The Contemporary Renaissance Winemaker
By W. Peter Hoyne
There are few people in the world who can boast about the fact that they are the 30th generation of Tuscan winemakers and that their family has been involved in making wine since the 13th century. Lamberto Frescolbaldi of Marchesi is too modest and humble for that, but his achievements in Tuscan winemaking are a testament to family’s continuing success. Part of the Frescobaldi history reveals that the Frescobaldi’s traded wine with Michelangelo in exchange for his paintings, and supplied wine to King Henry VIII of England. Aside from this, there is much more to tell.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Lamberto, which revealed a glimpse of his accomplishments and how he has become a visionary in a region steeped in tradition.
Born in Florence, Italy Lamberto Frescobaldi was raised on the family’s Castello di Nippozano estate in Chianti Rufina during his youth. Early on he had only been exposed to local wine at home. In 1983, he began his education in agricultural studies at the University of Florence. Afterwards, he transferred to the University of California Davis in Northern California to study viticulture over a two-year period. Lamberto integrated into the California lifestyle, buying a red Firebird for his travels. On the weekends he worked at a retail store in Sacramento where he was exposed to wines from winegrowing regions throughout the world.
By 1989, he had become actively involved in the family business. One of the turning points in his life was an introduction to Robert and Tim Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi was also of Italian heritage as his parents had emigrated from the Marche region of Tuscany. After the Mondavi’s visited the Frescobaldi estates of Nippozano and Castelgiocando in Montalcino, they decided to form a partnership with the Frecsobaldi’s. As Lamberto describes it, “Tim Mondavi was more Italian than myself. Tim wanted more ripe wine and I wanted to have something that is rich and pleasing and blinks the eye.” In 1995, they formed the first Italian-American venture known as “Luce delle Vite.” This project gave birth to Luce, a Merlot and Sangiovese based blend, Lucente and later the Luce Brunello di Montalcino. They collaborated in the creation of the iconic Bordeaux-styled “Super Tuscan” blend labeled Ornellaia. Lamberto directed the winemaking alongside Tim Mondavi for 10 years. Tim was also one of the most influential people in Lamberto’s life. Prior to traveling to California, at the age 22, Lamberto had only a partial view of the wine since he only drank wines from Tuscany and Italy at home. In California, he learned to capture the spirit of the soil and to look for new sites to plant the same grape. One of his greatest accomplishments was returning home “with a suitcase full of ideas.” After the Mondavi family sold their interest to Constellation in 2004, the Frescobaldi’s bought the remaining shares, becoming sole owner of the brand.
According to Lamberto, “Chicago has been a strong market for us and Italians in general. There is a large Italian community and then beyond the Italian community, all of the Americans have been very dear to the Italian proverbs, Italian cuisine, pasta and anything that is Italian. We Italians have been historically linked to America. Since the war, Italy has been very close to America.”
I asked Lamberto if he thought the wines of Chianti were more traditional or modern today. Lamberto admitted that “one has to be part of the contemporary world. We change no matter what. Our diets have changed and so have our wines…
"It is a contemporary way that you want the wine to taste, a little more gentile on the palate and so the Sangiovese has to be a little more ripe. We are making wines with a greater silky tannin structure. Actually, the wines age much better now than before. All of us got away from heavy pump overs, new oak, and highly toasted barrels. All of that is finished. The quality has definitely increased and the wines are very contemporary these days. “
Did you walk away from a change in winemaking style? “At that time, there was a lot of good, delicious wine from around the world. This day, to produce something good is not enough. Now a days you must produce something that is interesting to drink. Something that makes you think and intrigues you to go back.”
With seven estate properties spread throughout Tuscany, Lamberto professes that his wines are trying to capture the uniqueness and diversity of each place. “Now a days you can say the wine has a fresh acidity. It is something positive. In the last 20 years there has been a great evolution. To explain, there is something beyond sweetness, beyond oak and there are layers of aromas. The moment you focus and enjoy what you are tasting, you are doing a trip around the world eating a certain dish and tasting a certain wine.
"It is not just what you are drinking. We need to know the taste of food to appreciate the wine better. In order to know the wine, we must also know what you are eating.”
When asked what motivates him, Lamberto enjoys sharing experiences with others. “There is a part of me that is never happy. Always chasing something and never accomplishing what you want to accomplish. That is motivating.”
Do you think consumers understand Italian IGT, subzones and categories? “The wine world is like a cake and we have only a tiny slice of the cake. It so intriguing, you never get bored. Millennials understand much more than the previous generation. When they buy meat they ask if the meat is grass fed, they want to know where the tomatoes and cherries are grown. People are much more demanding because they eat less and need an experience. People care much more than what we believe.”
In 2012 Lamberto embarked on a social reform project with the penal colony on the Gorgona Island in Livorno, Italy. Now on their eighth vintage, Frescobaldi enologists are teaching prisoners a skillset so they can produce organically farmed Vermentino and Anosonica reds from this isolated vineyard property. Lamberto believes it gives the inmates a sense of pride while helping them integrate back into society. Currently Lamberto serves as president of Marchesi Frescobaldi while two of his three children, Vittorio and Leonia, are involved in the wine industry at different levels.
By Lamberto standards, “when you like wine, damn you like wine. Again, with IGT Chianti you go beyond that. You want to really go into that liquid and try to dissect it and enjoy every drop and how it is produced. You are turned on by a wine that can have a story and a face behind the bottle. Then also taste it because there is a world around the taste. The first goal of opening a bottle is to taste the wine not to drink the wine. That is something very different.”