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Renato Ratti: Keepers of the Flame

Renato Ratti: Keepers of the Flame

Piedmont's wine heritage is alive and well at Renato Ratti

The first thing I noticed about our bottle of Renato Ratti wine was the soldier on the label. With his 18th century red-plumed hat, swallow-tailed coat, long musket and dagger, he looked both dapper and formidable. "But what's a soldier doing on a wine label?," I wondered. It was a fleeting thought, quickly pushed aside by the wine itself—a hearty Barbera d'Asti with unexpected depth that pleased everyone at the table and proved a perfect counterpart to our creamy risotto con funghi. We soon forgot all about that little soldier.

Labels preserving Piedmont's history

Labels preserving Piedmont's history

Some years later, I visited the Renato Ratti Antiche Cantine, located in the Langhe hills near the town of Alba, which since the 19th century has been the wine capital of Piedmont. The Renato Ratti winery is well worth a visit, not only for its highly regarded wines, which include Dolcetto d'Alba, Barbera, Nebbiolo, and, most importantly, a line of single-vineyard Barolos. There are additional treasures. Adjoining the winery is a 15th century abbey, and inside this modest brick building is an extensive private wine museum. It was here that I discovered the reason behind the military motif. I also learned that the little soldier was just part of a larger piece—namely, an effort to preserve Alba's rich wine heritage, with its stories, artifacts, and lessons in winemaking.

Passing through the iron gates, history is immediately evident. This abbey once housed Benedictine monks, then Italian troops during the Second World War. Under the porch, an array of winemaking tools take shelter: odd-shaped carts for hauling grapes from the field, oblong barrels suspended on metal armatures, small sickles for trimming vines, iron barrel hoops, and other weathered gadgets.

Our escort is Massimo Martinelli (pictured above), chief enologist at Renato Ratti and co-owner of the estate together with Renato Ratti's son Pietro. Martinelli gathered these artifacts with Ratti, his uncle and the winery's founder who died prematurely in 1988. The silver-haired winemaker is looking rather bohemian, dressed in a loosely tied ascot, oxford-cloth shirt, and faded jeans. Like many piemontese natives, he's a man of few words, but the collection inspires him to offer tales and tidbits when nudged. Martinelli admiringly points out the huge wooden screw at the center of a giant wine press, carved by hand centuries ago. "You can imagine the difficulty of carving the threads to match," he notes. A giant terracotta urn inspires a story about the Etruscan wine vases recovered from the sea and scraped for DNA. A glass wine beaker with an undulating horizontal spout conjures a narrative about air seals made of olive oil. And so it goes, through rooms of agricultural implements, wine labels, and antique bottles.

The former Benedictine abbey and WWII barracks where Ratti's private museum is housed.

The former Benedictine abbey and WWII barracks where Ratti's private museum is housed.

"My uncle, when he made his cantina, began to collect old things, old documents, because he had a passion for them," Martinelli recalls. "There was nothing left here in the abbey. But at that time, it was easy to find such things in basements and antique markets. They didn't cost much and people sold them willingly. Now it's very complicated. They ask for a lot of money -- too much money."

Ratti established his winery in the 1960s after years of travel in France and Brazil. He soon recruited his nephew, who was then working at a winery in Switzerland. The two went looking for vineyard property in the communes surrounding the town of Barolo. At first, Martinelli recalls, "my uncle wanted to buy a castle." A couple of possibilities came and went. "Then one day we were eating lunch at Belvedere," a superb restaurant in the village of La Morra at the crest of the hill. "Leaving, we passed by here and I saw a sign that said 'l'Abbazia dell'Annunziata' (Abbey of the Annunciation). We peeked in and thought, 'This is beautiful.' And that's how it happened."

Ratti gradually built up his estate, as well as his reputation as a proselytizer for wines from the region. He led the charge to improve how Barolo is produced, arguing for modern technology and for the reintroduction of certain older techniques. One was the historical practice of vinifying grapes from separate vineyards, or cru, rather than creating Barolo from blends, as was then the trend.

"My uncle had this idea because he'd been in France," says Martinelli. "In France, this idea is historic. Also, he realized that we had some particularly good land here. However, the mentality was to mix the grapes from various vineyards; they thought that was better."

Ratti's ground-breaking Barolo cru map.

Ratti's ground-breaking Barolo cru map.

To convince winemakers otherwise, Ratti and Martinelli dug into the records. They assembled a map locating the historic vineyards for Barolo, a wine developed in the mid-1800s that quickly became the favorite drink of King Carlo Alberto (thus Barolo's epithet 'the king of wines and wine of kings'). These were often higher elevation plots with southern exposure--patches where the snow melted first and where the sun could work unhindered on the slow-ripening nebbiolo grapes. "The map was to give evidence to that, in the history of Barolo, there were special vineyards," says Martinelli. "At first, local producers were opposed. Now they ask, Why isn't my estate on your map?," he says with a laugh. "Well, those vineyards didn't exist then."

For Ratti, the natural side effect of this research was to visibly identify the cru on the label. Marcenasco, Conca, and Rocche are the names of historic vineyards prominently displayed on Ratti's line of Barolo. Once again, he pioneered the practice. "In 1967, the famous wine writer Luigi Veronelli came to Alba; it was at the beginning of his career," Martinelli recalls. "He maintained that it was very important to have on the label the area where the wine was from. At that time, the only one who agreed with this theory was Ratti." Gradually that changed, and now vineyard names are prominently splashed across labels throughout Piedmont and impart a certain cache and promise of quality.

A savvy marketer, Ratti also seized upon the idea of packaging Albese wines in a distinctive bottle, again based on an historical model. While digging for antiques, he stumbled across an unusual 18th century bottle from the area, shaped somewhat like the round-shouldered burgundy bottle, only slightly more angular. "Since every zone around the world has its own bottle, he had the idea that this would be ours," says Martinelli. "We marked it with the dialect word 'Albeisa', so it would be easily recognizable." But convincing other producers to jump aboard the bandwagon meant another grueling round. "In the sixties, this was a very advanced idea," says Martinelli. "At the beginning, there were only 10 out of about 500 producers who embraced the project." Today, these elegant bottles are everywhere and help define Albese wines. Their prototypes fill a sunny whitewashed room in the abbey. Handblown Albeisa bottles stand in line like cousins at a wedding, each bearing a family resemblance but with idiosyncratic profiles. To the side, rows of dusty brown bottles from 1800 are arranged to demonstrate the influence of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Nearby is a drawing from Martinelli's own hand, showing the evolution of glass bottles from 1650 to 1850.

Martinelli showing some of his 1000 wine labels.

Martinelli showing some of his 1000 wine labels.

The drawing comes from a booklet Martinelli wrote and illustrated in 1993, called Storia delle etichette del vino (A History of Wine Labels). The winemaker has authored more substantial books, including Il Barolo come lo sento io (Barolo as I see it). But his little booklet is a surprisingly engrossing read, telling the story of how wine has been stored and identified over the ages. Martinelli begins with the Romans, who used large amphorae marked with terracotta plaques simply indicating "Vino." The needs of medieval monks and Renaissance lords were not much more complicated. Since the wine they drank was local, poured directly from barrel to pitcher, they knew what was going into their glass.

A label for "Bitter" (amaro) Barolo, before naming conventions were standardized.

A label for "Bitter" (amaro) Barolo, before naming conventions were standardized.

That began to change when noble families started storing premium wine in glass bottles around 1600. As they discovered that aging enhances wine, the bottles evolved, going from bulbous to cylindrical. This shape allowed them to be stacked for storage and aging. But glass bottles were not sufficiently elegant for lordly dining; wine came to the table in crystal glass decanters. This is when labeling came into play. A small plaque on a chain identifying the wine's provenance would be hung around the decanter's neck. Over time, these became elaborate miniature artworks, crafted from silver, mother-of-pearl, ivory, and porcelain.

Paper labels first emerged in the mid-1700s, initially used by champagne houses that were eager to distinguish themselves from their competitors, and also needed a form of identification that wouldn't fall off during transport. Other wine producers followed suit, at first writing the vintage or place of origin by hand. With the invention of lithography in 1798, a whole new chapter opened up, and modern labels were born.

Martinelli has spent a good deal of time thinking about wine labels. Over the years, he has collected 100,000 labels from around the world. They're everywhere in the estate's library-cum-tasting room. Some are neatly filed or framed, while thousands of others are stuffed in boxes, waiting to be catalogued.

Martinelli singles out the bit of paper that got him started back in 1964: a label for the famed Mouton Rothschild estate that incorporates an original pen-and-ink drawing by Salvador Dali. "I was working at a vineyard in Switzerland, and one day in the cantina I noticed an empty bottle with a label designed by Dali," he recalls. "Because I was an art lover, I was struck by it. That was my first label." He soon had the complete set, from 1945 onward, which artwork by everyone from Chagall and Miro to Motherwell, Saul Steinberg, and Keith Haring.

The commune of La Morra, just above Ratti's property

The commune of La Morra, just above Ratti's property

But the labels that get the most loving treatment are those from Martinelli's home turf. An entire room in the wine museum is devoted to Albese labels. One case contains antique paper labels, handwritten in slanted script. Then there's a profuse outpouring of elaborate designs following the invention of lithography. Castles, landscapes, floral motifs, medallions, escutcheons, art nouveau flourishes, and all manner of typography tumble forth onto the tiny paper canvases. Often they're accompanied by text that is dubious by today's highly regulated standards: "Super Barolo." "Extra Fine." "Bitter Nebiolo." These vague terms have since disappeared along with spurious claims for excellence, such as the little medallions advertising awards that never existed.

In the far corner we find Renato Ratti's labels. The Barolo set has a dignity befitting a DOCG wine. On antique-yellow paper is a falcon within a shield ­ a motif borrowed from the heraldic coat of arms that Ratti and Martinelli found when they first took over the dilapidated property. But my attention is caught by the adjacent labels. There's a soldier from the Asti battalion, circa 1800; another from Canale, c. 1795; and one from Alba's battalion, c. 1703. Martinelli tells me these meticulously accurate drawings were based on an extensive collection of toy soldiers assembled by a kindred spirit in nearby Bra.

Finally I get to spring my question: "So what's a soldier doing on a wine label?" "We had in mind doing something different from everyone else," Martinelli explains. He also mentions his interest in local Piedmont history—a fact evident in every corner of the museum. But there's something else. Martinelli points to the sole foreign soldier in the batch. "This was an Austrian general who defeated Napoleon in a battle nearby," he says. "After that victory, he sent a letter to the mayor of Barbaresco asking for some of their wine to celebrate." Like many foreign visitors, this general had a taste for Piedmont wine. That's one more tradition worth maintaining.

Published in the November 2003 issue of Pasta magazine.

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