I spend a lot of my work hours with bottles. Buying bottles, selling bottles, moving bottles, arranging bottles. Lots and lots of bottles. And as long as I am not counting the bottles, I'm ok with that. I love my bottles. But frequently, the people behind the best bottles are as fascinating as the liquid within. Prime example: Oscar Arrivabene, winemaker at Domenico Clerico. Passionate about his work, and steeped in the wines of Barolo, Oscar is like a walking mini-seminar in all things Piemontese, so I was delighted that he could stop by the store last week.
We've carried the lovely wines of Clerico since we opened. Founder Domenico Clerico was a celebrated winemaker who was instrumental in bringing Barolo to the attention of the wine world. Clerico melded tradition with innovation to create wines of power tempered with incredible purity and grace. Considering himself more of a winegrower than a winemaker, he excelled at translating the characteristics of his beloved single vineyards into the bottled poetry that is a Clerico hallmark.
When Domenico was diagnosed with incurable cancer, Oscar was already working at the winery. He (Oscar) holds an enology degree, but says Domenico told him, " Fine. You know the science, but now you need to learn the feel. Touch the grapes. Do they yield softly? Smell them. Are they deliciously fragrant? Most of all, taste them. Would you want to eat these grapes? You must learn to assess the grapes with all your senses."
This-working side by side with a master of the genre- was the traditional way to become a winemaker. Domenico himself learned much of his craft from the great Bruno Giacosa, surely one of the founding fathers of modern Barolo. Trained by his family as a mediatore, or one who connects growers of grapes with winemakers who want to purchase grapes, Bruno knew the vineyards of the Langhe intimately. When he decided to start making wines, he knew not only which vineyards he wanted, but which grower and which row, because he had been walking those vineyards and assessing those grapes, vine by vine, for years. As a winemaker, Giacosa was famous for coaxing breathtaking wines from so-called 'off' vintages, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that, in the early part of his career, he owned no vineyards. Visiting at the winery, I once asked Bruno how he made such exquisite wines from purchased fruit. Holding out his gnarled old hands, he said, 'A mano'. By hand, it's in the hands.
Bruno Giacosa died just a few weeks ago, in late January, after many years of ill health. Sadly, I cannot honestly state that the Giacosa wines have not suffered his absence. But when Domenico Clerico, only 67, passed away last July, Oscar was ready to carry on his legacy. Tasting through the wines on Friday, I was struck by their purity of fruit and elegance of expression. In an echo of Domenico and Bruno before him, Oscar is blending science with art to create wines of lasting beauty.
RIP, Domenico and Bruno.Two old soldiers of the Piemonte hills are gone, but the wines speak of them still.