By Thomas Madrecki
A note in advance — I approach any and all media trips with a bit of skepticism, in no small part because I make a living in the world of public relations. It takes a great deal for me to be impressed, and there’s a sort of natural apprehension about “giving in” too easily. You don’t want to be that wine writer.
So, when approached by the team from Castello di Gabbiano about an opportunity to visit their estate in Tuscany, I accepted, but with a whole host of immediate questions. For one, as most readers of this blog will readily realize, I usually write about small, up-and-coming winemakers in lesser known regions. Secondly, it almost sounded too good to be true — a 12th century castle, formerly home to some of Florence’s most famous noble families, overlooking more than 300 acres of vines in the storied Chianti Classico.
The big question, then — would it be overdone? Over-commercialized? Lacking in authentic character? Could a “big name” castle retreat still satisfy a geeky hipster wine nerd like me?
The answer couldn’t have been more resounding. I adored my time at the Castello, to the point that I might want to question my journalistic integrity. As a writer, you sometimes get that weird feeling of actually enjoying and liking the subjects you’re talking about, and that’s a dangerous thing.
Still, I’ll try to be objective — and even while tempering my personal enthusiasm for the Castello’s gorgeous landscape views and hospitable staff, I can tell you that if you’re ever in the Chianti region, you would do well to make a stop in San Casciano Val di Pesa. To be sure, I have my quibbles and questions, but at the end of the day … few places on earth could be as relaxing, enjoyable and smile-inducing.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll pen a series of articles diving into issues as far-ranging as authentic Tuscan cooking (and the lack of salt in the region’s bread) to the questions surrounding viticulture and wine-making in a region best-known for hay-wrapped bottles doubling as candlestick holders. But for now, let us meditate on the Castello, and why it’s worth writing about.
In all sincerity, one must confess that there is a certain elitism present in the wine industry, and especially in the industry of wine writing. We all want to experience the unattainable — the rarer the better, the more exclusive the better, the more unusual the better. And so, we also see a particular strain among us who might disapprove of “corporate” wine estates, owned and operated by large international holding companies. Castello di Gabbiano, which is held by the Australian-based Treasury Wine Estates (which also owns Beringer in California), is one such label.
Long story short, Castello di Gabbiano produces a lot of wine — definitely more than many of the producers about which I’ve been known to wax poetically. And because of that, there most definitely would be a segment of the wine cognoscenti who might write off the estate, simply because it’s bigger than they would like. Winemaker Federico Cerelli, a native of Tuscany, is a far cry from the kind of eccentric vignerons celebrated in too-cool-for-school Paris natural wine bars. The wines themselves don’t smell like manure or oxidation. They don’t have that racing electric acidity, or that shocking drinkability, or that uncanny uniqueness that might characterize some small-label wines. What they do have is universal appeal and a global distribution. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact remains that some wine snobs (the only word to accurately describe such an attitude) might instead choose to solely define “good wine” as “wine other people can’t have.”
The truth, though, is that this kind of snobbery resembles an unfair demonization of things we all like and should appreciate more. It’s an inversion of values, in the interest of pushing back against something that seems too comfortable if you’re rough around the edges. The Castello is gorgeous. It’s historic. It’s peaceful. And though the wines aren’t going to radically change your perspective on what wine can or should be, they’re carefully calibrated and dialed in. The entry-level Chiantis are sure to please, and given their ready availability, you’d be a fool to pass them up. The higher end bottles have a seriousness that rewards careful contemplation.
And the Castello’s food, from chef Francesco Berardinelli? OK, you’ve got me. Now you know the real reason I fell so hard for the Castello.
Berardinelli’s name won’t appear in any “top chef” listings, but he’s the real deal — exuberant, enthusiastic, and hell-bent on not achieving the kind of fame his cooking deserves. His sourcing is impeccable — take the suckling pig, from a farm and butcher dating back centuries — and his training superb (he was once a consultant for Alain Ducasse). But now, at the Castello, he nearly hides, content at producing rustic Tuscan food out of a two-person kitchen adjacent to a vineyard, fruit trees, and herb boxes. In short, he’s living the dream.
Berardinelli’s restraint — that he isn’t just OK with, but happy to serve country-side dishes like braised wild boar in an era of over-reaching young chefs — ultimately might be the best way to explain the Castello’s charm. It’s isn’t going to blow you out of the water. It’s not the Selosse hotel, or Frank Cornelissen’s vines on the side of Mt. Etna in Sicily. But it is what it is — and that is a retreat, a happy place, an escape. It’s luxuriously comforting, like a bowl of Berardinelli’s homemade pasta with tomatoes found only outside Florence.
And if that doesn’t make you smile, doesn’t make you yearn to visit, then nothing will. This isn’t a place to sip cult wines or make a discovery that will impress your wine geek friends. But it is a place to walk amid olive groves in the moonlight, full of wine and wild boar, and to delight in the simple things that make life — and Tuscany — so special.