Andrea Franchetti was one of the most interesting wine people I have ever met. Actually, Franchetti was one of the most interesting people I have ever met—full stop.
For me as both a writer on wine and Italy, Franchetti represented a kind of rare freewheeling figure: visionary, generous, eccentric, non-conformist, passionate, iconoclastic, brutally honest, observant, self-schooled and irreverent. He died this week at 72 in Rome after what a spokesperson called a long illness, leaving behind four adult children—none of whom have publicly shown an interest in the wine business.
Franchetti had both a rich, serendipitous life and a relatively late-in-life wine career over the past three decades, first creating a cult wine of grapes from the remote Val d'Orcia hills of Tuscany at Tenuta Trinoro, and then as a key figure in the renaissance of Sicily's Mount Etna wines at his Passopisciaro winery.
When I think of the one quote that summed up his persona best, it's one from his longtime friend, the St.-Émilion renegade producer Jean-Luc Thunevin, whom I spoke with for my 2016 profile of Franchetti: "He is an artist … like a character from a novel or a film or another planet. He doesn't care about competition or what others think—he's in his own world."
I first met Franchetti in 2008 when I was researching my book on Sicilian wine. At the time he was a mentor and impresario in the emerging wine scene on Etna's north face and hosted the first editions of Contrade dell' Etna—a daylong tasting that grew every year as it showed off the mountain's different volcanic terroirs.
"Andrea brought us the idea that it was possible to make the greatest wine in the world here on Etna," remembered Alberto Aiello Graci of Graci. "Everything will be different from today. A very important part of this project is gone."
Another Etna winemaker who was part of Franchetti's circle from the early 2000s, the Belgian vintner Frank Cornelissen, spoke through sobs when I called him Monday evening. "Andrea represented unconditional love for this place," Cornelissen said. "He had an unconditional love for Etna that went beyond money, beyond what we were doing here, beyond everything."
"For me I will remember him as the archetype of a noble person—a truly noble person in heart and soul," Cornelissen added.
Franchetti was indeed born into a hereditary barony. One of the rare Jewish families admitted to the Italian aristocracy, the Franchettis received their title for their efforts in funding Italian unification in the 19th century. His mother was an American heiress of South Carolina's Milliken textile fortune who insisted on giving birth to her son in an American hospital in New York.
Franchetti grew up in the Rome of La Dolce Vita—an art world insider with uncles who included an influential contemporary gallerist as well as the American expat artist Cy Twombly.
At 16, he quit high school with the idea of cycling to Afghanistan. (He sold the bike in Greece and hitchhiked the rest of the way.) I remember asking him "Why Afghanistan?"
He shrugged and said, matter of fact, "Because all the hippies were going to India."
Franchetti often admitted to doing little but partying and indulging in drugs until the age of 32, playing small parts in some noir films, and writing some articles about his globetrotting adventures. He spent most of the 1980s in New York, where he imported northern Italian wines for six years, and then returned to Rome to marry his old girlfriend and open a couple of restaurants.
In the winter of 1990, seeking time alone, he went to the hills of Val d'Orcia, covered in grain and forests, where he had bought a 100-acre farm from a shepherd a decade earlier with the proceeds of the sale of a painting Twombly had gifted him. "I went crazy for the place—I was mesmerized," said Franchetti. He decided to stay and make wine there.
He treated Trinoro–which hadn't been planted with vines—like a blank slate. With no experience in agriculture, nor winemaking, Franchetti learned as he went—exploring his soils with pickaxes and deciding where to plant the Bordeaux varieties he liked best—Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the 1990s, cult boutique wines were taking off in Europe, and Franchetti joined the circle—befriending the likes of Thunevin of the upstart Château Valandraud and Peter Sisseck of Spain's Dominio de Pingus. Trinoro became a kind of Tuscan outpost of the group of rich, small-production wines. Its success gave Franchetti the means to invest elsewhere. And in 2000, while vacationing on Sicily, he toured the high-altitude northern face of Mount Etna. There was no quality wine scene to speak of, and Franchetti ended up negotiating the purchase of vineyards and a winery from an owner who was only too glad to unload them at a steep discount.
Graci says that over the next decade, Franchetti bolstered the confidence of younger winemakers to seek lower yields and to take the risk of waiting for full ripeness of the crop.
Franchetti said it took years for him to understand the light, elegant dominant red grape of Etna, Nerello Mascalese. At the same time, he dreamed up a unique blend of two of his favorite grapes—Petit Verdot and Cesanese d'Affile from the Lazio region around Rome—and created an inky flagship Etna wine called Franchetti .
Understandably, there were those who criticized Franchetti's introduction of non-native varieties, but his refrain was always that the soils are what mattered most and, "Why can't I make the kind of wines I want to make?"
Franchetti avoided labels of all kinds. Though he worked organically in his vineyards and performed certain functions timed to the phases of the moon, he often said he wasn't particularly ecologically minded—he just didn't like chemicals.
After building two successful wineries, Franchetti told me he never really enjoyed the wine business in a classic sense. He was simply drawn to the nature he found in Tuscany and on Etna.
"It's a poetic experience," he said.
The wine world needs more poets, I think. It just lost one.