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12.08.12

Vendetta in the Vineyard: Cult Brunello Producer Loses All His Wine

Why did vandals ruin five vintages of a rare, expensive Brunello di Montalcino wine?

Gianfranco Soldera knew something was desperately wrong when he could smell his Brunello di Montalcino wine from outside his Case Basse di Soldera cantina buried in the cypress-lined hills near Siena.  “My heart sank when the strong smell of the wine filled the air,” he said.  “I thought maybe there had been an accident, one of the barrels was leaking or something like that.”  But what he found instead was no accident.  The spigots of ten giant barrels that were used to age his precious vintages from 2007 to his recent 2012 harvest had been opened, leaving the wine spilling down the drains in the floor.  “It was like a lake,” he said.  “It was unbelievable.”

Soldera lost 62,600 liters of wine—roughly 84,000 bottles, which sell for over $200 a piece.  Because of the strict laws of labeling, the last vintage now on the market is from 2006 and because Soldera ages his Brunello for six years, the next vintage, made from next year’s harvest, won’t be until 2019.  The vandals didn’t do any real damage to the cantina, other than breaking a window to get inside.  And they didn’t steal a single bottle of wine even though there were plenty of rare bottles that Soldera kept in the cellar to choose from.  Whoever opened Soldera’s spigots clearly wanted to send him a message of hate, say the Siena police who are investigating the crime.  “Opening one barrel would have been intimidation,” said a detective on the case who asked not to be named.  “Opening them all was meant as a payback.”

And Soldera had plenty of enemies who might have wanted to seek revenge.   “He could be described as one of the most hated men in wine, certainly in Montalcino,” Monica Larner, the Italy editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine told The Daily Beast.  “He certainly has more enemies than friends.”

Larner, who was having dinner with another vintner a few hills away the night of the break-in, describes Montalcino as a viper’s nest of vintners where rivalries among the competing labels rule.  People don’t greet each other on the street and it’s the type of place where competing winemakers stop short of almost anything to avoid running into each other.   Making things even worse, in 2008, four of the biggest producers from Montalcino were sanctioned for cutting their Brunello with lesser grapes in a scandal the wine set calls “Brunello-gate.”  Someone had anonymously reported that the offending winemakers were not purists, and Soldera, who is a cult-figure among wine enthusiasts for his traditionalist ways, was blamed.  He denies being the “snitch” but he has never been able to shake off the stigma attached.  “I’m sure he often looked behind his back,” Larner says.  “He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”

But almost no one in the hills of Montalcino actually believes that another wine maker would destroy such a precious commodity, and certainly not now, so many years after the scandal.  “A vendetta for that would have happened three years ago, not now,” Albiera Antinori told The Daily Beast.  “And it wouldn’t have been destroying the wine.”

“Opening one barrel would have been intimidation. Opening them all was meant as a payback.”

Other rumors swirling around the Tuscan hills are that Soldera, a former insurance businessman, opened the taps to get insurance money—a claim he staunchly denies.  Considering that an insurance claim would only garner a fraction of what Soldera would have made on each bottle, that, too seems far-fetched.  Soldera’s son told Corriere Della Sera that it was a Mafia-style hit, implying that organized crime was at the root.  But locals in Montalcino scoff at the idea.  If someone was trying to get protection money out of the winemaker, destroying his inventory would certainly be the wrong route to that.  “Only someone who is naïve would think that this gesture of destroying wine would come from the mafia,” wrote wine blogger Franco Ziliani. “An evil act of intimidation like the Mafia uses is more likely, but this goes against the culture of the ‘omerta’.”

The frenemy winemakers of Montalicino have rallied around Soldera in his moment of crisis, all decrying the crime as an act of violence against all winemakers, not just Soldera.  More likely, the villain was an angry employee or an unpaid worker, they believe.  “Anyone who knows the work that goes into making wine wouldn’t destroy it,” says Larner.  “All that work, passion and investment down the drain.  It’s heartbreaking.”