Tom Maresca meets Ezio Rivella, a remarkable winemaker

He’s one of the fathers of modern Italian red wine, he’s helped turn Tuscany into the commercial success it is today, he’s even invented a way for Italian white wines to travel.

Cavaliere del lavoro (Italy’s equivalent of a life peerage) Ezio Rivella has a boyish charm and an impish smile that belie his gravity, his years, and his importance to Italian winemaking. A wine technician of the highest order, he is a winemaker’s winemaker. He is inclined to a sort of non-Italian understatement, to wry diffidence, even to a little self-irony, as when he says that, ‘the ladies loff my hoccent’. Or when he answers a question about the most important factor for the future of Tuscan wine with his mantra: ‘Mentalità! Mentalità! Mentalità!’. The explanation, like almost everything in Italy, involves history, both personal and regional.

‘Tuscany,’ says Rivella, ‘has huge potential. It has a great variety of soil and climate. We can grow almost any grape, Italian or foreign. Everybody is experimenting now.

They have to, to compete with California and Australia. But we Italians have to re-orient ourselves to the varieties that express our territory. Grow the international varieties that do well, for sure, but focus on the natives. A successful variety will become an international variety. You can’t stop that – but you can preserve your identity and protect your distinctive character.’

Forty-five years ago, Rivella started his career by revolutionising, from his base in Lazio, the way white wines were made and bottled in Italy, launching a new wave of bright, fresh, charming wines that washed from our memories and our store shelves the brown, oxidised bottles that had constituted the mass of Italian white wines before. He capped his career in Tuscany, where he directed Banfi’s then futuristic adventure in Montalcino, helping Italian red wine enter into the world of modern winemaking. Now, in his ‘retirement’ – he winces a little at the word – he is developing his own vineyards in Italy’s newest quality-wine frontier, Tuscany’s Maremma. This once-desolate zone was long regarded as fit only for seaside villas, but its inland stretches are now the focus of a frenzy of vineyard plantation and winemaking.

IN THE BLOOD

Born into a winemaking family in Castagnole Lanze, Rivella studied at Alba and began working in Piedmont. The earliest turning point in his career came in 1957: ‘I answered an ad from Cantina di Marino, in Lazio, and I got the job. The pay wasn’t great and the winery wasn’t huge – but it was a beautiful place, I was 24 years old, and it was an ideal stage for my ambitions and dreams.’

Rivella dreamed very practically. When he started there, Cantina di Marino produced about a million bottles a year of the kind of white wine that, in those days, charmed everyone who drank it on holiday in Rome and disappointed anyone who took a few bottles back home – they ‘didn’t travel’. Rivella changed that forever. ‘I was the first in the Castelli Romani region to send wine abroad using hot bottling technology to biologically stabilise the wine. The method is still used today.’ Cantina di Marino’s output grew from one million bottles a year to seven million, most of it for sale abroad.

Rivella’s salary grew to ministerial levels after this and his reputation with it. When he left Marino in 1963, he was probably the highest paid oenologist in Italy. ‘I left to become a freelance oenologist. I had great prospects. I created the agency, Enoconsult, the only one of its kind, focusing on the winery and technology. It’s still active, and for years I kept busy as a consultant, working on winery plans and technologies.’

Then came the second great turning point in his career. In 1968, he bought a vineyard in Chianti Classico: ‘It cost nothing. In those days in Tuscany $10,000 bought many hectares.’ This ignited his passion for Tuscan wines. He began looking around Montalcino. ‘Here was this famous place, with a great wine, and nobody was doing anything. There was no investment, no activity at all.’

In the mid-1970s, Rivella met John Mariani, the head of Banfi, at that time exclusively an American importer of Italian wines. John and his brother James wanted to do something different, to make an investment on the production side of the wine business. ‘John Mariani wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. I discussed controlling everything from the vineyard to the cellar. That’s almost a slogan now, but I’ve always believed it, even when it hardly existed in Italy. In those days, Italian wine firms didn’t own their own vineyards, except for display. Antinori, for instance, had about 35 hectares.’

Rivella was fascinated by his and Mariani’s dream of building ‘a unique winery, a model of efficiency, functionality and organisation’. But he was, at the same time, in demand and highly compensated as a consulting oenologist. So when John Mariani asked what he would need to devote himself exclusively to realising the Banfi vision, ‘I gave him a number with a lot of zeros. And I thought, that’s the last I’ll hear from him. A week or so later, my banker phoned me. “Dottore Rivella,” he said, “a large sum of money – he named all the zeros – has been deposited in your account. What do you want me to do with it?” I thought, Mariani was serious! We can do this!’

In the following years, Rivella oversaw the construction of the most up-to-date vineyards and winery in Italy. Initially, Rivella and the Marianis thought the main product was going to be white wine, principally from the Moscadello grape. ‘We originally thought we would produce only about 100,000 bottles of Brunello [the estate now makes over a million bottles of Brunello annually], but you can’t fight the soil, and you can’t fight the market. We were years ahead of our time. Our competitors could buy grapes for less than it cost us to grow them. Now everyone sees the advantage of this kind of production, but then we were madmen.’

Montalcino in those days was a very conservative place, rooted firmly in old agrarian traditions. Rivella recalls being asked to address some of the local growers and small producers. ‘In those days, bad barrels – everybody was still using old wooden barrels – ruined a lot of good wine, so I told them to burn their old barrels. I said, if you won’t throw them out, at least keep the chickens out. At the Castello, we turned all the old barrels into flowerpots to show what we thought of them. They thought I was crazy.’

‘Now,’ Rivella says, ‘you can see how Brunello has changed, how Montalcino has changed. It used to be – ‘we have this great wine, so let the world come to us’.

Nobody came. Now, there is professionalism in every respect, in the making of the wine and in the marketing of the wine, even down to the details of the packaging. There has been a profound change of mind, of the mentalità of the growers, who realise that it takes a serious investment and a lot of work to make serious wines, and to get people to know them and buy them. And there has been a profound change of mentalità in the consumers, too. Wine used to be just a beverage in Italy: cheapest was best. Montalcino used to be a dusty country town. There was no wine tourism.

Now almost a million people a year come to this little city just for the wine! A French television crew was filming here and in Maremma, making a documentary about the secrets of the success of Italian wine. That’s almost unbelievable – the French asking about the secrets of Italian wine. That’s how much things have changed.’

Rivella holds strong views on wine: ‘Tuscan wine can and should be charming and elegant, maybe not easy to drink right out of the barrel, and almost never simple, but always elegant.’ And he has equally pronounced views about wine prices and marketing. ‘The wine market can’t expand indefinitely at the t65-a-bottle range. But there is a potentially enormous market at the t10-a-bottle level if you can offer a good ratio of quality to price. Tuscany can supply both market levels, and the Maremma offers ample space for expansion. But everything depends upon the mentalità – without that, nothing important will happen.’

Tom Maresca is author of La Tavola Italiana, (£10.89, Trafalgar Square).