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Piero, left, and Giuseppe

Vanessa and I have made plans to travel south to the region of Molise, Italy, for two weeks, where we will learn to work as shepherds on a dairy farm. We had a few hours to spare before catching our overnight train, so Piero took us to a farm near Asti to meet his friend, Giuseppe, a man in his 70’s who makes what Piero describes as not only the best barbera wine, but perhaps the best wine, he has ever tasted. That is no small statement coming from Piero, an experienced wine-maker himself, and a friend of some of the top wine producers in Piedmont, as well as in Burgundy and Alsace, France. Giuseppe, in addition to producing wine, also has a number of ancient and rare fruit trees native to the Piedmont region, crates of which Piero will take home to add to the Mostarda D’Uva.

Giuseppe has been making wine his whole life. His production is small, just enough for himself, friends, and a few restaurants that are lucky enough to stock his wine. Everything Giuseppe does is by hand. He refuses to use any electrical equipment with his wine: no grape stemming and crushing machines and no electric pumps, which are standard in almost any other wine cellar. He writes every bottle label individually in a fine black script. Giuseppe believes that the wine is degraded by mechanized equipment, that in some sense the wine responds poorly to the absence of human touch. When it is time to transfer the wine from one container to another, an essential exposure to oxygen that must happen periodically throughout the wine-making process, Giuseppe gently pours it by hand.

It may seem eccentric to insist on these extreme by-hand practices, considering that the top wines of the world are made using electrical tools such as pumps and grape crushers. Tasting Giuseppe’s barbera, however, was all I needed to believe in his methods. Actually, merely looking at the wine was proof enough. There was no fanfare in its presentation. We sat outside at a wood picnic table spotted with bird droppings. Giuseppe served biscotti and apples with the wine, food that did nothing to enhance it. He poured it into water glasses, as Europeans tend to do with their daily wine. Yet his wine looked like fine silk, and its brilliance shone from the inside out, as if rubies had been melted down and poured into a glass.

Oenophiles often speak of terroir when describing wine. It is a term that refers to the effects of the local environment on the finished wine. In a sense it is the stamp of place on the wine. Tasting Giuseppe’s barbera made me think immediately of its terroir. After living in Piedmont for over a year with Piero, a producer of barbera and dolcetto, and drinking his wine as well as the wines of many others, Giuseppe’s wine seemed like the platonic form of Piemontese barbera. It was what all those other wines, many of them great in their own right, were meant to be. It communicated Giuseppe’s land, his vineyard, his grapes, his traditions, his history.

Piero looks at Giuseppe’s wine in the cellar

Giuseppe’s wine is also illegal. This is because his wine cellar is not in accordance with governmental code. His cellar is a true old wine cellar with brick floors, brick walls, and vaulted ceilings. His wine sits in massive oak barrels. He keeps it clean and orderly. Despite the care he takes, the Italian government tells him it is illegal to sell his wine. Giuseppe goes regularly to court, where he makes impassioned speeches in his own defense. The law should protect the powerless from the powerful, he tells them. It should protect the small producer from being overtaken by larger ones; it should protect tradition. He can not afford to make the changes required by law, Giuseppe tells the court, and such expenses serve only to put the small producer out of business. He chastises them for helping to make the strong stronger at the expense of the weak.

He is fighting an honorable but losing battle, and one day soon his wine will never be made again.

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