Luca d'Attoma tells the tale of his initiation into wine coming at the age of two and a half, when he drank a full glass of Marsala stravecchio that had been carelessly left on the kitchen table.
"I was apparently drunk as a lord," he recalls with a grin, "and, what's more, I frightened the hell out of the baby-sitter."
The 36-year-old Tuscan, now a consulting enologist, has always been a bit of a hell-raiser, whether on the rugby field or in the cellars and vineyards of his clients. But he gets results and in the past decade has helped make some of Tuscany's greatest wines, including the 1997 Tua Rita Redigaffi and the 1997 Le Macchiole Messorio, two incredible Merlots from vineyards in Tuscany's coastal area.
"I always love making pure Merlots," he says, "but 1997 was exceptional, especially at the coast -- hot days and a cool breeze in the evening ensuring that the grapes matured perfectly. I can still recall the intense cassis smells in both wineries during the winemaking process. I knew these were going to be truly great wines."
D'Attoma started his consulting business in 1991, after a two-year stint as chief winemaker in a cooperative winery near Pisa. He currently has 20 wineries throughout Italy on his books, from Veneto in the north to Puglia in the south. However, he believes that Tuscany is still the place to be for a winemaker. He says that he is always on the lookout for exciting new propositions in the region and that there is no shortage of offers. But, he says, he has learned to be very careful about which ones he accepts.
"I believe the best is yet to come in Tuscany," he says, "but there are just too many people who view their wine as a purely speculative business and want the autograph of someone who has made 95-pointers on the label. I can't work with people like that."
D'Attoma freely admits that his single-minded, outspoken style has often put him at odds with people. "I'm always ready to listen and learn," he says, "but, in the end, if I'm not satisfied with what's going on, I'd rather move on. I have to work in the way I think best."
D'Attoma says that he doesn't want to be regarded as a "wine doctor," called in when something goes wrong in the winery or the vineyard. He wants to be there monitoring the entire winemaking process, from the vineyard until the wine is finally bottled. In this respect, he is not afraid to be critical of some of his fellow consulting enologists.
"I could never be one of those guys who works for 40 or 50 wineries," he says, "because I can't standardize my work and spread it out over that many. I have to give the proper attention to each of my clients, or the quality of the wine would suffer."
Despite his heavy workload, d'Attoma still finds time to tend to his own 15-acre property, Ripar Bella, which is located in the Montescudaio area north of Bolgheri. He bought the estate in 1999, in partnership with his companion, Elena Celli, and a wine-loving friend from the north of Italy, Roberto Cristoforetti. He also visits the wine regions of France frequently, where he has winemaking friends in the Rhône, Burgundy and Bordeaux. "There are large gaps in Tuscan wine culture," he claims. "I have to go to France to try and fill them in." His rugby-playing days are over, but he occasionally lets off steam in the stands at important international rugby matches.
D'Attoma may have started down the wine trail young through his encounter with that glass of Marsala, but his two sons, Lodovico, 5, and toddler Tommaso, got an even earlier initiation. In both cases the crib that housed them from day one was a converted 350-liter wine barrel. They may be destined to follow in daddy's footsteps.