coordinator for the Italian producers affiliated with Nicolas Joly's Renaissance des Appellations brand of biodynamics. A position that put him in the crosshairs, from which he deftly, persuasively and with conviction stood his ground in reasoning with other camps. It was that kind of confidence of conviction that made Stefano a source of advice and experience for a younger generation of winemakers finding their way (Arianna, Nadia, Luca and many more).
I could go on and on about the merits of Bellotti Grande, his belief in and establishment of a poly-cultural farm, an agriturismo in the real sense of the word where almost all the food you ate came from the cascina or from a like-minded neighbor's farm, his willingness to employ and encourage otherwise unlikely employable youth as means of learning responsibility, finding their abilities and/or aspirations, for therapeutic or rehabilitative methods through bread-making, hoeing, bottling, pruning, animal tending... Once you knew Stefano, you never stopped being in awe of his ability, vision, generosity, leadership, casual warmth - so many things that revealed themselves in layer upon layer. There are many times I've been put in the position or felt the need to defend him and more often his wines, which could be superficially misconstrued and dismissed. Sometimes, in truth, even to myself. But once in his presence, his conviction was contagious. It was always with a sense of gratitude in the moment to spend time with him in the vineyard, taste in the cellar or do a comprehensive tasting at the restaurant. I had the great fortune to spend an evening at the cascina last November with a few of his friends, admirers of the wines and the work team at the estate. Stefano presented a vertical of his Mounbe', pointing out the climatic conditions and other techniques in making the wine, but more often talking about each of the wines' essences, the impressions and sensations of his long experience with the wines. It was evidence of such a clear bond between the wines, Stefano and the life of the whole of the Cascina degli Ulivi. It was pretty magical.
I am really so grateful to Jonathan Nossiter, firstly, for having the idea to make the film "Natural Resistance" that looked at the life, ideals and and epistemologies of 4 wine estates in different parts of Italy in an idiosyncratic and loose-form documentary, letting the winemakers speak for themselves and reveal their personalities candidly and, so obviously, honestly. And secondly, for filming a scene that shows Stefano demonstrating the physical, visible difference in the earth of his manually and organically farmed soil, with that of a neighbor who has always used herbicides, systemics and a tractor on his vineyard. I have to admit, I had seen Stefano perform this little hat trick a number of times in real life but it is no less impressive and enlightening seeing it again on screen. It is very comforting to know that there is document there that I can actually watch it over and over again.
It's evident that Jonathan puts Stefano at the center of the film as the most eloquent, convinced and persuasive of the film's subjects and, by the end, the film belongs to him. The closing scenes are of Stefano at the farm, talking of how farmers are actually the most potentially dangerous beings on the planet in many ways, a concept close to my heart. There is a a long take of Stefano full close camera bathed in magic hour light. His buddha-like gaze, both offering and seeking compassion is, to me, the essence of who he was and is and will always be. There are not enough permutations of "Thank You, Stefano" in any language to convey the deep sense of my gratitude - personally, warmly, honestly.
From by Jules Dressner:
If weren't for Stefano Bellotti, I'm not sure I'd be doing this wine thing. In hindsight, my teenage stint working at Cascina Degli Ulivi humbled, inspired and changed me. It was the catalyst for continuing in the footsteps of Kevin and my parents. This was from March to July 2006 and I didn't know it at the time. Months prior, I was a lost soul attending university in Montreal, not sure I wanted to stay in college. Needing a change of scenery, I'd dreamt up a plan to go plant apple trees in Vancouver. But this was complicated because of my study visa, so my father proposed I go work at a winery in Europe.
I'm not sure how Casina Degli Ulivi was picked, but I have a hunch. I'd never been to Italy, so that was surely a reason. And Joe was well aware of the ever-rotating cast of misfits, hippies and hard working immigrants working at Stefano's farm. After a quick phone conversation with Stefano in French, it was settled. I vividly remember the ride to the airport, nervous but excited for a new adventure: a time to discover someplace new, to detach from the reality I'd grown tired of in Montreal. There was already some pre-loaded symbolism in the trip, as I was to turn 20 there.
I'd never met Stefano. While he was extremely friendly and welcoming upon my arrival, it was instantly clear he was THE BOSS. Everyone treated him with utmost respect and adulation, but not in a phony hierarchical way. I could tell everyone really respected him and appreciated his presence. At least on the farm, he felt larger than life, almost holy. While he was always reserved at large gatherings such as the Renaissance des Appellations association he helmed with Nicolas Joly, at Ulivi he emitted a palpable confidence, an aura of know-how and tranquility that felt comforting and inspiring. Though he could initially come off as intimidating, once his stern face lit into a smile, you were at ease.
Stefano was also the life-force of the farm. If you've visited, you know that the Cascina has a powerful energy that cannot be described in words. It feels alive as a unified whole, but you can feel that whole is composed of a million other bits of life: people, animals, bugs, grass, vines, vegetables, something you can't quite put your finger on… I know that biodynamics sometime get a bad rep, but for me the Ulivi farm and its nearby vines have a spirituality to them, a resonating feeling of being one with something much larger and more important. I truly believe that Stefano brought this energy to his land. It was beyond biodynamic viticulture, and I'll never be able to fully explain it. But here at two choice quotes from our interview in 2011 that illustrate my point:
"For these preparations to work in the first place, your land needs to be alive. If you put on a biodynamic preparation on a soil that's dead, it stays dead. It's not a miracle! It's just a model of common sense that takes conscience of the earth and the plant. Whether it's permaculture, synergy or whatever you want to call it, the soil and the plant need to be alive in order to grow and thrive."
"Some criticize that what we do is too esoteric. Well yes, biodynamic preparations are esoteric! Almost everything we do is partly esoteric, because science can't explain everything. If I look at you from across the street and at that exact moment, you happen to turn your head towards me and we make eye contact, that's not something you can calculate, plan, measure or explain. To understand this is simply to acknowledge being part of a larger whole."
Stefano's philosophy and his willingness to speak so openly about his views (always in French!) where a real eye opener for me. Sure, I was aware that my parents worked with organic wineries, minimal intervention, blah blah blah… While these have certainly become buzz words for a younger audience over the past decade, none of this particularly resonated with me at the time. Frankly, I don't know if I would have bought it if I hadn't seen and felt it first hand. Stefano made me a believer. And while I'm sure they exist, I don't know of another poly-cultural farm that reaches the the same level of metaphysical energy.
On another level, it was also my first experience "dealing" with nature. Working with the land, feeling and tending to its needs, the rhythm of the season. Stefano knew where we had to be and when, and this resonated with me. He of course had decades of experience, but it was still impressive to observe a man so connected and in sync with his land. I think that too few of us truly grasp the minutiae of agriculture. From the safety and comfort of our cities, it's easy to request organic ingredients, farm to table restaurants, natural wines: for many these are luxuries void of context, status symbols of consumption. Stefano's work became a standard bearer for me in later years when visiting estates, asking questions about how they work the land. If you know me, you know that I'm more interested in these details than in the wines themselves.
Another thing I learned from Stefano was good old-fashioned hard work. Personally, I've always preferred the DIY, get your hands dirty, learning in the field approach. In my youth I applied this to skateboarding and DJing, spending hours practicing the same trick or technique over and over until I got it right. What I liked (and still like) about those hobbies was that there are no rules, no organized structure for how to get from A to B; you just somehow figure it out, go with the flow. Well not so on the farm! Our days started at the crack of dawn and ended around 6. There was always something to do. Some things I was good at. Others I failed miserably, most notably trying to feed baby cows, an altogether terrifying experience. Yet within all that structure, I WAS doing it myself, getting my hands dirty, learning on the field. This was my first rewarding work experience: the simple satisfaction from completing a day's tasks.
On my 20th's birthday, Stefano cooked me pizzas. It was a very simple meal with all the ingredients coming from the farm. I can't remember what what we talked about but we sat just the two of us, all smiles and laughter. Recollecting this moment, I know Stefano did not feel an obligation to spend time with me that night. He genuinely wanted to. I think he had an incredible gift of connecting with people, of making them feel at ease, of listening and acting appropriately. Just like with his land.
That morning of my birthday, I woke up and listened to Life's a Bitch by Nas and AZ. The song is a bittersweet ode to the realities of overcoming life's hardships, knowing that in the end, we're all "going to go". At the time I listened to it because of the opening lines of Nas' verse:
"I woke up early on my born day; I'm 20, it's a blessin'
The essence of of adolescence leaves my body, now I'm fresh and
My physical frame is celebrated because I made it
One quarter through life, some godly-like thing created"
In the 12.5 years since, I think of Stefano whenever the song plays or pops into my mind. Up until today, it was about the celebration of life, counting you blessings and making the best of it. Today, the darker message resonates: life is unfair and then you die, you never know when you're gonna go. A a blunt truism. Yet the actual message of the song isn't negative: it's about accepting life's hardships and not giving in to them. Stefano was perhaps the most vocal opponent to industrial, chemical agriculture in our circle. Against the odds, he showed us a way to fight back, to prove others wrong. He was a true visionary, a pioneer in his quest for respecting nature.
A memory that will forever be with me was during a 15 minute morning break working on the magnificent Montemarino vineyard. I was on the top of the hill, eating an apple and laying on the grass. Staring at the bright blue sky, noticing the patchy clouds, I felt everything was going to be all right. I know that reads as mundane, trite, clichéd. But if you've ever had a moment where every worry in the world escapes you, where anything feels possible, then you can relate. Despite a world intent on making me feel the contrary, I've had that feeling before this particular recollection and have had it since. But once again, this memory is the standard bearer.
I've made a point of laying in that same exact patch of grass every time I've visited since, and have always felt the exact same way. By accommodating me, by opening my eyes to the mysteries and grandeur of nature, Stefano made that possible. And for that I will always be grateful.
From Kevin McKenna:
I spent a day with Ernesto on my own, free of a "group" last November. I had not done that in a while. We travelled all over the area looking at the vines he was working, some new vines he'd taken on and talking about his plans for Costadilà. We went to a spot that Costadilà had just purchased, a beautiful plot, that would be planted this spring. It was neither an insignificant amount of land or an insignificant amount of work, but it seemed like a fait accompli when Ernesto spoke passionately about the steps he had already set in motion, the vision of what it would be like, and the complete joy the whole enterprise was bringing him. He was infectious. We said "See ya!" and I was excited for the future.
Of course, a lot of it was swagger. Ernesto was very, very clever with the swagger, almost mischievously so... like he was baiting you. You always felt a deep undercurrent of intelligence and confidence that drew you in, but sometimes it was, like, ...c' mon, man, seriously?! But the fact is, he always came through on his craft. I remember one time going to see him years ago in the spring around the time of Vinitaly; we had not been working together long then. The weather and temperatures that spring were more than a bit precocious and the plants had forced out their buds quite early. We went to the 280slm vineyard, I clearly recall, and it was a mess. The pruning not only had not been finished, it had not even been started. Not even the first pruning. I'd really never seen anything like it - long canes from last vintage already sprouting leaves. Ernesto was like "OOPS! I've got to get to this, but don't worry, don't worry, it's fine" Needless to say, I was quite preoccupied for those grapes and that wine for that vintage. But he was right, the wine was even a step up that year, not to say this was the reason, but certainly it did not affect the quality negatively.
This spring, I had been told that there were health issues. He did not make his annual appearance in Angers in February. Then we spoke, and he was on the mend. I called him in June and we talked - I started to worry because I hadn't heard from him. In November we had talked about significantly more quantity of wine for the US in 2018 and I needed to confirm that for my own piece of mind; he sounded great – positive and upbeat about the wines that were coming. We had gotten our first orders for the new wines finally packed and shipped (they arrive shortly). Last week I, frankly, had a little panic attack looking at the small amount of the first round, imagining it gone in a few weeks of its arrival. We've been in contact all last week and up through this weekend. And then I received an email from Martina telling me to call her at 11:00 PM last night. Because of the time difference, I did not want to call at 5AM in Italy so I waited, suspicious and worried. Of course, in our current media age, email and internet confirmed my worst fears this morning as soon as I woke.
"There is no word in Italian for privacy" is oft-cited apocrypha. It's true in the sense of the word: "Free from being observed or disturbed by other people; free from public attention." It strangely rings true in my experience of living and interacting with Italians for 15 years now. They tend to live openly and in close quarters, physically and emotionally. True, that is, except in one realm – health and matters of diagnosis. The Italians are reluctant and even circumspect in discussing their health. I am not talking about a cold or a sprained wrist or some physical anomaly that is temporary, about which they will actually kvetch endlessly. It's the grave diagnoses and uncertain prognoses that are rarely ever fully disclosed or discussed except to immediate family and a closed circle of friends. There is a hushed, omertá kind of privacy surrounding grave illness. It's considered a private matter.
No judgements from me, and in fact, I'm all for it. It's the last bastion of respectable privacy these days. However, it's a bit tough for folks like me, those who tend to blur the divide between business and friendship, commerce and professional encouragement…We visit, we share ideas, we break bread, and we enjoy each other's company and points of view. We advise; we argue; we collaborate. We get so involved in the day to day life, it's somewhat with a sense of helplessness to be left out of the bigger picture of L-I-F-E. I still am not sure of Ernesto's illness last year and this spring. I don't know what the cause of death was. I guess I will find out. Does it matter?
What I do know is that we do not get to share ideas, taste together, break bread, enjoy each other's company, argue, get infected by each other's visions, encourage each other... Dammit.
I saw this picture on the Internet (ed note: Kevin is referring to the photo above). I shamelessly grabbed it (so we may have to take it down at some point.) I love it, because it's Ernesto in one of the elements in which I will always remember him – Vini dei Vignaioli in Fornovo di Taro. He's there every year with a massive madness of bottles on his table and a crowd in front of him. His hands are in constant motion, always seemingly in the spooky blur captured in the photo…It's like a skilled Three-Card-Monty dealer at work.
My heavy heart goes out to Ernesto's wife and children, his associates and friends. Nothing's fair, I guess, but this is one for the records.
From Jules Dressner:
Waking up to the news of Ernesto's passing has made for a contemplative morning. I'd heard he was sick, but had no idea it had gotten to this point. His big, inviting smile makes me do the same as I pen these words. He had such a vibrant, can't-stop, won't-stop energy that I fully expected to see him again, having gotten better, bouncing around from person to person while pouring wines at his perpetually packed table.
My most vivid memory of Ernesto has us shuffling down the cold February streets of Boston during his only visit to the US. We'd just finished a big dinner at Peach Farm. Amongst huge lobsters and live eels brought to our table in slop buckets for approval, he discovered an American wine lover's tradition: bringing a dizzying array of bottles to a BYOB Chinese restaurant. Hopped up on good wine and MSG, he told me how grateful he was for us organizing his trip, and how much of a pleasure it had been meeting all of the incredible people at the Big Glou in NYC and the Boston tasting.
It's not a surprise customers were excited: Costadilà has a huge following. And while most will never have gotten the chance to meet Ernesto, they share intimate, personal connections with the wines. I have no doubt that the news of his passing will affect many of you who read this, much like a favorite musician. Know that the energy and the joie de vivre in every sip embodies its creator beautifully.
I write this from Oslo, where I am visiting my friends Hally and Rachel. A few years ago I'd set them up on a visit with Ernesto, where he showed them every vineyard and had dinner with them. It was such a great experience that they asked if he could make a custom label for their wedding, pictured below.
We'll be drinking a bottle of 450 tonight in your memory, Ernesto. Though we did not see each other often, I'm grateful that your visit in 2016 permitted us to get to know each other better. I almost missed that flight to Boston with you. I skipped the security line and sprinted to the gate, arriving a minute before the doors closed. Breathless but on board, my stress evaporated the second I spotted your big smile.