Castello Romitorio. The Pleasure of Wine.

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Famed New York artist Sandro Chia unravels
the artistry of great wine with his Castello Romitorio label in Montalcino.

By Danny Brody

(Map Magazine issue 5 with permission)

In 1984, amidst an exploding art scene in New York City, Florentine
painter Sandro Chia was commissioned to create an enormous mural
for a restaurant in the newly-constructed Equitable Life building. In
the tradition of the Rockefellers and the Fords, Equitable wanted to
emphasize it’s cultural awareness (and perhaps lend some artistic
cachet to their new headquarters) by also commissioning works by Roy
Lichtenstein and Sol LeWitt.

“The art scene in the ‘80s was the most exciting thing one can
imagine,” says Chia, in a recent interview with MAP Magazine.
“Emerging artists came from all over the world to New York, and every
night was a new gallery, a new restaurant, a new club. Painters were
treated like movie stars.”

The conceptual art movement of the ‘70s had reached its logical
conclusion and painters like Chia, as well as contemporaries such as Julian
Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, were revitalizing – and reshaping – the
art world. “It was unthinkable that something like painting could create
such a scandal!” Chia chuckles. “Jean-Michel and his group painting
graffiti on the trains and on walls, with the police looking for them. At the
same time, Andy Warhol was coming to my shows with Mick Jagger and
offering to do a portrait of me. New York yuppies were lined up waiting for
paintings. It was quite a phenomenon.”

The enormous mural – depicting the Palio, a horse race in the Tuscan
province of Siena – led Chia down an unexpected path to where his work
is now most often seen on a much smaller scale. A wine label, in fact. The
artist took his fat ‘80s-style paycheck for the mural and returned to Italy on
a whim to look at a ruined 12th century castle in Montalcino. Although it
had no windows, no bathrooms, no electricity, and no running water, he
bought it and moved in the same day. “It was in ruins. Sheep were living
inside,” he recalls. “The neighborhood people thought it was haunted, and
at sunset people would run away.”

But although he saw a few ghosts himself (“friendly ones, nice guys”), Chia
believed he could revamp the castle and its surrounding land into a worldclass
vinery. At the time, the Brunello di Montalcino wines were almost
unknown outside of Italy. Actually, in most people’s minds, Italian wines
existed only as astringent and watery Chianti, and only French wine was
considered elegant enough for the international stage. “Marketing did not
exist,” Chia continues. “And remember, this is ‘extreme’ wine.” (Brunello
di Montalcino can only be made with the Sangiovese grape, and only in
the small town of Montalcino.)

But the artist bought the best equipment money could buy, even traveling
to California to investigate the latest in wine-making machinery and
cellaring techniques, and he became the first winemaker in the area to
“really plant vineyards in a modern way.” Out of all that came the lustrous
Castello Romitorio wines, which his son Filippo has helped to evolve into
some of the best Montalcino wines. “Of Barolo, Babaresco, and Brunello,
we are the strictest tradition,” says Filippo. “And not every year is perfect
for Brunello. In 2003, we had to limit our production to 1,000 cases,
down from a maximum of 3,000 cases, due to bad weather. In 2002, we
did not even export Brunello to the U.S. You have to hit it on the money
to be a world-class wine.” Of course, the larger companies don’t like to
limit production, even if it might mean a better wine, because it will affect
the bottom line. “Smaller, more prestigious winemakers can do it,” Filippo
adds. “We use homeopathic doses to keep the quality high.”

One important aspect of these vintages is their low tannin levels, which
can hinder aging. However, the flipside is that they are fairly well-balanced
and easy-drinking right now. That gets the wine into people’s hands
much sooner than normal, and perhaps at a lower price. And that is
especially important now, with the dollar losing a lot of its value, versus
the euro. After Casanova di Neri’s Brunello di Montalcino won Wine
Spectator’s “Wine of the Year” award in 2006, interest in Brunello has
climbed even higher, especially in Miami. South Florida (and Miami in
particular) “has a pretty high level of wine knowledge, and some really,
really good wine shops, wine dinners, and sommeliers,” Filippo says. “It is
one of the most important markets in the country. The best lists in Miami
are the best lists in the world. I think of Miami as the ‘belly-button’ of
America, in terms of wine.”

The growth of interest in Brunellos in this country can be traced directly
to the growth of Italian restaurants here. It may be hard to imagine now,
but in the ‘80s, Italian restaurants were for the most part interchangeable,
“almost like Chinese restaurants. And the wine came in a straw bottle,”
Filippo remarks. But in the ‘90s, Italian food supplanted French food as
the haute cuisine of the moment, in restaurants like Mario Batali’s Babbo
and Lupa. And Italian wines challenged Gallic supremacy as well with
winemakers like Angelo Gaja producing world-class bottles commanding
top dollar. Regional food became dominant and still is today. And dishes
like cinghiale (wild boar) and bistecca fiorentina (rich steaks from the
Chianina oxen) need complex and hearty local wines to accompany
them. “There’s always a new region to discover, even if it has a history of
hundreds or even a thousand years,” Filippo says. “[Italian] Food is 100-
percent tied to the evolution of fine wine here in the homeland [Italy] and
in the U.S. as well.”

For the most part, smaller producers like Castello Romitorio are leading
the quality revolution. Perhaps with a celebrated artist like Sandro Chia as
its founder, with his experiences in New York’s art world, this is not a big
surprise, since wine-making itself is an art. “I remember the first concert
by Madonna at Danceteria,” Chia reminisces. “She was almost unknown.”
Talking Heads? The Mudd Club? “It was the intersection of music and a
combination of many different experiences. Art was there, and painting
was a part of it. But sometimes I now feel that the wine-making is just an
excuse for creating the labels,” he jokes.

And you may call the wine bottles his canvas, but Sandro has another
take – one that also involves the intersection of art and imagination.
“If you look closely at a wine bottle, it is a three-dimensional object filled
with intensity. People get addicted to the magical, erotic shape of the
bottle, where inside is contained a special nectar, a machine for making
people dream. The concentration of elements has no equal – it is a perfect
machine. And when you apply the label, you open a window that evokes
a different world.”

Some may call such a wine description a tad mystical, but to Sandro Chia,
that is exactly the point. And when he returns to New York in November,
for a show at Chelsea’s Charles Cowles Gallery, he may visit his gigantic
Palio mural in its namesake restaurant at 151 W 51st Street. “They carry
my wines there and I have been told that the mural is now considered a
landmark and can’t be changed.” From a huge mural came a tiny wine
label, and both have managed to share a certain ethereal quality that is an
ongoing testament to the distinctive vision of Sandro Chia, their creator.


Photo of Castello Romitorio. The Pleasure of Wine.