Josko Gravner is generally considered one of the greatest vignerons in Italy. He has never used the terms organic or biodynamic as he sees them as mere marketing slogans. He does consider himself a ‘naturalist’ and is considered a leader in the movement by his peers. He led the movement in Italy to re-ignite the thousands of year old tradition of fermenting wine in clay amphorae jugs. We asked him a few questions to find out why he did this and why it was important to him . . .
Sedimentary: You went to California in the 1980’s and came back a changed vigneron. What was it that you saw in California that made you re-evaluate everything you were doing back home?
Josko: I visited California in 1987 where I tasted over 1000 wines in 10 days. I returned to Italy disillusioned. When I returned, I my wife asked me what did I learn on that trip? I answered that I had learned what not to do and that what I had started to already do in Italy was correct. I told her that I was sick and tired of conventional wines and that wine-making in California was not working very well because they were moving in the opposite direction of that of safeguarding the soil and the authenticity of the product. Once again, the fault was in the progress and the technology. From the North to the South, the wines were all the same (equal), and they were proud of it.
Sedimentary: Can you tell us about your trips to Georgia that changed the way you approach your wine-making?
Josko: When I went to Georgia my ideas were already clear. After my visit to California, I began to take an interest in the study of vines and wine. After I had been reading some ancient texts like Pliny the Elder and Columella, the secret of the agriculture and the wine was written in the books that were 1000 years old and it led me to the Caucasus and Georgia. To make quality in agriculture you need to turn and look behind you. All the environmental catastrophe of the last decades, the sickness, etc. are nothing more than the demonstration that the progress of agriculture is destroying the planet and humans still did not have an understanding of it. My wine is trying to respect the land where it comes from.
The objective of my next journey was no longer the “new world” wines where they had been producing wines for 50 years – but the Caucasus – where the wine was born and they had been producing wine there in amphorae for 5000 years.
The problem was how to get there. In those years, Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union – and it was impossible to travel and everything was a secret. No one could say how they operated. So it was difficult. After 1991, when Georgia split from the Soviet Union, I became hopeful – but then there was civil war. My first trip was in 2000. I arrived in May and went straight to Kaketi in the south – one of the best areas for wine production. I tasted wine from the amphorae. It was heavenly. I have to say that I was astonished by the result of this kind of production.
My first amphorae vintage was 2001. The big advantage of the amphora is that they allow you to respect nature by requiring no intervention during fermentation: neither with fridges, nor the need for additives or to clarify. Nothing – except for a little sulphur.
Sedimentary: Other than sleeping well at night why is it important that you farm the way you do?
Josko: An agricultural business farm (azienda agricola) is managed with love and passion . . . we cannot be consultant oenologist and do it for someone else unless we do it ourselves. Wine is like a sponge that absorbs whatever is around it. I always say that it is impossible to do a natural wine if the person who is doing it does not have a natural life. You cannot teach honesty to your son if you are dishonest – same thing for the wine.
Sedimentary: Your wines challenge accepted qualitative metrics. Why is it important, if at all, that we change the way we think about wine?
Josko: In my life, I have changed four times my cellar [la cantina]. I was young when I started and I wanted to make a lot of good wine and to do so I followed the most advanced technology. As I got older, I realized that wine is not a computer. . . it ends up in the stomach. . . it is different [from other technologies like] computers, phones etc. So, I stopped myself and I saw that the future of the wine was written in the past 5,000 years ago.
Making wine the way I do is a little like looking for the clean water of the river. You do not look for clean water at the mouth of the river close to the sea. You have to go to the mountains to where the river rises from the ground. I have applied this same idea in my approach to wine. I have searched for wine at its source, how it was invented, and how it has been produced for 5,000 years – and I found it.