Angelo Gaja is a man in a hurry. He walks quickly, speaks quickly. Neighbors remember him in 1961, at age 21, driving tractors on Barbaresco's country roads like they were sports cars. But Gaja feels he had no choice but to move rapidly; when he began working at his family's winery that year, he saw that Italy had fallen behind.
Gaja's studies of enology taught him that winemaking and grapegrowing in Barolo and Barbaresco were woefully old-fashioned. Living in London and learning English revealed the image of Italian wines in a harsh light: cheap plonk sold only in Italian restaurants.
Back home in Piedmont, Gaja cut yields dramatically in his vineyards, and he stopped buying grapes, slashing production in favor of high quality ripe fruit. He experimented with French grapes, hoping to grab foreigners' attention so they'd be open to trying his Nebbiolo. With the help of his winemaker, Guido Rivella, Gaja installed stainless-steel tanks for temperature-controlled fermentations. They shortened the length of the maceration, taming Nebbiolo's tannins. And they experimented with aging in French oak barriques, working to soften the wines.
His impact has been even greater outside Italy. Gaja has traveled tirelessly for more than 50 years, serving as Italian wine's greatest ambassador. He priced his wines aggressively, to compete with the benchmark wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and California. High prices cost him some customers, but without Gaja's example, Italy could not have become accepted as a source for luxury wines.
Gaja has also expanded, starting wineries in Montalcino and Bolgheri. And he has prepared the fifth generation for the business, welcoming his daughters Gaia and Rosanna to the company. He shows no sign of slowing down, but they are doing a good job keeping up.
Gaja wasn't the only Italian winemaker of his era to move the industry forward, but he made the biggest splash and showed an entire generation the path ahead. In 1997, Angelo Gaja earned Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award.
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