It wasn’t until the obituaries were noted and carefully read that some fascinating parallels were revealed in the careers of winemakers Peter Mondavi and Giacomo Tachis.
Two men separated by nearly two continents and 6,000 miles yet whose impacts on wine and winemaking will last far longer than many of the current winemakers.
Plus, the fact both were of Italian lineage cements a long-held belief that the world of wine owes much to its Italian heritage.
Mondavi died Feb. 19 at 101 and in early partnership with brother Robert, a remarkable winemaker in his own right who died in 2008, made their family-owned Charles Krug winery one of the early leaders in Napa Valley wine history.
According to several articles, Peter Mondavi adopted ideas he had learned while doing graduate at the University of California, Berkeley, to turn California from a general source for unremarkable wines into one of the world’s premier wine regions.
He’s said to have been the first Napa Valley winemaker to use cold fermentation and sterile filtration to produce crisp, fruity whites.
Also, his winery was the first in Napa Valley to use new French oak casks for aging and to adopt the uncommon (for then) practice of vintage-dating its varietal wines.
Such was his passion for winemaking, and even more his passion for protecting his family business, that he still going into the office at the age of 100.
The Charles Krug Winery, during this Golden Age of California cabernet, became famed for its well-structured and elegant Vintage Selection cabernets.
Tachis, meanwhile, who died Feb. 5 at the age of 82 at his home in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Tuscany, equally was known for his pioneering use of temperature-controlled fermentation and aging in oak barrels.
It once was said that there are two eras in the history of winemaking in Tuscany: before Giacomo Tachis and after Tachis.
One of Tachis’ most notable accomplishments was his role in using French grape varietals (notably cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc) in developing what became known as “Super Tuscan” wines. There had been a few earlier experiments with using non-Italian grape varieties but it wasn’t until 1961, with the state of Chianti in sorry shape, when Tachis helped develop the Bordeaux-influenced, sangiovese-based Sassicaia (with Marchesi Incisi della Rocchetta), Tignanello (with Marchese Piero Antinori, whose family had been experimenting with cabernet blends since the 1920s) and Solaia, among them the first of the so-called Super Tuscan wines.
These wines with their French-grape components didn’t fit the restrictive Italian regulations and rather than be lumped with common and less-distinctive vino da tavola, the term Super Tuscan was developed.
“They opened the door to a new market — as well as the road to a better-quality wine — at a time when, especially in Tuscany, Chianti was a weak, cheap wine,” Giacomo Tachis told Decanter Magazine in 2003.
The wines lifted the reputation of all Italian wines, and while now some of the polish has worn off this so-called “international style,” it paved the way to success and worldwide markets for many Italian winemakers.
After Tachis was named Decanter magazine’s Man of the Year in 2011, wine expert Jancis Robinson wrote “Giacomo Tachis changed the style of Italian wine, dragging it – kicking and screaming – into the 20th century.
“And by changing the style of the wines, he changed the way in which they are perceived,” wrote Robinson. “Without him, Italian wine would not be as successful as it is today.”
Tachis, in his post-Antinori career, developed highly acclaimed and sought-after red wines in Sicily, Sardinia, and the Marches region of central Italy.
There was one notable difference between these two innovative winemakers, separated as they were by miles if not temperament and passion. While they almost simultaneously pioneered similar techniques (cold fermentation, oak aging) to improve what went into the bottle, they differed in what they put on the bottle.
Mondavi introduced the use of varietal labeling on wine while Tachis adopted less-descriptive labeling, thus perhaps starting the trend to fanciful labels on wines.
Two men, two imprints, and the world of wine made better.
A recent note from Giovanni Mantovani, General Director for Veronafiere, the site of the annual VinItaly wine exposition, said this year’s VinItaly, the 50th anniversary, will be dedicated to the legacy of Giacomo Tachis.
“Giacomo Tachis represented the renaissance of Italian wines and will remain forever in the history of Italian winemaking and in the hearts of those who knew him,” said Montovani in the announcement.
Looking out at a well-lit seminar room on the second floor of the midtown Hilton Hotel, at tables laden with wine glasses and lined with eager listeners, McCoy informed her audience that “It couldn’t be a better time for wines from southern Italy.”
It was a theme to be repeated, although never again quite as succinctly, throughout the all-too-short run of this year’s Italian Wine Week presented by the Italian Trade Commission. Subtitled “The Grandest Italian Wine Event Ever Held Outside of Italy” and focusing this year on wines from Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily, the event (this year was its fifth edition) brought together about 200 Italian wineries (not all from the south and about a quarter of which were looking for a U.S. importer) and countless importers and distributors and other wine-trade people.
Among the many memorable remarks from the week’s speakers and guests:
“This week there is a peaceful invasion of Italian producers and wine experts.” – Maurizio Forte, Trade Commissioner and Executive Director for the Italian Trade Commission.
“The U.S. market is the most-important market for Italian wine; we export almost $1.5 billion per year.”– Maurizio Forte
Wines from southern Italy are largely unknown to the U.S. market because “most American tourists still do not visit Southern Italy.” – former wine director Charles Scicolone.
“They are a ‘hand-sell, meaning that it often takes talking about these wines and explaining them to the customer in order to get them to try a bottle or two.” – Charles Scicolone
“People want to know who you are, not just your wines.” – Chad Turnbull, president of New York-based importer Savorian, Inc., told the producers. “One of the most fundamental things you can do is to introduce yourself to your market.”
“Puglia and Calabria are at the edge of the western world.” – blogger/importer/Italophile Jeremy Parzen. “They just needed a small nudge to enter the modern world of winemaking.”
“When you taste (the wines of southern Italy), it’s hard to imagine what the wines were like 20 years ago.” – Elin McCoy. “These were wines you didn’t want to know about.”
“Sicily is sexy; it was sexy even before the wines were so good.” Roberta Morrell, president and CEO of Morrell Wine Bar and Café, New York City.”The good reds came before the good whites…now the whites are fresh, fruity and minerally.”
“I’m consumer driven. If you can’t say it, you can’t buy it.” – author/wine educator Kevin Zraly.
“In Italy, people mostly eat at home.” – restaurateur/ author Lidia Bastianich. “First, because good eating means eating their mother’s cooking, nobody makes it better, and secondly, because of the economic crisis that is currently afflicting the country.”
“Buying a wine made in Italy means buying a piece of wine history from a country that has made wine for a thousand years.” – journalist Luciano Pignataro.