Angelo Gaja, you turned 80 in dramatic days for Italy.
«It’s true. But we won’t stop. My family and I make this commitment: we will not fire any of our 160 employees. Indeed, we will hire others».
Are you not afraid of repercussions for Made in Italy?
«I don’t think there will be. Of course, for tourism it is a very tough test. Do you know when I realized that the situation was really serious?».
«When, for the first time in my life, I felt Oscar Farinetti worried. I am less inclined to enthusiasm than he is».
Are you afraid?
«I made a mistake: I saw some talk shows. They are anxiety-provoking, especially for me, who don’t watch TV and don’t surf the Internet. I only read newspapers».
«Nine, from “Il Fatto Quotidiano” to “Libero”. I generally read ten on Sunday, with the “Sole 24 Ore” ».
How has your life changed?
«I’m at home, like everyone else. I try to take it positively».
«Stop kisses. There were too many. Two when you meet, two when you say goodbye, and the Swiss expect three … When I was a boy, in the Langa, men did not kiss. They said goodbye by removing their hats. And they talked formaly. Luigi Rama, our historic winemaker, spoke formaly also with wine, he called him: chiel, monsù (dialect expressions, he talked to wine as a “Lord”)».
«It’s time to wait, not to run. We have postponed travel abroad. Gaia, the eldest daughter, will take advantage of this to take a language course ».
An English course?
«A Piedmontese dialect course. She knows English it as Italian. Once in the company, only dialect was spoken. One of our workers was called Fiurin, which means Fiorellino (Flower): nobody has never known his real name. He smoked like a Turk and lived 95 years. With our children – after Gaia Rossana and Giovanni – we have never spoken Piedmontese. These days are an opportunity to recover».
What is your first memory?
«The partisans who come to ask my father Giovanni for wine. And my grandmother Clotilde, French from Savoy, who sends me to the oven to bake bread but then forbids me to touch it; I would have eaten too much; bread only ended up on the table when it was stale. Grandma was wise and never laughed. Woe to discard the crusts of fontina cheese».
In the Langa there are no Antinori and Frescobaldi, the wine is made by the farmers.
«Here too the land belonged to the great aristocratic families. They had the noble coat of arms on the label of their bottles, while we “princes of the endless Della Zolla family”, as Brera said, had a leaf or a bunch of grapes. Then the nobles sold the land to invest in industry in Turin. And they left room for us artisans, who are used to work well done, even with your hands».
Who is a craftsman?
«Someone who specializes in nothing and can do a little bit of everything: the farmer, the winemaker, the administrator, the marketing expert. And he knows how to manage imperfection; because perfection does not exist. An over-worked wine loses its soul».
Have you met Brera?
«I meet him with my father and with Gino Veronelli, at the Certosa di Pavia restaurant. He scolded me for spitting frog bones: I should eaten them too, in fact his plate was empty. I introduced my son to Giorgio Bocca, who was an avid consumer of our wines ».
Pavese and Fenoglio, Ferrero and Miroglio, Slowfood and Eataly, wine and white truffle: what is the secret of the Langhe?
«Politics. We had the two fathers of liberalism. Camillo Cavour, who at the age of twenty-two was already mayor of Grinzane, and he is still the father of Barolo as well as Italy. And Luigi Einaudi, who, in Dogliani after the mass, held an agricultural lesson to the farmers, a secular homily in the churchyard, until Donna Ida dragged him away. They taught us that public money is more important than ours. That duties come before rights. That you can not only ask, but first of all you must give».
But the Langhe inhabitants are different from the Turin ones. The Turin people, or rather was strict: military, social priests, workers, communists. The Langhe are inhabitants are irregular: vintners, trifulau, writers, suicides …
«And gamblers. Both Pavese and Fenoglio have written revealing pages on “giugarela”, the bettors who played everything; and when they lost the farmhouse, they bet on wife and daughter. After the war, we put this desire for risk, this somewhat desperate energy into work. And we learned to always keep some hay in the farmhouse, for the lean times. Like these that announce themselves».
Do you remember Fenoglio?
«He came to play billiards at the Savona hotel, and we kids had to give the table to the adults. Cigarette always in the mouth, great nose, highly respected. He spoke softly, and friends hung from his lips».
Among Fenoglio’s friends was Pinot Gallizio, the painter who founded the Situationist International.
«He was my oenological herbalist teacher. He invented painting by the meter. He went to Franco Miroglio to ask him for tons of colour to paint the Turin-Savona; he had to content himself with painting Miroglio fabrics. It is now in the great museums of contemporary art».
It was a Langa who spoke Piedmontese but thought in global terms. The best truffles were not given to De Gasperi and Togliatti, but to Eisenhower and Khrushchev.
«And truffles came only from Alba and the lower Piedmont, the arch that goes from Mondovì to Tortona. We should be more rigorous on this. Just to protect our products, our identity. And we should avoid special effects, such as Collisioni, the festival that brings one hundred thousand people to Barolo. In Burgundy they would never do it, because they fiercely protect their territory».
In how many countries do you export your Barbaresco?
«One hundred and two. 85 percent of production ends up abroad: the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Japan, Russia, China … I was in America for the first time in 1974: they explained to me that Italian wine had to cost less than wine cheaper French. I could not accept it».
It is said that Sylvester Stallone sent three Gaja bottles back to the restaurant because they tasted of cork.
«He wanted to impress a lady. I prefer Robert De Niro, who arrived here one morning in the cellar for a quick visit and stayed all day».
Has climate change also affected your work?
«We harvest twenty days before, sometimes a month. In summer, the soil tends to become hard as concrete, and we must take care of the earthworm, which is the architect of the earth: it moves it, oxygenates it, makes it alive. The areas of Barolo and Barbaresco remain limited; but less valuable vineyards are planted in the upper Langa, where only the hazelnut first took root. The earth changes. It speaks to us. And we must change too».
«We have a geologist, two botanists, two entomologists»
What does the entomologist do all day?
«In the vineyards there are new pests: some we never had, others did not survive the winters, which were more rigid. Since we do not want to use pesticides, pesticides, pesticides, pesticides, in short, poisons, we fight them by creating pests of pests. It’s called biological struggle: there is the Japanese wasp against the Asian bug. There are companies that make insects, such as the Biolab of Cesena, which supplies us with anagyrus and cryptolaemus, the two natural antagonists of the cochineal, which pierces the leaves and dirties the grapes. Professor Andrea Lucchi of the University of Pisa taught us about sexual confusion».
How does it work?
«The worst enemy of Nebbiolo, with which both Barolo and Barbaresco are made, is the grape moth: a butterfly that deposits eggs on the peel, from which comes a small voracious worm that empties the grape. With rain, the grape berry fills with water, and mould is created which is transmitted to the whole bunch».
«The Japanese have discovered that when the female is ready to be fertilized, she frees pheromone. So we put pheromone diffusers in the vineyards, which drive the male mad and stop proliferation».
Once farmers used Verdigris.
«Or the lead arsenate. It was one of my duties, in the seven years that my father put me through the rows, before giving me a role in the company».
Seven years old. It appears to be a biblical punishment.
«It was beautiful. I was studying economics and business at university, at the beginning I didn’t know how to do anything. Dad entrusted me to our boss-man, Gino Cavallo, who to urge me to say: “If the bread had legs, you would die of hunger”. He taught me to graft, fertilize, hoe. Hoeing well is very difficult ».
«Gino Cavallo wanted all the weeds be removed without tearing them with his hands and without touching the plant. Once people said: if you don’t go to school you will hoe. Today, if you want to hoe, you have to go to school».
Who did you vote in the First Republic?
«I don’t mind Conte. Mattarella is extraordinary. Renzi has not only had demerits».
«Full powers in Italy are not good».
Do you believe in God?
«Who works under the sky, and has the climate as a partner, cannot help but believe in something supernatural that protects us. I grew up during the processions: because of the rain, against the hail … ».
And the afterlife?
«Here too: those in contact with nature know that life is a cycle: it disappears and reappears. I believe there may be a tomorrow. I don’t know how it is. But it doesn’t scare me».