A Pale View of Hills (Memories of Ernesto Cattel)

It appears (in startling, saddening text before my eyes) that Ernesto Cattel, the winemaker of Costadilà, has passed away. My fullest condolences to all those whose lives he touched, as his warmth and generosity and natural artistry are unmet in the world today.

 "We found this cleaning up the vineyard. It's a totem, maybe."

"We found this cleaning up the vineyard. It's a totem, maybe."

This past Friday I opened one of his bottles somewhat impulsively, his signature sparkling golden-orange wine that tastes like honest joy bottled. (It is perhaps joyous honesty, or the joy of honesty one tastes there.) Synchronous as it was, I would have preferred not to have said goodbye that way, preferred not to have had to say goodbye at all, least of all before properly thanking him for the indelible impression he's left upon me.

I visited Ernesto two years ago, around this time of year: late summer, with the grapes ripening on old hillside vines occasionally beset by wild hop bines and blackberries, for these vineyards are farmed naturally, favoring heterogeneity.

Ernesto taught me about this. See those new vineyards in the lower hills, on the left there? The vines are planted along the gentle grade so you can farm them with a tractor, but this is worse for the vines and for erosion.

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A recent fungal blight had moved through his own vines and there was enough visible damage to some of the rootstock to cause concern, but one cannot envision damage so complete and severe that would reduce such principled growers to treat their vines with chemicals.

He described the manner of conventional winegrowing as being a series of interventions to problems created by the last intervention, a sort of If-you-give-a-vine-some-sulfur story of chemical addition without end. "I tell them: those are not vines, those are junkies!"

We talked of the endless hectares of vineyards in the flatlands along the highway. I had seen their armada of irrigators in action. It was all once corn, and still should be, Ernesto explains, but the worst of it is there's a wide river through that whole low region, and those vines are planted just above the water table. If they could only stop irrigating long enough to encourage the vines to find that water... On Costadilà's steep hillside vineyards there is no water that doesn't come from the sky, and it was this everyday minor hardship that made the roots dig deep in search of water and cling to the marl and Dolomitic limestone deep beneath. Everything that they touch will in some small way be imbued into the grapes, into the wine, into the mouth and mind and memory of the drinker.

 "No irrigation. The vines need to work."

"No irrigation. The vines need to work."

There are whole worlds in the words "in some small way." In every craft, and especially where taste is concerned, there are endless decisions throughout the production that accrete in some small way, almost imperceptibly. When one takes a strong scientific approach, these may amount to too little to quantify, so why bother. When one takes a strong business approach, the more difficult methods & those least efficient will always be rejected outright. Artistry exists in a craft to the extent that it operates in service of those tiny accretions of principled action. Ernesto displayed this artistry everywhere.

In the rented cellar of a quiet old estate, Ernesto conducted minor experiments for the edification of his own mind and wines. He was interested in tracking oxidative flavors in his wines, leaving them uncorked and exposed to the ambient cellar air for up to six months. In a sub-cellar, he was making vinegar, leaving must (stems and all) in an open vessel for a full year for acetic acid development, at times pushing through inches thick pellicles with his hands to pull harsh young samples, then comparing with the more advanced, refined vinegars in barrels.

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Ernesto's own wines bore almost no trace of VA (acetic acid, chiefly), which, when comparing against the natural wines of some of his friends, he humbly noted the advantage in producing his sparkling wines, which prevent themselves from such aerobic microbial activity once bottle refermented.

We talked about the seasonality of bottling, and the prevalence of "warm rooms" for bottle conditioning, allowing one to spark a quicker refermentation in the bottle even in the winter months. "The yeasts know the difference," Ernesto said. There's an innate seasonal consciousness to these animalcules...you can force them into activity by elevated temperatures, but they're sluggish and lethargic when prematurely roused from hibernation. Perhaps you can almost taste their resentment. Yeast know what season it is. These forced refermentations out of season are different in some small way.

Ernesto was well loved in the cafes we visited, but he made it clear that the region as a whole did not exactly take to his natural and ancestral methods. Prosecco as a whole has moved steadily in a more industrialized direction, of carbonation via Charmat and bulk farming the lowlands. Costadilà doesn't fit in, quixotically, blissfully.

Outside, Ernesto showed me two crates, loaded full with his bottled gold. One was sitting (really properly baking) in the late summer sun, the other had a tarp thrown over it. These crates had been sitting there for five years, through every season's temperature fluctuations, its rains and snows and sun. Not forgotten, just one of Ernesto's experiments. Early on, these bottles were sold and then returned to Costadilà. They tasted "off". We tasted them side-by-side: "Sole" & "Shadow". Only in the narrowest of minds are these wines off, even after years of natural outdoor living (already well beyond the lifespan of a typical bottle of Prosecco). The Sole did in fact carry more baked fruit, sun-dried/passito flavor where the Shadow was more classically refined.

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We are impressionable creatures, I understand. I tasted things in those glasses that are well outside of chemical compounds: the aforementioned honest joy, the catchlight on a single ripening Glera grape that makes of it a single smiling eye, or even the simplicity of an improbable intercontinental friendship. A full Ibsen play acting itself out on the palate: the quiet artist against the world who does not begrudge the world its mundanities, who responds to indifference in kind, by returning to the cellar to produce something ever truer.

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Thank you, Ernesto, for everything.