Teobaldo Cappellano (1944-2009)We sadly report that one of our most passionate, wise, galvanizing and amusing winemakers Teobaldo Cappellano passed away on Friday, February 20th after a bout of serous illness that began sometime last year. While undergoing surgical treatment a few days ago, he slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. He was 65 years old.
Iconoclastic and opinionated, Baldo was best known in Italy for his Barolo Chinato, a tonic of wine, spirit and herbs, chiefly quinine, invented by his uncle Giuseppe at the end of the nineteenth century. Endorsed by the House of Savoy, the former Kings of Italy, Giuseppe Cappellano's Barolo Chinato became the standard by which all others were measured.
Baldo revitalized his uncle's trademark recipe in the 1970's and made Chinato popular once more. Today Baldo's is the measure of great Chinato without a doubt. But for us it was not just about the Chinato. It was his work both in the vine and in the cellar and the Barolos, Barbera and Dolcetto that instantly drew us to him. And it was the spirit of the man.
It was probably his unique and romantic upbringing that gave him such a vibrant personality. Baldo was born in Eritrea in 1944 and lived there until 1970 when war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. His father's family was among the first colonial families of Italian Africa where they were wine and food traders. He was fully aware of the richness of his experiences at a time when the world order was changing, and he liked to tell tales of his idealistic, youthful antics there.
When he returned to Italy, the Cappellano family no longer owned any vineyards, but Baldo was determined to be a Barolista in the land of his ancestors. He purchased 3 hectares of vines, the Otin Fiorin, or garden of Fiorano (the old man who tended it for many years). It's a beautiful parcel in the Gabutti vineyard of Serralunga d'Alba. He turned away from the use of synthetics, fertilizers and herbicides in the vineyard early on and when an earthquake caused part of the vineyard to collapse in 1976, he searched for ways to replant without grafting onto American rootstock (piede franco), a method almost heretical at the time because of the risk of phylloxera. He succeeded and the vines are healthy to this day. For this reason he was and will always be an icon to today's younger generations of winemakers and winelovers.
He spurned the notion of the wine critic's point scores and humbly asked journalists in the 1980's not to review his wine with points. He asked so nicely and persuasively, that, in fact, we know of no journalist who did not respect his request to this day. Another reason he was and will always be an icon.
He stuck to his guns and adamantly searched for tradition and terroir in his Langhe wines, during a time that it was horribly unfashionable to do so. On this he never looked back and always knew that time and the opinions that mattered would be on his side. He banded together with like-minded Langhe winemakers and with them fought for ways to save traditional techniques and stave off internationalization in the flavor of their wines. And beyond the Langhe with like-minded winemakers throughout Italy he formed the Vini Veri group to promote principals and ethics in vineyard management winemaking that preserved nature, tradition and terroir. And while a traditionalist, Baldo made wines that were always a pleasure to taste. The allevamento was careful and they always had a dense core of fruit, the wines were never simply tannic and old-fashioned. In the glass they are always dynamic, reponsive and alive, changing slightly all the time. Yet another reason he was and will always be an icon.
Best of all, he was an incredibly witty man. He always had a story and a turn of phrase that would be sagely funny. And those stories were always out of the world he knew and out of his experiences, more often in the hills of Barolo. They were never jokes or apocryphal stories, just real life experiences. At the same time he could be a passionately serious man, at times imposingly so, whether discussing politics, vineyard work or his wines. For anyone who was lucky enough to have those moments of conversation, amusing or serious, during a tasting or over a glass of wine, they are undoubtedly indelible memories. Certainly for me, those stolen minutes are irreplaceable.
I saw him last in November. I visited the estate unaware of Baldo's health. Augusto, his son and co-winemaker for the last four years, led us around the tasting. Because of his father's illness, Augusto unexpectedly had managed the entire harvest of 2008 by himself and he'd done well. He told us that his father was having some tests that day at the hospital so I did not expect to see him. But suddenly during the tasting he was there. He was having trouble walking, and the pain was written on his face, but once he sat down and started conversing, it seemed the pain vanished. Among other things, we talked of the impending election, at that time not a certainty, and the whiff of change it promised not only to the United States but also for the world. The conversation was laced with the same thoughtful insights and amusing riffs – it was the same old Baldo. But with time, the pain reappeared; he said his goodbyes and went home to rest.
Before the operation, fully aware of the risks involved, he asked one thing of his doctors – to die at home because from his window he can see the vineyards.