"Wine is cultivated and not manufactured like lifeless things."
Luigi "Gino" Veronelli (1926-2004) was an Italian wine and food journalist, philosopher and activist who made a profound impact on his country's restaurateurs and winemakers, inspiring them to embrace tradition and grow local grape varieties showcasing unique Italian flavors. He firmly believed in the potential of Italian gastronomy, which during the mid-20th century was far from where it stands today.
In a sense, Veronelli was a pioneer of what is now known as the "natural wine" movement. He insisted on hard work in the vineyards and believed winegrowing must be organic; otherwise, it was not worthy of being considered agriculture. He claimed the worst wine made by a farmer is always superior to the best industrial wine.
Veronelli put his money where his mouth was. An avid wine collector, he built an impressive cellar that contained about 70,000 bottles at its peak. Gian Arturo Rota, Veronelli's former assistant, currently oversees the collection, with the majority of the wines being used for seminars and educational purposes, spreading the gospel of Gino's philosophy.
Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City acquired part of the collection at an auction organized by Rota, and now Veronelli's wines are available for purchase at the store.
In November, journalists, sommeliers and wine professionals gathered at Astor to sample selections from Veronelli's cellar and learn more about the man. Members of the family and wine producers flew in from Italy to show their respect.
All of the wines presented at the tasting demonstrated the influence Veronelli had on some of the best Italian growers, whom he encouraged to set new standards. Each wine was accompanied by a story demonstrating the connection between the grower and the journalist.
In the case of the Livio Felluga Colli Orientali del Friuli Terre Alte 1986, Veronelli had challenged Felluga to prove that wines from the Friuli area could compete with the best white wines from France, Germany and Austria.
Another example was the Giuseppe Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato 1970. This was the first bottling of Monprivato as a single vineyard; the tradition in Barolo was to blend grapes from multiple sites. When Mauro Mascarello (whose daughter Elena spoke at the event) sent Veronelli three samples from the vintage, the journalist called the Monprivato "a champion," reassuring the winemaker that he made a good decision.
Giuseppe Mazzocolin of Fattoria Fèlsina, in his emotional speech, emphasized that Veronelli placed great significance on the connections among the land, the grower and the wine. We tasted his Fontalloro 1985; on encountering this wine for the first time, Veronelli commented: "Giuseppe, I think it is time for your village to have its first grand cru Sangiovese vineyard, the Fontalloro vineyard!"
Chiara Pepe, granddaughter of the famous Abruzzo producer Emidio Pepe, stressed the importance of a quote by Veronelli: "The smaller the estate, the tinier the vineyard, the more perfect the wine." The Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 1975, from their 37 acres of vines, was ample testimony.
Veronelli travelled Italy seeking out distinctive producers, such as the somewhat elusive and eccentric Prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi. Perhaps better known for his long-aging whites, the late vintner was represented by his Tenuta di Fiorano Lazio Ludovisi 1964, a Cabernet Sauvignon–Merlot from the region around Rome, and by his cousin Alessandro Jacopo Boncompagni Ludovisi, who now owns the estate. Upon meeting Veronelli for the first time, while the journalist was looking for his vineyard, Prince Alberico said, "Yes, there is a great vineyard somewhere around here, but you have to spot it by yourself!"
The wines spoke for themselves, but the speeches given by Veronelli's friends, family and vintners reinforced the footprint that he left. His inspiring writings and wisdom set a standard that will continue to motivate the generations to come.
Follow Aleks Zecevic on Instagram at @azecevic88.