The scorn, on Alberto’s face, was evident. “These days they don’t even check if the wine’s good or not, if it isn’t organic no one wants to give a euro for it”.
We scanned the view from the steep hilltop on which we were standing. Further to the southwest, well within sight, lied the Langhe. Turning northeast, instead, were the slightly flatter lands of Monferrato. A cool breeze blew, fluttering the young vines on their metal wires. It was a nice early spring day in the Roero.
“Sure I’m organic, always been, since I started the label, but it’s a lot of work, let me tell you. Especially now”.
Spring comes with a lot of challenges, in the wine business. Firstly, the vines are growing, so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with them. Then, there’s the weather. We were sliding along a muddy field, and my rental car was streaked in brown, both legacies of a storm that had passed earlier in the night, dropping hail in its wake. Shivers of worry ran down the spine of every grower in the region as the thunders rumbled above. If it’s like this in April, how is it going to be in August?
Then there’s this organic business. One quick example: organic means mowing the grass rather than sprinkling herbicide – and using a brush cutter up hectares of steep hills, as often as twice a week – is a mighty pain. Then there’s the business of protecting the plants: only specific products can be used to protect the vines from fungi and parasites, and a downpour does wash those away. It’s not surprising to see organic producers with direct, 24/7 weather feeds, an eye on the fields and another on the iPhone app.
But being organic isn’t just tough work to appease those brainwashed by marketing. Alberto pointed out a vineyard on the next hill, a rectangle of brown in an almost uninterrupted sea of emerald green. That ‘yard, he said, had been sprayed with herbicide: a job that took an afternoon, out after lunch and back before the six PM quiz started on the telly, easy. But herbicide left the nude earth open to the elements, turning it into mud every time it rained, and dust when it wasn’t. Already we could see a web of channels running down the vineyard, digging into the soil, compromising its stability, up to the point that the first containment walls had to be built. That, we thought, wasn’t an afternoon job.
As we continued our walk through the hill, Alberto took to explaining the DOC and DOCG labelling principles, a bewilderingly complicate system made of aerial photographs, limits to production quantities, analysis that included labs and blindfolded experts, and inspections by delegates from the Region, the Carabinieri and the local health agency. It all sounded painfully bureaucratic, but when the alternative are scams that “got folks to go blind or to literally kick the bucket”, there isn’t such a thing as one control too many.
A little while later we sat in the wine cellar, giving the glass of Arneis the mandatory stir before giving it a go. We sat, and tried wines made unique by the weather of the year they were bottled, or the presence of sandy streaks in the clay of the vineyards, little time capsules of years gone by that I remembered in a haze, whilst they all seemed to be clear, well imprinted in Alberto’s mind. But, then again, when you’re in a business that won’t even start to bear fruit for four years since its start, time flows differently.