THE DAY WE ME GRAVNER
they’d fallen out of love with him; “Gravner e pazzo!”
(blah, blah, blah)
but we didn’t know…
we only wanted to meet him.
It was a complicated and somewhat convoluted process too. Direct contact had failed. Our faxes – this was still the days of faxes – were met with only silence from the hill above Gorizia.
And so, meeting the legend had been consigned to the too-hard basket.
A little earlier, a year or so before, there had been the crazy drive down the Tuscan coast. Through the Cabernet soaked hills of Bolgheri, down to the Maremma and the home of the legendary three Michelin starred Ristorante Gambero Rosso. It was a ridiculous extravagance, a week’s budget on a single meal. It was also dangerous – we drank a bit and drove home; over two hours from San Vicenzo back to Lucca. Sometimes you do crazy things, because the only other option is to not do them.
And the wines were memorable. A bottle of Gravner 1990 Breg, (a Collio Bianco blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Grigio), was followed by the 1990 Soldera Riserva Brunello di Montalcino. (The latter, a wine I could only compare in stature to 1985 Conterno Monfortino – an historic wine, and the last true Monfortino.*) Perhaps, and certainly in my mind, these were the two great monuments of Italian wine, at least that I had been privy to. And the Gravner? Did Italy have monumental whites? Maybe Villa Bucci, maybe Pieropan La Rocca? But in fame and status, Breg towered over them, even if the grapes were arguably ‘less Italian’.
Afterwards, we found the faxes to Soldera had at least yielded a response. A terse one certainly, or maybe it was just very business-like. And formal, very formal, as Italians can still be. But it was a response nevertheless. We were to visit at an appointed hour, to be assessed on our own merits – not his – to see if we qualified to receive the blessing of a small allocation of the exalted Brunello…
And it was a tough meeting. One of a kind. A grilling, an inquisition, a knowledge test, and ultimately a philosophy exam. After an hour on the rack – ignored, and spoken to through my companion due to my negligent grasp of Italian – I finally found myself over some invisible hurdle. My beliefs had been judged true, my palate trusted, my goals lofty: I wanted to bring a representation of Italy’s truly great vineyards and winemakers to Australia, and to make this clear to the world, both Monfortino and Soldera Montalcino needed to be represented.
But what, he then asked, of white wine?
At first I stumbled; I named a name that maybe wasn’t true. He balked. We circled. I could sense that my hard-won victory was slipping away. In desperation, trying to rescue the situation, I threw out the name.
It was a name I had pretty much given up on, a name almost mystical in Italian wine circles. GRAVNER.
“Ok,” he said.
And then I told my truths. I wanted my portfolio to include Gravner but he was unreachable, and I did have to make a living somehow. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I will call him. He is my best friend”.
We hadn’t any idea. Together these two men were obsessed with producing wines so utterly true to themselves that the only wines they could stomach drinking much of the time were their own… and each other’s. They were a mutual fan club. And until then, we had no idea why the wines at that fateful dinner had defined something for us.
We ourselves had been two people in love, grappling with separation and new lives. And here we had celebrated entirely by accident with a pair of wines made by two best friends, from completely unrelated parts of Italy. It was the beginning of something, a new journey – one that would change our understanding of wine forever.
Three days later we were driving past the turnoff to Venezia on our way to Gorizia and the mystical hill that seemed to have changed nationality with every war that had ravaged the region. Straddled between Slovenia and Italy (as it is today) it was a place that had witnessed a lot of hardness. But it was also a place with a deep respect for the fidelity of its food. The hills of the Collio were certainly home to the most sought after white wines of Italy, but it was also a region that felt a little closed off. Perhaps most people chose the canals and architecture of Venice and didn’t venture this far. We felt like we were heading to frontier territory, not Italy turistico.
Gravner hadn’t wanted us to visit, even after Gianfranco called him. Didn’t we have something more practical to do he had asked. He for one was busy in the vineyard, and we would be something of an imposition. Don’t worry we had assured, we just wanted to witness the home of these wines, we didn’t expect any great hospitality from the winemaker himself.
And so we arrived at the designated address. This was extraordinary countryside. We had climbed up out of Gorizia until we had reached the agricultural land and each successive hairpin bend in the road seemed to lead to the driveway of another Italian wine legend. Having driven past the relatively anonymous gate a couple of times – it was the days of paper maps, not GPS – we finally found the Gravner family home.
Josko was surprisingly welcoming. We had expected the worst, but he beamed when he met us. (Admittedly all Italian men beamed at my companion – she had that effect). It was immediately apparent that this was to be no ordinary day.
We were about to live Josko’s life backward. Perhaps it was his way of introducing the narrative that we were about to discover – the narrative that had the Italian wine press declaring Josko a lunatic. It was a narrative of 6000 years of winemaking history, but we were to begin with a visit to his headstone before working our way back, through his grandparents house, the history of Friuli, and then the history of wine itself.
Josko’s headstone was positioned high on the hill, in the cemetery of a tiny ancient chapel, overlooking his ancestral farmlands and beyond, into the hazy distance. The headstone had been designed by an old friend, a local architect. Josko felt it was essential to ground his life through his control of this choice.
The story Josko wanted to share was phenomenological, one of wine and place. It was about his way of being in the land and of the way this would give rise to wines that were more transparently of their place. For the first time since I had made the decision to follow my own path into wine, I felt that someone was finally making the sense behind that decision manifest. Josko recalled for me the writings of Martin Heidegger that had enthralled me years earlier, when I was studying architecture – being and time, the thingness of the thing. Essentialness. He was basically trying to follow this philosophical interrogation with his wine.
Having become ill with an arthritic condition in his forties, Josko had been forced to re-evaluate his entire lifestyle, his way of eating, of working and eventually of making his wine. He had chosen a path that might have seemed extreme to some. To us it seemed self-evident and entirely natural. Perhaps we were just the right people to be hearing his story at this time…
He had converted himself to an entirely raw and wild vegetarian diet. In these days of paleo absurdity it probably doesn’t seem like a major shift, but Josko was committed to removing the inflammation from his body, and the extraordinary cured meats and rich diet of Friuli may not have been helping. With his years of success as a winemaker, Josko was not lacking for money, so it was no stretch for him to be sourcing his food from wherever he felt
he needed, to create the diet he was designing for himself.
It was the flow-on effect of these changes into his winery that were to prove groundbreaking and extraordinary. He began to question the processes in the winery, and to ask why each step in his winemaking even existed. Initially it was a matter of progressively ridding the winery of materials deemed ‘unnatural’, especially the stainless steel that defines so many Italian wineries through its shining, immaculate ubiquity.
But this was just scratching the surface. Even though he had reverted his winery to a state closer to that of his grandparents, Josko felt that he hadn’t really changed anything. Yes, the wines were now housed in materials that were natural – wood of various sizes and ages – and his reliance on machinery was heavily reduced, but each step of simplification was actually amplifying for Josko the extent to which winemaking, as he and his peers, and indeed nearly all winemakers worldwide understood it, was fixed in a paradigm that these cosmetic changes couldn’t actually alter.
Josko wanted to start again.
He was convinced that wine had travelled a path that couldn’t really be unwound or deconstructed. So, to get back to an essence or an idea of what the wine wanted to be, Josko decided the only path was to return to the beginning and start again.
And in that simple decision the world declared the greatest white winemaker of Italy, a lost cause.
Yet in hindsight, this was the decision that has more profoundly affected wine over the ensuing twenty or so years than any other.
Josko packed his truck and headed north-east to Georgia – the home of wine. Archaeology tells us that deliberate and careful winemaking had its roots here, with clay amphorae – or more precisely qvevri, buried in the ground for controlled ferments that would provide a dietary staple to the people of the region, and for trade. It was here that Josko wanted to meet people whose winemaking traditions had remained fundamentally unbroken through all that time. In Georgia an average household may still have two or three qvevri buried in the backyard from which wine could be extracted for family meals. It was from here, ground zero, that Josko wanted to start again.
For us this was an extraordinary concept. It was exactly what you might expect from this philosopher of wine, who was not content with anything less than a complete ontological re-examination of wine, place and time. To us this was a towering intellect of wine whose project was not the simplistic ‘return to the old ways’, as had been sound-bited by the wine press, but a detailed and brave solo attempt to see if wine itself might reveal a different path to the Burgundian model – which nobody denied had yielded extraordinary wines. For what other extraordinary wines hadn’t been discovered as a result of the success of that model, Josko wondered.
From his point of view, in line with his new diet and general life epiphany, he sought wines that were possibly more natural – wines transparently of place without the evident intervention of a winemaker, nor the intrusion of materials anathema to the simple duopoly of dirt and vine.
Thus he arrived home from six months of exploration with a truckload of qvevri and a project to make wine as an ancient may have, before letting this journey find its own, new direction.
Perhaps… it was just an idea.
So our journey with Josko continued from his headstone to his grandparents’ house, the logical next step backwards in the ‘time of Josko’. This was Friulano vernacular, an architecture offering little comfort outside of the kitchen hearth – a fire in the centre of the room around which life would take place.
The bedrooms were reached via a covered outdoor walkway; not a warm thought in the context of freezing Collio winters. But for Josko this was the kind of monkish return to simplicity that he craved. He was planning his future occupation of this whitewashed old building and perhaps the austerity would keep him young.
From the home we could walk into Josko’s vineyards, on to the ponca – the distinctive shale that marked the vineyards best suited for Ribolla Gialla, the vine most at home in the Friulano hills. Ribolla was the closest thing to Josko’s autocthonous hero, from which he would seek the kind of wines of which he was dreaming.
At the edge of the vineyard, Josko pointed out three mysterious wooden lids seemingly just sitting on the earth, and beckoned us to come over and investigate with him.
Here it was, the new beginning.
Two years before, the grapes had been pressed by foot and put into the qvevri. buried in the exact same soil the grapes had been growing in. But the beeswax lining had been overlooked and the contents had drained out into the ponca.
This time around there was wine inside. Josko fetched 3 glasses and a ladle.
The wine? Could we describe it? Not really. We were high on a hill, overlooking Slovenia. The air was incredibly cool and pure. Behind us was a house with hundreds of years of collective memory. We were about to taste an idea, a transformation. The flavor? We didn’t really know Ribolla Gialla well anyway – not that this was at all relevant in the traditional sense. The flavours we were seeking were the minerals of the ponca, the cleanness and the thrilling mountain quality of the air, and perhaps the textures and lemony hints of the grape.
Josko dipped the ladle into one of the terracotta vessels and filled our glasses with a wine that was both bright and amber. And the flavours remained, imprinted on our tongues and minds. It seemed the wine was still on our palates hours later.
To us it was the most extraordinary wine tasting, and an extraordinary tasting wine.
And it was literally, just the beginning.
* The last Monfortino fermented in open wooden vats with no temperature control, before the new generation moved to stainless steel fermenters.