At the request of his grandmother Matteo Garberoglio emerged, dreadlocked and outfitted in anarchist/roadie attire from the bowels of the building. Matteo had no idea why I’d arrived, but he breezed past this detail and eagerly offered a tour of the winery. I presented the chance for a break from routine labor. I knew we had corresponded, but a lot of his family are working around this small estate in San Marzano Oliveto in the Italian Piedmont… maybe I’d written to his mother Bruna? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Moments later brother Luca arrived, self-consciously dressed in somewhat preppie clothes: he felt it necessary to explain he was returning from having his photo taken. He also had no idea why I was there, but with an earnestly friendly demeanor Luca took over from Matteo, who returned to running the bottling line.
Luca proceeded to show me around the labyrinthine facility. The place is huge! At places comically so. Luca conceded this point. “Our equipment is too big! But it is what we have, so we use it.” Mostly empty tanks tower overhead. Giant tools lay idle. It is an understatement to say that in the future, Casussin have the capacity to ramp up production.
The estate was founded in 1927, with four hectares located on hills between Nizza Monferrato and Canelli. Luca’s grandfather started the modern history of Carussin, expanding acreage, moving the estate in the direction of organic viticulture. Today their 14 hectares are certified organic and integrate many biodynamic practices into their farming.
We had a fine time inspecting the tasting room and bar where the beer Luca brews is served alongside local cheeses and charcuterie to an audience of friends and neighbors. Luca is a huge fan of Dogfish Head, and even once made a pilgrimage to Delaware to visit the brewery. We sampled some tasty salamis and creamy cheeses with a line-up of Carussin’s current releases. Standouts among their wines included the Lia Vi Barbera d’Asti, a red made from 35-year-old vines planted by Luca’s grandfather, in the terra rossa soils in front of the cellar. Lia Vi is picked a little later, and seems more elegant than your normal Barbera. All parts knit together well. The name Lia Vi refers to a little bird that lives in the vineyards and makes nests by knotting together pieces of vine.
Of the 42 wineries in the area of San Marzano Oliveto only two are organic. Quality wineries like Carussin are struggling to do things in the right way. Estates that make honest wine with a good spirit: these properties deserve our support. Their wines are characters, in the best possible way. The Ferro family seem irrepressibly positive, a quality that radiates from their wines and really can’t be a bad thing.
SPRING 2014 UPDATE
When Luca Garbergolio told his mother he wanted to brew beer “It was like an arrow piercing my heart.” Bruna’s family have grown grapes and made wine at Carussin in San Marzano Oliveto for five generations. “Still, as a hobby it was better than playing video games.” Craft beer is very cool in Italy today, they are in the middle of an explosion of new activity, similar to what’s happening in America. The scale may be smaller and the beers generally more expensive, but the excitement around the first wave of creativity is palpable.
At 14-years-old Matteo Garbergoglio started working as a waiter in a good local restaurant. There he learned to appreciate food, and started to develop the ideas that would materialize in Grappolo Contro Luppolo, his piola or “pub” attached on the first floor of the family’s large house and cellar. I ask him if starting work so early was legal in Italy. His answer is “…not really.” Bruna explains: apparently Matteo was never a good student. “I said that if he was not going to work during the week (at school) then he would work on the weekend” (in the restaurant.) He stayed in that job for eight years before proposing the idea for his own place to Bruna and Luigi.
Now Matteo works bartender hours, talking with rowdy locals until 2am, and asleep on the couch on the days when I head out in the morning to winery appointments. He is dedicated to scrupulous local and organic food sourcing. And grandma makes the cakes! On a sunny afternoon he shows me Cascina Aris, a local cow and goat dairy farm that is small, hardscrabble, and remote. Matteo explains they had a difficult period in the recent past, but have maybe now turned a corner. We talk briefly with the friendly proprietor before heading into the very small facility to watch ricotta being made. The previous night I’d really enjoyed Cascina Aris’ fresh cheeses, and was happy to have easy access to raw milk. The farm make good yogurt, too.
I come and go. It feels like returning to your parent’s house for a few days: the things around my temporary room are from a different stage of life (roughly late teenage years) but are all very familiar: Vans, posters, video games. Eventually the junk of the current stage of my life takes over: sample bottles, packing materials, stinky running clothes.
“We take the truck.” It is 5am and I’m standing outside in the fresh night air. Luigi Garberoglio is taking me to the airport. He pulls around in a large blue van. He opens the back door and piles my two large suitcases on top of five or six demijohns that he will deliver to a private customer in Milan. They each hold 75 bottles of wine. “The man drinks a bottle a day for 1.20 euro.” There is economy in home bottling, if you can handle the hassle. After seeing the massive glass vessels loaded in the back I feel silly for having warned Luigi that my luggage was heavy. Unfortunately American Airlines thinks it is heavy, too…. I nod in and out of sleep during the 2-hour ride, occasionally catching a whiff of wine (or wine cellar) from the back. The luggage handler at Milan Malpensa airport seems happy and largely unsurprised to see our cargo. I enjoy the little road trip, the farmer doing normal things. There is an everyday life element to the time with Luigi. Everyone has their role: he is the real farmer at the core of Carussin. Yesterday he planted onions and garlic with Matteo for the family to eat, today he delivers unbottled biodynamic Barbera to a long-term client. The first couple nights of my stay the family treated me like a guest, on the third morning Bruna said, “OK, now you are family” and we stopped with the formalities.
The last night we sat around the kitchen table, Luigi, Bruna, Matteo and their two full-time workers from Romania. Matteo spent Christmas with these guys in Transylvania, and told me there is a lot to learn there. “People still do things in really old ways,” he said. “But it can be a dangerous place to travel without knowing someone. They have not had time to catch up (with capitalism.)”
For dinner Bruna made pasta milled in Alba from ancient grains (some Italian, some Egyptian in origin) tossed with butter and toasted hazelnuts. Totally delicious. Also we had ham frittata and grandma’s chocolate cake. All these meals are really, really good. Sometimes simple. For example, Bruna makes such delicious scrambled eggs. What does she do? She scrambles an egg. She lives on a biodynamic farm, and they scrupulously buy the food they do not make, from people like them. I hope to take a few lessons home with me, to reprioritize. Carussin is about a high level of respect for other animals including humans, and a healthy way to produce food: healthy for the produce and the land. They are fanatically committed to biodynamics, true believers, and the success they have is a validation of this philosophy. It’s great to be a part of it. In many ways their days are parallel to farmers back home. They plant, they preserve fruits and vegetables, they work until the sun goes down then enjoy simple meals and conversation about their work and the work of their neighbors.
WINTER 2013 UPDATE
There was a donkey in the road. I edged up a hillside near San Marzano Oliveto, hoping my headlights would cut through the falling snow enough to nudge the animal back into pasture. I was tired. The road began in Tuscany and wound up the Italian peninsula for more than a normal span of waking hours. I’d stopped to talk with farmers and visit cellars, and had very recently consumed a possibly hallucinogenic amount of anchovies emulsified into bagna cauda by a winemaker friend.
I blinked. The donkey was real, not an apparition or early indication of fish oil poisoning. I crept forward. The donkey relented. It was a relief. I did not know the password.
Luca and Matteo are pretty mellow. They were at ease with my late arrival. It was good to end a day in their warm bar. If you drink in the Piedmont, definitely drop by Carussin. The place was full of locals clustered around long tables, friends drinking beer and wine and eating local cheese and charcouterie.
We talked for a while about farming. San Marzano Oliveto doesn’t have many other organic farmers, though there is a place that grows organic apples nearby.
“We don’t have insect problems at Carussin because the insects have predators.” Matteo states. “There is an equilibrium.”
The communal room was hard to leave, an appealing contrast to the winter night outside. After midnight I refused grappa and espresso and finally left the bar for my bed, which waited a very short distance away… past the donkey, down the hill slightly, on another farm. The intense night sky and bitter cold didn’t hinder my sleep. A wood stove crackled, pictures of donkeys drawn by children and attached to every wall provided places to begin dreams.
We tasted Carussin’s new wines before breakfast. It was a bit early, but people say your palate is better at the beginning of the day. And eating a hearty, eggs-and bacon breakfast post-tasting was pretty enjoyable. Bruna Ferro made a morning feast. She tends to think of everything, and to treat everyone with kindness. After fixing my morning she sent me into the day and onto the road to Milan with an excellent bagged lunch! It contained real food: fruit, bread, and cheese, all kinds of treats. It was so much nicer than road food.
Along with Bruna, Luigi, Luca and Matteo, 20,000 watts of solar panels power Carussin. I left their farm feeling very positive. There are a lot of good people in the world who make correct choices that are not easy ones. The decisions at Carussin are fueled by belief in natural agriculture and a desire to improve our collective experience.