The Gaja family has recently been celebrating 150 years of winemaking in Piedmont, and they have a lot to be happy about. Gaja was arguably the first ultrapremium Italian wine brand, matching the quality and price of the world's greatest wines, in particular those from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Gaja is, in effect, Italy's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the famously deluxe wine estate in Burgundy.
However, I found it a little strange celebrating those one and a half centuries of winemaking with Angelo and his family and a small group of friends at a dinner in the Langhe—it has really been Angelo, the patriarch of the family, who has made all the great wines, putting his family name on the great wine and gastronomy tables of the world. And he did it in the past four decades.
This recent success applies to Italian winemaking in general. There are thousands of wineries that have been making wine for centuries, but it is only recently that some in Italy have been making world-class wines. That's why it has been amazing to live in Italy for the past decade, having visited the country's wineries and vineyards since 1983.
But Angelo Gaja, 69, is certainly unique. And he has been a spiritual leader for many winemakers in Italy and abroad. Of course, it was his great-grandfather, Giovanni, who started the winery in 1859. And it apparently was his grandmother, Clotilde Rey, who suggested buying vineyard land after the Second World War in the best areas of Barbaresco, the famous vineyard area in Piedmont. (Wonder why they didn't buy in Barolo? Angelo fixed that in the 1990s, buying some prime Barolo vineyards.)
But Angelo is the one who took what his family had built in about a century, and made it into something truly world class. One could argue that he did it starting in the late 1970s, when the wine bold black labels he designed with bold white letters of GAJA began gaining recognition. It took Angelo about two decades to prepare his winery, vineyards and himself for the modern world of winemaking. He did it methodically and through lots of travels around the best vineyards of the world. (The late Robert Mondavi was a guiding light for him, if I am not mistaken). It was Gaja who decided when he took over the reins of his family winery in 1961 to only use its own grapes for wine production, but he knew it was essential to control his destiny in premium winemaking. And the rest is modern history.
Some critics could argue that Gaja was the one who misled Italian winemakers into thinking that the sky was the limit for their bottles, or that important appellations could be bypassed for the promotion and freedom of their craft. But no one can deny the positive impact he has had on the wine world of Italy, and the world at large. His neighbors speak of him in hushed voices, like mentioning the Pope! Yet, Gaja is still a tireless ambassador for premium wines, and a man with an excess passion for wine at large.
Wine Spectator's pages have been full of stories and reviews on Gaja over the years. And it has seldom found fault in what the great man has done. I was happy to raise numerous glasses to Angelo's family birthday of 150 years a few days ago, but I secretly was toasting Angelo for all he has done for wine.
Matt Scott — Honolulu HI — December 22, 2009 3:51pm ET
James Suckling — — December 22, 2009 10:05pm ET
David Nerland — Scottsdale — December 23, 2009 9:43am ET
David Nerland — Scottsdale — December 23, 2009 9:47am ET
James Suckling — — December 23, 2009 10:21am ET
James Suckling — — December 23, 2009 10:22am ET
Jeremy Matouk — Port of Spain, Trinidad — December 28, 2009 5:25pm ET
James Suckling — — December 29, 2009 11:43am ET
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