A decade is passing by. Instead of dredging up bad memories, crushes, exes, bullies, and untold levels of awkwardness, à la Grosse Pointe Blank (with or without some murder), it is time for another kind of ten year reunion.
The year was 2002. I had decided to become an archaeologist. So I flew to Tuscany to excavate for two months, while visions of Indiana Jones danced in my head (maybe without the dancing).
But Raiders of the Lost Ark it was not.
Instead of Nazis, we got rain. Imagine scratching at a 2,500 year old pot with a dental tool for three hours. The sun blazing. You blink. Thunder claps. The sky turns black. Your pot becomes a puddle of orange.
The summer of 2002 was Tuscany’s wettest on record. While I shoveled water from our trench, just down the road, the famed grape of Chianti, Sangiovese (lit. blood of jove), struggled desperately to ripen.
Fungus, mold, and rot took some victims. Lack of sun drove harvest into late October. Even then, many grapes were green, or if ripe, water-logged. Only producers that could afford to sort grapes during and after harvest could maintain quality. But the cost was tragically low yields.
In 1989, she inherited the estate. It slopes south-east along a highly elevated plateau in the region of Montalcino, just south of Sienna. This is Tuscany’s premier site for the Sangiovese Grosso clone in Brunello. No blending of other grapes is allowed (unlike the rest of Tuscany), which means, if the weather sucks, it is up to the winemaker.
In 2002, as usual, Cencioni was behind the tractor wheel, hand pruning vines to maximize light, selecting old, large slavonian casks to keep the oak from killing what little fruit there would be, while overseeing the sorting, fermenting, aging, and label design.
Skip to 2010. Five excavations later, a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Delusion in History and Art History, and a year into wine sales, I tried Solaria’s 2002. The color was already turning garnet. High acid seared, tannins tore at my gums, the body felt limp. It tasted like craisins, black pepper, and chocolate dust. Clearly very good, but in need of more down time. So I bought one.
Today, ten years on, Solaria’s 2002 Brunello di Montalcino has completely evolved.
The color remains a deep, slightly hazy garnet (unfiltered, nice). My nostrils echo with cedar, tomato, and red cherry. The high acid and tannins remain but don’t intrude on the fruit. It is all there, helping the wine stand upright against red sauced pasta. Tart cherry, plum tomato, tobacco, and truffle flavors are pronounced but lean and layered, like baklava. It sings the song of balance and intensity, but in falsetto.
For it is a fleeting thing. Like my decade-dead dalliance with archaeology, this wine fades in less than an hour. By dinner’s end, the fruit has fallen from the glass. Decanting would have killed its delicate esters. Such is the way with poor vintages. Their drinking window takes forever to reach but then cuts short.
I missed my ten year, high school reunion. Even the excavation seems distant. But Solaria took me back to that miserably wet yet exciting summer of Tuscan dirt. It showed me the good and bad of the past, and how trying to recreate it is impossible, or at best, evanescent: “You can never go home again…but I guess you can shop there.”
But this isn’t about me.
This is about Patrizia Cencioni. She made something amazing from something horrible. I can’t find stats on Italy, but, for reference, only 10% of the head winemakers in California are women. And that is pathetic. Not only because it is unfair to women but because it leaves us with monoculture.
Wine, like too many fields, is redundant, partly because male taste dominates it. The growers, winemakers, and critics all reinforce and recycle the methods and styles they consider good. What is good is what reflects well on them, or what they identify with: big, bold, masculine, muscular, alcoholic et cetera. I enjoy wines like that. But it gets really boring when that’s all there is.
I don’t want nor expect women to make feminine wine (whatever that might be): for Solaria is all intensity and structure. Instead climate, locale, grapes, and traditions will always steer that boat. What I want are more voices.
With more diversity in wine, maybe difference becomes a good in and of itself.