I can’t stand it when people equate wine with art. It’s pretentious.
To me, winemakers are craftsmen who humbly transform and interpret what nature provides. Winemakers, like chefs, aren’t artists who make stuff out of nothing.
But the person who first waxed lyrically to me about Zeno Zignoli is one of the most thoughtful, intelligent and cultured people I know in the wine world—Alberto Aiello Graci of Graci on Sicily’s Mount Etna.
“Zeno is not a winemaker,” Alberto gushed a couple of years ago. “He is a poet.”
Zignoli’s small agricultural oasis, called Monte dei Ragni, lies in the heart of the Valpolicella “classica” area of Fumane, 15 miles northwest of Verona. Here, he makes about 300 to 500 cases a year of Valpolicella Classico and Amarone. He never sells more than 10 cases to anyone—including his New York importer—and that was before the coronavirus pandemic turned everything upside-down.
“When one of Zeno’s bottles is good, it’s very good,” one of my favorite local somms told me.
Now, after three years, I’ve opened about a dozen bottles of Monte dei Ragni wines. All were more than good: They were long, complex, nuanced and elegant. Wines to be savored.
The two times I have met Zignoli, at his home and winery on a partially abandoned bluff over Fumane, he has appeared the antithesis of elegance—a bohemian neo-peasant in dirt-streaked work clothes.
One clear blue-sky winter Saturday morning—a week before Italy’s March 9 imposition of a nationwide quarantine, now expected to last until early May—I found him planting onions and garlic in one of his vegetable gardens.
“We don’t have a freezer; we eat everything fresh,” Zignoli said. At 52, he spends most of his time outdoors cultivating about 20 acres—five of them planted to vineyards, and the rest to olive groves, cherry orchards, corn, wheat and grain. He also raises goats, sheep and bees and maintains small patches of forest as a buffer from neighbors.
“Monoculture is a disaster! That’s why all the plants are sick now,” added Zignoli. His beard is salt and peppery, and the curly mop atop his head has thinned. “Man has the arrogance to plant what he wants, where he wants. He doesn’t look at the earth, he looks at the market.”
I turned his words over in my head. OK, there was a certain poetic howl to them.
Zignoli grew up north of Verona in a family of instrument makers, but from kindergarten age on he was attracted to the neighbors’ farm. After completing an agricultural study program in high school, he cultivated vineyards and olive groves for a local cooperative that took over abandoned lands in Valpolicella. As part of an exchange program, Zignoli traveled to Nicaragua to help peasants there.
In 1997, Zignoli moved in with his partner, Antonella Ragno, whose family has farmed their rocky, namesake Monte dei Ragni estate for centuries. A free spirit, he notes that the couple never formally married, adding, “I don’t sign anything—ever.”
Her parents gave the couple a share of the land, including pergola-trained vineyards planted on limestone soils with Valpolicella’s classic mix of Corvina, Corvinone, Molinara, Rondinella and a handful of other local varieties. He experimented for five years before he was satisfied with the wine he produced.
“Agriculture is study,” he proffered. “That’s why it’s called agri-culture. It’s not called agri-ignorance. We have to study all the time.”
Talking to Zignoli, things get deep in a hurry.
From the start, he worked organically, but he has been in constant label-defying evolution. In 2008, he adopted biodynamics and began using a horse to till his soils when needed. He didn’t stop there.
“Biodynamics unfortunately has become a technique. But it shouldn’t be an arrival point—it should be a departure point,” he said.
In recent years, he has followed the soil regeneration practices of the Colombian-Brazilian agronomist Jairo Restrepo Rivera and has embraced agricultural homeopathy. He plants dozens of cover crops and complementary plants—like artichokes—that he says reinforce vine health. He has built more than 100 homes for small birds and owls.
His latest project has been to plant a small vineyard of local varieties (on their own roots, instead of rootstock) alongside ash tree saplings that will ultimately be shaped to form a natural canopy of vine pergolas—in a near-extinct ancient system known as vigna maritata, or “married vine.”
Zignoli manually crushes his grapes to ferment in open barrels. Grape clusters destined for his Amarone are tied to vertical canvas nets to dry in a small attic for months. Fermentations happen spontaneously without temperature controls. He adds sulfites only sparingly for preservation. His Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso are released after more than four years, well beyond the minimum requirement of one year. His Amarone, after eight—double what’s needed to qualify as a riserva.
Owing to the meticulousness of his technique, Zignoli’s wines have none of the funkiness or oxidation common to those of many extreme natural winemakers.
“For me, wine is a question of balance and elegance,” says Zignoli. “These things come naturally with aging. With time, wine becomes something extraordinary.”
He opened a bottle of his 2007 Amarone that was lean and lively, with layer after layer of flavors.
This past weekend, I phoned Zignoli to see how life on his natural oasis had been affected by the coronavirus quarantine.
“Here nothing has changed,” he told me. “We don’t have visitors coming to the cellar. But I don’t have a million bottles to sell. And in the vineyards, things are like always.”
Zignoli marveled that, with the world slowing down, the environment seems to have undergone a self-cleaning.
“The lesson is that even if man stops,” he said, “nature goes forward itself.”