Growing up in New Jersey, in an Italian home, wine was on the table at every dinner especially on Sunday nights. As long as I can remember every Thursday my mother would prep for the big Sunday dinner. Sometimes this included relatives, neighbors, family friends or just my father, sister, mother and me. No matter what size the gathering, there was enough food for a small army. My mother learned size portioning from her father, who would make family meals that could feed a small city.
By Friday night, the house would begin to smell of my mother’s gravy; non-Italians call it ‘sauce’. In Italy, it’s called Ragù, but a bottled spaghetti company took that name over years ago and ruined it, both as a reference and as a connotation. By Saturday morning, I’d wake up to the smell of fresh tomatoes and basil that had made its way through the entire house. When she added her secret ingredients; beef, pork and veal, the entire block would comment on the aroma ...seriously, and by Saturday afternoon, my father and I would secretly sneak into the kitchen and we’d dunk pieces of bread into the gravy, close our eyes and smile, it was that good! But if Mom caught us sneaking a taste, we’d better be ready to run; ‘no one’ was allowed in her kitchen.
Every now and again, my dad would pull out the pasta machine and make fresh macaroni. This was a treat, because it wasn’t something he did very often. Having ‘fresh made pasta’ with Mom’s gravy was awe-inspiring. Along with the gravy, Mom would make cue ball sized meatballs that she’d spike with fresh garlic, secret herbs and the three meats she used in her gravy. By dinner time, the table was lined with large bowls of pasta, gravy, oven hot bread, antipasti salad and of course... many bottles of wine.
In my family, I’m the wine aficionado. Unfortunately, neither my passion nor my palate, have been gleaned from my parents love or appreciation for ‘great wine’. Not even close. Like the Italian peasants in Tuscany, my parents for most of my life (and all of theirs) drank Italian jug wine, also known as Dago Red, which is a cheap wine and was then (and probably still is) more often than not... homemade. Known for making their own wine, it usually came out more robust when better grapes were used in the process. Think of it like this ... moonshine for vino; cheap, strong and drunk by the time dessert was on the table.
I had my first sip of wine when I was about 9 years old. The sour taste made my whole face pucker. Expecting it to taste more like Concord grape juice, it tasted just the opposite. Ack! I think somehow my parents knew that I’d react with complete disdain and that’s why a wine glass was always set in front of me at the dinner table. They figured I wouldn’t ask for a second pouring, a least not for many, many years. Not until I learned about ‘the good stuff’.
To this day, almost every time I raise a glass, I’m reminded of that first sip, my first glass of wine... and I still wince. The truth is my parents drank terrible wine. My father has been gone now for nearly 10-years and when I visit my mother on the weekends and look in her small wine refrigerator, I ‘still’ see bottles of awful wine. Occasionally, I’ll bring a couple of really nice bottles for us both to enjoy and she’ll comments on how enjoyable it was. She doesn’t get the nuances the way I do, but she does appreciate it. The truth is she grew up drinking wine in a traditional Italian home, in the typical Italian way, either as table wine or for her Catholic rituals, so it just became common place in her life. Wine for her, unlike with me, is NOT her passion. It’s quite simply ... something you have with dinner.
This month, in honor of my childhood, my first glass of wine and my Italian parents, I’m going to dive into my family roots and appreciate a great Italian wine that is deep and rich in family tradition. For such a wine, we must travel to the Italian region of Piedmont and open a bottle of Renato Ratti’s legendary Barolo; a varietal that has been made for centuries in Italy. It was favored by nobility and has now become coveted by collectors. This wine has incredible aging potential because of the Nebbiolo grape from which Barolo is made is high in acidity and tannin levels. It ages very well.
For nearly 50 years this winery has been making outstanding Italian varietals. In 1965 Renato Ratti purchased a small parcel of land in Piedmont and began the first production. A few years later his nephew, Massimo Martinelli, joined the winery and together they refined how the production of Barolo was made. They did this by reducing the fermentation and maceration process and also by reducing the oak barrel aging to two years and this process lead to a more robust Barolo. Over the next 10 years, they purchased more vineyards and expanded the varietals, which they still bottle today. This period in Italy is known as the Barolo wars. The process that Ratti, along with a few other Barolo winemakers progressed to during the 1970s & 1980, was in an effort to make the wine more palatable and in so doing, might extend to a wider reaching audience. What they accomplished with this new process was a wine that was fruitier and less tannic and could actually be enjoyed at a younger age that what’s usual for a Barolo. However, regardless of the perceived benefits, for old school wine drinkers, this process was and is considered blasphemous.
During the expansion of the vineyards, Renato became an important part of Italy’s wine region and designation. The best way to explain it is straight from their website: Between the middle of the Seventies and the end of the Eighties, Renato Ratti becomes an important point of reference for Langhe wines and Italian wines in general. He is elected president of the Barolo Consortium and subsequently General Director of the Asti Consortium. He directly participates in the drafting of the rules and regulations governing the appellations of Alba wines and is particularly active in those regarding the coveted "DOCG" (guaranteed) label. He writes numerous books about the wines of Piedmont and Italy. For the Ratti Museum, he produces, a guide to the Barolo vintages as well as one to the historical Barolo and Barbaresco sub zones, the result of a painstaking field research effort throughout the myriad of relevant territories. Topnotch enologist, writer, historian, communicator, Renato Ratti becomes one of the prime movers of the cultural and technical revolution that eventually brings the wines of Piedmont and Italy into the international limelight (renatoratti.com).
In 1988 Pietro Ratti, the son of Renato, took over the family business when Renato Ratti died at the young age 55. A premature death to say the least and Pietro quickly filled his father’s shoes, not by sourcing grapes, but instead by purchasing more land and by growing their own productions. He took the wine from 80% purchased grapes to todays 20% purchased and also expanded the varietals and price points of each label produced.
Renato Ratti makes bold wines with price points from $20 to $100, depending on the vintage and varietal. But for this review, I’m enjoying a 2008 Barolo, the Rocche label; a softer form of the Nebbiolo grape. I know this is young for a Barolo, but the 2005 (one of their best reviewed years) I ordered was shipped incorrectly and I’m left holding a 2008. Even though the wine process by Ratti has been streamlined, so a younger wine can be enjoyed, a Barolo should age at least 8 – 10 years before it can truly be fully enjoyed; with a full maturity date around 20 – 25 years. If you are ever at a restaurant and they have a Barolo on their wine list that is ‘less’ than 10-years old ... remember this. A younger wine will still be palatable, but it should not be on the menu of any notable place of dining. If you do have a younger Barolo, be sure to decant it for at least 2 hours, giving it time to fully open up; which is not feasible while dining out. I’m basing this review on the current flavor and its’ full potential of how I feel it will mature and taste in 10 to 15 years.
Renato Ratti, Rocche 2008
Produced by: Renato Ratti
Winemaker: Pietro Ratti
Winery: Renato Ratti
Appearance (Color): Ruby
Aroma (Complexity): Refined yeast, pear, molasses
Body (Texture and Weight): medium, mild tannins
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Strong tobacco, forest floor, molasses
Finish (What lingers): Tobacco, bubble gum
Food Paring: Red sauced pasta, steak, pizza, strong cheese
Serving Temperature: 64°
Decant: 1 – 2 hours
Drink from 2016 – 2034 (This vintage needs no less than 8 – 10 years)
Final Rating: 92
My rating system is based on Robert Parker and Wine Spectator's 50-point scale.
Wine Points | How Good the Wine Is
95-100 Classic: a great wine
90-94 Outstanding: wine with superior character & style
85-89 Very Good: wine with special qualities
80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
70-79 Average: drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
60-69 Below Average: drinkable wine but not recommended
50-59 Poor: undrinkable wine, not recommended
John Turi has had an impulsive career as a writer, wine aficionado, and artist. He has two published books of short fiction and poetry. He is a former child actor with the anxiety to prove it. He began college with a major in Mortuary Science and then switched to Creative Writing and then finally finished at a free love hippie art college in Southern California with a degree in graphic designer and sculpting. For over eight years he worked in the wine industry and acquired a delicate palate for varietals. For the last 20 years he has become a private rare book and wine collector. He desires California Pinot Noirs, and his true love is Kosta Browne. As a way to pay for his wine collection he works as a senior marketing manager / business development for an adult sex toy company. On his downtime he is busy writing a business plan for a unique wine bar concept somewhere in Southern California, preferably Long Beach (Naples area). Currently he resides in Southern California with his lovely wife and motivational speaker Shawn-Marie.