Barolo Boys: The Power & Effects of International Wine Marketing

“Barolo Boys” (2014) is a documentary about the Barolo “boom” in the nineties. The strength of the film is its success in chronicling how a group of family owned wineries (7 men + 1 woman)* changed the historical character of their wines for marketing purposes and what happened as a result. The story is important because versions of it occurred in many other parts of Italy. The echoes can still be heard today.

*Elio Altare, Chiara Boschs of E. Pira e Figli, Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta, Roberto Voerzio, Luciano Sandrone, Domenico Clerico, Giovanni Manzone, Enrico Scavino of Paolo Scavino, Renato Cigliuti and Roberto Damonte of Malvirà

What happened?
The Barolo Boys altered their methods in the vineyard and in the cellar to catch and ride a wave of stratospheric Parker/Wine Spectator point scores. Italo-American marketing expert, Marco De Grazia, took the group on tour in the United States and brought new wealth to them and to the area. But all of that had consequences in the community and provoked a counter movement toward “traditional” Barolo wine.

To Buy or Rent or on iTunes

As background to the film, it’s important to know that the United States was the fastest growing, largest and richest market for wine in the 80s and 90s. Robert Parker’s 100-point scale, which spread to the Wine Spectator and other publications, fueled sales based on Parker’s personal preference for fruit forward, robust, ready to drink reds. His palate aligned with that of most Americans.

So how do you get Nebbiolo wine, which has traditionally been highly tannic and austere with a need for long aging in the cellar, to score 100 points?

Answer:
– Prune bunches off the vines to concentrate their efforts on fewer grapes
(Create intensity of aroma and flavor)
– Allow the grapes to mature longer on the vine
(Add fruitiness, roundness and higher sugar content–higher alcohol)
– Shorten the period that fermenting wine remains with the skins
(Reduce tannins for less austerity)
– Use new barriques (small, French, wood barrels)
(Soften tannins and add aromas and flavors, like vanilla)
– Use additives, commercial yeasts, etc. to change the wine chemically in the cellar.
(All of the above)

The original group ranged from small to large producers (4,500-450,000 bottles annually). What they had in common was a feeling of frustration at working so hard to grow grapes but then, having to sell them in bulk at low prices or produce wines that were not recognized beyond the local area.

The film recounts both the rise of these “modernists” and the reaction that eventually rose up against them from the “traditionalists” like Giuseppe Rinaldi and Bartolo Mascarello, who made a label for his wine that revealed his thoughts on the matter. Whichever side people aligned with, it was clear that one effect of the Barolo Boys was a rift in the community.
No Barrique

The Barolo Boys’ boom also led to a gold rush where land prices skyrocketed and vines proliferated where once there had been woods, fruit trees, hazelnut trees, grain, grazing pastures and other crops. The monoculture that exists today has fundamentally changed the character of the area, reduced the health of the vines, and reduced the variety of aromas and flavors in the grapes.

monoculture

Many vines are grown with industrial methods (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, fertilizers, etc.) and are heavily pruned to force the plant to concentrate efforts on the grapes. On a recent walk through vineyards above Barolo (castle in background), I took this photo.

conventional

Interestingly, some of the Barolo Boys wineries are following the market once again and leaving their “modern” methods in favor of a new marketing trend toward more authentic, terroir based, “natural” wines. The group no longer exists as such, and Marco De Grazia has moved to Mount Etna.

It is notable that some winegrowers in the area (and in other parts of Italy) never changed. They stayed with traditional, sustainable, “natural” mentors in the vineyard and in the cellar. (See winegrowers on this blog…and more stories coming soon from Piemonte!)

They plant only a small part of their acreage…
vines with woods

Allow all kinds of flora and fauna to grow in the vineyards…
eugenio

flowers

Allow their vines to find their own equilibrium by not pruning the tops or conducting heavy pruning of bunches.
happy vines

And intervene as little as possible in the cellar.

The fascination of Italy remains the natural diversity of land, climate, soil, altitude, exposition, grape variety and winegrower personality. Wine has been made here for over 3,000 years and is deeply rooted in the culture, a fact that no point score or ranking can easily change.

Published: June 22, 2016

For more information on Barolo wineries or on planning a trip to the area, contact Eleanor.

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