This week I had the honor to meet Andrea Sartori, the President of his family’s winery, Sartori di Verona, along with his consulting winemaker Franco Bernabei over a meal with some of their best wines. It was a memorable experience.
Andrea Sartori is a busy man. As President of Sartori de Verona winery he already has the responsibility of running a family business. However, since he became Managing Director in 1998 his ambition has made his own job even more onerous. He had studied in the United States at Columbia University, producing a more global perspective for the scion of an old-line Veneto wine producer (as well as fluency in English). He doesn’t say he took over the reins of the family winery with an agenda, but events since that date suggest it. That agenda can be summarized as a steady march up the mountain of quality.
In 2000 he became President. He came to an agreement with Cantina di Colognola (a growers’ cooperative) to guarantee long-term supply of grapes to the winery. Then in his most crucial management decision, he signed on consulting winemaker Franco Bernabei in 2002. The Bernabei association led to the introduction in 2006 of a line of high-end classic Veneto varietals under the I Saltari label.
Now Sartori’s lifestyle is typical of CEOs across a number of industries. Sartori wine is distributed in 65 countries and when you talk to Andrea he is as adept at discussing the specifics of wine distribution in Singapore as he is at criticizing certain wine production techniques (for example, he likens ripasso to reusing a tea bag).
Sartori Di Verona’s largest market is Germany. The U.S. is second, and Italy is third. If it seems odd that his home market is only number three (and in a wine drinking culture at that) it may help to know that his sentiments are similar to those I have heard from other top Italian wine producers: they get frustrated at the Byzantine Italian wine distribution system and turn their focus to exports.
The other result of his business success is that he has been a popular choice to lead industry organizations, including an unprecedented two terms in charge of Italy’s principal wine producers trade group
His decision to hire Franco Bernabei was the most far reaching for Sartori di Verona. The relationship continues through today. Bernabei, a bear of a man who looks like he could have excelled in the Italian rugby league, does not just fly in once a year to wave a wand over assembled barrels. He is intimately involved in the wine making and every bottle bears his imprint.
He has had offers to consult in places as far afield as South America and Napa Valley, California. These have included ownership stakes in what are now some very well known international joint ventures. But he turned them down in order to narrow his geographical focus to a band of northern Italy marked by a clear Autostrada with a permissive polizia. He was born into a wine industry family and like all great enologists he began his career as a guitarist in a Jimmy Hendrix tribute band (the Icemen). Phlosophical differences over wine making with his father led him to move to Tuscany at a time when it was in a ferment of creative destruction. After putting a super Tuscan winery on the world wine map he established himself as a consulting winemaker. Now he employs a small but specialized staff with expertise in disciplines like microbiology, ampelography and viticulture.
His approach is easy to accept by those who believe that wines are made in the vineyard, not the winery. He emphasizes that the choice of terrain is crucial, and that different terrains will lend themselves to different characters of wine. I pressed him on this, asking why the Tuscan star grape, Sangiovese, was being pulled out of California, despite a huge effort to make it as successful as everything else seemed to be in northern California. He shot back a detailed description of the geological and climatic requirements of the grape, emphasizing that its success in Italy is confined to only a few areas (such as parts of Tuscany, Umbria and Abruzzo).
On the other hand, he is not an anti-innovationist. One technique is drying the grapes for 40 days and then dividing the crop into two when the grapes arrive from at the press. One half ferments in stainless steel and the other half ferments in oak. The result of the drying is a concentration of flavors. The outcome of the split fermentation is an increased concentration of flavors and a greater complexity. This heterodoxy was most evident to me when we tasted the 2011 Sartori di Verona “Ferdi”, Bianco Veronese IGT. What that long name means is that this is a Sartori di Verona white wine from the Verona IGT. It is made from 100% Gargenega grape – the lowly workhorse of hundreds of forgettable Soave wines. It is stunning – the most engaging mouthful of white wine that I have had in months. The weight of its mouth feel and the complexity of its favors are a testimony to the techniques used in its production.
We tasted the full range of Sartori di Verona wines. From the 2012 Pinot Grigio at the start, to the 2001 I Saltari Amarone at the end, they exhibited good, clean wine making. If, like me, you have experienced disappointing Valpolicella (a major wine style of the Veneto region around Venice) then Sartori di Venezia is a pleasant reminder that, at its finest, the wines are balanced, complex and food friendly.
The Montegradella Valpolicella Classico Superiore is a single vineyard Valpolicella from the ‘Classico’ area near Verona that is aged partly in oak and partly in stainless steel. The oak gives it maturity and the stainless steel keeps it fruit forward. There is a distinct aroma of cherries and a mouth feel of soft tannins. I would gladly pair this with a red sauce pasta dish or pork chops.
Ultimately, it is Amarone (known by its full name of Amarone della Valpolicella) that puts the Veneto region and Verona on the global wine stage. Like Barolo in Piedmont and Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany, this is the flagship wine that serious collectors crave and auction bidders go wild for. The Sartori Corte Brà is an Amarone for the seeker of harmony with food. It is big, rich, full-bodied but not sweet or plumy as sometimes characterizes Amarone wines due to the practice of appassimento ( placing of the grapes on mats or hung in bunches to induce dessication). The Corte Brà is made from the vineyard of the same name that surrounds the family home near Verona and is the winery’s flagship wine. The taster is left in no doubt that he is sampling a product that has been produced without compromise. I tried it both on its own and with wagyu beef to examine its food pairing qualities and I think it is first and foremost a wine to taste with food. I kept returning to it as our relatively young (2007) bottle opened up and became progressively more harmonious.
The purchase of I Saltari in 2000 was a liberating experience for Bernabei. Essentially, he was “let loose” to produce a world class Amarone from mature vine vineyards. We savored the 2001 I Saltari Amarone and, despite battling bad corks in the first bottle, it made one appreciate how much Amarone changes with age. Gone were the bare fruit notes and in their place an earthy, herbal, fully-resolved blend.
Andrea and Franco are taciturn about the future, but they did purchase a renowned organic estate, Mont ‘ Albano in Friuli. The winery also produced a 100% Corvina (Corvina is the main grape in Valpolicella but is usually just 40%-60% of the blend), the so-called Regolo, which was voted “Best Italian Red” at the 2010 Ultimate Wine Challenge.
Sartori di Verona wines can be easily found around Dallas/Fort Worth at better wine stores.