California is a long way from Florence, but the Golden State has had a huge influence on the wine career of Lamberto Frescobaldi.
Frescobaldi, 40, is the scion of a noble Italian family that has been making wine for close to seven centuries. In the mid-1980s, he spent four years in California studying viticulture and enology at UC, Davis, and the experience opened his eyes to a new and exciting world. Then in the 1990s, a joint venture in Tuscany with California's Robert Mondavi, called Luce della Vite, brought New World innovation and quality to his family's ancient wine tradition.
"Luce was the catalyst for all the new investment in quality for my family," says Frescobaldi. "It gave me the opportunity to do something. My family said, "You get together with Tim Mondavi and put something together.'"
Luce, made in Brunello di Montalcino, is a high quality blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. The joint venture also produces Lucente, a less-expensive label. The two companies have subsequently coinvested in vineyards in Tuscany's Maremma. And in 2002, Frescobaldi took a partnership interest in the great Bolgheri estate of Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, which the Mondavis had bought a few years earlier from its founder, Lodovico Antinori.
From the beginning, Frescobaldi was his family's primary liaison to the Mondavis. He quickly realized that their organizational skills and winemaking methodology could be applied to all of his family's winemaking concerns, which include close to 2,400 acres of vineyards in some of the most prime wine-producing areas in Tuscany. "I thought to myself, "Wait a minute, we are doing all this for Luce, but what about ourselves?'" says Frescobaldi, whose official title with the family wine firm is director of enology and viticulture.
Change does not always come easily in the tradition-bound world of Florence. In the 1980s, when other top Tuscan wine companies, such as Antinori and Ruffino, were improving their wines, Frescobaldi continued to make good but unexciting bottles from its extensive vineyard holdings. But in the mid-1990s, improvement was rapid and dramatic. "I could say to my family, "Let's do that because that's how we do it with Luce,'" he says. "It really helped."
He enlisted the help of top consulting enologist Nicolo d'Afflitto, and they were off. "Nicolo in the beginning was only working at Castelgiocondo, our estate in Montalcino," Frescobaldi says. "But after 1995, he was in charge of all of Frescobaldi, and he created a very tight team."
The improvements were just in time for harvest 1997, still the greatest vintage ever for Tuscany and most of Italy. Frescobaldi made some of the top wines of the year, including its pure Merlot Lamaione and two great Brunellos, the normale and the riserva. Lamberto attributes these great wines to improvements in the vineyards. "We have done lots of new plantings over the past 10 years, so our wines should get better and better," he says.
Today, Frescobaldi puts in more miles on the road than a Naples-to-Milan truck driver, piloting his turbo diesel Volkswagen Passat to his family's various vineyards in Tuscany and to Attems, their small estate in the Collio region of Italy's northeast. It's a lot of work overseeing the vineyards as well as the winemaking. But he likes nothing better than walking through the vineyards or tasting a young, developing wine.
He still has time, however, to enjoy skiing with his family in the winter and swimming in the Mediterranean at their beach home on the Tuscan coast during the summer. Frescobaldi and his wife, Eleonora, have three children -- Vittorio, 11, Leonia, 9, and Carlo, 4.
"I feel like I am on the runway in a jet plane with my engines revved up. But we have not even taken off yet," he says, referring to the future of Frescobaldi and Italian wines in general. "The best is still to come."
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