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Sustainable Italian Wine, the Old-Fashioned Way

Summary:
In their golden fields in Italy’s Piedmont region, winemakers Renato and Milva Giacone Fenocchio do things they way they were done in simpler times. They forego chemical pesticides and herbicides, pick their grapes by hand, and eschew fancy machinery that can alter a wine during and after fermentation. And they’ve been doing so since 2001, long before organic and sustainable farming were anything like the buzzwords they are today.   The Fenocchios produce about 28,000 bottles of Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Nebbiolo, and Barbaresco wines each year, 90 percent of which are exported to loyal customers in the United States and Europe. “Sustainable agriculture is becoming important for everyone,” says Milva.   To keep molds and pests at bay, the Fenocchios use copper-based products to prevent downy mildew from forming on their grapes and sulphur-based products to keep away powdery mildew, but in very small amounts and only as necessary depending on temperature and humidity, both of which can make plants more prone to disease. Copper and sulphur, which are found naturally in soil, are alternatives to the harsher, synthetic chemical products that non-organic producers use.

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milva's winery

In their golden fields in Italy’s Piedmont region, winemakers Renato and Milva Giacone Fenocchio do things they way they were done in simpler times. They forego chemical pesticides and herbicides, pick their grapes by hand, and eschew fancy machinery that can alter a wine during and after fermentation. And they’ve been doing so since 2001, long before organic and sustainable farming were anything like the buzzwords they are today.

 

The Fenocchios produce about 28,000 bottles of Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Nebbiolo, and Barbaresco wines each year, 90 percent of which are exported to loyal customers in the United States and Europe. “Sustainable agriculture is becoming important for everyone,” says Milva.

 

To keep molds and pests at bay, the Fenocchios use copper-based products to prevent downy mildew from forming on their grapes and sulphur-based products to keep away powdery mildew, but in very small amounts and only as necessary depending on temperature and humidity, both of which can make plants more prone to disease. Copper and sulphur, which are found naturally in soil, are alternatives to the harsher, synthetic chemical products that non-organic producers use. The farm stays far away from so-called systemic pesticides, for example, which are applied through drip irrigation lines and taken up into the tissues of the plant itself, rather than merely being sprayed on the surface. The vineyard also uses pyrethrum, a natural insecticide found in the flower heads of chrysanthemum plants, instead of artificial insecticides. The Fenocchios are in the process of applying to become certified as an organic farm under EU regulations.

 

They also fertilize their plants once every couple of years with manure that has been left outside for a year to reduce acidity, cut the grass by hand once or twice a year around the vines, hoe the soil once a summer, and prune extra leaves by hand three to six times a year to ensure that the grapes are getting enough light and air, which helps to prevent disease.

 

When harvest time comes, the Fenocchios head into the fields with only a few trusted workers, keeping the best grapes for themselves and selling the rest to neighboring wineries. They use only wild yeasts in the fermentation process and eschew concentrators and other technology that remove excess water and help adjust the alcohol level and color of a finished wine. It’s not that such technologies are harmful, Milva says, but they are ultimately a cheap shortcut. She and her husband prefer to use their knowledge of the soil and environment to grow the best possible grapes and harvest them at just the right time.

 

Both Fenocchios have farming in their blood, having grown up near each other in winemaking families. The pair met and fell in love in 1990, when she was a 19-year-old university student and he was a 24-year-old working at one of the best Barbaresco wineries in Italy’s Piedmont region, the Marchesi di Gresy estate. Neither her family nor his wanted the young couple to make wine for a living—particularly in the way they intended to do it, foregoing the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. So, of course, that’s exactly what they did.

 

Without the support of their parents, the Fenocchios started from scratch, buying land, tractors, and other equipment on their own. They sold their grapes to other wineries until they were able to save enough to afford producing their own wines. By 2001, they had scraped together enough cash to rent a two-room garage from a friend. There, they produced their first vintage—1,349 bottles of Barbaresco. Lacking any equipment beyond two steel tanks, the pair did all the winemaking, bottling, and labeling by hand. When they were done, they gave away the bottles to their friends. The next year, the friends came back and brought their friends. The business grew quickly, and the couple built a new winery attached to their home in 2005.

 

The Fenocchios don’t intend to increase their production beyond current levels, despite having sufficient demand to merit doing so. They worry about maintaining quality, for starters. But there’s also the fact that there’s no room left in the winery to age more bottles than they already do. As for the hard work their way of winemaking requires, they hardly mind it. “We don’t care how many hours we have to spend with the plants,” says Fenocchio. “The important thing is that we work in the correct way. It’s more satisfying, and we work in a cleaner environment, and that’s something we want to leave to our daughters and the generations that follow. Most importantly, our customers all seem to be happy.” Which surely means they will have ready buyers of their next product—olive oil.

 

Photo courtesy of Milva Giacone Fenocchio

The post Sustainable Italian Wine, the Old-Fashioned Way appeared first on The Financialist.

Ashley Kindergan
Ashley is an editor and writer at The Financialist. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent at The Daily, the first publication created exclusively for tablet devices, covering everything from municipal bonds to prisons. Before that, she spent five years reporting for daily newspapers in New Jersey.

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